While dealing with dark revelations about her life and her world, Malin finds herself with new alliesand new enemies. Her quest for the truth leads her to places she never thought possible, and she's never been one to shy away from a fight. But for all her strength and determination, will it be enough to save the world before it's too late?
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The air that fogged around me was thick enough that I could taste it — earthy and wet, with a trace of salt. It stuck to my skin, which was already slick with sweat, and that only seemed to attract more insects. They buzzed around me, leaving burning little bites in my flesh. I wanted to swat them off, but I couldn't. I had to stay perfectly still, or the Kalanoro would spot me too soon.
The oversaturation of green in the jungles of Panama had been a strange adjustment from the smog and bright lights of the city. Out here, it was an endless emerald sea: the plants and trees, the rivers, were all varying shades of green — even the sky was blotted out by a thick canopy of leaves.
This wasn't where I wanted to be, crouched motionless in the mud with a giant millipede crawling over my foot. Not when Asher was still gone, held captive in Kurnugia by the underworld goddess Ereshkigal and her mad centaur boyfriend, Gugalanna. Not when the fate of the world felt heavy on my shoulders, with Ereshkigal attempting an uprising that would unleash the underworld on earth.
It had only been three days since I'd gone to the Gates of Kurnugia, along with Oona, Quinn, Asher, and Atlas to aid me. I'd wanted to avenge my mother — and I had killed the draugr that had killed her — but all of that may have set off a chain of events that would bring about the end of days.
And I had lost the guy I ... well, not loved. Not yet. But I cared about him. All I wanted to do was rescue him. But I couldn't. There was too much at stake. I couldn't let my heart get the best of me. I had to hold it together, and follow my orders.
After Gugalanna had pulled Asher down into the underworld where I could not follow, the rest of us had gone to Caana City in Belize. It was the safest city near the Gates of Kurnugia, and Oona needed medical intervention to survive. She was on the mend now, and that's why I had left her behind, with Quinn and Atlas.
I didn't want to risk losing them the way I had Asher, and I was on a special assignment, coming directly from the Valkyries' highest authority — Odin.
Odin had found me outside of the hospital where Oona was being treated. I had never met him before, and, like most of the Vanir gods, he changed his appearance to suit his needs, so I hadn't recognized him.
He towered over me in his tailored suit, with his left eyelid withered shut. He had a deep rumble of a voice, with a softly lilting accent, and a grim expression. His large raven, Muninn, had been watching over me, but when I tried to press him for a reason why, he had told me that there wasn't time to explain.
"I need you to go deep into the heart of the jungle, where no man dares to live," Odin explained, as we had stood in the eerily silent parking lot in Caana City. "You must retrieve something for me."
"Why can't you retrieve it yourself?" I asked bluntly. I wasn't being rude, but the reality was that Odin was a powerful god, and I was just a young mortal Valkyrie-in-training. He had far more knowledge and power than I could ever hope to have.
"I'm not allowed to meddle in the affairs of humans or any of the other earthly beings," Odin clarified.
"But ..." I trailed off, gathering the courage to ask, "What is thisyou're doing now, then? Isn't directing me to get something for you the same as meddling?" A sly smile played on his lips, and he replied, "There are a few loopholes, and I think it's best if I take advantage of one now. If you want to save your friend, and everyone else that matters to you, you need to act quickly."
"What is it that you need me to get?" I asked, since I didn't seem to have a choice.
"The Valhallan cloak," he explained. "It was stolen centuries ago by a trickster god — I honestly can't remember which one anymore — and he hid it with the Kalanoro of Panama."
"The Kalanoro?" I groaned reflexively. Having dealt with them before, I already knew how horrible they were.
If piranhas lived on land, they would behave a lot like the Kalanoro. They were small primate-like creatures, standing no more than two feet tall, and they vaguely resembled the aye-aye lemur. The biggest differences were that the Kalanoro were tailless, since they lived mostly on the ground, and they had razor-sharp claws on their elongated fingers and a mouth of jagged teeth they used to tear apart the flesh of their prey.
"What is the Valhallan cloak, and how will I find it?" I asked Odin.
"You'll know when you see it. It's an oversized cloak, but the fabric looks like the heavens. The rumors are that the Kalanoro were attracted to the magic of the cloak, though they didn't understand it, so they took it back to their cave," Odin elaborated. "They apparently have been guarding it like a treasure."
"So I have to go into the treacherous jungle, find the man-eating Kalanoro, and steal their favorite possession?" I asked dryly. "No problem."
Which was how I ended up in the jungle, alone, in the heart of Kalanoro country — at least, that's what the nearest locals had purported. In front of me, on the other side of a very shallow but rapidly moving stream, was the mouth of a cave. The cave I hoped was the home of the Kalanoro, but I was waiting to see one for official confirmation.
