An Excerpt from Skykeepers

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November 18
Three years and thirty-three days until the end date
The Yucatan

Michael Stone stood atop a midsize Mayan ruin called the watchtower, his dark, shoulder-length hair blowing a little in the sea breeze. Behind him was an expanse of lush, stone-studded greenery; ahead was a white stone cliff that dropped steeply to a gleaming, tourist-dotted strip of coral beach. Beyond that was the vibrant blue-green of the Caribbean.

It was a hell of a view, that was for sure.

The ruined port city was called Tulum, which meant “wall” in Spanish and referred to the sturdy stone balustrade that enclosed the city on three sides, with the cliff and ocean forming the fourth. The fortification was impressive, even in ruins, but it hadn’t protected the city from the ravages of the conquistadors and their missionaries. And in the almost five hundred years since Cortés first landed, the place had become a tourist trap, due largely to its small, walkable size and prime beachfront location.

The deets spooled through Michael’s brain, courtesy of the report he’d downloaded from his e-mail a couple of hours earlier. It’d been sent by the Nightkeepers’ archivist, Jade, his former lover-turned-friend. The thought of her brought a twinge of guilt and regret, but both had become too-familiar companions over the past year-plus, ever since the talent ceremony that had unlocked a shit-ton more than just his warrior’s talent. Since he couldn’t change the past—his and Jade’s or otherwise—he pushed aside the guilt and tried to focus on what he ought to be doing- namely reporting back to home base with a whole lot of negatives.

Still, though, he hesitated, standing alone atop a pyramid where one of his ancestors might have stood centuries earlier. Sunlight glinted on the dark sunglasses that shaded Michael’s piercing eyes, which were so dark green they were nearly black in some lights. A seabreeze tugged at his jeans and tee, molding the fabric to his big, fighting-lean body as he pictured that hypothetical ancestor, a Nightkeeper mage like himself. The image didn’t last long, though, largely because Michael wasn’t nearly so deep into the whole ancestor-worship thing as some of the others. Not like the winikin, who saw it as their duty—one among many—to remind the Nightkeepers of their history, usually when they least expected or wanted it. Sort of like a Discovery Channel sneak attack. Despite the knee-jerk avoidance the lectures had spawned in him, though, Michael found himself struck by the ruins, and their spanning view of the sea. He could almost picture the seagoing outriggers the ancient Maya had used to transport their goods along the coast, the pack trains coming from the inland city-states, and the open-air market that had formed where the two commerce streams met at Tulum’s port.

And you’re so incredibly stalling it’s not even funny, he thought wryly, forcing himself to palm his phone out of his pocket and speed-dial Strike’s cell.

The Nightkeepers’ king picked up on the third ring. “Tell me something good.”

“Sorry. I’ve got bad, bad, and more bad.”

Strike’s low curse suggested that the others had also come up empty in their ruin-ratting searches for a new intersection, which was a major problem. Ever since the Xibalbans had destroyed the sacred chamber beneath the ruins of Chichén Itzá, the Nightkeepers’ powers had been inconsistent at best, weakening at worst. Without a direct connection to the sky plane and the gods who lived there, the Nightkeepers’ magic was fading at a time when the few remaining prophecies said they were supposed to be growing stronger, gearing up to fight the demon Banol Kax and their earthly agents, the Xibalbans.

Worse, the Xibalbans had direct access to the underworld through a hellmouth located somewhere in the cloud forests of Ecuador, which meant their dark-magic powers were just as strong as ever. The Nightkeepers had tried to find and destroy the mouth, but they’d been unable to find it, suggesting the Xibalbans had tucked the entrance into a fold of the barrier, removing it from the earthly plane.

Given the existence of the hellmouth, logic and the doctrine of balance—which had become a central force in Michael’s life since his talent ceremony—said there had to be another access point to the sky, another intersection. The billion-dollar question was: where?

The Nightkeepers had split up to search each of the sites mentioned in their regrettably incomplete archives as being places where the barrier separating the earth, sky, and underworld came very near the plane of mankind, potentially allowing access. Because of the exponentially increased power of mated pairs, Strike and his human mate, Leah; married parents Brandt and Patience White-Eagle; and newly mated Nate Blackhawk and Alexis Gray had taken the likeliest-seeming sites. Bachelors Michael and Sven had each taken a group of lower-priority sites, while the two nonwarriors—Jade and Strike’s sister, Anna—provided backup with the help of the winikin. On Strike’s say-so, the final remaining Nightkeeper warrior, twenty-year-old Rabbit, had skipped the assignment to start his freshman year at UT Austin with his human girlfriend, Myrinne. The kid was on call if anyone needed him.

