🔥🔥✍️✍️Blood & Fur by Maxime J. Durand (Void Herald


Caution This work of fiction includes graphic violence. Profanity delicate material Sexual Information

Prologue: The Scarlet Moon

I woke up hungry on the morning of the Scarlet Moon.

It wasn’t unusual. As far as I could remember, I rarely ever went to sleep with a full belly. The cravings tormented me in my waiting hours and sleep granted me little respite. For I had dreamed of the Nightlords, whose bloody tribute was due today.

They appeared in my nightmares as great winged shadows to carry me away screaming to the Blood Pyramid. Teachers and adults said that tributes should be proud of feeding a God-in-the-Flesh, but I knew better. I had only ever seen terror in the sacrifices’ eyes as the priests dragged them to the altar.

Would I be chosen tonight? I had finally reached the age of seventeen moons ago. Youth was no longer my shield.

Eztli’s gentle voice shook me out of my dark mood. “Morning, sleepyhead. Come on, wake up.”

“I’m awake.” I groaned and turned in my bed. The house’s door was open. The light outside filtered through the entrance and hurt my eyes. Thankfully, Eztli’s shadow loomed over me. She was already fully clothed, a red sash holding her cotton skirt and blouse together. Her father, Guatemoc, was still snoring in his bed, so it couldn’t be that early. “Is it breakfast time?”

“It’s bathing time.” She threw my cotton garment at my face with a laugh. “Come on, before Mother scolds us.”

It was with a heavy heart that I followed her outside. The river ran close to our house of earth and mud, its water fresh in the morning. Eztli’s mother Necahual was outside breaking down flowers into healing powder. She smiled at her daughter and ignored me utterly.

I was fine with her disdain. It was her attention I dreaded.

Beneath the contempt, the bitter fear, the wind whispered into my ear. I ignored it.

Eztli and I were as different as light and day. Eztli was short but fit, a beautiful young woman with bronze skin, long black hair, and eyes that seemed sculpted from the purest amber. Boys fought over Eztli’s attention and a few had already asked her father for her hand.

Meanwhile, people saw me as a curiosity at best and an aberration at worst. I was surprisingly tall for my age, but a childhood of starvation had left me gaunt and emaciated. My hair was short, white, and lifeless. My pale blue eyes were like the winter sky. Even my brown skin was of the lightest shade most people had ever seen.

I imagined my late father, in his infinite wisdom, thought himself clever when he called me Iztac; the White.

Leaving my garments on the side of the river, I dived into the water. Eztli followed after me naked and immediately splashed me with a laugh. Since she had opened hostilities, I ferociously retaliated with a wave of my hand, sending water all over her face. There were other boys and girls upstream playing together under the watchful eye of their mothers. Our battle inspired them to go to war with splashes and waves as well. I often looked at the older girls’ bodies with appreciation, but Eztli always punished my inattention with a surprise attack.

My dearest rival won that round in the end, but I didn’t mind. We both had fun.

“The festivities begin at noon,” Eztli said after we reached a truce. “Do you think we should watch the ball game or the singers?”

“Neither,” I replied as I cleaned my face. A breeze coming from the northern woods brushed against my face. It was surprisingly warm for the winter solstice. “I won’t attend.”

She frowned at me, displeased. “Why?”

Because your gods are false, the wind whispered to me. No true deity would wither away before the shining dawn. The stars themselves recoil from true darkness.

“I don’t want to feel guilty.” There were so many captives this year that the red-eyed priests had to put a sacrifice to the knife twice a minute. “We shouldn’t rejoice while people die.”

Eztli sat on a stone near the riverbank. “They are war captives, Iztac. Our enemies.”

“I can think of one exception.” She looked at me with worry and I immediately guessed what bothered her. “They won’t choose me. The gods would reject the sacrifice. I’m so blood-starved, my heart’s all dried up.”

This is not about taste, the wind mocked my naivety. This is about reminding the herd of its place.

I barely made sense out of her words. My mind was no longer my own. I opened my mouth without thinking. It didn’t matter that the flesh was uncooked and raw. My teeth sank into the scales and bit into the flesh, crushing bone with ease. It might have been better cooked, but meat was meat.

