The Lord of the Underworld stood overlooking the crystalline waters of the South Pacific Ocean from the first floor patio of his estate.
The long strands of his dark hair whipped around his face in the wind, and the sun beat down on his skin, pushing the golden-brown into an even bronze. The markings etched onto his body warmed, the ink stretching from his neck down to his fingertips and along his thighs in various lines, shapes, and objects.
For the last several weeks, Mataio had felt something stirring among the islands. He’d overhead rumors of a plan to challenge him and force the instability of the Underworld. But, as he’d said it would be since childhood, he was the strongest warrior of the Tauati lineage.
He felt zero fear.
So let them come.
However, there was also something else he felt, hot and curling and feminine. Familiar.
And it was closer now than it had ever been.
“Mataio, Fai’s here.”
His best friend was bent in a half-bow behind him, Sefa’s dark hair hanging in a mass of loose curls about his face.
He and Sefa had been born within the same hour, on the same night. Sefa’s mother lived only long enough to give her son his name. Two days later, his very own mother, the mother of the island nations which made up Oceania, was slain while protecting his infant body from discovery.
Before they could walk, he and Sefa had already formed a kindred bond from their shared tragedies and circumstances. Now, blood couldn’t make them any closer.
“I should make you really start bowing when I enter a room,” Mataio warned.
“That wasn’t a bow.” Sefa straightened, a grin on his face. “I had a crick in my back. This whole ‘immortal god’ thing is really starting to go to your head.”
Mataio laughed and slapped Sefa’s shoulder as they made their way inside.
A woman draped in yellow from head to toe waited on a sofa in the middle of the seating area of one of the main meeting rooms there at the estate. A broad sunflower tucked behind her ear accentuated wavy hair, and her dress flowed to the floor, beautiful in contrast to the deeper notes of her golden skin. Even her nails had been painted a bright yellow; the bright eclipsed the morbid.
It was a way of disguising herself, this woman who could see the fate of men. She was a taunuuga, gifted with the ability to see into the future.
Mataio sat across from her and leaned forward, his elbows on his thighs. “Thank you for coming on such short notice, Fai.”
She pushed air through her nose, a sound that made him think of a suckling pig. “I didn’t know us peons could deny a summons from the mighty God of the Underworld.”
He extended his hands, palms facing up. “Tell me what I want to know and then be on your way.”
She wanted to say more—he could feel her anger as clearly as he felt an eastern breeze—but no one challenged him. Even when he’d been a seventeen-year-old arrogant and bullheaded new leader, no one had dared to defy him.
Fai moved to the edge of the cushion. “Close your eyes.”
He did as requested, and she covered his palms with hers. Heat transferred from her skin into his and he pressed his teeth together when the pain followed, like a snake’s fangs burrowing into its prey, as she created the linkage which would allow her to see into his future.
“I see your life in abundance, Chief Mataio,” she said.
He smiled. “And this so-called uprising?”
“But, I also see something else. A woman. A mortal woman, and she’s here on Tauati.”
The linkage suddenly steamed hot and broke, throwing their hands apart. He opened his eyes to Fai staring at him, a smile on her face that made him think of distrust and betrayal. Of contempt.
But taunuuga couldn’t lie, no matter how much she despised him because of who his father had been.
“What does this mortal woman have to do with me?” he asked.
“It’s you she seeks.” Fai tipped her head. “She just doesn’t know it yet.”
Beneath Mataio’s feet, the floor rumbled. He followed the disturbance to the open glass patio doors and a storm fast approaching over waters that had been calm just moments before. Silent waves had transformed, almost instantly, into angry torment. Earth trembled, preparing to release her rage in a symphony of wind, thunder, rain, and lightning.
“Tell me why this woman is searching for me.”
“She’s in the middle of the forbidden lands.” Fai pointed with her chin. “And she’s digging herself her own watery grave. Trust me, you’ll go to her. You have no choice. She’s your fate.”
He stood, height looming over her. “What could this woman possibly—”
“She is the ofaanga.”
