Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow
Released on 04.28.2009
When a mysterious envelope arrives for Jake Ransom, he and his older sister, Kady, are plunged into a gripping chain of events. An artifact found by their archeologist parents on the expedition from which they never returned leads Jake and Kady to a strange world inhabited by a peculiar mix of long-lost civilizations, a world that may hold the key to their parents' disappearance-if Jake and Kady can survive long enough to solve the mystery.
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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 Yucatan 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, grey 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 it
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 mo
nkeys 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 w
every other step, but he had to keep going. The hunters were closing tight around him.
His name was Henry Bethel.
Doctor Henry Bethel.
Professor of archaeology from 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 classical 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 the 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 away. 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 th
e 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 feet-first, 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 further...
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.
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.
But that was not its deepest secret.
Not by far.
Henry fingered the twine that snugly wrapped the parcel. He sent out a silent apology and prayer to Richard and Penelope Ransom.
As water climbed to his lips, he tasted the sandy water. He spat and choked. His vision blurred. Lights danced before his eyes.
No, not lights…
His vision sharpened despite his panic.
Torches approached through the boggy jungle. Flames flickered. Dark shadows shed to reveal a dozen warriors. They were half naked, dressed in loincloths. Ashes and black paint daubed their faces. Some came forward with drawn bows, flint arrows pointed toward him. Others had rifles shouldered.
The hunters had found their prey.
From out of their midst, a larger figure pushed forward. The leader of the bandits. But Henry knew the bandits were no more bandits than Montaña de Huesos was a simple mountain.
The attackers also hid a darker secret.
Echoing from off in the distance, Henry heard a familiar whump-whump. Helicopters were sweeping toward the burning campsite. Military helicopters. Henry had managed to get out a Mayday on the radio before escaping.
If only they'd come sooner...
The bandit's tall leader strode forward and lowered to one knee.
Henry struggled to see the man's face, but the torchlight seemed to shun his f orm. Wearing a longcoat and slouched hat, he was more shadow than man.
He reached out a wooden pole with a wicked steel hook at the end. Henry knew the man was not offering to pull him out of the quicksand. He was after the package. Henry attempted to yank it under the water, but he moved too slowly. The man lunged out with the pole and snagged the package from his fingertips.
Henry struggled to regain it, but it rose beyond his reach.
The bandit's leader climbed to his feet. With a skilled flip, the package sailed high and landed in his open palm. For just a moment, Henry caught a glimpse of bo ny fingers with nails sharpened to points.
Then the man tossed aside the pole and started to leave.
"Thank you, Dr. Bethel," came a hoarse whisper, strangely accented. "You've proven most resourceful."
Henry strained his neck as far back as it could reach. His lips rose above the water. He spat his mouth clear.
"You'll never have it!" Henry's choked words were followed by a bitter laugh of satisfaction.
The leader swung back toward him. From beneath his hat, his eyes appeared like polished shadows, brighter than the cloaking darkness, sinister, unnatural.
As Henry sank beneath the pond's surface, those strange eyes focused on him and narrowed. The waters grew colder under that questioning gaze.
As the water swamped over Henry's head, he answered silently the dark suspicion of the leader. You're too late.
He heard the leader cry out. Henry imagined the man ripping into the package he had guarded so bravely. He knew what the man would find: only dried out palm fronds, folded and bundled.
Through the drowning waters, Henry heard the scream of bright anger from the bandit's dark leader. The man had finally realized nothing was what it seemed here in the shadow of the Mountain of Bones.
Not bandits, not the mountain... not even a package tied in twine.
All a trick.
The purpose of Henry's flight was to blaze a false trail, one to lure the hunters away from the true path. As darkness descended and Henry sank into the jungle's final and eternal embrace, a smile formed on his lips.
The secret was safe, headed to where it belonged.
To be hidden until it was needed.
