The change in the city was shocking. When Nash had entered the Aztec’s Bloody Crescent, the air had been full of tension. Anger. Fear. All of that had vanished in the short time that Nash had been inside. The low, throbbing drums had been replaced with smaller, higher pitched ones, which beat out a rapid and catchy tempo. Dancers spiraled and twisted through the streets, carrying streamers and torches with them, drawing lines. Night remained over the city, though it couldn’t be later than two in the afternoon. He was still in the midst of the Aztec’s world.
It hadn’t been like this in Zion. But Zion had been a very different City. Its conflicts had been family feuds, power struggles between mothers, and a secret. Hell, it had been landbound, among other things. Anyone could have walked into the city, though he had gotten the impression that few people did. Here, people did not mix. He saw none of the Vemana or the Loa, or anyone he’d recognize as Christian among them. Here, the battle lines had been set hard, and no one was sleeping with the enemy. Save perhaps the Horsemen.
That made things easier. Zion had been full of tenderness and warmth, too. Families. Good people trying their best in a cruel world. It was so much easier to be immersed in violence than in peace, as he was. The last few months had been agony, waiting for the right moment, holding back the impulse to fight.
He caught a flash of red hair. His head turned sharply, and he breathed in as the four figures approached him. They were unfamiliar, and yet…. Their hair was the same color. Green and blue, black, brown, and burning red. Their shoulders were bared, showing the marks. A spiral, a tear-drop, a triangle, and a flame. He froze and stared at the four women as they approached him. The red-haired one took the lead. His mouth slowly opened, and his voice felt weak and shaky. “Pearl?”
“Ah?” She looked uncertain, and looked back at the others, swallowing. “Sir. We are- Here.” She held up a headdress. And Nash felt a little spike of anger that threatened to blossom. Right. The sacrifice. The four maidens.
It had surprised Nash, when he’d read, how many cultures had this concept. The sacrificial king. A young man chosen, usually at random, to symbolize a ruler. Treated with absolute respect for one year, given plenty, all of his whims fulfilled. All so that, at the end of his appointed rule, he would be sacrificed. A year of glory. He wasn’t going to be given a year.
The women each held a different piece of the garment. The red-haired one held the heron-feather headdress. The brown-haired one carried a pair of sandals, and a loincloth. The black-haired one held bells hanging from strands of hemp rope, and a small tin of black and yellow pigment. And the one who looked like Ariel was holding a flute.
“I’m not changing into those,” he said, and his voice was harsher than he’d meant it to sound. The women took a step back, clearly nervous. They were of the same blood as the other Aztec. Gods? Monsters? Heroines? He didn’t recognize them. “Sorry.”
“Oh, come on, Nash,” said Betty, smiling. “What harm could it do?” She turned her gaze to the red-headed maiden, and her expression changed subtly. “They aren’t dangerous, are they?”
“No, Tezcatlipoca of the Nile,” murmured the red-haired one, bowing her head. Nash didn’t smell any lies on her. He sighed.
“When in Rome, Nash.”
“When in Rome, you get sodomized by Romans.” He looked down at his clothes. They were torn and shredded. He looked like a madman. Of course, he’d look little better in the clothes he’d been offered. He remembered a Hawaiian shirt and sandals. He wondered, for a moment, how Heather was doing. Then he sighed, and nodded.
The four women moved, forming a small curtain around him, facing outwards, and he began to change. Betty let out a soft contemplative noise. “You know, I was, once.”
“You were what?”
“Sodomized by a Roman.”
He tried his very hardest not to choke on his laughter. “Seriously? How did that happen?”
“Well, you know how it is, boys say just the tip and if you’re in enough of a mood-”
“You have sex with humans?”
“Of course I do, Nash. I’m a goddess. We do that a lot.” He shook his head as he pulled on the sandals, the women breaking apart. “Humans think of gods as basically people. It’s rare to find gods that don’t have those human lusts and desires, though some of them are more repressed than others. I used to do it all the time. I loved it. Humans could be so… attentive. And they’d only bite your neck and force themselves on you if you asked first.”
“Jesus, Betty,” he said, flushing as he stood up straight, taking the flute. “Do you do this to that Horace guy?”
