Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 3
Stories
Dream Engine
by Tim Pratt
The Adjoa Gambit
by Rick Novy
Xoco's Fire
by Oliver Dale
Small Magics
by Alethea Kontis
Fat Town
by Jose Mojica
From the Ender Saga
Cheater
by Orson Scott Card
Audio Bonus
Cheater
Read by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Hats Off
by David Lubar
Running Out of Air
by David Lubar
Senior Paper
Special Software Bonus
I-Wei's Amazing Clocks
by I-Wei Huang

Xoco's Fire
    by Oliver Dale
Xoco's Fire
Artwork by Julie Dillon

Though the smoke rose in sprightly wisps above the beach, Xoco knew that Sea and Sky had no hand in it. It was the breeze rolling off the surf that coaxed the billowing cloud to dance. She threw another whitefish onto the flames and watched its silver scales bubble and boil, gills puffing in the moonlight.

Xoco prayed again for an answer and cast her desires into the rising plume. Kimpana village was functioning again, she thought, if in a limited way. The gardens were producing. The fish were returning, slowly, of their own accord. Does the Shaman still need to hurt me, pin me against the floor of his hut and subject me to his savagery?

I will do anything, she thought. Anything, if you let me kill him. Let me feel his blood on my hands. Let it course down my body, soothe the burns and cuts that scar my thighs and spirit. But when there appeared no response, she sat back, worried. Her hand unconsciously rubbed the rigid bulge of her abdomen, comforting the twin gods that roosted within.

Xoco knew she wouldn't have another chance; the Shaman had gone up the mountain of prayers to meditate, to commune with the gods about the Gambi tribe that continued to harass and steal from them. She needed her answer now.

The tide rolled in slowly, consuming the black sands of the beach, gently lapping first at feet and then ankles and then calves. Salt water snuffed out the fire. As she sat and pondered, Xoco suffered a constriction of her belly. She waited breathlessly then felt another. Warm water seeped from between her legs, mingling with the cool waves of the sea. Was this her answer?

Xoco felt a sharp pain in her lower abdomen and pelvis; she couldn't prevent the scream that clawed its way from her throat.

"Mother, help," she whispered, but though she tried to lift her voice with a prayer, the suffering of childbirth wasn't enough to drive it through the palm trees, back to the village. She needed a sacrifice.

In desperation, Xoco searched through the water, lunging for a fish she saw beached on the sand. It was an Angelfish, with a white stripe that glowed like starlight. Ignoring the short spikes that dug into her palm, she ripped it in two. Chilly blood and gore gushed down her forearms. It was not a delicate prayer; there was no fire, no smoke, but there was pain, there was suffering. It would do.

"Sea and Sky, I offer this creature to you. I ask only one favor in return: take my voice and lift it with the breeze, with the mist and foam. Carry it to my mother for without her help, I fear we three will not survive this tribulation."

Their answer was immediate. Xoco felt the familiar slick sheen of the prayer covering her body, the unseen light that dropped from the sky and sank in through her ears, her eyes, her mouth and nose like inhaled smoke. It invaded her lungs, encircled the delicate flesh of her organs. When it consumed her completely, she closed her eyes and whispered.

"Mother, help." Her voice floated like feathers, past the tree line of creepers and ferns, off toward Kimpana where her Mother slumbered. And then the pain threatened to split her apart from the spine forward. She screamed.

Mother arrived in moments at the head of a war party of spearmen, no doubt afraid that her daughter had been attacked by a wild boar or a Gambi raiding party. She wouldn't have suspected that Xoco was in labor. The twins weren't supposed to be born for another moon cycle, at least, and while Xoco knew that twins rarely carried to full-term, it was still too soon.

Mother splashed through the water to reach her, dropping to a knee, cradling Xoco's body in outstretched arms. The burn-scars on Mother's face were smooth and shone in the moonlight and the Shaman's most recent work was evident in her swollen eye. What had that gained the village? A season of maize? A hundred sea bass? The fertility of a dozen cattle?

"Xoco, what happened?" Mother asked. She hadn't even bothered to drape herself in a sarong to ward off the night's chill. "Are you all right? What are you doing out here alone. You know better." Mother's hand found Xoco's belly; her fingers probed Xoco's skin.

"It's happening," Mother said. "It's too soon."

"Perhaps you can convince these children to wait."

"These?" Her eyebrow raised. Xoco nodded and was about to speak her confirmation when Mother cut her off.

