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if they say i'm a god (that's what I am)

Chapter Text


 

There are those blessed enough to forget. Over time, the old aches fade away. So do the old glories that make one’s current predicament all the worse in comparison.

 But the mind had always been his purview. He remembers it all, every lofty word breathed in his honor and every curse of his name.

This city was first called Ispal by the Tartessians and the Turdetani. Those that brought him to these lands remade it into a proper Roman settlement and called it Hispalis. To the Visigoths it was Spali and their Umayyad conquerors Ishbiliya. To the Mozarabs who refused conversion, it became Ixbilia, then Sivilia, and finally to Sevilla after centuries of linguistic drift and reconquest.

No matter the conqueror or the faith they brought with them, the city remained. Its borders might have expanded and contracted over the millennium, but its location is ineffable, and its roots only push deeper with the years.

His own sense of continuity is far from straightforward. It's simplest to think of his birthplace as Mount Cyllene to a mother hiding away from a vengeful wife. No matter the name of the baby that escapes out his cradle at mere hours old to steal his big brother's cattle and raise merry hell, it's the same story, no matter the time attached.

But he has never been simple. Casting his mind back to that ancient time when the first standing stones were raised and his placed was set, he vaguely remembers being rooted to the boundaries and nature.

Yet his stones were raised across the roads and he went with them. His were the travelers and messengers and the wayward souls. West they carried him, and further west still, until they reached an ocean they could not cross.

He rose from simple piles of stone to Mount Olympus. Once an empire raised temples and hosted mass celebrations in his name.

But that name has long faded away. His is not the face on smashed idols and disfigured engravings. His wanted poster bears the name Tulio. The face upon it is handsome in a roguish way, neither bearded nor clean-shaven and boyish.

The face beside his own is still fair and golden, though framed with a beard Tulio had never thought to ever see upon so vain an owner. Tulio considers himself born once. Poor Miguel's muddled origins make even his head ache.

Tulio was conceived in rugged Arcadia. Miguel is born of Delphi and Delos and the eastern lands of the sunrise. They have not always shared the same pantheon. They have not always been brothers, no matter how tentative the bond.

They came to these lands with a sprawling family. They are all that is left.

In the rustic corners of the kingdom faded echoes of their worship resonate in villages too small for the Inquisition to bother with in the form of fantastic saints and rituals carried out for tradition's sake. More than several of their kind have retreated to the backwaters to cling to what was left of their faith until the last embers petered out or were violently extinguished in a brief flare-up of religious hysteria and persecution. Perhaps they both could find fulfillment as shepherds in those forgotten hills, driving their flocks to wherever whispers of their exploits lingered.

Yet Tulio was born a thief and trickster. His first offerings were stolen from beneath his big brother's very nose. The merchants are his people in deceit and hunger for gold. He lives for the eyes of the crowd and the heaviness of their wealth in his pockets. The sailors accepted his bet out of their own free will. Their gold, no matter how duplicitously obtained, is offering all the same.

And Miguel is not the sort to gutter low and cautious until he burns out. He delights in music and thrives on the attention of the crowd. The cities, no matter their zealous call for orthodoxy, offer more amenable ears than the quiet countryside. Once he was a builder of cities and raiser of walls. Like a proud parent, he flushes as those old colonies continue to grow and warp even further beyond recognition.

Tulio and Miguel crow as the dice come down seven and seal their fortune.

"One more roll!"

Tulio's hungry eyes fall upon the gold dangling from one sailor's ear and the uncertain glance that passes between his comrades. The sheep is not yet fleeced.

"Uh, guys, you're broke! You've got nothing left to bet with!"

A thousand years, and gamblers still fall victim to that jab at their worth. The sailor pulls out his last, most precious prize with a flourish.

Tulio’s interest curdles at the sight of yellowed paper. "A map?"

Miguel, the predictable idiot, rises to the bait. "A map?" He snatches it and shoves Tulio's face into it. Their eyes rove over a design style alien to even themselves. "El Dorado, the city of gold. This could be our destiny, our fate."

The niche they have carved into Espana over the centuries is a humble one, but there will always be thieves and conmen and rootless rogues. The New World envisioned by Cortes was one to belong only to God and Castilians, a paradise free of whatever heathen taint still lurks in the conversos and morsicos. There is no place for Tulio and Miguel in that pious world, not in their hearts or minds.

It's the insinuation of fate that makes Tulio roll his eyes. Whatever their destiny had been a millennium ago is as dead as the civilization that gave rise to it. "Miguel, if I believed in fate I wouldn't be playing with loaded dice."

Once he gave wealth and good luck. Now there's not enough of it left for himself. The loss of their greatest powers have made many of their kind succumb to despair. Tulio's dice still serve him, with only minor modifications to ensure their loyalty.

Miguel resorts to his greatest of powers, the dreaded face. More than Tulio's heart quivers at the plaintive whine.

