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The Serpent Passage

The Serpent Passage


Todd Allen Pitts The Serpent Passage

    MAP OF THE
    ANCIENT MAYA

Chapter One

    William bolted from his chair, knocking over his soda as he rushed to the bamboo railing, hoping she would be right there, just out of sight near the water’s edge. “Where the hell did she go?” he muttered, his eyes wide with disbelief, darting from left to right, scanning the entire lake and adjoining restaurant. A hot middle-aged woman with stringy-blonde hair, wearing a bright yellow shirt, shouldn’t be too hard to spot, he thought.
    His activities drew the attention of a chubby waiter with a thin mustache, who noticed the mess he had just made. “Otra cola, friend?” he asked in his broken English, shuffling toward the thatched canopy table near the lake.
    William waved the waiter his way in an erratic manner, as if he was swatting at a bee. “Hey, you know that lady I was just talking to?”
    “Lady? Oh sure, es Betty,” he said quite matter-offactly, while wiping the table with his rag.
    “Did you see her leave?”
    The waiter rolled his eyes, not quite understanding. “Swim here casi every day, esta Betty.”
    “Did you see her get out?” he asked, articulating his words as clearly as he could. He shot his attention over to the railing again, staring at the spot where he had last seen her, dog-paddling in the cool waters of the cenote.
    “She come-she go,” the waiter said. “Sometime swim for hours-strong as a cocodrilo, esta Betty… pero never buying nothing. Nothing!”
    “But she was right there, maybe ten feet from the shore,” he said, pointing at the lake. “I looked away for only a couple seconds-to put some salsa on a chip-and when I looked back… she was gone. I mean nobody can swim that fast!”
    With a glazed expression the waiter processed William’s quick dialogue, seeming to grasp for the few words he could pick out. He noticed the plate of soggy chips, ruined by his spilled drink. “Ah, entonces… mas nachos?” the waiter asked.
    “Look dude, I think… Betty… may have drowned out there! That’s what I’m trying to say. Do you understand me?” he asked, throwing his hands up. But the waiter’s blank expression confirmed that he wasn’t getting it, and so he tried in his second language. “Creo que Betty puede haber ahogado. Entiende usted?”
    The waiter’s face lit up, looking surprised to hear William-a tall American teenager-speaking such fluent Spanish. “Ah, entiendo. Pero, don’t you worry, my friend. She here somewhere… or con su esposo. Relax… enjoy la musica. I get you mas nachos,” he said with a broad grin, chuckling as he toddled off.
    William slumped into his chair with a scowl on his face, annoyed to not be taken seriously. He shrugged and let out a heavy sigh, deciding to assume that Betty had finished her swim, slipped out unnoticed somehow, and was long gone. He brushed it off and tried to forget about her. Besides, he should be thinking about his girlfriend, he scolded himself, not some random lady.
    He pulled his BlackBerry from his pocket and glared at it, wondering why his girlfriend hadn’t returned his recent text messages. So he decided to send her a video instead. With his arm extended, he aimed the back of his BlackBerry his way and began recording. “Hey Jen,” he said with a forced smile. “I’m just hanging out here at this lake… the Cenote Azul. I wish you could be here with me, but since you can’t, I thought I’d send the lake to you. Here, have a look.” His video continued with a pan across the cenote, settling on some Mexican children swimming near the shore. He watched through the tiny screen of his phone as they jumped off the rocky ledges into the water with big splashes, filling the air with laughter. Near the kids, William noticed an old American fellow scanning the lake; his squinting eyes accentuated the wrinkles on his face. He seemed to be shouting for someone, but between the noise from the children and trumpets from the Mariachi band by the bar, William couldn’t hear his words. He rolled his thumb along the trackball to zoom in on the man’s face, trying to read his lips.
    The BlackBerry dropped with a clank to the table as William sprang from his chair. He charged toward the old man, startling him by his sudden approach. “Were you calling for Betty?” William asked.
    “Yes…” the man said, cocking his head like he was trying to remember if he knew William from somewhere. “I’m looking for my wife. Have you…”
    “Oh crap!” William blurted. Without hesitation, he grabbed a mask that a kid had left on the rocks, pulled it over his face, and kicked off his sandals. With two large strides he plunged in with a giant splash. As he swam a few strokes to the spot where he had last seen Betty, he heard the old man continuing to call out for her, in a more worried tone than before. While taking a deep breath, William caught sight of a small crowd forming near the shore, drawn to the commotion. He plunged head first into the cenote and kicked his way down.
    Nearly a minute later, William resurfaced, gasped for air, and made his way to the shore. He staggered from the water and threw the mask to the ground. “My God,” he said, trying to catch his breath, “she’s down there… I can see her yellow shirt!”
    The waiter rushed over with a fake smile. “No pasa nada… no pasa nada,” he said, trying to calm the crowd. He snapped his fingers several times, signaling the Mariachis to pick up their tempo. With the speed of a track change on a CD, they shifted gears and began singing an upbeat tune. The patrons returned to their seats, enjoying the ambiance and their private conversations. Those who remained were gawking at William, obviously wondering what he was so upset about.
    “But she’s too deep!” William said. He dropped to his hands and knees, coughing, “Sixty-maybe seventy feet. I couldn’t reach her.”
    Betty’s husband shot a glaring look at the waiter beside him. “Well, call for help God damn it!” He slapped the waiter hard on the back, drawing even more onlookers.
    The waiter sprang to attention. “Yes-yes-I try… pero, it take time for help to come,” he said, and ran off to the back of the restaurant.
    The Mariachi music fizzled out, for the band had also become distracted by the scene, and they joined the crowd with their instruments still in hand.
    With his strength returning, William jumped to his feet-his eyes wide with revelation. He glanced at his watch. “There’s still time,” he said to Betty’s husband. William gave him a reassuring nod and ran off.
    Sprinting up the stairway to the restaurant’s exit, William wondered how long she had been under. Five minutes? Perhaps six? Could she still be revived? His father had told him of cases like that-of people being brought back long after drowning.
    As he reached the top of the stairway, William passed by a very old Mayan man with milky-white eyes, tapping his cane along the steps, making his way down to the cenote. The blind man paused, the way a deer does when it hears a hunter approaching, and he followed William with his ears as he ran by.
    William had his keys in hand when he arrived at his car. He popped open the trunk and yanked out his scuba tank; it was still attached to the buoyancy vest. He flung another dive bag over his shoulder, grabbed a mess of tubes, and hustled back to the restaurant, leaving the keys still dangling from the opened trunk. Fumbling with his equipment as he went, he connected the first stage of the regulator to the tank valve and snapped the low pressure inflator hose onto the vest. He twisted the tank valve open; the pressurized air made a hissing noise as it flooded the tubes. At the top of the steps he dropped the dive bag from his shoulder, slipped the vest and tank over his back in a sweeping motion, picked up the bag again, and kept going. A quick check of his watch revealed that another minute had passed.
    Halfway down the steps, the blind Mayan stepped out and grabbed William’s wrist with surprising strength for a man of his years. The Mayan’s stare was blank-his glazed white eyes not quite aimed in the right direction. “Tu'ux ka biin?” he asked in Yucatec-Maya.
    William paused, his eyes darting while his brain scrambled to switch languages. “To the lake,” he said, tugging to free his arm. “I’m going to the lake.”
    The old Mayan wrenched at his arm, urging him back up the steps, with fear in his voice. William could barely make out what the man was saying-something about the cenote being hungry? He wasn’t making sense. Yet there was no time to figure out what the crazed man wanted. Yucatec-Maya was a language William required at a slower pace, but he couldn’t waste another second. “Let me go! K’ p’aat in biin!” William said, prying the bony fingers from his arm and pushing the man aside.
    The blind Mayan stumbled, but regained his balance by grabbing hold of the stairway railing. “Bik xi’ikech! Bik xi’ikech!” he said, begging William to return.
    Everyone in the restaurant spoke in hushed tones, gawking at William with big eyes as he raced by, his gauges and tubes clanging against the tank on his back. His six-foot-two frame plowed through clusters of people on his way to the cenote. He bumped over a few empty chairs while he focused on getting his mask and fins out from the dive bag he carried.
    Betty’s husband watched William with a renewed sense of hope in his eyes.
    A thin man wearing a suit stepped in front of William, raising his hands in a halting gesture, blocking the path to the lake. “Help is on the way. We must wait. I have told you before that you cannot dive from the restaurant,” he said, his voice cracking when William’s large stature overshadowed him.
    “Get out of my way!” William said, barging past the restaurant manager. He pulled on his mask, shot some air through the regulator with a couple taps on the purge valve, and bit down on the mouthpiece.
    “Diving is not permitted,” the manager said, pointing to a faded sign nailed to a tree to reaffirm his declaration.
    Ignoring the manager, William took a few last steps and plunged into the cenote. He could hear the crowd cheering in a rowdy manner. While positioning his deflator hose over his head, he saw the manager stomp his foot and storm off, jerking a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. He knew he would be in some kind of trouble when he came out of the water.
    William released the air from his vest and pulled his fins on. While sinking beneath the surface, he flipped over and kicked his way down to accelerate his descent. He surveyed the area beneath him and spotted Betty caught in some branches along the edge of the cenote. William shivered from the chilly water; it became colder the deeper he went. He cracked his jaw every few feet to equalize the pressure in his ears-deeper and deeper-zoning in on the yellow of Betty’s shirt, a color that stood out like the moon in the night sky, amidst the dark shades at those depths.
    The increased atmospheric pressure forced a large belch from his lungs in the form of bubbles that made their way back to the surface; William regretted drinking so much soda just before.
    Upon nearing Betty, it looked like her arms and legs were greenish-brown. He realized that it was only her shirt that he had seen from above. The rest of her… wasn’t there. William deduced that the snarl of branches had ripped off her shirt when she sank.
    He pulled Betty’s shirt loose, stirring up a cloud of decayed particles all around him, and he tucked it into a pocket on his vest. After detaching a small flashlight from a clip on his buoyancy vest, he beamed the light in all directions, hoping to spot her body nearby. However, he only found a school of tiny fish attracted to the light. He aimed his flashlight into the depths of the cenote, unable to see the bottom. No way would he risk descending any deeper just to find the body of a dead woman. Yet William felt terrible that he would have to return to the surface with nothing more than Betty’s shirt. So he remained at the same depth, surveying an area of about fifty feet in either direction, lighting up the algae-covered branches and roots with his flashlight.
    Had he retrieved her immediately, there may have been time for resuscitation. Now it was hopeless-too much time had elapsed. He decided to begin his ascent, but paused when he noticed how the sediment drifted to the center of the cenote. While watching the clumps of muck moving away from him, he discovered that he too had drifted away from the cenote’s edge. He wondered how such a strong current could be in a cenote. It occurred to him that Betty’s body had likely floated off in the same direction.
    William checked his pressure gauge-just over eleven hundred pounds; still plenty of air for a final search. He shot a burst of air into his vest to adjust his buoyancy and allowed himself to be carried by the drift. He scanned the area with his flashlight, expecting to be startled any moment by the sudden vision of a dead woman hovering before him.
    The current intensified as he went along, reminding him of his drift dives off the shores of Cancun with his dad the year before. Tears formed in his eyes as images of his father flooded past. He still missed him so much. William grimaced, remembering the time he promised his dad that he would never dive alone. His mom was going to be so angry with him. For sure she would find out about his diving stunt from that restaurant manager. He shook his head, wondering what kind of punishment he would be facing.
    William began kicking his way to the surface, but he couldn’t break free from the current. He repositioned himself and kicked in the opposite direction to slow his progress. An image began to take shape ahead amidst the dark-blue of the cenote. He could not believe his eyes, and he cleared his mask to make sure his vision wasn’t obscured in some way. With long powerful strokes, he kicked hard to maintain distance from it. Ahead of him, a gigantic frothy whirlpool swayed from side to side, occasionally reaching closer to the surface, sucking down anything in its path. He watched in amazement as a large tree trunk slipped down the funnel.
    The blind Mayan’s words snapped into place in his mind-something about the cenote being hungry-that it needed to eat. A shot of adrenaline raced through William’s veins. That’s what had pulled Betty under! He kicked with his fins to back away, but the suction still held him. He pressed the low pressure inflator button, filling his buoyancy vest to capacity, feeling it tighten around his chest. Trying to break free, he kicked with the force of a seal running from a great white shark. Yet he continued to descend.
    The whirlpool had him-snared him in a tornado of bubbles. He couldn’t tell up from down, but felt himself spinning to the center of the whirlpool. His stomach rose with the sensation of falling. Darkness enveloped him. He plunged down into the depths and lost consciousness.
    William snapped awake, coughing from the water that he had swallowed. The sharp pain behind his eyes explained the clouded view from his mask; his sinuses had burst during the rapid descent. He tipped up the edge of the mask to flood and clear it, but no water entered. A steady breeze drifted across his face, so he pulled his mask down and wiped the water and blood from his eyes. Although he had dropped his flashlight somewhere along the journey, the green florescent algae that clung to the slippery rocks provided a little light for William to see his surroundings-a narrow underground river propelling him along.
    The darkness consumed him as the tunnel twisted and turned. The river veered to the right, slamming him hard against the wall, popping the regulator from his mouth. William grasped and clawed at the sides of the tunnel, but the walls were too smooth and his fingers slipped off the slimy algae. With no other recourse, he gave in to the ride.
    The sounds of crashing water intensified just as the source of the noise became apparent. William slipped off the top of a waterfall, falling feet-first, with a big splash into an underground cenote. Resurfacing a moment later due to his inflated vest, he paddled to the shore like a half-dead dog. Upon reaching a rocky beach, he dragged his battered body out, grunting and moaning all the way. He unbuckled his scuba equipment and allowed it to fall to the ground with a loud ‘clunk’ that echoed through the cavern around him.
    Exhausted, William flopped on his back, threw his mask to the ground, and lied motionless, listening to the cascading sounds of the waterfall. Pinholes of sunlight from the cavern’s ceiling provided just enough light to see the giant stalactites above him; they looked like claws reaching down.
    “So you decided to go for a swim after all,” said a familiar voice.
    William jumped. “Betty? Is that you?”
    “Yeah, it’s me. I’m over here.”
    He spotted her approaching along the shore of the underground lake. “You’re alive!” he said, and blushed upon noticing her exposed breasts. He retrieved the yellow shirt that he had stuffed into his vest pocket earlier.
    “Yeah, I’m alive… unfortunately… because I don’t figure there’s any way out of this place.”
    William took off his fins and made his way to Betty, holding her shirt out in front of him, cringing as he stepped on some jagged rocks. “Here,” he said, tossing the shirt to her when he got close, being polite to look the other way while she put it on, but unable to resist catching a peek when she lifted the shirt over her head. “Are you okay?” he asked.
    “Well, you know… I feel pretty good as a matter of fact. Some ride, huh? Invigorating!” she said, and then looked up, trying to recall the events. “I don’t know what happened. We were having a nice little chat at the restaurant, and then… kerplop! I thought I was falling off a cliff. How the heck did you end up here?”
    “I went looking for you and got pulled in just the same,” William said.
    Betty smiled with a big creepy grin. “That was awfully kind of you to come for me… though you probably should’ve stayed put. The bad news is that we’re both gonna die and rot here. Don’t mean to be crude, but that’s how I see it.”
    A long pause followed as Betty’s last words crawled through William’s mind. He shook his head. “No, there must be a way out,” he said.
    “I’ve been swimming in that cenote for years,” Betty said. “The locals told me there were dangerous undertows, but I never felt anything in all that time… up until now, of course.”
    William looked around the chamber’s perimeter, searching for an escape route.
    “No sense in looking…. uh… what’s your name again?”
    “It’s William. William Spalding.”
    Betty laughed, slapping her hand to her forehead. “Like the balls?” she asked.
    “What?”
    “You know… the balls? Spalding. It’s a brand,” she said, and laughed again. “Get it? Because you sure got balls to come after me.”
    William wondered how she could be cracking jokes in their predicament.
    “Anyhow, you might as well get comfortable,” she said, becoming serious, “because there’s no way out of this mess. I figure this is where they all ended up.”
    William glared at Betty. “Where who all ended up?” he asked.
    “All the others that disappeared in the Cenote Azul,” she said. Betty tiptoed over the sharp rocks and stopped beside a large stalagmite. “Their bodies were never found, you know.”
    “That doesn’t mean they ended up here,” William said.
    “Tell them that,” she said, pointing her bony index finger-like the grim reaper-beyond the stalagmite.
    William lurched back in horror. Human remains were strewn all about the cavern, like someone had kicked the bones around and smashed the skulls into pieces.

Chapter Two

    Bones littered the hellish chamber. Thirteen skulls-some intact, some smashed-provided a possible indication of the head count. There were likely many more skeletons, William considered-from those who never made it to the shore, resting on the bottom of the underground lake. He cringed at the sight of what appeared to be a child’s femur; its attached foot-bone still wore a decayed sneaker. It was horrible enough for parents to think they had lost their child to drowning, yet it was better than knowing the truth of the situation-that their child died of starvation in an underground cavern, with the remains stirred about.
    “I’m guessing he did this,” Betty said with conviction, pointing at the only completely intact skeleton-a man who appeared to have hung himself with shreds of fabric fashioned into a noose and looped around an outcropped rock along the cavern wall. “He probably went nuts, made all this mess, and then found his own way out.”
    A wave of fear took grip, inspiring William to search under every outcropping in the cavern for an exit. Yet there were no visible tunnels anywhere, except for the large opening of the waterfall that had brought them in. Small spots of light entered the cavern from the center of the ceiling, some fifty feet above, through tiny cracks and fissures in the earth. “Look, the surface is right there,” he said, pointing up, while surveying the area for the best way to reach the top.
    Betty watched with an amused smirk as William made several attempts to climb the cavern walls. He strained to grip the rocks, but the sides sloped inward-like a dome-so he couldn’t get more than ten feet up before stumbling back down.
    Giant stalactites and stalagmites met each other in several places along the shore, providing the only smooth surfaces, which Betty took advantage of to rest upon. William, on the other hand, tried to scale several of the slippery stalagmites with even less success than he had with the cavern walls. He groaned as he slid onto the jagged rocks, swearing from the added cuts inflicted on his bare feet.
    “If there was really a way out, there wouldn’t be so many folks who died down here,” Betty said, with her last words echoing, as if the chamber was confirming their fate. “But at least we have each other for company.”
    William tuned Betty out, focusing his concentration on the waterfall. His gaze shifted to the underground cenote as an idea began to take shape. “Maybe there is a way out!” he said.
    Betty looked his way with a raised eyebrow.
    “The waterfall keeps dumping water in here. So why doesn’t it fill up this entire chamber?” he asked.
    “Do I look like a geologist?” she asked, standing up. She moved near William by the shore.
    William pointed at the cenote. “The water is draining off down there. There has to be another tunnel that continues out.”
    “How does that help us exactly?” she asked.
    “Because we have something that no one else ever had,” he said.
    “What’s that?”
    “Scuba gear,” he said with a proud grin. William rushed over to his equipment and checked the pressure gauge, cursing at it. “Look Betty, there’s only about four hundred pounds of air left in this tank. That may not be enough to get us through, but I’d rather die trying to get out of here than to sit here and die of starvation in this messed up place. There’s not enough air for me to check it out first by myself. We have to both go together… now.”
    “Oh, I don’t know about this,” she said.
    William pulled his scuba gear back on, manually inflated his vest, secured his mask to his face, and entered the water of the underground cenote. He clenched his teeth from the pain of the jagged rocks further digging into his injured feet. “Well, come on,” he hollered.
    Betty just stood there like a statue, with a worried look carved into her face.
    “Or what, you’d rather stay here with these skeletons?” William asked, as he slipped on his fins.
    Her eyes opened wide. “Okay, let’s do this,” she said, and jumped into the lake.
    William floated over to Betty and handed her his alternate regulator. “When you’re ready, bite down on this mouthpiece and just breathe. We’re low on air, so try to breathe as slow as you can. But don’t hold your breath. When you feel pain in your ears, just pop them… the same way you do on an airplane. Are you cool?”
    “You sure you know what you’re doing?” Betty asked.
    William removed his mask that had begun to fog over. He spit on the lens, wiped it with his fingers, sloshed it around in the water, and put it back on. “Yeah Betty, my dad taught me to dive when I was ten. Now hang on to these straps on my vest and don’t let go. Just keep breathing, okay?”
    Betty nodded, already breathing from the regulator.
    William popped the primary regulator into his mouth and released the air from his vest. As the two began to sink, William spotted the skeleton hanging by its neck. It appeared to be staring right at him, giving him the chills just as they slipped underwater.
    Beneath the surface, he jerked a glow-stick from a pocket on his buoyancy vest and cracked it between his hands, illuminating the area around them with its green fluorescent light. The sediment stirred up from the waterfall made it difficult to see very far ahead. He touched bottom at about thirty feet. He controlled his breath until neutrally buoyant and hovered with Betty until he felt a current pulling them along.
    William turned and followed the current, having a hard time keeping his balance with Betty hanging on behind him. Giant stalagmites lurched out from the murky water, and he pushed off of the limestone pillars as they appeared in his path.
    Out of the gloomy darkness, a faint red light materialized. Then it was gone. For a moment, he thought he had imagined it, but there it was again, even brighter as they neared it. The light went out again, and William wondered what could be causing it. When the red light illuminated again, an enormous snake charged at them with menacing eyes, mouth opened wide, about to swallow them whole!
    William screamed through his regulator, paddling with his arms to back away from it. But then he relaxed when he realized that he had been startled by an elaborate carving of a serpent’s head at the entrance of the tunnel; the red light beamed out of its mouth. He caught his breath and allowed the current to suck them in through the serpent’s gaping jaws. William felt astounded by the discovery, thinking that it may be a significant archeological find, should they live to tell anyone about it.
    Upon passing through the entrance, William had expected to see a rough tunnel, like the cavern dives that are well known in the Yucatan. However, what he saw before him, amidst the occasional blast of light, defied logic. A spherical tunnel, perhaps twenty feet in diameter, continued straight ahead into the darkness, like a gigantic drainage pipe. As the current pulled them forward, William slid his hand along the side of the tunnel, surprised by its metallic texture. He snapped his hand back after sensing a static discharge emanating from it.
    The current moved them along without any effort, as though they were on a ride at Disney World. An entire section of the tube just ahead of them lit up with points of light spaced apart, lining the tunnel from top to bottom as far as he could see. Then it went dark again.
    On the next interval they entered the brightest portion of the tunnel; it blasted them from all angles, flashing like a strobe light. Their velocity picked up as though they had been caught in a rip current. William strained his eyes to get a look at one of the points of light streaking past him. The objects appeared triangular, with light emanating from their crystalline structure. The light changed from red to orange to yellow. Its brilliance surrounded them until he could see nothing else but the light.
    William kept his hands outstretched ahead of himself, fearing he might smash into something at the end of the ride. Several minutes elapsed, and he worried that their air would run out at any moment.
    As they sped forward, he wondered how such a tunnel could be there in that remote part of the world. The lights flickered faster and faster, until an intense white flash forced William to shield his eyes from the glare.
    Their speed slowed with the suddenness of a fighter jet landing on an aircraft carrier. The brightness faded, and William opened his eyes. He let loose a muffled cheer, thrilled to see the sun gleaming through the silky blue of the surface above. They had escaped! As they ascended, William glanced back and noticed the same carving as before-a hideous face of a snake, with a pulsing red light beaming out of its mouth.
    William shot a few bursts of air into his vest as they broke through the surface. He spit his regulator out and took in a deep breath. “That’s what I’m talking about!”
    Betty still clung to William; her eyes were closed tight, and she continued to breathe from her regulator. William shook her to get her attention. “Betty, it’s okay.”
    She opened her large green eyes, and a smile spread across her face from ear to ear when she realized that they were free. “You did it!” she said, hugging him tight to her wet body.
    William laughed. “Yep, we made it, Betty. We’re back. We’re…” He scanned the dense jungle all around them, “…in another lake… in the middle of freaking nowhere.”
    “But we’re out! Thank God!” Betty said, cheering to the sky.
    William surveyed the landscape surrounding the lake, trying to determine the best exit point. “Over there,” he said, pointing to a rocky ledge protruding from the jungle. It looked like a boat ramp, the way it angled down into the water.
    Betty’s expression changed from excitement to terror. “William!” She pointed over his shoulder.
    William looked back and spotted three giant dark forms fast approaching on the surface of the cenote. “Alligators!” he said.
    “Actually,” Betty said, back-peddling away, “they’re crocodiles.”
    “Yeah? Well, actually, they’re coming this way!”
    Betty swam as though she was trying out for the Olympic swim team and out-distanced William; he was slowed by the heavy equipment on his back.
    The crocodiles closed the gap on William. As he sensed the collective wave of their approach, he managed to unbuckle and free himself of the scuba gear. He took a quick breath and dove under water to swim at a faster pace. A moment later, he surfaced right near the edge of the cenote, popped out, and scrambled up the ledge beside Betty.
    Betty let loose a big sigh. “Oh, for heaven sakes, William, I thought they had you!” she said, gesturing to the crocodiles.
    William looked back to the water and watched his equipment being ripped to shreds. A froth of bubbles blasted out from the tank through the severed tubes. “My scuba gear!” He groaned, while pulling his mask beneath his chin, remembering another detail. “Oh, crap,” he muttered.
    “What?”
    “The scuba tank was a rental. Now I’ll have to pay for that old tank too. My mom’s gonna be so pissed.” He ripped off his fins, glaring at the giant reptiles. “Still hungry? Here’s your damn dessert!” He threw his fins at them. The crocodiles pulled his equipment out of site beneath the surface.
    “I’d say you got your money’s worth for the gear,” Betty said. “It saved our lives after all. Hey, I’ll pay you back for all that. It’s the least I can do.”
    “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “At least I won’t have to lug all that equipment back to the restaurant with us now.”
    They climbed further up the rocks, a safe distance away from the unfriendly inhabitants of the cenote. William plopped down, still annoyed about losing all his gear. He removed his mask and glowered at it. “My mom doesn’t want me to dive anymore. She’s probably right… just gets me into trouble.” He tossed the mask over his shoulder into a nearby bush, thinking that he might give up scuba diving altogether.
    Betty sat beside him with an odd stare. “Why did you have a rental tank if you weren’t supposed to be diving?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
    William regarded Betty with a sneaky smile. “Yeah, about that… there’s not much else to do around here. I didn’t want to follow that particular rule.”
    “I’m glad you didn’t. I’d still be down in that bonefilled crap hole!” Betty said.
    William laughed at her remark and shook his head in disbelief. He picked up a small rock beside him and flung it into the cenote. While watching the ripples expand, he contemplated the impact of his choices in life, relieved that at least this decision seemed right. “No one’s ever gonna believe this story, Betty. I mean no one.”
    “Yeah, and topped off by those God damn gators, no less,” she said.
    “You mean crocodiles?” he asked with a wink, and they were both in hysterics, bending over with tears running down their faces. This went on for the next several minutes until they regained their composure.
    After a long silence, Betty looked over at William with a thoughtful smile. “Why did you do it, Will? Why the heck did you come after me?”
    He shrugged. “I don’t have a clue. I just felt… compelled to.”
    “Well, it was a crazy thing to do,” she said in a scolding tone. “But I thank you, Sir.”
    A warm breeze drifted by, causing the leaves in the palm trees above them to flutter, flashing the sunlight around them. It reminded William of the unusual tunnel. “What do you suppose those lights were down there?” he asked.
    “Yeah, what was that?” she asked. “I had my eyes shut-thought it was a flashlight dangling by my face.”
    “Oh… so I guess you didn’t see the giant snake carvings either?” he asked.
    Betty just stared at him, scratching her head.
    “This is an odd discovery, Betty… like X-Files odd.”
    “Oh yeah, that’s a good show,” she said. William could see that she still didn’t know what he was referring to.
    William became serious, realizing something very important. “Oh… my… God!” he said, jumping up.
    “What is it?” Betty sprang to an immediate stance and scrambled away from the lake, as if she thought a crocodile had made its way over.
    “They’ll think we’re dead,” William blurted. “Your husband already does. We need to hustle back before my mom gets any wind of this. It would devastate her.” He checked his watch. “It’s six-thirty. Hopefully, we can make it back before sundown.” He looked to the sky with a confused expression, squinting from the glare of the sun. “That’s strange.”
    “What?”
    “The sun,” he said, pointing at it. “It’s in the middle of the sky.”
    “Well, of course it is,” she said. “Where did you expect to find it?”
    “At this time of day, shouldn’t it be a little further down-closer to the horizon?”
    Betty looked at the sky and shrugged. “Don’t know what to say to that, Will.”
    They climbed further up the rocks, pushed aside the thick vegetation, and stepped into the shade of the tropical forest. “Look!” William said, pointing to the remnants of a trail overgrown by the jungle. “I bet this path leads back to the Cenote Azul.”
    Betty became distracted by a mango tree nearby; its branches were hanging low to the ground from the weight of the ripened fruit. She maneuvered around the rotting mangos on the ground and plucked a couple of plump reddish-green mangos from a branch. “Hungry?” she asked, tossing one to William.
    “Thanks,” he said, digging his fingers into the mango, the sweet juice squirting out. He tore it into two pieces and devoured the mango from the inside-out. Betty, on the other hand, ate her mango like an apple-peel and all.
    When they finished their snack, William wiped his hands on his shorts and clapped them together in an inspirational manner. “Okay, let’s get going,” he said, and began marching up the trail. Every step accompanied a twinge of pain from his injured feet, but he tuned it out. He had to get back before his mom found out he was missing. William knew his mom would be upset for what he did, but there had to be some merit for rescuing Betty. He figured he might even make the news, and imagined his story going viral on the internet. That would get his girlfriend’s attention back, he thought.
    “So where did you say you’re from?” Betty asked.
    William slapped the side of his head to ward off a pesky mosquito buzzing in his ear, and then he whacked at one biting his thigh. “Right now, we’re staying at my grandfather’s estate in Calderas, but I grew up mostly in California,” he said.
    “So your mom is Mexican?”
    “Yep, and half Mayan, too.”
    Betty picked up her pace and moved ahead of William, giving him a curious stare. “You don’t look Hispanic,” she said. “You have blonde hair and blue eyes.”
    “I know. Everyone says I’m my dad’s little clone,” he said with his voice cracking. “They say the only thing I got from my mom was her blood type.”
    “I’ll have to invite you and your folks over for dinner before you go back to the states. How long are you in town?” she asked.
    Their walk slowed until they came to a complete stop, looking all around, unable to find the continuation of the trail. They retraced their steps and discovered where a fallen tree had diverted them off course. After climbing over the tree trunk, they rested there for a moment before continuing on.
    “I’m not sure when… or if… we’re going back to the states,” William said with a mixture of sadness and frustration. “You see… my dad died last winter.”
    Betty put her arm around his shoulder. “Oh, I’m so sorry, William. How did he…”
    “A scuba accident,” he said, pulling away from her, blinking hard to keep his emotions locked down. “I can’t have my mom thinking the same of me. We have to get back.” He walked at an even faster pace up the trail.
    “I guess we’re neighbors then,” Betty said, changing the focus of the conversation. “We live right here in Bacalar now, but I’m from lots of places.”
    As Betty continued to chatter on about her life story, William replied with an occasional, “uh huh,” while focusing his attention on the trail ahead; he was more concerned about the lizards and snakes that darted by. In many places, the thick jungle vegetation obscured their path, and their progress slowed even more when they had to duck under and climb over fallen trees-a process that went on for a couple hours.
    William tapped on his watch, wondering why it displayed 9:10; it was still light as day.
    “When my folks heard that Burt and I were moving to Mexico, they let me have it-never liked the idea.” Betty bumped into William after he stopped suddenly.
    “What’s the matter?”
    “Be quiet,” he whispered, standing very still-gazing into the jungle ahead. Amidst the loud buzz of insects was a faint, rhythmic beat. “Do you hear that?”
    Betty tilted her head and cupped a hand behind her ear. “Like what?” she asked.
    “Like a drum beat,” he said. “Boom… k’boom… k’boom. Don’t you hear it?”
    She shook her head. “Your hearing must be better than mine.”
    “I think we’re getting close to the restaurant,” he said with a big smile.
    They continued on for another hour until they came across a small cenote, about thirty feet in diameter, along the side of the trail.
    Betty jumped into the lake with a big splash, drinking from the cool water while swimming in place. After the crocodile incident, William took a moment to survey the area for any dangers. Drenched with sweat, and itching from the mosquito bites that he had endured along their hike, he also plunged into the refreshing lake.
    After satisfying his thirst, William climbed onto a rock and examined his feet; they throbbed with pain.
    “Doesn’t look too good, Will,” Betty said, noticing the cuts and blisters on the bottom of his feet.
    “Doesn’t feel too good either. How are yours?”
    “Oh, don’t worry about my footsies. They’re hard as a rock,” she said, lifting a foot out of the water in his direction. “I’ve been hoppin’ around these parts without shoes for some years now. But you… we’re gonna have to do something about your feet.”
    While William sat at the cenote’s edge with his feet soaking in the water, Betty went ashore and plucked several thick leaves from a nearby bush. She removed her shirt and walked topless over to the cenote. William’s eyes popped open, getting a good look at her figure. He turned away before she caught him staring. Betty grabbed a rock near the water’s edge and cut the bottom half of her shirt loose. She put the top half back on and tore the remaining pieces of fabric into thin strips. She sat beside William and snatched one of his feet from the water, putting it onto her lap. She laid a piece of the shirt over the bottom of his foot, followed by several layers of leaves, and secured them with strips of the torn-up shirt.
    As he watched Betty occupy herself with his other foot, William couldn’t help noticing what great shape she was in. Although slender, with a nice figure, she also had firm well-defined muscles. He recalled how she had kept up with him on their long hike, and she seemed to have even more stamina than he did.
    Betty finished wrapping his foot and looked up. William’s eyes jumped up to meet hers. “Everything okay?” she asked.
    “Er, uh,” he blushed, removing his foot from her lap. “You’re doing pretty well through all this, for a woman your age,” he said, trying to say something to excuse how he had been staring at her body.
    “A woman of my age?”
    “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
    Betty laughed. “Don’t worry. I’ll take that as a compliment. How old are you?” she asked.
    William got up and walked around, trying out his makeshift shoes. “I’m… almost eighteen,” he said, lowering the pitch of his voice when he spoke.
    Betty smiled. “I remember when I used to say almost.” She stood and brushed the dirt from her shorts. “My next almost has a big four in front of it!”
    “No way!” William said. “I figured you were in your early thirties.”
    “Yeah, nice try,” she said with a raised eyebrow.
    “No really, you look great.” He found it hard to believe that she was even older than his mom.
    “Well, thank you for that. I guess it’s because I go swimming every day. It keeps me young,” Betty said, brushing back her hair in an exaggerated way, like she was pretending to be a model posing at a photo shoot.
    They snacked on some papayas they discovered near the cenote and resumed their journey up the jungle path. It occurred to William that he could no longer hear the drum beat that he had heard before, and he assumed that it meant the restaurant had already closed. He checked his watch, which read 10:03. “You know my watch is way ahead for some reason. What time do you think it is?”
    Betty peered through the thick canopy of palm and mahogany trees overhead. “Hard to say… maybe four or five.”
    “That’s what I’d guess too,” William said. Yet he recalled that is was almost 4:00 when he first went after Betty. He had been with her for five or six hours, which would mean that his watch was correct. As they plodded forward, he contemplated the time issue with a perplexed expression frozen on his face, recalculating the hours again to try to make sense of it.
    A short distance ahead, the trail took on a groomed appearance. The jungle had been cut back, widening the path. Large rocks lined each side of the trail that extended far ahead. They stopped and hugged each other in celebration. William was certain that they would soon be back at the Cenote Azul.
    Although exhausted, the excitement of the improved trail quickened William’s pace. He marched on with renewed energy to reach the end of his adventure, with Betty whistling a happy tune beside him.
    After hiking another ten minutes or so, a paved road intersected the trail from their left. “A street!” William said, rushing to the man-made path. He stopped to examine the white road, reaching down to touch its unusual surface.
    “What’s the matter?” Betty asked, noticing his look of concern.
    “I’ve never seen a road this white before. It feels all… chalky,” he said, rubbing his fingers together. “Well, a road’s a road,” she said.
    The white path had two options to travel. After a moment of hesitation, William chose to continue in the same direction that they had been heading. A pleasant smile crossed his face as he thought about how he would soon be back at his grandfather’s estate, in his airconditioned room, soaking his feet in a tub of cool water, and sipping on an ice-cold soda.
    Upon rounding a bend in the trail, William’s happy mood dropped with the swiftness that venetian blinds shut out the light. Ahead of them was a horrific sight.
    “What the hell!” Betty said, throwing her hands up.
    “This… this can’t be real… can it? This must be some sort of bizarre tourist attraction, right?” William asked.
    Along the side of the paved trail, William stared at a long pole sticking out of the ground, with what appeared to be, the decapitated head of a man; blood dripped and splattered onto the road below. William reached up and touched the tongue protruding out of its mouth. He snapped his hand back as though it bit him. “It’s real,” he said with certainty. He staggered, feeling dizzy.
    “Are you okay?” Betty asked, grabbing his arm to support him.
    William took some deep breaths until the lightheaded feeling passed. “I’m fine. I don’t do too well with…” he looked up again, wincing, “rotting decapitated heads on sticks!” he said, fighting off the urge to throw up.
    Betty did a double-take at the trail ahead. “Oh, my God. William, look!” she said, pointing down the path; it was lined with dozens of heads on either side of the trail. William continued on, glancing up at the impaled heads above him, smelling the stench of rotting flesh in the air. The heads were of Mayan men; their foreheads sloped back, with scars and tattoos on their faces. Some had even sharpened teeth.
    Vultures pecked away at the flesh. One bird glanced down at them as they passed, and then plucked out an eyeball, gobbling it up.
    “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” Betty whispered. “I think we should go back.”
    “There’s something up there-in the clearing,” William said, pointing ahead. A huge red building was visible at the end of the trail through the foliage.
    Betty tugged at William’s arm. “Whoever did this probably lives over there. I don’t want to be added to this collection!”
    “We have to see what’s going on here. We have to notify the authorities about this!” William insisted.
    When they reached the end of the plaster road, William gawked at the structure ahead. “It’s a Mayan pyramid,” he said in a confused tone.
    “It’s painted all red! I say we leave,” Betty said, trying to pull him back.
    “Hold on. Let’s see if anyone is around.”
    While they crouched behind some brush outside the clearing, William surveyed the area. He felt stunned by the beauty of the large pyramid; it was painted in a striking dark red, a dramatic contrast to the white courtyard that sparkled in the sun’s glare. He could see part of another large building up a hill, with thick vegetation surrounding it.
    They waited for ten minutes, but no one showed up. A disturbed look began to cross William’s face as he studied the pyramid, noting its architecture. “I have a funny feeling that I’ve been here before,” he said.
    “What do you mean?”
    “That pyramid… the design of it… the doorways at the top.” He looked around the clearing. “There’s something really familiar about this place.”
    “I think you’d remember seeing painted Mayan ruins, William.”
    “I’m going up there-to the top of that pyramid. I need to check something.”
    “Are you insane?” Betty said, grabbing his arm.
    “I have to know for sure,” he said, pulling away. “I’ll run up there real quick and come right back. Just stay here, okay?”
    “Like I’m going anywhere,” she said, sinking deeper into the brush.
    William bolted from the cover of the jungle and sprinted to the pyramid, glancing around as he ran, half-expecting someone to chase after him. He reached the base of the pyramid and paused for a second, struck by the building’s perfection-not a single chipped or eroded stone-stuccoed and painted like… his eyes grew wide at the thought. He scrambled up the steep stairway. Upon reaching the top, he went to the entrance at the far right and looked up, mouth agape, staring in disbelief at the engraving on the three wooden support beams above the doorway. “That’s impossible,” he said.
    Moving further inside, he studied the narrow chamber. Square openings along the back wall cast light in the shadowy corners where decorative animal masks were hanging.
    He heard Betty calling for him. As William exited the chamber, she had just reached the final steps at the top of the pyramid; a frightened look was affixed on her face. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
    “They’re coming!” she blurted. “I heard their drums down the trail.”
    He cocked his head to listen. “I hear them too.” He grabbed Betty’s arm, pulling her inside the chamber just as men poured into the courtyard below them.
    “I told you this was a stupid idea!” Betty said. “Now we’re really in a pickle.”
    “Quiet!” he whispered, and peeked around the entrance for a better view.
    More than a hundred men wearing loincloths and colorful feathered headdresses marched from the jungle’s edge into the courtyard. Moving in two separate columns, they formed a big circle in front of the pyramid. As they came to a stop, they each turned to face the center and aimed their spears skyward.
    “What’s happening?” Betty asked.
    He turned to her and slumped against the stone wall, letting out a big sigh. “I have been here before, Betty. I was here just a few days ago with my grandfather.”
    “What are you talking about?”
    A thumping noise drew his attention back outside, where he witnessed the warriors smacking the bottom of their spears against the hard plaster floor in unison, while at the same time chanting, “Chun… chun… chun.”
    Another group of men emerged from the jungle with exaggerated headdresses. Behind them, a dozen men wearing only a loincloth carried a litter supporting a man who was likely their leader, William assumed. He wore a feathered headdress of a jaguar’s head, and he was covered in jewelry that sparkled as he approached.
    The warriors continued to chant, “Chun… chun… chun…” They thumped their spears against the floor while the leader was carried to the center of the courtyard. After setting the litter down at the base of the pyramid steps, a dozen warriors moved in, forming a semi-circle around the leader.
    “What do you mean you’ve been here before?” Betty asked.
    William turned to face her. “This place… these are the ruins of Dzibanche… not far from the Cenote Azul. We’re standing in the Temple of the Lintels.”
    “Don’t be ridiculous.”
    “The carvings on the support beams are the same,” he said, pointing at the ceiling near the entrance. “But these aren’t ruins anymore. There should be a freaking parking lot down there!”
    “How can that be?”
    “Betty, I have an idea about what’s happening here, but it’s gonna sound crazy.” He paused, becoming distracted by the events in the clearing.
    The leader stood atop his litter with his hands raised high. All the warriors dropped to one knee, their spears still aimed up. As they continued to chant, the leader reached into a basket at his feet and pulled out a severed head, holding it by the hair. He displayed it proudly, resulting in an immediate cheer from the warriors. The leader placed the head back in the basket like a precious gift, and he began to speak to his men.
    William looked back to Betty. “He’s saying something about an important victory.”
    “You speak Mayan?” Betty whispered.
    “A little… you know, from my mom. I spent lots of summers down here. It sounds like Yucatec-Maya.” He strained to listen. “But the accent is a little different.”
    Rowdy cheers, spears thumping, and boisterous chanting accompanied the leader’s long speech. When he finished his sermon, he gave a signal to one of his men, who blew into a large seashell that sounded like a low-pitched blast from a tuba. With the timing of a chorus line, the warriors stood and shifted their spears to their left hands before resuming their collective thump of spears against the floor.
    “What’s going on?” Betty asked.
    “The victory is somehow internal to this city. I heard l’aak’tsilil… family. Like a family conflict, maybe?”
    “Nice family.”
    A gap opened in the crowd, where a group of men were dragged in by the ropes tied around their necks. William felt sorry for the unfortunate captives, as they were whipped along their backs and legs to prod them forward. One of the captives seemed much shorter than the others… he was just a boy! William bit his lower lip, fighting back the urge to yell out when they hit him.
    With the captives gathered in the center of the courtyard, they were forced to their knees. They all kept their heads down, except for the boy; he glared at the leader with a hatred that was visible from the top of the pyramid.
    Another bellow from the seashell trumpet signaled the warriors to kneel again. The leader raised his hands and spoke like a priest blessing his congregation.
    William cupped his hand behind his ear to hear better. “He’s saying something about a division in the royal family. That on this day the Gods will conclude, or…” He paused, thinking for the right word for chuup, “…solidify. Solidify the family division… make the kingdom complete…” He cringed. “Oh, God.”
    “What?” Betty asked.
    “He’s telling the captives how their sacrifice will empower the kingdom.”
    With a final seashell blast, the prisoners were taken away. The leader and his entourage took a different path out. Another man stepped forward, snapping orders, and the remaining warriors dispersed in various directions.
    William turned back to Betty with a frightened look.
    “Well, what is it already?” she asked. “What’s going on here, William?”
    He looked up, thinking back. “That tunnel with the lights… it got us out of the cavern, but…” He stared into Betty’s green eyes.
    “What?” she demanded.
    “I think it brought us back to the time of the ancient Maya.”
    Betty’s jaw dropped, and she was left speechless. William stood frozen in his own thoughts as well, gazing out into the setting Yucatan sun.

