Novel. Blood & Fur by Maxime J. Durand (Void Herald) 



Blood & Fur by Maxime J. Durand (Void Herald) 

Chapter Two: The Land of the Dead 

Its flames licked my ribs from within. My chest was a hearth and a furnace, a kiln that kept me warm in the dark. My hands and feet were cold. I had yet to hear of corpses that remained warm for long.

Is this death? I wondered. No heart pounded in my chest, nor did any pulse quicken my blood. My veins felt dust dry, my bones light as a feather. No breath escaped my mouth, nor did air fill my lungs. Am I dead?

I sensed freezing water flowing on my skin. Rain. There was rain, faint and cold. Had my corpse been dragged into the open? I managed to open my eyes and watched purple droplets fall in front of me.

Purple? My mind struggled back to consciousness. Purple rain?

“My, my, my, what have we here?” A shadow loomed over me, its deep voice brimming with curiosity. “Long has it been since a Nahualli wandered through the Gate of Skulls.”

The fire burning inside my chest provided a modicum of light, though too little to reveal more than the blackened bones keeping it trapped. I managed to turn my head just enough to get a glimpse of a mighty, furred leg thicker than a tree’s trunk and salivating fangs. I froze in dread.

“Come on, I don’t bite,” the shadow said, which only made me doubt it further. “Let me take a look at your soul. I hope you are dog-faced.”

I looked away from the beast, whatever it was. There was another light to be found ahead of me and whispers to be heard.

“Rise up, Iztac Ce Ehecatl.” A thousand ghostly wisps gazed at me from the shadows and spoke with many-hundred voices. “You are safe. The guide shall not harm you.”

“Of course not,” said the shadow. “Do they not teach you of Xolotl’s good deeds in the living world?”

Xolotl? It took me a while to recognize the name… and what it meant for me.

They don’t sound like the wind, I thought, trying to clear my mind. I remembered the blood on my chest, the fangs shattering my knife, and then closing my eyes into the silent dark. Nothing afterward. They’re… different. Old and young.

I fumbled until I managed to rise back to my feet. From what I could tell, my arms and legs remained covered in flesh, though the flame in my chest left my ribs exposed. I found myself facing a dreadful beast and a pile of skulls.

I almost stumbled when I met the former’s burning, fiery red eyes. A creature of twilight and shadows, the beast resembled a muscular hound the size of an adult trihorn, so large as to carry many men on its back. Its gleaming ebony fur shimmered in the ambient darkness. A headdress of vibrant feathers sat atop its skeletal visage, the color of which shifted with each blink of the eye. Its long white claws could easily gut me like a fish if it wanted to. His neck bore the marking of red symbols and ancient drawings. Its lithe form flickered and wavered like the first shadows cast by the setting sun.

I recognized him from pictures shown during religious classes: Xolotl, a God-in-Spirit and guide to the dead.

“A Tlacatecolotl?” The beast smelled me with a curious look and salivating fangs. “What a shame. At least that explains why you’re still fleshy.”

“Tlacatecolotl?” I repeated, recognizing the word’s meaning as ‘owl-man.’ My own voice sounded like a rasping rattle.

“Yes, that’s what you are.” The creature regally sat on the cold floor, the rain flowing down his fur. “A little devil-bird of death.”

I didn’t know what to say. If this was indeed Xolotl, then I was dead and he would guide me to my proper afterlife as decided by the gods; gods I had deprived of a sacrifice. Scriptures said I should grovel and humbly ask for mercy, but I was done with begging and scrapping.

“You are not dead yet, Iztac,” a hundred phantom voices whispered. “That mercy is denied to you.”

The shadow around us dimmed to reveal a pillar of over six-hundred skulls standing nearby. Their empty eyes gleamed with blue flames under the purple rain. They were all staring at me with grins and scowls and frowns, with none of them looking the same.

“You are…” I squinted at the dead emperors. “My predecessors?”

“We are the Parliament of Skulls,” the pillar replied, a hundred emperors whispering as one. “Our bodies perished, but our hateful will lingers. Our dismembered souls are united in spirit.”

