High Priests of America
⚞ ♗ ⚟
October 1519, Cholula.
The quiet before the storm that would end the Mexica empire lasted for over a decade.
Blaze and Shaazgai were watching its last moments from the top of the great temple of the rain gods. It was a good vantage point, away from the crowds that flooded the streets and flat rooftops of the white houses. Nearly everyone in Cholula had poured out to watch the march of the demons into the holy city.
Shaazgai, now the high priest of Quetzalcoatl after the untimely demise of the previous one, stood by Blaze’s side. He was smirking as he toyed with the necklace his co-conspirator had given him on the day of his anointing two years back.
“It appears that Cortés has agreed to leave the Tlaxcalans outside,” Shaazgai pointed out, studying the men below.
“Bold move,” Blaze ruled. “But they have been at this before. So few surrounded by so many. And yet somehow they have reached this far.”
“Somehow?” Shaazgai laughed. “I will tell you exactly how. Flower wars have perverted this nation’s warfare. Generations of warriors honed their skills to take live captives instead of slaughtering as many enemies as they can, behold the result. Not to mention the total lack of organization and cohesion.” He shook his head gently, mindful of the feathered headdress. “Good fighting, but utterly ineffective warfare. With our numbers, guns or not, the Spanish should have never made it past the beach.”
“True. Old tactics aimed to please the gods are proving unsuited for an outside threat like this one, a force seemingly insignificant but so united and full of resolve, so differently equipped,” Blaze mused as he watched the Spaniards below. “These men should be seen as a common enemy, but the Mexica empire is so hated that instead they have been seen as a promise. What is worse, their leader has proven a brilliant strategist so far. Between the two of us, I’m sure we could remove him from the picture to sow chaos in their ranks, but I know in the end it does not matter. I believe you when you say that more will come. As many as ships can carry for as long as it takes.”
“Yes, they will. But I’ll give him that, Cortés is quite capable. No Subutai, but then almost no one is.” Shaazgai sighed. “We’re lucky my steppe nomads never got into sailing, and that it’s the Spanish that found this land first. They will be terrible enemies in the long-run, but at least they don’t start with slaughter and pillaging right away.”
Blaze glanced at the high priest of Quetzalcoatl. He thought for a moment that Shaazgai perhaps brought that up as a silver lining, in his own way meaning to make Blaze feel better about the events that were to follow. But comforting others was not Shaazgai’s style. Instead, the man clad in a feathered cloak was wearing one of the slyest smiles that Blaze had ever seen on him.
“Finally things will be happening, this is where it gets exciting.” Shaazgai grinned brilliantly in response to his companion’s questioning look. “I simply cannot wait.”
Blaze said nothing, but he begged to differ. He knew where this was headed, and exciting was not a word he could ever use to describe it. But this conquest was bound to happen regardless, here and in the empire of the Sun that he had abandoned, and far and wide across what people from the other side of the ocean now called the Americas. This was the very reason he had left the mountain empire and come here. He did not wish to see all that he had worked on fall to ruin, or ‘dynamically evolve’, as Shaazgai would say. But here in Cholula, he had managed to get attached to the temples and the people all over again. Blaze remained silent as he watched the procession below, but the frown that set into his brows did not go unnoticed by the new high priest of Quetzalcoatl.
“Aw, don’t be so glum, look at the horses! Soon enough you will see them up close, fascinating creatures, exceptionally useful. And they can be elegant too. Though perhaps not these ones. But wait till you see them in battle, they are so efficient in a fight! So many people will be trampled to death…”
Having heard that, the supervising high priest had to make a correction to his previous thought. It was not that his accomplice didn’t try to comfort him after all. It was just that it could only make matters worse, because while Shaazgai was an excellent ally to have, Blaze was almost sure by now that he lacked any empathy whatsoever.
But then again, was it such a bad thing for one who lived many lifetimes? Blaze sometimes wished he could be as free of the burden of conscience as the other man appeared to be. He still felt guilt over what they had done to that young warrior who came here to seek justice. But choosing between Telpoch and Ixtli back then had been no choice at all. Blaze was a creature of unwavering loyalties, and he had already decided to let his and Shaazgai’s paths align.
* * *
The Spaniards and those of their allies that had been granted entry into the city were accommodated within the large, high-walled courtyards neighboring the temple complex. They were welcomed with great honors, fed and left to rest. When the crowds that came to gape at the demons and their beasts thinned out, the two priests still watched from the shadows.
As high ranking priests, they would be expected to approach the Spaniards sooner or later, but for now the invaders had no idea who was really in power here and who to hold accountable, and so the priests, chieftains and various nobles of Cholula picked and chose whether or not to make contact. Not many aside from the original delegation that had led them into the city were eager to approach the Spanish, and Blaze could not blame them. Lord Moctezuma could not make up his mind on whether he wanted the Cholulans to welcome or kill the invaders, so making friendly contact today could be considered treason tomorrow. He and Shaazgai stayed away so far, but it was out of prudence and not out of fear. Blaze wished to know more before he spoke to the conquistadors, and Shaazgai eagerly continued to lecture him about them now that they were dealing not with a theory but with the living subject matter.
