Prologue: Legends

In the year of our Lord, 1541. Quito, Vice-Royalty of Peru, Spanish Empire

With a raucous flap of their wings, a pair of vibrant macaws fluttered to a spot high in the dense canopy and sat tenuously on a branch in the still, early morning air. Their gentle squawking was the only sound breaking the thick silence. Several meters below, the thwap of an arrow silenced the last muffled groan of the single survivor of the brief skirmish.

Over two dozen men lay motionless on the moss of the forest floor. Their white, sunburned bodies pierced by scores of well-placed arrows. The victors silently stepped among the corpses, yanking the solid gold tipped arrows from the dead men. They stared at the white foreigners with intense curiosity, as if they had never slaughtered men before.

The leader of the attacking group was tall, lanky, and much whiter than many of her shorter and darker sisters-in-arms. Her thick, black hair was tightly braided and coiled on the top of her head like a forest snake. The woman's eyes were intense beyond her years; her shoulders thick and muscled. She wore only a triangular patch of ornate leather over her private parts. The hand-tooled ornate yellow sun glistened in the filtered sunlight.

From a tangled mass of death, a hand shot out and latched onto her ankle. The warrior blinked in surprise but gave no start. Her young lieutenant loosed another arrow which thumped through the shoulder of the man who should be dead. His iron grip only strengthened in return.

The invader who refused to die stood slowly until he was eye-to-eye with her, his red eyes glowing from inside the black helmet. One by one, he snapped off the half-dozen arrows jutting out from his throat and armored torso. A gasp escaped from the band of female warriors as they watched each wound on his body close and disappear. The figure now towered above his attackers, his head still hidden within the metal helmet. Slowly, piece by piece, he removed his armor then pulled the thin, protective fabric from his body. Finally he removed the mask and the early morning light shadowed his handsome, rugged, extremely pale face. The long, dark hair was pulled back and cascaded over his shoulders. His thickly muscled body stood only inches from the female leader as his red eyes now pierced her very soul.

She raised her hand to trace a path through the stubble on his chin--slowly as if fascinated. The female warrior pushed one probing finger through his cold, deep red lips to find the small incisor which curled back into his mouth.

With a malicious smile, she dropped her weapons and snaked one hand around his neck to his shoulder. Her left knee traced a delicious line up his leg, then slipped around his thigh. The female fighters closed their circle as their leader wrapped herself around the stranger. With her free hand, she untied a small knot at the small of her back and the golden loin patch fell to the ground. Her naked body now pressed against his. With the precision of a serpent, she leaned forward to flick her tongue on his ear lobe, then gently pulled on it with her teeth.

"You are vrykolakas," she whispered into his ear, nipping him once again--this time drawing a bead of blood. She leaned her head back, her graceful neck curving upward toward the rising sun.

"Yes, I am vrykolakas," he whispered and leaned into her offering. He inhaled deeply the scent of her blood as it pulsed in the jugular vein just below the soft skin and felt the pressure of his canine teeth grow. She winced with pain, her eyes wide open as his gleaming fangs sunk into her throat. As the virginal essence of her life flowed into his greedy throat; her moans of pleasure filled the scene of carnage. With the new blood flowing through his body, he became aroused and plunged into her, taking her virginity in the throes of sexual ecstasy.

A twig snapped only a few yards from where they stood and he pushed her away, leaving a stream of blood oozing from her throat. His eyes shot toward the sound, piercing the morning twilight to find a robed cleric, trembling in terror, huddled behind the dense brush, his white robes streaked with blood.

"You," roared the stranger at the priest and pushed the weakened female warrior to the ground. "Why didn't you stay with the others in the boat?"

He strode toward the Dominican who rose to his feet, forgetting his fear. The priest grasped the wooden crucifix dangling from his neck and thrust it toward the charging madman.

"You would spoil this paradise as well, spawn of the devil?" snapped the priest.

Fury filled the invader and propelled him toward the priest, whose white knuckles trembled around the blood-soaked cross. The Dominican stood firm and the charging evil beast stopped short just inches from the proffered symbol of good. His red eyes swelled in their sockets and he snorted in rage.

