Not all ancient gods are gone

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Colette grabbed her mother’s hand. The thick straps of her camera slapped against her chest. She pulled them back away from the orange blouse her grandmother insisted she wear that morning. It matched the peculiar pattern of the skirt her mother forced her into before they left the hotel, in spite of what their plans were.

Colette pulled and tried to hurry the older woman. “Mom, we’re going to miss the best view,” she said.

“My knees don’t work as well these days, Lettie. You know that,” her mother said. “And your poor Gran can barely walk at all.” Unspoken was the, what kind of selfish child are you that always followed anything Colette wanted for herself.

“Can I go on ahead then? I want to see the valley,” Colette said. “You know our guide said this was the best time to see it, with everything green and in bloom.”

Her mother sighed. “I’ll wait here with your Gran. Do not stay up any longer than the rest of the group, or we’ll leave you here for the serpents.”

“Just like we did to your brother,” her grandmother added.

Colette shivered. Two years earlier, her mother and grandmother had brought Colette’s twin brother Colin to this same spot in Belize. He’d disappeared, and both women claimed he’d been kidnapped. The locals did their best to investigate, but no one could find anything and to this day Colin remained a missing person.

“I’ll be down with everyone else,” Colette promised. She joined the rest of the tourists and climbed up to the top of the pyramid using a carefully constructed ramp and railing. She stood with the crowd as their guide, an olive skinned woman named Itzel, told them a fantastic story about how Q’uq’umatz joined the god Tepeu and created the world.

As the woman spoke, Colette remembered that she claimed from the beginning to be Mayan. “My people never died, as the Aztecs did,” Itzel said. “We endured when others fell.”

“Itzel, do people really believe all this pantheon horse shit you chuck at them?” The man who spoke had an exaggerated drawl. Colette glowered at him. He was everything people who lived in other countries despised about Americans, and he didn’t seem to care.

Itzel smiled at him, her eyes full of mystery. “Mr. Carpenter, no one is expected to believe anything. I simply tell the tales of my people. It is up to the listener to make that decision themselves.”

Mr. Carpenter snorted and opened his mouth. Three sets of hands clamped over it. His wife, son, and daughter were tired of his bullshit and, apparently by the quiet laughs and cheers, so were the other members of the tour group.

“That ought to keep the asshole quiet for a few,” someone else said, a strong Irish accent making him difficult to understand at first.

Colette giggled softly. Itzel shooed them all towards the ramp. She approached the teen. “You came up alone?” she asked, her accented voice placing peculiar intonations on those few syllables.

“My mom and grandmother couldn’t make it up the ramp,” Colette said. She glanced at the group moving past them. “I need to go down now.”

“You are a strange girl, Colette. So obedient, so willing to please, and yet so angry and defiant at the same time,” Itzel said, that mysterious smile back on her face.

Colette froze. Everything they’d signed, all the times she’d written her name, she’d been ordered to use the despised Lettie. There was no way a woman from a small town where there wasn’t any cell service or internet could know her name.

“Where did you hear that?” Colette asked, starting down the ramp.

Itzel fell in step beside her. “In your thoughts, and in your brother’s. The Feathered Serpent is very unhappy with your mother and grandmother. That is why he took Colin, and why he seeks to take you next, if you will allow it.”

“Who is this Feathered Serpent?” Colette asked, her voice shaking. She’d stopped moving and was now frozen on the ramp.

“The Aztecs called him Quetzalcoatl. You heard me say what we call him a moment ago. He is Q’uq’umatz, one of the creators of our world,” Itzel said. The strange Mayan woman reached out and placed her fingertips on Colette’s chest. “How much longer do you have, dear child?”

Colette quivered but couldn’t pull away. “A year,” she whispered, tears slipping down her cheeks. “Maybe eighteen months.”

“How long did Colin have when they brought him here?” Itzel asked. Her voice was softer, more musical. “How long before the broken piece of his heart stopped working and killed him?”