It was thanks to him that the Spaniards did not surprise Blaze in the slightest. What he saw here in the courtyards, these bearded men with their horses and swords, their arquebuses and crossbows, even their cannons, were already well familiar to him. He watched with interest as Ixtli’s drawings came to life before his very eyes. And even though Blaze was not surprised, he still found what he saw fascinating.
These invaders had changed everything in their wake, but Blaze did not fail to notice that they themselves became changed as well. They adapted to the jungles, the heat and the cold. Many of them now wore armors made of quilted cotton like the Mexica warriors did, though some still boasted the suits of metal that Shaazgai had sketched out and told him about. Rather than shining, however, the metal armors were scraped and covered in mud. Both the men and their horses bore many battle scars.
These intruders were not the demons or gods everyone made them out to be, they were mortal, each and every one of them. And yet there was great fire and zeal in their hearts. These were the men who sunk their own ships to do away with their temptation to go back home, soldiers determined to survive against all odds in the enemy land — to gain a ‘new world’ for their king and their god. Blaze did not like them. But he respected their devotion.
It was truly a marvel that having faced tens of thousands of warriors on their way, these few hundred men were still alive. Even though thanks to their strategizing they now had numerous local allies now, they had been fearless from the very start. And yet, perhaps the most intrepid of them, was not a man at all. The Spanish had met her on their way across the land. Betrayed by her own people and given as a slave to the Spaniards, Malintzin, known by the Spanish as doña Marina, had already worked her way up to the top of their forces. Fluent in both Nahuatl and Spanish, she was the one talking to the Cholulans on Cortés’ behalf. Blaze watched her and the other invaders, foreign and domestic alike, with sadness at the things to come, but also with interest he never could help but feel towards those with only one lifetime ahead of them.
Beside him, the sly snake clad in feathers, who Blaze hoped really had more than one life to live like he assured him he did, had just finished another educational monologue about Spanish military tactics. The supervising high priest took note of his every word. Shaazgai had often mentioned that he was going back to Europe, and Blaze had since resolved to go with him. Out there, across the ocean, where he hoped to find a new god to pose as a servant to, the knowledge Shaazgai was sharing with him would be invaluable.
They watched the Spaniards in silence for a while, and not just that — they listened. Shaazgai had spent the last decade teaching him the languages of Europe, until Blaze was just as fluent in some of them as the other man was. Blaze had told him early on that once he took over a Spaniard’s body and mind as he later planned to, he would learn all that the host knew anyway, the language included. But even knowing that, Shaazgai still did not mind teaching him — he thought it a fine way to kill time as they waited for the inevitable. Blaze appreciated those efforts and he made sure to reciprocate, offering more of his knowledge of the Americas to Shaazgai in return.
“So, how long do you think before Moctezuma changes his mind again?” Shaazgai asked after they had stood in silence long enough. “One day? Three days?”
They shared a look of understanding.
“I’d give it two days perhaps.”
⚞ ♝ ⚟
On the third day since the Spanish arrived, new orders came from lord Moctezuma. The Cholulans were to stop feeding the invaders and prepare to trap and kill them instead.
“Oh, this is rich.” Shaazgai cackled, leaning over to whisper with Blaze about the news. The temple courtyard was filled with priests hurrying about their everyday business, and the two high priests stood at the center, idly supervising. “If Moctezuma wants us to trick and kill the Spanish, the last thing we want to do is to stop feeding them. Might as well tell them where the warriors are hiding and show them the sacrifices we made for the upcoming confrontation.”
“Agreed. He has been displaying particularly poor judgement lately. The times are volatile, so priests such as us and a variety of other groups in Tenochtitlan are trying to push their agendas right now, and he is too easily swayed by their words and prophecies. He has never been best suited for rulership. Too fickle and superstitious,” Blaze voiced his opinion quietly and shook his head with disapproval. “We should not go to the courtyards to watch the Spanish today, they are growing restless and may be easily provoked to action.”
“There are no priests such as us,” Shaazgai said slyly. “And I don’t think we need to concern ourselves with that…” He looked towards the entrance of the courtyard.
Blaze frowned and turned to see what he meant and saw a group of wary Spanish soldiers enter the temple courtyard. They had their weapons with them, but they did not hold them at the ready. Priests moved away from them, and soon it was just Shaazgai and Blaze standing singled out at the center of the courtyard.
One of the Spanish approached them and, making an awkward bow, tried to gesture for them to come with him.
Shaazgai repressed a smirk and faked confusion. He wanted to see what the Spaniard would do if gesturing didn’t work. Pantomime? Botched Nahuatl? Loud slowly spoken primitive phrases in Spanish? The latter was always hilarious to observe — as if speaking louder and slower in an entirely unfamiliar language would make people understand you.
