Passion, p.32
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       Passion, p.32

         Part #3 of Fallen series by Lauren Kate
Page 32


  Three shadows darkened the doorway. Zotz, the leader with the red-and-white-feathered headdress, stepped inside the temple. None of the girls moved; they were all staring in horror at the long decorative spear he held. A human head was spiked atop it. The eyes were open, crossed with strain; the neck was still dripping blood.

  Luce looked away and her eyes fell on another, very muscular man entering the tomb. He was carrying another painted spear with another head impaled on its top. At least this ones eyes were closed. There was the faintest smile across the fat, dead lips.

  The losers, Bill said, zipping close to each of the heads to examine them. Now arent you glad Daniels team won? Mostly thanks to this guy. He clapped the muscular man on the shoulder, though Daniels teammate didnt seem to feel a thing. Then Bill was out the door again.

  When Daniel walked into the temple at last, his head was hanging. His hands were empty and his chest was bare. His hair and skin were dark, and his posture was stiffer than Luce was used to. Everything from the way the muscles of his abdomen met the muscles of his chest to the way he held his hands lifelessly at his sides was different. He was still gorgeous, still the most gorgeous thing Luce had ever seen, though he looked nothing like the boy whom Luce had gotten used to.

  But then he glanced up, and his eyes glowed exactly the same shade of violet that they always did.

  Oh, she said softly, thrashing against her bindings, desperate to escape the story they were stuck in during this lifetime--the skulls and the drought and the sacrifice--and hold on to him for all eternity.

  Daniel shook his head slightly. His eyes pulsed at her, glowing. His gaze soothed her. Like he was telling her not to worry.

  Zotz motioned with his free hand for the three girls to stand, then gave a swift nod, and everyone filed out through the northern door of the temple. Hanhau first, with Zotz at her side, Luce right behind her, and Ghanan bringing up the rear. The rope between them was just long enough for each girl to hold both wrists together at her side. Daniel came up and walked beside her, and the other victor walked beside Ghanan.

  For the briefest instant, Daniels fingertips grazed her bound wrists. Ix Cuat tingled at the touch.

  Just outside the temple door, the four drummers were waiting on the ledge. They fell in line behind the processional and, as the party descended the pyramids steep steps, played the same hectic beats Luce had heard when shed first arrived in this life. Luce focused on walking, feeling as if she were riding a tide instead of choosing to put one foot in front of the other, down the pyramid, and then, at the base of the steps, along the wide, dusty path that led to her death.

  The drums were all she could hear, until Daniel leaned in and whispered, Im going to save you.

  Something deep inside Ix Cuat soared. This was the first time he had ever spoken to her in this life.

  How? she whispered back, leaning toward him, aching for him to free her and fly her far, far away.

  Dont worry. His fingertips found hers again, brushing them softly. I promise, Ill take care of you.

  Tears stung her eyes. The ground was still searing the soles of her feet, and she was still marching to the place where Ix Cuat was supposed to die, but for the first time since arriving in this life, Luce was not afraid.

  The path led through a line of trees and into the jungle. The drummers paused. Chanting filled her ears, the chants of the crowd deeper in the jungle, at the cenote. A song that Ix Cuat had grown up singing, a prayer for rain. The other two girls sang along softly, their voices quaking.

  Luce thought of the words Ix Cuat had seemed to say as Luce entered her body: Fly me away, shed shouted inside her head. Fly me away.

  All at once, they stopped walking.

  Deep in the dried-out, thirsty jungle, the path before them opened up. A huge water-filled crater in the limestone spanned a hundred feet in front of Luce. Around it were the bright, eager eyes of the Mayan people. Hundreds. Theyd stopped chanting. The moment theyd been waiting for was here.

  The cenote was a limestone pit, mossy and deep and filled with bright-green water. Ix Cuat had been there before--shed seen twelve other human sacrifices just like this one. Below that still water were the decomposing remains of a hundred other bodies, a hundred souls who were supposed to have gone straight to Heaven--only, at that moment, Luce knew that Ix Cuat wasnt sure she believed in any of it.

  Ix Cuats family stood near the rim of the cenote. Her mother, her father, her two younger sisters, both holding babies in their arms. They believed--in the ritual, in the sacrifice that would take their daughter away and break their hearts. They loved her, but they thought she was unlucky. They thought this was the best way for her to redeem herself.

  A gap-toothed man with long gold earrings guided Ix Cuat and the other two girls to stand before Zotz, who had taken a prominent place near the edge of the limestone pool. He gazed down into the deep water. Then he closed his eyes and began a new chant. The community and the drummers joined in.

  Now the gap-toothed man stood between Luce and Ghanan and brought down his ax on the rope tying them together. Luce felt a jerk forward and the rope was severed. Her wrists were still bound, but she was now connected only to Hanhau on her right. Ghanan was on her own, marched forward directly in front of Zotz.

  The girl rocked back and forth, chanting under her breath. Sweat trickled down the back of her neck.

  When Zotz began to say words of prayer to the rain god, Daniel leaned toward Luce. Dont look.

  So Luce fastened her gaze on Daniel, and he on her. All around the cenote, the crowd drew in their breaths. Daniels teammate grunted and brought the ax down heavily on the girls neck. Luce heard the blade slice cleanly though, then the soft thump of Ghanans head landing in the dirt.

