Berkly put the phone down. It would take the woman at least an hour to reach his hotel and collect the bag she had dropped at the airport.
Unable to contain his curiosity, he turned the package in search of a way to investigate its contents without causing damage to the wrapping. The shape was almost rectangular, but with the corners deeply curved, approximately twenty by twelve inches wide. The heavy, padded velvet cloth was formed into an envelope sealed at the four edges. He was pulling at the seal on one of the long sides, thinking the only method of access would be with a sharp bladed instrument, when the edges split. He placed the object on the bed and with slow deliberation peeled the soft foamy substance away.
Free of its wrapping, the object glinted with reflected fluorescent light from above. This was not a dish as he first guessed from its shape. Berkley lifted it, gazing with awe at the gleaming, polished outer surface. At first, he thought it was made of glass, but deeper inspection showed a faint cloudiness suggesting it more likely to be quartz. Mesmerized by the perfection of the craftsmanship, he was looking at some kind of ornate mask cut and polished from a single piece of crystal.
The inside was hollowed out to fit over the wearer’s face. Across the forehead was a carved decoration simulating feathers. Narrow gold and silver strips nestled between the quills. Similar metal strips, like veins, ran across the cheeks below the eyes, which were large and circular like goggles. In its entirety, the mask reminded him of those worn by deities he had seen in drawings of ancient Mayan art; those pictures that believers in extraterrestrial visitation cited as proof the gods of early civilisations had come to earth from the stars.
Berkley stood. Holding the mask in both hands, he paced, one slow, hesitant step at a time, to the chair in front of the mirror and sat. He stared at his reflection for a long while with unblinking eyes, and then, very slowly, lifted the mask, positioning it over his face. His cheeks and nose nestled into the carved hollow as he stared out, now through the circular lenses over his eyes. Even without his contact lenses, the crystal seemed to enhance his vision beyond 20/20 normality. He had never been able to see so clearly.
From somewhere behind, he heard a slight but distinct rattle. He could see the entrance to the room, the white painted wooden door, reflected in the mirror. Even from this distance he could observe the handle of the door slowly turning. The doorknob reached the full extent of its rotation. He could sense the latch disengaging. He held his breath as a prickling sensation, like static electricity, touched his face.
A line of light appeared between the door and the frame, so subtle in shade from that in the room, yet he could detect the faint shadow it cast on the wall. The prickling sensation intensified behind the mask, like the feeling of circulation returning to cramped limbs. Berkley watched the line of light slowly widening as a sensation of tiny needles by the thousands pierced the skin on his face.
The door inched open. Although no more than slightly ajar, he could see her. The woman he knew from the airport stood in the doorway. He appeared to be looking at her through the wood of the door, as if it had turned to glass. He tried to stifle a moan as hundreds of small screws wormed their way into his cheeks and forehead. Holding his breath, he fought to calm the pain, now aware that donning the mask may have been a dangerous error of judgement.
She stepped into the room. He could see the skin of her face, the pale hue like milky coffee stretched tightly over her cheek bones and jaw. Her hair, blacker than jet, shimmered with shades of blue.
The quills of the feathers carved into the mask turned into nails, forced under pressure, hammering into his skull. He could feel the sharp points, crunching through bone, winding into his brain and ripping nerve endings from tissue. He sensed the inside of the mask filling with his own hot, sticky blood.
Multi coloured lights, refracted from a white star exploding inside the crystal, swirled in the mirror. The woman saw him. Her perfect garnet red lips seemed to be moving as if she spoke without sound. Words shunted in sequence through his consciousness, unheard, but readable like a ticker tape. “Remove the mask! Now!” Her eyes, glittering pools of black oil, reflected the pulsating glow from the mirror.
He tried to do as she commanded. Slipping the tips of his fingers between the smooth edge of the crystal and the skin under his ears, he levered the mask, working it from his nose and cheeks. The bonding of crystal to skin was complete. It felt as if the flesh was being torn from the bone. A dizziness enveloped his awareness, a feeling of light-headed, sublime euphoria.
And then pain like molten steel burned into his chest. His awareness squirmed like a shrinking fetus inside his body. He saw the reflection of the woman’s face as her agonised scream echoed through the room, or perhaps the scream emanated from his own lungs. Dark shadows of obscene things crawled in the periphery of his vision, huge black forms of creatures that had no right to live. Light refracting through the crystal prism blended into white intensity, swallowing his essence into itself. The lights and shadows were moving, turning as he watched their attempt to devour him.
The last thing he saw was his mother standing in the doorway with her derogatory stare saying, “I hope you’re wearing clean underwear!”
Berkley C James knew he was dead before he hit the ground. Vucub Caquix, demonic ruler of the nine hells of Xibalbá lived… again.
Word count 998.
Author’s note: In Mayan mythology, Xibalbá is the dangerous underworld of nine levels ruled by the demons, Vucub Caquix, and Hun Came. This story is adapted in Flash Fiction form from my unfinished novel, The Crystal Mask Of Tezcatlipoca.