Unfortunately he didn’t get to find out, because Blaze just nodded to the man and followed him out of the courtyard. Shaazgai sighed and tagged along.
The Spanish led them to the nearby courtyard where the rest of the invaders were stationed. Just as Blaze and Shaazgai expected, the moods were sour. The hungry bearded men eyed them with open suspicion. Hernan Cortés looked just about as unhappy as his soldiers. However, he remained courteous and on his order a man presented them with one precious stone each. Shaazgai turned the piece of jade in his fingers without much interest. He had plenty of that at his casa back in Spain, but sure, free jade, why not?
Cortés spoke to the dark-skinned woman by his side, and she interpreted for them in Nahuatl: the Spanish wanted to know why there was no food and why the chieftain who was supposed to meet them said he was ill and refused to come. Why were their hosts suddenly afraid to face them and treated them so poorly?
Shaazgai saw another frown forming on Blaze’s brows. Ever the conflict mitigator, even in the face of the inevitable, the supervising high priest stated that it must have been a misunderstanding and offered to go at once and bring the chieftains back with him.
The woman relayed the message to Cortés in fluent Spanish, and having received the Spaniards’ permission, Blaze left.
When he was out of earshot, Shaazgai surveyed their surroundings and knelt before Cortés.
“My lord,” he said reverently. “Do not misjudge us. As you are a loyal servant of your king, so are we vassals of lord Moctezuma. And lord Moctezuma is of a different mind about you everyday. One day he sends orders to treat you as honored guests, the next day he orders us to plot against you. Today we were ordered to stop feeding you and prepare for your capture.”
As the woman translated his words, Cortés leaned forward with attention. Shaazgai could see the suppressed surprise in the man’s features. Shaazgai had counted on it. He was spilling a lot more than the Spanish expected to hear.
Cortés spoke to the woman, and she said, “Thank you for the warning, high priest. But if you are truly loyal to your lord, why are you revealing his plan to us?”
“Lord Moctezuma is a great man, but he is advised by wicked idols. I have seen the wisdom of a single god and his might! Your victory over these lands has been prophesied. Lord Moctezuma should not attempt to stop you, but should welcome you as our brothers. I cannot act in open opposition to my lord, this is why I warn you now in secret.”
He spoke the truth, and his conviction sealed the deal. He could see Cortés was buying it — of course, presented with the greatness of Christian God a smart savage was bound to see reason. Little did they know the single god he spoke of was in fact Ahriman.
“Do not condemn the whole city for the lack of vision of some of our chieftains. The supervising high priest and I are your allies, and we do not wish you harm. But the traps and warriors are already in place. I am sure you or your allies have noticed some of them — the barricades, the rooftop parapets, the hidden pits with spikes, the warriors stationed inside and outside the city, waiting to attack you on your way to Mexico.” Shaazgai watched the apprehension in Cortés’ eyes. The man kept his face mostly blank, but centuries had taught Shaazgai to notice the smallest details: dilation of pupils, the slightest tension of the jaw muscles, subtle changes in breath. This intel was news to Cortés. His allies had not yet brought reports of these proceedings. The timing was perfect. Shaazgai repressed his triumph and subserviently bowed his head. “I will not tell anyone of this conversation, my lord. Should you wish to know more, send someone to find me and the supervising high priest. We are at your service.”
The woman translated the last part. Cortés listened attentively. Shaazgai rose to his feet and glanced behind himself. While Cortés was still mulling over his words, Blaze and the chieftains came into the courtyard. The supervising high priest gave Shaazgai an inquisitive look, clearly aware that something had been said behind his back. As the nervous chieftains stood before Cortés and began explaining Moctezuma’s indecisiveness, Blaze and Shaazgai stepped aside.
“What did you tell him?” Blaze whispered accusingly.
“Most of it. All true. They will find out sooner or later. Better if they hear it first from us.”
Shaazgai smiled. “Of course. I took the liberty of taking sides for you. I’ll tell you more later, look, the Cempoalans are here.”
Indeed, three warriors from among the earliest native allies of the Spanish entered the courtyard and hurried around the Cholulan chieftains and straight to the captain. They whispered for a moment with Cortés and his woman, and Shaazgai felt thrilled when Cortés’ eyes met his with a poignant look as he listened to what the Cempoalans had to say. Surely they had come to relay some of the information Shaazgai had just gifted him with. With his words now supported by independent sources, he gained all the more credibility.
Before the chieftains could regain Cortés’ attention again, eight captains of the Tlaxcalan troops camped outside the city came to testify that the Cholulans were evacuating their women, children and property out of the city and that sacrifices and preparations for war had been made.
Cortés frowned and spoke through the interpreter, accusing the chieftains and priests of breaking their promise of obedience to the Spanish Crown that had been given when he entered the city.
“If we are unwelcome,” the woman translated his words, “do not distress yourselves, as we shall leave tomorrow morning and head for Mexico.”
Cortés told her a few more things in Spanish, and she continued, “We would like only to request that you provide two thousand of your warriors to assist us on our way as the Tlaxcalans had done. Bring them to us personally in the morning.”
