The Alien Element – Chapter 2

<unedited>

Snippet 2 from The Alien Element
Translocator Trilogy Book Two
by M.G. Herron
Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved, yadda yadda

 

The Alien Element by M.G. Herron2

First Flight Back

Eliana hurried across the campus of the University of Texas, sweat gathering at her collar of her blouse and under her arms. Today was the day of her final guest lecture at the University, and she was late for her own class.

The leather messenger bag she purchased when she had been offered the guest lecturer position at her alma mater earlier that year swung at her side, rubbing against the bare skin of her legs below her shorts. After a single semester, it was still not broken in, and the edges were sharp.

The spring air was fresh and she couldn’t help but slow her steps and bend to admire the bright bluebonnets spilling out of every patch of grass edging the sidewalk. Seeing the bluebonnets bloom wild and free in the spring always made Eliana long to be outdoors, in the sun, and the sight of them today made her check in with herself.

Yes, she thought, I have been outdoors latelyquite a lot.

Eliana rose from sniffing the bed of wildflowers and continued her walk across the university campus, this time forcing herself to walk more slowly. What did it matter if she was late? It was her last lecture.

After a grueling nine-month application and permission process, the research team she now led had just spent three weeks exploring the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, a jungle in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula that extended into Belize and Guatemala. Their goal, at least on paper, was to map uncharted Mayan ruins, of which there were a great many in the dense 13 million acre forest.

She considered, for a moment, the path that led her here. After she returned from Kakul a year ago, Eliana had begun to digest her harrowing experience. She wrote down everything she’d seen and learned, from the moment she was zapped across the galaxy by a glitch in Amon’s Translocator, to the last time she saw the two moons in the night sky of that other world.

Even if she had possessed pen and paper while she was in Kakul, she didn’t know if she would have had the presence of mind to keep notes. The first weeks had been so incredibly disorienting. She had been so intent on avoiding becoming a sacrifice to their ancient god, and then learning the language and working for her food, that nothing else had mattered. And then had been brutally attacked. Who has time to keep a journal when your very survival is at stake?

Once Amon brought her home, she wrote down what she did remember. It went slowly at first, but once she had the facts down—how people lived there, what they ate, all the words she knew (spelled out phonetically), the people’s religious customs—she finally began to ask the other questions that had been nagging at her mind.

How had the Kakuli people gotten to that planet in the first place? And when? The archaeologist in her demanded an explanation. Eliana consulted with Renee Shaw, her mentor and former advisor at University. Renee was a linguist who specialized in ancient Mesoamerican cultures, and she confirmed that the language Eliana learned was, indeed, a dialect of Yucatec Mayan. Given all the words she didn’t recognize, she suspected that it would make sense that it was an unknown dialect or one that had diverged some time ago and had developed in isolation.

Later, much later, Eliana would admit to herself that she thought about going back to Kakul at that moment, and rejected the idea outright. Not only did she have absolutely zero desire to be translocated anywhere again, but Amon’s work was under more scrutiny now than ever. The US government had insisted, to Amon’s annoyance, on increasing security. She couldn’t use a billion-dollar molecular reassembly device under high security for her research without a lot of hassle.

Eliana turned, instead, to the other place she was likely to get answers. Though she still felt scarred from the experience, her recent exposure in the press was a boon. Eliana Fisk wasn’t just an archaeologist anymore—she was the woman who survived the world’s first and only Translocator accident.

She managed to secure funding from an archaeological society associated with her alma mater, put together a competent exploration team from her old contacts in the field, and go through the nine-month application process with the Mexican government. After today, she could continue her search for the answers to her burning questions about the Kakuli people in the Yucatan Peninsula, the ancestral homeland of the Mayan people.

She finally reached the building where the small lecture hall was located, dashed up the steps, and yanked on a polished brass handle. As the door opened on smoothly oiled hinges, a murmur of voices filled the air.

She may have been late for her lecture, but that only enhanced her entrance. A hush fell over the crowded room. Judging by attendance, word had spread that she wouldn’t be continuing these guest lectures next year, as originally rumored.

