Delivering your own death

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Matthaus rummaged through the small basket of metal bars. His fingers ran across the raised letters, seeking the right words. “Matthaus, is that plate ready?” The voice of his master, Hermann Lauritz, sounded irritated.

Matthaus put the final bar in place and locked everything in. “Yes Master Lauritz.”

“Then bring it here,” Hermann said, waving his hand.

“Yes Master,” Matthaus said. He stood and carried the heavy tray over to the printing press.

Hermann snatched it from his hands and set it in the machine. He tightened all the gears and secured it in place before slathering it with ink and slapping a large piece of parchment on top. He turned the great wheel and the heavy weight lowered on top of the parchment. He continued turning the wheel until it couldn’t move anymore. He let it sit for a few seconds before lifting it back up.

He pulled the parchment off of the press and scanned it. “At least you didn’t misspell any words this time,” Hermann said with a grunt. “Take this to Journeyman Benedikt for copying. Tell him we need one hundred copies.” He gestured to the leather pouch on the side table. “That’s his payment.”

“Yes Master Lauritz.” Matthaus set the parchment down well away from everything as he took off his apron and hung it up. He tucked the scroll in an oiled leather case, pulled on his winter gear, and headed out. He was at the citadel housing the Mage Guild within the hour.

He tapped lightly on the gatekeeper’s door. A wizened old fellow with one eye and gnarled hands opened the top half of the green split door. “What do you want?” he rasped.

“I am an apprentice of Master Hermann Lauritz,” Matthaus said. “I’ve come to hire Journeyman Benedikt for a particular job.”

The old man wheezed. “He’s Inquisitor Geiszler now. But he might be willing to do the work, since your master has long been a good client of his. I’ll send him the message.”

It took almost an hour for a blond muscular man in the crimson robes of an Inquisitor appeared. “Matthaus, how are you?” Benedikt asked.

“I’ve been better,” Matthaus said, shivering beneath the cloak.

Benedikt frowned. “Didn’t Gottfried invite you into the gatehouse?”

“No he didn’t,” Matthaus said.

“I’ll have a word with him about that. If someone is waiting for one of us they’re supposed to be treated as a guest,” Benedikt said. “I suppose he still considers me a journeyman at times.” He smiled and motioned with his hand. “Please, come inside out of the cold and we’ll talk about what that bastard master of yours wants from me this time.”

Matthaus followed the mage into the citadel and made his way to what appeared to be a newly furnished study. Benedikt pointed and Matthaus sat down. “Master Lauritz needs a hundred copies made of this broadsheet,” Matthaus said.

“I’m sure he does. What is it, another one of his political diatribes?” Benedikt asked, taking the scroll case from Matthaus. As he skimmed it, he frowned. “Matthaus, do you know what this says?”

Matthaus shook his head. “I can’t read.”

“How can you work in a print shop without knowing how to read?” Benedikt asked sharply.

“By touch and general appearance. Master Lauritz showed me the shapes and taught me what certain things feel like so I could help him but I never learned what any of it all meant,” Matthaus said.

“Did he send my payment?” Benedikt asked. Matthaus nodded and handed the mage the pouch Hermann had given him. Benedikt opened it. He stared at its contents for several moments before setting it to the side. “Matthaus, I’m going to be honest with you here. This document is a request for me to kill you, and what’s in the pouch is enough money to cover your execution.”

“Why would he do that? What have I done?” Matthaus’ voice cracked and he noticed it had gone up a few octaves.

“I don’t know. He doesn’t say,” Benedikt said. “I’m conflicted. As an Inquisitor, I should be looking into this. It’s illegal, after all. But as your master is a long time client, I am obligated to honor his wishes.”

Matthaus got up and bolted for the door. It slammed in his face. He started pounding on it. “Let me go,” he screamed.

“Be quiet. There are mages studying and I don’t want to listen to their complaints about noise from my rooms,” Benedikt said. A slow smile spread across his face. “I know how to resolve this. I’ll ask him for more information as to why he wants you dead, and still kill you anyway.”

“How are you going to do that without getting caught?” Matthaus asked, still looking for an escape.

