MOUTH OF THE JAGUAR



MOUTH OF THE JAGUAR, by Evan Dicken:

Hummingbird was to be the final sacrifice of the day. The man before her struggled on a raised stone slab, chest heaving as a flock of blood-spattered priests pinned his arms and legs. Sunlight glittered on the Cazonci’s obsidian dagger — curved like a jaguar’s claw to better hook bone and tear flesh. The crowd around the ziggurat waited, caught in the anxious pause between lightning and thunder.

The blade fell, but Hummingbird’s gaze was not on the shrieking victim. Above, the sun was white-gold in a sky clear as the eastern sea. Lake Pátzcuaro sparkled in the light, the riot of sedge and cattails along its banks flecked with motes of bright color as wading birds combed the shallows for fish. The breeze shifted, cutting the heavy pall of incense with scents of wood smoke and cooking meat from the city below. Although they had been the enemies of her people for generations, the Tarascans shared much with the Azteca. If not for the guards holding her arms, Hummingbird might have even imagined herself back in Tenochtitlan as it was before the fall.

The sacrifice gave a gurgling cough as the Cazonci cut his heart free of its bloody nest of bone. The priests began a slow, twirling dance, but Hummingbird ignored them, her gaze fixed on the sun. She didn’t look away even when tears stung her eyes. There was a small pulse of light, quick as a leaf on a bonfire. The crowd roared, and Hummingbird prepared herself.

The sacrifices had been denied food and sleep for the last two days, forced to participate in strenuous exercise disguised as ritual. While the others sweated and strained, hoping to honor the gods through their actions, Hummingbird had held back. She’d presided over the same ceremonies as a guard in the court of Moctecuzoma, and was wise to the tricks the priests used to exhaust their victims.

Two guards pushed Hummingbird forward as she blinked away the sun’s dark afterimage. Their grip on her arms was loose, their expressions those of men ready to retire after a long day of work. It was clear they expected Hummingbird to stumble meekly to the bloodstained alter just like the hundreds who had come before her. She wouldn’t be sorry to disappoint them.

The Cazonci tossed the dead man’s heart into a nearby brazier, eyes narrowing as he noticed Hummingbird’s hair — shaved but for a single, long lock that hung over her left ear. He tensed, about to call a warning.

She didn’t give him the chance.

The guard on Hummingbird’s left toppled with a startled cry, surprised by her kick to his knee. She pivoted to hammer her fist into the throat of her other captor, but the man had already stepped away, snatching a bronze-headed axe from his belt. He bared his teeth, the boredom of moments before replaced by a look of wild fury. Hummingbird ducked his first swing, then stumbled, the weakness in her legs a bitter reminder that it had been days since she’d last eaten or slept.

The guard brought his axe up and around in a wide arc, ready to split her head. Hummingbird turned her stumble into a lunge, and rolled past him to where one of the heavy bronze braziers smoldered in the shadow of the temple. The hot metal singed her hands as she lifted the bowl from its cradle and flung the contents at the guard. He fell back, shrieking, dropping the axe to paw the burning coals from his clothes. Hummingbird folded with a quick punch to the stomach, hammered her other fist into the back of his head, then snatched the axe from the ground.

The priests reacted with surprising speed, barring her path with their bodies. They were unarmed, but Hummingbird would lose valuable time cutting through them. She could already hear the slap of sandals behind her as guards rushed from the temple proper. A desperate glance over the edge of the platform gave no reprieve. Even if she managed to make it down the ziggurat steps, the crowd would tear her to pieces.

The first of the Cazonci’s warriors emerged from the darkness of the ritual chamber. Hummingbird checked her blow when she noticed the young man before her wore the jade and gold of a noble. He skidded to a halt, one hand reaching to steady his headdress of stiffened cloth and eagle feathers. He wore a short skirt, the bare skin of his chest unmarred by age or ritual scars. His eyes were the light tan of polished copal wood, and his long hair a deep, lustrous black.

He stabbed at her, awkward as a newborn deer. Hummingbird slapped the spear from his hands and drove the butt of her axe into his ribs. She caught him before he crumpled, wrenching him up even as she pressed the heavy bronze blade to his throat.

Hummingbird dragged her hostage back, only to see a dozen more warriors spill from the sacrificial precincts. Within moments she was surrounded by a threatening jungle of spears. The two temple guards she had dropped regained their feet, if somewhat unsteadily, daggers in their hands and murder in their eyes.

A few warriors hefted javelins, and Hummingbird jerked the young nobleman around to make a smaller target of herself. He bucked forward, then grunted as Hummingbird put more pressure on the axe. A single rivulet of blood crept down his neck to pool in the hollow of his shoulder. She could smell the bitter tang of sweat through the aromatic oils rubbed into his skin and hair.