Eliana stopped a few feet from the open door to catch her breath. After composing herself, she strode purposefully into the room. The sound of the door latching echoed in the quiet room.

Eliana heard only the sound of her footsteps as she crossed the floor to the lectern in the center. She took a second to stow her messenger bag carefully on a low shelf, fix her air, and adjust the microphone down to her height.

“Good afternoon,” she said. “I see that there are far more of you here than have been attending class for most of the semester. Many new faces. Thank you for coming. I’m sure we’re breaking all the fire code regulations.”

Gazing up at the gathering of students, Eliana noticed that not a single seat sat empty. In fact, students even sat side-by-side on the two columns of steps leading up through the theater-style seats. They stood behind the back row and gathered at the doorways.

No pressure, she thought. A vibration came from her messenger bag, where her phone was stored. She ignored it.

“Since you’re already here, and this is my last lecture, you are welcome to stay. I won’t tell.”

The tension in the room eased visibly, and Eliana saw a few guilty grins light up the young faces at the back of the room. Laptops opened, the backlit logos of the computer companies shining down at her.

She rested her forearms beside the microphone and began the speech she had prepared. “Our topic today is a continuation of the theme of this series—how Mayan art and architecture has influenced the modern world. Specifically, in this lecture we’ll be examining what we can learn about complex societies and economics by studying the decline and abandonment of many major cities in the southern Maya Lowlands during the ninth century CE.”

The lecture went on from there, and Eliana fell into her groove. This was a topic she had been fascinated with since she began her career in archaeology, so it was easy to talk passionately about the details, from when the Maya entered the cultural consciousness of Western civilization in the early 20th century to the restoration of the pyramid at Chichen Itza. She showed them the jade mask of Palenque, evidence of the advanced mathematics of the Maya astronomers, photos of the codices and ancient scripts that, to this day, no one had fully been able to decipher or catalog in full.

It was a topic that had recently taken on more personal color, but she kept her own theories out of it. So far she had only told Amon and a few people close to her what she’d really experienced on Kakul. She couldn’t lay her theories on her students—not without more concrete evidence.

An hour passed in the space of a breath. As she began to wrap up the lecture, one young woman who had been typing furiously on a laptop during the entire lecture begin to fidget restlessly. Eliana knew her

“Now—questions?” Eliana said.

The fidgety girl’s hand shot into the air. Eliana tried to keep her face relaxed in a neutral smile. So much rested on a teacher’s expression. She’d been this girl once, and it wouldn’t be kind to embarrass her for her enthusiasm, even unintentionally.

“Is the research you’re doing in Mexico connected to your disappearance last year?”

The question stole the breath from her lungs. Eliana blinked and felt her face flush. She closed her mouth and inhaled slowly through her nose.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Fisk,” the girl said. “It’s just—I had to ask. The newspapers last year said you came back wearing jade and shell jewelry and dressed in coarse-woven cloth, and I’ve heard rumors that—”

A door opened and shut. The girl hesitated. Someone cleared their throat.

Eliana held up a hand. “It’s okay, Margaret,” she finally said. “I suppose someone had to ask eventually. The research my team is doing in Mexico is exploratory in nature. We’re trying to map the undocumented ruins in the more remote regions of the Calakmul Reserve. That’s all. Those jungles are incredibly dense, and we believe that still may contain some interesting discoveries about the Mayans.”

The girl’s face dropped, obviously disappointed. But she smiled and nodded, apparently satisfied with that explanation.

It wasn’t a lie—more like an evasion. How had this young woman put the pieces together? Not even her research team had the full sense of Eliana’s suspicious about the Kakuli people. She had kept those cards close to her chest. Eliana would have to tell Renee about this student. A girl with that kind of intuition—not to mention her passion—showed promise.

“That’s all for today,” Eliana said. “Thank you all for coming. Be sure you register in advance for the next guest lecture you attend.”

