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Possible Futures - GraduationIn the darkened chamber, all voices lowered to a hushed whisper. Giggles and snickers were stifled as a soft light flickered into being at one end of the vast room. Suddenly, it leapt into a vast flame, orange light flashing over the assembled faces. As it calmed, only a single visage remained clearly illuminated - that of a stately, well-groomed man with a beard. He gave a warm smile as he dipped the torch low, towards the first row of people. One by one, each of them held up a small candle and, taking the fire from the torch-bearer, they passed the flame on to the persons seated behind them. Soon, tiny flickers illuminated the chamber like a sea of fireflies. The torch-bearer set his brand into a steel cradle, and turned back to the audience.Possible Futures - Graduation by EdStorm
"There are two flames that we of the Bede Academy have to bestow upon this year's graduating class," he says. "The first is the wealth of knowledge that has been kept alive throughout generations of turmoil by your ancestors and mine. The second
I am eloquent in all internet occasions requiring a black tie, and always accompany my snobbery with a strong undercurrent of self-deprecation. I love over-the-top DiD bondage with thick strokes of humor, as well as said gargantuan chunks of hilarity by themselves. I love weird fiction, heavy metal, folk music and mythology. I'll drink a beer with anyone here as long as the fire is one to admire, and I typically start rhyming far too late in a paragraph to look as clever as I'd like. I inject 3000 mg of whimsy into my orange juice every morning and spend the rest of the day snorting derisively at anything remotely ironic or sad.|
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A Flick of the Wrist
The gunshot stopped Sabina's party in their tracks. The glow of the limestone seemed to shudder beneath their very feet; Laurie gave a little scream, and was silenced by Zane's hand.
"We'd better hurry," Sabina whispered.
They had not long resumed their walk, however, when another set of footsteps crunched along the road ahead.
"Get into the trees!" Zane hissed. Sabina helped Laurie to drag their squirming captive behind a large screen of brush, where they both clamped hands tight over Carmen's gagged mouth as she thrashed and mmphed. Zane did not come with them.
"Zane!" Sabina said, loud as she dared. The captured kidnapper still managed to make enough noise to attract attention. Sabina dug her elbow hard into the woman's gut, hissing "Shut up!" but the crook only struggled harder and tried to call out against her gag.
"Who's there?" a wavering voice barked. Sabina went cold. Zane, damn it, where are you? she thought. She tried to look around for a rock, or a heavy branch, anything she could wield as a weapon. Whoever met them on the road - whether kidnapper or, more hopefully, police - was sure to have one.
"Come out of there, eh? I don't want to shoot, but I will!"
Then, in struggling, Sabina remembered the knife Zane had given her when she was a prisoner back in Belize. She retrieved it from where it sat in her boot. It provided comfort in her hand - but not much.
A dark form closed on them over the brush. Carmen's eyes went wide.
"Mmph! Mmm-mmph!" Laurie's hand pressed like an iron clamp over the woman's mouth, Carmen's soft cheeks puffing up around the tight fingers and duct tape. The former hostage Laurie had to stifle her own sobs as well now, as she whispered "Shut up damn you!" far too loudly. Sabina wrapped her hand over Laurie's mouth now, and shifted the knife to the other. She didn't like the idea of trying to stab a man armed with a gun, so she brought the blade into her fingertips, and prepared to try and throw it.
There was a sudden CRACK and the crook cried out, stumbling into the forest. Against the backdrop of the glowing sacbe, Sabina saw the figure of Zane advancing, swinging the butt of his rifle. The kidnapper had dropped his own gun, but he made a surprise move and lunged for Zane. The two began struggling over the rifle.
Sabina didn't have time to pause and consider what she was doing. She lifted the dagger by the blade, and with a flick of the wrist sent it whirling through the air on a path that she knew by feel alone was true. There was a satisfying thunk, and a groaning curse in Spanish.
Zane wrested the gun from his assailant's hands and pointed it at the prone man's form. He smirked with an admiring amusement as Sabina emerged from the foliage to see the blade stuck fast in the kidnapper's calf. When she noticed the look on her colleague's face, she stood up straight and proud.
"So," she said, "is that cooler than the cherry stem thing, or what?"
"I haven't seen the cherry stem thing yet," Zane replied.
Sabina silently thanked the night for concealing her blush. "We'd better go on ahead," she said. "Laurie, are you okay?"
The gagged face of Carmen emerged from the brush, followed by Laurie's bright bare legs. "I've had about all I can take of this!" she said, wiping tears away. "Do I have to take care of this idiot too?" she pointed at the wounded kidnapper.
"No," Zane said, and, lashing out with the butt of his rifle, he laid the criminal unconscious on the sacbe. He retrieved the knife from the shallow wound, and handed it to Sabina - along with the kidnapper's handgun. the young student looked at it like it was a bomb.
"Are you nuts? I've never used one of these before!" she said.
"Now's a great time to learn," Zane replied. "Point and shoot, and make sure the safety's off."
Sabina tucked the gun into the waist of her shorts. "I'm not entirely sure that's the right order, but I'll try."
They ran off along the moon road once again, until they saw in the distance the glowing, ruined arch that marked the entranceway to San Guillermo.
Adelita silently cursed behind the new gag stifling her mouth. Four members of the Lords of Xibalba virtually sat on top of her prone form, pressing her into the soil and binding her tightly and roughly. She flexed her fingers against the biting ropes, palms still hot from holding the gun that she had been forced to drop.
Vera had thrown herself into the big, bald kidnapper just as he pulled the trigger to end her brother's life. The shot had gone wild into foliage, spraying dirt and bits of leaf and vine all over the nearby captives. When Adelita could see the scene again, she saw a scuffle between the head Lord, now without a gun, Luis and Vera, who, still bound and gagged, was trying to get up and away.
"Vera, come here!" Adelita had shouted, as she leveled her gun at the big man. It proved to be little more than a distraction; Luis froze, allowing his now-adversary to shove him off and grab Vera, holding her up close against his chest. Pulling her along with him, he advanced straight to the edge of the cenote. The other Lords all trained their guns on Adelita or Luis.
