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Annja Creed stood in a twelve-foot-deep sacrificial pit beneath a gathering storm. The storm, according to the weather reports, was hours away but promised to be severe. From the look of the skeletons on the floor of the pit and embedded in the walls, hundreds of years had passed since the last sacrifice.
The passage of time hadn't made the discovery any less chilling. Even with her experience as an archeologistand the recent exposures to sudden death that she thought were incited by the mystic sword she'd inheritedshe still had to make the conscious mental shift from personal empathy to scientific detachment.
"Are those human bones?"
Annja glanced up and saw Jason Kim standing near the edge of the pit above her. Jason was a UCLA graduate student who'd won a place on Professor Rai's dig along the southern coast of India.
Jason was barely over five and a half feet tall and slender as a reed. His long black hair blew in the strong wind summoned by the storm gathering somewhere over the Indian Ocean. Thick glasses covered his eyes, which were bloodshot from staying up too late playing PSP games in his tent. He came from a traditional Chinese family that hated the way he'd so easily acquired American ways. He wore a concert T-shirt and jean shorts. A tuft of whiskers barely smudged his pointed chin.
"They're human bones," Annja answered.
"You think they're sacrifice victims?" Jason's immediate interest sounded bloodthirsty, but Annja knew it was only curiosity.
"I do." Annja knelt and scooped one of the skulls from the loose soil at the bottom of the pit. She indicated the uneven cut through the spine at the base of the skull.
"Followers of Shakti favoreddecapitation."
"Cool. Can I see that?" Jason held his hands out.
Annja only thought for a moment that the skull had once housed a human being. The truth was, in her work, the body left behind was as much a temporary shelter as the homes she unearthed and studied.
Jason's field of study was forensic anthropology. His work primarily included what was left of a body. If anyone at the dig could identify the tool marks on the skeleton, it was Jason.
Annja tossed the skull up to him.
Jason caught the skull in both hands. It didn't bother him that it was so fresh from the grave. His smile went from ear to ear. He rotated the skull in his fingers. "This is the bomb, Annja."
"Glad you like it."
"Think they'll let me keep one?" he asked.
Part of Annja couldn't believe he'd asked the question. The other part of her couldn't believe she hadn't expected it.
"Definitely not," she answered.
"Too bad. Put a small, battery-operated red light inside and this thing would be totally rad. I could even have a friend of mine majoring in dentistry whip up some caps for the incisors. I'd be the first guy to have a genuine vampire skull."
"Except for the genuine part.And you'd have to explain why the skull doesn't turn to dust in sunlight,"Annja said.
"Not all vampires turn to dust. You should know that," he replied.
"Vampires aren't a big part of archaeology." Annja turned her attention back to the other bones. She didn't think she was going to learn a lot from the pit, but there were always surprises.
"I didn't mean from archaeology," Jason persisted.
"I mean from your show."
Annja sighed. No matter where she went, except for highly academic circles, she invariably ended up being known more for her work on Chasing History's Monsters than anything else. The syndicated television show had gone international almost overnight, and was continuing to do well in the ratings.
Scenes from stories she'd done for the show had ended up on magazine covers, on YouTube and other television shows. Her producer, Doug Morrell, never missed an opportunity to promote the show.
"You ever watch the show?" Annja looked up at Jason and couldn't believe she was having the conversation with him.
"Sure. The frat guys go nuts for it. So do the sororities. I mean, DVR means never having to miss a television show again."
Terrific, Annja thought.
"Kind of divided loyalties, though," Jason said. "The sororities watch you." He shrugged. "Well, most of them do. The frat guys like to watch the show for Kristie."
Okay, I really didn't need to hear that, Annja thought.
Kristie Chatham, the other hostess of Chasing History's Monsters, wasn't a rival. At least, Annja didn't see Kristie as such. Kristie wasn't an archaeologist and didn't care about history. Or even about getting the facts straight.
