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Mercedes Lackey began writing fiction while working for American Airlines. In addition to her many novels, she has written lyrics for and recorded several albums of fiction folk songs, which have been distributed through Firebird Arts & Music. Lackey's longest-running series, beginning with Arrows of the Queen, details the adventures of the Heralds of Valdemar. Lackey's other series include Bardic Voices; the Elementals; the Halfblood Chronicles (first volume: The Elvenbane); Elves on the Road, which includes Tor's Burning Water and its sequels; and the Obsidian Trilogy, also published by Tor, which begins with The Outstretched Shadow.
Lackey often teams up with both her fellow masters of fantasy, such as Andre Norton and Anne McCaffrey, and talented newer writers Rosemary Edghill. Married to artist and sometime co-author Larry Dixon, Lackey, who was born in Chicago, lives near Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Lupe sobbed harshly, her voice muffled, as if smothered by the darkness all about her. She clawed at the rubble that hemmed her in; her finger-ends were surely raw and bloody, but she couldn't see them, and she was too hysterical to feel much pain. All she felt was panic, the panic of a trapped animal---for she was trapped helplessly beneath tons of rubble, rubble that, less than an hour ago, had been the twenty-story hotel in downtown Mexico City where Lupe worked as a maid.
Today was September 19, 1985. Mexico City had just experienced one of the worst earthquakes in its history.
Ironically enough, it was also Lupe's birthday.
Less than an hour ago she'd been happy. It had not much mattered that she'd had to work on her birthday; she had known that she was lucky to have this job at all. Less than an hour ago, she had descended the stairs to the cellar storeroom singing. It would only have been a few more hours, and then she'd have been off, free for the evening. There was going to be a party, cake---and handsome Joachim, who worked as a bellman, had promised to come. She had a new dress, red and soft, like rose petals, and Joachim liked red. One of the tourists had already given her a tip for bringing extra towels. And there had been a full, unopened bottle of wine left behind after the party in room 1242. She'd hidden it in her locker, for her party. It was going to be a good day, with a better evening to come.
The ashtrays she'd come seeking were kept in boxes next to the stairs; cheap little metal things that the tourists were always taking. Somebody had overfilled the particular box she reached for and several of them had fallen out and rolled under the staircase. She'd had to wedge herself under the staircase to reach them. She hadn't minded; the cellar was well lit, and she was small enough to fit beneath the staircase easily.
That was what had saved her.
For with no warning, the floor began to buck and tremble like a wild horse; the lights sparked and went out. She screamed, or thought she did---she couldn't hear her own voice in the shrieking of tortured metal and concrete. She'd been flung backward and against the wall, and hit her head, seen multicolored flashes of light, then nothing.
When next she could think, she was hemmed in on all sides by concrete and debris; trapped in the dark---a darkness so absolute that there was nothing she could compare it to.
The reinforced staircase had protected her; kept her from dying beneath the crumbling hotel.
She knew at once what had happened; Mexico City had suffered earthquakes before. But she had never been caught inside a building by one; never known anyone who had been buried alive like this.
Lupe had survived the quake. Now as she stared into the darkness, she realized slowly that she faced death in another, more painful form: suffocation, starvation, thirst---
Madre de Dios, she prayed wildly, I'm only seventeen! I have always been good---I can't die---
The air in her tiny, sheltered pocket was already growing stale. She panted in fear, and the air seemed to grow thicker and fouler with each breath. The sound of her breathing was a rasping in her own ears, for the silence was as absolute as the darkness. She rested her forehead on the wall in front of her, feeling her chest constrict and ache. How long before the air became unbreathable?
That fear was enough to make her tremble in every limb. But worse than the rock that hemmed her in, worse than the thickening air, worse than any of it was the terrible, menacing darkness all around her.
Lupe was afraid of the dark; she had been afraid of the dark for as long as she could remember. It was a vague fear she couldn't even define, just a feeling that there was something---waiting for her. Watching. A something that lived in the dark---no, it was the dark.
And it wanted Lupe.
But it was rarely "dark" in Mexico City, even in the early hours of the morning. Certainly it was never dark in the two-room apartment she shared with her sisters; the neon signs of the nightclubs across the street saw to that. Her night-fears had been easy to laugh at until this moment.
Now she was caught in the very heart of darkness; thick, hot darkness that seemed to flow sluggishly around her, seemed to be oozing into her very pores and trying to force itself down her throat until she choked on it.