“They make for nice conversation, if you can look past the spiteful vows of revenge,” Xolotl mused. His tail wagged from one side of his body to the other. “Who knew severed heads could be so bitter?”

If I was speaking to Xolotl and the previous emperors, then I was indeed dead and buried. The thought filled me not with fear, but relief. I’d perished on my terms and spat upon the ‘gods’ while at it.

“I am honored to stand before you, guide of the dead and honored spirits,” I said, bowing before them all. “Have you come to guide me through the Underworld?”

“You are already below ground, little bird,” Xolotl said with a chuckle. “But I only guide the dead. You will have to find your own way downstairs.”

He only guided the dead? But was I not a corpse now, though?

“We are not truly dead, Iztac, however we might wish for it.” The skulls of my predecessor grunted in rage. “The vampire’s kiss denies its victims a peaceful rest. So long as the Nightlords linger among the living, we are trapped on the threshold, unable to move on. Should you fail to escape, this too shall be your fate.”

My heart would have skipped a beat, if I still had one. “Am I not dead already?”

“No, you aren’t,” Xolotl said with a light chuckle. “Your Teyolia, your life-fire, still burns bright and you’ve flesh all over your bones. Take a good look below if you wish to see the true corpses.”

I knew better than to not listen to the dead’s guide. I glanced around at my surroundings and found myself in some sort of ruined temple’s hall. Rubble and debris littered the paved floor, and holes in the ceiling let purple rain fall through. Cracks and crevices marked marble columns bearing engravings of skeletons. A vast hole dropped straight through the ground next to the Parliament of Skulls and opened up a makeshift balcony to the world outside. I approached the edge and gazed at the strange realm beyond these walls.

Purple rain clouds flooded a dead land under the faint light of a fading sun.

The world outside was a dreadful, sorrowful place; a vast expanse of moldy ruins half-sunken into tangled swamps and fetid marshes. Broken towers and obsidian pillars rose up from poisonous bogs whose nauseating smell made me want to puke. Enormous weeds covered ancient plazas ravaged by time. Everywhere I looked I saw disparate monuments and decrepit temples whose architectural styles I did not recognize. Some pyramids were smooth whereas Yohuachanca’s instead incorporated steps. Houses of faded gold slumbered in the mud next to cracked stone bridges and defaced marble statues.

Such a jungle should have sung with the buzzing of flies and the song of birds, but only the sound of falling rain echoed from it. The plants lacked colors, their leaves tainted brown or violet. Even the vines looked more like chalky serpents than living creatures.

And the sun… the sun was black in the sky, yet dripping a pillar of ephemeral purple light onto a purple sea fueled by the rain. Its light was that of a dying sunset, the last rays that preceded the fading darkness.

I was so amazed that I almost missed the sight of a corpse falling down from above. I looked down below, at a plaza that somehow managed to remain dry in the middle of a downpour. A dozen fleshless skeletons waited there, their legs carrying their lanky frames among the shadows. Their empty eyes shone with a bright glow full of intellect.

I watched on in silence as a new skeleton fell from the rain clouds and shattered in half upon the ground. The walking dead gathered around their new friend and swiftly worked to put the broken pieces back together. They did a good job at it, though the newcomer ended up missing a few fingers and ribs.

“Oops, my queen will have much work to do with that one,” Xolotl said. “At least he still has a pelvis.”

“What…” My voice died in my throat as I gazed at the faded sun. “What is… this place?”

“The Land of the Dead Suns, of course,” Xolotl replied with a snort. “Where do you think suns go when they die, huh? Men or stars, gods or beasts, everything ends up down there in time.”

“The Land of the Dead Suns house all that is dead and forgotten,” the Parliament whispered. “Not just the souls of the living. Many fallen civilizations, extinct languages, and lost treasures have sunk into its depths.”

I’d been told the Underworld was a cavern on which no sun shone, so deep and dark it covered nine whole levels full of dangers. None of my teachers ever mentioned a land of ruins and purple rain.

“If that is a dead sun…” I pointed at the eclipsed star in the sky. “Then that must be Chalchiuhtlicue?”

“Yes, she is,” the Parliament of Skulls answered me. “The goddess of water and fourth sun, whose tears of sorrow flooded the world.”

