The slaves were led towards a great paddock. It was little more than an enclosure of sheet metal. It wouldn’t have stopped a determined child, let alone one of the monsters or heroes among the Vemana. The chains, the walls, they were all just a reminder of the thing that was really keeping them trapped. The gaze of the gods above, three of the great gods of the Aztec, made it clear. There was to be no escape from this place. Nash looked casually around the paddock, and faded towards its back. The gods gaze would not stop him.
This was not an ideal situation. He didn’t even know if he had backup. Betty might be lurking in the crowd, or still might be in the slums, unsure of where he’d gone. Either way, she wouldn’t go charging in to release him. She wasn’t strong enough to do that without her human. He had to hope that the gods would be too distracted with ceremony. If he could get away, he could investigate, search through the place while everyone’s attention was focused here. That many children wouldn’t be easy to hide, particularly in a place where nobody would find them. Just give him a couple of hours. The ceremony had to last that long, right?
“Vemana!” Xipe Totec shouted, with a voice like a brass band, and the attention of the gods settled firmly on the slave pen. Nash cursed silently and tried to keep his head down, to not look suspicious. He could feel the eager gazes of the gods on him, though. They recognized him. That was going to make things a hell of a lot harder. He might be able to make a break for it. He wasn’t sure how much he wanted to fight three gods at once. The battle with Izanami, Heracles, and Echidna in Zion had been one of the most desperate moments in his life, in hindsight. And these three were not driven by madness and animal instinct that he could take advantage of.
The power War had given him was chosen carefully. It made him strong, strong enough to stand a chance. That was all. It never guaranteed victory. In point of fact, it made him a perpetual underdog. He couldn’t afford to be blithe. It’s why he mocked people during his fights, first with the promise of hope, and then with the prediction of doom. The hope was to remind himself that anyone could kill him if they got lucky. The doom was to keep them from trying again. Winning all of the fights at once. It’d make him look damn silly if he got his throat cut now.
“We gave you this name! The word means sacrifice in our ancient tongue, Nahuatl. This has been the source of discontent among you in the past, and I am sure it never has been more terrible a name than now. All creatures fear death, for it is bred in their nature! We do not hate the deer for fleeing the hunter, or the enemy soldier for fighting with all of his strength! We honor them for it, because they make it a challenge! In challenge, there is worthiness! But your life is not a gift, or a right, but a loan!”
The golden goddess swept her arms out towards Tezcatlipoca. “Titlacauan! We are her slaves, for all labor under her gaze and her power! Ipalnemoani! She by whom we live! In the time before stars, Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl stood over the endless ocean! The chaos consumed any land they dredged up, with the terrible beast Cipactli!”
There was a terrible roar, deep, and violent, filling the air like the subsonic call of an elephant or the low rumble of a full orchestra of tubas, raising high into the air. People turned, and screamed, as something loomed out of the sky. Its shape was vaguely crocodilian, vaguely froglike, and it lunged forward with a ponderous speed. Its massive jaws swept wider, and wider, and the eye was constantly forced to readjust, as a monster the size of a building, a mountain, a city, a state, hurtled towards them, jaws poised to snap down on the island itself, white teeth gleaming. Nash’s fists tightened.
“And the great god sacrificed her leg, lured it to the surface, and struck it down, capturing it!”
Tezcatlipoca stood, gracefully, on one foot, the obsidian mirror in one hand, balancing herself with the other. She spun like a discus thrower, lithe and graceful despite her crippled leg, and hurled the disc into the sky towards the jaws of the creature. It struck there, and the monster’s maw closed. It spiraled almost gracefully down into the sea south of them with a sound like the world’s biggest bellyflop. Rain began to pound down, filling the air, and turning the ground into a slurry of mud, a ferocious rainstorm kicked up by the spray from the creature’s landing.
“To Tezcatlipoca is owed nothing less than your lives! Nothing less than your existence!”
A sigh ran through the crowd of Aztecs, even as the captured Vemana pressed closer together. Xipe Totec swept her arms out in the other direction, towards Huitzilopochtli. “But perhaps you think that enough has been sacrificed! Perhaps, like callous children, you believe that Tezcatlipoca has been repaid in full, and you do not owe the Enemy of Both Sides anything for the world on which you stand! The lives which you lead!”
