On July 9th, my new novel, The Guardian Hound, is being published by Book View Cafe.
I continue to be excited about this.
In the five weeks leading up to the novel release, I plan on publishing a short story a week, and having each available for free for that week. All the stories are about the world or somehow involved with The Guardian Hound and the various clans.
This story is actually the first interlude of The Guardian Hound. It was second short story I wrote about the novel, when I was merely writing short stories, and not writing the novel yet.
Prophesy In Shadows
Bernardo woke early, as always, before the singing of the chickens, as his friend Olan had jokingly described their noise. He rose from his simple cot and walked directly across the dirt floor to the porcelain bowl in the corner, not stumbling, though the sun hadn’t yet broken past the horizon. He splashed a little water from a cracked pitcher into the bowl, splashed the sleep out of his eyes and the corners of his mouth, then knelt down on his prayer mat in the center of his room with the ease of habit to start his morning meditations.
First, Bernardo spoke to the gods, big and small. He thanked Q’ukamatz—Plumed Serpent—and Itzanam—Grandfather Iguana—as well as the nameless Christian god and his son. He thanked Saint Lonrad for the thick jungle surrounding the temple, and Saint Patrick for leading the viper clan to safety here in the highlands of Guatemala. He asked the gods to keep his feet on the Green Road and to turn his steps away from the Road to Xibalba, harm, and death.
He also asked them to be kind to Olan, who’d just joined them in Heaven, to ease his friend’s way along the Unending Dagger and the Star Road, and not to play too many tricks on him.
Bernardo paused. Tears pressed against his eyes, but he was also smiling. He missed Olan more every day, but the memories of his friend were warm and bright. As Olan had promised him, Death hadn’t ended their relationship, just made it more complicated.
With a quaking voice, Bernardo sang a joyous hymn to the morning, thanking the gods for another day.
He ended his prayers as he always did, asking the gods to put him to service, to use him as they saw fit.
They had yet to answer that part, leaving Bernardo to chose his own path to duty.
Bernardo stood easily. Despite the age hanging off his bones—he’d been born in the previous century—he was still strong enough to do his share of the temple work. He quickly folded up the rough, handwoven mat and placed it on the foot of his cot so that when he went to bed, he’d remember to spread it out for the next morning’s prayers.
The smell of frying dough coated in honey greeted Bernardo as he stepped out of his cell. He wrinkled his nose in annoyance. The cooks were still trying to impress the new recruits with fancy, sweet dishes instead of what they usually served: Tamales with pork, hen soup, beef stew with potatoes and carrots.
The cooks didn’t realize it was hopeless. Few of the viper clan came to the temple anymore; even fewer of the young would stay. Just over a dozen lived there full time anymore.
The mystics had predicted that long ago, after the treachery of the raven clan that had decimated their people.
Still, Bernardo didn’t blame the cooks for trying. Didn’t he still petition the gods daily, asking for his fate?
A dull green canvas awning had been stretched from the squat building containing the kitchen to tall, wooden polls a few feet away. Half a dozen wooden tables with benches were scattered under it, with the students huddled around one.
They used to fill all of the tables every summer. Now, so few gathered.
“Buenos días, Diácono Bernardo,” called the students, using the polite term that referred to all the temple workers.
Bernardo nodded and waved at the students, though he didn’t stop; instead, he walked directly into the sweltering kitchen.
Rafe stood in front of the wood-burning stove in the corner, his long black hair braided, a stained white cap absorbing the sweat on his bronzed brow. He flipped the frying dough with a deft flick of his wrist, giving Bernardo only a nod while he sprinkled cinnamon and sugar across the pan.
Bernardo opened the tall wooden cabinets next to the squat icebox. At least the cupboards were fully stocked—the viper clan might not come in person to the temple anymore, but they still knew their duty, and they tithed.
“May I help you?” came the annoyingly smooth voice of Gezane.
Bernardo bit back his rejection. He didn’t trust Gezane, an American. Gezane was always looking for a way in, wanting to advance himself, insinuate himself in the elder council. Like all youth, of course he knew better than they did.
“Certainly,” Bernardo said, swallowing down his disapproval. He directed the young man to pour the grain for the porridge the mystics liked to eat, while he cut up plantains.
Gezane focused on his work, his tan face serious, his long, silky black hair pulled back. He wasn’t a handsome man—his cheeks were too broad, his eyes set too far apart, and his lips thin and miserly, as if he hoarded laughter and smiles.
After they’d assembled the trays and poured the xocolati, a cold chocolate drink made with vanilla and peppers, Gezane volunteered to carry a tray to the temple.