Behind him, his warrior mate slipped a massive arrow into her bow and drew back the thick cord. Her eyes pulsed in a faint crimson glow as she aimed at the center of the cleric's chest.

"Stop," roared the invader. Now it was he who trembled, his body frozen in place.

They simply watched the priest back away behind his trembling crucifix until he reached the path which led toward beach where they had landed. The Dominican turned and dashed into the muddy river water where the boat which brought them still waited.

As if on cue, the macaws shrieked overhead and the thick tension evaporated into the morning mist. The invader strode into the dense growth, away from the river. The female leader followed with her sisters, silently disappearing into the verdant green embrace of the jungle. The clearing, littered with the steamy, pungent scent of death, softly returned to life, as if the encounter never happened at all.

* * * *

In the year of our Lord, today.

The afternoon was quiet, the water calm. Three children and their mother splashed river water over their bodies for the fourth time that day. The river refreshed them, soothed the insect stings and restored a peace into their lives in the forest.

The oldest, a bit further out in the stream, spun around as if a fish had nibbled at her bare bottom. She made a face, then splashed a hasty retreat to her mother. Together, they called the father who reluctantly fished the body out of the river.

The skin was as black as charcoal and hugged the skeleton inside as if it were painted in place. Two eyes stared wildly into space. The mouth gaped wide in a silent scream of death.

* * * *

Federal Police Lieutenant Edson Macedo cruised past the family an hour after the corpse was found. They called him over to where the fisherman had tied the corpse to a low-hanging branch. No one wanted to touch it. A school of piranhas calmly flicked about but not one swam within a foot of the desiccated flesh. The fish scattered when Edson hooked the body and hauled it into his launch.

"How long has it been here?" he asked the father, the only Indian willing to talk.

"We have no idea." He shrugged his shoulders. "It just floated here."

The mother stood behind, guarding her children like chicks. "Mulher morcego," she whispered.

"What did you say?" Edson asked, glancing back at the woman.

She pointed at the blackened body. "Mulher morcego did this." She crossed herself. The children repeated the action.

Edson shook his head at the jungle superstitions of the family. He'd heard the term before. It was used to scare children-- mulher morcego: 'the women who are bats'. He knew the phrase would never appear in his official report.

The next day Edson hitched a ride on a Military Police chopper to check out the grazing area where the dead man had worked for the landowner, Eduardo Moraes. He found half of the cattle dead from starvation, covered with flies while rats ran wild in orgiastic feasts. The other half of the herd wandered about, listless and gaunt. Bags of feed lay unopened. By the time the Ministry of Agriculture arrived to rescue the livestock, the living cattle had disappeared into the region's local butcher shops. Not a living human soul was to be found.

Chapter One: Singapore Preparations

In the year of our Lord, Today, Sumatra

Doctor Ana Carvalho squatted in the brush, waiting as the sun crept above the horizon. Three young native women stood an arm's length away, stealing glances toward the pot boiling on her campfire. On her hip, one native carried a chubby girl who casually nursed her breakfast yet kept one eye fixed on the odd, pale stranger. The other two stood on either side, their long black hair pulled behind tiny faces decorated with slashes of colorful paint. They chatted between themselves like teens at the mall.

Ana had lived at the base of their mountainous island territory for a month, biding her time and waiting for a chance to talk. She'd traded gifts through gestures and grunting, smiled at babies and endured the glares from tiny native men. Today, the three women finally wandered to her morning's breakfast campfire to discover the source of the wonderful smells.

A small black dot in the sky Ana noticed earlier had grown into a monstrous whirlwind of mechanical pandemonium. The native women scampered back into the bush, the small fire scattered to the winds, and her camp a near disaster.

She grabbed her long, black hair, now whipped about the top of her head by the prop wash, and tied it behind her shoulders. "Get the hell off my mountain, you son-of-a-bitch. You just destroyed a month's work," she snapped when the pilot emerged to wave at her. "And don't come back." Her green eyes flared in anger.

"I've got orders to get you back to Singapore," he shouted over the roar of the rotor.

