On July 9th, my new novel, The Guardian Hound, is being published by Book View Cafe.
This is the last of the Free Fiction Mondays that I’ll be doing (at least for now.)
Chronologically, this was the first story I wrote for the novel. I wasn’t quite finished with the characters from The Raven and the Dancing Tiger, and I had this scene in my head since I first started thinking about The Guardian Hound.
SPOILER ALERT: This short story has spoilers for The Guardian Hound.
The Viper in Tulum
Mexico, Present Day
Zane woke to absolute blackness. He blinked his eyes, making sure they were open, but he couldn’t see anything in the dark.
That didn’t scare him as much as the stifling silence did.
Where was el océano and her comforting waves? Where were the little ones just on the other side of the crumbling plaster walls of his decrepit, one-room apartment, and their daily fight over who ate which cereal? Where was the ancient señora on the other side, and the whine of her equally ancient TV? The constant scent of burnt toast, peppers cooked in oil, and cheap perfume from the girls three doors down the hall were missing, too.
Zane reached up to feel his eyes, his eyelashes fluttering against his fingertips. Then he plugged and unplugged his ears with his fingers, but it made no difference.
The world still remained at a distance.
Panic jolted through Zane. He couldn’t be dying. Not yet. He hadn’t finished his mission. He still hadn’t met….
Zane took a deep breath and calmed himself. He sat up slowly on his narrow cot, his old bones protesting, then swung his legs over.
His bare feet landed solidly on the cold concrete of his floor.
Zane pushed himself up, and after a shaky step, the world slammed back into him.
His tiny room still looked the same, with stained plaster walls painted a somber peach color—supposedly to brighten the place up but they looked dingy, instead. The corner held a sink with dishes piled high and too many empty cerveza and tequila bottles. A dresser stood in the other corner, with his few shabby and never completely clean shirts and jeans.
When Zane turned around, he saw that a shadow still lingered on his bed, like a lone cloud, unraveling and disappearing even as he watched.
“Tsk, tsk.” Zane shook his head.
Las Sombras were playing their tricks again.
The shadows knew Zane watched. They knew he waited. But after all this time, even with the tricks they played on his mind, they still didn’t know for what.
Zane wasn’t sure himself, some days. It had been so long since he’d been given this task. And the shadows confused him, as did the cerveza, the tequila, and time.
He took a deep breath and let his senses expand. The TV on one side played a light jingle, a happy couple in love with their washing machine. On the other, the little ones argued over who got the last of the orange juice. The señora had burnt her toast again, and over that, from outside, drifted the smoke from an untuned motorbike. Two blocks away came the scent of wet concrete, new hotels for tourists. Under it all, la mer whispered her dreams to him.
Zane pulled in his senses and shambled over to his sink to splash water on his face. A tiny mirror hung over it, but Zane didn’t like how it reminded him of his grizzled skin, the patches of gray whiskers, the dark, day-laborer’s tan his hands and arms held; or how his hair grew only along the edges of his overly large skull, and was now more silver than black.
He’d never been handsome, not even as a young man. But he’d had a vitality—the opposite of the old-man exhaustion that hung on him now like a shroud.
He looked up, watching his eyes change from washed-out brown to burning yellow. His pupils elongated, turning into a slit that stole all the color from the world but let him observe even the tiniest movements. He almost didn’t recognize himself; it had been so long since he’d transformed.
In a blink, his human eyes returned. However, his viper soul remained close, just under the surface of his skin.
Soon. The word hissed gently through his blood, as soothing as the morning prayers of his people that he’d forgone long ago.
Zane nodded. Yes. Soon. It was why the shadows had been so merciless in their tricks that week.
Soon it would happen.
His debt would be paid. And maybe his honor restored.
# # #
Zane perched himself high on a wall of the Tulum ruins, next to El Castillo overlooking the ocean. The water was calm and so blue that morning, as pretty as the postcards made it look. Below where he sat, gulls hopped from one rock to the next, certain to find some tidbit missed by the others. Off in the distance, tourist cruise boats sailed, free of care.
