Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow (10 page)

BOOK: Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow
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Until we can be fully trusted
, Jake thought.

“For now, the day grows late,” Tiberius finished. “Best we let you two retire to your new homes and get yourselves settled.”

The Viking woman stepped to Kady’s side and clamped a hand on her shoulder. Marika rushed over to Jake. The girl’s expression was a mix of apology and excitement.

But Jake stared over at Kady. Their eyes met. He knew what she was thinking. She had placed her trust in him to figure out a way home. His earlier words of assurance echoed in his head.

As long as we stick together, we’ll be fine.

As they were about to be pulled away, Jake realized his plan—only a few minutes old—was already falling apart.

How would they ever get home now?

10
THE WHITE ROAD

Jake hugged his sister before they were separated. It was awkward. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d actually hugged her before. And everyone was watching them, making it doubly uncomfortable. He whispered in her ear, forcing his tongue to speak English versus All-Worlds. He didn’t want to be overheard.

“Keep a watch on everything. Learn what you can.”

“What am I supposed to—”

“Just play along. Make friends.” It was a talent Kady had mastered and a skill Jake barely understood. But in terms of espionage, such an ability went a long way.

Tiberius cleared his throat behind them. “That will be enough. Night falls, and we all have much to do before we find our beds.”

Jake stepped back. Kady, no longer hugging Jake, seemed at a loss as to what to do with her arms. She ended up folding them around her own chest, plainly nervous.

The Viking woman crossed to Kady and touched a hand to his sister’s elbow. “It is not a long walk back to Bornholm. But we should set off now or we’ll find only a cold supper awaiting us.”

Kady gave Jake one last forlorn glance, then accompanied Astrid Ulfsdottir across the hall. Jake watched them leave.

“Fret not,
ah xi’ paal
,” Marika’s father said to Jake, slipping into the Mayan tongue. “You’ll see your sister at least once a day…if not every other day. Until then, let us show you where you’ll be staying.”

Marika pinched the edge of his safari jacket and tugged him toward the archway to the right of the upper bench.

“Papa and I live in the Tower of Enlightenment, as do all the Magisters of Calypsos.” Shyness shone in her jade eyes. “Come, let me show you—”

“Mari, let your friend breathe,” her father warned. “There’ll be plenty of time to show him around, but I imagine something to fill his belly might interest him more at the moment.”

Jake’s stomach growled its agreement.

He was led to the archway, where he found a narrow spiraling staircase. As Jake entered the stairwell, he paused, not sure whether to go up or down.

Marika said, “Below lies the domain of Magister Zahur. He keeps to the roots of the tower, where he houses small jungle creatures in cages and baskets for his examinations
into the alchemy of life.”

Jake remembered the tattooed Egyptian. He also noted Marika’s mouth crinkle with distaste, plainly not happy with the man’s line of study.

Marika directed Jake up the stairs. “These first floors belong to Magister Oswin.” She lowered her voice as they crossed through the levels of his domain and hid a small smile. “He doesn’t like to climb any more stairs than he must—unless there’s a meal to be had.”

Climbing several more floors, they reached a landing, and Marika headed down a short entry hall that ended at a wooden door. She pulled out a long brass key from a pocket and inserted it into a lock. With a twist, she pulled the latch and opened the door.

“Our home,” she said, and waved Jake inside ahead of her.

He stepped over the threshold into a large common room, circular in shape. Other doorways led off to neighboring rooms, and a narrow staircase climbed up to a second level. While there were no windows, the room was lit by jagged chunks of glowing amber crystals that hung from iron chains bolted to the rafters.

A round table in the center of the room had already been set with white pottery bowls that steamed around the edges of their lids, smelling of spices and simmering stew. To one side rose a stack of flatbread. On the other side, a pile of spiky-skinned fruit the size of cantaloupes
filled a large bowl.

As Jake stepped toward the table, movement to the left caught his eye. He turned in time to see a narrow door, hardly wider than an ironing board, close without a sound.

“Who…?” Jake asked as Marika and her father crowded in behind him. He stared at the door. “Is there anyone else living here with you?”