"Detective, don't be stupid," the villain mocked, "we have the power here. Chaac is thirsty for blood. You put down the gun, or I throw her in the water to sate him."
"Shoot him!" Luis cried, tears of hate filling his eyes. "Do it, please, detective!"
"Shut up, Luis!," the kidnapper responded, "You always been the weakest of us. Now you the dumbest, too. You shoot me, detective, I drag her down to Xibalba with me. Then you get gunned down by my Lords. Who wins then, lady?"
Adelita, shaking with rage, had to throw down her gun. The kidnapper she had disarmed was the first to leap on top of her and drag her to the ground. In less than a minute she was once again a captive, bound hand and foot and gagged, and now much more securely than her fellow prisoners. Vera and Luis joined the ranks of captives now, although the group had only the time to bind the young man's hands when their leader looked up to the sky, and made the dreaded announcement.
"Ixchel shines upon us!" he called, pointing at the bright moon overhead, and the glimmering reflection in the cenote below. "The time is come, my brothers!"
A cheer went up among the Lords; one of bloodlust and utter devotion, of unquestioning obedience to an unseen master. It was the first such chant to ring through the jungle in five hundred years, and all the more fervent because of it.
Lights in the Darkness
"I don't believe this," Sabina said, watching the scene from several yards back in the foliage, "They're going all nutso ritual sacrifice on us!"
The leader of the Lords - the man on whom Sabina had recognized the tattoo of Vucub Came, or 'Seven Death,' when they had been attacked at their beach house - had removed his bandana, and used it to wipe the sweat that had beaded on his shorn scalp. He raised his arms to the sky and began calling out a prayer in Itza, while the others had lowered their heads in kind. There was no longer any doubt: the Lords of Xibalba weren't just a gang, they were a cult!
The prayer ended, and the leader nodded at one of his fellows. The kidnappers surrounding the captives snapped into action and began unbinding the women from the pole running through the bends of their knees. They could see the Detective, Marisol Adelita, their colleague, Angela Perry, and, on the end -
"Sophie!" Laurie said, too loudly. Sabina silenced her with a hand once more. Zane, positioned nearby, readied his rifle in case any kidnappers heard, but it did not appear so. They were too caught up in their frenzy. They did even hear the constant grumblings of Carmen, who stood tied to a tree several more yards behind the the party.
"Laurie, you've really got to keep it together, honey," Sabian hissed.
"They're going to kill my sister!" she protested in French against the archaeologist's hand.
"Not if we can help it. Just stay quiet," Sabina responded.
Zane looked quizzically at Sabina. "You speak French, too?"
"Enough to get by," she said. "Listen, if you can create a distraction to lure them away from the cenote, I think I can sneak up and free the prisoners."
"Zane shook his head. "They won't leave their hostages or that cenote undefended."
"I've got a gun," Sabina said.
"So do they," Zane responded. "And they know how to use theirs."
The lead cultist ended his speech in Mayan, and gestured for the first captive to be led up to the edge of the cenote.
They selected Angela.
"First, the desecrator of our ancestors' graves!"
"We've got to try something fast!" Sabina said.
"Go," Zane answered. "Take Laurie with you to help. I'm sure she'd like to see her sister." He bolted into the forest.
"Alright, Laurie," Sabina said to the frightened girl. "Let's go get our friends." She began to move up, closer to the edge of the forest, the former hostage in tow.
Fire- and moonlight danced off the sweat glistening on Angela's bare, dark skin as the head cultist of the Lords of Xibalba grabbed her by the neck, and held her out in an iron grip before the cenote. The toes of her bound feet dug into the soil on the edge of the pit, and for once, she ceased her struggling. Her nostrils flared with each mumbled, whimpering breath, her eyes darting from the kidnapper's elated face to the dark water thirty feet below.
The cultist began shouting an incantation to the glowing moon above, the ancient words in Itza language sending shivers up the spines of everyone around the cenote, cultist and captive alike. At a signal, he waved to another Lord, who brought over a stout grey cinder block and a coil of rope, with the clear intent to fasten the weight to Angela's ankles. The girl began to scream behind her gag.
There was a loud CRACK from somewhere in the woods east of the cenote, and a Lord went down, clutching his arm.
"¡Vamos!" a cry went up among the Lords, several of whom hit the dirt. The captives bent as low as they could get, and the leader of the cult actually held up Angela as a human shield. Only one figure stayed up, and made a move.
Luis Perez, hands still bound behind him, bolted from between the Lords who had flanked him, and threw himself bodily into the back of the cult leader's legs, hoping to topple the big man into the cenote. Instead, the raging kidnapper fell over backwards, dropping Angela to the earth. Luis kept sliding along the wet foliage, right into the legs of the Lord who still held the cinder block. The rope attached to the heavy weight tangled around the cultist's ankle, and dragged him into the pit below.
Luis had stopped sliding right at the edge, and watched as the Lord smashed hard into something just below the water's surface, then slid out of sight. He struggled to inch away from the pit and regain his footing.
Then, a pair of strong, brutish hands pulled him up, fast, and sent him sailing out into thin air.
Calling To the Gods
Sabina looked up from where she crouched, sawing away at Adelita's wrist bonds, to see the furious leader of the Lords of Xibalba holding Luis Perez up by his shirt. In the backdrop, other Lords still raced about, trying to pinpoint the source of Zane's attack and get cover to return fire. Much like he had in Belize, Zane used the foliage to race back and forth, firing from first one point then another, to create the illusion that the Lords were surrounded. He never fired from the south, were the captives were, nor the west - the direction of San Guillermo - in hopes that the kidnappers might flee, and leave their hostages behind. The Lords, however, were making a stand to the bitter end.
Lesson Number Whatever From Mexico, Sabina thought: religion can make people willing - and eager - to die. She stopped her sad musing, however, when she heard Vera Perez' muffled scream as her brother was hurled into the cenote.