Chapter Three

    As the night sky descended upon the land, a single bright star drew the attention of several oddly dressed men in the courtyard; their elaborate feathered wardrobes made them look more like freakish bird creatures. William thought they might be ancient Mayan astronomers, based on how they pointed to the star amidst their heated discussions.
    After studying the star for a time, William realized it was actually Venus. He had, of course, seen the planet countless times throughout his life, and he never gave it a second thought. Yet something about its location in the sky troubled the Mayan stargazers. One of the men became agitated and yelled something that William understood to mean a bad omen. He said it was the wrong night for the ceremony, but their leader wouldn’t listen. The man flapped his arms in such an animated manner as he spoke that it seemed he might take flight in his feathered costume at any moment. Instead, he stormed off with the other men following close behind him.
    Soon thereafter, servants lit torches around the bottom of the pyramid and in scattered locations around the clearing. William and Betty ducked back inside, hiding in the darkened corner of the chamber, as torches flamed at points along the stairway and around the platform at the top of the pyramid.
    Betty let out a big sigh after the torch lighters left. “We have to get out of here,” she said.
    “I know,” William agreed, his blonde eyebrows furrowing in thought. He looked at his watch. “It’s nightfall here, but for us it’s more like three in the morning. I think we should try to sleep a little, and then sneak out in the middle of the night.”
    “I don’t think I can sleep in this creepy place. What if someone comes?”
    “We’ll take turns,” William said. “You go first. I’ll wake you in an hour or so.”
    She agreed, lying down on the hard stone floor in the corner of the narrow room, practically falling asleep the moment her eyes closed.
    William crept over to the chamber’s entrance and looked around the corner. Groups of peasants passed near the base of the pyramid carrying baskets of food, as they hurried toward the sounds of the festivity off in the distance.
    “Oh crap,” William grumbled, noticing twenty or more guards standing around the perimeter of the courtyard. He wondered if they would be standing there all night, and he contemplated ways to sneak around them. While he considered the options, the scent of cooking meat drew his attention. His stomach growled, and he suddenly craved for his mom’s cooking.
    Tears welled up in William’s eyes when images of his mom entered his mind, imagining the pain she had to be going through, thinking that he had drowned. He wondered if his girlfriend would even care that he was missing. When they moved from California, she was supportive at first. But he hadn’t seen her for over five months… since his dad died. He even had to finish his junior year through an online program. Her emails and calls had become distant, and less frequent.
    William shook his head, deciding it was stupid to worry about those things right then. It wouldn’t matter if his head ended up on a stick on the outskirts of town! All he could do was try to survive. He moved back into the shadows beside Betty to wait for nightfall.
    William woke up Betty by holding his hand over her mouth, to keep her from making any noise. “Everyone’s down there,” he whispered. “I think the whole freaking town is right at the bottom of these steps.”
    “What’s happening?” Betty asked, rubbing her eyes as she stood.
    “They’ve been preparing for some kind of ceremony over the last couple hours… chanting, banging drums, waving incense… all kinds of nonsense. The warriors… they’ve been herding all the people into the clearing. There’s obviously something they want everyone to see here.”
    “What if they find us?” she asked.
    William nodded, also worried about how the full moon and burning torches lit up their hiding place. “They don’t know we’re here, Betty. Hopefully, they won’t think to look in our direction. We’ll let this ceremony blow over, and slip out later.”
    The sounds of chanting and drums beating in the distance created a chilling combination to the already spooky atmosphere, as five gruesome figures ascended the pyramid steps, creeping up like a dark fog.
    “Someone’s coming!” Betty whispered.
    Four of the men were painted in patterns of black and red; they wore odd devil-like masks. The fifth man in the center of the group had, what appeared to be, the actual head of a boar over his own head, with horns and long feathers jutting out the top. In his hand, he wielded a long black dagger. Spears were the weapon of choice for the four devil-men, and they thumped them against the stone platform in unison with the chants and drum beating below.
    The boar-man set his knife down on the altar at his feet and began chanting. He moved over to one of the torches, lit a stick, and held it to an incense burner until the sweet smoke billowed out the top. As he continued his grunting chants, he waved the incense around the platform. He even made a complete tour through the chamber with his smoky jar.
    William released an inaudible sigh, relieved that they were not noticed there, pressed against the stone wall in the shadows. He peered around the corner again to see what was happening.
    The boar-man set the incense burner down on a ledge near the chamber’s entrance. He placed a shiny ceramic bowl on the altar, reached into his cape, and retrieved a shiny black needle. He stretched his arms high over his head, and then pierced his left palm with the needle. Blood dripped from his self-inflicted wound, making a pinging sound as it splattered into the bowl beneath him.
    He stepped back, handed the needle to the devil-man on his right, and continued chanting, with animated and jerking motions.
    The four devil-men each took their turn of bloodletting, followed by a couple dozen others. One after another, they made their way up to give their donation. Some cut their lips, some pricked their ear lobes, and many chose to let blood from their tongue. When they were done, they returned down the steps from where they came, like some bloody form of taking communion.
    The boar-man reached into the bloody bowl with his fingers. He wiped the blood on his mask and on the masks of the four devil-men, painting zigzag streaks of red. He threw splashes of the blood all around the pyramid’s platform, and then lifted the bowl to the heavens, speaking in a loud voice that carried over the courtyard below.
    William recognized the voice of the leader, the one who spoke earlier at the base of the pyramid, now concealed beneath the ghoulish boar mask. He leaned over to Betty, whispering, “He’s saying something about a divided family again. The Gods will… solidify the kingdom this night, ending the division with the needed sacrifice.”
    The leader in the boar mask poured the remaining blood across the altar. He set the ceramic bowl aside and picked up his dagger, raising it with both hands to the sky. Blood trickled down his wrist and forearm.
    The chanting from the crowd increased to the intensity of a football stadium during a goal-line stand, drowning out the cry of a single man being dragged up the steps. Three others rose into view; their bodies were painted with black and white streaks. They jerked one of the captives forward by the rope around his neck. The prisoner screamed as he approached the altar, begging for his life.
    William and Betty watched from around the corner of the chamber as the four devil-men grabbed the prisoner by his limbs and flung him onto the altar, arching his back over it. His arms and legs flexed and convulsed as he tried to break free, but the hands that held him down were too strong.
    The leader reached into his pocket and threw some powder into the air. “Chunbesah… kuxtal… kimil,” he chanted in a deep voice, raised the dagger high, and buried it into the man’s chest.
    William winced at the sight of blood spurting forth, and he could almost feel the man’s pain through his agonizing screech.
    The captive’s body convulsed like a fish pulled from the water, before going limp. A devil-man stepped forward and lopped off the guy’s head with a heavy stone axe. The leader displayed the head to the crowd, and he dropped it into a wicker basket held by one of his masked assistants.
    The zebra-painted escorts dragged the headless body back down the stairway; the corpse thumped hard against each step.
    William swallowed against the nausea, feeling a strong urge to vomit after what he had just witnessed.
    The five executioners resumed their positions at the top of the steps, waiting for their next victim. A young boy, no more than thirteen years old, came into view. He did not put up any resistance to the men who held his rope.
    “Oh no,” William muttered.
    Betty put her hand over William’s mouth, with a warning look in her eyes.
    The boy turned to face the crowd, and he raised his arms to the heavens. A loud collective gasp resonated, amidst some isolated cries from the women below. The boy lied back on the altar, and the four devil-men held his limbs to the stone slab.
    Anger began to build within William, the likes of which he had never felt before. He pictured his younger cousin, about to be killed short by a gang of murdering psychos. Yet he had to be quiet. He had to let it pass. The sooner it ended, the sooner he and Betty could slip out.
    The leader tossed up another handful of powder and chanted, “Chunbesah… kuxtal… kimil.” He raised the dagger above his head.
    “Stop!” William yelled, as he bolted from the shadows and shoved the leader away from the boy, causing him to stumble backwards several steps to the edge of the stairway. William caught eye-contact with the leader through the eye-holes of his boar mask, and he could see his startled reaction. The leader took another step backwards, tripped, and toppled down the steep stairway, his mask flying off along the way.
    The entire assembly seemed frozen in silence; it was as though time had stopped. William felt the attention of a thousand eyes fixed upon him.
    Betty ran to his side, eliciting a gasp from all those assembled when they saw her.
    The men in devil masks released their hold on the young prisoner and backed away from William, moving several steps below the upper platform.
    “What did you do?” Betty asked. She looked at the leader sprawled out at the bottom of the steps.
    “I had to stop it. I didn’t mean to…” William followed Betty’s stare below. “Oh God… is he… is he dead?”
    “Uh… yeah!” Betty said with a certainty on her face. She kneeled beside the boy on the bloody alter. “Are you okay?”
    William noticed that the other devil men also kneeled the moment she did. He shifted his attention to the boy. After exchanging eye contact for several seconds, the boy stood atop the altar; a giant smile spread across his face. For a moment, William thought he had braces, but then he realized that there were small gems embedded in his teeth that sparkled in the moonlight.
    The boy turned to gaze across the crowd gathered below. He nodded, seeming pleased when he saw the dead man at the bottom of the steps. He clasped his hands together and raised them to the sky. “Ts’oysah!” he called out, his voice echoing through the valley.
    The people below chanted in unison, “Ts’oysah… Ts’oysah… Ts’oysah…” He opened his hands to the crowd, silencing everyone at once, and turned to face William again. The boy kneeled before him with his head touching the bloody altar.
    Betty gasped. “William… look!” She pointed to the crowd below. They were also kneeling in the same manner. “They’re honoring you.”
    It seemed unreal. William became light headed as the gore around him sank in, seeing the blood everywhere: all over the altar, on the boy’s skin, covering the devilmen, and splattered along the steps. He spotted the head in the basket at his feet; it stared back at him with a look of terror still frozen on its lifeless face. Everything turned dark, and William passed out right where he stood, falling to the ground with a heavy thump.
    He saw Betty and the boy staring down at him from above, as he felt the sensation of floating down a lazy river that lulled him into a very deep sleep.
    William slept for a long while. Vague memories of being forced to eat and drink intertwined in his dreams. He found himself at the edge of a lake. His father stood on the other side. He waved to him, but his dad didn’t see him. He yelled, but he didn’t hear him either. As he approached the water to swim across, a giant crocodile lunged out from the lake, roaring like a lion.
    He snapped awake to the sound of a thunderclap, kicking his feet as he attempted to escape the beast from his nightmare.
    “William,” Betty said, “you’re up!”
    He looked in every direction until he found Betty at the foot of his bed. For a moment he wasn’t sure if it was really her, wearing a necklace of colorful sea shells, jade bracelets, earrings, and a silly looking feathered headdress.
    “I know, I know, I look ridiculous, don’t I? But they insisted that I wear all this stuff,” she said.
    “How long…”
    “You’ve been out for a couple days… since that escapade on the pyramid. You came down with a bad fever from the infected cuts on your feet. They drugged you with something… you were pretty much out of it. You seemed to be getting better, so I figured they knew what they were doing.”
    William looked down at his wrist to check the time, but his watch was gone.
    “Don’t know what time it is for sure,” Betty said. “I’d guess it’s late morning.”
    A heavy rain tapped on the roof with occasional thunderclaps in the distance. William sat up and stretched out the ache in his back from sleeping on such a firm bed; a stone rising, low to the ground, covered by thick layers of animal skins. “Where am I?” he asked.
    “The palace of that little boy you saved. Would you believe that he is some kind of king here now?”
    While trying to comprehend that idea, William scanned his surroundings like a sleepy bear coming out of hibernation. Small holes in the plaster wall allowed minimal light to enter from the outside, but a couple of lit torches kept the room illuminated. Beautiful artwork surrounded him. A Mayan wall painting of a half-man, half-jaguar creature caught his attention. Beside it, a tall statue of a Maize god stood in the corner of the room, facing William’s bed.
    He tried to recall the events of the other night. “How could that boy be a king? They were about to kill him!”
    Betty shrugged. “I know, weird, huh? That’s what I wondered too. It’s like you killed the wicked witch and then the kid you saved took charge. Maybe you can figure it out. I don’t understand anything they’re saying.”
    William sighed, feeling guilty. “I’ve never killed anyone before.”
    “Hey, he deserved it,” she said, reassuring him. “Besides, he took that last step back on his own… more of a lucky accident. Everyone here seems delighted about the sudden turn of events, from what I can tell. So don’t worry about that. We’re safe now.”
    William detected a flowery smell, and he traced it to an incense burner drizzling out a small stream of smoke from a stone slab in the center of the room. “How did I get here?” he asked.
    “You passed out up there like a cut-down tree. Kerplop! They carried you down here and cleaned you up-put some goop on your cuts.”
    When he looked at his bandaged feet, he noticed that his shorts had been exchanged for a loincloth wrapped between his legs and tied at his waist. Small ruby-colored stones sparkled along the length of fabric draped between his thighs.
    The sound of giggling drew his focus to the arched doorway of his room, where he noticed two Mayan women peering in. Seeing them sparked an odd vision-a foggy memory of a beautiful young woman with long black hair flowing over her shoulders; she was rubbing oil on his body while gazing into his eyes.
    The women in the doorway ran off, hollering something he couldn’t understand.
    “I guess they know you’re awake,” Betty said. “I’m sure that little king will be here any minute. He’s been checking in on you a lot. He can’t wait for you to wake up.”
    “Uh huh,” William mumbled, not hearing a word of what Betty just said, still thinking about the girl caressing his body, wondering if it was a dream. He wiped his hand along his chest, feeling a greasy residue, and he smiled, realizing that the girl really had been there with him.
    “They put something on your skin-mine too-to help with our bites. It also keeps the bugs away,” she said, and looked over to the doorway. Fast approaching footsteps drew William’s attention as well.
    The boy king charged into the room, out of breath from running all the way there. He approached William with a giant grin on his face, exposing his pointy jeweled teeth.
    Betty stepped away from the bed and sat on a stone bench, watching with a smirk as the King began blabbering away.
    “Wait, hold up.” William held his hands out in a halting gesture. “Ma’ti naati kech.” He explained that he didn’t understand. “Please speak a little slower,” he said in Yucatec-Maya.
    The boy didn’t seem to understand William’s words at first, but he picked up on his hand language to slow down. Yet even at a slower pace, William could only grasp occasional words. He gathered that the King wanted to know how he was feeling, where they were from, and what his name was.
    “Ah, let’s start with that,” William said in Yucatec-Maya, pointing to his forehead, “William.” He enunciated each syllable. “Will-iam.”
    “Balam,” the boy said, mispronouncing William’s name somewhat. His eyes grew wide in reverence, and he raised his hands to the heavens as though William had just said he was Jesus.
    “Sure… that’s close enough,” William said with a laugh. He pointed at Betty. “This is Betty,” he said. “Be-tty.”
    “Bati,” the King said. He gave her a respectful nod.
    “Yes, Balam and Bati,” William said. He gestured to the boy. “What is your name?”
    “Yax,” he said with a big smile. He turned to the doorway and clapped his hands twice, drawing in two chubby Mayan women with baskets of jewelry and accessories.
    “No, that’s okay,” William said, waving his hands.
    “No use trying, William,” Betty said. “They think they’re doing you a favor.”
    “Oh, fine.” He tried to relax as they adorned him with a beaded necklace and a headdress with a colorful collection of quetzal feathers. He glared at Betty. “If my girlfriend saw me like this… that would really be the end of our relationship.”
    Betty’s face tightened as she held back her urge to laugh. “No, I think this is your look, Will.”
    The elder Mayan woman inspected William’s feet. She seemed pleased with how they had healed and presented him with sandals. As he put them on, Yax explained how they had made them just for his extra large feet. He urged William to stand.
    William stepped gingerly on the floor and smiled, pleased to not feel the painful sting in his step anymore. Betty walked beside him as they followed Yax down the hallways of the grand palace. A bit of an entourage gathered behind them as they went-Mayan nobles trying to get a peek at them. William sensed that they had never seen such unusual visitors before.
    As they passed by statues of gods and wall paintings of battles and sacrifices, it occurred to William that had he been an archeologist, the experience would have been the highlight of his career. But at that moment, all the beautiful artwork only reinforced the reality of their predicament and brought on a wave of dread.
    They arrived at a large courtyard open to the outdoors; a vast spread of food had been laid out before them on colorful embroidered rugs. Giant stone columns supported a thatched roof that protected them from the rain.
    Yax sat on a raised stone slab covered with animal skins. “Kutal’ex,” he said, motioning for William and Betty to sit on the rugs beside him.
    Other Mayan nobles-men and women-entered the courtyard, gawking at the two strangers as they made their way in. William never liked to be the center of attention. Being treated like some royal Mayan celebrity made him feel awkward.
    Servants busied themselves bringing in more food, bowing as they set it down. Large wooden trays contained an assortment of fruits-mangos, papayas, and other food he had never seen.
    An eerie melody echoed through the courtyard as musicians beat on drums and blew into wooden flutes of varying sizes.
    An unusually attractive Mayan woman, covered in dazzling jewelry, entered from another archway. She was dressed in a tight fitting huipil that clearly displayed her perfect figure. Her feathered headdress looked like a peacock spreading its tail. As she approached, the sun broke through the clouds briefly, causing her to sparkle like a celebrity at the Academy Awards show. She sat to the left of Yax and regarded William with a curious smile.
    William felt uncomfortable by the young woman’s stare, and he had a strange feeling that he knew her from somewhere. He shifted his attention away from her, but felt her gaze still upon him.
    Yax licked his lips in anticipation of the feast and twiddled his fingers over the platter of food before him, not sure what to grab first. All the others watched, apparently waiting for him to begin. Yax grabbed a single small berry, tossed it in the air, and caught it in his mouth. Everyone laughed and began eating.
    The beautiful woman beside Yax rolled her eyes up; she seemed embarrassed. William wondered if she was the boy’s mother. Yet beneath her decorative attire, and the swirly designs painted on her face, she looked closer to his own age.
    While feasting and chatting with one another, the courtyard filled with laughter and merriment. William inhaled his meal like a dog chowing down his first ever scrap of meat. He helped himself to plenty of fruit and tortilla pancakes, and he gulped down several cups of a delicious chocolate-flavored drink.
    Betty picked at her food, while the chubby man beside her urged her to try the stringy meat from a platter with flies buzzing over it.
    After the little king had eaten his fill, he stood, silencing all those around him. His demeanor transformed from that of a boy, to a serious ruler. He began speaking, and the people clung to his every word. At first, Yax spoke in angry and harsh tones. Later, his speech became optimistic and inspirational. He seemed to be grabbing something with his hand. When he opened his fist, he set it on William’s shoulder, staring at him with a sense of deep gratitude in his eyes. Everyone began beating their hands on the floor in applause.
    Betty leaned over and jabbed William with her elbow.
    “What’s he saying?”
    “He went a little fast. But I think the guy who fell down the steps was somehow related to him. That was the family division I had heard before-two in line for the throne. They think the gods sent us to… set things right.”
    “Balam! Balam!” the King chanted. The others joined in, even Betty, repeating the new pronunciation of his name. The King sat and motioned for William to stand.
    “Oh great,” William said, “I think they want me to give a speech.”
    “Ask them if they know how we can get home,” Betty said with a hopeful look.
    The crowd continued to chant, “Balam… Balam… Balam,” until at last he stood. Everyone became silent and gazed at William with reverence-except for the young lady seated next to Yax, who looked at him like he was going to be her dessert.
    William cleared his throat, speaking in Yucatec-Maya as best he could. “I know my words sound different,” he said, motioning with his hand across his mouth. “I just want to say, that…” he paused for a moment, trying to think of the right words, frustrated that he didn’t know how to explain what had happened to them, “…we need to go back to where we are from.”
    Upon seeing some confused and worried looks, it occurred to William that it may have been rude to announce that they wanted to leave after just getting there. “What I mean to say is… thank you for your help. We are happy to be here,” he said in Yucatec-Maya, forcing a smile before he sat down. He figured he’d find another venue for discussing their situation later.
    The entire assembly thumped their hands on the floor, applauding his comments.
    A bald Mayan with bright silver eyes stepped out from the shadows of a stone column, as a thunderclap accentuated his sudden appearance. His long braided ponytail-the only hair on the back of his head-rested against his short purple cape.
    As he approached the King, he glanced at William, giving him an intense stare. “Perhaps,” he said with a power in his voice that echoed through William’s mind, “I may be of assistance.”

Chapter Four

    The unusual bald Mayan bowed before the King, revealing two swirling tattoos on the back of his head that merged to form an image of a serpent’s face over his forehead. His necklace-a large jade pendant of the sun with rays of snakes-rested against his bare chest, partially covering a scar from an obvious battle wound. “My Lord, I understand the significance of Balam’s arrival here, and I request your permission to be his mentor.”
    Yax leaned back, considering the request with a concerned look on his face. A hiss resonated through the courtyard as the nobles whispered the announcement amongst themselves.
    “How is it that I understand you so well?” William asked the bald man in Yucatec-Maya.
    His silver eyes rolled beneath his eyelids. “My words-in this plane-are in the voice of my people. You hear me through your ears and also through your mind,” he said, pointing his index fingers to his temples.
    William believed him because when he spoke, he understood Mayan words that he had never heard before.
    “William,” Betty whispered with a confused look. “When he talks, I’m seeing… pictures in my head!”
    Most the guests in the chamber returned to eating and conversing with those beside them. The musicians chimed in as well, increasing the background noise around them.
    The woman seated beside Yax leaned forward, looking upset. “With all due respect, Priest Quisac, after our father died, you were not here to help our cause-of my brother’s rightful accession to the throne. How can we trust you now?”
    “Teshna!” Yax slammed his hand against the floor, silencing the room as quickly as a waiter dropping a stack of plates in a busy restaurant. He gave his sister a scolding stare for a moment, seeming angry that she had spoken in such a way. Yax turned to Priest Quisac with a hopeful look in his eyes. “Well, Serpent Priest? Do you still have it?”
    “Yes, King Stone Frog,” Priest Quisac said. He turned to Teshna. “It is not as you presumed, my dear. Your father sent me away to protect it before his final battle with Calakmul.”
    Amidst the crowd of nobles, a man stood abruptly. He was a muscular and handsome Mayan, somewhere in his forties, with a diamond-shaped tattoo on his forehead. “The bloodstone is with you?” he asked with urgency in his voice. “It must be turned over to me at once!”
    “Patience, Honac-Fey!” Yax said to the noble. “It is true that you were our father’s Royal Protector. I understand that the bloodstone must be kept with the Royal Protector prior to the full accession of a new king.”
    “What’s all the fuss about?” Betty asked William.
    William shrugged, not certain either. “Something about a stone.”
    The Serpent Priest retrieved a small jade container from a pouch on his side, and he removed a silver necklace with an oval red gem-about the size of a small potato-dangling at the end. He handed the necklace to the King.
    Yax stood and retrieved the necklace, being careful not to touch the bulky gem. He displayed the bloodstone for all to see. It began to glow, casting a red haze over his face. “It is not proper for me to wear the bloodstone until I am of age. For now, it must be kept by the Royal Protector.”
    “Agreed,” Honac-Fey said, coming closer.
    Yax held his hand out, halting Honac-Fey. “Balam and Bati were sent by the gods for our protection. For if not, you and many in this room would be dead… or awaiting death. Therefore, I name the one who saved my life… Balam… as my Royal Protector,” the King said. Honac-Fey became livid; his face turned red, almost competing with the glow from the bloodstone. Yax held the necklace out to William.
    William didn’t understand everything the boy had said, but he gathered that he wanted him to have the necklace as a gift for saving his life. So he nodded to accept it. A servant behind him removed his feathered headdress, while Yax placed the necklace over his head; it felt much lighter than William had expected. When Yax stepped back, a cheer erupted from the crowd, followed by everyone chanting, “Balam… Balam… Balam.”
    Yax raised his hands to silence the room and looked back to William. “It is true that Priest Quisac has not been with us for much time, and so I need only ask Balam, to whom we all owe our lives… do you wish the assistance of the Serpent Priest?”
    Understanding the general idea of what Yax had just asked, William answered without hesitation. “Yes,” he agreed.
    “Then it is so!” Yax cheered, clasping his hands together. “Our kingdom is whole again! Let us celebrate our gifts, and play the games we once played.”
    The room erupted in a festive mood of music, feasting, and lively conversation-all except the man with the diamond-shaped tattoo on his forehead. Honac-Fey glared at Priest Quisac like a hungry wolf that just had his meal snatched away. He stormed off, carrying his rage with him.
    The Serpent Priest bowed to Yax. “I am weary from travel, my Lord. With your permission, I will withdraw.”
    “Of course,” he said. He signaled the servants to his side and ordered them to assist the Serpent Priest.
    Before leaving, Priest Quisac leaned close to William and whispered, “Balam, I will try to help you with your… circumstance. But you must promise me something first.”
    William nodded.
    “You must give your word to help my people, to whom my life has been dedicated. Do I have your pledge?”
    William had no idea what kind of help he was referring to, but figured he had no other option. “Sure… yes,” he said with an enthusiastic nod.
    Priest Quisac clasped William’s forearm in a binding gesture. He locked a curious stare deep into William’s eyes for a time, as if peering into his mind; he lurched back, as if startled by something he saw. He turned abruptly and exited.
    Teshna watched Priest Quisac leave, and she stood. “I am going to the temple for prayer, brother,” she said.
    “Fine,” Yax said, “but come to the ballcourt later, as planned.”
    She nodded and passed by William on her way out, running her fingers along his back. William snapped his attention to Teshna, catching eye contact with her before she left the room. He realized that she was the Mayan hottie who had been at his bedside rubbing oil on his body the other night.
    “So what the heck is going on?” Betty asked, interrupting William’s blank stare.
    As if coming out of a day dream, he refocused back to Betty and explained things as best he could-how the Serpent Priest had promised to help them with their unusual problem.
    “How does he even know what our problem is?” Betty asked, looking doubtful. “Anyhow, haven’t you already helped these people enough? What more could you possibly do?”
    “What choice do we have?” William asked.
    Betty’s annoyed look softened, until the heavy man seated beside her began touching her hair. She turned and glowered at him. William assumed he was a high ranking noble, to be seated so near to the King. The chubby Mayan had decorated his face with, among other things, a bone pierced clean through his nose. He continued to play with her hair, seeming to find its texture fascinating.
    “Stop it!” Betty scolded, slapping his hand away. The chubby man put his hands to his heart, as though he had just found his true love.
    William laughed as Betty fought off the affections of her new friend. In that moment, he decided to do as Yax had advised… to enjoy the day.
    Teshna did not go to the temple to pray as she had told her brother, but instead followed Priest Quisac to his room. However, when she entered she did not see the Serpent Priest anywhere. Strange, she thought, for she saw him go in just moments before, and had only waited in the hallway just long enough for the servants to leave.
    “Teshna,” a voice drew her attention from the ceiling above. “I must regain my strength. Please leave me to rest.”
    She looked up, startled to see the Serpent Priest lying flat on his back, along one of the wood beams at the top of the vaulted ceiling. “Priest Quisac, how did you get up there?”
    “Is that important, for I am here, am I not?” “Well, yes you are. Why aren’t you resting in your bed?” she asked.
    “Is it not obvious, Teshna, for I am here.”
    Teshna stomped her foot and moved to a table along the wall, taking a moment to light an incense burner. “You’re impossible, you know that? You never give me a straight answer.”
    “Teshna, have I not known you since birth?” he asked, rolling onto his side along the narrow beam, and resting his head on his hand.
    “Yes,” she said, worried that he might fall off any moment.
    “Do you remember nothing of my abilities?”
    “Oh,” she said, understanding, and spun around to find Priest Quisac in the corner of the room, hiding in the shadows. “Yes, I remember our games as a child. They are fond memories.”
    “Why are you here?” he asked.
    Teshna heard several nobles chatting down the hall, nearing Priest Quisac’s room. She moved to the side of the doorway where she could not be seen. She watched them pass, sighed, and spun back to the Serpent Priest. “I must know…. who is this young man? Is it true that he is the Balam… from the prophecies… sent by the gods? He is indeed powerful and…” She blushed. “Well, is it true?”
    “We are all sent by the gods to serve a purpose in this life. Have I not told you this before?”
    “More riddles!” she said, and turned away.
    Priest Quisac moved to the side of the room, where a large Mayan calendar was hanging on the wall. He studied it for a moment. “Life is indeed a riddle. That is why we have our sacred calendar-to give us guidance for each day.”
    “Priest Quisac!” she blurted, becoming impatient.
    The Serpent Priest turned with a confident enthusiasm; a slight smile crossed his lips. “Yes, he is the Balam… sent by the gods… not only to help our people, but his kind as well. He does not yet understand all this.”
    “His kind? Where is he from? How can such a man-so different-be in our land? He has hair over his face and body-and the color of his skin!”
    Priest Quisac turned the wheel on the calendar, as the interlocking outer and inner wheels moved together. He set it to the correct date and studied the calendar, lost in thought. “I see… broken images in his mind, of places and things that I have never seen before,” he said in a misty voice, and spun around with an intense look. “Clearly he is not of our world.”
    Teshna perked up with a coy smile, somehow delighted by his words. “When you learn more, will you share it with me?”
    “Perhaps,” he said with a questioning glance.
    “I can show you something of his, in exchange for your confidence,” she said in a tempting manner. “I took it before it was seen by the others.”
    The Serpent Priest thought for moment. “I suggest you return it to Balam. When he desires, he will tell us about his life, and his… possessions.”
    She stared at the Serpent Priest the way teenagers glare at their parents when they don’t like the answer they were just given. “Good day, Priest Quisac,” she said.
    He nodded.
    Teshna stormed from the Serpent Priest’s room, angry as she always felt after having been outwitted by the old man. But when she considered the idea of returning the item to Balam, a delicious smile spread across her face.
    After the festivities in the courtyard concluded, Yax insisted on giving William and Betty a tour of the city. Children gathered along the way, following William as though he were Chuck E. Cheese parading through the restaurant at a kid’s birthday party. Young women also joined the procession to get a look at him. They giggled when he glanced their way. Some of the girls even carried children of their own. It bothered William to see infants with braces attached to their heads. He assumed it was why most the adults had angled foreheads.
    The kids dispersed just before they reached the ceremonial center, leaving them alone with Yax and a contingent of the royal guard. Many nobles were there too, scattered throughout the plaza and temples; they bowed when they passed by them.
    William recalled his last visit there with his grandfather, and he recited the same tour script to Betty that he had been told before. “The pyramid we’re heading toward is the Temple of the Owl. They found the corpse of a lady in a tomb there. A ceramic plate with a painting of an owl was beside her.” He glanced to his left. “That building is the North Palace.” He pointed to a long stairway leading up to a structure at the top. “I think that’s the Temple of the Captives.” He noticed artists sculpting images along the steps, and he turned to the King, speaking in Yucatec-Maya again. “Yax, what are they doing there?”
    Yax glanced over with a stern look. “I was imprisoned there by my uncle, along with other nobles who had been supporting me. My uncle began that project to record the moment in our kingdom’s history of the important captives he had held.” He gave William a proud grin. “I now complete this task for a similar reason… so that we will never forget how the god’s sent you here to free us.”
    They reached the Temple of the Owl, and Yax motioned for them to follow him up the steps. When they reached the top, rather than going inside the ceremonial chamber-as William had assumed they would-they followed him around the platform along the edge of the pyramid to the back side. He motioned with his hand across the view of the vast jungles, extending into the horizon miles away. William recalled having stood in about the same position just a week before with his grandfather, admiring the same view. But what a difference now, he noticed, with massive sections of the jungle cut down, where plantations were being worked by hundreds of men.
    “I reckon’ those are corn fields,” Betty said with an intentional hick accent.
    It occurred to William that Yax had shared the source of his true power with them-the farming efforts that he governed.
    As they returned down the temple steps, Yax paused behind them, kneeled for a moment of prayer, and then sprinted down the rest of the way. William and Betty, on the other hand, continued down the steep stairway with a bit more caution.
    After the tour, they went back to the King’s palace-a massive stone building on a raised platform, covered by a thatched roof. William didn’t recall seeing any ruins of the grand structure during his previous visit, but he remembered reading how most of the residential buildings outside the ceremonial center of Dzibanche had been disassembled over time; the limestone bricks were hauled off by those who could make use of the building materials for their own purposes.
    As they approached the palace, Yax spoke to the servants who had been waiting for his return, giving them instructions. He told William and Betty to get some rest and went in through the arched entrance.
    Servants ushered them into the palace, taking them down a hallway that opened into a large plaza; an enormous ceiba tree grew from the very center of the courtyard. A sense of awe overcame William as he gazed up at the tree towering above him. It reminded him of the giant redwoods in California. The unusual ceiba tree rose straight up, without any branches along the body of its trunk, and then stretched out like a huge leafy umbrella at the top. William felt mesmerized by the tree. He reached over and touched its bark, running his hands across the big thorns; they looked like oversized chocolate kisses. William smiled, as a peaceful feeling swept over his mood.
    “You two need some time alone?” Betty asked with a smirk. Her eyes grew when she saw the red gem glowing on his chest. “William, what’s with your necklace?”
    “Oh, wow!” he said, snapping his hand away from the tree. The glow faded as he returned to Betty’s side.
    “Okay, that was weird,” Betty said, and then noticed the servants waving at her to follow. “I guess they’re taking us to our rooms now.”
    “Don’t get too comfortable,” William said. “Yax mentioned something about a ball game later today. That should be cool to see.”
    “Whatever,” she said, rolling her eyes up. “I’m down this way if you need me,” she pointed to the hallway on her right that led deep into the palace. “Your room is straight ahead… same as the King, you big-shot.”
    William shrugged. “Try to rest, okay?”
    Betty came near with a secretive look. “Actually, I could really use a swim,” she whispered. “I thought I’d sneak off to that cenote down the road… where I bandaged your feet, remember? You want to come?”
    “Are you kidding? I don’t think that would be a good idea, Betty. We should stay here where it’s safe.”
    Betty groaned. “I haven’t gone swimming for days. It helps me to relax.”
    William grabbed her forearm. “It’s dangerous. Promise you won’t go.”
    She sighed, nodded, and left with her head down, sulking like a kid who had just been ordered to bed. When William returned to his room, an elderly lady was there waiting for him. She showed him various articles of clothing that he could wear and pointed at the jug by his bed, gesturing that he could drink from it.
    William told her that he understood, and the servant shuffled off, leaving him alone, at last. He sat on his bed and let out a heavy sigh, worrying about how to get home. Thoughts of his mother surfaced again, bringing on a wave of desperation. If only he could tell her that he was okay.
    He took a drink from the jug, trying to clear his thoughts, focusing on the pleasant lime-flavored water in his mouth.
    The sound of a spark-like a match being lit-made him jump. He snapped his head to the left and saw Teshna standing in the corner of the room. She had just ignited the end of a stick from one of the burning torches.
    William’s jaw dropped upon noticing Teshna’s figure; she had a sash around her waist that accentuated her curves. Her headdress was missing, allowing her long black hair to flow across her shoulders and back.
    “How long have you been there?” he asked in Yucatec-Maya.
    Teshna smiled. “Not long,” she said. She moved to the figurine of a Maize god on the stone table in the corner of the room and held the burning stick behind it. The smell of incense filled the room. She raised the burning stick near her mouth and blew it out with a single breath.
    Teshna retrieved a small wooden box near the incense burner and brought it to William. She sat beside him as she handed him the box, studying his expression as he opened it.
    “Oh, it’s my watch,” he said, but paid no attention to it. He preferred to undress the Princess with his eyes.
    Teshna frowned, appearing frustrated that he wasn’t more interested in his watch. She reached into the box, pulled out the watch, and pushed it into his hands.
    William latched the watch onto his left wrist, while gazing into her intense brown eyes. She was exotic and beautiful. He felt the urge to kiss her and began to lean her way.
    Teshna stood and said, “Uts k’in, Balam.” She made her way to the door.
    “Uts k’in, Teshna.”
    She turned with a smile and winked as she left the room.
    William collapsed on his bed, wondering what that was all about. He felt a little guilty for wanting to make a move on her when he still had a girlfriend. However, it occurred to him that from his current position Jennifer had not even been born yet. So technically, William decided with a grin, he was a free agent in that time period.
    While lying there, he detected heat coming from the red gem resting on his chest. He snatched it up, studying it more carefully. The red stone was attached to the necklace by a jade setting that looked like an eagle’s claw grasping it. While gazing into its reddish glow, the morning’s events flashed through William’s head like a slide show. He heard Mayan dialogue churning over in his mind, and he repeated the new words he had learned that day until he drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Five

    Flutes, drums, and rattles echoed through the palace hallways, waking William from his afternoon nap. After pulling on his sandals and adjusting his awkward headdress, he ran into the Serpent Priest in the hallway. Priest Quisac told William that he would assist him by interpreting.
    “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting there too long,” William said, as they walked down the hallway toward the courtyard.
    “Too long?” Priest Quisac asked, not quite understanding.
    “You know… a long time,” William said. He could see that a large crowd had gathered in the courtyard ahead, and he really wasn’t in the mood to be around so many people just after waking up. He rubbed his eyes to wipe the sleepy look off his face.
    “Time is time,” the Serpent Priest said. “It is neither long nor short. It is exactly what it must be in the context of our baktun.”
    “Sounds to me like you did have to wait a long time,” William said.
    The Serpent Priest let loose a rare chuckle, studying William for a moment. “You have a humorous spirit Balam, yet you portray it in a subtle manner. I find that most amusing.”
    They entered the palace courtyard where dozens of Mayan nobles mingled about in scattered groups. The women were preoccupied with buying and selling jewelry, cocoa beans, and feathers of every imaginable color. The men bartered with the merchant traders for weapons and hunting instruments. They all stopped and stared at William when he entered, making him feel conscientious of his every step. He spotted Yax and his hot sister standing on a platform above the courtyard, and he waved to them as he approached.
    “Good evening, Balam,” Yax said. “Did you rest well?”
    William nodded with a smile.
    “We are enjoying music and conversation before leaving to the ballcourt,” Teshna said. She studied William, her eyes rolling up and down his frame. “How are your injuries?”
    William didn’t quite understand her fast dialogue, and he looked to Priest Quisac for help. The Serpent Priest repeated what she had just said, with images of William’s sore feet appearing in his mind as he spoke.
    William looked back to Teshna. “Oh, yes my feet are much better. Thank you.”
    “Do you enjoy the ball games, Balam?” Yax asked.
    “Oh, yes I like ball games,” he said, remembering how his high school soccer team had made it to the state playoffs the year before. “I used to play back home, but I have never seen…”
    An argument between several nobles arose near in the courtyard, interrupting their conversation. A merchant bickered over a particular transaction, and he would not release the spear decorated in quetzal feathers. It escalated into a tug-of-war over the item in question. Yax motioned to one of his guards to take care of it. He waited for the conflict to calm down before turning his attention back to William; he looked like a kid admiring his favorite sports hero. “I am not surprised to hear that you are also a ball player. You must tell me about all your victories.”
    “I believe the games are played differently in his land,” the Serpent Priest said, while his eyes rolled back in his head. William figured that Priest Quisac had just seen images of him playing soccer in his mind.
    “Yes, Priest Quisac,” Yax said, annoyed. “I am aware that the rules differ from land to land. Yet we play the games to honor the gods. Is this not so, Balam?”
    William felt frustrated that he couldn’t completely follow the conversation. But he figured it couldn’t be too important if they were just talking about games, and so he just nodded. He looked around the room, wondering where Betty was. “Where is Bati?” he asked.
    Yax instructed a servant to go look for her.
    “What is your relationship to Bati?” Teshna asked William, with a hint of jealousy on her face.
    Priest Quisac shot a suspicious look her way, raising his grey eyebrows. Teshna responded with a demure smile, like a girl caught stealing candy.
    “I have no relationship with Bati,” William said with the same assurance as a husband explaining his pretty secretary to his wife. He wanted Teshna to be aware of his availability. “We only met some days ago, when I… helped her out of a tough situation. We’ve been traveling together since then.”
    The Serpent Priest reiterated William’s dialogue, selecting different words than he had to better convey the message. The translation process also helped William to further learn their dialect and expressions.
    Teshna let loose a smile, displaying her jewel-embedded teeth. It occurred to William that all the Mayan nobles had similar dental work. He recalled reading how it was a fashion trend with the Maya in those days, and he grimaced, wondering how they went about drilling the little gems into their teeth without the modern dental tools they had in his time.
    William shifted his attention to the large crowd in the courtyard. “Who are all these people here?” he asked Priest Quisac.
    The Serpent Priest studied the gathered nobles. “Some are related by blood. The men over there-who stare at you with such reverence-were to be taken to the altar after the King. Others included in the royal assembly are merchants, master artisans, and the captains of the royal guard.”
    As Priest Quisac gestured to the royal guards, William spotted a young captain-close to his own age-with ripped biceps, and wearing a creative headdress that utilized part of a crocodile’s jaw. The buff warrior noticed his attention and locked eye contact with William, casting an angry stare his way. It evolved into an all out staring contest to see who would back down. William gave the guy a cocky salute. Caught off guard by the gesture, the young captain looked away, and William returned his attention to the Serpent Priest.
    “Are you finished?” Priest Quisac asked with a scowl, having observed the interaction with the Captain.
    William nodded, taken down a notch, like being reprimanded by his mother. “Who are those two?” William asked, while pointing at the men in the corner. They were painted like zebras with tall headdresses.
    “They are priests,” the Serpent Priest said.
    “Priests like you?” William asked. He recalled seeing the priests before, dragging the captives up the pyramid steps to be sacrificed. He wondered how they could still be trusted in the new hierarchy.
    Teshna leaned forward. “They do not possess the powers of a Serpent Priest,” she said, and then gave Priest Quisac a surreptitious glance. “But at least they do as they are told.”
    “Do not fear, Balam,” Priest Quisac said. “They are trustworthy. The priests merely see to the adherence of our rituals and ceremonies. Yet they lack understanding of the cosmic plan.”
    When the Serpent Priest mentioned the cosmic plan, William visualized a brilliant light at the center of the galaxy casting a radiant energy toward Earth. In that brief moment, he witnessed a flash of Earth’s evolution-life springing up and developing in a montage of scattered images. The bloodstone tingled and glowed on his chest. He shook his head, trying to return his focus to the reality around him. With a bewildered expression left hanging on his face, William marveled at Priest Quisac’s ability to cast images like that, and he wondered what made him so unique. It occurred to William that the Serpent Priest also looked different than the others; his skin was a lighter shade, his nose seemed narrower, and his cheek bones sat lower on his face.
    The servant reentered from the hallway and explained that Bati could not be found in the palace. William rolled his eyes, concerned that she probably snuck off to the cenote for a swim, even after he had warned her to stay away. But he didn’t want to get Betty in trouble, so he kept quiet about it.
    The low-pitched bellows of seashell trumpets outside the palace caught everyone’s attention. “At long last, the games are to begin!” Yax cheered.
    The music in the courtyard abruptly ended, and the chatter of the royal assembly ceased, when Honac-Fey-the charismatic Mayan with a diamond-shaped tattoo on his forehead-entered the room and made his way to the King. On his shoulder perched a beautiful owl; it was mostly white, except for the blue highlights around its eyes and tips of its feathers. The owl flew off upon his command, taking temporary residence on a branch high up in the ceiba tree. Upon reaching the King, Honac-Fey bowed.
    Yax glared at the man. “Honac-Fey. What is the cause for the delay?”
    “I do apologize, my Lord,” Honac-Fey said, over exaggerating by dropping to his knees. He looked like he was begging for his life, but in a sarcastic manner. “The players report being prolonged by seven serpents that crossed their path along the journey from Kinichna. To honor the gods, they had to stop for prayers, and to make proper offerings.” He stood and held his hands out wide with a twisted smile. “Both teams are now ready at the ballcourt. They await your command to begin.”
    As Honac-Fey spoke, William noticed a stern look on Priest Quisac’s face. It was clear that the Serpent Priest didn’t like Honac-Fey. William thought he was annoying too, like an animated announcer at a circus sideshow.
    “Very well,” Yax said. “Bring Priests Ik-Tanil and Ch’elek with you to perform the blessing rites.”
    Honac-Fey gave another embellished bow before departing, with the two priests following him out. The white owl flew off the ceiba tree into the afternoon sky overhead, in the direction of Honac-Fey.
    Teshna leaned to her brother, the bright green feathers on her headdress swaying forward. “Seven serpents,” she said with a huff.
    Yax glowered at her. “Just be thankful that I did not have to send you down to play.” He took a moment to instruct the servants to keep searching for Bati-to escort her to the ballcourt when she was found-and then he spun back with an excited look, like a kid about to go to the Super Bowl. “Let’s go!” Yax said, as he headed out with Teshna at his side.
    Priest Quisac grabbed William by the arm, holding him back a few steps from the others. “Be alert, Balam. As Royal Protector of the King’s family, you must always be mindful for their safety.”
    “What do you mean by Royal Protector?” William asked.
    “It is the title that you have been awarded. You accepted this responsibility when you allowed the bloodstone to be placed around your neck.”
    “What, this thing?” he asked, holding the bloodstone. “I thought it was just a gift.”
    “That is correct… a great gift indeed,” Priest Quisac said.
    They followed Yax and Teshna down the palace steps and along a short path. When they reached the ceremonial center, they merged with hundreds of citizens who were making their way to the ballcourt. It reminded William of the times he went to sporting events with his dad-walking to the stadium from where they parked, with a crowd growing from various points as they went. However, the bizarre attire of the fans reminded William that he wasn’t in California; it felt like he was heading to a costume party at Xcaret.
    William considered the royal protector obligation, not feeling comfortable with it. “Priest Quisac, you need to know… I’m not a warrior,” he whispered, feeling a little embarrassed. “Saving Yax the other night was just… lucky.”
    “In the cosmic plan there are no accidents,” Priest Quisac said. “The events of that night were written in the stars. Your destiny calls out to you here and now, Balam. It cannot be avoided.”
    William busted out with a big laugh. He couldn’t believe that such a crazy predicament could be his life’s destiny.
    The Serpent Priest regarded William with confidence. “To face your destiny with humor is a rare strength indeed.”
    As they continued in silence along the stone walkway toward the ballcourt in the clearing, William wondered what he had just gotten himself into by accepting the bloodstone.
    Sitting on a bench padded with jaguar skins, William studied the ballcourt. Although not as large as the one he had seen before at Chichen Itza, it had a similar layout. The playing field was about thirty yards in width and forty yards in length. Ramps sloped up from the court on both sides at twenty degree angles, merging with walls that rose another ten feet. A scoring ring, fashioned like a coiled snake, was secured to the upper-center of each side wall. The ramps and walls were bright red, contrasting the white plaster floor of the playing field.
    The royal seating where William sat was-in their standards-like a luxury box at a stadium. It was situated at the center of the eastern side of the ballcourt on a raised platform. A thatched roof shaded them from the heat of the late afternoon sun. Others in the royal assembly stood on platforms around the edge of the ballcourt, pressing themselves against the medians, and jockeying for a better position to watch the game.
    On William’s right was Priest Quisac. On his left, Yax sat in an elegant throne decorated with elaborate carvings of scenes from the games. Teshna was seated beside Yax. The empty seat to her left awaited Betty’s arrival.
    The two zebra-painted ceremonial priests appeared at the northern and southern entrances of the ballcourt, waving their incense burners as they went. They advanced until they met one another at the center of the court, turned to face the King, and kneeled briefly before continuing with their prayers.
    William was excited to watch the ancient ball game. He had seen many ballcourts while visiting Mayan ruins with his family, but nobody could ever tell him for sure how the game was played. Now he would be the first-from his time-to find out. “Where are the players?” he asked Yax.
    “Our team prepares behind the western wall, near the northern entrance,” he said, pointing to the other side of the ballcourt across from them. “They must make offerings to the gods to open a pathway through the scoring ring. The players from Kinichna are behind the wall where we sit, near the southern entrance.”
    Teshna looked over to William and noticed his troubled expression. “What bothers you, Balam? Are you not enjoying the ceremonies?” she asked.
    William tried to find the right words to convey his concern, without offending their rituals. “Is it true that the losing team is sacrificed?”
    Yax and Teshna looked puzzled. “Of course not, Balam,” Teshna said. “Where did you hear such nonsense?”
    “Is this what they do in your land,” Yax asked. “Would that please you?”
    “No, definitely not!” William said, waving his hands. He pointed at the image on the side of the King’s chair. “Then what’s with this carving…. of a man holding his severed head?”
    “It is symbolic,” the Serpent Priest said, “of the death of one’s lower self. Great wisdom can be achieved through the games. Those who compete have earned this privilege.”
    Seven players from each team entered from the northern and southern entrances wearing thick padding around their waists and shoulders, helmets made out of armadillo skin on their heads, and decorative boots on their feet. They bowed to one another in the center of the court.
    “Our team wears a white sash around their waist, to honor the north,” Yax said. “Kinichna wears a yellow sash, for the south.”
    Honac-Fey entered the ballcourt from the northern entrance, carrying a large black ball. He was dressed in a white feathered cape and wore a headdress that looked like a hawk was nesting on his head. At the southern entrance another man entered, wearing a yellow feathered cape. They met at the center and bowed to the King. Honac-Fey placed the ball on the court before he and the other caped man made their way out. The white owl soared across the ballcourt and landed on Honac-Fey’s shoulder as he departed.
    Yax clasped his hands together, causing several seashell trumpets to break the silence. The game began with a cheer of approval from the spectators, and the two teams took their positions across from each other in the middle of the court.
    The captain from the Kinichna team rolled the ball up the slanted wall toward the opponent’s side. It bounced once on the ground, and a player from Dzibanche kicked it high with his knee back to the other side. A Kinichna player popped it up with his hip to his teammate. He hit the ball with his head, maneuvering it closer to their scoring side.
    The scrimmage went back and forth for several minutes, with the players whacking the ball with their heads, shoulders, hips, and knees. At times, the ball made its way to the eastern and western extremes of the court, where the players positioned themselves up the ramps and attempted to hit the scoring ring.
    The Kinichna team maneuvered the ball up the ramp on their scoring side of the court, and with a good bump from a player’s knee, the ball hit the outer rim of the ring. A low-pitched blast from seashell trumpets celebrated the score.
    The flash of an igniting torch drew William’s attention at the southern end of the ballcourt. He looked closer and noticed six unlit torches beside it. There was a similar collection of torches at the northern end as well.
    “It is the method for keeping score,” Priest Quisac explained. “To win, the team must hit their scoring ring seven times. However, if the ball passes directly through the ring-a rare occurrence-victory is immediate.”
    Another cheer from the crowd drew William’s attention back to the game. Kinichna seemed to be playing more aggressive, ramming their shoulders and hips hard into the heavy ball to keep it positioned closer to their scoring ring.
    After nearly an hour, four scoring torches had been lit for Kinichna, and only one for Dzibanche. Three loud drum beats signaled a resting period, and the two teams went to their northern and southern extremes. When the Dzibanche players exited, Honac-Fey handed them drinks. Likewise, the man in the yellow feathered cape provided refreshments to the Kinichna players.
    The game resumed. Dzibanche had acquired a good position when one of the players lost his balance, stumbled, and fell face-first to the hard plaster floor. The ball rolled to a stop beside him, as his teammates rushed to his side.
    A hush fell over the ballcourt. Yax stood with a worried look, as Honac-Fey moved in with several servants to carry the hurt player away on a litter. Honac-Fey looked up to Yax. “My Lord, the player has taken ill and cannot continue,” he said in a commanding voice for all to hear, emphasizing his words with animated arm movements.
    The man in the yellow cape-who William learned was the Governor of Kinichna-entered as well. “Lord Stone Frog,” the Kinichna Governor said, addressing Yax with his formal Mayan name, “the game cannot be continued short of seven players. A replacement must be chosen… someone deserving of the honor.”
    “I see no other choice than Balam…” Honac-Fey said with a surreptitious glance to the Kinichna Governor.
    William flinched upon hearing his name. He shot his attention over to Yax, hoping he would not agree.
    The King studied William for a moment and then spoke to the entire assembly. “You are correct, Honac-Fey, there is no other who has earned the right to play in the games… but only if Balam agrees.”
    William was about to decline, but then Honac-Fey raised his hands to the crowd and began chanting,
    “Balam, Balam, Balam.” The spectators joined in, chanting his name in chorus.
    “Oh, crap,” William muttered, realizing that he didn’t have much choice in the matter. If he chickened out, it would be embarrassing to Yax. However, his decision to play was mostly due to Teshna’s admiring stare; he couldn’t let her down. When William stood, the crowd let out a rowdy cheer.
    “Be alert, Balam,” Priest Quisac said with a concerned look, as William was escorted away.
    William felt ridiculous in the uniform they made him wear: heavy-duty sandals with decoratively studded support bands buckled on his calves, protective pads attached to his knees, elbows, hips, and shoulders, and a goofy helmet strapped to his head.
    As he reached the center of the ballcourt, he felt a wave of butterflies. The seashell trumpets sounded and the game resumed. At first, William felt a little bunglesome running around in his clumsy gear, trying to get the feel for the game. When the ball finally came his way, William positioned himself to hit it, but two Kinichna players rushed in at the same moment and rammed their shoulders into his chest, knocking him to the ground, as they intercepted the ball. Kinichna bumped it to their side, and they scored again. The fifth torch lit up at the southern end of the ballcourt.
    Play resumed. Dzibanche maneuvered the ball to their scoring side, and William bumped it with his shoulder, barely missing the goal. Luckily, a teammate was there for the rebound, hitting the ball with his knee against the edge of their scoring ring. The spectators rejoiced with their team’s third score; another torch burned at the Dzibanche end of the court.
    As play continued, William got the feel for the game. With his size and strength, he helped his team maintain possession of the ball near their goal, and they scored again. The crowd went crazy for the comeback.
    Trumpets and three drum beats signaled the next resting period. William’s team marched to the northern end of the ballcourt. A standing ovation from the royal assembly cheered them on their way out.
    Honac-Fey handed drinks to the players as they exited the court. William let his teammates get their cups first, for they had been playing longer and he figured they needed it more. Based on how fast they guzzled down their drinks, he was right.
    When Honac-Fey handed William a cup, a strange look crossed his face; he seemed angry with him. William wondered if the man was still upset for not being awarded the bloodstone earlier that day. Even the little white owl gave him an irritated ‘hoot’ from his shoulder.
    William moved a few steps away and put the cup to his lips. He was about to drink it, when Betty’s screeching voice distracted him.
    “William, no!” she hollered.
    William lowered the cup and saw Betty coming at him like a flash of lightning. She slapped the cup from his hands, spilling its contents onto the ground. Honac-Fey glared at her.
    “What the hell are you doing?” William asked. “Where have you been?”
    “Something’s going on here.” She pointed at Honac-Fey, as he filled another cup. “That guy there… he’s involved.”
    “Well, yeah. He’s coordinating the game,” William said with annoyance, strapping his helmet back on.
    “William, listen!” Betty said, pulling him to the side. “I went swimming at that cenote down the road, and I found them there… the Kinichna ball players… all dead… off the side of the road!”
    William glanced over to the ballcourt with a confused look. “You mean those ball players?”
    Honac-Fey brought another cup to William, urging him to take it. He reached for it, but Betty whacked it from his hands again.
    “What is your problem, Betty?” William asked, getting annoyed. The seashell trumpets sounded the end of the resting period. “We’re playing a game here, if you haven’t noticed.”
    As William rushed back to the court, he could still hear Betty hollering nonsense behind him. “It’s not them!” she said. “They took their uniforms. He put something in the drinks!”
    When William glanced back, he saw Betty run off behind the eastern wall of the ballcourt. He ignored her, figuring he’d find out what she was freaking out about later, and he returned his focus to the ball game.
    Priest Quisac jumped up, noticing the commotion. After Bati ran off, he watched Honac-Fey motioning to the Kinichna Governor, who then spoke to a warrior at his side. The warrior pulled a dagger from his belt just before he went out of view behind the eastern wall.
    The Serpent Priest slipped away from his place near the others, unnoticed. While moving along the stone walkway behind the spectators, he retrieved a short atlatl-his weapon of choice-that he always carried with him; attached to his belt. As he hurried forward, he grabbed an obsidian dart from a satchel at his side, and slipped it into the groove of his atlatl.
    When he reached the steps leading out of the stadium, he spotted the warrior at the base of the stairway, holding Bati by her neck; her strangled cries went unheard from the noise of the crowd. The warrior slammed her head against the stone wall, and he lifted his dagger.
    Priest Quisac forced a mental image into the warrior’s mind, of Bati’s arms transforming into serpents. Startled, the warrior took a step back. Priest Quisac snapped his atlatl-like he was cracking a whip-and a dart whizzed through the air, impaling the man through his ribs, just under his raised arm. The warrior dropped the dagger. He fell onto his side with a heavy thump.
    Bati had a surprised and dazed expression locked on her face. She lost her balance and fell to her knees. Priest Quisac helped her up, supporting her as they returned to the stadium together.
    As the ball game continued, William noticed that his teammates reacted much slower, without the intensity that previously enabled them to score. William’s lazy teammates didn’t even have the strength to return the ball with enough force to keep it away from their opponent’s side. Eventually, one of the Kinichna players headed the ball and scored again.
    Only one unlit torch remained at the southern end of the ballcourt. One more score for Kinichna would finish the game. When William had first started playing he didn’t care about winning. He just wanted it to be over so he could go back to his room and rest. Now with his competitive spirit in full gear, he really wanted to win. Unfortunately, his teammates weren’t helping his cause, moving the ball with the carelessness of a team of drunks. One of his teammates headed the ball high in the air and then suddenly collapsed. William chased after the ball; it bounced off the plaster floor and went high over his head.
    As the ball ascended, William noticed all his teammates staggering and falling over, one after the other. He took a quick glance at the scoring ring, ten yards away, and readied himself. As the ball dropped, he smacked it as hard as he could with his knee. A hush overcame the arena as the spectators followed the ball’s path, watching it arc through the sky-seemingly in slow motion-before miraculously gliding through the very center of the scoring ring.
    The crowd erupted with cheers. Trumpets blasted, and drums beat with the passion of a drum solo at a rock concert. The remaining torches were lit on the northern side, signifying Dzibanche’s victory.
    Amidst the hoopla, a bizarre scene unfolded on the ballcourt, and the cheers faded with the suddenness of pressing the mute button on a remote control. William’s teammates writhed in agony, with green foam bubbling out their mouths.
    Yax bolted from his throne, barking commands to his royal guards.
    “Balam! Behind you!” Teshna called out to William; she was jumping up and down and pointing behind him with the velocity of a woodpecker.
    William turned just in time to see a Kinichna player coming at him with a short blade in his hand. They toppled down together, rolling on the hard surface of the ballcourt. Another man grabbed William’s necklace from behind, strangling him for a second. The necklace scraped across his face when the man pulled it free and took off with it. William felt his attacker with the dagger go limp. He scrambled back and saw the blade protruding from the man’s chest.
    The guy who had stolen his necklace sprinted toward the northern entrance of the ballcourt. He managed only a few more steps before a dart zipped through the air with a fluttering sound, and impaled him through the side of his neck, sending him into a bloody plaster face plant. The necklace flew from his hands, skittering across the ballcourt.
    The white owl streaked across the ballcourt and grabbed the bloodstone. The gem glowed in its talons as the owl whisked it over to Honac-Fey and dropped it into the ceramic jar in his hands. Honac-Fey raised the container over his head. “Ban kimil e lu’ um!” he said in a deep voice, and hurled the jar onto the ballcourt. It shattered with a splattering of a reddish-black liquid that dissolved like acid into the surface of the ballcourt.
    A group of Dzibanche royal guards rushed in with spears, blocking the exits at both the northern and southern ends. They ordered the Kinichna players and Governor to surrender.
    Knowing they could not escape, the five remaining ball players gave a collective nod and slit their throats, killing themselves to avoid capture.
    The Kinichna Governor rushed across the ballcourt and grasped the bloodstone from the floor, holding it in his clenched fist. He raised the stone, showing it to the entire assembly, defiantly waving it at Yax. His arm began to tremble; it turned white. He seemed to be in severe pain, as he lost all the color in his face. With a blood-curdling screech, he fell over dead on the spot. The bloodstone slipped from his lifeless fingers to the ground.
    A long moment of silence was broken by the King yelling, “Honac-Fey!” Yet the man with the diamond tattoo had run off.
    The Serpent Priest went down to the ballcourt, his teeth clenched in anger. He took a moment to watch the guards chasing after Honac-Fey; the burning torches reflected the concern in his silver eyes. He turned and approached William. “Retrieve the bloodstone, Balam.”
    “Are you crazy?” William asked. He was worried to touch it after seeing what it had just done to the Governor.
    “It will not harm you. Pick it up and hold it so that all can see that you are its rightful master.”
    William nodded, knowing that he could trust Priest Quisac. As he staggered toward the lifeless man in the yellow cape, William glanced at his fallen teammates; they were all dead, with green foam dripping off their faces. He looked up to find Betty in the stands and mouthed the words ‘thank you’ to her, realizing that she had saved his life by stopping him from drinking the poison.
    He tossed off his helmet and yanked loose his shoulder and hip protectors; they fell to the ground behind him. He reached down, pulled the necklace free from the limp fingers of the dead man, and studied the gem that dangled before him. Its previous reddish hue had faded; it was nearly black. William grasped the bloodstone, carried it to the center of the ballcourt, and held it high over his head for all to see. Its glow radiated from between his fingers, and he felt a tingling sensation in his hand. He relaxed, for the bloodstone somehow soothed his aches and pains. It made him feel steadier on his feet.
    Many in the assembly chanted his name, while others were in tears, or in a frozen state of shock from the alarming turn of events.
    William opened his hand and stared at the bloodstone again. Its color had brightened a little, but lacked the vibrancy it used to have. An uncomfortable feeling crept over him. He figured he was just feeling sorry for those who had died on the ballcourt. But that wasn’t it, he realized. The feeling of distress was emanating from the bloodstone itself.