“Want some?” I asked Eztli after taking a mouthful.

“Ew.” Eztli stuck her tongue at me. “You’re so gross, Iztac!”

“You’re such a picky eater,” I teased her. “It literally swam to me. I say this is a gift from–”

A stone hit me in the back of the head with enough strength to make me stumble. I dropped the rest of the fish back into the river and the current carried it away.

“What did I tell you?!” Necahual shouted from the riverbank with another stone in her hand. Her lanky frame cast a long shadow on the water. She looked so very much like her daughter, but where Eztli radiated love and warmth, her mother was colder than a corpse. Her black eyes glared at me as if I had just murdered someone. “Never eat meat, you cursed boy!”

“Iztac!” Eztli immediately swam to me and examined my head. It hurt. It hurt so much. By the Gods-in-Spirit, I felt blood dripping on my skull! “You wounded him!”

“I should have hit him harder,” her mother replied coldly. The boys and girls along the river watched the scene from afar. The pity in their gaze hurt almost as much as the stone. “He won’t listen. He won’t ever listen.”

“Because it is a stupid superstition!” I snarled with a hand on my head. My warm blood slipped between my fingers. “Stupid beyond words!”

A soothsayer had consulted the stars on the day of my birth, like all newborns. As I was born on the first day of the Wind month with white-hair and pale eyes, her prophecy had been particularly grim. ‘This boy is born possessed. He is a curse and blessing both, for though he shall live a life of misfortune he will keep a great evil from the world. Do not slay him, for his death will unleash the trapped spirit. Never give him meat, lest he develop a taste for human flesh.’

That old hag had died years ago during the drought, yet her stupid prophecy still stood. I still cursed her each night. Since a soothsayer’s word carried great weight, my countrymen followed her command scrupulously. Fish and turkey were forever denied to me, as were rabbits, birds, frogs, and salamanders. I was forbidden to dine even on bugs, and I couldn’t even dream of a great longneck or a three-horns.

Of course, I defied that stupid superstition. Guatemoc gave me a rabbit once when his wife was off picking herbs and I often hunted salamanders near the river. I ate them in secret without developing a taste for human flesh.

Their life is a feeble dream, the wind said. Once you awaken your true self, you shall carry them weeping into the silent dark.

“Shut up,” I whispered back at the voices.

Necahual held my gaze. She had heard me. “Your father should have drowned you in this river when you were born.”

The words hurt like a slap, and I glared back at her with silent resentment.

“Stop it, Mother,” Eztli pleaded with her mother. Other villagers watched the scene from afar in disapproval, but did nothing. Nobody ever did anything. “That’s enough.”

“Pale hair, empty soul,” Necahual said angrily. “That’s what the soothsayer said the day of his birth. An empty soul is a bane upon a house. We should never have taken him in. Even his mother didn’t want him.”

A man shouldn’t raise his hand at a woman

boat and try my luck at crossing the sea. The Nightlords’ reach didn’t expand beyond the ocean. Or perhaps I should take Guatemoc’s suggestion and flee south to the lands of the Sapa. I doubted they would welcome a fugitive from Yohuachanca, but I could always try my luck anyway.

“It is time,” a cold voice called out to me; and not a ghostly one. “Iztac Ce Ehecatl.”

My head snapped to my left in surprise, and I found myself facing two red eyes peering at me from the garden. Two men had intruded upon the farm. One was busy waking up Guatemoc, and the other looked up at me from the ground below. How they had sneaked up on us without a sound, I couldn’t tell.

Like all priests of the Nightlords, these two wore armored vests of layered cotton and bones thick enough to stop arrows, round bamboo shields, and hardwood helmets. Each of them carried an obsidian club: a wooden sword whose sides were embedded with rows of sharp, prismatic volcanic glass blades. These edges were said to be so sharp that they could behead a man in a single blow.

Priests of the Nightlords were bound to their masters through a blood pact, and it showed. Their eyes were red-rimmed and their pupils a pale shade of crimson. Each wore a cloak made of human skin leather; once a Nightlord and their spawns had fed on a tribute, their corpses were harvested by the priesthood so that their sacrifice might never be forgotten.