With a rustle of bags and papers, the students all rose at once and filed toward the exit. The shy girl, Margaret, averted her face and hurried for the exit. Eliana turned to try to catch her attention, to get her name, but when she turned around she looked straight into a very familiar face.

“Renee!” she said. “I thought we were meeting later for lunch.”

Her former mentor and present president of the University proudly wore a trim red pantsuit that reminded Eliana more of a politician than a linguist. Renee probably felt that her new position demanded she dresses the part.

“I hope you don’t mind. I snuck in at the end,” Renee said “I didn’t want to miss your last appearance. They students are completely enamored with you, you know.”

Eliana couldn’t conceal the blush that crept up her neck.  She changed the subject. “That girl who asked me about my research, do you know her?”

Renee inclined her head. “Margaret Jaffray. Yes, she’s an excellent student. Made the dean’s list three years in a row.”

“Oh, good,” Eliana said. “She’s a bright one. Might have to recruit her for my research team after she graduates.”

Eliana grabbed her messenger bag and slung it across her body, then reached in and grabbed her phone. She had two messages, several missed calls, and half a dozen text messages. She scrolled through the texts as she distractedly followed Renee out of the lecture hall.

“So where would you like to eat?” Renee asked.

Eliana didn’t answer her. She wasn’t trying to be rude, it was just that the text messages absorbed her whole attention.

We found something. Take the first flight back. You have to see this with your own eyes.

Eliana swallowed against the dryness in her mouth. Her heart slammed against her ribcage. She looked up at her former mentor. “I’m sorry, Renee, I’d love to catch up with you but I think—I have to go. Let’s reschedule. I’ll let you know when I’m back in town.”

Renee stopped, her hands falling loosely at her sides. “Back in town?”

“Yes,” Eliana said, walking backward toward the door. “I’ll call you!” She turned, not waiting for an answer.

Eliana booked a flight on her phone on the way to the airport. As the plane left the runway, she forced the hope down inside her chest, trying to keep it contained until she’d seen the evidence for herself.

Halftime huddle on my 2017 writing goals

It’s halfway through the year, so I thought it would be useful to take a step back and get some perspective on the writing goals I set myself in January. Especially after the setback of the July-August challenge.

2017 writing goals

The 2017 writing goals document I wrote in January is ten pages long. I decided not to blog about it at the time, which I regret. But I can’t go back in time so I’ll summarize it for you.

I had two main goals:

  1. Publish new fiction every month in 2017
  2. Write a lot of new material

Let’s dive into these one at a time.

1. Publish new fiction every month in 2017

I actually started the streak in December 2016 with a short story. Here’s everything I’ve published since the streak began.

As you can see, I’m doing great on this one! Even exceeding my goals due to the serial release of TOTR and the anthology in April.

August is locked down with release of The Alien Element, and I have specific plans for September-December. Got some work to do, but this goal is well within reach—as long as I stay focused.

2. Write a lot of new material

What new material did I want to write in January 2017? I had these projects listed on my original doc. Here’s the list and status of each.

  • Finish Tales of the Republic – Done
  • Write Translocator 2 – Now called The Alien Element, the book went out to ARC readers today.
  • Write 30 short stories – Heh. Oops. Not doing so great here. I think I’ve written 2 new short stories this year. I have more planned, but 30 seems unlikely. That’s okay. Not as good as I’d hoped but them’s the breaks.
  • Write a nonfiction project – I ditched this sometime in March. My goals changed when I realized I was trying to do too much with too broad a focus. Changing goals with new information is a good thing, and I have no regrets cutting this project. If it’s important, it will come back on my radar in the future.
  • Write a blog every week – Doing better lately on this one. I feel like I’ve found a groove here this month. I’m publishing several blogs a week with ease, because I’m writing about topics with a clear focus (on books and new releases, with fiction samples thrown in when possible). Only seems to be a hand full of people reading the blog regularly (if you are, hello!) but the more I put into it the more it will grow.

