“Virgin. Completely untouched.”
Kit jerked upright, knocking over one of the duffel bags piled in the back of the Jeep with him. Who’d told the professor? He stared at Owen’s gray ponytail and wished he could sink beneath the pile of supplies and disappear.
Owen glanced over his shoulder. “You okay back there, Kit?”
“Fine, Professor.” He lifted the bag up, listening for anything that sounded broken. “Your bag—”
“Clothes and an extra pair of boots. Just kick it to one side if it’s in your way.” The professor turned his attention back to the rutted dirt track they were driving along and waved a tanned hand at the trees alongside the road. “Jungle covered the old city completely. I suspect Tony knew it was there all along. Had to prove myself to him before he helped me accidentally find it.” He chuckled, and Elizabeth, sitting in the passenger seat, nodded without looking up from her clipboard.
Cheeks burning, Kit stared out into the trees. Virgin. He should have known Owen meant the jungle. He’d been rambling on about it and the dig site since they’d left the airport in Guatemala City. He’d probably rambled about it on the plane, but Kit hadn’t rated a seat near the professor. Instead he’d been stuck in a middle seat between Mitch and Gator. Which was why he’d chosen to spend the rest of the journey bouncing along with the professor’s supplies. The duffel bags were better company.
He’d paid attention to everything Owen said as they drove through the city, but when they entered the jungle, he lost focus. The sound of the traffic disappeared, and Owen’s monologue faded as the sounds of the jungle called to him. Kit could hear birds taking flight in the canopy, and when he closed his eyes, he could smell the richness of the dirt, the sweetness of fruit and flowers, and even the musky scent from the small animals hiding in the trees. It all felt familiar, though it shouldn’t have.
“Kit, I think you’ll like Tony,” Owen shot over his shoulder. “He’ll enjoy having someone new to show around the place. His jungle, as he calls it.”
“Okay.” He hoped that sounded normal. The professor’s comment couldn’t mean anything. He’d been introduced to a few guys he was supposed to “like” during his first year of college, and it had taken him a while to catch on. Just because he hadn’t—with a girl. Or even a guy. Damn it, why couldn’t anything about him ever be normal?
He rested his head on his knees, closed his eyes, and let the sticky jungle warmth settle over him like a blanket. Things would be better when they reached the dig site. He’d worked like hell to prove to Owen that he deserved to be there, and nothing was going to stand in his way. Especially not some guy named Tony who thought he owned the jungle.
The rumble of the Jeep’s engine and the murmur of the professor’s voice soon had him in a state between sleeping and waking. The familiar dream crept up on him. His breath came in gasps as he ran through a green world of vines and shrubs. His bare feet slipped on fallen leaves, and his toes struggled to grip the soil. Heavy footfalls flattened the greenery behind him, and he knew he needed to hide. He spotted a gap in the vines twisting up a nearby trunk and clambered into a dark space behind them. He wrapped his hands around his knees and put his head down, trying to hide even the sound of his breathing. Fear sent his pulse racing. He knew he needed to make sure he wasn’t found, but the dream never showed him why. Instead it left him shivering under the trees as feet stomped past his hiding place and continued on into the jungle.
But this time the sound faded and he listened to the stillness, knowing it wasn’t safe to move yet. The green leaves parted and a tall figure looked down at him. Dark hair fell over bronze shoulders streaked with yellow paint and dotted with black spots. Dark eyes studied him from beneath an elaborate headdress made of jaguar fur and feathers. The figure held out a hand, and Kit reached to take it.
Owen’s voice woke him from his dream as the Jeep screeched to a halt. Kit slammed into the back of Elizabeth’s seat and heard her gasp as she grabbed the dashboard. The screech of brakes from behind warned him to brace for another jolt. He held on to the back of the seat. When the crash didn’t come, he looked back to see Mitch and Gator frowning behind the windshield of a pickup truck. Other trucks were bouncing to a stop on the road behind them.
“Elizabeth? Kit? You both okay?” Professor Owen looked back before throwing his door open.
“Fine.” Kit shoved the duffel bag off his legs and shifted the other supplies out of the way so he could climb out of the Jeep.
“Something wrong, Professor?” Since Mitch hadn’t been buried in duffel bags, he was already out of the truck and rushing to help.
“Tree branch blocking the road.” Owen didn’t sound upset but more like he was pleased by the development.
The two men moved off before Kit could scramble over the supplies. He heard Elizabeth muttering curses as she retrieved her notes from the floorboard. He left her to it and went to join the men.
