Passion, p.31
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       Passion, p.31

         Part #3 of Fallen series by Lauren Kate
 
Page 31

 

  Behind the marketplace, one building rose higher than all the others: a stepped pyramid of the whitest stone. The two sides visible to Luce each had steep staircases running up their centers that ended at a single-story structure painted blue and red. A shiver ran through Luce, part recognition and part inexplicable fear.

  Shed seen this pyramid before. In history-book pictures, the Mayan temple had fallen to ruins. But it was far from ruins now. It was magnificent.

  Four men holding drums made of wood and stretched hide stood in a row on the ledge around the pyramids top. Their tanned faces were painted with strokes of red, yellow, and blue to look like masks. Their drums beat in unison, faster and faster until someone emerged from the doorway.

  The man was taller than the drummers; beneath a towering red-and-white-feathered headdress, his entire face was painted with mazelike turquoise designs. His neck, wrists, ankles, and earlobes were adorned with the same kind of bone jewelry Bill had given Luce to wear. He was carrying something--a long stick decorated with painted feathers and shiny shards of white. At one end, something silver gleamed.

  When he faced the people, the crowd fell silent, almost as if by magic.

  Who is that man? Luce whispered to Bill. Whats he doing?

  Thats the tribal leader, Zotz. Pretty haggard, right? Times are tough when your people havent seen rain for three hundred and sixty-four days. Not that theyre counting on that stone calendar over there or anything. He pointed at a gray slab of rock marked with hundreds of sooty black lines.

  Not one drop of water for almost an entire year? Luce could almost feel the thirst coming off the crowd. Theyre dying, she said.

  They hope not. Thats where you come in, Bill said. You and a few other unfortunate wretches. Daniel, too--hes got a minor role. Chaats very hungry by now, so its really all hands on deck.

  Chaat?

  The rain god. The Mayans have this absurd belief that a wrathful gods favorite food is blood. See where Im going with this?

  Human sacrifice, Luce said slowly.

  Yep. This is the beginning of a long day of em. More skulls to add to the racks. Exciting, isnt it?

  Wheres Lucinda? I mean, Ix Cuat?

  Bill pointed at the temple. Shes locked up in there, along with the other sacrificees, waiting for the ball game to be over.

  The ball game?

  Thats what this crowd is on their way to watch. See, the tribal leader likes to host a ball game before a big sacrifice. Bill coughed and brushed his wings back. Its kind of a cross between basketball and soccer, if each team had only two players, and the ball weighed a ton, and the losers got their heads cut off and their blood fed to Chaat.

  To the court! Zotz bellowed from the top step of the temple. The Mayan words sounded strangely guttural and yet were still comprehensible to Luce. She wondered how they made Ix Cuat feel, locked up in the room behind Zotz.

  A great cheer erupted from the crowd. As a group, the Mayans rose and broke into a run toward what looked like a large stone amphitheater at the far side of the plain. It was oblong and low--a brown dirt playing field ringed by tiered stone bleachers.

  Ah--theres our boy! Bill pointed at the head of the crowd as they neared the stadium.

  A lean, muscular boy was running, faster than the others, his back to Luce. His hair was dark brown and shiny, his shoulders deeply tanned and painted with intersecting red-and-black bands. When he turned his head slightly to the left, Luce caught a quick glimpse of his profile. He was nothing like the Daniel she had left in her parents backyard. And yet--

  Daniel! Luce said. He looks--

  Different and also precisely the same? Bill asked.

  Yes.

  Thats his soul you recognize. Regardless of how you two may look on the outside, youll always know each others souls.

  It hadnt occurred to Luce until now how remarkable it was that she recognized Daniel in every life. Her soul found his. Thats . . . beautiful.

  Bill scratched at a scab on his arm with a gnarly claw. If you say so.

  You said Daniel was involved in the sacrifice somehow. Hes a ballplayer, isnt he? Luce said, craning her neck toward the crowd just as Daniel disappeared inside the amphitheater.

  He is, Bill said. Theres a lovely little ceremony--he raised a stone eyebrow--in which the winners guide the sacrifices into their next life.

  The winners kill the prisoners? Luce said quietly.

  They watched the crowd as it funneled into the amphitheater. Drumbeats sounded from within. The game was about to begin.

  Not kill. Theyre not common murderers. Sacrifice. First they chop off the heads. Heads go back there. Bill nodded over his shoulder at the palisade of heads. Bodies get tossed into a skuzzy--pardon me, holy--limestone sinkhole out in the jungle. He sniffed. Me? I dont see how thats gonna bring rain, but who am I to judge?

  Will Daniel win or lose? Luce asked, knowing the answer before the words had even left her lips.

  I can see how the idea of Daniel decapitating you does not maybe scream out romance, Bill said, but really, whats the difference between his killing you by fire and by the sword?

  Daniel wouldnt do that.

  Bill hovered in the air in front of Luce. Wouldnt he?

  There came a great roar from inside the amphitheater. Luce felt that she should run onto the field, go up to Daniel, and take him in her arms; tell him what shed left the Globe too soon to say: that she understood now everything he went through to be with her. That his sacrifices made her even more committed to their love. I should go to him, she said.

  But there was also Ix Cuat. Locked up in a room atop the pyramid waiting to be killed. A girl who might hold within her a valuable piece of information Luce needed to learn to break the curse.

