. Xlenca was not so carefree. He remained troubled by the incident with the sun priest and the bull mastodon. Some of Lo-Huitzlapoch’s secrets had been revealed but Xlenca feared what else might be hidden. How could the Barracks Master Tagazuma so easily cast aside years of tradition to acquiesce to the sun priest? But then wasn’t that just what he was doing? He had turned his back on the Sun God of his people and was even now moving toward the foreign God. Was he wrong? Were the old ways failing?
He was leaning against the wall of Moon Dancer’s pen when the shaggy beast ambled over to drape her long trunk over his shoulders. Xlenca reached up to scratch the familiar spot behind her left ear. At least she had remained constant, her quiet strength even now a source of comfort and reassurance. Yet Moon Dancer too was part of the puzzle. She had never before let herself out of her enclosure though Xlenca often thought her capable of unlatching the gate. That she had done so in time to race to the courtyard, charge and kill the bull was beyond coincidence. Someone or something had prompted her.
The young Beast Master felt an ache deep in his chest. He knew that something was missing in his life, a need that was not satisfied by family, his training, Moon Dancer or even Cue-Ahmma. He felt an empty space in his heart that none of these things could fill. Some might say the Sun God would meet this need but he knew this was not so. Could the foreign God fill this aching gap? Could this Jesu Christos be the answer? Xlenca wanted to believe in something, something beyond himself but he felt afraid and uncertain.
“Young Master,” a voice called and he turned to see Master Tu-Tuoan approaching. The older man waved for him to join him as he continued toward the council chamber. Xlenca once again felt amazed to see this evidence of the foreign God’s power. Tu-Tuoan had truly been healed of his injury. It was a miracle.
“There is news from the siege,” the elderly Ixtec said, breaking into Xlenca’s thoughts, “Master Quezoema sends word. You are to meet him before the new moon.”
“He wishes for me to join him at the siege?”
“No, there is a matter that requires both of your attention. You are to meet him at the Great Hill village. The question of Lo-Huitzlapoch must be answered. We have seen that the Path is threatened by his deeds and we need to meet this threat.”
“Yes, Master. Ah, does the entire council feel this way?”
“Yes, our hearts are one. The council would see the Quetzolite Path defended against this sun priest and his schemes.” Tu-Tuoan looked into the younger man’s anxious countenance and smiled. “I see your thoughts. It is true that many are troubled by the pale skinned priests and their God. They would wish to deny His power and ignore the evidence.” He stopped and stood in the morning light. His back was straight and his limbs restored. A calm glow filled his face. He smiled once again.
“But I am here and not even Master Hai-Tumma can deny that. So instead, we will deal with this sun priest and hope the gods work things out amongst themselves.”
“But what of you, Master?” What do you believe?”
Tu-Tuoan stopped before the council chamber, his face alight with a broad grin. “We have walked here, young Xlenca. I on what were once crippled and useless limbs. I know to whom I owe that miracle. And to whom I owe my allegiance and my faith.”
* * *
Cuantolec was dead. The fever that had wracked his body with fierce rigors had subsided at last and his wife’s mother had hoped that the illness was subsiding. But then he had begun to cough. His eyes became glazed as blood tinged mucous seeped from his open mouth. His breathing became more and more shallow till at last with a shudder, he died. Xola had only just returned with a priest from the Great Temple. The man had surveyed the ravaged corpse and turned ashen with fear. He ordered the hut to be burned with the dead body still inside. No one was to leave the village. All were to stay in their homes and offer prayers and sacrifice to the gods. His commands were too late.
Half the village had already fled. Cuantolec and Xola had angered the Sun God somehow and his judgment was upon them and upon any near them. Xola’s parents were already complaining of fevers and weakness and the woman’s face was marred by the first of the reddened spots. The priest saw the blemishes for they were, the marks of death. He took flight as quickly as he could, back to the safety of the capital and of the Great Temple. There would be no escape.
* * *
“The siege is going badly.” Master Quezoema scowled as Xlenca and the other Beast Riders gathered outside the Great Hill village. “The invaders from over the great water are trapped. But we cannot reach them. Their fort is too strong and their weapons too powerful.”
“But we crushed them at the battle,” one of the younger Riders said.
“Yes, and if we can ever catch them in the open, we will do so again. You all saw and heard the thunder of their death sticks. They still use them to kill from afar. But there is more. Behind their wooden barricades they have things that roar and spit flame so that the very ground beneath us explodes. Even the Great Beasts cannot stand against these things. We have seen both man and beast torn apart by these things.”
“How can this be? The invaders were scattered like chaff when we first faced them.”
“We underestimated them,” Quezoema said, “They had never seen the Great Beasts before and the sight confused and panicked them. Once they were back in their palisade they rallied. Their fort is too strong now for us to take while they cannot break through our lines nor defeat us in open combat.”
“Then we will starve them out.”