"Hush," said Mother. "Breathe, child."

A silent moment passed between them; all that was heard were the gentle white tongues of the ocean lapping at their legs.

"Send the spearmen away," said Xoco. She glanced to where the men gathered, their faces a tangle of black tattoo ink and nervousness. "They shouldn't be here for this."

Mother clucked her tongue. "We may need them yet."

"Send them away," Xoco asserted. "The village turned a blind eye when these babies were put in me; they don't deserve to be here when they come back out." Another contraction and Xoco gritted her teeth, squeezed her eyes shut against it.

Mother understood the tone of Xoco's voice and her face contorted slightly. With understanding? With grief? She dismissed the warriors with a loose gesture. "You have more strength in you than I can imagine, Child."

When the hunters were gone, Xoco looked up into her mother's eyes with severity.

"This birth, right now. This is our answered prayer. We can be free of him now that his children are born."

"How can you know these things? From a fire and the moon? I have been reading the souls of smoked fish for longer than you, Child. Even I can't be so sure of their answers."

"I am sure," said Xoco. "These children will defeat him, Mother, and Kimpana will see that we no longer need him, that we can protect and provide for ourselves. They will be gods of deliverance."

"Your father, your children's father," Mother swallowed. "The Shaman. He is not going anywhere. He has won the whole village over. Even the elders have grown fat with his fishes and fruits and meat. The young ones have become lazy. They will never return to that life of labor, Child. Moving from place to place when the land gives up. And with Gambi threatening us, with all the men off fighting or practicing their spears, there is no way. This is nonsense. Keep quiet. Concentrate on your breathing." Mother cupped some water in her hand and dripped it over Xoco's hot forehead, brushing away her hair. "Besides, you are about to give him two children. He will leave you be. You might already be free of him."

Xoco couldn't restrain a cynical huff. "Just as you were free of him when you bore me?" She traced her fingertips lightly over the shape of Mother's swollen eye, felt the almost-glossy burn scars.

It pained Mother to hear and Xoco regretted having said it. But truth was something that, in the war for survival against the Shaman, they had promised each other never to abandon.

"The Kimpana may be lazy," said Xoco. "They may have condemned us with their indifference and selfishness, but they are a good people, Mother. You will see. We need only offer them a chance."

Another contraction. Xoco winced, moaned.

"We must get you back to the village. Lavria can help."

"No, Mother. I want them born here, in sight of Sea and Sky. To remind them what freedom looks like, should they ever forget."

"Child, I'm sorry, but in this you have no say."

Mother yelled to the spearmen and they came at a run. She directed the men to gently lift Xoco under the arms and legs, supporting her back and being careful not to jostle or disturb the children that were so adamant in achieving their escape.

Xoco felt herself being lifted out of the water, almost as if she were experiencing it through a story told by someone else. When the water stopped dripping, something warm from between her legs took its place. Xoco heard her mother curse the gods, something she'd never heard her do before.

"Hurry," hissed Mother. And the group of them spirited Xoco back into the jungle, carefully stepping over the deadfall and vines that obscured the floors in a patchwork of greens and browns -- all shades of gray under the dappled light of the moon. The pain drifted from the center of Xoco's mind. She noticed it like she would a garment, not core to her being but secondary, as though it draped her consciousness but didn't consume it. The world continued to darken. She knew she was bleeding; she could feel the hot runnels of blood trickling down her underside. She worried only about her children.

Unnoticed by Xoco, Mother had run ahead of them. When they finally made it to the village, past the thatched roofs of the main cook buildings and the small overhanging huts where families peered sleepily from entryways, Lavria was already waiting in her home. Her gray, brittle hair stretched unruly from her head and she rubbed sleep from her eyes.

The men set Xoco down like the gods' own treasure and Lavria stirred hot coals, adding twigs and grass, just wet enough to produce more smoke than flame.

At another contraction, Xoco let a cry escape her throat.

"What shall we do?" whispered Mother. "Need I find some fish to offer? Work your prayers, Lavria."

But the old woman quietly lay her hands on Xoco's belly. She positioned herself between Xoco's propped up legs and murmured thoughts and observations that Xoco couldn't discern.

"Bring a calf," said Lavria.

The hunters looked at each other. It seemed obvious what they were thinking. No such lavish gift had ever been offered on anyone else's behalf. And a calf, one of few that they had remaining, was a handsome offering.