Bernardo knew what the young man was doing. He’d thought that way himself, when he’d been younger: If he were near the mystics, maybe a prophesy concerning him would suddenly materialize out of the sacred smoke.
But Bernardo had sacrificed his entire life taking care of the mystics, while fewer and fewer prophesies formed, waiting to be read.
He’d thought, once, that maybe he could become a mystic; the smoke had spoken to him, telling him to stay here, at the temple.
But the smoke told almost all to stay. Only a few obeyed.
The usual calm filled Bernardo as he walked from behind the kitchen, along the white road that wound through the thick jungle, to the gray stone temple. Brilliant macaws flashed through the green canopy, screeching their disapproval. Monkeys chittered from the edges, not drawing closer until after the meals when the temple would throw the remains to them. Small voles and mice scattered through the underbrush, the sound of rustling leaves like rushing water.
Dawn broke around the edge of the temple just as they stepped clear of the jungle, bathing the open air with a golden light. Bernardo paused, smiling, wondering if this was Olan saying hello.
The pyramid rose far above the tops of the trees. Bernardo had seen paintings from when the temple itself had been painted, and covered in murals of blue, red, green, and yellow, depicting stories of the gods and heroes, while lifelike vines had crept up the sides, with flowers that never faded bursting on the edges.
The only paint that remained were the names of viper clan’s heroes and saints, painted on the flat rise of the stairs. During the Festival of Remembering, in the autumn, the names would be repainted, and possibly repositioned, if there had been a recent hero.
Bernardo couldn’t remember the last time the names had been changed.
Gezane stood behind him, shuffling from one foot to the other, impatient as always.
Bernardo stayed where he was, breathing in the morning for another long moment, trying to show the young man patience. His viper soul rose up briefly, circling around him, as if basking in the light as well.
Then they walked into the cool pyramid. The thick stone held in the night’s chill and would stay cool all day. The songs of the four mystics floated through the air, harmonious for once. Bernardo paused, widening his eyes so he could see in the dimly lit outer hallway that circled the entire temple, then he led the way through a dark, narrow passage into the inner sanctuary.
The sun had found its way through the high windows on the slanted walls of the four-sided pyramid, staining the air with its golden glow. Dust motes danced through the beams, weaving through the sweet smoke of sacrifice. Each long side held a carved seat, but the mystics weren’t at their places.
Instead, the mystics slid gracefully across the center of the open space, stepping lightly in the cool, beige sand, their plain robes stained with neglect. They danced with blind, white eyes, their faces turned toward the apex at the top, singing their wordless songs. They never touched each other, never spoke to each other, yet always seemed to be in wordless accord, weaving esoteric patterns around each other.
Bernardo didn’t know why the mystics sometimes danced, what it meant. Prophesies would come regardless if they sat or walked, slept or sang.
Gezane came closer behind Bernardo, then stood still for once. It occurred to Bernardo that few had seen this graceful dance of the mystics.
“We will wait,” Bernardo said softly, “for a little while.” There was no way to know how long the mystics would dance, but they wouldn’t eat until afterward.
Bernardo let himself be carried away on the high, soaring notes, floating with the song and the smoke, until he heard Gezane sigh. He took pity on the impatient young man and said, “Let’s go. We’ll come back with lunch.”
Bernardo turned around, ready to leave.
Gezane stood stock still, staring over his shoulder.
“What is it?” Bernardo asked, half turning.
The mystics had aligned themselves into a straight line, their eerie white eyes all staring at him. Their song continued, suddenly clashing, as they raised their left hands to point at him.
Bernardo felt himself falling to the ground in slow motion, the breakfast porridge spilling over his shirt as his feet dissolved in smoke.
He tried to tell Gezane, “This isn’t supposed to happen to me. I’m not the one supposed to have a prophesy.” He wasn’t certain if his mouth even contained a human tongue anymore, or if he spat venom instead.
Or maybe the gods had finally decided to use him, to make him of service at last.
# # #
Shadows stalked the earth.
Bernardo saw a rich man, locked away in his house of a hundred rooms, with lights on in each. The shadows still slipped under the threshold, around the window sill, stalking the man until they surrounded him and sucked him dry, leaving behind a husk of darkness.
Fruit rotted in the orchards, while black blight swept over green fields, turning them barren overnight.
Soldiers shot their weapons into nothing, killing only their friends around them.
How could they fight a shadow? It had no form, nothing to grasp.
Even the brilliant light of mankind’s worst bombs couldn’t kill them.
The temple fell as shadows overtook the mystics. They spewed blackness over the jungle, killing the parrots, the monkeys, the iguanas, then the trees.
