DEATH MARKED (121 reviews on Amazon.com! Now in Audio)
When Rohan’s fiancée died, he’d had no idea it would lead him to the snow-covered slopes of the Ural Mountains, searching for a way to speak with her one last time.
Closure, he told himself as he trudged through the snow—that’s all he wanted. Unless, as he’d hoped, there was a slight chance he could bring her back.
A gust of wind sent snow swirling around him, its chill reaching through his layers of long underwear, sweater, and parka. Ice crystals clung to his cheeks like small needles, biting him with their cold every time the wind blew. Yet, somehow, sweat slicked his back.
Howling gusts of wind brought a flurry of snow before Rohan. He tucked his head into the folds of his parka and focused on pushing forward, one step at a time. Suddenly, the wind changed direction and the wall collapsed, revealing craggy slopes that slanted upward into the white sky. Rohan stumbled as the ground shook.
Footsteps crunched behind him in warning before a hand gripped his shoulder. Altemus. Rohan nodded, wondering if he looked as haggard as this old man, his gray whiskers held together in clumps of ice. Heavy purple bags sagged from his eyes, barely visible under the skullcap that he wore beneath his parka hood. He still hadn’t explained the rifle slung over his shoulder.
“We’re almost there,” Altemus said, his voice thick with confidence.
“I hope you’re right,” Rohan said, rubbing his hands. They’d gone numb, and he couldn’t feel them through his gloves.
“We can stop if you like,” Altemus said, but his eyes had already moved to the gray mountain slopes, almost invisible in the darkness.
Every part of Rohan’s body begged him to say yes, but he resented the suggestion. Altemus did this kind of psychiatrist crap all the time—he’d say one thing when he meant the opposite. It might have worked on his patients, but Rohan wasn’t going to let the old man manipulate him.
Rohan shook his head.
“Excellent,” Altemus said, picking up the pace.
“I told you we should have left him at the hotel,” said a voice with a Russian accent. Lev, tall and muscular, marched past Rohan on the other side, pausing to glare. “If you can’t keep up, turn back.”
Rohan’s teeth chattered too much for him to reply, so instead he marched after Altemus.
He hadn’t trusted the Russian since he’d met him at the hotel in Moscow. The first thing Lev had said when Altemus introduced Rohan was, “When you said you were bringing help, you didn’t say you were bringing a boy.” From that point, he knew they weren’t going to get along. Thirty-five was hardly a boy, especially after everything he’d been through.
While Rohan detested Lev, he had to admit that, if it weren’t for him, they would’ve had no chance of navigating the Russian landscape. Lev knew how to get around, and his language skills kept them out of trouble.
They began a steep ascent. Soon, their walking sticks became a necessity, and Rohan found himself wondering if he had been wrong in coming here. It wasn’t the first time since beginning the climb that he had questioned himself. But he’d made a promise to his fiancé Senna, and he meant to see it through. Even if it meant traveling to the farthest corner of the world. Nothing, perhaps not even death, would stop him from speaking with her one last time.
She had been taken from him before her time—both physically and mentally. In the end, she had killed herself, but he’d never let himself accept her gradual insanity. When the doctors told him she was gone, he had refused to believe it. He still felt her there with him, in his heart. Their love had filled his world. Their love was the only thing he knew in this life that was right.
When they’d first met, he’d fallen for her instantly. He had been drawn to her dark caramel skin, her short, cropped hair, and the fearless stud in her nose.
Three years later, she was dead, chained to a bed in the psych ward, her eyes recessed into their sockets and her skin as pale as the sheets that covered her.
Just like he couldn’t let her go back then, he couldn’t now. Not without closure. So he pushed on.
Whispers between Altemus and Lev carried on the wind, something about the temple being close. Altemus stopped just ahead on a rocky outcrop. The old man cupped his hands to his eyes and stared into a bowl-shaped valley. Rohan stepped up beside him and squinted, trying to see what lay ahead.
“You’re sure this is it?” Altemus asked Lev, studying the valley with a frown. After a nod from Lev, he added, “It’s not how I imagined it.”
“The temple?” Rohan asked, searching the night. His heart pounded in his chest and his legs ached. He was glad for a break.
Altemus assessed him before allowing a crooked smile. His breath came out in puffs of white air as he leaned in close and said, “The easy part’s over, brother.”
The old man deserved a punch in the gut for that. The trek had been far from easy, with at least two near-death experiences while climbing the rocks.
But when Altemus pointed out their route, Rohan saw what he meant.
Below, a cave glowed with the faint flickers of firelight. He could just make out a footpath leading into the cave, jagged rocks sticking up around it like teeth. Near the entrance, pillars were carved from the rock, some sort of pattern chiseled into them.
For a moment, the snow let up, giving Rohan a view of spires and a faint outline of an ornate temple hidden in the rocks. If he hadn’t been looking for it, he would have missed it.
“Down,” Lev hissed.
Rohan looked at him with confusion, but felt the Russian’s firm grip around his collar, pulling him into the snow. Lev’s hand covered Rohan’s mouth, his other motioning toward the temple entrance as a shadow passed by one of the stone pillars—a man in thick robes. Another man joined the first, and something metallic glinted.