“Oh, yes. Though for a different reason. I’m not into you, Nash. Not in THAT way, anyway.”
“I get that a lot, it’s going to start hurting my feelings at some point. So why do you do it with him?”
She was quiet for a moment. Then she sighed. “You know what it’s like to lose someone you love?”
“My mom. And also everyone else I have ever loved for a moment in my entire life.”
“Yeah. It’s a feature of immortality, as well as being targeted by the Horsemen. I have a very dangerous job, and my humans are often in danger. Even when they’re not… Humans die eventually. They leave me. Sometimes I just can’t stand to be around people for a while, because it hurts too badly. But then someone new shows up who convinces me it’s all worth getting hurt again, and I come crawling back.” She sighed, and looked down at the flute. “You going to play that?”
“I don’t know how,” he admitted. He held the flute up, and tried to blow into it, placing his fingers on the holes atop at random. Betty winced, and closed one of her eyes. He stopped, and sighed. “Never been any good at that kind of thing. Music, any kind of art.” He slipped it into a loop on the loincloth, and shook his head. “Lead on,” he said to the red-haired young woman. She bobbed her head again quickly, and the two of them followed the maidens as they danced forward into the crowds.
The feast was taking place on the shore. Great tables had been set up on the sand in far less time than Nash would have expected. Gods were good at that kind of thing. The dark ocean lapped at the sand, the low tide exposing much of the smooth sand, and filling the air with the tang of salt. The plates were piled high, and Nash’s stomach growled in recognition.
Growing up, a few of his happiest memories were the old, authentic Mexican restaurant his mother would take him to near their apartment, perhaps a couple of times a year, when he’d been good. The chintzy yet pleasant surroundings, the smell of food. The same kinds of smells filled the air here. Corn flour, earthy and sweet, sizzling pork, the sound of platters clattering, sweet fruits and ripe tomatoes spectacularly colorful.
The tables were arranged in circles. On the outside edges, monsters and heroes swirled, in their true forms. He recognized the Jaguar and Eagle Warriors, dressed in their resplendent, if slightly impractical garb. Among them were women and a few others, including the strange, robed woman who had tried to capture him. He gave her a smile, and she turned white as a sheet, staring down at her food quickly, trying to avoid his glance without offending him.
There was a second, internal ring of tables inside of the outer ring. These were the tables of the gods. There were dozens of them, gathered, joining in the feasts, eating heartily, and laughing to one another, camaraderie obvious. But he could see the way they all cast glances towards him, the way their expressions stiffened. Getting ready for a fight. There was no question about that. The real question was how it would all start. When the violence would explode.
In the very center of the twin circles was a great central table. It was square, and with six chairs. It was clearly designed to be sat at by four, but two extra chairs had been added. Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli sat across from each other, Huitzilopochtli’s chair crowded to the side by a second one. The goddess had a savage look on her face as she turned towards them. Xipe Totec sat on Tezcatlipoca’s left, while the seat on her right remained empty. There was another seat beside Xipe Totec.
Bastet plopped down in the seat by Xipe Totec. Nash gave her a look. “Do you have to have that one?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling up at him.
“They’ve clearly arranged the chairs for symbolic purposes.” He waved his hands. “Sit next to Huitzilopochtli, and I’m challenging her for dominance. Sit in Quetzalcoatl’s seat, and I’m calling myself an equal to Tezcatlipoca.”
“Well, now that you’ve said it out loud like that that’s certainly the way it’s going to be,” said Betty, smiling. “Come on. Assert some dominance. People like that.”
Nash eyed Huitzilopochtli, whose eyes burned, and the completely level and unsettling dark gaze of Tezcatlipoca. He’d already had Huitzilopochtli after his blood. He looked down at the table. It was broad, and made out of wood. The legs beneath it were sturdy, four of them, each the size of a pillar, withdrawn somewhat to provide space for their legs. He approached the empty side of the table, and noticed the way Tezcatlipoca’s fine-sculpted jaw tightened. He smiled, and brought his fist down on the corner of the table between Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl’s empty seat. It snapped off with a low crunch, leaving a fifth side to the table, smaller than the others. Nash pulled the chair from Huitzilopochtli’s side, and sat in it.
“If you intended to endear yourself to both of us, you failed,” said Tezcatlipoca, evenly.
