With a weary sigh, Jake tugged the blue wire from its terminal and wondered how it could all have gone so wrong, so fast. A year ago he had a job that he liked, a wife that he loved and a house that was almost paid for. The house now was long gone, the wife had left after too many tears and Jake himself was reduced to working for Septus Dane. Not that he had much right to feel sorry for himself. It was his own fault, the whole lot of it, and he knew it. At least he was better at disarming security systems than he had ever been at installing them.
And even that, like everything in his life, was a sham. He had installed the very sensors that he was now disabling; they had probably never worked right anyway.
It seemed a shame to be ripping off a museum, especially one as pathetic as this one. He had cased the building for a full week and in that time had encountered only a few groups of bored-to-tears schoolchildren and some homeless people looking to bask in the feeble air conditioning. The museum's annual budget was probably less than the money he owed to Dane, and here he was about to bust in and steal the only thing that they had with any real market value. That, and a pot.
That pot, the very one in the "Treasures of the Dead" exhibit, a dusty old clay pot that the museum had glumly thrown into a display to fill the void left when their Egyptian mummy sprouted mushrooms. Not any other. That one. "The one in the photo, my boy," Dane had hissed at him over and over, "oh, and the amulet as well. The two together are priceless, you see. Place them together in the hands of a man of vision and the world will be forever changed."
Dane was nuts. Everyone knew it. The problem was that he nonetheless had a habit of drawing people into his debt. Money here, a favor there, and the next thing you knew he had a death grip on your family jewels. Jake should have known better -- and in fact did know better -- but desperation makes a stupid man do even stupider things.
Dane was nuts, which was no doubt why he was fixated on the pot while the necklace was a mere afterthought. Don't break the pot. Don't scratch the pot. Don't drop the pot. Don't shake the pot. Don't annoy the pot and oh, yes, remember to bring the necklace, my boy. According to the badly-printed paper sign on the display case the pot had been X-rayed and proved to be empty, while the necklace was strung with more than three pounds of pure gold. The two had been found together in an ancient tomb in Mexico, the necklace to show the Spirits that the dead man was a Very Important Fellow, and the pot -- who knew? Probably so that he would have something to piss in on the other side.
Jake tucked the wires back into the junction box and tried to shake off the gloom. This, Dane had assured him, would be the very last job and Jake was eager to shrug that monkey off of his back. If all went well, too, he might walk out with enough extra in his pocket that he might just have a chance at rebuilding his life.
The museum was almost as depressing after hours as it was when it was open. Jake walked calmly past the cameras. He knew well enough that the museum did not have the money to hire anyone actually to watch the monitors even if there were anything to see. The alarm system was dead, the cameras were blind, and Jake was alone. It was almost criminal for it to be so simple.
The display case that held the necklace was where the museum had spent the bulk of their savings. It took Jake nearly two minutes to pick the lock, but at last the tumblers yielded and the door slid open. Worried that the string might not hold after five hundred years Jake was ready with a plastic bowl to catch the beads, but the ancient hemp proved remarkably resilient. "Sorry, folks," he murmured as he slipped the treasure into the pocket of his coat. "I hope you've got good insurance."
Now for the pot -- the all-important pot, the one whose case was not even locked. Despite Dane's dire warnings Jake could not resist giving it a little shake, and then a harder one. The sign was correct; it was empty. The Very Important Fellow had never even had the opportunity to take his ghostly piss. Idly Jake turned it over and over in his hands, trying to figure out what Dane saw it in. It was a ghastly thing, basketball-sized with a lid that had been sealed tightly with clay -- a last-minute joke on the dead man, maybe. Its surface was covered with figures drawn, according to the sign, by Aztec craftsmen of the whatever-kingdom. The Aztecs, it seemed, liked to smoke some funny things, for the most prominent image was of a grotesque bat-winged figure that dwarfed all of the others around it. And it had boobs. Big ones. Apparently those craftsmen did not date much, either. Shrugging, Jake eased the precious lump of clay into his backpack, and then headed for the junction box to reconnect the security system. It would probably be days before anyone even noticed that something was amiss.
Septus Dane was a painfully unpleasant pimple of a man with far too little hair on his skull and far too much on his chin. He had the air of one who had been born Shecky but who had adopted the name Septus in order to make himself seem less ill-bred. Adding to his gargoyle-like visage was a lazy eye that always left Jake wondering if Dane was looking at him or staring down the street. Right now, in a rare moment of harmony, both of those eyes were staring hard at the pot as it sat upon the oaken table. Dane's voice was like oily fingernails on a blackboard when he said, "Please give Jake his present."
One of the four goons who always surrounded Dane stepped forward and thrust an envelope into Jake's hand. Jake peered at it a moment before opening it to find a passport in his name, a brochure for a museum in Mexico City, and a small stack of bills. "What the heck is this?" he asked.
"Your next job, my boy," Dane said with a thin smile. "The very last one before we part company. Oh, how I shall miss you afterward!"
Jake folded his arms. "No way. We had a deal. I don't owe you anything." He wanted to say more but stopped when he saw the bloodlust flare in the eyes of all four goons.
Dane furrowed his brow. "Oh, Jake," he whined. "Just this one little favor, for me? Please? For the sake of our friendship..."
The words seemed awfully sweet, but at a nod from Dane those four goons would tear Jake apart like a pack of wild dogs. Jake knew that all too well and decided that this was no time to argue. "What is it, another pot?" he grumbled as he jammed the envelope down into the pocket of his trousers.
"Such an astute boy," Dane chuckled. "I've always admired that in you. You should have everything you need right there. Off you go, now. Enjoy your trip." With that he lifted the necklace from the table and placed it reverently to his throat, pulling it tight in the back so it clung like a collar to his neck. "Oh. Oh. Oh, yes. Ohhmmmm." He began to breathe heavily. "Yes. Yes, my boy, yes...oh, my. Ohhhhhhmmmmmm."
Jake felt a little queasy.
One of the goons handed Dane a thin silver dagger while another tore open an alcohol swab. Dane used that to wipe the blade, all the while muttering and wheezing to himself. With the handle of the dagger he began to tap delicately at rim of the pot, chipping away tiny pieces of the clay seal. "Gently," he breathed, licking his lips. "Gently, mustn't rush, gently. Oh. Oh....."
"You know that it's empty, right?" Jake offered. "The museum X-rayed it."
Dane stopped tapping. His good eye twitched. The dagger gleamed in his fingers. "Gentlemen," he whispered, "is Jake still here? I thought that surely he would have set out on his final assignment by now."
Jake took the hint. Dropping his gaze to avoid the goonish glares he spun on his heel and hurried to the door. Behind him Dane's mumbling began anew, "oh, oh my, oohhhmmm, yes, oh," accompanied by the tap-tap-tap of steel on clay.
Six flights down and no one was following him. Jake could finally relax as he trotted down the steps to the sidewalk. The night air found its way through his jacket and chilled the sweat on his body. "Damn, that was dumb," he muttered to himself. Shivering, he ducked into the alleyway and took a few deep breaths to settle his nerves before groping about behind a row of stinking garbage cans. A moment later he found what he was looking for and shoved it into the pocket of his jacket.
He should have known that Septus Dane would not let him go so easily. Men such as Dane that liked to own people. They were accustomed to getting what they wanted only because no one had the guts to defy them. Well, no more! It had been a hell of a gamble but his all-or-nothing bet on Dane's fascination with that dusty old pot had paid off. Jake had spent enough time staring at the necklace in the museum to be able to fashion a passable replica. The real one weighed down his pocket, much heavier than the painted lead that now clung to Dane's pudgy throat.
When Jake emerged from the alley there was a spring in his step such that he had not had for many months. Dane had promised him that the world would be forever changed, and that was one promise, at least, that he had unwittingly kept. He had even given Jake the means to make his escape: a passport to Mexico, where the museum would probably fork over enough money for the necklace to allow Jake to start a new life, and a convenient excuse for vanishing forever. "Thanks, Shecky!" he grinned.
Two blocks away he noticed a rumbling beneath his feet. It felt like that of a subway train, which was odd because he was quite a distance from the nearest line. Then there came an avalanche-roar and the crashing of glass. A blast of air caught him from behind and sent him staggering and when he turned he saw the building that he had just left crumbling to dust. From the midst of the collapsing rubble emerged an enormous figure that stretched into the sky and unfurled leathery wings that blocked out the moon. A shriek tore through the air and shattered windows on either side of the street.
Jake rubbed his eyes and stared in disbelief. Leathery wings. Teeth. Boobs.
It couldn't be.