“Six months. This was something the both of us wanted to see before we died,” Colette said. The heart defect that had killed her father on his twenty third birthday was set to claim her on her eighteenth, and would have taken Colin’s life before their sixteenth birthday. ”

“This was your wish? A final trip before the long pain begins?” Itzel asked.

Colette could hear her mother shouting, but somehow her words weren’t nearly as important as those of the woman in front of her. Itzel’s thin fingers still rested on Colette’s blouse covered chest.

“I had to beg,” Colette said. “Mom didn’t want to come here again. Gran swore she’d have a stroke the moment we checked in. But I pushed and pushed and pushed. I wanted to see where Colin disappeared, and to see the pyramids he told me about so excitedly the night before I went to stay with Aunt Regina for those horrible weeks.”

Itzel nodded. “Would you like to see your brother?” Her voice was now little more than a whisper, yet it sounded like a flute in Colette’s ears. “He’s alive, well, and safe. Safe from those insane harpies that murdered your father, tried to murder him, and are now set to end your life as well.”

 

“What do you mean?” Colette asked.

“Your heart defect is genetic, but those who have it do not usually die young. Your father’s death was brought on with a massive dose of digitalis, something no one in your tiny excuse for a hometown’s hospital bothered looking for,” Itzel said. “Your brother was getting weaker, but the doctors caught on that he was being poisoned. That’s why he was brought to Belize. They needed to remove him from the US where his condition was easily treatable. In the end, that is why they brought you here as well. You won’t return to your home in the US, Colette. You can live your life with Colin, or die by their hand.”

“I want to see Colin,” Colette said, her voice nearly inaudible.

Itzel laughed, the musical sound turning into a snarl. “I will take you to him.” Screams erupted from below, though Colette only heard them faintly. She watched in wonder as the petite guide became a stocky middle aged woman who shared some aspects with a jaguar.

“Who are you?” Colette asked.

The being grinned. “I am Ixchel, one of the ancient goddesses of the Mayans. My domain is the realm of medicine. It’s how I saved Colin’s life, and how I will preserve yours.” She held out one clawed hand. “Come, or return to the two who seek to slay you.” Colette didn’t look back. She took the ancient goddess’ hand. The world blurred around them.

The strap holding her camera around her neck broke, sending the delicate mechanical creation crashing to the top of the pyramid. It shattered into hundreds of tiny pieces.

Thunderstorms bring interesting guests

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Marissa stared at the dark clouds as they rolled in. Steamrolling the blue out of the way, as her mother used to say. The fiery orange of the sun as it set was soon blocked by the black clouds. A bolt of lightning hit the ground in the empty lot across the street from her apartment.

“Holy Hannah in a hand basket,” she shrieked, once again echoing her mother.

“Mari, that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Karen, her roommate, said as she came over to look at the window just in time for another lightning strike to hit the empty lot. “Fucking hell.”

“That’s two,” Marissa said.

“I’ve never seen lightning hit the same spot twice,” Karen said, her voice filled with awe.

As the two young women watched, three more bolts hit the lot before the rain started. A torrent blocked their view of anything other than the blurred images of a neighborhood drowning in the much needed precipitation.

Marissa closed the blinds and settled back into the window seat. She couldn’t shake the images she’d seen in the flashes of light. “Kari, did you see anything when the lightning hit?”

Karen frowned. “I thought maybe I saw people. It was probably the local homeless scrambling to get out of the way. That’s got to be scary as hell when you’re just trying to find a place to sleep.”

Marissa nodded, but something inside told her that the shadows she’d seen weren’t those from some of the city’s homeless population. She tried to get back into the novel she’d been reading, but the urge to open the blinds and peek out at the darkened street grew stronger.

She jumped when something scratched at their door. “What is that?” she asked, yelping.