A droplet slipped between my ribs and filled me with a shiver before turning to steam. It forced me to take a good hard look at my chest. Neither skin nor flesh covered my blackened bones there, allowing me to peek at what burned between them: a purple brazier without fuel, yet encircled by four phantom ropes.

To my horror, each of them bore one of the Nightlords’ favorite colors.

“What is this?” I rasped in confusion. This flame’s baleful gleam put me ill at ease. Its very existence felt unnatural.

“The Nightlords shackled your Teyolia, your life-fire, to their ritual,” the Parliament explained. “So long as they haunt the world, they can call you back to the land of the living.”

“You’re here on vacation, so to say,” Xolotl said with a shrug. “They’ll pull you back up soon.”

The Parliament grunted in resentment. “You cannot be killed before the Scarlet Moon, Iztac, but you will die a half-death then. Your blood and lifeforce will be feasted upon, and your skull will join us in torment.”

I cursed upon remembering Tlacaelel’s warning that no power would sever my worldly bonds. To think my leash extended even beyond death’s door…

“Then it was all for nothing…” What little pride I’d found in my demise evaporated, replaced with sorrow. “The gods cannot be denied.”

Xolotl exploded in laughter, much to my confusion. “The true gods are all dead, child. They sacrificed themselves to lift the sun and moon. They’ve earned their rest.”

“You are mistaken, our successor,” the Parliament replied, much to my shock. “Though they are powerful, the Nightlords are not gods. Never gods. We watched them scream and bleed more than once.”

The boast sounded so fantastical that I almost contested it. Yet for a second, I imagined myself driving a sword through the Jaguar Woman’s heart. What would she bleed then? Red or black? Blood or dust?

I remembered the wind’s final words as darkness claimed me; that though I had stabbed my own heart before the anointed time, the sun still remained high in the sky.

“So I was right?” The flame within my chest grew brighter with my anger. “The tributes, the scriptures… they are all lies?”

Xololt nodded calmly, confirming my suspicions. “No gods linger among the living, child. The vampires that replaced them are frauds and their empire a house of sand.”

“The first of us remember the days before Yohuachanca’s rise, when the nights were long,” the Parliament answered. “The Nightlords and their kin descended from the north and turned the dark into a time of terror. ‘Either they would take some lives or all of them,’ they said. The priests came after. Once everyone who knows the truth perishes, the lies become the rules. Our sacrifices quenches the Nightlords’ thirst and strengthens their magic, nothing more.”

I’d long suspected the gods—no, the Nightlords—of being false, but hearing it from the tongue of the previous emperors only filled me with further disgust. Just as the soothsayer condemned me over a superstition, these false deities shackled minds with falsehood. It was just more of the same.

And if the Parliament was correct, then my attempt at exposing them would lead nowhere. Death earned me a respite, a peek through the veil, and nothing more. Was there no escape?

Something bothered me. “If I’m not dead yet, then how am I here?” I asked Xolotl, squinting at the deity. “And you look pretty alive for a dead god.”

“I have long since perished, this is true,” Xolotl replied with a canine’s grin. “But in the Land of the Dead Suns, it is always possible to be deader. One’s demise is no barrier for our magic. I thought a Tlacatecolotl would understand it.”

I frowned in confusion. “You speak this word as if it means anything to me.”

Ah, I see how it is.” Xolotl licked his fangs. “This is your first flight.”

“Look upon your reflection, Iztac Ce Ehecatl.” The Parliament of Skull grinned at me. “Gaze upon your Tonalli.”

Utterly confused, I looked for the nearest puddle and gazed at my mirrored face. What I could see at least.

My chest wasn’t the only part of my anatomy that had changed drastically. A black wooden mask hid the upper half of my visage from the world and a beak protected my nose. My pale blue eyes remained, with the irises having expanded to cover the sclera. I immediately recognized what this face symbolized.

An owl. An owl-man.

“What is this witchery?” I touched my face, to make sure I was indeed staring at my reflection and not some illusion. My fingers caressed my nose-beak and brushed against my mask. Both had merged with my flesh, leaving my hair, ears, and mouth exposed. “I can’t take it off.”