And then he was running for his life. Behind him the towering apparition shook bits of concrete from her hide and kicked her way out of the wreckage of Dane's condo. Bits of concrete whistled past Jake's head. Another shriek rang in his ears and he turned just as the monster leaned forward. Before her stood a throng of people who had rushed from the nearby buildings to gawk at the nearby devastation. Jake watched in horror as her hand swept downward and scooped through the crowd, seizing a great wailing fistful and lifting them to her muzzle. They only had a few seconds to scream before the mighty fist closed tight and crushed them like a handful of berries.
Jake smacked headlong into another man coming around the corner and both of them went down. The breath was knocked out of him and Jake wound up on his back, gasping. When he sat up he saw the beast crouching once again. Her hand easily caught up to the people fleeing away from her and snatched them up. Holding them close to her eyes she seemed to study them, her eyes narrow and blazing brighter with each passing second until with a shrill cry she drew her arm back and hurled them away. Their bodies looked like broken dolls as they tumbled across the sky.
"What the fucking hell is that thing?" said the man that Jake had run into.
"Shut up and run!" Jake croaked. Still gulping for breath he scrambled to his feet, pushed past the dumbfounded fellow and ducked around the corner. Behind him came a series of loud crashes, another unearthly shriek, and the echo of dozens of terrified human voices all silenced abruptly.
Jake ran but did not get far. In a matter of seconds the street around him was wall-to-wall with people, some running his way, others standing stupidly and asking what the matter was. "Just run, just run!" he shouted over and over, shouldering his way past the slower-running ones while being buffeted from behind by the faster. Behind him the air was ringing with the sounds of terror, the ghastly shriek of the monster, and a ghastlier sound that, while he could not see, he could tell was the sound of bodies being ripped limb from limb. The crowd around him grew thicker, elbows jabbing and hands shoving at him. The turbulent river of humanity slowed to a crawl, and then to a roiling halt, with Jake trapped in its violent eddies.
A shadow swept across the sky and was followed by a powerful gale. The last thing Jake saw before he was thrown into the air was a pair of enormous, clawed feet dropping down to the pavement ahead of him, their thunderous impact sending him sprawling. By sheer luck he managed to land atop the heap, and while they kicked and writhed beneath him Jake could clearly see the colossal form that now blocked the way ahead. She was gigantic, taller than the buildings on either side of the street, her fur so black that it seemed to drink in the pale illumination that lay over the city. Her feminine figure might have been attractive were it not for the monstrous animal features or those vast wings that were blotting out the sky. Her eyes blazed down at the sea of figures sprawling below her, her gaze shifting about as though searching for something, and not finding it she drew her lips back from bone-white teeth and raised a massive foot.
Everyone around Jake screamed and began to writhe like a pile of worms. The monster's sole, illuminated by the streetlights below, was glistening and wet. Pieces of clothing were stuck to it by bright red glue. The monster let loose another ear-shattering cry and that foot came down hard. Squeals of terror preceded the impact and were lost beneath an awful crunch, and then a wet mashing sound as the monster gave her foot a scornful twist.
Jake managed to get pavement beneath his feet as the giantess raised her other foot. She squinted, peering closely at the next mass of victims before she stamped them down and ground them into the pavement. She was poised for another blow as Jake threw his arms around a light pole and held on tightly while the crowd surged past him. There was fury in her eyes as she smashed them like an angry housewife wiping out a swarm of roaches. Jake clung tightly and watched, horrified, as the massacre continued. Hemmed in by their sheer numbers the people had no hope for escape; they could only surge and push and squeal like trapped pigs as the beast methodically stepped on them, her ferocious eyes scanning the sea of upturned faces, searching, punishing, searching, killing.
Jake's mind reeled. The monster. The pot. The wings. The boobs. Dane with his oohhmm. Of course! Keeping his death-grip on the pole with one arm he fumbled in his pocket and hoisted the necklace over his head. "Here!" he shouted. "Here's what you're looking for."
His voice was lost in the din of panic. High above him she growled, eyed a cowering knot of humanity and after a few seconds crushed them underfoot with an angry snarl.
Frantic now, Jake waved the necklace from side to side, and then remembered Dane's bizarre little ritual. Quickly he pressed the beads to his throat. "Here, it -" he began, and then gagged as the necklace seemed to come to life, coiling itself about his neck and clinging tightly. "Oh, shit!" he wheezed, raking at the collar with his fingers, trying to tear it off before it choked him to death.
The monster halted abruptly. Her foot, poised to obliterate another helpless tangle of victims, slowly settled to the ground ahead of them. Slowly she turned her head to the left, and then to the right. Jake gulped, the collar relaxing enough to let him breathe but still pressing hard enough that he could feel his pulse against the gold. "Shit," he wheezed, "it worked."
From an inch away someone shouted, "Finally! Where have you been?"
Stunned, Jake let go of the pole and stumbled into the void left by the retreating crowd. He clutched at his head, throbbing as though it had taken a bullet. "What? Who?"
While he could hear them clearly, the words were not hitting his ears. It was as if they were resonating through the muscles of his neck and shoulders. Turning from side to side he saw no one standing nearby, only terrified people fleeing into the distance behind him. "Where are you?"
High overhead the giantess set her hands upon her hips. "Are you blind, too? How can you not see me?"
Jake's mouth fell open and he stared up at the looming figure in disbelief. "I...are you...you're talking to me?"
The huge eyes narrowed in annoyance. "Is this a game? I am in no mood for games. Now tell me where I am."
Jake swallowed hard. The conversation, coming somehow through him, was making his skull tingle. For a moment he considered tearing the collar off and making a break for it, but somehow he knew that if he did so it would turn out to be a very, very bad idea. "You're...um...right in front of me. Front Street, near Chestnut..."
A screech of fury shattered nearby windows and nearly Jake's eardrums with them. The monster dropped to a crouch, raised a mighty fist high and brought it crashing down with an impact that pulverized the pavement just a few feet away and knocked Jake onto his rear. "Insolence! I shall crush you like the insect you are!"
"No!" Jake threw both hands up. "Please! Please, stop! I don't understand! I don't know what's happening! Who are you? Why are you doing this? Don't kill me! I don't know what's going on!"
Again those eyes narrowed. She lifted her hand away and rested it on her knee as she sat back. "Unbelievable. And you priests are supposed to be the smartest of your people? No wonder they're so mindless."
An enormous brow quirked.
She eyed him.
"Your priest, in fact. Yes, that's me. I'm sorry. I just...you scared me."
"And why would you be afraid of your goddess?"
His mind scrambled for the right answer. "I...should be, shouldn't I? I mean, you're the goddess, and I'm just...you know..."
"Yes. No! I mean...cowering before your might, I thought...that was in the job description. Wasn't it? We, ah, we should cower before you. It seems the, um, proper way to, you know, worship, and all that."
She sighed and sat back heavily. Jake found himself standing between her feet. They were tipped with claws as big as sabers and the remains of countless victims could be seen beneath them. Her calves rose like mountains on either side of him, and straight ahead...ahead, he didn't dare to look.
A movement in one of the upper floor windows caught his eye. It caught the giantess's, too, and with a speed that belied her great size she thrust a finger through the empty pane. When she withdrew it a man was impaled on the vicious claw. His legs kicked, his arms flapped weakly up and down, and he managed a feeble, gurgling cry as she flicked him into her mouth. Her jaws came together with an awful crunch.
"Oh, God," Jake whispered.
"Goddess," she corrected, still chewing.
Jake fought wave of nausea. "Wh...why did you do that?"
"Why did I do what?"
"You...you...you ate him!"
She finished chewing and swallowed. "He struck me as tasty," she said simply. Licking her lips she leaned forward, lowering her muzzle between her knees. "Now, what are you called, Priest?"
"Yes, me! Of course, me. Who else but me? I...am...Jake. Ma'am."
"Jake." She rolled the name about on her tongue as though tasting it. "It will do."
"And you are?"
Her great ears rose up. "I am...what?"
"Your...your name, Ma'am? Or, Miss?"
Arm-long teeth flashed as she drew back her lips. "How dare you! You, my priest, do not even know my name?"
He had to fight to keep from bolting like a frightened deer. "I do! I just...it's just...um....thinking, here...it's...not proper for my, uh, unworthy tongue to...you know...speak it. It's out of respect..."
"You don't know, do you?"
Jake thought his knees would give way at any moment. "I...just have trouble pronouncing it," he offered with a feeble smile. "A little help?"
Her eyes rolled. "Itzpapalotl," she sighed.
Jake stared at her. This was no time for the stupid collar to stop working. "Come again?"