“It wasn’t meant to be endearing to anyone,” said Nash, as he pulled over a plate of tamales. He unwrapped one of them, and it smelled magnificent, corn dough filling the air with its rich scent. Betty already had a plate piled high with the fish of the Caribbean, steaming and marinated in what looked like a mole sauce. “I met gods. You tend to be compulsive. People talk about the inscrutability of alien mindsets, and how strange other beings are, but really, they’re underestimating human minds. Do you know what schizophrenia is?”
“I do. And I know what its significance is to you. The boy who saw things that were not there. The mad child, the mad man. And here you are, exchanging one form of madness for another.” The goddess smiled, her teeth shining. “You are right, of course. I am obsessive compulsive. I have a god complex. I am describable in many human terms. But do you think that any of them truly capture me?”
“Everyone’s more than a series of checkboxes on a disability form. You don’t get true knowledge of someone from their disorders, any more than you do from their zodiac. But it can get you started.” He leaned back, and gestured gently at the broken corner of the table with the tamale. “I’m not your slave, Tezcatlipoca.”
“Whose are you, then? War? The sisters? Perhaps all of humanity is your slave master, driving you with its lash? Perhaps it is your past, or your mother? Who holds your whip?”
“That’s the thing,” Nash said, holding his arms out, the tamale dripping some dark brown sauce onto the sand. “I could stop doing what I do at any time. Theoretically, if I could live with myself, I could walk away right now, give up the power, and try to rebuild my soul. The only thing that binds me here is me. My decisions. I am a slave to myself. But…” He smiled. “I’m happy to be of service to others.”
“Indeed,” said Tezcatlipoca, eyes narrowed.
“Nash,” said Xipe Totec. “How would you like to be a god?”
That gave Nash pause for a moment. “What. Just like that?”
Xipe Totec’s eyes turned towards Huitzilopochtli. “Did you know that Huitzilopochtli was a late addition to our ranks? She arrived only with the triumph of the Aztec over the other forces of Central America. She was a small, tribal god before that. But she was clever, and swift, and hard.” Xipe Totec’s golden lips shifted into a smile, as the goddess leaned back in her chair. “That was always our way. We believed in a strict hierarchy, but that hierarchy is malleable. A warrior who could capture his opponent was promoted, because it took skill and strength. We can respect you, Nash. You do not kill your foes on the battlefield. You show true strength by defeating an opponent who is your equal, even your superior, and leaving them alive. That is the kind of man we need in our pantheon.”
Nash’s eyes narrowed. “You leave them alive to kill them later.”
“That is war, Nash,” said the golden goddess. “In war, men die. Is our version of war any worse than that practiced in any other part of the world? Armies clash, men die. Does it matter whether they die under swords and arrows, or under knives and torches?”
Nash considered the question for a moment. Then he sighed. “Bella groomed me. She made me strong, and the one thing I learned is that she doesn’t love the winners. She loves those who survive. The point of war is not to win. That is what generals, politicians, and heroes strive for. Victory matters to them, because they have their legacy to think of. But to the common man, war is a disaster to be survived, like any of the other Horsemen. The point of war is not to die for your country, or to make the other poor bastard die for theirs. It is to survive.”
Xipe Totec snorted. “I fail to see the difference.”
“Perhaps it’s because you’re the one who orders wars, rather than the one who fights them.” Nash bent forward over the table. “In a perfect world, in the wars we fight, every man would survive, and the matter would be solved by politicians arguing. In a perfect world, nobody would die in war. But in a perfect world, you would still need sacrifices. You demand people die. And that is why I oppose you. Because there can be no peace while you hold that view. You claim to be no different, but you mistake a flaw for a fact.”
“You’re arrogant,” said Huitzilopochtli, eyes narrowed. “Sit at our table, and say that you oppose us? You are mortal. How dare you.” Her fist tightened and loosened, her eyes wild.
“The thing is, you are afraid to challenge me. When a normal human challenges your authority, it is like a germ challenging mine. Perhaps in numbers they could be a danger. Never alone.” Nash narrowed his eyes. “But I could threaten you. Maybe I’m weaker than you, but the point is that I am a threat. There is a chance for me to succeed. I could lose, but I could win. Humans are programmed to be intrigued by gambles, to be enamored with them. And gods are no different. I insult you, but you don’t silence me, because you’re afraid. Because I’m not like other human beings.”