The sailor snatches his map back. "I said one more roll! My map against your cash."

One look at Miguel is all the answer Tulio needs as he once more reaches for his dice. "All right, peewee. You're on."

"Not with those! This time we use my dice." Tulio freezes as the sailor presents his weapon of choice. The gazes of the crowd press down upon him. The sailor's suspicions sharpen with every second. "Got a problem with that?"

"No," Tulio grits out. His response to Miguel's sheepish smile is a finger slit across the throat.

He resorts to every superstitious rub and roll gamblers have used since the first dice to charm luck into their hands. Miguel works his lute into a fever pitch. Out of the corner of his eye Tulio glimpses his partner sidle close to a young beauty in the crowd. She blushes before her jealous companion slings an arm over her shoulder.

Tulio's eye finds an unattached woman in the crowd. He offers her the dice for a breath of good luck. Once he bedded nymphs and goddesses, including she of sex and beauty personified. His charm is not what it was.

She offers him an arched eyebrow and a wry smile before vanishing into the crowd. Tulio's good mood goes with her. He has weathered utter defamation and demonization, but still his pride stings.

"Stop that!" he snaps. Miguel's song cuts off. "Show me seven!"

It is not a command. It is a prayer to the dice and to whatever fates in the world might still humor him.

One lands on three. The other spins indecisively. Tulio hides his face and braces for disgrace. At the crowd's murmurs he dares peak through his fingers. Fate's pity has granted him a four.

"Seven!" they crow as one.

Miguel swoops down for the map. Once more in his element, Tulio bends down for the real loot.

"Well, there it is," he says easily, as if this last throw had been in his control. "Pleasure doing business with you."

Fate is a feckless bitch, for Tulio's dice slip out of his shirt at that very moment to land before the sailors. Their leader's amazement at yet another seven kindles into rage when he slams his fist down, disturbing the dice into the same result. Tulio snatches back the evidence and Miguel strums tensely on his lute, but the damage has been done.

"I knew it! Your dice are loaded!"

Tulio immediately snatches Miguel's lute and vehemently thrusts a finger in his face. "What? You gave me loaded dice!" Slowly, they spin into the beginning steps of the performance they know so well. Slamming into the guard's breastplate is not part of it, but the seemingly earnest indignity in his face very much is. "He gave me loaded dice! Guard, arrest him!"

Miguel eagerly rises to the part, his cultured voice rising above the throng and drawing even more eyes upon them. "You dare to impugn my honor? He was the one who was the cheating! This deceiver tricked these sailors and took their money!"

The whispers of the crowd heighten when they grab rapiers and truly slide into the dance. Their jibes of braggart and heathen and deceiver and king of the locusts are very much the truth.

"You fight like my sister!"

"I've fought your sister. That's a compliment."

When her domain had first been truly threatened, she had raged with fire and fury. She had not died the revered maiden, but the clamorous queen of beasts, going down in a blaze of glory against the same hunters that had once honored her rather than ignominiously fade into oblivion. The ache of her passing has long since faded, and Miguel pays every subtle homage he can to his fallen twin.

Their performance is flawless. In the wake of the enthralled crowd they left the guards behind.

And then they stumble into the blasted bull. And get trapped in barrels. And then are locked away on the boat to toil the remnants of their lives away in the New World, if they even make it so far.

Tulio does not believe in fate. He knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, it is out to screw him over.


 

Chapter Text

Tulio turned from fate long ago and is determined to rage against it until the bitter end. Miguel does not begrudge his passion. Defiance is better than resignation and anguish. Defiance keeps them clinging to this world.

Tulio only turned to prophecy when Miguel taught him how to throw his dice just so, and how to twist fortune to his own ends when the gamblers and merchants begged him for such favor. Miguel was born steeped in fate. His sight might have faded with his followers, but still he feels fate's phantom threads on his musician's fingers.

When Miguel's eyes first fell upon that map, he knew El Dorado to be their destiny. He might have been born in the sunrise lands, but he was borne west. Once he delighted in the raising of cities and the settling of their institutions.

But those first roots the Romans planted are now thick and choking. Miguel is sickened by how the Church, now the only faith allowed in these lands, persecutes their own. Espana offers only the Inquisition and a slow, suffocating demise as their last footholds are snuffed out. There is naught for them in the east but distorted echoes of themselves. Miguel, before he was such, once sneered down at the humble Son of God cherished by the few haggard followers that carried Him in their hearts and prayers so far west. Now he pities Their many aspects and the avenging crusader championed by the Inquisition that seeks to burn Them all out until only He is left.

Cortes chose his crew as carefully as the disciples of Christ. They believe in their God as vehemently as they do the brutal punishment of all who cross Him. So long as they remain hell-bent on seeing their stowaways flogged and enslaved in the sugar plantations, Miguel and Tulio remain very much alive.