The sun soaked into Zane’s skin, stupefying his viper soul. Or maybe that was also his disguise—the nearly empty bottle of cheap tequila in the brown paper bag beside him. He hadn’t meant to drink so much, particularly this early in the morning. The park guards wouldn’t approve if they saw him—a drunken day laborer might scare the tourists. From looking at him, they’d never know that he was actually an American and not some down-on-his-luck, back-country Mayan.
But Zane had been here in Tulum so long, gone so native, he forgot himself sometimes.
His friends, the shadows, helped hide him today—at least for now, before they decided to trick him again.
Maybe they weren’t really his friends.
Ah, but that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered today except looking out over the beautiful coast with its perfect white sand and blue-blue waters, and waiting.
Tourists scrambled up the steep pyramid steps behind Zane, but they mostly didn’t see him. They remarked about the castle and the gorgeous location, their voices as raucous as the gulls. They snapped pictures like mad when an iguana strolled by.
It warmed Zane’s cold heart that the creature recognized him as a threat and kept a safe distance from him, as if he would bother with such poor, unrelated cousins.
The sour smell of the liquor washed over Zane as he finished the bottle. He knew that to play the part of the drunken local, he should just toss the bottle over the side of the wall, but he couldn’t make himself do it, couldn’t bring himself to dirty the clean white sands beneath him.
Instead he stood, slowly stretching, swaying in the constant ocean wind. Maybe today wasn’t the day. He could go back home and nap through the heat of the day, come back out looking that evening.
A squawking laugh echoed behind him.
Black rage clouded the bright day. Zane turned around.
A dark-skinned young man with light-colored, spiky hair raced up the steps. A young woman, pale-skinned with brown hair done up in a ponytail, ran beside him. Obviously tourists, wearing immodest T-shirts, shorts, and sandals.
Though the boy looked fully human, Zane saw what he was, and he couldn’t contain his hiss.
One of the raven clan? Here?
Those damn birds had ruined everything, betrayed his clan and all the others.
What they’d done had been worse than his own misdeeds, when he’d been arrogant and young.
Shadows suddenly gathered at Zane’s side, their cool wisps sliding across his skin.
Zane had never seen faces in the shadows—he didn’t think they had any. They’d never spoken to him directly. They remained like clouds, even after all these years, unknowable.
For the first time, they thrummed with excitement, something Zane understood.
This boy. He meant something to them.
It was finally time.
Zane took one drunken step forward as the couple veered off—warned by some instinct to explore the other tower first.
Before Zane took two more steps, a tour group walked around the corner of El Castillo, pooling around their guide at the bottom of the steps.
Zane shot a scathing look in the direction of the young couple, then he let himself shift, subtly, his nose flattening against his face, his cheekbones spreading out as his viper soul rose closer to the surface.
Yes, there was their scent: musty old feathers, the bright glass of armor, the sweet odor of youth and sex.
He had their scent signature now. He could follow them blindly through a crowd at an open market, over the smells of live chickens, fresh tomatoes, and heaps of chilies.
Zane slowly walked back down the stairs of El Castillo, the tourists sliding around him like river water around a rock.
It was good that Zane could track the raven warrior and his mate, but honestly, it didn’t matter that much.
Damn tourist was a bird. He’d always seek the highest ground, no matter where they went.
And the next time they met, it wouldn’t be in so public a place.
# # #
The day continued bright and sunny, with sea winds to keep it from getting too hot. Zane still felt as if a storm were brewing, could almost see it in the heat haze on the horizon, over the miles of ocean blue. Far below the high stone shelf where he sat, the white sand sparkled. An old iguana the length of his leg warily baked on the warm rocks a few feet away. The wind carried the foreign scents of the tourists on the beach, their perfumed oils and plastic toys.
It also brought the scent of his prey, playing in the water.
His viper soul counseled patience, as always. He listened to it better now than he had as a young man, impetuous and full of his own grand schemes.
Soon, he’d be able to right his wrongs.
A few feet down the trail, just beyond the last sharp turn in the trail up the hill, Zane had dragged a large tumbleweed, deliberately blocking the path so no one would accidentally stumble on him and chase him away from his ambush. The path above was blocked as well. He was confident his trap would work.
The warm sun made Zane sleepy, but he kept his watch through slitted eyes. Fear also kept him awake. If after all these years, these décadas, he failed to….