Nash’s eyes drifted up in response to a gentle tug of power from the sky. The stars were moving. In slow, lazy patterns, they circled around the moon, rotating smoothly around that fixed point. His hands clenched into fists as the stars grew brighter. He’d heard about these ones.
“Huitzilopochtli! Hummingbird’s South! Child of the earth goddess! The goddess of war! Each night, the world is beset by four hundred demons, her sisters, and her brother, the moon! Each dawn, she drives them back! It is for Huitzilopochtli that you bleed! For the children that have been stolen from us! And yet still, what is your life in comparison to the gods?!”
Xipe Totec stopped there for a moment, and her voice changed, from harsh, accusatory, metallic like a bandsaw, to something sweet, and almost inspiring, like the tones of a harp.
“Each of you was born with a coal in you, your heart! One small fragment of the sun god’s majesty! Given freely, to believer and non-believer alike! Mortal, monster, hero, and god! Each of you is blessed by Huitzilopochtli’s kindness! But you have spat on it! You who have said no prayers! You who have made no sacrifice to keep Huitzilopochtli strong!” Xipe Totec chuckled. “But Huitzilopochtli is kind. Huitzilopochtli will take your wandering hearts back, and with your strength, save your world, and all that you love from the darkness. The children will be returned. Your sacrifice will not be in vain.”
With those words, the Vemana began to sob, raising hands to eyes. To lose hope. They clung to each other, their chains rattling as they huddled together for safety. Nash stared up at the platform. Huitzilopochtli looked directly at him, her eyes burning. Then her eyes dropped down, to the foot of the temple.
There, a great platform was set up. It was a good twenty feet across, wooden. A cage hung beneath the wooden planks, visible from where Nash was standing. Suspended above the cage, above the platform, was a massive black slab of marble, at least five feet across, a good ten feet tall. A length of the same iron that bound the Vemana rose into the air, looped over a tremendously elaborate iron scaffold, and then hung down, ending in a single iron manacle. Nash frowned, and looked back up at Huitzilopochtli. She smiled broadly, showing every one of her teeth.
“You may wonder where Quetzalcoatl stands! He has left! The soft-hearted god is banished from this land, as Tezcatlipoca ordered!” Xipe Totec held up a hand, and a great feathered serpent rose from behind the gods, white feathers shining as it coiled behind the tremendous temple. “But do not despair. His symbol shall weep for you, even if no one else is able to. We are not without pity for you, after all.”
The Tzitzimimeh descended. They came in all manner of shapes, monstrous and beautiful, skeletal and full, male and female. Finally, two figures landed. Both were feminine, but ambiguously so. One was nude, genitals exposed, an angry glower on his face as he stared at Huitzilopochtli with something Nash couldn’t quite define as hate or lust. Nash recognized him, loosely, as Coyolxauhqui. Moon god, and the foe of Huitzilopochtli.
The other stood silently, taller, more slender, eyebrows like the wings of a butterfly, reaching out from either side of their face. They wore an elegant dress and their face was exquisitely made up with black and white pigments. He noticed that Xipe Totec and Tezcatlipoca were focusing more on this god than Coyolxauhqui. Tezcatlipoca’s fingers twitched, as though she intended to reach for her obsidian mirror, reappeared at her side.
That was strange. Nash frowned for a moment. He could understand the change in Tezcatlipoca and the other male gods if they were trying to tap the maternal outrage to make them stronger. But why were the female goddesses also changed? It could be simple opposition, a knee-jerk defiance of the gods they opposed. Nash wondered for a moment whether they had lost anyone, or even whether they were the ones responsible. No time for that, though, for now. This was moving faster than necessary.
There was a brief conversation between them. Then Xipe Totec stepped forward. She pointed at one of the younger women in the paddock without a word. The frog-like monster who had slugged Nash stepped forward, grabbing the woman by the arm. He removed the cord from her chains, dragging her forward, and out of the paddock. She screamed and struggled, clinging at the ground. An old man raced forward from the slaves, wrapping his wiry limbs around her. The monster looked up at the gods.
“Take them both,” said Xipe Totec, annoyed. “Xiuhcoatl shall have two, instead of one.”