Soon the world was sucked dead, the mountains flattened, the oceans boiled dry.
And the shadows moved onto the next world.
To stop them, Bernardo had to stop a girl—no, a clan—from mingling the shadows with their magic.
The tiger clan.
Members of the hound clan were already infected with the shadows. But no matter how the shadows pushed, the hound clan didn’t, and never would, practice enough magic for the shadows to grow stronger.
But the tiger clan…they were the most magical of the clans.
Through them, the shadows could take hold and move from the clans out into the world.
Bernardo saw his chance with the tigers, as if through a peephole. It was slim, like a single beam of light through solid clouds. Just for an instant, a single day, would he be able to stop the shadows from mixing with all the magic from the tiger clan.
Just one chance to turn the tiger warriors away from darkness.
Bernardo saw his path: from the highlands of Guatemala to the coast, to a ship south to Panama City, where he would take another ship west to India and Calcutta.
If he delayed, even a day, the world might be lost.
Bernardo wept as he watched cities turned to ash, vile filth spewed over all things green and good, the chilled Road to Xibalba the only path to take.
He would find this girl. And stop her.
Before the shadows took over the world.
# # #
Cold, gritty sand pressed against Bernardo’s fingertips, as slippery as the shadows he’d tried to grasp. The world was fading, eaten by darkness. Bernardo had to find his way back into the light. But where was it? He couldn’t see or taste it.
Then he heard the songs of the mystics, floating ahead of him as if they were walking in front of him through thick jungle. His viper soul rose, gliding along the melody, undulating through the air as if through water, leading Bernardo back to the real world.
Wet, slimy porridge slid from Bernardo’s shirt, up along his neck and dripped onto the ground. Golden light still poured through the windows set high on the temple’s slanting walls, and sweet traces of incense mingled with the smells of spilled plantains and xocolati.
Gezane popped into Bernardo’s view. “Diácono,” he said, relief in his voice. “Are you all right? You had a vision,” he added, awe making his voice breathy.
Bernardo nodded cautiously, though his head felt like a leaf fluttering in a breeze, attached to his body by the merest thread.
“Can you save us from the shadows?” Gezane asked.
Bernardo wondered how much of his vision he’d shared as he’d experienced it. The mystics sometimes spoke everything out loud; other times, they merely gibbered and could only explain later what they’d seen.
In reply to the boy, though, Bernardo carefully shook his head. All he could do was stop the spreading of the shadows. They’d still live on, and they’d try to attack the other clans.
Bernardo sat up slowly, Gezane coming to his side to help. He rubbed his hand over his chin, across his cheeks. They felt as numb as when the coals of Olan’s funeral pyre had grown cold and he’d found warmth in the local firewater.
“Do you have to go alone?” Gezane asked. While the tone of his voice was innocent enough, his face shone with hope. The boy desperately wanted to go with Bernardo, to be part of this vision, to maybe have his name written on the temple stairs.
If it had been Olan asking, Bernardo would have gleefully agreed. They would have driven each other crazy—Bernardo planning every aspect of the trip, setting timetables and packing with care, while Olan would travel with whatever he’d thrown into his pack the morning they left, then talking Bernardo into abandoning his plans for shortcuts or adventures.
But Olan wasn’t there.
Bernardo’s viper soul stirred. Did he not trust Gezane? Or was his viper half merely anxious to go?
Gezane had spent his life in the outside world. He knew how to navigate it. Maybe he could be a good guide.
And maybe Bernardo could teach him some things as well, like patience and prayers.
Slowly, Bernardo replied, “I don’t have to travel to Calcutta alone,” his voice full of gravel.
The young man’s glee was as bright as the golden light still streaming through the temple windows, bright enough to dim Bernardo’s questions and regrets.
# # #
The sound of a great crowd floated above Bernardo and Gezane as they approached the market. When they turned a corner, the noise exploded into a cacophony greater than the jungle during the growing season. Everywhere Bernardo looked strode the people of Guatemala City: grandmothers with their loaded baskets, young mothers riding herd on their passel of children, even packs of young men on the prowl.
“Why are there so many people?” Bernardo asked Gezane, stopping in the middle of the street. He was disgusted by the quaver in his voice. When had he turned into this querulous old man? He tramped down on his fear, but it kept rising back up, like a boiling pot with an ill-fitting lid.
“This is a normal crowd,” Gezane said derisively.
Bernardo flinched, but he kept his hand wrapped around the young man’s biceps. Gezane’s pulse fluttered under his fingertips, and the young man kept starting and looking over his shoulder.
He was nervous as well, though he’d never admit it.
