Part 12 - Defile

The last thing Itzli recalled after walking through the entrance was being overwhelmed by brightness and colour. Weakened from his fight, he couldn’t resist the nauseating swirls in his gut, and collapsed only a few small steps on the other side. He had ejected bile from his stomach until he was left retching and paralysed by uncontrollable shivers. As he lay there helpless on the mountainside, his thoughts were on the disappointment his brother and father would feel when the sun set on the final day of waiting. He didn’t want to let them down again, but his body was refusing to obey him. And now, it was refusing to live. 
As a dark shadow came over him, he looked up to see a silhouette of a serpentine thing, feathered like a bird, but wingless in flight. Gusts of wind hissed from its mouth as its forked tongue licked the sky. If he had strength he would have reached for his bow, but it was all he could do to try and keep his eyes open – at least he knew he had reached Aztatlan. The last thing he saw was the scaly face of the flying serpent swooping down on his prone body. 
It was to his total surprise that Itzli snapped up from where he lay, to find himself in a dark and smoky room. His skin was smothered in what felt and smelled like blood, and for a time, he thought he had arrived in the bowels of Mitclan. As his eyes scanned the dark walls, he began to notice specks of light creeping in through the gaps in what was a wooden surface. He was in a hut, a large hut. Sliding from where he lay, he dropped to the floor which was about the length of his body away. This was a place inhabited by some species of giant as Itzli came to realise everything towered far above him. Clouds of sweet smelling smoke emanated from glowing coals the size of his head under the platform on which he had lay. And on the wall he could just about distinguish swords the length of his body made of weird shiny materials.  
Finding the door, he pushed against it. He was glad to know his body had recovered its vigour, but still he could only barely move the thing that stood nearly 3 times his height. It would not have opened, but then its resistance suddenly gave way and Itzli spilled into the day light outside and the sound of laughter. 
He raised his blood smothered arms against the brightness.  With eyes squinted he prepared for battle as the figure of a real giant stepped towards him. He had no bow or sword, but wasn’t out of options... 
“Everyone come, he is awake!” the giant said amused. Within moments Itzli was silently surrounded. They appeared so softly that he doubted if they could even be touched. The young warrior admitted that he didn’t know what to expect in Aztatlan – but he definitely wasn’t expecting this. 
As his eyes came to focus on the beings before him, he took in their detail. The giant that had opened the door was a man, followed by an elderly woman, and then a very youthful girl at the back. The older woman was the one Itzli struggled to take his eyes off. Wearing a skirt of writhing snakes, she had a face mean enough to be a mask, and powerful arms that crossed over her bare and flaccid breasts as she held tightly on the leash of the vilest looking dog the young warrior had ever laid eyes on. The furless beast snapped and jerked at its leash, the two black orbs it used to see focused on the small and puny human. 
As they all looked on him, it was evident that Itzli was expected to speak. Showing no fear he addressed them, “Is this Aztatlan? Are you gods?” 
The man knelt down, and Itzli could see the magnificence of his giant form. His muscles were perfectly formed and his eyes carried an animalistic alertness in their blue shade. His skin was the hue of jade, and his hair was like the plumage of a great black bird. “I am Paynal – messenger of the great Huitzilopochtli. Yes this is Aztatlan, and we are the gods of this world and yours.” Standing up Paynal gestured to his company, “I suppose you can recognise Toci, the grandmother goddess and mother to us all, and Chiconahui – goddess of fertility. And of course, Xolotl, Quetzalcoatl’s renowned canine. Forgive the lack of welcome, it’s just that we did not anticipate your arrival so soon. Many of the others are away, tending to their arts. 
Itzli looked at the youthful woman standing behind the wretched looking Toci. She was an image of beauty, with skin that resembled clear amber. But more importantly she was what he had come here for. “Which one of you saved me from the mountain?” Itzli asked, not taking his eyes from the fertility goddess, Chiconahui. 
Paynal answered, “You were saved by Quetzalcoatl. He’s not here, he prefers to stay in the mountains, but left his Xolotl here to look after Toci and the others while the great Huitzilopochtli was away. Would you like to meet him?” 
“No. So you knew I was coming, and yet you have remained here - why?” 
