High Priests of America
⚞ ♗ ⚟
1498, Cholula, the Mexica Empire
More than fifty years after he left the Inca Empire, the man currently known as Tletl Machiliztli, stood at the top of the great temple of the rain gods in Cholula, gazing at the dormant, snow-capped volcano in the distance.
The man was a priest once more, though his current name, meaning the flame of knowledge, was perhaps unsuited for someone in the service of a rain god. But Tlaloc did not protest, and neither did Quetzalcoatl. They had known Blaze from way before, and better than they would have liked. In the days of splendor of a different empire, one well preceding the Mexicas, Tlaloc had tried to force Blaze out of his service and failed to do so while Quetzalcoatl had just helplessly watched it happen. The great pyramid temples of Sun and Moon now stood abandoned, reclaimed by the wilderness, and haunted only by ghosts of the past. But the weight of memory remained. It lingered in the spirit world, and when Blaze chose to insinuate himself into the gods’ service again, he did so unbothered. Where he decided to settle, Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl had the misfortune of sharing the same temple, and now they were both trapped with him. All over again. And yet they were probably thankful that it was not the capital city and its great temple complex that he chose.
Blaze felt good about the present state of affairs. Upon his departure from Cusco, he had promised himself not to get involved in the grand politics of an empire again, and he did not get involved. At least not more than he had to. After years of journeying through the jungle, he made his new home here, in Cholula, a city situated right off the empire’s heart.
Cholula was a splendid place — a religious center strewn with all kinds of temples and visited by pilgrims from all over the land — but more importantly, it lay an entire two days journey away from Tenochtitlan. Blaze found that distance big enough to satisfy his taste for relative peace and quiet. Peace and quiet were the two things he always thought he wanted, but in the end never could commit to. He liked to keep himself busy. But even though he ended up in a big city again, he was not going to climb to power. He promised himself that as soon as he set his foot in Cholula.
As always, it was the most convenient to take on the role of a priest, so he became one in here as well — just a humble novice at the great temple of the rain gods. He didn’t really need much power to sustain himself, in fact, he did not need any. He had amassed so much of it in previous millenia and hardly ever used any. But if there was a universal truth, it was that it was better to be safe than sorry, so he continued stealing faith. Leeching it from the sidelines was sufficient.
For a few years he lived like that, letting others above him carry the burden of responsibility.
But the more Blaze watched the higher ranking priests go about their daily tasks, the more jarring displays of incompetence he observed. How could people treat their everyday tasks and duties so lightly? Unlike them, he was unafraid of the gods he served, but even so he still paid the divines their due respect, because that was a part of the process, a part of being their servant, even when playing pretend. How could the genuine priests have so little attention to detail? Blaze knew how to worship Tlaloc, he had done it for centuries. He knew exactly how the rain god liked his incense, he knew his favorite shade of the blue pigment and the subtleties of achieving it. He remembered his preferences in jade amulets and figurines, his favorite offerings of water animals, and exactly how Tlaloc liked his human sacrifices. He knew how to bury the dead and how to plant seeds in their painted faces so that they would reach Tlaloc’s paradise. He remembered and knew how to observe all the rain god’s festivities and rituals that these young priests could not even have the memory of. And even if they did, judging by how they acted, Blaze suspected they would still do it all wrong. It was just painful to watch.
In the end, he could not stand the mistakes of others any longer. He left the body of the lowly priest and took over the one in charge of all the temple complexes in Cholula. A bit of an exaggeration, Blaze knew, but he hated wasting time dealing with superiors who could undermine his work. In all that, he still stayed true to his resolution, he told himself. It was still just Cholula that he would preside over, and he did not climb to power, he simply jumped to it.
He focused on the great temple of the rain gods, of course. It took him a week to put everyone in their places and ensure that Tlaloc was worshipped properly again, just like when he had last been around, in Teotihuacan. Then, he intervened in Quetzalcoatl’s side of the temple as well. That proved to be more work than expected, as that part of the temple was larger than Tlaloc’s, and the ritual calendar related to Quetzalcoatl was more densely arranged due to the feathered serpent god being the city’s patron deity.
When that was finally done, Blaze moved onto fixing the matters around as many other temples as he managed, but his primary focus always remained with the one he’d started with. Ever since, everything in the great temple of the rain gods flowed smoothly. Minor issues would arise now and then of course. The high priests of Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl quarreled with him at first, lamenting both the changes in planned festivities and ceremonies, and just how much personal attention the supervising high priest of Cholula gave to their temple all of a sudden. It took a lot of effort to enlighten them, but at long last they finally saw reason. Then, they stopped complaining completely, when Blaze ordered the temple of the rain gods to be raised by a few steps to surpass even the great temple of Tenochtitlan. Ever since then, the high priests stood united, taking pride in their temple being the highest one far and wide across the land, and thankful to Blaze, especially as he personally defended their temple from all the bureaucratic attacks from the capital that followed soon after. The priests and officials of Tenochtitlan were not pleased about Cholula’s boldness, but Blaze found ways to appease them, and where he had to, remove them from the picture. He knew he shouldn’t have, but he excused himself for it. He’d been gathering all this power for such a long time after all, it only made sense to use a smidgen of it once in a blue moon when it was really needed.
In the wake of these events, a perfect working relationship was established between Blaze and most of the high ranking priests of Cholula, and the high priests of Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl in particular grew to appreciate his hard work just as much as he did theirs. Out of respect for his seemingly endless wisdom and experience, they even gave him the new name, Machiliztli. Blaze accepted it gratefully, but added to it.
Tletl Machiliztli conducted similar efforts in many other temples, molding the priests all over the city to his expectations, and fighting the capital’s efforts to undermine his work. It took nearly three decades of hard work and a change of bodies — he’d officially passed his name onto his ‘successor’ — until he was finally satisfied with the way things looked.