Benedikt’s smile broadened. “I’ll make you into an experiment. You’ll die eventually, and I’ll get valuable information on how certain magics affect human flesh.” The mage made several gestures with his hands. Matthaus whimpered as he slowly fell to the ground, his world going dark.

Cookies and vengeance

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Artur could smell them as soon as he walked into the house. They almost masked the scent of decay he was growing used to. “Mom, did you bake cookies?” Tamara Harper shambled out of the kitchen, her gray skin showing her bones in even more places. She smiled, unable to speak since her jaw had long ago locked into place. “They smell wonderful.”

She pointed one rotting hand to the plate. Artur went over, dreading what he’d see. The chocolate chip delicacies were surprisingly free of flesh, muscle, hair, and bone. He turned to look at her. She pointed again, this time to a pair of long gloves, an apron, and a shower cap.

“Good thinking,” Artur said. He picked up one of the cookies and took a bite. “You definitely haven’t lost your touch.” He paused. “Where’s dad?”

Tamara looked sad as she pointed out the back door. Artur shook his head. Would the man never learn? Artur finished his cookie before heading out to the backyard.

Gil Harper was digging a grave under the apple tree. He looked up from his work and scowled at his son. “You ever going to let us go?” His words were slurred. His tongue was half rotted and his lower jaw was beginning to fall off.

“Why should I?” Artur asked. “After what you all did to me?”

The bitterness was still there. Tamara, Gil, and Artur’s younger sister Cassie had turned on him when he came out as both gay and desirous of a college education. Gil had already picked out the trade school he was supposed to go to so Artur could become an electrician like his father, just as Gil had become one like his father.

His family were also devout Christians who believed Artur was an abomination before the sight of God. They took them to their pastor, who tried to “pray the gay away.” When that didn’t work, they locked him in the basement and tortured him for months until Artur’s then-boyfriend Dario and a few others had broken into the house and rescued him.

Tamara, Gil, and Cassie had died in a car accident a year before, and Artur took his revenge. He and his now-husband Dario were skilled necromancers and had raised them from the dead as sentient zombies. Tamara accepted her fate first. Gil still struggled. Cassie went mad and was currently locked in her room, fed raw ground beef and chicken by Dario every few days so she wouldn’t starve. They could release her, of course, but Artur wanted her to suffer a little longer.

“You can’t escape me that way, Dad,” Artur said, putting the scorn he felt into the last word. “You bury yourself, Dario and I will just force you back to the surface. You almost killed me. In fact, I think that was your intention. So now you can rot in this house. When I’m done with you, I’ll release you and burn your rotting corpses with the house. I think that’s a fitting punishment for these scars.” He gestured to the remnants of the third degree burns on his arms and face.

“You are a demon,” Gil said.

“I am what you made me,” Artur said. “You are responsible for all of this.” He turned and walked away, leaving his father spluttering behind him. Dario was standing in the doorway, smiling, a cookie in his hand.

Music lingers in the memory

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Johanne sat at her desk, the sheet music spread out in front of her. She stared at the black dots and bars on the pure white paper for several minutes before burying her face in her hands.

The composition wasn’t good enough. She was supposed to be presenting it to the Emperor in three days, but she knew it wouldn’t be ready. She slid her chair back and wept, not wanting to get her tears on the ink even though she was considering burning the entire thing.

Someone knocked on her door. She looked up, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. She frowned. Very few people knew where she lived, and she’d told all of them to leave her in peace so she could work.

She stood and walked over to the door. She unlatched the top half and swung it open. The sun was setting and the ancient forest she lived at the edge of cast long shadows onto her garden. She only had a moment to admire the beauty before her eyes were drawn to her visitor.

He was tall and thin in an unnatural way, with wide midnight blue eyes and delicately pointed ears. His hair was the color of ice and fell in two braids. She could only see to his waist, and the braids went down below that. He was dressed all in black and silver, and there was a quirk to his lips, as if he were amused by her disheveled appearance.

“Can I help you?” Johanne asked, eyeing him warily.

“It is I who can aid you, Johanne of Tal Istar,” the creature said. The odd inflection in his voice gave the name of her old home a strange lilt.

“I am not of Tal Istar. Not anymore. And what can you do for me that I can’t do for myself?” Johanne asked in spite of her misgivings.