His body went rigid. “What?”
“I have seen it, Chief Mataio.”
“Said the fool to his fate.”
Her admission made him unsteady and uneasy.
“A foolish mortal isn’t my responsibility, and bedtime stories are for children. Gods have been chasing that ridiculous prophecy for millennia, and there’s been nothing to show for it but war, carnage, and death.”
“Because there has only ever been one ofaanga, my Chief. And she was always destined to be yours.” Fai pointed to his chest. “What would it feel like to have that useless brick behind your ribcage come to life?”
The wind picked up. The storm’s anger rumbled through him, creating chaos in his veins. If he didn’t go to her, the “foolish mortal” would never survive the wrath Mother Nature was bringing from the east. And if he didn’t go to her, he would be no different from the tyrant his father had been.
“Your ancestors were so unfortunate to only have ever known love,” Fai continued, goaded. “How do you think it would feel, my Chief? Fucking the reason your heart beats?”
He sneered at her. No matter what their people thought or whispered, there was a marked difference between him and his father. When he killed, it was because he sought judgment, not revenge.
“Sefa, escort Fai out,” he said. “If I’m not back in ten minutes—”
“Then she dies.” Sefa dragged his tongue along his bottom lip, eyes never leaving Fai. Flames glowed in his golden irises. “And, as you know, killing her would be my pleasure.”
* * *
Tia Coleman adjusted the tiny mic attached to the collar of her white polo shirt.
“Hi, everyone.” She waved to a camera placed a few feet away. “Welcome back to my show, Girl Meets History. The rest of my crew decided to sleep in after a long night filled with all sorts of debauchery on Tahiti, but I think I probably only slept for one good hour. As you guys might remember from last year, I was the first scientist to decode the carvings in the stone Ao Tablet my late mother, Sharon Williams, discovered in the seventies. Today, I believe I’ve finally found what the writings on the tablet have been trying to lead us to.”
A strong wind blew. The camera tipped forward, plunging the lens into the sand.
Tia climbed from the hole she’d been digging for the last four hours, dusted sand from her ankle-length khakis, and hurried over to the tripod. Everything she’d recorded so far was choppy at best, but Sean, her cameraman, was a boss at editing. He’d be able to tie in these personal pieces of hers with his professional footage to make them both work for the show.
That was, if the wind allowed her to finish the segment.
She raised the camera and pushed the tripod legs deeper into the sand. When she turned to make her way back to the hole, she noticed dark, heavy clouds blending and rolling in from the east.
The sky had been clear just moments before, the air the usual temperate eighty-degrees the island was known for. At least, here on the southern tip of the island. The northern tip of Tauati remained unexplored.
It was a bit like the red dot on Jupiter, that northern tip; uncharted land plagued by storms which created a physical barrier around it, warding off nosy archaeologists like herself. A helicopter flight above had been useless as everything was covered by thick trees, and flying through the storm hadn’t been possible by any aircraft, man or unmanned.
However, there was enough on the southern tip to explore without having to fail, continuously, at trying to cross over into the mysterious and unknown. It was either resigning herself to that knowledge or admitting defeat.
The smell of rain lifted into the air, thick and pungent. The trees bent and swayed in the strong breezes which were also slapping waves onto the large rocks along the beachfront. Yet, she would not be deterred. Her mother had lived for this work, for uncovering the mystery of the island, and she lived for continuing her mother’s work.
“I’ve been out here for around six hours so far.” She held up the number of fingers for emphasis. “It took me two hours to follow the markings and four to dig this hole but, as you can see,” she motioned behind her, “there’s a storm coming in off the coast, so I’ll be wrapping it up. However, before I do that, let me tell you how I got here in the first place.”
The first part of what had been etched on the tablet—Follow the swan stepping over the sun—had brought her to a tree several miles back. The tree’s limbs and leaves had grown in the long-necked shape of the bird, fluffing out at the end like a shrub. Underneath the tree she’d found a rock with odd carvings which had reminded her of sunlight.