“The gods will soon rise for the Emperor’s sake,” the red-eyed man said. I could smell the nauseating stench of rotting human flesh radiating off him. “To the Blood Pyramid with you.”

Death awaits, the wind whispered.

relief, men jumped in place, children laughed. I stood as an island of sullen silence in a sea of noise and joy. For an emperor’s death brought a prosperous year.

“I’ll miss this one,” I heard someone say behind me. “He won us many battles.”

“I hope the next emperor will bring us luck,” another man answered, almost cheerfully. “I wonder who it will be.”

Am I mad? I wondered. Was I the only one to whom this ceremony felt wrong? Perhaps I’d spent too much time listening to voices decrying the gods as false.

Not all gods are false, the wind replied, but true deities have nothing to prove.

For once, the voices in my head sounded halfway wise. Neither did Guatemoc find much joy in the emperor’s death. The throne never stayed empty for long.

The Jaguar Woman clapped her hands, and the million-strong crowd fell silent.

“The Twelfth Cycle ends tonight with the tribute of its fifty-second emperor.” Ocelocihuatl’s voice was less rough than her sister’s, but sharper. Each word sent shivers down my spine. “The stars foretell that the Thirteenth Cycle shall be an age of glory. We shall now crown a new emperor to usher it in. He shall guide our herd, protect you from your enemies, and forgive your sins. Then, one year from now, he shall ascend these steps to renew the covenant.”

Most members of my group held their breath, but not out of fear, far from it. Being chosen as the emperor was the highest of honors. Short his reign might be, it would be spent in glory and luxury. Their names would forever endure beyond their death in history books.

Guatemoc didn’t share their opinion. He shivered so much I thought he might collapse dead at my feet. Eztli’s father loved wealth, but he would rather die in his bed in ten years’ time than on an altar in one. And I felt the same.

“The stars have spoken,” the Jaguar Woman said. “This year’s emperor shall be chosen from the Acampa Calpulli.”

My heart skipped a beat. My head snapped in Guatemoc’s direction. His forehead sweated more than a fountain and his hands joined in a foolish prayer. Who was he even begging to? No one would be listening tonight.

“Born on the first day of the month,” the Jaguar Woman carried on, “under the auspices of the Wind–”

I ran.

I didn’t think, I didn’t breathe, I didn’t stop. I just ran as fast as my legs could carry me. I pushed Guatemoc aside with such strength he collapsed head-first into the brick ground. I immediately regretted it, but I did not come back to pick him back up. I was too frightened.

My panicked reaction took the red-eyed priests by surprise, and I managed to get past them. The crowd before me dispersed with a scream of surprise. I didn’t wonder why for long. A winged shadow descended upon me and grabbed me by the shoulders. My feet dangled above the ground as talons carried me upward, and the plaza started to become smaller and smaller.

I was flying for the first time in my life. And it sucked. I shivered in dread, with the wind blowing into my face and the bloody ground calling out to me.

“Let me go!” I struggled against my captor’s grip. The fact that freedom meant a fatal fall and a gruesome crash didn’t cross my mind immediately. “Let me go!”

The Nightkin holding me only tightened his talons’ grip. He flew towards the pyramid’s summit and gently dropped me in front of the altar. His claws released me into the hands of a greater danger.

“Here you are, Iztac Ce Ehecatl.”

A cold more intense than anything I had ever felt seized me. My muscles moved on their own, my neck lifting my head until I faced four pairs of eyes looking down on me. My knees remained anchored to the ground, deep into a viscous puddle of blood. Whether it belonged to the consorts or the emperor, I couldn’t tell. The stench was nauseating.

“My poor child, so full of fear.” Yoloxochitl leaned in to better look at me. Her voice was soothing, almost motherly, but her flowery mask failed to hide her sharp fangs. “Why do you seem so unsettled? You have been chosen for the greatest honor.”