Sweat slid down my temples, and a large dragonfly flew overhead. The trees around me were a cacophony of sounds — monkeys and frogs and birds and insects of all kinds, talking to one another, warning of danger, and shouting out mating calls.
Back in the city, beings and creatures of all kinds lived among each other, but there were rules. The jungle was not bound by any laws. I was not welcome, and I was not safe here.
I heard the crunch of a branch — too loud and too close to be another insect. I turned my head slowly toward the sound, and I saw movement in the bushes right beside me. Tall dark quills, poking out above the leaves, and I tried to remember if the Kalanoro had any quill-like fur.
I didn't have to wonder for very long because a head poked out of the bushes, appearing to grin at me through a mouthful of jagged fangs and a face like an alien hyena. The leathery green skin, mottled with darker speckles, blended in perfectly with the surroundings, with a mohawk-like row of sharp quills running down its back.
It wasn't a Kalanoro — it was something much worse. I found myself face-toface with a Chupacabra.CHAPTER 2
The Chupacabra — much like dolphins, dogs, and quokkas — had the uncanny ability to appear to be smiling. Unlike those contemporaries, there was nothing adorable or friendly about this Chupacabra's smile. It was all serrated teeth, with bits of rotten meat stuck between them, and a black tongue lolling around his mouth.
"You don't want do this," I told the beast softly, even though he probably didn't understand English.
I kept my gaze locked on the Chupacabra, but my hand was at my hip, slowly unsheathing my sword Sigrún. The name came from my ancestors, as had the blade itself. It had been passed down from Valkyrie to daughter for centuries.
Sigrún was a thick blade made of dark purple crystal, so dark it appeared black, but it would glow bright brilliant purple when I was working. It was short and angled, like it had been broken off in battle. Maybe it had — the full history of my blade was unknown to me.
But the handle was a black utilitarian replacement. It had been my mother's gift to me on my eighteenth birthday. Her final gift to me, well over a year ago.
The Chupacabra stared at me with oversized teardrop-shaped eyes and took a step closer to me, letting out a soft rumble of a growl.
Valkyries weren't supposed to kill anyone or anything they were not specifically ordered to kill. The one exception was self-defense. Since I was on an unsanctioned mission into territory I had no business being in, this would all get very messy if I had to kill a Chupacabra.
But the hard truth was that I was beyond worrying about my career as a Valkyrie. I would do whatever I needed to do.
When the Chupacabra lunged at me, I drew my sword without hesitation. Since this wasn't an official "job," my blade didn't glow purple, but it sliced through the leathery hide as easily as I knew it would.
I didn't want to kill the creature if I didn't have to — after all, he was merely going about his life in the jungle. So my first blow was only a warning that left him with a painful but shallow cut across his shoulder.
He let out an enraged howl, causing birds to take flight and all sorts of smaller animals to go rushing deeper into the underbrush. From the corner of my eye, I spotted several Kalanoro darting across the stream back toward their cave. They had been watching me.
The Chupacabra had stepped back from me, but by the determined grin on his face I didn't think he was ready to give up yet. He circled around me, and I turned with him, stepping carefully to keep from slipping in the mud.
"This is stupid," I said, reasoning with the animal. "We should both go our separate ways, and you can go back to eating ... well, I think you mostly eat the Kalanoro and birds."
Apparently growing tired of my attempts at talking, the Chupacabra snarled and jumped at me again. I dodged out of the way, but he kicked off of the tree behind and instantly dove at me. I didn't move quick enough this time, and he knocked me to the ground.
Fortunately, I fell on my back, with one of his feet pinning me and his claws digging into my shoulder. I put one hand around his long, slender throat, barely managing to hold him back as he gnashed his teeth.
With one of my arms pinned, he was too strong for me, and I wouldn't be able to throw him off. As his thick saliva dripped down onto me, I knew there was only one thing I could do if I wanted to survive.
I drove my sword up through his breastbone, using all my might. He howled in pain, but only for a second, before falling silent and slumping forward onto me. I crawled out from underneath him, now covered in mud and his thick green blood, along with my own fresh red blood springing from the wounds on my bare arms and shoulder.
In the mouth of the cave across from me, two dozen or so beady little green eyes glowed. The Kalanoro were crouched down, watching me. So much for the element of surprise.
My hair had come free from the braid I'd been wearing, and it stuck to my forehead. I reached up to brush it back, and the Kalanoro let out a squawk of surprise, and one darted off into the woods.
That's when I realized the Kalanoro were afraid of me. I glanced over at the Chupacabra — the Kalanoro's number-one predator, and I had left it dead and bleeding into the stream. They were right to fear me.
I tested my new hypothesis and stepped closer to the mouth of the cave, and the Kalanoro screeched and scattered. Most of them ran into the woods, but a few went deeper into the cave. My fight with the Chupacabra had left them far more skittish than I had anticipated, and I doubted that I would need my sword for them, so I sheathed Sigrún.