"I've got her loose!" Laurie said, at Sabina's side. Sophie clung to her sister with a grip that must have been painful, tears streaming down her eyes. Sabina smiled at them - until she saw, behind them, Vera darting towards the gaping hole in the earth, still bound and gagged.
"Get into the forest and hide!" Sabina told the Rousseau sisters, who complied immediately. She left Adelita still mostly bound, and raced with all the speed her legs could muster to intercept Vera.
Sabina tackled the girl, and the two of them slid to a stop just as Luis had, right on the edge of the thiry-foot drop into deep water. Vera wailed down into the pit through her gag, searching for some sign of her brother.
"Arky bitch! I will take one of you with me, I swear it!"
Sabina felt a powerful hand grab her by the throat and lift her up. There was the leader of the Lords, his burning eyes fixed right into her. He raised his arm, and in his hand Sabina saw a flash of bright green - a dagger, fashioned out of shimmering jade.
Sabina went for the gun she had put in her waistband - it was gone! Most likely lost during her dash to tackle Vera. Both of her her hands locked on his wrist as he lifted her up from the earth, unable to look anywhere but at the jagged edge of the blade.
And then she was dropped. She looked up, sputtering, to see the cultist whirling in rage toward somebody behind him - Adelita, her mouth and knees still locked in gag and bonds, lying helpless on the ground. In her hands she held the pole to which she and the other captives had been bound, and with which she had managed to stand long enough to clobber the kidnapper on the head; Sabina could see fresh blood on his shorn scalp, glimmering in the moonlight. Now, the maniac advanced on her, and she could not scramble away fast enough with her knees bound.
Still coughing from being lifted by her throat, Sabina drew her own dagger from her boot. The kidnapper was twenty feet away from her, looming over the detective. She didn't see how she would make the throw.
Help me, Itzamna.
A calm washed over her. The tingling certainty of intuition flowed through her throwing arm. Her movement, her aim, it all made sense - it would work.
Sabina wound up her arm, and threw the knife. As earlier, there was a satisfying THUNK, a certainty that the target had been hit. Adelita had held up her arms to find off the slashing blade, but felt no pain. She turned her wide, feline eyes up toward her assailant, and saw him frozen in place. The jade knife fell to the earth.
Sabina's dagger had stuck right in the back of the kidnapper's neck, buried almost to the hilt. He choked, blood spurting out of his mouth, as he turned toward the cenote. The rage still burned in his eyes, eyes that turned up to the sky in supplication. But the moon had moved on; only torchlight lit up the great clearing around the cenote, where the remaining Lords of Xilalba lay down their arms and surrendered to Zane. The time had passed.
Sabina pulled Vera up with her, and back towards the forest with Adelita. Together they watched as the architect of all their suffering, the man behind the vicious Lords of Xibalba, tried in vain to call out to the gods, and then plunged headlong into the ancient well.
Zane approached, leading the last two Lords at gunpoint, having kicked their firearms into the cenote. Sabina smiled at him, suddenly weary.
"Did you see that throw?" she said, puffing her chest out. "Pretty good, huh?"
Zane shook his head, looking exhausted himself. "A good throw when it mattered. That was a great throw."
Adelita called the police on a satellite phone they found among the Lords's effects; within minutes, it seemed, they swarmed the site. She was relieved to find out that the officer who had been shot during her abduction was expected to fully recover, and even more relieved when she saw the Rousseau sisters back together again and free. A real, earnest smile graced the feline features of the beautiful detective, when she saw the girls break down in tears at their parents' arrival. Sabina nearly teared up, too.
"It's a wonderful sight, yes?"
Sabina turned to see Dr. Izado, cradling his arm in a sling, but still wearing that mischievous smirk. She laughed, tossing her hair in the night wind.
"Best I've seen since I arrived," she said. "It's been quite a couple of first days."
"Indeed," he replied. "I worry your introduction to our land was far too harsh for an accurate impression, however. Especially tonight."
Sabina shook her head. "These guys were criminals. I haven't met many of the modern Itza, but it's pretty obvious their sympathies aren't with the Lords. If they were, we couldn't even be here. I'm sure everyone on Isla Volutas is glad that we stopped this madness."
Izado's countenance darkened. "It looks like maybe not all the madness got stopped."
Sabina followed his gaze. At the edge of the cenote, the police were pulling up the various soaking bodies that had fallen in during the fight. Vera Perez, now free and surrounded by others from her family, watched as the form of Luis, his dark mop of hair plastered to his face, rose up over the lip of the pit. He was not moving.
A paramedic began performing CPR immediately. The family - and, to her surprise, Sabina, who had been captured by the young man - waited with frozen breath.
At last, the boy sputtered and coughed, spitting up water all over the foliage. Vera broke down and cried.
I'm glad, I suppose, Sabina though, but that gasp of air is going to be the last he inhales outside of prison walls for a long time. That family still has a hard road ahead.
No sooner did Sabina think this, than Vera appeared at her side. She sniffed back tears, and gave Sabina a hug.
"Thank you for helping us get my brother back, Sabina," she said, "even if we'll be without him a long time, he changed his heart in the end."
"He did," Sabina said. "I'm sorry it turned out this way, Vera."
"You are a graduate student, working on your thesis, right?"
The question caught Sabina entirely off guard. The world of academia seemed to have fled her life years ago, though she had just inhabited it yesterday.
"Y-yes, that's right."
"What is it? What are you writing about?"
Sabina exchanged a look with Izado. "I - I'm trying to study possible links between traders of the Mayan city-states and the cultures of the Lower Mississippi Valley."
Vera smiled then, a hint of mystery in her dark eyes.
"Keep digging," she said. "There are a lot of old stories about this place. It'd be very interesting to see if they are true."
With that, she went back to her family. The odd realization came to Sabina that, although the civilization she had come here to study lay in ruins, the people were still very much alive and well.
Sabina walked over to where she had been scheduled to start digging yesterday. The site was a mess of trade tools and section markers on the partly-excavated building. She descended into the dug-out soil of the island, and walked around the temple to find the fallen pillar of the god that had never really left her thoughts since she had first seen him. The bird's eyes seemed to twinkle at her where they were chiseled in stone. So much the eyes of the forgotten god he was, yet so much the eyes of a man. The eyes of a guide, and a guardian.
