. Xlenca stared anxiously at the eastern sky. It remained dark and clouded, the threat of dawn still hours away. How strange to view the coming of light as such a grim menace but he knew the peril that would accompany the appearance of the sun. In the empire of the Ixtec dawn was the hour of the Sun God. Xlenca feared that this morning it would once again be an hour of death. He moved back to Moon Dancer’s side and reached up to retighten the straps of her harness. The great beast’s eyes were red and heavy when she opened them to blink wearily at her master. A slight shudder rippled down her flanks but she did not pull away.
“I’m sorry, old one,” Xlenca said, “I know that you are tired. We all are. But we must continue a little further. They need us, Master Tu-Tuoan, Ma-Zena and Cue-Ahmma. We must reach them in time.” He clambered up onto Moon Dancer’s shoulders and glanced over at Quezoema. The Barracks Master was ready. Lotec and d’Amarco settled back into the war boxes and clutched their weapons. Xlenca nodded sharply and touched his mount’s side with his rod. They would make it. They simply had too.
* * * *
Henrico was numb with fatigue but could not sleep. The stone floor of their cell was cold and unyielding but was not the reason. A harsh knot of fear gnawed at his gullet and clutched at his throat. His mouth was dry but his palms were wet. He stared in morbid fascination at the steady tremble of his fingertips. Was this how he would die? A quivering bundle of terror ravaged flesh unable to stand or to speak? What of his friends? The women had been locked in the adjourning cell and for time Henrico could hear their sobs. Now they were quiet. How would they face death? The young Benedictine’s eyes darted across the room.
The old Beast Master, Tu-Tuoan, was sleeping and actually seemed at peace. The attitude he displayed even in sleep was as surprising as his presence. He alone of the group did not have to be there. Indeed, the Sun Warriors had at first resisted his attempts to join them in the cell beneath the Great Temple. Henrico could not help but recall with renewed surprise and admiration the strength of the Ixtec elder’s words. Tu-Tuoan had made it clear to the Sun Warriors that he felt that his place was with the prisoners and that he would not be denied.
Yes, the old ways may be changing and yes, the power of the sun priest might be on the increase but he, the great Tu-Tuoan, Elder of the Red Sun Barracks, Grand Master of the Quetzolite Path and Rider of the Great Beast, was not yet without influence. The Sun Warriors could refuse him this simple request and face the consequences or they could acquiesce. Besides, wouldn’t their master prefer to know where the old man was rather than have him wandering through the city causing all sorts of disturbance? At that point the guards had simply stepped aside and permitted the Beast Master to enter the cell. The door was locked behind him.
Henrico allowed his gaze to travel further to where Father Garcilosa sat hunched over. At first, the young Benedictine thought that his mentor was also sleeping but then the soft murmur of words came to his ear. The priest was not asleep but rather was deep in prayer. The younger man felt a prompting to follow his example but the chill cold of the stone floor seemed to have penetrated right up into his heart. The words stuck in his throat and his tongue felt wooden. He stared up at the ceiling, the roughhewn rock was an impenetrable barrier between himself and the throne room of God. He felt that any prayer which might pass his lips would rise no higher than those few feet. A feeling of deep gloom descended upon him and he slowly lowered his head.
A hand upon his shoulder made him look up suddenly. Father Garcilosa had moved to sit beside him and now spoke softly to the younger cleric. “Do not despair, my son.”
“But Father, I am afraid.”
“‘God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love and of a sound mind.’”
“I feel so alone.”
“He said, ‘I will never leave you, nor forsake you.’”
“But where is He? Why cannot I feel Him?”
“‘Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near,’ for ‘you will seek the Lord and you will find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart.’”
With each scripture that the priest quoted, it seemed to Henrico as if a crack was opened through the sky into heaven. The words tore the barrier asunder and he felt the warm light of paradise pouring over his soul. He felt the peace of God settle over him and he bowed his head once more, not in anguish but in reverence. Father Garcilosa placed his hand on the younger man’s head in a silent benediction. The two Spaniards sat unspeaking for a moment. Henrico lifted his head and gestured to their fellow prisoners.