The chieftains eagerly agreed.
Blaze and Shaazgai exchanged puzzled glances. Cortés just set a trap for himself. The warriors so lightly given were doubtlessly meant to help Moctezuma’s forces slaughter the Spaniards when they left the city. But Cortés was a smart man, so this was likely a ruse. He would not actually leave the city. And this way he had control of where at least a part of the enemy forces would be. Those thoughts coursed through Shaazgai’s mind and from the narrowing of Blaze’s eyes, he could tell a similar scenario played out in the other man’s head. Meanwhile, the chieftains were delighted and blissfully ignorant of what they’d just agreed to.
When they left Cortés everyone was in good spirits, but as the two high priests retreated to the privacy of the temple, Blaze looked at Shaazgai gravely.
“Tell me exactly what you told him.”
Shaazgai did. They had been discussing how unstoppable the conquest was and how they had to get on the good side of the Spaniards for long enough beforehand that he knew Blaze would not try to thwart him even if he did not like it. They had to be united in days to come to hold their ground, so a sprinkle of honesty here and there would not hurt, his co-conspirator always seemed to get hooked on that. Blaze’s one inconvenient flaw was having too much of a moral spine, but Shaazgai already knew that the man was willing to bend it every now and then. For him, in particular, Shaazgai liked to think.
As expected, Blaze didn’t look particularly thrilled to hear what Shaazgai had told Cortés, but the good sign was that he proceeded to ask questions instead of criticizing his actions. “What do you think he plans to do? Set an ambush in the courtyards for the chieftains and the warriors that he will be given?”
“Most likely. It would be the prudent thing to do in this situation.”
The supervising high priest looked tired and guilty for a moment. “Then this is it. We have provoked them after all.”
Shaazgai gladly helped him through that momentary weakness. “Blame it on me, if it makes it easier. It has to happen and the sooner it starts, the sooner it is over.”
“It starts at sunrise then.”
“Yes. So now would be a good time to collect what belongings you want to take with you. We will not be in Cholula for much longer.” Shaazgai paced through the temple, taking in the carved walls, the bloody altar and the ugly but impressive statue of Tlaloc. “I made arrangements with a rich merchant on a far end of town.”
“Of course you did…”
Shaazgai just smirked. “He has capable warriors hired to defend his house that he was unwilling to evacuate. In the unlikely scenario that tomorrow’s violence reaches all the way to his home, it should be well-defended. And he made it very clear that he would be exceptionally honored to have both the high priest of Quetzalcoatl and the supervising high priest as his guests.”
“I really don’t know what to think about this anymore.” Blaze still looked way too concerned.
“Then don’t think. You have done plenty of that already, and you’ll have a lot of time for thinking later. Just leave it to me. Things are already in motion, we are just talking accomodations now. I’m not waiting this out in the jungle, and neither should you.” Shaazgai shrugged. “And if we’re staying in the city, then we want to be safe.”
A shadow appeared in the doorway of the temple, and Shaazgai fell silent. It was Cortés’ woman. She bowed to them and courteously presented them with more gems. “My lord requests to speak with you. If you would kindly follow me, esteemed lords, he would personally present you with fine cloth as well.”
Shaazgai took his share of the precious stones and glanced over at Blaze, but to his surprise found the other man watching the new arrival while completely disregarding the jewels. Shaazgai turned to re-evaluate the woman. She was of no particular beauty. Her language skills were impressive, and she seemed smart, but she didn’t warrant such attention. As they followed her down the steps of the temple and back towards the courtyard where Cortés was stationed, Shaazgai frowned, watching Blaze study Malintzin. He felt stirrings of jealousy.
Blaze glanced back and caught his glare. He rolled his eyes and slowed down. As Shaazgai passed him on the steps, he felt the man’s hand caressing the small of his back. Blaze followed close behind him and Shaazgai mentally crossed the woman off of his death list.
Their second conversation with Cortés expanded on what Shaazgai had already told the Spanish. Shaazgai drew them detailed maps of the city and which parts were trapped or blocked off. He explained that half of the twenty thousand warriors Moctezuma had sent were already inside the city, while half were stationed outside. He explained the sacrifices made earlier to secure victory and the preparations to capture and sacrifice a few dozen Spaniards to the local gods as had been agreed with lord Moctezuma.
Blaze just watched him spill these secrets at first, but after a while, knowing there was no backing out or changing course, he finally joined Shaazgai in the explanations. They told Cortés everything.
At the end of the meeting the two high priests swore under pain of death to keep their dealings with the Spanish secret now and always. Then they were gifted finely embroidered cloth and told to gather the chieftains early next morning to see the allegedly departing Spanish off.
“It went rather well, don’t you think? All things considered.” Shaazgai leered at Blaze as they headed back towards their homes with the fine cloth and gems.
“All things considered.” Blaze echoed, making the situation sound way more grim than it was.