These days, he didn’t have to do much anymore. Instead, he got to reap the fruits of his hard labor. It was like taking a stroll in a beautiful garden that you once planted yourself, and so each day the supervising high priest simply went around the temple complex of Cholula, making sure that everything was functioning as intended, and that the improved conduct of the priests did not falter. Blaze inspected most of the bigger temples on a weekly basis, and whatever time he had to spare, he divided it between random inspections of the smaller temples. The very fear of him paying an unannounced visit kept those smaller shrines in perfect order as well.
Of course, even after thirty years, Blaze always paid the closest attention to his favorite institution, the great temple of the rain gods. He personally ensured that the images of gods in it were well incensed and cared for, and that fresh hearts of men or offerings of beasts of water and wind burnt in the sacrificial bowls.
He had done so today as well. Now after a busy and fruitful day, it was time to rest and bask in the last rays of sun. The life in Cholula was a good one, but it was not going to stay so for much longer. Blaze’s brow furrowed aa his gaze lingered on the volcano. The snowy mountain was asleep for now, but he knew that it would awaken again, spelling disaster and tidings of invasion from across the ocean. There was still time, one would think, but he knew it was not truly so. He could already feel a strange disturbance in the spirit world. A dark presence, somehow related to those distant lands, was making its way through the jungles.
But even though with each year it drew closer to Cholula, for now it was not Blaze’s problem yet. So instead, he let his eyes move away from the volcano and the jungles beyond it, and turn towards the sky where the stars were slowly becoming visible. He had watched the skies for years already, and yet the rising star he had travelled here to behold was still nowhere to be found.
He just hoped he would not miss it.
⚞ ♥ ⚟
Telpoch left his village to accompany his uncle. His uncle was a fearless trader with a fierce reputation, but he was growing old. And there had been rumors of trouble on the road between their villages, so being a young yet skilfull warrior, Telpoch felt it was his duty to keep his uncle safe. He was also eager to see his cousins again. It had been a while since they all got together.
To the young man’s mild disappointment the rumors rang hollow, and there were no beasts or warriors to face on the road, and the only thing he really had to fend off was boredom. However, when they got to his uncle’s village, that was when the trouble started. While his uncle was gone, a variety of misfortunes had befallen the village. Many fell ill, the rain clouds had passed their lands without sparing so much as a drop of water, and now beasts were coming from the jungle and killing dogs and people.
Telpoch listened to the laments of his aunt and cousins, and resolved to stay a while and help them in their time of need. He could not do anything about the rain or the diseases, but he could fend off beasts if they tried to approach the village again. Or at least he would give it his best.
For three nights, he kept vigil with a few local warriors. One night a jaguar appeared at the edge of the village. The men stood their ground and Telpoch even threw his spear at the beast, but the jaguar escaped. It did not return afterwards, and Telpoch received much praise for his bravery from the chief of the village. It was then that he first saw the sorcerer.
The sorcerer was new to the village. He had arrived just a few days before Telpoch and his uncle. His name was Ixtli, which meant ‘face’, and he was young and handsome, unlike most of the shamans and priests Telpoch had seen before. Despite being a new arrival, Ixtli had already insinuated himself into the favor of the local priests and the chief, and was busy teaching them about some new power — an unfamiliar divinity, that could help them in their time of crisis.
Their old gods, Ixtli reasoned, were wise and in every way deserving of worship, but sometimes, if the old gods were disinclined to help, the villagers could honor one more god in their prayers and sacrifices, one who would listen and answer their prayers.
Faced with a draught, sick children and a prowling jaguar, the priests finally relented. Ixtli taught them the rites of his new god, and at nightfall, they laid their first sacrifice of a dog and cocoa beans. Ixtli then remained at the new makeshift shrine for several hours, praying. And before the night was done, the downpour started. It lasted until dawn. And when the morning came, the village emerged overjoyed onto the muddy streets. Over the following several days they had bountiful rain, and the sick ones were all recovering swiftly.
Telpoch’s bravery in the face of the jaguar was all but forgotten. Until the night when one of his companions from the previous watch woke him up in the middle of the night — the jaguar was back. The three young warriors again stood in front of the beast at the edge of the village.
The jaguar was lurking in the shadows of the dense jungle. All they could see was a pair of shining green eyes. The animal paced side to side for a while, then lurched forward. The two local men scrambled back, but Telpoch readied his spear and prepared to fight even as he was left one on one with the jaguar. The beast snarled and rumbled, drawing closer, its muscular body tensing as it prepared to leap. Telpoch thrust his spear at it, but the jaguar evaded his strike and swatted at the weapon with such force that Telpoch almost lost balance. The jaguar tensed again, preparing to pounce when a horrid inhuman noise came from the side.
The man and the jaguar both turned to look. A looming monstrosity emerged from the shadows. It had the face of an enormous jaguar, but the hands of a man. It spoke in a strange guttural voice and moved in a sort of dance. Telpoch looked back to the jaguar and saw the beast was fixated on the creature, its eyes wide open, its snout moving almost spasmodically, like it was trying to talk back, but could not find its voice. Alarmed, Telpoch backed away, pointing his spear at the jaguar and the creature in turns. But the longer he looked, the less the monster appeared to be a huge jaguar, and the more it appeared to be a man. When the creature stood fully in the bright moonlight, right beside the jaguar, Telpoch saw it was but a man in a cape wearing a jaguar mask. It was Ixtli.
The jaguar stumbled, then fell over, dead.
“The sorcerer killed the jaguar with words!”
Telpoch frowned at the exclamations of his comrades. He slowly lowered his spear.
Ixtli stood there smiling benevolently at him, holding the jaguar mask under one arm. No longer a horrible shapeshifter, but still utterly untrustworthy. There was something of a snake in him, and even though everyone was lapping up his poison, Telpoch wasn’t going to.
“You are brave, young man. You faced this jaguar twice. The gods want you to have its skin, so you can bring honor and prosperity to yourself and your kin.” Ixtli stepped aside, presenting the dead jaguar to him.
Telpoch stared him down. “I did not kill it. You did.”
“Oh, but you tired it out.”
