Part 9 - Cold Blood

Itzli couldn’t judge the passage of time during the night. Since the attack it was all just a blur of exhaustion drenched in treacherous shadowAtl, the runner, had fallen some way back, the sword that had hit him had severed his jugular, and the blood loss was too much to overcome. He had gifted Itzli his bow, which the young warrior took with the promise of revenge. It was revenge he only had to envisage upon Huemac and his uncle Momotzli now, as he was sure Yaotl was well on his way to Mitclan. 
The forest groaned and wailed as Itzli stumbled through. He tried to trust his judgment of direction, but the forest shifted before his very eyes, and at times fell away into silently waiting chasms that betrayed the lay of the land. Progress felt hopeless and wasteful as he was no longer sure of his path.  
At last reaching a dark riverItzli felt his way along its banks until reaching a shallow cave where he stopped and tucked himself into its recess.  He didn’t sleep, but only waited for enough light to carry on with more confidence.  
But when the light came it was not how he anticipated. A low lying brightness took away the shadow of the cave and exposed Itzli in its shallow depth. The young warrior had to shield his eyes as it seemed the light of day came to him prematurely. An unwanted but familiar jingling could be heard approaching. Itzli sprung from the cave with his sword held ready for attack. Recognising the magician was before him, he tried to swing for him but was paralysed by a sudden flash of brightness. 
“No cause to attack, Itzli. If you haven’t gathered already I’m on your side,” the magician said with a jolly tone. 
“No one’s on my side!” Itzli growled. 
“Everyone needs help at some stage, even those blessed with strength like you. You’ve come a long way, but you’ll never make it to Aztatlan in time. Even at your fastest pace it would be another 7 days travel before you meet the great mountain, the gateway.” 
“What do you know? Because of you, my brother and father were captured.” 
The magician laughed, “Was it because of me? Or was it you? If you were strong enough you could have killed Yaotl and his warriors when they first came to take your brother.” 
Shut up! Is that why I’m here, and Yaotl lies dead, face down in his own shit? 
“But is that enough to catch a god? To kill a god? I can tell you it is not. But I can make you strong enough.” 
Itzli refused, “I don’t want your help.” 
“Whether you want it or not, you need it.” The magician stepped forward with his arms extended. Iztli raised his sword, ready to sever the old fools throat as soon as he was in range, but as he tried to swing his sword down, he felt his body being blasted with unbearable heat. He couldn’t see a thing through the brightness, but for the moment it felt as though his body was weightless. When the feeling of his limbs finally returned, and his sight came back to him, he could see his body being stretched so thin it fell away into the smallest of droplets, like scattering rain. He was being deposited, bit by bit before a strange location, as if being shot to earth by the sun. 
Finally reassembled, Itzli felt his body throb with renewed vitality, a level of refreshment greater than any rest or strong meal. It was different to anything he had experiencedHis lungs felt limitless as he inhaled a mighty breath, and his sight was sharpened like an eagle’s claw. Checking his equipment, he found the sturdy sword he took from Ollin felt as light as a birds feather, and as he drew Atl’s bow, his aim was as steady as rock. 
The cave, forest and also the magician were all gone. Behind him lay a vast expanse of flat shrubbery which went on until the horizon. In front of him the ground rose skyward, as the tallest of the mountain range ahead reached misty and unseen heights. He had never been this far away from his forest before, but he knew the distance he had just overcome. There were times, after travelling to the edge of his known lands, when he would climb the tall trees and peer into the distance. His father used to tell him that on a good day he would see mountains – and now Itzli saw them clearly. Looking to the glowing orb in the sky hidden behind mist and cloud he realised that the magician had taken him further than he could have travelled in a week in just half a day.  
With midday above him, Itzli quickly familiarised with the path north and with little regard for the magician, and with his mind on the slow movement of the sun above, he took off towards the ascent ahead of him. The power he felt in his limbs was incredible as he leapt from rock to rock with frog like agility and charged fully into the scramble like a scaling spider closing in on its catch. For now he would climb, but he felt strong enough to move the mountain before him if he had to. 