Six months ago, that would’ve been a big “no” as far as Michael was concerned—Rabbit was a half-blood, pyrokine, telekine, mind-bender, and juvenile delinquent all wrapped up in one pissed-off package. He might’ve matured a shit ton since he’d escaped from his brief captivity with the Xibalbans, bringing Myrinne out with him, but Michael still figured the kid belonged where he was, learning how to be a better human being while the rest of them tried to figure out how to be better magi.

At each of the sites where they hoped to find a new intersection, the Nightkeepers had let blood from their palms and used the sacrifice to jack into the barrier, testing the strength of the connection. A new intersection should give them a power boost that was off the charts. Michael’s sites had barely registered on his own inner magic-o-meter.

“Are you sure?” Strike asked.

“Positive. There’s no sign of an intersection at Tulum, Xel-Ha, Ox Bel Ha, or any of the other sites I tried.” Michael might not be able to call the offensive weapons usually brought by the warrior’s mark e, but there was no way he’d missed an intersection—assuming, of course, that it acted like the one beneath Chichén Itzá. Before he could say anything else, though, he caught sight of an M-16-toting militiaman strolling around the edges of the watchtower’s lower level, “I’ve got company,” he reported. “I’ll call you back when I get to my hotel, sooner if I need an emergency pickup.” Sometimes it came in handy having a king who could teleport.

Michael flipped his phone shut and jogged down the steep, faintly slippery stone stairway that ran down the backside of the watchtower pyramid. When he hit level ground, he headed away from the ruin, angling in the opposite direction from the soldier in the hopes that the guy was just staying visible to the tourists thronging the popular site.

The other man changed vector to intercept, though, which had Michael muttering a curse under his breath. The ruins of Tulum weren’t normally under military control; technically they weren’t now, but there was a definite armed presence in the region, thanks to an ongoing tug-of-war between the government and a group of resorts that might or might not have been built on protected parkland right next to the ruins. Michael had bribed one of the soldiers to gain access to the watchtower ruin, which was supposed to be closed to the public. But the guy on his tail wasn’t the one he’d bribed; he was older and tougher-looking, with a serious don’t screw with me; I’m having a shitty week look in his eyes.

Although Michael had never been one to back down from a fight—fair or otherwise—things were apt to get dicey if the local militia took too much of an interest in him. The fake ID Jox had hooked him up with was good enough to get him across the border, good enough for most airports stateside, but it wouldn’t stand up to intense scrutiny. And while the other Nightkeepers could and would spring him out of a Mexican prison if it came to it, they preferred to avoid that sort of thing. The magi didn’t exist in absolute secrecy, but they kept a low profile when it came to normal human affairs.

Moving fast, Michael ducked around a man-high pile of rubble that had probably once been a stela. The high pillars had been carved with glyphs spelling out births, deaths, politics, war, and just about anything else human beings of any time period found important. Now, the state of the art in thirteenth century billboards was reduced to a hiding spot as Michael hunkered down behind the stela. Warning danced across his skin, courtesy of his warrior’s powers. But while he might not be able call fireball magic like the others, he was hell on wheels with its antithesis, shield magic.

As the soldier drew near, Michael pulled a carved obsidian knife from an ankle holster. Drawing the scalpel-sharp blade across his palm, he welcomed the bite of pain and the faint glow of red-gold Nightkeeper power it brought. Before the destruction of the skyroad he wouldn’t have needed the blood for a shield spell. Now, though, he needed blood for even lower-level spells.

Concentrating, Michael touched his talent, calling the power of the barrier and using it to cast a thick shield around his body: a faint tremor in the air, a few degrees of refractive index that hadn’t been there moments earlier. He couldn’t make himself invisible like Patience could, but he’d learned that if he cast the shield at a certain angle from his body, it distorted both light and sound, confusing human perceptions. Once the shield was in place, the soldier shouldn’t be able to see or hear him.

Moments later, footsteps approached, boots ringing on stone.

Keep walking, Michael thought as the militiaman appeared, eyes sharp, M-16 still on his shoulder. Nothing to see here. Michael wasn’t a mind-bender like Rabbit, and thus wasn’t actually able to shove the thought into the human’s mind, but he figured the power of suggestion couldn’t hurt, and he needed the guy to keep going.

Whether thanks to wishful thinking or the chameleon shield, or a bit of both, the soldier kept going, not even glancing in Michael’s direction. Once he was gone, Michael dropped the shield and slipped into a milling herd of tourists headed back toward the hotels. He hadn’t gotten far when his phone chirped in his pocket. Seeing the main Skywatch number on the display, he flipped the phone and answered, “Stone here.”