Huitzilopochtli leaned forward. “Do you think you’re immune to consequence?”
“Of course not,” said Nash. “That’s not the point. My existence means that you are not immune to consequence, either.” He leaned forward, and his anger grew around him like a shroud. There was a moment when everyone around the table sat still, staring at him, a certain nervous tension in their expressions. “Tell me, Xipe Totec” he whispered softly. “Do you remember anyone who has sacrificed themselves for you?”
Xipe Totec broke her gaze with him. “One of our warriors. An Eagle Warrior. He was the one who sacrificed this skin for me, on the eve of the Aztec Empire. Hipitazotl. He fought like a lion, and not one blade pierced his flesh, not one arrow cut his skin. He died of exhaustion, his skin still whole, pledging it to me. I wore his skin in honor of our rebirth.”
Nash leaned back into his chair, and smiled. “Was that so hard?”
There was silence around the table. Xipe Totec leaned her head back against the headrest as one of the maidens, the one with the brown hair, stepped forward with a cask of something that smelled like booze. Nash shook his head softly. The thought of a bit of chemical oblivion was tempting, but a painfully obvious trap. She nodded softly, and poured out glasses for the others. It looked like milk, and smelled like milk gone bad. Xipe Totec took a cup of it, and sipped. After a moment, she spoke. “What would you do if I had not named him, Nash?”
“I would’ve gotten angry,” said Nash, very softly. “It’s one of the gifts that I was given by the Sisters. The ability to control myself, my emotions, perfectly. Of course, it only works so long as I want to control my emotions. They are not my master. But I still have them.”
Xipe Totec nodded. “So. Do you wish to be a god?”
“I don’t want to take any of the positions on offer, and I don’t want to make one. I’m not really a role model, Xipe Totec.”
“Our gods are beings of sacrifice, Nash. They are those who have given much.” Xipe Totec pointedly did not look at Tezcatlipoca. “There is a precedent for gods of the Mexicas who do not need sacrifices of human lives. You could take sacrifices of possessions. Who knows.” Xipe Totec paused for a moment, and chuckled. “Knowing you, you could take sacrifices of men’s woes and troubles. Take the terror and the struggle of others from them, allow them to give up the chance to grow, take it for yourself. That would seem very appropriate to you. You are the product of two very opposed forces working together, or so you claim. Perhaps the God of Alliances and Strange Bedfellows? You could be a very useful god for us.”
“Useful,” Nash said.
There was a soft swish in the air. The feathered serpent descended from the sky, and slowly encircled the table. It was big, Nash realized, bigger than any snake he’d ever seen, close to a hundred feet long, its body covered in feathers. Its wide, staring eyes turned. “They do not wish to tell you the truth. They are weak. They are on the verge of breaking. Silas Nash, when the Aztec empire was crushed by Cortez, their beliefs were crushed with them. Now, the Catholic Church holds sway over the hearts of their people. They need you desperately. They are begging you on bended knee to join them, and save them.”
Nash saw the way Tezcatlipoca’s eye twitched. Huitzilopochtli looked apoplectic, or possibly apocalyptic, face somehow even redder than the facepaint she wore as she stared down at the food in front of her. “What makes me special to you? You were ready to fight me, so you do not believe I am invincible.”
“You are not attached,” said the feathered serpent. “You, or the cat goddess. You both have the strength to make them relevant again. Otherwise, when the next Cycle ends, the Aztec gods may find their strength spent. The goddess of cats would need to slay them, then, as they fell into darkness.”
Nash leaned back in the chair. “Did any of you help to take the children?”
Huitzilopochtli narrowed her eyes. “We are not kidnappers. We do not hide our actions when we take. And we take warriors. Not civilians. The blood of children is foul to me. We did not take them.”
“We would have no interest in that,” said Xipe Totec, nodding. “The corn cannot be plucked too early, or it does not taste good. We did not take them.”
Neither of them smelled like they were lying. There were very few things that could lie directly to him, but it wasn’t certain. Then he turned towards Tezcatlipoca. The goddess had her arms crossed. “You didn’t answer me,” said Nash, his voice low, and deadly.