But he was right. The scent of feathers was suddenly closer.
Zane slipped off his rock and removed the artificial barrier below him, his hands stinging as the thorns pricked him. The raven boy would be too drawn to the highest point to resist, his laughing mate by his side.
Zane had no mate. None would take him after what he did. He would die alone and friendless.
Hopefully, though, he would die satisfied.
The mate led the way up the trail—foolish or selfish on the part of the boy, Zane couldn’t decide. They paused just below the last hairpin turn, looking back the way they’d come, admiring the view.
“It is beautiful from up here, Peter,” she murmured.
“Yeah, Sally, the best view is always from up high,” he replied.
Still, Zane held his breath until they came around that last turn, then he stepped out from where he’d hidden behind a boulder, blocking their way down, their easy escape. They stopped at the far side, on a short incline, where the trail was also blocked, with a rock wall on one side and a long, long tumble down the hill to the other.
“You have come, finally, haven’t you?” Zane proclaimed, feeling his head go broad, his skin hardening and growing scaly, the color draining out of the world.
At least the boy stepped in front of his mate, his fingers already lost to the knife-like feather-blades of a true raven warrior.
“What do you want?” he squawked. His eyes stared, bird-black, oblivious to the shadows about to take him.
“Your kind betrayed us all, didn’t you?” Zane accused him. The pressure along his sinuses increased as his venom sacs filled.
“Centuries ago,” the raven warrior said. “And our young still pay the price.”
“We’ve never recovered, have we?” Zane hissed. Only a trickle of pilgrims came to the mountain monasteries, so few to hear the mystic messages and carry the word down into the valleys.
“I’m sorry,” the birdman said. He sounded truly sorry, as well, not at all like the boastful bird he surely was.
“And you will be more sorry, won’t you?” Zane promised as he took a step closer to the boy. His fangs had started to distend, still hidden inside his mouth but pressing against the bottom of it, longing to come out and sink into something, anything.
Shadows boiled beside Zane, eager for this new sacrifice, beyond the endless ones he’d already made—his family, his life, his true face, and his name.
Though the raven was fast, Zane was faster still. He rushed at the boy, but then brushed past him and grabbed his mate, her pulse a fluttering thing under his palms.
Time slowed. Zane raised one claw-tipped hand, nails dripping with poison. The anguish on the boy’s face was a marvel.
Zane almost felt pity.
But this time, he’d chosen the right target.
With a sweeping motion, Zane lightly scratched down the girl’s left side, careful not to break the skin, hooking the tendrils of a shadow that curled around her waist and yanking it. With his other hand, he pulled the girl away, separating her from the shadow. He flung her to the side, heard her muffled cry and fall.
He hoped she wasn’t hurt, but it didn’t matter. He finally had his prey in hand, a shadow. It was unlike the ones that lived with him: This one had come in a direct line from the first tiger warrior who’d been corrupted by the shadows, the one he hadn’t stopped.
A shadow made whole around the indents of his poisoned talons.
Before the raven or his mate could do or say anything else, Zane struck the shadow thing, sinking his fangs into it.
Finally, one of the damn shadows was solid enough for him to strike it, though its texture was more like biting into rancid oil, not flesh.
The shadow struck back the only way it knew how: cold upon cold upon cold. Ice seared into Zane’s bones, lacing his viper soul with frost. Age dropped on his shoulders like an avalanche, making it difficult to even hold himself up.
Zane hung on, biting deep into the shadow, pumping his venom into its soul, taking away its life as a shadow, forcing his toxin into what served as veins in the creature.
Forcing the shadow to become corporeal, and walk in the light.
After wringing the last drop of poison out, Zane stepped back, letting the thing drop at his feet.
“Do you see?” Zane intoned, the syllables sliding one into another.
“Yes.” The raven and his mate stared at the ground, at the nightmare Zane had made real.
“You will bear witness,” Zane said, knowing that through his proclamation, he would make it come true. “You will tell the hound prince. This is the new form the shadows will take. This is what comes,” he added, his words ringing like a clear bell across the hill, over the water, and through time.
“We will,” they said, falling into the geas laid before them.
