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Authors: Maria Zannini

True Believers

BOOK: True Believers
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True Believers

By Maria Zannini

Something is killing off immortals, one by one.

Taelen Jessit is an alien emissary on a mission sanctioned by the U.S. government to search for ancient gods. His hunt leads him to a dig headed by archaeologist Rachel Cruz. When his military entourage forces Rachel’s team out of the cave they were exploring, a flash flood hits the riverbed and threatens to tear them through the ravine.

In the aftermath of the flood, Taelen witnesses the incredible healing of Rachel’s broken ankle and believes his gods have blessed her. He is inexplicably drawn to her, and she to him.

What Taelen doesn’t know is that Rachel is Nephilim—a descendant of the gods his people worship—masquerading as a human to find the
god-killer
and destroy it. Rachel needs help to bring down the tech that is manipulating the Earth's magnetosphere and frying her people alive. She’s given Taelen her heart, but can she trust him with her secret?

Dear Reader,

Thank you for purchasing this Carina Press title. Now that we’ve moved past launch month, introduced you to some of the variety of genres we’ll be offering and showcased the talent of the authors we’re acquiring, we’re working to fulfill the mission “Where no great story goes untold” even further.

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Executive Editor, Carina Press

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Dedication

To my husband, Greg, who remains my staunchest supporter, critic and friend.

And to OWW (Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror), a deep well of challenge and encouragement.

Chapter 1

Rachel Cruz took one step too many inside the dry gulch cavern. Something crushed under her boot and she winced. It was the crackle of something small and brittle and undoubtedly valuable.

Damn.

She lifted her foot and tried to put it down somewhere less costly.

What did the Dean say? If she found evidence of ancient Sumer, he'd make her a rich woman. She'd settle for anonymously wealthy. But first she'd have to stop trampling on priceless artifacts.

The light from her headlamp bounced all over the ground, but settled when she caught the glint of white polished pebbles. She crouched down to scoop up a handful of debris.

Finger bones.

Smug satisfaction tugged the corners of her mouth upwards. She'd radio for grunt diggers later today and lay claim to the entire site before any of the other universities got the wiser.

Another milestone for the grand diva of digs. Maybe now they would give her carte blanche on future digs without all the politics and begging.

Rachel gnawed on one leather glove and yanked it off with her teeth. She danced her bare fingertips along a gritty sandstone wall until she reached a sparkling bit of rock.

Soul residue. Here?

Her fingers fumbled for the toggle on her lantern to shut it off. In the darkness, the entire cavern radiated with subtle luminance.

Human souls. Hundreds of them.

A pang of guilt prickled her conscience. There was only one reason for human souls to be trapped on the mortal plane. By fate or misfortune, they had touched an immortal.

Like fireflies on a breeze, the remains of the trapped souls drifted near her face attracted by something they could not understand. As the specks drew closer, she pursed her lips and blew them away like a kiss. Whatever spirit remained was nothing more than an imprint, a memory of something that was once human.

“You should have run away,” she told them. “Far away.”

Rachel stole a glance behind her. The rest of her recon team was in the grand theater of the cave. Doc and Paul hadn't noticed her absence. They were too busy snapping pictures, rapt in the find of a lifetime.

The accidental discovery of a shard, etched with ancient Sumerian, drove the archeological community into a feeding frenzy. The hysteria would have been warranted enough if the relic had been found in Iraq, but this was found in west Texas, more than seven thousand miles away. Every major university on the planet was mad to find more.

Rachel rattled the bone fragments in the palm of her hand then seeded them back to the ground. Her university would be pleased. She found exactly what they were looking for, but that wasn't the only reason she was here.

The first shard, anonymously mailed to the University of Cairo, was ten thousand years old, and it matched the pieces found here precisely. But it was the rock drawings and dwellings that came as a shock. An ancient people lived here, and their writing spoke of Anu and his sons, progenitors of the Nephilim.

Her people.

She didn't like it when the humans got too close to the truth.

Her first instinct was to destroy the site, but there was too much of the scholar in her to commit such a crime. This was important. If she could prove ancient Mesopotamians traveled to the New World, it would be an event unprecedented in recorded history.

Only two or three linguists in the world might be able to figure out the Nephilim connection—and that part of history she could discreetly smudge.

Rachel followed a narrow footpath that led her to a cave-in. Tumbled rock blocked most of the entrance, but there was just enough room to slip through to the other side. She took off her pack and left it on the ground, sucking in a breath as she squeezed through the jagged cavity.