She could feel it now---
She gasped, coughed, and frantically scrabbled again at the wreckage hemming her in; whimpering and hardly realizing she was doing so. She had barely enough room to crouch; impenetrable rubble formed a tiny pocket around her---like the pocket holding the larvae of a tourist's "jumping bean." But the larvae would grow wings and escape---
She never would. She would die here, and the dark would eat her bones.
She wailed, and pounded at the wall before her with aching hands. Trapped---trapped---
Lupe's mother had had no patience with her child's phobias. The census said they were Mestizo---but Paloma had told all her children that they were truly Azteca, and descended from priests. "Look for yourself, if you don't believe---" she had told them all, and more than once. "Go to the museum and see for yourself." And so, dutifully, they had gone---to see their own high-cheekboned, beaky profiles (so unlike most of their schoolfriends' round faces and snubbed noses) echoed at them from pots from paintings, from bas-relief. "You are of noble blood, the blood of warriors," she had scolded Lupe when the girl confessed her nightmares. "How can you be so afraid?"
Mamacita, she cried out in her mind, what good is noble blood when the earth shakes? What good is descent from priests when the dark comes to steal my breath?
She sobbed, the thick air tasting of her own fear. The smell of her own sweat was rank, thickening the dark further. Her eyes were burning with tears as she continued to beat at the unyielding wall before her. She knew it was useless---but what else was there to do? It was either that, or curl into a ball of misery and die or go mad.
Maybe the Virgin would grant a miracle, and someone would hear.
She forced herself to pound on the wall, while her arms grew weary, and fists numb. Pound---pound---pound---
Then the wall moved.
She started back, hugging her bruised fists to her chest with an involuntary intake of breath, afraid now that she might have triggered a fate worse than the one she sought to escape---a second falling of rubble that would crush her.
When nothing else happened, she reached out with one hand, heart in her throat, and pushed tentatively at the spot that had yielded.
Again it moved---moved outward just the slightest bit. She tried to think, when the movement brought no corresponding descent of stone on her head---what direction had she been kneeling? What lay before her?
Carefully now, she felt along the wall; it was flat, or nearly. Cracked, cracks she could stick a finger in up to the first knuckle, but mostly flat. It must be the basement wall, then, rather than a tumble of concrete. She must be facing the back of the staircase.
Maybe the quake had opened up a hole next to the foundation! Maybe---maybe it was even a way out---
Lupe didn't hesitate any further; the thought of a way out gave her arms a new and frenzied strength. She shoved at the yielding place with all her might, bracing herself against the wreckage that held her trapped; shoved until she thought she was going to tear herself in two. And when the wall suddenly gave way, she was unprepared, and went somersaulting headfirst down a pile of dirt and rocks, hitting her head on a stone and nearly knocking herself out a second time.
She sat up, after a long moment of dazed blinking at the false lights thrown before her eyes by the blow on the head. Then she moaned and groveled in the dirt, for she realized she had merely exchanged one prison for another.
It was just as dark here as it had been there; the only difference between "here" and "there" was that now she could no longer touch the walls that held her prisoner.
That, in its way, made "here" even worse. The darkness was growing colder with every passing moment; she was somehow certain of that. Colder; and flavored with the taint of evil, like a nest of snakes. She could almost hear something breathing out there beyond the reach of her groping hands. The thing that had always waited in the dark for her was here, she knew it!
She scrambled backwards, inching a little higher on the mound of dirt, trying to reach the pocket in the rubble of the hotel basement that now seemed a haven of safety and sanity. But the dirt was loose, and slipped and slid under her, and she could get nowhere near her invisible goal.
She became aware of a strange smell; sweet at first, then repellent. Rather like the smell of the old catacombs where her mother had taken them all on the Day of the Dead.
But with the smell came something so welcome she ignored the faint charnel odor.
There was light out there---
Or was it only that she thought there was light?
She scrambled to her feet, peering hopefully into the no-longer-threatening darkness, clawing sweat-sticky hair out of her blinking, burning eyes. Yes, there was light, a dim, reddish glow---and it was coming from somewhere ahead of her.
So was the odor---but she ignored the smell in the rush of elation she felt at the promise of light.
With her hands out before her, she stumbled blindly forward, tripping on rocks she had no chance of seeing, until at last there were no more rocks and the dirt under her feet was level and smooth. Then it was no longer dirt beneath her feet, but stone, smooth stone, that the heels of her shoes clattered against like castanets.
Abruptly her hands encountered stone at eye level.
She squinted, and made out the dim bulk of a regular outline against the dim glowing. She had found the top of a low doorframe. Perhaps---perhaps another part of the cellar; perhaps the cellar of another building. There was no way of knowing what kind of a jumble the quake had made of the buildings. She ducked, and passed the threshold---
And the glow flared up, angry and hot before her eyes. It was like molten iron, red and glaring, so that she cried out involuntarily and hid her face in the crook of her arm.