Mitch squatted beside a large branch that lay in the middle of the dirt road. He pointed at one end. “It’s been cut. This was deliberate.”
“Of course it was deliberate,” Owen said, with a grin. “But it wasn’t meant for us.”
“Why would someone put a branch in the road?” Kit asked. Mitch twisted to look up at him, the man’s expression suggesting he was a complete idiot.
“Probably poachers blocking the roads,” Elizabeth said, joining the group. “They could be dangerous, Professor.”
Dangerous, maybe killers. Kit felt the same urge he did in the dream, the urge to run and hide. He had to push past the fear if he wanted to be an archeologist. The past was the past. Besides, he hadn’t even been there.
Owen stooped to examine the branch. “That’s an old cut. This has probably been lying in the road for weeks. We’ll move it and be on our way. If it was poachers, I doubt they’re still in the area.”
“Why don’t you think the poachers are still around?” Kit asked. The question earned him another glare from Mitch. He glared back, suspecting that Mitch didn’t know the answer either. Professor Owen shifted his weight the way he did when lecturing in the classroom, and Kit wondered if he should have waited until they were back in the Jeep to ask his question. If Owen launched into full lecture mode, they might as well set up camp in the middle of the road.
“Poachers, looters, drug smugglers—they never last long in this part of the jungle,” Owen began in a low tone. “Nothing seems to last here that isn’t, well, welcomed by the jungle. It’s probably why I’ve been so lucky finding untouched Mayan sites. It’s as if some mysterious force has kept civilization at bay. Some remnant of old Mayan magic.”
Elizabeth chuckled from behind Kit. “Don’t fall for his romantic tales. It’s hard living and rough jungle that keeps people away, not Mayan magic. But we can hope the professor is right, and the others have left.”
“So, we’re safe?” Kit asked, trying to keep any hesitation out of his voice.
The professor stepped close and put an arm around his shoulder. “We’ll be fine, Kit. I’ve been working in this area for years. I assure you that we’re safe, but come to me if you need to talk.”
Kit looked down at the ground. He’d already heard the rumors that the professor had accepted him on the dig out of sympathy. Sometimes he suspected it himself, but he was determined to prove he belonged.
“We should be on our way, Professor,” Elizabeth said, rescuing him from further conversation.
“Hate it when she calls me ‘Professor,’” Owen muttered. “It means she thinks I’m in danger of being distracted.”
“Gator and I will take care of the branch.” Mitch waved to the truck. “Hey, Gator, come help me move this.”
Kit watched as big, redheaded Gator strode over to join Mitch. Both men acted as if he didn’t exist. Sure, he was a bit more slender than Gator, but he could drag a tree branch off the road. He stepped closer, ready to help, as Gator bent over, grabbed the branch with one meaty hand and hefted it to his shoulder. Without any sign of strain, the bulky man strode to the edge of the road and tossed the branch into the brush.
Kit glared at Gator’s back. Great. Mitch and an idiot who spoke in single syllables had saved the day, and all he’d done was ask stupid questions. He wanted to retreat to the Jeep, but something tweaked at his senses. His gaze wandered up to the leafy canopy above Gator’s head. He could swear something was up there watching. He felt it, but all he saw were jungle shadows.
Gator dusted off his hands and turned around. “Better drive slowly and keep an eye on the road, Professor.”
“We can take the lead,” Mitch offered.
“Thanks, but I think I can handle it.” Owen gave Kit a slap on the shoulder. “Kit, climb in and hold on. Unless you’d feel safer in the truck?”
“I’ll take my chances.” If he’d been riding in Mitch’s truck, he would have crashed into Gator. Then Gator would have tossed him out of the cab as easily as he’d tossed the branch.
Ah-Tabai’s dark jaguar tail twitched as he watched the men on the road. He would have to speak to the professor about his jungle craft. Just because the cut on the branch was old, didn’t mean the trap was. He wrinkled his snout as he scented the air. Professor Owen and his crew he had expected. This was the time of year they arrived, but someone new was with them. Someone whose scent teased at his nostrils and brought a growl to his throat. Instinct was hard to ignore.
He searched the figures below. One of them was another Balam. A male intruder. He snarled. The professor had betrayed his trust by bringing another into his territory.
No, that was wrong. Professor Owen knew the stones of Mayan ruins, but he did not understand the heart of the Maya. He would have no way to recognize this threat, this Balam. Ah-Tabai crept further along the branch, relying on stealth and dark fur to hide him in the shadows, but knowing that the other would scent him and know he was there.