“You are still of Tal Istar, even though they no longer claim you,” the creature said. “As for what I can do to assist you, I can grant you the ability to compose that which you struggle with now.” He smiled broadly. Johanne shivered. “You will bring tears to the eyes of the Imperial family, draw the nobility to their feet, and command the attention of all those who hear the melody.”

“Yes, and what do you want for your aid?” Johanne asked.

The creature shrugged. “Nothing that much. A lock of your hair and a few drops of your blood. That’s a small price to pay for the fame that would come from this, don’t you think?”

Johanne snorted. “And give you complete control over me whenever you wish? Your ‘help’ comes at too high a price. Leave my home now. You are not welcome here.” She closed the top half of the door and made sure both were bolted. She returned to her desk and ignored the sounds outside.

She picked up her pen again, but something the creature had said stayed with her. He’d called her Johanne of Tal Istar. She hadn’t thought of her home in years. Being driven out at the point of sword and spear for choosing to marry a man not of her people made it so she never wanted to remember where she came from.

Johanne frowned as a trickle of melody filtered into her mind. She took the sheets of already written on composition paper and set them to the side. She took fresh paper and set her pen on the first bar. She closed her eyes and thought of her olive skinned husband – dead these last five years- with his strong fingers intertwined with her pale ones as she defied the Council of Sisters. She heard the lullabies she’d sung to her children, the same ones her mother had sung to her and her siblings.

She opened her eyes. Memories flowed onto the page in the form of musical notes. She would give the Emperor a glimpse of her people, her home. This was something no one in this isolated kingdom would ever see, other than the merchants. This was her life, her passion, and now she could share a part of it that had long lain forgotten. She smiled and continued working. This would be her finest work yet.

The breath of the dead

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Ameka stalked out of the manor, face flushed and hands clenched into fists. She’d had another fight with her stepmother. She was tired of Lady Raylene and her constant belittling. Ameka’s father did nothing to stop it. It seemed he encouraged it at times. It frustrated her to no end and she wondered what she’d done to earn both of their scorn.

She followed the garden paths without looking. Her body knew the way to her favorite spot even though her mind was far from her surroundings. The strong scent of spice and citrus drew her out of her thoughts for a moment and a smile flitted across her face. Her mother’s rose garden was her favorite place on the estate. It reminded her of Lady Kiran, a gentle and compassionate woman who’d died when Amika was a child.

Ameka sat down on the ornate padded wooden bench and returned to her ruminations. Her brothers didn’t come in for the same harassment she did from their stepmother, and her two half sisters were favored above her. She supposed it was because they were Raylene’s daughters, which didn’t surprise her. True born daughters of stepparents were often treated better than the stepchildren. Or so her best friend Oisin had told her before her father sent him away.

Tears slipped down her cheeks. Her mother, Oisin, her older sister Hella. Everyone who’d ever cared about her was gone. She stared down at her hands, noticing the clear drops as they fell.

She reached out and picked one of the red roses hanging near her hand. She brought it to her nose and breathed in the scent. It reminded her of her mother’s perfume. She curled in on herself as she remembered the smell of it burning, when her father destroyed everything that had belonged to her mother on the eve of his marriage to Lady Raylene.

Dosia, one of Ameka’s half sisters, found her in the rose garden a few hours later. “Our father wishes to speak to you,” she said, smirking. “Perhaps it is due to your disrespect for my mother.”

“I showed her no disrespect, though she deserves all she gets,” Ameka said. She brushed past the younger girl, who gaped at her, and returned to the manor.

Her father was in his study. “Ameka, when I summon you I expect you to come immediately,” Lord Ulises said, glaring at her.

“Considering I just received word of the summons, Father, I can hardly be tardy,” Ameka said.

“I required your presence two hours ago,” Lord Ulises said.

“Then blame Dosia, or whoever else you sent to look for me. You should know by now that after speaking to that woman I retreat to mother’s garden,” Ameka said.

“That’s one thing you and I need to discuss,” Lord Ulises said. “Or rather, you will listen and I will tell you what I’ve decided.” A cold lump settled in the pit of Ameka’s stomach. “Your mother’s rose garden will be uprooted so Raylene can put in an orchard. She enjoys peaches and plums, and you know how expensive they are. The mages will see to it that they produce immediately, and will keep them producing so we always have them.”