“Stop.” The Cazonci raised a hand. “Release him and you won’t be harmed.”

The air rang with Hummingbird’s laughter.

“You have my word,” he said.

She regarded him for a moment. The Cazonci was a tall man, his skin pocked as old basalt by a web of ritual scars. Dried blood crusted his ears, nose, and lips where the flesh had been pierced with maguey thorns. His long hair was matted with gore, and his arms dyed black to the elbow, but his eyes were the same faded gold as those of the man Hummingbird held.

“Swear to it,” she said.

He looked to the sky. “I, Zuangua, Cazonci of Tarasc, swear before the eye of Nanahuatzin. May the knives of Mictlan scrape the flesh from my bones if I lie.”

She released the youth. His face flushed a deep crimson as he stumbled into the ring of soldiers.

“Take her to my chambers.” Zuangua nodded to his men.

Rough hands grabbed Hummingbird.

A guard shouldered through the crowd to glare down at her. His robes were pocked with blackened holes, the flesh beneath raw and red.

“That’s my axe,” he rasped as he stripped the weapon from her hand

She drove an elbow into his face, feeling a satisfying crunch before the rest of the guards swarmed her.

“You swore I wouldn’t be harmed,” she shouted over the press.

“Don’t make a liar of me.” Zuangua turned back to the crowd. They appeared to have seen nothing of the fight, and their raucous cheers drowned Hummingbird’s curses as she was dragged back into darkness.

* * *

The Cazonci’s chambers were large, with animal skins on the floor and walls carved with the likenesses of gods and heroes. Aromatic smoke from several braziers coiled like jungle vines through holes near the ceiling.

Despite her hunger, Hummingbird had eaten sparingly from the platter of fried corn cakes brought by Zuangua’s slaves, and only sniffed at the pulque in the ceramic pitcher. The fermented maguey sap had led to her capture in the first place. She’d run afoul of Zuangua’s warriors at the end of a three day binge, sold to her city’s enemies for a handful of cacao beans by the doe-eyed bed boy she’d taken up with outside of Yoaltepec. Hummingbird scowled, the memory of his soft caresses soured by thoughts of revenge.

Why were the handsome ones always the most treacherous?

“I thought all the Cuachiqueh were dead.” Zuangua strode into the room. He removed his skirt and stood still as slaves pulled the maguey thorns from his face and genitals.

“They are.”

Zuangua made no reply, but his gaze slid to the long lock over Hummingbird’s left ear. Silence stretched between them, punctuated only by the soft click of thorns in the slaves’ catch bowls.

“Cuachiqueh or not, you are a skilled warrior,” he said at last. “I could use you against the Sea People.”

Hummingbird grimaced at the mention of the invaders, a familiar coldness rising in her gut. She steeled herself against memories of water thick with poison, of a city dragged below the waves, and of what rose in its place.

Perhaps thinking her expression a response to his offer, Zuangua frowned. “My city and yours were enemies, but we share the same gods, the same history. What of the honor of your people?”

“It lies with them at the bottom of Lake Texcoco.”

“Wealth, then — gold, jade, slaves, whatever you desire.”

She looked to the row of small, circular scars that wound around her arm. “Another warrior won’t matter.”

“It might if she were Cuachiqueh.” Zuangua accepted a cloak of eagle feathers from one of his slaves. “What do you know of Tamoachan?”

“The Mouth of the Jaguar?” Hummingbird waved a hand before her face as if dispelling a bad odor. “A cursed place. No one goes there.”

“Not always. Under suns long past, it was a place of great learning and culture. The sorcerer-priests of Tamoachan wielded power said to rival the gods. They crafted artifacts of great and terrible aspect, perhaps even powerful enough to drive off the Sea People.”

“How do you know this?”

“Because I told him.” A black-robed man stepped from the shadow of the door. Hair like wet seaweed framed a long, pallid face. His nose was little more than two slits, and his bulging, watery eyes were so large that he seemed to have no brow at all. At his approach, the air in the room grew thick with the stench of low tide.

Hummingbird snatched a knife from the platter.

Zuangua stepped between them. “Calm yourself. Sahagun is a friend.”

“He’s one of the Sea People.” Hummingbird reversed the blade, ready to throw.

“I have as much reason to hate the Esoteric Order as you, Azteca.” Sahagun spoke with a pronounced lisp, his thin lips barely covering the needlelike teeth of a deep ocean predator. “I, the most powerful of my faith, barred from eternal bliss by accident of birth.”