Mitch strutted along the road, and Ah-Tabai dismissed him. Mitch had worked with the professor before. The Balam was someone new. Ah-Tabai had never seen the big male with red hair. A growl rumbled deep in his throat as the male tossed the branch directly under the tree he crouched in. The redhead brushed his hands together and turned away without even a glance into the branches.
Ah-Tabai’s tail twitched in surprise. The other should have responded with a challenge growl or at least a sign that he knew another Balam waited above him in the trees. But the redhead had shown no more awareness of being watched than, well, the professor ever had. Perhaps this Balam was able to guard his reactions. He apparently moved freely around humans.
Ah-Tabai felt a tinge of jealousy at that. The Balam below him was not bound to the jungle but traveled with the professor. Still that did not mean the other was welcome in his territory. He watched as the men walked back to their vehicles. He needed to know more about this intruder. To warn him again that he was invading another’s territory because if he did not turn back, there would be no choice but battle. He would stop the professor’s caravan again. He knew the route the trucks would follow and made his way through the jungle to another of his roadblocks.
He dropped to the ground and changed, allowing his black fur to retreat into smooth human skin. His paws grew into hands. During the final uncomfortable seconds of the shift, his sight blurred as his vision hovered between jaguar and human. Finally the world took on the vibrant hues of human sight, and he stood naked in the middle of the road.
He moved quickly, pulling fallen branches from the jungle and layering them onto the existing trap. He usually brought a machete when he laid a new roadblock, but today he worked with what the jungle gave him. He wanted a pile that would slow down the professor and his crew so that he would have more time to study the other Balam.
Soon he heard the roar of the approaching vehicles. He retreated to the jungle before shifting to his jaguar form, then he sprang into a tree and waited in the shadows.
The professor watched the road more carefully now and stopped well before the blockade. Ah-Tabai grunted in satisfaction. He liked the professor and didn’t want to see the man injured.
He stalked to the edge of the shadows and watched the men climb out of their vehicles to examine the pile of branches. The redhead kicked the branches in the trap. Ah-Tabai snarled. He wanted the redhead to step into the trees. A few feet would be enough.
The other Balam had to know he was near since his scent was all over those branches. The other should be feeling the urge to shift to meet him. To fight. But no, the redhead stood staring at the trap with no more interest than the other men showed.
Determined not to be ignored this time, Kit pushed his T-shirt sleeves up and grabbed a branch. His nose twitched at a strange odor clinging to the branches. Something animal. He dropped the branch. “There’s something alive in there.”
Gator stepped around him and kicked the pile a few times. “Nope, nothing moving.”
Kit could still smell the sharp animal scent, but the others probably already thought he worried too much. Great, he was building a reputation of being frightened of everything.
Owen jiggled one of the branches with his boot. “All the same, be careful reaching down there without gloves. I don’t want anyone bitten by a snake.”
“I know where we packed the gloves,” Elizabeth said. “I’ll get them.”
Kit wrapped both hands around a branch and pulled it off the pile. He wasn’t about to let the others think he was worried about snakes.
“Don’t strain yourself, kid,” Gator said, as he hoisted a large branch to his shoulder. “You take care of the smaller junk. I’ll handle the big stuff.”
Still dragging his branch, Kit growled. He almost tripped over his feet in surprise at the rough feel of the sound in his throat.
“Got a cough?” the professor asked.
Kit shook his head. “Just frustrated.” It hadn’t been a cough. Coughing felt different.
The professor patted him on the back. “We’ll get there.”
Kit nodded and dragged his branch toward the jungle. The moment he reached the side of the road, the hair on the back of his neck stood up, and he felt another growl start low in his throat. He coughed, trying to get rid of the feeling. An echoing huff came from the trees. Kit peered up into the branches. Something was there. An animal with a scent that echoed the branches piled on the road.
He dropped his branch. “I know you’re watching me,” he whispered, taking a step into the trees. “I don’t know where you are, but I know you’re watching me.” He took another step. His vision blurred, and the jungle colored with smells. He grabbed a tree to steady himself.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” A hand landed on his shoulder, hard, and Mitch spun him around. “No one goes into the jungle alone.”
Kit swayed a bit, the strange feeling hadn’t left him. “Just pulling branches out of the way.”
“You’re still wearing sneakers. Do you want to be bitten by a snake? Go back and get in the Jeep. Gator and I will handle the work.”
Kit glared at him. Then he looked up into the trees. Whatever was watching him had drawn closer, but Mitch didn’t even know it was there. Kit inhaled, smelling a pungent animal scent, and felt another growl coming.
