Miya followed Roach, unable to shake the inexplicable growing sense of unease gnawing at the pit of her stomach. The interior of the temple wasn’t what she expected. They trod on normal carpet, under normal lightbulbs keeping the place well lit. No skulls?
The only concessions to adornment were two paintings hanging on either side of the entryway. Vaguely humanoid figures at their centers contorted themselves into impossible positions. Others, more recognizable as people, knelt before them, arms outstretched. Their eyes watched Miya as she forced herself to keep walking. There’s the creepy. Fuck this.
The feeling in her stomach only grew worse. There’s something here. There’s something wrong here and it’s not those paintings. She checked over her shoulder. Where is it?
Roach noticed. “Problem?” he rasped down to her. If he was being affected like her, he didn’t show any sign of it.
“Bad, there’s something bad here,” she managed.
He raised an eyebrow at her inarticulate sentence. “Stay calm. We get cleansed, then we go in further.”
She stopped in her tracks. “Whoa? Cleansed? With fire? No, no way.”
Roach shot her an odd look. “It’s a steam bath.” He put a hand on her should. “Are you alright?” His eyes briefly glanced toward the door they’d come in through. The soldier watched them out of the corner of his eye.
She took a deep breath. I don’t know what that damn thing is and I don’t care. I’ve faced worse. “I’m fine.” Slightly raising her voice for the benefit of their watcher. “I’m just a little nervous.”
Roach nodded and resumed their walk towards a trio of doors. The center door, a heavy wooden thing, towered over the other two. He pointed to the unlabeled door on the right and said, “Women’s.” Under his breath, he whispered, “Just get hair wet. Two minutes.” With that, he disappeared into what she presumed to be the men’s.
Miya cast one more nervous glance at the now empty entryway before she slipped into the women’s room. Around a corner, out of sight of someone at the door, she found a row of five glass doors, covered in condensing water on the other side. Full towel racks lined the opposite wall. Steam baths? Really?
Miya stood in front of an open door for a moment, just long enough for some steam to accumulate on her skin and hair. She shut the door before it could start dampening her clothes. I knew I should have paid attention when Grandma started droning. This wouldn’t have been a fucking surprise.
Her head whipped around towards the sound of water dripping at the other end of the shower room. I hate this. I hate all of this so, so much, she complained to herself. She paced, whiling away the time until it would be acceptable for her to rejoin Roach. How was he able to just walk in here? That guy at the door knew him. He recognized him. Does Roach actually believe in all this crap?
She bit her lower lip. That door guy seemed fine with that soldier by him, too. Oh fuck, is Roach with them? Like a double agent? What if they’ve got some sort of magic trap thing for me here? I’m not getting captured again, fuck that. Not by Overlord, not by some psychotic Aztec priestess.
She checked her phone. Two minutes had passed. Fuck this, fuck this, fuck this, she thought as she wrenched the door open. She weaved streams of magic into her hands, ready to lash out to warp and ruin bones at a moment’s notice. An empty hallway met her. She gritted her teeth and waited, shoulders tense.
Finally, the door to the men’s steam room opened. Out walked Roach, running a hand through his short, damp hair.
Miya jabbed him in the upper arm, just above the elbow. “The fuck is going on?” she hissed.
“Here for worship,” he rumbled back. “Must be clean before the gods.”
“Like I give a shit.”
Roach frowned and replied, “People here do. I do. Stick out if you don’t do it.”
“How do you know this. How often do you come here?”
“Once a month, like most,” he said with a shrug. He checked over his shoulder at the empty hallways. If there’s no one here I don’t see how we’re going to get any information out of people. There’s no witnesses here either.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yes, it matters if you’re a murderous asshole. It matters if you believe in the same shit Ix does.” She regretted the words the moment they left her mouth, though outwardly she kept her hands clenched into fists. Come on, show me your true colors. Roach’s eyes hardened.