Her replacement had already thrown his bags on the ground. She recognized him from conferences when she was a student. Ana shook her head in disgust and rolled her eyes. This jerk is totally useless, she thought.

"Bite me," she yelled and stomped back toward what was left of her camp. She jabbed a thumb over her shoulder at the replacement grabbing his bags from the chopper. "Take that with you."

The pilot ran after her. "Doctor Carvalho, something has come up in South America. Something big that might interest you," he yelled over the roar of the still rotating rotors. He handed her a set of hi-res satellite shots and her eyebrows shot up.

"Gotcha!" he said with a smile. "Rossi said these pics would change your mind. Now you grab your stuff and let's get in the air."

Doctor Ana Carvalho took one last glance around the campsite devastated by the chopper and sighed disgustedly at her replacement struggling to set up his tent. The natives had scampered away into the jungle. Loose sheets of language notes were scattered down a precipitous mountainside of black volcanic rock. I broke the ground but I'm willing to bet it'll probably still take him another two months to regain their trust, she thought, then turned and crawled up into the helicopter.

She was livid. It was exactly this crap that drove her to hate Rossi and the United World Federation. She would spend months doing the dirty work. Gifts, food, smiles. Then some dime-store PhD would fly in and grab the glory. For once, she wanted to be forgotten in the field and work her way into some tribe who was lost in time; to go feral, to be a part of them.

The high-res satellite photos did help to sedate her anger somewhat during the flight to Singapore. Big-time cattle herders had chopped down a chunk of the Amazon forest. Now, more than cow patties appeared in its place. Huge geoglyphs were carved in the earth and lay hidden from the world under that canopy of the forest for centuries. The tropical rain forest wasn't as virgin as she appeared. What was positioned in the center of one of those geoglyphs finally put a smile on Ana's face.

They put down on the heliport atop the gleaming skyscraper. The United World Federation (UWF) spread out over an entire floor for their global operations center. The foundation funded her PhD in exchange for five years of her life to their service. She only had one more year left to serve.

The conference room commanded a corner of the building forty floors in the air. The two glass walls boasted the best view of Singapore's harbor and, at the present time, the mid-morning sun shone down on the scene. The other two walls were covered with electronic maps and monitors. A satellite video system allowed 24/7 contact with their operations around the world.

Ana recognized most of the cast of characters around the table: her linguistic and anthropological coordinators, the Singaporean director of operations, her supervisor and the Swiss finance officer who never left home without a gold Krugerrand hanging from his neck. At the head of the table was a face she'd only seen in the annual reports: Gianni Rossi. He'd taken the reins of UWF from his father less than twenty years earlier. He split his time between Rome and visits to different field operations. He never showed up in a surprise visit, as was his custom, to one of Ana's sites and that was no skin off her nose. She preferred to work alone and be left to her own resources.

"Sit down, Doctor Carvalho," her supervisor said and glanced toward an empty chair. "We already heard you're upset about being pulled away from your site."

"It took me a whole damned month to win the trust of those natives," Ana snapped. She held up her hand with a hair's breadth between the index finger and thumb. "I was this close and your chopper blew away all my work in a mere three seconds. Wouldn't you be pissed?" She glared at her supervisor, then plunked herself down. Rossi's face remained stoic at her impertinence.

"Trust me, Ana," her supervisor went on. "You'll like what we have to show you."

She nodded toward a matrix of six monitors which displayed an aerial photo with incredible resolution. It was the one Ana had already reviewed in-flight but with a few subtle differences she immediately noticed. The coordinates put the location in a remote spot at the headwaters of the Amazon River.

"Where did you get this photo?" Ana asked. "It's unbelievable." She slid out of the leather chair and glided to the bank of monitors, totally mesmerized.

Rossi leaned forward, his eyes gleaming. "Our friends in the U.S. military were good enough to help out, Doctor Carvalho," he finally said. "I see you've noticed why you're here." The right edge of his lips curled in a sly smile.

