Nash slowly stood up. His body was aching from the drug that Huitzilopochtli had used on him, but each movement, each beat of his heart, seemed to reinvigorate him. He looked down at the iron of the chain around his wrist. He reached down to break it.
“I cannot recommend that, mortal,” said Tezcatlipoca. “It is true, you can break those chains effortlessly. But our discussion had me thinking. If you cannot be bound by chains of slavery, perhaps I could forge chains of responsibility.”
Nash’s eyes slipped to the slats of the sacrificial platform. He could see through it, to the wooden cage beneath. There were five figures inside. Bastet, and the four girls who had been sent to wait after him, still dressed like the Sisters. Bastet was unconscious, on her back. The four girls had terrified expressions. He looked at the stone. It was nightmarishly large. He took a quick estimate, and figured it at about fifteen tons. Bastet might survive. He doubted that the girls would. He looked up at Tezcatlipoca, his eyes narrowed. “You’d sacrifice your own people to…?” He sighed. “Who am I kidding? Of course you would.”
“Do not worry, Nash. If you fight valiantly, and die gloriously, you will win their freedom. All you must do is hold that stone up. Compared to the weight of the world, what is that?”
There was a clunk, and the wooden platform supporting the marble slab pulled apart. There was a great and terrible rattling as the chain whipped up, his arm yanked into the air. He planted both feet, and lifted his free arm, pulling in a deep breath as he did. The chain went taut, yanking at his wrist. For a terrible moment he thought it would rip free, but the chain held, as did his arm. The weight was suspended perhaps ten feet above the women.
It hadn’t just been the ability to break things that he’d been given by Gene. With his stance properly placed, he was strong. The problem was that strength only lasted while he kept the stance. The moment that his feet broke contact with the ground, he would seal their deaths. He gritted his teeth, and pulled down as hard as he could. He got maybe an inch of slack, before his arm gave up and the chain yanked him back to full extension. He narrowed his eyes. “You know, when she was desperate, Izanami called the waters of Yomi to kill me. I walked between the raindrops. This is not enough to stop me.”
“Shhhh,” murmured a voice. Xipe Totec approached him from the side, carrying a bowl of something milk-white and sour smelling. She lifted it to Nash’s lips, and held Nash’s nose shut, forcing Nash to drink the vile stuff. Half of it dribbled down his chin, but enough of it fell down his throat that he could tell what it was. Alcohol, and terribly potent stuff from the taste. Most civilizations outside of Europe and Asia didn’t discover distillation, but this stuff had to be distilled. It was strong enough that his head was spinning already. His body began to sway, and his arm tensed alarmingly as the chain seemed to become heavier.
He reached for Pearl’s power, and it was enough to hold back the wooziness, barely. The longer this went on, the more it would infiltrate him. And with the gift focused so entirely on alcohol, it couldn’t keep his mind clear enough to fight as well as he normally would. Another handicap.
Four young men stepped up to the platform as Xipe Totec walked down the stairs, and into the throng. The crowd began to roar and cheer, baying in excitement as the men approached. There were two in jaguar skins, two wearing coats of brilliant eagle feathers, dressed elaborately. Each one carried one of the wooden clubs. Nash couldn’t focus enough to remember what they were called, but the clubs were laced with obsidian, glittering shards shining like shark’s teeth. They could cut in a way steel only wished it could. Their flaw was that they were fragile. They wore out and lost their edge very quickly. Nash couldn’t help but notice that these ones looked extremely new. They weren’t going to be blunted by use. Not until after they hacked him open.
One of the men, dressed in the jaguar skin, stepped forward, and bowed his head. “It is an honor to slay you in the service of my god, sir,” he said, and thumped his chest once. He held out a weapon to Nash. It was a club like the others. This one, however, was laced, not with glittering obsidian shards, but tiny tufts of downy feathers. Nash took it in his free hand, and studied it for a moment.
“Thank you,” he said earnestly. “I prefer weapons that won’t kill.”
The jaguar warrior grinned, bright white teeth shining in the night as he nodded his head. “A good attitude.”