You’re mistaken, I wanted to say, but my mouth refused to open. The Nightlords’ red eyes commanded my bones and muscles; her magic overwhelmed my mind. Like a puppet, Sugey gently took my hand into her own and lifted me up. My body turned to face a crowd of a million. People looked so small from here… I could hardly tell one face from the other.

“The old emperor is dead,” Sugey addressed the crowd, before presenting me to the people with a wave of her hand. “All hail the new emperor, long may he reign!”

A thunderstorm of claps and applause welcomed my coronation. The Nightkins echoed the mortals’ joy with screeches of impatience. The people of Yohuachanca laughed and smiled and cheered for my coronation. For my future death.

I had waited so long to escape this place. I had bit my tongue and suffered every indignity. I had waited and worked and toiled, all for nothing. My wishes had gone unanswered, and now I had been marked for death.

Do you yield? the wind asked me. Or do you die?

“I hope you shall taste better than your predecessor,” Sugey whispered to me with the tone Eztli used when she complained of overcooked tortilla.

A surge of anger rose within my heart. A fire born of wrath and injustice. Whether it gave me the strength to overcome the shackles on my mind or whether the Nightlords released their control long enough to let me speak, I managed to say two words. Two small words that would define my entire tenure.

“I refuse,” I said.

Chapter One: Emperor for Life

The Nightlords crowned me atop the Blood Pyramid.

Priests dressed me in lavish garments, including a beautiful mantle of turquoise which only an emperor was fit to wear. I had never felt something so soft against my skin. Jade, gold, and shells were interwoven with the fibers; I wore a treasury precious enough to buy a city. A cloak of feathers kept me warm in the cold night, while comfortable sandals protected my feet. My clothes soothed me the way a burial shroud enveloped the dead.

Then the Nightlords bestowed the emperor’s crown upon my head: a splendid golden headdress of precious stones and multicolored feathers harvested from legendary winged serpents. Leather straps kept them tightly attached to my head, like chains. The entire empire seemed to hold its breath as it watched me from the plaza below.

Once I had been properly crowned, Sugey, the Bird of War, swiftly tore my dead predecessor’s head off from his shoulders. Ocelocihuatl, the Jaguar Woman, laid a hand upon the bloody trophy. The previous emperor rotted away within seconds, his eyes falling out of their sockets, his skin and flesh turning into wisps of smoke. Only an immaculate skull remained.

“Now, Iztac Ce Ehecatl.” The Jaguar Woman gently put my predecessor’s skull into my hands. “Bring him to his resting place, so his spirit might watch over you… as you shall protect your successor.”

The skull was heavy in my hands. I’d never held one in my life. I suddenly realized how many muscles our neck required to carry these thick heads of ours. Still, I expected the full weight of a life to be greater than this. Nochtli the Fourteenth had died in the prime of his life, and here he was, staring back at me. I gazed into the empty sockets and the blackness within.

At a vision of my future.

“Emperor Iztac.”

I looked up at the Jaguar Woman, whose eyes shone bright red in the scarlet night. Though her mask and hood kept most of her face hidden from me, I immediately recognized that gaze. Necahual had sent it to me so many times.

Pure contempt.

My heart hastened with years of buried anger, as I remembered all the insults, all the looks, all the sneers I had ever endured. My fingers trembled with rage. I glared at this so-called goddess, who considered me a worm to squash underfoot rather than a human being. My lips moved on their own, in all violation of reason and sanity, and answered her with a single word.

“No,” I said.

A tense, heavy silence fell upon the top of the Blood Pyramid. The other Nightlords, who had treated the coronation with little more than boredom, gazed at me in sudden surprise. Their Nightkin and priests fell silent. My own blood froze within my veins. I had roused a deadly beast from its slumber, and I knew it would cost me dearly.

The Jaguar Woman’s lips pursed in anger. “No?”

I knew a twitch of her hand could end me forever. But to die now or in a year, what difference did it make? I refused to be looked down upon by anyone, even a goddess. With nothing left to lose, I had found the courage of desperation.

“You’ve killed this man.” I shoved the skull back into Ocelocihuatl’s hands. The Jaguar Woman did not stop me; she was simply too angry to respond properly to my act of rebellion. “The proper thing would be to bury him yourself!”

