What has happened before: Krista was separated from her small band, which included her best friend and first –sister Jase, her husband Keelin and his brother Karsyn, who was married Jase. The others were captured and taken to be sacrificed (see my story ‘Sacrifice’) Krista followed, hoping to find a way to rescue them. She is a shape-shifter, frequently using the form of a jaguar to negotiate the trails of the rain forest.
Krista had changed back to human form a couple of miles back, still trailing the group who had captured Karsyn and the others. She watched carefully for a chance to set them free, but there had been none. The men trotted along all day, keeping constant watch, and there were too many of them for her to attack directly. Her husband or her first-sister might be harmed. Even if she attacked in jaguar form she would not have time to slay them all before being killed herself, then there would be no hope to secure the release of the others. Frustrations boiling, she continued to follow, seething and focused only on the group in front of her.
With all of her attention on Rafa and his men, she did not hear the faint footsteps approaching from the back, nor did she sense the woven net of vines that suddenly settled over her head, entangling her limbs and holding her until three large bodies fell on her and stripped her of her weapons. They also removed her necklace with its horse figurine as one of them clubbed her into unconsciousness with a fist. Her soul wailed in despair as darkness closed in, her last thought being that she had failed and now they would die. She did not feel her arms and legs being tied, did not know of the rough hands that pawed her as the men, lecherous eyes wide with glee, sought sport.
“Enough!” Hector snarled, pounding the others with his huge fists. “We were told to capture the girl, not to have our way with her.” The others returned dark looks but did not argue with the big black man. They knew better than to cross him. Each had upon occasion felt the fury of his temper, and wanted no part of him. One man took each elbow and another picked up the ropes that bound her legs as they set out to deliver her to Ericson. With their leader watching closely, none of them tried to take further advantage of the helpless woman.
Krista slowly regained consciousness as she bounced along, carried by her captors. Her wrists were beginning to ache from the vines and there was a lump on her head, but her mind was rapidly clearing. For a moment, she wondered why she was not feeling panic at being captured. A few months ago she would not be calmly thinking how to get out her jam and go after Jase, Karsyn and Keelin. She would have been a mess of tears and fear. Things had changed. Now she was cold and calculating. Watching the sky, she noted the angle of the sun and realized that she was being taken north. Whatever these men wanted of her, she was not going to the pyramid. That gave her a brief moment of hope until she remembered that she had to go east, had to get to the pyramid and stop the sacrifices. But how? She was trussed up hand and foot and completely at the mercy of the men. They had even taken her figurine, leaving her helpless to change forms or…no! She was not helpless. Her grin almost tore a groan of pain through her clenched teeth, but she bit it back. She did not want them to realize that she was awake.
Night had fallen by the time the men reached a clearing that held a single hut of sticks and thatch. Not a village, just a lone shack. There were torches set on poles next to the door and one lone man sat before it, head lolling on his chest until Hector kicked the man in the side with a heavy boot, snarling for him to wake up and keep watch. Krista flinched when the light of the torches illuminated the big man’s black face and she saw the scar that crossed it, pulling the corner of his mouth down into a permanent scowl. His eyes, though, were a contrast to the rest of his face, and even to the way he spoke to the men or the way he kicked the sleeper. There was something in those dark eyes, something softer than she expected. Further speculation ceased as she was carried through the curtain of palm leaves and deposited in the darkened hut. A sudden inspiration struck her, and she spoke to the man who led the group, “Please, may I have some water?” There was neither fear nor begging in her tone, simply a request for aid.
Hector scratched his head, thinking, and Krista was afraid he would refuse, or worse, would strike out at her. She held her breath, biting her lip as she awaited his answer. Finally he nodded, “I see no harm in that.” He ordered one of the other men to bring a water skin.
