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Jake Ransom and the Howling Sphinx

James Rollins





  Also by James Rollins



  Valley of the Kings

  Part One

  Three Weeks Later

  1 Eyes of Fire

  2 Broken Cabinets

  3 Key to Time

  4 Mummy’s Claw

  5 Ankh of Gold

  Part Two

  6 Stranded

  7 A Prickly Situation

  8 Prince of the Sands

  9 Make that Princess of the Sands

  10 Up and Away

  11 Bloody Skies

  Part Three

  12 The Dungeons of Ka-Tor

  13 A Call for Help

  14 Eye of Fire

  15 Lock and Key

  16 Cloaks and Daggers

  17 Mice in a Maze

  18 Two Will Fall

  19 Sweet Dreams

  20 Crooked Nail

  21 A Bad Plan

  22 Stone of Time

  Part Four

  23 Riddles of the Sand

  24 Forest of Flames

  25 Crash Landing

  26 Prophecy of Lupi Pini

  27 Key of Time

  28 A Sandy Grave

  29 Storm Crossing

  30 What’s Old Is New Again

  31 Family Reunion

  32 Time and Space

  33 Last Prophecy

  Translation Guide

  A Note from the Author

  About the Author


  To Carolyn,

  for always stoking the magic in our lives

  Other Jake Ransom adventures

  Jake Ransom and the Skull King’s Shadow


  The best journeys are those taken with friends at your side. This second trip into Pangaea was no exception. First, I must acknowledge my entire critique group, whose tireless effort made this book shine: Penny Hill, Steve and Judy Prey, Dave and Will Murray, Caroline Williams, Chris Crowe, Chris Smith, Josh Harris, John Keese, Lee Garrett, Denny Grayson, Leonard Little, Kathy L’Ecluse, Scott Smith, and Sally Barnes. There is not a better group of nitpickers, tech experts, and reviewers out there. Beyond the group, Carolyn McCray—who is a great writer herself—and David Sylvian—who thanklessly slaves behind the curtains—made a hard year easier and helped this book come to be. And finally, a special thanks to everyone at Harper-Collins, especially my editor, Barbara Lalicki, both for her infinite patience and for her brilliant skill at storytelling. And I’d be remiss not to thank two other people who have been with me every step of the way: my agents Russ Galen and Danny Baror. And as always, I must stress that any and all errors of fact or detail in this book fall squarely on my own shoulders.



  No man could survive such a storm for long.

  Clouds of red sand blasted out of the Sahara Desert and swept across Egypt. The storm darkened the sun and grew so vast that it could be seen from orbiting satellites. And it was no better on the ground. For those unlucky enough to be caught in the storm, the winds scoured any exposed skin like coarse sandpaper.

  But the old man had been summoned and knew he had to obey.

  Professor Nassor Khouri was a senior curator of the Cairo Museum and the leading expert on the Old Kingdom of Egypt. The curator hunched against the stinging sand. His sun-leathered face was covered by a scarf, his eyes hidden behind goggles.

  As he hiked through the Valley of the Kings, he could barely see past his own nose, but he knew the way. Every Egyptian scholar did. Egyptian pharaohs had been buried in this maze of limestone hills and sandy gullies for millennia, including the famous boy-king, Tutankhamen.

  But Nassor’s destination lay much farther out, beyond where most archaeologists searched. He fought the storm, moving deeper down the valley toward a new excavation. To anyone looking, it appeared to be nothing more than a well being dug, a project to help bring water to the parched land. Permits, uniforms, and equipment all bore a black griffin, the familiar logo of the company that funded this excavation.

  Bledsworth Sundries and Industries, Inc.

  The corporation financed many such charitable enterprises throughout the region. But Nassor knew the true goal of this particular project and had been paid well to keep it secret.

  And now he had been summoned.

  Had the corporation found what it sought?

  Surely that was impossible.…

  Despite the hot breath of the sandstorm, Nassor shivered as he reached the dig site. All the laborers had fled the storm, leaving the place dark and empty. Nassor crossed a maze of abandoned mining gear and piles of work gear to reach the hole in the hillside framed by timber and sealed with a steel door.

  He punched a code into a security keypad, and the door swung open. He hesitated at the threshold. Even with the storm howling at his back, he balked at entering the tunnel. The passageway dove steeply downward, lit by flaming torches set into notches in the walls.

  Swallowing back his fear, Nassor ducked inside. A gust of wind sucked the door closed behind him with a loud clang. Startled, he hurried forward.

  The quicker I’m done here, the sooner I can get home.

  As the way led deeper, the walls changed from raw limestone to stone blocks. Ancient steps appeared and led downward yet again. Deeper and deeper. Nassor kept to the torch-lit path as the walls squeezed tighter on either side, as if trying to push him back. But he had no choice. With sweat trickling down his back, he had to keep going.

  At last, the tunnel emptied into a cavernous space. It was a vast domed chamber, the walls scribed with hieroglyphs. Other passageways led out from the room, but Nassor’s eyes were drawn to the black statues that lined the walls. They were perfect renditions of ancient Egyptian warriors, dating back to the Old Kingdom. Each man was unique in shape and size, but they all had one feature in common: their faces were masks of terror. Their horrified gazes all focused on the head of a stone serpent in the center of the room.