Hummingbird’s blade didn’t waver.

“When Sahagun first came to me, I thought the same as you,” Zuangua said. “But his knowledge has won me many battles against the invaders.”

“In the ruins of Tamoachan, long forgotten by man or god, lies an artifact of great power — a jade dagger from the time of the fourth sun, a relic from a world thought destroyed,” Sahagun said.

“Impossible,” Hummingbird said. The fourth sun and the world it shone upon were gone, swallowed by darkness along with the three others Lord Quetzalcoatl had brought into being.

“I have seen it in my dreams.” Sahagun shuffled a step closer. “Carved in a time before your gods formed the first men and women from maize dough, when the world was home to…other things.”

Zuangua laid a hand on Hummingbird’s arm. “The swamps spread, the sea rises. Tarasc will soon fall.”

“Why don’t you send your own warriors?” she asked.

“My best are in the field, and none have seen — ” He glanced at her arm. ” — have survived what you have.”

She glowered at Sahagun. Creatures like him had torn down the ziggurats and raised hideous, golden idols in their place. They brought pestilence as well. She had seen people covered in blisters, choking on their own blood. She had seen streets lined with bodies, the survivors too weak even to bear the dead away. She had been in the city when the deeps finally came for Tenochtitlan.

The invaders had much to answer for.

“I want gold,” she said to Zuangua.

“Bring me the dagger and I’ll give you more than you can carry.”

” — and food, and weapons, and clothes.”

“The finest.”

She pressed her lips into a tight line.

“The gods brought you to me, Cuachiqueh,” Zuangua said.

“Hummingbird. My name is Hummingbird, and gods had nothing to do with it.”

* * *

“We’re being followed.” Sahagun cocked his thumb as a flock of birds rose from the trees on a nearby ridge.

“I know,” Hummingbird spat the words like a curse.

They’d left Tarasc three days ago, skirting the salt marsh that had replaced the fields and rocky plains of Anahuac. Sahagun had promised he could hide them from his fellows, but Hummingbird was loath to put her life in the hands of a sorcerer. She’d first noticed their pursuers on the dawn of the second day, clued by a fine smudge of smoke against the rising sun.

“When we crest this hill, keep walking.”

“As you wish.” Sahagun’s smile was reassuring as a knife at her back.

Hummingbird ducked beneath a huana tree, taking care not to break or bend any of the small branches as she climbed.

She needn’t have bothered.

The three men walked in a ragged line, rocks skittering from under their sandals, their eyes fixed on the trail ahead. They were attired as Tarascan warriors, with spears, short skirts, and quilted cloth vests.

Hummingbird drew the macuahuitl from the sling on her back. A row of obsidian flakes was bound with dried sinew between the halves of the flat, wooden club. Sharper even than the metal blades wielded by the Sea People, it could behead a man in one swipe, although the Azteca seldom did so. The gods favored warriors as sacrifices, and that required prisoners.

“Oaca, did you hear — ?” The rear man’s words were lost in a whoosh of breath as Hummingbird landed on his back. She left him gasping on the ground, and bounced up to catch a thrust from the second man on the edge of her macuahuitl, sliding the edge down the spear haft to carve a red line across its wielder’s knuckles. The guard released the spear rather than lose his fingers. He stepped back, fumbling for his dagger, then grunted as one of his legs gave out. Never one to ignore opportunity, Hummingbird dropped him with a blow from the flat of her macuahuitl before turning to meet the charge of the last man.

He came on, axe raised. She stepped into the swing, both to avoid the blade and rob the blow of force. Still, the impact of the haft on her forehead was enough to snatch the strength from her knees. A wild swipe with her macuahuitl set the guard back on his heels, and bought Hummingbird time to regain her balance.

“I hoped it would come to this.” The guard’s broken nose lent his words buzzing drone. “You liked my axe so much back at the temple, I thought I would give you a chance to see it up close.”

Hummingbird eyed the distance between them, then inched her front foot forward. He would need room to swing that axe of his, if she could just maneuver inside his reach, her macuahuitl would —

“Oaca, stop.” The first man had regained his feet, and stood puffing, hands on his knees. Although he’d gotten rid of his headdress and exchanged his ceremonial robes for quilted cotton armor, Hummingbird recognized the wide, golden eyes and smooth cheeks of the young noble from the Tarascan ziggurat.

Broken-nose, Oaca, bared bloody teeth, but lowered his axe. The other guard groaned, fumbling for his discarded spear. Hummingbird tensed.

“Please.” The noble held up a hand. “We haven’t come to fight.”

“Who are you?” Hummingbird asked.