“You bastard,” Ameka snarled. Lord Ulises looked at her in shock. “You’d steal from me the last thing I have of her? You destroyed her belongings, even though as her daughters Hella and I should have gotten them. You took down her pictures and refused to let us keep the lockets she’d given us so we could remember her. It’s as if you wish to erase her very existence, though you swore to her on her deathbed that you wouldn’t do that. You’d let her memory live on with us.”

“Yes, well, I only said that to give your mother the peace she needed to pass into the next world and not come back to haunt us as a vengeful spirit,” Lord Ulises said. “Now, you will curb your attitude and hold your tongue. I should have done this long ago, but I’ve been holding off to give you some time to change your position with Raylene. Since you haven’t, I’m sending you away.”

“Where?” Ameka asked.

“To the Temple of the Fallen Sisters,” Lord Ulises said. “Since you and Oisin were so close, I’m sure the Sisters there will understand.”

“You’re saying I’m not a virgin? Call in one of your mages. They’ll confirm Oisin and I never did what you’re accusing us of,” Ameka said.

“Oh, it’s not what you and Oisin did,” Lord Ulises said. “It’s the fact that the two of you are closer than you imagine.” Ameka stared at him. “You and Oisin are brother and sister. Well, half brother and half sister.”

“What do you mean?” Ameka asked.

“Kiran was not a faithful wife at all,” Lord Ulises said. “Both you and Hella were sired by the Horsemaster.”

“Squire Gerulf is our father?” Ameka asked.

“So your mother claimed, once she learned she was dying,” Lord Ulises said.

“So why not send me to him?” Ameka asked.

“Because I don’t want him to know,” Lord Ulises said. “Kiran said she didn’t tell him, and I have no intention of doing that either. So, you will go to the Temple. I’ve already found a husband for Hella, so she’ll be well out of my hair.”

“If you send me away, I’ll use the powers of the Goddess and call mother’s spirit back. I’ll tell her what you’ve done. Her vengeful spirit will kill Lady Raylene and her daughters by the year’s end,” Ameka said.

“You can try,” Lord Ulises said. “I doubt you have the willpower to do that.”

Ameka turned and ran from the room, sobbing as she went. She dashed into the small chapel and slammed the door behind her. The entrance to the crypt was locked, but she slid the bolt out of its housing and descended into the darkness.

She knew where her mother’s stone coffin was. She’d spent a lot of time sitting at its feet when she was a child. She threw herself against it now, weeping and begging her mother for help. “Mother, he’s betrayed us all,” she sobbed. “Please, bring your curse on this house. Destroy his happiness as he has taken mine and Hella’s away from us.”

There was a cold breeze against her face and the smell of decaying roses filled the air. “It shall be as you wish, my lovely daughter.” The voice was nothing more than a whisper, but it was her mother’s voice. “His new wife and their children will be dead within the week. Your brothers will die before the harvest. He will die before Midwinter.”

“Why my brothers?” Ameka asked. “They have done nothing to harm me.”

“I was not the only one to seek solace in the arms of another,” Lady Kiran said. A faint glow surrounded her coffin. “Your brothers are the sons of the Horsemaster’s first wife. Ulises killed her so she wouldn’t reveal the secret to me, but I already knew. I claimed them as mine and raised them, but chose to have daughters with the Horsemaster because I knew he was a better father than Ulises.”

“What am I to do now? He would send me to the Temple of the Fallen Sisters,” Ameka said.

A ghostly caress brushed across her cheek. “Run to the stables. Speak to your true father. He knows who you are. He will help you.” The light faded and the smell was gone. Ameka didn’t stop to think. She ran for the stables, and her real father. She hoped he could help her. The thought of spending even one day in a place where torture was the routine of the day frightened her even more than death.

A statue speaks

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Sila knelt before the altar, hands clasped at her chest. Her eyes were closed as she sent her silent plea to her goddess. Mother of All Nations, please hear my prayer. Do not let my father give me in marriage to Tam. It would be bondage, not marriage.

Tam was a wealthy merchant that had a lot of influence in her village. He came through twice a year, bringing with him news of the world and many beautiful things that most couldn’t buy. He’d taken an interest in the pale blond girl who now begged her goddess for protection two years earlier. Her father had put him off for those two years because she wasn’t of marriageable age. Now that she was, Tam was pressing his suit hard.