“Get yourself someplace private.” It was Michael’s winikin, Tomas, sounding clipped and disapproving. As usual.

Michael stifled a curse at his winikin’s tone. The two of them had been close from Michael’s youngest years through his teens, when he’d lived and breathed martial arts and aced his schoolwork with minimal effort. Tomas had played the role of Michael’s godfather, standing in for parents who had supposedly died in a drunk-driving accident when he’d been a baby. Tomas—short and slight, like most winikin—had been there for Michael through college, and had just about pissed himself with pride when Michael had been recruited into the FBI’s training program. Things had changed, though, when Michael washed out of the program, then took a high-tech sales job and started partying more than he worked out. Tomas had poked constantly, telling him he was better than his job, that he should do something more, be something more. Eventually, they had stopped really talking to each other … until almost eighteen months earlier, when the winikin had dropped the dime on the infamous, the Nightkeepers are real, you’re one of them, and you’ve got four years to save the world and six hours to get your ass on a plane to New Mexico bombshell.

Hello, mind-fuck.

After learning that Tomas was actually his winikin, Michael had partway understood where his supposed godfather had been coming from all those years, pushing him to be a fighter, to demand justice, hell, to be the best at whatever he chose to do. But knowing what had caused the pressure didn’t really change the fact that his de facto father had stopped loving him—or even liking him—when he’d refused to do as he was told.

The tension between them had remained even after Michael gained his bloodline and talent marks, binding him to the barrier as a full-blood mage. Hell, things hadn’t even really improved between them over the past five months, ever since Michael had finally managed to cut ties with his old life and dedicated himself to becoming a better mage. On some level, he’d figured his new level of effort would finally make Tomas happy. That had been a “fail,” though. His growing role within the Nightkeepers hadn’t made any difference in his relationship with his winikin. They still rubbed each other very wrong.

“Get. Your. Ass. Private,” Tomas gritted. “Strike needs to make an emergency grab.”

Oh, hell. Shelving the interpersonal shit, Michael took a quick look around and headed for a likely-looking gap between two buildings on the edge of the hotel district. “What’s wrong?”

“Anna just got a phone message from Lucius,” Tomas reported.

Michael’s warrior talent flared hard, revving his magic and sweeping all the other garbage aside. Strike’s sister, Anna, was a Mayan-studies expert at UT Austin; Lucius had been her grad student until he’d gotten himself possessed by an underworld nasty called a makol, one of the minion species of the demon Banol Kax. In the months since his possession, the Nightkeepers had been unable to find Lucius. Strike hadn’t even been able to get a ’port lock, and there were only three things that could foil ’port lock: death, rock shielding, or the efforts of a mage capable of breaking ’port lock … like Iago.

“What did he say?” Michael asked as he headed for the alleyway.

“Supposedly, Iago and thirty or so Xibalbans are holed up in the old Survivor2012 compound. They’ve got Sasha Ledbetter there … and they’re planning on sacrificing her tonight at the height of the meteor shower. They couldn’t torture the library’s location out of her, so they’re going to see if they can get the answer out of her spirit.”

“Oh, hell.” Michael hissed out a breath as a complicated mix of emotions mule-kicked him in the chest and an image plastered itself across his mind’s eye; a promo shot of a dark-haired woman posing in a restaurant kitchen with a handful of peppers and a ten-inch knife, looking sexy as hell.

Sasha was the only daughter of Ambrose Ledbetter, an old-school Mayanist whose body had been found by Anna and Red-Boar deep in the rain forest near a Nightkeeper temple, headless and buried in a shallow grave. That hadn’t been the biggest shock, though. No, the major oh, holy what-the-fuck moment had been when they’d found extensive scarring on his right inner forearm, as though Ambrose—or someone else—had burned that skin away.

Did that mean he was a lost Nightkeeper, one who had somehow broken his connection to the barrier, thereby surviving the Solstice Massacre? The magi weren’t sure, but that had become an almost moot point when they learned that Ambrose had discovered, moved, and rehidden the Nightkeepers’ ancient library, an extensive repository of spells and codices that should hold all the information the magi were lacking  … like the location of a new intersection, and what, exactly, was going to happen during the three-year threshold leading to the end date, which was a little over a month away.

Unfortunately, Iago had gotten to Sasha first. The Nightkeepers had been trying to find the Xibalbans’ main encampment and mount a rescue attempt since then, with no luck … until now.

