High Priests of America

Chapter 4 

⚞ ♥ ⚟

Telpoch had tracked his quarry for months on end, travelling between villages, hearing the same story over and over again: drought, sickness, prowling beasts, then a helpful sorcerer, a new god and salvation. The details varied, but the pattern was established, and it was too consistent to be a mere coincidence. Somehow Ixtli brought the troubles to those villages before conveniently turning up just in time to solve them.

And when Telpoch tried to suggest to one of the village leaders that the sorcerer was a cunning shapeshifter and had tricked them, he was forced to flee under a barrage of darts and arrows from the furious populace.

It appeared, there was no settlement Ixtli hadn’t infiltrated, but the man himself could not be found. And so Telpoch was running in circles, trying to establish a timeline and a destination where the sorcerer could have been heading. The search was taxing him mentally and physically, and when his uncle arrived in his village again and saw the ghost of his nephew, obsessed with finding a man he thought to be a demon, the older man wisely advised Telpoch to go to Cholula and seek help from the priests there. If Ixtli truly was a threat and a demon, they would know what to do, and if Telpoch was wrong, they would allay his worries.

So Telpoch collected offerings and set out on a pilgrimage to the holy city. This time the road was treacherous, and he found himself having to trudge through the jungle for a part of the way, after narrowly avoiding an unfamiliar group of warriors that had ambushed and killed a merchant and his slaves. If news of this killing reached the region’s lord, there would be another war very soon, and his search would be interrupted, so he had to hurry.

Before he reached Cholula, he was drenched in a storm, attacked by unfamiliar vicious insects and narrowly avoided being bitten by a viper hiding in a tree. Telpoch firmly attributed these incidents to the handiwork of the hated sorcerer. Ixtli knew he was coming, and was putting obstacles in his way. He had to be careful.

Finally, Telpoch reached Cholula, where exhausted and relieved, he ventured into the market to buy something to eat. He was wandering between the stalls of spice and maize traders, looking for the cheapest meal he could find, when he saw a familiar handsome face, now adorned with the face paint and blood markings of a high ranking priest. Ixtli was browsing jewelry and welcoming adoring pilgrims to the holy city.

Telpoch felt his stomach turn. He came to Cholula to look for help from the priesthood, but it had already been infiltrated by this honey-lipped serpent. Afraid of discovery, Telpoch quickly hid behind a large stand selling textiles and tried to rethink his options. He couldn’t go to just any priest now, he had to reach higher than what Ixtli had managed to ascend to. But how high was that? Acting on instinct, Telpoch asked the textile seller if she knew the beautiful priest.

“Ah, that is Ixtli, he comes to me often. Don’t be shy, go to him for a blessing, he’s always eager to spread good fortune and wisdom among the devout pilgrims.”

“I’m, uh, unfamiliar, which god specifically does he serve?”

“Why Quetzalcoatl, of course.” The woman looked unimpressed with his lack of knowledge.

“Thank you kindly.” Telpoch nodded to the woman and retreated from the market before Ixtli could notice him.

He spent the next few days slowly unravelling just how far Ixtli’s influence reached. His worst fears were confirmed, when he saw Ixtli by the side of the high priest of Quetzalcoatl during a public ceremony. There was only one level above that, the supervising high priest, Tletl Machiliztli, a very wise and strict man in charge of the whole temple district of Cholula. This was the only man who could prevent the further rise of the scheming sorcerer. But how was Telpoch, a cuextecatl, a warrior who had taken two captives, just one rank above a common tlamanih, to approach the supervising high priest?

He soon found out how. A lower ranking priest of Tlaloc, who turned out to be an acquaintance of his uncle, told him that if he brought five jaguar skins to the great temple of the rain gods, a meeting could be arranged.

Five jaguar skins was a tremendous price, but Telpoch did not complain or bargain. He bowed to the priest and promised to return with the skins. For his sister and his village, he would obtain the jaguar skins or die trying.

⚞ ♗ ⚟

Under the pretence of going to visit the mountain shrines of Popocatépetl, the nearby volcano, the supervising high priest left the city for several days. His absence happened to coincide with Ixtli departing as well, on an errand from the man himself no less.

They met in the jungle and apart from traveling together, spent long hours everyday making love rougher and more carelessly than their trysts in the city could allow. In the night, far away from the travelled roads, no one could hear Ixtli scream and beg, no one but the wild beasts, which knew wisely to stay away from the two human-shaped spirits.

Here under scattered moonlight, lying bare on a jaguar skin, Ixtli let Blaze taste the full scale of his depravity. He did not want to merely be taken by another man. He wanted to be humiliated, grabbed by the hair, forced, talked down to. He wanted to be a captive, he wanted to be a slave, he wanted to be a master, to be a god. He wanted to be worshipped, and he wanted to be overthrown. And his appetite was insatiable. The nights they spent together in the city seemed like mere innocent flirting compared to the passions they shared in the jungle.

Ixtli was beautiful, and he coiled like a snake in Blaze’s arms. He cried out and begged shamelessly, until they were both sated, and then lay beside Blaze naked, breathing deeply, his thick lashes fluttering as the afterglow washed over his sweat-streaked body.