Pearl’s gift was being held at bay by the alcohol. Heather’s power was substantial, but he had to be able to move more freely to use it. Gene’s power was letting him stay standing, but he couldn’t break anything on his body like this. One good slash from the weapon, and he’d be bleeding out. He could throw off divine attempts to snuff him out, but no amount of willpower would fix blood loss. That left him Ariel’s speed in one arm, and War’s power.
Not for the first time, Nash wished that War’s gift came with a manual. He’d used it instinctively for a long time, but he didn’t know exactly how it worked. What its limits were. It was like a muscle no one else had. If he’d been lied to, he’d be cut down here. Everyone would remember him as a failure.
He wondered for a moment whether handicapping himself would make him stronger. Whether he could afford to be merciful, to be gentle.
He looked up at the young man. Another person. One who wanted to kill him, but nonetheless a young man with a life in front of him. He thought of Dean. Did he want to cripple this young man for nothing more than being the dupe of frightened gods?”
“Come on,” said Nash. “I’m not going to get more tied up.”
The jaguar warrior stepped back, smiling, to the side. The two eagle warriors drew long bows, notching arrows. They stood perhaps ten feet away, well out of his reach, close enough to ensure that the arrows would kill. They slowly studied him, and then walked until they were almost on opposite sides of him, drawing the bowstrings out and taking careful aim. “Tezcatlipoca!” Nash shouted, as he dropped the wooden club. “You seem a bit worried! All of these impediments, all of this care! What do you think I can do, now?”
The two men fired. Nash’s hand lashed out, drawing on Ariel’s power as much as he could. His shoulder ached strangely for a moment, and he lowered his hand, the two arrows jutting out, caught between his fingers. He smiled up at Tezcatlipoca. “How many arrows do your men get to fire before the people start to call them cowards?”
“Why the showmanship, Nash?” asked Tezcatlipoca. “This is the way you will die. First, they will attack you one at a time. Then all four will attack you at once. If you survive that, we shall send a left-handed warrior against you. And even should you survive that… You will be executed in some other way. After all you have done, you don’t think we can let you live, can you? To challenge us, and refuse to yield? You’ll be mine, Nash. And if it can’t be as my slave, it’ll be as my meat.”
“Yeah,” said Nash. “But I won’t hurt your men. Don’t worry. I don’t need to.”
The jaguar warriors took out long, bronze knives. One of them rushed forward. He stabbed for Nash’s heart, an overhanded blow in an expert knife-handling grip.
Nash’s palm came up, and caught the underside of the man’s wrist. As he tried to bend it to slash the knife through Nash’s forearm, Nash’s fingers pinched momentarily. The knife fell from the man’s hand, and its blade tumbled lazily down. Nash caught it handle first, and threw the knife upwards, into the air. It didn’t come down again, and the jaguar warrior backed off, letting the other one lunge at Nash from behind. Ariel’s gift warned Nash in time, and his hand moved, catching the wrist. The two of them strained for a long moment, the man trying to push downwards with both hands and all of his weight, Nash holding the tip of the blade away from his spine with one hand. “You are not stronger than our gods,” growled the man.
“Want to bet?” Nash asked. He pulled sharply to the side, and tugged the knife from the man’s hands. He threw that knife into the air too, and the man backed away sharply. This knife didn’t fall either. He cracked his neck, and smiled. The alcohol was going to his head, and his inhibitions were loosening. He was having a bit of fun. He pulled hard, his bicep bulging, and pulled the chain down several inches, looping it around his wrist before releasing the slack, pulling the stone up just slightly. But it was progress. “Tezcatlipoca! What’s the problem? You’re sending these poor bastards against me! What chance do you think they stand? You’re just giving me a chance to get up to speed!”
The four men drew clubs, and he grinned. They hesitated, and he saw a tremor run through one of the clubs. “What are you waiting for?” asked Tezcatlipoca, her voice ringing through the stadium. “Do your duty!”
The men charged, as ordered. They lunged with reckless daring, their swords out, and slashed at him, all four bringing their jagged blades down at his head.
He hauled down with all of his force, his bound arm pulling down and against his body. The massive stone rose into the air nearly a foot, hanging there for a long second like an asteroid just before beginning its terminal decline. And he had a moment. He leapt up, and spun, reaching out with both hands. The leverage and the jump gave him enough speed to pull the blades from their owner’s hands, shattering them. He dropped the shards of glass to the ground, tinkling and crinkling around him, and the warriors hurriedly stepped back. He landed on both feet, obsidian crunching into powder beneath his bare feet, and regained his stance just as the weight fell again, stretching his arm out.