"Thank you," Sabina said. She reached out to touch the ancient stone once more, to feel its incredible, living warmth -
She turned to see the bearded mane of Zane Brown, just returned from leading the police to the trussed-up kidnappers they had left along the moon road.
"Hey," she said, a finger going at once to twirl a lock of black hair. She stopped it, nearly blushing.
"That was a great throw," he said, as if unsure what else to say. "And... I mean, great work doing everything you did since this whole mess started. Most people would have been a babbling wreck after the attack on the house, much less the threats to stop working." He shook his head. "You never let it faze you. You just kept going, even when things were at their worst, in Belize. That's incredible."
Now she really did blush. She was thankful it was still dark down in the dig site.
"I just did something when I saw the chance. I don't like feeling helpless," she said. "I figured I could be scared later on."
Zane smiled. "You don't look scared now."
Sabina tried to shift their conversation away from her. "Angela did. Have you talked to her?"
Zane nodded. "She's pretty shook up."
"Let's get her out of here," Sabina said. "I'd like to start getting on her good side in case we actually do get back to work here some day."
They started to leave, but Sabina stopped Zane at the ladder.
"Incidentally," she said, "how did you find me in Belize?"
Zane's dark eyes met hers. "I never lost you," he said. "I figured you might need some help when you went to find the artist, so I followed. These thugs aren't the only ones who can steal a boat."
Sabina was in full blush again, but chased it back.
"I never properly thanked you for that," she said, and leaned in close to him. She raised her face to his, feeling the breath from his lips against her cheek, just the barest brush of his stubble, Zane's frame shaking with anticipation -
And then gave him a quick hug, leaned back, and winked before sprinting up the ladder. He stood there in the shadows, frozen in place, until at last he could force himself to move again.
"Aw, come on, you're going to have to do a little better than that!"
As the three graduate students made their way to the exit of the park in the rising morning light, they passed several staff members who had shown up to begin their work day, only to find a circus. Sabina waved to the young men with their insect repellent at the park gates, who stood wide-eyed in a ring of questioning cops. She saw the Rousseau girls, safe and sound in the arms of their parents at last. She exchanged a hug and chaste kiss with each of them, and Laurie gave her back her rough work shirt, her body now covered with a San Guillermo tee shirt. When Sabina turned away from her embrace with Sophie, the two of them met a familiar face, who bumped into them on the way out - fast.
It took a moment to make the connection. The soft Mayan features, long black hair, quiet demeanor - the girl who had stood selling admissions to the park, reading a book as she waved Sabina and Izado through.
And the girl who had been there, in Luis Perez' house, when Sabina was kidnapped.
"You!" Sabina screamed. "She's one of the kidnappers!"
The girl's eyes flew wide, and she bolted - only to be tackled by detective Marisol Adelita, who had been trying to catch her since the night of the initial abduction.
Izado hurried up to the scene, a look of worried triumph on his face.
"This is the inside woman, si?" he said. "The one who got into my e-mail and told the Lords about the excavation."
"The one who rerouted your mail, and the one who found out where the Rousseau girls were staying. The one who kept the Lords informed about happenings at San Guillermo. That's her." Sabina said.
The suspect was hauled off in handcuffs, and Adelita approached the group. She addressed Sabina.
"Thank you for all your help," she said, "before, and last night. I know we got off on a rocky start, and I owe you now. Here," she produced a business card with her name, Det. Marisol Adelita, and several phone numbers beneath a picture of the policewoman's lovely, feline Mayan features.
"You ever need help with police matters in this part of the world, or anything at all, let me know. I've got more contacts in this region that you might expect."
"Thank you," Sabina said. "The only thing I want right now is to know when we can get back to the work we came to do."
Adelita nodded. "Don't bother packing."
Discovery Of A Lifetime
"And now, the candidates for graduation in 2012!"
So boomed the deep voice of the teacher cursed with the duty of reading off the name of every graduating student of that semester. The crowd cheered and whistled, and one group of graduates attacked each other with silly string and air horns. Cameras flashed even though no students had set foot on the stage yet.
Thus began the exceedingly long procession of students receiving their placeholder diplomas (their degree status still under review until sometime mid-summer), as well as their token applause from an audience of people in attendance solely for their son, daughter, brother or sister, et cetera. As a recipient of her research doctorate, Sabina was near the end; somehow, undergraduates got to walk first. In the intense heat of the blossoming summer's evening, the hour wait was excruciating.
When her row walked up to the stage in their stifling rented gowns ("mobile sweat lodges," as Sabina thought of them), she looked out over the crowd. Her parents stood near the back and waved furiously at her; she gave a little smile in return. Closer, at a guardrail near the stage, stood Zane Brown, much neater in a shirt and tie, his mane groomed, than he had been in Mexico. When she met his eye, his hand deftly entered his shirt pocket, and came out with a tiny red object that Sabina knew, even from this distance, was a cherry stem tied in a little knot. She turned away, blushing.
Finally: "Sabina Scheherezade Bowen, Doctorate in Archaeology."
Sabina strode across the stage, with a smile that seemed to tell the audience that she was proud of her achievements and knew she had earned this degree.
(In fact, Sabina's smile was mostly due to the intense relief she felt at the breeze generated by walking at a brisk pace after broiling in the sun in her cap and gown.)
She took her diploma from the Dean of Natural Sciences, shook her hand, and gave another photogenic smile to the crowd. Cameras flashed, and people applauded, but for a brief moment, Sabina returned to the past.
It was the end of the excavation on Isla Volutas. They had moved aside the great, ruined statue of her favored god, Itzamna, to find a hidden chamber sunken into the earth. Within, there were items from all over Central America - and beyond. Sabina's mind whirled as she laid eyes on two items unmistakeably from the Middle Mississippian culture in North America - a smashed ceramic pot covered in birdman motifs, and a thick, flattened disk used for playing chunkey, the game that thrilled the North American mound builder peoples the way soccer held the world in sway today.