“Hetzin.” He turned his head to spit blood onto the dirt.

“Why are you following me?”

“To reclaim my honor.” Hetzin frowned, a smudge of blood at the corner of his lips accentuating their redness. “You shamed me before my men.”

“Twice.” She nodded at the two temple guards, then winced as the move set her head throbbing. Oaca must have hit her harder than she’d thought.

“I cannot show my face in Tarasc.” Hetzin swallowed. “But if I were to return with the dagger…I wish to accompany you.”

“No.”

“I command you.”

“I don’t follow your orders.”

“You took my father’s gold.”

“To get the dagger, not play bodyguard to his fool of a son.” She slipped her macuahuitl back into its sheath and set to exploring the spreading bruise on the side of her scalp. The flesh was tender, but it didn’t feel as if her skull was cracked.

“You could teach me to fight.”

Hummingbird let her gaze roam over his body. Sweat beaded along his arms and chest, making his skin glow like burnished bronze. Though fully into his man’s growth, he was of a size with her, with none of the fat or bulky muscle she found unappealing. There might be more than one thing she could teach him.

Hetzin shifted, uncomfortable under her scrutiny.

She snorted and turned away. “Go home.”

“We’ll follow you, all the way to Tamoachan if need be.”

“Not if I tie you to a tree.”

Oaca snorted. “Go ahead and try.”

Hetzin caught her arm, then snatched his hand back when she glared at him. His golden eyes were wide and pleading. “How am I to lead Tarasc if the warriors laugh at me?”

Something unwound in Hummingbird’s chest–a tight wariness that had dogged her since the ziggurat. If the handsome fool wished to die, who was she to stand in his way? At least he would improve the view.

She jerked her head toward the trail. “Don’t fall behind.”

* * *

The jerky was dry, salty, and tough as sandal leather. Hummingbird cast a sour look at the rabbits that lay on the flat rock beside her. She’d hoped to roast them, but was reluctant to eat any food cooked on the fire. The twisted, sickly trees of the badlands surrounding Tamoachan burned with a blue-green flame that cast strange shadows around the clearing.

Oaca scowled at her from across the fire, his face made skull-like by two black eyes and smashed remnants of his nose. The other ex-temple guard squatted beside him, casting anxious looks into the darkness. Despite the battered condition of his companion, the silent guard somehow managed to appear the more miserable of the pair. He hadn’t said a word during the journey, only limped along with the air of a man preparing to charge into a hail of javelins.

Prince Hetzin stared into the fire, his expression troubled. Hummingbird found her gaze drawn to his muscled calves, up his leg to where the skirt had bunched, just a bit, to reveal a smooth expanse of thigh.

“We should reach Tamoachan tomorrow.” Sahagun removed a stoppered gourd from the sleeve of his robe, uncorked it, and took a sip before offering it to Hetzin.

“What’s in it?” the prince asked.

“The bounty of the sea,” Sahagun said, with a shark’s toothy grin.

“Brine.” Hummingbird grunted at Hetzin’s frown. “The Sea People are unnatural creatures.”

“Different perhaps, but not unnatural,” Sahagun said. “We each must appease our gods.”

Oaca spat into the fire. “I wouldn’t call what your people worship gods.”

“Yes, well, they don’t require us to rip the hearts from our enemies, I suppose,” the sorcerer said with a mocking tilt of his head.

“Nanahuatzin created this world through sacrifice. Without blood, the sun would never rise from Mictlan and all life would wither,” Hetzin said.

The sorcerer’s crocodile grin caught the firelight. “What if I told you there are beings as far above your gods as your gods are above you?”

“Impossible. The gods created the suns, the plants, the animals, all of the fifth world,” Hetzin said.

“And just what do you think destroyed the first four?”

“Hold your tongue, Sahagun, or I will.” Hummingbird had heard enough. The Sea People had come to Tenochtitlan with the same lies, twisting their words around her people’s thoughts until the city tore itself apart. Not all had been dragged into the water — some had gone willingly.

Sahagun returned her glare, his eyes luminous in the cold, blue firelight. Hummingbird felt a measure of grudging respect for the man’s defiance, until she remembered his bravado had its roots in madness rather than courage.

“It matters not. You’ve seen the truth of my words.” He gathered his robes around him and retreated from the circle of firelight.

“What did he mean?” Hetzin asked. “What have you seen?”

Hummingbird tugged her cloak over her arms.

“Cuachiqueh,” Oaca said as if that answered everything.

Hetzin watched her for several heartbeats, then poked the fire. “Is it true if a Cuachiqueh ever takes a step back in battle, her companions will cut her down?”