Lavria didn't look up at them. "If you don't do as I say, you will explain your actions to the Shaman himself. Because if you continue to delay, either child or mother, or maybe both, will surely die tonight."

Three of them ran at her words, no doubt to find the nearest calf to be slain and burned to protect Xoco's children. But the suggestion that they might die frightened Xoco. She was willing to part with her life if need be, but never her children.

Lavria cupped her hands and pulled the smoke over Xoco's body, praying. It blanketed Xoco like fresh rainfall, coating her completely. It was a prayer for sleep so that they may deliver her babies, or perhaps a prayer to lessen the pain. Xoco's vision swam and her consciousness faded as the gods whispered lullabies through the prayer smoke.

She became scared then that she'd be absent at the birth of her own children. Xoco felt the darkness falling and resisted its arrival. She forced her eyes open.

One of the warriors returned with a squirming, squealing calf and Lavria, without ceremony, slid a knife across its throat. Xoco felt the warm blood splash against her thigh.

"Sky and Sea," said Xoco.

The group stopped and turned to her.

Mother asked, "What, child?"

"I want them to be named Sky and Sea."

After the gods, she thought. For they will be gods. They will deliver us from the Shaman and his cruelty.

Mother nodded. It would be so.

Xoco's head lolled. She caught flashes of red and brown, screams and conversation, the putrid, bitter smell of drying blood mixed with smoke.

"What is it?" she heard a voice ask.

"Three legs?" asked another.

"Four."

She felt pain. She heard a knife being pulled from a sheath. More, different pain.

"Twin girls," and then, "Joined at the spine."

Gasps. Muffled prayers.

"Can they live?"

"I can not know." And fear stabbed through the darkness, so much sharper than pain. "But yes, I think so. For now."

With that bit of reassurance, Xoco allowed her mind to glide out of her body, into darkness, away from the pain. Into the land of sleep, of Sea and Sky.

#

The night brought restless dreams, and the morning brought sweet ones. But with it, too, the morning brought the Shaman back down the mountain of prayers. Xoco sensed his approach and woke.

The hut was empty. Sunlight trickled in through the thatched roof, rays of dust, like ribbon, sliced the air. Two babies cried in the distance and Xoco sat up, igniting a fire below her waist. She could not help but moan from the pain. In a different time and a different world, one in which she didn't have children, Xoco would have continued lying there until the aching and cramping abated. But her babies were crying, and her tender nipples leaked fluid, and she could think of nothing else but getting to them, filling their bellies, making the crying and fear go away.

So with her elbows and legs, she gently rolled onto her side and pushed herself to her feet. She rocked for a moment, letting the blood in her system redistribute itself, her vision growing dim before returning to normal. Xoco pushed aside the hanging tapa door and stepped out into the mid-morning sun.

Women were singing, chanting. Their voices ghosted from a different part of the village. Xoco could hear their words punctuated with the whacks of beaters as they struck mulberry bark to make cloth.

The Shaman sat in the shade of the main cookhouse, the spiritual paint of the mountain still on his body, black tattooed lines, like lightning, scrawled across his cheeks. His scalp was freshly shaved but for the center strip from which his long hair hung low.

In his arms, Sea and Sky lay awkwardly, fused at the back, one looking in toward the Shaman's chest, the other peering away. Little mouths quivered with the force of their mewling.

Xoco's arms prickled at seeing him with the babies, but she measured his actions for a moment, watched the way the corners of his mouth curled up in a tight smile. He was almost fatherly the way he held them, comforted them, rocked them back and forth. He dangled a copper medallion in front of their faces, trying to entice their attentions with its gleaming surface. His head turned; he spotted her and his smile vanished.

"Come here," he said.

Xoco walked gingerly forward, hands held at her stomach as though to prevent her organs from falling out. She heard the distant voices of men back in the forest, burning and cutting the inedible plants to make room for the nutritious ones.

"They're hungry," he said. The Shaman lifted the children. He handed them to Xoco who struggled to find a position that would both make them comfortable and wouldn't suffocate either.

Her breath caught at the up-close sight of two babies stitched together at the back. Xoco had heard of twins born with parts of themselves in the other but she had thought those were nothing more than tales told at gatherings, around cook fires late at night. But she couldn't be surprised that her children were so mythical as to be joined. They would free her and her people; they were gods. Gods should be unique.

Sitting in the shade, Xoco placed a breast at the mouth of a babe and winced as the child latched on. She didn't even know which child was Sky, which was Sea.