Chapter Six

    William awoke to the sound of someone screaming, followed by a stampede of footsteps-sandals clacking against the plaster floor as people rushed about. He went out to investigate and discovered a large crowd gathered in the main courtyard. Everyone was transfixed by the tall ceiba tree, staring into the canopy of its branches overhead. William joined the growing group of nobles, servants, and guards. As he made his way to the tree, he wondered what had them so concerned.
    Yax arrived at the courtyard a moment later with such a look of shock, that one might think someone was hanging by his neck from the tree. He rushed over to a gnarled old noble nearby; he had a nasty looking scar along his cheek and was missing his left ear. “What has happened, Subiac?” Yax asked.
    “The Tree of Life is dying,” he said.
    “That’s impossible,” Yax said, with tears forming in his eyes. He placed his hand against the ceiba tree’s trunk and stroked its thorny bark with the concern one would show for a sick pet.
    Teshna entered the courtyard with the same horrified expression as all the others. “What is this?” she asked.
    “It is the beginning of the end,” said the Serpent Priest, standing in the arched entrance of the western hallway.
    Yax pulled himself from the tree and spun around. “What do you mean?” he asked.
    Priest Quisac moved through the crowd, as the fallen leaves fluttered up around his feet. “A terrible curse has been set forth on our land by Honac-Fey.”
    “What’s going on?” William asked.
    “The Tree of Life has been poisoned, Balam,” Priest Quisac said. “She is dying.”
    Teshna kneeled by the tree and ran her hand along the large buttress roots at its base. She smelled the sap on her fingers and looked up with hope. “But she is not dead yet,” Teshna said.
    “No, not yet… but dying,” the Serpent Priest said with certainty.
    Betty entered the courtyard and shuffled over to William with a grumpy look on her face. “Boy you guys sure like to get a head start on the day! I thought you’d all be sleeping in after yesterday’s shenanigans.” She noticed the mess of leaves all over. “What’s this, some kind of tree pruning party?”
    Yax gave Betty a blank stare, not understanding her, and then turned back to Priest Quisac with his arms crossed, becoming impatient. “What is this curse?”
    Priest Quisac regarded Yax with profound worry. “Honac-Fey used yesterday’s ceremonies against us. He cast a plague on our soils.”
    “How?” Teshna asked.
    Priest Quisac stomped around the large base of the ceiba tree, waving back the crowd of nobles that had gathered too close, as though he was shooing away pesky flies. He stared up the towering trunk, studying its empty branches, and then turned back to Yax. “Honac-Fey placed the bloodstone into a container with sacrificial blood, chanted the curse of the soil plague, and smashed it onto the northern cardinal point of the ballcourt. Did you not see how the cursed blood crawled into the earth?”
    “Yeah, I saw that!” William said, understanding his words, while also seeing images of the blood dissolving into the ground as the Serpent Priest spoke.
    Yax moved in close to the Serpent Priest and whispered, “What is the end that you speak of?”
    “All the land that is sacred to your kingdom will wither and die, just as the Tree of Life dies before us now,” the Serpent Priest said.
    “You mean the fields? The crops?” Teshna asked, blurting out her concerns louder than she should have. Nervous grumbles spiraled through the crowd about the crops being poisoned.
    “Yes,” Priest Quisac said. “Thus it is so with the soil plague.”
    The King walked several steps and spun back. “Then all is lost?”
    “No,” Priest Quisac said. He glanced at William, a subtle smile crossing his lips. “Had Balam died with the others, the bloodstone’s power would now reside with Honac-Fey.” The Serpent Priest gazed at Betty, and his face lit up. “However, a twist transpired in the planned events. We have Bati to thank for that. Balam did not die, and Honac-Fey fled without the bloodstone. Perhaps Honac-Fey assumed all would be lost before we could understand the impact of his actions.”
    Betty perked up upon hearing her name amidst the jumble of Mayan conversation, and she gave William a gesture to explain. He translated as best he could about the curse-how they thought the bloodstone might help in some way.
    Yax paced around the tree. “The solution to the soil plague,” he asked Priest Quisac, “will it take an extended time?”
    “Yes,” Priest Quisac said, “and it is a difficult and uncertain proposition.”
    “Then we must harvest the crops now,” Yax said.
    “A wise decision, my Lord, before the sickness reaches them all,” the Serpent Priest agreed.
    The heavy noble with a bone pierced through his nose approached Yax. “King Stone Frog,” the man said with a short bow. “I was at the fields yesterday. A few plantations of beans, peppers, and squash are nearly ready. But the maize fields are far from maturation. The stars… they do not advise harvest at this time.”
    “Forget the stars for once!” Yax said. “We must salvage whatever we can, noble Lamat, down to the last berry.” Yax raced up the steps of the platform overlooking the courtyard, glaring at several nobles who were on their hands and knees. “Now is not the time for prayer!” he shouted. The nobles jumped up. “We must save our food supply. Each and every one of us-noble and peasant alike-are to work the fields and orchards. Scour the jungle for anything that is edible.”
    Yax pointed at a group of royal guards near the entrance. “Shake the royal palace! Wake each and every family from here to Kinichna. Pass on my order of the harvest to all!” He rushed over to a little boy kneeling beside a potted plant. “Belasar.”
    “Yes, my Lord,” he replied, his head bowed down. “I apologize for screaming when I saw the tree like this.”
    “Look at me, Belasar,” Yax said. The little boy lifted his head, meeting eyes with the King. “Your scream was the alarm we needed. Now you must run, Belasar-faster than you have ever run in your life. Go tell your father of the great ceiba, and of my declaration. Tell him to spread the word to all the master farmers-begin the harvest at once.” Yax removed his jade necklace and shoved it into the boy’s hands. “Take this as proof of my order. Now go!”
    Belasar bowed and bolted off, zigzagging through the clusters of exiting nobles like a running back juking his way up field.
    While Yax ordered the start of the harvest, Priest Quisac directed Subiac, Lamat, and some servants to carry the potted plants outside the palace.
    Betty pointed at the ceiba tree. “What’s this tree got to do with anything?” she asked William.
    Priest Quisac kneeled beside the ceiba tree and moved his hands over the conical thorns, as though he were feeling for a pulse. “The Tree of Life,” he said, understanding Betty’s general question, and speaking with much imagery coming from his thoughts, “is a portal to the underworld. It completes the triad of our land’s power-the bloodstone, its master, and the Tree of Life. It has been so over the last baktun, and our land has prospered under the careful protection of this unity… to the envy of our rival kingdoms.”
    Betty turned to William, shaking her head as if coming out of a dream. “This tree connects to another world?” she asked, rolling her eyes. “Whatever.”
    Yax rejoined William and the others near the ceiba tree. “Of course, that’s it!” Yax said to Priest Quisac, studying his progress at the base of the tree. “King Aztuk of Calakmul is behind all this. He used Honac-Fey and my uncle to put this plan into motion… to weaken our land.”
    “What good would our land be to our enemy if made unlivable?” Teshna asked.
    The Serpent Priest sliced off the tip of a conical thorn; sap oozed out the cut. “Their intensions are not yet known,” he said.
    Yax scratched his forehead with a confused look when he saw a group of servants enter the palace to retrieve the potted plants and carry them back out. “What’s going on here, Priest Quisac?” he asked.
    The Serpent Priest stood and surveyed the courtyard. “We must replant all these potted plants around the temples, far apart from one another. Provide them with water from the sacred chultunes.”
    “There are fifty-two plants here,” Teshna said. “What purpose does this serve?”
    “We must create a diversion for the demon of the soil plague… entice him with other sacred plants to attack. The demon is heading to the fields. We must convince the demon to return here,” Priest Quisac said with haste in his voice. Teshna and Yax looked hesitant, and Priest Quisac gave them an impatient glare. “There is no time to waste. The Tree of Life has been absorbing the curse, attempting to prevent its continued spread into the lands. She can take no more. The disease now moves!”
    Yax regarded William like he was about to get a painful shot at the doctor’s office. He turned to the Serpent Priest. “So you plan to…”
    “The Ritual of Binding… yes,” Priest Quisac said.
    The ceremonial priests, Ik-Tanil and Ch’elek, entered the courtyard. “You must summon Yum Kaax,” Priest Quisac said to them. “Only the Maize god would be willing to help us in this matter. Pray for his assistance in slowing the demon, Yum Cimil.”
    The priests lit their incense burners and began chanting, moving in opposing circles around the ceiba tree.
    “Go now,” Priest Quisac said, ordering the others. “Do as I said with the plants.”
    William told Betty that Priest Quisac wanted them to replant the potted plants outside, although he still didn’t understand how that would help. Betty shrugged and went along with it. William also reached for a plant, but Priest Quisac snatched his wrist, holding him back.
    “See that we are undisturbed,” the Serpent Priest told Yax. “Balam will soon be in a deep trance.”
    William gave Priest Quisac a double-take. “Say what?” he asked. The Serpent Priest tugged his arm, jerking him down beside the tree.
    Teshna reached over and caressed William’s cheek before grabbing the nearest pot. “Good luck, Balam. Be brave,” she said with a wink, and carried the plant outside.
    “May Yum Kaax assist you in your mission,” Yax said, and he picked up a pot filled with long pink and white petals that appeared to wave good bye, fluttering up and down as he left.
    Betty stopped and glanced back, peeking around the leaves of the shrub she carried. “Aren’t you coming?” she asked William.
    “I guess not,” William said with a nervous laugh. “You go ahead. It’s okay.”
    Betty shrugged and exited the courtyard.
    William didn’t like how Priest Quisac still held his wrist in one hand while wielding a dagger in his other. “I don’t know what you’re planning,” William said, pulling his hand free from the Serpent Priest’s grip. “What’s all this about gods and demons? This is getting a little crazy, don’t you think?”
    Priest Quisac scowled. “I do not understand.”
    William watched Subiac and Lamat enter the courtyard with a couple servants behind them. They each grabbed a plant and then headed back out. “I can understand that the soil is poisoned,” William said, “but now you’re talking about a demon, and having to convince him to return here. I imagine you’re speaking symbolically, right?”
    Priest Quisac shot a stern look his way. “There are many truths that you do not yet understand about our world. Yet there is no time to explain. Give me your hand.”
    William held out his hand. The Serpent Priest snatched his wrist and slit a gash across the palm of his left hand with his dagger. “Ouch! What are you doing?”
    William asked, wincing from the pain. He leaned against the tree for support, feeling dizzy from the deep cut.
    “Remove the bloodstone and place it on your wound,” the Serpent Priest said.
    William took off his necklace and set the bloodstone on his cut. It absorbed his blood like a sponge, and it began to glow brighter.
    Priest Quisac pulled William near the spot where sap continued to flow forth. “Hold your hand with the bloodstone against the cut on the ceiba tree.”
    “What will that do?”
    “Your spirit will merge with the Tree of Life,” Priest Quisac said. He grabbed William’s hand and forced it against the sap dripping from the gouge in the conical thorn, wedging the bloodstone into the opening, and holding his hand firmly in place. “The great ceiba will send you through her roots to the underworld. This may call the attention of the demon. If not, you must call out to him-convince him to return with you to the temples to destroy the sacred plants, which they are now planting around the temples. He must be kept occupied for as long as possible, Balam.”
    “You mean I’m going to actually see some sort of demon?” William asked with a smirk.
    “I know it is not a pleasant task. Call him by his name, and he will come to you. Yum Cimil or Au Puch. The Lord of Death goes by both names.”
    William shifted to get more comfortable. “Nothing is happening,” he said, feeling kind of stupid.
    “You will soon see. Call to him, Balam. Call to Yum Cimil and draw him back to the plants. Keep him from the fields for as long as you can.”
    The bloodstone felt uncomfortable pressing into his wound like that. He felt his hand begin to heat up. “Now I’m feeling something. It’s starting to hurt.”
    “Keep your hand in place,” Priest Quisac snapped, pressing down even harder. “It will pass.”
    Sweat dripped down William’s forehead. He writhed from the pain; it felt like a hot needle digging into his hand. “Why didn’t you warn me about this?” he asked, as he let out a groan, feeling nauseated. “I think I’m gonna throw up.” His eyes rolled back, and he felt like he was about to pass out.
    The Serpent Priest just stared at him, studying his reactions.
    The pain and nausea suddenly passed. “I’m feeling better now,” William said with relief. Then he panicked, for he felt paralyzed. “Priest Quisac, I can’t move!”
    Priest Quisac didn’t respond. He didn’t seem to hear him.
    William looked up, expecting to see the branches of the tree over his head, but instead he stared into the unobstructed sky. When he looked back down, all he could see were branches. He tried to move his arms, and the branches shook below him. William could feel every branch and twig in the tree, as though he had a hundred arms and a thousand fingers-a strange, but wonderful sensation. Tiny ants scurried up and down his limbs, tickling him in places. He could not move his legs and it seemed as though his feet were buried deep into the ground, with his toes stretching out even further. He felt a tingling sensation where his stomach used to be. When he looked closer, he could see that it was where Priest Quisac held his real body against the tree trunk.
    William gazed over the top of the palace and saw everyone scurrying about, planting the shrubs around the temples. He spotted Betty walking beside Teshna. As usual, Betty was talking up a storm-something about planting rose bushes in her grandmother’s garden, oblivious to the fact that Teshna could not understand her.
    He felt so relaxed from his new perspective-all his prior concerns and worries seemed so silly and meaningless. Nothing really mattered when you were a tree, and he instantly wished he could remain a tree forever.
    Suddenly, the mental grip he had on the tree-or the hold the tree had over him-loosened, and he fell down through the trunk, landing on the ground deep beneath the earth. He was back to himself again, with his arms, legs, hands, and feet. Funny, he pondered, to be wearing shorts and sneakers.
    It occurred to William that he was in a dream state. He knew his real body still sat at the surface, at the base of the ceiba tree. Yet he felt awake as ever-breathing, smelling, and feeling. Even though no light penetrated the tunnel, he could see every object by its true color-brown tangled roots, light green chunks of limestone, and bright red ants that crawled around.
    The tunnel appeared recently excavated. Rocks and soil fell like an uncomfortable rain around him. Above him, the giant roots of the ceiba tree dripped forth a black goop. With the acute vision from his dream-like astral body, William noticed wounds on the massive roots, like scratch marks from giant claws. In the center of the root there were teeth marks resembling a surf board bitten by a shark.
    The trail extended in two directions, and he wasn’t sure which path led to the fields. A gross smell drifted his way, and William followed the scent through the tunnel, stumbling over clumps of rocks and debris toward the stink ahead. “Yum Cimil!” he hollered, his voice echoing. “Wait up, you forgot something.”
    The horrible stink intensified as he scrambled through the passages. He heard a scratching noise off in the distance. “Yum Cimil… Au Puch…where are you? I have something to show you.”
    The scratching sound was coming from just around a bend in the tunnel, where he also heard rocks falling to the ground, and a high-pitched voice of a man talking to himself. William peeked around the corner and blurted, “No freaking way!” There he was-the demon-a giant, lurking monster that filled the entire passage, digging with huge claws that ripped through the solid rock like it was clay. A thorny shell covered his back, with hooked spikes protruding along the center of his spine. His thick, slimy green legs looked reptilian.
    The demon’s head shifted beneath a bizarre helmet of bones, as he ripped solid chunks of rock to his sides, muttering to himself all the while. “Oh, this is fine. Yes, this is nice. Work today, play tomorrow.” He laughed with a creepy high-pitched, “hee-hee-hee-hee-hee.”
    “Yum Cimil,” William called out, his voice cracking from fright.
    The beast stopped and cocked his head to listen for a moment before continuing to dig again. “No, no, must work. Plenty of work. Must finish my work.”
    “Yum Cimil, I have something important to tell you,” William said.
    The demon froze. He snapped his head around to see who was calling him. A giant skull-face with black eyes came into view. “Who is this that dares to interrupt my task?” he asked, regarding William. “I do not know you. Leave me at once, for I have work to do!” Black pus dripped from the sharp teeth of his jaw bone. He turned back and continued with his task.
    Though frightened by the horrible creature that had just addressed him, William tried to convince himself that he could not be harmed in his current astral form. So he gathered up another helping of courage. “Yum Cimil, you missed some plants back at the temples.”
    The demon spun around and charged at William, stopping within a few feet of him. “Did I not ask you to leave?” His hot putrid breath-the sick smell of death-enveloped William.
    Yum Cimil’s expression softened. He put his bird-like claws under his chin, tilting his head. “Oh, I’ve frightened you,” he said in a girly voice. “Forgive me… oh, where are my manners, hee-hee-hee. I don’t socialize much these days for I have work to do!” he said with a blast of hot air that knocked William onto his butt. Yum Cimil tilted his head again. “How I would love to stay and chat, but leave me now!” The demon maneuvered his hulking body around and lumbered back to the end of the tunnel, muttering about the annoyance of being delayed as he went.
    William got back up and followed the beast, realizing he would have to be more creative. “They are such beautiful flowers. The King waters them himself.”
    The demon stopped again, cocking his head back to listen.
    “The bees have such joy spreading the pollen of its colorful flowers all over the world.”
    Yum Cimil spun around with a skeletal smile. Black drool dripped from his jaw. “Oh, do continue… tell me more, fine Sir.”
    “There are fifty-two plants that are the most sacred to the King. They are planted around his temples to make everyone happy. People come from other parts of the world just to see them.”
    “How beautiful… how wonderful… how splendid,” the demon said, mocking him in a creepy, sarcastic manner. “Ayah!” The demon screeched with a wild look in his eyes. He studied William for a moment. “What manner of being are you? Tell me, my friend, what are you called by?”
    “I am… a spirit from another world. I go by the name of… uh… Jupiter,” William said. “I’ve been sent here to help you with your task.”
    “Jupiter,” he said, drawing out the syllables of this made-up name in a girly voice, with his claws under his jaw bone and rolling his black sunken eyes around as he teased. “What a splendid name. How divine… how fanciful… how precious.” Yum Cimil scratched the side of his boney skull, looking skeptical. “Tell me, Jupiter, how is it that I did not smell these sacred plants?”
    William thought for a moment, pretending to be angry. “That ceiba tree… it clouded your senses… to trick you!”
    “Oh, but of course. That must be the reason.”
    “Maybe you can smell them now… back up the tunnel?”
    The demon sniffed, his forked serpent tongue licking at the air. Black goop dripped from his mouth, splattering next to William’s feet. “Why yes… I do indeed smell them now,” he said, surprised. “How beautiful… how sweet… how full of life. Come my new friend, Jupiter, we have much work to do.”
    Yum Cimil lumbered back up the tunnel. His large legs propelled him so fast that William had a hard time keeping up.
    The demon came to an abrupt stop and scraped the dirt above him, revealing the roots from the first of the fifty-two plants. He licked the soil with his forked tongue. “Such a strange taste. What do you make of this my dear friend, Jupiter?”
    “Maybe it’s, uh… fertilizer?” William said.
    “What?”
    “Like special water that helps the plants to grow better.”
    With a creepy smile, Yum Cimil put his claws beneath his jaw bone again. “How extraordinary… how marvelous… how fabulous.” His expression changed to disgust and anger. “How about some of my fertilizer!” He snapped his head back to the plant, vomiting forth a blob of black slime onto the roots, causing them to shrivel and dissolve.
    The demon continued clawing his way through the ground beneath the temples, spitting the black gunk from his mouth onto the roots of the plants. William tried to stretch out the task as long as possible by commenting on each plant, making up whatever story he could think of in the moment. Yum Cimil took great delight in listening to his stories, and he would follow them with sarcastic, cherishing remarks prior to killing each plant.
    “Tell me, my dear friend, Jupiter-tell me of this one.”
    “Well, now that plant was especially special to the King. Not for the beautiful colors or how the flowers swayed in the wind,” he said, getting into the mood of the game, and speaking with much emotion. “No, he loved this plant because it was a gift from his mother.”
    Yum Cimil listened to William with a boney smile, resting his chin on his claws. “From his mother? I am going to cry,” he said in a pathetic voice, wiping fake tears beneath his eye sockets. “How sweet… how special… how thoughtful… how about you die!” He spit his black gunk on the roots and then turned back to William with a pleasant demeanor. “What fun… let us continue, Jupiter.”
    Although William had lost track of time in the underworld, he guessed that some hours had passed in the physical world above. He grew weary making up stories for each plant to entertain the demon along his path of destruction. However, he had kept count as they proceeded, and he knew that they were approaching the last of the fifty-two plants. His task would soon be done.
    Yum Cimil never grew tired of William’s stories. In fact, he was tickled by each, savoring the moments prior to the regurgitations of the black stink from his mouth.
    “Jupiter, my brother of death, tell me of this one.”
    Being the last plant, William knew he had to stretch it. He invented a long story about how the plant was found-traveling across the ocean, fighting giant serpents, and climbing a huge mountain. Then his tale continued in reverse, with more folly along the way. He stole bits and pieces from Star Wars, and ended the story with Yax planting the rare bush in a beautiful pot.
    Yum Cimil appeared glued to the heroic tale through the first half, but he became bored as it went along. He rested his reptilian elbows on his knees and leaned his massive head against his clawed hands for the remainder of the saga. He tapped his sharp nails against his skull. “Are you quite finished then?”
    William scrambled to think of a way to further delay him. “Would you like to hear how he found the pot?”
    Yum Cimil bolted up, glaring at William as if he figured out what he had been up to. “That won’t be necessary.” Yum Cimil raised his arms, and William thought he was about to smash them down upon him. However, the demon’s expression changed abruptly. He became exaggerated with his compliments again, waving his claws about in a silly manner. “How courageous… how valorous… how dauntless… how you sicken me!” he said, spitting out his goop onto the roots of the final plant. “We are finished here, my friend Jupiter. Let us now resume our work in the fields. Come.”
    “Well, Yum Cimil, I’m only here to help you with your work under the temples. I think it’s about time for me to head on out,” he said looking up, not sure how to pull himself out of the trance. “It’s time for me to go!” He gazed at the dirt ceiling above him, hoping that Priest Quisac could somehow hear him.
    Yum Cimil moved in closer, coming face to face with William. He seemed annoyed. “I heard you the first time. No, you will go with me. I insist!” he said, inadvertently spitting black goop on William’s face. “Oh, forgive me, my friend. My manners again. Horrible… appalling… ghastly. It is settled, then. Climb on my back so that we may travel together.”
    William nodded, wiping the gunk off his face; it burned a little, and smelled like something rotting in the garbage. He climbed onto the shell of the demon’s scaly back, held a hooked spike on his spine for support, and they maneuvered through the rocky tunnels together. They passed by the roots of the great ceiba tree and returned to the end of the tunnel where William had first met the beast.
    Yum Cimil clawed away at the ground, tunneling for a long ways. Suddenly, they broke through the dirt wall ahead of them and discovered a large chamber-an underground palace with a rounded ceiling high above. A sweet smell of incense permeated the room. “What is this?” the demon asked.
    William climbed off the beast’s back and studied the beautiful chamber; it had polished limestone walls and colorful plants that grew from the red-tiled floor. In the center of the large chamber, a short flight of steps led up a small pyramid to a raised platform. There, an odd-looking man, twice William’s size, sat cross-legged, smoking from a curved pipe. He had a big angular head and huge green eyes. Although his face looked boyish, he held a timeless wisdom in his gaze. “Good day, Au Puch.” He greeted the demon with a fancy wave, twirling his hand above his head. He took another puff from his pipe. “How nice of you to drop by.”
    The demon marched up the short stairway, with William following behind. “Yum Kaax. Oh my, the Lord of the Fields is here. How impressive… how magnificent… how stupendous,” he said in his girly way. “I must behave myself in the presence of the powerful Maize god, mustn’t I?”
    “Please introduce me to your friend,” Yum Kaax said, tilting his head toward William.
    “Oh, forgive me your highness,” the demon said, putting his claws under his jaw bone. “May I present my dear friend, the entity known as Jupiter. His horrid breath filled the chamber, wilting the vegetation around him.
    “Jupiter, is it?” The Maize god chuckled. He gave William a sly wink as he took another puff of incense from his pipe.
    “Come, Jupiter,” Yum Cimil said. “The Maize god cannot delay us on this day.”
    “Feel free to proceed to the fields, Au Puch, but there is little point now, for the harvest is complete.” He motioned for William to join him on the platform.
    The demon had already begun tearing a large hole in the limestone wall at the far end of the chamber. He spun around. “Do not play your childish games with me, Maize god!”
    “I am afraid it is true, Au Puch. Yet I understand that you must continue with your task, for you are a slave to the curse of the soil plague. For that, I do pity you.”
    “I do not believe you. You are a trickster.” He spotted William standing on the platform beside Yum Kaax. “Come, Jupiter. You will entertain me with your stories as we poison the land together.”
    “Your friend, Balam, will not be joining you on your mission to poison the harvested fields, Au Puch,” he said, with incense drifting out his nostrils.
    “Balam?” he asked in a confused tone, scratching the scales on his back. “Where have I heard that name before?” His forked tongue licked at the air, and his black eyes rolled around as he tried to remember. “Why yes, that was the name I heard from above when… when I was summoned below the ballcourt.” He glared at William. “Balam?”
    “Balam is the master of the bloodstone, Au Puch,” Yum Kaax said with a big grin, pointing at the demon. “I guess that makes him your master as well.”
    “You have deceived me!” the demon shrieked. He rushed up the steps of the small pyramid. William’s eyes grew wide as Yum Cimil charged him with black pus streaming from his jaws.
    The Maize god leaned toward William with a half-smile, seeming unconcerned. “Take this, Balam,” he said, handing William his pipe. “Smoke from my pipe and return to your friends.”
    William snatched the pipe from the Maize god and took a long drag of the incense, coughing from its harsh taste. He could see the demon at the top of the steps, its claws reaching out to him through the thick fog that he coughed up.
    When the smoke cleared, he saw the limbs of the ceiba tree above him. Priest Quisac was still holding him against the tree, while another priest waved incense around his face. William coughed and used his free hand to swish away the smoke. “Okay, I’m awake,” he said in a cranky tone, as if coming out of a deep sleep.
    Teshna kneeled beside William, caressing his shoulder. “Balam, you did it… the harvest is complete.”
    William removed his hand from the ceiba tree. “But the tree… the land…. it will still die.”
    “We shall see,” Priest Quisac said.

Chapter Seven

    After the Binding Ritual, William came down with a fever and rested in his bed for the remainder of the day. The Serpent Priest explained that his reaction was normal and would soon pass. However, William was in no rush to get better, for he loved having Teshna take care of him. She tried to keep his temperature down by patting him with a damp cloth. Yet her mere presence caused his blood to race, especially when she leaned over, allowing the front of her huipil to drop enough for him to see her body. She had a great figure, with curves in all the right places. Teshna noticed him ogling her, but she didn’t seem to mind. It was obvious to him that Teshna wanted to be there-her soft touch and flirtatious body language made that apparent.
    William told Teshna about his strange dreamlike journey in the underworld with the demon, Yum Cimil-how he convinced the creature to return to the temples by making up stories about each plant. He explained how Yum Cimil seemed to enjoy his company, and William feared he would be stuck there forever as the demon’s permanent assistant.
    The entire community had been overwhelmed with processing the crops from the harvest, and Teshna gave him updates along the way. She said there was only enough food to last one season, and that rations had been enforced.
    Betty also popped by now and then to check on William. He wondered where Yax was, for he had not come by at all that day. When he asked Betty about Yax, she rolled her eyes, saying that she’d explain when he was feeling better.
    Just before drifting off to sleep, he heard Priest Quisac talking to Teshna in the hallway. The Serpent Priest said that no crops would grow in their land until the curse had been lifted. To make matters worse, neighboring kingdoms were refusing to help them for fear that the soil plague would infect their land as well.
    William awoke the next morning feeling refreshed and back to his normal self. Teshna arrived soon thereafter with a plate of assorted melons, tortillas, and mashed beans. She sat beside him on his bed, setting the plate on her lap.
    “Thank you,” he said in English, munching on a crunchy piece of guayaba seasoned with spice.
    Teshna looked confused. “Thank you,” she said, repeating his words. “Ah, Nibpixanil.”
    “Yes,” William said, pleased that she learned an English expression. He thought he would teach her more English if he had to stick around there for very long.
    Teshna giggled, placing a small piece of mango in her mouth, staring into his eyes. “Mmm, sen kii,” she said. She leaned over and placed a piece of mango in his mouth too. “Sen kii?”
    “Sen kii,” he said, agreeing that the food tasted good. But her stare seemed to imply something deeper.
    Teshna ran her fingers up his left arm, and she touched the whiskers on his face. “Sen kii,” she said again, in a more provocative manner. She leaned forward and kissed him softly on his lips. William reached out, wanting to embrace her to extend the kiss further, but he forgot about the plate of food on her lap and bumped it onto the floor. The ceramic plate cracked, and his food went everywhere. Teshna’s face tightened, holding back her urge to laugh. She picked up a piece of the broken plate and set it on his lap with a smirk. She stood and sighed. “Uts’ kin, Balam.”
    William blushed from his klutzy blunder. “Uts’ kin, Teshna. Oh, and nibpixanil,” he said, gesturing to the food on the floor. He wanted to say more, but he felt tongue-tied.
    She nodded in a charming manner and went on her way.
    William picked up his mess of food on the floor, ate some of it, and then dressed in the clothes that had been spread out on his bed. He really didn’t feel like wearing the feathered headdress again; he never liked wearing hats to begin with. But he put it on nonetheless and meandered down the hallway to the courtyard. He found Betty sitting alone on a bench near the dying ceiba tree, and he sat beside her.
    “Well don’t you look spiffy,” she said.
    “Thanks. You don’t look so bad yourself.”
    The royal guards moved in closer when they saw William arrive, and they surveyed the area with the added attention of the Secret Service at an event with the President.
    William studied the branches of the ceiba tree. “During the Binding Ritual, I actually became this tree for a time.”
    “No kidding?”
    “Yeah, it was so… weird.”
    “Nah, you’re pulling my leg,” she said, and punched his arm.
    Mayan women busied themselves in clusters around the courtyard, grinding corn into maize powder. They glanced over and seemed to be gossiping about them.
    “No, really. I saw you walking with Teshna. You told her about planting rose bushes at your grandmother’s house.”
    Betty’s eyes opened wide. “You’re right, I was talking about that.” She stood and tapped her foot nervously. “This is sure a wild barrel of monkeys we got ourselves into here, William.”
    He thought about what Priest Quisac had told him just before the ball game. “Do you think it’s our destiny to be here?” he asked.
    Betty laughed. “Seems more like crazy-ass bad luck, if you ask me… in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
    William scanned the courtyard; groups of servants arrived with baskets of crops and began distributing the food to different work areas. Teshna had told him how the crops were being processed under supervision to better control the distribution of rations.
    He looked around for Yax, but the King wasn’t there. “Where has Yax been lately?”
    “Now that’s an interesting story,” she said, her eyes darting from left to right as if she was about to tell him a big secret. “After the harvest, that crazy kid went back up that owl pyramid-you know the one he showed us the other day?” She spoke in a hushed tone even though no one could have understood her regardless. “He wouldn’t come down to eat, to go to the bathroom, or for anything.”
    Betty motioned for William to follow her. They moved away from the center of the courtyard to the shadows of the northern hallway. “Sometimes that kid just sat there on the steps. Other times he hopped around and was dancing to a nifty jig. Then somewhere around dusk, I went out for a walk, minding my own business, and I saw him again-prancing around, bucknaked, covered in blood, no less!”
    A collective laugh from the group of Mayan women echoed through the courtyard, and Betty paused to make sure nobody was coming. She turned back to William with a sigh. “Sure, I dropped some bad stuff during my heyday too… did some things I wasn’t too proud of neither. But I’ll save those stories for when we run out of other things to talk about. Anyhow, I don’t know what the boy was on, but he was trippin’ big time. Finally, he came tiptoeing down the steps, high as a kite, with cuts all over his body… even on his boinker.”
    William smiled, amused by the pain on her face when she described where Yax was bleeding from. “It must have been a bloodletting ritual,” William said. “My grandfather told me about them. They do it to have visions… to talk to their ancestors.”
    “If that’s what it takes to talk to my dead relatives, then to hell with them,” she said.
    “Balam, Bati,” Priest Quisac spoke from the hallway behind them.
    Betty jumped and spun around, startled to see the Serpent Priest lurking there, his silver eyes glowing like a cat in the dark.
    “Forgive me for alarming you,” he said in Yucatec-Maya, after seeing her surprised reaction. “The King would like to speak with you both.”
    “Well, he’d better be dressed,” Betty said, drawing a laugh from William.
    Priest Quisac understood her thought, but the frown on his face indicated that he didn’t grasp the humor in it. He turned and proceeded down the northern hallway toward the King’s room, with Betty and William following close behind.
    “Welcome,” Yax greeted them from across the room, sitting in his jaguar padded throne as they entered. “The Serpent Priest told me of your adventures with Yum Cimil. It is no wonder that you became ill. I understand that he is most hideous.”
    “You’re right. I hope I never see that ugly demon ever again!” William said, drawing a laugh from Yax and Teshna. He glanced around the room, noticing wall paintings of bloody battles and large statues of Mayan gods.
    “Come and sit here with us,” Teshna said, gesturing to the animal skin mats on the floor. She exchanged a long moment of eye contact with William as he sat.
    “We have much to discuss,” Yax said. He paused for a time, thinking, and then blurted out, “Where are you from?”
    Taken aback by the directness of his question, William struggled to think of the best way to put it. “We actually came from this very land, not too far from here… near Bacalar.”
    “But there is no one like you anywhere in our land,” Teshna said. “There would have been stories of you throughout the kingdoms had you indeed been here, in these lands.”
    “That’s because,” he said, glancing at Betty, “we’re not from this time. We’re from the future.”
    The Serpent Priest let out a satisfied sigh; he had the look of someone who just solved a difficult riddle.
    “Our future?” Yax asked. “That is not possible. How can you be from a place that does not yet exist?”
    “Balam speaks the truth,” the Serpent Priest said, reassuring him.
    Teshna leaned forward, looking worried. “Perhaps he thinks he is speaking the truth, Priest Quisac, but he is still confused by the demon.”
    While Yax and Teshna leaned back to whisper with each other, William took a moment to tell Betty what they were discussing. Priest Quisac sat with his arms folded, watching a tiny lizard scurry up the wall. It stopped on the ledge of a window and looked back as though it was listening to their conversation as well.
    “If this is true… how far into the future are you from?” Yax asked.
    William shrugged his shoulders, thinking. “I don’t know… maybe a thousand years.”
    “Impossible!” Yax said, becoming angry, as though the fabric of his reality was falling apart.
    William took off his watch and handed it to him. “This is also from the future.”
    Priest Quisac stood and moved near Yax and Teshna, peering over their shoulders as they examined the watch. Yax studied it for a moment, and his eyes grew wide. “What are these symbols that continue to change before my eyes?”
    William took some time to explain his watch to them-how it worked, and what the different symbols meant. They were all impressed by the technology, but could not understand why anyone would want to record such small increments of time.
    As Yax stared at the watch, looking at it from all angles, a look of revelation crossed his face. “Is this what you use to travel through time?”
    William laughed. “No, it just tells what time it is-that’s all. In fact, you can have it.” He moved closer and attached it to the King’s wrist.
    Yax held his hand up before him with a smile as big as someone who had just been given a briefcase with a million dollars in it.
    “That’s gonna give an archeologist something to think about when he finds it,” Betty said, chuckling.
    “Then tell us,” Teshna demanded. “How did you come to be here in our time?”
    William went on to tell them the entire story: how he tried to rescue Betty when he thought she had drowned in the cenote, how they were pulled into a giant underwater whirlpool, how they escaped from the underground cavern by going through the tunnel with giant serpent carvings, and the passage with lights flashing all around them. He told them about their adventures on the way to the temple, and how they got trapped up in the chamber when the warriors arrived. “That’s when we realized we had gone back in time.”
    As William spoke, Yax and Teshna listened to his story like they were watching an Indiana Jones movie, glued to their seats and munching on dried fruit like it was popcorn. Priest Quisac stood behind Yax, staring at a spot at the ceiling with a glazed look on his face, seeming to absorb the images from William’s mind. Betty, on the other hand, appeared bored, unable to understand what William was saying. She hugged her knees to her chest and rocked back and forth.
    The Serpent Priest perked up when he heard William mention the underground cavern. He walked over to the narrow window in the corner of the room, rubbing his chin as if trying to remember something. When William finished his story, Priest Quisac turned around, cleared his throat, and said, “Near Bacalar, there are tunnels beneath the Sacred Cavern of Jade that lead to a chamber with an underground cenote, such as the one Balam describes. There is also a legend that his story reminds me of-when the feathered serpents first arrived in our lands many baktuns ago.”
    William told Betty what Priest Quisac had just said-although he wasn’t sure what feathery snakes had to do with anything-and then asked the Serpent Priest if he could take him to the jade cavern to see it. “If it’s the same place, maybe we can figure out how to use the passage to return to our own time.”
    “I must point out, Balam,” Priest Quisac said in a warning tone, “that if you are from a time one thousand years from now, that is near the end of the Great Cycle, when a cataclysm will purge the world of its negative imbalances.”
    “Yes, I know. I’ve heard about that,” William said. “It’s supposed to be next year… in 2012.”
    “Then you shall never go back, Balam,” Teshna said, pointing at him as if it was an order. “You will stay here with us.”
    Priest Quisac coaxed the little lizard by the window into his hand, and he held it up, looking into its tiny black eyes as he spoke. “I sense that their arrival here is also connected to these events in their time.” He returned the little orange gecko to the wall and it crawled out through the window.
    “But keeping to the events in our time,” Yax said. “Tell the others what you have told me, Priest Quisac-what must we do to end the soil plague?”
    “As Calakmul used your father’s blood to set the curse, we will use their king’s blood to reverse the curse. We must capture King Aztuk of Calakmul and remove his head on the night of the next lunar eclipse, one hundred and thirty three days from now,” the Serpent Priest said.
    “Oh, is that all?” William asked, being sarcastic. “How do you plan to capture their king?”
    Seashell trumpets sounded off in the distance and approaching footsteps could be heard down the hall. Yax held up his hand to pause the conversation, as the steps grew louder. A moment later, noble Lamat entered and explained that ambassadors from the kingdom of Kohunlich had arrived. Yax told Lamat that he would be with them shortly. The noble nodded and left to pass on the King’s message.
    Yax turned to William, thinking back to his question. “King Aztuk desires to defeat us, Balam. He will come to us,” he said, standing. “In a bloodletting vision, I entered the body of the white owl and watched through its eyes. We landed on the shoulder of Honac-Fey as he spoke to King Aztuk. I heard their plans.”
    William translated to Betty. She rolled her eyes and shook her head, obviously recalling the boy’s unusual behavior on the temple the day before.
    “What are their plans?” William asked.
    “He desires to control the sea trade, the sacred lands of Bacalar, and to regain dominance of the region using the powers from the Sacred Cavern of Jade,” Priest Quisac said. “We cannot allow this to happen.”
    “I have called for a general assembly today in the plaza at dusk,” Yax said. “Every citizen of our great city has been ordered to attend. There, the topic will be discussed with all. But for now, I must meet with the ambassadors of Kohunlich to request their assistance.”
    After the meeting concluded, William stopped Priest Quisac in the hallway. “I didn’t want to bring it up in there, because it would have upset Yax and Teshna, but I thought I should tell you that in our time, all the great Mayan kingdoms have long since collapsed and are ruins. They say that most the population seemed to vanish over a short period. Do you think that means we don’t stop the soil plague, or end Calakmul’s plans?”
    “Perhaps. Perhaps not. When we worry of the future, or dwell on the past, we are not able to focus on the present.”
    “Then let me ask you this, Priest Quisac… do you think there’s a chance that we can return to our own time when this is all over?”
    The Serpent Priest thought for a moment. “Where there is darkness, there is light. Where there is good, there is evil. Where there is a doorway in, there must also be a doorway out.”
    Standing atop the North Palace, William observed a massive assembly gather in the plaza below him. Torches were lit at points along the various temples and palaces at dusk, providing ample light when the sun made its graceful descent into the western horizon. A steady drum beat echoed between the temples while citizens crammed forward for a better view of the King’s coming appearance. Higher ranking nobles and warriors stood along the bottom steps of the palace, while the majority of the people mingled along the plaster floor of the plaza. A sea of bodies stretched all the way to the South Palace, spanning the distance of a football field, filling every inch of free space and overflowing up the steps of the other buildings.
    At the top of the North Palace, Priest Quisac stood beside William on the eastern side of the platform, while Teshna and Betty were on the western side across from them.
    It amazed William to see how he had risen to the top of their social ladder. Other nobles who had served Dzibanche for their entire life remained below him in status. Yet they respected their place, and his. William’s success, he considered, was simply the result of stepping out from the shadows that night on the temple to save Yax.
    Yax made a grand entrance just as the sun set, seashell trumpets blasting. He wore a giant eagle headdress that looked in the same direction he did, with a colorful cape of quetzal feathers trailing behind him. He lifted his hands in the air, quieting the crowd of thousands. “I have called you all here today to discuss a matter of great importance for the future of our kingdom.” The acoustics of the palace carried his voice throughout the plaza.
    Recapping recent events, Yax explained how the soil plague was set by King Aztuk of Calakmul to end their food supply. He moved down the stairway onto another rising, scanning the faces in the crowd. “Let it be known… on the morning following Venus as the evening star, in one hundred and twenty three days, Calakmul plans to launch a massive attack against us with an army of more than five thousand. King Aztuk believes that we will be weakened from the loss of our crops, and that we will provide no defense.”
    Grumbles resonated through the crowd. “If our kingdom falls, so too falls the sacred lands of Bacalar, opening powers to King Aztuk that would make him a threat to the entire region-even to the empire of Chichen Itza!”
    Yax moved back up to the top platform, gazing across the ceremonial center. “We will capture King Aztuk, and on the night of the coming eclipse, ten days beyond the evening star, Balam will drain the King’s blood and use it with the bloodstone to free our land of the soil plague.”
    The crowd erupted in a frenzy of cheers.
    William shot a look of extreme concern to the Serpent Priest. “No one said I had to be involved in the sacrifice.”
    “You carry the bloodstone, do you not?” Priest Quisac whispered.
    “I don’t care! No way. I’m not doing it!” William grumbled.
    Priest Quisac gave William an amused smile in return, as if he wasn’t concerned with William’s refusal to participate… like he knew he would have to do it anyhow. William’s opinion on the matter seemed to hold no merit to the Serpent Priest.
    Yax paced along the platform, scanning the crowd with a stern look. “It is clear that our army has been reduced over the years. To succeed in the coming battle every man in our kingdom must join our cause. We must stand together to defend our kingdom.”
    Cheers could be heard, but they were sparse and scattered.
    A look of concern crossed Yax’s face. “I see there is doubt. I open the floor for you to voice your concerns. Who will stand on the platform below me and speak.”
    A man walked up the stairway, standing on the lower platform, and he bowed to the King. “Lord Stone Frog, I represent the merchants. We also wish to defeat this approaching threat. Yet we have never seen battle. How can an army of common men defeat a superior number of trained warriors?”
    Another man approached the platform. “Lord Stone Frog,” he said, with a bow. I represent the farmers, and we share the same concern. I must confess that there has been talk… the people speak of leaving this poisoned land.”
    A third man approached the platform and bowed. “Lord Stone Frog, I represent the hunters. We are skilled with spears, bows, and the blow pipe. We trust in the stars, in the gods, and in your judgment. You were saved by Balam-sent by the gods-that led to this moment. What says Balam of this?”
    Scattered voices cried out through the plaza, “What says Balam?”
    Yax looked over to William, gesturing for him to take his place on the platform below and speak to the assembly.
    “Oh crap,” William muttered. He turned to Priest Quisac. “What should I say?”
    “You will know when you step on the platform. You are bound with the bloodstone. It will focus your thoughts and convey the needed message to the people,” the Serpent Priest said. The assembly continued calling for William to speak. “Hold the bloodstone in the hand used during the Ritual of Binding and your words will be heard by all.”
    “Are you sure?” William asked.
    “I am a Serpent Priest, Balam. I am always sure.”
    As William made his way to the steps, he glanced over to Betty; she gave him a big thumbs-up in support. Teshna stepped forward to hold his headdress while he removed the bloodstone necklace. With his headdress back on, he went down to the lower platform, gripping the bloodstone in his left hand. He faced the immense crowd, feeling a little nervous from all the attention.
    “You all say that I was sent here by the gods… maybe that is true,” William said. “I want you all to know that I am just a man-no different than any of you.”
    William gazed across the assembly and noticed three nobles that he did not remember seeing before-dressed with jaguar skin capes, gawking at him from the base of the steps.
    “When I saw that King Stone Frog was about to be sacrificed that night at the temple, I didn’t know he was a king. I thought he was just a boy. I would have done the same for any of your children…. because it was the right thing to do!”
    While pacing back and forth on the platform, trying to gather his thoughts, William heard scattered voices in the crowd repeating his words, “the right thing to do,” in Yucatec-Maya.
    He put his hands up; an immediate hush followed. “As much as I miss my family back home, the reason I stay-the reason King Stone Frog and all the nobles stay is to protect the future-to protect our children’s future-to end this threat once and for all!”
    William moved a few steps forward, gazing across the crowd again. “People of Dzibanche, the reason we stay… is because it is the right thing to do!” The assembly chanted, “the right thing to do…” again and again, escalating to near deafening levels. He took a quick glance back to Yax and the others on the platform above him. They seemed pleased with his speech.
    “People of Dzibanche,” he said, holding up his left fist, with the chain of the bloodstone dangling before him. “I ask you as one man to another… will you stay and fight beside the King for your own future?”
    “We will! We will! We will!” The assembly blasted the words through the night air.
    William returned with the others to the royal palace, still feeling high from his moment in the spotlight. While heading down the northern hallway, Teshna grabbed his hand before he reached his room, pulling him close. “Your speech… it was inspiring.” “Thanks,” he said.
    “Do you have a woman-where you are from?” she asked in a rush, as though she had rehearsed the question.
    William looked away. “I used to,” he said, with a shrug. “I guess it’s been over for a while now.”
    “Good, then you have no reason to leave,” she said. Teshna gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, spun around, and skipped down the hallway before he had a chance to say anything else.
    He was about to mention that he needed to get back at least for his mom’s sake. There were also the modern conveniences he had grown accustomed to. The thought of no HDTV the rest of his life was a big concern. He watched Teshna stroll down the hallway, focusing on the curves of her body until she was out of sight. William stumbled back to his bed, yanked off his headdress, and kicked his sandals across the room. He felt confused. For the first time since he had arrived William began considering the possibility of staying there.