The haggard looking Toci spoke up, ensuring she kept a firm grip on the ties around Xolotl’s neck. “Do you think we are afraid of humans?” She snarled, causing the deep lines of her face to fold and multiply. “Do you not know that you can be crushed in an instant? And for setting foot in here, I should do such a thing, and wear your heart around my neck! You are even lucky to be alive. Somehow you got past Tlaloc at the mountain, I will figure out how. But for Quetzalcoatl to revive you with his own blood, just shows how much of a fool he has become. If he were to come down from that mountain, he might see what is happening. A human, that dares to defy us, and dares to set foot on holy ground! I should let Xolotl tear you apart right now... 
“Let the fucking dog try – I’ll kill it, just like I did your Tlaloc at the mountain!” 
There was a shocked silence amongst them. Chiconahui, the fertility goddess almost crumbled behind Toci. Even the dog was startled into silent rage. There was then a quiet that Itzli had never experienced. It was like the world had stopped – and indeed the breath of the deities before him remained in suspension.  
Paynal turned to the others as they exchanged a wordless conversation. Only Toci kept her hard eyes on Itzli. The snakes in her skirt lay still as though dead and her arms looked poised to release the wild dog in her charge.  
For the first time Itzli began to feel the press of their presence afflicting him with their thoughts and will as the words of Paynal and Toci lanced back and forth through his mind; questions that passed him too often and too quickly for him to reply. He was glad that he had put fear in to them as the silent words that flooded his mind became spectral flashes flickering across eyes - even when he blinked it was like a rainbow. The ground looked bathed in torch light and the gods appeared to be fading away into a colourful mist just above it. But as they left, the young warrior’s mind was rattled by their words, you will not see the next sunrise. In panic Itzli looked up to the sky. It was the first time he had done so properly in this land, and it was like no other, pale blue, but with an uncountable clustering of stars - he could not see the sun. 
“Where is the sun?” Itzli cried. “How long have I been asleep? Tell me!” 
The gods had absented him without an answer. But Itzli had to know – his mission depended on it. Leaving the hut, he ran out along a stone path nearby which took him to a crest out before the hut. In front of him, he could see the mountains, appearing as a small spec in the distance – perhaps a day’s travel. Behind him, at first was nothing but the hut followed by flat green expanse of field. But then the horizon suddenly began to pull towards him, as if the sky had been hauled in with a might tug. The multiple stars above shifted forward, and from a small dot on the horizonItzli saw rushing towards him the shape of a stone palace, far greater than any constructed thing he had ever seen before. It came forward at such a rate the young warrior was blown from his feet.  
Regaining his footing, he found he looked over a maze of a palace. The stone smoother than skin, the structure as tall as a mountain with deep rooms that were aglow with fireless light. If this fortress was where the gods dwelled, then it may take him a life time to find them. “Come out, don’t hide from me!” Itzli screamed. 
Despite the size of the place he would have said he was completely alone, save for the jingle of jewellery that now came from behind. Itzli spun around, shielding his eyes from the brightness of this newcomers approach until the magician stood before him. 
“You can shout as much as you want, they can hear you, but they will not answer,” the magician said. 
Do I still have time to save my brother and father?” 
“Yes, plenty, but you must listen to me, we have to work together. They have read your thoughts, and now know what you have done and what you will do. They cannot understand your anger – they fear it. It was fine job you made of Tlaloc at the mountain, but you were lucky. If not for my help, you would be dead already. 
“He got in my way. So I killed him.” 
The magician chuckled, “I shall take that as a thank you.” 
Itzli was in no mood for this, “I cannot see the sun in this place,” he said fiercely. “I have no idea how long I have left, or how I will even get back. These gods are giants, I could never carry Chiconahui. You’re a Magician, conjure something.” 
The Magician continued to laugh, wagging his finger at Itzli, “You are strong, and brave, but not very smart. This is Aztatlan, land of the gods. You say there is no sun, but has there not been one every time I have visited you? 
Itzli regarded the old man with a malicious glare, any more rambling and he would rip his head off with his bare hands.  
“I am infinitely more than a magician. I am Tonatuih, god of the sun, the old man said.  