Telpoch did not move from place.
“Take your good fortune while it lasts.” Ixtli bowed and leering, he backed away into the shadows that the jaguar had come from.
Telpoch did not want to play along with the sorcerer. But the moment his uncle heard about the jaguar’s skin, it was decided they would travel together to Cholula and sell it there. Despite his reluctance, Telpoch agreed to go, because the jaguar skin was expensive enough that his uncle could use protection on the way.
Thankfully, the trip to Cholula was uneventful, and after making sure his uncle made it back home in one piece with the proceeds, Telpoch headed back home to his village. It was quite a story he had ready for his parents and sisters. One about a shady shape shifting sorcerer who had charmed their uncle’s village leaders and killed a jaguar with black magic and trickery. Telpoch had his entire account prepared and rehearsed by the time he reached his village. But he never got to tell it. A draught, prowling wild beasts and sickness had struck while he was away. His family told him all about it. His youngest sister had to be sacrificed to Tlaloc and a new god called Ahriman, and now the rains had fallen, the beasts were gone, and the sick were cured. It was very fortunate that while Telpoch was away, a wise beautiful stranger by the name of Ixtli brought them their salvation and taught them of this new god.
That night Telpoch could not sleep. He lay on his cot, watching the spot across the room where his little sister used to sleep, and he swore that he would find Ixtli and bring the schemer down.
⚞ ♗ ⚟
Another year passed and to Blaze’s great content, everything in Cholula still proceeded in perfect alignment with his instructions. If he only wished to, he could simply step back and revel in the sight of the well functioning temple district. He told himself, perhaps one day he would. But for now, he liked to keep busy.
Only a few minor events upset Blaze’s much treasured routine this year. One of them was another delegation of Tenochtitlan priests, yet again questioning his modified religious calendar for the worship of Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl. Despite years of trying to convince them, they still could not fathom that it was better because it well preceded the times of their ancestors. It was one of those rare cases when he had to resort to his powers to finally make them go away and leave him in peace. Causing them to forget why they came here, was a temporary solution, Blaze knew, but he did not like to resort to more drastic measures if he did not have to.
After the matter of Tenochtitlan’s meddling was dealt with again, a thought crossed his mind however, that maybe he should have gone for the capital after all. With nobody to question his authority, he would have been left unbothered. But the matter was resolved for now, and he let go of that notion. His destiny was linked to this city and as far as he could tell, it had not yet come to pass.
Blaze looked at the skies each night but he had not seen any rising stars yet, or anything else of prophetic importance. There were no clear omens portending the upcoming invasion either, even the local volcano remained soundly asleep. The only thing out of the ordinary was that strange presence in the jungles. Blaze knew more about it now, as pilgrims brought rumors of a new god called Ahriman whose worship had taken root in some villages, but he had not seen any traces of it near Cholula. For now at least, it did not concern him.
The life in the temple district flowed peacefully from day to day. Pilgrims came and went, and the priests of all ranks bustled about their duties same as always. Blaze tried to think of anything noteworthy that had transpired recently, and the only thing that came to his mind was the initiation of three novice priests into the service of Quetzalcoatl in the great temple a few months back. Blaze smiled. Those priests were of no significance, for now entrusted only with the simplest, menial tasks around Quetzalcoatl’s side of the complex, and that being the only big event he could think of merely proved just how slow and mundane things were in Cholula. Blaze had to admit he rather liked it that way.
With how well everything was going, to his surprise Blaze even found himself with some time on his hands to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Once per week, instead of paying an additional random inspection, he would treat himself and go down to the market to personally purchase some produce and look at the goods of the local craftsmen. Cholulan pottery was the finest in the land — even the current Mexica ruler, lord Moctezuma, ate from Cholulan plates and bowls — and Blaze always spent some time browsing the colorful ceramics to his heart’s delight. In the end he always settled on the ones with his favorite simple pattern, but it was more about feasting his eyes and seeing the beauty in people’s hard work. Of course, in the end his own work called him back to the temples as always.
The supervising high priest knew that the empire was living on borrowed time, but even the quiet before the storm, was still quiet nonetheless, and Blaze was determined to make the best of it while it lasted.
* * *
He got to enjoy the calm for a few more months, until one day, it was finally shattered.
Just like every week, Blaze was conducting his thorough inspection of the great temple of the rain gods. He was almost done with his favorite half, when having just incensed the statue of Tlaloc, he felt something was out of place. Unable to pinpoint it, he stepped back, then closer again. It was not visual, like he first thought. It was spiritual. It took him a moment to understand where it was coming from. As he touched the vessel in which three human hearts were slowly smoking to the glory of Tlaloc, he felt it with full might. The same darkness that travelled through the jungles. It was here now. Somehow he had missed its arrival. He turned the bowl with hearts around, and then he saw them. The scratches were just barely visible, impossible to notice for someone who wasn’t looking for them, but they could not be hidden from his eyes. The script was unfamiliar to Blaze, but he felt what its purpose was. Mostly because it was so similar to what he did as well. Through the inscription, the sacrifice was redirected, carefully so, and a small part of the power that would normally be transferred to Tlaloc, was streamed elsewhere, somewhere into darkness.
Blaze put the bowl back, then retraced his steps, but everything else in the temple of Tlaloc seemed in perfect order.
Touched by a sudden premonition, he crossed over to Quetzalcoatl’s side of the temple, and with his eyes wide, he went from statue to statue, unable to believe what he was seeing. Nearly each place of power bore the same concealed inscription. Even the altar at the very top of the temple had been inscribed! How could he have missed this?
It had to be someone high up, someone with access, someone similar to him. It was not unusual for him to linger around the temple, and so he did. He watched for days, deeply suspecting that some rival force, perhaps that whole Ahriman, had taken hold of the high priest of Quetzalcoatl, but he saw the priest do nothing that would raise suspicion. Perhaps then, it was the high priest of Tlaloc that had been possessed and was cunningly covering the other side of the temple first, before proceeding to taint his own part, a misleading strategy to avoid detection. And yet, Blaze found nothing odd while observing the high priest of Tlaloc either. Blaze’s mind brimmed with possibilities, and yet for now, there were no conclusions to be drawn.