As though he knew her thoughts, the Shaman spoke. "That one that now suckles, that is Sea." He stood before her. "What do you mean by naming these children after the gods? Such immodesty can do no good. You will bring their disfavor on this village."

"I didn't mean to offend," said Xoco.

"What will you do if the gods, in their scorn, no longer grant me the power to summon the fishes or to cause the berries and the maize to flourish? Will you explain to the people that it was your vanity that causes their hunger?"

I will explain all that and more, thought Xoco. I will explain how the gods sent these children as a blessing for us, to be rid of you and be finished with our dependence on you. Xoco decided to say nothing; it was a mistake.

The Shaman slapped her with the back of his hand. Xoco felt the familiar sting of knuckles against her cheekbone and while the blow itself was manageable, the way it jostled her tender stomach stung far worse.

"You will answer me."

"I will explain it to them. I will explain that it is my fault."

He placed a hand under her chin, lifted her gaze to meet his. "Aren't you going to welcome your father back home?" His voice was quiet, but full of insinuation.

"You just returned from the mountain. Even now it still prays," said Xoco. And she gestured up to the clouds of smoke that raised ever-skyward from the wound in the mountain's peak. "Surely we have enough to sup on for now."

Then the Shaman leaned back and with his hand resting on his stomach, he barked a loud laugh. At Xoco's fear? Her vulnerability?

"Fine," he said. "But the village is growing. There are more and more mouths to feed. We may have to increase our efforts." He began to walk away, off toward the banyans, but then he stopped and turned back. "And get Lavria to change your poultice. I can smell the blood from here." Then he was gone.

Xoco sat a while. She turned the twins around and fed Sky, all the while playing with Sea's hand, rubbing her arm, keeping her occupied while her sister ate. When they were finished and Xoco found the strength to move, she walked to the women's building. Her mother and Lavria sat grinding grain with a stone to make course flour and other women struck mulberry bark, placing the thin, finished sheets in buckets to soak. As soon as they saw her, they paused and stood, clucking their tongues.

"You should not be up running about, Child," said Mother. "You need to sleep. Those babies nearly drained all the blood right out of you." With a practiced hand, she lifted the children from Xoco's arms, smiled at them, made soft cooing noises.

Lavria lifted the front of Xoco's sarong, pulled at the blood-soaked cloth tied there. When she peeled it away, she saw the cut was an angry red and puffy.

"We have to watch this closely," said Lavria. "It could turn bad. For now, we will change this cloth and keep the wound clean."

Xoco noticed the women eyeing the joined babies. When they realized that she had noticed them, they busied themselves with beating the tapa, silently this time.

"It's a shame about them," said Lavria. "They'll never live full lives. I'm sorry."

"Don't be," snapped Xoco. "I'm not. Their bodies were an intentional act of the gods. There is a purpose in all things."

Lavria nodded.

Then a realization came to Xoco. "I want to tattoo them."

"They're too young," said Mother. "You must wait until they are old enough to realize what it is they're receiving. Besides, it may be too much to take for young ones like this."

"Lavria doesn't think they will survive very long. I want them to receive my mark while they are alive so that they will be sealed to me."

And so Lavria retrieved the sharpened tusk which Xoco used to tap her mark into the wrinkled sides of the twins. They didn't cry. They didn't make a single noise. The other women murmured about this amongst themselves at great length.

When the shape was finished, Xoco gently rubbed soot and sap into the design, providing its color. After, she poured sun-warmed water over it and observed her work and was pleased. On each of the twins' sides was half of Xoco's heart such that it joined where they did, at their backs.

There were screams from the other end of Kimpana; the roars of hunters and warriors filled the air. Xoco held the twins close to her body. She heard the sounds of wood striking metal striking wood. More screams.

"Gambi," hissed Lavria.

Around the corner ran a team of Gambi warriors, ten or twelve, clubs and spears dancing, faces painted in bloodroot paste. They spotted Xoco's children and started toward them with singular intent.

"Run. Find the Shaman," said Xoco before staggering in the opposite direction, her unsteady legs threatening to buckle. She didn't look to see if Mother and Lavria followed her instructions. She didn't have time; there were two infants that were relying on her.

Into the woods Xoco hobbled. The pain below her waist grew more intense with her motion, but she didn't slow. She twisted around the tall slender trees, passed by the brush and brambles with spines and star-shaped fruit. Xoco could only think of the beach, of the fish there that could help.