  It stood as tall as Nassor. From the flare of the hood behind its head, it was plainly meant to be a cobra. But this cobra had three eyes: two carved out of limestone and a third that rested atop its skull. This last one reflected the firelight, glowing bloodred. It was a fist-sized gem cut into the shape of an oval orb.

  Nassor approached in disbelief.

  A harsh voice stopped him. It came from the tunnel on the far side of the cavern. The speaker remained hidden in the shadows. Only his words scratched out of the darkness.

  “You know what it is …”

  Nassor recognized that voice. It had summoned him to this secret meeting. The voice came from the man who had bought Nassor’s silence by paying for his dying wife’s medical treatment. The money had saved her life. Nassor had never regretted the pact he had made.

  Not until this moment.

  Since the beginning, Nassor had been certain that what the man had sought was pure myth, an object out of dark legend. What harm was there in letting the man dig in a place no one valued, to hunt for an artifact that few believed was real? He never thought the Bledsworth corporation would succeed in finding it.

  “You recognize the eye …”

  Nassor did. It matched the description in the ancient Book of Thoth. He named the gem. “The Eye of Ra.”

  “Bring it to me …”

  An arm extended out of the tunnel’s shadows. An iron gauntlet hid the hand. Fingers creaked open.

  Unable to refuse, Nassor stumbled to the statue. He reached toward the bright eye. As his fingers hovered over the gem, the small hairs on his knu
ckles stood on end. He froze, sensing a strange power emanating from the stone. His heart thundered in his ears, but he still heard the order repeated.

  “Bring it to me …”

  With a great effort of will, Nassor closed his hands over the gem. A shock jolted up his arm, but he quickly dislodged the gem out of the eye socket. He stumbled back and stared down at what he held.

  The gem was twice the size of his fist. The firelight flowed over its polished surface, bringing out a thousand shades. Nassor had studied enough geology to recognize a fiery ruby, a gem rare for this region and priceless at this size. It was perfect, except for a single blemish along one side. He ran his thumb over the elliptical vein of black obsidian that coursed over one surface of the stone.

  It made the gem look like an eye.

  Nassor glanced up at the statue.

  A serpent’s eye.

  Behind the ancient sculpture, the man who hired him flowed out of the tunnel. Shadows cloaked and swirled around his shape, hiding his features.

  Shocked, Nassor took a step back. Despite his terror, one certainty crystallized in the curator’s mind. If even half the stories about the Eye of Ra were true, he could not let anyone possess the gem, especially this shadowy man.

  A cold chuckle flowed from the figure, as if the man read Nassor’s thoughts. “There is nowhere to run …”

  Nassor tried. He turned toward the tunnel that led to the surface. He had to get the Eye of Ra away from this monstrous man. If he could reach the surface, get it back to his museum …

  He took a step—or at least tried to take a step. But his feet suddenly went dead cold and refused to obey. He stared down, then gasped in disbelief. His shoes had turned to stone and were melding to the limestone floor.

  No, not just his shoes.

  Coldness traveled up his body. He watched his legs turn to stone, then his waist. He fought to move, to twist away. Then the coldness swept over his belly and chest—and out along his arms.

  Stone fingers now clutched the ruby eye.

  “No,” he moaned in horror.

  Terrified, he stared across at the row of Egyptian warriors and realized that his expression now matched theirs. He suddenly understood why he had been summoned here.

  “The curse …” the figure rasped at him, “… upon whoever tries to take the Eye from its resting place.”

  The voice drew up behind him. Nassor could not even turn as the petrifying coldness froze his neck. He had been tricked, brought here to draw the curse to himself.

  Nassor fought against it, crying out, “YOU MUST NOT—” But his frantic plea died as his tongue turned to stone.

  “Ah, but I must …” the figure whispered in his ear.

  An arm reached around, and iron fingers settled on the fiery gem. The Eye of Ra was pried from Nassor’s stony grip. Nassor wanted to turn, to see the face of the man who had doomed him; but he could no longer move, no longer speak, no longer breathe. As his ears turned deaf and his vision grew black, Nassor heard the man whisper a final threat—not against Nassor, but against someone else. The cold words followed him down into the darkness.

  “With this, I will make Jake Ransom suffer.”


  Three Weeks Later



  Most days, people don’t kick you in the head.

  For Jacob Bartholomew Ransom, it was just another Monday. He lay flat on his back on the blue practice mat. His ears rang, and bits of light fluttered across his vision. He’d been a second slow in blocking the roundhouse kick from his opponent.

  “Are you okay?” the other boy asked.

  Brandon Phan was two years older than Jake and the star pupil of the North Hampshire School of Tae Kwon Do, a junior black belt. He held out a hand to help Jake to his feet. Brandon was half Vietnamese, evident only from a slight pinch at the corners of his eyes, as if he were just about to laugh. Like Jake, he wore a belted white uniform called a gi.