“What about the others, Father? What will happen to them?”
“Do not worry, my son, the Lord is watching over them as well. We are all in His hands.”
“But what is He going to do? What are we going to do?”
“We? We shall do what we must.”
* * * *
The city gates were dark and silent. No sentry called out to challenge the Great Beasts as they strode out of the gloom. No one stepped forth to greet the Beast Riders. It was as if the grand city of the Ixtec had been shaken to its core and was now hiding in fear from its fate. Quezoema edged his tired mount forward and the mighty mastodon lowered her head against the heavy wooden beams of the city gate. Moon Dancer joined her sister and the two mastodons strained against the barricade. The muscles in their vast shoulders began to tremble from the strain as their breath came in great ragged gulps. Moon Dancer’s forefoot slipped and she almost stumbled. Xlenca leaned forward to whisper encouragement in her ear and his mount regained her footing. The redoubled efforts of the Beasts were rewarded with the cracking sound of a heavy shaft splintering before their onslaught. The gates fell open before them.
Xlenca glanced at the eastern sky and urged the mastodons forward. The blackness of the night was fading before the relentless onslaught of the approaching day. Night would not yield the battlefield easily as evidenced by the deep red beginning to drip from the eastern clouds. But it could not prevail and soon day, in all its terrible grandeur, would burst victorious over the horizon. They had to reach the Great Temple of the Sun before dawn’s first rays touched its stony peak. Xlenca feared what might happen if they failed. The pair of mounted mastodons rounded a corner onto a broad avenue and in the distance Xlenca could see the blackened silhouette of the Great Temple.
With a shout he urged Moon Dancer forward. The Great Beast broke into a trot only to be drawn up short as a force of warriors stepped from the shadows. A fearsome company of city guardsmen moved into view, their faces grim and their weapons at the ready. They quickly arrayed themselves across the avenue. The Beast Masters may have entered the city unopposed but they would not so reach its Great Temple. The passage would have to be earned, perhaps even with combat against their countrymen. A man stepped through the ranks of the guardsmen to wave off the approaching mastodons. It was the same Steward who had urged them to battle against the invading Spanish. Now he sought to order them away.
“You will go no further,” he said loudly, “On authority of the Council of the Empire, I order you hence.”
“We must reach the temple.” Xlenca’s voice was desperate. “Lo-Huitzlapoch must be stopped.”
“No. You cannot interfere. The survival of our city requires it.” He motioned to the guardsmen and the rear rank made ready to cast their javelins. Xlenca felt Lotec tense beside him and saw d’Amarco draw his sword. He did not know if they could break through the mass of men before them but he felt he must make the attempt. He had to reach the temple. He would reach it. Or he would die trying. He lifted his rod to command Moon Dancer to charge.
* * * *
The door of the cell burst open. Sun Warriors stepped inside and parted to allow the entry of the sun priest. Lo-Huitzlapoch strode into the room followed by a cadre of accolades and priests from the temple. He stood, his arms crossed in a posture of grandiose superiority and waved the pagan clerics forward. His face twisted into a sneer as he glanced over the scene. It was a pathetic picture, he thought. The two young women had already been dragged from their cell and now huddled together in a feeble attempt to avoid his wrath. The Spaniards sat dumbfounded, left speechless by his awesome appearance while the old foolish Beast Master was slowly rising to his feet, no doubt intent on pleading for their lives. He pointed across at the prisoners.
“It is time. Bring the youth along with the women.”
“We are coming as well,” Master Tu-Tuoan said as Father Garcilosa rose to stand beside him.
“You presume to dictate to me, herdsman? You have no power here.”
“Nonetheless,” Tu-Tuoan said, “We will accompany the others to wherever you take them.”
Lo-Huitzlapoch stood silent for a moment and then slowly drew the Spanish dagger from his belt. The steel blade glowed dully in the flickering torchlight of the prison cell. The sun priest stretched out his hand to point the sharpened point at each prisoner in slow succession. At last he laid the dagger tip against the exposed neck of the Ixtec elder.