Plus, tucked away in a corner, there were three fragile, crumbling codices - Mayan books, almost all of which had been destroyed by Spanish conquistadors. The ancient knowledge lived on, despite the efforts of the conquerors so resented by the Lords of Xibalba; if they hadn't interfered with the dig, it would have all come to light so much sooner, and they themselves would have been free - or alive - to learn about it.
Using the material evidence found in the chamber, as well as what could be gleaned from the codices, Sabina's thesis was strengthened a thousandfold. It was the find of every young archaeologist's dream...
...a dream that Sabina was jerked awake from when, from the back of the crowd, her mother screamed like a mad banshee "SABINA WE LOVE YOU!!!" just as she had at her undergrad ceremony... and her high school graduation... and he rmiddle school graduation... and -
When she descended from the stage, Sabina saw the familiar, relaxed face of Dr. Hector Izado standing off to the side amongst some hired photographers. He leaned forward over the guardrail, still clapping, as she approached.
"Congratulations, Dr. Bowen," he said, yelling to be heard over another bout of applause.
"You should have told me you were coming, I had no idea!" Sabina said, giving her colleague a quick hug. She prepared to retake her seat so as not to muck up the line.
"Wait a moment," Izado said. "I think I got a job for you. If you've got nothing else lined up yet, that is."
"Um, not right at the moment, no. Is it really urgent or something?"
Izado nodded. "Very. A colleague of mine at the University of Hamburg does rescue archaeology at threatened sites. Places slated to be developed. He could use someone like you who can handle pressure. The job he's got now is intense. A good way to kick off your shovel-bumming years."
Sabina looked back at the procession to see her seat still open, several students staring at her.
"Alright. Well, get with me after all this, okay? Thanks so much, Dr. Izado."
And so it begins, Sabina thought, returning to squeeze her way through her fellow graduates back to her seat. Getting her doctorate had already taken her to Southern Mexico, Isla de Volutas, Belize, the clutches of Latin American guerrillas, back five hundred years to a grisly heart-ripping sacrifice, and under the protective wings of an ancient god. Where on earth would she wind up next?
Rescue archaeology, she thought. Threatened sites, pressure, an intense job.
Let the shovel-bumming begin.
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Night began to fall over the jungle. On the boat ride up the river, Zane stopped at a small fishing village to ask for gasoline. He and Sabina made sure the captive terrorist, Carmen, was securely bound and gagged just inside the bridge, where she couldn't be seen or heard by anyone on shore. Laurie also sat therein, wearing her bottoms as well as Sabina's worn denim jacket, since her top had been lost in the limestone caves beneath the Belizean rainforest. Sabina remained with them while Zane was gone. When he returned with the gasoline, Sabina went out in search of a phone.
She approached an elderly black man sitting on a porch, smoking a cigarette and listening to brukdown music on a dusty old radio. She smiled at him, and addressed him in Kriol, the lingua franca of Belize.
"Weh di go ann?" she said. The man looked at her with curious amusement at the sound of the Caribbean pidgin coming from the lips of a spunky-looking young white woman. When he responded properly, Sabina considered it a small vengeance against the kidnappers that sought to eradicate the culture in place here.
"Aarait," he said, "Da how yu di du?"
Sabina got inside to the telephone, and thankfully still had the small flyer that Vera had given her - her bag, which the kidnappers had brought with them on her abduction, had miraculously not spilled anything. After a couple of tries at remembering international calling codes, she finally heard a ring.
"Buenos noches, Vera aqui," came the sleepless voice of the young woman.
"Vera, it's Sabina Bowen! I just ran into you yesterday at the quay! I don't know how much time we have and I've got too much to explain. Your brother is going to be at San Guillermo tonight, if he isn't there already. The Lords of Xibalba - um, the gang, not the gods - are going to kill Sophie Rousseau and a colleague of mine, Angela Perry!"
"Wait, what? What does this have to do with my brother?" Vera responded.
"Vera, I'm sorry," Sabina said, "but your brother is one of the Lords of Xibalba. He helped kidnap the Rousseau sisters from the cruise ship. I know that must be hard to hear, but it's the truth. Please believe me, the lives of two innocent women depend on it."
There was a moment of silence. Sabina almost spoke again, when Vera said, "Where are you?"
Sabina licked her lips. "Vera, I'm in Belize with another colleague of mine. Laurie Rousseau is safe with us and we're headed back right now on the kidnappers' boat - "
"Belize?!" Vera exclaimed. "How did you get there?"
"I was kidnapped, too," Sabina said, "I found your brother with another kidnapper, who recognized me as a member of the San Guillermo archaeology team. They tied me up and handed me off to another group, who took me to their hideout in Belize, where they were keeping Laurie. Sophie and another colleague of mine are probably on their way to San Guillermo right now, and they're going to be killed! You have to call Detective Adelita with the Puerte Preso police and get them to the site!"
"Adelita?" Sabina heard a sudden gasp on the other end. "Of course, you must not have heard the news."
A pendulum of dread began swinging above Sabina's heart. "What's happening?"
"There's a search on for the detective. She's been missing since this afternoon. An officer that was with her is in the hospital in critical condition."
Sabina nearly dropped the phone. Vera called her name several times, but she only snapped out of it when she heard the girl say:
"Sabina, I'm going to San Guillermo. You'll never get through Puerte Preso, it's a mess of police and roadblocks. Take your boat to the north end of the island where the old Mayan road from the park ends. I'll leave you a signal to find your way; I'm sure you must know about it. Good luck." She hung up.
"Vera?" Sabina called into the dial tone.
"Sabina, let's go!" Zane yelled from outside. More worried than ever, Sabina hung up the phone.
A signal I know about? What could it be?
The kidnappers' van rumbled to a halt before the faux-Mayan arch at the gate of the San Guillermo archaeological site. Two dark forms jumped out of the side doors, guns drawn, and hurried to the back of the van. They made sure their bandanas concealed their faces, then opened the doors.