Karen rolled her eyes. “It’s probably one of the local strays. I’m going to let it in, and to hell with the landlord. Nothing deserves to be out on a night like this.” She got up from her computer and went over to the door. She opened it a crack.

A pair of black cats, soaked to the skin, streaked inside. Karen shut and locked the door. The cats stopped, looked around, and ran for Marissa. Marissa sighed and put her book to the side. She’d always been a magnet for the animals in the area, feral or not.

Karen grabbed a couple towels and the two women dried the cats off as best as they could. “They’re gorgeous,” Marissa said.

“These two haven’t been strays long,” Karen said. “They’re just starting to lose that ‘I’m a well fed house cat’ look.”

“I wonder what bastard abandoned them?” Marissa asked. Now that they were warm and mostly dry, they’d cuddled up against her chest and were purring.

“I think the only time I hear you use a real swear word is when an animal is in distress,” Karen said with a laugh.

“Animals and children,” Marissa said. “Adults can deal with their own lives, for the most part.” Karen continued laughing as she went back to her computer.

That night, when the women went to bed, the cats positioned themselves outside their doors. Karen tried to coax the one guarding hers in with the cat treats she kept tucked in her bedside table drawer, but it completely ignored them. Marissa just petted the one who’d chosen her and shut her door as usual. She felt cold and had a headache. She took a couple aspirin and went to bed.

The next morning Karen’s scream roused her. Marissa fell out of bed and half stumbled to the door. She opened it up and let out a shriek of her own. The two black cats were sitting where they’d been the night before, but were covered in blood. In front of them were a collection of the strangest creatures Marissa had ever seen. Even as she watched, they turned to ash and sand.

“What the hell were those?” Karen asked. She looked down at the cat at her feet, now completely clean. “And what are you?”

The cat gazed up at her calmly before leaping through the wall. The one guarding Marissa rubbed up against her leg once and followed its twin. The two women stared at each other. Karen opened her mouth. “I have no idea either,” Marissa said. “Let’s just call them guardian spirits and those weird things the demons they vanquished.”

“No one is going to believe us,” Karen said.

“I’m not telling anyone about it,” Marissa said.

Karen was quiet for a moment. “Yeah, I don’t think I will either. Freaky ass shit like this gets you labeled either as crazy or as a drug abuser. Or both.” She rubbed her forehead. “I’m going to take a shower.”

“I’ll go start breakfast.” Marissa closed her door and went to her closet, hands trembling. Demons, cat guardians, and a weird thunderstorm. Her mother had been right – the world was a strange, strange place.

All time runs out

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Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Kevin glared at Stephen. “Your watch is loud,” he snapped.

“I’m aware of that,” Stephen said, completely unfazed by the other man’s irritation. “It’s not as if I can’t hear it too.”

“So why do you wear it?” Kevin asked.

“I like it,” Stephen said. “It’s a classic.”

Kevin rolled his eyes. Everything with his former business partner had to be a “classic.” From his suits to his cars to his girlfriends. It was all he wanted in life. He studied philosophers, literature, and science. He had several doctorates in things Kevin had no interest in. He was considered well educated and an expert in many fields. Kevin thought he was a bore.

The younger man preferred the fast life. He drove sports cars, attended parties, and dated super models and movie actresses. He had two children he was paying child support on, but it was a drop in the bucket of what he held in offshore accounts. Of course, he kept enough in the States that the government didn’t get too suspicious of his lifestyle being beyond his means. The offshore accounts were if things went south so he could leave and still be comfortable.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

“Do you have any idea why we’re in Zack’s lawyer’s office?” Kevin asked.

“I haven’t heard from Zachary Richardson in ten years, so getting the summons from his attorney was as much of a shock to me as I’m sure it was to you,” Stephen said. “We must be patient and wait to see what we’re needed for.”