“Just the two of us…now,” Magister Balam said with a trace of sadness. “Come. Let us eat while the food is still hot.”

Jake craned a look over to the narrow door as he was ushered to the table. Maybe he’d imagined the movement. Turning back to the table, he dove into the meal, following Marika’s example, using the flatbreads like tortillas to heap up some of the stewed meats from one of the pottery bowls.

The bread was chewy and warm, and the meat melted on the tongue. He ate quickly, not realizing how hungry he actually was. After a few bites, Jake’s face grew hot, and he waved a hand in front of his mouth. The burning only grew worse.

Marika smiled at his distress. “Firepeppers.”

The burn subsided enough for Jake to speak. “It’s…it’s good.”

Marika’s father patted him on the back while chewing around a mouthful himself. The old man’s eyes watered.
“Could be hotter?” he gasped out.

Marika’s smile widened, encouraging Jake to try everything on the table. She also poured a dark slurry out of a tiny ceramic teapot into a cup. Jake frowned at the warm muddy liquid, but he picked up the cup and sniffed at it. His eyes widened in surprise at the distinctive and familiar smell, like a bit of home.

“Chocolate!” But he shouldn’t have been surprised. The Maya had invented chocolate drinks. He sipped his. It was more bitter and thicker than the hot chocolate he was used to. Maybe a few marshmallows to sweeten it…

“We call it
cacao
,” Marika said.

Jake nodded and sipped at the drink, but he felt Marika’s father studying him from the side. Jake did his best to look nonchalant. He did not want anyone to know how much he already knew about Mayan customs. They were already suspicious of him.

As the meal came to a close, Jake was so full that he had to lean back in his chair. To his right, Marika’s father did the same and let out a platter-rattling belch.

Marika looked horrified at his outburst.

Seemingly blind to the offense, her father winked at Jake and stood up. “I have some reading to do in my study before I retire. Mari, why don’t you show young Jacob to his room.”

“Papa, before I do that, can I show him the Astromi
con? He might like to see the view from up there.”

When her father agreed, Marika sprang to her feet and practically dragged Jake out of his chair.

“But no touching anything, Mari.”

“No, Papa.”

“And don’t be up there too long!” her father called back as he crossed to one of the doors and pulled it open. Past the man’s shoulder, Jake caught a glimpse of a desk piled high with scrolls and sheaves of parchment, and shelves stacked with more books and papers.

Jake glanced longingly in the direction of the study. Perhaps somewhere in those piles of books was an answer to where he was, how he got here, and how he could get home.

Marika hauled him toward the door that led back out to the spiral staircase. Before he knew it, he was climbing up after her.

“Where are we going?” he asked, holding back a jaw-cracking yawn. With his belly full, his body felt twice as heavy.

“You’ll see.”

As they climbed, a question nagged Jake. Still tasting the hot chocolate on his lips, he asked, “Mari, how do you make
cacao
here in Calypsos? Don’t you need your cocoa trees from home?”

She nodded. “While we’ve learned to harvest what grows in this world, we have not totally abandoned our
old ways. Some of our people came here with seeds that we planted. It is a custom, going back to the founding of Calypsos. While we work together in harmony, each tribe honors where they came from. In the hopes that one day we will be allowed to return home.”

Jake pictured the town, beginning to understand the place a bit better. The town wasn’t so much a melting pot as a
stew
made up of chunks of different cultures—each preserving their unique individual identities and flavors.

Until they were allowed to return home
.

Jake understood that wish all too well.

 

“Here we are,” Marika said, and hurried up the last steps.

They’d reached the end of the spiral staircase. As Marika pushed open the door at the top, a fresh breeze washed over them. The stifling heat of the day had subsided to a balmy evening. The wind helped clear the cobwebs out of Jake’s head after the big meal.

Jake stepped onto the tower roof, his eyes wide. The sky overhead was a vault of stars—more stars than Jake had ever seen. He attempted to spot any familiar constellations, but nothing looked quite right. Then again, his knowledge of astronomy was limited. Back at home, Jake spent much of his time looking
down
: searching for fossils, studying books, always looking for clues in the dust or dirt.

