The Lorelei Signal

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Heart of the Guardian

Written by Shannon Walch / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow

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Protect the water.

 

A heartbeat pulsed through the temple’s walls.

 

Serqet smiled and opened her eyes. Snow blanketed the pines surrounding the temple. The rooks roosted in a nearby tree, throwing long, black shadows in the late afternoon sun. The intruder wasn’t yet visible, but the mountainside knew he was there. The tramp of his steps echoed through the earth to the stone walls and awakened the defender sleeping on her pedestal amongst the bas reliefs. The footsteps reverberated against her bare feet, and a shudder of excitement ran up her spine.

 

Protect the water.

 

She slid off the stone plinth, tightening her grip on sword and flail. Her wings unfurled, shedding snow as she crept along the narrow ledge above the columns. A heap of skulls and stones lay before the next pedestal, and she slipped past the rubble to look west. The crunch of boots on snow grew louder, and the slate roof quivered now with the pressure put on earth and tree. The intruder was close. She flattened herself against the carved stone, wings tight against her back, a moment before he came into view of her natural eyes. The powdery snow ground into her spine but did not melt.

 

Protect the water.

 

He looked too young to challenge her. He had no armor and no warhorse, just a wet cloak and a laden mule fighting its lead. Perhaps there was a sword under his cloak or amongst the packs, but nothing more dangerous than a short bow, useful only for hunting rabbits, was visible. The bow was unstrung. She smiled, her tongue playing along her short fangs, and threw a snowball into the rooks. A cloud of birds burst from the tree, screaming in indignation, and as the man looked toward them, she leapt into the air.

 

Her powerful wings beat the wintry wind, and she stretched to full length, luxuriating in the pull of muscle against muscle. The sky was lapis and gold overhead, but the temple whispered from the ground below.

 

. . .protect. . .

 

Serqet folded her wings and dove.

 

The mule saw her first. It brayed and skittered sideways, out of the path of her sword. The man’s grip on the lead jerked him off his feet, and he yelled in surprise as her blade sliced empty air next to his chest. The sword plunged into mud. Snarling, she struck with her flail, snapping the thin wooden bow and hitting the mule’s haunches. The animal bolted, dragging the man down the path as he clung to its harness. Slush sprayed her face.

 

She hissed and wiped her eyes on her arm, beating her wings to keep the man at a distance. The intruder was several paces down the path, belly-down in the snow, flopped over the mule’s gear while the mule itself galloped away. The pressure of its hoof beats faded as she pulled her sword free of the mud. The man held a knife now, but he sawed at the ties of the pack and shot fearful glances over his shoulder. She laughed, a cascade of high-pitched yips. Perhaps he would stab himself before she could kill him.

 

Protect the water!

 

She swung her sword through the air, flinging muddy slush across the snow, and stalked down the path. “Doom,” she purred. “Doom upon those who desecrate the temple.”

 

The pack burst open, spilling socks and dried sausage into the slush. The young man whirled towards her, tearing open an enameled box in his hands. She sprang forward, screaming.

 

PROTECT THE WATER!

 

Red light filled her view as Serqet swung her sword high. Cold surged in her chest, and confusion flickered beneath the temple’s litany. Cold?

 

“Stop!” ordered a masculine voice.

 

Her eyes cleared to see the young man’s fist, red light gleaming between his fingers.

 

An invisible force struck her from behind. Her knees buckled, and she stumbled into the snow, rocks biting her legs. She swung wildly behind her, but her flail swished through empty air. Panic burbled out in a choked scream. She tried to throw her sword at the young man, the mage, but the air felt like clay around her arm. An unseen root caught the blade and jerked it from her nerveless hand.

 

PROTECT THE WATER! PROTECT THE WATER! PROTECT THE WATER!

 

The temple’s command was thunder, but the mage’s panting cut through the tumult. “Don’t move. Don’t attack me.” The weight on her increased at his words, forcing her head down. Slush oozed into her wing feathers, and cold spread from her belly into her limbs. She tried to snarl, to call up her battle rage, but only a whimper escaped her mouth.

 

“Don’t stop me. Whatever you are, I must have the water.” He stood with his hands out, barely visible in the corner of her eye, red light still streaming from his fist, a mockery of the golden sunlight. Shuffling towards the temple, he edged past her.

 

PROTECT THE WATER! PROTECT THE WATER! PROTECT THE WATER!

