Adam Novus Chronicles Book 1 - The Death Curse (Sample)


 I was always good at killing.

 That is not something one should normally brag about, but it is just an undeniable fact, a gift if you will.

 I usually don’t even think about such things, as these moments of deep introspection bums the hell out of me—every single time. Although, I am right now standing above a dead body, with a knife in my hand, and yes, those are drops of blood falling from the tip of the blade. Therefore, thoughts related to contemplation on one’s existential nature are not so strange in these kinds of situations.

 If a cop saw me now, no explanation, no matter how creative, could possibly justify this scene in some positive light. I cannot imagine him not pulling out his gun and arresting me on the spot for murder, or more likely, considering this neighborhood—putting a bullet in my head, just to be on the safe side. Then again, technically, I would be guilty as charged, since the dead guy was very much alive a few minutes ago. That is, before I struck the knife through his heart. A thing like that tends to completely ruin your day.

 In my defense, he had it coming; seriously, he was way too rude and uncompromising. I did ask him nicely not to sell any more drugs to school kids, I even said please. Punk’s response was to pull a gun on me, holding it sideways… which makes no sense whatsoever. The idiot did not even unlock the safety; it just goes to show how our educational system had failed him. As my grandfather used to say, never pull a gun unless you intend to use it, and I always listened to my grandfather; he was a wise man. Anyway, a few seconds after our unproductive conversation, there was one less drug dealer in this world.

 One may think about the entire situation as a civil service on my part, something similar to a citizen's arrest, only this was a citizen's… execution? No matter how you look at it—you are welcome.

 I gazed into his eyes as his soul left his body and felt that familiar rush of energy infusing me, making me stronger. I know I shouldn't, but part of me grew to like that feeling, it is the ultimate rush. As a side benefit—it is keeping me alive.

 All the shrinks agree that there should be some feeling of guilt when you kill; permanently ending one's existence in this world. On the other hand, how many shrinks are experienced killers? I had my share of them in obligatory after-mission sessions while I was in the military. If you are simply repeating what you read in some school books, then that does not really make you an expert on a subject, more of a very intelligent parrot.

 Everyone's reaction to the same set of circumstances differentiates to a certain degree, so what may be a traumatic event for one person, can at the same time be inconsequential for another. Shrinks—what a crazy bunch of people. A couple of beers will get you better results with a friendly and perceptive bartender and will cost you a hell of a lot less.

 I don't feel any guilt about killing, not anymore. Maybe I did in the beginning when I was still in the regular army. There was an adjustment period when you were still burdened by the fact that you just took the life of someone’s son, a brother, a husband. Combat quickly teaches you not to think about such things; a moment of hesitation could be the death of you or your men. Since I've been on my own, ending lives has become a frequent occurrence, I’ve grown anesthetized to it. Besides, one way or another—everybody dies. Well, everybody except me… but I’ll get to that later.

 No, I am not a sociopath, but I will have to take the fifth on a serial killer charge… it's complicated. They all had it coming, innocents never suffer my judgment, and I am extremely particular about that.

 Human, vampire, Were, or a witch, I don’t care, far from me to be a racist. If I am coming for you, there is a good reason for it. Trust me when I say that you deserved it somehow.

 I want to make one point clear, not all those stories going around about me being a monster are true, at least I never saw myself as such. Just because vampires and Weres are generally afraid of me, is not a good reason for villainous labeling.

 OK, I may have drained the soul of a high-ranking vampire before his entire clan, but he was being a jerk and attacked me first. Let me state that I have nothing against vampires, my best friend is one. So there—entirely circumstantial. Also, the chairman of the NYC ‘Were-Council’… he too attacked me first. I’ll admit, he was understandably upset over me killing his son a day earlier, but he didn't have to go all big bad wolf on me. In my opinion, his death was totally justified, as was his son’s. Again, nothing against Weres, my secretary happens to be a werecat.

 To be honest, I wish I didn’t have to kill, my dream is to buy myself a cabin somewhere in the mountains and enjoy the solitude. Somehow, I do not see that life ever being possible, not with the cards I've been dealt.

 You see, I have this curse hanging over my head, and it’s a nasty one; I would go even so far to say it’s one of a kind. There isn't so much as a mention of anything similar in all the secret histories my friend Julius has collected over the centuries, and he happens to be a half-demon librarian of the supernatural world.

 For all intents and purposes… I’m pretty much screwed.

 I will always remember my Gramps telling me, “Adam, life will always throw obstacles in your path; you need to persevere and deal with them.” However, not once did he imply that they could be the size of god-damned mountains.

 So, let me explain myself, how I became what I am. The events that led me to be in this dark alley, with the body of a punk I just killed, lying dead at my feet.


Chapter 1

 Everything changed on that last mission; it went FUBAR so fast in the end, I don't know what I could have done differently to change the outcome. OK, that's a lie. Pig-headed stubbornness and a desire to settle a score—were my ultimate downfall. I could have called in sick, or gone AWOL in the jungle at any time. I had the skills to disappear so no one could have ever found me. But I didn't, and as they say—hindsight is 20/20.

