The Fortune Hunter
Maia gripped the bars of her cage and looked around at the trapped beasts surrounding her. Their cages, like hers, were hanging from the ceiling by thick chains. She could see gigantic snakes slithering, reptiles rising to stand on four legs or on two. Something that looked like a gargantuan hyena cackled menacingly, and a centipede the size of a python tramped circles around the inside of its enclosure. The noise was intolerable. The smell was even worse.
She estimated that any single member of this menagerie (herself excluded) would go for a pretty penny to zoos or universities back in America. Instead, they were probably all intended for delivery to Hitler, free of charge, for some crazy breeding program. Such a waste, she thought. I’d trade the ebony skull for a chance to put any one of these monsters up for public auction.
“Hey, von Wartenburg,” she called to her captor, speaking in German. “Why’d you string me up here with all these beasts?”
“I would have thought that would be obvious,” he answered in crisp English. “An animal should be kept with animals.”
“You owe me that skull, you know,” she said in French. “How much is it worth?”
He looked at his prize, the ebony skull that she had retrieved from the god-queen’s altar. “It is worth more than you will ever know,” he said, this time in Ancient Greek.
Maia could read a little Ancient Greek, but she had never learned it as a spoken language. She slapped the bars of her cage in frustration at not knowing what he had said.
A team of five slaves were hoisting another cage up to the ceiling, their muscles straining to heft its savage contents. Maia recognized this one: it was a smilodon, a saber-toothed cat. It was supposed to be as extinct as everything else in the room, but there was no mistaking those glistening teeth. Maia had once pulled a half a dozen smilodon skulls out of a muddy hillside in Alaska in a single afternoon, but it turned out they weren’t worth much to the local curators. Supply and demand. But a live specimen—that was different.
The beast threw its tawny body against the bars, sending its cage swinging through the air like a pendulum. One of the slaves lost his grip and fell backwards to the ground. His peers struggled to keep hold of the chain, but their combined weight was little more than the giant cat’s, and each swing of the cage lifted their feet from the ground.
“Do not drop it,” Von Wartenburg instructed them. He walked calmly closer and peered up at the creature, a quarter ton of teeth, stripes, and sinewy rage.
The smilodon launched itself at the bars again, and this time the slaves could not hold on. Two more of them dropped free, sprawling on the floor, while the remaining two clung fast to the chain and were whipped into the air as the cage slammed down. Von Wartenburg opened his mouth, no doubt to issue one of his mystical commands to the creature, but his syllables were lost in the commotion, and the smilodon lashed out at him through its bars.
Von Wartenburg stepped back, but not quickly enough.