Before Kevin could reply, the door opened and a tall, thin man appeared. “Mr. Williamson, Mr. Nichols, thank you for coming. Please follow me.” Kevin and Stephen stood and were led into a large conference room. A petite blond all in black with red rimmed eyes was sitting there with a young boy. She glowered at the two men.  They took the seats they were pointed to and waited.

“I can’t see why they have to be here,” the woman said. “They have nothing to do with Zack.”

“Actually Mrs. Richardson, your husband specifically named them in his will,” the attorney said. “So I am required by law to have them present for the reading.” The woman scowled but fell silent.

“Will?” Kevin asked. “You mean Zack’s dead?”

“Yes Mr. Nichols,” the attorney said. “He passed away a week ago.” Kevin couldn’t say anything else and waited. The attorney cleared his throat. “I won’t read all of the legalese. It would be boring and waste everyone’s time. All of his wealth, worldly possessions, and all but two of his properties are yours, Mrs. Richardson. The two remaining properties now belong to Mr. Williamson and Mr. Nichols.”

“Which properties belong to them?” Mrs. Richardson asked.

“Mr. Williamson, your estate is in Greece,” the attorney said. “It is in the classic Greek style, something Mr. Richardson knew you liked.” Stephen smiled, though tears trickled down his cheeks.

“And mine?” Kevin asked.

“Yours, Mr. Nichols, is – a graveyard.”

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Kevin stared at him in shock. “What kind of bad joke is this?” he demanded. “Stephen gets a Greek villa and I get a graveyard? What’s so special about that?”

“It’s where you’re buried, Mr. Nichols,” the attorney said with a peculiar smile.

“It’s what?” Kevin burst into laughter. “Don’t you mean it’s where Zack’s buried? He’s the dead one.”

The attorney shook his head. “Look around the room again, Mr. Nichols.”

Kevin did as he was told. There, sitting across the table, wasn’t the petite blond woman with the young boy. Instead it was a fiery red head with a pair of equally as red haired twin girls. The woman was pale, as if she was in shock. The girls were sobbing into the sleeves on a pair of jackets he recognized as the ones he’d given to his two daughters the year before.

He turned to look at Stephen. His old business partner seemed weighed down by grief. His normally stoic expression was twisted in a kind of agony Kevin remembered from the day when his own best friend had died in a seventeen car pile up on the freeway.

“What’s going on?” Kevin demanded.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

“You lived too fast a life, Mr. Nichols. It caught up with you. The mafia decided you were a threat and sent several of their people to try to force you to leave town. You argued with them and they opened fire. Your lady friend and your daughters were fine. You were hit multiple times. The doctors at JC Memorial worked heroically to save you, but three bullets to the chest and two to the head just isn’t something you wake up from,” the attorney said. He stood. “You have a choice, Mr. Nichols. You can remain in this room, watch the tormented faces of your loved ones for eternity. Or you can leave through that door and face whatever fate awaits you in the afterlife. It’s your decision.”

“What is my fate going to be?” Kevin asked.

The attorney shrugged. “I don’t know. No one does until they get there. Consider this a waypoint before your final journey.” He turned and left the room. Kevin looked at his sobbing daughters and his distraught girlfriend. Tearing his gaze away from then, he looked over at the nondescript gray door the attorney had pointed out. His feet shuffled as he crossed the faded carpet. His hand touched the knob.

Tick. Tick. Ti-

Not all mist conceals

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Diyar waited impatiently for his twin. “If you keep dragging your feet, I’m leaving you behind. You made me miss it last time. I’m not taking that chance this year,” he shouted.

Sivan staggered out of the decontamination chamber. His long black hair was a mess, sticking out from his head like the tentacles of a partunial lagoniva. “I don’t know why you’re so excited about this. You’ve seen it before,” he grumbled.

“When we were children,” Diyar said. “We were barely old enough to remember. And when it came around again when we were teenagers, our parents wouldn’t go without you. What was it you told me when I tried to get you to move faster?”