Ana's nose was inches from one of the screens, her fingers softly caressing the glass as if that would push away the images of the trees to allow a better view. Cut into the green of the forest was an orderly settlement unlike any she'd ever seen. The streets revealed a few natives. A few hundred yards further into the forest, thick, black smoke belched from a chimney. At one end of the geoglyph rose a tower whose roof gleamed yellow in the tropical sun.

"Is that gold?" she asked, her voice a mere whisper.

"It would appear to be," Rossi answered. Suddenly she understood why it was blurred and practically removed from the printed version she'd examined in-flight.

"Your father's from Lisbon," Rossi stated. "How's your Portuguese?"

"This is Brazil, isn't it?" she asked. "I speak Portuguese from Portugal. It'll take a little getting used to."

Rossi smiled at her tacit acceptance of the assignment. "And your mother is Serbian." It wasn't a question but a statement. He spoke without notes or a file.

"Goofy combination, I know. But it works for me."

"How is your Serbo-Croatian?"

"We call it Serbian now. A little better than my English," she answered. Her American accent was flawless.

"What passport do you carry?"

"Three. Normally, I use the EU one."

"What about the other two?"

"Serbian and American. I was born in Boston." Ana spoke matter-of-fact with no evidence of pride in her international agility. "I carry triple citizenship."

Rossi nodded to the supervisor who stood and walked to the end of the room. "We anticipated your enthusiasm." The matronly Oriental opened a door and, one by one, seven more people sauntered in. "I'll let them introduce themselves. This will be your team."

Team? Ana thought with a quick furrowing of her brows, then graciously smiled at the entering group. Patience with colleagues was not her strongest skill.

The first to enter was of medium height with the olive complexion of a Mediterranean. He walked straight to Ana, his hand extended in a warm greeting. "I'm Doctor Aaron Theodouros, anthropologist from the University of Athens." He stood only an inch taller than she, slight of build but hard from years in the field. A broad smile accompanied his enthusiastic handshake. It was the ice-blue eyes that caught Ana's attention.

The next to enter was a wiry academic whom Ana recognized from her days at Harvard. He literally wrote the book on Native American linguistics. "Doctor Neville Hastings," he said with a mischievous glint in his eye and an exuberant smile. "City College of London." He was more or less her father's age with a posh British accent and practically skipped to his place at the table.

Next a lanky young man stuck out his hand. "My name is Marshall Randolph, Doctor Carvalho," he stuttered, nervously clearing his throat and shifting his gaze between her and Rossi. "I'm a fourth-year grad student at King's College. In addition to my archeology major, I am also the English singles rowing champion for last year. I'll be your EMT." The Brit was tall and fit but extremely shy in his demeanor. His hair and skin were baked by hours on the Thames.

"Nancy Smith, third year geologist from the University of Adelaide," the young woman said. She grasped Ana's hand with a grip as strong as any of the men. "If it means anything, I was the Australian surfing champion two years back." She was medium height but thin, with sun-bleached hair. The Aussie radiated confidence.

"My name is Megan Anderson," said the group's only redhead. Her voice was barely above a whisper. "I'm a third year photojournalist and sketch artist. My minor is in surveying." Her minor drew puzzled looks from more than Ana but she quickly shrugged them off. "Not what you'd normally expect but my dad is a surveyor so it's a no-brainer class. I've helped him since I was ten." She hesitated and added, "Ever since my mother died." Megan finally offered her hand and Ana discovered it lacked the forceful confidence of the other students.

"Wayne Pierce is the name, Doctor Carvalho," the remaining male said. He grinned broadly and his blue eyes flashed a 'devil may care' look. "Anthropology's the game. Second year grad at University of California, San Diego. I'll be your go-to radio guy." He stepped back into line with an air of arrogance exuding from his athletic build.

The last member of Ana's team stood with her hands clasped behind her back. Her physique was startling, even among the athletic group. "My name is Barbara Philips, also a second year grad student in anthropology at the UCSD," she said quietly. Her deep black skin was tightly stretched over a body sculpted by hours in the weight room. She wore her hair short to her scalp, on the edge of masculine. Her brown eyes darted from person to person in an uncertain way--at odds with her dominating physique. "I'm very glad to meet you." She jutted out her hand to shake Ana's, as if on a last-minute impulse.