The weight of the task laid on Zane so long ago dropped from him, like he’d shed a skin made of stone. He’d finally made things right. The hound prince would know it was time.
Zane—no, he could take his full name again, so Gezane—felt himself grow taller, stronger, as the years fell from him and he reclaimed himself. He was still old, yes, but finally just his own age. The whispering need for liquor disappeared from the back of his mind, and instead, his viper soul circled closer than ever before. The edges of the rocks and the nearby cactus grew sharper, clearer, and the wind blew across him fresh and new, smelling sweetly of hidden flowers.
Gezane had worn his own face as a mask for so long, he couldn’t even imagine how he must appear now.
The raven before Gezane was still fully armed, but he also stood straighter, like a soldier, ready to be commanded.
But the mate—ah—she shone brighter still. Just a worm of a shadow had burrowed into her side and now that it was gone, she was like a beacon.
With a blink of surprise, Gezane realized that it was she the shadows had been after, not the boy. She was the arch stone, the only one strong enough to support them all.
“Thank you,” Gezane said with a deep bow, both to the young couple on whose untested shoulders so much now depended, as well as to the gods who had let him do his duty at last.
They bowed in return. Before they could speak, Gezane told them, “Go now. Enjoy your last day in my beautiful Tulum, won’t you?”
The time to fight would come soon enough for them.
They nodded and left, heading back down the path they’d come up, with many backward glances.
Gezane folded his arms over his chest and looked out over the beautiful ocean, her sweet and salty breezes playing with what remained of his hair. Pride filled him. He’d finally done what he’d been instructed to do, so many years ago.
He’d made the shadows real.
Then he glanced down at the rotting corpulence at his feet, the darkness slipping away in the wind. He knew it wasn’t dead, that it would return in the new shape he’d forced on it.
Was it enough to clear his debt? It didn’t feel like enough for what he’d done.
He’d purposefully delayed the chosen messenger from his people, the one who was supposed to warn of the encroaching shadows. In Gezane’s pride and arrogance, as well as the confusion brought by the shadows, he’d thought he could take the other’s place, gaining the glory for himself and his family.
Instead, he’d missed the meeting, the one chance when the tiger clan would have been open to the message. He’d arrived a day late, and therefore had imperiled the world, the shadows growing stronger in the intervening years.
He’d hurt so many: all in his family were scorned; so many more people the shadows had corrupted because they’d been able to gain strength; the poor hound prince and the burden he’d had to carry.
No, giving his life as he had wouldn’t repay his debt. But at least now, if the raven’s mate proved strong enough, there was a chance the world wouldn’t end in darkness.
# # #
Gezane spent the rest of the afternoon wandering, seeing Tulum with fond, fresh eyes. The markets amazed him, heaping piles of flowers, sharp spices, and racks of cheap clothes. People smiled at him as he slipped around them, of but not in the world. The sea called to him, and he dipped his hand in her, tasting her salt.
He didn’t visit his rundown apartment—though he doubted anyone would recognize him, they might mistake him for a younger cousin or brother of the old drunk who had lived there, and he didn’t want to accidentally endanger anyone who might be friendly to him.
The shadows would never let Gezane live after his decades-long treachery.
Still, Gezane walked down a crossroad two blocks away, letting his senses flare for only a moment. The young ones laughed as they watched secondhand cartoons given to them by the Americans. The señora was gone, but the scent of her burnt toast remained. The concrete from the new hotel no longer smelled wet, and underneath it lay the sweet ocean tainting the air with her salt.
As darkness stole the brilliant orange and red from the sunset, Gezane headed out of town along one of the old roads, going toward the interior. Not the new road the tourist buses drove carelessly along, no; instead, an original sak beh, a white road long abandoned by the people who’d once lived there, distant relatives of Gezane’s clan.
Even in the dark of the jungle night, Gezane could see the glittering stones of the road, reflecting the brilliant Milky Way as the humans naïvely called it.
Gezane preferred his people’s name for it—the Unending Dagger—a promise not just of quick death, but peace on the other side.
The shadows formed quickly once Gezane stepped out from under the trees and into a clearing. They brushed against him, pushing him forward until a solid shape rose out of the ground.
