Lovely Kana … it was too good to be true …
But, all was not as it seemed. Simmering beneath the ground was a demented god who had soaked Kana in blood for untold ages, luring in victims, lying to them, and rejoicing in their suffering as they died at the hands of his dark angels.
And there will be blood again … From his Temple in the ground, the Horned God stirs.
When Lord Kabyl of Blanchefort, a young man troubled by the weight of the world, dares give his heart to a girl from a mysterious ancient household, one that pre-dates the League itself, he comes to know the shadows of the past that hover over her.
He comes to know of the Horned God, and for love he is destined to face him. All roads lead to the Temple of the Exploding Head, a place of evil and death, rooted in the ancient past, but also tied to the distant future.
REN GARCIA, is a Science Fiction/Fantasy author and Texas native who grew up in western Ohio. He has been writing since before he could write, often scribbling alien lingo on any available wall or floor with assorted crayons.
Lady Kilos of Blanchefort sat properly on the stone wall and watched with passing disinterest.
Her older brother was on the leafy ground, trying to stand. A tall woman in a Fleet coat stood over him.
“Ok, so all that pretty Vith fighting is nice for show, but, if you really want to win a fight, you do it street style, and you do it dirty, too. Right? And, don’t ever hesitate to cheat. All that Vith honor I hear so much about—leave it for the dinner table,” Lt. Kilos said, lending Kay a hand while pulling him out of the leaves.
They were out in the cold of the Telmus Grove surrounded by old, gnarled trees and fallen leaves. Kilo’s silver Tweeter bird bounced around in the branches and fussed with the other birds.
She was showing Kay how to street fight, Onaris style.
Lord Kabyl of Blanchefort, or ‘Kay’ as everybody called him, had had a crush on Lt. Kilos for as long as he could remember. She was an old friend of the family, his father’s first officer and a trusted mentor to Old Dav’s kids. There she was: tall, a lot taller than his rather tiny mother, wiry and lean in her ever-present Fleet uniform with a thick head of long brown hair that touched the small of her back. Kay had always thought she was so pretty.
“Let’s go again,” Kay said, raising his fists.
She laughed. “I think you’ve had enough for today, but you’re doing well. Just get a little more meat on your bones, and you’ll be tough as nails. Promise.”
Kay reached down behind the wall and put his purple and black coat on. His younger sister, Lady Kilos, sat nearby in a minty blue gown watching them spar, her whitish blue hair done up in the Blanchefort style. She had been named in honor of Lt. Kilos, which got a little confusing sometimes with both of them running around. The Lady was growing up to be much more prissy and girlie than the brusque tomboyish Lt.
“Lt., I’d like to try,” she said standing up. If she’d had sleeves to roll up, she would have.
“I like your spirit, Bottle, but you’re too much of a lady to do things like fighting. Your cousin Sarah, on the other hand, oh boy, I think she’s going to be in quite a few of them before she’s done—the kid’s a real blue-haired hothead.” Lt. Kilos always called his sister “Bottle.” Since they both had the same name, a nick-name was a must. Lady Kilos used to have a habit of throwing her bottle around, which Lt. Kilos thought was funny.
“I don’t like Sarah,” Lady Kilos said. “She’s mean to me.”
“She is not,” Kay said.
“She does have a big mouth,” Lt. Kilos agreed, “and that never gets you anywhere, but I think she means well.”
Ki stared hard at Kay. “Come here, kid. Let me have a look at you.”
Kay stepped in front of her, and she placed her strong hands on his shoulders. “You’re getting so big. How old are you now, Kay?”
“Twelve? Oh Creation, where’s the time go? I still remember when you were bouncing off Syg’s lap. I’m only a hundred and four, and you’re making me feel like an old maid.” She took a hard look at his eyes. “You’ve got the coolest eyes, Kay. What are they, sort of a jade color, creamy jade?”
“I guess. I don’t know. All the bloody lords and ladies who come in to stare at me don’t like them much.”
“What is the deal with that? Every Tuesday, Dav and Syg have you downstairs standing there in the gallery, and all these stuffy blue folk come in and start pawing you like a mannequin at the stores holding a tray of free samples. What is that?”
“It’s called ‘The Review’. It’s a Vith tradition. All the various Houses that think they might wish to ally themselves with the House, or arrange a marriage or do business with the House, come and have a look at the eldest children up until we turn fifteen. And we have to stand there and not move or say a word. I moved once to scratch my nose, and one of them wanted to cane me for moving, but Father wouldn’t let them.”