Chapter Eight

    The following morning, William and Betty had their share of rations-a meek helping of dried fruits, tortillas, and peppers-and came across Yax, Teshna, Priest Quisac, and three other elderly men conversing in the courtyard near the great ceiba tree. Intense and brooding looks emanated from their faces. William remembered the men from the night before-the guys with jaguar capes.
    “Balam… Bati… please join us,” Yax said.
    Teshna gave William an inviting smile. Betty took notice of William’s prolonged stare. “Easy sailor,” she said, jabbing him in the ribs with her elbow.
    Yax gestured to the men in the jaguar attire. “Balam, these men are ambassadors from the kingdom of Kohunlich. On the morning of the harvest, I sent our runners with a message to King Snarl Tooth, requesting that he hear our plea-to stand with us against Calakmul.”
    “You present a persuasive argument, Lord Stone Frog,” said the eldest of the three ambassadors; William thought he had to be in his eighties. “However, we have good relations with both your kingdom and Calakmul. King Snarl Tooth merely sent us here out of respect to your father, the Great Jade Owl, and to verify the stories of your… unusual guests.” He looked at William and Betty for a moment before returning his attention to Yax. “Our king does not wish to become involved in a feud between your two cities.”
    “However,” Teshna said in a feisty tone, “you continue your trades with Calakmul. You provide resources and free passage through your territory. From our perspective, you are indirectly supporting this advancing army against us.”
    “Careful, Teshna,” Yax said, warning her. “Let us not make more enemies this day.”
    The youngest of the ambassadors-perhaps in his thirties-was about to speak, when a large branch from the ceiba tree snapped and fell; it crashed onto a mat where fruit had been curing in the sun. Servants rushed over to clean up the mess. The ambassador looked back to Teshna with a hint of pity in his eyes. “What you say is true. We continue our trades and good relations with Calakmul. It’s a delicate situation-our territory borders with theirs. King Aztuk made it quite clear that we should not alter our relations with them… nor should we offer assistance to you. Calakmul would turn against us as well.”
    “Then stand with us so we can fight them together,” Yax pleaded.
    “We will carry your message to King Snarl Tooth,” the elder ambassador said. “There is nothing more we can do.” The three men bowed and departed.
    The ambassador who had not spoken during the conversation stopped and turned around with a look of concern. He was a tall man, somewhere between the ages of the other two ambassadors; he wore a jaguar headdress that went well with his spotty jaguar cape. “For what it is worth, I will attempt to impress your word upon our king. But he is a stubborn man, who fears for his people.”
    “Then he is a wise man, Ambassador Chen-Uk,” Priest Quisac said, “for the stars also tell us that there is much to fear in these times, across all the lands.”
    Ambassador Chen-Uk tilted his head in thought; even the jaguar face of his headdress seemed to be considering something. He nodded and joined the other ambassadors as they exited the palace.
    “What the hell was that all about?” Betty asked. William gave her a brief explanation.
    Yax exited the palace with the others following him. “I must go to the men training in the fields, to show my support. We will meet at sunset to discuss our battle plans. I will call in the captains of the royal guard. Teshna, inform Subiac that his counsel will be required.”
    Once outside, Yax turned to William and said, “Balam, I ask that you and Bati go with Teshna to where the weapons are being prepared. You must better understand the resources we have available for battle.”
    “An excellent idea,” Teshna said, her face lighting up.
    “I will be in the temple for meditation, my Lord,” Priest Quisac declared. “There is much that I must contemplate.”
    “Until dusk then,” Yax said as the group went their separate ways.
    William and Betty followed Teshna a short distance east of the King’s palace to a remote plaza overgrown by the jungle, where the ruins of a crumbling building served as their weapons refinery. Dozens of women-and many older children-worked in an assembly line manner, separated in groups that were focused on specific tasks.
    A clanking sound drew William’s attention to a mob of women pounding on chunks of black rock. They hammered their stone mallets against the shiny obsidian, chiseling the pieces into triangular blades. They tossed the finished fragments into one of several different piles, depending on its size.
    One team took the medium-sized obsidian blades and attached them to their assortment of long poles, where a collection of spears began to accumulate. The smaller fragments were taken by another group; they did some final shaping before attaching them to arrows. Even the odd-shaped pieces of the black rock could be utilized by inserting them into the sides of, what looked like, wooden baseball bats to make rustic swords.
    Amidst the workers, a hunched-over Mayan stood out; he looked as withered as his worn-out headdress. He supervised the workers around him-barking orders at them in his scratchy voice. William remembered the old man from the morning after the ball game-the guy with a nasty scar on his face and missing his left ear. Upon seeing Teshna and the others, he toddled over and gave them a polite nod, his hands clasped together.
    “Good day, elder Subiac,” Teshna said with a bow. She studied the large pile of obsidian. “I am surprised to see this much black rock remaining. I had thought our reserves were less.”
    “Indeed, it is from a fortunate trade transaction in recent weeks,” Subiac said, “with Ixtepeque merchants, for a significant measure of jade in return. It was at the request of your uncle, not long before his death.” He coughed out a chuckle.
    “The only wise decision he ever made,” Teshna grumbled. She pointed at Betty. “Bati will help where you may use her.”
    Subiac snatched Betty’s left wrist and twisted her hand up, studying her palm through his twitching left eyelid. He mumbled to himself for a time and then released her hand. “She will work with the bows.”
    “Excellent!” Teshna said. “The bow is my focus too.”
    “What’s up?” Betty asked, rubbing her wrists. She seemed annoyed after being grabbed like that. William explained that they could use her help to make bows, and Betty agreed with a shrug.
    “Before you get started, Subiac, please explain all our weapons to Balam.” Teshna said.
    Subiac’s eyes lit up and he motioned for them to follow. He stopped by a collection of spears, picked one up, and held it in a throwing posture. “The tepoztopilli!” he said with a devilish grin, exposing his missing teeth. “To throw, or,” he held the blade lower, “to thrust… and slash.” He waved the spear around, jabbing at invisible enemies.
    “Right, a spear,” Betty said, unimpressed. “Okay, moving along.”
    He went on with the tour, demonstrating a number of different weapons, until he threw his back out while swinging the maquahuitl sword-the weapon that looked like a blade-studded baseball bat. Subiac’s enthusiasm tanked a bit from the pain in his back. He went on to point out the daggers, clubs, blowguns, and shields. Finally, he showed them the arrows for the bows and the short spears used for the atlatls.
    “Used for the what?” William asked. He had not heard that weapon name before.
    “The atlatl,” Subiac said. He waddled over to the group of women carving rounded grooves into long poles, and he grabbed one. “The atlatl enables the spear to travel further than can be thrown by hand.” He demonstrated the throwing technique, moving the atlatl over his head with a wrist-snapping action at the end.
    “Oh, like what Priest Quisac uses,” William said, recalling the day of the ball game when he killed the guy running off with the bloodstone.
    “Yes, but the Serpent Priest uses a shorter version,” Teshna said, “with smaller obsidian darts instead of a short spear.”
    “An interesting adaptation, but it does not match the distance of the classic atlatl,” Subiac said with a huff.
    They arrived at the station where bows were being made, and Subiac spoke with the women on the team. They all turned at once and eyeballed Betty from head to toe.
    Teshna picked up a bow and a handful of arrows. She told William that she was going to practice near the ballcourt, and for him to join her after getting Betty started. She skipped off with the enthusiasm of a kid about to try out a new kite.
    The Mayan ladies seemed delighted to have Betty’s assistance. A heavy Mayan woman chewing on a big wad of gum approached and ushered Betty over to work on her first bow. She showed her how to use the obsidian knives to cut notches at the ends, and to attach the strings that had a somewhat greasy texture. William translated until Betty understood what to do.
    “At least I can help with something,” Betty said.
    “It’s also good for us to get to know these people better,” William said, “since we’ll need their support.”
    Betty smirked. “It seems you’re getting to know these people pretty good already, if you ask me… at least some of them,” she said with a raised eyebrow.
    “What do you mean?”
    “Ah, come on, Will, I wasn’t born yesterday. I can see something’s been going on between you and Teshna. It doesn’t take a Serpent Priest to figure that out.”
    “Yeah, I know. I do like her… a lot,” he said, backing away. He didn’t want to discuss girls with Betty. “I’m gonna go watch Teshna practice now.”
    Betty became serious. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to get too attached to anyone here, William. It’ll just make it harder to leave.”
    He left with a heavy sigh, his head hanging down. Betty was right, of course. He would have to be careful to not become too close to the beautiful Mayan Princess-to stay focused on their goal of returning home. Then he ignored that thought and ran off to see Teshna.
    They all met later at sunset as planned, inside a chamber of the North Palace-the same building where William had made his speech on the steps just the night before. Yax, Teshna, Priest Quisac, William, Betty, Subiac, five captains of the royal guard, and two other nobles sat on animal skin rugs in a semi-circle of the war planning room, each munching on their dinner rations; fruit, beans, squash, and rabbit meat seasoned with spicy chili peppers.
    “Let us feast in honor of the Maize god, Yum Kaax,” the Serpent Priest said prior to the meal, “who assisted in our delay of the demon, allowing us to be sustained another day.”
    As William ate, he could feel Teshna’s attention upon him, and he couldn’t help but to glance her way. He tried to remain serious, to match the look of the men around him. Yet the moment he caught eye contact with her, he couldn’t help but smile. She did the same; her exotic jeweled teeth sparkled in the flickering light of the burning torches. Teshna’s beauty stood out dramatically in the chamber, especially in contrast to the room’s wall paintings of bloodshed and sacrifice.
    William recognized the buff guard that had been glaring at him the other day, before they went to the ball game. He shifted his gaze between Teshna and William, his pointy teeth clenched.
    Yax stood, attracting everyone’s attention. “The nobles and captains in this room were chosen because of their loyalty to me.” He turned to the group of rough-looking royal guards sitting together on one side of the circle; each warrior had scars and injuries that clearly indicated their experience on the battlefield. “You did not bow down to my uncle. Even after I was captured, and all our forces had surrendered, you still remained opposed. You were willing to sacrifice your lives for me.” Yax shifted his gaze to the other side of the circle where Priest Quisac, Subiac, and the other nobles sat. The King sighed. “Yet I am not resentful at those who had conceded to my uncle’s authority. It appeared that the gods had made their choice, and most the people believed that my sacrifice would strengthen our kingdom. In the end, I began to believe it too… until Balam and Bati arrived.
    Betty jabbed William in the ribs for him to translate. He leaned over and whispered a summary of what Yax said.
    Yax pointed to the chubby man across from him, the heavy man with a bone pierced through his nose. “Noble Lamat, tell us of the final inventory of our supplies.”
    “Yes, Lord Stone Frog,” he said, clearing his throat. He explained the details of the harvest, the hunt, and the slaughter of their raised animals. “We even collected beetles and other insects that we could find-roasting them for final rations, if necessary.” Lamat cringed when he mentioned eating the bugs. The thought of having cooked beetles and ants for dinner didn’t appeal to William either.
    “What are the final calculations, Caban?” Yax asked the noble seated beside Lamat; he had a long face and big, beak-like nose.
    Caban’s eyes darted back and forth, recalling the figures. “Based on our current population, our supply will expire in ninety-three days.”
    Yax’s face tightened as he swallowed the rabbit meat he had been chewing. He had a drink of water and set his cup down. William could see he was trying to hide his worries. “What about the extended surveys?” Yax asked.
    “Calakmul is now patrolling our hunting and trade routes,” Lamat said. “Those who ventured beyond our borders have not returned.”
    The King stood with his hands on his hips, and then he pointed to Subiac. “Tell me of our weapons supply.”
    “Weapons will not be an issue, Lord Stone Frog,” Subiac said. “We are ahead of schedule; we will have more weapons than men to carry them.”
    “Speaking of that,” Yax said, spotting the Chief of the royal guard, a wide man who looked more like a walking tree trunk. “Etznab, what is the full count of men able to fight?”
    The Chief glanced at the other captains. “In truth, we are closer to one thousand,” he said in a low monotone voice. Many in our land are too old, too young, or in failing health. We simply do not have enough men for the coming battle.”
    An uncomfortable moment of silence followed, filled only by Yax’s sandals clacking against the plaster floor as he paced around the room, contemplating the bad news. He stared at his long shadow beside him, dancing in the flickering light of the burning torches.
    William took the period of silence to catch Betty up on the situation-about the lack of enough men to fight.
    “How about the women?” Betty asked, drawing everyone’s attention. “If the ladies will be done making the weapons soon, then we might as well get ready to fight!”
    The nobles and warriors stared at Betty with curiosity. They were glued to her words-even though they couldn’t understand her-entranced by her passionate delivery.
    “I’ll take some of those Calakmul scumbags out myself, if I have to,” Betty said. “They’ll be sorry for the day they stopped by this ladies doorstep. That’s for damn sure. What do you say, Teshna? Are you with me on this, girlfriend?”
    A long pause followed as the room’s attention landed on William, expecting him to translate. He considered how to best put it, wanting to be careful not to offend. “Bati is saying that beyond making the weapons, the women could also take part in the battle.”
    Boisterous laughing from the royal guards echoed through the chamber, but stopped when they could see the King contemplating the notion.
    “The women would be slaughtered-cut down as easily as the corn is harvested,” Etznab said.
    “Not if we keep our distance,” Teshna said, “with the bow and the blowgun.”
    Yax paced around the room, considering the idea. He looked each person in the eyes as he past them, making a full lap around the war planning circle. “Yes, I agree to this plan,” he said. “Yet that still does not match their numbers, of five thousand. For that we must determine our battle strategy.”
    The muscular captain stood with a smug smile; his biceps flexed as he spoke, “I say we follow Balam’s plans. Clearly he has the respect of the gods… and of those the gods cherish most,” he said, and gave Teshna a bitter glance.
    “Sit down, Captain Salmac,” Chief Etznab said, with a scolding look at his subordinate. He then considered what Salmac said and looked over to William. “I would welcome your insights, Balam.”
    Yax regarded William and nodded for him to speak.
    “Oh great,” William whispered to Betty. “They want my advice for a battle strategy! What should I say?”
    Betty shrugged.
    William looked to Priest Quisac, hoping he might say something to bail him out. However, the bald Serpent Priest only offered a pleasant smile in return. Everyone waited for William’s response. He had to say something meaningful; he couldn’t let Salmac embarrass him. But the only thing he knew about strategy was in playing board games! William’s face lit up when he thought about the game of chess, for it gave him an idea. “We can tempt the enemy to move to positions that we want them to take-positions that give us the advantage-set traps-attack from places they are not expecting.”
    “Yes!” Yax said. “We will make these traps and draw the enemy into them.” He pointed at Chief Etznab. “Add this strategy to our usual tactics, and also plan to place the women archers at advantageous points.”
    Teshna gave William a proud smile for offering up a good idea, and then lifted her nose Salmac’s way. The zigzag tattoos on Salmac’s face accentuated his look of defeat. It was clear that Salmac had tried to undermine William, but his tactic didn’t work.
    Priest Quisac cleared his throat and stood, drawing everyone’s attention. “My Lord, I must depart to Bacalar tomorrow, to meet with my brothers of the Solar Cult, and to retrieve the sacred items. Balam needs to accompany me as well.”
    William perked up at the idea, realizing it would be his chance to see if there was a way to return to his own time. A long pause followed. Only the sizzle from burning torches could be heard while the King considered Priest Quisac’s request.
    “No, of course not,” Teshna said, breaking the silence. “It’s too dangerous.” She glared at her brother with a look to back her up.
    Yax rubbed his chin. “The sacred items may indeed be useful to us in battle; we would not want them to fall into the wrong hands.” Yax caught Teshna’s worried face, and he pointed to the royal guards. “You would bring a team of warriors with you for protection, of course.”
    The Serpent Priest shook his head. “It must only be the two of us. The stars have spoken of this… twin stars passing beneath Mars at dawn. We will travel a safe and hidden route, and return in four days.”
    Yax sighed. “Well, if the stars say so, then I approve.” he said, drawing an icy stare from his sister. He shrugged in response. “We must obey the will of the Heavens.”
    As the war planning continued late into the night, they discussed the placement of their forces, location of traps, and preparations for the training of the women. William didn’t like how the cocky captain, Salmac, jumped forward, volunteering to work with the women archers. William wondered if Salmac had a thing for Teshna, and if he was using the opportunity to get her attention while he was away. When they left the palace, William offered to teach Teshna some English, to help her communicate with Betty while he was gone, and he made sure that Salmac saw him escorting the Princess out.

Chapter Nine

    Hiking east through the hilly terrain outside Dzibanche was an exhausting endeavor. They started off down trails, and then veered through the thick brush for the next several hours, bush whacking through the dense jungle. Priest Quisac said the rugged course was safer, and it would reduce the journey by half a day.
    William attempted conversation along the way, but the Serpent Priest told him not to speak, for there were Calakmul scouts in the area. Priest Quisac insisted that he couldn’t be distracted while plotting their course-leaving William alone in his thoughts as they marched on.
    He recalled his conversation with Teshna the night before. He had just finished teaching her some English phrases to use with Betty, when a worried look crept over her. “You go to Bacalar to seek your path home, do you not?” Teshna asked.
    “I need to know if it’s possible to return-or if I’m to spend my life here.”
    “Would that be so bad?” She gave him a warm embrace and a lasting kiss before they parted ways.
    William recalled her sensual kiss-way more enticing than the infrequent cold pecks that his ex-girlfriend used to offer. Yes, Jennifer was definitely his ex-girlfriend, he decided. William had fallen for the Princess, and he liked the idea of staying with her. However, he worried about his mom, and he missed aspects of his old life, too. He hoped the journey to Bacalar would shed some light on his options, and help him to decide what to do.
    Around midday, they stopped at a water hole that Priest Quisac called a chultune, where little mosquitoes buzzed over the surface. The Serpent Priest dropped his pack to the ground and refilled his jug from the greenish water.
    William sat with a heavy thump. “Thank God we’re stopping,” he said, but then remembered that he wasn’t supposed to talk during the trip. He slapped his hands to his mouth with a guilty look.
    Priest Quisac cocked his head, listening for a few seconds. “It is safe to speak here.”
    “Oh good,” William said, getting excited. “Can you tell me more about the jade cavern? Do you really think it’s the same place where we were trapped? How do you get inside?”
    “It is not the reason we are traveling to Bacalar,” Priest Quisac said, cutting him off.
    William’s enthusiasm deflated like a balloon letting out its air. “I know you have other things to do there, but I thought you wanted me to come along so you could show me those caverns… to help me figure out if I can get home.”
    “The stars tell me that you are required on this journey to retrieve the sacred items. There is no time for other distractions.”
    A sour look crossed William’s face. “It’s not fair,” he said, tearing through his pack and pulling out his water jug. He guzzled from it with the look of a kid who just had his car keys taken from him. He dipped his jug into the chultune, swishing away the green muck floating on the surface to keep the slime out.
    Priest Quisac noticed William’s upset reaction, and he groaned like a frustrated parent. “Very well, I will take you to the Sacred Cavern of Jade… on the way back.”
    “Really?” William asked, his enthusiasm returning.
    Priest Quisac stood and slung his pack over his shoulder.
    “You mentioned a legend before,” William said, “about a passage in the jade cavern. What’s that about?”
    “It is the ‘Legend of the Serpent Passage.’ I will speak of this when we make camp this evening. For now, we must continue.”
    Dark clouds drifted in from the east, followed by a thunderstorm that pounded on the trees overhead. Though protected from the intensity of the rainfall, they still got soaked, which for William was a welcome relief. After an hour, the storm blew past. The heat of the sun dried their clothes, leaving them sticky and sweaty in the humid climate.
    They weaved a zigzag path through the jungle for several hours until emerging from the brush onto a wider trail. “This path shall lead us the remainder of the way to Bacalar,” Priest Quisac said. “We must proceed with caution.”
    They continued along until darkness obscured their way, and then moved a short distance off the trail to find a safe place to camp for the night.
    “I had hoped to reach the great cenote by this time,” Priest Quisac said. “We must conserve our water supply until then.”
    “Can we make a fire?” William asked. He set his pack beside a tree and used it as a pillow to lean against.
    “I know it is dark, but we do not wish to attract the attention of others at this point in our journey. You will find the light within your dreams.”
    “But you promised to tell me about that legend… of the Serpent Passage.”
    “That I did,” Priest Quisac said. “However, rather than tell you in my own words, I will channel the story to you from the voice of a Serpent Priest who has long since left this plane. He spoke the legend to me when I was very young, just as it was told to him when he was a child.”
    “Oh, cool.”
    The Serpent Priest sat cross-legged and took several deep breaths. His silver eyes rolled back, reflecting a reddish glow from the bloodstone radiating off William’s chest. “In memory of this day, of baktuns past, let it be known,” Priest Quisac said in a strange voice as vivid images began appearing in William’s mind. “On the day of the longest night, a creature arrived in our land. From the Sacred Cavern of Jade, came he. Standing as a man, was he-with skin of a lizard and hair of feathers. Came he to be known as Gukumatz, the feathered serpent. Come, did he say, to harvest his crops and to collect his seeds.”
    Priest Quisac let out a heavy sigh and then continued channeling. “Gukumatz was not pleased, for his crops had not flourished. Sent, did he, the chupacabras into the world, to destroy the last of the Olmec-to break the skulls and collect the seeds. In another world was his home, said he. On the day of the longest day, Gukumatz left our land. Through the Serpent Passage, went he. Thus it be known, in memory of this day, of baktuns past.”
    Priest Quisac slumped back, shook his head, and spoke in his own voice again. “That is the legend told to me,” he said, while giving William a curious stare. “Tell me now… what are your thoughts on this legend?”
    While chewing on a piece of dried meat from his rations, William mulled it over for a long while, still seeing the image of the strange serpent creature in his head. “Are the feathered serpents real?”
    “They are physical beings that live beneath our world. I have not encountered one for many tuns.”
    “You mentioned chupacabras,” William said. “My grandfather blames the chupacabras for anything really bad that happens… like when his horse died… or when my leftover birthday cake disappeared.”
    “All legends have an origin of truth,” Priest Quisac said. He retrieved his cotton mat from his pack, rolled it out, and lied down. William did the same, and they both gazed into the stars. “What else did you gather from the legend?” the Serpent Priest asked.
    “Well… the legend said Gukumatz arrived on the day of the longest night. That’s the winter solstice… the longest night of the year. He returned home on the day of the longest day. That’s the summer solstice… the longest day of the year.”
    “It is indeed. That is also the very day you arrived from the Serpent Passage-the day of the summer solstice.”
    William wished he had his watch to double check, but he had given it to Yax. “I’m not sure of the exact date I arrived.”
    “The night you made your appearance on the temple was the evening of the summer solstice,” Priest Quisac said with confidence. “It is why the sacrifices were planned for that night.”
    “It has to be the same place,” William said, remembering their journey underwater, and the serpent carvings he saw on both ends of the tunnel. “We went through the Serpent Passage!”
    After further discussion of the legend, they agreed that Gukumatz traveled to the future on the day of the winter solstice to harvest something he had planted in the race of the Olmecs. He then went back in time on the day of the summer solstice to return with the seeds he had collected.
    “It’s the opposite of my problem,” William said. “My home is in the future, while his home was in the past. But what were the seeds that Gukumatz wanted to collect from the skulls of the Olmec?”
    “That is not known,” the Serpent Priest said. “This occurred near the end of the Olmec civilization, many baktuns ago, and it led to their demise.”
    William rolled onto his side and regarded the Serpent Priest. “That’s too bad for the Olmec… but great news for me! If the legend is true, it means I can go back to my own time. I just have to wait for the winter solstice, and…” He slapped his hand to his forehead. “But the Serpent Passage is underwater… and those crocodiles ate my scuba gear!”
    “Let us sleep on the matter,” the Serpent Priest said, with a yawn. “Perhaps we will discover a solution between now and the coming solstice.”
    William wondered how long he could hold his breath, and he practiced as he lied there. However, the day’s strenuous activities caught up with him, and when he let out his held breath, William fell asleep.
    After a quick breakfast before sunrise, they were back on their feet and plodding down the plaster trail again. About an hour along, the Cenote Azul came into view. William smiled at the lake, somehow feeling comforted by his connection to it. “In my time, there’s a restaurant over there,” William said, pointing to his left as they neared the water’s edge.
    Priest Quisac scanned the vicinity, looking concerned.
    “Is something wrong?” William asked.
    “The great cenote is blessed every morning at dawn. I had expected to find the brothers of the Solar Cult here.” He shot a look down the trail as approaching voices could be heard.
    “Is that them?”
    “Silence!” Priest Quisac whispered. “We must hide.”
    They ducked behind the brush at the water’s edge just as six warriors armed with spears came around the bend in the trail. One of the warriors seemed to hear something. He shouted to the others, and they ran down the trail, heading in the direction that he and Priest Quisac had just traveled earlier that morning.
    “Who were those guys?” William asked.
    “Calakmul warriors. They are hunting. We must wait for them to return to Bacalar before proceeding.”
    “What are they doing in Bacalar?”
    Priest Quisac shook his head. “It is what we must find out.”
    A couple hours passed as they sat there on the damp ground, under the cover of the tall grass. They remained still, listening with extreme concentration for any sign of the returning warriors.
    William became antsy just waiting there, swatting at mosquitoes. The collective buzz of insects became annoying too, like the hum of a smoke detector going off in the distance. He began to think the warriors weren’t coming back. “Maybe they were just passing through,” William whispered.
    The Serpent Priest raised his hand in a gesture to be quiet, tilting his head toward the trail. “No, they are coming. Be still.”
    He couldn’t hear anything at first, but then footsteps and chatter became audible. William crouched lower. The warrior’s conversation had a jubilant tone as they neared. They laughed with each other as they filled their jugs from the lake. Their voices faded into the distance as they departed back up the trail toward Bacalar.
    Priest Quisac glanced at William. “They killed a boar and spoke of a feast tonight. The King of Calakmul likely dispatched a team to capture the village before the priests could escape with the sacred items.”
    They picked up their packs, shuffled through the brush, and filled their jugs from the cenote. William stripped down to his loin cloth and slipped into the water to get refreshed. “There must be a lot of warriors there… to overthrow Bacalar,” he said as he climbed out of the lake.
    Priest Quisac shook his head. “Bacalar is no longer the powerful nation it once was. Only the brothers of the Solar Cult remain. The strength of our people-the Itzae-now resides in Chichen Itza.”
    “What are we going to do?”
    “We must learn what happened to the priests in Bacalar. However, our priority is to retrieve the sacred items.”
    William pulled on his headdress and sandals, and wrapped a short leathery cape over his shoulders. “There are only two of us, Priest Quisac. Are the sacred items that important?”
    “Yes, they are items of power from another world. If we succeed in our mission, I shall show them to you.”
    They marched north for a long while, following the trail that wound its way close to the shores of Bacalar lagoon.
    “You said your people are the Itzae?” William asked, making conversation as they walked. “They moved to Chichen Itza?”
    “That is correct.”
    “Where did your people first come from?” he asked, still wondering why Priest Quisac’s features were somewhat different than the other Mayans.
    The Serpent Priest gazed into the sky. “It is said that the Itzaes came from the stars more than ten thousand tuns before.”
    “Wow!” William said, with a bit of a laugh in his response, not sure if he could believe that. “I thought you’d say that your people came from somewhere like Guatemala or Peru… but from the stars? Seriously?”
    “Our ancestors copulated with the inhabitants of this land and became who we are today. Yet in our essence, the Itzaes carry the seed of our ancient ancestors-our brothers from the stars.”
    “Okay, whatever,” William muttered. It wasn’t an important topic at the moment, so he brushed it off.
    Priest Quisac moved off the trail, heading toward a cluster of thatched huts. “Thousands once lived in these lands. Their homes can be found throughout the region-long abandoned and crumbling.” They entered one of the dilapidated huts. “Let us wait here until dark, so that our arrival goes unnoticed.”
    William sat on the floor and leaned against a support beam. While munching on a dried tortilla from his pack, he rested his eyes for a moment. It felt so nice to relax that he decided to take a short nap, and fell asleep with the food still in his lap.
    “That smells delicious, Mom,” William said, waiting in a dining room in his dream. “What is it?”
    “It’s something very special. Are you hungry?” his mother asked in her caring way.
    “I’m starving! Is it chicken… or steak?”
    “No.” She carried a covered platter from the kitchen and set it on the table. “How delicious… how delectable… how tasty… hee-hee-hee,” she said, laughing in the voice of the demon, Yum Cimil. She jerked the lid off the platter to reveal the cooked head of a man staring back at him. It was his dad!
    William screamed, leaping out from his chair.
    “William,” his dad’s head spoke from the platter, “you must let me go.”
    William backed away from the table in terror.
    His mom ripped an ear off his dad’s cooked head with a cracking sound, like pulling a wing off a roasted chicken. She popped it in her mouth, chewed up the crunchy ear, and licked her lips with her long black tongue.
    William couldn’t move-he felt paralyzed.
    His mom wiped her mouth with a napkin. “Please forgive me, Jupiter. Where are my manners? Dreadful… horrible… ghastly,” she said in the voice of the demon. She stuck a fork into his dad’s eyeball and plucked it out with a pop. The eyeball’s juices dripped off the end of her fork as she crept toward William, holding it out to him. “You must try some, Jupiter. Or should I say… Balam!” Black goop oozed out her nostrils and the corners of her mouth.
    “No! I don’t want to!”
    “Balam,” he heard Priest Quisac’s voice in his head, and he fought to break his paralysis. His mom approached closer, waving the eyeball before him, laughing with the demon’s laugh, and staring at him with black sunken eyes. “Wake up, Balam,” he heard the Serpent Priest again.
    William opened his eyes and struggled away from Priest Quisac, thinking he was the demon at first. After gathering his senses and catching his breath, he sat up and told the Serpent Priest about his frightening dream. He paused, sniffing the air. “That’s the same smell from my dream.”
    “They are roasting the wild boar in Bacalar,” Priest Quisac said. “Although Yum Cimil cannot harm you here, he may find his way into your dreams. This is his manner of communication. He pleads for you to break the curse of the soil plague that has him bound-to remove the head of King Aztuk.”
    They gathered their things and continued down the trail, with the moon lighting their way. A short time later, Priest Quisac stopped and pointed at the glow from a campfire in the distance. “Their camp is in the clearing by the lagoon.”
    William’s stomach growled from the delicious smell of the roasting boar. But he detected another foul odor drifting in the wind, as well. “What’s that… other smell?”
    Priest Quisac cringed. “It is the smell of death.”

Chapter Ten

    William and Priest Quisac crept along the sandy shores of Bacalar lagoon, following the strong scent of decay. They stopped behind a hut on the outskirts of the enemy camp. The Serpent Priest peeked around the corner and gazed at the huge bonfire blazing into the sky, where a boar was roasting in the flames. He leaned toward William and said, “There are perhaps thirty warriors feasting near the fire.”
    “How can they eat with this stench?” William asked.
    “They are up wind of it,” Priest Quisac said. “In fact, I believe the odor is coming from this very hut. Come.” He crept along the side of the hut and went through the doorway.
    William followed him in, covering his mouth to shield the pungent smell. He couldn’t see well at first and tripped over something, landing in a pile of rotting corpses. The clammy flesh stuck against his skin, and he recoiled from the smell of the decaying carcasses. A nasty fart blasted out from one of the bodies beneath him, and a putrid stink enveloped him-like an overused outhouse ripe for a good cleaning. When he scrambled to break free, he jostled the pile of bodies and a stiff carcass rolled down, landing on top of him-seeming to stare at him with a ghoulish face. The skin felt squishy, like it was melting off the bone. Priest Quisac snatched William’s wrist and hauled him out of the pile.
    William stood there with a disgusted expression for a moment, gawking at the grisly scene of butchered men piled like stacks of meat. He stumbled back outside, went behind the hut, and threw up.
    The Serpent Priest came to William’s side. “By the condition of the dead, this occurred several days ago,” he said. Priest Quisac returned his attention to the Calakmul warriors at the camp, studying their behavior as they passed a jug between them.
    “But what can we do?” William asked. “There are too many of them.”
    “Luck is with us, for they drink of the wild agave, clouding their minds.”
    “You mean they’re drunk?”
    Priest Quisac thought for a moment. “I believe you understand correctly. Soon they will sleep, and then we will free the remaining priests.”
    Crouching low, they hustled over to another hut closer to the camp, and they waited for the warriors to become more intoxicated. They kept watch for a long time as the warriors danced around the fire-chanting, drinking, and gorging on chunks of the cooked boar. A stocky warrior stood and threw his bone into the fire, causing a puff of sparks to ascend, grabbing everyone’s attention. He swayed back and forth as he spoke.
    “What is he saying?” William asked.
    “He plans to bring out a captive for questioning.”
    Two warriors left the group and staggered over to a hut near the lagoon, dragging out an elderly man wearing only a loincloth; his hands were tied behind his back.
    “It’s Priest Hexel,” the Serpent Priest whispered in a worried voice.
    The warriors shoved the captive to the ground, yanked him up by his hair, and then tied him to a tree near the bonfire. The drunken leader staggered up to the prisoner. He grabbed Priest Hexel’s face and shouted at him.
    “He demands to know the location of the sacred items,” Priest Quisac whispered. “The priest will not reveal this… they will kill him.” He pulled an obsidian dagger from his belt and handed it to William. “While their attention is on Priest Hexel, take this dagger and go to the hut where the other captives are being held. Cut them free. Tell them who you are-that you are here with me.”
    Priest Quisac’s eyes darted as he surveyed the area. “Their weapons are by the rocks-near the water. Lead the priests there and await my command.”
    William nodded and tiptoed over to the hut of the captives, hiding behind it. He peeked back at the campfire and noticed the warriors gathering around the tree that Priest Hexel was tied to. The leader picked up a spear and threw it at the priest. Losing his balance in the process, the leader fell to the ground, and the spear sailed through the air, not even hitting the tree. All the warriors laughed at him.
    William went up the steps of the platform and snuck inside the hut, hearing gasps from the old men. “I am Balam of Dzibanche… sent by Priest Quisac. We’re here to rescue you,” he said, articulating his words as clearly as he could in Yucatec-Maya, figuring that their old ears would have a hard time grasping his accent. The bloodstone glowed as he spoke, illuminating the room in a slight shade of red. He hoped the Calakmul warriors wouldn’t notice the light emanating from the hut, and he attempted to shield its glow by cupping his hand over it.
    “You are the Balam… sent by the gods?” a frail-looking priest asked, gawking at William with big eyes.
    “Sure, whatever… Just do as I say if you want to live,” William urged. He explained the plan as he cut them loose. William was concerned that the four priests looked much older than Priest Quisac, and he wondered if they would be able to fight.
    After retrieving spears and maquahuitl swords, William and the priests crouched down, waiting for Priest Quisac’s command. The anticipation of the coming battle was nerve-racking. William took a deep breath, knowing that in just a few moments he would be fighting to the death.
    The rowdy group of Calakmul warriors grew impatient, and they moved in several steps nearer to their target. The leader stepped forward with another spear in his hands. William heard him say that he couldn’t miss from such a close range. The drunken leader steadied his aim and leaned back to throw, when a fluttering sound, followed by a thud, drew his attention to an obsidian dart wedged between his ribs. The leader staggered with a look of anguish before falling to the ground.
    “Attack!” Priest Quisac hollered. He launched a second dart, impaling another Calakmul warrior in the neck. The warrior pulled the dart out, and his blood sprayed everywhere, splattering on his comrades as he fell over.
    The warriors rushed around in a panic, grabbing any weapons they could find, and they stampeded toward Priest Quisac. The Serpent Priest readied himself for close battle, gripping a sharp dart in one hand and his atlatl in the other.
    As the Calakmul warriors charged Priest Quisac, William and the four priests raced in. To buy them time to catch up, William rushed up an embankment, held the bloodstone with a tight grip, and yelled as loud as he could, blasting his voice even further with the power of the bloodstone, “Over here!”
    The Calakmul warriors spun around with startled looks when they saw William standing above them; his face was lit up like the devil from the red glow of the bloodstone. Their hesitation provided the priests with just enough time to reach them, killing half of the confused men in a quick blur of activity-stabbing them with spears, and smashing their heads with maquahuitl swords. Priest Quisac also moved in, slashing his atlatl from one warrior to the next.
    One of the Calakmul warriors rushed at Priest Hexel-still tied to the tree-with his club held high, ready to bash the priest’s head in. William saw this and dashed to the priest’s aid, gripping his spear with both hands, holding it ahead of him to block the warrior’s advance. Their paths intersected at the same instant in front of the tree, and their combined momentum caused William’s spear to pierce clean through the man’s thigh.
    The warrior lunged forward, wildly swinging his club, but William kept his distance by holding him off with the spear in his leg. The warrior’s blood splattered against William’s chest, and it dripped over bloodstone; the gem began to burn. A burst of crimson light blazed from the bloodstone, illuminating the area around the tree like he had just switched on a flood lamp. William felt an intense thirst come over him. He trembled as the warrior’s blood raced up the spear, along his arms, and went right into the burning stone on his chest. He wanted to drop the spear, but he couldn’t let go. It was both a horrible and exhilarating experience at the same time. The warrior turned pale, let loose an agonizing squeal, and fell over like a dried out tree.
    The bloodstone issued another intense flash before fading back to its usual dim glow. William released his grip from the spear and backed away with a feeling of revulsion.
    Priest Hexel shuttered as William approached; he was clearly freaked out by what he had just witnessed.
    “It’s okay, I’m a friend,” William said, as he cut the priest loose.
    Priest Hexel thanked William and then joined Priest Quisac by the campfire. A look of satisfied revenge had settled in the Serpent Priest’s silver eyes; they flickered from the light of the fire blazing before him. He nodded to William, seeming to understand the bizarre event that occurred with the bloodstone.
    William gazed across the battle scene. The fortunate Calakmul warriors were already dead, for those still squirming with their bloody injuries were finished off by the priests with a final stab, slit to the neck, or heavy bash over the head. It seemed barbaric to William as he watched how the priests wrapped things up.
    A tremendous fire reached high above the tree line as huts near the shore of the lagoon were set ablaze. It had been a gruesome task that morning to separate the dead into smaller groups to be burned-dragging the decayed stinking bodies from one place to another, with swarms of flies following them.
    The Serpent Priest noticed William’s disturbed look. “This is not a pleasant task for any of us,” he said, “but the dead must be sent properly on their way.” He jerked an obsidian dart out of a dead warrior before leaving the hut. “They don’t need my darts where they’re going.”
    They packed the hut with palm leaves, said some prayers, and ignited it. To avoid the stench of the burning bodies, they moved further up the shores of the lagoon, watching the black smoke ascend high into the air, merging with the clouds above.
    That afternoon, William spent a long time in the lagoon, scrubbing his body with sand to get the smell of death off his skin. He kept thinking about how the bloodstone killed the Calakmul warrior by removing his blood-like a wet vac cleaning up a heavy water spill. The Serpent Priest had explained that the bloodstone reacted defensively to protect him from the danger it sensed.
    He held up his necklace and gazed into the red gem. During the general assembly, the Serpent Priest had said that it was his job to drain the blood from the King of Calakmul, because he carried the bloodstone. At the time, he swore he would never do something that awful. Yet thinking back to the night before, he realized that he did exactly that; he had drained the blood from that warrior with the bloodstone. William sighed, understanding what Priest Quisac had meant, and why the task was his burden. William wondered what other powers the bloodstone had, and what its original purpose was. He released the gem and let it drop beneath the water, deciding to not worry about it for the moment; he would ask Priest Quisac about the bloodstone when they had more time.
    William swam back to the shore when he saw the Serpent Priest approaching. “Are the other priests coming with us?” William asked, staring at the five old men.
    “No, they must go to Chichen Itza, to warn the Itzaes.”
    William recalled a fond memory of a trip he had taken with his mom and dad when he was only seven. “Chichen Itza must be amazing to see now… in this time,” he said. “The Castle of Kukulcan is sure incredible, isn’t it?”
    Priest Quisac responded with a blank stare.
    “You know, the temple built over the top of the older temple… in the middle of the city?”
    “The temple in the center courtyard of Chichen Itza has not been… built over.”
    It occurred to William that the famous Castle of Kukulcan had not been built yet. While contemplating that notion, he sat on a boulder near the water and gazed at his shadow; seeing it reminded him of another special feature of that pyramid. “When they get around to building it, they position the temple in such a way that on the day of the equinox the sun makes a shadow that looks like a snake slithering down the steps.”
    “Such a design would be for an important reason, but I do not know what that reason is… or will be. Perhaps the Castle of Kukulcan holds a purpose beyond our people today, and it will be built for the people in your time.” He sat beside William and swung the pack off his shoulder, setting it on the ground in front of him. “Concerning things made in other times… as promised, I will show you the sacred items.” Priest Quisac reached into the pack and retrieved a golden tube. He twisted one end of the tube, causing a bright light to shine.
    “It’s… a flashlight,” William said, unimpressed, expecting something much more magical.
    “The light has never dimmed.”
    “Well, that’s a good thing… hard to find batteries around here, I’d imagine.”
    The Serpent Priest put the flashlight back, and he stood as he pulled out an object that looked like a metal Frisbee with a handle and buttons on top. He pointed at the large rock William was sitting on. “Try to lift that stone.”
    William laughed. “You know I can’t.”
    “Try.”
    William bent over and strained his muscles, but he couldn’t budge the heavy boulder. The Serpent Priest placed the disk on the rock and pressed a few buttons; tiny metal spikes poked out from the bottom of the disk, making contact with the rock. He pressed another button, and a high-pitched humming noise became audible. Sparks traveled up and down the metal spikes against the rock. “Now try to lift it.”
    William picked up the boulder as though it was made of Styrofoam. He waved it around, feeling like he had superpowers. “That’s incredible!”
    “As you can imagine, this would be a useful item for construction purposes,” Priest Quisac said. William set the stone down. “It has another use that I shall demonstrate.” He gripped the handle and pressed a button; the disk pulled him over the top of boulder. Priest Quisac deactivated the device before it launched him over the side. “I suppose that feature could assist in climbing a great mountain.” He glanced at the lagoon. “It can also propel you through the water.” He put the disk back in his pack.
    “This last item is the most powerful,” he said, holding the handles of a metallic object with three crystal spikes jutting out. He pressed some buttons, causing the object to hum as he aimed it at the lagoon. A bolt of lightning shot out from the device, followed by a loud thunderclap that rocked the ground, drawing the attention of the other priests nearby.
    William jumped. “Awesome!” he said, transfixed by the weapon. “It’s like a laser gun. Is this what King Aztuk wanted to steal?”
    “Yes,” the Serpent Priest said. “Imagine the damage such a weapon could inflict if in the wrong hands.”
    “With this weapon, couldn’t we easily defeat Calakmul?” William asked.
    “We will indeed use this sacred weapon against their advancing army. It will kill many with each blast. However, it is only good for two such blasts, and then it must remain in the sun for a full day to regain its power.”
    The Serpent Priest glanced up at the sun. “We must make use of the remaining light to travel to the Sacred Cavern of Jade. I will take you through the tunnels to show you the cavern with the underground cenote so you can determine if it is the same passage that brought you here.”
    Priest Quisac said his farewells to the others. He appeared to be fighting back his emotions, as did the other priests when they parted. “Ensure that the mission of the Solar Cult does not end here in Bacalar, my brothers,” Priest Quisac said, with a bow.
    They all bowed in response.
    The Serpent Priest turned away from the lands that he had known since he was a child, and he did not look back, as he and William began their journey to the Sacred Cavern of Jade.