When Kristie put her stories together, they were strictly for shock value. As a result, Kristie's stories tended to center on werewolves, vampires, serial killers and escaped lab experiments.
"You can't go into a frat house without finding her new poster," Jason went on.
"That's good to know," Annja said, then realized that maybe she'd responded a little more coldly than she'd intended.
"Hey." Jason held his hands up in defense and almost dropped his newly acquired skull. He bobbled it and managed to hang on to it. "I didn't mean anything by that."
"No problem," Annja said.
"I don't know why you don't do a poster," Jason said. "You're beautiful."
Maybe if the comment hadn't come from a geeky male in his early twenties who was five years her junior and had a skull under his arm, if she hadn't been covered in dirt from the sacrificial pit and perspiring heavily from the gathering storm's humidity, Annja might have taken solace in that compliment.
Dressed in khaki cargo shorts, hiking boots and a gray pullover, she stood five feet ten inches tall and had a full figure instead of the anorexic look favored by so many modeling agencies. She wore her chestnut-brown hair pulled back under a New York Yankees baseball cap. Her startling amber-green eyes never failed to capture attention.
"I don't do a poster because I don't want to end up on the walls of frat houses," Annja said.
"Or ceilings," Jason said. "A lot of guys put Kristie's posters on the ceiling."
Lightning flashed in the leaden sky and highlighted the dark clouds. Shortly afterward, peals of thunder slammed into the beach.
Jason looked up. "Man, this is gonna suck. I hate getting wet."
"That's part of the job," Annja told him. "The other part is being too hot, too tired, too claustrophobic and a thousand other discomforts I could name."
"I know. But that's only if I stay with fieldwork. I'd rather get a job at a museum. Or in a crime lab working forensics."
Annja was disappointed to hear that. Jason Kim was a good student. He was going to be a good forensic anthropologist. She couldn't understand why anyone would choose to stay indoors in a job that could take them anywhere in the world.
Lightning flashed again. The wind shifted and swept into the pit where Annja stood. The humidity increased and felt like an impossible burden.
"I'm gonna go clean this up," Jason said. "Maybe after we batten down the hatches, you can tell me more about who Shakti was."
Annja nodded and turned her attention back to the burial site. The storm was coming and there was no time to waste.
WITH CAREFUL DELIBERATION, Annja checked the scale representation of the burial pit she'd drawn. So far everything was going easily, but she suspected it was the calm before the storm.
The drawing looked good. She'd also backed up the sketch with several captured digital images using her camera. In the old days, archaeologists only had a pad and paper to record data and findings. She liked working that way. It felt as if it kept her in touch with the roots of her chosen field.
She stared at the body she'd exhumed. From the flared hips, she felt certain that the bones had been a woman. She resolved to have Jason make the final call on that, though.
Lightning flickered and thunder pealed almost immediately after. The storm was drawing closer.
Glancing up, Annja spotted the elfin figure of Professor Lochata Rai, the dig's supervisor. Lochata was only five feet tall and weighed about ninety pounds. She was in her early sixties, but still spry and driven. She wore khakis and looked ready for a trek across the Gobi Desert.
"It is time for you to rise up out of there. The rain is coming," the professor said.
Annja looked past the woman at the scudding clouds that filled the sky. Irritation flared through her at the time she was losing.
"We must cover this excavation pit," Lochata said.
"Perhaps it will not rain too hard and we won't lose anything."
"I know. This really stinks because we just got down far enough to take a good look at what's here,"Annja said.
Lochata squatted at the edge of the pit. She held her pith helmet in her tiny hands over her knees. "You're too impatient.You have your whole life ahead of you, and history isn't going anywhere. This site will be here tomorrow."
"I keep telling myself that. But I also keep telling myself that once I finish this I can move on to something else." Annja stowed her gear in her backpack.
Lochata shook her head. "You expect to find something exciting and different?"