Time for a gut check

At the start of the year, I had an unfinished novel, vague ideas for Translocator 2, and a handful of finished short stories.

I’ve made a whole hell of a lot out of that meagre start. The unfinished novel came together and became Tales of the Republic, which is fast on its way to selling its first thousand copies. The shorts I had already written got produced and went live in in January, February, April and July.

And I’m dancing a jig over how fast The Alien Element came together. I’ve hit ALL my deadlines so far. The journey to write that book was grueling at times, but rewarding. I know the kind of writer I want to be, and this project has shown me a glimpse of him.

Something unexpected is that I also started a cowriting project I mentioned the other day, a sci-fi mystery novel. That’s what I’m working on in July between marketing/new book production tasks. I didn’t foresee this project when I made my writing goals at the start of the year, but I’m glad it happened. We’ve agreed to keep the book name and partnership under wraps for now, but I’ll share more about this when it’s ready.

The second half of 2017

For the second half of this year, I’ve got the cowriting project to finish, 4 post-apoc stories (and the subsequent collection) to put together, and Translocator 3 to draft. That last one won’t make it through edits in 2017, so I am targeting early 2018 for its release.

I honestly didn’t know if I was going to be able to fit T3 in this year, but it’s looking like I might, so that’s incredibly inspiring.

Wow, that’s a lot

It’s a lot. I know. It is.

If you can believe it, I’ve got bigger plans for next year. For instance, I haven’t touched audiobooks with a yardstick, and people have been asking for them.

Mostly, this post is a reminder for myself to keep my eye on the ball. The most important thing for me at this stage in my writing career is to produce new work. The challenge to publish new fiction each month has shown me that I can make it happen.

There’s always room for improvement, but I’m getting better all the time. A little more practice, a few more books, a little bit of luck… who knows.

I’d be curious to know which projects sound most interesting to you, and if you do a check-in like this on your goals. Leave it in the comments.

Copyedits in for The Alien Element

Yesterday afternoon, my editor got back in touch with copyedits for The Alien Element. Right on schedule!

I hustled to get them all entered today. This is a simple but slow process where I take the changes back in to Scrivener, which I’ll use to produce the ebook version.

It was after dinner, nearly 11pm before I was done. Then I went out for a long walk to stretch my stiff back and legs.

A solid day. Tiring, but productive. Good to know I can do copyedits (and some minor revisions) for a full length novel in a day.

Tomorrow I’ll format the ebook and get it out to ARC readers. If you’re on my ARC list, look for an email in the next day or so! If you want to read this book early in exchange for an honest review, get in touch with me by email or leave a comment here.

Teasers for the book are starting to come out, too. Read Chapter 1 of The Alien Element on the blog there.

In the home stretch now!

Reading: The City and The Stars

The City and The Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. Science fiction, 1956.

I’m still on a kick to catch up on the mid-century masters of science fiction—stuff that, by choice or by chance, I’ve never been exposed to. When I saw this one in Half Price Books with the awesome cover I had to have it.

Appropriately aged, don’t you think? 

It took me a while to read this book, and even longer to write about it. It’s good. I just needed time to let it all sink in. 

Here’s the thing. It starts slow. A billion years has passed and Clarke is painstakingly laying out for you reader how society has changed in all that time—a time your brain can hardly quantify.

It takes some getting used to. But there’s a pace shift about a quarter of the way through that will absolutely blow your mind.

Once exposed, the sheer scale of the concept that powers this book is impressive. This is a high concept novel. Relatively short in length, but on a massive scale.

What’s most astonishing is how well the story has aged. Technology has advanced considerably since Clarke wrote this and his vision of the far-future society remains perfectly plausible if we look at it from today—again, that scale.

It almost feels like the story is more relevant today than it was when he wrote it. Some of the language is very mid-century, but if you can get past that, I think you might like this science fiction epic, The City and The Stars.

Good music for writing

An impromptu collection of some of my favorite albums to write to.

I’m never at a coffee shop without headphones. Music helps me focus. It’s a reliable way to block out distractions when needed, which is most of the time.