She lowered her head closer. He thought for a moment that he could hear screams rising up from inside of her. In fact, he was sure that he could. "Itzpapalotl."
"...palotl. You really are not very bright, are you?"
Jake bit his lip. "No. I suppose I'm not. I am trying, though. Could...would it be all right if I just called you Itzy?"
"Or...not. Maybe...Itz...pa...pa....what was the rest?"
A blast of hot breath knocked him back. "Moron!" she snorted, the collar's buzz nearly jarring out his fillings. "Oh, very well. If your feeble mind can manage only that, I will permit you to call me Itzy."
Jake picked himself up and stood unsteadily. "All right. Now that we've got that sorted out..."
Itzy suddenly stood up, her feet settling deeper into the concrete as her weight bore down, with Jake cowering between them. "What is that sound?"
Jake heard it too. He tried not to look up. "Those are sirens. That means...oh, shit, the cops."
She peered straight down at him. "The what?"
"The police. The...guys with...um...no. Warriors! It's our warriors. They're coming. A lot of them, from the sound of it."
Itzy folded her arms. "Excellent. They are coming to worship me?"
"Ah...not likely, I'm afraid. I think they're more inclined...and please don't take this the wrong way...to, you know, kind of try to kill you."
She screeched with laughter. "Even better! I shall enjoy slaughtering them!"
Slowly she lowered her gaze once more. She looked displeased.
"I mean, no...please. No, please. Don't kill them. They're just...you know, misguided. How can they learn how great you are if you, ah, don't give them a chance to?"
Itzy frowned, but seemed to consider that notion. "You are indeed an odd one. Very well. We shall return to my temple. You can explain yourself once we have arrived."
"We?" He cowered at the look she gave him. "Of course, we. I'm your priest, after all. Sure. We. Um...and where, exactly, is this temple?"
Her head turned slowly from side to side. Her tongue flicked out and touched her nose. "I thought, perhaps, you might tell me."
The sirens were getting closer. It would not be long before the guns started blazing and Jake was fairly certain they would not make a lot of effort to exclude him from the crossfire. "It's...south, I imagine. Way far away. Look, you really ought to get going. Things are going to get very uncomfortable in a few seconds. Listen, here's an idea. You head south to the temple. I'll meet you there after I talk to the po...the warriors, and then maybe we can all come down, have a nice cup of tea, do a little worshipping...HEY!"
Her hand swept down so fast he could barely see it coming, and before he knew it her massive fingers were wrapped around him. She hoisted him into the air, leaving his stomach behind. "South it is," she said.
Blue and red flashing lights poured into the intersection below. Itzy gave them only a passing glance before she crouched and her mammoth wings snapped out to the sides, raking through the buildings and crumbling them like sandcastles. A storm of dust blotted out both lights and sirens as the giantess launched into the air, carrying a wildly screaming Jake with her.
"Oh, be silent," she growled as the wind whistled past. "Such a noisesome little thing."
Jake did not stop screaming.
"Be silent, I said, or I shall squeeze that noise out of you."
Jake shut up.
They climbed higher, and by the time Jake found his voice again he was certain that the fighter jet had already been scrambled. "Itzy!" he shouted. "You need to fly lower!"
"Because they'll catch us!"
She laughed, making the collar throb about his neck. "You mean to say that your warriors can fly?" The smirk in her voice was almost palpable.
"They can...and...if you fly too high, the...the...um, All-Seeing Eye of Radar will follow us and warriors will...ride their magic carpets...and...believe me, it will be a mess. They've got sidewinders, gatlings, laser-guided shit."
Itzy lifted him up before her face. "This Radar," she said, "Is he a god?"
Ancient wisdom whirled through Jake's mind. If someone asks if you're a god, say... "Yes. But...he's kind of a little one. More like me. Not much of a god, really, but he's got that all-seeing thing going and...oh, please, Itzy, could you just take my word for it? It's going to take too long to explain."
She sighed. "Very well. You are truly pathetic, do you know that?"
"I can live with that."
The rushing landscape rose closer and closer. Jake had to squint against the blast of dust kicked up by the giantess's wings, and the icy wind left him violently shivering. Itzy must have noticed because she soon cupped both hands around him, her fingers forming a warm and eerily quiet cocoon. He lay in total darkness, trying hard to wrap his head around the mess he had gotten himself in, and trying even harder to figure out what sort of story he was going to have to spin once she found out that there was no temple. No matter what, every scenario he came up with ended with him pressed paper-thin, and it was not long before he was left utterly exhausted. The darkness, warmth and silence worked their spell and despite the massive dread, he fell asleep.
The last of a series of horrifying dreams ended with a sudden burst of light and a blast of wind as Itzy rolled Jake into one hand and closed it into a fist around his body. "We're here," her voice muttered through his collar. It sounded far quieter than it had the previous night. It no longer hurt his head.
The shadow of Itzy's outstretched wings swept over dense forest below them. Squinting, Jake peered among the trees in search of some sign of a temple. "I don't see anything," he said nervously. He did not want her to be holding him when she found out that they had been on a wild goose chase. "How about we land and look for it on foot? You're probably getting tired of holding me anyway."
"Idiot. It is right in front of us. How blind can you be?"
Jake stared. The only thing in front of them was a snow-capped mountain. It was big, and getting bigger every second. And bigger. "Um...Itzy...maybe we should climb a little?"
"You said to fly low."
He began to squirm. A sheer cliff-face was rushing toward them. "I didn't mean this low. Slow down!"
The mountainside was seconds away. Jake grabbed at her fingers. "Itzy!" he shouted. Terrified, he closed his eyes tightly, and thus could not see the rock itself part like it was a pair of curtains. Itzy banked her wings and dove into the cleft which closed behind her , leaving not even a seam in the icy rocks.
It took a moment for Jake's eyes to adjust to the dim illumination but eventually he could make out the details of a vast cavern. The ceiling was high and domed like a cathedral, and the walls were decorated everywhere with the same kind of images that Jake had seen in the museum's exhibit. The dim orange light was cast from a source that he could not determine, until he realized that the walls themselves were glowing, almost like hot iron. "Itzy...is this...?"
"My temple, yes." She back-winged and settled on the stone floor, then stooped and set him down at her feet.
"So. Nice. I like it. Very homey. So, what's the first - YOW!"
Jake dove for the floor as one of her enormous feet rose and swept over him. He had a brief and uncomfortably close view of the padded sole as it rushed past and thudded to the floor ahead. She strode away from him and crouched, her short tail flicking from side to side, one finger tracing along a line of drawings close to the floor. Her claw trailed from left to right, pausing now and then before settling on the final image. There it stayed, quiet and motionless. Jake waited for her to do something until the silence became too unnerving. "So...what are we looking at? Is it a message? Some kind of 'while-you-were-out' note?"
Itzy snorted. "And you can't even read. Yes, it is a message, of a sort."
Jake picked himself up and moved closer. He glanced briefly toward the curves of her rump as she squatted with her back to him, cleared his throat and inched his way around her foot until he could see the images more clearly. "I'm just a little out of practice. What does it say?"
Her finger retraced the line. "They thought that the world was ending," she said quietly. "Here, it says that the gods were sealed away to protect them."
"Protect you? From what?"
She rested her finger on the final image. "I do not know. I have never seen this word."
Jake craned his neck. The tip of her claw rested on a carving of what looked like a man with a round hat peaked at both ends. In one hand he held a stylized sword, and in the other, a cross.
Jake felt a chill. "Oh, hell," he whispered, and coughed to clear his throat. "I think I know what they were trying to protect you from."
Itzy's gaze shifted to him. "Tell me."
He turned to face her but then looked quickly down at the floor. "I will. But first, promise me you aren't going to kill me."
Her eyes narrowed. "You are presumptuous. "
"Maybe. But I think you really may want to kill me when I tell you what I have to tell you, and I really would rather not be killed if it's all the same to you. So please promise me you won't kill me."
Itzy considered. Her hand moved to surround him, and she lifted him up so close to eye that he could see his reflection in it. "I promise that I will not kill you for what you are about to tell me," she said carefully.
"Or break any bones?"
Her grip began to tighten.
"All right, all right!" Jake wheezed. "I guess that's as good a promise as I'm going to get." He patted shakily at one of the huge fingers wrapped around him. "Just put me down. I'll tell you everything that I know."