“This is your true self, Iztac,” the Parliament answered calmly. “The Tlacatecolotl, owl-demon, and destroyer of men. Born in the Wind Month on a day under the sign of the crocodile. Your life-fire is the accursed flame that kindles disaster.”

I stared at my reflection, unable to believe my own eyes. A black owl stared back at me, an omen of death and doom. I knew the tales; that when a mortal heard an owl howl in the night then their life would be forfeit come morning. The night hunters served the Gods-in-Spirit who dwelled in the Underworld. They stole souls and carried them into the darkness without light.

This boy is born possessed, the hag’s words rang into my skull. Do not slay him, for his death will unleash the trapped spirit.

It couldn’t… it couldn’t be true…

“Lies! Lies, lies, lies!” I pointed a finger at the Parliament, the flame inside my chest now so bright as to eclipse their own glow. “This is all superstition! I am human! I have eaten meat without feasting on human flesh! Nothing is true!”

The Parliament of Skulls remained unwavering. “There are truths whose meanings have been deformed by time. You are not possessed by a magical being, Iztac; you are one.”

“Why such a reaction, sorcerer?” Xolotl’s head tilted to the side, his eyes burning with curiosity. “You should be glad of the gift bestowed upon you. Few can boast of traveling into the Underworld while they still live.”

In my foolishness, I glared back at the deity. “How would you react if you had been stoned all your life for being cursed… and then realize it might have been true?”

“I would devour those who dared challenge me,” Xolotl replied with a cruel laugh. “You should do the same. Most Tlacatecolotl return insults visited upon them tenfold with curses and spells.”

“The living fear what they do not understand,” the Parliament added calmly. “But you were not cursed, Iztac. You were blessed. Powerful magic is yours to command.”

I shut my mouth, suddenly intrigued. Powerful magic? I’d learned to be fearful of it when the Jaguar Woman strangled me with the power of her mind.

“Interested, are you?” Xolotl’s tail undulated behind him and left shimmering motes of darkness in its wake. “Then… perhaps we could make a deal. Form a contract.”

“Beware, Iztac Ce Ehecatl,” the Parliament of Skulls warned me immediately. “Gods drive a hard bargain for their knowledge.”

Xolotl scoffed. “You wound me, oh pile of skulls. Do I not shepherd the dead out of the kindness of my heart?”

“Your current task is punishment for past cowardice,” the Parliament replied coldly. “If you had any choice in the matter, you would have devoured our successor.”

The saliva dripping from Xolotl’s fangs suddenly became quite the ominous warning. Yet I couldn’t suppress my curiosity. The idea of strangling the Jaguar Woman with her own magic simply wouldn’t leave my mind. And if Xolotl was a true god, then his power should be greater indeed.

“What am I?” I asked warily. “I want to know the truth. The whole truth.”

Xolotl’s eyes flickered. “Have you heard voices carried by the wind?”

My fists clenched on their own. “I have.”

“There are rare people born with white hair and pale eyes.” The Parliament of Skulls let out a deep rattle. It reminded me of a storyteller gathering their breath before a performance. “Fools call them empty hearts, but open hearts would have been truer. They are Nahualli, sorcerers whose Tonalli, their will, is attuned to the invisible realms. They hear the voices of spirits and the strongest of them can shift into their animal spirit.”

The voices of spirits? Did the wind carry the whispers of the dead to my ears this whole time? A thought suddenly crossed my mind.

“Do the Nightlords know?” I asked.

“Of course,” the Parliament replied. “I suspect you were chosen because you were Nahualli rather than in spite of it. Your blood, rich in magic, will make for a better offering.”

The more I learned of the Nightlords, these so-called ‘vampires’, the more I hated them. I suddenly wondered if the soothsayer asked for everyone not to harm me only so I could become a false god’s meal.

“A few of us were Nahualli ourselves,” the Parliament said, “but never a Tlacatecolotl. This secret is known only to the dead. Your Tonalli is the devil-owl, the Underworld’s messenger, who moves freely between life and death.”