Their three captives - Sophie Rousseau, Angela Perry, and Detective Marisol Adelita - looked around at their captors, weary and in pain after the long and bumpy ride across the island and up the road to San Guillermo. Adelita glared at the man who put his arm around her waist, growling behind her gag because she could not spit in his face. He paid her no mind; the captors were all business now, with no time for gloating.
The women were lined up - First Sophie, then Angela, then the detective - one before the other, with a kidnapper holding each girl in place with a hand on her arm. Then, the head kidnapper pulled a PVC pipe about eight feet in length from the van, and positioned it so it sat along each captive's right shoulder. Holding this in place, the kidnappers began winding rope around each woman's neck, and thence attaching it to the pole. Sophie whimpered in fright, while Angela began thrashing again; it took three kidnappers to get her lashed in place along the pole. The detective reasoned they placed her in the middle for this reason; she would be unable to influence the direction they would go once attached.
Adelita let her eyes burn into the face of the man who bound her neck, furious with humiliation. Again, this fellow seemed to be making a conscious effort not to acknowledge her. His fingers never held her by the neck, as the captors had been fond of doing, never grazed her skin unless it was absolutely necessary for the tying.
When all were bound securely, there was about a foot of pipe jutting out on either end of the line of captives. Another kidnapper went along the line, checking each woman's taped mouth; he added another strip to Angela's already-layered gag, smearing it down over her cursing protests. Adelita and Sophie hadn't tested theirs much; the detective figured there was no one around anyway, and if at some point there was, she wanted as little tape muffling her cries for help as possible.
She moved her jaw a bit. These few strips should be easy enough to work off, especially with the sweat we've worked up from the ride.
Again, even with the somewhat intimate nature of feeling on the women's sealed-up mouths, the captors never once looked them in the eye. Even when she mmphed a bit at the fellow who checked her gag, he never dared to meet her gaze. At last, Adelita realized what was going on.
They are trying to dehumanize us, she thought, with a pang of horror. They are trying to start thinking of us as objects, to be treated as they wish...
...And, if necessary, disposed of.
The lead captor was the exception. He still glared at all of them with the same hateful fury. This was truly the man to fear. It was bad enough to be under the control of men who could convince themselves that you were less than human, and destroy you. It was a fate far worse to be owned by the man who needed no such convincing to do the deed.
He barked an order in Mayan, and said to the women, "Ladies - we go!"
A captor took each end of the pole, and with an awkward sway, the hostages stumbled along into the ancient city.
The Way of the Ancients
Everyone on board the speedboat was mesmerized by the light display dancing over the black water around Isla Volutas. Search lights reached up into the dark Carribbean clouds, revealing the wasplike forms of helicopters shining yet more search lights earthward. Flashing reds and blues sped through the city, and the sirens echoed over the ocean even a mile out from the coast. Patrol boats floated closer in to the harbor, casting their own search lights inward; few ventured very far out.
"Vera was right," Sabina said, "we'll never be able to get in through the city."
Suddenly, the boat lurched with a sickening jerk. Sabina grappled for the nearest railing lest she fall straight overboard. Her face stopped mere inches from the churning black ocean.
"Fucking hell!" Zane swore, righting himself after taking a slam against the steering column. He kicked the boat into reverse and struggled to grind it backwards against an unseen obstruction below.
"What the hell is this?" Zane grumbled as the boat groaned and shivered.
"The coral reef," Sabina said, standing up. "Volutas is surrounded by it."
Zane looked back, annoyed. "Completely?"
"Aside from the demolished section near Puerte Preso," Sabina said, then stopped herself. A smile began to spread beneath the whipping strands of her black hair. She turned toward Zane, who thought he gazed into the eyes of a madwoman on this dark, rocking boat.
"No," she said, "that's not the only place." It was so simple; it was the place they had come here to study. The ancients had found a way onto Isla Volutas; as long as the reef hadn't grown across it after all these years, there was no reason they couldn't use the exact same way.
"Head north around the seaward side of the island, "Sabina said, a brilliant fire in her eyes, as she recalled what Dr Izado had told her about how to find the way through the coral reef. "We're looking for the eyes of Itzamna."
Seeing Both Eyes
They were nearly an hour in circling the island. Sabina watched the black coast pass by, palms waving silent in the night breeze. There was something so lonely about them, about the whole world in which she found herself immersed.
And to think, two days ago, I was a graduate student, thinking I'd just be digging for artifacts!
She chuckled to herself, inaudible to all others over the wind and waves. I'm still a graduate student, she thought, and I've still got a thesis to write. The fleeting hope came to her that, besides just wanting to keep everyone alive, whatever the Lords of Xibalba had planned wouldn't close off the park to her, or halt the work she had come here to do. She felt guilty for that hope.
"We're rounding the north tip of the island now!" Zane yelled. "What are we looking for?"
Sabina snapped from her reverie and began scanning the landscape once more. The eyes of Itzamna, she thought, what could they be? Izado had wanted to show her something at the end of the old Mayan moon road that cut through the jungle from San Guillermo to the sea. He said it was a brilliant example of Mayan resourcefulness.
It tells seafarers where to approach the island, Sabina thought. It tells them where the safe point is. Like a lighthouse... or exactly a lighthouse!
"It's got to be something we can see from a distance," she said. "Didn't Izado show you what was at the end of the sea road?"
"And spoil the big reveal?" Zane called "No, he wanted to show us all at once. He was waiting for you."
Shit, Sabina thought. He's really waiting on me now. She strained her eyes, weary already from so much staring into the darkness. The coastline was clear, palms and dense darkness just beyond. She was looking for something tall, a tower that could be seen from far out at sea. Something that could hold -
Sabina gasped. Deep within her mind, a waking groan rumbled along every neural pathway. From her dream, the image returned to her of a massive, ancient pillar, erupting with a roaring flame, the light playing over the black waves below. It would be a powerful beacon to a lost, lonely sailor.
"Look for a tower. Even a simple column of some kind."