She lay down on her belly, set him before her nose and folded her arms beneath her chin. Jake took a deep breath before sitting down and recounting everything that he could remember from eleventh-grade history class: gold and greed, Conquistadors and Cortés, gunpowder and smallpox. Itzy listened closely, motionless save for the slow rush of her breath over Jake's body. He told her about his debt to Dane and the robbery of the museum. "...and how they got you into a clay pot is anyone's guess. It was just a little thing, and you're...well, not little. And then I put this collar on and bang, I could understand you and you could hear me, and...and that's as much as I know." He stood up slowly and spread his arms in a helpless gesture.
Itzy gazed at him for a long time. "You are not a priest, are you?"
He lets his arms fall to his sides. "No. I'm not. I'm a thief. And an idiot -- you were right about that part."
"And are you one of these Spaniards?"
"No! Definitely not. I'm pretty much...nobody, really."
She slid her hands under her shoulders and pushed herself up until she was kneeling. Her gaze wandered to the images on the wall. "So there are none left. No people, no other gods." She sighed and turned away.
Jake shuffled his feet. "I guess not."
There was an uncomfortable silence, and eventually Jake ventured, "So, do you want to kill me?"
"No." He could barely feel her voice through the collar.
"Well, OK, then. Good to know. So I can go now?"
"Yes. There is a passage at the rear of the temple. My...priests used to come every day through it."
Jake's heart leaped. "Seriously? All right! I'll be on my way, then. Sorry about all the...things, you know." He took a few hesitant steps, paused, and then broke into a run. Ss he passed by her leg he half-expected her to reach down and swat him like a fly. Such a blow did not come, however, and when he looked back over his shoulder he saw that her eyes were closed. Tears were seeping into the fur of her cheeks and making them glisten in the dim glow from the walls. As big as she was, as horrible her treatment of the people she had caught, at that very moment she looked nothing at all like a monster.
Jake slowed his pace to a trot, and then to a walk, and finally he stopped entirely. Itzy did not make a move. She simply knelt there, silently weeping, all alone in her temple. Jake fidgeted and fingered at the collar. It made no sound.
You have no idea where you are, he reminded himself. There's nothing but wilderness out there. You'll freeze to death within an hour. If you survive, what will you tell the authorities? You have no passport, no papers, and how likely are they to believe your story? Sure, they may have seen news reports, but with TV news these days how much faith are they going to put in that?
He swallowed and stared for a long time at the looming figure.
And her. This is awfully familiar, isn't it. Remember when you left someone else in that same pose? How long have you been regretting that?
"She's a monster," he whispered out loud.
Jake dropped his gaze to the floor. Taking a deep breath, he turned and walked slowly back to where the giantess knelt. She had not moved a muscle. Jake cleared his throat once, and then again, a little louder, but there was no answer. He inched closer, hesitated, then laid his hand on her knee, just enough to press into the fur. "Um...Itzy?"
She did not reply.
"Yeah. Look, I can see that you're pretty upset. I hate to see a...a, um...woman...cry."
The voice was so soft he could barely feel the amulet's vibration. "You cannot know what it is like to be so alone."
He looked at the floor again. "Actually, that's not true," he said softly. "I think I know something of what that's like."
High above him her eyes opened, just barely. Jake looked straight up into them, and realized that it was not as difficult for him to hold that gaze as it had recently been. "So, I'm sort of out of a job right now -- don't think I'm eligible for unemployment either, so I'm thinking more about that priest gig. You know, not really as a career move, but maybe a sort of temporary assignment, more a stepping stone kind of thing. If there's still an opening, maybe I could, you know, take over until..."
A screech of fury exploded from her lungs. Before Jake could blink her hand swept down and snatched him up, jerking him to her blazing eyes. "Insect! Disgusting worm! How are you mock me?"
Her fist began to tighten, driving the breath from his lungs and making his ribcage creak. "Itzy..." he wheezed, his eyes pleading.
Both the painful grip and the angry glare softened. "What is a goddess without her worshippers?" she whimpered.
Jake gulped in air and coughed. Everything ached but nothing seemed to be broken. "Well, you've still got a priest," he rasped. "Not a very good one, maybe, but I'm a quick learner."
Her massive eye closed and she pressed him against her cheek. Fresh tears seeped forth and soaked into his shirt. Not knowing what else to do, Jake began to stroke at the side of her muzzle. He felt the fur sliding through his fingers and noticed how soft it was against his skin. She seemed to shiver at the touch, although at her size it was amazing she could even feel it. Jake felt a lump forming in this throat and swallowed it down. "I won't leave you alone," he whispered.
Itzy groaned and her huge form began to lean backward. Jake braced his hands on her fingers as she stretched out on her back and moved him to her chest. He landed with a soft thud and glanced worriedly at the two enormous mounds that rose on either side of him. He thought that it might be a little more proper to relocate himself but a warm hand settled upon him, pressing him down into the fur. "I...this is a little awkward..." he began, but stopped. He felt her heart beating beneath him, low and slow, her breath making him rise and fall like a boat on a gentle ocean. "...well, all right," he said quietly. I'll just stay here, then."
Jake woke to a violent earthquake, or rather what he took to be an earthquake until he realized that it was just Itzy stirring. Her fingers closed around him and lifted him from her chest, then to the ground, where he scrambled to get out of the way of her feet as she stood up. "I should feed you," she muttered, and before Jake could say anything she launched herself toward the stone wall of the cave. To Jake's amazement it opened before his eyes, parting like a stage curtain until she soared through it and the rock fell back into place.
Alone now, Jake decided to explore what at least for now was apparently his home -- or rather, his temple. His first order of business was to find the restroom, but it not take long to discover that the ancient Aztecs had not been big on indoor plumbing. Water was gurgling somewhere, though, and as he wandered about the dim cavern he came upon spring that gurgled from a cleft in the rock and vanished into the distance. Hoping that it did not lead to some hapless farmer's drinking supply he made use of it.
The walls in this area of the temple were decorated with thousands of figure drawings, many of which included the frightful bat-winged creature that he had originally seen on the urn. Itzy, naturally. She must have had quite a fan club in her day. Here was a portrait of her looming over a large collection of tiny warriors, while over there a group of farmers seemed to be paying tribute. One curious pictogram showed her seated with tiny figures clustered around her feet. Each was linked by thin lines leading to her toes. He puzzled over that one for a few moments until he tripped over a gleaming length of gold chain that connected two golden hoops, one the size of a saucer, the other big enough for a tiger to jump through. The realization was almost as jarring as the sudden thud of Itzy's landing.
"Ah! Welcome back," he said, shielding his face from the cloud of dust that was kicked up from the impact.
Itzy folded her wings and strode toward him. "You are still here?" she said.
"I promised to stick around."
She smiled. "Here," she said as she leaned down toward him. "Take what you want." In her hand was a blue plastic tarp that she held by the corners in a makeshift sack. When she set it down it unfolded to reveal a mound of random booty, everything from jars of pickles to a broken computer monitor. Itzy apparently wasn't quite up on what constituted "edibles" in this modern world so had simply taken everything but the kitchen sink. And there, he realized, she had taken that too.
Jake whistled and crouched beside the pile. "Wow," he said, fishing out a can of tuna, a fork and, to his relief, a serviceable can opener. "That was some shopping spree. What are you having?"
"I already ate."
Jake's stomach knotted as it dawned on him where all this stuff had come from. "Oh. Right." He slowly put the can down. "You know, I'm not as hungry as I thought I was."
"I could eat a bear!" he said hastily and snatched up the can. He did not dare look into Itzy's eyes as he wolfed down the contents. It did not take him long to realize that he was indeed hungry -- famished, in fact. How long had it been since his last meal? He pawed through the mountain of goods and found enough canned vegetables to make a suitable feast, and even a bottle of fancy mineral water. He was just finishing that off when he spied another bottle that made him gasp. "Is this...?" He pounced on it eagerly. "Oh, yes. Oh, thank you, God!"
"Er, right. Thank you, Itzy." He traced his fingers reverently over the label and beamed, then eagerly twisted the cap.
"What do you have there, Priest?" Itzy asked, leaning forward curiously.
Jake smiled up at her. "Liquid courage," he grinned. "Sort of a magic elixir. It gives you strength." His voice dropped to a whisper. "Believe me, I could use some of that right now."
She smirked. "Does it grant you visions?"
"Oh, heck, yes. Fantastic visions. Drink it, and what's ugly becomes beautiful. What's beautiful becomes oh-la-la!"
She folded her legs as she sat down and stared down at him. "I know that elixir. We called it octli."
"Yeah? Well, we call it tequila." He hoisted the bottle in a salute. "Here's to you, Goddess," he said, and poured a healthy shot down his throat. Within seconds he was on his knees and choking for air while Itzy's thunderous laughter shook the cavern. "Whoa," he croaked. "That's good stuff."