“They’re armed?” Altemus asked, sounding more annoyed than scared.
Lev pulled out a pair of binoculars. He observed the men for a beat, then nodded. “AK-47s. Does that change anything?”
“I knew there could be trouble,” Altemus said.
“And you know we need the skull,” Lev said.
“This is all about the skull.”
The talk of a skull that had the power to resurrect the dead had sounded crazy to Rohan at first, but as he watched the robed men patrol the pillared entrance to the cave, he wondered if Lev and Altemus were telling the truth. He had believed in it enough to follow them all the way out here, but he’d known it was more hope than actual belief. With them, that didn’t appear to be the case.
Altemus grunted and turned to Rohan. “And you? Not backing out, are you?”
Rohan took a moment, but finally said, “Never.”
Altemus led the way and they advanced, low to the ground so the guards wouldn’t see them. They descended the slope as fast as they could, snow sliding out beneath them with every step.
As they approached, Rohan studied the massive temple tucked into the mountain. Stone steps led up to the main entrance, flanked by a colonnade of rock pillars with demonic faces. Several parapets on the temple gave it the feel of a fortress. Helixes of smoke rose from chimneys into the cold night air, filling the area with the smell of burning wood and searing meat. Close now, Altemus ducked behind a rock pillar and motioned for them to do the same.
“We’re not going to get the skull out of there without using force,” Lev said, patting the pistol Rohan knew he had concealed under his many layers.
“What?” Rohan asked. “You told me we were going to ‘obtain it.’ You didn’t say anything about robbing or fighting them.”
Altemus turned, the curved bridge of his nose red with cold and inches from Rohan’s. “We only have one chance at this, and only one way it’s happening. You have a problem with it, speak up now.”
Rohan fumed. “You never said we were robbing a temple, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Well, now you know.”
Lev crouched, straining his neck to make out the guards.
“Okay, and here we are. So, what’s the plan?” Rohan asked in a hoarse whisper.
“Attack,” Lev said. “Now.”
And with that, he dashed out from their hiding spot and sprinted across the snow.
Altemus pointed to a parapet where the form of a guard was just visible.
“That one’s yours. Get past him, or go home crying.” The old man handed Rohan a knife, and then he too disappeared into the darkness.
Rohan wanted to kick himself. Standing alone in the freezing darkness, expected to kill someone.
He’d known this wasn’t going to be ethical to begin with, but how bad did he really want Senna back?
Pretty damn bad.
Rohan gripped the hilt of the knife tightly, feeling it as if it were part of him. He rushed forward in a kneeling run, darting to the nearest stone pillar in the direction of the parapet, then pushed himself flat against its base. With a heave, he pulled himself up onto the ledge, then swung around to see that the guard was near, walking toward him.
Rohan’s heart thumped hard—it was the moment: do or die.
The guard’s footsteps smashed the snow, the sound of boots crunching ice fading in and out with the howling wind. Then they stopped. If the man saw him first, Rohan was screwed. He stayed low, waiting, and then something caught his eye on the other parapet—a flash of light reflecting on steel, a guard’s body falling into the snow. Lev emerged from the shadows and looked in Rohan’s direction before disappearing again.
A light sweat formed on Rohan’s brow. He gripped the knife tightly, feeling its weight. His breath came out in quick bursts, but he focused his energy, telling himself it was all part of the act.
Screw that, he thought—before all this, he’d been a stage magician, a performer at birthday parties. He wasn’t set up to be a temple robber!
The crunching of snow and ice started again, growing closer.
His mind was still saying no, but his body took over. He leapt out of his hiding spot, knife ready. But the guard saw him at the last moment and blocked him, pushing the knife back on Rohan.
It should have been easier than this!
The two were locked in a battle of strength, the blade inching toward Rohan’s throat. Rohan smelled the onions and red meat on the man’s breath.
The guard hissed something in Russian, and then opened his mouth as if to yell for help. Rohan used the chance and kicked out the man’s legs, sending him into a nearby pillar.
Adrenaline surging, Rohan leapt on the man, landing punch after punch on his face. Instinct took over and he swiped the knife off the ground, raising it over his head for a killing strike. But he paused at the fear in the guard’s eyes.
Rohan gripped the knife handle, sweat making it slippery. His palms hurt. One strike and it would be over, but he couldn’t do it.
No, he couldn’t do it. He stepped back, annoyed and ashamed.
The guard stood and pulled a gun from his side, aiming it at Rohan.
FROM JUSTIN >>> Is that a fun place to end this snippet? I think so! Haha. As you might be able to tell, it’s got some action in here. It’s urban fantasy, bordering on supernatural thriller, for sure. We’ve had a lot of fun writing these books, and they get crazier and crazier as we continue — book 3 might even tie into some of our other series (or other series will tie into it). To think that there have already been 121 reviews for book 1 blows my mind, and brings me such joy. That’s the most reviews of any of my books! (Though Justice is Calling is catching up, quick). Hope you enjoy the books as much as we enjoyed writing them!
Hope you enjoy the books as much as we enjoyed writing them!
If you’ve already read book 1 and 2, don’t miss out on book 3, available for preorder now!