No one paid attention to the small Mayan boy as he climbed the two steps to the post office in Belize City. He carried a twine-wrapped parcel in his hands. Behind him, the ocean glinted brightly. It had taken the boy and his grandfather a full month to reach the coast. They had to be careful, wary, and watchful.
His grandfather knew all the old paths, the secret ways of their ancient peoples. He had taught the boy much on the long journey. How to soothe a toothache by chewing on the sap of the chicle tree, how to start a fire with flint and tinder, how to walk a jungle and not be heard.
But the most important lesson was unspoken.
To honor one's promise.
The boy lifted the package toward the mail slot. He longed to look inside, but promises had been made. So instead he stared at the address written on the brown paper wrapping. He sounded out the letters:
North Hampshire... Connecticut.
He imagined the long journey the package would take. He wished he could follow it, too. To fly off to some exotic land.
The boy traced a finger over the top name.
So many names for one person. With a shake of his head, the boy tipped the package through the slot. It struck the bottom with a satisfying thunk.
With the promise fulfilled, the boy turned away. "Master Jacob Bartholomew Ransom," he whispered as he headed down the post office steps.
With so many names, surely he must be someone very important.
Maybe a distant prince or lord.
Still, the question nagged him - and would for many years.
Who exactly was Master Jacob Bartholomew Ransom?
The foregoing is excerpted from Jake Ransom and the Skull Kings Shadow by James Rollins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
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"A challenger for Indy's archaeological crown in the months ahead. Excellent, rousing stuff!" – Bookreview.Come "Readers will be caught up in adventure." – School Library Journal
"A rollicking good story." – Publishers Weekly
Last, but certainly not least, James Rollins has decided to dominate more than just the adult thriller field. The first of a series for Young Adults, Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow (Harper, $16.99) tells the exciting tale of young Jake and his older sister, Kady, who are still trying to adjust to life without their parents (who disappeared on an archaeological dig). The two of them receive an invitation to a special exhibit of Mayan artifacts and get drawn into a life and death struggle. Rollins has taken his love of Indiana Jones and made it fresh and fun for the younger set. --Jeff Ayers, Author Magazine
"From start to finish, there really isn't a dull moment in the book." - Tyler
"Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow is jam-packed with Mayan history, dinosaurs, alchemy, Vikings, Roman soldiers…along with Jake Ransom and his sister Kady. It's a high-adventure, fantasy-fused ride with bits of history thrown in for good measure. It's the sort of book that launches a series with kids lined up around the building to buy the next one." - Cheryl
"Hurry, read this book before the main character, Jake Ransom is brought to the big screen! This book is so ready for a suspenseful movie to be made about it. The descriptions of the characters and settings make you feel like you're one of the team frantically trying to solve the many mysteries rolled into one! The best part is that the ending left us with the possibility that we would see Jake again in another book in the future." - Karen
"For a first-time writer of Young Adult fiction, James Rollins has hit the nail on the head. I read through almost half the book in one sitting, I just couldn't stop. The characters are well developed, and the plot line is great.
With an ending that leaves it apparent that we will have more adventures to come, I can't wait for the sequel." - Daniel
"James Rollins' book Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow is a gripping book that draws you to an unknown world of adventure. You will never want to put this book down." - Lynsee
"This was an exciting story filled with twists and turns and a great mystery to solve. It was definitely a great read and I would recommend it to others." - Terri
"Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow has become one of my favorite books of all time! Jake Ransom has the potential to become this generation's Indiana Jones! Rollins has encompassed adventure, suspense, history, fun, and a touch of romance into one fantastic book. His descriptions are impeccable. I found it very hard to put down. The short chapters kept me wanting more. Jake Ransom will not only appeal to adventuresome boys, but daring girls as well." - Christina
"I feel like I have been transported back in time to an era of pure excitement!! Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow keeps you on the edge of your seat and leaves you waiting for the next book in this thrilling series." - Alaina
"Loved it, loved it, loved it. I couldn't put it down. I was hooked right away and kept reading and reading all day. The writing was so vivid I could picture all the places in my mind. I know kids will love reading this. It is a great blending of dinosaurs, different cultures, and action. I know kids will run to the Internet to research some of the cultures or animals. Fabulous way to encourage book reading." - Sharon
"It's about time someone wrote one of those roller coaster thrillers adults have been relishing for young adults. Rollins skillfully blends archaeology with science and fantasy to create an entertaining and informative tale that will keep readers glued to his pages. We needed someone like James Rollins years ago - I am glad he has created this series." - Bill
I've already been quizzed about Jake and the fantastical world he is drawn to. Here's a little behind-the-scenes on this book:
Q: What do you find most exciting about a sense of adventure?