Momotzli shivered under his robe as he stood beside the torch in his chamber. It was midday on what would be the day of the second sunset, but lately the High Priest favoured the warmth of his chamber, even when the sun was at its highest. Looking at his paper thin skin, he wondered how much longer he had before he finally fell to the illness of his curse. He was adamant that he wouldn’t let this kill him, but when trying to reason with the greed of Huemac, the possibility of his curse ending his days early was too real. 
It was why he had sent his son to carry out the service that all the peoples of the city would want – death for the betrayer and his sons. It didn’t matter that it was his brother and nephews he was willing the demise of, as there were far greater things at stake.  
Momotzli had felt it since Itzli had left – there was malice in the air, a dark aura coming from the forest and a hot scrutiny pressing down on him from above. The gods were not happy, and neither was he. He itched to slice open the throat of Tenoch like a slaughtered pig - it was the only option to maintain the balance. And if that would not be possible, then he had other means to ensure the boy Itzli did not come even close to his goal.  
Momotzli was usually incredibly focused on his planning, meticulous in every execution, however for now he was distracted. The High Priest found himself listening in on the whispers of some servants as they passed his chamber.   
...Have you seen him? It’s awful...” 
Momotzli stormed to the chamber entrance to remonstrate the intrusive servants, but something about their fearful cowering seemed to imply more than the usual anxiety in the presence of their superior. “I didn’t ask for you, why are you here?” 
The reply was frustratingly sparse, “He’s returned, High Priest...” 
“Who, you fool? Who has returned?” 
“Your son. He was brought back a few moments ago, he’s wounded,” the servant girls eyes never left the floor.    
Momotzli raised his hand to strike her, causing the girl to cower under the frail shadow of his arm. Instead he grabbed her, shaking her with all the strength he could muster. “Where is he, where is my son!?” 
In the courtyard...” 
Momotzli threw the girl to the ground and staggered through the hall. His mind was writhing with visions, the severity of the situation was a mystery, he had only the foreboding etched on the servants face to go by and it was enough to cause his concern. As he made his way across the palace gallery, the usual gathering of privileged members of state had suspended their socialising to look on him with blank and sombre expressions. Some of the women wept into their hands while servants cut across the gallery from the courtyard, bringing in clean cloths, while bloodied rags were ferried away. 
Momotzli had seen many injured in battle before, he himself had lived in the fires of war for years. But the pounding he felt in his chest as he reached the courtyard was crippling. A crowd had gathered, and the sound of wailing could be heard. As the High Priest approached, he didn’t wait for anyone to herald his arrival. Instead he threw himself at the back of the crowd, forcing his way past. The weakness of his limbs and heart didn’t matter as gradually a way was opened for him. 
In the centre of the crowd lay his son, Yaotl, who now seemed so small as he rested facing the clear sky with his head propped on the knees of his second in commandItotia. A clean cloth had been draped over his midriff, but it was now soaked in crimson. Momotzli knelt beside him, wiping a sheet of sweat from his fallen son’s brow. His skin felt cold, even in the warmth of the day. “How did this happen...?” 
Itzli, the coward!” Itotia spat. “He ambushed Yaotl, and then fled north, beyond the last station. Forgive us, we let him go. But we had to bring Yaotl back, and to this the gods blessed us. They parted the very trees and saw that not one of us lost an ounce of strength. High Priest, I’m...”  
Momotzli raised a hand to silence the man. He didn’t want to hear his apologies now. Fighting the tears, he held his sons face and guided his far away gaze to his. “Yaotl,” Momotzli whispered, “I wish you to know, that I have always been proud of you.” 
Yaotl’s eyes tried to focus on his father, but he was watching the lands on the other side now. Momotzli lay his head to rest on the ground as the last pulse fluttered away from his cold temples. In that sudden absence of life, there was a frustrating invasion of intimacy.  
The tears were welling in his eyes, and he knew he shouldn’t cry before all the silent watchers. But on the floor lay his only child, now murdered, while the cursed offspring of his brother remained with full breath in their lungs!  
The infrequent gesture of touch arrived on the High Priest’s shoulder, as Lord Huemac appeared silently from behind. He was typically unmoved as he briefly regarded Yaotl’s still body. The crowd had withdrawn to respectful distance and knelt in the presence of their ruler. But there was no ceremony to this occasion. Huemac sneered at Momotzli and then left to return to his quarters indoors, visibly displeased.  
Not wishing to receive the scorn of Huemac the crowd began to quietly disperse, leaving only MomotzliItotia and some servants. Momotzli was still in a state of bewilderment when Itotia grabbed his hands and forced a water skin into them. “The gods blessed this water, it made us stronger. This one was Yaotl’s...” 
Momotzli took it, but his mind was now as frail as his skin and heart. He despised his weakness to these emotions, the hypocrisy of his own public mourning – he who slays many in the name of the gods! 
Some more servants arrived to collect Yaotl’s body. Momotzli instructed them through weeping eyes. “Take him to my chambers and leave him be there. I do not want to be disturbed when I arrive.” The servants placed Yaotl onto a stretcher and took him away, while some others came in to clean the blood from the courtyard floor. Momotzli stood there for some time just watching, still unable to come to terms with the events that had just passed, as quickly as a wind through trees.  

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