It was a week later, and no new inscriptions had appeared in either of the temples. Of course, he was not fooled by that. Certainly, the threat had not subsided. Whoever had done this, had ceased their activity only because they felt another snooping around.
After debating with himself, Blaze resolved to make a move to flush the perpetrator out.
One day, having ensured that there was nobody around, he approached the inscribed sacrificial vessel again and scratched out the foreign inscription. Would that be enough, he thought? It could be considered an accident, simply some priest cleaning the bowl and noticing the mar after all. No, this had to be clearly premeditated. With that thought in mind, Blaze added new scratches. In Zapotec, the language that should be as foreign to whoever did this as the inscriptions were to Blaze, the supervising high priest of Cholula dedicated a part of Tlaloc’s power to himself instead. Tlaloc would not mind. It was already happening each day.
Having done that, Blaze waited.
⚞ ♝ ⚟
Just a few months back he was still scrubbing the steps of the temple, and now he had the high priest of Quetzalcoatl eating from his hand.
Shaazgai, or Ixtli as the locals knew him, felt very proud of his progress. Soon enough he would be running this dual temple from the sidelines. Rerouting part of the worship to his master was just the beginning. His gambit was paying off, so much that Ahriman had begrudgingly praised him recently, a very rare treat indeed. Still, he wouldn’t get a chance to grow used to it, since this whole adventure required a degree of subtlety way beyond his usual machinations, and so he spoke to his god little and rarely.
The Mexica did not mess around. If he drew suspicion, he would be killed, and painfully so. He had studied these people thoroughly before picking his target. It was the penchant for human sacrifice and the expansive military that lured him in. The utter prohibition of trysts between men was what cemented in his mind that this was the civilization he was going to personally contribute to annihilating. Of course, the Europeans would come and wipe all of them out soon enough, but he could and would gladly speed things along.
He thoroughly hated the Mexica by now. Having to smear blood into his hair, like the other priests did. Having to go around almost naked, watching all the other mostly naked men everywhere, afraid that his inclination could become evident and lead to a horrific execution. Back when he was roaming the villages, he would now and then take a break and travel East closer to the coast, where the locals held no such biases, and there he would let himself go and spend days sating his needs.
Unfortunately, since moving to Cholula that was no longer an option. So he tried to focus entirely on his work, and whenever he saw an attractive man, he just thought of his entrails being pulled out through his arse if he got caught. That helped with not getting aroused in public.
His step-cleaning days were done, but he still had some degree of cleaning duty inside the temple. And sometimes running errands for his temple included visiting that of Tlaloc. It was on one of those occasions that he discovered that someone had tempered with the one inscription he had left there. And not just that. It had been replaced with a different inscription in a language other than Nahuatl.
Shaazgai glared at the unfamiliar alphabet. He made sure nobody saw him as he set the sacrificial bowl back down. Over the next several weeks, he used his connections to find out from a merchant in the market that the script he saw was something very exotic and Southern — Shaazgai had reproduced the script for him in the dirt. The trader could not read it, but professed familiarity with some of the symbols. From the talk at the temple, he found out that one of the younger priests at the temple of Tlaloc was from the far South of the empire. It clicked.
Had someone had the same idea as him? To come to a doomed foreign land and milk its inhabitants for their faith and sacrifices during an upcoming catastrofe? And if this man was more local than him, he could have all sorts of strategic knowledge about the people and their customs that could give him an edge over Shaazgai. There was no space for mistake, no time for further investigation. Offense was the best defense.
⚞ ♗ ⚟
Another week passed and all of a sudden one of the novice priests of Tlaloc recruited last year was on his deathbed. Nobody knew the sickness that overtook him. No wonder, Blaze thought as he left the room where the young man was breathing his last. It was not a disease that ailed him. It was poison, and not one from around here. It had been concocted from a rare plant found only on the islands to the East.
If he had known about this before, instead of having busied himself watching the high priests of the rain gods, he could have saved this novice. Even now he could do so perhaps if he resorted to methods beyond the grasp of mortal men, but Blaze knew better than to expend his powers rashly. He kept the knowledge about the poison to himself.
He questioned the other young priests about the dying novice and found out that the poisoned priest came from the South. Blaze understood then that the poison was meant for him. And so there was different knowledge to be gained here as well; whoever the trespasser was, he was not afraid to resort to murder. Blaze kept that to himself as well. On second thought, nagged by slight guilt, he went back and sneakily healed the dying priest.
* * *
The morning of the next day brought news of a dire omen. The novice priest who had miraculously regained his strength just the other night, fell down the stairs of the temple and broke his neck.
Even Blaze could not bring him back from that one.
Blaze tried to analyze the flawed rationale that led the impostor to murder a novice priest instead of him, and it made him realize that perhaps his own logic had been flawed as well. He assumed it had to be someone with a high degree of power, that was why he had focused on the high priests, but what if he was looking in the wrong place from the start… He decided to pay closer attention to the lower ranks of priests for a change.
During his next routine inspection of the great temple, Blaze found dozens of new inscriptions all over Tlaloc’s side of the dual complex. Clearly the intruder felt the matter had been dealt with. That was good. Now Blaze could watch without drawing suspicion.
And so he watched. He checked up on the novices in the temple of Quetzalcoatl for a change, soon discovering that only two of the three still served in the less important surrounding shrines at the feet of the temple. Had the third one also been murdered? Blaze wondered that until he discovered that it was not death that caused the novice’s disappearance. He found him serving at the very top of the temple, fraternizing with the senior priests and running personal errands for the high priest of Quetzalcoatl. It appeared he was well-liked and had developed a reputation for being both hard-working and smart, obedient and eager to please. It was almost unsurprising that he rose above his peers so quickly. It was, however, quite disturbing just how much the high priest seemed to listen to this novice. While Blaze resolved to put everyone under scrutiny, he decided to watch this one the most during his temple visits. He found out his name too. Ixtli. Yes, he was going to keep an eye on him.