My choices of tracks for writing are instrumental or electronic. Almost none of the songs on these albums have lyrics.

The moods range from rhythmic rock jams to brooding melodic vocals with crooning guitars. Lots of Jazz thrown in and scrambled up the way it should be.

I’ve been listening to these albums for years—they don’t go stale for me.

In no particular order…

Ratatat – Magnifique

Absolutely anything from Ratatat’s playlist makes for good writing music.

Mogwai – Atomic

Mogwai is hit or miss on writing music but I like this one

Chequerboard – The Unfolding

I listened to this album for a month straight.

Jazztronic Playlist on Spotify

This playlist helped me find a bunch of new stuff.

Amon Tobin – Bricolage

Stoney Street. Easy Muffin. Chomp samba! Even the names sound like jazz. Love the names, love Amon Tobin.

July…er, July-August challenge

Checking in on the July challenge, in which I planned to finish a cowriting project (a sci-fi mystery novel), write 4 post apocalyptic stories, and publish a bunch of new stuff all by the end of July.

How am I doing? Haha, well, I could be doing better. But all is not lost!

I’m firmly on track with all the publishing and marketing stuff. Not Alone went live a few days ago, The Auriga Project is getting updated to the official “second edition” at this very moment. The Alien Element is still with my editor, but coming back soon.

On the writing side, I wrote 1000 words today on the cowriting project to finish a difficult section. I’m about halfway through what I wanted to get through by now, although I expect smoother sailing from here. After I get to the end of the current manuscript, there’s about 20k more words that need to be written to finish the story.

Given my schedule, I know at this point that I’m going to need more time.

Both the writing and the publishing side of things have taken longer than I expected this month. It didn’t help that I had a week long vacation smack dab in the middle of the challenge. I am REALLY slow at writing book descriptions.

Very probably, I’m not going to get to the short stories this month. Or if I do, it will only be one or two of them toward the end. I need the rest of this month to finish the cowriting project novel. The short stories can be written in August, and I can still get the collection published by the end of the year.

How about we start calling it the July-August challenge, instead? 😀

A setback, but not a loss. Still on track to publish something new every month this year. I just signed a contract for new sci-fi anthology. And The Alien Element is coming in August.

Reading: Star Nomad


Star Nomad (Fallen Empire, Book 1) by Lindsay Buroker
I read this science fiction novel when I was traveling back in April. Star Nomad by Lindsay Buroker is a fun, satisfying story that promises to be the beginning of a great intergalactic adventure, empire versus rebels style.

It reminded me of Star Wars media novels in a good way. You’ll probably like this story if you care for Firefly, too. In an alternate universe where Firefly wasnt cancelled, Lindsay Buroker’s got hired as a writer in season 5 when they needed a fresh take on a show that was in danger of growing stale.

Join fighter pilot Captain Alisa Marchenko as she journeys to resuscitate a clunky old freighter and rejoin her daughter on her home planet. It’s a good thing the war ended after she got injured. The galaxy is safer after a war ends…right?

The Alien Element – Chapter 1

<unedited>

Snippet 1 from The Alien Element
Translocator Trilogy Book Two
by M.G. Herron
Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved, yadda yadda

 

The Alien Element by M.G. Herron1

A Year-Long Peace

Rakulo trudged through the ancient forest with low spirits and limbs so tired and heavy it seemed a miracle that his feet continued to obey his commands. He walked on through the grey, sunless day, clenching his teeth each time the cold and biting wind sliced down through the trees to prickle his sweat-soaked skin.

He held his head high despite his exhaustion. Thirty young warriors trailed in a ragged line behind him, their clumsy footsteps occasionally catching on concealed tree roots or vines buried among the deep leaf-covered forest floor.

Even though Rakulo felt as tired they did, he couldn’t let them see any signs of weakness. A good leader never showed weakness, no matter how tired he felt.