“Not the same,” he said, voice dangerously low. “At all.”
“Apparently you go to the same temple these guys are hiding out at. How is this not the same? Why the hell do you have a guy at the door?”
“No, the normal guy.”
“Lots of people don’t like us.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Miya replied, acid dripping from her voice. This bullshit is why people spat on me in this city.
Roach took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a brief moment. “We have a job. Sorry for not telling you.”
The momentarily forgotten sense of dread returned to Miya as he spoke. She bit her lip and stayed quiet. Roach grabbed the handle to the large central wooden door and pulled it open.
The vast, circular room they entered would have been dim if not for the massive glass skylight built in about five stories above Miya’s head. As it was, the high noon sun beamed down on the center of the room. There, a stone altar, cut from some grey stone and polished to a sheen, stood in the center of the room. Two modern gas powered braziers flanked it. Wooden church pews lined the outer walls.
“Should be more people here,” rasped Roach. The only other person in the temple was a withered, silver haired old man in the back, stooped over with head bowed on one of the pews.
“Why?” Miya whispered back.
“High noon. Sun at its highest. Is Tonatuih’s month.”
Which one is that? “Who?”
“Sun god.” He moved towards the center of the room, head turning as his eyes raked over their surroundings.
She hurried to keep up with his longer stride. “I thought that was-”
He cut off her question. “Long story.”
“So is that were you rip out people’s hearts?” she asked, nodding to the stone altar.
“No. Just place offerings there. Maybe burn them.”
“Offerings?” Is that a code for hearts?
“Used to be blood. Unsanitary. Now it’s food or money. Usually.” They circled around the altar. Miya checked the ground beneath it for bloodstains, finding none. The tiled floor was perfectly clean, not a trace of dirt or blood.
“Must be worth something. But small bills, not life savings.” He smiled, eyes distant. “One smart ass tried to burn a check he’d written.”
“What about all the smoke?”
“No problem.” He pointed to two unobtrusive vents built into the walls above the braziers, midway between the floor and ceiling.
They stared out at the empty temple for a moment. Miya caught a whiff of strong incense. “I always wondered why this place wasn’t a pyramid or something,” she said.
“Too expensive. And the city wouldn’t let us.” Roach shrugged.
“What’s the point?” Miya asked herself aloud. “Why burn stuff? You could just keep it.” She kept checking over her shoulder, expecting something to pop out at any moment.
“No life without sacrifice.”
She turned to him, hands on her hips. “OK. And all that human sacrifice? Is that all just fine to you?” The old man in the back had noticed their heated conversation, looking up for a moment before bowing his head once again.
“No,” replied Roach with a slow shake of his head. “Not something you can force. Must be willing.”
“You’re OK with people killing themselves,” she said, as a statement instead of a question. Roach nodded. “There’s so much wrong with that.”
“Or what? Kind, all powerful god? Not my experience.”
“You’re not a psychopath,” she hissed. At least I didn’t think so. “You really believe what they’re selling you here?
He checked over his shoulder again. “Theology later. Want to ask local priest questions.”
“That old guy?” she asked, nodding to the other end of the room.
“No. Not sure where he is. Office is there.” He pointed to another door set in the gaudy red walls.
“Are you sure?” she asked, gazing warily at it. Who knows what’s behind that thing?
She let him take the lead, sweat gathering on her palms. Roach tapped his knuckles on the closed door. After a moment with no response, he tested the door handle. It opened. The hairs on the back of her neck rose once they stepped inside. She looked around for any magical residue, anything that might be a threat.
A brightly colored skull sat on the standard office desk on the far side of the room. The few pictures on the walls featured a short, stocky Aztec man. One of the other people in the pictures with him was Roach.
“Not right. Basement door shouldn’t be open,” Roach rasped. Miya followed his gaze to yet another door, this one ajar. The primitive, caveman portion of her brain began to scream at her as they approached it.
