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Club pick: Wild ride into ‘Middleworld’

“Middleworld,” the first book in “The Jaguar Stones” trilogy, is set against a background of haunted temples, family secrets, ritual sacrifice and adolescent angst, as pampered, pizza-eating Boston teenager Max Murphy fights to survive in the teeming jungle and save the modern world from the Ancient Maya Lords of Death. An excerpt.

Lola gave Max the flashlight and took the candle. She led him through a doorway into a passage that quickly became a narrow staircase, zigzagging steeply to and fro, up and up and up. Every so often an ice-cold drip from the ceiling would land on his neck in the darkness, making him jump every time.

“It’s just water, don’t make such a fuss,” said Lola.

The steps were wet and slippery, but when Max put a hand on the wall to steady himself, his fingers sank into a spongy, putrid-smelling fungus. He slipped over in surprise and, as he got back to his feet, something cold and squelchy landed on his head.

“Ew! Ew! Ew!” he cried.

“It’s just water, Hoop!”

Max ran a hand through his hair and heard something drop to the ground. A huge white centipede, maybe six inches long, like a slug on legs, glistened in the beam of his flashlight.

“Look at this!” he called to Lola. “It wasn’t just ...”

But the centipede had scurried into the shadows.

Max pulled his T-shirt over his head like a hood until the staircase ended and they emerged into a large, roughly hewn room. The ceiling was so low they had to crouch, and the floor was cracked and uneven. On the far side of the room was a doorway, and carved above it was a ghoulish face contorted in agony.

“Is it this way?” asked Max, making for the doorway.

“Stop!” yelled Lola, pulling him back. “Don’t go in there.”

Now that Max looked more closely, he saw that the murky interior was scattered with skulls and bones. He sensed that something lurked in there, something dead yet alive, something that was trying to lure him in. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a movement and he leapt back in fear, but it was just a centipede wriggling out of an eye socket in the nearest skull.

“You’re very jumpy, Hoop. Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Just show me the way out.”

“Up here.” Lola was standing under a dark square in one corner of the ceiling, pointing up at a narrow shaft that shot up into blackness. “It’s not difficult,” she said. “There are footholds, but it’s too tight to climb with the backpacks. I’ll go up first with the flashlight and let down the rope. You tie on the backpacks, then use the rope to help you get up. Okay?”

Bossy, bossy, bossy, he thought. “Just hurry,” he said.

Max pressed himself into the corner and watched the glow of the flashlight recede.

He shivered.

Was it fear making his blood run cold? Or was the temperature dropping?

Max held the candle under his chin for heat.

It was so cold he could see his breath.

He exhaled slowly, watching how the crystals hung in the air and sparkled in the candlelight. He exhaled again, harder this time. To his horror, a cloud of white breath shot out like spray from a fire extinguisher and — No, no, no! — put out the flame.

He couldn’t believe it.

He’d blown out the candle.

How could he have been so stupid?

The icy darkness crowded in on him.

The blackness was suffocating, like a blanket of evil.

What was that scratching noise?

Fingernails? Centipedes? The presence in the bone room?

His heart beat faster and faster. He stamped his feet to keep warm and to frighten away anything that might be thinking of scurrying around his feet.

“Hurry, Lola!” he called. “The candle’s gone out!”

By the time the end of the rope dropped down, a light frost had formed on his head and shoulders. His damp clothes were freezing against his skin. Fumbling with cold, he tied on the backpacks.

He looked up at the distant circle of light that was Lola’s face. Focusing only on her, refusing to think about the darkness that clutched at his feet like invisible fingers, he began to climb. It was hard going and his wounded hand throbbed, but his fear was greater than his pain. He was aware of nothing but the need to maintain upward motion.

Eventually, he reached the room above. He threw himself on the stone floor, breathing heavily, while Lola pulled up the backpacks.

“I told you it was creepy in here,” she said.

She relit the candle, and Max looked around. This room was smaller than the one below and empty apart from something in one corner, something that reflected candlelight in its shiny, gelatinous skin, something gently pulsating with the pump of a million heartbeats....

Max jumped to his feet. “It’s a monster! It’s alive!”

“Frog spawn,” said Lola. “I should have warned you.”

A dark chill was rising out of the shaft and spreading like dry ice. The room was starting to fill with a clammy, foul-smelling fog.

“Let’s keep moving.” Lola coughed.

“Me first,” said Max, grabbing the rope and tying it around him.

The shaft was shorter this time, and he soon arrived at the top.

A wave of heat engulfed him. It was like entering an oven.

His cold, wet clothes dried instantly in a haze of steam.

Nervously, he shone the flashlight around, wondering what could follow giant centipedes and throbbing frog spawn, but his light found no life-forms of any kind. Apart from the heat, this level was almost pleasant. It had the smallest floor area, but a high ceiling made it less claustrophobic, and all four walls were painted with colorful murals.

While he waited for Lola to tie on the backpacks, Max looked closer at the paintings. Mostly they were life-size figures of Maya warriors, monsters, and bizarre animal people with crocodile heads and lobster claws. They were so freaky, it took Max a moment to register the most disturbing thing of all.

This room had no door.

They were at the top and there was no way out.

Excerpted from "Middleworld" by Jon and Pamela Voelkel. Copyright (c) 2007, reprinted with permission from Egmont USA.