Zeus’ Warriors: Chapter One
Colors flashed before Tlaloc’s eyes, some half-glimpsed in a quick blur of motion, others sheer flashes of memory–a living nightmare from which he now longed to awaken, to escape. He saw the green of lush jungle foliage as it rushed by him in a confusing tangle, felt leaf-laden branches brush his sweaty face and slap his sprinting legs. And, while he did not dare a glance back over his shoulder, he felt the priests closing in on him just the same–their arms and heads adorned in bright cochotl feathers, blue and yellow and —
— the deadly black obsidian of ceremonial daggers still clutched in their shimmering —
So much red!
Red was the color Tlaloc saw again and again; a rapidly spinning kaleidoscope of blood and death, of fear and panic. His tired legs cried out for him to stop, but his heart still beat wildly within his chest, and if he wanted it to remain there, Tlaloc knew he had to keep running.
He had to rid the Earth of this damned skull.
It was there in his hands, the root of all this madness. Its smooth, flawless surface was still streaked and dotted with the blood of countless men and women, including his beautiful wife. A bright glow emanated from deep within the crystal, mocking the light that had been forever extinguished to feed it — waves of bluish-white illumination that reminded Tlaloc of a full moon on the surface of Lake Texcoco.
The water…the sea…
Yes. Tlaloc put his head down and continued his mad dash out of this jungle toward the sand and the cool surf that waited beyond. He needed to stop all this bloodshed, this lie that had been force-fed to the Tenochca people… this evil.
His city used to be a place people flocked to, a symbol of hope, of life; an oasis of safety in this harsh, unforgiving land. Now it was simply another danger to be avoided, as deadly as a coiled snake or a crouching jaguar. Surrounding villages no longer spoke its name. They entered its borders only when they had no other choice, and they left just as quickly as their feet could carry them. It was now a wicked place, a place that stank of death, and its downfall was all Quetzalcoatl’s doing.
Tlaloc still remembered the day that winged serpent first appeared from the sky with its crystal skulls and its demand for sacrifice. Blood for blood. The gods, it claimed, had used parts of themselves to create the very first humans, and so human sacrifices were necessary to restore the balance, to make the gods whole again, to save all of mankind.
And the people…they believed it.
Priests rose up, all too anxious to answer the serpent’s call. They built huge pyramids to honor the gods for their original sacrifice, altars of stone on which humanity’s debt could be brutally repaid piece by grisly piece — still-beating hearts ripped from the chests of conscious victims, beheadings… some people had even been skinned alive; their agonized screams still echoed in Tlaloc’s ears.
These offerings of flesh and blood were then ‘fed’ to the gods directly. Quetzalcoatl ordered the meat burnt, and the hot, steaming blood poured over the statues of deities, and of course, those crystal skulls. This, the serpent warned, was most important, because if the gods did not receive their nourishment, they would not have the strength to raise the sun each morning, and the world would remain trapped in eternal night.
But Tlaloc didn’t believe a word of the serpent’s tale. This skull wasn’t the work of the gods. It couldn’t be. This…this was pure evil, forged by demons, and he would do everything in his power to see it gone.
Something small zipped past Tlaloc’s ear, followed by another, and another.
Darts launched from blowguns, bathed in lethal poison. They nailed the trees around him and tore through surrounding leaves. Tlaloc ducked down, bobbing and weaving from side to side in the thick foliage, all too aware that, should one of those points sting him, even graze his flesh, he’d be dead before he could take another step.
Just a little more… Not much farther to go…
Yes. He could smell the sea air now, could feel the ocean breeze cool his sweaty skin. And the waves… he swore he heard them crashing against the shore, or perhaps that was only wishful thinking.
A flash of yellow registered in the tree above. Tlaloc glanced up and saw something perched on a thick, low-hanging limb; its eyes shone brightly from the dusk of the leafy canopy. The creature was roughly human in size and shape, but its mannerisms were unmistakably feline.
No, he realized. Not a jaguar, not really, but not wholly a man either. This creature was not of nature. This was something wrong.
The thing leapt down to block his path. It crouched on all fours for a moment, then stood erect; tall, muscular, and covered in fur — yellow-brown in color, with distinctive black spots. Its dark lips parted in a toothy snarl that reverberated through the underbrush.
Monkeys howled in response and scurried off on various branches. Birds took flight, reaching for the safety of the open sky. Stray leaves and bits of bark fell down like rain. And Tlaloc…
Fear froze Tlaloc in his tracks; he broke into a profuse sweat, his limbs trembling.
The jaguar-man took a moment to study him, then its bright, pale eyes landed firmly on the crystalline skull. Its triangular ears flattened and it clawed at the air, daring Tlaloc to move, to take another foolish step forward.
“Cuaxicalli,” the creature snarled. It stared at the glowing, blood-speckled skull in the crook of Tlaloc’s arm with an odd mash of anger and awe. “Tinechmaca!”
No, Tlaloc thought. Anxious as he was to be rid of the thing, he would not give it up. Not to this monster, not to anyone. He did not waste his own breath trying to argue, to talk some sense into this demon spirit. Instead, he clutched the crystalline sculpture to his chest and backed away, frantically searching for escape routes, wondering which way he should run next.
His sandaled foot struck a small stone hidden in the undergrowth. He stooped down and scooped it up in his free hand. Tlaloc wore only a simple loincloth — a long strip of fabric, tied in front; it was drawn tight around his waist, securing his only weapon, a tematlatl, to his bony hip. He slid the sling free, twisting the rock into it with a quick turn of his wrist.