Miguel has not always been Miguel. He has been healer and distant avenger, poet and prophet, shining sun and shiftless layabout. He can don yet another new mantle. Even if that is a prisoner’s chains.

The ship's hold is stifling, but Miguel endures only boredom, scoring a line for each day that carries them forth from the Old World and into the New. He has never truly been tied to the sea, but flourished on the shore and in the hearts of sailors eager to disembark. He has weathered the sea before and will do so again.

More often than not, Miguel slumbers. He dreams of rocky Delos and shining Olympus, golden cities and burning walls, the taste of sour wine and sour blood.

An apple suddenly plummeting from above deck and into his lap startles him from dormancy. For a moment he remembers a poisoned gift that birthed chaos that brought a heroic age to a bloody and ignominious end.

Then he looks to Tulio.

Tulio might have been born of travelers, but he was rooted to the roads and boundary marks. Even the shallow Mediterranean has never been his purview, for he had flown far above the water. After millennium of wandering the familiar routes through Espana, the open ocean and iron bars above his head eat away at him.

Miguel winces at the dent Tulio's incessant head pounding has worn into the wood. A mortal man would have endured heavy brain damage. At this stage they are little more than human or so much less.

"So... How's the escape plan going?"

The mere mention of higher thinking brings Tulio back to himself. "Wait, I think I'm getting something."

 Miguel's faint hope dies when his partner returns to head-butting their way to freedom. Then at last Tulio sits up straight, a spark returning to his dull eyes as he pulls Miguel conspiringly down to the floor, turning their meager rations into a makeshift demonstration.

"In the dead of night, you and I grab some provisions, hijack one of those long boats, and then we row back to Spain like there's no tomorrow!"

"Back to Spain, yeah?" Back to familiar complacency. Away from a New World that has no place for them.

"Yeah."

"In a rowboat?"

"You got it!"

"And that's..." Suicide. "That's your plan, is it?"

"That's pretty much it," Tulio says earnestly. He is worn too thin for the thinnest layer of sugarcoating.

Only then does Miguel realize how close he is to losing the last of his precious ones. He has lost his keen-eyed twin, his fierce mother and radiant father, too many siblings and companions and children to count. His selfishness might yet still spell Tulio's slow, agonizing demise.

Miguel hides his horror behind a sunny facade perfected in his beardless youth. "Well, I like it. So, how do we get on deck?"

What should have been a gentle prompting for Tulio's unmatched mind nearly breaks it completely. "In the dead of night, you and I grab some provisions-"

"Ugh, great."

"Okay, what's your idea, smart guy?"

For a moment Miguel sputters. At his height he could foretell the future, sure, but gods be damned if he could craft a plan to exploit it to his advantage or try to turn the tide. Tulio had been running mental laps around him in the cradle.

Then he looks down at the bright red apple in his hand and realizes what it is.

There was once a time where he was so much more than a man. Now he requires Tulio to lift him high enough.

Gone is the age where he could bend wild beasts to his thrall. Yet Miguel was the first to harness four horses to a chariot where before none had mastered more than two. His beautiful team had breathed fire and pulled the sun across the sky. Only he could rein in all four. A touch for horses lingers still.

"Altivo!"

The magnificent stallion is Cortes' pride and joy, freely allowed to roam the deck. Ears pricked at the sound of his name, he wanders over as Miguel enticingly tosses the apple back and forth between his hands. He withdraws his prize before Altivo can bite down.

"You have to do a trick for me first."

Altivo draws his neck back, expression undoubtedly dubious. Insulted, even. Miguel knows this is no mere horse.

"All you have to do is find a pry bar," he continues, waving the apple to once more draw Altivo's attention. "A long piece of iron with a hooky thing at the end. Yeah?"

Altivo's gaze is purposeful when he turns away. Their bargain is struck.

"Miguel," Tulio hisses. "You're talking to a horse. An ordinary horse."

Miguel turns his head down, where Altivo can't see, to scowl at him. Not everyone in their situation has fallen back to a human face. Quite a few had taken refuge in their animal aspects until little more than the beast remained.

He knows Altivo can't be considered family in any stretch of the word. The stallion is Gaulish, perhaps, some trace of Epona, or of some old Iberian god near swallowed by Rome. Long have Iberian stallions been hailed as superb warhorses. There is more glory to be won in the New World than in all the Old.

"That's right, Altivo," he coaxes. "Find the pry bar."

"He's a dumb horse. There's no way-" Iron keys clatter at their feet. They both gape down while Altivo whinnies smugly above them. "Well," Tulio mutters instead, "it's not a pry bar."

Miguel shrugs.

They wait until the dead of night to make their escape. Miguel eases the trap door shut without the slightest creak. He freezes when something warm and firm nudges into his back.

Slowly, he turns, and sighs in relief at the sight of intelligent eyes set into a powerful face.