I didn’t know how many people heard my words. The Nightlords used magic to increase the strength of their voices so that all could listen to their sermons. It would make sense for them to silence me.

Fear not, the wind whispered into my ear. We shall carry thy words to those who would listen.

It did little to dull the pain.

I felt icy fingers close upon my throat with the strength of ten men. One second my lungs were full of air and empty the next. My flesh was crushed by magic so swiftly that I didn’t even have time to gargle.

I was no stranger to pain. I had been slapped by Necahual, I had stones thrown at me, I received beatings during weapon training at school. But all of these paled before the agony of being strangled. I was brought to my knees, my hands tugging at my throat, desperately looking for a noose that wasn’t there.

“I will have none of your backtalk.” The Jaguar Woman did not move an inch as I collapsed before her. Her hands of flesh still held my predecessor’s skull in their palm, but phantom fingers strangled me nonetheless. Her red eyes stared at me with lethal coldness. “Insolent slave.”

Gone were the lies of honor and glory. The Jaguar Woman spoke her mind. Iztacoatl, the White Snake, put a hand on her mouth to stifle her laughter. Sugey appeared vaguely amused, while Yoloxochitl observed my agony with a compassionate sigh.

“Forgive him, sister, for he is young,” she told the Jaguar Woman. “He does not yet comprehend his duties.”

“Oh, I believe he does understand,” Iztacoatl said, her melodious voice half-breaking into laughs. “More than the fools below.”

“He’s braver than his predecessor,” Sugey commented with some appreciation. “I like it. This foolish dog will make for a fine warhound once properly tamed.”

I would have called her something worse than a dog if I could still string two sentences together. My lungs were on fire. My throat failed to gasp for air and blood rushed to my head. My vision blurred at the edges.

“There is nothing to forgive, sisters. Our father’s altar will accept no other sustenance.” The Jaguar Woman knelt at my side, a hand on my cheek as she watched me slowly lose consciousness. “Let this be a sharp lesson unto you, mortal. Defy us again at your peril.”

I lost consciousness under the red moonlight; my body defeated, but my pride unbroken.

The sunlight woke me up.

I groaned as my eyes struggled against the luminosity. A sweet smell entered my nose, my lungs gasping for air. My naked back rested on the softest mattress I’d ever touched, and a cotton bed sheet covered the rest of my body. Something blew a gentle breeze into my face to keep it cool.

My eyelids felt heavier than stones, but eventually I regained enough strength to open them. I found myself staring at a splendid window wider than Guatemoc’s house and cut into a wall of marble decorated with golden eagles and emerald snakes. It was made of the clearest obsidian glass I had ever seen; enough to let the sunlight filter in and give a clear view of the capital outside, albeit darkened. The Blood Pyramid stood at its center like a red dagger pointed at the dawn.

The sight caused my hand to tug at my throat. It still felt a bit sore where the Jaguar Woman’s magic touched me. I glanced around, and held my breath in shock.

I had woken up in an opulent… room? The place appeared near a thousand square feet, more than a farm field. My own bed, whose mattress was stuffed with gentle feathers rather than cotton, covered as much ground as Guatemoc’s house. The floor was made of polished stucco covered in finely woven mats and animal furs—mostly jaguars and rabbits. Magnificent tapestries made of bright cotton and feathers adorned the walls, each of them portraying epic scenes such as the rise of the Final Sun, glorious imperial victories, and the shaping of the world.

tone. “There is no greater joy than being strangled by a goddess. It’s truly breathtaking.”

His smile didn’t fade. “I’m sure you will remember in time, Your Majesty.”

He knew the truth, and still expected me to play along with the lie. I already hated him.

No, Iztac, calm down. I remembered school’s warrior training. Teachers taught us to first observe the enemy before engaging him, and that foolishness was not bravery. I should be cautious. Play along and wait for an opportunity. See if there’s a way out.

The Nightlords had shown me their true face last night. They were like Necahual, but crueler. I wouldn’t let my guard down.

“Who are you?” I asked the priest. “Why are you here? Did the Nightlords send you to keep an eye on me?”