“This is why you stand before us with flesh over your bones,” Xolotl explained. “Unlike most Nahualli, the Tlacatecolotl’s spirit can travel to the Underworld while they still live. Had you been a mere human, the vampires’ curse would have denied you entrance to this place entirely.”

“Then they don’t know I’m here?” If vampires had never died, then they couldn’t possibly learn of this trip of mine. “This could be an advantage.”

“Indeed.” The Parliament’s countless teeth ground together. “None of us could walk among the lost. There are ancient secrets buried in the Land of the Dead Suns. Secret spells and powerful magic the Nightlords know nothing of.”

“Can you teach me?” I asked warily. “How does it work?”

“Learning spells is simple for a Tlacatecolotl, little bird.” Xolotl’s eyes gleamed with a baleful glow that reminded me of the Nightlords. “You can find many teachers and patrons in this barren land… but you must give before you receive.”

A black tongue stuck from between the hound’s fangs. “I would pay a fair price for a taste of living human flesh.”

The memory of my predecessor and his consorts being devoured alive by the Nightlords flashed in my mind, vivid and raw.

“No way!” I recoiled from the god in disgust. “I am no one’s meal!”

“Come on, just a taste,” the hungry god pleaded for his treat. His skeletal nose expelled a cloud of black vapor. “You smell so good and warm… Let me chew your flesh just one time. I swear I won’t break a bone!”

“No!” I hadn’t tried to escape a false deity’s altar to nourish a real one. “I refuse! Ask for something else!”

An unsettling chorus erupted from the Parliament of Skulls, a ghostly symphony so terrible that it stopped Xolotl and me dead in our tracks. A different lament emanated from each of the emperors’ heads; mournful moans and macabre rattling joined together into an anguished scream.

“Enough.” The skulls shifted and ground against one another to better look at me. “Iztac Ce Ehecatl, our successor, do you understand what fate awaits you?”

I saw hundreds of tragic tales in the skulls’ ghostly eyes; the echoes of rich lives which had met the same gruesome ending. The same that awaited me if I failed.

“The Nightlords will not let you rest for long,” the pillar confirmed. “Many of us have tried to take their lives; some tried to rip out their own heads and others immolated themselves until they became ash. No matter how we fell, be it in battle, by our own hands or from countless other things, each time we were brought back until the night of the Scarlet Moon. You must slay the sisters before that date, Iztac. Otherwise, your skull will join us in our suffering.”

I had a year to destroy four vampires worshiped as gods by my people. The task sounded simple enough, and impossible to achieve. “How can they even be destroyed?” I asked warily. “I am no warrior born. Must I drag them into the sunlight by word or trickery?”

“The Nightlords are old and clever,” the Parliament admitted. “Many emperors tried to overthrow them with strength and cunning. They failed, for they were mortal men.”

This did not reassure me. “What chance do I have then?”

“A slim one,” the Parliament said flatly. At least it spoke the blunt truth. “None of us could hear our predecessors’ whispers and learn from their experiences. Nor could we wield the kind of magic that is only found in the Land of the Dead Suns. With our guidance and your gifts, you might prevail.”

Might, not will. The odds were long and success wasn’t guaranteed. These words would have filled me with doubt once, but no more. I’d been ready to kill myself for a chance at victory. I would not waver again.

The cacophony of voices converged, until the Parliament’s words merged into a single utterance.

“Hence we ask you a question.” All past emperors spoke to me at once. “What would you sacrifice to drag these leeches off their throne? What would you sacrifice to change your fate?”

My lips twisted into a scowl. Did they even need to ask? I pointed at my burning chest, right where I planted a knife into my heart.

“Everything,” I replied. “I’d do anything and everything.”

The skulls’ toothy grins widened, their owners pleased. “Then until this task is achieved, we shall guide thy steps. Our hands are tied, but our knowledge is vast. The Land of the Dead Suns is a realm full of ancient secrets and forbidden spells. There are powers here that can destroy even the Nightlords.”

I clenched my fists. “But none of them will be earned for free.”

“Though none of us were Tlacatecolotl, we included Nahualli among our numbers. We can teach you a little magic ourselves. The rest you must learn from others.” The pillar’s eyes glanced at Xolotl, who showed remarkable patience for a hungry hound bigger than a wagon. “A god’s word once given cannot be taken back. By the covenant’s terms, they must abide.”