At nearly the same moment, she felt something slam down behind her, closing off the doorway practically at her heels.
She whirled, going to her knees, and beat on the slab of stone that had fallen down to seal off her exit, seeing only now in the raw red light that her hands were bloody, the nails split to the quick, the skin gashed and the flesh torn and lacerated.
Something laughed soundlessly behind her.
Again she pivoted, plastering her back against the cold stone slab that blocked the door, mouth dry with fear.
She saw she was in a low-ceilinged, stone-walled chamber. Although there was no apparent source of light, the chamber was bright enough that she could easily see the colorful paintings on three of its four walls. She couldn't look at them for very long, though; the garish colors and the light that pulsated with every beat of her heart made it seem that they moved. They made her dizzy. The floor was black and crusted---and it was plain that this was the origin of the sickly sweet stench. And on the fourth wall---
On the fourth wall, the wall opposite the door, was a block of stone like an altar, and behind it, a statue. The statue, the paintings---they were like the ones she'd seen in the museum, only untouched, undamaged by years of profaning hands.
Things of the Ancient Ones, the Azteca. She seemed to remember, vaguely, that all of Mexico City had been built on ancient ruins, the ruins of the Aztec capitol, Tenochtitlan. And hadn't some of the museum artifacts been unearthed when they had dug the foundations of this very hotel?
The statue was of a dead-black stone that reflected none of the light in the chamber, and pulled at her eyes until she could no more look away from it than escape from this place. She knew, in a way beyond knowing, that the statue was of the rarest unflawed black jade. Priceless, and peerless.
With that knowledge, a voice insinuated itself into her head; it hummed behind her eyes, seductive, hypnotic.
She listened; she couldn't have escaped it even if she'd wanted to. And she didn't want to. It promised, that voice, even if she couldn't yet understand what it promised. It soothed; it began to drive out her fear. It was so good to listen to that voice, full of more promises than Joachim's, even. Almost, she could almost understand it. It was telling her---that she was brave, and good, and beautiful. That she was awaited here, long awaited. So good not to think, just to listen---thought ebbed away, and pain, and finally, the last chill of fear.
In the moment her fear left her, she saw that the statue was the source of the chamber's illumination; in that moment, the stench of the room vanished, replaced by a subtle perfume. The hurting of her hands and arms ebbed away as well, and she looked down dumbly at her hands to see them not only healed, but flawlessly groomed and soft, as only the hands of the lady tourists were. She looked up again at the glowing statue---and now it seemed to represent the very pinnacle of desire. Fearful no longer, she approached it; the sweet, hypnotic voice still humming behind her eyes, cajoling, promising.
Sherry Bryce Fernandez knew that exasperated tone of voice only too well. She braced herself for another inevitable sample of her husband's sarcastic wit, and winced in anticipation.
"Are you quite finished?"
"Not quite---" she ventured, and Robert sighed dramatically.
"So what," he asked, with carefully measured venom, "makes this tourist trap any different from all the other tourist traps we've gone past today?"
Sherry shook back her straight blond hair, held out the brightly brocaded huiple in nerveless hands, and attempted to explain. "This is Tenejapa work, Bob---I had no idea there'd be any this far north---it's the Chiapas women that do this kind of weaving---"
"Never mind," he interrupted, boredom and irritation showing only too plainly on his handsome face, somehow getting past the concealing sunglasses he affected. "Don't get started. I suppose now you're going to spend the next two hours dickering for that rag?"
"You know we don't have much to spend," she retorted, flushing. "And this could be very useful to me."
"All right, all right---don't go throwing that argument in my face. I'll see if I can find something worth shooting---" Robert backed out of the tiny cranny of the shop as Sherry turned her attention to the keeper.
It wasn't as if he hadn't been getting plenty of pictures, she thought resentfully, as she concentrated on bargaining the price of the huiple down to something she could afford. That was just about all they'd been doing on this trip---shooting roll after roll of film, spending hours in the broiling sun until the light was "just right"---it might be April, but April in Mexico was as hot as June in Dallas. This was the first time Sherry had been able to track down anything in her area of interest---
She felt an immediate surge of guilt, and tucked a wayward strand of ash-blond hair behind one ear with nervous habit. That wasn't fair---this was supposed to be a working vacation. And it was Robert's assignment that was paying for it, not hers. She was just lucky that the magazine had been willing to...
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Book Description Tor Books, 1989. Mass Market Paperback. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX0812521048