“I wouldn’t go that far, Your Majesty,” Tlacaelel replied, which was a polite way of saying yes. “I have served all emperors from the Twelfth Cycle as advisor and intendant of the imperial household.”

I scoffed. “You’re my leash.”

“I am your adviser, and your loyal servant.” Tlacaelel’s expression never changed, no matter what he said. He reminded me of our religious teacher, who always smiled whenever he described the best way to flay a man alive. “But perhaps we can discuss our respective duties over breakfast, Your Majesty?”

“Why?” I glanced at the table with suspicion. “Are the drinks drugged?”

“Do you want drugs in your xocolatl?” Tlacaelel asked me with a curious look. “Servants pour it without any, but we can spice the drink if you wish.”

In hindsight, I realized my question was a foolish one. They wouldn’t need a pretense to drug me. “I’ll do without it, thanks.”

I moved to the edge of my bed—a tiresome task considering its length—but Tlacaelel quickly snapped his fingers. To my surprise, two more topless women entered the room, grabbed a mantle off the wardrobe, and swiftly began to dress me up in fine clothes. I was so surprised that I didn’t even resist.

The new servants set the table for me and Tlacaelel, including tablecloths of white fabric, while the older ones kept fanning me as I sat on a pillow. One of the women served me a sumptuous dish with a divine smell: an enormous fish with pristine green scales on a bed of squash, tomatoes, and half a dozen vegetables I didn’t recognize. The tiny creature I had caught in the river yesterday looked terribly small compared to this meaty creature.

As for the warm chocolate drink, it was poured into a cup of gold with vanilla, chili, and spices I’d only ever smelled from afar at the city market. The set also included an earthenware tobacco pipe for smoking and freshly baked tortilla bread.

Though I tried to keep a composed face, I couldn’t help but salivate. I had never seen so much meat in my life. Tlacaelel made no move, and I suddenly realized he was politely waiting for me to begin. After some hesitation, I plastered some fish meat and tomatoes on a tortilla, then bit it carefully.

I dropped all caution the moment the flavors rushed through my tongue. It was simply… delicious. So soft, so rich in its texture, so juicy! This simple taste banished a thousand other meals from my memory, until only it remained. I took one bite and then another, unable to stop, unable to control myself.

“I am glad you’re enjoying your first dish, Your Majesty,” Tlacaelel said as I gorged myself on the food. “I was informed that you suffered from starvation in your youth, so I asked the cooks to establish a meat-intensive regime. We shall have you strong as a feathered tyrant by the moon’s turn.”

I was too busy making up for years of privation to answer him. My stomach, unused to so much food, both growled and hurt. Neither my hands nor my teeth would stop eating. When my mouth went dry, I sipped the chocolate. I receive a taste of heaven on the tip of my tongue, honeyed and sweet. They’d mixed things with the drink, spices I didn’t know existed. The flavors were new to me and impossible to describe, for I had nothing to compare them to.

The rumors about my predecessor’s lusts weren’t exaggerated then. I glanced at the topless women fanning me. Just how many of them ran around this palace?

“So he kept, what, three-hundred women?” I asked, the number boggling my mind. “Four hundred?”

“The imperial harem reached three thousand concubines at its apex,” Tlacaelel replied casually, making me choke in surprise. “Though we had to sacrifice those past childbearing age, the sick, the useless, and the infirm before your coronation.”

He said the last part with such terrible nonchalance that it sent shivers down my spine. I dared not ask for details.

“You may also request the first night of any bride,” Tlacaelel said. “If you wish for any woman to join your harem on a more permanent basis—even another’s wife or a virgin—you only need to ask.”

“Just like that?” I asked, astonished.

Tlacaelel gave me a warm, genial smile. “The citizens of Yohuachanca are your slaves, my emperor. You can dispose of them as you wish. If you want anything from them, it shall be yours.”

“So if I say…” I locked eyes with this man, wondering if he would live by his own words. “Kill yourself, you will follow through?”

“You may request the gods to grant your prayers,” Tlacaelel’s crimson eyes flickered like a flame. “You are the Nightlords’ speaker, but we red-eyed priests are their slaves. Our lives end at their leisure, but I am certain they will entertain your request.”