  Luce teetered in place--one foot toward the amphitheater, one toward the pyramid.

  Whats it gonna be? Bill taunted. His smile was too big.

  She took off running, away from Bill and toward the pyramid.

  Good choice! he called, flitting quickly around to keep pace at her side.

  The pyramid towered over her. The painted temple at the top--where Bill had said Ix Cuat would be--felt as distant as a star. Luce was so thirsty. Her throat ached for water; the ground scorched the soles of her feet. It felt like the entire world was burning up.

  This place is very sacred, Bill murmured in her ear. This temple was built on top of a previous temple, which was built on top of yet another temple, and so on, all of them oriented to mark the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. On those two days at sunset, the shadow of a serpent can be seen sliding up the steps of the northern stairs. Cool, huh?

  Luce just huffed and began climbing the stairs.

  The Mayans were geniuses. By this point in their civilization, theyve already predicted the end of the world in 2012. He coughed theatrically. But that remains to be seen. Time will tell.

  As Luce neared the top, Bill swooped in close again.

  Now, listen, he said. This time, if and when you go three-D--

  Shhh, Luce said.

  No one can hear me but you!

  Exactly. Shhh! She took another step up the pyramid, quietly now, and stood on the ledge at the top. She pressed her body against the hot stone of the temple wall, inches away from the open doorway. Someone inside was singing.

  Id do it now, Bill said, while the guards are at the ball court.

  Luce edged to the doorway and peered in.

  The sunlight streaming through the open door lit up a large throne in the center of the temple. It was shaped like a jaguar and painted red, with spots of inlaid jade. To the left was a large statue of a figure reclining on its side with a hand over its stomach. Small burning lamps made of stone and filled with oil surrounded the statue and cast a flickering light. The only other things in the room were three girls bound together at the wrists by rope, huddled in the corner.

  Luce gasped, and all three girls heads shot up. They w
ere all pretty, with dark hair in braids, and jade piercings through their ears. The one on the left had the darkest skin. The one on the right had deep-blue swirling lines painted up and down her arms. And the one in the middle . . . was Luce.

  Ix Cuat was small and delicate. Her feet were dirty, and her lips were chapped. Of the three terrified girls, her dark eyes were the wildest.

  What are you waiting for? Bill called out from his seat on the statues head.

  Wont they see me? Luce whispered through a clenched jaw. The other times shed cleaved with her past selves, theyd either been alone or Bill had helped to shield her. What would it look like to these other girls if Luce went inside Ix Cuats body?

  These girls have been half mad since they got selected to be sacrificed. If they cry out about any freaky business, guess how many people are going to care? Bill made a show of counting on his fingers. Right. Zero. No ones even going to hear them.

  Who are you? one of the girls asked, her voice splintered with fear.

  Luce couldnt answer. As she stepped forward, Ix Cuats eyes ignited with what looked like terror. But then, to Luces great shock, just as she reached down, her past self reached up with her bound hands and grabbed fast and hard to Luces. Ix Cuats hands were warm, and soft, and trembling.

  She started to say something. Ix Cuat had started to say--

  Fly me away.

  Luce heard it in her mind as the ground beneath them shuddered and everything began to flicker. She saw Ix Cuat, the girl whod been born unlucky, whose eyes told Luce she knew nothing about the Announcers, but who had seized hold of Luce as if Luce held her deliverance. And she saw herself, from outside herself, looking tired and hungry and ragged and rough. And older somehow. And stronger.

  Then the world settled again.

  Bill was gone from the statues head, but Luce couldnt move to search for him. Her bound wrists were raw, and marked with black sacrificial tattoos. Her ankles, she realized, had been bound, too. Not that the bindings mattered much--fear bound her soul more tightly than any rope ever could. This wasnt like the other times Luce had gone inside her past. Ix Cuat knew exactly what was coming to her. Death. And she did not seem to welcome it as Lys had in Versailles.

  On either side of Ix Cuat, her cocaptives had edged away from her, but they could move only a few inches. The girl on the left, with the dark skin--Hanhau--was crying; the other, with the painted blue body--Ghanan--was praying. They were all afraid to die.

  You are possessed! Hanhau sobbed through her tears. You will contaminate the offering!

  Ghanan was at a loss for words.

  Luce ignored the girls and felt around Ix Cuats own crippling fear. Something was running through her mind: a prayer. But not a prayer of sacrificial preparation. No, Ix Cuat was praying for Daniel.

  Luce knew that the thought of him made Ix Cuats skin flush and her heart beat faster. Ix Cuat had loved him her whole life--but only from afar. Hed grown up a few buildings away from her familys home. Sometimes he traded avocados to her mother at the market. Ix Cuat had been trying for years to get up the courage to talk to him. The knowledge that he was at the ball court now tormented her. Ix Cuat was praying, Luce realized, that he would lose. Her one prayer was that she did not want to die at his hand.

  Bill? Luce whispered.

  The little gargoyle swooped back inside the temple. Games over! The mobs heading over to the cenote now. Thats the limestone pool where the sacrificing takes place. Zotz and the winning players are on their way up here to walk you gals over to the ceremony.

  As the din of the mob faded, Luce trembled. There were footsteps on the stairs. Any moment now, Daniel would walk through that door.

 
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