"Oh, Altivo. Oh, thank you, old boy," he whispers, mindful that this stallion sniffing at his shirt is at least his age or even older. "Listen, if we can ever return the favor-"

From the safety of the long boat, Tulio hisses, "For goodness' sake, Miguel, he's a ruthless warhorse. Come on, before he licks you to death."

With a final salute to their kindred soul Miguel hops over the edge to help with lowering the boat. Altivo juts his head over the railing and whinnies after them. While Tulio panics at the thought of him waking the whole ship, Miguel remembers the offering sitting heavy in his pocket.

"Sorry," he calls softly. He tosses the apple back up to Altivo and thinks nothing of it. He is the shooter from afar, and his aim has never missed.

When a small shape flies past them in the dark, only then does Miguel remember the bow is obsolete, and he is not what he was. A true offering is lethal temptation to those that have been starved for centuries. Altivo blindly leaps after it. Whatever he was before, he is now a horse drowning in the sea. Unthinkingly Miguel dives after him.

With Tulio's cunning plan to loop the rope under Altivo they all make it into the boat, half-drowned and supplies in tatters. Miguel earnestly believes it cannot get any worse. They are alive and together, with the unexpected blessing of a storm to grant fresh water.

---------------

If there are gods in these deep blue waters, they are primal and fickle things of the fathomless ocean, birthed by those who rightfully feared the unpredictable nature of the sea. There is no family, no friendly faces, to be found within their waves. Miguel knows in his heart of hearts any sailors who once hailed their pantheon never made it so far into the sunset.

Their calls for mercy are answered only by the silence of an apathetic expanse. They are wracked by storms and drift for days on end in doldrums. Their food and water evaporate.

Once an exhausted sea gull, the only one they've seen, lands upon their oar before its heart gives out. Before they can reel their godsend in a black-eyed shark erupts from the deep to devour it in a single bite.

All three of them weep. Miguel knows his auguries still. This gull was not a portent of land, but so far from home it had dared land on a strange vessel only to die and be swallowed by the sea.

None of them have the power to make their fates otherwise. Altivo is a horse. Tulio's wings have withered away. Starved and sun-beaten, Miguel dreams of when he became a dolphin and guided the Cretan colonists to Delphi, and yearns for them again.

Feverishly, he thinks if he slips overboard and gives himself to the sea, that a part of himself will forever linger to frolic on the waves and follow in the wake of ships for human contact it would forever crave. But that would mean abandoning Tulio, who has stuck to his side like glue and held him together like glue.

If they are to die on this unforgiving sea, they die together.

The hours and days blur together. All Miguel knows is that he and Tulio are holding each other upright and Altivo lies sprawled out beside them.

"Tulio," he croaks, "did you ever imagine it would end like this?"

"The horse is a surprise."

As their family had gradually succumbed to time and fickle human memory, they had paid the fallen their respects before moving on with their lives, for dwelling in despair only made their own demise find them all the more quicker. Now, finally on the cusp of the inevitable, Miguel hungers for every answer he defiantly refused before.

"Any... regrets?"

Tulio chuckles wanly. "Besides dying? I never had... enough... gold."

Miguel considers his careful answer and knows it is at least a partial truth. When Espana had embraced but one God and His Son, gold had amounted to more than godhood. It had afforded them power and regard they no longer had on their own.

"My greatest regret, besides dying, is... our greatest adventure is over before it began, and no one will even remember us. We're dead words in a dusty book."

"If it's any consolation, Miguel, you always made my life... an adventure, from the day we met."

"And if it's any consolation, Tulio..." I wouldn't want to be anywhere right now than by your side. "You've made my life..." Worth living after I thought I had lost everything worth hanging on for. "Rich."

Miguel dips his hand into the cool waves for any reprieve from the heat. He absently lets hot sand pour through his fingers.

Wait…

All three of them peer over the side of the boat to gape at emerald waves gently lapping a white beach. The same beach their boat has stranded on.

With joyful whoops they leap from their wooden grave to kiss solid ground, uncaring of what land it is.

Blindly Miguel presses his lips to yellowed bone. He is deathless still, and recoils in revulsion at the rotten taste of mortality on his tongue. He and Tulio squeal and draw back from death, rather than the implications of the blades impaled through their ribs.

Even as he rubs the foulness from his mouth, Miguel wonders at the sword; steel, but with a wooden hilt and two ragged feathers tied to it. Its pommel is carved into a skull adorned with green stone earrings and a bronze half-circle.

"All in favor of going back to the boat, say 'aye.'"

"Aye!"

"Aye! Go!"

Tulio and Altivo gallop back to the boat. Miguel turns to follow, but his sharp eye settles instead on what he once dismissed as a cluster of rocks. The formation is undoubtedly carved in in the shape of an eagle's head, its curved beak and vigilant gaze pointing out to sea. Miguel knows it.

Miguel fumbles for his hard-won map, folded away but not forgotten. The first waypoint to El Dorado is an eagle's head set into stone. It is no coincidence they have washed up here, out of all the thousands of miles of coastline yet to be explored in this New World.