Still chuckling, Itzy reached down and with a surprisingly gentle finger she prodded Jake back to his feet. "Perhaps you should not be drinking that, little one."
He tucked the bottle close to his chest. "No, I do, that's for sure. Gotta have those visions, after all."
"You need them to make me beautiful?"
Jake's mind reeled and something -- perhaps the tequila -- prodded him to say, "No no, I want to make you oh-la-la!"
Itzy blinked in surprise and then smiled broadly, her pointed teeth glimmering. "Flatterer," she giggled. Slowly she settled onto her side and propped her head up on one elbow. "I am rather pleased that I decided to let you live."
Jake brought the bottle to his lips and poured another painful blast down his throat. "I - ack!" He coughed violently. "I...am sort of glad about that myself, now that you bring it up."
She leaned closer, eyeing him as he downed another jolt.
"I don't get why you keep me around, anyway," Jake said with a hint of a slur. "What the heck do you need a priest for?"
"You amuse me."
"Really? That's all? I figure I've got to have some sort of use or else by now you'd have, you know..." He opened his mouth and poked his finger briefly inside to demonstrate.
She peered at him and narrowed her eyes. "Do not overvalue yourself, Priest. I keep you because your chattering is just a little better than the silence. When I tire of you, you will know it."
"What. You'll fire me?"
"I'll step on you."
Another gulp, a really big one this time, from the bottle. He felt it go off like a grenade in his stomach. "A pink slip would be good enough for me." Unsteadily he took a step forward. "You know, I still don't get it."
"What are you babbling about now?" she said with a roll of her dark eyes.
"Well, I mean, what do you need a guy like me for? I mean, come on, you're big, you're beautiful..." He gulped again from the bottle. "...and those wings. You know, not many women look good in leather but you really manage to pull it off, let me tell you. I'll bet that the other gods would be lining up outside the cave just for one dance with you."
She lowered her gaze and Jake immediately felt far smaller than he really was. "Oh, shit. I forgot. I'm sorry, Itzy."
"Really, I am." He drained the last of the bottle and shuffled across the shifting cave-floor until he could set his hand on her forearm. Her vast muzzle loomed just overhead. "I've got a long history of saying stupid things like that."
"I have noticed."
"Yeah." He cleared his throat, shook his head a few times and then squared his shoulders. "Well, what do you need those guys for, anyway? You got me." He bowed awkwardly, somehow managing to avoid planting his face in the fur of her arm. "Your own personal priestly Priest. Command me, O...hic...O Goddess!"
"I command you to stop that silly noise."
He wagged his finger. "Ah! No can do! You said that I was better than silence, so as your priest, I'm..." His balance gave way and he fell hard onto his rear. "Oof! Anyway, I'm just looking out for your well-being. That's part of the job description, ain't it?"
Itzy eyed him with a faint smirk. "True. You have your uses, but you are still no god."
"So what? Who needs those guys?"
She sighed. "I do," she said in a voice that barely made the collar quiver.
"Yeah? What for? Name one thing those big galoots got that I ain't got."
"Besides that!" He struggled to his feet but did not remain there long. "Come on, I can take it. Hit me with your best shot."
Her sigh was wistful as she looked past him. "A girl has needs, Jake."
"Oh, here we go with that again!" He threw up his arms. "Just like my Ex. I'm a new man, though. I get it now. Whatever you need, you just say so. You want me to get in touch with your feelings? Fire away, let's go! I'm all ears."
She shifted her gaze back and allowed it to linger heavily upon him until realization dawned through the fog. "Oh," he said with a shudder. "Those needs."
The collar buzzed with a quiet giggle.
Jake rubbed at the back of his head and climbed slowly to his feet, this time successfully. "Yeah, well, I don't know if there's too much I could do there." He leaned fully now against her forearm, letting his face rest in the black fur. To his surprise he felt the tip of her finger settle against his back and begin to rub slowly up and down. The touch was remarkably tender considering how much power lay in that hand. He shivered a little and could not help but press back into the caress. When he looked up at her again he saw that the fur beneath her eyes was wet. "Oh, hey. Come on, cut that out. It's not like you're all alone. You got me."
"Yes. A worthless worm of a priest." Her finger continued to caress him, though, the touch draining any sting from the words.
"Well, not totally worthless. Just because I can't...you know..." There he paused, some combination of her unbearable tears and the tequila lighting a spark in his brain. "Well, hell, who says I can't?"
She tilted her head. "Can't what?"
Jake straightened up and squared his shoulders. "Exactly. Nothing a man can't do when he sets his mind to it." He fumbled at his buttons and tugged his shirt away.
Her brow furrowed. "I have warned you about mocking me. Tread lightly, Priest, or I shall not."
"What? Are you nervous?" He grinned and pawed at the crotch of his pants until he managed to tug the zipper down. "Come on. I've dated tall women before. They never gave me any complaints."
Itzy narrowed her eyes and growled. "Insolent little bug."
"Hey!" He pointed a wavering finger up at her. "It ain't the size, Lady, it's how you use it. What's the matter? You're a girl, I'm a boy, we kind of dig each other, we're all alone and we've got this romantic lighting." He grinned foggily. "Come on. What do you say?"
Itzy bit her lip for a moment as though she were actually considering his offer, but then shook her head. "Are you mad? You would never survive."
"So call it a sacrifice. You people were into that sort of stuff, right?"
She pushed herself up until she was kneeling. Her ears lay flat against her head "I do not know about this."
"What? You aren't into white guys?"
"No. It is just...if you died..."
"...then you'd go find another priest."
Again she bit her lip. "That is just it," she said slowly. "I do not want another priest."
Jake covered a belch with the back of his hand. Staring up at her made him even more dizzy and he stumbled against her knee. "And that is exactly why I want to do this," he said, a little surprised at the clarity in his own voice. "Come on, Itzy. Let me do this for you."
Itzy stared at the cave floor. She opened her mouth to say something but then closed it again. Jake smiled up at her and started forward. With one hand on her leg to keep his balance he started forward, dropping his gaze from her face down to her ... whoa. He hadn't let himself steal too many glances down there and only now did he realize just how...big...
He cleared his throat. "Lie back," he said. "Relax."
Surprisingly, she obeyed, settling back on her elbows until her thighs lay like two onyx mountains on either side of him. The tequila was not enough to blur the sight nor to hide the scent and he rested both hands on her leg to steady himself. "Oh, god..."
"Right." He coughed and gulped hard. "I can see that."
The word colossal swam in his head as he gawked at a cleft that was larger than he was. Other words such as how the hell? swam right along with it. It took a great force of will and the full assistance of a half bottle of tequila to urge his feet forward, the scent growing with every approaching step. He could hear the low rumble of her breath over the wild pounding of his own heart, and he could feel her eyes upon him. He struggled to focus his thoughts. "You can do this," he whispered to himself. He tried to tell himself that if he did not get to it she would probably swat him like a fly. When that did not work he tried to remind himself of other days when he would do this for someone else, back before he had become so selfish that making someone else happy had lost any meaning to him.
Somehow, that worked. His fear gave way to determination. Drawing a deep breath he reached forward and laid his hand on one of the massive labia. It was warm, almost hot against his fingers, and twitched ever so slightly at his touch. Encouraged, he stroked inward, worked his fingers between the great lips, and then slowly slid his arm into the moist depths, all the way to the shoulder.
Itzy drew a quick breath and those huge lips squeezed momentarily around his arm. "I may actually have found a use for you," the collar buzzed.
Jake smiled with relief and said, "I'm not done yet." Exploring in the warm depths his fingers soon met with something that throbbed with a gigantic, far-off heartbeat. Slowly he began to withdraw his arm, tickling his fingers along that tender surface until a massive shudder ran through Itzy's entire body and a more powerful clench yanked his arm back in. He had to brace his other hand against her in order to pull free.
When he looked up she was smiling down at him. Her eyes seemed far less murderous than before. "Are you ready?" he whispered.
"Are you?" the collar whispered back.
He nodded and muttered, "Liquid courage."
"Nothing." He pressed his fingers once more into the breach and allowed his arm to slide smoothly inward, reaching as far as he could until his cheek pressed against the moist folds. Itzy shuddered again, the muscles of her legs growing harder. He listened to her soft rumbling as his arm searched about within. There was so much room, so much unused space that he wondered if it was even possible to satisfy her this way, and at that very moment an odd recollection worked its way through the fog, scenes from an old war movie where men raced along the length of a submarine by diving feet-first through tiny hatches. The gears clicked and Jake laughed out loud.