* * *
The next morning, together with the jubilant chieftains and a sea of warriors, Blaze and Shaazgai stood before Cortés and his people in a sunny courtyard. Cortés was on horseback, and the Spanish were armed, including guards at the court’s entrance, but the chieftains were cheerful and confident of victory.
The two high priests knew better. The way Cortés’ people were positioned, the way the courtyard entrance was guarded, this was a deathtrap. Cortés had invited those two thousand warriors to be slaughtered in close quarters within the walls of their own city. But the chieftains and priests, who did not know that they were also here to be slaughtered, had brought even more men, and now most of them couldn’t even fit into the courtyard.
One of the few dark-skinned men that stood by Cortés’ side broke away from the rest and slinked through their ranks and then those of the Cholulans until he reached the two of them. It was Aguilar, Cortés’ other translator, fluent in Maya but not yet the language of the Mexica.
“Come with me,” he said in slightly broken Nahuatl. It looked like their assistance had been appreciated. They followed Aguilar out of the courtyard just as Cortés through his interpreter woman began accusing the assembled chieftains of treachery.
“Find a safe place,” the man tried to instruct them.
“Thank you, we’ll manage,” Shaazgai assured him hurriedly as some of the Cholulan warriors gathered outside the courtyard tiptoed to see what was going on inside over the heads of their brethren. Still unaware of the betrayal, they weren’t paying attention to the leaving priests or the unfamiliar man, but it was best not to linger.
“Thank you for your warning. Go in peace,” Blaze patted Aguilar on the shoulder, and briskly walked away, following Shaazgai’s lead.
“I hope you are prepared, it looks like we should head straight for the safehouse.”
Blaze nodded gravely, just as a single shot of a musket rang out behind them. It was the Spaniards’ established signal to start the attack, followed only by the cries of pain and horror.
⚞ ♗ ⚟
The trader bared his turquoise-inlaid teeth at them and toasted the health of the wise high priests, while on the other end of the city the invading demons slaughtered his countrymen. The man had not a care in the world: this was just another fight, another conflict. Cholula would not fall, and with the blessings of the gods upon him, he would find a way to profit even from this situation.
In the richly furnished home behind a tall fence, guarded by numerous well-equipped warriors, the man and his two guests were safe, comfortable and well-entertained.
They had both made sure to bless the merchant on behalf of as many deities as he wished them to — and it was a new one after every drink of cacao and octli, downed in turns. Blaze’s blessings were particularly in demand, he was after all the supervising high priest of all the temples. But even as he raised his drink in toast with their host and Shaazgai, he did not share in the mirth. Contrary to their belief, he saw nothing worth celebrating.
As they feasted, out there within the high-walled courtyards of the temple district, Cholulans were being slain, and it was hard to convince himself that this horror was not of his and Shaazgai’s making, because Blaze knew for a fact that it was. While the conflict had been inevitable, Shaazgai had tipped the scales and made sure that once again, against all odds, it would be the Spaniards that had the upper hand. That they would emerge victorious and ready to cross the finish line.
He looked at Shaazgai as they drank, and the man flashed him the most dazzling smile, as he revelled in a job well done. Ixtli had been a charming, efficient snake from start to finish, time after time he had done nothing but live up to and surpass expectations. And he had done so now as well. So much chaos achieved with mere words. Blaze aspired to never become what Shaazgai rejoiced in being. Nonetheless, until today he had always been intrigued and impressed by his performance. But now the feeling of guilt had clouded all else.
Blaze knew precisely when the Tlaxcalans stationed outside Cholula entered the city. After that death was everywhere. He had never been a witness to such a disturbance in the spirit world. It was a slaughter. He excused himself and spent the rest of the day alone, leaving the two other men to their merrymaking.
Shaazgai had not read him right, or perhaps he’d had too much octli, because he had come to him at nightfall, just as the sounds of fighting resounded in the streets of their district as well. Blaze welcomed him in his embrace, thinking that the man had grown anxious at last, but it turned out that he had misread Shaazgai as well. The high priest of Quetzalcoatl was drunk with desire, and the screams of the dying did nothing to quell his excitement. Quite to the contrary, they clearly turned him on. He could not understand why Blaze did not want to drink the kisses off of his lips and listen to his sweet poisonous words, and left offended, rejecting the offer of spending the night simply lying close.
Blaze did not try to stop him from leaving. There had been moments during their acquaintance where it was clear to Blaze that he did not understand Shaazgai either, and this was certainly one of them.
How could one seek such passions when all around innocents were dying? After over a decade of cooperation, he still did not know what drove the other man to act the way he did. He liked Shaazgai for his supreme intellect, and he tolerated his sly and cunning ways, finding them to be an intriguing reflection of that superb mind… but Shaazgai had a lot of vices. One that bothered Blaze the most was this heartlessness. Another that bothered him much less, but which he took note of more often, was Shaazgai’s obsession with his own looks. The latter had something to do with him ending up in the service of his dark god, Blaze was starting to guess. And with that self-adoration came yet another flaw. Achieving perfection meant nothing to Shaazgai if there were no witnesses to it. He wanted to be adored in all kinds of ways, and as a part of that process he put too much emphasis on carnal pleasures.