Chapter Eleven

    Hiking back the way they had come before, William and Priest Quisac followed the trail south along the shores of Bacalar lagoon, stopping to fill their jugs at the Cenote Azul before continuing on. Rather than veering east into the hills toward Dzibanche, the Serpent Priest maneuvered through a dense section of jungle without any trails to guide them.
    “Isn’t there a better path to the Sacred Cavern?” William asked, after being whipped in the face by a leafy branch.
    “The jungle conceals its location from those outside the Solar Cult.”
    “Then how does King Aztuk know about it?”
    The Serpent Priest retrieved his atlatl and hacked through a thick section of brush that blocked their way, slicing off foliage from a bushy coffee tree. He reached down and picked up a branch, examining the red beans that dangled in tight clusters. “Before becoming the King of Calakmul, Prince Aztuk was once a student of the Solar Cult.” He plucked a bad bean off the branch and tossed it aside. “We banished him due to his behavior-his thirst for power. It is also unfortunate that he met Yax’s uncle then. It is when they began their alliance, and their plans to overthrow the ruling family of Dzibanche.” Priest Quisac stuffed the branch of coffee beans into his pack and continued on.
    They trudged through a muddy section of the jungle for a while. Combined with the advancing darkness, William lost his footing a couple times along the slippery ground. The Serpent Priest stopped and pointed to a rocky knoll covered in vegetation, just beyond a swampy wetland stretch ahead of them. With a grand announcement, he said, “There lies the Sacred Cavern of Jade.”
    William squinted, staring at the small bump in the ground that rose perhaps twenty feet above the steady contour of the land, wondering if he was looking in the right direction. “You mean that hill? That’s it?”
    “Yes, that is it,” the Serpent Priest said, confirming.
    “I thought it would be much bigger.”
    “It is merely the entrance. Come.” Priest Quisac plodded forward through the mucky swamp.
    “Where is the entrance?” William asked, unable to see any visible openings on the hill as he splashed through the wet marsh. Their progress slowed due to the water that rose to their knees at one point. He grimaced at the feeling of the silt squishing through his toes, while keeping an eye out for any creepy critters that might be lurking just under the surface.
    “It is on the other side, near the top.”
    Just as dusk settled in, they broke free from the swamp, back onto solid ground, and arrived at the obscure little hill hidden in the overgrowth of the jungle. Ferns, short shrubs, and flowering vines blanketed the hill. Agave plants grew throughout; their thick pointy leaves formed clusters of bluish balls that looked like ornaments from the distance.
    After following Priest Quisac to the other side of the hill, William watched him climb up the embankment using the vines for support. William tried to follow his lead, but he slipped on the way up, swearing under his breath when he scraped his knees on the rocks. Once situated at the top, he spotted a shadowy area amidst the vegetation. Priest Quisac cut away the brush that he said had grown over the entrance since his last visit there. “Based on the growth, I would guess it has been several years since anyone has been here,” he said.
    Mesmerized by the shape of the opening, William moved in closer to get a better view. “Did your people carve it like that?”
    “Like what?” he asked, hacking off the last few vines with his dagger.
    “The entrance is completely round,” William said. “The edges are so smooth.” He ran his hand along the curve of the five-foot diameter opening. Instead of a rocky texture that he would have expected for the entrance to the cave, it felt more like the slick surface of a Teflon frying pan.
    Priest Quisac shrugged. “It has always been as such.” He retrieved the sacred flashlight from his pack, casting its beam inside, lighting up the green mossy walls of the cavern’s interior. William peeked in. “The initial descent is steep,” the Serpent Priest said. He beamed the light further into the tunnel; it went down at a forty degree angle into the darkness below.
    “Maybe we should wait until the morning,” William said, feeling a little uncomfortable about exploring creepy caves at night.
    “We will make camp in the caverns.”
    “Down there?”
    “It opens up below,” Priest Quisac said. He fished around with his free hand and grabbed a rope just inside the entrance, pulling it up from the moss that had grown over it. A haze of dust and pollen filled the tunnel as though he had just dumped out a vacuum cleaner bag. “Use the rope to steady your descent.” He positioned the flashlight in his belt, aiming it upwards to illuminate the tunnel, and then climbed through the entrance, shuffling his way down.
    William followed the Serpent Priest, descending hand over hand along the guide rope; he assumed the Itzae had put it there decades before, and he hoped it was still sturdy. While maneuvering his way down, the sounds of their footsteps and labored breathing echoed through the tunnel. Although the walls were covered in a thick layer of sediment and plant growth, he could also sense an artificial quality to the tunnel that gave the echoes a metallic tone. “I can’t believe how smooth these walls are. Surely, someone built this tunnel, Priest Quisaahhh!” William slipped and slammed hard onto his side, clinging to the rope with just one hand. His pack slipped off his shoulder and slid down the ramp. The Serpent Priest snatched it up as it passed by him.
    “Be careful. There are some slick spots,” Priest Quisac said, flinging William’s pack over his shoulder and continuing on.
    “Yeah, thanks for the warning.” While pulling himself up, William noticed that he had fallen on an area free of the dirt and mossy vegetation that covered most of the tunnel. He rubbed his fingers against it, detecting the same metallic texture as with the entrance.
    Upon reaching the bottom, the slope leveled out beneath William’s feet. He dropped the rope and turned. Standing frozen with big eyes and his jaw hanging open, he gazed into the enormous cavern ahead of him. The chamber was the size of a basketball stadium. However, unlike most caverns, there were dozens of triangular green stones embedded in the walls.
    “The Sacred Cavern of Jade,” Priest Quisac said, his arms outstretched; the sacred flashlight cast its beam of light at the ceiling high above, where moss-covered formations hung down, and long black vines dangled throughout.
    Shifting his attention to the cavern wall beside him, William gazed across the long line of triangular jade stones. Each appeared to be the same size, and they were precisely spaced apart, like they had been attached to the wall. “Who built this place?”
    The Serpent Priest smiled. “As our people have built above the land, other civilizations have built below.”
    “Did your people put those jade stones there, and sculpt them like that?”
    “They have always been there, just as they are now,” Priest Quisac said. He aimed the beam of light toward an arched doorway at the other end of the cavern. “That is the entrance to the tunnels that lead to the cavern of the cenote. It is not far. Allow me to show you so that you can determine if it is the same place where you and Bati discovered the Serpent Passage.”
    He followed Priest Quisac down a long corridor-that seemed more like a big tube-and through a maze of other connecting passages. The uneven floor made him feel off balance. Along the way, the path leveled off, and it dawned on William that the passage had taken on a typical rocky appearance. A mild stream trickled beneath their feet.
    “The ground is wet here. You must watch your footing during the remainder of this trail,” Priest Quisac said.
    While continuing along, Priest Quisac bounced the beam of his flashlight off the walls to light the way, and William noticed the same kind of florescent algae that he recalled seeing before on his ride down the underground river, beneath the Cenote Azul. The rugged tunnel opened up into another large chamber before connecting with another stretch of rounded tubes. The tubes joined up with rough passages again, and William began to wonder why some sections of the tunnels were built so much better than others.
    A steady splashing noise grew louder as they neared the end of the tunnel. They stopped along a ledge that overlooked a cavern. The stream ran over the ledge, pouring into the cenote below with the meager velocity of a garden hose filling a swimming pool.
    Priest Quisac pointed the light into the cavern. “Does this resemble the underground cenote from your journey?”
    William borrowed the flashlight and shot the beam all about the cavern; goose bumps surfaced on his arms. “It’s the same,” he muttered. “I never thought I’d see this place again.”
    “The Serpent Passage is beneath the cenote?” Priest Quisac asked, pointing below.
    “I think so,” William said, with a hint of confusion, remembering the waterfall he had gone over before. He looked at water moving beneath his feet, and shifted his gaze below.
    “If you are not sure, we can climb down to investigate.” Priest Quisac pointed at the guide ropes tied along the rocks.
    William tapped his sandal in the water. “A thousand years from now, I think this little stream becomes that underground river I went down. It connects all the way to the Cenote Azul-it’s what pulled me in. In my time, this entrance here becomes the waterfall that I went over.” He aimed the light into the lake below, scanning across the rocky shores; he was relieved to not see all the skeletons that were there in his time.
    Priest Quisac nodded. “Then it is indeed the cavern of the Serpent Passage.”
    William felt confused about the whole thing. “Why would they build a time portal under water? And why does it only work on the solstice days?”
    Priest Quisac gazed at the underground cenote as he considered William’s question. “The solstices are an important time. They mark the beginning and end of our solar cycles. In the Sacred Cavern, the jade stones awake on the days of the solstice-the gems ignite with a fire burning inside. Clearly, the Serpent Passage is set to the same timing.”
    As Priest Quisac spoke, William thought about the timing requirements of playing online games with his friends. “Maybe it has to be turned on at both ends to make the connection… to open a port between the two times. So they set it up on a solar timing system because… well, it’s not like you can just text your buddy, and tell him to turn on his PlayStation.”
    The Serpent Priest stared at William with a confused face for a moment, and then snatched the flashlight from his hands. “In any regard, the passage now sleeps, and so must we.” He turned and headed back up the tunnel.
    While following the Serpent Priest, William thought about what he had just learned, and he contemplated how it could help him to return home. “All I have to do is come back here on the day of the winter solstice and go through the Serpent Passage again… right?”
    “It appears so,” Priest Quisac said. “Yet how would you travel through a passage that is beneath the water?”
    “Oh, right, I forgot about that detail,” William said with a huff. He wondered if there might still be some air remaining in his tank… that’s if he could even find it. Just a few breaths might be enough to get him through. But then William shook his head when he recalled how the crocodiles were chewing on his gear; the air would have surely drizzled out through the broken hoses.
    When they arrived back at the chamber with the strange jade stones, Priest Quisac gathered a handful of branches from a pile and started a campfire by using a striking stone to cast a spark onto some dried moss until it lit. As the fire crackled and popped, he added larger branches until a cozy blaze began to warm the cavern.
    While staring at the sparkling lights that reflected off the jade stones, William moved in closer to get a better view; they looked like the same triangular lights that he saw when he traveled through the Serpent Passage. “I don’t think this is actually jade.” He rubbed his hand against the glassy texture on one of the green rocks, and the bloodstone grew warmer on his chest. The green surface shimmered in a myriad of colors along the spot he touched. He heard a high-pitched squeaky noise, and it felt like his ears popped.
    Mesmerized by the green stone before him, he could not pull away. His hand felt glued to the jade, and he couldn’t break his stare. His heart raced, and his body shook. William sensed his consciousness being sucked away from him, reminding him of the Binding Ritual with the ceiba tree. He heard an explosion, and his vision shifted. Tall lizard creatures rushed about in a panic, amidst a blazing hot fire. A shrill noise-like a jet engine-blasted through his mind. The sensation of falling overwhelmed William. He felt himself being slammed against the ground, sliding and flipping. He saw the strange lizard creatures tumbling all around him.
    William shuttered as he came to, still gazing into the sparkling jade stone; his wrist was held in Priest Quisac’s strong grip away from its surface.
    The Serpent Priest regarded William with a grin, contemplating the vision that he also shared. “It is said that the feathered serpents came in a boat of fire from the heavens, settling on our lands long before Man.”
    William rubbed the back of his neck, feeling the start of a headache. “Priest Quisac, this isn’t a cavern, is it?” he asked, pointing at the green stones with a look of revelation. “This is a crashed spaceship!”
    Priest Quisac let loose a rare smile. “Yes, it is.”
    “You knew this all along?”
    “Many in the Solar Cult have had similar visions here. The power emanating from this chamber allows one to see the images trapped inside the jade. Combined with the properties of the bloodstone, your vision took over and it became difficult to control. I suggest you remove the bloodstone and keep it in your pack until we leave.”
    William pulled off his necklace and shoved it deep inside his bag. “Why didn’t you tell me the truth about this place before? And why do you tell everyone that it’s just a cavern of jade?”
    Priest Quisac shrugged. “It would be difficult for most to comprehend. We do not have other words to describe this green stone. It resembles our most precious stone-jade. You had to see for yourself, for this is your journey, and you must make your own conclusions.”
    William studied the ceiling for a moment, realizing that the odd formations were actually stations of the ship, now covered by hardened sediment. The black vines hanging about were likely wires of some sort. He thought back to their hike to the underground cenote-how the metallic tubes were connected to rough passages-and he deduced that sections of the ship had broken off in different areas, and tunnels had been made to connect the remnants of the ship back together. “So the Serpent Passage is actually part of this spaceship. But why would it have a… time travel tunnel?”
    “As I did not know it existed before, I cannot answer your question.”
    William sat beside the fire, enjoying its warmth. The flames provided a welcome relief from the chilly underground caverns, especially after stomping through the wet tunnels earlier. He realized that he may never know for sure why the Serpent Passage was built-or retrofitted from the spaceship-or why it was in sync with the solstices. It had been there for thousands of years, so knowing the purpose didn’t really matter. It was there… and that was that.
    While heating up a piece of leftover boar meat over the fire, a pleasant sleepy sensation drifted over him. He remembered camping trips with his mom and dad, which triggered a twinge of despair as he became aware, again, of the sadness he must have caused his mom for disappearing. But he wondered if his assessment was really true. “If I manage to get back to my own time,” William asked, “do you suppose that any time would have elapsed while I was gone? Or would I arrive at the same moment that I left?”
    Priest Quisac considered his question, while laying out his sleeping mat. “Time is relative to the position of the sun and the stars.”
    “Meaning what exactly?”
    “If you were to leave here on the winter solstice, you would likely arrive on the winter solstice in your time, as well.”
    William felt disappointed by that concept. “That means every day that passes for me here, is a day that passes for my family too.”
    “Time is not passing for them now. But the time will pass for them when their future arrives, whether you return or not.”
    William found some degree of comfort realizing that his family wasn’t worrying in that very moment, since they weren’t even alive yet. It was also reassuring to know that there was a possible way for him to get back home… if he wanted to. Yet thinking of Teshna definitely put another kink into that debate.
    He let out a big yawn and decided to put thoughts of returning home out of his mind for the moment. The winter solstice was still months away, and he had to concentrate on completing his obligation to Dzibanche. If they didn’t stop King Aztuk, he wouldn’t live long enough to have any options whatsoever. All he knew for certain was that he had the next few months to live before the coming battle… and so he might as well enjoy himself. As he began to slip off to sleep, he pictured Teshna and imagined, in vivid detail, how he wanted to spend his time over the months ahead.

Chapter Twelve

    Though exhausted after the journey from Bacalar, William was revitalized by the warm greeting he and Priest Quisac received upon their arrival in Dzibanche. Seashell trumpets bellowed and a crowd of cheering citizens followed them the final distance to the King’s palace. Upon entering the courtyard, William felt the bloodstone heating up on his chest, and he sensed happiness emanating from the great ceiba tree, like it was glad to see him.
    His attention locked onto Teshna, and his heart skipped a beat. She stood beneath the tree looking like a beautiful exotic fruit hanging from its limb. The Princess seemed frozen for a moment when their eyes met. She was breathing hard, as though she had just run there from a distance away.
    “Balam!” she said with a burst of joy, racing up to him.
    “I’ve missed you,” William said with a loving smile as they embraced, unable to hide his feelings for her. He held her in his arms, enjoying the warmth of her body against him, feeling the soft curves of her hips beneath her huipil blouse.
    “I was so worried,” she said, holding him tight.
    Scattered giggles came from girls in the courtyard, tickled by their show of emotion. Priest Quisac cleared his throat to get their attention.
    Teshna blushed when she noticed everyone looking their way, suddenly becoming aware of her lapse of conduct. She tightened her demeanor and took a step back. “I am… pleased… that you have returned safely,” she said.
    “Indeed,” the Serpent Priest said with a smirk.
    “Thanks to Itzamna,” Yax said as he rounded the corner of the northern hallway. He met them near the ceiba tree. “We have been anxious for your return. Tell me, Priest Quisac, do you have the sacred items?”
    “Yes, we have recovered the sacred items of Bacalar,” the Serpent Priest said with a hint of sadness in his voice.
    “What troubles you?” Teshna asked.
    The Serpent Priest moved to a nearby stone bench and sat with a heavy groan. He looked up with troubled eyes, and said, “Bacalar is no more.”
    “What?” Yax asked.
    “Hey, Will,” Betty said, waving as she entered the courtyard. William waved back.
    Yax moved closer to Priest Quisac, looking concerned. “What do you mean that Bacalar is no more?”
    Priest Quisac explained the events in Bacalar, and how the surviving priests went to Chichen Itza. “But our goal to retrieve the sacred items and to warn the Itzaes of the threat in this region has been achieved.”
    Teshna placed her hand on William’s shoulder, looking anxious to ask him something. “Did you achieve your goal as well, Balam?” she asked, staring at him with intense eyes. “Did you find what you were looking for at the Sacred Cavern of Jade?”
    Seashell trumpets blasted from off in the distance, drawing everyone’s attention to the palace entrance. Teshna, on the other hand, didn’t pay attention to the sound. Her eyes remained locked onto William, waiting for him to respond.
    “Yes, I did find some answers… but they only lead to more questions,” William said.
    “What are you talking about?” Betty asked after seeing the serious look on his face.
    “The way back to our time, Betty,” he said. “If we go through the Serpent Passage on the day of the winter solstice, it might send us back.”
    Sounds of people shouting outside drew even more attention, and Yax signaled the palace guards to investigate.
    “You mean go through that tunnel again?” Betty asked. “But it’s under water! And we don’t have your dive gear anymore.”
    “Yeah, I know.” William threw his hands up. “Look, there’s no use worrying about it right now.”
    Teshna tugged on William’s arm, pulling his attention back to her. She gestured for him to translate what he had just told Betty. “It’s possible we could return on the winter solstice,” William said in Yucatec-Maya. “But the solstice is months away, and there’s plenty to focus on right here.” William studied the curves of Teshna’s body as he spoke. When their eyes met again he became serious. “I mean… to focus on the coming battle, of course.”
    “Yes, of course,” she said with a wink.
    William’s attention shifted to the palace entrance as Captain Salmac burst into the courtyard, ordering people out of the way. Guards hurried in behind Salmac, carrying an injured man on a litter, leaving a trail of bloody footprints on the plaster floor as they went. William recognized the man they carried. He was one of the ambassadors from Kohunlich.
    “Ambassador Chen-Uk!” Yax said, rushing to his side as they set the litter down.
    “They found him near Kinichna,” Salmac said.
    A crowd gathered as Yax placed his hand on the dying man’s shoulder, drawing the Ambassador’s fading eyes his way. “What happened to you?” Yax asked.
    “Captured on the trail…” Ambassador Chen-Uk said, coughing up blood, “Others taken to Calakmul…” He lost his breath and died with a frozen gaze into the sky.
    After a moment of silence, Teshna asked, “What does this mean?”
    “It means,” Priest Quisac said, “that they will know we have harvested our crops, and that we are preparing for battle.”
    Yax looked worried. “Do you believe they may change the day of their planned attack, Priest Quisac?”
    “No. King Aztuk plans around the stars. He also knows that we will continue to weaken over time as our supplies are exhausted. It is to his advantage to wait.”
    Chief Etznab plowed through the crowd, his stocky frame knocking people out of his way. “King Stone Frog, this could be used to our advantage. Kohunlich may side with us after seeing what Calakmul did to its ambassador. I say we carry the body back to Kohunlich with a contingent of our nobles and demand help against Calakmul.”
    “We may have little choice but to go,” Priest Quisac said, agreeing with Etznab. “Otherwise, they will think that we harmed their people.”
    Teshna kneeled beside the dead man and shut his eyes. “Surely Calakmul has done this to turn Kohunlich against us.”
    Yax contemplated the matter, while the nobles crammed into the courtyard, along with a fair number of servants and guards. They talked amongst each other about the fallen ambassador, escalating the background noise to the level of a loud restaurant on Friday night.
    “Silence!” Yax demanded, quieting the crowd. He shook his head, looking exasperated. The people backed away, opening a larger space around the King. “Yes, we must return the ambassador to Kohunlich and explain this to King Snarl Tooth.”
    Teshna stepped away from the ambassador with a troubled look. “Even if we bring the body back to Kohunlich, how would we convince them that we did not do this?” she said, pointing at the dead man.
    Yax regarded his sister with confidence. “We must send a convoy with high status, so that King Snarl Tooth will be satisfied that our motives are true. Teshna, you know King Snarl Tooth. Next to me, you hold the highest status. You will lead the team.”
    Teshna froze for a moment, surprised by the unexpected order. Yet she nodded, seeming to agree with the logic of his choice. Yax turned to scan the faces around him, selecting others like he was choosing a team for a pickup game. “Lamat, for you have been our chief trade merchant with Kohunlich, and Subiac, for your prior battle history with their king. One of our ceremonial priests shall also accompany the servants who carry the body.”
    “They will need protection for the journey,” Chief Etznab said.
    “Of course, within reason,” Yax said.
    “I will go,” Captain Salmac said, volunteering with a smug look at William.
    “As will I,” William said, returning a poised stare of his own back at Salmac. He would have gone anyhow, regardless of Salmac’s attempt at showing him up. Most of all, William didn’t want to be separated from Teshna for more days than he already had been.
    A long moment of silence followed beneath the great ceiba tree, with all those gathered reflecting on the difficult challenges ahead. Servants carried the body out while others wiped up the blood. They couldn’t get all the stain up, leaving a mark of the incident on the plaster floor.
    After a lengthy discussion, Yax and Priest Quisac agreed that it would be beneficial for William to go on the trip, hoping that his presence might also help to persuade King Snarl Tooth.
    At sunrise, they began their mission to return the dead ambassador, heading south toward Kohunlich. William would have felt more comfortable with additional guards on the trip, but Teshna explained that a larger group could be misinterpreted. Given the delicate nature of their assignment, they had to be careful to not appear as a hostile force. He had hoped that Priest Quisac would join them; he had become accustomed to his guidance. But the Serpent Priest remained in Dzibanche to assist Yax and the others with the battle plans. Betty also stayed behind; she had to help the weapon-making teams, and she also wanted to learn to use the bow. “I’m not going anywhere until I can protect myself,” she said, before they left.
    In the end, it was a rather small team. Salmac and a couple guards were at the front, followed by Teshna and himself. Subiac and Lamat walked a few paces behind them. Further back, Priest Ik-Tanil escorted the four servants who carried the ambassador’s body on a litter covered with a red embroidered tapestry. Two more guards trailed at the very back.
    William noticed Captain Salmac glancing back; his blue macaw-feathered crocodile jaw headdress cast a shadow over his face, making it hard to see who he was looking at. Salmac turned away the moment William caught his stare. He wondered what Salmac’s problem was… why did the Captain always seem angry with him?
    Around noon, the team veered off the main road and took another path that led to Kinichna-the town that had sent players for the recent ball game. William later learned that Betty had found the real Kinichna ball players in a ditch-murdered on the day of the game. The imposters had taken their uniforms. Had she not snuck off for a swim that day, she would not have found the bodies, or stopped William from drinking the poison at the game.
    While scanning the empty huts and buildings along the way to the ceremonial center, he wondered why the town was so deserted. Teshna explained how the entire population had migrated to Dzibanche for protection.
    They stopped to rest at the base of a tall orange-painted pyramid. William sat beside Teshna, and they munched on some dried fruit, becoming lost in each other’s eyes for a time. William noticed Salmac staring at them again. He hated how awkward he felt around Teshna when the Captain was near. Yet William knew he would need the warrior’s support in the days ahead. He decided he would talk to Salmac, to figure out what was bothering him.
    Priest Ik-Tanil approached, leaving the company of the servants; they remained with the dead ambassador beneath the shade of a zapote tree. With his black and white painted body, the priest looked more like a zebra wearing a funny hat, William thought.
    “The gift that I mentioned for King Snarl Tooth,” Teshna said to the priest, pointing to the side of the pyramid. “It is in the chamber. Please retrieve it.”
    Ik-Tanil nodded and went to look for it.
    Teshna spotted Subiac climbing the long stairway up the pyramid, using his spear as a walking stick. She called out to him, but he didn’t hear her. She huffed and turned to William, looking annoyed. “I’ll be right back.”
    “Sure, okay,” William said, watching Teshna run after Subiac. When he turned back, he saw Salmac leaning against a tree and sipping from his water jug. William figured it was a good time to speak with the Captain.
    “Elder Subiac,” Teshna hollered, getting his attention on the platform along the second level. “Do I have to command you to rest?”
    “Greetings, Princess,” he said. “I believe a storm is approaching.” He pointed his spear at the grey clouds rolling in.
    “Yes, it would appear so. Elder Subiac, you should be resting below. Our time here will not be long. It is important that you make it to Kohunlich. King Snarl Tooth will be pleased to see you.”
    “Yes, I will see my old friend from the kingdom of the Sun god once more,” Subiac said with a serious gaze into the sky. He sighed and regarded Teshna with a melancholy face. “Allow an old man one last view from this magnificent pyramid.” He continued up the steps to the last platform at the top.
    Teshna followed after him, worried that he might fall. “We can come here again… on the way back,” she said, as they reached the top platform.
    Subiac sat on a short stone bench at the top of the temple. He gazed across the horizon, breathing with a raspy breath. “I regret that I will not be making the trip back,” he said matter-of-factly.
    “What do you mean? Of course you will. We will return in a few days.”
    “My time in this world is nearly complete.”
    “If you are not well to travel, then you should have remained behind,” she said, scolding him.
    Subiac shook his head and smiled. “My health is not the issue,” he said. He leaned closer, his war-torn face further exaggerating his intensity. “Last night I had a vivid dream… the masks of Kohunlich awoke and became the Sun god, Kinich Ahau. He warned me to stay away-threatened that if I were to look into his stony eyes once more, it would be my end.”
    Teshna threw her hands up. “Yet you still came?”
    Subiac laughed. “I have faced many challenges in my life. This will merely be my last.”
    Teshna sighed. Without the Serpent Priest available to analyze his dream, she didn’t know what to think. “Your dream could mean many things, Subiac. I wouldn’t worry.”
    Subiac stood abruptly, staring to the south. “Vultures!” he said, and shot a knowing look back to Teshna. “They have found a large feast… many bodies… not far from here.”
    William took a deep breath, slung his pack over his shoulder, and made his way over to Salmac. “Is there something you want to say to me, Captain Salmac?”
    Salmac glared back at him. The other guards took notice of the brooding looks between them, and they moved in closer for a better view. Salmac capped his jug and tossed it to the ground. “I have nothing to say to you.”
    “We need to get along, Salmac, so we can work together.”
    “You know what I think?” Salmac said, staring at William with contempt. “You’ve got everyone fooled… especially the Princess. You look different, and you sound different… but you’re no better than any of us!”
    “I never said I was,” William said, getting angry. The bloodstone started glowing on his chest.
    Salmac pointed at the stone. “If it wasn’t for that bloodstone around your neck you would be as helpless as that dead ambassador over there.”
    William couldn’t believe what a jerk Salmac was. “Hey, I don’t need this bloodstone to prove myself.”
    He heard Teshna hollering something from the pyramid and they both shot their attention her way.
    “Vultures!” Teshna called out, descending the steps with the urgency of a park ranger reporting a forest fire. “Not far from here… just off the trail to the south. Salmac, scout ahead, and we’ll meet you there.”
    Captain Salmac nodded to Teshna and then leaned over to William with a smug grin. “I don’t need a bloodstone either,” he said. “I prove myself every day without one. Can you?” He rushed down the trail, taking one of his men with him.
    “What was that all about?” Teshna asked, noticing William’s annoyed face.
    William threw his headdress to the ground, pulled off the bloodstone necklace, and stuffed it into his pack. “I’m going too,” he said, and handed his pack to Teshna. He took off in a sprint after Salmac.
    Teshna called out to him as he ran down the trail, “Balam, what’s wrong?”
    A light rain began to fall as William hustled down the path for several minutes, trailing behind Salmac and the guard like he was trying to catch up at a track event. He saw them slow to a stop, with frozen stares to the side of the road. By the time he reached them, the drizzle had become a heavy rain, drenching them as they gawked at the ugly scene below. A dozen slaughtered corpses had been picked apart by vultures. The other guard waved his spear at the birds, trying to scare them off.
    “What happened here,” William asked, taken aback.
    Salmac shrugged. “What do you care?”
    “What do you want from me, Salmac?” William asked.
    “I want you out of my way!” the Captain said and shoved William hard in the chest, knocking him back.
    William slipped from the plaster road and tumbled down the embankment, rolling to a stop near the half-eaten bodies; vultures swarmed over his head. William gathered himself, struggled up to his feet, and wiped the mud off his shoulders. He exchanged a look of disbelief with the other guard.
    Salmac marched down the embankment after him. “Not so tough without the bloodstone, are you?”
    On Salmac’s next step, William heard a snap and noticed something move in his periphery. He shot his attention to his left and saw a spike-filled log swinging on a rope toward Salmac. “Watch out!” William yelled.
    Salmac only had time to glance in the direction of the trap before William lunged forward and tackled him to the ground. The log swung over them both; the spikes whisked past, just inches over them. They stayed low for the log’s backswing and then crawled fast to get out of its way.
    William shook his head with the relief one feels after the near miss of a car crash. Salmac got up and studied the deadly snare swinging back and forth. He approached William, gazing down at him with the usual scowl across his tattoo-covered face. But then he smiled and held out his hand. “I misjudged you,” he said, lifting William up.
    While clasping their hands in a firm grip, William saw Teshna arrive along the trail, out of breath. She stared off the road with a flabbergasted expression-seeming more surprised by the bond between Salmac and himself than all the dead corpses around them.
    “Go on,” Salmac said, motioning for William to go to her.
    He nodded and went back up to the road, while Salmac stayed with the other guard to stop the momentum of the log. Teshna gave William a curious look as he approached. “I’ll tell you later,” he said.
    By the time the rest of the group arrived, Salmac had deduced that the dead people were part of the group that had accompanied the ambassadors from Kohunlich. He found a white feather and showed it to the others.
    “It’s from Honac-Fey’s white owl,” elder Subiac said with certainty. “He was here.”
    “The other ambassadors are not among the dead,” Lamat said. “They have been captured.”
    As the group prepared to leave, Priest Ik-Tanil announced that he would remain behind to tend to the bodies, and to provide proper prayers. He planned to join them later at their evening camp. Before they continued, Salmac ordered one of the guards, Axel, to stay and help the priest.
    They continued on for several hours in a heavy downpour. When the sun finally broke through the clouds, mist arose from the plaster floor, giving the area a surreal atmosphere.
    Salmac stopped, his hand raised in a halting gesture. Out of the mist ahead, a group of thirteen warriors appeared; their bodies were painted with orange and black spots, like jaguars. They stopped in their tracks upon spotting them.
    “Kohunlich warriors,” Subiac whispered.
    “Lamat and I will approach,” Teshna said.
    “I must accompany you,” Salmac said. “It is not safe.”
    William leaned forward with concern. “I agree, Teshna.”
    “We must demonstrate our peaceful intentions. Come, Lamat,” Teshna said, walking toward the Kohunlich warriors. She raised her arms over her head and held her index fingers and thumbs together, forming a triangle. William assumed it was a symbol of good will, for the warriors relaxed in their stance as she approached.
    When they had covered half the distance to the warriors, she stopped and spoke with a strong voice. “I am Princess Teshna of Dzibanche, daughter of the Great Jade Owl, sister to King Stone Frog.” She lowered her hands and bowed. Lamat did the same.
    Two Kohunlich warriors stepped forward from the group, their spears still in hand as they came near. The taller of the two men spoke with a deep voice that carried down the trail. “I am Muluk, leader of this dispatch-sent by King Snarl Tooth. We seek our ambassadors.”
    William couldn’t hear what they were saying from that point on, but figured she was explaining the situation to them. She pointed to the servants holding the litter, and signaled them to come forward. Muluk ordered his men to approach as well.
    As the servants set the litter down before Muluk, a semi-circle of Kohunlich warriors formed behind him. He bent over and pulled the red tapestry down. “It is indeed Ambassador Chen-Uk,” he said, and then gave William a double-take when he and the others moved in closer. All the Kohunlich warriors gawked at him. “I see the stories of the white warrior are true.”
    Teshna motioned to William. “This is Balam… sent by the gods. He makes the journey to help in our task of requesting assistance from your kingdom.”
    William took a step forward, the bloodstone glowing on his chest. “Greetings,” William said with a nod to Muluk. He scanned the faces of the Kohunlich warriors; they each took a step back when he looked their way, like they thought he was casting a spell on them.
    After a short conversation, Muluk agreed to take Teshna and the others to Kohunlich. But due to the circumstances, he said they would have to surrender their weapons and travel as captives, until King Snarl Tooth could determine their fate.
    Teshna believed it would benefit their cause to have a formal escort to Kohunlich. Being the highest ranking noble on the trip, her decision was final. “We will do as you say, captain Muluk.”
    Just before departing, William overheard Muluk order three of his warriors back down the trail to confirm the details of the ambush near Kinichna. He wondered what would happen when they encountered Ik-Tanil and Axel by the dead bodies. Yet Teshna and the others kept quiet about it, and so he did the same, focusing his attention on the trail ahead.
    When darkness settled, they made camp in a clearing. Soon, the delicious aroma of roasted venison wafted through the area as the Kohunlich warriors prepared a meal. William could tell that Lamat enjoyed their new company-or at least the food they had with them. The chubby noble devoured his chunk of meat and licked his fingers clean before settling back to sleep with a content look on his face.
    Teshna reassured William that they weren’t in a typical captive situation. She explained how warriors captured in battle are stripped, bound, and taken for sacrifice. In contrast, they were being treated like political prisoners, as a formality to avoid potential conflicts on the journey to their homeland.
    Later that night, William relaxed beside the fire enjoying how Teshna rested against him, using his side as a pillow, her eyelashes tickling his chest. He noticed her staring at Subiac with a troubled look. “What’s the matter?” he asked her.
    She sat up and told him what Subiac had said atop the temple in Kinichna. “In a dream, the Sun god warned Subiac to stay away-said that if he were to look into his eyes, it would be his end.”
    William shrugged. “Well, it was just a dream,” he said, trying to comfort her. But he recalled his own bizarre nightmare with his dad’s head on a platter, and he knew that the demon, Yum Cimil, had found a way to communicate with him through his sleep. However, he kept that memory to himself, not wanting to worry her.
    The three warriors that had been sent back to investigate the crime scene in Kinichna returned. They approached Muluk; he was eating his meal by the campfire.
    “It is just as they say,” one of the warriors said to Muluk. “They are all dead along the path.”
    “Strangely though,” another warrior said, “the bodies are aligned with their heads to the north.”
    “That hardly sounds like the scene of an ambush,” Muluk said loud enough for everyone to hear. His eyebrows rose when he stared at Teshna. While waiting for her response, he picked at a piece of meat stuck between his teeth.
    “Yes, we did that, Captain,” Teshna said. “We could not carry them all with us, and did not wish to leave them in such a disrespectful position.”
    Muluk glared at her for a time, as if trying to sense any deception. Teshna kept a steady look his way until Muluk turned. Seeming satisfied with her answer, he went back to chewing off the last bits of meat from a bone.
    William wondered why Teshna didn’t say anything about Priest Ik-Tanil and the guard, or why the Kohunlich warriors didn’t find them. But he brushed it off. He was tired from the long day and cuddled up beside Teshna to get some rest.
    After hiking all morning through the thick jungle, William found it refreshing when they passed through a wide open field of tall grass. It was nice to get a break from the somewhat claustrophobic sensation of being beneath a canopy of dense vegetation all the time. A pleasant breeze drifted by, causing waves to roll through the grass. The trail continued through the clearing for about an hour before they returned to the shade of the jungle again. The journey became strenuous as the contour of the land inclined. When they reached the plateau, the kingdom of Kohunlich was visible in the valley below. After a quick break to regain their strength, they continued on.
    When they arrived in town, the late afternoon sun cast long shadows from the citizens who ran through the streets to see them. The Kohunlich warriors controlled the crowd like security guards escorting a rock band to the concert. The growing mob cheered, shook terracotta rattles, and banged drums as they followed the group along. Although William had only seen Kohunlich as ruins before, he recognized many of pyramids that they passed along the way. Tall cohoon palm trees swayed in the breeze, providing a peaceful contrast to the frenzied atmosphere of the townsfolk hustling around them. High atop the hills overlooking the ceremonial centers, William saw the nobles of Kohunlich descending from their residential areas and rushing to their place up front, following them through the vibrant city.
    “The Temple of the Sun,” Subiac said, pointing at the bright red pyramid with orange steps.
    William saw the masks that Kohunlich was famous for; six large stucco masks-three on either side of the stairway-painted blue and yellow.
    When they reached the base of the temple, Teshna leaned to William and said, “The masks represent different incarnations of the Sun god, Kinich Ahau.”
    Following Muluk’s instruction, they kneeled along the right side of the pyramid. William was beside Subiac, Lamat, and Teshna at the front. Salmac and the three royal guards were behind them, with the four servants at the very back of the group. They waited there for a long while, along with the entire city of thousands, forming a sea of bodies in the courtyard. The intense quiet was only interrupted by the ghoulish cries of howler monkeys from the jungle beyond.
    When the sun reached a specific point in its descent, it cast an eerie reflection from the Sun god masks, making the eyes appear to glow. Seashell trumpets bellowed, and William saw King Snarl Tooth standing atop the pyramid. He wore a jaguar mask that covered the upper part of his face. His headdress had a strange combination of quetzal feathers and snakes dried into striking postures. He wore a jaguar-skin cape, bordered with jade beads. A dazzling array of gems glittered from the necklace resting on his plump belly.
    King Snarl Tooth held his hands high as he loomed over the crowd. He made his way down the steps, accompanied by the deafening beat of banging drums, and moved to a throne beneath the Sun god mask on the first level, to the right of the stairway facing them. The drumming ceased the instant the King sat, replaced by a thousand shaking rattles that sounded like the static from a radio turned up full blast. King Snarl Tooth raised his hands again, silencing the rattles. William saw the King studying him through the eyeholes of his jaguar mask. The King let loose a big smile, exposing his sharp teeth that were bent and curved in strange angles. Beneath the jaguar mask like that, his real teeth appeared to be an extension of the jaguar’s actual jaw-like a fat creepy jaguar monster smiling at them.
    “Call for the refreshments that I have requested,” King Snarl Tooth said to a servant in a scratchy voice. He removed the jaguar mask, revealing his wrinkled and tattooed face that resembled an old wild cat. His focus turned to Subiac. “My old friend, it is good to see you.”
    Subiac bowed. “It is my honor to be in your presence, King Snarl Tooth.”
    “Noble Lamat, they say your kingdom has a lack of food these days, and now I can see where it has all gone,” the King said, followed by a hiss of a laugh.
    “The gods have been generous to me,” Lamat said with a nod.
    “Princess Teshna,” the King said, greeting her with a warm smile. “It has been many tuns. You were but a young girl in your father’s shadow then. He would be proud to see the strong and beautiful woman here before me now.”
    “Thank you, King Snarl Tooth. Yes, much time has passed,” she said, and retrieved a small bag from her pack. “I brought you a gift.”
    William had forgotten about the gift that Teshna had asked Priest Ik-Tanil to get while they were in Kinichna, and he was curious to know what it was. A servant brought Teshna’s bag up the steps and handed it to the King. He reached inside and pulled out a reddish blob, popped it into his mouth, and began chewing on it.
    “It’s gum?” William asked Lamat.
    Although he had whispered, William’s movement drew the attention of the King his way. “So this is the Balam… the one spoken of in the stars,” King Snarl Tooth said, and then regarded Teshna with a scolding look. “Why have you brought this one here?” He stood.
    The crowd shook their rattles until the King raised his hand to stop them again.
    Taken aback by the King’s sudden shift in demeanor, Teshna appeared flustered in her response. “He was sent by the gods to help our people. We thought if you could see him for yourself, you would know it to be true, and that our need for your kingdom’s support is sincere.”
    King Snarl Tooth sat back in his throne. He grabbed another chunk of gum, adding it to the already big wad in his mouth. “Please drink,” he said, motioning in an exaggerated sweep of his hand to the cups on the servant’s tray.
    The servant handed William a cup, and then held the tray out to the others. After they started drinking, a priest wearing a cloak and full jaguar mask over his head ascended the pyramid steps, chanting and waving an incense burner. He stopped to pray at each Sun god mask as he went.
    The King watched William with an unnerving smile, while he sipped from his drink. It tasted terrible, William thought, like saltwater. The King blinked twice and shifted his attention back to Teshna. “The immediate matter here is the fate of our ambassadors,” he said. “Stand now, Princess Teshna, and speak of this.”
    Teshna stood and explained everything: William and Betty arriving, the soil plague, the early harvest, and how the ambassadors met their unfortunate end on their journey back to Kohunlich. “We believe that the King of Calakmul did not want our message to reach you.”
    “What message had you intended for the ambassadors to deliver?” the King asked.
    “King Aztuk desires to create a new empire in Bacalar, to use the power of the Sacred Cavern of Jade to dominate the region. We ask for your help-to join us against Calakmul before their kingdom becomes too powerful.”
    King Snarl Tooth leaned back, appearing to consider her story. He shifted his attention to William again, watching his movements as though he was a rare animal at a zoo. William began to feel dizzy.
    “There is no evidence that our ambassadors were killed by Calakmul warriors,” the King said. “I also do not believe that Dzibanche is to blame. Our kingdom will remain neutral. We will not aid you against Calakmul, or turn against you either.”
    The King stood, his arms raised. “It is my judgment,” he said, with his voice carrying into the hills, “that the citizens of Dzibanche are not responsible for the deaths of our people. They are free to return to their kingdom.”
    The hiss of a thousand rattles sounded for a time and then faded out.
    “Thank you, King Snarl Tooth,” Teshna said with a gracious bow, shielding her disappointment that he would not agree to help them against Calakmul.
    The King looked angry all of the sudden. “However, our ambassadors were killed on your land. Therefore, an exchange must be made. Balam is not a citizen of Dzibanche. He will remain here with us… until his fate is determined.”
    The crowd cheered, making a ruckus with their drums and rattles.
    Salmac and his men jumped to their feet, but a number of Kohunlich warriors swept in with long spears corralling the Dzibanche warriors.
    Teshna looked dumbfounded by the turn of events. “Please, King Snarl Tooth, I beg you…”
    William lost focus on what was being said, and he started to hallucinate. The mask behind the King blinked and rolled its eyes, gazing down at him. In fact, all six masks seemed to come alive. They broke free; their long arms reached out of the stones, wriggling their way up from the pyramid that held them. A cascade of rocks tumbled down the steps. The six giant beings moved to the stairway and merged together, morphing one into the other. A furry creature took shape before his eyes. Its tall muscular body twisted and turned, and then it stretched out its long claws with sharp nails.
    “This is messed up,” William said.
    The hairy beast sprang from the second level of the pyramid, landing just before him. William looked to the others for help, but they weren’t there anymore-he could only see the pyramid and the horrible growling monster.
    The strange creature was at least twice William’s size. It crawled closer, moving like a cat, and then stood on its hind legs, glaring at him with squarish eyes that appeared cross-eyed. Its wide nose and protruding jaw with sharp incisors made its face seem like a cross between a jaguar and a man.
    “Balam,” the creature said, “I have been expecting you.”
    “Who are you?”
    “I am the Sun god, Kinich Ahau,” he said, as his name echoed throughout the valley. “Come. There are important decisions to be made before the day’s end.” The Sun god grabbed William’s arm and dragged him up the steps.
    Teshna held William as his body convulsed. Subiac snatched the cup he had been drinking from, sniffed at it and grimaced. He gave Teshna a knowing look.
    “What have you done?” Teshna asked the King, struggling to hold back her tears.
    “Dreadful events have occurred since Balam’s arrival in these lands. As he was sent by the gods, he must now be judged by the Sun god, Kinich Ahau, in our Ritual of Ascension.”
    Teshna wiped the tears from her eyes, watching William slip into a comatose state. “How could you do this?” Teshna asked the King.
    King Snarl Tooth spit his gum out and stared into the sky. The sun sat halfway between midday and dusk. “If Balam does not find his way back before the sun leaves his face, then he will remain with the gods-a worthy sacrifice to restore order.”
    “What if he does find his way back?” Teshna asked.
    “Then he will remain here with us, as our captive for future trade… or sacrifice, if the Sun god demands it.”
    “How could he find his way back?” Subiac asked. “This is not his land, and the ways of the Sun god are unknown to him.”
    The King let loose another hiss of a laugh. “He will not return.”
    “We’ll see about that,” Subiac said, and then he guzzled the remainder of Balam’s tainted drink.
    “Subiac, no!” Teshna said. She shifted Balam into Lamat’s arms and moved beside the old warrior, as he fell to his knees. “How can it help to lose you as well?”
    “Come close,” he whispered. Teshna put her ear to his lips. “I will find Balam… I will help him get back.” He passed out, and his body began convulsing.
    After Teshna set Subiac down, she bolted up and glared at King Snarl Tooth.
    “Careful, Teshna,” Salmac said, gesturing to the heightened readiness of the Kohunlich warriors all around them.
    Teshna let out a heavy sigh. “May we at least carry them up the temple so that their souls enter the heavens with dignity?” she asked, while secretly considering that the sun would remain on their faces longer there, at the highest point in Kohunlich. It would give Subiac more time to complete his quest.
    The King nodded. “Allow them to ascend,” he said, and departed with several guards.
    Teshna and Lamat led the way, with Salmac and his three guards carrying Balam behind them. The four servants lifted Subiac and followed the group up the steps of the pyramid. When they reached the top, they situated Balam and Subiac in alignment with the sun.
    Captain Muluk met them a moment later. “The crowd disperses now,” he said, motioning across the valley. He stared at Balam and Subiac with a sense of pity. “You can be assured that your friends are lost from this world. If you wish to remain, I suggest you leave by sunset. You will not want to be here when their heads are removed at the conclusion of this ritual, when the full darkness of night is upon us.”
    The priest in the jaguar mask made another trip up the steps, distracting them with his chanting. “Only the Jaguar Priest will be allowed to approach, to continue with his ceremonial tasks,” Muluk said. “Otherwise, you will be left alone here until you go.”
    Teshna was so angry that she felt like pushing Muluk down the steps to demonstrate her opinion of their ceremony. But she remained under control and simply nodded in response.
    After Muluk left, Lamat turned to Teshna and asked, “What must we do?”
    Teshna sat beside Balam, cradling his head against her. “We wait,” she said, and focused on the sun’s descent, trying to will it to move slower.