Still, one item in the night sky was unmistakable. A
swath of stars and shimmering light swept across the sky in a shining arc.

“The Milky Way,” he whispered to himself. He felt something warm swell through him, a welcome sense of familiarity, of home.

Marika stood at his shoulder and gazed up, too. She lifted an arm and traced the band of brightness. “
Sak be
,” she said in Mayan.

Jake’s heart pounded as understanding dawned. The same words were written as symbols on the two halves of his gold coin:
sak be,
which meant “white road.”

He stared up into the sky.

The Milky Way—that was the Maya’s
White Road
.

Marika continued, “It’s believed among our people that the White Road is the path to this world. It’s how we came here.”

Jake studied the splash of brightness. What had seemed warmly familiar a moment before now took on a cold and mysterious cast. His fingers still clutched at the cord around his neck. At least for Jake and Kady, the White Road
had
led them here.

But could it somehow lead them back?

“Every night, Papa searches the skies, seeking answers about the world and the passing of time.”

“And for a way home?”

Marika nodded. Her voice grew quieter. “He spends so much time up here. Especially the last few years.”

Marika guided Jake’s attention from the stars back down to the tower roof. Its edges were lined by a shoulder-high stone wall, but in the center of the open roof rested a giant bronze dome. Jake had spotted it from the ground. It was the size of a two-car garage.

The bronze had been beaten to a polished mirror. Starlight was reflected across its surface, only interrupted by small slits around its top, like the hour markings on a clock.

“The Astromicon,” Marika said. “It is here my father works, mapping the movement of the sun, moon, and stars. He predicted the great eclipse that occurred yesterday.”

Curiosity and desire drew Jake toward a hatchway in the dome. He had to see inside.

As he stepped closer, something dark swept over the reflection of the stars. Marika saw it, too, and gasped in fear.

Jake’s mind snapped back to the monstrous winged grakyl. Had it somehow found them?

He pulled Marika toward the stairwell door. Both stared up as a large shape circled the tower top and tilted on a wing. Illuminated by the moonlight, it was clearly not a grakyl. It was too big—and darkly feathered. Its wings folded and the creature dove downward and landed heavily with a braking rush of its wings. It perched on the raised parapet wall that lined the tower.

Marika stopped retreating. “It’s one of Calypsos’s scouts.”

The creature’s head lowered and revealed a man seated on its back, strapped into a saddle. With a skill born of experience, the scout ripped away the bindings and scooped up a passenger from behind. He then slid out of the saddle and landed on the tower roof.

The scout took two wobbling steps toward them, but exhaustion drove him to his knees. He sprawled his passenger out across the stone floor.

“Get help…” the scout eked out hoarsely.

Marika turned to the stairwell door. Shouts echoed up to them. Someone had spotted the arrival and help was already on its way. Marika turned to Jake. “Stay here.”

She took off like a frightened rabbit and headed down the stairs.

Jake stayed, in case he could help.

The winged creature remained perched on the wall, its beak agape and panting, clearly as worn as its rider. The massive bird looked powerful enough to nab a cow out of a field.

The scout moved closer to the figure sprawled across the stones. Jake did the same and saw the passenger was a woman. She was dressed like the Viking elder who took Kady, with green leggings and a tunic, and boots that rose to her knees. From her blond hair, she had to be one of Astrid Ulfsdottir’s people. Jake remembered the talk of the missing huntresses.

It seemed one had been found.

“Come here, boy,” the scout ordered, his voice iron and uncompromising. “Stay with her.”

Jake hurried forward and dropped down, kneeling on the edge of the woman’s cloak. The scout stood and stepped over to his mount. He reached a hand to settle it, then crossed to where a bucket rested under a hand pump. His head was crowned by feathers, the same color as his mount. From the hard planes of his tan face, he appeared to be Native American.

The man offered the bucket of water to his giant bird, then reached out an arm to soothe it.

BOOK: Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow
6.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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