The slaves were both dragged forward, struggling as the rest watched, terrified. Glad that they weren’t the ones who had been chosen yet. None of them moved forward. All had seen what was to happen to the old man because he had tried to do something. Nash looked back over his shoulder. The focus of the gods was on the sacrifice. On the Tzitzimimeh. He could escape while they were distracted. Start a stampede, provide some sort of safety for everyone else, let confusion protect them. Avenge those two later, when it wasn’t suicide.
The frog thing, Ceuyatl, set both of the slaves on the ground at the foot of the pyramid, between the foot of the temple and the strange sacrificial platform with its elaborate gantry and inexplicable monolithic boulder. Then it lifted a small, red, metal tank. Something slick and transparent poured out of the tank, down onto the two. The sickeningly familiar smell reached the paddock in seconds. It was almost incongruous to have something so mundane in the middle of this. The two were drenched in gasoline.
Huitzilopochtli stepped towards the edge of the temple’s top. She drew the serpent, its body slowly coming to life, lightning and fire flickering down along its outstretched, dagger-sharp scales, the crackling sound filling the air. Every eye was on the two. Nash could get away, if he let them die.
The god flicked the serpent with an easy movement of her wrist. It tumbled, stiff as a rod, end over end, through the night, towards the two, as they lowered their heads. The drums rose to a furious tempo beat, the low rumbling filling the air like thunder.
Nash caught the serpent by the tail with both hands, standing between the pyramid and the two Vemana, pain lancing up his arms as the creature writhed and hissed. He twisted, and slammed the serpent’s head against the frog man’s skull, knocking both out. The fires flickering between its scales abruptly went out, leaving his hands stinging painfully, but still usable. It went limp between his fingers. He spread his arms, and the heavy manacles around his wrists shattered under the pressure without a moment’s resistance. He dropped the snake, and looked up at the gods, aware of every eye on him as the iron links fell to the ground.
The drums stopped.
The rage swelled around him like a storm. He had defied them here, in the heart of their power. Huitzilopochtli’s hands opened and closed, biceps bulging as she moved forward, ready to take a step down towards him, that would no doubt end fist deep in his chest. He held up his hand, and shouted.
“You say that we should sacrifice for the sake of the gods!”
His voice echoed across the square, rising into the dark air.
“That you need our power to hold back the stars and the moon, to preserve the world! That Huitzilopochtli bleeds for us all! That sacrifices must be made to save the world!”
He took a deep breath.
“Then cut out the middle man! Allow me to face the Tzitzimimeh, and their leaders! To bloody them! To blunt them! I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to promise to defeat them! But if Huitzilopochtli needs the aid of humans, then let it be like this!”
“Really,” said Tezcatlipoca, rising to his feet.
“Allow it,” murmured the feathered serpent, soft voice echoing through the air. “What is the harm in allowing a human to do their best? Perhaps he will beat them?”
Nash winced. That was not what he’d wanted them to think. He could have hope in a hopeless battle, but after that ceremony… The entire reason for Huitzilopochtli, the reason they could demand sacrifice, was because they were the only ones who could do this job. If he offered to replace the sun god…
“Insulting,” hissed Huitzilopochtli. Nash sighed under his breath. Fucking predictable. Someone else’s pride would be the death of him. “You are a human. To claim that you could fight in my place. Is there no end to the insults you offer me?”
“There never is,” said Nash, his eyes narrowed. “You are a God of War. You are the leader of your people. Doesn’t even the most worthy general have a bodyguard? What is the difference between spilling blood as a sacrifice, or as a soldier?”
This caused a murmur of consternation. Tezcatlipoca stood, looking down at him. “Why do this?” she asked, her voice echoing down to him, though it was soft and smoky. “Do you think yourself Quetzalcoatl revealing himself again? He has left, and does not return. Cortez was never Quetzalcoatl. And neither are you. Your mindless aping of us is no more than the actions of a monkey, mocking its betters. And you will be spitted and roasted for the insult if you think that you are even akin to Quetzalcoatl.”
“I’m going to tell you the same thing I told Michael,” Nash said, a bit of heat entering his voice. “I’m nobody’s goddamn messiah.”
“Is that so?” asked Tezcatlipoca, amusement in her voice. “You come before this island, when it is in dire need. You offer salvation. Liberation. You offer hope to those without hope. Do you deny this?”