Chapter Thirteen

    William cringed from the pain in his arm as Kinich Ahau yanked him up the steps of the temple, his sharp cat-like nails digging into his skin. At the top of the pyramid, he saw a massive orb of light glowing as bright as the sun. While shielding his eyes from its glare, he tried to pull away, but he could not break free from the Sun god’s vice-like grip.
    He knew he had been drugged and was hallucinating, but the vision seemed so real. William considered the possibility that he had died and was now passing through the light. But if that were the case, he wondered why he would have such a horrible escort to the afterlife? He had never heard of any near-death stories like that before.
    After a blinding flash, William found himself on a boat in the middle of the ocean. The sound of a sputtering compressor drew his attention to a tanned Mexican wearing shorts and flip-flops, refilling scuba tanks. Scanning his surroundings, he could see that he was standing on the upper deck of a commercial dive boat. Several fair-skinned Americans mingled near him, enjoying the orange and red colors in the sky where the sun neared the horizon. William approached a heavy dude with sunburned skin. “Where am I?” he asked, but the man didn’t answer. William assumed he didn’t hear him over the noise of the compressor. He tried to tap his shoulder, but his hand passed right through him, as if he was a ghost.
    Scuba divers emerged from the ocean in small groups, waving to the vessel. One by one, the divers made their way up the boat’s ladder in their shorty wetsuits and began stowing their gear.
    A scream for help caught everyone’s attention from the group of divers that had just surfaced. When the boat neared, it became obvious that one of the divers was unconscious. Another diver in the group hollered to the dive master, “He passed out underwater!”
    When they pulled the unconscious man onto the boat and began giving him CPR, William nearly fell over the railing, staring down at the diver with big eyes. “It’s my dad!” He rushed down the steps to the platform where his father lied. The dive master tried to revive him; he pounded on his chest, counting the strokes as he went, and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in between. “This is the trip where my dad died. Why am I seeing this?” William asked. “This isn’t real!”
    “Oh, but it is, Balam,” Kinich Ahau said, now sitting cross-legged atop the upper deck of the boat like a monstrous version of Buddha in a peaceful yoga pose, with his clawed hands resting on his furry knees. His eyes had a bright orange glow as he gazed down at him with a mischievous smile.
    William lurched back, startled to see the frightening creature there. “You’re making this up just to mess with me! I wasn’t even on this dive trip. How can you know about something that didn’t happen in your time?”
    Kinich Ahau had a long and raspy laugh. He raised his hand, freezing the scene before them with the suddenness of pressing the pause button on a DVR. “As the sun shines upon all who inhabit this world, I have the power to see through the souls connected to me through the Ritual of Ascension. Time is irrelevant to me.”
    “Why are you doing this?”
    “I am the Sun god! Through the power of the sun I illuminate the darkness. There is darkness within you, Balam. It eats at your soul, and it has changed your life’s course forever. It began at this place… and in this time.”
    “What are you talking about? Who are you?”
    The Sun god growled and spoke with a hint of frustration in his voice. “Your people see us as gods. By your standards, perhaps we are. We once traveled the universe, but are now bound to this world on a higher vibration. Beings such as myself have the ability to harness the elements of this world-to effect change on your physical plane by uniting with the energy of the souls that inhabit your world. Our kind may promote growth, or create chaos.” He pointed a sharp claw at William, and the scene continued before him, with the dive master thrusting his weight against his father’s chest.
    “Please stop it,” William said, as he fought back the tears that began to surface.
    “Passing through the Serpent Passage and binding the bloodstone to the soil plague created an imbalance. It has drawn the attention of the feathered serpents to our place in time. They seek to end our influence on this world… they will send the chupacabras for you and the bloodstone. You are to blame for this disruption,” he said. The color of Kinich Ahau’s eyes darkened from orange to red, and he glanced at the sun’s position near the horizon.
    “How can it help for me to see this?” William asked, pointing at his dad.
    “I will give you a chance-a gift-to redeem yourself, and to alter these events.”
    “What? Anything!”
    He leaned toward William. “Remove the bloodstone and place it near your father’s chest. It will draw out the destructive energy that now attacks his heart.”
    William did just what the Sun god advised and held the bloodstone over his dad. A red mist rose from his father’s chest and was absorbed by the stone like a range hood collecting smoke off a frying pan. William held the bloodstone up to the Sun god; it buzzed like an electric razor in his hand and glowed in a pulsating manner-like a beating heart. Yet his dad still didn’t move. “It’s not helping!” William said.
    “To save this one, you must transfer the damaging energy to another. Touch the stone to any other person on this boat. Do it now, before the sun sets.”
    “What?” William asked with a worried laugh, hoping he had misunderstood. But the creepy smile on the Sun god’s face confirmed his fears. He couldn’t believe what he was being asked to do.
    Teshna glared at the sky, watching with dread as the bottom edge of the sun made contact with the horizon. She studied Balam and Subiac, sprawled out on the hard stone floor, their arms and legs twitching like dogs running in their sleep. She tried to detect any change in their health, but couldn’t notice anything different. Teshna covered her face to conceal her sadness.
    Lamat came near, placing his hand on Teshna’s shoulder. “Princess, I would stay and care for them until the very end. You should leave now. Go with Salmac and the others… while it is safe.”
    When Teshna hesitated, Salmac threw his hand up. “Balam will be sacrificed either way-whether he awakes or not,” the Captain said, looking anxious to leave.
    “Yes, I also heard King Snarl Tooth’s declaration,” she snapped. Teshna froze when the Jaguar Priest approached, making another ascension in his jaguar mask and robe, chanting and waving his incense burner on his way up the steps. The Jaguar Priest bowed to Teshna, entered the chamber at the top of the temple, and then returned back down the steps.
    While watching the Jaguar Priest exit around the side of the pyramid, it occurred to her that his next ascension would be at sunset. She would have to ready herself for that painful moment when the light of the sun faded from Balam’s face. Teshna returned to Balam’s side and noticed a glow flickering from the bloodstone, renewing her determination. “As long as they live, there is still hope,” she said to the others. “We will wait until the sun sets.”
    “You now hold a powerful weapon, Balam, that only you can wield,” the Sun god said. “The bloodstone may transfer death from one life to another. Use it now!”
    “If I do this, my dad will live?” William asked, wanting to understand the implications.
    “Yes,” Kinich Ahau said.
    “The person I touch will actually die… right here?” he asked, a little confused. “It will be like my dad never died?”
    “Yes, but you must do it before the darkness comes,” Kinich Ahau said, as the sun began to dip beneath the blue horizon of the ocean.
    While holding the buzzing red stone in his hand, William found himself considering the idea, scanning the faces around him. In a simple touch he could erase all the pain that he and his family had suffered from the loss of his father. He could remove the guilt that he carried for not being there on that dive. Had he been there that day, his dad would not have gone so deep, and he would not have had a heart attack. Most agonizing to William was living with the knowledge that he could have been there, but he had turned down his dad’s invite to hang out with his stupid friends at the beach.
    “Yet now you are here, Balam,” the Sun god said, as if hearing his thoughts. “The chance you seek is here before you.” To help William with his decision, the Sun god pointed out possible candidates to transfer ‘death’ to. “That man cheated others from their wealth. That woman hit her children in rage. That man is a murderer! He struck another while his mind was clouded, and he left his victim to die on the street.”
    William moved toward the most obvious choice; an image of the man driving drunk and causing an accident flashed in front of him. He held out the bloodstone as he approached the stranger.
    “No!” a voice called out from behind William. “Balam, do not do this!”
    William spun around to see a familiar scar-faced man on the boat. “Subiac?” he asked, surprised to see him.
    “How dare you come here and not heed my warning, old man,” Kinich Ahau said. “I shall deal with you when my business with Balam is complete.” He shifted his focus back to William. “The task… do it now!”
    Subiac moved between William and the man he intended to touch with the stone. “Should you do this, Balam, it will alter events. Your life’s course will change.”
    “But my dad will live!” William said, begging for Subiac to understand.
    “You are being challenged to take the right action, Balam. You must ask yourself if you are putting your personal wants before the needs of others.”
    “It must be done at once! The darkness is at hand,” the Sun god said, pointing to the setting sun.
    William pushed Subiac aside and took another step toward the murderer.
    Subiac grabbed his shoulder from behind. “Do this, and all those you have saved in our land will be lost. Teshna and Bati will have lost their lives too, because you would not have been there to save them. Surely your father would not want this, Balam. He would want you to let him go.”
    William’s memory of the horrible nightmare of his dad’s head on a platter came flooding back, recalling his dad’s odd words in the dream, when his dad had said, “You must let me go.”
    “If you do not do this, Balam, your father will die,” Kinich Ahau said, urging him on. “You will also die on my temple, for you will not find your way back.”
    “You will find your way back, Balam… through me,” Subiac said. “Use the bloodstone on me instead.”
    “That will not save his father!” Kinich Ahau said.
    William felt so confused. As much as he wanted to save his dad and have his comfortable life back, he knew he couldn’t turn his back on those he had come to care for in the time of the ancient Maya. Also, his dad’s request in his dream-to let him go-had to be honored, he decided. He took one last look over at his dying father, and then regarded Subiac, shaking his head. “But it will kill you, Subiac. I can’t do that either,” he said, about to chuck the bloodstone off the side of the boat.
    “You must! My sacrifice is the only solution,” Subiac said, grabbing William’s hand and pulling the bloodstone against his chest.
    The Sun god let out a painful groan. “You fools!” His eyes turned black. The darkness expanded across his face, and his entire body faded out, along with the images around them.
    Blackness enveloped them, and William could only feel the vibration from the bloodstone in his hand. “How do I get back?” William asked.
    “The bloodstone will carry you through my heart,” he said, his last words fading to a faint whisper.
    When the last rays of sunlight dropped below the western horizon, Subiac let out a painful moan and did not take another breath. His convulsions ceased, and his body relaxed with a peaceful expression spreading over his face. Teshna kneeled beside the old man for a moment, until she was certain that he was gone. She then focused her full attention on Balam, praying for him to come back. “Don’t leave me,” she murmured, jostling his shoulders.
    Balam had the same reaction as Subiac, and his body went limp. Teshna buried her face into his chest, unable to hold back the flood of sorrow that poured out, and she wept there for a painfully long moment. Lamat came near and attempted to draw her away.
    Sensing heat from the bloodstone, Teshna glanced down; it was sparkling. A burst of violet-red light flashed from the gem. Balam gasped for air, and his eyes snapped open. “Balam, you’re back!” she said, embracing him and planting kisses all over his face.
    Balam responded with a dazed smile. He spotted Subiac and sighed; he didn’t appear overly surprised to find the old noble lying dead beside him. Teshna assumed he already knew what had killed Subiac.
    Salmac came near with a mixture of relief and worry, his busy eyes darting between Balam and the stairway. “Teshna, we have another problem,” he said, pointing at the Jaguar Priest who was making his next ascension up the steps.
    “Balam, you must pretend to be asleep,” she said. He complied, closing his eyes again.
    When the Jaguar Priest arrived at the top of the pyramid, Teshna explained that Balam and Subiac did not return from their journey with the Sun god.
    “Come with me,” the Jaguar Priest said to Teshna.
    As they followed the ceremonial priest inside the chamber at the top of the temple, Teshna exchanged a worried look with Salmac and Lamat. The priest removed his jaguar mask, revealing a familiar face. “Ik-Tanil?” Teshna whispered with a surprised smile, almost not recognizing the priest without the usual streaks of black and white paint on his face.
    “How did you get here?” Lamat asked.
    “We followed close behind and out of detection,” Ik-Tanil spoke in a rush, stringing together more words in a single moment than Teshna had ever recalled him speaking before. “We blended in with the townspeople to observe. I was certain that Subiac would find a way to bring Balam back.”
    “Yes, Balam has returned. How did you know?”
    Ik-Tanil gave her a look as though it was obvious to him. “I sedated the Jaguar Priest in his chamber. He is unconscious for now, but we must move quickly. Bring Balam and Subiac inside.”
    Teshna nodded to Salmac; he rushed out to get them. Ik-Tanil pulled off the dark huipil cloak that covered his body. “I have given this much thought,” Ik-Tanil said as the four servants carried in Balam-who was still pretending to be asleep-and set him down. “It is the only way for him to escape. To wear this ceremonial attire and descend the temple undetected. The guards will think he is the Jaguar Priest-they will not stop him.”
    “It is brilliant, Ik-Tanil!” Lamat said, slapping the priest on the shoulder.
    Balam sat up after hearing the conversation. “But how will you get back down the pyramid, Priest Ik-Tanil? They will know you weren’t with us before.”
    “I will take your clothing and remain in your place. Here in the dark, they will not notice the difference until the Jaguar Priest makes his final ascent, when the moon is at its peak. By then you will be outside the city.”
    “They will kill you,” Balam said.
    “Perhaps. I will look for an opportunity to escape. But if not, it is of no consequence, for you are more important than I am, Balam.”
    Teshna’s head dropped, feeling the pain of his decision, yet knowing that the priest was correct. “Yes, Balam, it must be this way.” Teshna ordered Lamat to go below with the guards and servants to delay the Kohunlich warriors from approaching, while she helped Balam with the wardrobe change.
    Ik-Tanil showed Balam the proper method for waving the incense burner, and said, “Our guard Axel-who accompanied me here-is waiting for you around the side of the temple. He will lead you out of the city through another route.” Ik-Tanil regarded Teshna. “They will meet you at the clearing from another trail. Wait for them there.”
    “Thank you, Priest Ik-Tanil. This action will never be forgotten,” Teshna said.
    Ik-Tanil nodded and let loose a heavy sigh, appearing to resign himself to his fate in the chamber, lying beside Subiac’s body.
    The sound of someone rushing up the steps caught their attention. Teshna gave Balam a quick hug and shoved the incense burner into his hands, sending him on his way with a nudge. “Go now,” she whispered, just as Captain Muluk arrived at the top of the stairway.
    William held his breath when he passed by Muluk, waving the incense burner as he headed toward the steps. The warrior began to ask him something about the coming ceremony, and William had a momentary panic about what to say. But the sound of Teshna’s exaggerated crying near the chamber captured Muluk’s attention, and he moved on.
    William felt a little awkward with the heavy mask on his head, staring out through the opened mouth of the jaguar like that. He still felt woozy, the after-effect of being drugged, and it demanded his complete attention to take each step down the stairway, while also waving the incense burner around in the half-assed manner that Ik-Tanil had shown him-like a fairy casting pixie dust, he thought. He worried that others watching from below would notice his odd performance, and he hoped that the advancing darkness shielded that view to some extent.
    Upon reaching the last step and planting his feet upon the plaster floor at the base of the pyramid, William scanned the area ahead of him, trying to remember which side of the temple Ik-Tanil had said to go to. He noticed some guards looking his way, and William felt tempted to launch the mask off his head and take off in an all out sprint. Up ahead, he caught sight of Salmac and the others, and he detected a worried look on Lamat’s face, his teeth clenched as though he was about to witness a car crash. While pretending to stretch, Lamat subtly pointed to his left.
    William understood Lamat’s gesture and followed the temple wall around the corner, where a man grabbed his arm and pulled him into a room at the base of the temple. He yanked off the stinky jaguar mask, and William recognized him. It was Axel, the guard who had stayed behind with the priest in Kinichna.
    Axel shoved a pile of clothes into William’s hands and gestured for him to change. He rushed to the doorway to keep watch, fidgeting where he stood, looking anxious to get moving.
    William felt something wiggling beneath his sandals, and he jumped back. He had been stepping on the fingers of an old man sleeping on the floor, beside ceramic vases filled with brown powder. A feathery dart protruded out the side of his neck, and William realized that it was the Jaguar Priest that Ik-Tanil said he had sedated from the dart of a blow gun.
    While changing his clothes and situating the droopy feathered headdress that Axel had selected to shield his face, William became aware of odd things in the room; there were blades of varying sizes, stone axes, ceremonial masks, and strange costumes. Dead rodents, dogs, and bats hung from ropes tied to the ceiling rafters. It dawned on him that he was in the priest’s gruesome ready room.
    “Hurry!” Axel said, urging him on.
    Not requiring any further prodding to leave that horrible place, William bolted out the door, following Axel with his head down, rushing away from the pyramid.
    Teshna felt a sense of desperation while being ushered out of Kohunlich, praying that Axel would succeed in his task of getting Balam outside the city without being discovered.
    The Kohunlich warriors returned the weapons they had confiscated from the group the day before. “There is a good place to make camp up ahead,” Muluk said. “Follow the trail to the west, just over this hill.”
    Teshna thanked Muluk for his assistance and agreed to his offer, while knowing they were planning to travel through the night-for fear of being recaptured once they realized that Balam had escaped. They hiked up the hill and picked up their pace toward the grassy clearing, where they planned to wait for Balam and Axel to arrive.
    As William followed the guard, he noticed that Axel was also wearing different clothes to blend in with the local townsfolk. Although the darkness of night helped to conceal their identities even further, a half moon had made its way into the starry sky, reflecting off the plaster roads. Torches burned at various points along the way, providing even more illumination than they desired. They passed by residents of Kohunlich who were heading to the ceremonial center for the coming ritual, attracting strange looks from the townspeople who noticed their opposite bearing.
    “This way,” Axel said, directing him away from the flow of the crowd, behind a market district around the outskirts of the plaza. Delicious aromas filled the air, and William’s stomach growled.
    A cocoa bean trader was counting his inventory on a mat at the corner they rounded. “Greetings,” he said as they passed.
    Startled by the sudden appearance of the old merchant at his feet, William couldn’t help but to look his way. The trader’s eyes bolted open and he lurched back, his mouth agape. When they ran off, William heard the cocoa beans spilling from the man’s sack and scattering on the floor as he called for the guards.
    Knowing they had been spotted, they quickened their pace to an all out run, zigzagging through the residential areas until they made it to the outer reaches of the city. They skirted off the main road onto a dirt trail through the thick jungle, heading in a westerly direction. William began to feel lightheaded and called to Axel to wait. They stopped to rest for a moment; William was totally out of breath, gasping with his hands on his knees. Axel handed him his water jug, and William guzzled down most of its contents.
    In the distance, seashell trumpets blasted; they exchanged a knowing look. William capped the jug, tossed it back to Axel, and they took off down the trail with haste, certain that they were now being pursued.
    Teshna kept a steady eye on the moonlit horizon of the grassy field swaying before them, pacing along the border zone between their two kingdoms. She was nervous that so much time had passed since they arrived at the clearing.
    A rustling noise became audible, followed by one of their guards returning from his lookout spot along the trail to the east.
    “Why have you left your position?” Salmac asked.
    “I heard voices echoing through the valley. Many voices!” the guard said.
    A moment later, the other two guards came rushing in from their posts and reported a large number of Kohunlich warriors heading their way.
    “Look,” Lamat whispered, pointing down the trail to the southeast where pin pricks of light danced like fireflies in the jungle, from the burning torches of the approaching men.
    Teshna spotted William and Axel sprinting up the trail from the east. She hollered and waved her hands to get their attention. At the southeast end of the field, Kohunlich warriors emerged from the wall of the jungle and began launching arrows at the two runaways.
    William heard Teshna call out to him, and he spotted her on the trail. Arrows fluttered by, and Axel took one right through the side of his head. He staggered several steps sideways and fell over. William glanced down at the poor guard as he rushed by. Axel was dead; he probably died before hitting the ground, William figured.
    When William reached the path, Teshna jumped into his arms and held him tight. Lamat tugged at their shoulders, urging them on. They ran toward the edge of the jungle with native battle cries resonating behind them.
    William shot a quick look down the trail and skidded to a stop, surprised to see Salmac and the other three guards charge off in the opposite direction to confront a number of Kohunlich warriors who had caught up with them. They engaged the warriors in a blur of activity. Salmac took down three enemy warriors; he sliced one man’s chest open with his sword, smashed another over the head, and stuck a dagger into the ribs of a third warrior. One of the royal guards fell, and Salmac rushed over, striking down the two warriors who had just killed him.
    Another wave of Kohunlich warriors appeared at the top of the hill-at least thirty men flooding their way. William couldn’t believe it when he witnessed Salmac and the two guards refusing to back down, readying themselves to take on the onslaught of the advancing warriors. It was hopeless, William thought. Even if Salmac could stop half of the warriors before getting mowed over, the remainder would get by and catch up with them.
    “Balam, come with me!” Teshna shouted, her hands flapping so hard that it seemed she might take off like a hummingbird.
    However, William couldn’t move. He felt planted like he did during the Binding Ritual, when he became the ceiba tree. He couldn’t budge his legs; they were rooted in place from the anger that burned inside him. They had gone to Kohunlich in peace, with noble intentions, and it cost them the lives of good men; they had sacrificed themselves just to save him. He even had to witness his own father die!
    The bloodstone burned on his chest, fueling his rage. His anger further energized the stone, creating a combined hostile energy that exploded like throwing gas on a fire. William burst out with a deafening roar from the path. “Enough!”
    The grassy fields that separated Salmac and his men from the advancing Kohunlich warriors burst into flames; a plume of smoke rose high above the tree line-like a mini-mushroom cloud. William fell to his knees, drained from the intense climax of power that he had somehow channeled through the bloodstone.
    Salmac and the other two guards raced toward him, away from the raging wall of fire. From his position, William saw the Kohunlich warriors retreating back the way they had come, with the exception of a few men who had been caught in the middle of the blaze; they ran around like human torches, screaming until they fell over in the flames.
    “Oh my God!” William muttered, beginning to grasp the severity of what he had just done. Although he felt terrible for those he had just harmed in such a painful way, he knew that the fire had ended their assault, and it prevented more potential casualties.
    Teshna helped William to his feet as Salmac and the other guards arrived. They supported him as they hurried up the trail, out of the clearing, and into the cover of the jungle. As they rested there for a moment, contemplating what they had just witnessed, William noticed that the brush fire had already begun to smolder out, due to the damp conditions from recent rains. The road could now be traveled by the Kohunlich warriors, but none approached. William assumed that he had given them enough of a fright to scare them off for good.
    “I have never seen the bloodstone used like that, Balam,” Teshna said, breaking the silence at last.
    William shrugged, returning a confused look to Teshna. He also didn’t know how he did it, or if he could even do it again if he tried.
    Without further delay the group began the long journey back to Dzibanche.

Chapter Fourteen

    By the time they reached Kinichna, just after dawn, William felt like a zombie staggering down the road. They had hiked the entire night to get as far away from Kohunlich as possible. Being back in familiar surroundings, they felt safe to stop and rest for a while. The guards and servants took turns keeping watch so everyone could get some sleep.
    After a long slumber, William awoke to Teshna running her fingers through his hair. He glanced up and smiled. “How long did I sleep?” He couldn’t tell if it was mid-morning or late afternoon.
    “Long enough,” Teshna said. “We need to go if we’re to get home before sunset.
    They arrived in Dzibanche at dusk, accompanied by the usual hoopla; seashell trumpets signaled their approach and cheering townspeople followed them in. William was happy to see Yax, Priest Quisac, and Betty waiting for them at the palace entrance.
    Yax frowned as they neared. “Where are the others?” he asked.
    Teshna recounted the entire disastrous trip to Kohunlich, and how King Snarl Tooth had put William through the Ritual of Ascension.
    William continued from there, elaborating on his experience with the Sun god: how he had to watch his father die, how he was given a choice to alter events, and how Subiac saved him. “Subiac, Priest Ik-Tanil, and others gave their lives just to help me escape,” he said in conclusion.
    Yax looked away and let out a heavy sigh. “Then it was a mistake to go… a wasted effort!”
    “Yet Kohunlich does not blame us for the death of their ambassadors,” Teshna said, grasping for any measure of success to justify the losses they sustained. “King Snarl Tooth declared that they would remain neutral.”
    “After Balam’s display with the bloodstone,” Lamat said, “it is unlikely that King Snarl Tooth would change his mind.”
    Priest Quisac shot a stern look at William, his brow furrowing. “What event occurred with the bloodstone?”
    “Oh, I forgot to mention that part,” William said, exchanging a guilty look with Teshna. “During our escape, I got angry. The bloodstone made my anger grow… it started a fire.”
    Salmac stepped forward, his face stretched with enthusiasm. “Not just a fire. The whole field went up in flames… all at once!” he said, waving his hands like a conductor orchestrating the crescendo of a symphony. “It’s a good thing that it happened, or else none of us would be here now. I never saw Kohunlich warriors run so fast.” He laughed.
    Priest Quisac grumbled to himself. “The bloodstone is changing,” he said. A worried look came over him. “Since the soil plague, it has become open to destructive forces.” He pointed at William with a scolding finger. “We have much to discuss.”
    William nodded, agreeing. He welcomed the opportunity to better understand the bizarre stone that did so many strange things. He wanted to learn how to control it before he hurt someone he cared for.
    Betty gave William a confused look, and he remembered that she couldn’t understand anything they had been talking about. He gestured that he would fill her in later.
    “It is unfortunate that Kohunlich will not side with us against Calakmul,” Teshna said, “but we did all we can do.”
    “Yes! Let us not worry of the coming battle on this night,” Yax said, rushing up the steps overlooking the plaza. “On this night, we celebrate the safe return of our people!”
    A loud cheer erupted from the crowd of citizens that had gathered outside the palace. Yax shouted to his people, “There shall be no rations tonight, for our city will have festivities as we have never had!” He cheered with his arms raised high, followed by the bellows of a dozen seashell trumpets resonating in alternating blasts, maintaining a unified low-pitched hum for several minutes.
    In less than an hour, the entire ceremonial center of Dzibanche, from one end to the other, became a massive Mayan block party, like nothing that William had ever seen before. Dozens of fire pits burned throughout the plaza cooking all varieties of Mayan cuisine; the aroma of delicious spices infused the air.
    While dining from one serving area to another, William lost track of the others and found himself alone amidst the noise and confusion of the packed crowd. In such a collection, everyone looked the same and he couldn’t spot his friends even when he tried. He searched and called out for them while wandering about, hoping he’d run into them somewhere. After a while, he gave up looking and decided to take a mental snapshot of the moment, knowing that another party like that may never come.
    He sensed the admiration and praise of all those around him, and for a time it lifted his spirits. But some people went overboard, shoving food and gifts his way. Waves of peasants came too close, groping him. Some fell to their knees, as if hoping to be blessed by his touch. It was uncomfortable and annoying, and William felt freaked out by all the attention.
    Someone in the crowd grabbed his wrist. He pulled to break free, but the grip held firm. He turned with relief to see Teshna standing there at his side. With her turquoise-painted eyes, she motioned for him to follow.
    While holding hands, they meandered through the crowd to the Temple of the Owl and went up the steps together, with the noise of the celebration fading below them. She pulled William into the chamber at the top of the pyramid. “The look on your face when they were touching your feet… I will never forget that,” Teshna said, starting to laugh.
    “You mean you were watching me the entire time?”
    “Yes. I like seeing you that way… needing my help,” she said in a flirtatious manner.
    William scanned the empty chamber, realizing that he had the Princess all to himself, and gave her a sly smile. “I’m surprised that no one else is up here.”
    Teshna’s mood turned mysterious as she moved in close. “Only royalty may ascend the steps of this temple during festivities such as these.”
    “I guess I should feel important.”
    “Yes, you are,” she said, wrapping her arms around him. “You are especially important to me.”
    William smiled, becoming lost in her beautiful brown eyes that twinkled from the light of the torches burning in the room. “You’re very important to me too.”
    Teshna started to cry.
    “What is it?” he asked.
    She looked down, pressing her cheek against his chest. “In Kohunlich, I thought I had lost you. You were gone, and…”
    “Don’t cry. I’m here,” William said, disrupting her sad train of thought. He cradled her face in his hands, drawing her attention back. “You’re not going to lose me, Teshna, because…” It was hard for him to say, for he had never felt that way before.
    She gazed deep into his blue eyes, looking desperate for him to continue. “Because, why?”
    He took a deep breath and announced his true feelings. “Because… I’ve fallen in love with you.”
    Teshna cried tears of joy, melting into William’s arms. The moment they embraced, they could no longer contain their desire for one another. They kissed and caressed their way deeper into the chamber, their bodies moving to the rhythmic beat of the Mayan drums below, their passion heightened further by the bloodstone-saturating the chamber with a deep amber glow as the festivities raged on beneath the pyramid.
    The next morning, William awoke in his bed with a wonderful stretch, feeling more rested and content than he had felt since his arrival. He recalled the incredible night before, knowing that his love for Teshna would carry him through-would give him the strength and motivation he needed to survive the coming battle.
    After rubbing the sand from his eyes, he wrapped a fresh loincloth around his waist and pulled on the other trappings of the Mayan wardrobe that had been spread out on the table in the center of the room.
    “It’s about time you woke up. You look like crap,” Betty said from the arched doorway to his room.
    “Good morning to you too,” William said, followed by a yawn. “What time is it?”
    “Past noon, I’d guess. The Serpent Priest said we should let you sleep in. Teshna too. Funny, huh?” She wiped the perspiration off her forehead. “It’s damn hot today, isn’t it? Hotter than usual,” she said, giving him a surreptitious glance.
    William sighed, figuring she somehow knew about his time with Teshna on the pyramid the night before. But he didn’t care. It was easier if their relationship wasn’t a secret. “Where is everyone?” he asked, trying to change the topic.
    “Oh, you know… the usual routine. The men are down in the fields, training and what not. Yax is there too, organizing the details of the battle. I was just about to go meet up with the gals for archery practice.”
    William grabbed a piece of dried mango from the platter on the table, popped it into his mouth, and gobbled it up. He regarded Betty with worry. “It scares me to think about you and Teshna being involved in the actual battle.”
    Betty shrugged. “Ah, we’ll be fine. But if I were to get killed in the battle…”
    “Don’t say that Betty!”
    “Hey, if I were to die for a good cause, in some kickass epic war… I’d feel okay about that. Beats drying up years from now in a musty hospital with nurses treating me like a cranky old hag.”
    William laughed at her remark. He shifted his headdress until it felt comfortable; it’s long turquoise and purple feathers made him feel like a peacock. “You’re not going to die. There’s still a chance we can go home.” He told Betty more about the Serpent Passage-how it was part of a crashed spaceship activated by the sun on the solstice days.
    He had expected Betty to react with a measure of excitement, to learn that there was a technological way to get back to their time, but she didn’t seem all that interested. She went over to one of the small circular holes in the wall that served as a window and peeked out. The sunlight illuminated her face while she waited for him to finish. “I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, William. I’ve decided that I’m not going back… even if you do. It just seems too risky. You’d have a better chance if I wasn’t there to slow you down.”
    “Don’t talk like that. We’ve been looking out for each other all this time. I wouldn’t go without you. Besides, don’t you want to get back to your husband?”
    She became serious. “Burt’s much older than me. He has terminal lung cancer; they gave him a year at best. My disappearing like that could not have helped his resolve. He may already be dead.”
    “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. But maybe you can change how things turn out if you go back,” William said, thinking back to his adventure with the Sun god, where he had been given an opportunity to alter events. He told Betty about the difficult choice he was forced to make in Kohunlich.
    “Sounds like you’ve already decided to stay, too,” she said with a look of revelation. “I mean, you could be home right now, living with your dad in the states in some… altered reality. But instead you chose this.” She waved her hand like a game show hostess pointing out the gifts he just won.
    William shrugged. “I guess I did.” Although it was comforting to know that he had the option to return home, Teshna remained his one lingering temptation to tip the balance in favor of staying. Besides, his family already thought he had drowned. If he tried to return, drowning could become the reality of the situation. He shook the cobwebs of his confused thoughts from his head. “Like I said before, there’s no reason to even think about that for now. It all boils down to the coming battle, and that’s still a few months away.”
    The days and weeks slipped by in a dreamlike blur for William as he fell into a comfortable routine-battle training and strategic exercises during the day, and hanging out with Teshna at night. He knew he had missed his eighteenth birthday, but it didn’t matter. The coming battle was just a few weeks away, and it was more urgent to spend his time preparing. He wanted to make it to nineteen.
    While practicing alone with his maquahuitl sword at the ballcourt-swinging at imaginary warriors with the techniques that Salmac had taught him-William was startled by Priest Quisac’s voice. “That is a strong swing,” the Serpent Priest said. He lost hold of the sword and it skidded along the plaster floor. “Do not carry your weight so far forward-it will open your back side.”
    William retrieved his obsidian-studded sword and nodded to Priest Quisac with a smile across his lightly whiskered face. He was surprised to see him because the Serpent Priest had been mostly keeping to himself since they returned from Kohunlich. William set the sword by a tree and picked up his water jug, drinking from it as he approached Priest Quisac. He sat beside him on a stone bench in the shade. “Where have you been?” William asked.
    “I have been studying the stars… looking for directions we can follow,” he said with a troubled look. “I did not predict the outcome in Kohunlich, nor did I sense danger for you there… even as it occurred.”
    William shrugged. “How could you have known?”
    “I am a Serpent Priest, Balam-in tune with the cosmic plan. It is unusual for profound events to escape my notice.”
    “I’ve heard you say that before… what do you mean exactly by cosmic plan?” William asked.
    The Serpent Priest contemplated the question, his silver eyes darting around as if trying to find the best way to explain. He snatched William’s water jug and dumped it into a puddle on the ground. While studying the water as it flowed along the cracks in the plaster floor, he pointed at the little stream with his atlatl, and followed its course as it moved along. “The cosmic plan is like a river. Sometimes it moves slowly, and sometimes it picks up great speed. It twists and turns, carving out the land as it proceeds. One may predict with some certainty that the river will ultimately find its way to the sea.” Priest Quisac stood and stepped in the path of the water; it began to collect around his sandal. “Yet one may find a way to block the river, to divert its course in another direction for a time.” The water worked its way under and around his foot; he gave William a disturbed look. “When we are not in balance with our world, the course becomes difficult to predict.”
    “An imbalance,” William mumbled, recalling what the Sun god had said. “Kinich Ahau said that I created an imbalance by being here. That’s why he wanted me to change events… to keep me away.”
    “No. You were meant to be here, Balam,” the Serpent Priest said, reassuring him. “We had predicted your arrival katuns ago. The imbalance is from the soil plague, and the damage it has caused to our environment.”
    “Why do the gods care about our environment?”
    Several young boys entered the ballcourt, kicking a rock back and forth in a pretend ball game, not noticing William and the Serpent Priest there in the shade. Priest Quisac cleared his throat, catching their attention, and the boys ran off with guilty looks. He returned his attention to William. “The gods flourish when our people are in balance with nature. They are sustained by our prayer and sacrifice. In return, they provide abundant crops, wildlife to hunt, and healthy children. If our people disperse, and our beliefs and rituals dissolve, the gods would also lose their power to assist us.”
    William stood and stared at the sky, trying to remember something important from his conversation with Kinich Ahau. He walked part way into the ballcourt and spun around to face Priest Quisac. “The Sun god said that the soil plague drew the attention of the feathered serpents… they want to end the power of the gods. They will send the chupacabras after me… to get the bloodstone.”
    Priest Quisac nodded, seeming to understand. “The feathered serpents appear at moments in our history to control our people. The gods protect us from this. Perhaps the feathered serpents see an opportunity to weaken the gods’ protection. The Sun god used the power of the bloodstone during the Ritual of Ascension to try to prevent this.”
    William held the bloodstone in his hand, staring at it with a confused look. “What is this bloodstone, Priest Quisac? Why is it so important? How can it do so many amazing things?”
    Priest Quisac smiled, looking pleased, as if he had been waiting for William to ask him all along. “The name of the stone has evolved over the katuns. When I was a child it was still called the heartstone. But in the beginning, it was simply called Pakal’s heart.”
    “What does that mean?”
    The Serpent Priest put his hands on William’s shoulders, locking eye contact with him. “Balam, this is something that very few know. Of those that have heard, most think it is just a myth. But my knowledge descends from the Solar Cult, passed from one Serpent Priest to another, and I tell you that this is the truth.”
    “Ok, let’s hear it.”
    “The bloodstone is the heart of King Pakal of Palenque, taken from his chest upon his death nearly a baktun ago.”
    William almost laughed at the idea, but Priest Quisac’s unwavering stare confirmed that he was serious about it. William held up the bloodstone, studying it. “It seems kind of small to be a heart… and it’s so light too. If it’s just someone’s heart, why is it so smooth and have powers?”
    “Pakal the Great was the last physical incarnation of a god into the body of a Mayan king. His heart is now a gateway to the dimension of the gods, and that is the reason for its power. The heart compressed and hardened to stone over the katuns. It was polished to a smooth surface from all the hands that have held it along the way, and it has been empowered by blood and sacrifices. After the last ruling son of Pakal was captured, and his direct bloodline ended, the bloodstone was passed to the Serpent Priests of the Solar Cult… and then to the kings who protected them.”
    “You mean I have a human heart hanging from my neck?” William asked, dropping the bloodstone, feeling a little creeped out.
    “Come,” the Serpent Priest said, ushering William away. “You have spent sufficient time learning to fight. Now you must learn to control the bloodstone.”
    As the following weeks passed, William spent more time with Priest Quisac, learning to focus the imagery in his mind to make the bloodstone do different things. He felt like a superhero trying to learn his powers.
    William was not allowed to attempt the fire explosion skill again-like he had inadvertently let loose on the return from Kohunlich. Priest Quisac explained that he would need to experience sincere rage for that ability, which might exhaust the bloodstone’s remaining power in a single burst. He could, however, start small fires by focusing a small degree of his anger onto an object for about a minute, while visualizing a flame in his mind. It surprised William how difficult that was… to maintain anger on an inanimate object, like a stick, for any length of time, before becoming distracted and laughing at the absurdity of the task. But in time, he found he could do it through sheer determination.
    One of William’s favorite skills was the empowered throw. While gripping the bloodstone in his left hand he would direct all his attention to the object in his right hand. Upon throwing the object-a spear, rock, or whatever-he could make it go much further by visualizing a strong wind, while pushing it with his breath. He could also direct the projectile’s trajectory by seeing through its point of view. It was like watching through the eyes of a Kamikaze pilot crashing an airplane into its final destination. With practice, he found he could hit a target with a spear from over a hundred yards away.
    Another unique power he learned was to tap into the minds of animals, to see through their eyes. Priest Quisac said it was possible to take the skill to the next level and push the animal’s consciousness aside-to take control of its body. However, the possession skill could only be performed on animals with smaller brains, those with less resistance. Birds were the most useful animal to possess-to survey from the sky. But after the soil plague, there weren’t many birds around to practice on… only those passing through their land. Whenever William came across a bird, he would drop whatever he was doing to attempt the technique. He had to get close enough to acquire and maintain eye contact with the bird until he felt its heartbeat through the bloodstone-to sync up with its pulse. Usually, the bird could feel William invading its mind, and it would flee before he could get a firm hold. He only had one successful possession in several attempts. For a brief moment, he could actually see through a bird’s eyes, staring back at himself before losing his grip.
    Strangely, after learning the possession skill, William began to have weird dreams nearly every night, where he was flying around the jungle and hunting small rodents. During the dreams, he always sensed the bloodstone calling him from far away. He felt compelled to reach it.
    Having just those skills would have been amazing enough. Yet Priest Quisac told him that the bloodstone’s true power could only be fully utilized by focusing on positive energy. “Better to use the bloodstone’s power to heal and to shield,” the Serpent Priest said.
    The healing ability of the bloodstone was obvious to William, for he had seen how it mended his own injuries much faster than they would have healed otherwise. Priest Quisac explained that the skill could also be extended to others. There were plenty of opportunities to practice with all the cuts and sprains from the warriors-in-training. Upon holding the bloodstone against the wound, the blood circulated through the stone, and it replaced the damaged cells with some kind of super-healing cells. But the healing technique required a different mindset than the other skills, for he had to focus loving thoughts toward the injured person. At first, he found it difficult to feel genuine love for someone he didn’t know. To get around the mental challenge, he imagined that the patient was a family member-a process that ultimately brought him closer with the Mayans that he helped along the way.
    William also learned how to use the bloodstone as a shield, but he didn’t appreciate how effective that could be until the last official training event.
    The coming battle with Calakmul was just ten days away-when Venus would appear as the evening star. They had planned to separate the enemy forces, to entice them in numerous directions, into scores of lethal traps set all about the area: pits with spikes below, fields that would be lit ablaze, women archers positioned in the trees, warriors with atlatls on the hilltops, and deadly snares all about. The details of the strategy had been rehearsed over the months. If everything went as planned, William thought they just might win. His attention drifted back to the one detail in the strategy that had not yet been practiced. It was the purpose for his being there at the women’s archery range that afternoon. William took a deep breath when he saw Yax approach.
    “It is time, Balam,” Yax said.
    Teshna left the line of women archers and made her way over. “I don’t like this, brother,” she said to Yax. “I am not going to take part in it.”
    “You must,” Yax said. “You are one of our best archers.”
    “Exactly. If this fails, I may be responsible for the death of Balam. Can’t it wait until the battle?”
    Priest Quisac scolded Teshna with a stern look. “Balam requires faith in the bloodstone’s ability to shield. We must practice this now so that he has confidence during the battle as well.”
    “It’s okay, Teshna,” William said with a brave smile. “I can do it. I want you there with the others. Take your best shot.”
    Teshna regarded William closely, seeming to evaluate his confidence level. “Oh, okay. But only because you asked me.” She gave him a wink.
    While following Teshna to the field behind the ballcourt, William observed more than a hundred women readying their bows, watching him with grim expressions as he passed.
    “Good luck, Will,” Betty said from her position with the other women. She gave him a big thumbs-up
    William proceeded to the other side of the clearing. He turned to face the long row of archers, feeling the intensity of their collective attention. Other citizens had gathered on the stands, gazing down from the eastern side of the ballcourt. William glanced over to Priest Quisac; he bowed slowly, reminding William to collect his scattered energies.
    William took several deep breaths, preparing himself for the skill that King Pakal had last used in battle-when the bloodstone was still a beating heart in his chest-a technique called the sun shield. He removed the bloodstone, feeling it heat up as he raised it over his head. Following Priest Quisac’s instructions, he shifted the stone in his hand until he could see the sunlight striking its center, and then chanted the command to initiate the sun shield. “K’in Chimal, Hanab Pakal,” he said over and over while moving the bloodstone in a counter-clockwise circle.
    “Ready!” Teshna yelled, as she and the other women archers stretched back their bows; the tips of their arrows aiming up, in William’s direction.
    The bloodstone burned in William’s fingers as the light from the sun reflected through the stone, growing into a concentrated wall of radiance just ahead of him. He continued to chant, “K’in Chimal, Hanab Pakal,” while increasing the velocity of the stone’s rotation on each pass. The sun shield spread out like a giant umbrella of light opening before him.
    Teshna shouted the final command. “Away!”
    Through the shimmering distortion of the wall of light, William observed a blur of arrows arcing through the sky. Like meteors entering the atmosphere, the arrows burned up in the heat of the sun shield, creating a shower of flaming needles that disintegrated into puffs of ashes.
    A loud cheer jostled William from his focused concentration. He lowered the bloodstone and the sun shield faded.
    Teshna rushed over and jumped into his arms. While holding the Princess with one arm, he pumped his fist with the bloodstone in the air, celebrating his accomplishment.
    Priest Quisac gave William a proud smile. Yax clasped his hands over his head, with a confident and determined gaze.
    A rare moment of exuberance spread across all those gathered, for they believed that victory was possible after seeing William perform the sun shield-an important element of their battle plan against Calakmul.
    The upbeat mood might have lasted the remaining days leading up to the battle if it were not for the strange thing they witnessed right after William’s demonstration. Everyone shifted their attention to the eastern horizon, transfixed by sudden bursts of orange light flashing up from the depths of the jungle beyond.

Chapter Fifteen

    From his position in the field, William had a clear view of the jungle’s expanse to the eastern horizon, where the odd lights flashed along the treetops like a laser light show. Bright orange bursts illuminated the jungle and each flare shot a beam into the sky like a beacon. After several minutes, the flashing stopped, and a long silence followed.
    “What the hell was that?” William asked.
    Priest Quisac turned back with a startled expression. “The energy was similar to lightning… yet there was no thunder.”
    “Many of our citizens live in that area,” Yax said. “We must investigate.”
    William didn’t always look forward to the war planning sessions, but the meeting that night took on an interesting angle when Chief Etznab announced what they discovered in the outskirts of town where the lights had been flashing. An entire village of farmers had vanished. Over two hundred residents of Dzibanche appeared to have fled without a trace, leaving all their possessions behind.
    “Did the lights scare them off?” William asked. “Or were they captured?”
    “There were no indications of a struggle,” Etznab said, glancing over to Captain Salmac for his confirmation.
    “That’s right,” Salmac said with a nod. “We scouted a wide area around the village. There were no signs to follow.”
    Yax thought for a long while. The torches in the North Palace flickered across the dark shadows of his disturbed face. “It must be a trick. King Aztuk means to frighten us-to put us off balance before launching his attack.”
    Priest Quisac shook his head, disagreeing. “I do not believe Calakmul was involved with this incident. They would not attack before the evening star.”
    “If we continue to lose our people like this, we won’t make it until the evening star!” Yax said.
    Later that night, the King ordered all the citizens to move in close to the city center-to avoid losing more people outside of town to the strange lights.
    Several days drifted by without further incident, and sitting alone atop the Temple of the Lintels-the same pyramid where they had first made their appearance known to the people of Dzibanche-William watched Venus become the first visible light in the darkening sky. Funny, he thought, how a mere prick of light could cast such a wave of dreadful anticipation through the entire population.
    “There you are,” Betty said, her voice echoing from the base of the pyramid. “Teshna’s been looking for you.”
    William gave her a wave in return. He leaned against the steps with a calm smile, watching Betty approach. She sat beside him and said, “I haven’t been up this pyramid since the first day we got here.”
    William gazed out at the tranquil jungles beyond the plaster courtyard, watching the palm and mahogany trees sway in the breeze. “From this peaceful view, it’s hard to imagine that by sunrise tomorrow all hell’s gonna break loose.” A group of elderly Mayan women had set up their backstrap looms near the trees, attached to the low-hanging branches, weaving colorful brocade designs into the fabric of the huipils they were making. Apparently, the coming battle wasn’t going to get in the way of their daily routines, he figured.
    Betty stared at the evening star with a perplexed look. “I still don’t understand what Venus has to do with anything. If that stupid King Aztuk had any brains, he would’ve attacked us before we had time to get ready. Waiting for this planet to show up in the sky, giving us so much time to get prepared, seems like a mistake. Not that I’m complaining, of course. It just doesn’t make sense.”
    Maybe Betty was right, William thought. He could understand that Calakmul would want to wait long enough for Dzibanche to weaken from reduced supplies, but to plan the attack on a specific day that everyone knew about removed the advantage of surprise. Why had they waited? Silly superstitions or rules from the gods? William preferred to go on instinct. “Priest Quisac says that they plan everything around the stars-when to harvest, where to build, and when to go to war.” Something caught his attention in the western horizon. “Did you see that?” he asked, pointing to his left. He stood for a better look.
    Betty’s eyes narrowed as she studied the sky. “Wow, look at that!” She stood abruptly and moved further up the pyramid steps for a good look.
    From the top of the pyramid they witnessed another round of flashing lights in the sky. “We’d better get back,” he said. “We need to tell the others.”
    They hurried down the pyramid steps and ran up the path to the King’s palace. When they arrived, dozens of nobles were already outside, staring at the sky with startled faces. William spotted the bald head of the Serpent Priest amidst the crowd and called out to him. “Priest Quisac, did you see it?”
    The Serpent Priest nodded with a baffled look.
    Yax and Teshna raced over from the arched entrance of the palace to join them. “What is it?” Yax asked.
    “Another incident,” Priest Quisac said. “Flashing lights appeared in the west… in the direction of the Calakmul army.”
    “So it was Calakmul before,” Teshna declared. She went to William’s side and took his hand. “They must have a new weapon… They used it to destroy our people in the east. Now they will use this weapon as they begin their attack from the west.”
    “Would they attack before sunrise?” William asked. Priest Quisac blinked twice as he considered the idea.
    Yax glowered at the Serpent Priest. “Well…?”
    Priest Quisac cleared his throat and said, “The evening star has arrived. King Aztuk has honored the gods by waiting until this moment. Yet there is no need to delay the invasion until the morning, other than benefiting from the light of day.”
    “He could attack at any moment. Why not begin when we are unprepared?” Yax paced back and forth, considering the options. “None of us will sleep well this night anyhow. We will go to our positions in the west and wait for the approaching army.” He pointed at the stocky chief of the royal guard. “Etznab, give the signal!”
    A moment later, the low-pitched bellows of seashell trumpets echoed, capturing the attention of the entire community.
    “You all know what to do,” Etznab shouted to the nobles and warriors who had gathered outside the King’s palace.
    “Spread the word,” Yax said in a commanding voice. “The time has come! Ready yourselves, and meet at your assigned positions.” He gave William a determined stare, turned, and marched inside the palace.
    The crowd dispersed in various directions to prepare for battle. As they hurried into the palace, William exchanged a knowing look with Betty and Teshna; the time had finally come.
    William ran to his room and scrambled to get dressed, worried that the invaders could come storming through the palace gates at any moment. He fumbled with his leather vest and put his heavy cotton skirt on backwards at first. After getting his uniform sorted out, he tossed his headdress to the side and replaced it with a helmet made from the hard skin of an armadillo, adorned with bright blue macaw feathers.
    Through the flickering light of the torches near the entrance to his room, William saw Teshna standing there. A tense look haunted her face, accentuated by the red and black streaks of war paint across her forehead and cheeks. William became transfixed on the Princess-dressed for battle, looking like some sexy war goddess as she stood there with her bow in hand, and a quiver of arrows slung against her back. For a brief moment, he completely forgot about the looming battle.
    Teshna leaned her bow against the wall and approached William with a cup in the palm of her hands. She stared into his eyes with a nervous gaze, dipped two fingers into the cup, and ran streaks of paint across William’s forehead and cheeks.
    “So it all comes down to this day,” William whispered.
    “Yes, Balam,” Teshna said. “Today we fight because… it’s the right thing to do. Isn’t that what you said?”
    William nodded reluctantly. “Yes, that’s what I said. I only hope my words aren’t leading everyone to their deaths.”
    Teshna held William’s hand; the energy of the bloodstone tingled through his fingers. “Your actions and your words united us. The gods brought you here to save our people, and they spoke through you that night. If you had not come here, we would already be dead. You gave us a new life… a chance for our future.”
    William smiled. “That’s nice of you to say.”
    “There is something else I have to say before we go, Balam.” Teshna turned her back to him.
    “What is it, Teshna?” he asked with concern, spinning her around with a gentle tug on her shoulder.
    She stared at him with misty eyes. “I know your true home is in another world. I know that at times you miss your life there. Perhaps you still think about returning. But I don’t want you to leave. I don’t want to lose you. I love you, Balam. I had to tell you so my mind will be clear for the battle. I would hate to die without telling you.”
    “You are not going to die, Teshna,” William said. “We’ll get through this-all of us.” He gazed into her eyes and rested his hands softly along her neck. He pulled her close and kissed her passionately, feeling her tension melt into his arms. Their lips parted for a moment, and William sighed. “This is where I belong now. I can’t imagine my life without you, Teshna. We’re going to survive this.”
    Teshna jumped into his arms, kissing him again and again.
    “Teshna! Balam!” the Serpent Priest said in a scolding tone. They both straightened up with the guilty look of teenagers who had just been caught fooling around. “Destiny calls upon us. Teshna, the other women are waiting for you outside the palace. Go now. I must speak with Balam privately.”
    Teshna gave William a wink, grabbed her bow, and hastened out.
    Priest Quisac reached into a sack and pulled out one of the sacred items-the ancient weapon that would be used to fire a bolt of lightning at the enemy forces. “I now entrust this with you, Balam,” the Serpent Priest said, his head bowed and holding the weapon out. William accepted the sacred item with a nod in return. “Remember, you must wait until the enemy is near before using it.”
    “What if they don’t charge at me, like we’re expecting? What then?” William asked.
    “When King Aztuk realizes that the aerial assault upon you has failed from the sun shield, he will indeed send his men in heavy force upon you. His desire for the bloodstone will be too tempting for him to do otherwise. In that moment, you will kill hundreds with the energy of this weapon. But it can only be used twice, and then you must retreat to your next position.”
    William nodded with a deep breath. “Okay. I’m ready.”
    Priest Quisac bowed. “Here is where we must part, my friend… until it is over. You know the Ritual of Resurrection. You can break the soil plague even without me, if necessary.”
    “Thank you, Priest Quisac… for everything. We can win this battle.”
    “Only the gods know our destiny, Balam. The stars speak of an end… yet not in a manner that I understand. I must meditate on this while we wait for the attack. Go now. The captains of the royal guard will take you to your place.”
    William marched beside Salmac and other royal guards along the trail leading west from the city. They joined a procession of hundreds of warriors, streaked with war paint, clutching their spears and clubs with anxious grips. The path twisted through the jungle for nearly an hour before opening into a huge field. Thousands of torches lit the area like a football stadium at night.
    “Balam!” Yax called out as he approached.
    William almost didn’t recognize the young King with his red and blue painted face; his head appeared swallowed between the jaws of the jaguar headdress he was wearing. He grasped Yax’s hand and they exchanged a serious nod when their eyes met. “Good luck, Yax.”
    “I would say the same to you, but the gods are on your side, Balam. You don’t need extra luck. Now take your position. It may be too soon, but it’s better than being caught off guard. Salmac and the other captains are taking their positions in the field as well.”
    William turned to face the clearing ahead. He took a few steps and paused to look back. Glancing into the trees, he knew Teshna was among the group of archers hidden high up in the branches; he could somehow sense her love, even though he couldn’t see her.
    Upon reaching his position in the middle of the clearing, William planted his torch in the ground and looked back at the long line of flickering torches near the jungle’s edge. He shifted his gaze in the opposite direction, to the western side, where he knew the invasion could begin at any time, and he took a deep breath.
    The hours passed. As the last lingering flames from his torch went out, and the smoldering embers turned to ash, darkness consumed him. William expected to hear war drums or some noise from the approaching army, but instead, an uncomfortable quiet enveloped him. Not even the sounds of chirping crickets were there to keep him company. He resigned himself to the idea that the battle would not begin until dawn, as they had originally assumed. Having the battle at daybreak was preferable so William could take advantage of the sun to create a strong sun shield. The sun shield could also be activated from the light of the moon, but he couldn’t sustain it as long as he could with sunlight.
    He strained his eyes to spot any movement in the jungle, while nervously scratching the whiskers on his chin. It occurred to him that he had never let his facial hair grow out that much before. Although his beard was still a little sparse-compared how his dad’s used to get-it made him feel older. His mom always made him shave it off before it got too long.
    While thinking about how long it took to grow his beard, William recognized how much time had passed while living with the Mayans. He wondered if his mom still mourned him. William wished he could let her know that he was okay, but then recalled his promise to Teshna… that he would never leave her. He sighed and shook his head with a nervous chuckle, realizing that if he didn’t survive the battle, those concerns wouldn’t matter. He had to focus on the task at hand, and returned his attention to the jungle.
    William thought he saw something move in the shadows. His subconscious filled in the gaps, creating thousands of little faces staring back at him through the brush. The wind rolling across the tall grass in the field became warriors sneaking up on him, and he tried to focus on the shapes. His heart raced as he pulled his pack with the sacred weapon near. He gripped the bloodstone, readying himself to use it.
    When he rubbed his eyes, the images were gone, and he could only see the quiet jungle again. With his mind playing tricks on him, William decided to rest for a while. He knew the royal guards were also keeping watch; they would signal with seashell trumpets at the first sign of the enemy. Within minutes, William drifted off to sleep, feeling the sensation of floating on water.
    William dog paddled in the middle of the Cenote Azul. He heard a familiar voice; it was his mom. “William,” she said. “Come home… this way.”
    Startled by the voice, William gagged on a mouthful of water. He splashed around, looking for his mom. She stood near a thatched table at the restaurant. He swam toward her.
    A different voice called to him. It was Teshna. “Balam,” she said. “Stay with me. You promised.” Teshna stood at the other side of the cenote, waving him back.
    Frustration surfaced as William bobbed in the cenote. He didn’t know which way to swim. While treading water, something bumped against his feet. It floated up, rubbing along his body as it ascended. Terror shook William as the thing became visible. It was his father’s decapitated head. While supporting it by the hair, he noticed that the head was missing an ear and eyeball… as though he was continuing where he left off from his previous nightmare-when he dreamt of his dad’s head on a platter.
    “Free me!” his dad’s head demanded over and over in the demon’s creepy voice.
    William dropped the head and watched it sink back into the depths of the lake. It continued to mouth the words, “Free me,” as it descended. A giant bubble burped out of the head’s mouth and popped at the surface. The water began to spin around him-faster and faster-until William felt himself drop down the whirlpool.
    William kicked as he snapped awake from the falling sensation of his dream. He bolted to a sitting position, alarmed that he had slept too long. The sky had transformed to a lighter shade of blue; it was already dawn.
    “Do not be concerned,” Priest Quisac said from behind him. “I came to keep watch with you. It is well that you slept. The others have also been resting in turn.” He handed William a jug of water and some food.
    William took a swig from the jug and chewed on a crunchy tortilla. “Shouldn’t you be at your position?”
    Priest Quisac looked across to the western side of the clearing, about two hundred yards away. “Something is not right.”
    “What do you mean?”
    “I do not sense an approaching army.”
    William scratched his head, still shaking off the cobwebs of his sleep. “Could the attack start on another day?”
    “To take advantage of the energy from the evening star, the battle must occur before sunset today.”
    “How do you know they’re not there,” William asked. “Maybe they’re just being really quiet.”
    The Serpent Priest stood with a concentrated gaze, holding his palms out at the jungle ahead. “The living energy from thousands-especially those focused on battle-is something that I can sense from a distance. I feel nothing.”
    William stood when he saw a small group coming from the east. It was Yax, Teshna, Betty, Etznab, Salmac, Lamat and some other guards; they all had similar, puzzled looks on their tired faces.
    “What’s going on?” Yax asked. “Calakmul’s forces should be here by now.”
    “Yes, where are they?” Betty asked in her broken Yucatec-Maya. William had been teaching her their language over the months, but it still surprised him to hear her speaking it.
    “It’s a trick!” Etznab said. “They are attempting to draw us from our positions, to put us off balance. We should wait as planned.”
    “They are not there,” the Serpent Priest said with certainty. He looked troubled. “Perhaps I have misinterpreted the meaning of the evening star. I did not expect the flashes of light from the jungle or foresee the delay in the battle. I believe there is an alternate truth behind these events.”
    Yax walked a few steps away, his back to the others. He stared across the clearing for a moment before spinning back with a decisive look. “We have to search for signs of their movement. Priest Quisac, Etznab, and Salmac will scout ahead. We will wait here in case they attack from another direction.”
    William felt the bloodstone burning on his chest. “I’m going too,” he said.
    “No, Balam!” Teshna said. “You must stay behind… with us.”
    “I have to go, Teshna,” William said, touching the stone. “Something is out there. The bloodstone wants me to find it.”
    Yax’s eyes grew wide when he saw the intense look on William’s face. “If the bloodstone is speaking to you, there has to be a reason. The bloodstone is a channel to the gods, and we must follow their calling.”
    “I’m also going,” Betty said in her limited native vocabulary. She turned to William, speaking in English again. “After stressing out all this time while waiting for this stupid battle, I want to know what the hell is happening here!”
    Teshna moved close to William. “I will also go.”
    “No, Teshna,” Yax said. “You need to stay… to lead the women.”
    Teshna glared at her brother, but he held firm. She gave William a quick hug before storming off with a disgruntled face, muttering to herself as she returned to the eastern side of the clearing.
    Yax sighed, looking discouraged. “How could the gods misdirect me? I was made to believe that a battle would start at this very moment. Have I angered the gods in some manner to be fooled?”
    “No, King Stone Frog. It is my error,” the Serpent Priest said, looking ashamed, his head hanging down. “I also believed an attack would commence. I thought this day represented an end to a nation-either ours or theirs. It made sense. However, it seems that the stars have been speaking of an end to all our people in these lands… while also speaking of a new beginning.”
    Yax stared blankly at Priest Quisac, looking unsure of what to think. “Go now! We have to know where King Aztuk and his army are,” he said, and went with Lamat back to the camp.
    William hiked at a fast pace beside Betty, a few steps behind Priest Quisac, Etznab, and Salmac. A contingent of ten royal guards blanketed the team, keeping a careful watch for the enemy. They continued on for several hours in a westerly direction through the dense jungle trail until a massive field came into view. The smell of smoke lingered in the afternoon air.
    As they crept ahead William was certain they would find the Calakmul army there, just beyond the trees, ready to charge at them. But when he looked down into the valley, his blue eyes grew wide with curiosity-a reflection of the mood shared by all those who gazed below.
    “Where is everyone?” William asked as he stared into the deserted camp.