“Yes.”

“Then why are you here?” Although asked from earnest curiosity, the question pinned her heart like a javelin.

“Sometimes the only choice is to run,” she whispered, curling up in her cloak. “Go to sleep, fool.”

* * *

It seemed Hummingbird barely shut her eyes before she awoke. The fire had died to guttering cinders and camp was silent, but a warning prickle along her neck roused her with weapon in hand.

She could see the outline of the silent guard. He stood facing away from the fire, back rigid, his arms at his sides. She crept toward him but was halted by a light touch on her shoulder.

Sahagun’s face bobbed in the gloom like a corpse on a midnight sea. “Stay close to the fire, they come.”

“Who?”

“The Eel People.” He hurled a handful of powder into the fire and the flames rose up.

The creatures were human shaped, with the slick, mottled skin of river frogs. They crawled through the shadows on limbs that seemed to have no bones or joints, and where their faces should’ve been were only featureless expanses of flesh.

Hummingbird saw the standing guard was actually held by several of the creatures. He convulsed in their grip, his flesh darkening to the shade of wet shale as one of the Eel People slowly forced its arm down his throat.

Her macuahuitl split the thing in half, and the guard collapsed. Another creature snaked an arm around her calf. A prickly numbness spread up her leg, which almost buckled as she tried to tear away. The thing held on, limb distending as Hummingbird dragged it across the rocky ground. Without room to swing her macuahuitl she was forced to saw at the rubbery flesh. The jagged obsidian teeth parted the creature’s arm from its body, and the thing retreated, hissing like a cornered snake. Cursing, Hummingbird snatched the still twitching appendage from her leg and tossed it into the darkness.

Hetzin staggered into the firelight, one of the Eel People wrapped around his chest. With a ragged cry, Oaca buried his axe in the creature’s shoulder. It released the Prince only to turn on the temple guard, seeming to flow down the haft of his weapon. Its fingers burrowed into Oaca’s arms, dark veins marbling his flesh. Hummingbird sprinted across the intervening distance only to see another of the creatures slip from the darkness behind Oaca to wrap its long, boneless arms around his shoulders. He shoved Hetzin toward her, then doubled over to vomit up a writhing mass of fat, black slugs.

Hummingbird jerked Hetzin toward the fire as Oaca fell back into the night. She slashed about her, but couldn’t seem to stem the tide. Her macuahuitl soon became mired in the things. Glistening darkness crept down the blade, and Hummingbird released it before the flood could reach her.

Hetzin shrieked as one of the things caught his hand, threading its fingers through his casually as a lover. He slashed at it with his dagger, but the blade only rebounded from the slick flesh. Hummingbird lowered her shoulder and shoved the thing into the fire. It twisted in the blaze, screeching as the blaze hissed and crackled around it. Hummingbird caught Hetzin around the waist before the creature could drag him down, and wrenched him from its grip.

Sahagun was on his knees, clutching a gold medallion in the shape of a stylized eye as he choked out words that seemed to blister the air. He rose with a triumphant shout and flung a spray of salt into the horde. Where the grains struck, the flesh of the rubber people smoldered and sparked. Blue flames limned their twisted bodies, causing them to curl like the legs of a dying insect. The smell of burnt hair was suddenly thick in Hummingbird’s nose.

“What were those things?” Hetzin asked when the last had burned to ash.

“What remained,” Sahagun said. “The Black Circle brought doom to Tamoachan and its people, but not all died.”

Hummingbird turned on the sorcerer. “You said you could protect us.”

“I did.” He brushed the dust from his robes.

“Two men are dead.”

“They knew the danger.”

She took a step toward him.

The sorcerer didn’t flinch. “There are more than we saw here. Do you think you could defeat them without me?”

“Hummingbird, no.” Hetzin stepped between them. “They were my men. If anyone is responsible for their deaths, it’s me. We must retrieve the dagger, and for that we need Sahagun, now more than ever.”

Hummingbird turned away with a snarl and snatched up her macuahuitl. Some of the shards had splintered in the fight, and she set to replacing them. She needed something to pass the time until dawn now that sleep was beyond consideration. As an afterthought, she retrieved Oaca’s axe and thrust it into her belt. The man had been an arrogant fool, but he’d shown his mettle at the end. No one deserved to die like that. And yet, as Hummingbird watched Sahagun pick through the scorched remains of the Eel People, she couldn’t help but wonder if Oaca and his silent companion hadn’t been the lucky ones.

* * *

The fourth time they passed the stone head, Hummingbird lost her temper.