  The roar of the crowd rose up again: shouts of thanks to Ghanan, prayers for her soul in Heaven, vigorous wishes for rain.

  How could people really think that killing an innocent girl would solve their problems? This was where Bill would usually pop in. But Luce didnt see him anywhere. He had a way of disappearing when Daniel came around.

  Luce didnt want to see what had become of Ghanans head. Then she heard a deep, reverberating splash and knew that the girls body had reached its final resting place.

  The gap-toothed man approached. This time he severed Ix Cuats bond to Hanhau. Luce trembled as he marched her before the tribal leader. The rocks were sharp beneath her feet. She peered over the limestone rim into the cenote. She thought she might be sick, but then Daniel appeared at her side and she felt better. He nodded for her to look at Zotz.

  The tribal leader beamed at her, showing two topazes set into his front teeth. He intoned a prayer that Chaat would accept her and bring the community many months of nourishing rainfall.

  No, Luce thought. It was all wrong. Fly me away! she cried out to Daniel in her head. He turned toward her, almost as if hed heard.

  The gap-toothed man cleaned Ghanans blood off the ax with a scrap of animal hide. With great pomp he handed the blade to Daniel, who turned to stand face to face with Luce. Daniel looked weary, as if dragged down by the weight of the ax. His lips were pursed and white, and his violet gaze never left hers.

  The crowd was silent, holding their breaths. Hot wind rustled in the trees as the ax gleamed in the sun. Luce could feel that the end was coming, but why? Why had her soul dragged her here? What insight about her past, or the curse, could she possibly gain from having her head cut off?

  Then Daniel dropped the ax to the ground.

  What are you doing? Luce asked.

  Daniel didnt answer. He rolled back his shoulders, turned his face toward the sky, and flung out his arms. Zotz stepped forward to interfere, but when he touched Daniels shoulder, he screamed and recoiled as if hed been burned. And then--

  Daniels white wings unfurled from his shoulders. As they extended fully from his sides, huge and shockingly bright against the parched brown landscape, they
sent twenty Mayans hurtling backward.

  Shouts rang out around the cenote:

  What is he?

  The boy is winged!

  He is a god! Sent to us by Chaat!

  Luce thrashed against the ropes binding her wrists and her ankles. She needed to run to Daniel. She tried to move toward him, until--

  Until she couldnt move anymore.

  Daniels wings were so bright they were almost unbearable. Only, now it wasnt just Daniels wings that were glowing. It was . . . all of him. His entire body shone. As if hed swallowed the sun.

  Music filled the air. No, not music, but a single harmonious chord. Deafening and unending, glorious and frightening.

  Luce had heard it before . . . somewhere. In the cemetery at Sword & Cross, the last night shed been there, the night Daniel had fought Cam, and Luce hadnt been allowed to watch. The night Miss Sophia had dragged her away and Penn had died and nothing had ever been the same. It had begun with that very same chord, and it was coming out of Daniel. He was lit up so brightly, his body actually hummed.

  She swayed where she stood, unable to take her eyes away. An intense wave of heat stroked her skin.

  Behind Luce, someone cried out. The cry was followed by another, and then another, and then a whole chorus of voices crying out.

  Something was burning. It was acrid and choking and turned her stomach instantly. Then, in the corner of her vision, there was an explosion of flame, right where Zotz had been standing a moment before. The boom knocked her backward, and she turned away from the burning brightness of Daniel, coughing on the black ash and bitter smoke.

  Hanhau was gone, the ground where shed stood scorched black. The gap-toothed man was hiding his face, trying hard not to look at Daniels radiance. But it was irresistible. Luce watched as the man peeked between his fingers and burst into a pillar of flame.

  All around the cenote, the Mayans stared at Daniel. And one by one, his brilliance set them ablaze. Soon a bright ring of fire lit up the jungle, lit up everyone but Luce.

  Ix Cuat! Daniel reached for her.

  His glow made Luce scream out in pain, but even as she felt as if she were on the verge of asphyxiation, the words tumbled from her mouth. Youre glorious.

  Dont look at me, he pleaded. When a mortal sees an angels true essence, then--you can see what happened to the others. I cant let you leave me again so soon. Always so soon--

  Im still here, Luce insisted.

  Youre still-- He was crying. Can you see me? The true me?

  I can see you.

  And for just a fraction of a second, she could. Her vision cleared. His glow was still radiant but not so blinding. She could see his soul. It was white-hot and immaculate, and it looked--there was no other way to say it--like Daniel. And it felt like coming home. A rush of unparalleled joy spread through Luce. Somewhere in the back of her mind, a bell of recognition chimed. Shed seen him like this before.

  Hadnt she?

  As her mind strained to draw upon the past she couldnt quite touch, the light of him began to overwhelm her.

  No! she cried, feeling the fire sear her heart and her body shake free of something.

  Well? Bills scratchy voice grated on her eardrums.

  She lay against a cold stone slab. Back in one of the Announcer caves, trapped in a frigid in- between place where it was hard to hold on to anything outside. Desperately, she tried to picture what Daniel had looked like out there--the glory of his undisguised soul--but she couldnt. It was already slipping away from her. Had it really even happened?

  Luce closed her eyes, trying to remember exactly what hed looked like. There were no words for it. It was just an incredible, joyous connection.

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