The men stepped back. “Well, Tezcatlipoca?” Nash called out, grinning broadly as the men turned and retreated. “Look at that! Not a scratch on them! Not a bruise! Send me your left-handed warrior, and I will treat him as gently!”
“Her,” said Huitzilopochtli, her voice soft. There was a flare of light, and the sun rose, illuminating the top of the pyramid, her in particular. She shone in the light, and the serpent at her side stiffened, scales sticking out. She lifted it into the air, and a spear appeared in the serpent’s mouth, set and ready to throw. Her arm moved in a brilliant arc, accelerating until it blurred. The spear flicked forward, a perfect shot. It turned red hot, and sped through the air towards Nash. He didn’t hear the sound of its approach.
He grabbed it just behind the spear head. Steel piled up in his grip as the spear rushed forward, molten hot and glowing. It slipped forward just far enough to press up against his skin, drawing a tiny bead of blood.
Huitzilopochtli followed it. Nash spotted her as the leap reached its apex. Throwing herself with wild abandon off the massive temple, her arms windmilling. She descended like a falling empire, clutching the serpentine weapon in both hands, and brought it down.
There was a terrible noise, and then the sand on the surface of the platform around them swept away in a great wave, the impact blowing it away. Nash held the god-forged chain in both hands, above his head, its length tangled around the spikes of Huitzilopochtli’s weapon, fouling it. Nash noticed the iron of the chain seemed scored and pitted where the spikes of the weapon had scraped across them. That wasn’t good.
While he was distracted, Huitzilopochtli’s knee came up and struck him between the legs. It was an entirely unique pain, spreading out through him in waves that made his stomach quake, though he never broke his stance. The sensation seemed to bypass any kind of normal reactions. Nash retched once, twice, and then choked. His stomach clenched, and he threw up, bent forward. The sour pulque splattered across the ground, the heavy weight in his stomach growing lighter. The divine alcohol still in his body burned away, and he felt Pearl’s gift returning, destroying the last of the liquor now that it was not being reinforced by the pulque in his belly, and driving away the pain. He straightened up, and smiled at Huitzilopochtli. “Thanks. I needed that.”
She brought the jagged-scaled serpent down at him, and he caught her wrist, twisting it, sending the serpent skittering away onto the ground, where it writhed and hissed. She took a step back, and lifted her hands into something reminiscent of a boxing stance, and smiled.
Her first strike was aimed for his cheek. She struck like a bolt of lightning, and he tilted his head to the side. The blow glanced off of his cheek, hard enough to hurt, but coming short of tearing his head off. She struck again, and his head tilted to the other side, bobbing and weaving effortlessly. When she went for a third blow, he caught her wrist with his free hand, and twisted, pulling it up to his chained hand. His trapped fingers intertwined with hers, squeezing her hand tight, and he smiled, inches from her. “You smell nice, Hui.”
She bared her teeth like a cat, hissing, and tried to sink her nails into his side with her free hand. He caught her other arm, pulling it out, leaving the two of them pressed together like dancers, his eyes very close to hers, staring into them. “You are going to die, Silas Nash,” she hissed softly. “I will spill your blood and fight the Tzitzimimeh with your power in my belly.” She sank her teeth into his shoulder, and he clenched his teeth for a moment before responding.
“I’m going to protect you, Hui,” he growled. Then he twisted his hips. His hip struck her just at the thigh, breaking her stance, and sending her rolling to the ground, a brief cry of surprise from her keeping her teeth from yanking out a pound of flesh. He straightened up, his arm held over his head like a boxer being declared the champion. “You’ve gone without being humbled for a long time. That’s going to have to change. Don’t worry, though. I’ll still protect you. And I’ll forgive you for your betrayal.”
“Do you think that you can mock me by being gentle?” asked Huitzilopochtli, eyes raging. “I may be weak. But I am still a goddess of war. You have faced old women and broken monsters, Silas Nash. I will cut out your heart-”
Then a slow, very terrible smile spread across her lips.