“He’s leading us in circles.” She flicked her fingers at the bust. Unlike the other statues they’d passed, its features were human, although shifted in such a way that Hummingbird felt as if her eyes were crossing every time she even glanced at it.

“You don’t understand,” Sahagun raised two fingers, looked between them, and took another left turn — the fourth he’d made in as many minutes.

“Why would he lie?” Hetzin favored her with a helpless shrug before following the sorcerer.

Streets meandered like rivers among the domed buildings of Tamoachan, looping back on themselves in a way that tied Hummingbird’s sense of direction in knots. Fluted walls sloped toward the road, seeming to press in on all sides. What few doors she noticed were long and irregular, as if torn from the rock by a giant, palsied hand. There was not a straight line or hard angle to be seen, and the whole city had a slumped, melted look to it.

“Why did they build like this?” She closed her eyes as vertigo threatened to overwhelm her.

“For protection. The Masters of the Black Circle dealt with forces that would grind your reason to dust,” Sahagun said.

Hummingbird snorted, but followed the sorcerer through a plaza of crooked pillars, and up a coiling staircase made from rounded blocks of wildly different sizes.

“This is it.” Sahagun spread his arms. The conical building looked no different from the others that lined the street, smaller even. It had no entrance but for a ragged hole just above their heads.

“Go on.” Sahagun gestured at the opening. “Climb up.”

“You climb up,” Hummingbird said.

“That’s not why I’m here.” The sorcerer returned her glare with a sharp-toothed smile.

“Why are you here, sorcerer? You may have Zuangua fooled, but I have heard the words of your priests. I know what you and your people desire.”

“And what is that?”

“A new sun, a new world.”

“Actually, we desire an old one, but that is not why I’m here.” Sahagun spread his hands, holding his fingers up to the sun so Hummingbird could see the thin webbing between the digits. “This, this is my father’s gift to me — the least of his blessings. Among my people, birth is everything. No matter our skill, no matter our deeds, we are forever bound by the shackles of ancestry. I am here so that my so-called betters will see my hand in their defeat and know they misjudged me, that they were wrong. None of them could have come this far, the magic of the city would have blasted them to ash, but my blood is diluted enough to slip through the wards. My weakness has become my strength. You’re here for vengeance, Cuachiqueh, but I come for recognition.”

“A pretty speech, but I heard far prettier from the Sea People who came to Tenochtitlan. They promised salvation, happiness, eternal bliss — all lies.”

“Believe what you want.” Sahagun lowered his hands. “Just so long as you climb.”

Hummingbird leapt to catch the edge. The stone was warm and oily beneath her fingers, but she was able to haul herself up and lower a rope for Hetzin and Sahagun. A short, circular passage led inside, opening on the edge of a columned room larger than the building’s exterior.

The floor was made of irregular tiles, cut and fitted in a way that suggested a mosaic but followed no pattern Hummingbird could discern. Bronze plates set into the walls focused light without visible source on the chamber’s altar–a thick slab of rose quartz cut to resemble a stepped pyramid. Stretched across it were the desiccated remains of an enormous jungle cat, the hilt of a jade dagger drooping from one empty eye socket.

Hetzin joined her at the entrance, spear in hand.

“I cannot enter. Even a drop of ancient blood is too much for this place.” Sahagun stopped halfway down the tunnel, regarding the chamber beyond with a pained frown. “You must retrieve the blade.”

Hummingbird drew her macuahuitl and stepped into the room, Hetzin at her heels. Their tentative footfalls echoed back, warped by the strange acoustics of the chamber into the rumble of distant thunder. As they drew close, Hummingbird made to reach for the dagger, but Hetzin caught her hand.

“Tarasc is my city. I’ll do it.” He snatched the dagger from the carcass and drew back, gaze searching the shadows.

Hummingbird watched the corpse, weapon poised to remove its head should the beast show any sign of renewed vigor.

Neither noticed the yellow smoke rising from the base of the altar until it was around their knees.

“Beware the angles!” Sahagun shouted. “Quickly, bring the dagger to me. I can banish the beast!”

Hummingbird took a step back. Mist billowed around her, thick and choking as the ash that had rained from Popocatepetl after the night of fire. Shapes moved in the smoke, and Hummingbird caught a glimpse of an insectile leg covered with hairs fine as spider silk. A long, hollow tube lashed from the mist to sink into her shoulder. She tore at it, fingers slipping on the pale blue slime that covered its surface. It came away wet with her blood.

She swung her macuahuitl at the shape in the mist. Her club cracked, a shower of obsidian chips slicing across her arms and face.