In the course of the past years Shaazgai had worked out exactly where and when to go to find what he was looking for. Blaze had seen him get what he wanted and kill to cover his tracks in this context as well. So many other hands had touched the other priest since the day they first met, that sometimes Blaze was glad that unlike Shaazgai, he was not the jealous kind.
Blaze could hardly understand such excessive need for sexual gratification. He could not recall ever having such desires, not even when he was young and living out his first life, a long, long time ago. There had been a need every now and then of course, every human being had those, but with each of his lives they burnt dimmer, until Blaze simply decided he was too old for such things. Even though Shaazgai was likely millenia younger, he had lived many lives already, and yet he nurtured and fuelled his flame of passion in ways that Blaze did not think useful or necessary. More than that, he was so carnally obsessed and so radiant while at it that he found ways to reignite the fire in Blaze as well. It was sparked on the very first night Shaazgai came to try and murder him, and Shaazgai somehow managed to keep it alive ever since, much to his benefit. In a way, Blaze was impressed by that achievement of his as well — he truly had not known he still had this in him — and had indulged in these pleasures with Shaazgai almost as often as the man wanted him to. But if left to his own devices, Blaze found himself with no such desires whatsoever.
He wished Shaazgai had less of them as well, because no matter how many men he let have him, and how many times Blaze made him his, it seemed that the beautiful serpent could never be satisfied.
No, Blaze could not say that he understood Shaazgai, and after tonight, he once again was not certain if he even wanted to.
* * *
“Are you done being grouchy now?” Shaazgai asked him with a condescending smile in the morning, as he casually stepped over the body of a slain man on the path from the merchant’s home.
There were a lot of things Blaze wanted to say to that, but this was not the time for conflict between them, so he refrained from voicing what was on his mind. Well, most of it anyway.
“You said that Spaniards do not start with slaughter and pillaging.”
“Still grouchy then.” Shaazgai’s benevolent smile lingered. “And they don’t. They responded with a trap to a trap. An eye for an eye, an excellent display of Hammurabi’s law. Besides, this here is clearly the handiwork of Tlaxcalans. Dull to look at, but wait till we get to see some sword and musket wounds, I will tell you all about them!”
Blaze sighed and followed him back to the temple district, where Shaazgai delivered on his promise, giving him all the interesting ins and outs of bullet entry wounds, as they waded over more dead bodies. In a way this blood-stained pragmatism made Blaze feel better about the situation. Shaazgai was really a bad influence on him, but he had allowed this, and he had already decided that he was going to let him see this through.
They met with chieftains and priests from other districts on their way and together they sought an audience with Cortés, falling to their knees at his feet to beg for mercy for the rest of the provinces of Cholula. From two brilliant strategists to another, they knew he would agree.
* * *
The Spaniards ended up staying in Cholula for two full weeks. They could not leave such a big city in turmoil behind their backs as they went on to pierce the empire’s heart. Cortés ordered the evacuated populace to come back into the city, and the markets to be re-opened, and since the main chieftain of Cholula had been slain in the courtyards, Cortés consulted with the locals and appointed a new one in his stead, smartly letting the late chieftain’s brother be the one to take over the function. Blaze had to admit that the captain of Spaniards really knew his way around people and could read and mold their attitudes with ease. While it was commonly known the treachery that led to the massacre had been the result of lord Moctezuma’s orders, Cortés managed to play that situation with admirable diplomatic skill and cunning. He dispatched a message to the Mexica lord, saying that he refused to believe even for a moment that lord Moctezuma had anything at all to do with the trap. Instead all was blamed on the insidious Cholulans, allegedly acting on their own, and since conveniently they had already been made an example of, nothing stood in the way of the Spanish-Mexica friendship. In fact, Cortés could not wait to finally meet the great Mexica ruler and greet him like his own brother, and he trusted that the wise and benevolent lord such as Moctezuma would welcome him with open arms.
Meanwhile, news of the massacre rippled far and wide across the land ensuring that nobody else would dare raise a hand against the demons in steel, who as the rumor had it, would become aware of any plot against them, no matter how secret. Shaazgai could not help but bask in that, as he and Blaze had contributed greatly to the making of that renown.
And as if all that was not enough, the nearby volcano had finally awoken and started spewing huge clouds of ash and some lava into the air, which contributed even further to the fear of the Spanish teules, and was interpreted as a sign of their wrath at the betrayal.
But Cortés did not let the good fortune go to his head. Ever the smart player, he tried to turn all enemies into his friends. To achieve that he ordered Tlaxcalans to return as much of the pillaged goods and captives as he could enforce and then imposed a semblance of peace between them and Cholulans.