“Oh. That IS a good idea.”
She reached down, and grabbed the serpent from where it had slithered to her feet. She turned, and swung once with incredible force, just a few inches above Nash’s fist. There was a terrible shriek as the godforged metal parted under the blow. The chain rattled up, and Nash’s eyes rose in horror.
The first dagger he had thrown into the air, and into the links of the chain, caught against the gantry. It broke almost instantly, but it stopped the descent of the heavy sacrifice stone for a moment. Nash crouched down low in the moment it gave him. The second knife struck the gantry, and held a little bit longer. Nash straightened in an explosive movement, leaping into the air, and caught the chain, pulling himself up, stomach flexing as he lifted his legs into the air.
Both feet hit the gantry, planting himself there, upside down. Assuming a stance. He let out a scream of frustration and fury, and pulled with both hands, yanking the remains of the chain back over the gantry, lifting the massive stone into the air, forcing it away from the people he was trying to protect. He took handful after handful of the chain, lifting it until he cleared the edge of the cage’s pit, revealing a clear view into the pit, his arms burning with the strain of it, tendons standing out against them like cables. He spared a glance down.
Huitzilopochtli stared up at him, rage in her eyes. “This isn’t fair, Nash! You can’t simply keep finding a new reserve of strength every time you are pushed to your limit! Every man must find his breaking point, eventually!”
“Speak for yourself,” he said, pulling. His arms felt like they would rip out of the sockets with each heave, but he stared down at the pit.
Four figures lay within, tears running down their soft, pretty faces.
A grin spread across his face. “This is why I leave my back open, Hui! War gave me this strength! Each time you betray me, each time you abuse my trust, each time you stab me in the back, I grow stronger! Pile the weight on my shoulders as high as you want!” He took a deep breath, and ferociously yanked on the chain with both hands, putting every erg of strength he had into it. The massive stone lifted up and into the air, with a kind of lazy unstoppability. It traveled up, up, up into the air, and hung there for a few seconds, above the iron gantry. Then it descended down the other side, towards Huitzilopochtli. She raised her arms, as though to embrace it. Nash’s eyes widened. “You crazy bitch!”
It struck, hard. Huitzilopochtli caught it, fingers tightening into the stone. She lifted it above her head, her eyes flashing, grinning madly. “You are a man, Nash! You are nothing! I am a god! I-”
There was a very loud crack. Huitzilopochtli’s eyes widened, and the wood beneath her feet gave way under the incredible strain, falling to the ground beneath the platform, the monolith tumbling after her. Nash tightened his fingers around the chain. It was far too heavy to hold up like this, alone. But with one ferocious pull, he managed to tug it just slightly to the side. It landed a hairsbreadth from where Huitzilopochtli lay on the ground, making her bounce several feet up into the air and come down again, limp on the ground, her eyes wide.
Nash leapt down, landing easily on top of the stone. He jumped down again, and picked up Huitzilopochtli. Her eyes were staring blankly at the stone. She fought a little bit as he held her, carrying her towards the edge of the platform, and the open space there. “Don’t need- help-” she croaked, her voice strangled sounding. He set her softly down on the ground.
“We all need help sometimes.” He knelt down beside her, and set a hand on her shoulder, as much to support his shaking arms as to encourage her. “I’m going to need your help. I need you, Hui. You’re a great fighter. And despite our differences, I do not believe for a moment that you’re evil. Please. Let me help you fight.”
She stared up at him, her eyes as hard as flint. “It’s not really up to me.”
The low, smoky voice rumbled through the air. Nash lifted his head. He realized that the light that had illuminated everything was gone. The sky above was dark. Rumbling storm clouds filled it, Tezcatlipoca standing among them. Rain began to fall, heavy, pounding into the dry earth, turning dust into mud. He stared up at her as she stood, supporting herself with the help of the obsidian mirror, standing with it in her hand, the bottom of its frame on the ground. “What, Tezcatlipoca? Are you going to try to kill me, now?”
“It might be for the best. But no. You have bested my god of war. Without her, we are all doomed. You must fight the Tzitzimimeh in her place. You must take her place. You must be the sun, Nash. In exchange, I will tell you everything. The truth behind the loss of our children. The one who is responsible. You will become a sword of wrath. My wrath. All you must do is slay Huitzilopochtli.”