About an hour outside the village, Rakulo held an open hand up, signaling to the warriors following him that it was time to stop and rest. Most of the weary men and women sank wordlessly to the ground with their backs against the nearest tree, not even bothering to seek out the most comfortable spot. When you’re that exhausted, anything that supports your weight feels like the softest feather bed.

“We’ll be home soon,” Rakulo said. “You’ll have two days with your families before we set out again, so make good use of the time. And it goes without saying, but not a word, not even among family, about what we were doing at the Wall.”

They nodded, but no one spoke, for no one had the energy. A few heads lolled back to rest against moss-covered trunks. One or two warriors took deep breaths and blew out their cheeks as they sighed.

Citlali stood from where she had been squatting and walked over to Rakulo. Of all his warriors, Citlali was among the fiercest. Where some of the younger men were still scrawny, lean cords of muscle stood out beneath Citlali’s tawny skin. Where others tired after half a day of hard walking, Citlali could run from one end of the wall to the other in a single day, and have energy to spare. Even now, the only sign of her fatigue was the quick rise of her chest while she breathed, and her puffy eyelids, which betrayed a lack of sleep.

She leaned close to him and spoke in a low voice so the others wouldn’t overhear their conversation.

“Don’t you think you’re pushing them too hard?” Citlali asked. “We’ve been in the forest for a score of days now.”

“They need to be in fighting shape,” Rakulo said.

“They also need time to recover,” she said. “And time to spend with their children. You’re too hard on them.”

“No one knows what dangers wait for us beyond the Wall. They need to be ready—for anything.”

She bobbed her head from side to side considering this. Rakulo said nothing about the fruitless journey from which they were now returning. They had searched along the Wall for days and days, looking for a way around or through, and found nothing. She finally nodded, turned, and sauntered casually back to where she had been resting a moment ago, making sure not to let her agitation show in her movement or on her face.

Citlali might disagree with Rakulo about his methods, but even if she was opposed to him, she would be careful not show any sign of open dissent. Rakulo was their chief now, and had been for twelve cycles of the two moons.

Rakulo turned his back on the group of weary warriors and gazed off into the distance, where he knew the empty stone city called Uchben Na—Ancient Mother—stood empty in the jungle. His ancestors had lived there once, but not for many generations. For as long as anyone could remember, and long before that, his people had lived in Kakul, the village on the edge of the sea.

Citlali was right, of course. He was too hard on them. But he had to be.

They hadn’t found a way through the Wall this time, but one day they would. He needed them all to be ready when that happened, when the day came to fight for their freedom. Rakulo directed them to prepare in other ways. Together, they had learned to carve canoes from sturdy tree trunks. Together, they made flint-tipped arrows, and knives of obsidian, and spears with tips of obsidian and flint. All of it was training. All of it was preparation.

When his warriors had caught their breath, Rakulo motioned them to their feet and moved onward, setting a slightly slower pace this time. They skirted around Uchben Na, crossed the river, and soon were padding into the farmland around the village, past the rows of corn and beans, toward the thatched-roofed huts that made up the village.

Men and women came out of the field and village to greet them. As soon as word spread about their return, more people emerged from between the mud daub walls. Children cried out happily, weaving between their parents’ legs in bare feet.

Rakulo exchanged polite greetings, and smiled as his warriors were reunited with their families and led home by their husbands, wives, brothers and mothers. The children ran circles around them, whooping and laughing. Rakulo breathed deeply of the tangy sea-smelling air, carried to him by another cool breeze. Despite his discontent at a year of searching and no results, it sure felt good to be home, especially now while the weather seemed to be giving them a break.

A plump figure draped with seashell necklaces, her shoulders thick with tattoos that showed her seniority and high social status, turned a corner. Spotting Rakulo, Ixchel walked quickly toward him. He could tell by her posture that something was bothering his mother.

“Chief Rakulo,” Ixchel said, loud enough for those still lingering nearby to hear. “I’m glad to see you’ve returned home safely again, my son.”

Rakulo hugged her close to him and whispered, “Is everything okay, mother?”

“We must speak in private,” she replied softly.