 

Her thoughts scattered before the pounding litany. Desperately she tried to move her arm, tense a muscle, twitch a finger. The awful weight bearing down on her grew.

 

PROTECT THE WATER! PROTECT THE WATER! PROTECT THE WATER!

 

A muscle in her back cramped, and she collapsed to the ground, her sword digging into her thigh. Slush filled her nose and mouth. She gasped and choked as fear froze her ribs into immovable bands, pounded by the temple’s clamor. A thud and a muffled curse broke through the noise—the man leaving the temple, slipping on its frozen steps. The earth shivered beneath her in time with his struggles as he followed his mule, and mud oozed up over her arms. The earth and trees and temple screamed in her mind’s ear.

 

THE WATER! THE WATER! THE WATER THE WATER THE WATER THE WATER THE WATER THE WATER THEWATER THEWATERTHEWATERTHEWATER!

 

~ * ~

 

Serqet dreamed fragmented, broken dreams. Hot sandy earth beneath her running feet. Blinding sunlight in her eyes. Hard arms holding her tight while she squealed. Giggles as someone kissed her hair. Round faces with dark eyes and white teeth, clay amulets tied into braided hair. A dusty ball arcing through the air, voices urging her to run in pursuit.

 

She dreamed of following plain, familiar linen skirts through a haze of hot air and bright light. Worn leather sandals slapped the brick path before her, and sweat trickled down her face under her braid. A rough hand drew her along. The heat eased as she walked into the shadow of thick stone pillars, the roof they supported high out of sight in the gloom. Carved bulls and lions swam into focus as she blinked. The animals stared down at her from the painted walls, standing on rows of black and red symbols. A man in a bright white robe blocked the way, and she studied his strange reed sandals while words passed over her head. Then the white robe took her arm and led her deeper into the shadows, and the familiar leather sandals walked away into the blinding light. The faint sound of a sob floated back to her.

 

The sunlight vanished. All was dark until a torch came, and another, and another. Orange light and sour air filled a small chamber, the stink of wood smoke and sweat hot and heavy as she breathed. Behind the torches, paintings of red and orange and green covered the walls, vultures and crocodiles and scorpions. Many men with shaved heads and metal collars stood beneath the torches, and they whispered around her and over her while they laid her on a polished stone table. Rough cloth covered her eyes as a rattle began to clatter, and hoarse whispering grew into a heavy chant while sharp stones pressed into her palms and against her feet. Heavy hands held her knees and elbows and the chant became louder and louder, harsh in her ears, deafening her as pain, PAIN bloomed in her chest, under her ribs in her chest, and sticky wetness spilled over her belly and she SCREAMED—

 

~ * ~

 

Protect the water.

 

A heartbeat pulsed through the temple’s walls.

 

Serqet opened her eyes but did not move, huddled beneath the snow mantling her wings. The familiar contours of her stone pedestal pressed into her feet, the hilts of her sword and flail pressed into her hands, and an intruder approached.

 

Protect the water.

 

She hunched her shoulders, and muscles in her back ached, sore and stiff. She stifled a groan. Grit grated against her teeth and crusted her lips. She felt it between her fingers as her hands tightened on her weapons. A shudder rippled through her back, dropping snow into her eyes.

 

She bowed her head, letting the snow fall to the ledge below, and the broken red plume of a helm caught her eye. Memories rose unbidden in her mind. A face with a yellow beard and a short sword, mouth wide in a gurgling scream as droplets of red blood splattered the ferns. More rubble along the ledge sparked more memories, a jaw less skull, broken arrows, bleached ribs, rusted chain mail, years of men coming to steal the water and dying on the temple’s steps.

 

Protect the water.

 

Serqet whimpered, turning her head and looking along the temple wall. Other, empty pedestals lined the ledge. Broken stone feathers crowned the closest one. Once, there had been more guardians.

 

Protect the water.

 

The imperious voice of the temple drove her half upright, hunched like an old woman. She winced as the tramp of the intruder’s steps shivered through the stone, her wings trembling at the memory of the unbearable weight driving her into the mud. The memory refused to fade beneath the temple’s commands, and bile rose to burn her throat. The temple’s thunderous voice grew more insistent.

 

Protect the water!

 

It didn’t drown out that faint, remembered sob floating through blinding light.

 

She leapt into the air, shedding snow. The temple grew fainter with the loss of contact, and she sucked in the cold wind, trying to focus. Even as the temple below called to her, her battle urge ebbed. The empty sky overhead beckoned.