 I'm getting ahead of myself, which is undoubtedly one of my many flaws. So let's start at the beginning, with a short summary of where I came from. Just to give you a sense of perspective.

 My childhood was an ordinary one, nothing exceptional about it, certainly nothing to indicate what I would one day turn into. Growing up on a small rural farm, raised by my grandfather who was my pillar of stability.

 I had to give it to the old man, he did his best under very difficult circumstances. Widowed in his 20's and left with a small daughter to raise; a few decades later, having to suffer through her death while she was giving birth to me. The male donor of my genetic material was some jerk that split as soon as he heard that he was to be a father.

 In spite of everything, Gramps was there. Having to raise another child by himself and doing it stoically as he did everything else in his life. He taught me how to be a man, and what I needed to survive in this harsh and unforgiving world. I think I was around six years old when he first showed me how to fire a gun and to butcher my kill. Good times.

 He was one of those salt of the earth type of people, I could trust his word as written law, and depend on him for anything. He made a solid foundation for the person I would ultimately become, but even he would be surprised at most of it, although he always encouraged me to push forward. That was the reason I managed to get my high school diploma by the age of fifteen.

 “Always do your best Adam, you may not succeed every single time, but you will have no regrets, always do your best.” That was one of his most repeated bits of advice; I guess it stuck with me.

 The farm life was not bad, even if we were struggling to keep it afloat. There was something comforting in the thought that you have responsibilities that needed to be done every day, and when you are young, that gives you a sense of stability... until it doesn't.

 I found Gramps in his bed one summer morning, cold and dead. I knelt by his bed, crying for the loss of my only family and knowing that I was left all alone in this world. The only stability I had was gone with his last breath, and I knew the real world outside this safe haven he made for us, was like a jungle, inhabited by wild beasts in human form.

 Things got worse after that. His body was barely in the ground, when the representative of our bank came knocking. I suspected we were in debt, but I guess the old man didn't want to worry me by saying how much. I knew what was coming, several of our neighbors suffered the same fate; the Bank waited no time to repossess the farm. Before long, I was informed by one of the sheriff’s deputies that child protective services will soon be taking me away. I did the only thing my mind could think of; faking my age as I was still sixteen at the time—I enlisted.

 That recruiter likely knew that I was lying; the fake ID I bought with my savings wasn’t all that good. Nevertheless, he let it slide; with six feet of height and a mountain of muscles from all that farm work, I looked much older than I really was. Besides, he did have a quota he needed to fill.

 The Army and I were like two peas in the pod, we just clicked. The boot camp that everyone was complaining about was easy for me; all those years of hard work prepared me for what was supposedly strenuous physical activity. And the weapons, oh, the weapons were so cool. We got to try so many of them, and I was loving every minute of it. The feel of that cold steel in my hands came as the most natural thing, a match made in heaven.

 The one thing that I truly excelled in was unarmed combat; I soaked everything instructors had to teach like a sponge. Every move they taught, I could soon perfectly repeat; it wasn't long before I could even beat my instructors most of the time. In a few competitions they sent me, I always took first place; maybe that’s how they noticed me. A year after my enlisting I was summoned to the commander's office.

 A full bird colonel was waiting for me there, with a smile on his face and an offer that looked too good to be true. He said that I could transfer to a new special unit, one that only takes the best of the best, and that they had their eye on me for some time. He had a whole speech about patriotic duty, serving my country, and how I could save many lives. He was as good as any recruiting officer out there, knowing exactly which emotional triggers to push. Naturally, being young and dumb I swallowed it bait, hook, line, and sinker … what an idiot.

 If only I told him to go and pound sand, my life would be different now, probably on the side of normal, but that is just wishful thinking.

 The new unit I transferred into was as weird as they can get; there was no official name, only a bunch of acronyms with random numbers. Basically—blackest of the black, and part of an experimental program that was off the books. And what they had me doing for the first year and a half? Train… eighteen months of extensive training. Boot camp was a walk in the park compared to this.

 Unarmed combat included almost all martial arts known to men, and instructors were old masters, brought from all over the world for the specific reason to make us into better killers. The attrition rate was insane, one in ten managed to continue past the first six months. Those that washed out mainly got disability pensions, our fights were as real as they could get. We needed to familiarize ourselves with every weapon, from old swords to sniper rifles, and learn different languages, enough to get by essentially. History lessons, tactics, assassination techniques, the list went on and on. I don't think I had a full night’s sleep for that entire time, there was no time off, or a leave. One of the facts we realized early on was that not one of us had any families outside, no connection to the rest of the world. We jokingly called ourselves the orphans.

 The eighteen months training ended and only fifteen of us remained, still young and cocky; we were the masters of the universe, so sure in our own superiority that nothing was impossible. Finally, the missions and assignments started, and they were brutal.