The occasion to do so again arose earlier than Blaze had expected. One afternoon, just as he was treating himself to his weekly visit to the market to browse the pottery, a sudden ruckus rippled through the crowd nearby. As he directed his attention towards the noise, he saw a group of pilgrims surrounding Ixtli, who had approached a jewelry stand. The men and women gathered around him were asking for blessings from the handsome young priest specifically, and Ixtli appeared ready to indulge them, until his bright smiling eyes fell on Blaze. Recognising the supervising high priest, Ixtli toned down his self-importance and humbly advised the pilgrims to visit the temple of Quetzalcoatl for their blessings, as was the custom. When the pilgrims were gone, he then tried to resume browsing the jewelry, when another pilgrim approached the same stand and bought a necklace of glass beads which she swiftly presented to Ixtli. It was an appropriate gift, Quetzalcoatl being the guardian of jewelers. But not many priests could boast of such a popularity with the pilgrims. Ixtli acted bashful, but from the way the trader reacted to the exchange, Blaze was quite sure this was a common occurrence.
Blaze pretended not to have paid much heed to the entire exchange, and continued browsing the wares in some distance, while his mind churned. Such a swift ascent from a nobody to the high priest’s right hand… this clear popularity with the visitors to the city…
Realization dawned, and suddenly Ixtli was no longer just the potential perpetrator. Perhaps Blaze was wrong to have looked to the skies for the rising star before. Perhaps he just found it.
⚞ ♝ ⚟
Shaazgai felt his hands were untied. The meddler was dead and gone, at least for a while, and nobody seemed to notice or tamper with his work anymore. Things were going swimmingly, until one day he overheard the high priests of Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc gossipping about the supervising high priest. It appeared, there was some ongoing controversy about child sacrifices.
Shaazgai eagerly joined the gossiping high priests, and through leisurely inquiry found out that decades ago Tlaloc received abundant sacrifices of healthy children. Until one day, Tletl Machiliztli, the predecessor of the current supervising highpriest conveniently of the same name, woke up and announced they would do this no more, and only allowed infrequent sacrifices of sick children. That morning he had also changed his mind on a whole number of things, and since then had modified a lot of their services and customs to be more old-fashioned. His successor, the new Tletl Machiliztli, had promised to bring the child sacrifices back. But when he came to power, he did no such thing, because his dying namesake had made him swear that he would not. The elderly high priests were still cross with the dead Tletl Machiliztli over that. Shaazgai sympathized with them. How unfortunate indeed that a dying man would force his will like that on the living. Were the two men very similar, Shaazgai asked. Oh yes, very similar. The new one strove to imitate the old one in every way. A most dedicated successor.
A most dedicated successor, indeed. Shaazgai knew then he had struck down the wrong man.
⚞ ♗ ⚟
In the weeks that followed, the foreign inscriptions spread across the city like an infectious disease. Blaze came across them in many different temples as well. He was almost certain now that Ixtli was behind it — roaming the place so freely and able to weasel his way into anywhere and anyone’s favor — but one day finally confirmed those suspicions.
Blaze was walking through the temple district, passing the smaller temple of Xiuhxoxoauhqui, the god of blue fire, when he felt a familiar disturbance in the spirit world, only this time it was a fresh one. Turning from his usual route, he climbed the low stairs of the temple and stopped in the doorway, casting a shadow into the narrow interior. The shrine was very modest compared to most other temples. There was only room for a few people to be inside at a time, and right now there was only one person present. Ixtli stood with his back to the door, facing the statue of Xiuhxoxoauhqui.
He turned slowly, casual-like, then bowed to Blaze respectfully.
“Supervising high priest, may I help you?”
The respect Ixtli displayed was for show only, Blaze could tell. He no longer had any doubts that this was the perpetrator. He responded with silence, and when Ixtli looked up at him questioningly, he held those cunning, confident eyes.
To think that behind this pretty face hid such a venomous snake, someone who would resort to poison and when that did not work out, to petty murder. If this was the rising star he had been waiting for, then Blaze was no longer sure if he should have followed this pathway of fate. But it was too late to back away from it. Now another problem remained. The future he once divined spoke of making a friend and a foe. Which one would Ixtli be? Or if both of them, then in which order? Blaze was unsure what to do about him. He figured he would wait to see what Ixtli did about him instead.
“No, Ixtli. I think I got exactly what I came here for.”
Understanding flashed in Ixtli’s eyes even though his expression of friendly subservience did not falter. He bowed again, as the supervising high priest turned and left.
* * *
Blaze lay on his sleeping mat in the darkness of his private quarters that night, thinking. If his calculations were right, Ixtli would not let such a loose end remain for long. Blaze wondered how the impostor priest would approach this. Would he try to poison him like he did with the novice? Would he resort to whatever dark force stood behind him? When would he choose to strike?
The answer came to him when he was just about to sleep. Careful, barely audible footsteps, and he saw a pretty face looming above him in the darkness. Cold obsidian pressed against his throat, the blade held firmly by a steady hand.
“Who do you serve?” Ixtli snarled with unexpected ferocity, his lovely features contorting into something bestial.
Blaze smiled, completely at peace. “Why, the Mexica gods, same as you. Tlaloc is my favorite.”
“Don’t fuck with me, I know you are syphoning faith and worship from Tlaloc. You don’t serve him. Who do you serve?”
“Ah, so you do serve someone. Let me guess. A foreign god. Ahriman.” The high priest kept smiling, watching the angry, pretty face in the faint moonlight falling through the doorway. “Did you bring him here all the way from across the ocean perhaps?”
“How did you like the poison that I concocted for that boy? Would you like to try the newer edition?” Ixtli pressed the knife harder against Blaze’s skin, but did not draw blood. “Answer my question!”