Sivan sighed. “I told you the only way I was going to see some shelling sunrise was if you drugged me and stuffed me in the cargo shell of the hover.”

Diyar nodded. “Now, you have five minutes. I’d rather have you with me, especially since you promised Briska and Sirin you’d be there.” He grinned as his brother spluttered. The twin sisters who dated the two brothers interchangeably were hard to please, and if Sivan went back on his word, the two of them would make him pay for it for a long time.

Five minutes later, the black haired and brown eyed twins left their underground apartment and went through a series of tunnels lined with electromagnets that granted their vehicle the ability to fly until they reached the main landing bay of the Geliyen settlement on Protoxia VII. It was kept sealed and guarded against the residents most of the time. Only once every fifteen years was it opened to the public, and the huge ships stored inside prepped for flight once more.

Briska must have been watching for them because she appeared shortly after they parked their hover. “You two were almost late,” she said, her charcoal colored eyes flashing angrily.

“My fault, Bris,” Sivan said. “I worked late and overslept.”

Briska snorted. “You ‘worked late,'” she said, making a motion with her hand to show she didn’t believe him. “You were out at the bar again.”

“No Bris,” Diyar said. “He really was working late. I had to go pick him up because the public transit stopped running two hours before he got off.”

Briska opened her mouth. Sirin appeared and elbowed her. “Bris, I work for the same company as Sivan, remember? He was still there after I left, and I caught the last public transport,” she said.

“Let’s go,” Sivan said, catching hold of Sirin’s hand. “We’re going to miss the transport, and I want to make sure we can all sit together.” He dragged Sirin along. Diyar and Briska followed. Diyar glanced at Briska out of the corner of his eye. She was not one for unwanted physical touch, and right now it looked like she wasn’t interested in taking his arm.

They got to the massive ship and climbed aboard. They found a long bench that seated four and settled in. They fastened their harnesses and waited for the ship to fill up. It did and about an hour after they arrived it lifted off.

Diyar watched as the dark browns, grays, and reds of the stone surrounding the city passed the windows. There was an excited buzz in the conversations going on around him. He saw several young children tugging on their parents’ arms and asking what they were going to see. The parents just told them to be quiet and they’d find out soon enough.

Eventually the ship broke through the crust of the planet. On the surface, as if preserved in some giant museum, stood the ancient cities that had once held Diyar’s ancestors. The first residents of Protoxia VII built the towering structures they now saw, drawing on their memories of their homeworld. But something went terribly wrong and they’d been driven  underground. That had been nearly a thousand years earlier, and their descendants still lived in the subterranean territories carved out a millennium ago.

“Look,” Briska said, her breath catching in her throat. Light flickered off the shimmering powder on her olive skin.

Everyone peered out the windows. The cloud cover that was a perpetual drain on the solar generators was parting even as they watched. The glorious golden sun poured light down on the mist shrouded ghost city. No pictures were taken. It was forbidden. No drawings were made. Again, it was forbidden. All you were allowed to have were your memories, and Diyar stored his against the coming gray time.

Too soon the clouds covered the shining orb and the ships made their way back underground. “Do you think we’ll ever see it again?” Sirin asked wistfully.

“I don’t know about you two,” Diyar said. “I know I won’t. I’m 34. I’ve only got eleven years left.”

“Can’t you file for an extension?” Briska asked.

“I’m not a good enough candidate for that,” Diyar said. “I’m just going to enjoy the years I have left and let my life end when they say it does.”

 

A celebration of life

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I’m taking a short break from the stories to bring up an important milestone in my life:

I JUST TURNED 40 YEARS OLD!!!!!

My birthday was actually yesterday, but I can’t believe it. I’ve been on this planet for 40 years. I’m sometimes surprised that I’ve lived this long – especially when I consider my attempt at ending my life four years ago. There was the attempt when I was seventeen as well, though I think I’m the only one in my family who knows that’s what it was. Everyone else swears it was just a bad bout of flu. That’s twice I’ve tried to end my own life, and yet I’m still here.