Of course, Tlaloc’s sudden burst of motion did not go unnoticed, nor did it go unchallenged. The jaguar-man growled and sprang forward, its claws outstretched, ready to strike its opponent head-on.
Tlaloc instinctively stepped back and swung with all his might. The sling came up from behind him and over the top of his head in an overhand throw; a large, fast turning motion that flung the small stone with maximum velocity.
As the beast pounced, Tlaloc’s rock struck it squarely between its eyes. It gave a sharp, brief yelp, then dropped into the undergrowth. Still. Silent.
Tlaloc had no idea if he’d killed the thing, knocked it unconscious, or merely stunned it. He knew for certain, however, that he wasn’t going to wait around to find out.
The sounds of the priests’ pursuit drifted up from behind him, and Tlaloc resumed his sprint. His path sloped downward now, toward the ocean. In his arms, the glowing crystal seemed to grow heavier with each and every step, as if it was aware of the fate that awaited it and were trying desperately to slow his progress. No matter how difficult the burden became, however, no matter if he found he could no longer hold the skull, if he had to push or drag it through the brush, Tlaloc was going to see this through to the bitter end.
Finally, Tlaloc’s tired feet touched warm, white sand. He stood for a moment in the shade, catching his breath, knowing he had no time to rest. A lone canoe caught his gaze; tied to the curved trunk of a palm tree, one of many that rimmed this secluded beach — away from the water and out of the sun.
Tlaloc stumbled on through loose dunes, kicking up sand. When he reached the vacant boat, he tossed his burden inside, grateful, if only for a moment, to be rid of its weight. Tlaloc turned away, focusing instead on the rope; his fingers made quick work of its knots, and soon, he was able to push the canoe out into the cool, salty waves.
Before the water grew too deep, he hopped inside the boat and snatched up an oar. He rowed feverishly, trying to put some much-needed distance between himself and the shore. Storm clouds seemed to bubble up from the sea to darken the horizon. Tlaloc saw lightning fork down, skewering the waters ahead; the same bluish-white glow as the skull at his feet.
He stared into the oncoming storm, and his oar paused in mid stroke.
What if I’m wrong? Tlaloc wondered, his primitive heart gripped by a sudden burst of fearful reverence. What if this skull does come from the gods? What if they really will die without it, without more sacrifice? When he glanced down into those crystalline eye sockets, however, when he saw the dried blood that filled them, he thought once more of his wife, of his loss, and his determination quickly returned. If that’s true…then the gods are greedy, selfish, murdering, bastards, and this world will be better off without them. I’ve sacrificed enough. No more!
The waves grew higher, tossing his small canoe. Tlaloc fought against them. He paddled until his arms and shoulders ached, until the priests and their followers were colorful specks along the far-off shoreline behind him; barely visible at all. The only sounds in his ears were wind and thunder, and he realized the ocean beneath his canoe must be deep.
Tlaloc only prayed it would be deep enough.
“Cāhuitl.” He put down his oar and picked the crystal skull up in both hands. It felt heavy as a boulder now, and Tlaloc knew it would sink fast. He stared once more into its empty eyes, at its mocking grin, then he screamed a final farewell, “Anej!”
Before he could drop the cursed thing into the water, however, he heard a loud screech. The canoe rocked violently to and fro, and when he looked up, Tlaloc could not believe what he saw.
It swooped down to land in the boat with him.
The serpent towered over Tlaloc, its multicolored wings spread wide. It had no legs — just a long, scaly tail that now coiled in the well of the canoe, but it did have arms, and its claws reached out for him.
“Teh,” it hissed, and Tlaloc felt its warm spittle sprinkle his cheek. “Ichtecqueh!”
Yes, I am a thief. I am also a warrior, and if I’m to die here on this canoe, I will die a warrior’s death, covered in the blood of my enemy!
Tlaloc secured the crystal sculpture with both hands and held it high above his head. With a loud war cry, he slammed the heavy quartz into Quetzalcoatl’s snout with all of his might. Blood sprayed from the serpent’s nostrils; it emitted an inhuman screech and its head reared back. One of the creature’s colorful wings suddenly fanned forward, and Tlaloc ducked to avoid being swept overboard.
Thunder clapped and a large wave pelted the rocking canoe, partially filling it.
Enraged, Quetzalcoatl writhed around in the water, thrashing its tail. Then the serpent lunged at Tlaloc a second time, bared fangs aimed squarely at his throat. Reptilian claws reached for the skull, ready to snatch it away.
Tlaloc ducked, and the serpent slammed into the wooden stern in an explosion of splinters and venomous drool. He clenched his fingers tightly around the crystal. Never, he thought, holding the skull over his head once more. You will never take this from me! Priests will never again shed innocent blood in your cursed name!
As if in reply, a sudden bolt of white-hot lightning struck the crystal — tethering it, if only for a moment, to the heavens from which it came. Tlaloc’s eyes widened; the flash was a scar on his retinas, and he could smell the smoke of his own charred flesh; the intense heat had fused his hands to the sides of the skull. He cried out in agony, then rolled over the side of the canoe into the churning sea.
Quetzalcoatl squealed. It dove in after Tlaloc, after the skull, but the crystal’s weight pulled him down into the depths, forever beyond the serpent’s grasp.
Tlaloc stared up as he sank, watching his nemesis fade, eventually swallowed by gathering darkness. He smiled, satisfied, and the last ounce of breath passed from his lips in a single bubble. His long nightmare over, he closed his eyes and surrendered himself to everlasting sleep.
He was not the first of Zeus’ warriors to give his life to protect this world, and regrettably, he would not be the last.
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