 Darfur, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, wherever our country was involved with, we were there. Executing the toughest assignments, where it was deemed too dangerous to send the regular army, due to the projected casualty percentages. But we weren't fighting a conventional war, we were there for asymmetrical warfare, assassinating leaders and commanders, making surgical strikes at the most vulnerable positions. Then something changed, we were being sent out on missions in countries that officially had no beef with us. Not that we minded, drug lords and terrorist leaders were as good targets as any other were.

 We pushed on and on, year after year; nothing else mattered except the next mission. We could only loosely be called a unit anymore as most missions were done solo. Sometimes it would be months before we would see each other. My exceptional skill at ending lives was refined even more. In the pauses between missions, I was sent to additional courses that were not in any curriculum where sane people were involved.

 For example, one of the mandatory courses I had to take was with this older English gentleman, which I swear was a spy, as in the James Bond type of guy. He never admitted it of course, but that was my take on him. Well, what would you call a sophisticated man in a three-piece suit that teaches tradecraft? That was his name for a particular set of skills he was trying to impart on me.

 For a few months, he instructed me one-on-one, lessons about situational awareness in civilian crowds, inconspicuous observation techniques, and how to spot if someone was following you. He had a dozen ways to sharpen one’s detection skills, and there were constant tests. He gives you a photograph for five seconds and then asks you to describe how many people looked directly at the camera and how many didn't. What they were wearing, an emotional state that could be discerned… things like that. We went on field trips to urban environments, constantly observing people and talking about little details one usually does not even notice, especially things that were out of place. It is surprising how much you can learn about people if you just pay attention.

 It was one of the most mentally challenging training I had ever gone through; every minute was a brain puzzle, being on your toes every waking moment. It worked; ever since then, I always looked at things with a discerning eye, and that skill saved my bacon more than a few times. (Except in the end… when it mattered the most.)

 I instinctively knew where to hit, the weak points to bring death in the most expedient manner. We have not kept an officially confirmed kill count; that would have been too alarming for some of our pacifistic inclined higher-ups, but I knew it was a large number, a disturbing number.

 I guess there was a bit of insanity mixed into it all, the rush of a dangerous situation, adrenaline spikes, but in the end, we were only human, and exposing oneself to such risks took its toll. We never got any new recruits, the program ended with our group. I think it wasn't all that cost-efficient; after six years of active duty, only five of us remained in the unit. A few got out on disability, but the others bought it in the field. The countless scars on our bodies were a testament to how unhealthy our way of life was.

 That was one of the reasons I wanted out, I couldn't bear any more funerals; the dead ones are like a missing tooth, you can't stop poking at the memory of them.

 Simply put, I was burned out with this kind of life; it’s a small wonder that it didn't happen a lot sooner.

 There was one more thing that I never shared with the shrinks during mission debriefings. (Since I knew they would grab onto it like a dog on a juicy bone.) You see, sometimes I liked it... yes, I mean the killings, the ending of life, and all euphemisms invented to describe that singularly brutal act. It was during those times when the mark was a particularly vile human being. I am talking about mass murderers, tin-pot dictators that considered all-out slaughter and rape as their God-given right. Those times I didn't make it fast and painless, I made them suffer. Which is not a simple thing to do—killing quickly is much easier.

 Maybe it was wrong of me, but I couldn't help myself. It was my way to pay respect to all their victims, a few moments when their spirits could lay claim on the revenge they so rightfully deserved.

 Let me let you in on a little secret… everyone dies the same. I don't care how brutal and merciless you have been during your life, how many men listened to your every word as gospel. In those last moments, everyone begs and asks for mercy. Those that don't deserve a speck of it—they beg the most.

 One would think that religious fanatics would stay firm on their path of supposed righteousness, but they don't. It’s the pain that does it, always the pain. It’s easy to profess a willingness to give your life for the cause, and to do it if you are a suicide bomber. It is fast, done in an instant. But when you incorporate a great amount of pain… everyone begs for mercy… even if it is only to end the pain.

 Does that make me a monster? A person in need of a padded cell and plenty of happy pills? I don't think so, at least in my humble opinion. However, it definitely does not make me normal, I know that much.

 Therefore, I sent my request up the chain of command and it was approved; in retrospect, that may have been a mistake.

 I was a bit naive to think I could simply quit this line of work like an ordinary soldier.


Chapter 2

 Colonel Bill Becker was my unit commander, but in truth, more of a handler. He gave assignments and took care of necessary intelligence. Although, there is something to be said about the maxim which states that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms, he never seemed that bright to me. A career officer and a full bird colonel, but I never truly took a shine to him, and I had a good reason. The SOB was the very one who sold me on this new and exciting life. He was adequate at doing his job, except, his deference and blind obedience to those above him was a thing I particularly disliked.

 “Adam, I know you want to get out, but I need you to go on this mission. You are the best we have at hand, and it is time-critical. And you only need to act as a guide to a group of mercs for a few weeks on a recon mission; it’s a walk in a park. After that, you can join the teeming masses of civilians.”