Then there’s been the few car accidents my family’s been in, the times where I did stupid things like walk into a live fire zone in an archery range (I wasn’t the brightest teenager), the times where I drank so much I blacked out, the one time I mixed alcohol and a narcotic pain killer by accident (I forgot I’d taken the pain killer…DON’T DO THAT…IT’S BAD,) and other things that are too numerous to mention. To be blunt, I’ve done a lot in my life that should have gotten me killed. Yet here I am. I’ve survived, though I’ve lost people I’ve loved along the way.

One of the hallmarks of my life, until recently, is I’ve always run away from my problems. I drank a lot after I lost my kids. I would fall into a deep depression any time something triggers my anxiety. I would beat myself up when something goes wrong to the point where I fell into a deep depression because I didn’t know how to deal with it. I still do those things. I haven’t stopped completely. But I have made great strides in resolving those issues. I’m working towards making myself into a stronger, more positive, more confident, and even more loving and compassionate woman – and that, to me, is the best use of those 40 years of experience.

I would not wish the negative experiences in my life on anyone. I do hope that all of you are able to take those negative things that happen to you and, one day, use them to prove that you’re stronger than you think you are. Even if it’s only to yourself.

*raises glass of Mountain Dew* Here’s to 40+ more years of learning, loving, and life!

Night lights

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“Don’t stay out too long again,” Philippe told her as she relaxed into the body conforming chair. “You almost didn’t make it back last time.”

“Trust me, I’m not making that mistake again,” Suyen said with a shudder.

Philippe tied the tourniquet tight on her upper arm and tapped her lower arm until he found a vein that didn’t have too many holes in it. He slid the needle in and depressed the plunger on the syringe.

For a moment Suyen felt nothing. Then came the weight on her chest, the sense that she couldn’t breathe. She let her eyes close. She could hear the monitor as it beeped, letting everyone around her know that her heart rate was slowing. For a moment, she heard and felt nothing.

Light flooded her senses and she was floating above herself. Philippe was beside her, constantly checking all of her readouts. The director and his assistant were watching her wasted form as it struggled to maintain the life she so desperately clung to.

Knowing her time was limited, she willed herself out of the secret lab and out into the night sky. She lifted herself higher and scanned the city. She saw the streets and took a moment to enjoy the beauty of the lights of the cars, streetlights, and the city. It mesmerized her and held her attention for several seconds.

She tore herself away from the view and focused on her mission. She continued looking and, just as she knew she was at the limit of her time, she saw what she needed. She locked the details in her mind before willing herself back to her body.

She woke to Philippe’s worried face. “You cut it close again, Suyen,” he said. “A few more seconds and you wouldn’t have survived.”

“I know,” Suyen said. “But I found her.”

“Where is she?” the director asked.

Suyen opened her mouth when suddenly her heart monitor started going crazy. She gasped, hands clenched as her chest felt like it was going to explode. She was vaguely aware of an IV being stuck in her hand, of something hot piercing her veins. She dimly heard shouting. Then there was nothing but a solid tone.

Suyen found herself staring down at her body again. This time there was nothing binding her to it. Her heart monitor was a flat tone and her chest was still. The director was screaming at Philippe, who had tears running down his cheeks.

“How the hell am I supposed to know what happened?” Philippe snarled, startling the director into silence. “I told you she was too frail to keep going. I told you she needed some time to rest. You knew your daughter was safe, that she would be okay for a while longer. You could have given Suyen time to recover from her last trip.”

Suyen realized what had happened. She was dead. Her body, not accustomed to having her soul consistently ripped out of it, had given up. She let herself drift out of the lab. She floated up into the night sky. There she gazed down at the streets and lost herself again in the mesmerizing light.