"Sea and Sky, guide my path," she whispered.

The sounds of pursuit clamored behind her. She heard men shouting, branches snapping and breaking underfoot. Xoco felt blood seeping into the cloth over her cut as she aggravated it again. And with the pain came something else. Like liquid smoke coating her body, she felt the gods' presence come over her, fall down onto her head and then shoulders, cascading to her feet.

A faint but recognizable path emerged in the jungle. Vines, limbs pulled away as she approached, revealing fresh and uncluttered ground, only to close and mesh together again as she passed. Xoco made it to the beach well ahead of the hunters. Sky and Sea wailed in her arms but she couldn't spare the moment to calm them.

Splashing through the surf, her head snapped from side to side, searching the water for anything alive. She found nothing but black sand and murky waters until a dead bass washed ashore at her feet. Though she'd never be able to divine an answer with it, some have said that even rotten, lifeless flesh held a certain power. There was great suffering to be harvested from death.

She leaned over, ignoring the firestorm in her belly, cradling her children the best she could in one arm, and plucked the slippery fish from the beach.

Xoco squeezed the creature in her hand, felt it squish between her fingertips while chanting: "Sea and Sky, lend us your protection. Just as you saw our need at the hour of delivery, now too we require your assistance."

A fog of gnats, of flies, of sickly dark smoke rose out of the carcass in her hand. It began to gather and thicken as four Gambi warriors charged out of the bushes. Xoco could make out terrified noises drifting back from Kimpana.

And without waiting, the swarm of insects and malice charged at the nearest warrior. It engulfed his head and beneath the shroud of their bodies, Xoco could make out blood burgeoning where they nipped and bit and clawed with unearthly skill. Flesh fell away as they gnawed on his skull. The horror of the sight was paralleled only by the wail that escaped his mouth.

The other three warriors were aghast. Fueled by fear and newfound hatred, they turned to Xoco. The dead fish, the gods, they had done her bidding and still it was not enough.

The nearest warrior swung a club that smashed against her temple. A blinding white light. And then darkness.

#

Movement. Xoco's body shifted and pitched, as though being carried. Light stained red through her eyelids. Then she heard her children crying and the world flooded back in on her. When she opened her eyes, Xoco saw the sky -- blue with great, billowing clouds, carefree, distant.

She realized that she was being carried. Her arms and legs were bound with rope of woven tapa. Another encircled her midsection and secured her to the makeshift litter she rode, carried by two Gambi warriors. When she tried to speak, to ask permission to feed her babies, Xoco tasted cloth in her mouth. She could only moan and half-shout to let them know that she was awake.

Her efforts garnered no response. Sea and Sky were getting angry at being ignored, and Xoco's breasts leaked from their mewling.

The Gambi at her head said something to the four other warriors that trailed behind. One of them held her children with obvious disdain. Xoco wanted to break his back.

It wasn't until she lifted her head, to fully glare at him, that she observed where they were taking her. The terrain had steadily become less green, more inclined. Volcanic rocks appeared in greater numbers and she noticed their elevation was increasing. It was a path none of the Kimpana were allowed to walk, but one Xoco had envisioned in a thousand dreams. They were taking her up the mountain of prayers.

Xoco tried to imagine what they intended to do with her, why they had come into Kimpana looking specifically for her and the babies. From her experience with the Shaman, Xoco could only think of one thing that these warriors would want with her. But they must know she had just born twin children. Surely she wasn't the most attractive object of their desire; surely there was someone more suitable. And then Xoco felt immense shame. She had come dangerously close to wishing her torment on another woman of the village and that was something she would curse no Kimpana with. The village had turned away from her family's pain in order to benefit from the Shaman's works, but no woman deserved to be any man's pet, to be used to satisfy the flesh and then discarded.

The Gambi were conversing now. Xoco wished she knew what they were saying. When Sea let out a cry of renewed strength, the lead Gambi growled something at the man holding the twins who then quite scornfully started to bounce them up and down, attempting to calm them. It only riled them more.

A warrior leaned over Xoco and scowled. "Shut up," he stammered. Xoco first thought he was talking to her, but then she realized he was referring to the children. He wanted her to shut them up. She gestured with her bound hands and the warrior scowled and cut the rope. Xoco reached for her gag, but the man holding the litter's base shook his head dangerously at her in warning.