Michael’s gut twisted, partly with relief that she was still alive, partly with sick guilt that she’d been in Iago’s power for nearly a year now. Where the Nightkeepers sacrificed their own blood, the Xibalbans drew power from their prisoners and enemies. More, Iago was a borrower, able to divert talents from other magi and use them for his own purposes. There was no telling what foul magic they’d tried on her.

“Godsdamn it,” he muttered under his breath. The curse wasn’t entirely directed at the Xibalbans, either. If the Nightkeepers couldn’t manage to rescue one woman, how the fuck were they supposed to save the world?

The kick of anger brought an answering stir of heat. He’d never met Sasha, but ever since he’d first dug into the file that had been put together by the Nightkeepers’ tame private investigator, Carter, he’d been unable to get her out of his head. Part of it was revulsion toward the idea of a woman—hell, anyone—being held hostage by the Xibalbans. But that wasn’t what had him looking at her photos far too often, he knew.

There was something engaging about the impish glitter in her dark brown eyes, consistently visible in each of the snaps Carter had culled from a series of restaurant Web sites. The tilt of her dimpled chin carried a hint of go-to-hell defiance he could relate to, and the rest of her stirred his hormones, from her loosely curled dark hair and angular, almost elfin face, to the long, curved fluidity of her body—what could be seen of it beneath chef’s whites, anyway.

Carter’s factoid-laden report sketched the story of a child who had been raised partly in the field by her father, partly stateside by Ambrose’s live-in girlfriend, and had wound up breaking from them both when she left for culinary school. Estrangement, too, was something Michael could relate to, as was her extensive childhood training in martial arts. He’d always been a sucker for a woman with fight training.

Michael had spearheaded several searches of potential Xibalban hideouts over the past few months, but those look-sees hadn’t turned up dick, leaving him frustrated and pissed off, and worried about a woman he’d never met, one whose picture was burned into his conscious mind.

She’s in the Everglades, he thought, his pulse kicking at the realization that they’d finally gotten a break. But logic tempered the rush of battle readiness, and the stir of bloodlust that wasn’t entirely his own.

“It’s got to be a trick,” he said, thinking aloud. “It can’t be a coincidence that Iago suddenly pops up at the old Survivor2012 compound, given how well Leah knows the property.”

A former detective with the Miami-Dade PD, Strike’s human mate had studied the location as part of tying the site’s owner, cult leader Vincente Rincon, to her brother’s death and a series of ritualistic murders in the Miami area. With the help of Strike and the others, she’d gotten her revenge on Rincon, and the cult had disbanded. The property, which had been built up out of some seriously swampy land at the edge of the Everglades, had been resold before the Nightkeepers could snap it up. However, Strike and Leah had managed to search the property, discovering several ritual chambers hidden within a labyrinth of tunnels belowground. The compound had sat empty ever since. According to Carter, the place had been bought by a conservationist group looking to preserve the Everglades.

Ten bucks says the conservationists are a front for the Xibalbans, Michael thought. But that didn’t necessarily make Lucius’s call a trap. Iago could have been drawn there by the compound’s history, its isolated location, or the power given off by the numerous Mayan relics Rincon had bought on the black market and reassembled on the property.

“You willing to bet the library on its being a trick?” Tomas asked.

“Doesn’t matter either way, does it? We have to check it out.” Michael ducked into a deserted alley, where it would be safe for his king to materialize. “Tell Strike he’s good to zap.”

Tomas hung up without another word. A few seconds later, Michael heard the faint rattle in the air that presaged ’port magic, and then Strike materialized, zapping in maybe six inches off the ground and dropping to a bent-kneed landing.

The king was an imposing figure. Tall, broad-shouldered, and muscular, bigger than even larger-than-average humans, as were all full-blood Nightkeeper males, Strike wore his shoulder-length black hair tied back in a queue, balancing the severity of the look with a narrow beard that traced his jawline. His right forearm was marked with the glyphs denoting him as a member of the jaguar bloodline, as royalty, as a warrior and a teleport. Higher up, on his biceps, where only the gods and kings were marked, he wore the geometric hunab ku, the symbol of the 2012 doomsday and the Nightkeepers’ king. Even though he was wearing thoroughly modern clothes in his black-on-black combat duds and heavy boots, he looked almost medieval. He could’ve been a crusader, perhaps, or one of Arthur’s knights. Hell, maybe even Arthur himself.

Without preamble, Strike reached out and gripped Michael’s upper arm, forming the touch link necessary for him to transport another person. “Tomas has your armor and weapons waiting for you. This could be the break we’ve been hoping for.”

“Or it could be a godsdamned ambush,” Michael countered as the ’port magic rose up around them. But ambush or not, he was on board with whatever the king was planning. A fight was a fight. And this rescue was long overdue.