I considered his words. My eyes darted to Xolotl, who smiled back at me. I did not trust him, but if he was indeed bound by his word… then I could negotiate terms. I didn’t relish feeding myself to another, but when the alternative involved being sacrificed as a slave and an eternity of suffering…

I bore insults and stoning for dignity’s sake. I could endure far more in the name of power and freedom.

“What do you offer?” I warily asked Xolotl.

“Ah, now we’re talking.” The dog-god licked his mighty paw. “I could teach you the secret of turning yourself into a beast.”

“A trihorn?” I asked, unable to suppress my excitement. Many times I fantasized about crushing Necahual underfoot as a great scaled beast. “Could I become a feather tyrant?”

“I’m afraid not,” Xolot replied, much to my disappointment. “A Nahualli is no skinwalker. They may only shift in their chosen spirit animal. An owl is no jaguar, I’ll admit, but cats cannot fly, do they?”

“We can teach our successor this secret ourselves,” the Parliament of Skulls interjected. “Offer him more.”

“If you ask so nicely…” Xolotl chuckled darkly. “How about I teach you spiritual manifestation? A powerful discipline.”

I frowned at him and waited for him to elaborate. I’d noticed most people tried to fill silence whenever pressed. The fact the Parliament remained quiet meant this information interested them too.

“Most Nahualli shapeshift their body, little bird, but the Tlacatecolotl transmutes the spirit. The old heads can teach you how to transform into an owl in the Land of the Dead Suns. Once you return to your body though, you will no longer fly.” Xolotl licked his paw. “But if I were willingly to give you a drop of my divine blood… your Tonalli would grow strong enough to manifest it among the living.”

“Like a ghost?” I tried to grasp the concept. “You would teach me to summon my own specter?”

“You’ll still be alive, but your Tonalli shall take physical form in the world above. It’ll be a guardian spirit you can command at will.”

The idea of sending an animal ghost to haunt the Nightlords appealed to me. “I’m interested.”

“This will cost you more than a taste, greedy little bird,” Xolotl mused. “I return your question: what do you offer for this knowledge?”

Gods drove a hard bargain, but an idea crossed my mind. “How can I come back here?” I asked. “Can I return to the Underworld even if the Nightlords pull me back to the land of the living?”

“Of course.” The dog god cackled in amusement. “You only need to die, or the more boring option of going to bed.”

“Sleep is the little death,” the Parliament explained. “Now that your Tonalli has awakened, Iztac, we can guide your soul into the Land of the Dead Suns when you dream. But beware, your destruction in this place means the death of the mind. Your body will endure as a hollow husk before the Scarlet Moon, and nothingness will be your afterlife.”

I honestly wondered if it would be worse than an eternity spent trapped in a pillar of skulls. I quickly decided both were equally horrible. “But would my injuries translate from one world to the other?”

“No,” Xolotl replied. “The body and soul are separate. I’m not truly tasting your flesh, only its spirit.”

“Then here’s my offer.” I extended my left hand to better entice him. “Teach me spiritual manifestation, and I will let you taste my arm each time I visit the Underworld.”

“Bold.” The dog-god licked his fangs. He reminded me of a child who had been caught glancing at sweet honey. He tried to look aloof, but failed to hide his hunger. “But I should get a taste of your meat first and see if you’re worth gnawing a hundred times more.”

It seems even gods weren’t below haggling. “I’ve yet to see a merchant that let a customer eat a meal without a promise to pay for it,” I pointed out. “As you said, you must give before you receive.”

“Clever boy, to use my words against me.” My answer amused Xolotl. I took it as a good sign. “Very well, I accept your terms. Stay still.”

I did not move an inch as Xolotl raised his paw above my chest and bit into his own flesh. His fangs grazed his fur, just deep enough for a drop of black blood to drip from his wound. I watched it fall through the cracks between my ribs with a clenched jaw.

The pain was sharp and sudden. My entire body warmed up from within. The fire within me burst with renewed brilliance, unleashing a pulse of heat through my bones. I collapsed on my hands in surprise. My throat dried up and my sweat turned into steam.