"I hope to." Annja pulled her backpack over her shoulder and climbed the narrow wooden ladder out of the pit. "I always hope to."
"I do not." Lochata offered her hand as Annja neared the top. "Finding something you did not expect means you didn't do your research properly. It also means extra work and possibly having to call someone else in to verify what you have found."
Annja understood that, but she also liked the idea of the new, the undiscovered and the unexpected. Lately, her life had been filled with that. She thought she was growing addicted to it.
Once on the ground outside the pit, Annja stood with her arms out from her sides as if she were going to take flight. The wind blew almost hard enough to move her. Perspiration had soaked her clothing.
"Drink." Lochata held out a water bottle and smiled.
"Hydrate or die."
Annja smiled back and accepted the water. The rule was a basic one for anyone who challenged the elements. She opened the bottle and drank deeply.
The dig site was in the jungle fringe that bordered the Indian Ocean. Kanyakumari lay as far south on the Indian continent as a person could go. They were forty miles west of there on a cliff twenty-seven feet above sea level. The ocean stretched to the south under the whirling storm clouds. Whitecaps broke the dark-blue surface.
"What are you thinking?" Lochata asked.
Annja grinned self-consciously. She didn't like to get caught daydreaming. The nuns who'd raised her in a New Orleans orphanage had worked hard to train that distraction out of her. It hadn't worked.
"I was just thinking about how many ships have been through those waters," Annja admitted.
"Ah, yes." Lochata's eyes glittered. "The Romans, the Egyptians, ships from China's Ming Dynasty."
"Vasco da Gama was the first European to sail the Indian Ocean," Annja said. "He was looking for a trade route around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa."
"The British took over after that," Lochata said. "They brought their ships loaded with cannons and fought wars to control the area. The Dutch East India Company fought trade wars with the French and others."
"It isn't just history out there," Annja said wistfully.
"Sinbad sailed those seas, as well."
Lochata laughed. "My, my. Bringing up fictional characters. You are the romantic, aren't you?"
"I try not to be," Annja said. "But if you think past this moment, if you see into the past, it's hard not to be." She paused as she watched the storm-tossed waves. "A lot of those ships didn't make it across the ocean. Storms took them, they were lost in sea battles and sometimes ships just went down."
"Or perhaps sea monsters got them," Lochata said laughing.
"I don't believe in sea monsters." Over the past few years, Annja had learned to believe in a lot of things, but she hadn't yet crossed paths with a sea monster.
"Perhaps not," Lochata said. "But the sea is a cruel mistress. She takes what she wants. She breaks the weak and the foolish. And she gives back only what she wants to."
Surprised, Annja looked at the older woman. "I didn't know you were a poet."
Lochata smiled and shook her head. "Not me. My husband. He's been in the merchant marine since he was a boy." Concern touched her dark features. "I worry about him a lot these days, but he won't give up the sea. A few years ago, things were not so dangerous out on the water. There are too many pirates out here now. They take what they want, and they kill and destroy."
Annja didn't say anything. She knew the professor was right. Before leaving her home in Brooklyn, she'd researched the area's past and present. The Indian Ocean pirates plying their trade were every bit as dangerous as the Shakti followers who had sacrificed so many innocents to their cruel goddess.
"We need to get everyone together," Lochata said as she gazed at the storm clouds above them. "I think this is going to be a bad one."
The wind picked up and rattled through the nearby trees.
"I thought monsoon season was over," Annja said. Worry tightened the lines of the older woman's face.
"It should be. I think this is something else." She looked at Annja and smiled. "You don't believe in curses, do you?"
Considering everything she'd been through since she'd found the final piece of Joan of Arc's legendary sword, Annja wasn't sure how to answer the question. Receiving the sword had changed her perspective on a lot of things.
"Not really," Annja finally said.
"Neither do I," Lochata agreed. "But we've been disturbing the final resting places of the dead. That's taboo in almost every culture."