Xoco shifted a bit, slid the rope down to her waist so she could sit up, if awkwardly, and then motioned for the warrior to hand her Sea and Sky. They walked in silence as Xoco fed the twins.

Xoco did her best to focus on her children. She played with their tiny fists, ran her fingers delicately through their soft tufts of hair, inhaled their sweet fragrance. If she never saw them again, Xoco intended to take every last detail of the twins with her into the afterlife.

The day was spent traversing the switchbacks. They led her up the mountain backwards so she couldn't see what approached. Near sunset, when the sun painted the sky with blood and fire, they reached the summit. For some time Xoco had heard the sounds of struggling, a female voice, drifting down the slope and now they grew louder. It set her on edge. Whatever they planned to do to her, they had already begun on someone else. Xoco wondered if anyone would ever find her up there, if they'd even think to look. It probably wouldn't be until the Shaman returned to the mountain, to summon the elements that would again feed their village for a time. He'd find her body splayed and battered, feasted upon by maggots.

But when they turned her around, Xoco saw that the Shaman was already there. He leaned over a woman, a fist full of her hair in his hand, a dagger in the other. It only took one scream for Xoco to realize who lay on the ground; she pulled the gag from her mouth.

Xoco slipped free of the rope about her waist and stood. "Mother!"

A Gambi turned and kicked Xoco in the back driving the wind from her lungs, knocking her to her knees. It was all Xoco could do to keep the twins in her grip. Miraculously, they didn't cry. They just lay in her arms in divine peace, oblivious to the danger around them, counting on their mother's protection.

"Welcome, daughter," said the Shaman. Then he spat what sounded like an order to the Gambi holding Xoco. A warrior untied her feet and released her. Since when could he speak Gambi, and why where they obeying his commands?

"Mother, are you all right?" asked Xoco. She looked to where her mother lay on the ground, her head pitched forward so that the hair not clenched in the Shaman's fist hung in a curtain to the ground, blocking her face. Soft moans issued from her direction. All the while, the Shaman grinned above her.

"What are you doing with these Gambi warriors, Shaman?" Her head pounded; her abdomen burned. Xoco gathered the strength from deep within. "They harass our village, steal our chickens and tools, all the while you pray to the gods to save us from them."

His grin melted into a sneer. "I explain myself to no one, Daughter. The Kimpana, the Gambi, you, your children," then he looked down at Mother who quivered beneath him, "this creature. You are all mine, my possessions. And a master does not explain his actions to slaves."

His confidence was terrifying. But Xoco had her children to fight for, a village of oppressed people.

"You are finished, Shaman. The gods have sent Sea and Sky to finish you."

The Shaman laughed, a mirthless and cold sound. "You speak of your vision? That pathetic prayer on the beach? Did you actually mean to deify those abominations in your arms?"

Though Xoco said nothing, she could not keep the surprise from showing on her face.

"Oh yes," he said. "I know. You play with fish and fire, surely you didn't think to keep such a thing from me?"

Mother raised her head; her eyes found Xoco's. Her face was withered and worn, old, wrinkled, ravaged by the smooth scars of long-healed burns, devoid of life. Blood gushed from her mouth like an upturned cup. And then Xoco realized why Mother hadn't said anything -- her tongue had been cut out.

The Shaman pushed the point of his dagger through Mother's throat, sliding the length of it into flesh, hilt deep, until pink metal poked through the back. With a wrenching twist of his wrist, her head rolled off onto the ground. Blood spilled everywhere.

"No!" Xoco screamed and lurched forward. Gambi warriors held her by the arms. Xoco watched as the Shaman chanted soundlessly; she saw the last fragments of gray dissolve from his hair, she noticed the creases and cracks of his face fill and the skin of his body grow tight and reinvigorated. He was becoming younger.

Without thought, Xoco clutched Sea and Sky to her chest tighter than before, rocking them, cocooning them with her body.

Blood had splattered onto the Shaman's face and he wiped at it with the back of his forearm, spreading the crimson fluid in a sinister smear across his cheeks. His eyes were large, white, and wild, like a cougar finding an antelope, an eagle spotting a trout. Drunk with bloodlust, he sauntered to where Xoco kneeled. She hardly noticed the burning below her waist. It was such a distant, insignificant wound.

"They'll come looking for us," said Xoco. "When we don't return, they'll send a search party of spearmen."