The thing seemed barely to notice, and Hummingbird just avoided another of the creature’s long, hollow barbs. She hurled her broken club into the fog, and drew Oaca’s axe. The first chop sent a shiver up her arms like she’d struck solid stone, by the third her hands were numb.

A flailing leg struck her across the chest. It was only a glancing blow, but it still sent her tumbling across the smooth tile.

Hummingbird scrambled to her feet. A few stumbling steps and she was at the door, the formless thing in the mist scrabbling behind her with a sound like teeth on stone.

She came up in time to see Sahagun snatch the dagger from Hetzin’s grasp, and slash it across the Prince’s chest. He toppled back into the mist with a despairing cry.

“The Black Circle is whole once again!” The sorcerer drew the blade across his arm. Dark smoke seeped from the cut, curling up into the air. “By blood I was banished and by blood I shall return. This time none shall deny me my place among the worthy! Aie, yil la khosa!”

Hummingbird raised her weapon, but Sahagun’s gaze caught her and dragged her down. The sorcerer chanted under his breath–thick, wet syllables that seemed to crawl under Hummingbird’s skin. Darkness bled into her vision, the crushing pressure of the deeps squeezing the life from her even as seawater filled her lungs. She collapsed against the wall of the tunnel, knowing the mist creature was close, but unable break the sorcerer’s gaze. The axe hung loose in her hands, heavy as a temple stone. It was all she could do to keep ahold of it.

“Do not fear, Cuachiqueh.” Sahagun pressed the dagger into the hollow of Hummingbird’s throat. “You may die, but I will never let you go. Together, we shall — ”

The rest of the sorcerer’s words were lost in a shriek as Hetzin reared up from the mist to drive his spear into Sahagun’s thigh.

Freed of the sorcerer’s terrible gaze, Hummingbird struck. Oaca’s axe caught Sahagun just above the ear, carving a bloody furrow in his scalp. He clawed at her eyes. Hummingbird flinched away, and the sorcerer’s ragged talons dug into her cheek. She dropped the axe to grab Sahagun’s wrists before he could drive the dagger into her neck. The sorcerer shrieked and hissed, his eyes rolled back to show nothing but chalky whites. Blood and brine spattered Hummingbird’s face as Sahagun’s jaws snapped shut a hairsbreadth from her nose.

Somewhere in the mist, Hetzin screamed.

Hummingbird twisted to secure the dagger, gripping the sorcerer’s hand with both of hers. He clawed long, bloody gashes in her chest and neck, but Hummingbird only grit her teeth and forced the blade up into Sahagun’s stomach. The sorcerer’s blood was cold and slick, and his convulsions almost tore the dagger from her grasp. Arms burning, Hummingbird pushed the blade in until she felt it scrape across bone.

Sahagun pawed at her, but the blows were weak. His head rebounded from the stone as Hummingbird threw him off of her, and he slumped to the ground. She stooped to snatch the dagger from his limp hand.

Hetzin lay a few paces away, his back to her. The Prince was pale, one of the creature’s hollow tongues buried deep in his arm, the length behind pulsing an arterial red. Hummingbird lunged forward to slash at the tube, which withdrew with a sound part way between a baby’s cry and the furious yowl of a hunting cat. She pulled Hetzin to his feet, but he made no move to flee.

“It’s beautiful,” The prince stood as if carved from stone, staring at the thing in the mist, an idiot’s slack grin on his face.

Hummingbird cursed and shouldered him down the tunnel. The opening was only a few paces distant, but she’d never reach it dragging Hetzin. She took a stumbling step toward the circle of wan sunlight, stopped, and turned.

Sometimes the only choice was to run.

Hummingbird kept her eyes downcast as she charged, expecting any moment to feel the sharp bite of the thing’s barbs. The dagger was awkward in her grip, its hilt too wide for human hands. A shadow flickered and Hummingbird leapt, the blow that would’ve disemboweled her slipping by in a flutter of disturbed air. She brought the dagger down two-handed, and felt a hot gush of fluid as it sank into the thing’s body.

Hummingbird hung on grimly, sawing through the creature’s chitinous armor as it thrashed beneath her. Mist burned her eyes and lungs, but she was thankful, for it obscured the hideous form of the thing with which she grappled. The creature slammed against one of the pillars, and Hummingbird was forced to leap free to avoid the fall of heavy stones. The thing gave an echoing shriek as the pillar toppled into another. Hummingbird lurched to her feet, barely able to keep her balance amidst the teeth-rattling boom of falling rock. For a moment, she didn’t know if she was running toward the tunnel or away from it, until she heard the thing rear up, keening, from the pile of rubble behind her.

A few unsteady steps brought her to where Hetzin stood. The Prince flinched away when she stepped from the mist, a terrible revenant soaked in blood and ichor.

