was also his only shot.

Tightening his grip on his backpack, his muscles tensed in anticipation.

Through the curtain of lianas, the rain continued to pour, creating puddles in every imperfection in the earth and eroding through the steep slope ahead, which plummeted nearly vertically into the valley below. If he fell, they would be upon him in a flash. And that was only if he didn't slide over the lip of the limestone cliff and plunge hundreds of feet through the forest canopy to his death.

Hunter drew a deep breath and bolted out into the night. Narrowing his eyes against the sudden assault of raindrops, he focused on the rocky path that led down toward the river. The ancient fortress wall flew past to his left, a crumbling twenty-five foot structure composed of large bricks of chiseled obsidian nearly consumed by the overgrowth of vines, shrubbery, and bromeliads. Every footfall summoned a loud splash he could barely hear over his own frantic breathing. The mud sucked at his boots as though he were running through syrup. He barely managed to stay upright long enough to reach the path, little more than a thin trench between rugged stone faces. The ground in the channel was slick and nearly invisible under the muddy runoff. His feet slipped out from beneath him and he cracked his head on a rock. His momentum and the current carried him downward onto a flat plateau dominated by Brazil nut trees draped with vines and moss.

The roar of the river became audible over the tumult of rain. He was so close---

A crashing sound from the underbrush to his right.

He glanced over as he crawled to his feet and saw nothing but shadows lurking behind the shivering branches.

More crashing uphill to his left.

He wasn't going to make it.

Willing his legs to move faster, he sprinted toward the edge of the forest and the cliff beyond. The waterfall that fired from the mountain upstream was a riot of mist and spray that crashed down upon a series of jagged rocks. Hopefully, there was enough water racing through now thanks to the storm to have raised the level of the river above them. Either way, he'd rather take his chances with broken bones than the hunters that barreled through the jungle, leaving shaking trees in their wake.

They were all around him now and closing fast.

If he could just reach the rock ledge, he could leap down into the river and allow it to whisk him away.

Ten yards.

Through the trees, he could see only fog, but he'd been down here enough times to know that the foaming whitecaps flowed only fifteen feet below. He would then need to navigate a series of waterfalls, and keep from drowning long enough to reach the bottom of the valley and the start of the real trek.

Five yards. Another four strides through the snarl of brush and he could make his leap. Just three more strides and---

Searing pain erupted in his back as he was slammed from behind. Something sharp probed between his ribs to either side of his spine. The mist-shrouded cliff disappeared and he saw only mud rising toward his face. The backpack against his chest broke the brunt of his fall, but his forehead still hammered the ground. He saw only blackness and tasted blood. The weight pounded down on his back, knocking the wind out of him. Something clawed at his shoulders as he slid forward.

The pressure on top of him abated and whatever had stabbed him was yanked out as he rolled over the ledge and tumbled into the fog toward the frigid river, unable even to scream.

Chapter One


Pomacochas, Peru

October 14th

8:38 a.m. PET

By the time Wes Merritt caught up with the children, they were giggling and prodding the corpse with sticks.

This certainly wasn't how he had envisioned starting his day.

He had been down on the rickety floating dock on Laguna Pomacochas, loading his 1953 DHC-2 #N68080 seaplane with supplies for a quick jaunt down to the City of Chachapoyas, capital of the Amazonas Province of Peru, when the three boys had raced up the wooden planks and begun chattering at him in Quechua. Far from fluent in the native tongue, he had captured just a handful of words here and there, but the few he understood told him he wouldn't be making the flight that morning. Two words had stood out specifically. The first, aya, meant 'dead body.' And the second, undoubtedly the reason they had come directly to him rather than the policia, was a word that he had been called on more than one occasion himself.

Mithmaq. The Quechua word for stranger.

As Merritt approached the bank of the river and the partially concealed body, he wondered if the children had been mistaken. What little skin he could see was mottled bluish black, and the hair was so thick with mud and scum that it was nearly impossible to determine the color. The Mayu Wanu, or, roughly translated, Resurrection River, rose and fell with the seasons, alternately climbing up the steep slope behind him in the spring into the primary rainforest, where the massive trunks of the kapok trees bore the gray discoloration of the water, and diminishing to a gentle trickle mere inches deep during dry spells. The body was tangled in vegetation, half-buried in the mud on the shore, half-floating in the brown river. Swirling eddies attempted to pry it loose to continue its journey along the rapids into the lagoon, but the earth held it fast.

'Sayana,' he said in Quechua. Stop.

The boys looked up at him, then slowly backed away, their fun spoiled. One, a shaggy-haired boy of about twelve in a filthy polo shirt and corduroys that were far too short, peeked at Merritt from the corner of his eye and gave the corpse one final poke. All three whirled and sprinted back into the jungle, laughing.

Merritt eased down the slippery bank. The mud swallowed his feet to the ankles and he had to hold the limp yellow ferns to maintain his balance. A quick glance at the ground confirmed the only recent tracks belonged to the barefooted boys. He breathed a sigh of relief. There was a long list of creatures he didn't want to encounter in his current compromised position.

Merritt hauled himself up onto the snarl of branches that shielded the body from the brunt of the current and crouched to inspect the remains. Judging by the broad shoulders and short hair, the corpse belonged to a male, roughly six feet tall, which definitely marked him as a foreigner to this region of northern Peru. The man's shirt and cargo pants had both absorbed so much of the dirty river that it was impossible to tell what color they might once have been. Twin black straps arched around his shoulders. His left leg bobbed on the river, the laces from his boot squirming beneath the surface. His right foot was snared in the branches under Merritt, the bulk of the leg buried in mud. Both arms were pinned somewhere under the body.

Back home in the States, this was when the police would arrive and cordon off the scene so the forensics team could begin the investigation. But he wasn't back home. He was in a different world entirely. A world far less complicated than the one he had left behind, one that had initially welcomed him with overt suspicion, but had eventually introduced him to a culture that had made him its own. And although his white skin would always brand him a mithmaq in their midst, no place in the world had ever felt so much like home.

He looked to the sky, a thin channel of cobalt through the lush branches that nearly eclipsed it from either bank. Blue-capped tanagers darted through the canopy in flickers of turquoise and gold, and common woolly monkeys screeched out of sight. The omnipresent cloud of mosquitoes whined around his head, but showed little interest in the waterlogged corpse, which already seethed with black flies.

Merritt had seen more than his share of bodies during his years in the army, and approached this one with almost clinical detachment. That was the whole reason he had run halfway around the world to escape. There was only so much death one could experience before becoming numb to it.

With a sigh, he climbed down from the mound of sticks and rounded the body again.

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