He followed her back to the house they shared near the center of the village. It was one of the oldest homes, with a fired clay foundation, sturdy wooden walls, and a thick roof that kept the house dry during even the fiercest monsoons. As chief, Rakulo could have commandeered a new house for himself, but he wasn’t home that often, and didn’t want to isolate his mother, who had lost her husband and her youngest son in quick succession last year. Although there was no door to close the hut—all the houses in the village were open to the air—once inside, they had some privacy and could speak more openly.

“Did something happen while I was gone?” Rakulo asked.

“Ekel, the fisherman, has gone missing,” Ixchel said without preamble.

“What?” Rakulo swore, his hands clenching into hard fists. “When? Who else knows?”

“Word has certainly spread by now, although no one is talking about it where they can be heard.”

So that explained the obvious relief on the faces of his warriors’ families when they came to greet their loved ones. It was no shock that no one was talking about it. Everyone knew what it meant when an old man or woman went missing.

“Could he have just gone off on his own for a while? Down the coast, or into the forest? Has anyone checked the caves?”

Ixchel gave him a condescending look. “Old Ekel, the homebody? The man who’s gone fishing in the same spot every day for ten years?” She shook her head firmly. “No.”

Strange, indeed, Rakulo thought.

It had been over a year since Xucha had shown his face—the God had been absent since the death of Chief Dambu, Rakulo’s father. Had Xucha taken Ekel in retribution for what he’d done? And if so, why had it taken so long?

In direct contravention to tradition, Rakulo’s first order when he became chief was to immediately cease the human sacrifices that Xucha had demanded, and which had been reinforced by Chief Dambu and the endless line of shamans and chiefs that came before him—often unwillingly. Chief Dambu had been punished for his resistance, and eventually offered as a sacrifice himself.

When Rakulo became chief, he decreed that Chief Dambu was to be the last sacrifice.

The next few cycles of the moons were tense as everyone braced for a retaliation from their God. None came. Xucha stayed away, no one fell ill, and eventually people began to relax. Many new babies were born in the last year, and—this was unprecedented—one elderly woman even died a perfectly natural death in her sleep. Rakulo had her buried next to the grave of Ixchel’s youngest son, Rakulo’s little brother, Tilak, who had been struck ill by Xucha in punishment for Dambu’s disobedience.

Since Rakulo took over as chief and refused to continue the tradition of sacrifice, their village had experienced a year-long peace.

Until now. Until Ekel’s disappearance. He knew what people would think. The whole situation stank of Xucha’s influence. The black-clad God was known to be deceptive, to work in secret and by the cover of night.

Or was there another explanation?

“Why Ekel?” Rakulo asked. “Why now?”

“He stopped fishing while you were gone because the journey to the beach had become too hard on his knees. At least, that’s what he told everyone.” She was silent for a moment, considering the source of the information. “Your father would have said he was the sensible choice.”

“There are other things Ekel can do! And father’s not with us anymore. I’m the Chief now.”

“I know that.” His mother scowled at him, and for a moment he felt like a child again, and doubly guilty for reminding his mother that her husband was gone. “Why do you think I’m telling you these things? But there’s something else.”

Rakulo took a deep breath. “What is it?”

“I think Maatiaak had something to do with it.”

“Elder Maatiaak?”

“The two of them barely spoke to each other before a few days ago.”

Rakulo nodded. “They both wanted to marry Dea, Citlali’s mother, and have been rivals ever since. But why does that matter?”

“They were never kind to each other. But after you departed a few weeks ago, that changed. Maatiaak began spending a lot of time with Ekel. They suddenly acted like old friends. I thought it was odd, but paid it no mind at first. I was happy to see that they had finally found common ground after all these years.” She pursed her lips and paused.

Rakulo finished her thought for her. “And then Ekel disappeared,” he said. “All of a sudden.”

“Something’s wrong, Rakulo. I can feel it.”

A dread twisted his stomach. She was right. Something was very wrong.

“I better pay Citlali’s father a visit.”