Part 10 - The Jaguar

The ground shook harshly beneath him, while from above heavy boulders fell from the misty sky like angry tears from the mountain summit. Itzli lunged for cover as another massive rock crashed to earth, breaking into volatile pieces and continuing on its way down. He could barely catch his breath before he was forced to move onward in his scramble towards the top. The ascent had been relentlessly steep  and when the ground wasn’t trying to displace him like a flea, the sky was trying to crush him with cloud and rock. 
He couldn’t see the sun, but his internal measure told him dusk was approaching. Leaping to avoid another plummeting stone, Itzli grabbed a good grip on the ledge he had been trying desperately to reach for the last few moments. He felt like time was constantly whipping at his heals as she sprung into the climb. He didn’t know how far he had scaled but his body still felt full of vigour thanks to the magician. He had to hope the path to Aztatlan would be soon approaching, but he remained confident he would have stamina to tackle whatever lay there. 
The young warrior suddenly to the left as a piece of the mountain gave way to an explosion of black dirt and stone. Shadowy hands flung debris all about before retreating into the cracks of the mountain wall. Itzli gritted his teeth, squeezing his fingers into the narrowest of crevices while adjusting his weight to reach for the next spot. As he made the top of the climb, he rolled onto the plateau only to find himself nearly falling completely as the ground shot up and then gave way. Diving forward he covered the gap, clasping his fingers around protruding the rocks to prevent a fatal fall. 
Under a shower of dirt, he pushed on against the contemptuous torrent of stones being flung by shadowy arms oozing from the hidden crevices of the ascent. A horrible wrenching sound came from all around and he felt himself moving without even mobilizing a limb. The entire plateau was falling away like a sculpture made of sand against a heavy wind. Itzli clawed his way upward faster than a fleeing gecko. When he reached the top section the entire shelf was ready to slide. With no time to think he found his feet and leapt from the departing ledge. 
He could count the breaths as he watched his feet kicking above the thin air below him. His mind was blank, and his last expression would have been only a desperate gasp of exertion. When he hit the ground on the other side, he was kept from standing by the terrible sound of the earth giving way behind him. 
After collecting himself, Itzli stood to find he was still engulfed in mist and with no sign he was over the worst. The ground had stopped moving beneath him, which gave him the confidence to step forward. As he did, he could feel the moisture in the air begin to bite as the temperature grew cold. His own breath left him in puffs that melted into the thick cloud that sat all about him 
As he carefully progressed, gentle laughter came at him from within the mist. It was the same as he had heard at the stream previously, and offered less comfort now than it did then. Not wanting to be taken unprepared, Itzli unclasped his sword, which caused the laughter to turn into a shrill cry. The sound was impossible to track as it bounced between strange rocks that protruded from the earth in thin shards up to head height. Things grew stranger still when his next step placed his foot in a shallow pool of water. 
The mist lifted enough for Itzli to see that he now stood in a pool that resided in the centre of the shards of rock. Its water was shiny, and more reflective than anything he had ever seen before. As he looked at the surface he could see his twin image perfectly clear. His reflection was mesmerizingly odd when seen in such vividness, but something else took his attention altogether. A few paces from him, in the centre of the pool, stood a man made of stone in the image of a Jaguar warrior. 
It was solidly built, with a snarling jaguar pelt surrounding its stoic face. Itzli approached the figure with sword still drawn, “You, how did you get here?”  
There was no reply. “Are you a god? Tell me how I get to Aztatlan!” the young warrior growled. Realising the thing didn’t speak. Itzli took a step back from it, wondering how such a sculpture could ever be built. It was taller and broader than him, and carved with such intricacy it seemed that he was once born from a womb built like a cave. Frustrated, Itzli took a random swing at the thing with his sword, and brought the stone Jaguar to life quicker than a heartbeat. 
The water burst into deepness as Itzli sunk under its surface. The last clear thing he saw was the Jaguar leaping from the pool. Itzli fought his way to the edge of the pool and scrambled out, choking on water. Somehow the shallow pool had given way to a watery pit. The water began to turn and bubble as though being boiled and massive blasts erupted into the air causing droplets to fall like rain. In the depths of the water he could see something was rising to the surface, but behind him the young warrior could feel the air shake as though thunder approached.  
From beyond the surrounding stone shards the Jaguar warrior charged Itzli, knocking the shards aside like brittle wood. Itzli dived out the way, but the stone man was quick and soon refocused on him.  Itzli had just got to his feet when the charge met him and sent him slamming into the rough rocks. The wind was knocked well out of him, along with his sword. He dropped to his knees and just missed the stone monsters savage swing. Crawling away Itzli found himself at the pool side. Whatever lurked underneath had found the surface. Travelling in a spiralling tendril of water semi-translucent nucleus floated to the surface. It had no eyes but seemed to see Itzli clearly. Towers of water shot up before ominously leaning over him, only to crash down with earth tearing power. Still winded, Itzli scrambled to his feet in time to miss the pummelling. He pressed himself against the back of one of the surrounding rock shards hoping not to be seen by either the Jaguar, or the water demon. His chest felt tight and hot, and his mind was still empty. His only plan was to simply overcome this – he had no other option. 