“Do you feel my power coursing through you?” Xolotl’s jaws snapped open. “Good. Meditate on my generosity as I take my prize.”

His fangs closed on my left arm and tasted my flesh.

The dog-god hadn’t lied. He did not break my bones nor did he rip my arm off, though he had the power to. Gods had a more delicate palate than that. Xolotl savored the sweat on my skin and the warm blood dripping between his jaws. What made the latter so appetizing to true and false gods alike, I couldn’t tell.

It said something about the excruciating agony of a stabbed heart that a giant dog chewing my flesh felt almost tolerable in comparison. Other sensations distracted me. The noise of droplets hitting the floor grew sharper and stronger. The smell of my own blood filled my nostrils with new flavors; the rusty scent of the purple rain; the dust in the air; the chalky odor of the emperors’ skulls.

When my eyes looked at my blood-soaked left arm, my nails had lengthened. They were sharp. Sharp as a bird’s talons.

“Shifting already?” Xolotl let my arm go, just in time for black feathers to cover my bloodied skin. “I should have known you would taste like a bird.”

I stopped to think rationally when I sensed my nose and jaws merge into a beak. The fire within my chest unleashed a pulse of power that convulsed my body. My bones twisted in new and interesting ways, my muscles tightened, and smooth black feathers sprouted out of my soft skin. My hands retracted inside my arms, the fingers consumed by the transformation. New sensations filled my mind and replaced old ones. My gaze was attuned to the darkness, which held no secrets for me anymore. I felt light, so quick and unburdened. My arms stretched into wings and my legs into mighty talons.

I fought the overwhelming urge to take flight, though I wondered if I should. My wounded arm’s injuries healed on their own, and my human frailty was swiftly replaced with an overwhelming feeling of power and freedom. My hands were gone, the fingers merged into my bones. My wings were long and strong, and I dearly wished to stretch them.

The water puddles on the ground no longer reflected a man; but I was not an owl either. I was something in-between, a beast of legends whose talons could carry a llama away without a single sound. My skeletal chest remained exposed, the fire within pulsating with divine magic.

“Beautiful,” the skulls whispered. “A mighty demon you will become.”

“Changing into your spirit animal is easy with divine blood,” Xolotl observed, licking my blood off his fangs. “Manifesting it above ground only requires you to wish so, at a cost. Maintaining the manifestation will tire your mind and body. You’ll get used to it over time.”

“More,” I rasped through my beak. The transformation’s lingering pain paled before the pleasure of this power coursing through my veins. I reveled in it. “I need more magic.”

“Then you earn it. Strengthen your Teyolia’s fire and hunt down the gods for their secrets.” After watching a new skeleton falling from the sky and into the plaza above, Xolotl rose back to his feet. “You were delicious, Iztac, but now work calls to me. I’ll be sure to extract my payment when you return.”

Xolotl let out a low, rumbling growl; a noise that sounded like distant thunder rolling across the heavens. The skeletons froze in place, their silent gaze turning towards their guide. The hound leaped off our crumbling room to join them. His legs moved with a grace and purpose that belied his imposing form and casual way of speaking.

“Follow me, oh voiceless dead!” Xolotl called out to the skeletons and gathered them. “The road will be long and many perils await you, but I swear on my honor as a god: I shall shepherd thee safely into the halls of Mictlan! Gather behind me!”

I watched the skeletons gather around the deity for a second, but I couldn’t hold back the urge to take flight any longer. I spread my wings under the eclipsed sun.

“The Nightlords will recall you soon,” the Parliament warned me. “If you are discovered, they won’t let you come back here. Bide thy time, play the fool, and grow in strength. Strike when ready and no sooner.”

I barely listened. I could not listen. I was a man drunk on chicha, heedless of truth and danger alike. I leaped into the air, the rain bouncing off my black feathers. The dead on the plaza below cowered as my shadow passed over them. I paid them no mind.

For I was flying.

I was flying.

I ascended higher with each flap of my mighty wings. Their wingspan stretched farther than a wagon’s length and their power carried me above the marsh. My body moved on its own, guided by an instinct that had slumbered within me for a lifetime. I soared above noxious marshes. Where the forgotten ruins sank into the mire, I aimed to catch the fading sun.