"Nothing." Jake slowly withdrew his arm, rolled his shoulders, cracked his neck, and braced his hands on either side of the hatch, clutching at whatever fur he could. He took a deep breath and hoisted up his legs, pausing only to shout, "Dive! Dive!" before he thrust his feet as hard as he could into the warmth.
Itzy's shriek rattled both the collar and his eardrums as his legs vanished between the folds. Her muscles clamped down reflexively and held him firmly in place before settling again, and as soon as they did Jake seized the initiative and crammed his hips inside. Another squeeze, but this time it did not let up. Jake found himself gripped firmly as though in a great, moist fist. He tried pushing with his arms, then pulling, then kicking his legs, but nothing. His gigantic partner was groaning sonorously, obviously enjoying the attention, but Jake worried how long that would last if he did not give her something more appropriate to her size.
"Er, hey, Itzy...a little hand, here?"
The hand that she offered was far from little, of course, but it was just what Jake needed. As her fingers descended he grabbed one of her claws in each hand, and taking a deep breath he pushed as hard as he could with his arms. The effort was rewarded with a veritable earthquake as Itzy arched her back, her voice rising again to a piercing cry as Jake forced himself in to his armpits. "That's my girl," he whispered. "Just relax and let me -- hey!"
The ripple in the surrounding muscles suddenly became a wave, yanking him insistently inward until he was engulfed to his chin, his arms waving helplessly over his head. His hands were wrenched away from her claws and he watched in dismay as that hand rose away and her mighty thighs began to close like the relentless walls of a trap in a bad spy novel. "Itzy! Don't!" he sputtered but his complaint was lost as another spasm sucked him into the darkness. Moist flesh pressed to his face, oozing thick fluid that threatened to drown him. In desperation he began to thrash, struggling to swim back into the open air but every movement he made only elicited a more violent response. His body was squeezed hard by powerful muscles that drove the air out of his lungs and made his ribs creak alarmingly.
Just as it seemed that he would black out, Itzy came to his rescue. Something pinched his hands and tugged, dragging him past quivering, wet flesh into the light once again. There he gulped in a huge lungful of air and coughed harshly. "Holy shit. Thanks, Itzy, I..." But she was not finished with him. Her thumb held his hands tightly against her palm while two fingers thrust down along his back, their tips catching his legs and pinching them together. The collar thrummed with her moans and her gasps as she stuffed him back inside once again, his body pressed tightly by her fingers into the warm, smooth walls. Again he was dragged forward, first his face and then his chest and belly sliding over a basketball-sized bump that made her shudder and squeal. He could do little more than wriggle, partly an effort to please her but mostly from sheer nerves, and that sent her into a frenzy that Jake was doubtful would not survive. Down again, swallowing him, fingers quivering against his back while the walls around him quaked and oozed, then back into the light, face mashed into that bulge, a gulp of air was all he got before plunging once more into the depths of the goddess and feeling his own arousal amazingly rising and the scent and the warmth and a wild riot of light and dark and light and darkness and dragging and slurping and gushing and dizzying pace and drowning coughing gasping grinding shuddering squeezing squeezing squeezing...
And then fading, her hand shaking as she held him in place, his cheek pressed against the basketball, his ribs aching from the pounding that they had received but, as far as he could tell, intact, and he gulped in air, coughed, fidgeted and twitched as a familiar sensitivity shot through his loins. Had he come, too?
Itzy's entire body was rocking slowly from side to side, shuddering from head to toe. The fur inside her thighs was wet and glistening. Slowly, gingerly, she dragged Jake inch by inch from within her and closed him in a fist, then lifted him over the vast expanse of her body to her face. She smiled up at him through half-lidded eyes as she lounged on the stone floor, a constant rumble, almost a purr, rattling the air throughout the cavern. Jake coughed a few more times and swept a sodden arm over his face. "Was it good for you, too?" he panted.
Her only answer was a smile in which all of her lengthy fangs glistened, then parted wide, revealing the pink expanse of her tongue leading down to the ominous darkness of her throat, and before Jake could even cry out she had dropped him inside. He plunged past those fangs and would have gone straight down her gullet had not her tongue caught him and pinned him deftly to the ridges of her palate. As Jake struggled to catch his breath her tongue began to assail him, dragging over his entire body before flipping him over and resuming on the other side. His ears popped as the pressure dropped sharpely; she was sucking on him. He heard her swallowing in the darkness and honestly wasn't sure where he had ended up, right up until she raised her head and spat him playfully out onto her chest. "Oh, God," he choked. "Oh, God!"
"Yeah, that." With a groan he rolled himself onto his belly and pushed up onto all fours. "For pity's sake, Itzy, what was that all about?"
"I thought that you would have appreciated a bath."
"A bath? Hell, yes, but...why not a dip in the river there?" He climbed to his feet. "You could have killed me."
She lifted her head a little and peered down her muzzle at him. "Yes," she smirked. "I could have." Then she let her head relax back on her hands. "But I did not, and you should be grateful. I prefer you alive."
"Then you should be more careful."
Her chuckle made him bounce and threw him off balance. "Be silent. You enjoyed it."
Jake gaped at her and then folded his arms with a scowl. "What the hell gave you that idea?"
Itzy's hand slipped from behind her head and glided toward him. One vicious claw extended, the point slowing to a hover just inches from Jake's groin. Only then did he realize that he had grown quite hard and he flushed deeply. "Oh, fuck."
He gulped. "You aren't looking for another round, are you? Back where I come from, a fellow usually rolls over and goes to sleep afterward. It's kind of a tradition."
"Oh, I will have another, anytime that I wish in fact. You still belong to me, after all." She yawned, her jaws gaping cavernously. "But for now, I suppose that you have earned your rest."
Her hand moved over him and settled down, shoving him flat against the swell of her right breast. Jake grunted with the pressure but did not move. The warmth of her fur made him realize just how exhausted he was, and the tequila was still working its through his brain, leaving nothing but a trail of devastated brain cells in its wake. "You didn't answer me," he said.
"Was it good for you?"
Itzy's chest thrummed and she took a deep breath. "You are a pathetic substitute for a proper mate, Jake. But since I have none, I suppose that you will do."
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"Do not get used to it."
He patted at the fur beneath him and chuckled. "Nah. Admit it, Itzy, you kind of like me. But you still have to play big, scary goddess. 'Oooo, I'm gonna squish you!'"
"I still might."
"Not until we find you another boyfriend, you won't." He regretted saying that almost immediately when the collar quivered with what seemed like a whimper. "Hey, don't worry about it. You've still got old Jake. And hell, maybe the others aren't all gone. There's bound to be another one of those weirdo pots around some...where... Oh, holy fuck! Itzy, quick, let me up! Let me up!"
Her hand lifted. "What? What is wrong?"
"My pants!" he shouted. "I need my pants!"
"I will keep you warm."
"No! I need them now! Quick!"
Itzy sat up, cupping her hand beneath him as Jake tumbled off of her chest and into her palm. "Do you always act insane after mating?" she said with a tilt of her head.
"Just put me down!"
Puzzled, Itzy lowered her hand to the floor and Jake leaped out of it. Staggering about the cave he finally stumbled upon his trousers, thrust his hand into the pocket, and withdrew the contents with a joyful whoop. "What is this about, Priest?" she said, annoyance creeping into her voice.
Jake grinned hugely. "Sweetheart, you ain't got nothing to worry about!" he shouted. He stood triumphantly and waved the envelope that the late Septus Dane had given him with the instructions for his next heist. "I've got a feeling that tomorrow we're going to get you that new boyfriend!"
With a weary sigh, Jake tugged the blue wire from its terminal and wondered how it could all have gone so wrong, so fast. Really, how does a small-time crook wind up with a girlfriend over a hundred feet tall that wants to kill him half the time? At least the owners of this museum had not mad the night difficult for him. The rusted wires practically disintegrated the moment Jake touched them.
Itzy had argued with him at length over the plan, at one point even planting her foot on him and threatening to squash him like a worm if he did not obey her. Jake had stood his ground, however -- tequila does that to a man -- and had finally won her agreement, and perhaps even the tiniest shred of respect, although Itzy would never allow that to show. Jake was relieved that the retrieval of the urn would not involve leveling the city and smashing any pathetic ants who dared to stand in the way; instead, a bit of stealth, a bit of skill, and a puzzling disappearance would be all that was necessary. "Trust me, Itzy," he had promised her. "I've done this before, remember?"