“You mean the boy you thought was me, twice? It was cruel, and most of all, very sloppy. You’ve been acting boldly, but I’m afraid you haven’t done your research. You have not the slightest idea what you are up against.”
Blaze saw the rage that lit up in the other priest’s eyes turn into surprise. Even though the supervising high priest did not move from place, Ixtli’s entire body was jerked away from Blaze and his hands were twisted behind his back. The obsidian knife clattered against the stone.
Ixtli gasped and struggled against the grip of the invisible force quite viciously, but in the end ineffectively.
Blaze rose slowly from the mat and picked the knife up from the floor. His eyes burnt lilac in the darkness. He walked over to the kneeling priest and took hold of his wrists behind his back, pressing the blade to his neck. “Now, this night is not going as you expected, is it? Like I said, very sloppy.”
Ixtli was breathing heavily, straining against his grip. He was surprisingly strong for someone so lithe, but he stayed mindful of the blade as he struggled, which limited his options. “Who sent you here?”
“You still think you can ask questions?” Blaze mused close to his ear. “You’re really quite something. I’ll indulge you. A little. Nobody sent me. I go where I wish and take what I want. Now, what about you? Will your god come to your aid or leave you at my mercy? Why have you come here?”
“You don’t have a god?” The anger seemed to seep out of Ixtli. “You’re on your own? And yet you have power… What are you?”
“Not so quick. The blade is on your throat, so you will answer my questions first.” Blaze moved the flat side of the blade against Ixtli’s neck in a little reminder. “The temples of Cholula are mine. I’ve tolerated you encroaching on my territory for a while, but you’ve been greedy.”
“You weren’t tolerating me, you didn’t know I was here.”
“True. But I knew a serpent would come crawling at some point.” Blaze frowned and tilted the knife, forcing Ixtli to adjust to the angle of the blade and look up at him. “I never expected it to wear such a pretty face.”
Ixtli smirked. He knew he was good-looking. He knew it well. “I only took a smidgen of the crop, as you are surely aware. How greedy is it to lap a few drops of blood from a small wound of an empire headed for annihilation?”
“Careful now.” The knife dug a little deeper. “How do you know this? Are you playing a part in bringing that future about? Is this why you’ve been going around, introducing this dark cult? Is your foreign god scheming to bring forth the downfall of this empire?”
“No. We are just taking advantage of the situation. Your empire will fall regardless,” Ixtli said calmly and with confidence. “Or, well, this empire. It is not much more yours than it is mine, is it?”
Blaze had to reluctantly admit that Ixtli’s words rang true. Whatever was coming, was going to hit far and wide across these lands, and not just here, but also in Peru, where he had been before. Ixtli was most likely just what he claimed to be. A forerunner of this approaching apocalypse, a vulture looking to profit from deaths and the ensuing chaos. A conniving and resourceful servant of some sort of dark, foreign power, but not necessarily an enemy. Blaze sighed. Ixtli was just the first symptom of the diseased future. Killing him was not going to stop what was coming.
Blaze moved the knife away from Ixtli’s neck, but still held onto his wrists, relaxing his grip only a little.
“So what will you do with me? Now that we know what we stand on.” Ixtli was looking up at him with cunning eyes. He was an unfittingly pretty sight for a carrion bird. His body was no longer tensing in a struggle, but even so its contours were beguiling, and following them down, Blaze did not fail to notice a different kind of tension.
“Is this what being at the receiving end of a knife usually does to you?” the supervising high priest asked with a degree of amusement.
“The knife is new.” Ixtli smirked and licked his lips.
The cues were crystal clear. Blaze watched for a moment longer, intrigued, as he remembered that day in the market and the show the priest put on for others. He had been watching Ixtli for a while and the way he eyed other men when he thought nobody was watching was quite a dead giveaway as well. Blaze discarded the knife into a dark corner of the room, feeling Ixtli momentarily stiffen and then relax again in his grip. Blaze supposed this form of dialogue could be some solution to their situation. A means to a more relaxed conversation later. His free hand came up, and his fingers slowly stroked the priest’s throat where the knife had been before.
Ixtli drew in a shaky breath. He leaned into the touch and rubbed his jaw against Blaze’s hand. The high priest gripped that jaw and turned Ixtli’s face to him. It was not his usual way of dealing with things, but so be it. He scrutinized the younger priest for a moment. Ixtli was… devouring him with his eyes. Blaze arched an incredulous eyebrow at him. He had not remembered anyone ever giving him this sort of look. Ixtli used the high priest’s momentary surprise to wring his hands free and rise to his feet, slipping out of his grasp much like a snake. Then he lurched forward at him, and seeing no weapons, this time Blaze let him close.
Ixtli kissed him with a ferocity of someone who had not been intimate for a year. His lips and tongue teased invitingly, wet, warm and silky. His breath was fresh and sweet with vanilla. For someone Blaze had just accused of sloppiness, he had come surprisingly well-prepared for this turn of events.
Blaze had a sinking feeling he was lapping venom right off the snake’s fangs. Ixtli was too good of a kisser for a young priest and too wanton as well. But Blaze had already been guessing that before crawling into this alluring skin, this snake has shed many other lifetimes. It made him more dangerous, but at the same time, more familiar. Blaze did not feel threatened, he never felt that way anymore. His interest had been piqued, and he wanted to know more. He wanted to talk, to discuss. But this carnal interlude was not unwelcome. He had not done this for way too long. It’s been decades, no… a couple centuries.
He pulled away from Ixtli for a moment, just to drink in the sight.
Ixtli peered into his eyes, the lilac glow reflecting in his own. He appeared fascinated for a moment, then wrapped his arms around Blaze’s neck and kissed him again. His nails scratched Blaze’s back, then his fingers caressed the back of his neck and again clawed his hair. Ixtli was kissing him like he was drowning, and only Blaze’s mouth could give him the air he needed to survive, he seemed to forget to breathe and now and then gasped like a man truly going under. Finally, he withdrew from the kiss and glanced down between their bodies, pleased to see his kisses had the desired effect on the supervising high priest. Leering, Ixtli knelt before Blaze and took him into his mouth. Then Blaze knew it was not only kisses that Ixtli had mastered.