  Jake took the offered hand and allowed himself to be pulled up. “Didn’t see that coming,” he said with a shake of his head. “Felt like I got kicked by a mule.”

  Brandon grinned. They had been sparring for three months. Jake had not been content with the usual three classes a week. He had wanted more practice. Luckily, Brandon had taken a shine to him and agreed to help Jake hone his skill. They had the dojang hall to themselves for another fifteen minutes.

  “You’re getting better,” his friend said. “Before you know it, you’ll be teaching me.”

  “Yeah, right.” Jake shook his head to clear away the cobwebs.

  Still, he had to admit that he was getting better. Last week, he’d traded his blue Tae Kwon Do belt for a red one. The belt’s new color was meant to caution others, to warn them that the student had the skill but not the control of a black belt.

  Jake couldn’t disagree with that assessment.

  These past weeks he’d been pushing himself too hard, becoming reckless and sloppy—but he couldn’t help himself. Though it was late June, the events from three months ago remained as fresh as if they’d only happened yesterday. Just this morning, Jake had awoken with his sheets knotted, a scream trapped in his throat, grappling with a winged monster from his nightmares and into the morning’s brightness.

  In that dream, Jake had been transported back to the prehistoric past, returning to a time before the continents had broken apart, when the world was just one big supercontinent, a land called Pangaea, meaning “All-World.”

  And indeed it had proved to be all worlds.

  Jake had visited the place himself in real life.

  Across history, lost tribes of mankind—Mayas, Egyptians, Romans, Vikings, Native Americans, and many others—had been stranded there, stolen from their own times and dropped into that savage landscape of marauding dinosaurs and primeval forests. To survive, they had banded together and found shelter in the valley of Calypsos, protected by ancient technology left over from Atlantis.

  In his nightmare last night, Jake had returned to Pangaea and was being hunted by a pack of winged and clawed creatures called grakyl, the monstrous minions of Kalverum Rex, the horrific Skull King of Pangaea. Even now Jake could hear the screeches of the grakyl deep inside him, as if the Skull King were still searching for him.

  And maybe he was.

  So Jake knew that he had better be prepared.

  As if reading his mind, Brandon backed up a step and fixed Jake with a steely stare. “Ready?”

  That was a good question. Jake had better be ready. For the past few days, a strange pressure had been building in his chest. Like a storm was coming.

  “Let’s go again.” Jake brushed his sandy blond hair out of his eyes and took a defensive stance, balancing on the balls of his feet.

  Though Brandon was older, they were evenly matched in size. Jake studied his opponent’s face, looking for a clue to show how he would attack. The Japanese taught to watch the eyes of an attacker. The Chinese believed it was better to stare at an opponent as a whole.

  Brandon studied Jake just as intently—then his friend’s eyes flew wide-open, shining with shock and disbelief. His gaze shifted past Jake’s shoulder. The hairs on the back of Jake’s neck prickled. Reacting on instinct, he dropped and twisted around. The front window of the school exploded as a black sedan hopped the curb and barreled straight toward them.

  Already crouched, Jake lunged and hit Brandon at the waist, knocking them both out of the car’s path. The front bumper brushed Jake’s toes. He landed and rolled with Brandon across the practice floor.

  The sedan roared past them and slammed into the back wall with a crunch of metal.

  Jake flew to his feet, hauling up the stunned Brandon.

  Across the room, the sedan’s engine sputtered and died. Smoke rose from under the crumpled hood.

  Jake took a step toward the wreckage. Despite his pounding heart, he had to make sure no one was hurt.

  “Careful,” Brandon warned.

  Jake smelled gasoline. Oily liquid was pouring from under the smoking car. Shouts rose from the street outside. Others were hurrying to the site of the accident—if it was an accident.

  Dread iced through Jake. Ahead, the smoke grew thicker and blacker. Jake approached the trunk of the car and peered through the rear window. He expected to find a slumped figure behind the wheel.

  But no one was there.

  He stepped closer as gasoline spread over his bare toes. His eyes were burning from the smoke, but he had to be sure. He couldn’t just abandon someone in trouble. He leaned toward the side window and checked the front and back seats.


  How could that be?

  “Jake!” Brandon yelled, and pointed.

  Jake tore his gaze away from the mystery of the driverless car. Flames flickered from under the hood.

  Jake backpedaled across the room and yelled to Brandon. “Run!”

  Together, they sprinted toward the smashed window. Outside, a small crowd had gathered. Sirens sounded in the distance.

  “Get back!” Jake hollered as he and Brandon leaped like frightened gazelles through the demolished storefront.

  And not a moment too soon.

  A muffled blast exploded behind them. An invisible hand shoved Jake from behind and flung him into the arms of the waiting crowd. Heat followed as he rolled and stared back into the dojang hall. It was like looking into the mouth of a furnace. Flames filled the back of the training hall. Smoke churned like a living creature within the blaze.

  For a moment—dazed, ears ringing—Jake watched the smoke twist into the towering shape of a shadowy figure. Eyes opened within that smoke, dancing with black flames, and fixed their fiery gaze upon him.