Genre = Paranormal, Science Fiction, Action and Adventure, Romance
LENGTH: 48,961 words / 218 pages
Sugar has a problem and Bad Panther has the purr-fect solution.
Dr. Sugar Jennings is an Archaeologist and an Ancient Earth Historian. She’s also the host of a very old, very ancient artifact of enormous power. Everyone wants Sugar dead because of it. They want the power she possesses, but she can’t let them get it. Desperation drives her to seek help but no one is willing to risk their own lives in the job of protecting hers. Or no one did until a mercenary Panther Shifter decided she might be worth the trouble. Now all she has to do is convince the ancient artifact she carries not to kill Axel for trying to help her.
Axel Rodu is a rogue Panther Shifter and heir to the Lyran throne on Earth. His work for the agency is by special contract only but even their toughest problems barely keep his boredom at bay. Has he earned the name Bad Panther? Depends on who you ask so long as you don’t ask his newest client. Ironically though, Axel has no intention of using Dr. Sugar Jennings to worsen his reputation. He has one job to do concerning the archaeologist and one job only. By order of his queen, whatever it takes, he must make sure Dr. Jennings stays alive until the artifact is done with her.
READ CHAPTER 1
Somewhere in the wilds of North Dakota…
Dr. Sugar Lee Jennings was so far into the wilderness that even her GPS wasn’t registering her location. When she’d bought her expensive hiking watch, she’d paid extra for that feature and it was supposed to work everywhere. Well, screw that—and obviously her too because in the end finding the cave had been nothing but sheer luck and trusting her intuition.
Now that she was actually facing the cave’s not-breached-in-centuries entrance, Sugar decided it was a toss-up as to whether she found the place creepy or heard it beckoning her to come discover its secrets. The weirdness of such thoughts was enough to have her lecturing herself aloud.
“Sugar Lee, get a grip. You really didn’t have to come all the way out here in nowhere land to prove your dead daddy was right about your lack of common sense.”
Pulling up her mental panties, she walked into the cave and vowed to toss out all her Indiana Jones movies when this hair-brained adventure was over. Such movies had made her boring childhood more tolerable, and inspired her current career, but they’d also made her think hiking into the wilderness of North Dakota alone wasn’t a completely insane thing to do to prove a damn theory.
“This is not insane,” Sugar said to the dank walls. “This is my journey to fame and fortune. I am here to find it.”
Sugar didn’t know why no one before her had bothered to track down the Third Cave Of The Beringians. If she was right about the cave having been trapped in a glacier for ages—and Sugar was reasonably sure she was—her footsteps were the first to disturb the ancient dust on the cave floor in tens of thousands of years. Excitement over that fact didn’t make the cave any less creepy though, but it did give Sugar the motivation needed to press on.
She’d drawn the map to the cave herself from clues she’d found in about a hundred different books. One of Athena the Ancient’s blades was hidden here—she just knew it was. Her instincts were singing.
Not that she had managed to unearth any conclusive evidence. Tales of Athena’s existence read like Homer’s stories of the mythical Ulysses. Athena was a legendary metal-smith from Earth’s ancient pre-history who had allegedly merged organic matter with metallic substances to bestow some sort of sentience in the weapon.
Why had a technological genius focused on such a thing?
Honestly, Sugar had no idea. Only a computer geek living in his mother’s basement would find the whole “sentient blade” thing as fascinating as she did. There was no way to explain Athena the Ancient without the story sounding like science fiction instead of actual history.
Maybe she was crazy for coming alone, but she practically could hear the Smithsonian-worthy artifact calling to her inside her head. “Sugar,” it whispered. “Come find me.” She’d definitely come too far to back out.
Yes, she knew hearing the artifact speaking in her head was utter nonsense. Maybe her energy was dipping low after her four-mile-hike to get to the cave. Sugar stopped walking and wondered if she should eat the protein bar in her coat pocket before continuing.
She tucked her flashlight under her arm to free her hands which ended up tilting the beam down to the dirt floor. Her action made the top of cave darker… and that’s when she saw it. Up ahead, a soft light glowed in the cave’s stark blackness.
Was she having a hallucination?
