The man fled down the steep slope of the jungle mountain. His boots slipped in the muck of wet leaves and slick mud. Clinging branches and snagging thorns sought to catch him, but he ripped straight through them.
Must not stop…
As he reached a sharp switchback in the trail, he fought to keep from tumbling headlong over the cliff that bordered the path. He swung an arm out to catch his balance and skidded in the mud around the turn. His other hand clutched the paper-wrapped parcel to his chest. Despite the near fall, he sped faster. He glanced back over his shoulder.
Fires still raged atop the mountain’s summit.
The natives called the place Montaña de Huesos.
The Mountain of Bones.
It was a cursed place, shunned by all. The peak rose from the dark emerald jungles of the Yucatán Peninsula, where Mexico bordered its southern neighbor of Belize. Swamps and deep pitfalls challenged all who dared approach it, while mosquitoes and biting flies plagued anything that moved. Thick forests and vines crusted over the mountain in an impenetrable mass, hiding its true heart from prying eyes. The peak overlooked a lake where crocodiles floated like broken logs. From its forest canopy, gray monkeys with white faces stared down, strangely silent, like small ghosts of old men. Elsewhere, shadowy jaguars prowled its deepest glades. When it rained, which was often, waterfalls and cataracts flowed down the mountain’s sides like molten silver.
It was a sight to behold.
But a rare one.
Few people had ever set eyes on the giant mountain; even fewer had ever walked its slopes. And only one man knew its secret.
He had learned the truth.
The Mountain of Bones…was no mountain.
Clutching his package, the man hurried down the dark jungle path. The ghostly monkeys barked softly at his limping passage as if encouraging him to run faster. The stub of a broken arrow stuck out of his thigh. Fiery agony lanced through his leg with every other step, but he had to keep going. The hunters were closing tightly around him.
His name was Henry Bethel.
Dr. Henry Bethel.
Professor of archaeology at Oxford University.
He and his dearest colleagues, Penelope and Richard Ransom, had spent the last three months of the rainy season excavating the top of the Mountain of Bones. They had uncovered a tremendous cache of pristine artifacts: a silver jaguar mask, a crown of jade and opal, small carvings of onyx and malachite, a twisted golden snake with two heads, and many other priceless objects from the Classic period of the Mayan civilization.
They had found the items in a stone tomb atop the mountain. Even as he fled now, Henry remembered Penelope Ransom being lowered on a rope into the tomb for the first time. Her flashlight’s glow had illuminated the subterranean crypt and the giant sarcophagus it held inside. Atop the coffin’s carved limestone lid, the most magnificent artifact rested: a two-foot-tall gold pyramid, topped by a chunk of jade carved into a curled snake with outstretched wings—like a dragon. The sculpture depicted a creature out of legend.
The feathered dragon god of the Maya.
The tomb was the discovery of a lifetime.
And word had quickly spread.
Drawn by the rumors of gold and treasure, the bandits had attacked two hours ago, as the sun sank. Under the cover of twilight, the archaeological camp had been quickly subdued by rifles, machetes, and barked threats. When the attack had first started, Henry had rushed to the Ransoms’ tent, only to find it empty. He didn’t know what had happened to Penelope and Richard.
He still didn’t.
All he knew was he had to get the package to safety.
The Ransoms had left specific instructions.
He risked another glance up. He could no longer see the flames from the burning camp. The attackers had torched the entire site, even blowing up the petrol tank to the generator.
The crack of a rifle shot echoed down from the summit.
Startled, Henry flinched, and his left boot heel slipped. His legs went out from under him. He struck his backside hard and began a treacherous slide down the remainder of the mountain’s steep slope.
He dug his heels, but the muddy ground proved too slippery from the day’s rain. Wet palm fronds slapped his face, and half-buried rocks pounded his spine. A branch of a thorny bush tore a fiery path across his cheek.
Still, he hugged the parcel tightly to his chest.
The mountain’s slope suddenly ended, and Henry shot off the edge. He went airborne with a small cry of surprise. Plummeting feetfirst, he splashed into a small murky pool at the foot of the mountain. It was shallow, waist deep. His boots struck the pond’s sandy bottom and jarred his teeth together with a loud clack. Still, he kept hold of the package. He lifted it above his head to keep it dry.
Just a little farther…
The lake and boat lay only a half mile away.
He took a deep breath and attempted to slog out of the pool—but his legs refused to obey. His boots were trapped in the muddy bottom of the pool, sunk to the ankles. He twisted and yanked, but the sucking muck held him in an inescapable grip. His efforts only wormed his legs even deeper. He felt the mud and sand climb up past his calves to his knees.
The level of the water quickly rose up his chest. The chill of the pool sank to his bones. He knew the danger he had fallen into.
He clutched the package above his head. What to do? Tears of frustration and fear misted his sight. In that moment, the rational part of his brain dropped away, replaced by raw terror.
Henry stared up at the cursed mountain.
Montaña de Huesos.
The Mountain of Bones.
And now his bones would join all the others.
He had failed the Ransoms.
With Penelope and Richard vanished, no one else knew the truth. He watched the moon climb over the sharp edge of the mountain. He shivered at the sight, and even this small motion hurried his descent into the quicksand. Mud climbed to his waist, the water to his neck.
The secret would die with him.
Sensing his doom, he craned up at the mountain.
A mountain that was no mountain.
From his deadly vantage, the truth seemed so obvious now. The sharp lines, the steep slopes, the blunted summit. Though the mountain appeared to be some natural hill, he knew the ages had buried its true heart under centuries of mud, leaf, vine, and snaking roots.
In his mind’s eye, Henry peeled and stripped the piles and tangles away to reveal the hidden heart. He pictured the four sides, the nine giant steps, and the flat summit thrust up toward the rising sun.
A Mayan pyramid.
The ancient structure lay buried within the false mountain.