“Cane you? I wouldn’t think so.”
“I hate it,” Kay said.
“I have to do it, too,” Lady Kilos said.
“Yes, but they love you, don’t they? They love your blue hair and your blue eyes and everything about you. Me? They say a green-eyed Vith lord is no Vith at all. They talk about me like I’m not even there. They say I’m too short, and they don’t like my hair either. And I just have to stand there, lock still, like a bloody statue for hours sometimes and take it.”
Lt. Kilos ruffled his hair. “I guess being a peasant like I am has its advantages sometimes. I couldn’t put up with all that rigid society stuff. I’d have knocked somebody’s damn teeth out by now.”
Kilos squinted and looked at Kay’s hair. It was purple, like a grape-flavored popsicle, long, wavy, tied-up in a tail.
“You know, I guess I’m used to seeing it this shade by now. I mean, you Blancheforts come in all sorts of cool colors, don’t you? Your dad with his blue hair, Bottle over there with her whitish-blue, and Hathaline and your baby brother Maser—boy, those two have a carrot-top going, don’t they?”
“I used to chase Kay around and try to put his hair in my mouth. I thought it would taste like grape,” Lady Kilos said.
“Yuck!” Lt. Kilos replied. “I’ll bet it doesn’t taste like grape, does it, Bottle?”
“You don’t have any kids, do you, Ki?” Kay asked.
“Me? No, sure don’t. I’ve never had time for it. My husband brings it up every so often, but I’m not ready. I’m having too much fun hanging out with your mom and dad. I don’t even have my womb turned on—Elder Women can do that, you know. If you leave it turned on, it gets messy.”
“Really? You’d be a good mother, Lt.,” Kay said.
“Think so?” She checked the time. “We’d best be getting back to the castle. It’s getting late and your mom will have my head. Come on.”
“You’ve been in fights with mother before, haven’t you, Ki?” Kay asked.
“Fights? Yeah, yeah we used to fight all the time. That was before we became friends. She hits pretty hard for such a tiny squirt. She’s a great lady, your mom. Great lady.”
They got their stuff together, hats and coats, and headed back, crunching through the leaves and stepping up onto the cobbled path. It was a long walk back to Castle Blanchefort.
Lt. Kilos suddenly stopped and checked her coat pockets, slapping them frantically with her hands. “Damn! I think my flask fell out somewhere back there while we were sparring. It’s missing. I’ve got it topped-off with some good stuff, and I don’t want to lose it. Tweeter, find me my flask!”
Tweeter, glowing like a silver candle-flame, hopped off her shoulder and flapped back the way they came, ready for her to follow. “You two, wait here, ok? I’ll be right back. I’m just going to get it.”
She headed into the trees. “Don’t move!” she called back one last time.
Kay and Lady Kilos stood still on the path as asked. She smiled. “I wouldn’t listen to those stupid lords and ladies,” she said. “I wish I had your eyes and hair, and I wish my face wasn’t so puffy. You’re so pretty, and I look like a marshmallow,” she said, touching her swollen eyes with her hand. “I hate my face right now.”
Kay made to respond when a noise came from the trees ahead of him.
“Kay!” he heard.
Kay gazed into the trees. “Who’s there?”
He saw a tan, brown-haired face peek out from around a tree. “It’s me, Kay. It’s Kilos.”
Kay stepped forward. “Lt.? Where’d you come from?” She had previously disappeared through the trees to the east but was now peering out at him from due west.
Kilos’ voice was trembling. “Can you come here?” she said at a whisper. “Please?”
Leaving Lady Kilos behind, Kay stepped into the trees. There was Ki, leaning against a stump.
Her clothes were different. She was wearing a crinkled black gown covered with intricate black-on-black designs, low cut, showing off arms and shoulders and a fair amount of her cleavage, pulled tight into an hour-glass shape. Odd—Lt. Kilos didn’t have a girly figure; she had more of an up-and-down tom-boy body like Sarah’s, only taller. Kay, also, had never seen her wear anything other than her Fleet uniform, and seeing her in this black getup was a little disconcerting.
The final strange touch on her clothes was a chain wrapping around the skirt portion of her gown and dragging on the ground.
“What happened to your clothes?” Kay asked.
“My clothes? I lost them,” she said, her whispered voice trembling.
“Lost them? What’s with the chain?”
“Oh, it’s a tradition. Don’t pay it any mind.”