“Understand me clearly, Beast Rider,” he said, “I hold all the power here. You come and go at my pleasure and my pleasure only.” He paused to sheath the dagger. “I have decided. It would do well for you to witness the full demonstration of my power. You will come with us.” He spun quickly on his heel and marched from the cell waving the guardsmen to follow. “Bring them. Bring them all. The dawn is coming and the Sun God thirsts for a sacrifice. He thirsts for blood.”
* * * *
Xlenca could feel Moon Dancer tense beneath him. In the open field of battle where the mastodons could charge at full speed the Great Beasts were a force beyond reckoning. But the young Beast Master knew that here, confined in the narrow city streets and facing a strong determined enemy they were much more vulnerable. He feared for Moon Dancer and that fear made him hesitate. He would gladly sacrifice his own life for those of his sister and Cue-Ahmma. But could he allow Moon Dancer to come to harm? But what else could be done? It was their only chance. He began to bring his rod down in the quick sharp command to charge.
“No. Stop. There is another way.”
Startled by the shout of his Barracks Master, Xlenca froze and stared in amazement as Quezoema slid down from his mount and began to approach the city guard. The senior Beast Master spread his hands wide, his palms upturned and empty. He was leaving himself vulnerable and open to any blow or spear thrust that their opponents might use against him. The guardsmen looked at each other in bewilderment and fell back before Quezoema’s approach. At last he stood directly before the commander of the forces arrayed against them. He bowed slightly and then looked the man full in the eye.
“Steward,” he said, “You know me. We have shared bread together and fought together. We have both always sought to serve the Empire to the best of our ability and to always protect her from any harm. You know that this is so. Remember, we stood side by side against the Aztec at Lake Texcoco. You were there when my brother died. He died turning back the assault on your flank. Without his courage the day may have been lost and the Empire put into deepest peril. Our homeland is in grave danger once again but not in the way which you assume. Will you hear the words which I would share with you? Will you listen to the brother of one who died for our People?” The grey-haired Steward stared at the Beast Master in silence for a moment and then nodded his assent. The two men moved away from the soldiers and stood in the shadows of the surrounding buildings.
Xlenca could not hear their words but he watched as Quezoema pulled a small leather bag from his belt and displayed its contents to the other man. The Steward recoiled as if in horror but then seemed to regain his composure. He stepped closer to the Beast Master turning his head to listen intently to the other man’s words. The Steward could be seen nodding his head and then in a dramatic gesture of reconciliation, grasped Quezoema’s arms in his own. Without a further word the imperial commander turned and motioned to the city guardsmen. In a moment the previously hostile troops lowered their weapons and stepped aside. The way to the Great Temple was clear once more. Quezoema scrambled atop his mastodon and urged them forward.
* * * *
Henrico was winded and breathing heavily by the time they reached the top of the steep staircase. He stumbled and almost fell on the dimly lit steps. A Sun Warrior jerked him roughly to his feet and shoved him forcefully upwards. The young Benedictine was propelled through a trap door onto the broad flat roof of the Great Temple. A second Warrior seized his arms and pushed him into line with the two Ixtec women. Henrico stared out over the expanse of the city, still darkly shadowed in the pre-dawn light. He was startled by the height of the pyramidal structure and looked about with eyes wide with fear and apprehension.
The top of the Great Temple was grim and stark. A broad steep stairway could be seen ascending from its front. Two flat altar-like blocks of stone bordered each side of the stairway, while a black bowl-shaped rock rested at the platform’s center. The bowl had been scorched with fire and was coated with thick, greasy black soot. The remainder of the space was empty, save for a number of dark posts at each corner designed to hold torches. The torches were unlit and cold. No attempt had been made to dispel the gloom or to conceal the harsh reality of worship at a Temple of the Sun.
The hard, unyielding stone of the altars were darkened and stained with blood. The blood had overflowed the tops of the altars and spilled over the edges of the rock. It had been allowed to funnel into a channel that ran down the center of the broad stairway. The blood stains announced to the city the fierce bloodlust of the Sun God and of his priests. It mocked the feeble attempts of man to defy this god or to strive against his evil. The young Spaniard recognized its claim and felt his fear anew. He tried to swallow but his mouth was locked in dry terror.