The hissing tones reminded Gezane of the council who’d proclaimed his fate and the task they’d set him. The death-like stench rolled out from the shadow, reminding Gezane of the stinking heaps of garbage hidden from tourists south of town.
“I think you forgot to kill me,” the shadow stated, swaying and undulating before him, like silk hanging from a window.
“Can you die?” Gezane asked.
The council hadn’t been sure if the shadows could be killed in their natural state.
“Of course not,” the shadow scoffed. “Still, you tried.”
“Did I?” Gezane asked, surprised at how little bitterness flowed through his veins. Like his poison, it had been drained away.
“Do not play games with me, mystic,” the shadow growled.
“Am I a mystic?” Gezane couldn’t help but ask, grinning. He’d never had a vision, just cheated the one who had, tried to steal it from him.
The cold struck with the force of a blow, though all the shadow had done was tap him on the chest with a curling tendril. Sudden exhaustion made him hunch over.
“Answer true,” the shadow admonished.
Gezane caught his breath in the humid night as the touch withdrew, and drew himself upright again. He resisted reaching up to rub at the spot, but instead stayed in the game. “You don’t know my clan well, do you?”
Never answer an outsider’s question, except with another question, was one of the oldest recitations of his kind.
“Why haven’t you ever spoken to me like this before?” Gezane asked after the shadow had touched him again, and the clarity of the night had returned with its uncaring stars burning brilliantly above his head.
“I only now have form. Form that you gave me,” the shadow explained. “I don’t believe that was your intent.”
Gezane tilted his head to one side as if considering. He waited, enjoying the loud song of the cicadas in the surrounding jungle, the warm humid air, the rotting smell of jungle mulch mingling with the wet smells of rotting corpses from the shadows, as patient as his viper soul had always wanted him to be.
He would never, ever, admit that it had always been the council’s intent to give the shadows form.
“You have made me much more powerful,” the shadow claimed, finally ending the silence. It billowed out like a dust storm, filling the clearing, casting its dark form between Gezane and the stars, turning their light thin and tinny.
“Did I?” Gezane asked through rote, his features shifting, his nose flattening and his skull widening as his venom sacks filled.
The shadow laughed, sending icy shivers down Gezane’s spine.
“I will take the light from you,” the shadow promised. “You will tell me everything, even as you forget your own name.”
“Surely you understand my nature by now?” Gezane asked, the words slithering out as his mouth made further adjustments.
“That you are false, even unto the secret smiles you give your young, never to be trusted or believed? Yes, that much we have learned.” The shadow paused, then added, “You robbed the bird’s mate from us.”
“Did you really have her?” Gezane asked as he swayed, undulating like the shadow before him, as if he couldn’t help himself.
“No,” the shadow admitted. “But we would have, eventually. Just as we’ll have you.”
“You know what they say about the viper clan, yes?” Gezane asked, the words hard to form now with his full snake mouth, fangs extending.
“No, I don’t think I’ve ever—”
“Beware,” Gezane interrupted, striking out lightning fast.
Nothing on earth could catch one of the viper clan, stop one of them from latching on. They moved the quickest of all the clans.
Yet, the shadow did.
“I do know you,” the shadow said as Gezane stood, stretched forward, frozen, unable to move, barely able to blink in the shadow’s iron grasp. “I know I can never be prepared enough for your treachery. But such a simple attack? Really? You should know better.”
And Gezane did. He truly did. He knew how the shadows clouded his mind.
How fast had he been actually moving before he struck?
“Now we will milk you, relieve you of your poison until you are dry. Then again, and again. You will make all my followers as powerful, as corporeal, as I.”
No! screamed Gezane, deep in his head, unable to move or make a sound.
Patience. A calm overtook Gezane as his viper soul rose closer to the surface.
The hound prince, the ravens, they will think I helped the shadows, that I worked with them, creating more of them, Gezane said, shuddering as the cold violated him, stroking his extended fangs, safely extracting his toxin.
Only enough, his viper soul assured him. There are plans within plans. Now rest. You have earned it. It is the others’ time to fight.
But only because I put them in harm’s way. Now the bitterness came back, flooding Gezane again. So much time wasted. So many lives.
You were part of the problem, yes. Now, you are part of the solution. So rest.
And the world faded into endless blackness.