"Right," Zane said. Now everyone in the boat - Sabina, Zane, Laurie Rousseau, even the vengeful captive Carmen, her mouth flexing against her gag - began scanning the shore, straining their eyes to detect the medieval lighthouse. They had just rounded the furthest projection of the island's north tip, when Sabina caught a glimmer of a light, further west on the distant coast.
"There!" she said, pointing. The tower stood at the center of a wide, deep bay, dominating the scene.
"So should I turn now?" Zane asked. Sabina almost said "What are you waiting for, an invitation?" But something wasn't right. Why bother with the signal if the entire bay was free of the obstructing reef? The Maya were far too precise for that. The Caribbean never got anywhere cold enough for fog, and the people here would have suspended trade when hurricanes arrived. So why the lighthouse?
"No," Sabina said. She turned to Zane "Judging by what you know of the Maya, do you think they were people who would have called a single flame 'The Eyes of Itzamna'?"
Zane frowned. "No. So where's the second eye?"
Sabina didn't answer. She had been staring at the pillar that had appeared in her dream, watching the solitary flame. As the boat moved along, however, the fire appeared first to widen, and then, like a single-cell bacterium under a microscope, it appeared to be splitting in half.
"Slow down!" Sabina ordered. Zane eased up on the gas and the boat began to drift slower in the rocking night waves. Before their eyes, the light above the distant shore had turned into two lights - two torches lit right beside each other in stereo vision, pointing out to sea from within a chamber at the top of the tower. The twin windows concealed the torches from simultaneous view unless the observer was positioned at just the right spot - the opening in the coral reef.
Sabina turned to smile at Zane, who stood with a bewildered smile growing on his bearded face. Together they began a satisfied laugh that made them both feel, for the first time that night, that maybe everything would turn out alright.
"You can turn the boat now," Sabina said, "let's thank our patron diety in person."
Zane whirled the boat round to coast inland on the waves.
Gateway to the Underworld
The captives had been walked across the empty park, passing each crumbled stone behemoth that had once been a building, and plunged, stumbling, through the tree line. None knew where they were headed. They had not long to wonder; before long, the party emerged from the dense, dark jungle into a large clearing. Darkness still hung thick thanks to the still, silent branches and vines overhead, so that the middle of the clearing appeared to sink into blackness. Angela began to panic, but Adelita's brow only scrunched up in confusion.
"Shut up, arky," the lead kidnapper cursed, clamping a hand onto Angela's neck. He nodded his head at the Lords who guided the captives' pole, and they tugged their bound burden off to the side of the clearing. Her eyes adjusting better, Adelita could see small black posts ringing the clearing. The kidnappers' next task was seeing to these. She thought she saw the Lords preparing to light them up, and reasoned they were torches; however, no flame appeared just yet.
One of the kidnappers went back the way they'd come, probably to hide the van. The two guiding the women now forced them to kneel. To the captives' surprise, their necks were unbound from the pole; but what relief they enjoyed was short-lived. The pole was placed against the backs of their knees, and bound there along their thighs. The intent was clear; they weren't going anywhere.
Quite a relief they haven't checked our wrist bonds, Adelita thought. Hers were still loose from Angela's efforts in the van. She had tried to tug away both Angela's and Sophie's as well, but even so, the women had very little chance of escape. There were simply too many captors present. Their break would have to wait for a better moment.
For the time being, Adelita noticed the head Lord craning his face up to the sky, and followed his gaze. The stars were visible faintly overhead, but soon the brilliant glow of the full moon would block out all but the brightest. Even now, it filtered through the thick foliage, illuminating the profiles of the kidnappers as they set to work preparing.. what?
Each of the poles around the clearing had been wrapped in oil-soaked rags, but still not lit. The Lords kept looking over their shoulders, as it were, back into the park to see if they had been followed. The Lord who had moved the van returned and gave the all-clear. At that, the lead kidnapper gave an elated whoop, and signaled to the others.
Torch after torch sprang to life then, the orange glow rounding the clearing to finally reveal what was in the middle. It was - nothing! The black pit remained, no brighter than before. Angela cried out beneath her tape gag, finally reduced to sobbing. She seemed to understand perfectly well what the Lords intended. Sophie, a bundle of nerves by this point, starting panicking as well, if only because of Angela's fear.
Adelita cast confused looks at her fellow hostages from over her gag, and craned her neck up to see further into the pit. What she saw there widened her eyes; she was no expert on the Maya, but she had heard stories about this. Suddenly she knew why Angela despaired, and what their intended fate would be.
Thirty feet down, the torchlight glimmered off of the rippling surface of water that filled the mouth of an enormous underground cavern. Cenotes were the defining geographical feature of the Yucatan, as important to Maya civilizations as the jungle itself, or the sea. The caves could go on for miles underground, and even switch between fresh and saltwater in an instant long before reaching the ocean. But, in their current state, Adelita thought, they wouldn't have to worry about getting that far.
"Behold," the lead Lord said, gesturing his arm in a sweep at the yawning mouth. "The gateway to Xibalba, the land of the dead. Many centuries, it has stood hungry, waiting for blood. Tonight, we feed it with the blood of invaders and oppressors, for the great rain god Chaac to wash this land clean!"
The Lord grabbed Sophie and Angela by the throats, looking each in the eyes in their turn.
"When the Grandmother Ixchel shines the moonlight down in the water, we have our sacrifice," at this, he turned and glared hard at Sophie, still clad only in her bikini after the abduction from the ship. "You came to Carribbean to swim, no?"
He stood, chuckling, and walked away.
Adelita looked up at the trees. The moon would be in place in very little time.
It's not often we pray for bad weather in this part of the world, Adelita thought, trying to loosen her wrist bonds further, but we could sure use some clouds tonight.
When they arrived on shore, Sabina approached the pillar that had guided them to safety on the island, as it had done for sailors centuries into the past. It was a dilapidated structure of dark and pitted limestone, the base coated in ivy and moss, with a tiny doorway in back. The peak of the tower, where the light shone out through the dual windows, was carved in the shape of the bird-headed god Sabina had seen in San Guillermo. Even from directly below the deity's imperious gaze, the flickering firelight made its ancient eyes appear to furiously blaze, to radiate warmth and hope.