“No,” he said, very simply, standing with his back straight.
“One life, in exchange for those children. One god, who betrayed you, who fought dishonorably, who tormented you. Do you not want vengeance for what she’s done? Is there not even that much humanity left in you?”
Nash looked down at Huitzilopochtli. “Well, to err is divine. To forgive is human.” He smiled. “It’s okay, Hui. I understand why you did it. I’m not here to replace anyone. I’m here to help you.”
“Is that too much?” asked Tezcatlipoca, mockingly, smoky voice harsh. “Perhaps you merely need to use your preferred tool? Why not rip away her power, as you threatened to? It is all the same, except of course for the fact that one lets you think you are still somehow in the moral right. Many is the human who has been destroyed for taking a god’s power. Why not prove you are better than all of them? Why not fulfill your destiny?”
“Come on,” Nash said, shaking his head. “It’s been a long fucking night. I’ve had enough of this bullshit. I’ve got to fight the Tzitzimimeh soon, and I don’t have time for your ‘turn to the dark side’ bullshit.”
“I would give up blood for you, Nash. I would end the sacrifices. Just be mine. My warrior.”
Nash stared up at Tezcatlipoca. Her expression hadn’t flickered.
“I was crippled for the sake of your world, Nash. Serve me. Plea-”
There was a heavy thump. Nash spun. Coyolxauhqui and Itzpapalotl stood on the platform. The four hundred Tzitzimimeh spun above them.
Nash felt a wave of exhaustion run through him, bone deep. His whole body was hurting from the strain he’d put it through. There was a sudden desire to sink to his knees. He resisted it, and put some steel in his spine instead.
“Tezcatlipoca,” said Itzpapalotl. “Will you interfere?”
“No. Destroy the sun. Destroy the man. Destroy the world. I will create a new one, as I always have before. You have shamed your pantheon, Huitzilopochtli. I fear you can no longer be a Tezcatlipoca.”
Nash turned to stare at Tezcatlipoca.
A dark skinned figure appeared behind the dark god. Green eyes shone. Nash’s heart leapt for a moment. “Bell-”
Betty moved like a wraith, kicking the obsidian mirror out from under Tezcatlipoca’s palm. One clawed hand wrapped around Tezcatlipoca’s throat from behind, prickling at her throat. Betty’s tail flicked with amusement. “You know, there’s a word for people who poison dinner guests, Tezcatlipoca. Corpse.” Her fingers tightened. “Tell the Tzitzimimeh to back off, or I will kill you.”
“You think you can?” growled the smoky god, her eyes dark. “I may be weakened, but I am still Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror, Yohualli Ehecatl, Night and Wind, Ilhuicahua Tlalticpaque, Possessor of the Sky and the Earth! You, far from men, far from your human, cannot kill me! I am a jaguar! You are a cat!”
“Yes. You’re omniscient. You know everything, more or less, don’t you.” Betty held out a small metal object. “Including this.”
And for the first time, Nash saw genuine fear spread across Tezcatlipoca’s eyes. “You wouldn’t.”
“Humans have advanced!” yelled Betty, her voice echoing across the square. “They have found greater and deeper powers than you might have dreamed! The Four Sisters favored them, and they gave them great knowledge and greater skill! Every human has that blessing!” Betty pressed the remote. “And right now, their magic is coming to show you how small you have become. Yield.”
The great feathered serpent rose. Nash fought back the urge to curse. “You must yield, Tezcatlipoca. You have no choice. You have lost. It would be wisest to surrender.”
“Never,” hissed Tezcatlipoca.
“Then I guess this is your end,” said Betty, her eyes dark, and hard. Ready to bet Tezcatlipoca’s life. But despite her experience, she didn’t understand just how compulsive Tezcatlipoca was. Or maybe she did, and she thought it meant that Tezcatlipoca had to die. It didn’t matter which.
Nash turned to Huitzilopochtli. “Give me ten seconds.”