Nash took a moment to breathe in, and closed his eyes. Ariel. Trapped. Kept alive by hope for him. Suffering while he couldn’t help her. His teeth gritted. These fucking stubborn bastards were keeping him from saving her by holding the island hostage. “There is a difference between me, and a messiah.”
“A messiah inspires hope in people by acting as a symbol. They are a leader. They give people an example to follow. They bring peace.”
“And?” asked Tezcatlipoca, leaning forward further, almost unbalancing herself, an unseemly hunger in her eyes.
“I am not a bringer of peace! I am not a symbol! I am not a leader! I do not want anyone to follow my example! I have chosen my path so I can walk it alone! If I do not fail, then no one will ever have to follow my example! I sacrifice not so that I can force others to sacrifice in turn, but so that no one else will have to make that sacrifice! I bring peace with the breaking of bones and the crushing of prideful kings! I am the greater threat! The true enemy of both sides! I am Bella’s champion, and I will be yours too, or your doom!”
The words hung in the air. Coyolxauhqui snorted and spat. “Enough of this! Coyoniailhuitl!”
One of the Tzitzimimeh, sexless and ferocious, broke from the circling groups and descended like a falling star. It took a sharp right angle bend a moment before striking the ground, and turned towards Nash, approaching. He had enough time to see flaring red eyes and a terrible black glass knife. He breathed in.
There was a blur of motion. It ended with the tall, muscular warrior on the ground, Nash’s hand on his neck, their wrist grasped between Nash’s fingers, joints bent to the breaking point. Nash twisted the arm sharply, and there was an unpleasant sound as the Tzitzimitl’s forearm snapped like a piece of kindling, bone stabbing out through the skin. The knife fell from the hand, and the only thing that kept Coyoniailhuitl from screaming was the foot on his head, pressing his face into the dirt. Nash looked up slowly, and breathed out as he stood up. The two slaves finally came to their feet, and ran.
“I do not think you can prevail against this one,” said the feathered serpent, very politely. Tezcatlipoca shot it a furious look, and turned away. Huitzilopochtli gritted her teeth, and Coyolxauhqui turned to face Nash, taking three steps forward.
Itzpapalotl stepped forward, smiling. “Mister Nash. May I approach?”
Nash paused for a moment, taken aback by the politeness in the god’s tone. He nodded, and Itzpapalotl made his way down the stairway. The god’s steps were dainty, polite, feminine, and once he reached the foot of the pyramid, Nash was slightly shocked to realize the god was somewhat shorter than he was. Itzpapalotl moved closer, soft eyes meeting Nash’s, and leaned forward. “What are you looking for?” Nash asked.
“What you have sacrificed.” Itzpapalotl tilted his head this way and that. “It would perhaps be simpler to list what you haven’t sacrificed. Do you know, human, you could learn something from the gods. You cannot sacrifice of yourself forever. If all you do is bleed for others, sooner or later, you will run out of blood.”
“No one owes me anything,” he growled. “I call in no debts.”
“How rare.” The god smiled. “A night,” he said, his voice carrying, the conversation no longer private. “We leave for a night. When we return, this man must either be sacrificed, or face us himself. If he is not, then I shall descend on you and cut every one of your gods to ribbons. I would not recommend trying to sacrifice him, but I would never dare to order you, Huitzilopochtli, or you, Tezcatlipoca.” The god bowed daintily, and then ascended, dark wings spreading from his back.
“What? I- No!” shouted Coyolxauhqui. But the Tzitzimimeh were already ascending, leaving the moon god behind. He shot a quick and ferocious look at Huitzilopochtli, and then at Nash. Then the moon followed his brethren into the sky, and the stars and the moon returned to normal, leaving the square silent. That stretched out for nearly a full minute, before Nash turned up towards the gods.
“So. You going to sacrifice me now?”
Tezcatlipoca was watching the retreating Tzitzimimeh with a contemplative look. She let a smile spread across her face as she stood. “No. I think not. Tlazolteotl!” She clapped her hands twice, and a god stepped forward from the surrounding crowd. Tall, slender, pretty, and also the wrong gender. Nash recoiled slightly as the god approached. He’d read about Tlazolteotl.