I knew it. I only had as much power as the Nightlords lent me. They dangled pleasures before my eyes to make the noose more bearable.

Tlacaelel carried on with his explanations. “Your predecessors exterminated entire tribes or houses who dared offend their honor. As Huey Tlaloni, you may also declare war on barbarians and enforce the heavens’ justice. Of course, our mistresses require sustenance, so we cannot cull the herd too much.”

My eyes glanced at my predecessor’s skull. “You don’t say.”

“As emperor, you are expected to lead our armies to victory, subjugate or pacify our neighbors, supervise religious rituals, and bestow the gods’ justice on mortal petitioners,” Tlacaelel explained. “Each of your consorts will counsel you in one of these matters, but I can introduce you to them after you put your predecessor to rest.”

Of course. The Nightlords were too good for mortal chores. I gently grabbed my predecessor’s skull and looked into its empty eye sockets. It stared back at me, its teeth twisted into a hateful grin.

potion-making, but most were unknown to me. A stream flowed between trees and stone alcoves holding beasts trapped within them: trihorns, baby longnecks, ocelots, monkeys… and even a couple of jaguars.

I had only ever seen a jaguar once, when hunters killed one and brought the carcass back to Acampa. How impressive the corpse had looked, with its deadly claws and mighty muscles. That one must have been a child, for the two felines below put it to shame. How splendid they looked with their spotted fur and mighty claws.

“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Tlacaelel asked mirthfully. “I can arrange a tour in the evening, if you would like it.”

“Yes…” I whispered, amazed. “Yes, let’s… let’s do that.”

Perhaps… Perhaps this wasn’t a bad deal after all. A year of bliss and joy instead of a lifetime of work. I never wished to become emperor, but maybe I could make the best out of the situation. Some would have killed others to make this trade.

My hand moved to my forehead, where Necahual’s stones once hit me. She hadn’t been the only one to throw things at me; just the one who did it most often. While I did well at school, my classmates never accepted me as one of their own. Even if I’d become a merchant, I doubted the population would have warmed up to me. Now they had no choice but to worship me. A long life didn’t sound so good when filled with misery.

Maybe I should give in, I thought. What joy was there in freedom when it tasted so bitter? One year of joy does sound better than a lifetime of contempt.

That impression lasted until I noticed the walls beyond the garden.

Thick red stone fortifications surrounded the menagerie, and indeed, the entire palace. Three stories tall, they were watched over by soldiers armed with spears and bows. Some looked outside at the city, and others surveyed the palace grounds.

“Why walls?” I asked, my voice breaking in my throat. “Why are they so high?”

Tlacaelel chuckled lightly. “Oh Emperor, you are the master of the earth. So many enemies of the empire and ungrateful rabble would do you harm without walls.”

It was only half a lie. Pens did protect animals from danger. It also kept them trapped inside before dinnertime. My own pen just happened to include many small ones within itself.

I suddenly found myself doubting everything. I glanced at my female attendants, and a strange question formed in my mind. “You didn’t mention males, Tlacaelel.”

“I do not understand you, Your Majesty.”

“You said I could have any woman,” I pointed out. “For a night or forever. But you never mentioned men.”

For the first time in our entire conversation, Tlacaelel looked at me in genuine puzzlement. “Do you want to bed men, Your Majesty?”

Not quite. I knew some boys at my school were intimate together, but I had only ever been attracted to girls. “I’m simply curious why you didn’t mention them.”

“Ah, I see.” He chuckled to himself, as if I had relieved him of a burden. “Your Majesty, the gods gave us life so that we might return it to them in due time. Two men cannot bring new soldiers into the world, no more than two women can breed a crafter. Yet our empire is short on both.”

I sneered in utter disgust. “My loins are fit only to breed more tributes for the altars? Is that what you’re saying?”

“All loins and wombs exist for this purpose, do they not?”

And like that, I went right back to hating him. I glanced at the sky, at the world beyond these walls. I remembered my old dream of traveling to distant lands, of purchasing a boat, and sailing into the sunset.