"Do you two know each other?" Ana asked while pointing at Wayne and Barbara.

Wayne's chest swelled. "We ran track together last spring." There was a snide smirk on his face which Ana read like a garish neon billboard. Barbara squirmed while Wayne smirked in male conceit. There was no doubt in Ana's mind: Wayne had hung a towel on Barbara's doorknob at some point in the past.

Her supervisor's words jolted Ana from her thoughts. "You can see we've assembled a team both academically and physically qualified. All of them speak at least a little Portuguese. This will be one of UWF's most challenging expeditions. A week by boat into the headwaters of the Amazon. Then an uncertain distance inland through uncut rain forest dependent on the river's availability. We have no idea exactly what you will find once you arrive." She mumbled the little speech like a repetitious ritual. Ana had heard the last line many times in the past, recited like a litany from Sunday morning mass.

"You have a good idea, don't you, Mister Rossi?" Ana stared straight at the boss who sat with his arms crossed at the head of the table.

"What might that be, Doctor Carvalho?" Rossi asked with a smile which feigned innocence.

"What we'll find there," she replied, straight faced and serious. Ana waited, then cocked an eye at the commanding image on the screen. "El Dorado."

* * * *

When he finally had the conference room to himself, Rossi ambled along the bank of windows, staring out at nothing in particular. Shadows already stretched out over the city he'd chosen for his headquarters as the afternoon hours slipped away. Singapore was neither completely Oriental nor Occidental. It sat at a special spot in the world, at a cusp of beliefs and cultures. There was no tolerance for evil. A stolen purse could cost a thief his hand. He reached over and lifted the phone's handset to personally place the call to Rome.

"Is everything in place, Gianni," a voice answered, frail with age but alive with energy.

"She's on board, Your Eminence," he replied. "Her team will be in place in a month."

"In eternity, a month is nothing." There was a raspy intake of breath. "In this case, it may be too long."

"If we draw too much attention, it'll be over before we can blink," Rossi replied. "I ask for your patience. We have been handling these situations for a long time."

"May I remind you that we are only in this predicament because our predecessors acted too slowly. Time waits for no man. Nor does evil."

Rossi was silent. He knew the voice at the other end was right. "We'll stay on top of this, Your Eminence. Trust me."

"You know I do, Gianni. Peace be with you and Godspeed."

Rossi hung up and called his operations director to the conference room. The day was escaping.

"Have them take my jet," he instructed. "Get them to Brazil by tomorrow morning."

"But local arrangements are still not complete," she whined and slammed the stack of personnel folders on the table. "Trust me, Mister Rossi, the geoglyphs aren't going anywhere." She gazed at her boss. "You do realize it's at least a twenty hour flight, there are protocols to be honored and—"

"I'll call the priest and work things out." Rossi barely cocked an eyebrow. "Just get them to Manaus by the day after tomorrow, by dawn." He paused. "No later."

The operations director frowned, snatched the files and walked away, shaking her head. She knew she was dismissed and the group would be in Brazil sooner than she would like.

* * * *

The UWF corporate hangar sat apart from the other terminals at the Singapore airport. Definitely away from nosy tourists and the prying eyes of the press. Rossi's Gulfstream seemed a child's toy in the cavernous space.

"Now, this is truly cool," Wayne said. He broke into a sprint alongside the gleaming aircraft.

"We've got about thirty minutes to get in the air," the pilot reminded Ana. "Otherwise, we lose our spot until after the rush."

"Everybody on-board. Now," Ana shouted. Even she was a bit goo-goo-ga-ga over the luxury of a private flight.

She heard the purr of an electric motor behind her. It was Rossi in a white golf cart. "Let's take a little spin," he said. "Just the two of us." Ana glanced at the pilot and he nodded back an 'okay.'

"Just a few minutes," Rossi added and gently patted the seat next to him. She hopped in, preoccupied about her team and equipment. They headed out toward the runway along the ocean. A few hundred yards from the hangar, he stopped in an arbitrary spot and turned toward the young anthropologist. "Ana, there are a few details about this assignment you need to know," he said in a quiet air of discretion.