The lock on the loading dock door was tricky against the tools that Jake had improvised from the random things that Itzy had brought him. In and out as fast as you can was the rule since every passing second increased the chance of being caught, and Jake was starting to worry. Normally he would have quit and come back when he had a proper set of picks but he knew that Itzy would not be happy if he returned empty-handed. He took a deep breath, trying to settle his nerves, and reminded himself of why this job had to succeed more than any that he had ever performed for Dane:
Because he was a plaything for a giant monster. Because he was not sure he could survive being inside her if she really got into it. Because while he could talk his way out of a lot of things it was only a matter of time before she lost her temper with him for real.
Because she's sad.
Jake sighed. That was it. The other things he could deal with; that one, he could not. Not again.
At last the lock gave way and Jake slipped into the museum's gloomy interior. In all of the random things that Itzy had brought to him was not a single flashlight but he had managed to swipe one from a little store on the way in to the city. Itzy had unwittingly made that easy for him. The owner and his son were so busy gawking and trying to figure out if what they had seen up in the sky had been a bird or a plane that Jake had easily pocketed both the light and the batteries. The joke was on him, though; the batteries proved to be on their deathbed when he flicked the little penlight on. Seems I'm not the only dishonest businessman around, he thought grimly. He needed to work fast. Once the urn was in hand he needed to get out of the city and back to the rendezvous point before dawn when Itzy was to return and pick him up. If he was late, at worst she would be spotted and the military would come running; at best, she would make a meal of the shopkeeper and his son and Jake really did not want that on his conscience.
Then again, maybe I wouldn't mind, he thought grimly when the flashlight beam grew ever more feeble. He clicked it off, preferring to keep it for a crisis and relying on the city lights outside to guide him. The museum apparently did not attract a lot of tourist traffic as all of the signs were in Spanish and Jake made a few wrong turns before finding signs with such promising-sounding words as Exposición and Moctezuma. With the rays from the penlight fading fast he searched through the displays until at last he found what he was looking for.
At least, he hoped that he had. The clay pot was the exact shape and size as the one in which Itzy had been hidden -- somehow -- but this one had seen much better days. Much of the glaze had been rubbed or chipped off of the surface; Jake could not make out any patterns at all. Worse, there was no collar sitting beside it. Worried, Jake flitted from one case to another, searching each one thoroughly but ultimately in vain. He started again, giving each case a thorough scrutiny until halfway along the line when the flashlight finally gave up the ghost.
Heart pounding, Jake felt his way back to the case that contained the urn -- at least, he thought it was the right case. In his haste he had forgotten to count the number of displays that would lead him back to the target, and now fumbling in the darkness he could only guess that he was in the right spot, if indeed it was the right urn inside. What a mess, he thought miserably, but there was no time to feel sorry for himself. Feeling his way down the front of the case he came upon the lock, and with touch alone he worked a pick inside. The tumblers clicked, and at exactly that moment the lights came on.
Dazzled by the sudden glare Jake yelped and dropped the pick. He heard voices, very angry ones at that, barking at him in Spanish. It was a language that he had never studied but he recognized manos arriba! from the cop shows he used to watch. Slowly he raised his hands over his head as the voices raced up behind him. He could tell that there were two of them; there was no way he could hope to overpower them both. A pair of hands seized him by the collar and jerked him to his feet. "Easy, guys," he gasped before he was slammed up against the wall. He could see one of the guards clearly, a rough fellow whose snarling eyes were daring Jake to make a move and clearly hopeful that he would, while the other patted down his pockets. "Voltéese!" that other one growled.
"I don't understand," Jake said desperately, and the first guard grabbed his shoulder and spun him around, then knocked him back against the wall.
"¿Qué estás haciendo aquí?" the man demanded, but he did not wait for an answer before he drove his fist hard into Jake's gut.
Jake gagged and doubled over, slumping down onto his knees and wheezing. "Seriously, guys, I don't speak Spanish! Give me a break."
The guards glanced at one another and smirked, then both took three steps back. "Está arrestado," one of them said while the other, grinning unnervingly, unsnapped his holster and rested his hand on the grip of a very large pistol.
Panting, Jake raised his head and stared pleadingly at the guards. "Guys, I'm not going to give you any trouble. But really, I think that it's in everyone's best interest for you to let me go."
The man with the gun sneered and closed his fingers around the grip. "Párese."
"Really, I..." Jake began, but then gasped and pointed past the guard's shoulder. "Oh God, look behind you."
Both men paused, then looked at each other and burst out laughing. "El gringo piensa que somos estúpidos!" one howled.
"No, really! Turn around!"
They shook their heads. "Párese con las manos detrás de la cabeza."
"Please!" Jake whimpered. "Oh, God..."
Jake was the only one to hear that single word as it rumbled through his collar a second before the skylight exploded inward. Both guards shouted in alarm and spun around, both of them now seeing what Jake had seen but far too late to save themselves. The savage face peering through the gaping hole above was replaced by a colossal hand which swept down and seized the two men at once. A half-hearted squeeze was all it took to pop them like berries.
Jake fell back against the wall and choked as Itzy shook the mess from her fingers. "Itzy! What the hell?"
"I knew that you would get caught. You are an idiot, remember?"
"I mean them. Did you have to...ugh...crush them?"
"Probably not. But I suspect that they would have done the same to you in another moment."
He had to admit that she was probably right. "But you weren't supposed to come into the city. Someone's bound to see you."
"So perhaps you should stop babbling and find what we came here for."
Jake groaned. Again she was right -- he hated that. "It's here," he said, rushing to the case. "Give me a minute. The lock isn't too complicated."
One huge claw tapped at the glass which fell immediately into a thousand fragments. "We do not have a minute."
Hastily Jake picked up the urn and tucked it carefully into a burlap bag, then turned toward the hand that Itzy had lowered beside him. He froze in his tracks; there were still pieces of the guards clinging to it. "Um...other hand?" he said meekly.
Itzy rolled her eyes impatiently and withdrew her hand, then lowered the less gruesome one into which Jake hastily clambered. His stomach dropped away as he was hoisted at high speed out through the skylight and then launched with Itzy into the night sky. In the swirl of lights below him he could see police cars racing toward the museum before the city was swallowed behind the clouds.
Dawn was still a long way off when Jake slid the urn from its bag. He knelt between Itzy's feet as she crouched over him and with quivering hands he set the urn onto the stone floor. "Itzy, you are making me a little nervous doing that."
"Silence," she growled. "Open it quickly!"
"I'm trying," Jake said. He ran his fingers along the rim and tapped at the seal with his nails. "We have to do this right." "Just smash it!" She began to reach forward.
"No, no!" Jake said urgently. "Dane warned me not to damage the one you were in. If we break it, it might ruin the magic or something. No, he handled it with kid gloves even after I gave it to him."
Itzy fumed and folded her arms impatiently, but said nothing.
"He had a knife. A pointy thing, a stiletto or something." Jake pulled at his chin, then strode over to the cache of things that Itzy had brought back from her breakfast outing. "What have we got? Hammer..."
"No! I'm telling you, Itzy, I don't think it's a good idea. There has to be something -- ah, here we go! Screwdriver." He trotted back and dropped to his knees in front of the urn. Placing the screwdriver's tip on the clay seal he gave the handle a delicate tap with the hammer. Nothing happened, but with a second tap a chunk of clay flicked away to reveal a seam. Another tap, and more of the seam appeared.
Jake could feel Itzy's breath upon his back. "Patience, Goddess," he said softly. "I've never done anything like this before and somehow I get the feeling you'd be mighty pissed if I messed it up."
"You can not imagine," she rumbled back.
"I can imagine." The seam grew slowly, inching its way around the rim until at last the two ends joined. "And there we are." He took a deep breath and slid the screwdriver's blade into the seam. "Ready? All right, ladies and gentlemen, let's see what's behind door number three."
The lid fell away with a twist of the blade, revealing a smooth interior of red lacquer. There was nothing else, not even dust.
Jake spun around quickly. "Hold on, steady now!" he yelped. Itzy's fist was already held aloft, ready to smash both him and the urn to bits. "Maybe it takes a few minutes for things to...you know...um, I wish you wouldn't look at me that way."
The fire in her eyes subsided but not by much. "It is usually not wise for a priest to make promises that he cannot keep to his goddess," she growled.
"I know. I'm still working on it, though." He turned back to the urn. "Maybe that's why the picture's rubbed off. Maybe this one was empty. Maybe I grabbed the wrong one."
"Maybe I need a new priest."
"Hush," he said quickly. "I'm trying to think, here. What the hell would Dane have known? What if there's some sort of -- I don't know -- some magic spell that I have to say, or something? Hey, Itzy, is there anything on the walls here that might help out?"
She cocked her head and then peered slowly around. "I don't see anything."