Blaze did not remember ever feeling so young as he did now with Ixtli. He smiled at the marvellous fiend, and watched him in the scarce moonlight filtering through the thick canopy of trees. Ixtli’s body was covered with ritual scars, like any priest’s but even these cuts decorated his form, instead of marring it. Their placement was hardly accidental. Everything Ixtli did was with an intent to make himself more gorgeous. He was a work of art.

Blaze told him that, as he reached out to touch his face, but Ixtli recoiled at the gentle caress. He gave Blaze a blank, cold look. Then he smirked. “I am,” he said, and ran a hand down Blaze’s chest in a more carnal gesture. “You’re not bad yourself, for your age.”

The high priest read it for what it was, a boundary that Ixtli set between them. The trust between them was hardly in full bloom yet, so Blaze did not press. He arched his eyebrows, and he gripped Ixtli’s chin in a gesture the other priest had found acceptable before. “I mean it. You’re beautiful. And not just that. By now I’m also sure you are the smartest person I have ever met.”

Ixtli looked away. He seemed to tense, but tried instead to pass his discomfort for nonchalance, as he shifted to lie on his side, making a sexy spectacle of himself as he always did, even as he avoided meeting Blaze’s eyes. “I’ve never met someone like you either. You’re the first immortal I… got to know. I enjoy our time together. If you want to continue our partnership, business, and otherwise, I could take you to Europe with me when I go back. I would teach you about Spain and all the other kingdoms. You will have an easier new beginning under my patronage.”

“Interesting,” Blaze said and did not reach out again. “I am enjoying our time as well, and I would not mind it to last. But what you said before troubles me. Small, local gods are easier to deal with than one omnipotent one. Would you expect me to find a place in that Christian faith of theirs?”

“Absolutely. With so many churches and priests, not even an omnipotent god could keep track of everything. You could take over a major church, and he would be none the wiser. Here you take a cut from Tlaloc at Cholula, let’s say one hundredth, and it is a significant amount. There, you can take one third from a church, and unless you’re in Rome or Jerusalem, nobody will even notice.” Ixtli met his eyes again. It seemed now that they were back to talking business, he was beginning to relax again. “I’ve pulled a scheme like that under the nose of a similarly important singular god in the steppes, I have slain his saints and fed their tongues to the children of his opposition, but in the end, I furthered his cause also, and he had not noticed me. The Christian god most likely won’t ever find out you exist. Unless we make you the Pope.” Ixtli snorted. “But that’s far fetched.”

“Quite so.” Blaze marvelled. He knew about the Vatican and the Pope already. Ixtli had taught him a lot about the nations of Europe now, their lands, religion and culture. Blaze expected he would speak Spanish fluently by the time the conquest began. “Nonetheless, quite intriguing an option. I will consider it. We still have time.”

“Yes, and let’s make the best of it.” Ixtli drew closer.

Blaze pulled him into another kiss.

* * *

Only the most important news were brought personally to the attention of the supervising high priest, so when one of the lower ranking temple guards had sought him out one day, Blaze indulged him and listened.

To his surprise, the priest informed him that a man who was neither a noble, nor a pilgrim was trying to request an audience with the supervising high priest of Cholula. The man, the temple guard said as he bowed before Blaze, was a young warrior, and he had proven himself, bringing great gifts to the temples, seeking in return this one thing only — for someone to pass his plea for an audience with Tletl Machiliztli. The temple guard begged the high priest to consider, for the plea the young man had come here with was one regarding the safety of the entire holy city of Cholula, perhaps even the entirety of the Mexica empire. What that plea was, the guard did not know, for it could only be trusted to the ears of the supervising high priest himself.

Blaze agreed to meet that young man. He could certainly make time for a matter of such supposed importance. He suspected this must be the first news of the Spanish conquest. If so, it was coming earlier than they had thought.

The warrior in red and black arrived barefoot and ceremoniously bowed, swept the stones with a hand and kissed it, for the lack of soil he could kiss in greeting. Well-mannered, he did not dare look the supervising high priest in the eyes, and humbly introduced himself, then waited for permission to state his case. When Blaze gave it, the young man grew very grave.

“Supervising high priest, thank you for your time. I bring very bad news. There is a treacherous demon and a lying snake that had insinuated himself into Cholula. I’ve met him before, in a village next to mine, where he turned the locals to the worship of a god he called Ahriman. He did the same in countless villages around the holy city, including my own. You can send couriers to any one of them, and they will confirm what I say: every village was struck with a drought, wild beasts and sickness before Ixtli’s coming, then he appeared with his Ahriman and pretended to save the village. But I was there during one of his appearances, and I saw him shapeshift into a beast and slay a jaguar with black magic. He is not an emissary of a god, he is a demon and a charlatan who speaks in honeyed words and wears a noble face. Please, strike down this man, before he sows the seeds of darkness and discord in the holy city like he did around it.”

The man bowed low and breathed what had to be a sigh of relief. He probably thought he had done his country a great service, bringing this information to Blaze.

The supervising priest nodded, and his voice carried an appropriate gravity as he spoke.