“Indeed, I did not,” said Tezcatlipoca. “You think to drag the truth from my lips? I am the smoking mirror. I see all. I know all. I understand why you ask me this. And I will not answer you.” The god took a sip of pulque, and grimaced. “Challenge me if you dare.”
Nash leaned back in the chair. The warm wind blew off of the sea, rustling slowly through the growing silence. Xipe Totec coughed. “Nash. I can swear that I know nothing of where the children are, and…” She gave Tezcatlipoca a nervous look. “Despite her behavior, I know that Tezcatlipoca was not responsible for their taking. Please. We need you to help us. And this is not a one-sided arrangement. If you were to join our pantheon, there would be… advantages. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that you command the forces of an entire pantheon’s warriors, and heroes? To know that Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca would make your foes their foes, your allies theirs? We are not a savage people. We treated our allies very well indeed. We always understood the value of strength, and you have that strength. Let my companion’s pride not poison you against us. We would be grateful if you were to aid us.” Her eyes turned over towards Betty. “Or if you were to do so.”
“You know,” said Betty, peeling off a flaky piece of the fish with her bare claws. “I am not averse to killing. I have killed many people. But I get nothing out of sacrifice. Human lives are not meat for me. It’s human love that I prefer.” She smiled. “I don’t know if we’re really compatible. I’ve had pantheons go bad on me before, and they’re just never as trustworthy as they claim. But… You could choose a different prey.”
Tezcatlipoca narrowed her eyes. “We do many dark things, Bastet. But we never ate god. We are better than that.”
“Are you?” asked Nash, his voice very soft.
“Yes,” said the goddess. “Your kind are as far from us as the pig that gave that meat is from you. Perhaps even further.”
“Humans are sapient,” said Nash, his tone very level as he drew on Pearl’s voice. “From the least to the greatest, no matter how little power we possess, not one of us is meat.”
“And yet you treat each other so. I am not an alien creature in what I do. I am simply what humans make of me. And humans make tyrants of their gods, because it is what power does to humans.”
Nash shook his head, and sighed. “I’d argue with you. Make a claim about the goodness of humanity. But I don’t fucking care about what humanity does, Tezcatlipoca. I don’t care what humans as a whole think, whether they’re good or bad. I cannot control what humans do, and what they believe. What I can do is control what I do, and stop people from hurting each other. There are many terrible things in the nature of humanity. Right now, I want to reach across and rip your other leg off. I want to break your fingers one by one, listen to you scream and beg for mercy until your throat runs with blood, but I don’t, because I have control of myself.”
There was a moment of silence again as Nash breathed heavily, his breathing ragged, his fingernails dragging furrows through the wood of the surface. There was the slightest hint of uncertainty in Tezcatlipoca’s expression, there and gone again. “Gods cannot change. We are what people believe we are. We are bound.”
“No,” said Nash. “You’re just like humans. You are shaped by the beliefs of those around you, but you are not helpless in it. I don’t believe that for a moment. You can change. For fucks sakes, Tezcatlipoca, you’re a woman.”
“We are immortal,” said Betty, smiling. “We can’t change on our own. And other gods, these things can’t change us either.” She tented her fingers together. “Who was the human who changed you, Tezcatlipoca?”
Tezcatlipoca didn’t blink. She met Betty’s eyes. “That was a very catty remark. I am not like you, Bastet. I am not a housecat.”
“Neither was I, when I began. But you’re on the way, aren’t you? Even big cats can be tamed.” Betty winked. “And I’m not interested in your party either.”
Nash sat back. He didn’t show it, but the casual mention of Betty killing other gods was disturbing to him. He had known she protected the world, but it was an unsettling reminder of the fact that not everyone shared his view. He slowly took a bite of the tamale, and for a little while, his worries went away. Tears ran down his cheeks as he chewed, terribly grateful for the sting of lime and the crispy taste of the pork in the tamale. Xipe Totec smiled. “Not all we do is awful, Nash.”
“I know,” said Nash. “I’m going to try to make you change. I expect you to resist.” He waved the Tamale. “I’m prepared for this to knock me out, and have me wake up in chains to be sacrificed. I’ll break out. I’ll fight whoever you send against me. And I’ll save you.”