“I fear that will not succeed either. The fort has a good supply of water and the treacherous Cempoalans have been taking food to them in the night. The foreigners have mounted one of their great thunder weapons on a large canoe. Every attempt to block the passage of the Cempoalan supply canoes has been brushed aside. I am afraid that both armies are trapped by the siege.”
“Why then are we here, Master Quezoema?”
“If I’m not mistaken,” Xlenca said, “We are here because of the sun priest Lo-Huitzlapoch.”
“Exactly.” Quezoema nodded and continued. “This rogue priest is rapidly consolidating his power in the capital. He sees the Path of Quetzol as a threat and is determined to push us aside. We know some of his motivation. He hungers for power and vengeance but we need to know more. That is why we are here.”
Without further discussion the squadron moved out. Master Quezoema took the vanguard with Xlenca at his side. The other Beast Masters fell in on either flank while the guardsmen brought up the rear. The force pushed through the jungle, following narrow paths and forest trails away from the main road and rapidly covering the final distance to the Great Hill Barracks.
Quezoema had made his intent clear. He wanted total surprise so that the Great Hill Barracks Master would have no chance to flee or hide the evidence they hoped to find. The men were grim and determined. They had all felt the sting of Lo-Huitzlapoch’s insults and were defiantly resolute in their commitment to see their Barracks avenged.
The shaggy haired pachyderms burst from the underbrush in a sudden dramatic surge. The watchmen barely had time to raise a cry of alarm before the charging beasts reached the barracks gateway. The barrack guards were flung aside by the thundering beasts as they desperately tried to push the heavy gates close. Other troops rushed forward in a vain attempt to defend the compound only to find themselves facing the angry snorts of the Great Beasts and the leveled spears of their Riders. The battle was over before it had begun and Quezoema’s conquest of the Great Hill Barracks was complete.
“How dare you attack us?” Tagazuma sputtered as he raced into the compound, “I demand you leave this place at once.” Quezoema nudged his mastodon forward. His Rider lowered his great spear till its obsidian blade was pointed directly at the rival Barracks Master’s heart. Tagazuma opened and closed his mouth rapidly, the color draining from his face while he stumbled backwards away from the threat.
“Where are your defenses, Master Tagazuma?” Quezoema asked, “Where are your Great Beasts? You sent only a paltry few against the invaders. Where are the rest? I know the answer. You have given them to the Sun Priest. You have failed to protect your Barracks and you have failed your duty to the Path of Quetzol.”
“You—you will leave immediately or I—I will . . ..”
“You will what? You have nothing. You are nothing.” Quezoema waved the company of Red Sun guardsmen forward. Xlenca watched as Tagazuma was taken into custody and his troops disarmed. The disposed Master continued to scream and rant as he was led away to be confined to his quarters. If Quezoema were successful, Tagazuma’s fate would be decided by the Quetzolite grand council. If not then it might be the Red Sun Beast Masters who faced arrest and punishment, possibly even execution. The gods would decide. The only question was which ones.
“Master Xlenca,” the older man called as he slid down from his Beast, “Lead me to the guarded building you told us of.” Xlenca dismounted and the two Beast Masters hurried through the compound. Soon the high stark walls of the covert structure came into view. As they moved past the low palisade and towards the darkened doorway, a pair of sentries stepped from the shadows. They were not Barracks guardsmen but were Sun Warriors and they lifted their war clubs menacingly as they advanced.
The leading Sun Warrior snarled fiercely and moved to strike when suddenly a javelin thudded to the ground between his legs. The rival soldier froze in shock and stared behind the approaching Beast Masters. Xlenca glanced over his shoulder and smiled at the sight of Lotec readying another javelin. Quezoema’s Rider stood with him along with a trio of guardsmen. The Sun Warriors sullenly lowered their weapons and backed away. Without a second look Quezoema strode forward and pushed the door open. Motioning Xlenca to follow he stepped into the gloom.
The building was windowless and lit by a row of flickering torches. One wall was lined by pens cordoned off by high, stout fences. The two Beast Masters cautiously approached the pens and peered through the slats of thick wood. The first was empty but the second held an immature bull mastodon. The young animal trumpeted in anger at the two men and charged the wall. t struck the fence with a sound that echoed through the structure and made Xlenca step back in alarm. The fence shook from the force of the blow but held. Quezoema had not moved but continued to watch as the juvenile bull backed away, waving its short tusks threateningly from side to side as it did. The senior Beast Master moved on to the next pen.
The next two enclosures held females, each with a young bull calf huddled beside them. The pairs were dirty and ill kempt, their paddocks poorly maintained with little apparent care for their well-being. The following pen was also empty but the last held a huge bull mastodon. The immense beast glared at them through a doubly reinforced wall of wooden planks lashed with woven ropes. The creature was also tied with thick cords that wrapped around each limb and were fastened to heavy posts sunk into the ground. The bull could only shuffle a few feet in any direction and could not reach the fence. The malevolent gleam in its reddened eyes told the men that its threat was real and its hatred intense.