“It is a metaphor,” said the god, with a much-put-upon frown, his eyes narrowed. “The dirt is sin.”
“In honor of our brave human, a feast day!” declared Tezcatlipoca, grinning broadly. “Eat! Drink! Be merry! Share in the glory of Silas Nash! And with daybreak, see whether he is what he says, or simply another doomed fool!”
The drums broke into a cheerful, heady beat as Tlazolteotl led him towards one of the shanty town’s shacks. Inside, it looked substantially better than it had outside. Tall stone columns, a paved marble floor, and in the midst of it, a great bath. Tlazolteotl stood, arms crossed. “Would you like me to attend you in the bath, Tezcatlipoca?”
He paused for a moment at the edge of the bath. “Run that by me again?”
“It is part of the festival. You have been honored by our lord. You shall be treated with the same respect that he is. Anything that you ask for, it shall be done. Women. Food. Tonight is a time of celebration. You have fought back the night, and preserved life in doing so.”
He frowned at that. “I wouldn’t think that preventing sacrifices is something that you would respect.”
“Sacrifice is not done out of pleasure. It is done out of necessity.” Tlazolteotl sat down, watching him. Nash felt a pang of embarrassment and desperate, painful nostalgia. It had been a long time since he’d had to yell at anyone not to watch him while he bathed. He sat down on the edge of the bath, the warm water beckoning. He was almost tempted not to care. But this was important. “You are shy, Tezcatlipoca.”
“I am a man. At the moment. Surely you do not worry I would attempt to assault you?”
“I don’t think you’d be stupid enough regardless of gender. It’s just a thing. I’m uncomfortable with-”
“Affection, love, sexuality, closeness.” The god stared at him. “You are uncomfortable with all of the ways with which humans bond. To be close to others hurts you. You haven’t known the touch of a woman in a long time, and even then, only monsters, gods, things. You are dying of skin hunger.”
He stared at the strange god. “What the fuck is with people asking me about my love life? What the hell business is it of yours?”
“Among other things, I am a goddess of sexuality. Of… need.” She paused for a moment. “A god, you might say, of satisfaction. You endeavor to be our champion. You endeavor to save others. You are making yourself a pillar in the world. And a pillar cannot be cracked.” The god took a slow breath, and then released it. “Do you believe you could fight the Tzitzimimeh over, and over, and over again? Every day? Forever?”
“I don’t have to,” he said. “I only need to fight them once. I don’t have a reason to keep them around. I don’t need to preserve a reason for people to worship me.” He shook his head. “Why do you care about this?”
“I am the eater of sins. The one who hears confessions of forbidden love. Arousal, lust, sexual wrongness. I can smell the guilt pouring off of you like body odor, the desire and the hunger. There are many women in this city, all of whom would lay with you tonight, in the name of Tezcatlipoca. If it were only desire, then you would sate yourself on them tonight. Why do you not call out to the ones you want to see? Why do you not seek them out?”
“Because they have better things to do,” said Nash, removing his shoes. Pearl’s gift flowed over him again. It cleansed his thoughts. It let him be still, and tranquil, in his heart. “Human beings are programmed to be social animals. We constantly judge ourselves in comparison to those around us. We seek approval from the ones we’re closest to, because we value their opinion. A human being is a mirror. I gave all of that up. I gave up being human. All that matters to me is what I sacrificed everything for.” He looked up. “What is your happy ending?”
“Being worshiped again. Watching the age pass peacefully, without terror, with acceptance. It is unlikely to ever happen. Gods do not have happy endings. What is yours?”
“I’m living it.” He slipped off his shirt. He didn’t care that the god was watching. He didn’t care about anything while Pearl’s power pushed down on his senses. “Humans want to breed to keep their genes going. There’s nothing of my mother, my father, or me, that I want to carry on.”
“Ah. Death wish.”
“I don’t want to die.”
“Personality death wish, then. You want to cease to be, but without the harm that actually dying would do to those around you. You are bound so heavily. You are a slave to those you care about. Does the burden ever grow too much?”
“Never,” he said, without hesitation. “Some days are worse than others. Some days I wish that I could see them, the people I care about, that I could spend a little time with them. But I never have regretted making the deals that I did. I would give it all up again, because someone has to. Someone has to be a goddamn protector for this shitheap world of ours, even if nobody accepts that I am.” He looked up, very sharply. “Who stole the children?”