"Tullo!" he cried. "We've done it!"

"What's that? The map? After all this, you still have the map?"

"The whistling rock, the stream!" Rather than bring up providence, Miguel appeals to reason through the undeniable markers. "Even the mountains. You said it yourself; it could be possible. And it is! It really is... the map to El Dorado!"

"You drank the seawater, didn't you?"

"Oh, come on!" Miguel snaps.

"I'm not coming on!" Tulio retorts. "I wouldn't set foot in that jungle for a million reales."

Miguel's indignity pools into dread as his partner stalks backward. Since reaching this foreign shore Tulio has been his most alive and aware since the night of their escape. They cannot grow by burrowing blindly back into the earth.

"What about a hundred million reales?" Tullio stops in his tracks. Miguel may not have his guile, but at this point he knows him better than he knows himself. "After all, I just thought since El Dorado is the city of gold-"

"What's your point?"

Miguel's triumphant smile grows into a smirk as he saunters back to the boat. "You know, dust, nuggets, bricks, a temple of gold where you can pluck gold from the very walls. But you don't want to go, so let's... get back into the boat and row back to Spain. After all, it worked so well last time."

"Wait! Wait. New plan. We find the city of gold. We take the gold, and then we go back to Spain."

"And buy Spain," Miguel agrees easily.

Their destination is El Dorado. Whatever happens afterward is inconsequential at this point.

The trail they blaze is not without resistance. With Altivo they huddle together under a massive leaf umbrella while a torrential downpour rages around them. Miguel picks leeches from Tulio's back and Tulio saves Miguel from making yet another wrong turn. At one point they chase monkeys naked through the jungle and learn to never leave their clothes unattended.

Miguel drinks in the humid air and the vibrant landscape. They bring him almost as much joy as the dawning wonder in Tulio's eyes.

Still, Tulio scoffs at the eagle-shaped canyon that reveals the glory of the nocturnal skies. Despite taking the warning of the fanged fish to heart, he still winds up bitten when one leaps up to snap at him. Tulio smiles in earnest appreciation when Miguel offers up the same fish to him as dinner. The strange little armored creature that has been following their journey from its first day steals it away, but Tulio is merely irritated rather than infuriated.

By the dragon-shaped cave that breathes a flame of pink-winged butterflies, Tulio's face shines with earnest faith in the map and its fortunes. It is the first time in an eternity Miguel has seen him have faith in anything.

Tulio may not believe in fate, but he believes in the gold and glory of El Dorado, and it breathes new life into him. Miguel's heart soars with it.

Perhaps there is a place yet for them here. A place to grow and endure as one.

Chapter Text

The mist hangs low and thick. Altivo, with the keenest sense of hearing, leads the way. Tulio can only cling to his tail and follow blindly behind, ever mindful that Miguel is clutching the back of his shirt. It's a literal case of the blind leading the blind.

Too late do they realize they've stepped on a thin branch until it snaps beneath their weight and sends them plummeting to earth. Tulio lands flat on his back, the map fluttering onto his face. He gazes down at the last waypoint to El Dorado... and then gapes up at the stone edifice they've landed before.

He first notices the plumed maiden knelt in supplication and offering up what appears to be a severed head. He follows the coils of her deity to the head of a feathered serpent and the two ornate gods mounted upon it. Tulio cannot recall the last time he gazed upon any idol not desecrated by those who declared there was but one God. It is the mirror image of the same upon his map.

Tulio peers past both sides of the monument just to make sure. Only mist and a waterfall greet him.

Of course there had never truly been an El Dorado, only greedy conquistadors seeking gold and glory that will win them eternal acclaim in Spain. Some stupid soldier had snatched a native's map and assumed it had obviously been the secret path to a golden city rather than the sacred sites of a vanished people with absolutely no material value.

He shakes Miguel awake to tell him as such, shooting down his sputtered disbelief. "Apparently the source of the city of gold is a great, big ROCK! Hey, but I tell you what, I'm feeling generous, so you can have my share!"

"You don't think Cortes could have gotten here before us and-"

"And what?" Tulio snarls. "Taken all the really big rocks? The scoundrel."

"Tulio, you... We have to think about this. We've come all this way."

To starve and die forgotten before we can ever get back home! Because you wanted to run off to a world that has never had a place for us.

Tulio bites back the hard truths that can poison whatever chance is left of them returning to Spain alive. He mounts Altivo, leans into Miguel's face, and grits out, "Get on the horse."

Miguel briefly meets his gaze before his eyes drop in submission. He silently accepts Tulio's helping hand and allows himself to be slung up behind him.

"No, not with the face. Stop," Tulio says wearily before he ignores his partner's little pity party. He turns Altivo forward and tries to gain their bearings. "It looks like there's a pass over there."