He must have been breathing too loudly as from nowhere the Jaguar warrior could be seen running at him from out of the mist. Itzli stood his ground until the last instant and then pivoted to the side letting the monster crash into the rocks behind him. The stone joints of the Jaguar hissed frustration as it turned. Taking an arrow from his quiverItzli leapt onto its back and shoved the tip into the narrow space between its neck and skull. It was ineffective, and the young warrior was soon hip-tossed to the floor. A stone foot came for his head, Itzli only just managing to grab it and hold it at bay. With one of the Jaguar warrior’s feet held in the air, Itzli rolled onto his side and trapped the stone giants standing leg. He guessed he nearly floored him, as he was suddenly dragged up by the neck by a cold and rocky grip. His throat was being crushed and he kicked out to save his life. Sending both feet into the monsters chin, he could feel the thing lose balance and release its strangle hold. 
Itzli gasped for air while the stone man fell backwards. The young warrior hoped it would have been the end, but the thing simply rolled onto its front and began pushing itself up. Itzli turned and ran back to the turbulent pool where he found no break. The water had turned scalding hot and whipped around like a flaming rope. Itzli ducked underneath a powerful jet as he searched for his sword amongst the turned soil and dirt. Just as he put hands around the hilt, the Jaguar warrior came bounding into view. Itzli leapt into a forward roll, collecting the sword and bringing the blade above his head to block the stone giants hammering fist. Chunks of obsidian flew from the wood as Itzli parried another blow. The impact sent violent shivers through his hands, but he held firm. The stone man hailed punch after punch at him, and the young warrior defended for his life at the edge of the pool as the scalding water lashed his back. 
A rocky fist came straight at him; Itzli brought his sword down with full force to block it. The fist smashed straight through the obsidian edge, shattering the wooden core and striking through to Itzli’s nose, knocking the world from its feet. The pain pulsed awfully quick from his broken nose and turned his legs to nothing. He fell and splashed headfirst into the boiling pool, shooting up in a scream of agony as the water scalded his flesh. He crawled out with skin so tender he shivered, only to then be knocked from his feet by a sinister jet of water. The tossed ground had thrown his bow and arrows before him, but left them drenched. He reached for them but there was no way he could get them as the cursed Jaguar warrior bore down on him once again. 
He got up and tried to run, but he couldn’t move very fast, the hot water had left him shaking miserably. The stone man closed him down by the edge of the pool, his hard fists cocked back to deliver a punch that was surely meant to displace the young warriors head from his neck. With the monster upon him, Itzli ducked low and grabbed around the Jaguar’s waist, the punch missed, but the young warrior caught a hard knee to the cheek. Blood seeped from his mouth as his broken teeth tore through the skin of his face, but he managed to hold on at the lip of the pool. Sliding his grip from the front to the back, Itzli kept low, avoiding a reverse elbow that would have crushed his skull. As the stone giant tried to turn, the young warrior leapt and summoned his strength into a drop kick that caught the thing just off balance. The monster teetered as it tried to right itself, for a moment Itzli thought it wouldn’t fall and his heart nearly sank, but the thing finally went down in a blast of hot and furious water. 
The nucleus of the pool demon surged up in silent outcry and dropped tower after tower onto the ground. Itzli hid against the rocky shards, until the jets of water began to break them away. He moved as quickly as he could, ducking and rolling to avoid the lethal blasts until he found cover again. 
From where he was he could see movement in the pool, as the head of the stone man began to surface, being held afloat by the demon of the water. He had to kill whatever was controlling the water before the Jaguar warrior could get out. Ducking away from his cover, Itzli staggered towards where his bow and arrows were, collecting them up just as the ground on which they lay was blasted skyward. The young warrior dropped to his belly and scurried for shelter, where he notched a wet arrow into the soaking bow. 
A wet bow was a useless bow, he knew. Regardless, he peered around the rock behind which he hid, seeing the stone warrior nearly in its full entirety, and the water demon’s nucleus floating above the lip of the pool, searching. He sat back, and sucked in a deep breath. It was only enough to satisfy his lungs, as he knew he would not be able to calm his shivering arms. Drawing the arrow back, he ignored the soft feel of the bow, and pulled the string to the reference point on his cut cheek. He didn’t let his breath out as he spun from behind the rock. A jet of water fizzed past his thigh, not striking direct, but searing the skin clean off. Unmoved and with the nucleus sighted Itzli let the arrow fly. The obsidian tipped shaft flew poorly, missing the heart of the demon’s brain, but still severing it from the rest of its watery body. The nucleus fell to the ground beside the pool. It was enough to send the stone Jaguar back into the depths and return calm and cool to the water.  
It was not yet enough for Itzli. Looping the bow over his shoulder, he picked out another arrow and held it like a dagger as he limped over to the quivering mass of rose pink, gelatinous flesh that was the demon’s brain. The mist began to clear, revealing a sun approaching dusk. Anger began to boil over in Itzli as his senses began to return to him. Kneeling down beside the heap of flesh he stabbed the arrow all the way through, pinning it to the floor. The thing convulsed like an animal’s arresting heart as its blood seeped out. Relieved, Itzli fell to his back exhausted.  
As he lay there watching the mist clear, he could eventually see the mountainside beyond the pool. Behind the pool the wall of the mountain was split open like a piece of wood hacked apart with an axe. The opening emitted the light of day, clearly not from the same sun as the one that was now setting on the second day above himItzli couldn’t afford to waste any more time. Fighting the pain, he got to his feet and prepared to head into the light. But first, he satisfied the sudden urge to empty his bladder – doing so mercilessly on the dying brain of the water demon. 

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