The two Beast Masters moved on through the building. The opposite wall held storage racks for forage and bedding and shelves for tools, harnesses and tack. A small room held a pair of cots and a bare table while in another spears, javelins and war clubs were stacked along with a complete set of war armor for the massive bull. How anyone could ever expect to get it on the beast was beyond comprehension. Further past this area was a last section guarded by a high black door painted with garish symbols and mounted by a pair of human skulls. The door was barred with a heavy beam of black stone.
Xlenca stepped forward and reached out to move the stone. It was cold beneath his palms and a sharp chill raced up his arms. The slab was a deep black color which seemed to absorb any bit of light which landed upon it. Xlenca pulled his hand back sharply as if struck. A feeling of dread came over him. He began to inch away, his breath coming in short quick gasps. Master Quezoema moved ahead and placed a hand upon the younger Beast Master’s shoulder.
“I feel it also,” he said, “This is a place of evil.” The two men glance at each other and then grasped the stone beam and cast it aside. It fell to the ground with a loud crash. Quezoema pushed the door open and looked into the room. A red tinged light seemed to pervade the room and a foul stench assaulted their nostrils. The two Ixtec shuddered and stepped forward.
Against the wall sat a great stone head. Standing as tall as a man the figure had been carved from a single block of black volcanic stone. It was ugly and squat, with a gaping mouth and a broad protruding tongue. Massive carved hands jutted out from its side to hold a large golden bowl. The bowl was stained and caked with a thick layer of dried blood. Human blood Xlenca assumed, glancing at the piles of bones lying at the base of the statue. And then something caught his eye. Stepping forward he peered into the cavernous maw of the stone idol. The mouth opened into a broad gullet that had been hollowed out of the rock. It was not empty.
At first the young Beast Rider was unsure of what he was seeing. Then as his eyes adjusted more to the gloom he gasped in horror and pulled away. The darkened space before him had been filled with innumerable tiny human skulls. Untold numbers of newborn babes had been sacrificed to this demonic deity. Some of the skulls were so small and fragile that they could only have come from a child still in the womb. Xlenca could not understand. Not even the Ixtec’s Sun God accepted the sacrifice of children or babes. What did this mean?
He felt a bitter taste of bile rise in his throat as he turned away. Part of him wished that he had not come here, that he had never seen these things. He dropped to one knee and spat to clear his throat and his mind. Quezoema moved forward to stare into the depths of the black idol. His face was pale and tight when he stepped back to help Xlenca to his feet.
“Why?” the younger man said, “What is this—this thing?”
“It is an abomination. One of the older gods that our people long since cast away, a god of death, of destruction and of power. It is the god Lo-Huitzlapoch has chosen to follow. He must be stopped. He will be stopped.”
The two men hurried back to the building’s entrance, the idol’s evil presence clinging to their forms like soot. They wanted nothing more than to reach the open air and feel the cleansing warmth of sunlight once more on their faces. They held their breath as they raced for the doorway, not wanting to allow any more of the structure’s foul air into their lungs. They burst through the doorway as a man might break the surface of a stagnant pool and gulped in once more the fresh scent of day. It was then that the Sun Warriors attacked.
As the pair of Ixtec emerged from the shadows, a dozen of the enemy warriors emerged around the edge of the structure with weapons poised to strike. The startled Beast Riders were chilled by the mechanical and silent attack. Xlenca was shocked to see that the Sun Warriors were led by two of the invaders from over the Great Sea.
The Sun Warriors surged ahead, viciously efficient in their assault. Within moments the battle was over. Quezoema’s Rider lay motionless and perhaps dead from a blow to the head while Lotec had been downed by a spear thrust to the thigh. Two of the guardsmen had been bludgeoned senseless while the third lay in a pool of blood, a javelin protruding from his back. The two Beast Masters had borne no arms other than their rods and were quickly surrounded and subdued. They were forced to kneel beside their stricken Riders and face the approach of the foreign commanders. Xlenca recognized the leader of the two. It was the black cowled priest who had been amongst the captives given to Lo-Huitzlapoch, the one called Sebastian. With him was the young Spanish swordsman with the head wound.
“You should not come here,” the Inquisitor said slowly in the Ixtec language. His accent made him difficult to understand but none missed the anger in his tone. “Now you die.”
“Why?” Quezoema said, “Why are you aiding the Sun Priest? He does not believe in your God?”
“Ha,” Brother Sebastian said with a snort, “That not matter. We have—what is word—an understanding. There power and wealth to share. Many die first. You now but others also.”
Xlenca jerked his head up. “Who? What do you mean?”
“I tell you.” The Spanish cleric leaned close, his face an ugly sneer. “Lo-Huitzlapoch is going to your place. All against us will be taken. Many die under his knife. First will be the priest Garcilosa and his pet dog, Henrico!”