 That was the moment I could have changed my fate. It would have been so easy to say no. At the time, I even believed that there would be no serious repercussions if I did. We were not regular soldiers and had a fair amount of say on the missions we took. I planned to go to college on the military dime, and see if that sort of life would suit me. In the back of my mind was an idea to buy back my Gramps farm, just to have something to call home, somewhere familiar. Things didn't work out that way.

 “Bill, I’m done. I already packed my bags. Get someone else to be a babysitter to a bunch of wannabes,” I replied, not wanting to spend a week in a freaking Amazon jungle. I’ve been there before, and I was not a fan.

 He actually sighed, like a teenage girl.

 “The General would consider it a personal favor if you do this, he told me so himself. As soon as you return all your paperwork will be expedited, and we will throw in a nice bonus as a parting gift. Besides, it will take time to set up a new civilian identity for you.”

 The mention of the paperwork was his way of reminding me that the General could make my discharge as hard as could be. He could order a few months of security debriefings and report writing, I had seen it happen before. A thing I wanted to avoid at all costs.

 Furthermore, they needed to create a bogus identity for me, a cover story. Most of what we did was in no way official, and would never be released under the Freedom of Information Act, not in a million years. So one of the perks we received after finishing our service was an option of a completely new identity or a fake, but meticulous work history, so that the things we did would not come back to haunt us in the future.

 I assume it is inconvenient to put ‘TOP SECRET CLEARANCE NEEDED in your civilian CV. And I sure didn’t want to work anymore in any field that involved war and organized murder. I wanted a normal, boring, and untroubled life… man, what a delusional sucker I was.

 That is why I decided to say yes; I mean, he said it would be a walk in the park… right?

 “Damn it… fine Bill, but you better make that bonus substantial, since I don’t like the Amazon and I have a feeling this is going to be the most boring mission of my career.”

 The bonuses were Special Pay for hazardous duty, the General’s way of saying attaboy, a reward for a job well done. The amounts were higher than usual, but we were far from a normal outfit. And I didn't spend much of that money over the years, that frugality ensured me a nice nest egg to cushion my transition into civilian life.

 The General was in charge of this entire circus. He was always referred to as The General; we knew that surname Smith he used was as fake as a three-dollar bill. A shadowy figure that I met only a few times for all the years I was part of the unit. To Bill, he was something of a god. The running joke was that Bill was the General's mouthpiece or a string puppet, and that he always carried a roll of TP with him, in case General’s ass ever needed to be wiped.

 So that’s how I was shanghaied to go into that godforsaken jungle, a place where I would spend a hell of a long time in.


 Colombia, Leticia Airport (The Amazon Rainforest)

 I arrived at the small city of Leticia in southern Colombia a day early. It was a smart thing to do, so I could be rested before going deeper into the Green Hell, or the Amazon jungle for those that had never visited such a charming locale. I just had time for a few beers at the local taberna before hitting the sack in a small run-down hotel. FYI, the most important words in the entire Spanish language are: "Una cerveza, por favor." Trust me, they carry magic in them, and can save your life from dehydration. What passed for potable water in these parts was a sure recipe for an unpleasant bout of dysentery.

 I limited myself to just two beers; more than that and I would have to deal with a hangover in the morning. These were locally brewed beers with alcohol content much higher than what I was used to back home, or in most places around the globe.

 I woke up feeling fresh, early in the morning, and soon was waiting at a small, out-of-the-way airport, for the mercs to arrive.

 From the start, I could smell something fishy; nothing was following the established forms. I was supposed to accompany them into the Amazon, allegedly because of my knowledge of surviving in such a terrain. Which was true, some extensive missions in my past took me to similar places.

 Now, I was always a loner, making friends never was easy for me. Nonetheless, this group of mercenaries was downright hostile from the start; the looks they gave to me were condescending and cold. I understand that I was an outsider to them, the third wheel in their cohesive team, but still… it feels shitty to be treated that way. Not that I would ever admit that, hell, it was only for a few weeks and then I was out for good, free to live a normal, pedestrian life.

 There were twenty of them, and they did not look anything like intelligence specialists, I was getting more of that death squad kind of vibe. The fact we were using outside contractors was not even that unusual. Especially if the bean counters decided that it would be more cost-effective; besides, there is that thing about plausible deniability, if things go pear-shaped.

 “Are you Adam?”

The one who carried the veil of authority asked me, as I approached his merry troop, as soon as they disembarked from the army plane.

“Yep, that's me—”

“I’m in charge of this mission; you may refer to me as Captain Jenkins. We lift off in ten.”

 That is all he said, no “Hi, nice to meet you,” or even a handshake. His brisk manner was not that unusual for these kinds of outfits, but some basic human courtesy would have been appreciated.

 At least they did look the part of a mercenary outfit, in their green camo BDUs, and loaded for bear. To me, it looked as if they were overcompensating for something, and if they were a little nicer, I would have told them to ditch at least half of their equipment.