“Run!” She shoved him ahead of her. This time, the noble needed no prodding.

He grasped the rope, sliding through the entrance without so much as a backwards glance. Hummingbird bent to do the same, when she felt sharp talons close about her ankle.

“You’re doomed without me.” Sahagun pulled himself across the floor. “None can stand against the might of Father — ”

Hummingbird kicked him in the face, but the sorcerer didn’t release his grip. Her lungs burned with each sobbing breath, the sound of the creature struggling through the rubble loud in her ears. Although she slashed at Sahagun with the dagger, her arms seemed to have lost their strength.

The sorcerer lurched, claws digging into her calf. Hummingbird saw one of the creature’s barbs jutting from his back. Another hissed from the mist to thud into Sahagun’s shoulder. Slowly, the two of them were dragged down the hall. Hummingbird worked the dagger beneath the sorcerer’s fingers, not caring that it cut her own flesh as well.

“I curse you, Cuachiqueh.” Sahagun’s words came with a torrent of black bile.

“You wouldn’t be the first.” She wrenched on the dagger, prying the sorcerer’s fingers from her leg. With a low moan, he slid back into the billowing mist.

The rope left burns on Hummingbird’s palms as she slid from the entrance. Hetzin staggered to her side and threw an arm around her shoulder.

The setting sun lent urgency to their flight as they limped from Tamoachan. Arms around each other, they struggled on with no thought but to win free of the badlands. The night seethed around them, alive with the hiss of oily bodies on stone. But the Eel People didn’t attack, perhaps kept at bay by the dagger clutched in Hummingbird’s blood-caked hand. Only when stunted shrubs gave way to grass and trees did the two of them collapse.

When they awoke, Hetzin limped to a nearby stream and returned with cupped leaf full of water.

“We should clean your wounds before they fester.” He tore a strip from his skirt.

Hummingbird let him wash the blood away and bind her wounds, grimacing when he probed the deep slashes on her calf.

Hetzin drew forth a handful of red petals from his pouch and crushed them into a paste. “This flower grows only in the black ash of Popocatepetl. It’ll numb the pain.”

His hands were gentle. Hummingbird relaxed as a pleasant numbness swallowed the pain in her leg. He paused, and then tentatively touched the cut on her thigh. It was no more than a scratch, but Hummingbird didn’t stop him. His fingers crept up, soft as spider legs, to where there was no injury.

She caught his wrist. Stammering apologies, Hetzin made to draw away. He looked up when she didn’t release him, his eyes questioning.

She pulled him to her.

Hetzin’s lips were hot, his body strong and supple under her hands. He fumbled at the clasp of her belt, but she pushed him to the ground, pinning him as she straddled his hips.

“Let me.” She tore off his skirt, and then her own.

* * *

Hetzin was gone when Hummingbird awoke to the morning sun. At first she thought he was getting water, but as the shadows shortened she began to suspect he wasn’t coming back.

It was then she noticed he’d taken the dagger.

Hummingbird squinted at the sky, a flush creeping up her neck. Hetzin couldn’t have more than a few hours lead. Prince or not, she’d thrash him until he couldn’t walk.

Her leg collapsed when she tried to stand, sending her sprawling to the grass. She cursed. The whole limb felt as if it had been carved from wood.

Snarling, she tore the poultice from her wound. What a fool she’d been. Magic flower indeed–Hetzin had drugged her and was no doubt bearing the dagger to his father. She could imagine the story he would tell in court, and who he would cast as the hero, and the villain. Her word would not stand against that of Zuangua’s own son.

She slammed a fist against her frozen leg. The only reward she could expect now was another trip to the Tarascan ziggurat. Already, her toes prickled with returning feeling, but she suspected it would be hours before she could walk again. A glint caught her eye. Hetzin had left her pack — food, supplies, and a few pieces of gold–far less than she’d been promised.

An expensive night indeed.

Her laughter startled a flurry of birds from a nearby thicket. This wasn’t over. She’d come back for Hetzin, for the Sea People, for all of them, but for now all she wanted was to find a quiet hut, a jug of pulque, and a man with a face like a dry stream bed.

The handsome ones were more trouble than they were worth.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
By day, Evan Dicken battles economic entropy for the US Department of Commerce and studies old Japanese maps at “the” Ohio State University. By night, he does neither of those things. His work has most recently appeared in: Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, and The Lovecraft eZine, and he has stories forthcoming from publishers such as: Shock Totem, Andromeda Airways In-Flight Magazine, and Stupefying Stories. Feel free to visit him at: evandicken.com

 


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