Xoco felt the power emanating from him, the cold heat of a malformed prayer. It wasn't the sweet caresses that had come to her when she spoke with the gods. It was a harsh, unforgiving presence that prickled her skin.

He grabbed Xoco by the chin, as he often did. His voice was almost sweet, sincere. "I am the hunting party. After the Gambi took you, as I asked them to, I assured the Kimpana that I would come and find you. Tragically, I was too late as your mother already died. You, too, unfortunately didn't make it. Run through by a Gambi spear."

There came chuckling behind her.

Bittersweet vindication swept over Xoco. "And how will you summon the rain without me, without Mother? How will you conjure your prayers without our suffering? You need us."

"No Daughter, I don't. I did at one time, that is true. But you've given me fresh blood. I will kill you, as I killed your mother. I will take from you whatever life you've got left. But your children will live."

Nausea, dizziness. Xoco found it hard to breath. Sweat glistened all over her body.

"No," she hissed.

"Oh yes, child."

And as fast as the lightning inked into his face, the Shaman's hands darted out and stole the twins from Xoco's arms. She lunged forward, but Gambi warriors held her down.

He walked back to Mother's corpse, splashed through the small puddle now congealing around the stump of her neck, sending dirt, muddied from her blood, flying in all directions. He was like a child playing after a rainstorm.

"And the Kimpana will love me for it. 'Oh, poor Shaman. He arrived too late to save his wife and daughter. But look what he returned. Sea and Sky themselves!'"

It was almost too much for Xoco as she sensed the truth in his words. The Kimpana would be fooled. They would let themselves be fooled. Because though the Shaman brought darkness for some, onto others he shined only light, and staring into the sun harbors no shadows.

"The gods cannot allow this. Not this."

The Shaman waved the dagger around as he danced. "A little cut here, a little slice there. Off comes a toe, out comes an eye. Two twisted, deformed bodies and enough suffering to drive the tide."

Xoco thought of her Mother, of their last night together on the beach when Xoco had felt pain and called to her and she had come to help. She thought of their talk of gods and deliverance. She remembered her mother saying that Xoco was strong. Now mother lay dead at the hands of the Shaman. Xoco would be next, and then later, so would her twin girls.

There burned a righteous anger in her gut.

"You are a worthless, cowardly man."

The Shaman froze. His body spun on his heels to face Xoco as though from foot to head he was chiseled from one piece of granite.

"What did you say?" His voice was quiet but lethal, a snake lying coiled in the grass. Xoco felt something sinister mounting, like thickening air before a storm. The fine hair on her arms and neck stood on end. But it was too late to stop; she was too furious.

"Urinate on the ground and at least you can use that mud to patch the walls of a hut. You are worse than that," she spat. "You are piss-mud without the dirt."

Even if the Gambi standing behind her couldn't understand her words, they seemed to recognize the reddening of the Shaman's face. Xoco heard them pull long knives from their belts. The knife tips pressed painfully against Xoco's back.

"Maybe I won't let these mutants take your place," whispered the Shaman. "Maybe I'll keep you around after all."

Xoco's heart constricted at this. She hadn't realized how much she was looking forward to death, an afterlife without the Shaman. But she couldn't leave her children alone with him.

The Shaman's gaze connected with Xoco's. His eyes were clouded over and distant. Xoco knew that, even now, the suffering he inflicted in her was strengthening him.

Finally, he said, "I wonder what we should do with them, then?"

And grabbing an ankle of both Sea and Sky, he pulled the twins in opposite directions, ripping them apart. Xoco froze. Her mind stopped. Her eyes barely registered the arc of blood that shot into the air, that misted and caught up in the wind and painted the ground red with its volume. The sound of cracking bones and tearing flesh resonated and pounded in her ears and she thought she'd never hear anything else ever again.

The Shaman leaned his head back, a near orgasmic expression spreading across his face. He dropped her daughters on the dirt. Xoco felt him drinking her strength like the dry ground after a rain.

So much suffering; he could destroy the world.

But she felt something else, too, float over her: comforting, vindictive whispers in her ear.

The Shaman had made one mistake, she realized. With every cut dug into Xoco's flesh, the well of her pain grew deeper. Each night she wept on the floor of his hut, ten lifetimes of torment bottled themselves in her skull. For each toll of suffering he extracted to work his wonders, he left a thousand scars on her soul. And now her mother. Her babies.

There was a great power in suffering, and Xoco had plenty in reserve.