I was carrying only the basic necessities, things I couldn't do without. Trying to go through all that foliage while carrying half of your weight gets old in no time. As Gramps said, “You make the bed you lie in.

 We were carried by choppers, some two hundred fifty miles away from the airport, right on the edge of their operational distance. Then the pilot, who was nervously looking at the fuel gauge, unloaded us on a rare clearing in the dense green canopy. By my calculation, it would take us two weeks to reach the destination, which was some forty miles away. The fairytale Bill sold me on that I would be done in a few weeks was so much bull. I would be happy if we were back in a month.

 Crossing that distance in fourteen days seems rather slow, but the terrain was not for those faint of heart. The jungle has a lot to offer in a way of obstacles: dense trees, predators, frequent rains, tangling vines, watercourses, and it’s often necessary to hike long distances around obstacles to regain the original path and direction. Under that tree canopy is a dark and gloomy atmosphere, damp and hot. LifeStraws and salt tablets are a must, and the equipment needs to be properly preserved, dampness gets into everything. If you ever get invited to a place where aloe vera and anti-fungal creams are necessary, or a mosquito net, machete, and rain poncho—just say no.

At night, one has the pleasure to get up close and personal with a variety of creepy-crawlies that personally wanted to show you the entire biodiversity nature is capable of.

 We started our trip through the jungle, with the help of GPS and accurate maps; there was a marked path we needed to take. However, these maps did not include those obstacles only visible from the ground. I was on point, while the entire group behind me bitched and moaned at what seemed to me as a good rate of progress.

 We traveled almost five miles the first day and were all dead tired by the time the captain decided to set up a camp.

“You OK there Cap'n?” I asked our esteemed leader, who was sweating like an unchaste woman in a church. “We pushed hard today, but tomorrow we should slow down our pace, or soon the exhaustion will start affecting the efficiency of your men.”

 He gave me one of those looks you usually reserve for something that needs to be scraped from one’s boot.

“I am not Cap'n, you will use Captain Jenkins when you speak to me. There is only one job you were hired to do, and that is to lead us to our destination as soon as possible. If I need any advice from you, I will ask for it.”

 Then he turned his back to me, clearly dismissing me as a nuisance.

 OK… he certainly put me in my place, and there was no more doubt where I belonged in the hierarchy of this expedition. Maybe he was a firm believer in the saying that “Familiarity brings contempt,” although he had nothing to worry about, my contempt towards him was growing by the hour. The quote from one of my favorite movies says that ‘If you can't spot the sucker in your first half-hour at the table, then you are the sucker.’ I didn't need to be a clairvoyant or even particularly perceptive to realize he truly didn't want me here, for some reason.

 The following days of the same slow picturesque walk didn't improve our relations one little bit. I still felt as an uninvited guest, and it did not make any sense. For God’s sake, I was all but blackmailed to go on this mission, so why all the negativity towards me? Well, I wasn't about to ask them, but I did find out soon enough.

 We started following the river and using game trails greatly increased our speed, but that was relatively speaking. Did I mention that I don't particularly like the jungle? It leaves much to be desired, especially if you prefer to be somewhat clean and doing number two on a porcelain throne. There are about a few thousand mosquitoes per square foot (at least that is my take on their numbers) and each one of them wants few drops of your blood. It adds up over time. The only respite you get is at night under the mosquito net, but there are other bloodsuckers that take their place, and they always find a way in.

 On the evening of the thirteenth day, we made camp in a small clearing that allowed us to see a patch of the sky. Tomorrow we should be close to the destination, so Jenkins can do what he came for, and we can be on the way back. I was still held in the dark about the real reason for this mission. The reconnaissance story simply didn't fit.

 That night was one of the great revelations to me, and until then, one of the most disturbing in my life.


 For some reason, I couldn't go to sleep, which was unusual for me. Every hour of rest is precious in my line of work. Still, something was bothering me, a vague feeling that things were not right. Or maybe I was getting to my limit of being treated like a piece of dirt by my companions. So I sneaked out of my tent and went for a walk in the woods. Not far, just around the perimeter from the camp and a small campfire that a few guards kept going.

 Even with all its biota difficulties one needs to overcome, there is something beautiful and invigorating about the jungle at night. Maybe it is a possibility that some predator is watching you and is waiting to pounce. It sure keeps your heart beating faster. As a bonus, I could refresh some skills of moving quietly in difficult terrain. My Navajo instructor would be proud of me. I hated that guy with a passion, he used to punish our mistakes with a willow switch that he liberally used on our poor feet whenever we made a sound.

 I was returning to my tent when I heard two guards quietly talking, and decided to eavesdrop on them. Not expecting to discover something new, but just for the hell of it. Coming close to them was all too easy, not that they were paying any attention to their surroundings.

 “Man, I can't wait to get paid for this job. You got to admit that twenty large ones for a simple retrieval mission is a sweet deal.”