 

Protect. . .

Her wings faltered as her muscles spasmed, and she landed on a nearby oak. The temple looked peaceful amongst the bare trees, with its carved columns and faded murals. But the murals depicted pestilence, and the carvings showed massacres. They were both history and prophesy for those who sought the water.

 

Protect. . .the. . .water. . .

 

Movement caught Serqet’s eye, and the young man of before struggled into view. He came alone, his pack animal nowhere in sight, and picked his way along the path, hunched beneath a woolen cap and cloak. A tight fist pinned the wool against his chest.

 

The mage paused, his head turning as he scanned the clearing. She ducked behind the trunk and the temple’s voice, wooden now, called to her with greater urgency.

 

Protect the water.

 

He turned towards the temple, and her eyes unwillingly followed, marking the empty pedestals along its face. She shifted to another branch, staying behind the tree, as the mage staggered closer to the temple’s steps. The blue of the inviting sky filled her eyes.

 

The water brought life. Men seeking it brought death. That’s why the temple had been built. That’s why the guardians had been made. Of this, she was certain.

 

. . .protect. . .

 

This was all she knew.

 

The mage put a foot on the lowest step of the temple.

 

Serqet threw herself out of the tree and onto the man.

 

A snapping branch announced her fall—her dive had been graceless. The mage spun and yelled. With the words, crushing weight hurled her to the ground, her sword knocked from her hand as it struck the stone step. Her flail snaked around his legs, tossing him into the mud, but his leg pinned her weapon and his knee struck her chin. She collapsed at his feet, and the voice of the temple roared from the ground, deafening her.

 

PROTECT THE WATER!

 

She pushed herself upright, mud squelching between her fingers. Forcing herself to stand, she quaked under the invisible weight, her wings hanging down her back as if broken. Unable to lift her head, she glared across her nose at the mage scrambling to his feet.

 

PROTECT THE WATER!

 

He was a boy, bony and awkward in a dirty leather jerkin. The shadow on his chin could have been nothing more than dirt. Many stronger men had died at her feet. She saw no weapons, but a chain dangled from the fist held against his chest. Red light leaked around his fingers.

 

PROTECT THE WATER! PROTECT THE WATER! PROTECT THE WATER!

 

Serqet forced her head up.

 

“Leave the water,” she croaked, her neck cramping under the strain. “Desire of it kills.” She tried to point to the temple, but could only drop a shoulder in an awkward shrug. “Not me. I am the guardian.” Her flail fell from her numb hand, but she kept her eyes fixed on the mage. Her knees begin to shake. “I guard the water to protect your people from those who want it.” Her voice fell to a whisper. “Leave.”

 

PROTECT THE WATER! PROTECT THE WATER! PROTECT THE WATER!

 

“Do not attack me,” the man said. “Stand up.” The command echoed through her mind, dulling the temple’s screams. The weight eased, and she straightened, gingerly closing her wings against her back. The mage hesitated before opening his hand. A brown-red pendant dropped from the chain wound around his fingers, and its red light filled her vision.

 

THE WATER! THE WATER! THE WATER!

 

“I know about the water and the wars it has caused. I know why this place was built and why you were made into what you are. But I needed the water to prevent war. I found the temple’s heart. . .your heart,” he said, and a shudder of disgust twisted his face.

 

He held the pendant out to her, the chain loose in his hand. Her hand rose in response. “Take it. No one else should have it.” He dropped it into her palm.

 

Silence.

 

Serqet seized her sword, her wings flaring high over her head. The mage held out both hands, fingers curled for spell casting. The blade sliced the air to freeze a finger’s breadth away from his wrist.

 

Slowly, she withdrew her sword, holding it at attention, left breast to right shoulder. With a slight bow, she stepped aside to clear his path. Her eyes never left his hands.

 

She watched as the man half-walked, half-slide down the path after his mule, waiting until he reached the trees before leaping into the air. A few wing beats brought her to the roof and her own pedestal. With a kick, the bones and broken armor clattered down the temple’s face to the steps below. She settled into her niche, the pendant heavy against her chest.

 

Her heartbeat pulsed through her inner ear. The temple was silent.

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Shannon Walch is a lifelong lover of fantasy whose short fiction has received a Silver Honorable mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest.  She currently resides in Germany with her husband and an ongoing project to find new corners of her apartment in which to pack books.