Hector himself held the skin with one hand as he supported her with his other to allow her several swallows. Krista rinsed her mouth first, spitting the water on the dirt floor, then began to swallow. Emboldened by him allowing her to drink, she asked, “My hands hurt. I will not very well be able to get away from you unarmed, not as many as you are. Would you untie my hands? Please?” She put a note of fear into her voice so he would think her helpless and frightened. There was some truth to that; it did not require much acting. Inside, though, her feelings were dominated by the urgency to get to the pyramid and by anger. If she could only reach the small pocked inside the sleeve of her dress where the other figurines were… she either needed her hands free or needed her own necklace back. Eyes wide as if pleading, she also asked him to return it.
Hector frowned. Usually that was a ruse to make other people think of him as weak minded, but this time he was actually having a difficult time deciding whether or not he should comply with her request. “Ericson told me to keep you secure and to take the necklace. He did not say why.”
Krista smiled disarmingly, “He wants it because it is very old. He thinks he could sell it for much gold in Rio de Plata, because of its age and the fine workmanship. He is wrong, though. It has little value other than for me. My grandmother gave it to me and it is all I have in the world to remind me of her.” She held her breath, hoping that the big man had not been told the story of how she used the tiny horse figure to change her physical form.
Finally, Hector nodded, arriving at a decision, “I will untie the ropes on your wrists as long as I am nearby, but one sign of you trying to escape and I will bind you again, and even more tightly. As for the necklace, I will let you argue with Ericson about that. The man told me that it has some sort of magical property for you and that I had to keep it away.” He slipped the horse into the pocket of his billowing silk pants, then strode the three steps to the door of the hut and sat in a rickety ladder back chair and leaned against the wall, one eye on his prisoner. Krista gratefully rubbed the circulation back into her hands, her teeth clenched against the pain of the returning sensation. She refused to let her disappointment show. So he did know. Well, perhaps the others figurines would work for her if she could not get hers back, but she must wait to try until she was either released or until her situation became desperate. She did not want to allow Hector or Ericson know that she had them.
The captain returned shortly, storming into the hut and flinging his hat against the wall with a curse. Becoming aware of others in the room, he froze as Hector stood up from his chair and moved over to stand by his captive. A wicked grin broke out on Ericson’s face when he saw who was there, and for a moment he stood and stared at her, clenching and unclenching his big hands as lust filled his eyes. Krista would have backed away from him, but she was as far away as she could get in the small room. Her hand closed over the pocket where the other figurines were secreted, feeling a slight tingle of vibration and her hope rose a bit. Perhaps. Deliberately tamping down her emotions, she faced Ericson with a snarl.
He laughed, face darkening as he stopped and crossed his arms, just staring at her for a moment. “Where is your friend? I want both of you because it was so much fun to see the two of you squirm, wondering who would weaken first and betray the other.”
Krista drew herself up as tall as she could and looked the big sailor in the eye, “No one was weakening. I wish it had been you who came to our state room that day, then it would have been you lying on the floor bleeding your life out instead of your two henchmen.”
“Ah, yes, the two idiots. I still don’t see how you were able to overpower them.”
Krista narrowed her eyes, “You may find out soon, you pig kissing son of a goat. Release me right now and I will let you live.” Part of her hoped he would try her, but another part was not sure anything would happen if she tried to use the other figurines. Every time before, she had used her own, and had been clutching it in her hand. She had never tried with Jase’s nor with hers if it was not in contact with her skin. She would try talking first, and then, if that didn’t work, she would find out. She would either escape or die trying.
Ericson smiled, smoothing his long black hair with his hands and then clapping slowly three times, “Bravo, oh so brave, my little captive bird. Such bold words for one who is helpless. Keep saying that, it will make your screams so much sweeter. I know how you escaped, and took care of that. You will not get away this time.” He turned to Hector, “Get out. Go gather the others and tell them that we leave for Rio de Plata within the hour.” He reached out and yanked the front of Krista’s dress, ripping it to the waist as she clutched the shredded cloth in an attempt to preserve her modesty.