Altivo takes no more than a step forward before a small shape darts around the stone and slams into them. She is young, more woman than girl, with warm brown skin and sleek black hair. She is clad in a way Tulio has not seen outside of a brothel since... he can't remember. She gapes up at them like.... a way that feels vaguely familiar.

The war horse instinctively rears up in panic, disrupting Tulio's train of thought as he struggles to wrestle him back under control. Altivo takes a few steps backward and whinnies in outrage, straining against his bridle. The girl-- woman remains frozen. Altivo quiets down and stares down at her in equal wonder.

Tulio and Miguel marvel with him. Then they notice the spear-wielding warriors charging out of the water. They know people like they do the sun and the shadows. But she is new, somehow all things familiar and all things unknown.

So very settled in their ways, their first instinct is to flee from new. And flee they do.

They spur Altivo on. For a moment the stallion remains frozen, captivated by the woman prone at his hooves. Then his muscles finally bunch together as he springs around her and...

Rears up to lash his hooves out at the spears held up to his face. Altivo backs up against the stone idol, for there is nowhere to run as the six warriors warily encircle them.

Tulio's crafty eye falls upon their leader, the oldest and strongest man present, obvious in his role even if he didn't have the pelt of a great spotted cat draped over his shoulders and its claws dangling from a necklace. The leader's gaze drifts down from him to the woman.

Tullio glances at the woman and recognizes a fellow thief. He spies the flicker of thought in her gaze as it moves from the lead spearman onto himself. She picks up her bundle and flings it at him.

He catches the bundle, momentarily surprised by its heaviness, and then tosses it back to her. This theft is one he has absolutely no part of. She throws it right back at him. The guards watch the exchange with various expressions of slack-jawed disbelief.

Facing the warriors, Tulio tries for an easy smile and an easy tale, but the words won't come. Only then does he realize he has no freaking idea who these people are or what tongue they speak. He's pretty damn sure it's not Castilian.

He holds up his hands in a gesture of surrender as some warriors lean to hurl their spears. Their leader stops them. Then he shoves the tip of his weapon into Tulio's face and motions for him to follow.

 And follow them they do, into the waterfall and the cavern beyond. Tulio dismounts and settles into one of the boats. He's either no better than mortal or somewhere below it. A spear to the gut is not what he needs today. Miguel plops down beside him and graces the woman with a brilliant smile. Sitting down in front of Altivo, she sends them a glower that quickly averts their eyes.

A warrior stands at the back and rows them into the darkness. It is when they gape at massive pillars of interlocking stone, and gawk at a soaring arch that would have made even the greatest Roman architect bitter with envy, that they realize they have not stumbled upon a single tribe. For a time they descend into complete blackness, with only a lantern to guide their way. Hewn into the cavern walls are massive stone heads. Their empty eyes watch their progress.

At last they come to yet another archway, its opening shrouded by a curtain of green. The stolen object in the thief's arms catches a ray of sunlight and glints gold before she throws a rag over it.

"It can't be," Tulio murmurs as he turns to face the prow.

The land behind the curtain glows so brightly Tulio briefly wonders if they stumbled upon heaven on earth. A heaven, at least. Then their boat breaches the barrier and reveals a gleaming city. Pyramids rise like mountains into the sky, refracting late afternoon sunlight off bright red brick and lustrous gold. The tallest of the pyramids is the grandest, its entire side gilded.

"El Dorado," he and Miguel breathe as one, for they gaze upon the golden king of cities.

A swarm of golden butterflies, their wings shining in the sunlight, flutter around them and into the sky. Tulio follows their path to see a volcano's smoking maw looming over the city. He looks down into the emerald waters to marvel at fish longer than their boat, their scales shimmering all colors of the rainbow. Altivo warily pulls his tail out of the water.

Tulio's attention falls upon the people. Daily life has ground to a halt as the grayest elders and youngest children gawk at them like animals in a menagerie. One woman even lets her pot slip and crash from her numbed hands. He sees their awe and fear and disbelief. He knows how this will end.

The moment his boat touches the shore, the cat-cloaked captain disembarks and strides purposefully into the crowd. A messenger whose head dress resembles a blue-plumed eagle darts in the opposite direction.

Altivo clambers off their boat. Miguel is quick to mount him and grab his reins as if to regain control over their lives. Tulio climbs up behind him. Their closeness and slight elevation over the stunned populace makes him feel slightly more at ease. Even atop Altivo, there is no chance for escape. The crowd skitters out of their path, but the ranks of warriors have raised their spears and shields against them. They are herded toward the tallest pyramid like sheep to the slaughter.

Tulio sighs in resignation. Better to die in paradise than on a ruthless sea. "Well, it was nice working with you, partner."

"Tulio, I just want you to know... I'm sorry about that girl in Barcelona."

Tulio thinks back to a distant night of heavy drinking and heavy... "So y-you, f-"

"Behold!"