Just a week after the bloody massacre, the city was bustling with life again. Even the temples had been allowed to function. Surprisingly, it had been a Christian priest accompanying the Spaniards who — contrary to Cortés’ initial plan — had advised against toppling the local idols, at least until their venture into the capital of Mexico was complete. It was a clever political decision. But Cortés was a zealot at soul, and he did not rest until at least one of the temples was washed clean of blood, painted white, and a cross was raised inside it.
Blaze regarded these proceedings and the newly formed chapel with keen interest. Together with Shaazgai he was whiling away the time in the temples, still attending to some of their duties. They tried to carry out only the bloodless part of them for a change. Making a better impression on the Spaniards mattered, as currently they chose to stay closer to them than to the Cholulans, afraid that the local populace would perceive them as traitors for playing their part in what led to the slaughter. The two of them were under Cortés’ protection now, and as such they had even been invited to watch the Catholic masses conducted in the presence of the cross. Blaze in particular welcomed that invitation with great professional curiosity.
Casing a new god had never been simple, which was one of the reasons why, while revisiting these lands, Blaze returned into the ‘service’ of Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl that he had already been familiar with from before. He had served smaller gods in the past, but that was simply because there had been no big gods back then. Inti, the Incan sun deity, had been the most prominent one he had represented, but even Inti with the entire empire of followers, was nowhere near this new power from overseas.
As he watched the Spanish invaders, Blaze’s understanding of how mighty a deity could become was reshaping. Shaazgai had told him about the crusades, about the inquisitors and the missionaries. Yahweh’s followers had taken over the lands across the ocean with fire and steel, but even that was not enough for them, and now they came here to spread his worship even further. They had already brought their god with them, Blaze felt his presence here, tendrils of faith entangling the spirits of these men, reaching out all around them, seeking more.
He stayed away from their reach, close enough to watch and learn, but not to be revealed.
He knew he had to tread carefully here. Where before he had always known he could challenge the gods should the need arise, he understood he should not risk it with this one. A direct confrontation would not end well. In service of Yahweh, he would need to start in the shadows, and perhaps, stay there forever. The longer he could avoid detection, the better. Truth be told, he should not be risking serving this god at all, but Shaazgai’s ambition was strangely infectious. Because of his promises and whispers, Blaze was already invested in this idea, regardless of how dangerous it was going to be. He had been preparing for it for years too.
Late at night after they had laid together, Shaazgai would often recite to him the Christian holy writings. Ixtli knew them word for word, for he was truly gifted, and if he had seen something once, he remembered it. And now Blaze remembered them too. From those writings, passed from one mind to another, he knew it would not be just one god that he was going to serve. The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Blaze would become a servant to all three of them. Them, Holy Mary, and a host of saints and angels. His work was going to be bristled with perils as it had never been before, not even here, in the world of smoke, black mirrors and divine shapeshifters.
Blaze gazed at the cross that stood upon the makeshift altar that was strangely meant only for metaphorical cannibalism and bloodshed. The cross that the god’s son died on, was a powerful symbol for the Christians, a constant reminder about martyrdom and sacrifice. And it was a reminder to Blaze as well. Just like him, the god from across the ocean had lost a son. But that was where the similarities between them ended. Had Yahweh had his son die, only because he knew he would bring him back to life afterwards? Blaze could not imagine ever being able to sentence his own son to death, perhaps not even if he had the means to resurrect him.
Filled with sadness from the days gone by, Blaze wondered. If he himself had disposed of such power long ago, would he have used it to breathe life back into his family? He guessed he would have done so. The temptation to have them by his side even for a while longer would have been too great to resist. But life eternal was a long and often thankless road, strewn with corpses of friends who could not live forever. Was sentencing the ones he loved to that better or worse than letting them rest in peace? In a way Blaze was glad that he never had been given a chance to make that choice.
* * *
A fortnight after the Spanish demons had first set foot in Cholula, they finally deemed the city at peace enough to leave it behind their backs. They marched out at dawn, headed for Tenochtitlan.
Blaze and Shaazgai planned to travel there as well, but they did not set out with the Spaniards and their Tlaxcalan army. Instead, they followed two days behind. While they had weaseled their way into Cortés’ good graces, they still preferred to avoid the many unnecessary risks posed by staying in immediate proximity of the Spanish and their allies.
There were no more sides to take, and there was no going back, Shaazgai reminded him as they travelled together. From now on, it was just the two of them and the history destined to run its course.
* * *
1520, Tenochtitlan, the Mexica Empire
They had been wise in staying independent. It was half a year later, and the Spaniards were keeping the Mexica lord hostage in his own palace. Month by month Cortés had manipulated Moctezuma to do his bidding, shaping the ruler and his lands into what he wanted them to be.
Even though its people still lived, the empire had already fallen. Blaze felt it coming. Countless deaths and the destruction of a long legacy. Even though it had not yet actually come to pass, it already happened a hundred times over inside his mind. Still eaten by guilt for aiding the Spaniards in Cholula, despite Shaazgai’s many attempts to put things in perspective for him, Blaze pictured the future scenes of conquest over and over, even though Shaazgai assured him that they wouldn’t be there to witness any more slaughter on such a scale.