The revelation took only a fraction of an instant from when it hit Itzli’s ears to incite him into a spitting outburst. You! You’ve been playing with me all this time!” The young warrior snatched at Tonatuih’s throat, only for the elderly man to vanish in a golden flash, and reappear several steps away. Itzli’s eyes streamed with violent tears as he cried, “I’ll kill you! Even if the world is plunged into darkness, I’ll fucking tear your heart out!” 
Tonatuih shrugged off the threat, “Let me tell you something. We gods and men are much the same – more closely related than you may think. And we too have feelings and ambitions. You may want to kill me now, but I know you will reconsider it. You blame me for starting this, but what about when I bended the light to keep you and your brother hidden while you played. Or when I kept the sun in the sky long enough for you to run and fetch water, chop trees and wrestle with your father. I’ve watched you since you were born, sheltered your forbidden existence – I even escorted your wonderful mother’s spirit to Mitclan. It was I that ensured you were never far from food, or warmth, enriched the plants and animals you ate with power from the sun, despite all of this I never asked for a thing from you. Not like the others, demanding sacrifice, earning fealty with fear. I have been gentle, and benevolent, but forgotten. And not only by men, but by my fellow gods too. They have all succumbed to crawl in the shadow of Huitzilopochtli – the god of war, the hummingbird... their very sun.” 
Itzli paced anxiously, his mind calculating how best to jump the old deceiver. “Do you expect me to believe you? Do you think I care that everyone has forgotten your haggard old face?” 
“No, I don’t think you do care. And you don’t have to believe me. But, you do have to trust me, just as you do each time you look for the sun in the sky. You see this is not about power, it’s about justice. Tlaloc, god of water, rain and caves lies dying on a mountainside, impaled by your arrow. Yet the rain still falls, the water still runs and the caves are still deep. We are gods in name only, a race entrusted with power, and a race that has misused it. Watching your family strive over the years has been enlightening. I’ve learned to appreciate the will of Teotl, as you say. We need to stop interfering in the lives of man, cease ruling by fear and share more of our power – like I have with you. That has been my only goal, Itzli.” The old man turned to over look the palace, with the small hut at the end of the stone path nearby. 
“Now is the time to strike. Huitzilopochtli is away, and this, his palace, is empty. Itzli, you must send a message to him that he is vulnerable, and that man no longer has the fear that he craves. You must take Chiconahui and lay her down as sacrifice, in place of your brother, Tenoch.” 
Itzli stalked up behind Tonatuih, his hands spread open and poised by his sides, “I don’t care about your bullshit; saving my family is all that matters to me.” 
“Then you’ll need to listen,” the sun god said cheerfully. He turned to Itzli and gestured to the expanse behind him, where in the distance the mountains could be seen. “Ignore this palace, it will trap you if you ever set foot inside. The way forward is out there, you must find Quetzalcoatl, the sky serpent and kill him, for he will never let you pass the gate with Chiconahui your captive.” 
“But what of the girl herself, she is a giant? 
Tonatuih smirked, “The sight of the sky serpent’s blood filling these plains like flood water will reduce even Huitilopochtli’s stature.” 
Itzli withdrew as he turned over the words of the sun god. He took a step back, absorbing the massive landscape, and the bizarre emptiness of this place. “Quetzalcoatl was the one that saved me from the mountain side.” Itzli looked down on his body, which was now dyed a muddy brown with flaking and dry blood. 
“Yes,” the magician said. “His blood can revive men. You will need strong weapons to defeat him. And this...” Tonatuih held out his hand, carved with deep lines. On his palm rested a light which shone directly into Itzli’s eyes. It didn’t take long to recover, but when he did, the young warrior found the sun god had vanished. In his place, a sword had been stabbed into the ground. Its blade was made of the shiny material he had seen on the swords in the hut, and the same cold hard substance was on the end of every arrow in the full quiver beside the sword. And to couple the arrows a finely curved and rigid bow lay on the ground too.  
There was no sign of Tonatuih or any of the other gods. The land for all its odd and bizarre arrangements was a quiet and lonely one. As Itzli scanned the horizon, he felt an empowering sensation on his skin. It was like before, when he had been transported to the mountains. The surge in his strength was phenomenal, and as he looked upwards, he could see where it was coming from, as the sun began to rise on an already day lit sky.    

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