She landed with a thud on the other side, smashing into a pile of clay rubble at the base of stone steps. Her mouth twisted into a grimace.
Could she destroy anything else today?

Rachel lifted her feet, brushing open a clearing so she could step unimpeded. She got up slowly, trying not to crush anything else, but debris was everywhere.

She dusted herself off and tiptoed up the steep staircase to a wide-open gallery in combat boots that had seen better days. Bright shafts of light pierced the tiny fissures above her, while the excited voices of her teammates echoed below.

A long altar sat in the center of the room and broken pottery littered the ground, the remnants of a people who should not have existed here.

Rachel picked up a piece of earthenware and pulled out her soft bristled brush from her tool belt. With short, careful strokes, she swept away the dust and revealed the faint hieroglyphs scratched on its slab.

Giant,
it said.

An old name for the Nephilim.

Scorpions and spiders were the only residents left. They skittered away at her approach. One scorpion dared to challenge her but reconsidered and retreated.

Rachel laughed. “You're smarter than the humans, my friend. At least you recognize Death even when it looks mortal.”

Her reverie was interrupted by the repeated clack of helicopters that zoomed in and out of the canyon rifts.

Pop-pop-pop-pop. The helos were close today.

The military had been flying Big Bend for weeks, running off archeologists and hikers wherever they were found, regardless of their clearance. Whatever they were doing here, they didn't want witnesses.

The staccato whir of chopper blades echoed constantly, the vibrations pelting against her chest like a frantic knock. But she was safe here, a haven from the maelstrom outside.

Rachel hopped up on the long altar and closed her eyes, waiting for the man who had summoned her with his cryptic gift to the university. This dig was orchestrated and she knew damn well who was pulling the strings. Why else would the mysterious donor send the shard to her university, asking for her by name?

It had all the earmarks of performance art. Her father's favorite form of entertainment. What better way to visit with a prodigal daughter than to lure her out into the high country in search of relics?

All right, Apa. I'm here.

She pressed two fingertips at her solar plexus and held in a breath. A tendril of silver-blue energy snaked out of her body and tasted the air for a like being. Her
na'hala
shivered as a familiar tingle of recognition washed over it.

Gilgamesh.
Her father was here, just as she expected.

Rachel opened her eyes slowly, allowing the shadows in the room to reveal themselves incrementally. “Where are you?” He was toying with her again, an ethereal game of hide and seek.

Her father materialized in a brilliant field of fractured light, blinding her momentarily. She groused at his theatrics, pointing down to the lower level of the cave where Paul and Doc were examining the etched stone. “Is this your doing?”

Gilgamesh raised a thick sculptured eyebrow. “Don't be absurd.”

He was beautiful as ever, youthful and bronzed, with a shock of thick white hair that trailed down his back. No woman—or man—ever resisted him for long.

“There are Sumerian etchings on those walls down there. How the hell did ancient Mesopotamians get to Texas?”

“They didn't.” Gilgamesh clucked in amusement, his eyes raking over her in dismissal. He brushed a spectral hand across the slab of stone she sat on, his gaze lost on a memory. “I found the native inhabitants millennia ago and decided to baptize them.” He shrugged. “Hardly worth the trouble. The desert killed them long before my influence could gain strength.” His fingers located a depression in the scarred stone and caressed the hollow.

Rachel jumped off the dark and sullied surface of the altar. Gilgamesh's baptisms had a tendency to end in blood.

“Why am I here?”

Gilgamesh kissed her on either cheek, then pulled her floppy hat off her head. “Can't a father see his daughter for no reason at all? I thought you'd be pleased with this find. I was being helpful.”

Rachel rolled her head back already wishing this visit was over. “Oh, please. You do nothing if it doesn't help you first. Why did you bring me here?”

He grinned at her, amused with her response. “You are direct. You get that from me.” He handed the hat back to her. “You didn't return my calls when you were in Prague or Israel.”

“I was busy.”

“Too busy for your father?”

“If you wanted to see me all you had to do was show up.” She shook her hat at him with a scold. “At Prague you disrupted the entire assembly with that game of musical lights. And in Israel, you scared the poor curator into cardiac arrest. There was no reason to set off every alarm in a five-block radius.”

Gilgamesh chortled, his eyes sparkling with mischief. “You have to admit, that was very funny.”

“Apa! Israel thought it was a terrorist act. They put the entire country into lockdown!”

“That's what made it funny.” He huffed at her. “You have no sense of humor. You get that from your mother.”

She tapped her foot. “Why am I here?”

“Don't you like this discovery? The Dean at your university was ready to kiss my—”

“Gilgamesh. What do you want?”