They were biding their time now, lying low and incognito in the accommodations Blaze found for them in the capital, but Shaazgai could never sit idle for long. He was out and about, scheming and facilitating, as always. He said in jest when they first arrived that perhaps they should head for the local Great Temple instead and become high priests there to while away the wait in style. But even though the idea of becoming Quetzalcoatl Tlaloc tlamacazqui, the high priest of the empire, was more tempting than it should have been, both of them knew that it was no longer the time for such endeavors.
Shaazgai claimed his new body was scheduled to arrive soon. They had both confirmed that with their divinations. Another Spanish fleet was on the way, and this one was coming here to take on Cortés and his expedition. Diego Velázquez, the governor of Cuba who sponsored Cortés, had hoped to claim the conquered lands — the now so called ‘New Spain’ — for his own. Finding out that Cortés had claimed New Spain for the Spanish Crown instead, Velázquez now accused him of being the opportunistic self-serving conqueror that the governor himself had aspired to be and sent a fleet against him.
On one of Velázquez’s ships, there would be Shaazgai’s cousin, allegedly one of many he had. Shaazgai claimed to have established a strong bloodline in the old world, a family of great wealth, connections and famously good looks, within which his spirit reincarnated without additional intervention of his divine master.
The cousin that was arriving was a notary close to the Spanish court, and Shaazgai assured Blaze that there would be a priest travelling with him, as the Spaniards liked for the men of God to be present and breathing down their necks at all times while they conducted their official affairs. Shaazgai’s main concern was that the priest would not be good-looking, but he assured Blaze that Spain would offer some well groomed men of the cloth that he could later browse to find a more suitable permanent host. Blaze really didn’t care. He did not share Shaazgai’s growing mirth at the idea of leaving these lands behind either. To Shaazgai this place was just a stepping stone in service to Ahriman, Blaze understood that well for a long time now, but he could still not bring himself to see it this way himself.
As they waited for the new Spanish ships to arrive, Shaazgai worked on changing Blaze’s bitter perspective. He had argued with him countless times in the past months that even though Blaze had been here longer, these people were not his people either, and that just like Shaazgai, Blaze was just profiting off of them, as he had doubtlessly done in dozens other places before. And while in a way it was true, and they were both parasites taking over the bodies and lives of other men, Shaazgai clearly still could not comprehend that despite no longer being one of them, Blaze still loved humans as a species. Even though he was partial to peace and quiet on most days, he cherished living among the mortals. He enjoyed and treasured the nations he settled with, he loved watching them grow and achieve.
He liked mortals as individuals as well, and found joy engaging in simple human interactions with them. There were so many diamonds in the rough among these people, and Blaze liked picking their minds in random conversations. It was one of the reasons he was coming down to the markets in Cholula. When he chose to settle with some people, he became a part of them. He saw them as his own, he protected them, helped them better their lives and communities, he embraced their values. It was the gods he put in their places, never the mortals. And even the gods, he never smothered. He only took as much faith as he knew they could afford to lose.
Blaze liked to think that he was mindful. He hated the idea of contributing to the fall of a nation, even to a slight extent, even by failure to take action. The culture of all these lands was going to be annihilated over the course of this century. The people would die of diseases, perhaps brought here with the very fleet they were now awaiting, the codices would burn.
Death of silver, death of gold… Blaze remembered his own divinations from the Inca empire and thinking about the impending fall of Cusco made him feel even worse.
Shaazgai tried to cheer him up by telling him that all the people here had been killing and sacrificing each other even before, but that was not the same. Shaazgai then pointed out that book burnings were a common part of history, and that even he had started some of them back there, across the ocean. None of this, and especially his accomplice quoting the tragic story of the library of Alexandria, had helped change Blaze’s mind on how lamentable everything about this conquest was.
The more Shaazgai tried to convince him that all the grand achievements of the Mexica did not matter, because they failed to invent the wheel and did not breed horses, the more bitterly dejected Blaze became, and the less he wanted to talk to the other man about anything. He knew Shaazgai bore a personal grudge against this nation because of their negative outlook on relationships between men and the severe punishments for those, but the total lack of compassion and really, of any human feeling in his companion, was becoming more and more unbearable. Especially without the access to the distraction in the form of his daily routine as the supervising high priest.
By the time the day arrived, Blaze was no longer sure if he even wanted to go anywhere with Shaazgai at all. But history had already been put in motion, and there was no turning back the wheel of time — which by the way was the one wheel the people of these lands did invent, giving that shape to their calendars.
Blaze only hoped that Shaazgai would prove a bit more of a human being in that Europe of his.
As you already know, our stories are heavily researched, so we based the presence of Blaze and Shaazgai in Cholula on the actual two priests mentioned briefly in the account of Bernal Diaz del Castillo in “The Conquest of New Spain”. Some of the scenes portrayed in the story were also based on this account. Some excerpts from it follow below 😀