 “Don't forget about the G.I. Joe there,” the other guard said and pointed in the direction of my tent; it was set a bit away from the others.

 “Yeah… well, it still is a sweet job. When do we part with him?” The first one asked.

 “First, we need to retrieve the artifact, and then let him get us out of this hell. When we can see the extraction point, he gets his reward—a piece of lead in the back of his head, the poor sucker. But the General gave explicit orders that he was not to leave this jungle alive.” The second guard quietly answered, shaking his head.

 I froze, not moving a single muscle. So this is how being stabbed in the back feels like. One of those things that make you stop breathing for a few seconds.

Don't get me wrong, I was not that idealistic boy that joined up, not anymore. I have done many things to strip any veneer of what we were doing from my eyes. Nevertheless, I still believed that ultimately, we were the good guys, the one that makes overall peace possible. I guess the bonus Bill talked about was that bullet meant to silence me forever… son of a bitch. I’ll bet everything I own that he knew exactly what the General’s orders were before he convinced me to go on this mission.

 At least that explained the negative attitude towards me. You don't want to get too close to your mark; treating them as something less than human helps a lot when the decisive moment comes. It was easier to keep their distance, to create an emotional barrier. For crying out loud, they saw me as a dead man walking, that is exactly why I was getting the cold shoulder treatment.

 The guards continued talking about unimportant things after that, and I slowly retraced my steps and sneaked into my tent.

 So… what to do now? The most logical option was to slip into the Jungle and find my way back to civilization. It would not be easy without the helicopter to shorten the trip, but considering all the skills I acquired during my career—doable. On the other hand, every tie with my previous life needed to be severed—completely. If I left any trace, they would have chased me down, like a dog. I wouldn’t dare to touch my bank accounts, and that sucked big time.

 The General knew how to play the game, and he decided that I needed to be dealt with. The only reason I could think of was the knowledge of some questionable missions that he sent us on. I guess it is true what they say, dead men tell no tales. No wonder I could never get in touch with the few members of our unit that retired. The story about getting new identities was probably bogus; they were retired all right—permanently.

 Hell, he could send one of my teammates to take me out. All he needed was to fabricate some cockamamie story about how I had gone rogue and killed a bunch of innocents.

 Despite all the disadvantages, I should have done that, cut my losses and disappeared… but I didn't.

 I felt betrayed, wronged on a deep level. After everything I’ve done, everything I suffered… to be discarded like this, to be made into a mark as the ones we went after.

 That would just not do.

 They said something about an artifact, so there was a legitimate reason for this mysterious mission. If they were getting twenty thousand dollars per person, it must be worth some serious money, and I will need a lot to disappear from the radar. My plan was to play along until I took it out of their (and General’s) hands.

 Admittedly, there was a considerable amount of satisfaction I would get for sticking it to the man. It's not as if they planned to kill me immediately, there was a window of opportunity here. After that, I will sneak out in the middle of the night and proceed on my own.

 With that thought and the plan firmly set, I fell into the sleep of the righteous. The last time in my life I would be able to do that as a normal human being.


Chapter 3

 The next morning started normally; well, what can be considered normal for the Amazon jungle. Howler monkeys were doing their thing and numerous birds were making an unholy noise. Luckily, there was an army of insects to keep us occupied. I did everything like the day before; not to do so would’ve made my would-be executioners’ highly suspicious. We continued the trek to the location on the map. By my calculations, we would reach it by the end of the day, and I would finally see what the hell we were doing this deep in the Amazon Jungle.

 “Are we getting close to the site?” The captain asked me some time later. The same damned question, just with different words, for the fifth bloody time today, dissatisfied with the rate of our progress. He was like an annoying kid, sick of the car ride.

 “We should be there in an hour,” I replied without even consulting the map, simply subtracting from the time I told him two hours ago.

 He absent-mindedly nodded, slapping his shoulder and making a red stain out of a mosquito, filled to the brim with his blood. My advice that he should rub a paste I made from pulped Arrieras Ants on his skin, was met with considerable disdain, and his men followed his example. It was an ancient native technique I picked up on one of my earlier missions, and it worked like a charm. Whatever chemical bug repellent they were using was failing to do as advertised, or was simply wrong for this environment. It gave me great pleasure to see them all slapping themselves silly while small bloodsuckers were avoiding little old me in a wide circle.

 Finally, after fourteen days of trekking through the jungle, we arrived at the coordinates marked on the map.

 There was no terrorist camp, as that weasel Bill vaguely implied, and I wasn't expecting one. However, there was a structure at the exact coordinates I was provided when we set on this jungle walkabout. It looked positively ancient, and if you stood a dozen feet away from it, it appeared as nothing more than just another rock formation jutting from the jungle floor. But up close, one could see distinctive tool marks.

 “This is what we were looking for,” said Captain Jenkins, giving me one of his rare smiles. “We need to get inside,” he said, looking at his men.

