Where do you hide a mysterious artifact that could change the course of history? You scatter clues to its whereabouts across the entire planet. Five objects buried beneath the rubble of lost civilizations point to the hiding place of the fabled Sage Stone. A secret society and a fanatical religious cult vie against one another in a global treasure hunt to claim the prize. The Arkana wants to preserve it for posterity. The Blessed Nephilim wants to exploit it to create a terrifying new world order. Only one faction can win. More importantly, only one can survive.
Chapter 1—How A Golden Age Turns Bronze
Gansu Province, Northern China, 2650 BCE
During the age of Shen-Nung, people rested at ease and acted with vigor. They knew their mothers, but not their fathers. They lived among deer. They ate what they cultivated and wore what they wove. They did not think of harming one another.
The woman stood upright and stretched to ease the stiffness in her back. She’d been cultivating around the roots of a row of millet plants. She paused to study the feathery seed heads drooping above their tall stalks—still green though the weather had been fair and promised to ripen them in a few more weeks. Her youngest son, barely more than a toddler, was attempting to help her by attacking weed clumps with a sharp stick.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed movement in the distance. Several dozen figures were descending from the mountains that surrounded the river valley where she and her clan lived. They were moving at a leisurely pace down the slopes. Curious, she dropped her hoe and, taking her son by the hand, threaded her way through the millet field. Several others of her clan, also working in the fields, had noticed the approach of the strangers. The farm folk wandered toward the river bank and gathered in a small group to watch their descent.
As the band loomed ever nearer, a collective murmur of surprise rose from residents. The woman gasped audibly at the spectacle. The strangers numbered about fifty men, women and children. These people were odd-looking. Whereas the villagers were short and stocky with straight black hair and brown eyes, the strangers were tall and gangly, their skins as pale as a fish’s belly. Their eyes were round and set deep in their sockets. Their hair was bushy—the color and texture of straw.
They were not walking but riding. The lead figure sat astride a long-necked, long-nosed beast which he controlled with leather straps fastened around the creature’s mouth. The woman had seen a few of these animals before though large numbers of them were said to roam across the grasslands beyond the mountains. They were useless as livestock. Not placid like the pigs which her clan kept in pens. These long-necked creatures were skittish—easily frightened—and, once startled, they ran like the wind. Sometimes her people would hunt them for their meat but no one had ever tried to sit on one before.
Yet here was a band of humans astride the backs of these creatures as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Not all the strangers were riding the animals though. Several among them, mainly women and children, were traveling in even stranger fashion. They sat in square wooden boxes with round disks attached on either side. Long-necked beasts were tied to these boxes and pulled them forward, making the disks spin and leaving behind tracks in the grass.
The woman’s son had wrapped his arms around her leg as if it were a tree trunk. He stared up at her, silently demanding to be carried. She hoisted him into her arms so he could get a better view. He stuck his fist into his mouth, warily regarding the advancing procession.
The woman’s eyes were drawn to a female figure seated in the foremost of the square boxes. A plank of wood was strapped to her back. On it rested an infant, if the poor little thing could be said to rest at all. It was swathed in cloth strips that bound its tiny body to the plank. The infant was wrapped so firmly that it could move neither its arms nor its legs. Its forehead was held rigidly against the board to keep it from flopping to either side. For a moment, the woman wondered whether the baby was even alive. Perhaps this was the way these foreigners prepared their dead for burial. Then the baby’s eyes blinked open lethargically. The pressure of the wrappings made the eyes seem to bulge from their sockets but the infant remained mute. Perhaps it knew that no one would release it from its bindings so there was no point in whimpering.
The woman’s attention then traveled from the bound infant to its mother. Her hair was flame-colored. She wore an intricately stitched shawl—red and green thread had been worked into square shapes with straight lines shooting through them. The design was more complex than anything the clan weavers could produce.
This caravan was a peculiar sight to be sure. But of all the curiosities in this odd procession there was one stranger than all the rest. It was a wooden platform, smaller than the boxes which held the women and children. It too had wooden disks attached to each side and was pulled by a long-necked animal. Beneath the platform were more disks with notched edges which seemed to interlock with one another. These all connected to a small pillar resting on top of the platform. The pillar was topped by an ornamental carving of the neck and head of one of the beasts these people used for conveyance. As this platform traveled forward, no matter which way it zigged and zagged down the hills, the nose of the carving always turned toward the same direction. The woman judged it to be pointing south. She couldn’t imagine what purpose this device served.
Her silent speculation was cut short when the leader of the band raised his arm, commanding his followers to halt. They wordlessly obeyed. The man gave his beast a sharp kick in the ribs and it ambled forward until he tugged on the strap in its mouth to make it stop a mere ten feet away from the assembled clan.
The farm folk gawked up at him. He impassively stared back at them. The woman took in every detail of his appearance. His yellow hair hung down his back. It was the color of ripe millet as was the color of the thick beard which flowed down his chest. His age was hard to guess. He was not a youth but not an elder either. His eyes were set so deeply that his eyelids folded over them like a hood. On his head, he wore some sort of metal bowl turned upside down. Horns had been affixed to either side of the bowl, giving him the fearsome aspect of a charging beast. A long knife hung from a leather belt at his waist.
The stranger made no threatening gesture despite his warlike attire. He merely sat on his animal and silently studied the people clustered below him. After a few moments, his gaze shifted from the crowd to the millet fields, the houses, the livestock pens and the river flowing endlessly off into the distance. A slight smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. The farmers continued to gape and point and whisper among themselves.
The woman felt a shadow cross the sun even though the sky was clear and bright. She didn’t have the gift of second sight like the shamans of the clan. Her gift lay in making things grow. Still, she felt an unaccountable sense of despair welling up from the depths of her heart. Without being able to explain why, she knew that her world was about to change—and not for the better.
Nancy Wikarski is a fugitive from academia. After earning her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, she became a computer consultant and then turned to mystery and historical fiction writing. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, the Society Of Midland Authors, and has served as vice president of Sisters In Crime - Twin Cities and on the programming board of the Chicago chapter. Her short stories have appeared in Futures Magazine and DIME Anthology, while her book reviews have been featured in Murder: Past Tense and Deadly Pleasures.
She has written the Gilded Age Mystery series set in 1890s Chicago. Titles include The Fall Of White City (2002) and Shrouded In Thought (2005). The series has received People's Choice Award nominations for Best First Novel and Best Historical as well as a Lovey Award for Best Traditional Amateur Sleuth.
Her seven-book Arkana Archaeology Mystery Series is a #1 Amazon Bestseller. Titles include The Granite Key (2011), The Mountain Mother Cipher (2011), The Dragon’s Wing Enigma (2012), Riddle Of The Diamond Dove (2013), Into The Jaws Of The Lion (2014), Secrets Of The Serpent’s Heart (2015), and The Sage Stone Prophecy (2016).
"There's a 52% chance that the next Dan Brown will be a woman ... or should we just make that 100% now?"
--Kindle Nation Daily
The author will be awarding a $10 Amazon or B/N GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.