Next, it had said to follow the “biting path.” At first, she’d assumed she’d misinterpreted “beaten path” until a mile of wild rosebushes carried her down a steep hill, leaving a fair share of thorns in her pants and boots.
Finally, she’d found the “gateway to hell,” the pit in the ground where she currently stood. It had been filled with a combination of loose volcanic soil and sand which had made her four hour dig more productive than she’d anticipated.
“When I got here, I couldn’t help but think of my mother.” She wiped the corner of her eye with the last clean-ish spot on her hand. “I wish she could have been here to see this. I can imagine the look she’d have on her f—”
Tia yelped and looked around her feet, down into the hole that came up past her waist. Something had grabbed her ankle. She’d felt it, something that had felt eerily like a hand, no matter how impossible that would be.
But there was nothing around her feet, not even a hole to say something had been there.
She waited for her breathing to steady, returned her attention the camera, smiled, and started over.
“I wish she could have been here to see this. I can imagine—”
Another grab, harder and more insistent, pulled on her ankle until she went sprawling to the ground. The crater was relatively deep, but it wasn’t very wide. Lying on her side, she barely had enough room to straighten her foot.
Something else, another “hand” that felt like it was made of nothing but bone, grabbed her wrist and tugged so hard, it trapped her shoulder beneath the soft soil.
Beneath her, like it was coming from the soil, she heard what sounded like moaning, but it wasn’t like the moaning that came from college dorms and apartments with cheap, thin walls. This sounded like, for lack of a better word, death. Tormented souls. The wail of a lover right before their beloved’s casket was closed for the last time.
Thunder roared. Lighting flashed. Thick raindrops pelted the twisted strands on her head, and her glasses steamed and fogged. The only rivals she’d been expecting were mosquitoes, so the only weapon she’d brought was repellant spray.
Oh my god. She jerked. I can’t get out.
She screamed, a piercing sound that squeezed her lungs, but she knew no one would come. No one ever ventured to this part of the island and she realized, now, that it was for good reason.
She tugged despite the limb-like appendages pulling her further below the sand to a grave of her own making.
“If this is the last thing you see,” she yelled, hoping her mic still worked with her chest pressed up against the sand, “tell my stepdad I forgive him. Sean, Aisha, even Jason—”
Something different pulled her, hard, this time in the opposite direction, jerking her soggy, soaking, and sandy body from beneath the earth and up against it. Through her blurred lenses, she saw the face of a man—angry green eyes, thick brows pinched in the middle, waves of dark hair soaked straight around his face. The tresses dangled well beneath his shoulders.
His voice was deep, and his tone reminded her of the thorns in those wild rosebushes.
“What the hell are you doing out here?”
Tia almost pulled away from him in favor of the pit. “What?”
His gaze roamed her face. He made no attempt to release her, and she clung to him like a cat in a tree. What the island lacked in large predators, he made up for with the way he growled out each sentence.
“Do you even know where you are?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m on the island of Tauati.”
“Why are you here?”
“Sir, I just need help. Please.” Between the fogged glasses and the near-blindness she’d been born with in her left eye, he was slowly disappearing from sight. “If you help me to my phone over there, I’ll call my crew and get out of your hair.”
His torso was bare. A dark blue ‘ie lavalava, a Polynesian traditional patterned wrap, was tied around his waist, clinging to thighs that felt like tree trunks. Tribal tattoos decorated his chest, shoulder, part of his neck, and created a sleeve down his arm, extending to his fingers.
“I should leave you out here to teach you a lesson.”
It was what he said, but he tightened his hold against her.
“Look, sir, I’m not here to cause any problems. I’ll give you anything. Just . . . ”
She couldn’t finish. A headache buzzed at the back of her head. Helpless, she lowered her head to the stranger’s chest.
He made a sound, something like surprise, and a comfort she would never be able to explain surrounded her when he drew her right up against him, securing her in his grip.
Heat spread along her lower back where his palm was pressed, and she wrapped her arms around him as best as she could, drifting off into what she prayed was only sleep.