 I had no intention to be left out and lose the prize; the only reason why I stayed with these people. And so I casually said, “I’ve been in a few similar old ruins; they are often packed with predators that made them their lairs, and a few species of poisonous spiders and snakes especially love such places. Don't forget the man-made traps, they are always the killer.” I stated, giving him the reason to take me along. I bet he had planned to leave me outside, to guard the jungle.

 He turned to me with a somewhat apprehensive look on his face, “Fine, you’ll lead, half of us will be your backup; the other half will stay outside to guard.”

 It was hard not to make a triumphant face, or show any sign of satisfaction. This was it; if things went according to my plan, I would be parting company with Jenkins and his men, the very same day. Hopefully, a lot richer with whatever was the objective of this mission.

 We went around the structure slowly; the trees had grown so close over time, obscuring it from view. This thing was massive, on an awe-inspiring scale. I could not imagine how old it was or what civilization made it, the stones were covered with lichen and moss, making it virtually invisible from the air. The fact that it was even discovered is a small miracle, despite its size.

 After another half an hour following its sides, we came across the one that had steps leading up the slope. Visibility was better here and I realized that the whole structure was, in fact, a pyramid, similar to Mayan pyramids I saw one time in Chichen Itza. Except, this one was too far from the Yucatan, where they were; it just didn't add up. Besides, the Temple of Kukulcan was puny compared to this monstrosity, and only the lowered terrain configuration made it so that it didn’t stick out in the air, above the green canopy.

 In theory, I knew that the jungle had many undiscovered mysteries. Who knows how many civilizations have risen and then fallen into obscurity here? The jungle hides all remains and the history of humanity is still mostly unknown. Archaeologists in these parts of the world are constantly finding new sensational discoveries that fill the newspapers for a few days until some politician is caught with a hand in a cookie jar, and then he takes over the headlines.

 Using machetes, we made passage up the steps, which didn't go all the way to the top. Somewhere in the middle of the slope, they stopped in front of big stone doors. They were worn by millennia of rains and storms and only a few vague figures and unfamiliar writings could be recognized on the surface. I could make out a few faces in deep agony, giving me a very troubling feeling. On top of that, the big stone slab didn't look so much as a door, but a seal; like someone really wanted this opening to stay closed.

 The captain turned to one of his men and ordered, “Blow it open.”

 The man opened his backpack and took out a square package that I recognized immediately. It was an olive-drab, Mylar-film-covered brick with a pressure-sensitive adhesive tape on one side, covering 1.25-pounds of C-4 plastic explosive.

 Years ago, my explosives instructor scientifically explained, “Once the blasting cap is inserted, Mr. C-4 is not our friend. If you are in close vicinity when he says boom, you are going to regret it.” Relying on those sage words, I started going down the steps, followed closely by Jenkins and the others.

 This did not sit well with me, the desecration of a structure that seemed older than Christ. People built it block by block, hauling stones from God knows where, and then spent countless hours carving the hard stone with primitive tools. Now we came, so-called civilized men, to blow it to smithereens with high explosives. It seemed so sacrilegious, a truly barbarian act. Not that I would try to stop what was about to happen since it wouldn't do any good to go against Jenkins and his merry bunch. I haven't forgotten (even for a second) that these people planned to blow my brains out the moment I stop being useful to them.

 I found a nice thick tree to hide behind and a few minutes later, a loud explosion broke the relative peace of the jungle. The sky filled with birds that had their daily rest so rudely interrupted; everywhere around us, animals started running in the opposite direction of the booming noise.

 When we returned to the opening, the stone slab was mostly gone and only a dark hole remained, surrounded by a few jagged edges. There was nothing to do except to enter it.

 With a deep breath, I made the first step, using a flashlight to light the interior. A long empty corridor covered with enough spiderwebs to give it that genuine spooky feel of horror movies. I had to stop and use a makeshift torch to burn my way through the lifelong effort of countless spider generations. Jenkins and his men followed me, keeping some ten feet of distance between us.

 After walking to the end of the corridor, there was a turn to the left and stone stairs that lead down. One set of stairs was not too bad, but if you are going down one set after another for half an hour, it can get a little boring. Go down twenty-five stairs, turn left or right, go down twenty-five more, do the same, until the last set of stairs ended at the beginning of a long corridor. I don’t think that it would be possible for the ancient builders to do all this if it wasn't for the fact that this was done in what appeared to be a natural cave system. There were clues on the walls that it was not all man-made; nature had her hand in creating these passages. The builders used them as a guide and tidied it up in some places. Oh, yeah, and then they built a freaking pyramid above it.

 By now, we were a long way from the surface, deep underground. Why the hell someone felt the need to build all this was unsettling. People generally try to bury things that present some sort of danger or to hide something valuable. I was OK with the second one, but the possibility of the first reason was making me anxious, considering I was first in line for any nasty surprise. So far, we didn't encounter any booby traps, but I looked for them all the time; there was no need to lose my life because Jenkins wanted me to hurry.