Chapter Sixteen

    After surveying the area from a distance and discussing their options, they decided to investigate the empty camp. William found it odd to be walking right into the heart of the enemy base, while following the group down the hill. He worried that it might be a trap-that the Calakmul warriors could be hiding in the surrounding jungles, waiting to ambush them. Yet Priest Quisac had assured everyone that the vicinity was clear, and so William pushed his trepidation aside.
    The once massive Calakmul army had occupied an area spanning the length of a couple football fields. Hundreds of recently erected huts were filled with the personal belongings of the temporary residents. A thick stench of burning food permeated the air, drawing William’s attention to the remnants of a large campfire, where blackened clay pots had cracked from cooking too long, spilling their contents; the food had burned to a crisp on the hot coals.
    “I’ve seen some ghost towns in my day, but this one sure takes the cake,” Betty said to William, scratching her head.
    “What do you make of this, Priest Quisac?” William asked.
    The Serpent Priest scanned the area and picked up a spear from the ground. Weapons and armor were scattered everywhere, as if dropped right where their owners had once stood. “They would not leave their weapons behind if they intended to attack from another direction,” Priest Quisac said.
    “It is the same as the farming village that disappeared after the lights,” Etznab said, studying the area with suspicious eyes.
    “Take your men and search the perimeter,” Priest Quisac said. “Look for any signs of their departure.”
    Etznab motioned to Salmac and the other guards, and they ventured further into the camp, scouting the edge of the clearing.
    William followed Priest Quisac as he rummaged around the camp, observing how he searched for clues. The Serpent Priest deduced that a degree of panic had existed at the scene: he pointed out footprints that had stirred up the ground in an erratic manner. Yet nothing could explain how such a large army could vanish.
    After investigating for nearly an hour, Priest Quisac plopped down beneath the shade of a tall zapote tree; he looked worn out, as though he had just survived the battle that everyone had been expecting to come. William sat beside him with a relaxed smile spreading across his face; it was a huge relief to discover that there wouldn’t be a battle. He began to fantasize about the idea of settling down with Teshna. “I know this isn’t what we planned, Priest Quisac, but if King Aztuk is no longer a threat, then maybe we can rebuild somewhere else. We can leave this dead land behind us.”
    Betty came over, holding a big piece of overcooked meat that she found on the coals of a smoldering fire pit. She ripped off a chunk and tossed it to William.
    Priest Quisac shook his head with unease. “Something larger is at hand. It approaches like a great wave.”
    “What do you mean?” William asked.
    The Serpent Priest stood with a bewildered look. “Do you hear that?”
    “What?” William asked. He could only hear the crispy meat crunching in his mouth as he chewed.
    “Do you not hear the humming noise-like a bee hive?”
    William swallowed his bite and listened closer. “Oh yeah, I hear it. It’s getting louder.” He bolted up.
    They looked in all directions, but couldn’t tell which way the noise was coming from. Suddenly, a flash of light drew their attention to the south. When they turned, William spotted the royal guards sprinting toward them, about a hundred yards away. A shadow enveloped the land around them as a dark cloud moved in. The humming intensified as the cloud drifted closer; it seemed to be following them. The dark cloud shimmered for a moment, and then blasted out bright orange bursts of light, vaporizing the guards on contact. Salmac ran as fast as he could, but the dark cloud moved faster. Another flash of orange light lit up the ground, and Salmac vanished.
    “Holy smokes!” Betty screeched.
    “It’s coming for us,” the Serpent Priest said. “Balam, the sun shield-focus the shield above us. Do it now!” He grabbed Betty’s wrist and pulled her closer to him.
    As they huddled together, William tossed his helmet off and removed the bloodstone. He angled the broad side of the oval stone toward the sun. “K’in Chimal, Hanab Pakal,” William chanted. While rotating the bloodstone over his head, he redirected a focused wall of light above them, just as the dark shadow of the cloud enveloped them.
    While a grating noise buzzed like a chainsaw, orange bursts of light bounced off the sun shield. Through the foggy filter of the sun shield, William could see a large object inside the cloud above them.
    The bloodstone became heavier the longer he channeled the sun shield. He flexed his muscles to push through the pain, twirling his arm in counter-clockwise circles. His arm trembled; he couldn’t hold the sun shield much longer.
    Abruptly, the buzzing and flashing ceased like a switch had been flipped. The cloud moved on; it passed over them and continued out of sight. William lowered his arm, deactivating the sun shield. He rubbed his sore muscles while contemplating the crazy event. “I’ve seen a lot of strange things since I’ve been here, Priest Quisac, but what the hell was that?”
    The Serpent Priest returned a blank stare in response.
    “How can you be so calm? That cloud just killed twelve people!”
    “I did not sense their deaths. They were… taken.”
    “Taken? What does that mean?”
    “There is no time to discuss this now,” Priest Quisac said, with an intense look in his silver eyes. “The cloud is moving to Dzibanche.”
    William threw his arms up. “Teshna… Yax… It’s going to take them!”
    “But why?” Betty asked.
    “That is what we must determine,” Priest Quisac said. “We need to return.”
    Without further deliberation, they grabbed their packs and charged through the enemy camp, scurrying up the embankment and onto the trail that would lead them back to Dzibanche.
    After marching for a few minutes down the path, seven Calakmul warriors jumped out of the brush ahead of them, armed with spears; they moved in, surrounding them.
    “Oh, crap,” Betty muttered.
    “Well, is this not a fortunate reunion,” a familiar voice spoke from behind them. Betty and William turned to see the man with the diamond tattoo on his forehead.
    Priest Quisac stared at the traitor with a hateful glare. “Honac-Fey,” he muttered with contempt.
    Honac-Fey chuckled. “This is simply too good. Not only have I captured the great Serpent Priest, but also Balam, Bati, and the bloodstone,” he said with exaggerated gestures. “This will bring me great respect in the new world order.”
    “King Aztuk has been using you, Honac-Fey. When he has what he wants, he will discard you,” Priest Quisac said. “Perhaps he has already done so, for why is it that you are not with him now?”
    “He… he sent me to scout for…” Honac-Fey appeared a little off balance as he thought about Priest Quisac’s comments. “King Aztuk has ascended to take his place with the gods. I was left behind to capture you. When we join them, my success here will secure a position of high status for me.”
    “It is not too late to reverse what you have done,” Priest Quisac said.
    Honac-Fey laughed. “You are in no position to demand anything of me. I will possess the bloodstone. When I do, King Aztuk will be begging for my services.”
    “If it’s the bloodstone you want,” William said in a daring manner, “why don’t you come over here and try to take it from me.”
    Honac-Fey moved in a few steps, glaring at William. “You don’t deserve the bloodstone. I killed its former master, the Great Jade Owl.” Honac-Fey became livid. “It took years of planning. The bloodstone is rightfully mine.” He glowered at Priest Quisac. “If our helpful Serpent Priest had not run off with the bloodstone just before…” He growled and shifted his attention back to William. A cocky smile spread across his face when he lifted an obsidian dagger from his side, waving it in little circles as he spoke, “I regret to inform you, Balam, that in order for me to possess the bloodstone… you must be dead. However, I can see that you are in no rush to die of old age. Allow me to help you with that minor detail, to free you of the bloodstone’s heavy burden.” With his dagger, he waved his men forward.
    The Calakmul warriors closed in with their spears. Honac-Fey gritted his teeth as he approached. On his next step, a fluttering sound ended in a crunching thud, with an arrow pierced clean through Honac-Fey’s back; its bloody tip jutted out through his right shoulder blade. He shrieked from the pain, dropped his dagger, and spun around to see his attacker; a shocked expression spread across his face.
    William could not believe it when he saw Teshna there, crouched beside a tree; she held a focused rage that he had never seen in her before. “Our father, the Great Jade Owl, sends his greetings, Honac-Fey!” she said. She launched a second arrow, impaling another warrior in the chest. Teshna readied and released again, catching a third warrior in his neck.
    In the moment the arrows began to fly, Priest Quisac jerked a dagger from his belt and-with the reflexes of a cat-slit the throat of the nearest warrior. He sprang toward the next warrior, jamming his blade into the man’s back.
    William ducked under the swing of a club, while simultaneously snatching a spear from the ground. Thrusting up, he gouged the weapon through his attacker’s chest. He tried to pull the spear free, but it was stuck in the man’s ribs. As Priest Quisac finished off a warrior near them, William glanced over to Teshna and spotted the last of the Calakmul warriors rushing at her, about to strike her down.
    Teshna hurried to set another arrow, but her fingers slipped, and the arrow dropped to the ground. She held her bow out, preparing to block the warrior’s attack. Before William could even call out, Teshna’s attacker caught an arrow dead center in his forehead. He turned with an empty stare before falling by Teshna’s feet.
    William glanced to his left and saw Betty with her bow held out. A startled look spread across her face; she seemed stunned by her accomplishment. “Great shot, Betty!” William said as he rushed over to Teshna.
    Betty shook off the jitters of what she had just done and said, “I was actually aiming for his gut.”
    William lifted Teshna from the ground with a big hug, relieved to have her safely in his arms.
    Teshna pulled away from him, scanning the dead bodies. “Where is he?” she asked.
    William spun around, searching for Honac-Fey with wild eyes. Somehow the man with the diamond tattoo had snuck off in the heat of the melee. “He’s not getting away this time!” he said. William grabbed his pack from the ground and yanked out the sacred weapon. He ran down the path, following Honac-Fey’s trail of blood. William stopped and scanned the area, but he could not see him anywhere.
    A scream broke the silence as Honac-Fey came storming out of the jungle, swinging his arms wildly over his head. His white owl had drawn him out; it appeared to be attacking him. The owl fluttered above Honac-Fey, slashing its sharp claws at his face. When the owl spotted William, it flew off.
    Honac-Fey broke free from the jungle and staggered back onto the trail. Wounded and half-blinded from the owl’s attack, he stumbled along the trail, about fifty yards away. William aimed the sacred weapon at Honac-Fey, just as Teshna and the others caught up.
    “Balam, no!” Priest Quisac yelled from behind him.
    Feeling the intensity of the bloodstone’s fury, its demand for revenge against the man who had cast the soil plague on it, William couldn’t resist pressing the button. A tremendous thunderclap rocked the ground as a bolt of lightning burst forth from the sacred weapon, chasing Honac-Fey down the trail, ripping through his body, and exploding him into a million little pieces-splattering fragments of his skin, bone, and blood across the jungle.
    William felt a deep anger burning in his heart as the bloodstone glowed vibrantly on his chest. “That’s it!” he said. He gripped the bloodstone in his left hand, with a glazed look on his face. “King Aztuk started this, and he must also die. We will find him and kill him!” William glared at the sky. “We’re coming for you! Do you hear me, you bastard? We’re coming for you!”
    The white owl caught William’s attention; it appeared above the trail, soaring right at him. He thought the crazy bird was going to attack him-like it had with Honac-Fey-and he reached for his dagger. But instead, the owl flew within a few feet and paused, hovering just before him. The bird locked eye contact with William, and for a moment he found that he was staring back at himself through the owl’s perspective. He could feel the strain of its flapping wings and noticed its rapid breathing. William had inadvertently activated the bloodstone’s possession skill. Strangely, he also perceived the owl’s thoughts; it felt rage for Honac-Fey, just as he did. Like William, the owl’s urge for vengeance was also coming from the bloodstone.
    “Balam,” the Serpent Priest grabbed his arms, shaking him. He immediately lost his link with the white owl, and it flew off, soaring high above the trees. “Release your anger at once. The bloodstone is feeding on your negativity and intensifying it.”
    Teshna held William’s hand, and her soft touch helped to subdue his rage. He released his grip on the bloodstone and its radiance diminished.
    “You must keep thoughts of vengeance from your mind,” Priest Quisac said. “We must act calmly for our mission to succeed.”
    “Our mission?” William laughed. “We’ve been preparing to fight a normal army. How are we supposed to fight that cloud thing?”
    Priest Quisac considered that for a moment and then turned to Teshna. “Did it come for our people?”
    Teshna rolled her eyes with a baffled look. “What are you talking about? I left our camp not long after you. What cloud are you referring to?”
    “We have to get back,” William said.
    Without another spoken word, the four companions began the journey back to Dzibanche.
    During the hike, William told Teshna about the dark cloud that appeared, and how it seemed to be blasting everyone into oblivion, although Priest Quisac insisted that it was taking them-a concept he still could not comprehend. They marched east for several hours, until the familiar buzzing sound vibrated the ground beneath them; they stopped in their tracks.
    “It is near,” Priest Quisac said matter-of-factly. “We must proceed with caution.”
    As they approached the clearing where the Dzibanche army had been waiting for the attack, the buzzing noise increased in its intensity. Darkness enveloped them under the shadow of the large cloud. They peeked around the trees, staring at the western side of the clearing with shocked looks. The entire army was gone.
    “What happened,” Teshna said. “Where are they?”
    “They have also been taken,” the Serpent Priest said.
    “No. Surely they fled into the jungle,” she said, almost in tears.
    “Look.” Priest Quisac pointed to the eastern edge of the clearing. “Their weapons lie where they last stood.”
    Colorful lights sparkled beneath the cloud just before a beam of orange light struck a spot in the middle of the clearing, creating a blinding glare until it dissolved.
    “It knows we are here,” the Serpent Priest said.
    “You think,” Betty whispered sarcastically. “Hey, someone’s there now!”
    “It’s Yax,” Teshna said, and began to run out to him.
    William grabbed her arm, holding Teshna back. “It may be a trick.”
    Yax spotted them and began to approach. He stopped after a few steps, his arms held out in a welcoming gesture. “Do not be frightened, for now I understand. All is well. Come, I shall explain,” he hollered from across the field.
    They moved from their hiding place behind the trees and met up with the King in the middle of the clearing.
    Yax smiled when they neared. “I am pleased that you have returned, for I am delighted to tell you that our great fear of this day has been misunderstood. Our ancestors from the stars have arrived to take us home… to the world where we come from. They sensed your worry, and so they sent me down to welcome you myself.”
    The Serpent Priest gave a suspicious look at the cloud. “The stars did not speak of a reunion such as this. This is unexpected.”
    “What about King Aztuk?” William asked, still feeling a twinge of the bloodstone’s thirst for the man; they needed to sacrifice him to end the curse.
    Yax gazed at the cloud above. “They say he is there, with all his people too. They told me that King Aztuk was very disturbed by all this. He demanded to be made a god… to be given the powers he thought he deserved. So they subdued him-preserved him inside a crystal chamber. These beings do not understand his negative urges, and they wish to study him.”
    “Then you’re leaving,” William asked, feeling confused. “You’re going with them?”
    “Not only us,” Yax said. “Those who have been faithful to the gods in all the kingdoms of these sacred lands may go. However, many will be relocated in the north to strengthen Chichen Itza… for the continued protection of this world.”
    There were many other confusing matters that William still couldn’t piece together, and after everything they had been through, he wanted answers-to understand the purpose of it all. “The bloodstone… the soil plague… the Sacred Cavern… this cloud… what’s the connection between all this, Yax?” William asked.
    “Perhaps it would be best if they explain it to you,” he said, and gazed up at the cloud above them. He raised his hands to the sky, and a golden light flashed. The land around the clearing dissolved from view-immediately replaced by an incredible sight. They found themselves standing on a platform atop a pyramid that sparkled from the light of a blue-green sky. The sky had an artificial appearance; it shimmered as though it were being viewed through a giant prism. William noticed that the spear and sacred weapon he had been clutching a moment before had vanished from his hands, as did all the weapons that they had each been carrying.
    An enormous collective cheer rose from the base of the pyramid. The entire population of Dzibanche seemed to be there, gazing up at them from the courtyard below. Rows of huts spiraled out from the pyramid as far as he could see. In unison, they began chanting, “Balam! Balam! Balam!”
    “So the cloud is a spaceship?” Betty asked.
    William recalled how he had seen a dark object hidden inside the cloud when he viewed it through the lens of the sun shield.
    “Yes, we are inside their craft, Bati,” Yax said.
    “But it looks like we’re still outside,” Teshna said.
    Yax smiled, raising his arms to quiet the crowd. “I was also confused upon my arrival here. At first, I believed that I had died and had ascended to the heavens. But then they explained what happened. A large portion of this vessel has been designed for the comfort of our people while we travel through the stars to our new world. This area where we now stand has been constructed to suit our needs. It is much the same as our lands that we know-complete with plants and animals as well. Yet this area is but a small chamber on the craft. I am told that if we were to travel from this city center, a large wall would be encountered.”
    “Sounds kind of like a big cage,” Betty said with a raised eyebrow.
    “Where are these ancestors of yours?” William asked.
    “We are here,” a voice answered in his mind. William jumped and looked behind him. The others had similar reactions. Teshna’s nod confirmed that she had heard it too. “We speak to you from another location. There is much to explain. Proceed to the rising transport.”
    The crowd at the base of the pyramid scattered when a green triangular pillar rose up from the ground. An opening materialized at the base of the object, where a tall slender figure stepped out in a tight-fitting white uniform; it had long arms and legs, a shiny head with a single black eyeball, and a large grey beak.
    “Good grief,” Betty muttered. “What is it?”
    As it approached, William could see that the bizarre appearance was actually from an odd-shaped helmet on its head; tubes were connected to the helmet from a pack on its back. The citizens dropped to their knees and bowed down before the strange being.
    Its gaze slowly drifted up to the top of the pyramid, and it stretched out its hands as if welcoming them. “I am known as Jensik. Do not fear my appearance, for I am not accustomed to your atmosphere, and merely dress in such a manner so that I may interact with the people of your world. Beneath my uniform, I am much the same as you. Please come with me. I will take you to the others of my kind.”
    “Who are these people?” William asked, as they descended the steps.
    “They may indeed be our brothers from the stars, Balam,” the Serpent Priest said.
    “Priest Quisac is correct,” Jensik spoke in their minds. “We are… brothers. Yet not all gathered here comprehend what has occurred. It is why we developed this simulated world, complete with landscape and habitations that you will find familiar-to avoid the shock you might otherwise experience. You will spend much time here with us, and those who remain must be adapted to the conditions of our world. In time, all will be made to understand our purpose.”
    As they reached the base of the pyramid and approached Jensik, William surveyed the people gathered around them. “Jensik, there were a number of men taken that I had expected to be here-Etznab, Salmac, and many others from the royal guard. Are they here somewhere?”
    “Come,” Jensik said, seeming to ignore the question. He stepped into the brightly lit room inside the triangular monument. “This transport will take us to another level within our craft.”
    They followed him inside the triangular pillar, and the opening to the outside dissolved, enclosing them. A humming sound resonated.
    “Feels sort of like an elevator,” Betty whispered.
    William glared at Jensik, having a hard time trusting him through his weird helmet. He wondered what Jensik really looked like.
    Jensik turned to William, noticing his disturbed look. “To answer your question about your missing friends, Balam… not all the people of this land are required. Only those with… desired qualities… will join us. Some will be transplanted back to your world. We are evaluating those we have collected.”
    “Collected?” William asked, not liking the way he put that.
    The elevator’s humming sound faded and an opening materialized. A silver chamber could be seen from beyond. Jensik stepped into the shimmering oval room, and they followed him in.
    Jensik moved to a white table in the middle of the room, grabbed a handful of metallic-looking collars on the table, and handed them out. “Place it around your neck. It will enable you to breathe in the next room.”
    The collars were decorated with colorful little stones. When William stretched open the collar and put it around his neck, the stones began blinking beneath his chin. He tried to remove it, but it seemed to be locked in place. William began to feel like a circus animal being prepped for captivity.
    “The atmosphere in the next room contains the molecular properties of your world and ours. This device attracts the elements that you require to breathe,” Jensik said, pressing another button on the wall, dimming the light to half its brightness. He placed his hands at the base of his helmet and twisted a knob; it made a popping sound, like opening a bottle of soda. He slowly lifted the helmet off his head. They all stared at him with anticipation, wondering what they would see behind his strange mask.
    Teshna gasped when Jensik’s long grey face and big bug-like eyes came into view. She grabbed William’s arm with a nervous grip. Jensik looked sort of like an alien from the X-Files, William thought.
    “I thought you said you looked like us,” Betty said in a somewhat rude tone.
    Jensik pulled a lever on the wall, and mist entered the room, pumping up from vents along the floor. He appeared to hold his breath while waiting for the mist to fill the room. Opening his thin slit of a mouth, he took in a deep breath; it sounded like he was sucking through a straw. “What you see before you is not the original appearance of our people,” he spoke in their minds, not moving his mouth. “In the beginning, our bodies were similar to yours. The color of our skin and the elongation of our features are the result of living here for generations, where our reproduction methods have evolved us into what we are today.”
    “What are your reproductive methods?” William asked.
    Betty jabbed William with her elbow, and he realized it wasn’t an appropriate question to ask.
    Jensik gave William a blank stare as he removed his gloves, exposing his grey rubbery hands that seemed to have only four fingers. He grasped a knob protruding from the wall and slid it to the left, causing a mechanical sounding clatter to reverberate through the chamber-like the noise of an automatic garage door opener. The ceiling parted down the middle, and the walls sank into the floor, leaving the group standing in the center of a dark misty chamber; the visibility was limited to a few feet in any direction.
    “Where are we?” William asked, holding Teshna’s hand firm so he wouldn’t lose her in the fog.
    “We are in the control center… with the others,” Jensik said.
    Dark forms began to take shape amidst the fog. They approached the group, gathering around them in a semicircle. Dozens of beings with the same greyish appearance as Jensik studied them with blank creepy looks. It became apparent that the bulk of their attention was focused on William. He felt uncomfortable with their collective stare, hearing the word “bloodstone” repeated softly in his mind.
    The tallest of the aliens-in a bright red uniform-stepped out of the crowd. He glided gracefully forward, while taking a moment to study them.
    Jensik gestured to the tall alien, extending his gangly arm toward him. “I present our leader, Master Seblinov.”
    “You are welcome here,” Seblinov greeted, and then turned to his men who continued to gawk at them. He waved them off; they faded away back into the fog. Seblinov turned back with a gentle gaze, blinking his big eyelids several times. William noticed that they had two sets of eyelids; a transparent inner eyelid blinked just before the outer one did. Seblinov reached out with his hand and extended a long finger, motioning for them to follow.
    As the group followed Seblinov through the foggy room, they passed by several of the grey aliens who stood beside tall metallic posts with light covered panels that they poked at with their slender fingers, casually rolling their black eyes toward them when they neared. A bright light filtered through the mist ahead. They proceeded forward until they reached a huge tinted window that slanted up from the floor. The light was from the setting sun, visible beyond the dark glass.
    “Beyond and below are the lands where you have lived,” Seblinov said, pointing his gangly arm to the darkening sky outside the window. He motioned to the padded seats nearby. “Sit. Let us commune together.” He studied William and Betty carefully. “You two are not like the others here, yet you possess the bloodstone.” Seblinov waved a grey finger at William. “Tell me how this can be.”
    Priest Quisac cleared his throat. “They have come to us from our future, through a portal known as the Serpent Passage. It is activated by the sun on the solstice days. We believe the passage has been used by other advanced beings-the feathered serpents-a race that assists in the growth of civilizations on this world.”
    Seblinov clasped his hands together and cocked his head curiously. “Yes, we know of the beings that you speak-those that live in the underworld of this planet, who are unable to ascend for long. These creatures indeed seek the growth of the surface dwellers… but for their own purposes.” He paused for a moment, almost seeming disturbed about the creatures in question, making a wheezing sound as his breath accelerated. Seblinov shut his eyes for a moment. When his eyes opened, they were focused on William. “Why is the bloodstone possessed by this one?” he asked again.
    “Balam saved our city from the invaders of Calakmul,” Yax said. “I awarded him the bloodstone and named him as our royal protector.”
    “Why is it damaged?” Seblinov asked with concern. “The bloodstone was used by Calakmul to set a curse on our lands,” Priest Quisac said. “It killed our crops and the surrounding jungle.”
    Seblinov and Jensik exchanged a knowing glance. “Yes, we are aware of this,” Jensik said. “It is why our vessel is unable to penetrate the area over your kingdom; the negative ions disrupt our controls. It is also why we could not gather you all until now, after you had moved your people further from the city center. The people in this region must either join us or relocate.”
    “Where is your home world?” Betty asked with a raised eyebrow.
    Seblinov stood, looking into the sky outside the window. “There was a time, long ago, when our world became unlivable. Many of our people left in search of new worlds, to begin again. But many of us remained behind, living in the protection of our vessels, attempting to correct the damage to our world.”
    “Why come back for these people,” William asked, feeling concerned about their motives.
    Jensik and Seblinov exchanged subtle nods to each other; they seemed to be sharing a private conversation. They both looked back at the same moment, their heads spinning in unison. “We have devoted our lives to restore our world,” Jensik said, “to make it livable again. Yet we have evolved to a point that prevents our ability to adapt to the climate. We are unable to reproduce in the normal manner, and we survive through molecular extrapolation.”
    “Does he mean cloning?” Betty whispered to William.
    William shrugged and nodded. “I guess so.”
    Another grey alien wandered over to Seblinov, appearing out of the fog with a blue disk held in his long fingers. Seblinov tapped at the disk, while they had a hidden conversation. The alien left, disappearing back into the mist.
    The leader turned back to William. “The people of this land carry the seeds of our race. The chosen ones shall be taken from this land, and they will be… adapted… to the new world.”
    “It is true, Balam,” Yax said. “Our people have been saved today. Had we fought Calakmul, perhaps we would have all perished. You saved our people, Balam. You saved us so that we could live to see this wonderful day-when our brothers from the stars returned.”
    “That is what the legends say, Balam,” Teshna said, trying to reassure him.
    “We have been studying the people in these lands for some time,” Seblinov said. “Over the years we have witnessed a great disintegration in their culture. The collection had to take place before the required bloodlines dissolved.”
    “Yet it is also important for the future of this world that the people of this land endure,” Jensik said. “The bloodstone promotes growth, and it must be cleansed. We have agreed to assist you in this endeavor. King Aztuk shall be delivered to you on the evening of the lunar eclipse so that you may reverse the infection.”
    “Seblinov, there are others below who you did not collect,” Priest Quisac said. “Hundreds of children and elderly, who could not take part in the battle, are still in the city center.”
    “We will send you back to make arrangements for their collection,” Seblinov said.
    William didn’t like the cold way the grey men discussed the Mayan people, like they were animals being rounded up for a new zoo. But all things considered, their arrival had occurred at a calculated moment in time to prevent a battle that would have cost the lives of a lot of people on both sides. He only hoped that their intensions were sincere, and that the people would be given the option to stay behind if they chose to.

Chapter Seventeen

    Upon returning to Dzibanche, William helped Teshna and Priest Quisac to round up the remaining residents hiding in the city center. After gathering them in the courtyard of the King’s palace, they explained how their brothers from the stars had arrived to avert the battle, and that they would be taken to a new world where they could live in peace.
    Many of the older Mayans refused to go. They had lived in that area all their lives and insisted that they stay behind. William didn’t blame them, for he also had reservations about the plan. However, the King had made up his mind about the relocation, and William agreed that it would be safer for them to go with the others than to stay behind.
    He wished that Yax had been there. His presence would have helped to persuade the stubborn elderly Mayans. Yax had remained on the vessel to iron out some resettling details. Housing had been provided for everyone in the artificial environment on the craft-huts similar to what they were accustomed to on the surface. But their grey benefactors left it up to them to assign their own accommodations. Food also arrived at intervals from the triangular pillar that rose from the plaza center, and a distribution method had to be worked out.
    Betty stayed on the craft too. She told Yax that she wanted to help with the transition. But in truth, William had asked her to keep an eye on things over the days leading up to the eclipse. There was something awkward about the whole situation. Salmac, Etznab, and most of the warriors were missing. When William had pressed the leader of the greys for an explanation, Seblinov said that the warrior-class was taken to another area for closer screening. He wondered if they were still alive.
    The strange grey men seemed to lack emotion, which made it difficult for William to assess their sincerity. Even Priest Quisac was blocked from their thoughts and deeper motives. If something unusual was going on there, William hoped that Betty might notice. If she uncovered anything disconcerting, William planned to tell Yax about it, and suggest that they all be placed at Chichen Itza instead of venturing to the other world. William had already decided that he wasn’t going to leave. Being cooped up in that chamber on the vessel, for God knows how long, wasn’t something he planned to sign up for. Besides, the greys were only after the Mayans of a pure lineage, and he figured they wouldn’t want him. He wondered if Teshna would stay with him when the time came for her to make a decision… if she was allowed to make a decision.
    “This is the last of them,” William said to Teshna, after leading the final batch of kids and elderly to the edge of the clearing.
    “I wish you would come, Balam,” Teshna said.
    William held her in his arms, feeling the warmth of her skin pressed against him, not wanting her to leave. “Priest Quisac needs me to stay-to prepare for the ritual to reverse the soil plague, and… for some other tasks. Besides, the eclipse is in just seven days. We’ll be back together then.”
    “What will we do after the ritual is over?” she asked.
    William looked deep into Teshna’s eyes and sighed. “All I know is that I want us to stay together, Teshna.” He kissed her and held her tight before letting her go.
    In a brilliant burst of light, Teshna and the last of the citizens were gone. William stood alone at the edge of the jungle, watching the shadow of the dark cloud drift across the field. He would not see Teshna again until the day of the lunar eclipse, and he already missed her. He remained in the clearing until the cloud disappeared from view. With a heavy sigh, he headed up the path to meet with Priest Quisac at the King’s palace.
    Priest Quisac’s first order of business was to dismantle all the dangerous traps that had been set for the battle. They started with the traps in the ceremonial center and worked their way out over the days ahead. The pits with spikes weren’t too complicated, just exhausting with the repetition of digging up each spike. The spring-loaded snares were more challenging to take apart. William had to set them off by throwing rocks until he hit the trigger. It only took one detonation for him to figure out how far away he needed to be to avoid the razor-sharp obsidian shrapnel; the cuts on his arms and legs reminded him of that detail. The process gave William plenty of practice with the bloodstone’s empowered throw ability-to focus his aim over a long distance, watching through the perspective of the rock as he guided it to the target.
    One afternoon, they spent a few hours going over the details of the ritual. Priest Quisac set a heavy stone axe beside a chopping block at the ballcourt, readying it for the night of the sacrifice. William was relieved to learn that Priest Quisac would take care of the more gruesome task of cutting off King Aztuk’s head. William’s job was to drain his blood with the bloodstone-like he accidentally did to the warrior in Bacalar. They went over the specific steps of the ritual several times. It seemed like a rehearsal for some crazy religious event-finishing with the prayer of resurrection, casting the bloodstone inside a ceramic jar, and onto the ballcourt.
    William was prepared for the Resurrection Ritual. They had a few days to spare before the coming eclipse, and only one trap to go. After pulling the spikes out of the last pit, they came across a withered body.
    “What the hell is this?” William asked, staring at the decaying body near the trail that led to the city. A foul stench hung in the breeze. Following the smell, they discovered even more bodies; it was the elders who had refused to go with the others up to the vessel. They were all dead; they appeared bloodless, like dried-out sponges.
    “This one is the same,” Priest Quisac said, holding the stiff arm of the dead woman beside him.
    “So all these bodies have been drained of their blood? Who could be doing this?”
    The Serpent Priest regarded William with a grim expression. “This is not the work of Man. See this bite?” He lifted the dead lady’s hair, exposing a narrow slit at the base of her neck.
    “What kind of animal kills like that?” William asked.
    “I would not describe this as an animal.”
    “Wonderful! So what is it?”
    Priest Quisac stood and scanned the area. “It is the bite of the chupacabra.” He leaned over to touch an odd footprint in the dirt, left by something with long claws. “From the tracks, there appears to be three of them.”
    “A chupacabra?” William asked, with a wave of fear washing over him. He recalled the warning from the Sun god, Kinich Ahau-that the chupacabras would come for him. “You mean they’re real?”
    “They are creatures of the underworld… sent to the surface for… specific tasks.”
    A branch snapped in the distance. William jumped and instinctively pulled his obsidian dagger from his belt. “What is their task?” He already knew the answer.
    “We are safe for the moment. Chupacabras hunt at night,” Priest Quisac said.
    William looked at the sun, which would be setting in a few hours. He shifted his attention back to the Serpent Priest. “The chupacabras have come for me… to take the bloodstone, right?”
    Priest Quisac glanced back to the trail as though he heard something coming. “Yes, these creatures would not venture into our dead lands unless they had a purpose here. It is possible that they have been… assigned to us.” Images of horrible beasts flashed through William’s mind as he tried to imagine what the creature might look like.
    “Assigned to us?” William asked with a nervous laugh. “By the feathered serpents?”
    “Yes. This recent feeding has empowered them toward that goal.”
    William remembered another connection with the chupacabras. “In the ‘Legend of the Serpent Passage,’ you said the feathered serpents sent the chupacabras to kill the last of the Olmec. But they weren’t after the bloodstone then. So why do they want it now?”
    A familiar voice answered William’s question, startling them both. “To end the connection of the gods in our lands.”
    “Priest Hexel?” William asked. “Is that you?” “It is,” he said in a weary voice.
    William was surprised to see the old priest-the one who had been tied to a tree in Bacalar for target practice, before they rescued him.
    “Where are the feathered serpents then?” William asked.
    “They live in the caverns beneath the surface of this world,” Priest Quisac said. “They have not been seen for a long time.”
    Priest Hexel sighed. “There is much to explain. But I must rest, for I have not slept since the creatures began tracking us two days ago.”
    Priest Quisac glanced around as if looking for someone else. “Are there others?”
    Priest Hexel shook his head. “I could not protect those who accompanied me on this journey.”
    “Come, we are close to the palace,” Priest Quisac said. “We will speak more on this in the evening.”
    Without another word, they marched back to Dzibanche.
    While Priest Hexel slept, William and Priest Quisac had dinner beside the great ceiba tree. They spent time with the tree every day, as one would visit a sick relative at the hospital. A single withered leaf clung to a branch like a faint heartbeat.
    Priest Hexel stormed into the courtyard. “What are you doing out here?” he asked with a paranoid face. “We must find a safe place for the night.”
    “You didn’t travel all the way from Chichen Itza merely to warn us of the chupacabras?” Priest Quisac asked while chewing on a piece of dried venison. He set his atlatl on his lap and readied it with a dart.
    “That is true. King Kukulcan requests that you bring the bloodstone and a seed from the great ceiba tree. We must begin a new Tree of Life in Chichen Itza.”
    “Why?” William asked, glancing at the ceiba tree beside him, stroking its buttress roots like it was his pet.
    Priest Hexel rushed to the entrance of the palace, staring out for a moment. He spun around and said, “The north must be protected, just as we have been protected here in the south-since the time of Pakal the Great. The feathered serpents are influencing the Toltecs. They seek to conquer Chichen Itza. But King Kukulcan believes that with a new Tree of Life in the north, the feathered serpents can be pushed back, and an alliance can be formed with the Toltecs.”
    “I don’t understand,” William said, shaking his head with a perplexed look. “What does this have to do with the chupacabras wanting to kill us?”
    “The chupacabras were sent by the feathered serpents to stop you. They do not want a Tree of Life created in the north.” He paused, glancing over his shoulder as if he heard something coming. “King Kukulcan needs your help, Balam. He is planning a building project that is meant for the people of your time… at the end of the Great Cycle. Chichen Itza must succeed in this mission. The feathered serpents will try to prevent it.”
    “What project?” William asked.
    “King Kukulcan intends to…” Priest Hexel froze in his stance, looking like a statue beneath the arched entrance of the palace. His eyes opened wide, like he was having a revelation of sorts.
    William waited for Priest Hexel to continue; he was anxious to hear the profound thought that had him so captivated. Instead, a shrill screech bellowed from his lungs. His face turned pale and he fell over like a tree, face first onto the ground.
    Behind Priest Hexel stood a green fuzzy creature with long black spines on its back. It was a chupacabra, standing upright on its clawed feet. Its snake-like tongue stretched the distance to the back of Priest Hexel’s neck, making a sick gargling sound as it sucked out his blood-hunched over as its belly filled up like a water balloon. Its huge black eyes-half the size of its head-rolled over to look at them, while it continued to vacuum the fluids out from its prey.
    The Serpent Priest readied his atlatl and launched an obsidian dart at the beast. The chupacabra’s tongue snapped back into its mouth like a recoiling tape measure. It let out a high-pitched howl when the dart sunk into its green chest; yellowish goop oozed out through the wound. It yanked the blade out with its claws and hissed at them, displaying its rows of sharp teeth. In pain, it fled.
    Two more chupacabra’s sprang into the courtyard from the exterior walls of the palace, growling as they crept closer.
    Priest Quisac snatched the sacred flashlight from his belt and turned it on, beaming it into their eyes. The creatures squealed like vampires burning from the light of the sun. “Run!” Priest Quisac shouted. “To the King’s chambers!”
    William raced up the steps and down the hall, with the Serpent Priest just behind him. The chupacabras followed; their clawed feet scraped along the plaster floor as they charged after them.
    Upon reaching the King’s chambers, they shut and barred the heavy wooden door. The chupacabras slammed into it and began digging at the door with their sharp nails. William heard the sound of wood curling as it was shaved off the door in strips. William applied all his weight to hold the door in place. “They’ll tear it down!”
    Priest Quisac pushed Yax’s throne to the side. He grabbed a handle on the floor and lifted a stone slab that exposed a chamber below. “This way,” he said, motioning for William to get in.
    The creature’s claw broke through the door and swiped at William’s face, just missing him. He rushed over to the opening and jumped into the cramped chamber below. The Serpent Priest followed him in and slid the slab back in place. As Priest Quisac bolted the hatch, William heard the door to the King’s room crash down. The chupacabras yanked at the slab from above, but they could not lift it.
    After listening to the creatures screech in frustration above them for several minutes, Priest Quisac turned to William and said, “We are safe here. Try to sleep.” He turned off the sacred flashlight.
    William was still too freaked out to respond. Sleeping didn’t seem like an option either, with the creatures stirring about and clawing at the floor above them.
    After a long restless night, the noise from the chupacabras abruptly ceased. “It must be dawn,” the Serpent Priest said. “They don’t like the light. We will be safe until the evening.”
    They opened the hatch above them and crawled out, noticing the shambles the beasts had made of Yax’s room, like a tornado had swept through the place. Upon making their way out, they came across Priest Hexel’s corpse near the palace entrance. William grimaced when they turned the stiff body over; the priest looked like a big piece of dried fruit dressed in Mayan clothing.
    After a moment of silence, they searched the area around the palace, hoping to find a dead chupacabra-the one that had been wounded by Priest Quisac’s dart. They followed a trail of yellow blood into the jungle, but there was no sign of the creature.
    “What are we going to do?” he asked.
    “For now, we must attend to the priest’s body,” Priest Quisac said. “Then we will prepare for our next encounter.”
    Standing along the steps of the King’s palace, William watched Priest Hexel’s body burn up in a blazing fire. Priest Quisac had rejected William’s idea to speed up the process by giving the priest a simple burial. He explained that a priest of the Solar Cult-a Serpent Priest-must always be returned to the earth in ashes to prevent the body parts from being used with spells. The cremation turned out to be a quick process anyway, as the dried-out corpse disintegrated before the pile of burning branches beneath it.
    Priest Quisac turned to William with a vengeance in his eyes that he had not seen since Bacalar. “Now to the preparations we discussed earlier. They will come again, but this night we will be ready for them!”
    They proceeded to the courtyard beneath the Temple of Lintels to a spot where the plaster surface had been removed and dug twenty feet down-the large pit was one of the first traps they had dismantled days before. Priest Quisac said they needed to make it operational again, but with a slight variation. Knowing the chupacabras could come from any direction, they would have to bait them from inside the trap.
    William spent most the morning chopping down trees, cutting off branches, and hauling timber over to the pit. They worked from the base of the pit, propping up the tree trunks like a big teepee, and tied them together with ropes. Priest Quisac used branches to build a platform near the top of the structure, at the same level as the plaster courtyard, while William put all the spikes back into place-burying them into the ground with the tips of the sharpened ends sticking up.
    The platform was stocked with some food and water, in case they had to wait there all night. They armed it with spears, daggers, and swords. Finally, the sacred weapon was brought up, charged and ready to deliver two powerful blasts. As dusk neared, they placed bamboo shoots across the surface of the pit and covered them with palm leaves to conceal the trap.
    “What do you think?” William asked from the platform at the center of the pit; he appeared to be standing in the middle of the courtyard with leaves scattered around his feet.
    “It will have to do,” the Serpent Priest said. He held a green box in his hands. “Come now, we must secure the bloodstone… in case we do not survive this night.”
    After William placed the bloodstone in the jade box, they went to the Temple of the Owl and entered a chamber beneath it, hiding the bloodstone in a secret compartment behind the wall. While beaming the sacred flashlight around the room, William noticed a sarcophagus and asked about it. He recalled how a body had been discovered there in his time.
    “It is the body of the Queen,” Priest Quisac said. “She died giving birth to Yax.”
    “You mean Teshna’s mom?” William asked. He had never questioned Teshna about her mother. He assumed she was already dead-for the topic never came up-and he didn’t want to stir up old wounds. He knew from personal experience just how painful the loss of a parent was.
    On the way back to the trap, they lit torches around the courtyard, along the steps to the temple, and at points near the jungle’s edge. They climbed into the pit, tiptoed around the spikes, and shimmied up the poles to the platform above.
    “Take this,” Priest Quisac said, handing him the sacred weapon.
    “Don’t you want it?”
    “I have not used it to kill… you have,” he said with a huff, referring to when William blew Honac-Fey into oblivion with it. “Once the creatures fall into the trap, we must attack. Do not hesitate.”
    “Do you really think they’ll just come charging at us like that?”
    “They are stupid beasts. They will be drawn to us with the same compulsion that a vulture is to a carcass.”
    Nearly an hour passed while they waited on the platform, staring into the darkness beyond the torches. A clicking sound resonated from the edge of the jungle. William spun around, gripping the handles of the sacred weapon.
    “They’re here!” the Serpent Priest exclaimed. He readied a spear in a throwing posture over his right shoulder and grasped another spear in his left hand.
    “Where?” William asked, his eyes darting everywhere. He powered up the sacred weapon, causing it to hum. He felt for the dagger at his side, ensuring its position.
    The clicking noises seemed to come from different directions. Shadows streaked by as the creatures moved through the light of the torches. Abruptly, the clicking stopped.
    “Over there,” Priest Quisac whispered pointing at the silhouette of a chupacabra near the steps of the temple. It let out a screech that sounded like nails on a chalkboard, and the beasts charged at them from three different angles.
    The entire surface of the trap crashed down. Shrill howls bellowed from the pit. William aimed the sacred weapon below, but he couldn’t see beneath the mess of the brush. “Where are they?”
    Priest Quisac launched his spears into the pit. “There!”
    William fired the sacred weapon at the same spot where Priest Quisac threw his spears, casting an energy blast into the pit, vaporizing all the brush in a flash of fire that sizzled the hairs off his outstretched arms. Yellow goop and chunks of green fuzz splattered across his face when the beast exploded.
    “Over there!” Priest Quisac pointed at another chupacabra crawling out from the brush near the base of the tower.
    The beast hissed at them as it pulled a wooden stake out of its side. It crouched, about to leap, and William fired another blast at the creature, blowing it into pieces. The tower caught on fire and rocked back and forth before collapsing. It slammed against the side of the pit, and William dropped the sacred weapon. He held onto the poles as the flaming tower fell apart. Ash and broken timber separated them as they tumbled into the pit.
    The last chupacabra climbed out of the rubble, howling from its injuries; it was charred, with yellow blood oozing out its wounds. Its ugly face jerked left and right, as though it was searching for its next target. When it spotted Priest Quisac crawling up from the brush, its black tongue whipped out, latching onto his neck.
    William snatched his dagger and hacked loose a branch that had pinned him against the side of the pit. He charged the beast with his dagger; the chupacabra’s black eyes rolled his way, growling when it caught sight of him. He grabbed its thick tongue and sliced it in half. Priest Quisac fell over; blood sprayed out the severed end of the tongue still attached to his neck. The chupacabra screeched and retracted its tongue. William held on with a firm grip as its tongue pulled him in.
    As they reached one another, William lifted his obsidian dagger and rammed it deep into the creature’s forehead; it sounded like a walnut cracking. The chupacabra howled as it clawed at the dagger stuck in its skull, unable to pull it free. Yellow blood dripped down its face, while its cut tongue sprayed out gallons of red blood, flopping around like a garden hose with the faucet turned on full blast-seeming to release all the blood it had consumed in recent days.
    The chupacabra fell onto its back and convulsed on the ground. Priest Quisac staggered forward and rammed a spear through the beast’s chest. He jabbed at it again and again, until it stopped moving. The Serpent Priest stumbled to his knees, looking dizzy as he held pressure against the bite mark on his neck.
    William plopped down beside him, and they both sat there, in the smoky pit, covered with all kinds of blood and muck from the creatures they had just killed, watching the collapsed tower burning around them. They were exhausted; it took some time before they had energy to stand.
    They crawled up to the surface, coughing from the smoke. While lying on the plaster floor and gazing into the stars, William thought about Priest Quisac’s notion that his being there was part of some cosmic blueprint. But considering how things turned out-leading up to being chased around by bloodsucking monsters-he couldn’t help but laugh at the insanity of it all. “Priest Quisac, when we first met, you made me promise to help your people. But Dzibanche has collapsed.”
    “Kingdoms will come and go. Your destiny is to help the people who still remain in these lands.” The Serpent Priest looked in the direction of the North Star. “Priest Hexel gave his life to deliver an important message.”
    “What message?” William asked.
    “The momentum of the cosmic plan has shifted north. To help the people here-and the people in your time-we must follow this path to the north.”
    William remembered what Priest Hexel had said just before he died-that they needed to make a new Tree of Life in the north to protect Chichen Itza. He also said that King Kukulcan had started a building project that would somehow benefit the people in the future, too. Even the grey men-their supposed brothers from the stars-had said that the bloodstone had to be healed to protect the region.
    It all came down to one final challenge, William realized. To help the people for generations to come, the bloodstone had to be cleansed of the curse on the night of the eclipse. He glanced at the moon. It felt like the full weight of the bright object was sitting on his shoulders, as he contemplated the magnitude of the approaching celestial event.