* * * *
“What did you say to the Steward?” Xlenca asked as they hurried down the avenue.
“I told him what we had seen at the Great Hill Barracks,” Master Quezoema said, “And I showed him this.” The older Beast Master tossed a small leather bag to Xlenca. Catching it in midair he held it for a moment before opening the drawstring. Inside the satchel were some of the remains from the secret building at the Great Hill. It was a relic horrifying enough to convince the Steward that the true danger to the Empire lay in the sun priest Lo-Huitzlapoch and his fascination with the old gods. It was the tiny skull of an infant who had been sacrificed to an old and ancient evil. It proved that the sun priest must be stopped.
“Look,” Lotec shouted pointing at the top of the Great Temple. Xlenca looked up sharply. Figures had appeared on top of the stone pyramid. He rapped Moon Dancer on the neck to prompt her into greater speed. He could not be too late.
* * * *
The sun priest strode up through the trap door and pulled on an ornate feathered headdress, laden with gold and precious stones. A temple accolade stepped forward to drape a cloak formed from blue, red and yellow feathers over his shoulders. Lo-Huitzlapoch shrugged the cloak into place and fastened it around his throat with a chain of heavy gold. A gilded pendant hung around his neck inscribed on one side with the image of the Sun God. On the reverse was a second image, an older even more sinister likeness, that of the Old One. The sun priest pulled the Spanish dagger from his belt and held it aloft. The sunrise was only moments away now and all was ready.
The shrill cry of a bird sounded through the stillness. Lo-Huitzlapoch turned to watch as an eagle descended from the sky to perch on one of the corner posts. The wild raptor stared back at the humans, its golden eyes hard and unblinking. The sun priest smiled in triumph. It was a good omen.
* * * *
Moon Dancer’s great sides were heaving from exertion when she at last reached the base of the Great Temple. The faithful mastodon had given all she could to the desperate race and she was near to collapsing with exhaustion. Xlenca slid down from his position atop her weary shoulders and began to run up the steep side of the temple. Lotec limped upward behind him, a javelin clutched tightly in each hand. He glanced up at the temple’s peak. High above, dark forms could be seen moving against the lightening sky, shifting into position in preparation for the sinister ceremony. The Beast Rider ducked his head and pushed onward.
* * * *
D’Amarco had sensed the growing apprehension and anxiety amongst his Ixtec companions. Though he still could not fully understand everything that had happened the Spanish courtier knew that his countrymen were danger. The sun priest who had conspired with the now dead Inquisitor had seized Father Garcilosa and young Henrico and was threatening their lives for some reason. The Beast Masters had led him to this huge stone pyramid and by their reaction he judged that this was where the threat was to be carried out. D’Amarco scrambled down from atop the mastodon and started up behind the elder Ixtec. He passed the older man and raced upward, following Xlenca and Lotec toward the top.
* * * *
The sun priest stood on the edge of the platform. He was on the brink of shattering the power of the foreign invaders and seizing it for himself. The outmoded ways of the Ixtec people with their misplaced faith in the Path of Quetzol would be swept aside. For too long these simple minded shepherds, these overblown herdsmen had wielded too much influence in the Empire. They would be replaced. Even the priesthood of the Great Temple would be supplanted, he thought, as he glanced over at the throng of clerics watching from the back of the rooftop. They would soon be replaced by his own cohorts, followers of a god older, stronger and more bloodthirsty than the oh so benign Sun God. And he, Lo-Huitzlapoch would rule them all. The people and even the Council of Stewards would acknowledge him, would bow down to him. The Old One had spoken to him and told him so. The gifts he had brought and would continue to bring would assure him of victory. He would be more than the High Priest, he would be Emperor.
He pulled the Spanish dagger from his belt and clasped it with both hands. He held it aloft, stretching high in anticipation of the first rays of daybreak and for the instant to strike.