Bernardo had no idea what Gezane could be scared of here. But he knew better than to say anything. Gezane would just push him away, maybe abandon him here amidst all this chaos.
They walked ahead through the crowded street, bypassing the market and going directly to the docks beyond. The tall buildings made of brick with grand windows and stonework gave way to squat wooden sheds and the stench of open sewers. Automobiles roared on the next street. As if in response, the lone wail of a train called out. Long piers ran out into the water, with great ships, large and angular, waited like floating temples, accepting their acolytes and their tithed goods.
“Which way?” Bernardo asked, looking up and down the waterfront. Their boat, heading down to Panama City, was docked at pier fifteen.
“How should I know?” Gezane snapped. Then he turned and looked at Bernardo. “I’m sorry, Diácono,” he said softly. “I don’t know why I keep saying things like that.” He looked scared, pale under his tanned skin.
“We are neither of us ourselves,” Bernardo said. He’d felt an uncomfortable pressure, as if his skin was too tight and needed to be shed, since they’d left the temple.
Gezane looked up and down the street, taking a deep breath, then he flashed a grin at Bernardo. “Let’s ask,” he said.
Bernardo shook his head but followed after Gezane, who’d been adamant that they never ask anyone for help for most of their trip.
When they inquired which direction their dock lay with a pair of day laborers who were slopping whitewash on a decrypted store front, they were directed further north.
Bernardo heaved a huge sigh upon sighting the faded, weathered sign for their dock. “We made the first leg,” he said. He felt a smile crack his face, and realized the good humor had recently been as rare as sunshine during the rainy season.
“We did,” Gezane said. “The ship should be easier,” he added quietly.
Bernardo nodded. He paused, then made himself ask, “Do you feel it too? The pressure?”
Instead of snapping at him, Gezane gave a sharp nod. “As if the air fights us.”
An involuntary shiver passed across Bernardo’s shoulders, as if cool vines were suddenly drawn against his bare skin. He’d thought it had been only him, out of his element, traveling so far from his home.
Suddenly, Bernardo’s viper soul rose and twined around his human soul. He stopped and looked around. Was there something on the pier? Something threatening?
No one was close enough to see, so Bernardo encouraged his viper soul to rise more. Color drained out of the world and the broad wooden boards beneath his feet grew gray like driftwood. The smell of salty water and dusky seaweed rose, overwhelming the scents of the unclean city.
Horror slammed into Bernardo, as solid as Olan’s fist, when the darkness near the entrance to the ship resolved into wisps of shadows, wrapped around the raised stumps decorating the edges of the pier.
They were waiting for them—watchers. Scouts.
Bernardo glanced behind him. No, not scouts. Shadows pressed in, all around him.
Had he opened the door to them with his prophesy? Is that why they hounded him, unseen, unbeknownst to him?
And Gezane, he amended, when he saw the young man looking back at him, his fear as dark as the shadows draped over his shoulders.
Bernardo sent a quick plea to the gods to help them both.
But he knew that the gods rarely answered anyone’s prayers.
Bernardo shook off his viper’s gaze and marched down the pier. The fear and age he’d been feeling weren’t his. They came from his enemy, the shadows, who were trying to cloud his mind, distract him from his mission.
“It’s going to be all right,” he assured Gezane, his old strength returning. Seeing the shadows—knowing they were there, that it wasn’t just him—had helped him return to himself.
Gezane stood up straighter, the cruel lines leaving his face, the cunning returning. “Yes, it will be,” he said, squaring his shoulders.
They were going to have to fight off the shadows, who were watching their very thoughts.
Though he couldn’t see them, Bernardo knew the shadows had drawn back. They were all right, now.
But for how long?
# # #
Bernardo’s stomach rolled with the ship, feeling unmoored in his body, empty and adrift. However, the smell of the rice from this morning’s breakfast made his nausea rise and his mouth flood with bile. He could barely manage even a few mouthfuls of water.
Another wave splashed against the bow. Bernardo couldn’t contain his groan.
“Shut up, old man,” Gezane snapped.
Bernardo focused on the young man, grateful for the distraction. “What do you know of suffering? You’re too young to know anything.” He regretted the words as soon as he said them. They were fueled by sickness and shadows.
But the journey on the ship seemed like an endless road through the dark underground world of Xibalba, with no stars to guide his way, his viper soul drowned by the endless water surrounding them.
“I know enough to enjoy life. To live it. You didn’t have the cojones. You stayed locked away like a delicate flower behind the thick walls of the temple.”
“I wish I’d never left it,” Bernardo groaned as the ship heeled over again. They were staying close to the coast, never really leaving the sight of it, which meant the ship was in constant motion.