He sighed in defeat. “All right then. I did bring you here for more than the scenery. It may be nothing, but there has been a flux in the atmosphere. Some of our clan have gotten sick.”

“Sick?” She furrowed her brow. He had to be joking. “We don't get sick.”

He shrugged. “It is a fleeting thing. Perhaps sick is the wrong word. But I want you to tell me if it happens to you, no matter how minor it seems.”

She folded her arms across her chest. “You're making this up.”

He looked at her, insulted. “I most certainly am not.” His attention shifted to the stairwell when someone called her name.

“Paul,” she murmured. “Gilgamesh, you need to leave.” She plopped her hat back on her head and headed for the stairs.

Paul was the obscenely rich boy who paid to be on this trip. She normally didn't cater to dig groupies, but Paul was mouth-wateringly pretty, and he had a strong back. Both admirable qualities for a digger.

Paul and Doc made for good cover too. They were famous in their own right. Paul was a fancy computer specialist with more product endorsements than a superstar athlete, and Doc was a legend in the archeology community.

She liked famous people. Famous people kept her anonymous. Immortality was risky business, especially around nosy mortals.

Rachel didn't toy with their vulnerability the way the others in her clan did—at least not often. And despite her disdain for human fallibility, she still felt the need to protect them, especially from Gilgamesh. His appetite knew no restraint…and no pity.

The commotion grew louder as the boy toy pushed away the bigger rocks so he could get through the crevice and climb the stairs. Rachel snapped her head toward her father. “Go, please.”

“Not even if you begged.” He laughed. “Besides, that professor is with you, isn't he? I want to see him interpret these glyphs. He's so amusing when he gets them wrong. And yet, you never correct him.”

Paul clambered up the uneven steps, careful not to loosen more rock. “Hey, Rach.” He craned his head for a better look.

Rachel turned back to Gilgamesh. “Apa, this is no time for games. I don't need them to suspect anything.”

“Bah! You give the humans too much credit. They wouldn't know one of our kind if we bit them on the ass.” His lips curled in a mischievous grin. “I know. I've tried it.”

“Gilgamesh!” she hissed, but he disappeared in a mist of sparkling dust.

“Who are you talking to, Rachel?” Paul wiped the sweat from his brow when he reached the landing.

A high-priced software architect for a media giant, Paul begged to be part of this expedition, his boyhood dream. Rachel didn't mind. Aside from his advantage as a radar blocker, he was comfy and familiar, and that made her feel safe.

“No one.” Rachel glanced around the room once more. “Just talking to myself.”

“That's not healthy, Cruz. Doc talks to himself all the time, and you know what everyone says about him.” He smiled at her warmly with lips she ached to touch. Paul was all about being touchable, from his thick blond hair to his perpetual day-old beard. She sniffed him, hoping he wouldn't notice the feral lust that groaned inside her. What she'd give to take him to bed.

The swell of her heat cycle had begun, and his musk was fuel to the fire.

He took her hand, drawing her back to the stairs.

Paul was oblivious to her need and the ache that drove her to distraction. But he was kind and gentle, the kind of guy-friend she knew would always be there for her. If only she could do the same for him.

“Doc thinks he's got the main glyph translated, but he wants your opinion.”

“Doc's the expert. My ancient Sumerian is too rusty to be helpful.”

“Who're you kidding, sweetheart? You recognized the scribbles on the very first glyph we encountered. I saw it on your face.” Paul moved down one step so he could look at her eye to eye. “As I recall, Doc didn't speak to us for a whole week.” His face lit up with an impish grin. “Best damn week of the whole expedition.” Paul winked at her.

Damn, he's cute.
The air pressure changed in an instant and an icy gust rushed between them. Rachel wrapped her arms around herself and shivered.

“Ghosts,” he said with a cheerful lilt.

“Sumerian ghosts,” Rachel countered. “The kind that never die.”

They scrambled back downstairs where Doc stared vacuously at the large petroglyph of a man with long white hair. At the top was a series of symbols lined up in a neat row. The figure stood under a star-studded sky, dressed in a simple tunic. The hem of the tunic repeated a single icon, a dark circle eclipsing a light one. It was the crest of the Anunnaki, progenitors of Rachel's clan, the Nephilim.

Rachel studied the carved script, quirking one eyebrow and then the other, hoping to look convincingly perplexed.

The artist glorified the sons of Anu, calling them giants. She blinked when she noticed that the carved figure was depicted as a ghost, the stars showing right through him. It was no nameless god they revered. They were honoring Gilgamesh.

BOOK: True Believers
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