“Paranoid,” said Huitzilopochtli, shaking her head. “You have until morning. We will not do harm to you until the sun rises. Then you will fight the Tzitzimimeh. Whether it is as my replacement, as my bodyguard, or as blood running in my veins, it doesn’t matter. You will do it in service to Tezcatlipoca.”
Nash smiled. “I think I can deal with service.” He was quiet for a moment. “If I may ask an impertinent question?”
“Well, why stop now?” asked Xipe Totec, rolling her eyes as she leaned back.
“The sacrifices. How badly do you need it?”
Xipe Totec frowned. “It is… dire. Our power is like muscle. To merely maintain it requires a great deal of spiritual energy. We are powerful gods, once worshiped widely, and now not at all. We have depended on the power of Paradise for a long time, supping on the weak gruel of simple faith. Without that much… We would degenerate. The pain of loss would torment us. You think we are dark, mortal? We are balanced. Without the love of humanity, we would become like the Horsemen. Things of darkness alone. We would fall to their ways, and loathe humanity for its neglect.”
Nash slowly nodded. “So, it’s not just the children I have to save.”
“And what is your answer for that problem?” asked Tezcatlipoca, eyes narrowed. “You give us little choice either way. Degeneration, or destruction at your hands.”
“I can’t offer you a solution to all of your problems,” said Nash. “I’m sorry. But I’m just not that kind of person.” He leaned forward. “But the blood sacrifices are going to end, and you’re not going to die. If that means I must render you weak, helpless, take your power away, and leave you to rely on the kindness of others, then that will make you just like us mortals, and I am willing to accept that. But I don’t want to do that.” He looked over at Huitzilopochtli. “Regardless of how you do it, you do fight back the darkness and preserve the earth. I want you to be loved by humanity. I want you to be a guiding star for them. Maybe the first step towards that is stopping the sacrifices. Maybe the faith and love of humanity will come with that.”
And with that, he stood up from the table. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need some air. I’ll be back. Betty, if you need any help, just yell.”
Betty nodded pleasantly, taking another big bite of the fish, smiling at him. “Have fun brooding, Nash.”
He shot her a quick look. She winked at him, and he groaned, walking away from the party, exit thoroughly ruined.
It was exhausting being around people. Frightening. Difficult. Even before he’d been at risk of having his soul burned out by social contact, he’d never been a terribly social person. And his heart was pounding. The gods couldn’t afford to simply dismiss him as a threat, but the same was true for him. It was nerve wracking to face up against the gods, to pit his nerve against theirs. He walked through the concentric circles of the feast tables, out to the outer edge of the darkness. He kept walking, his feet slipping through the sand, aiming towards the furthest spit of land on the crescent. The water lapped slowly at his sandal-clad feet as he approached the edge, and stood in the darkness.
“I wish that more people could be at this feast. Perhaps next year. So make sure you come back.”
He thought of Heather, and his heart hurt again. That’s right. The feast in Zion would be soon. He wondered if it would even happen anymore. After he’d killed the city’s soul.
“I’m alright alone,” he whispered softly.
“Nash,” murmured a soft voice. “Don’t you remember? You will never be alone again.”
He turned, his heart pounding, as she stepped up out of the ocean. Dark skin, dark hair, a soft smile on her face, the teardrop tattoo on her shoulder. He stared, his mouth opening. “Heather?” He shook his head. “No. Come on. Please. I can’t take any more of this bullshit. Please, you can’t be her.”
“Of course I can’t,” said Heather, laughing softly, smiling as she approached him, dressed in nothing at all, her smile inviting. “That’s why I chose this shape.”
Her hand split, blood running down her fingers, as the bones stretched terribly within her skin, and she lunged for his throat, the flesh peeling away from her body, revealing rattling bones. He threw himself backwards into the sand, rolling smoothly and coming to his feet, hands up in a defensive posture. A voice like a marimba rattled as the strange, skeletal figure with rouged cheeks let out a chuckle like the rolling of dice. “What is it about you, Nash? What makes people want to kick you when you’re down? What makes everyone betray you?”
Nash stood up, his eyes narrowed, his shoulders squared. “Itzpapalotl.”