Fire and ice

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Rin stood behind her father, a hand on his shoulder. King Alaric, master of the Northern Kingdom, reached up absently from time to time and patted it. Rin was not pleased she’d been selected out of all of her father’s children to accompany him to the annual meeting of the rulers of the elemental kingdoms.

Tensions were running high between the frozen North and the fiery South again. The only thing preventing them from declaring war on each other was the fact that the rocky East and the windswept West blocked their way.

“There can be no peace between us unless Alaric gives us something of value to prove he intends to keep the treaty you’re offering,” Queen Keahi said, slamming her bony fist onto the table. Sparks flew from her fingers. “I see no reason why the South should give everything.”

“I never said it was all on you, Keahi,” King Fihr, ruler of the East, said. His rather bland expression showed he was used to her outbursts. Rin’s hand trembled. The Southern queen’s anger frightened her. Once again Alaric placed his hand over hers. “Alaric will be required to make payment in kind.”

“What do you want from the both of us?” Alaric asked.

“Keahi, we asked that you bring the son that was your favorite among your children excluding your heir,” Queen Tuuli said, her smile not reaching her watery gray eyes. “Alaric, we asked the same of you, save it be a daughter that came to this meeting.”

Rin shook as the words sank in. Alaric stiffened. “I will not give my son in marriage to that Northern slut,” Keahi screamed, leaping up and throwing her chair across the room.

“If you do not abide by the treaty we have laid out, then you leave us no choice but to invade the Inferno Realm,” Fihr said. “While Alaric doesn’t have the ability to deal with you, Tuuli and I do.”

“You’d side with him over me?” Keahi demanded.

“You are the one who instigated this hostility, Keahi,” Tuuli said. “Now, sign the treaty or witness the destruction of the Inferno Realm.”

Keahi turned to the young man she’d brought with her. “Pyrrhus, what do you have to say about this?”

Rin looked into the amber eyes of the man she was being forced to marry. They were far more innocent than she’d been led to believe she would see on anyone from the Inferno Realm. Flames flickered across his skin. He smiled. “I’ve heard of the intelligence of Princess Rin and I’d love to test it. If she is a scholar as I am, then I do believe we can at least pass our time reasonably well together,” he said. His voice held none of the crackling brokenness of his mother’s.

“Rin?” Alaric asked. “What do you say?”

Rin bit her lip. “I am a scholar, so I know unions such as this are not entirely without merit,” she said. “Nor are they as rare as they might seem. Peace is often won by bargains like this one.” She kept her eyes on Pyrrhus’ face. “If a place can be found where I won’t die because of the heat and he won’t because of the cold, then I will agree to this.”

“My requirements are the same,” Pyrrhus said. He held Rin’s gaze, almost challenging her. The fear subsided a little. If he was a scholar, perhaps they’d have something to talk about as they got to know each other. If they learned more about each other, there might be a chance they could become friends. A life beyond friendship was more than Rin could see at the moment, but she would allow herself to be open to anything.

“The decision has been made,” Fihr said. “Alaric, Keahi, sign the treaty. Rin, Pyrrhus, there is a valley deep within my domain near enough to the North that it holds the needed chill but is kept warm by hot springs run over the rocks and beneath the surface of the ground. There are specific areas where it is so hot that Rin, you would be wise not to enter. Just as there are places where you shouldn’t go, Pyrrhus.”

“You will be able to send messages out and ask for whatever you want, be it food, clothes, or even books, parchment, pens, furniture, and blankets,” Tuuli said. “The only thing you will not be allowed is contact with your families. Can you accept that?”

“I can,” Pyrrhus said.

“Rin, can you?” Tuuli asked. Rin swallowed hard and then nodded. Alaric and Keahi signed the treaty, Keahi fuming. Tuuli pulled the document over between herself and Fihr. “It’s done.”  She motioned with her hand and four of her guards stepped forward. “Escort Their Highnesses to the waiting area. We will escort them to their new home shortly.” Rin gave her father one last, desperate hug before allowing herself to be led away.