Before she could catch herself, Sabina said, "Thank you."
"What's that?" Zane said, shouldering the rifle he had pilfered from the trussed-up guerrilla. He led the latter forward on a tight rope leash, her armes pinioned up behind her, elbows nearly touching. Extra tape had been wound over her mouth, over which her infuriated grimace burned a hole into her captors.
Sabina turned quickly to regard him, saying "Nothing. Let's go." Sabina retrieved a flashlight to lead the way, until she looked beyond the blazing pillar to find that the path was already lit.
The glow of moonlight hung fog-like over the limestonestucco of the sacbe. Sabina gasped at the ethereal appearance of the ancient wonder before her; even after centuries of neglect, the ghostly white pathway carved a gentle swath through the dark, foreboding jungle. A breath of warmth washed out of the forest to carress her skin, and Sabina smiled despite herself. As if Vera's guiding lights had not been enough, she seemed to be receiving a further reassurance of divine favor.
"Go carefully," Zane said, tugging on Carmen's leash. "Her friends are liable to be watching. Carmen mmphed angrily.
The reminder that she and Zane were two against a band of armed thugs left Sabina shaken once more. But she thought of what else lay at the end of this road.
I'm scared out of my wits, she thought, but how terrified are Angela and Sophie... and whoever else is captured by now? Adelita, Vera?
Sabina nodded at Zane, and at Laurie leading the captive. She set off down the ancient Mayan Moon road, hoping that the gods of this land were watching, and feeling generous to a young graduate student and her newfound allies.
While preparing for their sacrifice, the Lords of Xibalba continued their attempts to reach their Guatemalan allies over the radio, to no success. Detective Adelita and the other captives had been relieved by this malfunction in the plan, as it was now well past midnight and they held on to their lives. Yet it brought a host of new fears as well; what had really happened to the other group of kidnappers? How long would the Lords let them live before deciding their plans had to change? Adelita worried for the officer who had been shot, and for Zane and Sabina, who had also vanished that day. Angela, too, feared for her colleagues, and Sophie thought only of her sister, whom she had been told was also a prisoner.
Shouting from the direction of the park led several guerrillas to take up their guns and race toward the noise. The captives looked, too, until Adelita realized that they were no longer being watched. The detective mmphed frantically at her fellow hostages, who turned frightened eyes upon her.
"Mmph," she mumbled, flexing her fingers toward Sophie, on her left. The girl looked nervously at the gathering of kidnappers, then lunged into a frantic attempt to undo her knots. The detective did likewise, as did Angela, who was such a mess by this point that tears streamed out of her dark eyes as she fumbled. Her tape gag shifting up and down as she worked her mouth against it. She made sure to keep an eye on the kidnappers too, who seemed to be greeting a new arrival.
At the edge of the path from the city, one of the Lords led Vera Perez in at gunpoint. Her hands had been taped palms-together in front of her, her elbow pinioned tight to her sides to prevent her from reaching up to pull off the gag that had been quickly applied to her lips. She was greeted at once by a kidnapper who did not bother to cover his face, for she would have known him regardless.
"Hello my sister," Luis said. He reached up a hand to her cheek, and ripped the tape free of her skin. She gasped.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he demanded.
"I found her near the old tower on the beach," said the kidnapper who had snagged her. The bald leader burst into the conversation, furious.
"What was she doing in there, idiot?" he said, eyes blazing. "Did she light the torches?"
The kidnapper's pride withered. "I don't know."
"Go check, stupid! She might have been trying to bring someone in here!" He thrust forth a tattooed arm, shoving the crook back toward the park.
Luis grabbed his sister by the arms, desperate horror visible in his eyes even through his dangling bangs.
"Sister," he said, forgetting his vow to never speak Spanish, "who are you working for, huh? Why the fuck did you have to get involved with this? Why didn't you just stay at home?"
Vera looked a long time into Luis' eyes, without speaking. The ring of silent kidnappers watched the family conflict play out with solemn concern. Could they not all relate? Did they not all have families they had left behind when they swore their devotion to their cause?
When Luis spoke again, it was in a pained whisper.
"You cannot stay alive here, sister. Why did you come?"
"You cannot stay alive like this, either, brother," Vera said. "That is why I came. If you can't understand that, then you truly are lost to me."
The leader slapped another man on the back. "Gag her and put her with the others." The order was carried out. Vera looked hard into her brother's eyes as the tape came down over her lips, hands clamping it firmly in place as the gag was wound around her head. Then, she was led away.
"No!" Luis said, too late. "We can let her go if she doesn't tell anyone, right? She won't tell anyone, we will be fine!" He looked round at the unsympathetic faces, forgetting he was speaking Spanish.
"Shut up, Luis," The bald kidnapper commanded. Luis did not listen. He got very close to his leader, growing paler all the time.
"Let her go, man, please," he begged. "She didn't come here to stop us, she came here for me!"
The angry-eyed boss shoved him to the ground, and the boy scrambled to his feet, fists pumping. A single fist streaked down like a meteor and knocked Luis back to earth. The kidnapper stood over the prone figure of the young artist, a ring of crooks surrounding them. They ambled around, nervous, clearly shaken by both the impassioned plea of Vera Perez and the sudden rebellion of Luis.
"Enough has gone wrong tonight," the leader declared. "you just fucked up big time, Luis. You more trouble than you worth." The kidnapper pulled his gun; Vera screamed behind her gag.
Adelita moved. She yanked her hands free, and slipped out of the newly-loosed bonds on her legs. The kidnapper leading Vera had turned round to watch, and Adelita whipped her hand into a forceful chop right into the pressure point behind his caller bone. She clamped a hand over his bandana-covered-mouth to stifle his pained scream, then grabbed his gun. Ripping the tape from her mouth, she tried to tell Vera to stay put, but the girl already raced towards the fray, and threw herself toward Luis Perez - just as a gunshot wracked the warm night air.