Ixtli pulled away after a while just to smirk up at him. “Now, this night is not going as you expected, is it?” He mocked Blaze with his own words and went back to pleasuring him.
“Indeed. I expected it to go much worse,” the high priest admitted. “With one of us dying, perhaps. I am glad it will not be necessary.” His fingers caressed the other priest’s face as he watched Ixtli satisfy him. One of Ixtli’s hands disappeared out of sight, undoing the loincloth, but rather than wielding a hidden knife, it came up empty and slick with something that the young priest rubbed between his buttocks.
“What is that?” Blaze questioned. Had Ixtli really predicted the possibility of this? What man went around with such things on him? “Not more poison, I assume.”
Ixtli licked his lips. “No, it’s the antidote.”
“I certainly hope we will not need it then.”
“Why? You know where to find it.” Ixtli grinned up at him. Then he gracefully crawled onto Blaze’s cot and gestured invitingly. “Come and get some.”
Yes, this was definitely not how he envisioned this to go, Blaze thought, as he knelt behind the cunning trespasser.
Sprawled out in front of him, Ixtli was a beautiful fiend washed by moonlight, and his body was eager to accept his, way more than eager. Blaze had never felt such zeal and excitement in another. Each touch was rewarded by an immediate response, and Blaze knew just where and how to touch. While he had grown rusty over the years of never finding it necessary to indulge in such carnal delights, he had been a lover many a time before. He had been a shaman and a healer too. His knowledge of the human body was more than extensive. And yet being with Ixtli felt different somehow, and so Blaze studied and mapped out those uncharted territories with his hands and his mouth.
Ixtli was smarter than to be loud that night, but Blaze could tell that he would be without restraint if only they knew they were alone, and it made him want to hear him scream in pleasure. But he too was smarter than that as well, so they coupled in silence, just grunts and stifled moans, skin on skin, sweat and their sticky seed and the smell of vanilla.
It was only afterwards, when they were both satisfied, that Blaze found himself with a knife to his neck again. It was not the same knife. This one was small, one that the other priest could have had hidden away in the folds of his loincloth or even in his hair. He rolled his eyes. Ixtli had come more than prepared.
“I will make you an offer, one you would be a fool to refuse.” Ixtli grinned. “You let me continue my work, and I don’t meddle in your business or encroach on your share of the harvest of faith. Grant me favors, and I will teach you about the conquerors coming from beyond the ocean. You cannot stop them, but you can adapt to survive them.” Ixtli watched him attentively with cold clever eyes. “They are dangerous enemies, you will find. But wrong me, and I will prove more dangerous still.”
Blaze watched the rising star without a slightest trace of apprehension. Their fates were somehow intertwined, but he was not going to tell Ixtli that he had divined it, perhaps ever. He wondered, had this night covered both the friend and foe? He was going to have to cast bones later again, and try to get another glimpse of the future. The high priest closed his eyes and opened them again, enjoying the intense, expectant look Ixtli was giving him. “Very well,” he said finally. “There is plenty of faith to go around, more than enough for two. We will establish our shares and the terms of cooperation that we will both follow. Now, while patience is my virtue, I would not recommend you to test it any longer. Take that knife off my throat.”
Ixtli snorted. His blade lingered at Blaze’s throat for a space of several breaths, then withdrew. “We have a deal.”
He rose to his feet and put his loincloth back on. Then he went to pick up his other knife. As he bowed down to get it, he tossed Blaze a smug look. “I will see you on another night. We can work out the exact terms then.”
Blaze nodded. He watched Ixtli turn his back on him and leave slowly, his body language more than perfectly calculated. This show, the supervising high priest knew, was for him now.
* * *
It was their next covert meeting that really took the supervising high priest by surprise. All of a sudden Ixtli was not a touch-starved viper, but a composed and thoroughly prepared wise man, ready to go over all the crooks and crannies of their business arrangement until no detail was left unspecified. He was a brilliant thinker, a learned scribe whose ink and paper were his mind, because none of the words they spoke that night could be trusted to paper. Ixtli remembered everything that had been said between them word for word, and he repeated it all back to Blaze at the end of their meeting. They had not touched each other this time, but Ixtli departed with a promise of another, different kind of tryst.
Their third night was filled with hungry kisses and Ixtli’s muffled screams.
On the fourth night, Ixtli tried to kill Blaze, and just smiled at the high-priest when the man had to resort to his power to stay his hand that was too quick and too deliberate to grasp on time. Ixtli claimed he was merely testing the high priest’s reflexes, that he just wanted to see what he would do and how, but Blaze called his bluff. Ixtli said that Blaze knew he had to try. Blaze told him he didn’t really. He expressed hope to enjoy this business relationship for long years to come. All the way to the conquest that Ixtli said was coming, and perhaps, even beyond that.
On the fifth night, they lay with each other again, but they also conversed, finding each other to be equal partners in an intellectual discussion. And that was just the very start of it.
As time went by, their nighttime meetings spilled over into daylight hours. Ixtli would find the supervising high priest in moments of solitude and bring up matters of both immediate mundane concern and secret future interest. Despite being in the Mexica lands only to scavenge, Ixtli proved to be an extremely thorough and dedicated servant to the temples. There were no half-measures for the restless serpentine spirit in the body of a handsome youth. Just like Blaze, he had an ingrained need to see things run smoothly and effectively, and he was eager to correct the course of misaligned preparations for festivals or point out short-staffed and under-maintained shrines. It was quite amusing to hear all this constructive criticism coming from someone who only came to the land to exploit it and professed his hate for the culture on every private occasion he got. Blaze found this duality charming in a way. Even if Ixtli had lived other lives before, he still acted young. Blaze enjoyed that about him. He enjoyed a lot of things about Ixtli.