There was always the possibility that she was sniffing some underground chemical seeping into the cave. Maybe she was getting high on chemical fumes… or ancient carbon dioxide.
A few more steps forward took her far enough into the interior to totally lose the light from the cave opening behind her. Squinting at something ahead in the dark, Sugar fought the sudden apprehension she felt and bravely turned off her flashlight.
Her heartbeat picked up speed when the cave ceiling glowed golden.
What else could be glowing in the cave? It had to be the artifact.
Flipping on her flashlight again, Sugar inched forward following the beam now.
The artifact whispered her name… and then did it a second time.
Cold chills covered her arms even through all the layers of clothing she’d worn for her hike.
Standing next to her discovery now, Sugar could see the outline of a box. The cover was definitely emitting light of some sort.
She turned her flashlight off again and bent to carefully set it on the cave floor. She also slipped her heavy hiking pack off and did the same with it.
This time her name vibrated in the air. Her imagination had suddenly developed a deep voice and had obviously gone native on her.
Absolutely nothing Sugar had studied for either of her degrees had covered any of this. A talking artifact who recognized her was way too strange for her to take seriously.
It had to be the result of bad air in the cave.
Next time she went artifact hunting, she was bringing an oxygen tank and a breathing mask.
“Ignore the voices. Keep to the plan,” Sugar ordered herself.
Channeling Indiana Jones and his fictional bravery once more, she inspected the resting place of the glowing box. For a brief moment, she wished she was back in the cheap motel she’d rented yesterday. Unfortunately, the motel was a four-hour hike out the forest and then an additional sixty-mile drive away from the location of the cave.
Leaving when she’d come so far didn’t make sense and her logical mind insisted that being afraid was totally ridiculous. After all, couldn’t she just retrieve her flashlight and hiking pack and leave if her concerns grew too large?
Who would know about her cowardice but her?
The answer to her internal debate ended up being a resounding ‘no’ to leaving for any reason because something in her stubborn, too-curious DNA wouldn’t let her.
This was the best chance she’d ever have to prove her theories. It might be her only chance.
And God, she loved being right.
Wouldn’t she enjoy all her peers knowing she’d found something to prove Earth’s pre-history was more advanced than most believe?
Sugar ran her fingers lightly over the glowing box and wiped away several inches of dust and dirt. Two glowing white handprints were on the lid. They were both outlined in tiny blue tubes filled with what appeared to be a circulating liquid of some sort.
“Are you someone’s practical joke or an honest-to-god ancient artifact?” Sugar asked the box. Her surprise at its modern appearance was precisely why ancient people ended up believing in gods.
Wanting the full experience of whatever secrets the box held for her, Sugar pressed her sweaty palms into the handprints. A warm heat stroked across them and made her chuckle. “Gee, that feels nice… and a bit strange. What in the world are you?”
“Genetics validated. Host accepted.”
The cryptic statement echoed loudly inside her brain… and also made her laugh.
It was like she was starring in her own science fiction movie. A grin spread across her lips.
“Accepted? You accept me? That’s awfully polite of you.”
Sugar giggled about responding back as her hands slid off the handprints and ran possessively over the entire golden surface of her find.
“Well, I accept you too, pretty gold box, because you are going to make me a very rich and famous woman. But just to be clear here, we both know the whole talking-to-me thing is just a carbon dioxide hallucination I’m having.”
As she stared at it, the lid retracted—or disappeared altogether—Sugar couldn’t be sure which.
Before she could investigate the mechanism supporting such a surprising action, she glanced inside and noticed a long golden dagger glowing up at her from the bottom of the box.
Her fisted hands went into the air as Sugar excitedly hopped around in the dark.
“Yes! Yes! Yes! I knew it! There really is a blade. It has to be one of Athena the Ancient’s blades. Give the woman her million dollar finder’s fee, people. Move over, Indiana Jones, Dr. Sugar Lee Jennings is a freaking archaeological genius.”
Once she was in control of herself once more, Sugar was vastly relieved when the box didn’t respond to her happy dance over her discovery. The silence in her head hopefully meant her brains cells weren’t dying from poisoned air at a galactic rate after all.