Tulio's gaze snaps to the authoritative man striding out before the crowd. His outstretched arms are adorned with golden gauntlets. These people are shrouded in rich colors. Aside from the woman, he is the only one to be wearing any white. His triumphant face is adorned in red tattoos.

Only then does Tulio remember he is not only of wit and guile, but language. He was once accused of sewing the world with many tongues to fracture mankind's harmony. He is interpreter still. Flitting between Latin's bastard children for so long, he has forgotten how wide the world is.

"As the prophecies told, the time of judgement is upon us!"

Tulio and Miguel flinch back. They remember the millennials and their desire to bring about Rapture. They know are they are strangers in a strange land and all too well what happens to them.

The people part for a second man, older and heavier than the first. He is adorned with a golden crown and a heavy necklace. He carries himself with the solemnity of one presiding over an execution. He is a king, and the man who smirks smugly back at him a powerful priest.

"Citizens, did I not predict the gods would come to us?"

A change ripples through the crowd as they cast their awed and reverent eyes in Tulio's direction. Tulio and Miguel look frantically back, expecting such a god to have manifested behind them, but see none. Then they look to each other.

Miguel's shock twists into smug consideration. Tulio bites back the word 'fuck.'

It has been a thousand years since he lived in a land that recognized any god but God. Only then does he see this as a civilization at its height, and their devotion to their divinities is wrought into manmade mountains that lift their temples into the heavens. The deities of those sacred halls are not pale shadows, but gods in every sense of the word, and Tulio has stumbled into their domain with the intent to gleefully rob their people blind. No wonder the volcano is smoking ominously.

"My lords, I am Tzekel-Kan, your devoted high priest and speaker for the gods."

When Tzekel-Kan bows before them, Tulio's articulate response to defuse the situation and appease the local powers that be crumbles into mush. He raises a hand and only chokes out, "Hey."

"I am Chief Tannabok," the portlier man supplies. "What names may we call you?"

Tulio's heart flutters. Reinvention. He truly hasn't done so since he adapted that damn alias during Rome's decline. How to shape how these people see him?

He is ram-bearing Hermes and many-turning Turms, keen-sighted Argeiphontes and splendid Mercury. He is keeper of the flocks and messenger of the blessed, the guide and ready-helper.

"I am Miguel," Miguel announces grandly, blind to the stares both his comrades (including the freaking horse) burn into him.

Of all the lousy names! "And I am Tulio," he declares, for now they have to own this thing until the bitter end.

Miguel dismounts, snagging his foot in Altivo's reins. He compensates by grandly throwing his arms out. "And they call us... Miguel and Tulio!"

Those aren't even proper epithets, you idiot!

"Your arrival has been greatly anticipated," Chief Tannabok tried. "My lords, how long do you plan on staying in our city?"

"Aha!" Tullio's response is disrupted when Tzekel-Kan stalks behind Altivo to snatch the woman by the arm in her failed escape. "I see you have captured this temple-robbing thief. How would you have us punish her?"

Tulio's eye twitches at the reminder of his own looted sanctuaries, the forced conversions and desecrated altars. He remembers raging with impotent fury, for by then he had lost the power to directly punish the pillagers. He remembers what he did to punish thieves when fully himself.

"Oh no, no, no!" the woman stammers, clutching at her own throat when the relic is wrenched from her hands. "My lord, I am not a thief. See, the gods sent me a vision... to bring them tribute from the temple to guide them here. My only wish is to serve the gods."

Tulio is impressed by the bald-faced lie. Something like pity stirs in him at the desperate look sent his way. He is patron to thieves and she is as much a thief as he. Tzekel-Kan's and Miguel's expectant gazes fall upon him. Her life is in his hands.

"Release her, don't you think?"

Tzekel-Kan does not seem to realize the words phrased as a request, not a command, when he unhands his prisoner and thrusts the idol back into her hands. "Then you will begin by returning this... to its rightful place."

The thief allows herself to be shooed off. Tzekel-Kan is about to speak again before Tannabok interrupts with earnest conviction.

"My lords, why do you choose now to visit us?"

"Enough!" the high priest snarls. "You do not question the gods!"

"That's right!" Tulio gapes in horror when Miguel thrusts out a commanding hand like he is still the young proud archer that can devastate an army from above. But he can only cross his arms and act firm for solidarity. "Do not question us or we shall have to unleash our great and terrible power! And you don't want that!"

"Well, yes, we do!"

Both of them deflate. What sort of mortal wants the wrath of his gods rained down upon him? The Romans had prayed for their favor and to avoid their great and terrible wrath unleashed upon them!

"You do?" Miguel squeaks out.

"Of course we do!" Tzekel-Kan emphatically gestures at his chief. Tannabok rolls his eyes. "Visit your wrath upon this nonbeliever! Show us the truth of your divinity."