Then he turned, and rushed for the bottom of the pyramid as the Tzitzimimeh dove for him. Hundreds of them, screaming, skeletal, landing and crowding into his way, each a god, each one trying to cut him down. Huitzilopochtli charged screaming into the main body of them, as Nash took a deep breath, and remembered Heather.
Each of the four sisters had given him a very basic gift. They were things that made sense, for a human. They made him better. Gene had given him an unbreakable stance, letting him shatter weapons on his skin, and carrying incredible weight with the proper set of his stance. Ariel had given him speed and the situational awareness that he needed to land his blows. Pearl had given him control of his passions. But Heather’s gift was the strongest. He’d brought a goddess of death to her knees with it. It was difficult to use, not least because he couldn’t control it as actively as the others. He had to give himself over. He had to trust her to protect him.
The raindrops falling around him began to miss him. He swayed and smiled. One of the Tzitzimimeh struck at him. Nash rolled forward, letting the blade brush him just enough to increase his forward speed. He dove between the skeleton’s legs, and leapt forward. Their bloodthirsty rage swirled around him like a tornado, ferocious and merciless. Nash sailed across that gusting wind of fury and hatred like a leaf, utterly unharmed, moving steadily forward. He leapt the first vaulted step.
“Nash!” shouted Betty. “What are you doing?!”
The second step. The third. The fourth. He could feel the missile approaching, perhaps a mile or two out, approaching at a terrible speed. He threw himself into the air, twisting in mid-air, and trusted the Sisters.
He saw the feathered serpent lunging at him from the roof of the temple, mouth open, screaming in rage. Shapeshifter. Ruining things. It was obvious, in retrospect. He reached out. In one smooth movement, he caught the speeding ball of high energy death that the ship offshore had launched, spun, and threw it at the creature. The shapeshifter let out a high scream, and then changed, shrinking dramatically. A small red bird fluttered and spun in the passage of the kinetic weapon, on its way into the heart of the temple. It struck the ground, and there was an explosion like a bomb going off. The metal sheets of the makeshift temple flew apart, spiraling through the air, dust and smoke rising. Betty and Tezcatlipoca were thrown into the air, tumbling end over end.
Nash went by instinct. He kicked off a flying piece of sheet metal, and caught the two in mid air. He spun through the air, completing a perfect spiral, and struck the ground in the center of the crater on his back, hard enough to shatter the area around him, leaving him lying in a pillow of dust soil. He lay there for a moment or two, shell-shocked. Itzpapalotl stood over him, smiling, holding a bloodied Huitzilopochtli by the hair, the limp warrior dragged along. The god stood over him, flesh once more. “Nash,” he said softly. “Can you still fight?”
Nash nodded slowly. He stood up, letting Betty and Tezcatlipoca roll off of his arms. He stood up as Itzpapalotl dropped Huitzilopochtli. “So. You still want to do this?”
“If you wish to take on the world, Nash, you must have good stamina.” The god smiled. Then he lunged at Nash, becoming all sharp glass edges, every part of his body edged with glittering crystal.
Nash’s arms went around the god in an embrace, squeezing him. The obsidian shattered under his embrace, his hands tightening around Itzpapalotl. He could feel the god’s power. And there, in its center, a dark little silver worm, shivering and shaking, hissing at him, calling for his surrender.
Nash ignored every lesson he’d ever learned about tequila, and ate the worm. Itzpapalotl stiffened, and dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes. She was female once more. Nash swallowed hard, feeling the power go down, sickening and strange as he tasted it. It didn’t taste like Death. It struck him that she had never claimed the power she’d been given was from Death in the first place.
He looked up. Hundreds of fallen Tzitzimimeh lay around the square. The crowd was coming back to their feet, thrown to the ground by the impact of the weapon. Xipe Totec stood, staring at him. “What?” he asked, his eyes narrowed. “Do you want to fight, too?”
The golden god looked slowly around at the fallen figures, and then up at the falling pieces of scrap metal from the temple. “No. No, I do not.”
“Good. ” Nash pulled out the phone. It was 6 AM. “I have a date at noon. Wake me in five hours, no matter what. If there’s any more bullshit, there is going to be hell to pay.” He swayed slightly on his feet. “And get me some real goddamn clothes, I feel ridiculous in this loincloth.”
He dropped sideways. He was asleep before he hit the ground.