Jake peered as well, even though the pictures meant little to him. "Nothing that says 'How to get a goddess out of an urn?' No manual or anything?"
Itzy's sour expression, though, was answer enough. "You tried," she grumbled. "I will grant you that, and do not fault you for your failure." Slowly she leaned forward, lowering her nose almost to Jake's chest. "So it seems that I am doomed to rely on you alone to satisfy the...disappointment that I am feeling."
He felt a chill. "Oh. Ah, right now? Last night kind of took a lot out of me."
Her lips drew back in a nightmarish grin and Jake hastily added, "Of course, exercise is good for the body, and besides, I need to see to my goddess's needs. Job description, right?" Her grin only broadened and Jake dropped his gaze, unable to bear for very long the sight of those arm-long fangs, glistening and gnashing and sharp as...
She ignored the protest and gave him a soft nudge with her nose. Her breath made his shirt flutter.
"Itzy, no, I really..."
Her tongue slithered forth, pressed against his thighs and dragged slowly upward to his belly, leaving his clothing moist.
"Don't do that. I'm trying to tell you..."
That tongue hooked between his legs, nudging them apart, and started to slide up his back.
"Itzy!" In desperation Jake balled up both fists and brought them down as hard as he could atop her muzzle.
Itzy jerked her head back, staring in disbelief, and then glared angrily. "You dare...you dare to strike me?"
Jake gasped, staring equally disbelievingly at his own hands, and then up at the goddess's blazing eyes. "Oh shit. I didn't mean it. I just...you have to listen to me!"
Her hand rose as though she were about to swat a fly. "You will learn your place."
"No -- don't! Just listed to me! I just had a...a crazy idea."
"This, somehow, is not a surprise to me." She lowered her hand and peered at him skeptically, then began to push up to her knees.
"No, stay down here. OK? This might sound weird -- well, maybe not to you. I don't know a lot about the people you used to hang around with, but there's one thing that they always talked about in the movies..."
"Now you are simply babbling," she snorted, but lowered her head obligingly so that her nose once again nearly bumped his chest.
"Maybe. We'll see. If I'm wrong, you can dock my pay." He waited until her nose rested once more in front of his chest. He laid one hand atop her snout and held up the other so that she could see it. "OK. You trust me, right?"
"I do not know why I do," she muttered. "I fear that I have become as addlebrained as you are."
"Then we make a good couple." He took a deep breath and then paused, pursing his lips. "Just one thing before I try this."
"What is it now?"
He cleared his throat. "You weren't really going to smash me just now...were you?"
She narrowed her gaze and then huffed against his shirt. "No," she said, the collar giving a petulant twitch to emphasize the word. "Let us say that you are far more useful to me while you are still...wiggling."
Jake felt the color drain out of his face. "Good to know," he said hoarsely. Again he took a deep breath and held his hand up high. "Ready? Now, smile for me."
Her lips slid back, and warm breath wafted between a picket fence of fangs. "Here we go," he breathed, and as hard as he could he brought his hand down on the tip of the nearest tooth . Pain jolted through his arm and burst out of his throat in a strangled yelp. Itzy jerked her head back and gaped at him. "Jake, what are you doing?" she cried.
"Trust me. I know what I'm doing," he gritted, clutching at his wrist. Then he noticed that blood was flowing more freely from his palm than he had intended. "All right, maybe I overdid it a little."
"Have you gone completely mad?"
"No. Well, maybe yes. We can argue that another time. For right now, though..." He cupped his hand around the wound and allowed the blood to pool in his palm as hurried toward the urn. "See this? The lacquer inside is the exact same color. I think that's how Dane managed to wake you up, and if it worked for you, it's got to work for your friend here. Now, cross your fingers."
"It's just an expression." The bleeding was beginning to slow, but there was still enough pooled in his palm to make a satisfying splash into the depths of the urn below. "Actually, come to think of it, I should probably be standing back a-"
That was as far as he got before he felt something very similar to being struck by a lightning bolt wielding a sledgehammer. He saw stars, lots of them, and then blackness.
Consciousness returned, then faded again before crawling back at last. At first Jake saw nothing when he opened his eyes, but after squeezing them shut and blinking them open several times he began to make out patches of light, and then foggy shapes which soon coalesced into the face of a cat. It was a jungle cat, a jaguar from the look of it, and so huge that it dominated his whole field of view. It was as though he was seeing it on a theater screen from the very front row. And it did not look at all pleased with him.
He tried to move but found that he could not. He became aware of mounting pain throughout his entire body, as though every one of his bones were being bent to the point of breaking. And they were. An immense hand engulfed him entirely from the neck down, the fingers squeezing relentlessly tighter. Jake gagged and managed to squeak out a single word. "It-Itzy?"
She was there in an instant, throwing her arms around the neck of the jaguar who despite his surprise did not think to release Jake from his crushing grasp. Jake's ears rang with the roar of the giants' speech, like two thunderclouds talking to one another from ten feet away. Unable to breathe he felt the shadows closing in, but just before they swallowed him completely the powerful grip relaxed. Shaking away the darkness Jake coughed and gulped in a desperate breath, only to have it yanked away once again when he was hoisted abruptly before that gigantic and disdainful feline gaze. Itzy and the cat were still speaking but the cat's eyes did not leave Jake's. Above the roar, Itzy's voice whispered from the collar. "Don't move."
"I couldn't if I wanted to," Jake whimpered. "Would it make him mad if I wet my pants right now?"
"Yes. Do not do that."
"Got it." Jake fought to control his shaking and whispered. "Itzy, who is this guy?"
She rested her head on the jaguar's shoulder and stroked soothingly at his chest while the two giants continued to thunder back and forth to one another. "He is Tepeyollotl," she said to Jake. "He likes to eat men."
"Oh. Spiffy." He could feel the heat of the jaguar's gaze roasting his skin. "Can you tell him that I'm not on the menu, please?"
"I am trying to."
"Try harder. He looks hungry."
"Be quiet. I am telling him that you belong to me and that you have your uses, but he is going to need to be convinced."
"Convinced? How are we supposed to do that?"
"Trust your goddess."
Jake did not have much choice. He stayed motionless, surrounded by the giant's fingers, and tried to remain as inconspicuous as he could while the two deities rumbled back and forth. The conversation dragged on for a nerve-wracking eternity before the tone seemed to change, softening somewhat, the thunderstorm becoming more of a Spring shower. The hand that held him slowly turned, the fingers opening, leaving him kneeling awkwardly in the center of the vast palm. Jake watched nervously as Itzy's hand stroked in sensuous arcs over the jaguar's chest, and then she began to nuzzle at his neck. From there she nosed her way along one of his big round ears, while at the same time gently grasping the wrist of the hand that was holding Jake and moving it closer to her face. Watching through half-lidded eyes, Tepeyollotl made a noise like an idling Diesel engine as Itzy brushed her lips over his fingers, and then over Jake. His fangs slid into view.
"Take off your clothing," Itzy whispered.
"What? What for? "
"He said that it makes you look like food."
In a half-second Jake was naked and flinging his short and pants off of the giant's hand. The jaguar god was smirking at him now, slitted eyes brimming with lofty scorn. It was the same look that every jock since the dawn of history has given to the skinny bookworm in the locker room. Jake felt puny, vulnerable, but worst of all, edible. He managed not to cower or scramble backward but he could still not meet that mighty gaze for long and had to lower his eyes. That elicited a rumble from the god which Jake could not tell was a growl or a laugh.
"We seem at least to have aroused his curiosity," Itzy said. "He is willing to allow you to prove your usefulness to him."
Jake sighed and relaxed a little. "That's a relief. What do I have to do?"
"Do you trust your goddess?"
Her open hand appeared nearby. Tepeyollotl eyed Jake one more time before tilting his hand and sliding the little man off into Itzy's waiting palm. Jake relaxed a little as he was lowered down and the jaguar's cold gaze retreated into the distance. Relief, however, turned to alarm when the descent halted suddenly.
He felt his hair stand on end. Itzy's hand had stopped in front of the giant's groin. What loomed before Jake's horrified gaze was as big as a car; worse, it was still soft. "Itzy...wait!"
"If I am going to be allowed to keep you, then you must serve as priest to Tepeyollotl, too . That means that you have a duty to see to his needs as well as mine. It is your -- how did you put it? -- 'job description.'"
The monstrous bulk drew nearer, dwarfing him, heat radiating from it as though from a sauna. "Itzy! Oh, god..."
"Yes," she purred. "Exactly."
The earth shuddered throughout the night. Long accustomed to such tremblings the inhabitants of the city paid little heed, unaware that when morning came their world would be forever changed.
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