Minali, Sila’s older sister – who was as of yet unmarried herself – entered the temple. “Sila, father is looking for you. Tam is with him.” Sila burst into tears. Minali came and knelt beside her. “I know you don’t want to marry him, but it might not be as bad as you think.”

“Yes it will be. He’s said as much. I am to stand there and look pretty while he sells his wares in order to entice his customers. I might be called on to perform other duties when male customers express an interest. You know what that means,” Sila said.

Minali sighed. “Yes, and so does father. But I have a feeling Tam is offering a large sum of money for you. You know how much we need the silver.”

A moment later her mother appeared. “Sila, your father is calling for you. Why are you here? You should be home, attending to your duty to your family.”

“I’d rather die,” Sila said fiercely through her tears.

Her mother took a step back. “What do you mean by that?”

“Father is going to give me to Tam, isn’t he?” Sila asked.

“His suit has been accepted,” her mother said.

“I’ll be used as an object to get people to buy his wares, sold to men to be raped whenever he feels like giving me to them, and who knows what else,” Sila said. “Father would force me into that kind of slavery?”

“You’re overreacting, Sila. Such duties are far from onerous, and think of the pleasure you could get from the men you lie with,” her mother said.

“It will be rape. I will be forced into being a whore, just so Tam can make a profit,” Sila said.

“This is forbidden,” a soft voice said. All three women looked up. An aging priestess stood near the altar. “No woman is to be sent into a marriage where it is known she will be forced into a degrading position, and forced prostitution is one such thing.”

“You stay out of it,” her mother snapped. “The temple has done nothing for my family except try to steal my daughters at every turn.”

Two more priestesses appeared. These were younger women, and both were armed. “You heard Mother Helena,” one of them said. “If she wishes, we will protect her from this atrocity.”

Sila thought for a moment. “I do want to be protected. I won’t marry Tam. I won’t be forced into slavery just because my father wants the money Tam offers.”

Mother Helena nodded. “Then step forward, my child.”

“I too claim this protection,” Minali said. “For if Sila is out of his reach, he’ll try to take me instead.”

“Then you as well may enter,” Mother Helena said, smiling at both young women.

“I forbid it.” Sila’s father strode in, Tam hot on his heels. “My daughters are required by law to submit to my will, and you cannot interfere.”

“There are provisions in the laws to protect them from violation, and what the man you have selected offers is nothing less than that,” Mother Helena said. Three more armed priestesses appeared. “Step back or face the wrath of the goddess.”

“Your goddess has no power over me,” Tam said, smirking. “My god is far more powerful than her feeble attempts at interfering in my life.”

“Do you truly believe so?” Mother Helena asked. She gestured with one age spotted hand. “Behold the power of the Mother of All Nations.”

The statue behind the altar shifted, as if it were a flesh and blood. The seated female rose to her feet, towering over them all. You dare claim I have no power? Here, of all places? You are a small man of even lesser status. Leave my daughters alone, or face my wrath.

“What can you do? My god protects me,” Tam said.

And who is your god?

“The God of the Night,” Tam said.

The statue laughed, a sound like stone grating on stone mixed with music. He is weak here. These are not his lands. You are at my mercy. Leave. Now.

Tam scowled. “I’ll be back for Sila.” He stormed out.

No, you won’t, the goddess said softly. You are cursed. Your business will fail.  Your luck is gone. You will lose your fortune. You will die a pauper and your god will not be able to save you. She turned her attention to Sila’s parents. You too shall face my wrath.

“Forgive us,” Sila’s father said, his voice shaking.

No. You do not deserve that forgiveness. The statue fell silent, staring down at them with white marble eyes. You will never enter my realm. I cast you into eternal darkness. You shall wail with the wraiths who have defied me, always knowing your crime and never being able to atone for it. The statue returned to its place and once again became still.

“Leave now or we will remove you,” one of the armed priestesses said.

Mother Helena held out her hands to Sila and Minali. “Come forward, my daughters, and embrace the love of the goddess.” Sila and Minali walked towards the priestess while their parents fled the temple sobbing.

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.