A: The story started because of a Cabinet of Curiosities that I began putting together from my own journeys: It holds dinosaur eggs, tyrannosaurus teeth, and many other fossils, plus pinned butterflies and other insects behind glass, and ancient artifacts and wooden totems from the four corners of the world. It awakened my own joy of the grand adventure that is life on this world. I knew I wanted to set an adventure that began with this Cabinet.
Q: What specifically attracts you to the fantasy/adventure genre? Are these the types of novels you enjoyed growing up?
A: I grew up reading Hardy Boys and Danny Dunn's scientific adventures. I loved the old serial pulp novels from the 1930s and ‘40s: Doc Savage, The Shadow. And it's what I love to write today – stories of high adventure, action, and suspense, and laced with fantastical elements.
Q: How does writing for a younger reader differ from writing for adults? Did you face any challenges writing in this new tone?
A: The story here is more linear, but is otherwise not much different. I don't think it serves to write down to kids. I think a well-told tale will appeal to any age.
Q: How much research did you do to prepare to write this adventure?
A: Similar to my adult novels, I love to weave real world facts into the fantastical. This novel – which centers on the ancient Mayan civilization – required months of research, including trips down to the ruins of Chichen Itza and Tulum in Mexico, and to a set of newly excavated ruins in the jungles of Belize.
Q: That's the "fact" side of your story. What about the "fantastical"?
A: In this story, science and magic blend into a world of prehistoric creatures, ancient peoples, and a mysterious lost civilization that has left behind bits of strange technology. But to tell you anymore would ruin some wonderful surprises!
Q: What did you find most interesting/surprising to learn while you mapped out the plot elements of Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow?
A: During my research, I discovered the Mayas were the first to use the cocoa bean to make chocolate. And they also used the sap of the chicle tree to make chewing gum. Even Wrigley used this sap to make their original chewing gum in the 1890s.
Q: How do you relate so well to a middle grade audience?
A: Whatever music you liked in high school is the music you like the rest of your life. I think the same applies to books. What I liked at 13, I still love today: those exciting, pulp adventures that give you a good story, a few chills, and at the same introduce you to a new world – just like Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow.
Q: Which character's voice did you find easiest to capture? Do you see pieces of yourself in this character? Why do you think you were able to relate so well to this specific character?
A: I love writing Jake. He is who I was as a kid: ever curious, impatient, slightly geeky but knowing it and unable to change. But I can also understand his relationship with his older sister. Being the middle son between three brothers and three sisters, I know this relationship all too well: the arguments, the resentments, but ultimately a deep and unshakable bond of family.
Q: How would you define a heroic character? What unique traits make a hero in your eyes?
A: While I certainly enjoy a bit of magic and strange science (which you'll see in this story), I also love the Everyman Hero. A character with no super powers, no James Bond gadgets…who must survive by his wits alone against all odds, against all challenges. And that's Jake in a nutshell.
Q: What future adventures do you have planned for Jake and Kady?
A: In future installments, Jake and Kady will continue to piece together clues to their parents' fate, crossing from one end of the world to another, exploring lost cultures and facing new threats from the mysterious Skull King.