Elation to see an actual blade resting in the box pushed her earlier fears aside. Sugar grinned as she lifted the golden blade from its home. Rather than looking like an actual weapon, the glowing golden dagger instead resembled a ritual athame. There were no edges on the blade sharp enough for cutting. But there was a strange vibration against her hand as the lights on it pulsed in the darkness.
Sugar brought the artifact closer to inspect it. In the light of its soft glow, she could see strange markings covered nearly every inch of the gleaming metal surface.
Was it truly gold? It certainly looked like it. But what if it was a new type of metal—an ancient alloy of some sort?
Rather than take time to retrieve her flashlight from the floor to get a better look, Sugar decided to return the blade to the box and head outside with her treasure.
“Lord, I can’t wait to carbon date you,” she told the gleaming object in her hand.
Still gripping the blade’s handle, she ran a free finger over what seemed to be a symbolic language etched in the surface. Her action must have triggered something because the light being emitted from the marks suddenly changed from a soft glowing gold to a pulsating, iridescent green.
What had to be a million tiny lights began to dance under the top layer of what looked like transparent gold to Sugar’s eyes. The artifact was an absolutely fascinating form of ancient metallurgy. This discovery would definitely count as an archaeological, career-making find.
“Physical evaluation completed. No impediments detected. Merge protocol activated.”
Great, Sugar thought, looking around her in the dark. She was back to hearing the talking in her head. Oxygen—she obviously needed oxygen.
When her palms started to sweat again, Sugar laughed at the strange statements.
Merge protocol? Where the hell had that craziness come from?
She’d just made the freaking archaeological find of a lifetime. She refused to be afraid of her own hallucinations.
Narrowing her eyes, she glared at the blade. “Listen here, artifact. Nobody merges with Sugar Jennings unless she damn well wants them to.”
As the significance of her words hit her, Sugar rolled her eyes in the dark.
“Oh, for goodness sake, I can’t even believe I’m actually talking to a… a thing. That’s definitely enough carbon monoxide sniffing for me. I have got to get out of here while I still have some brain cells left. Back you go into your pretty little box.”
Sugar was trying unsuccessfully to return the blade to its former resting place when strange utterances began rapidly coming from the blade itself.
She brought it close again. What the hell? Did it have a speaker in it? Was this thing some clever geek’s idea of a joke?
But wait… the voice in her head had been communicating in English. She sure wasn’t hearing English now.
She lifted the blade to her ear and listened as closely as she could. The artifact was definitely making sounds that seemed like language of some sort.
The words sounded like… what? Sugar couldn’t decide.
The utterances were rhythmic, spaced equally apart, and…
“Holy shit. Are you doing some sort of a countdown?”
Sugar warily held the blade at arm’s length as survival panic hit her full force. Her instincts took over and excitement over her find fled. For all she knew, what she’d found could be some sort of homemade bomb.
She needed to get out of the cave. She needed to do it now.
Sugar tried once more to return the blade to the golden box—only the freaking thing no longer fit. Was the box shrinking? How could that be possible?
She was still pondering things when the blade suddenly ceased its uttering and switched to emitting a loud, steady hum that seemed to be increasing in resonance.
“Okay. I’m fucking done with this shit. Money and fame are not worth getting blown up,” Sugar yelled as she glared at the blade.
Before she could put the artifact down on the stones and make her escape, the damn thing exploded in her hand and sent out blinding white light in all directions. The impact of the explosion knocked her to her knees.
Sugar glanced around the dark cave but couldn’t see where the blade had gone. Her palm where it had been was on fire. She suspected a burn but there was no light now to check.
Then an excruciating pain in her chest made itself known and shut out all other thoughts and concerns.
“Merge initiated. Symbiosis now in progress.”
Unclear about what she heard, Sugar wanted to ask the voice in her head to repeat what it had said. Only a pain-filled gasp actually escaped her burning throat when she tried to talk.
She must have fallen after the explosion. Her entire body felt like she’d been punctured with hundreds of flaming needles. Everything hurt.
The darkness of the cave soon descended on Sugar’s mind, but as she went under she could have sworn she heard the blade speaking more of its strange language.
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