“Then go back! I can finish the mission.” In the dark of their tiny room, Gezane’s eyes took on a strange gleam. “Let me do it. I can see out your prophesy. Alone.”
“No,” Bernardo said, shuddering. He made a feeble attempt to push himself up on his bunk bed. “Don’t you see? That’s what they want. The shadows.”
Gezane shook his head. “No. It’s you. You don’t want to be an afterward when they teach the children of our journey. Just a footnote.”
“I don’t care about fame,” Bernardo protested, swaying with the ship. “I just want to help. To be of service to the gods.”
“You’ve done your part. You saw,” Gezane said.
“And I must finish it,” Bernardo said stubbornly.
The vision had shown only him warning the tiger clan. Not Gezane.
“If it doesn’t finish you first,” Gezane said, pushing himself off the wall where he’d been slumped. He walked over to the door of their room and opened it.
“Wait, where are you going?” Bernardo asked, hating the quiver in his voice.
“Out. Into the fresh air.” Gezane paused, his dark eyes still flashing that odd glow. “Smells like death in here,” he added cruelly, slamming the door.
“No, wait,” Bernardo said, shivering and afraid. He wanted to get up to follow, but he couldn’t hold himself up anymore; instead, he fell back onto his bunk.
The shadows were eating them alive, here. Bernardo could see them now, even without his viper soul.
They were determined to stop Bernardo from reaching the tiger clan in time.
But Bernardo was just as stubborn. Seasick or not, with Gezane’s help or not, he’d make the journey.
Though he’d come to realize what happened afterward no longer mattered. Gezane had been right: It did smell like death in their room. Bernardo would never survive the trip back up the mountain to the temple. His ashes would be scattered far from his home, and never mingle with Olan’s.
# # #
Bernardo woke again to blessed stillness and quiet. Even after a week off the ship, he still marveled at it. Golden morning light filtered by white lace curtains splayed across the foot of his bed. The viper clan had paid for a luxurious hotel after the elder living here had seen how ill Bernardo had become.
Bernardo stretched, satisfied. The bed was soft and the room was full of heavy, dark furniture. It weighed Bernardo down; he didn’t understand the need to possess so many things.
But they were leaving that day, at dawn, and Bernardo wanted to savor every moment on ground that didn’t shift with the waves. Plus, the elder clan leader had provided Bernardo with a charm to help him fight his illness. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad this time.
Bernardo stretched again, enjoying the light, comparing how weak it looked to the light in the temple, up the mountain, closer to the sky, when it finally occurred to him: This wasn’t dawn light, but mid-morning.
The trunk that the elder had provided Bernardo no longer sat next to the door.
Bernardo sprang out of bed and raced to the desk. The leather wallet with the money, tickets, and papers was still sitting there, but instead of being plump with purpose, it was hollow and empty.
Quickly, Bernardo slid on light, drawstring pants, a striped shirt, and sandals, then raced out the door. The laborers were no longer in the streets; they’d already all gone to their jobs. Instead, it was just the idle folk, with time on their hands, strolling to the market or the park.
Bernardo pushed through them, the inevitable crowds of the city, racing to the docks.
The pier looked empty, but still Bernardo ran on, all the way up to the edge of the water.
Nothing waited for him there. The ship was gone, with Gezane, corrupted by shadows, on it.
The next ship to Calcutta wouldn’t leave for a week or more.
The shadows had won.
Bernardo would never get to Calcutta in time, would never be able to warn the tiger clan. Adrian couldn’t fulfill Bernardo’s prophesy, but in his arrogance and clouded mind, he thought he could.
Old man tears rose to Bernardo’s eyes, futile as age. He’d wasted his life at the temple, and now, he’d killed them all. He was a disgrace. Olan would be ashamed of him.
Bernardo turned to go…and felt himself crumbling to the ground, the smoke of prophesy rising.
A second vision, one of Gezane, filled Bernardo.
Gezane had ruined this chance with the shadows. He’d have to give his own life to remove the disgrace from his name, his family’s name.
But he couldn’t be told the entire vision.
Gezane had betrayed them to the shadows. There was no guarantee he wouldn’t do so again.
Then another vision attacked Bernardo as he lay drooling and gasping on the pier, showing him the end of his own days. Sailors would find him and lock him away in a cell for the insane, mumbling prophesies to himself until the elder of the viper clan found him, much too late.
Bernardo would die in that cell.
Gezane would carry a cup of Bernardo’s ashes back to the temple, to mingle them with Olan’s, as Gezane sentence was laid out, spells cast upon him, the fate of the world resting no longer with them, but with a hound prince yet to be born.