She advanced on him, her large brown eyes wide and rather intense. Her lips and hands were shaking uncontrollably. Her hair was rather wooly and down to her ankles.
“And what happened to your hair?”
“It’s really long. Why are you shaking?”
“It’s so cold. Aren’t you cold? You fought well today, and I wanted to offer you a kiss as a reward. Would you like that?”
Kay’s insides bloomed. A kiss from Lt. Kilos?
She came forward and put her trembling hands on his shoulders. “You’re so handsome, I’ve always thought so. Such colors.”
Kay had thought she was going to give him a friendly peck on the cheek like mother often did, but, no, she lifted his chin and parted her lips to give him a kiss. As she came in, he noticed her fingernails were long, pointed, almost claw-like.
The kiss she gave him was like none he’d ever received before, slow and warm, moving and moist, and full of passion. He felt the tip of her tongue come wandering into his mouth.
“Kay!” came a voice. He surfaced from the kiss and craned his neck. Lt. Kilos was standing a distance away on the path next to his sister, hat on and blue coat parted, booted, holding her newly recovered flask.
There was a rustling and rattling of a chain, and the “Kilos” he’d been kissing was gone. He caught his breath. “I’m here, Lt.!” he said coming out of the trees.
The two Kilos’ came running up. “I thought I asked you not to move!”
“I saw you bade me go into the trees,” he replied.
“Yes. I heard you call my name, and then I saw you beckon from the trees. Right over there! It looked like you, only you were wearing a low-cut black gown, like for a funeral. You also had really long fingernails, kind of scary.”
Kilos drew her gigantic Marine SK pistol from its holster. “Show me,” she said.
Kay led them over to where the other “Kilos” had been standing. She leaned down and inspected the grass. “Right here,” he said. “She gave me a kiss, tongue and all.”
Ki looked up, open-mouthed. “What?”
“Yes. She wanted a kiss, or, I should say, ‘you’ wanted a kiss.”
“Listen, I love you, kid, but you’re a little young for me, right? And, by the way, when I want a kiss, I don’t ask, I take, so it wasn’t me.”
“Did you give it to her, Kay?” Lady Kilos asked.
Ki blushed a little and began inspecting the ground again. “Tweeter, was there someone standing here with Kay?”
He hopped a little and rustled his wings. “Hmmm, he says, ‘yes, I see a trail’. Wait here.” She stood and followed it back into the trees, SK at the ready. “And,” she called back, “if you see me again, and I want another kiss, it’s not me, ok?” She disappeared into the trees.
Kay and Lady Kilos stood there. “It might have been Sarah playing a joke on you,” she said. “I think she’s been developing the Gift of Cloak. Maybe it was Sarah.”
“Sarah can’t Cloak. Besides, she’s not here. She’s south for the winter with her mom and dad and Phillip; and, even if she were here, Sarah would rather punch me than kiss me.”
“It was just a thought.” Another idea came into her head. “You know, Kay, it might have been the ghost!”
“I see a pale ghost all the time in the castle. It’s a girl ghost, I think. She’s always off hiding in a corner. I see her peeking out all the time when your back is turned.”
“It felt too solid to be a ghost.”
“Ghosts can feel solid. Father told me.”
“What does this ‘pale ghost’ look like?”
“I think she’s a kid, like us. A bit bigger than we are perhaps. She wears black, just like what you described, and her hair is black. She has a lot of hair, all the way down past her knees. Her skin is really pale, chalky white almost. That’s why I call her the Pale Ghost, because she’s pale, see? And she follows you around everywhere. I went to mother, and I said: ‘Mother, how come Kay gets a ghost following him around, and I don’t have one?’”
“And what did mother say?”
“She didn’t say anything. Oh, and the Pale Ghost’s fingernails are really long—I mean this big!” Ki lifted her hands and held them out several inches apart.
Kay considered the thought and shuddered. “That’s creepy. What does she want?”
“I don’t know. I’ve seen her coming out of your room, and once, when I was in the village with mother, I saw her standing on your balcony.”
“Oh, Creation …”
“I don’t think she’s a bad ghost. I don’t think she means you any harm.”
Lt. Kilos returned. “I found a fresh trail in the woods. It went back near to the clearing where we were sparring.”
“You mean the ghost was watching us?”
“Ghost? Are we calling this kiss-seeking, gown-wearing manifestation a ghost? Well then, yes, the ghost was watching us. Come on, we’re heading back.”