“Maybe we shouldn’t,” she said, hanging back.
“No bodies or hearts stuffed away,” he grumbled. “Come on.”
His broad shoulders vanished through the door, leaving her alone with nothing but a fight or flight instinct screaming in her head. You absolute asshole. She bit her lip and forced herself after him.
Down the stairs, she found herself a long hallway that branched off to the right and left, a single dim light above keeping it lit. The first few rooms they checked were storage for folding chairs and tables. Then, they turned a corner and came to a room roughly beneath the center of the main temple. They stopped dead.
Her eyes were drawn, not of her own will, towards the center of the room. A black mass hovered in the air, no light reflecting off its surface. Blood smears covered the ground below it. She backed away in horror.
“Oh fuck. Oh fuck that’s a demon.”
Roach, who’d been studying the blood, turned to her with a confused look, asked, “What?”
“That. Right there.” She jabbed a finger at the blood in the center of the room, where the mass hovered and swirled. Two, then five, then one eye stared back at her. How do you not see that?
“We need to leave. We need to leave or we’re going to die. Right now, right now.
“Hold on,” he rasped, raising an arm to bar her escape. “Explain.”
“It shouldn’t be here. It can’t be here. It eats and distorts magic or something, I don’t know. Nobody knows. We need to get out,” she said, pushing him towards the door.
“How do we stop it?”
“You can’t fight a demon. You can’t study a demon. We need to run.”
He narrowed his eyes at the blood circle around the demon. He backed away, finally listening to Miya. The demon simply watched without a sound, staring a hole in Miya’s back.
“Freeze,’ thundered a voice from down the hallway. The soldier from the door, aimed a pistol at Miya and Roach.
Roach let out a low rumble and charged. Miya whipped her head over her shoulder, checking for any other soldiers he might have brought along, finding no one. The soldier put three bullets in his chest before Roach collided with him, crashing him into the wall.
Roach’s fist shot out, directly for the soldier’s head. The soldier tucked his head behind his shoulder, the brunt of the blow glancing off of the top of his skull. Pinned as he was against a wall, he shot another two bullets into Roach’s foot. The flesh knit itself back together soon after. Miya darted off towards the soldier’s left, gathering magical power in her hands.
The soldier dropped his pistol and jabbed a punch into Roach’s throat, the force sending the large man stumbling back a pace. He pushed off of the wall and to his right, putting Roach’s bulk between himself and Miya. The next punch Roach threw he stepped into, wrapping his arm around Roach’s.
Damn it, move. Miya tried to jump out from behind Roach’s back. The soldier twisted Roach’s arm until something popped, eliciting a low grunt of pain from the big man. His other hand grasped for something at his belt. Roach brought his forehead down on the soldier’s nose, getting a spurt of blood for his troubles. Before he could follow up, the soldier drove a knife up his gut and into the dead center of his chest.
Miya looked away and desperately lunged, while the knife was still in Roach and not heading towards her. She got a hand around the back of the soldier’s neck. Just before he spun and sent the back of his elbow into her head, she released the streams of magic. Stars danced in her eyes as she was flung a few feet away from the soldier. Roach staggered to his feet, pulling the steel knife from his chest. He took in the sight of the spasming soldier on the floor for a brief moment, then shot Miya a questioning look.
“His joints are fucked,” she managed. She cradled her bruised head in one hand as she unsteadily tried to climb to her feet. Roach hauled her upright halfway through. “Bastard got me in the head, hard.” Her words sounded slurred, even to her dazed brain.
Roach put a hand on her shoulder as she swayed. “Might be concussion,” he rasped. “Let’s get back to Quarrel.”
She heard footsteps, heavy footsteps, rushing down the stairs they’d come in through. Backup.
Roach pushed her away from them. “Back entrance. This way. Will set off fire alarm.”
Together, they hurried towards a glowing red exit sign, gunshots and shouts in Nahua chasing after them.