 The air had turned musty and more humid than in the jungle above. This corridor was a lot different than the one at the pyramid’s entrance; it had quite detailed and horrific scenes carved on its surface and they were perfectly preserved. I’ll say this, the artist had some issues that would require a long session with an army of therapists. These stone carvings were like looking at depictions of Hell, with countless acts of agony and torture. Almost every way a person can be killed was immortalized in the rock.

 After a few hundred feet, we could see a faint light at the end. That was surreal; light this deep underground was not even slightly expected. A few of the men started saying quiet prayers, freaked out of their minds with this place. I kept my cool, thinking about the prize that was waiting for me, and a way to give them all the slip.

 The sight that opened before us was beautiful and baffling. The corridor ended in an enormous cave; the end couldn't be seen with our flashlights, and the ceiling shone with a pale blue light. Looking closer, I could see thousands of small glow-worms producing bioluminescence and giving pale light that made the cave downright eerie.

 The thing that drew everyone's attention was a man-made stone platform that was connected with the tunnel by a long bridge made out of immense stone blocks. The platform was round and about one hundred fifty feet from one end to the other. All over the surface, odd symbols were carved into the rock, making concentric circles that grew smaller as they went from the edge to the center.

 But the most baffling thing was placed in the center of the platform. A small pyramid, some thirty feet high, and by my guess, an exact miniaturized replica of the one on the surface.

 “OK boys, this is what we came for,” Jenkins said in an upbeat voice. Clearly faking it, but doing his best to lift the morale of his people that were looking around as if we were about to enter the underworld. On the other hand, they were not that wrong; we were deep beneath the surface in a place that felt otherworldly.

 “What we came for should be on top of that pyramid,” he continued and motioned for me to lead the way.

The SOB probably hoped that I would meet my maker if there were some traps at the end; if I died right now, he would not have to waste a bullet blowing my brains out. Nonetheless, I was confident that I could spot anything suspicious and avoid one of the multiple ways to die, which were vividly going through my mind.

 There were these lumpy mounds of dust on the platform that didn't really make sense, not that anything did in this place.

 One by one, we cautiously went across the bridge and stood on the platform; the entire floor of the cave beneath it was covered by black and murky water.

 Up close, I could see that those mounds were no simple dust; human bones and skulls were mixed in… so many of them. Whatever happened here was long ago, but I swear I could still feel the death throes of these poor bastards.

 Then it happened, just as all of us stepped onto the platform, a bright light, like a wave, shone from the top of the pyramid. For all my confidence and faith in my observational skills, I walked right into whatever trap killed those that came before us.

 I couldn't move, every muscle in my body locked up.

 From the corner of my eyes, I could see that the others were in the same predicament. Frozen, we stood like statues, and the only thing crossing my mind was that I would end up as nothing more than another pile of dust in this godforsaken place.

 I should have split on that first night when I overheard what they were planning for me, but I didn't, and this was a consequence of a monumentally bad decision.

 My head started to hurt, more and more each second, blood pounding in my ears. There was this feeling of violation, as if someone else was in my mind, looking for something; inquisitively tossing my memories around, without any care or concern.

 This was so far out of my experience that I did not know what to think. I was never a believer in supernatural forces, yet the last few minutes were making me change that conviction.

 My entire life played inside my mind like it was a fast-forwarding movie. From childhood, through all the years in the service, and the most vivid were memories of all my kills and the reasons behind them. Each highlight was played in real-time, analyzed, and sometimes repeated multiple times.

 Suddenly, the feeling of this most private trespassing of my very soul stopped, and the last thing I felt was this strange sense of approval, right before I started to walk forward.

 To be specific, my body was, since I was not the one in control.

 It is an utterly terrifying experience when you are just a spectator in your own body; step by step it was climbing the pyramid. Soon, I could see what was on top of it. A rectangular clear crystal altar at least six feet long. It was perfect, without any blemishes or cracks; under the blue bioluminescent light, it looked evil to me.

 The only thing that marred its surface was a knife, well, technically a double-edged dagger… embedded in it. Not like any dagger I had ever seen, utterly black, as though it was absorbing all light that shone on it. It reminded me a little of a Gothic medieval athame I once saw in an occult exhibit, but this design was… inhuman. A wicked-looking handle with an 8-1/2 inch blade that I instinctively knew could cut through flesh like it wasn’t there. My body stood before the altar and my hand grabbed the protruding hilt of the dagger.

 How can I explain that singular moment of contact, when it had almost shattered my sanity? If I could, I would have screamed at the top of my lungs; the feeling of pain was all-consuming and never-ending. Every nerve in my body, every muscle, sent the pain signals to my brain. This feeling of overwhelming heat was starting to grow in my chest and soon spread all over… as if I was being burned alive.

 The last thing I remembered was that feeling of fire, leaving my body. Then the ground beneath my feet started to shake, and I could see great chunks of the ceiling, falling all around the cave.

 Then... nothing.

 Only darkness and blessed unconsciousness.


Copyright© Igor Nikolic