She was young and this was the first time a superior had taken her into confidence. "Fire away, boss," she joked, then regretted the levity and familiarity.

Rossi left the golf cart to walk to the wire fence that closed off the airport. The runway stretched out along the harbor, choked with end-of-day traffic. He leaned forward on his forearms and looked out toward the harbor, a slight breeze ruffling his jet-black hair.

"Are you a religious person?" Rossi asked, then hesitated and stared at her a few moments.

Ana's eyes wrinkled in confusion. "Are you asking if I go to Church?"

"Never mind," Rossi said and shook his head, seemingly distracted by whatever was on his mind. "I want you to know you will find extremely unusual conditions at this site. There will be people who do not fit into your conventional view of the world. Things you cannot explain or even describe. In other words, there will be situations which could be dangerous, physically and in many other ways. I need to know you are willing to lead this expedition under such conditions."

She was young and rash enough to reply immediately. "Of course, Mister Rossi. You can count on me."

He knew she could not possibly understand the depth of what he asked. He rolled up the left cuff of his starched white shirt to just above his old, worn Rolex. His forearms were muscled and tanned from a lifetime of field work. Just at the spot on the inside of his wrist where his life force pulsed most strongly, Ana saw the tiniest of tattoos. A red cross or a "t" pulsed with the flow of his own blood. He held his wrist forward for her to see while he spoke.

"We serve a greater cause here at UWF, Ana. We are part of a struggle as old as time itself. There is not much more I can say except to invite you to join the battle against darkness and evil. I cannot explain why I have this tattoo. I can only say it represents everything we do at UWF. Can you accept this challenge, knowing so little?"

As if on cue, the single rain cloud in the afternoon sky passed in front of the sun. A chill passed through Ana, though not from the sudden darkness. Rossi's voice was smooth and sonorous. It had the texture of a fine dessert wine and was just as intoxicating.

Again, she was neither old nor wise enough to refuse. "As I said, you can count on me, Mister Rossi." She offered her hand in confirmation. He took her hand to shake with one hand and then, quietly, grasped her hand with the other.

"It's imperative you keep us informed of everything you find," he continued while letting her hand free. "You may not recognize what your eyes see. We can. Do you understand that? With us in the loop, there are a broad range of resources available to you, depending on what happens."

He paused, took her hand again and looked directly into her eyes. "Above all, Ana, you can trust no one. Not even the trustworthy. Your life, and even more, may depend on it." He searched her eyes. He wanted to tell her all the truths.

The winds picked up while they stood silently on the grass, followed by the first drops of rain. Neither moved as a storm built its fury.

"Let's go," Rossi finally said. "You need to get into the air before the weather gets worse."

The plane was loaded and waited for her when they returned. Ana hustled up the small ladder and disappeared inside without looking back. Minutes later they taxied toward take-off.

* * * *

Rossi stared at the brilliant white jet as it punched its way into the bank of clouds rolling in from the Pacific. He'd kept his word to Ana's mother, Jovana, for nearly thirty years, until this day. He'd been in the rear of the auditorium when she graduated from the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Lisbon. The same on the day she received her diploma from the Sorbonne, his own alma mater. She'd left her mark in Cambridge while she studied under the Harvard fellowship. Ana still had no clue about the trust fund in Luxembourg.

His oath prevented him from marrying but not from being a father. He was content to watch her from a distance as requested. He watched the pride in the eyes of Joao Pedro, the fisherman her mother married and whom Ana called 'papai'. Now Rossi's heart swelled in pride, knowing that Ana Pavlović Carvalho had accepted, without question, to join the lineage he gave his life to serve.

* * * *

Ana stared out the plane's window at the lone man standing on the tarmac beside his golf cart. A slight smile crossed her lips as she considered her situation: the big boss had taken her into his confidence, to share a foundation secret with her. She shook her head when she realized he never explained the reason for showing her the odd tattoo. What evil could there be with an uncivilized tribe? she thought. Well, they could be cannibals. She chuckled to herself and lay back against the headrest. Her parents would be very proud. Her heart glowed in happiness.