Mitch gave him a shove toward the road. “I said move.”
Kit struggled to stay on his feet. He felt another growl starting and disguised it as a cough. Something was happening to him, and he needed to figure out what it was more than he needed to worry about Mitch.
Ah-Tabai’s claws dug into the branch as he watched the men below. He had been wrong. The Balam was not the redheaded male who was throwing branches around. He’d known that the moment the younger, golden-haired male stepped into the jungle bringing the scent of a Balam with him. The young one had even growled. But he hadn’t shifted, and he let Mitch shove him around as if he were no more than a kitten.
Which was impossible. Balam were created, not bred. They belonged to the ancient world and the old gods. Those gods had retreated, and there were no new Balam. Ah-Tabai watched the golden male climb sulkily into the back of the professor’s Jeep. This kitten was a mystery, and it had been a long time since he’d explored a mystery.
He took off through the trees into the deepest part of the jungle. The clearing and the stone structure that stood there would have surprised even the local villagers. They’d forgotten about it long ago, but the weathered temple served as Ah-Tabai’s home. It was old, but not as ancient as the buildings that the professor would be studying. Those had been hidden by the jungle centuries ago. This building had been thrown together from salvaged stones by a people who still clung to the old gods. Until those beliefs faded and they retreated, leaving the building to him and the gods.
Leaves and soft grasses marked his den in the front part of the temple. A few bones littered the far side of the room, remnants of a previous meal. When he was in his jaguar shape they didn’t bother him, but he would have to remember to clean them out soon. He stalked through the den and into a wider interior chamber that was furnished for a man.
When the professor began digging in the area, Ah-Tabai had managed to furnish the room with a discarded cot which he padded with woven blankets from the village. The other side of the chamber held his books. They sat on bookshelves made from discarded planks of wood. For centuries he’d stolen or traded with the few who visited his jungle, and they had been almost all he knew of the outside world. A single village lay within his territory, but it was nearly as primitive as the Mayan ruins. When the professor came to explore the jungle, he’d found a new connection to the world. One he was loath to lose.
He crouched in the center of the room and thought of the blond kitten. Unbidden, his body shifted. His paws unfolded into hands. His claws retracted and became nothing more than frail human fingernails. His teeth shrank to human size, no longer good for ripping and tearing, but human lips were more useful for kissing than a jaguar snout. Naked, he looked down. His now-human penis stood out, engorged with hot blood. He chuckled, a deep chesty rumble. This had not happened for so long he’d forgotten that it could.
The priests who transformed him had provided him with companions to make sure that he remained near their city and took human form often enough to retain his memories and intelligence. They had known that he preferred strong, young warriors, so the most beautiful had been chosen for him. When the priests wished to call him from the jungle, a young man would be taken from the city to the building that served as his home. There, tied to a tall carved stone, the young warrior would await his arrival.
The sight of these beautiful warriors compelled him to take human form because he needed human hands to release them as they stood trembling in the heavy gold that the priests decorated them with. He would sense their anticipation as the hair stood up on the back of their necks at the feel of his warm breath. He would remove the gold from their necks and let it fall in a jangling cascade to the ground beneath. He would untie and unwrap the cloth that covered their loins and let it puddle on top of the gold. He would move close so they felt his cock pressing against them.
Some grew hard immediately, a sure sign that his conquest would be easy. Some took more enticing. “Submit, my beautiful warrior,” he would whisper. “Kneel and take me in your mouth so I may remember my human side.” He would kiss their necks, then help them kneel.
He looked down at his swollen cock. The blond reminded him of those young, untested warriors. He ran his fingers ran up and down the swollen length of his shaft. As he explored the head, circling it with his fingers, he thought of his hands moving around the blond to unzip his jeans. Jeans would not fall to the ground like a loincloth. He’d have to pull them down, letting the blond’s shaft spring forth into his hands. His hands would circle and tease the blond’s cock, bringing him erect. His tongue would explore his mouth, teaching him to open fully. The blond would kneel to take him in his mouth.
With a growl, Ah-Tabai pulled at his cock, releasing himself in a stream against the wall of the cave. The blond wasn’t a Mayan warrior. He was another Balam and would desire battle over sex.
But he hadn’t fought back against the other male. A Balam did not submit to another. Did the young one know that? If they fought, he would be easy to kill. But Ah-Tabai didn’t want to kill him. He looked down at his now flaccid cock and wondered if he retained enough humanity to follow any other way.
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