Chapter Eighteen

    After the exhausting encounter with the chupacabras, combined with the sleepless night hiding in the bunker below Yax’s room the night before, William slept for almost twelve hours. His eyes snapped open around noon, and he recalled-as if someone had hung a flashing neon sign on the ceiling of his room-that the lunar eclipse was that very night. He sprang from his bed and hurried to get ready. Mixed emotions crashed like waves through his psyche. Although nervous about the coming sacrifice, he also couldn’t wait to get it over with. With the Resurrection Ritual complete, and the soil plague reversed, William believed he would also be free from the burden of the curse. He could move on with his life… in whatever direction he wanted.
    Something had been disturbing William over recent days as well. He felt a longing to kill King Aztuk. The bloodstone craved to draw the life out of the King of Calakmul, to end its curse. That thirst had intensified with the approaching lunar eclipse, and William carried the same sensation with him.
    Later that afternoon, they went down to the clearing to wait for the vessel to arrive. William paced around the grassy field, becoming anxious as the sun began to set. “What if they don’t come?” he asked Priest Quisac with a troubled look.
    “They will come,” the Serpent Priest said. “They desire the bloodstone to be healed, and this is the only way.”
    “Why do they care about the bloodstone? They’ll be leaving our planet soon. What’s in it for them?”
    Priest Quisac returned a confused stare. He seemed caught off guard by the question. “I cannot sense the deeper thoughts behind their words, and so I can only assume that, as our ancestors, they wish for our race to thrive here as well. They seem to understand how the bloodstone helps our land to flourish.”
    William approached the Serpent Priest with a troubled gaze, feeling apprehensive about the grey men. “Are you sure they are your ancestors?”
    Priest Quisac thought about it, but before he could respond, the familiar buzzing sound distracted their conversation. The dark cloud rolled in over the southern horizon, and an orange flash illuminated the field, leaving three people standing there. William zoned in on Teshna, becoming lost in the curves of her body. He was so happy to see her that the concerns he had voiced to Priest Quisac moments before dissolved with the swiftness of a breath strip melting in his mouth. William rushed across the clearing. He was so captivated by Teshna that it didn’t occur to him that Betty and Yax were there beside her.
    William held Teshna for a long moment, as though they had been apart for months rather than days. “I missed you so much,” he said, lifting her off the ground.
    “I was going crazy without you,” Teshna whispered in his ear. He gave her a long kiss.
    “Hey, there are children around,” Betty said, interrupting them.
    Like waking up from a dream, William turned his attention to Betty and Yax, as if they had just materialized.
    Betty studied William and Priest Quisac. “You guys look tired. What have you been up to while we were gone?”
    William rolled his eyes. “I’ll tell you about it later.” He realized that their struggle with the chupacabras still showed on their worn faces. Suddenly, the strange craving for King Aztuk’s life filtered through the bloodstone again, making William feel irritable. “Where is he?”
    Yax looked up at the cloud. “They said they would follow after us.”
    For a moment, William worried that the grey aliens might renege on their promise to bring the King of Calakmul. But then another burst of light left two grey men in the clearing; they were wearing their tight-fitting suits and bird-faced helmets. Beside them, a large crystalline cylinder-about the size of a carnival dunk tank-sat on a pad. It appeared to be hovering just above the ground. Lights blinked on a panel along its side. William approached and peeked inside.
    “Is it really him?” Teshna asked from a safe distance.
    William checked closer, pressing his forehead against the glass. He jumped when the stocky body of a Mayan floated near, startling him with an angry expression frozen on his scar-covered face. A dark red glow from the bloodstone lit up the inside of the chamber, casting an amber tint on the man’s face. Tubes were connected to his limbs, like a creature in some freak show. William pressed his hands on the cylinder, craving to kill him. Yet he recognized that the desire was caused by the bloodstone’s deep thirst for the man’s life-to end its curse. William tried to ignore the distracting desires, and he pulled away.
    “It is King Aztuk,” Seblinov said, speaking in their minds.
    “He floats in a state of suspension,” Jensik said while poking buttons on the side of the cylinder. It began to move forward, and he steered it with the instruments on the control panel.
    As darkness settled in, they lit torches to illuminate the trail on the way to the ballcourt. William held Teshna’s hand as they went along. He wanted to ask her if she planned to go with her people to the other world, but he was afraid she would ask him to go with her. He wasn’t sure how he would respond. He turned to Betty, walking beside them. “So how was it up there?” he asked her in English.
    Betty shot a quick glance back at Seblinov and Jensik; they were maneuvering the shiny cylinder up the path behind them. She looked paranoid that they might hear her thoughts. “Oh, it’s… comfortable enough, I guess,” she said in a pleasant voice, while sticking her finger into her mouth and pretending to gag. “It’s a little sterile for my taste. Did you know that there’s no dirt anywhere? The trees and plants grow right up from the floor. Weird, huh? There are a few birds flying around and some smaller animals, but I think it’s all for show… to make it more comfortable for them.”
    “Does it seem safe?” William whispered.
    Betty looked away. “I guess so. But the warriors still haven’t returned. Others are missing now, too. Plus they’ve been mixing in people from other kingdoms. It’s all a little confusing.” Betty suddenly had a hopeful look, as if she remembered something really important. “I told Jensik about the Serpent Passage… how we can’t go back because it’s underwater. He seemed really interested about that, and said they would set up two of their suits for us to use… so we can go back!”
    “Oh, I see,” William said. He glanced over to Teshna with an anxious feeling coming over him. He had put the idea of going back to his own time out of his head, and he preferred believing that it was not a valid option. Having one less possibility to consider had been a relief. Now it was back on the table again.
    Betty noticed his strained face. “If you’d rather stay, I totally understand,” she said, acknowledging Teshna beside him. “I could tell your mom for you… let her know that you’re okay. You could write her a note.” She smiled at the idea.
    William’s face lit up. “Really?” He realized what a relief that would be for his mom to know what really happened to him.
    As they entered the ceremonial center, Yax pointed at the moon above them. “Look,” he said, indicating the beginning stages of the lunar eclipse.
    The group picked up their pace to the ballcourt. When they arrived, the eclipsing moon had begun to darken the land. Seblinov and Jensik tapped at the controls on the side of the cylinder, dropping the platform to the ground with a heavy thud. Jensik pressed a few buttons, causing the liquid inside to evaporate.
    “We shall draw the blood that you require from the specimen,” Seblinov said. “However, he must first be awakened, for his blood is not active at the moment.”
    William stayed by Priest Quisac’s side, waiting for his directions for the ritual. The Serpent Priest approached Seblinov, looking worried. “I must profess, Master Seblinov, that your method will not satisfy the requirement of the gods for breaking the curse of the soil plague. King Aztuk must be sacrificed. His soul needs to be freed from his blood.”
    “Although we respect your beliefs, Priest Quisac, we disagree,” Seblinov said. “It is only the blood of this individual that is required-a chemical reaction to release the negative ions, amplified by the bloodstone. This will counter the effects of the soil plague by bonding with the electrical force of the eclipse.”
    Priest Quisac shook his head. “It is only the act of the sacrifice that will restore order. You have been far too removed from the natural laws within a living world to understand this. A balance must be maintained!”
    “This individual holds… properties… that are desirable to us,” Seblinov said in a disturbing manner. “We prefer to keep him intact for further use after this ritual.”
    As the gaseous liquid finished evaporating from the cylinder, King Aztuk slumped against the side. His body jerked and twitched.
    “He is restored,” Jensik said. He reached into a pouch at his side and retrieved a large vile, positioning it near the control panel. After turning a knob, the blood of King Aztuk filled the vile, like he was pouring himself a glass of grape juice from a soda fountain.
    “It will not work like this, Seblinov!” the Serpent Priest said.
    King Aztuk seemed to hear Priest Quisac’s words, for he suddenly awoke and snapped his stare in every direction.
    “The eclipse is nearly complete!” Teshna said.
    “What is this?” King Aztuk asked in a muffled voice from inside the crystal chamber. He staggered to his feet.
    “Re-suspend the specimen,” Seblinov said with urgency in his voice.
    Jensik handed the vile to William and returned to the control panel. King Aztuk slammed his body into the crystal wall, rocking the cylinder forward. Jensik took a step back when King Aztuk pressed his hands and face against the glass, peering out. He rammed his body into the side of the cylinder again.
    From the ballcourt, Betty called out, “The eclipse!”
    The Serpent Priest snapped a look at the moon, seeing the total eclipse. “Quickly, Balam… we must try.”
    While rushing to the northern end of the ballcourt, William held the bloodstone over the vile. It glowed in his fist as it rapidly absorbed the blood. Yet the bloodstone craved for more. William shared the feeling of desperation that the bloodstone suffered through; he could sense it thirsting for the King’s life essence. He felt infuriated that he couldn’t have more, and he wanted to go back for the rest of his blood.
    Priest Quisac called out to him, pulling his attention back to his task. “Finish it, Balam!”
    William dropped the bloodstone into a ceramic jar and held it above his head. While facing the eclipsed moon, he spoke the prayer of resurrection, “Hok’sah numya!” He felt the jar shaking in his hand when he threw it. The jar smashed on the surface of the ballcourt near the same spot where Honac-Fey had first set the curse in motion. William backed away, studying the area around the broken fragments of the jar, along with everyone else, waiting to see what would happen.
    King Aztuk drew their attention back by ramming his body from one end of the crystal cylinder to the other, making it rock back and forth. Jensik stepped further away from it, unable to work the controls with it moving. With a final push, the cylinder tipped over. It came down with a crash, opening a fissure along the side of the chamber. King Aztuk kicked at the crack in the crystal wall, widening it further.
    Priest Quisac studied King Aztuk inside the chamber and then shifted his attention back to Seblinov. “There is still time, he must be sacrificed. We must remove his head!”
    “I should have known you were behind this, Serpent Priest!” King Aztuk said, pressing his face up to the crack in the cylinder. “Yes, let me out of here. I would like to see how you intend to sacrifice me.”
    “What should we do?” William asked.
    “Ah, this must be Balam… the precious warrior of the gods,” King Aztuk said in a mocking tone. “In truth, you are the Serpent Priest’s slave! Get me out of here, and you can be my slave instead.” He spit at the glass.
    William pressed his hands against the crystal and glared at King Aztuk with more hatred than he had ever experienced, fueled by the bloodstone that burned for the man’s life.
    He vaguely heard Teshna yelling behind him. “Something’s happening,” she hollered.
    A red light illuminated the cylinder, coming from the ballcourt where William had cast the bloodstone during the ritual. Seeing King Aztuk so clearly made William crave to take his life even more. He slammed his fist against the wall, shattering fragments of the crystal loose. He clawed at the little pieces, trying to dig the man out with his hands. The tips of his fingers bled, and he smeared his blood across the cylinder. “Yeah, get your ass out of there, you piece of crap! I’ll rip your head off myself!”
    “That’s the spirit!” King Aztuk said with a wicked smile.
    Spotting the stone axe, William rushed over and grabbed it with a wild look in his eyes. He charged at the cylinder and smashed the heavy axe into it, shattering a chunk of crystal loose.
    When he leaned back to take another swing, the Serpent Priest grabbed William by the shoulders and jerked him backwards to the ground, “No, Balam!” Priest Quisac said. “Your rage is damaging the bloodstone. Look!”
    William turned his attention to the bloodstone on the ballcourt; blood flowed out from the stone, creating a red puddle that began to boil. The bubbling blood burst into flames for a moment, and then fizzled out. William calmed down as the glow of the bloodstone faded. He stood and approached with Priest Quisac, watching the bloodstone dim to a dull black.
    “Did it work?” Yax asked. “Is the curse broken?”
    “No, it did not,” Priest Quisac said with certainty. He shot an angry look at Seblinov.
    “The eclipse is retreating,” Teshna said.
    An uncomfortable stillness followed. King Aztuk broke the silence by kicking at the cracked crystal, trying to break his way out.
    A thump from the plaster floor near the bloodstone drew their attention, followed by a tremendous cracking noise that sounded like a car crash. They backed away with startled looks.
    “What was that?” Betty asked.
    Before anyone could answer, a giant claw punched through the floor of the ballcourt, causing chunks of dirt and plaster to rain down on them. Another claw tore through the surface, and they backed further away, stunned to witness the beast ripping its way up. A skulllike head lurched out. It was the demon, Yum Cimil!
    The god of death opened a gaping hole in the floor of the ballcourt, and he pulled his large frame onto the surface. He spotted William near the crystal cylinder and stormed over to him; black goop dripped from his jaw bone as he approached.
    “I thought you said the demon couldn’t harm us here… in the physical world,” William said to Priest Quisac.
    “The eclipse,” the Serpent Priest said, “has merged our worlds for the moment.”
    Yum Cimil stopped just in front of William, breathing his hot putrid breath on him; he thought he was about to be squished like a bug. However, the demon spoke to William as though they were old buddies. “If it’s not my dear friend, Jupiter. Oh, how I have missed your delightful stories.”
    King Aztuk called out from the cylinder. “Yum Cimil, I call upon your services. I pledge my life to you. Free me, and we shall rule the world together!”
    “Tell me, Jupiter… who is this that calls me by my name?”
    “This is the man responsible for the curse of the soil plague,” William said. “He is King Aztuk… the King of Calakmul.”
    Yum Cimil rested his claws against his boney chin, and he tilted his skull with a creepy smile. “How exquisite… how delightful…. how wonderful how you have angered me!” he said, with his black drool splattering against the cylinder. The demon smashed his clawed fist against the crystal, shattering it. He yanked the King out, holding him by his waist, and glared at the struggling man with his black sunken eyes.
    “Yum Cimil, it is not true. I will help you,” King Aztuk said, begging for his life.
    The demon studied King Aztuk for a moment and then shifted his attention back to William. “You do realize, Jupiter, that to reverse the curse of the soil plague, the King must be dead?”
    “Yes, of course,” William said. “We had a bit of a problem.” He glowered at the grey men; they had backed further away from the hideous demon.
    “Must I do everything myself,” Yum Cimil said, and promptly bit off the King’s head, with his screams cut short. The demon turned with a devilish grin and spit the head right through the center of the scoring ring of the ballcourt. He went beside the bloodstone and dropped the headless body beside it. Kneeling over, he watched closely as the bloodstone drained the corpse of its remaining blood. Yum Cimil let out a pleasurable moan as he stretched, with his joints cracking. “It is done. I am free.” He glanced back to William. “Although I would love to stay and hear more of your stories, Jupiter, other duties now call my attention.” Yum Cimil trudged over to the chasm in the ballcourt and climbed back in. As the lunar eclipse concluded, he gave a farewell nod and dissolved into the light of the moon.
    William went over to the broken area of the ballcourt and retrieved the bloodstone. He draped it over his neck, feeling the warmth of its radiant energy. Looking into the stone, he sensed that its curse had been lifted. Yet the bloodstone still felt… tired. He hoped it was a temporary symptom-from the stress from the ritual-and would soon pass.
    “The distortion has been lifted from these lands,” Jensik said. The vessel hidden in the dark cloud drifted in, blotting out the moonlight.
    Seblinov approached the Serpent Priest, beside the crater where the demon had just disappeared. “You were correct in this matter. There are forces on this world that we do not fully understand.”
    The Serpent Priest glowered at them. “I hope that you will trust the advice of my people when you settle back on your world.”
    “You will join us, of course,” Seblinov said.
    Priest Quisac shook his head. “I choose to remain behind.”
    “No, Priest Quisac,” Yax said. “Come with us.”
    “Yes, you must come with us,” Seblinov said in a more urgent manner. “Your… traits… are desirable to us.”
    Priest Quisac moved over to the dead body of King Aztuk and stared at the lifeless corpse for a moment. He sighed and looked back to Seblinov. “I have made an oath to the Solar Cult to help the people of this land. I intend to keep my promise to those who remain behind.”
    Seblinov studied him in silence for a long awkward moment. He finally nodded, appearing to agree, and snapped his attention to William. “Strangely, Balam also contains the genetic codes of a strong bloodline. It is very faint, and it required extended analysis to be certain. It is also the reason that his connection to the bloodstone is so great. This requires further analysis. He must join us.”
    “No,” William said, becoming angry, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying here!” The glowing bloodstone emphasized his decision. William felt rooted to the ground, just like he did in Kohunlich before the explosion. He sensed that the bloodstone would prevent the grey men from taking him, if it was against his will. Luckily, he had learned to better control his mind since that outburst, and he was able to settle his nerves before his hostility caused another deadly fire.
    The grey men appeared frustrated; their helmets twitched on their heads as they stared at each other like they were having a secret argument.
    Teshna rushed to William’s side. “I will also stay,” she said.
    “Teshna?” Yax asked with a sad face. The sound of a ‘hoot’ distracted him. The white owl was sitting on a wall above the ballcourt. William wondered if it had been there the whole time, watching the ritual unfold.
    Seblinov and Jensik moved over to the broken cylinder, investigating the damage, while continuing their private conversation. An orange light lit up the area, and the wrecked equipment vanished. They turned back, and Seblinov said, “Allow us to escort you to Chichen Itza.”
    “It is not necessary,” Priest Quisac said with a stern face. “We have other tasks to attend to before we can leave. It will take some time. We can make our own way.”
    William remembered something important that he needed to ask the grey men before they left. He approached Jensik. “Bati plans to return home, back to our time… through the Serpent Passage. She said you offered to help by providing equipment?” He thought they might go back on their promise to Betty since he wouldn’t give them what they wanted. However, after another hidden dialogue, Jensik nodded and a metallic box materialized beside him.
    “Inside this container are the suits that have been configured to supply you with the air that you require,” Jensik said.
    “Very well,” Seblinov said. “We must depart.”
    Yax reached over and held his sister’s hand. “Are you sure you won’t come with us, Teshna?”
    “No, Yax,” Teshna said. “My place is with Balam. Go now, and be a strong leader for our people!”
    Yax nodded. He hugged William, Teshna, and Betty, and then bowed to Priest Quisac before moving beside Seblinov. Yax lifted his arm for a final wave goodbye. The gesture caught the attention of the white owl; it flew down and perched on Yax’s outstretched arm. He jumped, startled by its sudden appearance. A smile could be seen spreading across his face as a flash of light took them all away… including the owl.
    William consoled Teshna in his arms as she wept. He also felt sad for Yax’s departure, knowing that he would likely never see him again. But as the dark cloud moved off to the north, and the light of the full moon illuminated the land, a wave of satisfaction swept over him. Although the outcome wasn’t what anyone expected-for Dzibanche had been abandoned-he felt relieved to know that most the people survived. They had reversed the curse on the land, and future generations would be able to inhabit the region. The bloodstone had been healed too, so it could be used to help the Mayan civilizations in the north.
    Yet before looking too far ahead, William recognized that his next priority was to assist Betty in her return home-on the day of the winter solstice. But more than helping Betty, he felt the need for closure on his old life, and he sensed that sending Betty home would provide that.

Chapter Nineteen

    The following weeks passed like a much needed holiday for William as he waited with the others in Dzibanche for the winter solstice to come-for the day the Serpent Passage would activate again. The time drifted by in a pleasant procession of sunrises and sunsets as he relaxed and replenished his strength.
    However, it wasn’t all fun and games during his vacation. The Serpent Priest insisted that William take advantage of his extra time to study things that would be useful to him in his new life there. He learned how to read the patterns in the stars to make predictions-although much of that still went over his head. Priest Quisac also took him on field trips deep in the jungle to teach him about the plants that could be used for medicinal purposes, as well as those that would kill. Meditation exercises became a part of his daily routine, too. The Serpent Priest said it would improve his ability to direct his thoughts, to better control the bloodstone’s skills. At first, he found meditating to be boring, and he had a hard time clearing his head of random thoughts-especially when those distractions were related to his physical desires for Teshna. He couldn’t wait for his lessons to end so he could run off and spend time with her. Eventually, he found a rhythm to meditating, and he could see the benefit in focusing his mind.
    The land began to show signs of recovery. Shortly after the curse had been lifted, the great ceiba tree sprouted tiny buds along all its branches. Later, those buds transformed into bright green leaves. Priest Quisac said the ceiba tree was healthy enough to perform another Binding Ritual. This time, however, their purpose was to extract the seed required to make a new Tree of Life in Chichen Itza.
    As they prepared for the Binding Ritual, William studied the dull glow emanating from the bloodstone; he worried that it wasn’t healthy enough for the ceremony. “Priest Quisac, even with the curse lifted, the bloodstone still feels weak.”
    Priest Quisac nodded as though he already knew. “Although empowered by the gods, at its physical essence, the bloodstone is still a living heart. The hostile energy it experienced in recent months has stressed it in the same way that such trauma would strain anyone’s heart. The Binding Ritual may help it to recover. If not, we must consider other options to fully heal the bloodstone over the months to come.”
    The Serpent Priest had already given William a preview of what to expect on his next Binding journey; so he wasn’t worried about it. He understood that it would be a more enjoyable process than his first mission into the spirit world, especially since he wouldn’t have to deal with the demon, Yum Cimil. Teshna waved incense as she chanted the required prayers, while Priest Quisac sliced the tree and William’s palm. He held the bleeding extremities together, pressing his weight against the back of his hand.
    A moment later, William relished in the sensation of being the ceiba tree again. He stretched his branches to the sky, aware of the sun feeding him through his leaves. As Priest Quisac had instructed him, William focused all his attention on the sun, feeling it warm his soul, like the pleasure of taking a hot shower on a chilly morning. While bathing in the sun’s comforting warmth, time seemed to accelerate, for trees perceived the passage of time differently. The sun appeared to move across the sky like he was watching it through time-lapse photography. As the sun reached the horizon, he heard music… like a wispy melody from a flute. His body, in the form of the tree, felt hot… but in a sensual way that was difficult to comprehend. Passion surged through his body and soul as the sensation peaked. When the feeling faded, William fell asleep.
    He woke up in his bed later that night with a foggy head. Teshna was there beside him, comforting him with her soft touch. She told William that the ritual had succeeded; the seed had been passed on from the Tree of Life. “But go back to sleep,” she said. “We’re leaving tomorrow.” Teshna kissed his shoulder and closed her eyes, sleeping with her head nuzzled against his arm.
    The following morning, William wandered through the palace, but he couldn’t find Teshna anywhere. He came across Priest Quisac in the courtyard, and the Serpent Priest said that she had gone to the Temple of the Owl. William trudged over to the ceremonial center to see what she was up to. He met up with her just as she exited the chamber beneath the pyramid. Her face was solemn and tight; the redness in her eyes indicated that she had been crying.
    “Are you okay?” William asked.
    She pressed her face against his bare chest. “I just wanted to say goodbye to my mother… to leave her with a gift.”
    “Did you leave a plate with an owl painting on it?” he asked.
    Teshna pulled back, surprised by his question. “Yes, I did. It was the last gift my mother gave me before she died. But how did you know?”
    William shrugged. “That plate was found there in the future… in the tomb, by your mom’s body.”
    Teshna smiled, seeming to take comfort in that thought. She took William’s hand, and they went to find Priest Quisac and Betty, to make final preparations for their journey to the Sacred Cavern of Jade.
    A short time later, they were ready to go. Their packs were stuffed with the necessities they would need for the trip-food, clothing, and supplies. As they were leaving Dzibanche forever, they could only take what they could carry. William and Priest Quisac also lifted a litter between them; it held the improvised dive gear that the grey men had given them.
    Before they headed out, William shot a concerned look over to the ceiba tree. “What about the seed?” In their rush to get going that morning, he had forgotten about the Binding Ritual with the tree the day before.
    Priest Quisac smiled. “You carry the seed, Balam.”
    “I do? Where is it?” he asked, looking in his pack.
    The Serpent Priest laughed and pointed at his forehead. “It is inside you… the seed… the essence of the Tree of Life… it’s there, waiting to bind with a new ceiba tree.”
    William rolled his eyes. “Okay, whatever.” Before leaving, he approached the great ceiba tree one last time. He noticed that the bloodstone didn’t glow like it used to when he was near the tree, nor did he feel the same connection that he had become accustomed to over recent months. It felt like an ordinary tree. But that was okay too, for the tree could just be a tree… like being able to retire, he mused. William gave the ceiba a final pat goodbye and followed the others out.
    William and Betty prepared to make their way into the Sacred Cavern of Jade alone. Priest Quisac and Teshna decided to wait at the entrance, atop the vine-covered hill. The Serpent Priest thought it best to stay outside with bloodstone; he worried that the energy in the cavern could weaken the stone further. Teshna also wanted to remain behind, telling William that he should see Betty off on his own… or at least that was her excuse for not going in. The uneasy look in her eyes indicated that those caves gave her the creeps.
    After lowering the alien dive gear down the steep entrance with the guide rope, William paused in a moment of doubt, wondering if sending Betty back was the right decision.
    “Is something wrong?” Betty asked William, noticing his look of concern.
    “You don’t have to go back just for my sake… to tell my mom. You know you can stay here, if you would rather.”
    Betty laughed. “I think I’ve had enough adventure to last me the rest of my life, Will.”
    Yet William was still troubled. He feared Betty might also face danger in the future, at the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. He regarded the Serpent Priest with a serious face. “You spoke of a cataclysm at the end of the Great Cycle. That’s where Betty is going. What will happen to the people in the future, Priest Quisac?”
    The Serpent Priest moved in close, his silver eyes scanning between William and Betty as he spoke, “The foretold cataclysm is not something that Man can prevent. For our world to evolve, a cleansing is required, to remove negative energies, and to promote healing. However, if Man can embrace the final underworld-during the last days of the cosmic plan-and evolve to a higher consciousness… this cleansing may be a positive change, and we may finally live in balance with the land. Yet there will be much death and destruction during this transformative time.”
    “What kind of cleansing are you talking about?” William asked.
    “The cleansing will come from the heavens, as the cosmic plan exerts its final push-to transform our world into a higher state of vibration. The energy from this event will increase the frequency and strength of natural disasters. But there will be survivors… as there always are. They will inherit the new world.”
    Betty understood a little of what was being said, and after William filled in the gaps, she let loose a big grin.
    “Hey, those disasters have already been happening and I’m still here.” She pretended to knock on wood. “Whatever will be, will be… I’ll roll the dice and see what happens.”
    Betty was right, of course. Natural disasters had been occurring with more frequency; he only had to think back on recent news reports of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and tornados that had killed thousands in the years before they left. Yet according to Priest Quisac, even more destruction was on the way-at the end of the Great Cycle-possibly worse than his modern world had ever seen. However, Betty knew the risks, and she still wanted to return.
    William stepped through the circular opening and headed down; the sacred flashlight illuminated the way. Partway along, he paused, waiting for Betty to finish saying her farewells to Priest Quisac and Teshna. A moment later, he saw Betty’s hand clutch the rope. She climbed through, looking a bit teary-eyed, and followed behind him. When they reached the bottom of the tunnel, Betty had the same flabbergasted look as William did when he had first seen the immense chamber of the crashed spaceship. But on this day, William noticed something different; yellow and red sparks flickered within the green triangular crystals on the walls, creating a strobe light effect in the chamber.
    They carried the litter with their equipment through the passages until they came to the ledge overlooking the cenote. Ropes had been secured in place from years before, which extended the distance to the base of the underground cavern. After they lowered their gear, they climbed down using a rope that had been tied with knots for a better grip. Water from the creek above trickled over the limestone walls, making it a slippery trek down.
    When they reached the bottom, they dressed in their rubbery suits-being careful to not tear the material against the jagged rocks along the shore. The light from the sacred flashlight emphasized the milky yellow colors of the stalactites and stalagmites, in comparison to their first visit when the dim greenish glow of the fluorescent algae lit the area in gloomy hues.
    “Are you sure this is the right day?” Betty asked, while pulling her arms through the sleeves. The suit was a little too long for her body and bunched up around her elbows.
    “Priest Quisac says it’s the winter solstice today,” William said. “I’m sure he would know. Besides, didn’t you see how the green stones in the jade cavern sparkled? They only do that on the solstice days.”
    They had practiced getting geared up a few times before, and followed the same routine to finalize their pre-dive preparations. After their suits were on, he tied the flashlight to the disk-shaped sacred item.
    “What’s that for?” Betty asked.
    “It’s an anti-gravity device,” William said. “It can help you to move heavy objects… or it can propel you in the water. I tested it in the cenote last week. It really works! After I send you on below, I don’t want to get sucked through the Serpent Passage too. So I’ll use it like an underwater scooter to come back.”
    While William adjusted the breathing container on Betty’s back, he sighed. “It’s hard to believe that after all we’ve been through, you’ll be gone in just a few minutes.”
    Betty turned back and gave William a hug. “I’ll miss you too,” she said, with tears in her eyes. She forced a smile. “But now that you have this suit, you can come for a visit any time, right? I’ll just be on the other side of this tunnel.”
    William smiled. It was a comforting thought to know that each year he would have the option to go back home, if he ever wanted to. He finished connecting the tubes to her helmet and gave her a serious look. “Remember what we agreed, Betty? You can only tell my mom about all this.”
    Betty held up her hand like she was saying a pledge. “I know… I promise. I won’t tell anyone else about the Serpent Passage. They would think I was crazy, anyway. I’ll just say I hit my head… that I had amnesia all this time.”
    “Do you have my letter?” William asked. It had taken him a while to write the note to his mom, painting words on the thick bark paper that they used in those days. He discarded several initial drafts until he found the fewest words to capture his story-what he wanted to tell his mom on just a few pages.
    Betty patted her stomach, hitting a firm object inside her suit. “Right here,” she said.
    William held the edge of Betty’s helmet just over her head, looking one last time into her green eyes. He tried to memorize the contours of her face, realizing it was likely the last time he would see her. “I guess this is goodbye,” he said.
    “You take care of yourself, William.”
    “I will.” He lowered her helmet, locked it into place along her shoulders, and pressed a button on the side of the breathing container on her back-initiating the airflow system. Betty helped William with his final connections and turned his air on as well.
    He picked up the anti-gravity device-with the flashlight secured beneath it-and moved down the rocky shore. Betty followed behind him, and they descended to the bottom of the cenote.
    William already knew which way to go. He headed straight to the entrance of the Serpent Passage, where the ghoulish carving of an angry serpent greeted him. A flash of red light beamed out of the serpent’s mouth, providing William with a final assurance that the passage was awake. He maneuvered through the entrance and grabbed Betty’s hand, helping her in. A current pulled them forward, and he locked his arm around a stalagmite; he didn’t want to risk going any further.
    As he drew Betty near, she grabbed hold of his shoulder for support. He pointed down the long circular tube, just as another red flash lit up the tunnel. Betty nodded her bird-like helmet, seeming to understand which way to go. The directions were pretty obvious at that point, as there were no other options but to go straight ahead. She gave his hand a gentle squeeze before letting go and allowing the drift to carry her through the Serpent Passage.
    While watching Betty’s progress through the tunnel-lighting her way with the sacred flashlight-he became aware of the pivotal moment before him. He could easily choose to go through the passage and return to his simple life as a kid back home in the future; he only had to let the current take him. Or, he could turn back and take responsibility for the challenges of the past. Of course, he had already made up his mind long before. He loved Teshna, and he would have stayed there just for her alone. Yet his decision to remain in the past was much more involved than young love. At the core of his soul, William sensed that he was supposed to be there, with the ancient Maya… to achieve something great.
    He was tempted to wait until flashing lights whisked Betty away, but figured he had better get out of the passage while he still could. Once Betty passed a certain point in the tunnel, the Serpent Passage would activate, and he worried that it might pull him through.
    With the click of a button, he started the anti-gravity device; it made a muffled rumbling noise. He pressed another button with his left thumb, and the device propelled him ahead. After angling his body in the opposite direction, William maneuvered out of the Serpent Passage.
    He glanced back, noticing how the red flashes came in faster intervals. The light brightened to orange and then to yellow. Just as he had feared, a strong current pulled him back. While fumbling with the controls, the tunnel drew him back. He braced himself at the entrance of the passage, pressing his feet against the teeth of the serpent carving. William pressed the accelerator button to the maximum setting, and he began to pull away, feeling like his arms might rip clean off his shoulders at one point. He aimed the device upwards and broke free from the suction with the suddenness of a rubber band snapping, launching him out of the water like a dolphin leaping from the sea. William landed with a hard belly flop; the device shut off when he lost his grip on the handles. As he paddled to the shore and climbed out, a dazzling white light from the cenote lit up the cavern. In that moment, he knew that Betty had completed her journey through the Serpent Passage; she had made it home.
    He shut off the air supply, popped the pressure seals, and pulled his helmet off; he set it on the ground. After shifting the breathing container off his back and crawling out of the suit, a content smile spread across William’s face. He felt a sense of satisfaction for finally accomplishing what he had set out to do six months before, when he tried to save Betty from drowning in the Cenote Azul. At last, he had rescued her.

Epilogue

    While packing his gear in preparation for the hike back, the sound of a splash caught William’s attention. He scanned the surface of the underground cenote, but didn’t see anything. He brushed it off, figuring a rock had just fallen into the water. As he stuffed the suit inside his pack, he heard the noise again. It was more of a pop than a splash-like a bubble popping at the surface. Another bubbly pop came from the middle of the cenote, and William shot his attention there. He imagined the bubbles were being caused by the energy from the Serpent Passage.
    The bubbles began to surface closer to the shore. When he leaned forward for a better look, he saw a dark form moving beneath the water, growing larger as it ascended. Two little lumps rose out of the water before eyelids snapped opened, exposing yellow glassy eyes that rolled from left to right. The eyes became transfixed on William. A snout surfaced, and he could see the tips of its nostrils. William gasped at what appeared to be the head of a crocodile. “Oh, that’s just perfect!” he said with annoyance. William recalled the crocodiles that he had encountered on the other end of the Serpent Passage, and he assumed that one of the giant reptiles had somehow made its way into the cavern through the tunnel.
    He grabbed his things and hustled to the side of the cavern, tying his sack to the end of a hanging rope so he could haul it up after he climbed out. Before leaving, he glanced back, aiming the sacred flashlight-still attached to the anti-gravity device-at the cenote, to check on the crocodile’s position.
    When the crocodile reached the shore an odd thing happened. Two long green arms reached out from the water and gripped the rocks. The entire body sprang up from the water with a giant splash, right into a standing position-at least nine feet tall-steadying itself on its thick legs. It shook the water from its plume of yellow feathers on its head and neck, while glaring at William with its crocodile-like face.
    William beamed the flashlight along its body. It wore rubbery green and red clothing that resembled a shorty wetsuit; its scaly tail poked out the back. It lumbered closer-swaying from side to side between its long strides. “No freaking way,” William mumbled, while shining the light at its head.
    The creature threw its webbed hands up, shielding its eyes from the glare. “Off the light!” it said in a low raspy voice, speaking in a choppy Mayan dialect.
    William aimed the light away and stared at it with astonishment. “Let me guess,” William said in Yucatec-Maya, “Gukumatz?” He remembered the name from the story Priest Quisac had told to him… the creature from the ‘Legend of the Serpent Passage.’
    It halted within several feet of where William stood. Its reptilian body shifted, while its eyes rolled around in thought. “Much time, last called. Of you… the Balam?”
    “Yes, that’s right,” William said, astonished that he knew his name. “You’re a feathered serpent, aren’t you?”
    “Called by many ways, by many peoples,” Gukumatz said, as he moved in closer. William shined the light at his face again, and Gukumatz stopped, shielding his eyes. “Off the light!”
    “What do you want with me? Why are you following me?” William asked, holding the light on his reptilian face.
    “Off the light, and I tell you.” After lowering the beam, Gukumatz glared at him. “Of you, disturbed the passage… altered time… impacted my kind. Of you, have I searched. Must not, of you, to leave here!”
    “Hey, take it easy,” William said, threatening with the light again. “Look, this passage pulled me in here. I didn’t ask for this.” Gukumatz took another step forward and William held the light steady on his face.
    “Off the light!”
    “Move back, and then I’ll lower the light,” William said. Gukumatz complied, staring at William with hostile eyes, his feathers standing up at the back of his head. William lowered the beam again, not sure how much longer the flashlight defense would work. He thought he would try to reason with Gukumatz. “I know you have some kind of agenda here that I can’t even begin to understand; the grey ancestors of the Mayans said so. But maybe we can work something out?”
    Gukumatz seemed to get even more upset, as his raspy breathing accelerated. “Know you, of the Grey Ones?”
    “Wait… how do you know about them?” William asked. “They just got here… and they’re leaving the planet soon.”
    A low chirping noise came from the back of his throat; it sounded like he was gagging. However, William sensed it was his way of laughing. “Of this world, are the Grey Ones… of the north. Ancestors are not. Is reversed.”
    “What do you mean… reversed?”
    Gukumatz ignored the question, looking frustrated. “Of you, the seed to harvest,” he said in his deep scratchy voice.
    “What are you talking about?” William wished he had brought a weapon into the Serpent Passage with him, but he didn’t expect a confrontation on this leg of the journey.
    Gukumatz picked up a rock, pointed at his head, and then at William. As if the rock was William’s skull, he pretended to pluck something out, holding the imaginary object in his webbed hand. “The seed to harvest.”
    William had a sudden revelation. “You smashed those skulls that we found here before… because you were looking for me?” William’s heart raced. He knew the feathered serpent intended to kill him, just like the others who had been sucked into that cavern in the future, whose bones were tossed all about.
    A creepy smile crossed his face. “Of the Balam, searched of many times. Seed of bloodstone, to harvest,” he said, as he threw the rock down. It bounced into the cenote with a crack and a plop.
    William cringed. Priest Quisac had said that the seed from the Tree of Life was inside him now. Gukumatz wanted that seed… and it appeared that he planned to take it out of his brain. He had to think fast. Scanning his surroundings for anything that could be used as a weapon, his attention focused on a large serrated rock beside his equipment, and an idea surfaced. “Do you want the bloodstone too?” William asked. “It’s in my pack.”
    Gukumatz glanced at the sack beside the cavern wall. “Of the bloodstone?”
    “Yes. You can have it.”
    Gukumatz moved to William’s bag of equipment in three long strides and tore through his things. He tossed the helmet and breathing container aside and removed the folded suit, squishing it between his hands like he was feeling for the bloodstone in the material.
    “It’s there… inside the suit,” William said, while moving closer. As Gukumatz focused on unraveling the suit, William picked up the big rock, lifted it over his head, and slammed it against his feathery skull with enough force to split the rock into pieces.
    Gukumatz dropped to his hands and knees. His bloodied head swayed in a dizzy manner, while his tail whipped around like it had a mind of its own. William rushed to grab another rock to finish him off, when the creature’s tail smacked him hard across the chest, knocking the wind out of him. He tripped and fell into the cenote, coughing from the water he swallowed.
    After catching his breath, William swam back toward the shore, knowing he had to kill the beast while he still could. However, Gukumatz started to get up, and William dogpaddled back to the middle of the cenote, hoping the creature wouldn’t see him there.
    While rubbing his bleeding skull, the feathered serpent made a high-pitched chirping noise. He spun around, snapping his eyes in every direction until spotting William in the water. “Must not, of you, to leave!” Gukumatz growled. He grabbed William’s helmet and slammed it against the cavern wall, shattering the faceplate. Still venting, Gukumatz snatched the breathing container. He held it up for William to see, and jerked all the tubes out in a single yank. Gas shot out from the broken connections and the container took off like a rocket. It soared through the cavern, bounced off the stalactites on the ceiling, and raced straight down-like a heat-seeking missile-smashing with a dreadful crack into the side of the feathered serpent’s head. Gukumatz staggered a few steps and fell over with a thud, landing on top of the container that had sputtered out after hitting him.
    William lifted his hands from the water and cheered. “Ha! Take that!” He swam back to the shore and picked up another heavy rock to finish him off. But the feathered serpent already looked dead; he wasn’t breathing, and purplish blood oozed out the gash on his head. William tossed the rock aside, and it rolled beside his broken helmet. He studied the helmet with a sigh, realizing that his option to return home had just been smashed forever.
    William skirted around the dead feathered serpent and went back to the cavern wall, grabbing a rope by the drizzling waterfall. He was about to start his climb out, when he remembered the sacred items. Priest Quisac would have been mad if he had lost them. William spotted a light shining beneath the creature’s tail, and he groaned, realizing that he would have to touch the dead feathered serpent to retrieve the sacred items.
    He returned beside Gukumatz and lifted his heavy tail-letting out a grunt that a body builder would be proud of-and kicked the sacred items free. He pulled the flashlight loose, wedging it through his belt, and draped the rope-still tied to the anti-gravity device-over his shoulder.
    “After awhile, crocodile,” William said to Gukumatz. He turned and climbed up the rope, resting halfway by bracing his feet on a thick knot. When he reached the top, William flopped on his back and rested there for a while, listening to the creek trickling beside him and splashing into the cenote below. He sat up and was about to leave, when a green webbed hand reached up from the edge of the cliff, grasping at his feet.
    The feathered serpent’s blood-covered crocodile face sprang into view. “Not to leave!” Gukumatz said with a growl. He swiped at William’s feet while continuing to crawl up the edge of the cliff.
    William scrambled back like a startled crab, kicking at the feathered serpent. Gukumatz lunged forward and bit William’s calf. Blood squirted down his leg as the beast tugged him back, digging his teeth deep into his flesh.
    With no other weapon handy, he grabbed the sacred flashlight from his side. With all his strength, he smacked Gukumatz repeatedly on the head. Sparks shot out from the tube and a shrill whistle blasted. Gukumatz grabbed the end of the flashlight and jerked it from William’s grip. The creature’s hand shook as intense electricity flowed into him; the feathers on his head shot straight up and burst into flames. William groaned when the current passed through the creature’s teeth and jolted his leg, just before he pulled himself free. A stinky smoke drifted out the feathered serpent’s nostrils, and his eyes exploded inside his head. The creature’s jaw dropped with a bubbly froth oozing out his mouth. With a final kick to the face, Gukumatz slid over the side of the cliff and splashed into the cenote.
    William crawled over to the edge and watched the creature sink. The sacred flashlight was still gripped in his hand; sparks lit up the cenote as he descended.
    Becoming aware of the pain in his leg, he inspected the bite marks. The wound was deep, and he thought it might need stitches. He pressed his hands against the torn flesh for a moment, waiting for the bleeding to slow. Blood continued to ooze out beneath his fingers, so he ripped a strip of fabric from his loincloth and wrapped it around his injured leg.
    A white flash drew his attention back to the chamber below, followed by another flash… and another. William staggered to his feet and gazed down with a perplexed look, watching the cenote light up every few seconds. “What the hell,” he muttered. More feathered serpents slithered up from the depths of the cenote. Three of them reached the shore, while more dark forms lurked beneath the water. One of the creatures caught sight of him and made an odd chirping sound.
    William spun around and hustled up the passage, grimacing from the pain in his leg. By the time he made it through the first stretch of rough passages and entered a metallic tunnel, he heard a rush of footsteps behind him. The tube merged with another rough passage. William took a bad step, and he fell into the stream, scraping his hands and elbows on the rocks. Through the dim light of the fluorescent algae in the tunnel, he saw two of the feathered serpents rushing toward him.
    A bolt of lightning whizzed over William’s head, straight down the passage with a deafening thunderclap. It hit the approaching feathered serpents, bursting them into a spray of green muck that splattered across the tunnel.
    “Get up!” Priest Quisac said.
    William shot a startled look over his shoulder, and he saw the Serpent Priest coming down the passage; he had a torch in one hand and the sacred weapon in the other. “Thank God you’re here!” William said. He stood and picked up the anti-gravity device that he had dropped during his fall. “There are more of them coming.”
    “I can see that… stand back,” the Serpent Priest said, motioning for him to step aside. William pressed his body against the cavern wall, covering an ear with his free hand. Priest Quisac fired again-with a thunderous blast-vaporizing another batch of feathered serpents that had made their way into the tube. “We must get above. They won’t follow us into the light.”
    They moved through the rocky passages until they reached another section of metallic tubes. A stampede of footsteps resonated from behind them. Priest Quisac stopped and gazed at the base of the cavern wall, at the point where the creek initiated its flow of water into the tunnels. William glanced back and saw lots of yellow eyes racing up the passage behind them, like a swarm of glowing bees. “We’ll never make it!” he said.
    “Take this,” Priest Quisac said, handing William the sacred weapon and torch. He snatched the anti-gravity device from him. “Get to the top!”
    “What are you going to do?”
    “Just go!” the Serpent Priest said. He poked away at various buttons on the anti-gravity device, causing sparks to jump out and latch onto the rock wall above the stream. While William backed down the tunnel, he could tell that Priest Quisac was trying to block the passage, pulling his weight away from the rocky wall; the device made a terrible grinding noise. Just when the feathered serpents rounded the corner, the cavern collapsed. A flood of water gushed forth, blasting the creatures back down the passage. Falling rocks and dust filled the tube, followed by a torrent of water that swept William off his feet and extinguished the torch in his hand.
    He got up and waded through the tunnel; it had flooded up to his waist. “Priest Quisac!” he called out. He could only hear the falling rocks. When his eyes adjusted to the dim glow of the fluorescent algae in the tube, he noticed that the passage beyond had completely collapsed. He feared that Priest Quisac was crushed, or that he had been flushed away with the feathered serpents.
    William struggled up the flooded tunnel and bumped into something floating on the water; it was the Serpent Priest. Blood covered the back of his head; his ponytail had become red. William turned him over, and Priest Quisac coughed up a mouthful of water.
    “What happened?” Priest Quisac asked with a dizzy look.
    While kneeling beside the Serpent Priest to examine the cut on his head, William could hear the steady gurgle of rushing water just beyond the cave-in. It occurred to him that Priest Quisac had removed the barrier between the passage and the underground river, which went all the way to the Cenote Azul. That was the connection that had pulled William and Betty down there in the first place.
    Priest Quisac had dropped the anti-gravity during the rock slide, and William couldn’t find it anywhere. After fishing around the tube further down the tunnel, he came across the sacred weapon. “At least we still have this one,” William said.
    “It is good that we do,” Priest Quisac said. “We will need it.”
    They climbed up the steep entrance to the Sacred Cavern of Jade and found Teshna, standing with her arms crossed, glowering at them. From the anxious look on her face, she had clearly been going crazy with worry. But when she noticed their injuries, her stance softened. “What happened down there?” she asked, leaning closer to inspect William’s bloody leg.
    William shrugged with a crooked smile. “The feathered serpents found us.”
    Teshna gasped. She snatched her pack and retrieved some rags. She handed one to the Serpent Priest before returning her attention to William’s injured leg.
    Priest Quisac wiped the blood from his head. “Our mission to reach Chichen Itza is even more critical now. The feathered serpents will be coming for us.”
    “We should have gone with our ancestors,” Teshna said. She pulled a jar from her pack and poured its gooey green contents onto his leg; he groaned from the pain.
    “No,” Priest Quisac said, regarding William with a knowing look. “You were correct, Balam. They are not our ancestors.”
    “That’s what Gukumatz told me too,” William said. “He called them the Grey Ones. He said they come from the north.” William winced when Teshna rubbed ointment into his bites.
    “If they aren’t our brothers from the stars, then who are they?” Teshna asked.
    Priest Quisac shook his head. It was clearly a mystery to him too.
    Teshna finished wrapping a bandage around William’s leg and stood with her arms folded, giving Priest Quisac an angry stare. “You knew they weren’t our ancestors, and yet you still let them take Yax?”
    “Their intensions are not hostile,” Priest Quisac said. “Yax will be safe, and he will keep our people under control. It is better that the Grey Ones did not know of our suspicions.”
    “Why didn’t they take us all on the night of the eclipse,” William asked.
    Priest Quisac smiled. “They tried, but the bloodstone somehow prevented it,” he said. “I could sense it… and I believe you felt it too, Balam. When they let their guard down during that moment, I could see their thoughts. They have no plans to leave our world. They only have Chichen Itza in mind. Yet I could not see what their agenda is there. We will find the Grey Ones. When we do, we will free our people for a greater purpose to come.”
    William sighed, realizing that his responsibilities were far from over. There were new obstacles to tackle in the days and months ahead. But after all the difficulties he had already overcome, he knew he was ready to face any challenge. It didn’t bother him that the tunnels leading to the Serpent Passage were now blocked, for he had helped Betty to get home. She would let his mom know that he was okay, freeing him of that lingering concern. Now he could focus on his path ahead. His future was there, with the people of the ancient Maya.
    Teshna handed Priest Quisac the jade box she had been guarding. He retrieved the bloodstone by its silver necklace and held it out to William with a proud nod. It reminded him of the day he first accepted the bloodstone at Yax’s palace. Back then, he couldn’t grasp the significance of the red gem. William leaned over, allowing the Serpent Priest to place it around his neck; it felt as if he was renewing his pledge to help the Mayans. He could now appreciate the magnitude of the gift, and he understood the important responsibilities the bloodstone carried. For the first time, William felt that he had truly earned the privilege to wear it.
    William pulled Teshna close to his side and gave her a confident smile that melted away the worries he saw in her eyes. He gripped the bloodstone over his heart and gazed into the warmth of the solstice sun-embracing his new life unfolding before him… and daring the adventures to come.
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