"Sea and Sky, take me. Let me be your avatar." She prayed to the gods, her children. She prayed for deliverance.

Unlike the other times when the gods drifted lightly over her, Xoco felt their presence consume her like an inferno. It was immediate, intense, painful.

The Shaman must have heard her prayer, must have noticed the change in her posture, for his smile was abruptly replaced by confusion.

"What have you--"

But there was no time for him to finish. Without even standing, without so much as a thought, Xoco flung out a hand toward him. Great coils of black lightning, thick as tree trunks, howling, crackling, lit from her fingertips and slammed into his chest. It wrenched torso from legs and the two pieces of the Shaman landed a hundred paces from each other; a ghastly spray of gore and bone fragments fountained into the air.

Xoco stumbled over to where her twins lay lifeless, their backs torn out like gutted fish, her tattooed heart a split mess of black ink. She removed her sarong, unashamed by her nakedness, and wrapped them tightly in it, held them to her chest. She pleaded with the gods, then. Asked them to assist her, begged them for help. I will give you anything, my life, she thought. And she felt the last of her strength drifting through her body, soaking through her arms and into the twins until, finally, she felt them stir in her arms.

The Gambi warriors, previously transfixed by the afternoon's gore, saw Xoco rise, saw the twins draw new breath. They dropped spears and fled but their legs could not carry them fast enough.

The twins renewed her.

Xoco spun to warriors, one arm clutching the babies to her breasts, the other sending a plume of fire and death that leapt from man to man, consuming each one's skin and bones, before leaping to the next. With them, off toward the Gambi village, she sent a message. The clear sky clouded and drops of fire rained down, torching trees and farms. She heard screaming echoed up the mountainside.

Xoco walked down the mountain with Sky and Sea. What had taken the warriors all day to carry her up took less than an hour for her to descend. Her feet glided over stone and debris and the path cleared itself at her approach. She rocked Sea and Sky softly in her arms. The wounds along their backs had closed up. Their pallid flesh had pinked.

When Xoco arrived, the Kimpana had gathered in the village center. They had seen the lightning and fire on the mountaintop. They had heard the thunder.

"The Shaman is dead," proclaimed Xoco. "I killed him."

There were gasps. Mothers clung to protectively to their children and brave men trembled. When the old woman Lavria stepped forward, the Kimpana gathered behind her.

"Xoco, we were not proud of what your father did to you, but what could we do? We were powerless to stop him. We needed him for our food, for our protection. What will we do now that he is gone? Where will we find another like him? Surely you cannot blame us?"

And despite her hope, Xoco knew then that they had not changed, that they were still willing to sacrifice the lives of others to make theirs filled with ease.

"I can blame you," she said. "The Shaman presented you with two options. Eat of his fruit, his meat, his grain and allow the torment of his family. Or work, eat honest fruit and meat, and deliver his family from the evil of his works."

Xoco turned from them. "And you each chose evil."

"What of the Gambi?"

"They have been taken care of."

There was silence then. Xoco looked to the mountaintop where smoke and ash signaled the volcano's awakening. It would coat the land in dust but would harm no one. It was a sign, then. A monument to the events that had just transpired there.

"I'm sorry, Xoco," said Lavria. The sincerity cut to Xoco's heart. Surprised tears filled her eyes and she felt grateful for her turned back, grateful that no one would see them being shed.

"I am not one of you anymore," said Xoco. "The land will be difficult for you. You will labor hard to cultivate your fields. The fish will evade your nets. The rain will dry up. Yet, to live, you will work harder. You will fish longer. You will break your backs to plow rows for maize. This is your punishment and the mountain seals it."

Xoco took a step, and then another, content to leave the village behind. She had no attachment to this plot of earth, this particular dirt. With her mother dead, there was nothing left of her family here.

"Where will you go?" asked Lavria.

"Out. Into the world," said Xoco. "I delivered my children so that they could show me how to deliver my people. And now I'm free of this place. We're free."

She walked all night, never looking back.

Sea and Sky nuzzled her as she traveled. They had not been the wrathful gods that Xoco had envisioned, but they had been instruments of freedom, for it was their lives that enabled Xoco to tap the torment she had hidden deep inside.

As she walked, she felt the presence of the gods flake off her like dew evaporating in the morning sunlight. It was the pain, the horror that had fueled it. Like her arms, that void of suffering had been filled with something much more potent. Sea and Sky, forgiveness, freedom.

And she was happy for it.


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