I unhooked my asp baton from my hip and pulled my flashlight out from my gear bag. I took a deep breath and walked toward the cave, hoping that this wasn't a trap where they would all pounce and devour me the second I stepped inside.
As I walked into the cave, I heard them chittering and scurrying, but it reminded me more of a rat infestation than man-eating primates. Once my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I shone the flashlight around the narrow cavern. The beam of light flashed on a few pairs of eyes, but they quickly disappeared into the darkness.
The entrance of the cave stood well over eight feet, but as I walked, the ceiling height dropped considerably. Very soon I had to crouch down to venture farther.
The ground was slick with Kalanoro droppings and bat guano, and it smelled like a musty cellar that doubled as a litter box. Tiny bones of partially digested meals crunched underneath the heavy soles of my boots.
My flashlight glinted on something, and I crouched down to inspect it. It was an old pocket watch, the face broken and the gears rusted, but it had once definitely belonged to a human. Near the watch was another trinket — an old walkie-talkie.
That's when I realized it was a trail of treasures, piling up more as I went deeper into the cave. Old car parts, a titanium hip replacement, and even what appeared to be a wedding band. The Kalanoro apparently loved hoarding shiny things.
On the ground a few feet ahead of me, I spotted something particularly sparkly. It looked like stars, shimmering and glowing from a puddle on the floor. By now I had to crawl on my knees, since the ceiling was so low.
As I reached for those stars, a Kalanoro leapt out from the darkness. Its rows of teeth dug painfully into my right arm, and I beat it back with my asp baton. It took three hits before it finally let go and ran off screaming.
I grabbed at the stars, picking up a satiny fabric. The way it glimmered, it looked exactly like the night sky, and I now understood what Odin meant by looking "like the heavens." This had to be the Valhallan cloak. I hurriedly shoved it into my gear bag. The Kalanoro couldn't be happy about me stealing their treasure, so I had to get out fast.
I raced out of the cave and gulped down the fresh air. Around me, the trees had changed their tune, from the normal song of the jungle to something far more shrill and angry. I could hear the Kalanoro growling and screeching at each other, sounding like high-pitched howler monkeys. They were enraged, and they were chasing after me.
It was a ten-kilometer hike downhill, through thick forests, to the nearest village. There I would be able to clean up and catch the hyperbus back to Caana City. Back to meet Odin. The Kalanoro were now alerting the entire jungle to my presence, and even as I hurried ahead, deftly moving through the trees, I could hear them following me.
I ran down the hill, skittering through the mud and branches, swatting back giant bugs and the occasional surprised snake. My legs ached and my lungs burned but I pressed on, running as fast as I could. I had to make it to the town before dark, because I doubted the Kalanoro would let me out alive.CHAPTER 3
The sign above the driver on the hyperbus read AFORO MÁXIMO 100 PERSONAS, but there had to be at least twice as many people cramped on the old bus as it lumbered through Central America. A hyperbus was like a regular bus except slightly larger, and it hovered, so it could go much faster than a regular bus, especially through the uneven, wild terrain here.
Since this one serviced primarily rural areas, its passengers included humans, immortals, more than a few chickens, and even a very pregnant goat. For the first three hours of my journey I was forced to stand, holding on to the grip bar and squished between a woman and large Cambion.
There were fewer immortals here than there were back in the city, which was a great big melting pot, with people and beings from all over the world living side by side. Nearer to the Gates of Kurnugia the population was ostensibly diverse and overwhelmingly supernatural. But out here there weren't many immortals that weren't indigenous to the area.
The Kalanoro themselves had been an exception. They'd actually become somewhat of an invasive species after being brought over on a boat from Madagascar, and if it weren't for the native Chupacabra and jaguars, they could have devastated the Panamanian rain forests.
Because of this, and other stories about humans and immortals like this, locals around here tended to distrust outsiders. For once, that worked in my favor, since they gave me a bit of a wider berth than they did for everyone else, which meant I had an extra inch or so to breathe.
Eventually I managed to get a window seat all to myself. I rested my head on the window and clung to my gear bag on my lap. It contained my one chance at stopping the underworld uprising and getting Asher back.
If there even was an Asher to still get back.
I'd been trying not to think about it, but the bus ride was too long, with nothing to keep my mind busy except the blur of the rain forest as we sped by it. I closed my eyes, willing the exhaustion of the last few days to overtake me, and finally, thankfully, I fell asleep.
My dreams were filled with images of a cloak made of the stars. I wrapped it tightly around me, but it couldn't keep the cold out. There was something chasing after me, but I could never quite see it, and I knew that I could never get away from it.
I awoke with a start, gasping, and immediately put my hand to my chest, over my heart. My seatmate — who had apparently joined me while I was sleeping — glanced over at me.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "From the Earth to the Shadows"
Copyright © 2018 Amanda Hocking.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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