“You have done well coming to me,” Tletl Machiliztli praised Telpoch. “Have you told anyone about this?”

“No. No one in Cholula. Only my family, back home.”

“Very good.”

Then Telpoch’s world went dark.

⚞ ♝ ⚟

Shaazgai had not set this test in motion, but the supervising high priest passed it with flying colors.

In all earnesty, Shaazgai was quite baffled, he remembered vividly giving the warrior-skeptic a jaguar skin during their last meeting. One would have thought the guy would be thankful and leave his matter alone. Alas, some people were too restless and nosy for their own good.

Not that Shaazgai was bothered by the fact the man had to die. But his accomplice was, and yet he took it upon himself to silence the man permanently — a genuine and generous gesture of goodwill and a testament to their ongoing partnership.

Shaazgai once more congratulated himself on deciding to cooperate with the man instead of making him an enemy. The high priest was proving to be a marvellous ally. Smart, resourceful, with a slight excess of scruples and sentimentality, yet able to set those aside when the situation demanded it.

Like now.

⚞ ♥ ⚟

Telpoch woke up naked, crammed in a low wooden cage with several other captives. He tried to move, but his arms were tied behind his back. He opened his mouth, but only incoherent warbling came out. He had no tongue. He could not touch his face, but one of his eyes was swollen shut, and his whole face burned.

The prisoners beside him were crying.

Telpoch tried to remember what had happened. He had finally reached the supervising high priest and told him about Ixtli. Then what? Why was he here, among these prisoners of war?

He looked outside the bars of the cage with his one good eye, and his heart sunk. He was still in Cholula. The crowd gathered in the large square was festive. Jaguar and Eagle warriors opened the cage and ushered the prisoners out, leading the lot of them up the steps of the pyramid. Shaken and confused, Telpoch went with them. He tried to speak to one of the warriors, but he could not form words. The warrior scowled at him and prodded him forwards with his mācuahuitl. Telpoch looked up the temple steps in horror and saw the willing sacrifice in rich festive wear at the head of their procession. This one was the face of the god, the one that died with the greatest honor. But him and the others were just a reprise. It was an honor to die for the gods. But not like this, not with Ixtli still roaming free, sowing his lies. What happened back then with the high priest? What did he forget?

Telpoch looked around wildly, but his head was beginning to swim. He struggled with staying on his feet, and it took many a prod from the Jaguar warrior behind him before they made it to the top. He could hardly see anything through the darkness and explosions of light that enveloped him, and did not struggle when the assistant priests laid him down on the altar. Only when the faces of the supervising high priest and Ixtli came into focus above him, did Telpoch struggle with new vigor. He broke one arm loose of the grip of a priest that held him, and screaming unintelligibly pointed at Ixtli. Ixtli grinned triumphantly, staying out of his reach, as an Eagle warrior helped the struggling priest force Telpoch back down.

The supervising high priest raised the ceremonial blade. Telpoch screamed. He screamed on and on, not just in agony, but in rage, he screamed until his lungs collapsed, as the high priest raised his still beating heart from his chest and cast a knowing look at Ixtli, who smiled back.

“I dedicate this death to Ahriman,” Ixtli mouthed.

That hated grinning face was the last thing Telpoch saw as his world grew small and distant and faded away into nothing.

⚞ ♗ ⚟

That night, while the sky cried with rain outside, and thunder roared, the supervising high priest and his most favored assistant toasted and secretly drank octli to each other’s health.

“I trust that should any arise, you would help solve my problems, as I did yours,” Blaze told Ixtli. He did not feel content about what they had done, but neither did he regret it. The young warrior had to die, because matters that concerned Ixtli concerned Blaze as well. No loose ends could remain. Even now, in the rain, a messenger had been sent to Telpoch’s village to make sure that his family was selected as sacrifices to the gods.

Ixtli laughed melodiously. “Have I ever failed to repay a favor?” He took a sip from his cup and licked the white octli from his lips lecherously. “Keep them coming, and you will find plenty of uses for my own favors in the old world.” 

“So I will,” said the high priest. Whether or not he would travel with Ixtli back across the ocean was no longer a question, and together they had already started to make very far-reaching plans. But for now, after the current storm blew over, they could still enjoy the quiet before another. 

That night, after they lay together again, Ixtli, who always rested within reach, but not touching Blaze, turned to him and said solemnly. “As you very well realize, Ixtli is not my real name. The name I go by in the old world and the name I chose for myself is Shaazgai. It is the name of a colorful clever bird that collects shiny things.”

“That is very fitting.” The high priest nodded. “So you have been feathered all along.”

“Are you implying I have also been a serpent all along?”

“I did not say that,” Blaze said, but they both knew otherwise.

The high priest stroked Shaazgai’s resting form and did not let the token of trust go unreciprocated. 

“I like to go by blaze, by flames, fire and light, it’s always different. Depends on where I go.”

“Fuego,” Shaazgai said with approval. “Shatah. Athra. These are some of the ways to call you in a few of the many languages I know.”

Blaze smiled. “I like all of them. Feel free to take your pick.”

“I suppose fuego makes the most sense given the circumstances.” Shaazgai smiled and kissed him.