“Will I ever leave this palace?” I wondered. “Could I see the sea?”

“If the Nightlords wish for it, you will bless imperial armies in the field or attend diplomatic missions outside these walls,” Tlacaelel said with false kindness. “Some might take you to the coast.”

If the Nightlords wish for it.

“I’ll miss this one. I hope the next emperor will bring us luck.”

Each memory was like a cursed needle poking my flesh. I remembered the backbreaking work, the insults, the glares. My heartbeat quickened with anger, my fingers trembling with rage.

“Never give him meat, lest he develop a taste for human flesh,” I thought, remembering the soothsayer’s words. Yet the gods’ servants served me fish for breakfast. They knew the superstition, but they ignored it.

Yohuachanca’s people had shunned me all my life. I’d been abandoned by my birth mother, spat upon, ignored, and shunned. For nothing but lies.

“Lies, lies, lies,” I grunted, all my doubts dispelled by anger. “I’ll just be more of the same!”

The Nightlords expected me to swallow more falsehoods, to bear it like a good little dog. Just like Necahual and all the others. To bear their sins for them so they could close their eyes and call themselves good!

Enough! I had enough!

“You want my heart, oh queens of the night?” I held onto the weapon with both hands, pointing it at my chest. Ironically enough, the Nightlords’ mark showed the perfect spot where to aim. “You shall find nothing there!”

The soothsayer said my death would unleash evil upon the world. For once, I hoped she had been right. Let my final gift be a free man’s curse. Either the gods were true and the world would burn, or they were false and their lies would be exposed.


“I’m fine with either.”

I gathered my breath and all my courage, then rashly drove the blade into my heart.

I immediately regretted it.

The knife sliced through my skin and feasted upon my blood. Its tip slipped between my ribs, cut the arteries, and struck true. An agony greater than the Jaguar Woman’s grip seized my chest. A pressure crushed me from within before radiating outward to my arms, to my neck and stomach. It was as if a flame had burst to life within my rib cage and then spread a wave of flame through my flesh.

It hurt. It hurt!

I would have screamed if I could do more than wheeze. I would have cursed my rashness, if I could still think clearly. Fear obscured my mind and shadows twisted my vision. My limbs weakened, my knees called back to the ground. I collapsed onto the floor, coughing and bleeding and thrashing around.

Everything was a blur afterward. I saw the obsidian blade buried in my chest shatter, for the Nightlords’ mark had grown a row of bloody fangs. It screamed like the mouth of a newborn, its screech loud enough to wake up stone. The alerted guards rushed past the curtain as I fell. Tlacaelel followed them, his placid expression twisted into a look of dread; whether he was fearing for his life or mine it made no difference. The Nightlords would punish him either way. I was a virgin, but I’d still fucked him over.

The pain was intense, but thankfully short. A terrible cold extinguished the fires that previously burned inside me. My body went numb. My mind no longer held sway over my body. I heard the wind blow triumphantly past the curtain.

Is the world burning outside? I wondered in my heart. Is the sun falling?

No, the wind answered.

It was all a lie. I knew it. It was all a lie. Another whispered into my ear, hissing in impotent rage.

“You foolish, selfish child.” Tlacaelel raised a hand above my chest; the last thing I saw before I lost consciousness was a priest raising his weapon to cut the eunuch’s wrist. “There is no escaping your duty. Not even death can sever your worldly bonds.”

I spat blood in his face.

Darkness shrouded Tlacaelel and the guards alike. The shadows swallowed my vision and extinguished my senses. Yet I was no longer afraid. Instead, I felt relieved of a burden. Lighter.

There was something trapped within me, a great power that the blade had freed. The knife had sliced through more than just flesh. It had severed invisible ropes I never noticed. I couldn’t explain it. I just knew.

There were a thousand eyes watching me. Blue flames burning in the dark, on the threshold between life and death.

“We welcome thee, honored sorcerer, our successor and champion,” the dead emperors whispered. “Let the chaos winds carry thy black wings past the Gate of Skulls, and into the Land of the Dead Suns.”

This was not the end. Far from it.

It was just the beginning.

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