That afternoon Blaze found himself hosting his newfound ally in the privacy of his garden. It was a nice sunlit place, full of blooming flowers and greenery, rare plants brought from the jungles growing alongside simple herbs, vegetables and fruits, all maintained by the high priest’s servants and by Blaze personally. Having a garden was a privilege of nobles and high ranking officials, and it was definitely one of the perks of being the supervising high priest that Blaze truly enjoyed. He had never shared the garden with anyone this way. It was a pleasure to see Ixtli here, basking in the sun and the sweet scent of blossoms.
“The españoles wear a lot more clothes, even when it is almost as hot as here,” Ixtli lectured. “They cover up their entire bodies all of the time, the rich ones drape layers upon layers of exquisite fabrics over themselves, until you can barely tell where their shoulders are. They do wear these hilariously tight stockings, however, it’s all the rage over the ocean.”
“Sounds excessive and somewhat ludicrous,” Blaze commented with amusement. He had not told Ixtli that he too had been across the ocean. Anyway, it would not matter. Everything had changed since then. It was a different world now, and he was interested to learn about it through Ixtli.
“It doesn’t look quite as foolish as it sounds. Here, let me try to show you…”
Ixtli stopped pacing around the garden path and crouched on the sand. He pulled a knife from who knows where, used it to smooth out the sand and then skillfully carved an image into the sand. It seemed abstract at first, but then as Blaze stopped trying to see the familiar drawing style of the Mexica codices and looked at it for what it was, he saw a very life-like if undetailed drawing of a man wearing what seemed like a whole bundle of fabric over his shoulders, that spilled all the way down to his feet. His torso was covered with an almost knee-length shirt, much like those worn by the Mexica women, but his legs appeared bare, which meant those pants Ixtli mentioned earlier had to be very tight indeed.
“Women always cover their legs. They are drowning in fabrics even more than the men.” Ixtli made another drawing, and indeed, the new figure had fabric not only draped all over her shoulders but also flowing down, entirely hiding what was probably a feminine silhouette.
For all their exoticism, the sand drawings were spectacular. Once again Ixtli’s memory proved to be a veritable archive. If he could do this with dry sand and a knife, Blaze had to wonder what marvellous work he could produce with proper writing implements. If this was the art of the east, then it had progressed far beyond that of the Mexica in terms of visual fidelity.
“This is very intriguing, now I see what you mean. And you are skilled at this,” Blaze praised, impressed. “I would very much like you to show me more. Would you consider illustrating on paper instead?”
Ixtli frowned. “I suppose. But it would be very incriminating if found. But then again who would search you of all people… If you have paper and ink, I don’t see why not.”
Blaze fetched him paper, writing implements and a slab of wood to draw on, and Ixtli eagerly set to work. He was frugal with the paper, filling every empty space with information. He drew the man and woman again, and this time they looked even more life-like and had faces, hair and other details that the sand drawing could not convey. He drew what he called ‘caballo’, a horse. It was a most bizarre large beast. Much like a deer, but hornless, rippled with muscles and having a voluminous mane and an equally impressive tail. In Ixtli’s drawing the beast was bounding wildly, kicking and furious, making Blaze wonder out loud how a man could ride something like that without breaking his neck. Ixtli then drew him another horse, this one attached to what looked like a huge palanquin on four large circles. As Ixtli explained the idea of ‘rueda’, the wheel, to him, he drew tiny thumbnails of different horses, carts and coaches. He seemed to have a love for horses and everything to do with them, and decorated the space between his more informative drawings with several distinct horse heads. There were many different breeds of horse, according to him, all suited to different tasks.
As the culmination of that meeting, Ixtli flipped the filled page over and drew a massive map of the world. He left a lot of the space blank, but he portrayed, in approximate proportion, the lands they were in now, the ocean between and the massive Eurasian continent that he had come from. He drew the borders of Spain and other European powers and put dots where large cities were located. It appeared the world beyond the ocean was teeming with empires and kingdoms, most of which according to Ixtli worshipped one single god that was not his.
Blaze soaked up the information, fascinated by Ixtli’s memory and precision, but for once also perturbed by what this map meant. Beyond these contours and dots of ink, lay the vast anthouse of powers that had grown tired of fighting each other and were now hungry for the conquest of new lands again. Those were not some lonely travellers sailing across the ocean, not settlers looking for a better life. It was the greedy hands of empires that were now reaching here across the ocean. The first expeditions of those españoles were already here, for now mapping out the nearby shores — Ixtli had arrived with them in a way. Neither he nor Ixtli could tell precisely when they would reach the Mexica empire, but it was going to be soon. Several years, a few decades at most. That prediction coincided with Blaze’s own divinations.
The time was running out, but Blaze had known this change was coming. Death of silver, death of gold. The foreign power was going to claw its way throughout these lands with steel, seeking riches, and each village and city was going to point it to the next, allegedly richer neighbor. Eventually, on their way to the empire’s heart, the invaders would reach Cholula. But at least when that time came, Blaze would know what to expect of them. In exchange for favors and turning a blind eye to his dark endeavors, Ixtli would teach him what he needed to know.
Meanwhile, in the months that followed, he taught Ixtli about the dangerous grey areas of Mexica social and spiritual life, little customs and taboos, the awareness of which could make Ixtli’s life easier and more carefree. With his brilliant memory, the young man absorbed the information like a sponge, and soon the knowledge bore fruit as Ixtli’s performances during the rituals and sacrifices grew more and more elaborate and impressive. He had a penchant for the dramatic and erotic, and now that he knew the boundaries, he could push and stretch them without breaking, Ixtli put on quite a show. A show aimed at the supervising high priest specifically. A show that was commonly rewarded the same night with another sort of performance in Blaze’s quarters.
They had continued this way for a while. Blaze did not need to help Ixtli rise in power, that Ixtli knew all too well how to do himself — but he made sure to be there when his handsome snake was anointed into the higher ranks of priesthood, which in turn made their meetings even easier to arrange.