I am free, I thought, basking in this blissful sensation. The joy of knowing that nothing could touch me; that nothing below could drag me down to earth. I was drunk on this feeling. No one can reach me above the clouds.

I ascended higher and higher, challenging the rain and the wind. The ruined lair of the Parliament of Skulls became a distant mote of stone below me. As for Xolotl, he vanished from my sight. Everything looked so small from above. It was exhilarating. I could have flown for a lifetime.

Then my masters tugged the leash.

The chains inside my chest tightened on the flame of my soul. They dimmed its light back to smoldering embers, and the magic that coursed through my body turned into a wave of cold helplessness.

“No!” I shrieked in anger, my vision fading. “No! Not now!”

But my pleas went unanswered. The world around me darkened once again as my spirit was dragged out of the Underworld and back into the land of the living. In my haste and arrogance, I had forgotten a simple truth.

I had become a bird, but I was still a caged one.

I awoke back in my royal bed.

My first act was to scream. I shrieked loud enough to wake the dead; not out of fear, but rage. I’d gotten a taste of freedom and felt it yanked away from me. My skin was no longer covered in protective feathers, but smooth and weak. My owlish beak had snapped back open into my mouth and nose. The veil of darkness was impenetrable to my eyes once again. A heart thrummed inside a prison of flesh where a fire once burned.

I had been cast down to earth like a crippled bird.

“Shush,” a gentle voice whispered to me, melodious and soothing. “It is all right, my child.”

A hand cold as ice touched my forehead. My boiling blood slowed down instantly and my pulse lessened. A wave of eerie calmness and serenity smothered my anger. A chill traveled across my body, relaxing my muscles and soothing my pain.

The mark on my chest glowed vividly in the dark and my body went limp. Though I could not raise a finger, I did manage to look up. The pale moonlight filtered through the obsidian window gave me a glimpse of the shadow looming over me.

I realized that my head did not rest on a pillow, but a woman’s lap.

She was, without a doubt, a vision of heaven. Raven hair cascaded down her shoulders in a stark contrast with her crescent-shaped, flower-adorned headdress. A garland of mayflower, water lilies, and sweet amapola reflected the moonlight outside almost as much as her golden necklace and earrings. Her dress, woven from white vines and red petals, revealed just enough of her legs and cleavage to allure men without verging on the scandalous. The woman smiled at me the way Necahual greeted Eztli fondly in the morning; she looked almost motherly.

But even the most beautiful flowers could reek of deadly poison. Her eyes, crimson like the bloody moon, hinted at a predatory hunger. Red paint ominously covered her forehead; or perhaps it was dried blood, I couldn’t tell. Her sweet smell was that of a garland laid upon a fresh grave. I’d never seen her without a mask or robes, but I identified her voice. She had interceded in my favor when the Jaguar Woman strangled the life out of me.

Yoloxochitl, the Flower of the Heart. The Nightlord of the South. Said to be the most compassionate of the lot and yet the slowest to forgive a slight, feared and adored in equal measures.

A false goddess.

A false goddess who could bring the dead back to life to punish them some more. My eyes darted to the mark on my chest. No scars remained of the knife that once stabbed it. My heart thrummed in my chest, bustling with life.

“Worry not, I’ve healed your wounds.” Her slender, cold fingers brushed against my cheek. I would have recoiled from her touch if my neck wasn’t so… relaxed. “You can rest easy. Your fight for survival is over, Iztac.”

Her serene words awakened a fire within my heart. It boiled beneath my chest, beneath the skin and the flesh, a power unknown to the Nightlords and hidden from all. It was a secret between the dead and I. I had returned from the Underworld and carried something back with me to the mortal world.

A winged shadow with the urge to tear out a vampire’s throat.

The Flower of the Heart believed the battle was over, that they had clipped my wings and shown me the futility of it all. She couldn’t be more wrong. I remembered the Parliament’s advice: to bide my time, play the fool, grow in strength, and strike when ready. I would follow it scrupulously.

My secret war had begun.

And I had a year to win it.


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