The god looked down, and his expression became bereft. “May I leave?” he asked, very softly.
“Yes. Have the slaves escorted home. Whether I survive this or die, they’re free.” He narrowed his eyes at the god. “And I know what this means. The Tezcatlipoca thing. I know what this festival is about. If you think that I’m going to let you all kill me, you have another fucking thing coming.”
The god left just quickly enough to betray a hint of nerves, and Nash undressed, sinking slowly into the bath. He closed his eyes, and breathed out through his nose. His hands tightened and loosened involuntarily, and he thought of War.
“Whoa. Am I interrupting something?”
He sat up sharply, sloshing water over the edge of the tub. Betty stood in a doorway, an eyebrow raised. “Where the heck were you?”
“In the crowd, watching. I was going to intervene when they were about to sacrifice those two, but you beat me to it. Probably did a better job than I would have, too. Very dramatic, catching the thing in mid-air. I’d probably have just dragged them away.”
“I saw it in a movie,” he murmured. She stared at him, leaning over the edge of the bath tub. His face flushed, and he felt a little pang of pain.
“Something the matter?”
“You remind me of the Sisters when you do that. They were strange. Inappropriate. Weirdly… flirty. They were…” He shook his head. “They always acted vaguely sexual. You know what I mean? Like they were hitting on me. It was weird, and off-putting, and god damn it I liked it! It made me feel…” he looked up at her. “It was manipulation, wasn’t it?”
“Sort of,” she said, and sniffed the air. “Man. Smells like they’re cooking some stuff out there. I’m starving. I bet they really know how to throw a feast, too.”
“They’re going to try to murder me.”
“Is that a problem?”
He was quiet for a few seconds, and then he laughed. “God. No. No, I think that makes it better. If it were just people, getting together-” a soft summer day and a feast with friends- “I don’t think I could handle that. I’m more comfortable with the fighting, and the terror, and the violence.”
“Yeah,” said Betty, softly. “I can see that. When was the last time you ate?”
He shrugged. “Might’ve had something yesterday.”
“You look permanently underfed. Come on. There’s a festival going. There’s food, fresh, and hot, and people to talk to, and while you know they’re going to try to kill you, you know you can take them.”
He frowned up at her. “Why do goddesses flirt, Betty?”
“The same reason everyone flirts. Because they need to feel loved. Come on, Nash. Time to be a person.”
“Fine.” He was quiet for a moment. “Turn around, would you?”
She let a slow Cheshire cat smile spread across her lips. “That’s more like it, Nash. Human men get embarrassed when pretty girls stare at their naked bodies. Being human isn’t a weakness. It’s a strength.”
He snorted, and sat up out of the water once she’d turned around. He noticed the wound on the back of her ankle, a red blossom on a very clean length of gauze wrapped around her heel. “That wound looks bad. Is… there anything I can do to help?”
“Not really. Some humans are good at it. The Sergeant Major’s soldiers might be able to do the job, but they’re all injured and I don’t think they can spare the thought. Horace would have it taken care of in no time. But…”
“I’m not quite right for it.” He shook his head. “You deal with my presence well. I know what it’s like for your kind to be around me. I wonder if that’s what it’s like for the Sisters. If I’m just like salt in a wound-”
“Are you dressed?”
He looked down at himself. “Yeah.”
“Good.” She turned around, and fixed her eyes on his. “Nash. We’re in this together. I promise, even when it feels like you’re alone. You’re not. Even a lone hunter like me needs a place to return that’s safe. You have people behind you who want to do the same.” She stepped closer to him, and smiled. “You’re not my type of guy, but you’re the kind of human I’m glad to have you in the world. I’m not alone in this fight. Neither are you. Let’s go out there and show them that they’re trying to sacrifice the wrong people.” She held up a hand.
He reached out, took it, and squeezed. It felt like hope. “Thanks.”
“You have no idea what it means to me to have someone else who’s doing this,” she said, and smiled. “And remember. Bella is depending on you. They all are. You have to be strong for them. If you love them, that’s how you show them. And they will know it, Nash.”
He felt his heart thump once, and nodded.