The huge black man took a step toward Ericson, eyes blazing, “I captured her and brought her to you so you could sell her in the slave market. I did not bring her so you could rape her.” He took another step and stopped short as the point of the captain’s dagger poked him in the throat.
“I said get out,” Ericson growled, “What I do is of no concern to you, unless you wish to see your life end right here.”
Hector slowly backed away, eyes turning to Krista with hurt in them, but he was helpless. With a final glare at Ericson, he started to turn toward the door, but froze, spinning back around and tossing the necklace to her and then exiting the hut.
There was no time for Ericson to react as Krista snagged the silver horse out of the air. Within the space of two heartbeats, the air where she was standing shimmered just long enough for the man’s eyes to widen in surprise, and a snarling jaguar faced him, fangs dripping as she advanced with hackles raised. He had time for one fleeting thought to cross his mind that his theory of her using the silver horse to work her magic as proven. His scream mixed with hers as she sprang full upon him, powerful jaws closing on his throat, cutting off his air, his scream, and his life in a spray of crimson. Standing over his body, eyes frozen in disbelief and horror, Krista stared down, watching his blood pulse out of his ruined throat and wishing that Jase was here to share the moment. Besides, she needed her sister’s arms right now. She hated killing no matter how much the man deserved it. She would shed no tears for him, though, she fully understood what he would have done to her. A long moment passed as his eyes glazed over in death and Krista finally turned from his body and moved toward the door and sat. She needed information. Part of the way here she had been unconscious, not knowing which direction she had been carried, just knowing that they were no longer as near the pyramid as when she was captured.
Letting her jaguar form fade, she resumed human form and called to Hector as she searched the hut for something to wear in place of her ruined dress. There was little to choose from, but she finally saw a small chest in the corner and opened it, delighted to find a colorful dress that belonged to the owner of the hut. Krista made a promise to return it if she got a chance as she quickly slipped it over her head. It was made of cotton and woven with different brightly colored threads, red, blue, green, and others. With her long hair, she almost looked like a native.
Hector entered cautiously. He had heard the snarls of the jaguar and Ericson’s screams, and his eye were saucers as he tiptoed into the hut and almost threw up when he saw his former boss’s dead body, throat ripped out and covered with blood. The young woman in front of him bore little resemblance to the fearful young girl he had left a few moments before. This one was in control. She was confident and sure, demanding to know where they were and how far they were away from the pyramid. He gulped, but smiled as he told her that they had taken her north a few miles to rendezvous with Ericson, intending to get away from the area before the sacrifices began.
Stepping outside the hut, Krista turned her gaze to the east to the rising moon. It was round and red as if filled with blood, and was about halfway to zenith by her estimation. She had time if she hurried, but just barely. Tepin had told her that midnight was when Ixchel would perform the ceremony to shed Jase and the others. Keelin! She had to save him. She had to save them all! Eyes filled with determination, she turned to Hector and the other men who had slowly gathered after seeing that it was a woman who emerged from the hut instead of a jaguar, “I am going to save my husband and friends. If you oppose me, many of you will die, but you will not stop me. I offer you a chance now to redeem yourselves for your part in Ericson’s foul plans. Go with me. Aid me in reaching the pyramid. It is your choice, but choose quickly, I must leave.”
Hector did not hesitate, falling to one knee in the dirt in front of her, “I will go with you. Please forgive me for harming you. I did not know what Ericson had in mind.”
Krista nodded, her gaze sweeping the others, “I forgive any who assist me. Any who do not, flee if you will, but if I ever set eyes on you again your lives are forfeit,” She turned back to the kneeling man, “lead me to the pyramid, but we must get there before midnight.”
With a whoop, Hector rose and grabbed up his spear and found Krista’s weapons, tossing them to her as he set off at a fast trot toward the southeast. The area they traversed was grassy with few stands of trees, and the path well trodden. Moonlight lit it well, so they were able to travel rapidly. Mile after mile rolled beneath their feet as they pounded down the trail.