"Divinity!" Tulio doesn't even have the power to roll dice in his favor! "Excuse us one moment." Grabbing Miguel, his genial nature evaporates the moment their backs are turned to the crowd. "Miguel, you know that little voice people have that tells them to quit when they're ahead? You don't have one!"

"I'm sorry!" Miguel's green eyes are wide and regretful, still childlike after all these long hard years. "I got carried away. For a moment I thought..."

"What?" Tulio hisses. "These aren't your people. You're a bigger nobody here than you are back home."

"Maybe we should tell the truth and beg for mercy."

"Are you nuts? The truth is worse than this. We'd be butchered alive!"

"Yes, but they're getting suspicious. And if we don't scrounge up some mega-cosmic event-"

Tulio tries to think, to contrive a plan that will allow them to escape without smiting or being smote. There's no time and a thousand distractions. Miguel is hitting his head in hopes of inflicting inspiration. Altivo is whinnying in panic. The little armored animal from earlier is scampering after a butterfly. There's a growing rumble in his head and it's like the very earth beneath his feet is heaving...

"STOP!" he cries out, unsure who he's calling to.

Only then does Tulio realize the volcano is spewing smoke and sparks. He watches in disbelief as the pending eruption suddenly reverses itself, inhaling its contents before they are fully expelled. The rumbling quiets. Earth and air still. Overhead, the clouds part, and the sun smiles down upon them.

No true gods of this land show themselves, but still they smile down upon their pitiful little guests. Perhaps it is genuine mercy or hospitality. Perhaps it is out of a callous amusement to watch the chaos unfold. Tulio himself has been guilty of both.

He quickly elbows Miguel. Together they bask in the crowd's unearned adoration. Tulio feels hollow inside for it but forces the ache away. This is just another performance. Even if it touches on far too many raw scars.

"Don't make start it up again," Miguel warns the same warrior that had thrust his spear on their faces," 'cause I will."

Inwardly rolling his eyes at Miguel's continued inability to shut up in the face of an actual miracle, Tulio still feels a twinge of petty satisfaction watching the warrior drop his weapon and fully sink to his knees. Neither of them have ever been all that forgiving.

"O mighty lords!" the high priest exclaims. "Come. Let me show you to your temple."

"All right," Miguel says gleefully to Tulio. "Temple!" And one not even hewn out of marble, but adorned in a Roman city's worth of wealth.

Tannabok hesitates, but steps aside when Tzekel-Kan demands it of him. Their ascension up the steps is long and high. Tulio is gasping for breath at the end, but hides his exhaustion beyond an aloof facade. As if he is still above fatigue.

Atop the tallest temple is no mere altar and idol, but a palatial suite fit for divinity. Tulio knows it is not the chief's chambers, for Tannabok had emerged from the blue palace and not one of the great pyramids, yet the quarters are already fully furnished for their arrival.

"To commemorate your arrival, I propose a reverent ceremony at dawn."

Tannabok is not to be outdone. "Ah, then perhaps I could prepare a glorious feast for you tonight."

"Which would you prefer?" the high chief challenges.

"Both?" A questioning look. Then a nod. "Both is good," they agree together, to milk this for all they can.

At last their unwitting captors depart. Finally allowed some privacy, they explore their new quarters. The walls are adorned in colorful and elaborate murals. Living vines hang from the ceiling. Cushions adorn every space suitable for lounging. Two thrones await their occupants.

As shock gives way to glee, they share a shit-eating grin. "Tulio," Miguel says excitedly. "Tulio. They actually think we're gods."

They consider this before breaking down in laughter. They're not gods. They're ghosts of a bygone age, meaner than demons, stories that aren't quite just dead words on a dusty page.

"It's an entire city full of suckers!" Tulio agrees. "We just have to keep it up long enough to load up on the gold and get the hell out of here."

They dance around and laugh at the farce, even Altivo joining in. Tulio and Miguel. Miguel and Tulio. Mighty and powerful gods!

"Hello."

They freeze like caught criminals when the thief from earlier makes her presence known. Then they draw themselves up into their most formidable poses.

"Depart, mortal, before we... turn you into a tortoise!"

Miguel shoots him a look. Tulio shrugs back. The awful displays of divine wrath had never been his forte, like sending down plagues or colossal beasts. Aside from turning one inhospitable village into a marsh, his punishments had extended no further than simple transformations and transfigurations

"Beware the wrath of the gods!" Miguel adds. "Begone!" He raises his hands to try for a proper curse, as if the crowd's reverential display had held genuine belief. Nothing comes out but a strange hissing sound that oddly reminds Tulio of an angry swan.

"Miguel," he hisses to his partner at the girl's unimpressed face. "We've been caught."

"Oh, no. Don't worry about me boys." She saunters past them to reunite the stolen golden head to its boy. "'My only wish is to serve the gods.' Remember?"

Tulio arches a brow. "How?"

"Well, if you guys want the gold, then you don't want to get caught, right? You're going to need my help."

"What makes you think we need your help?" Miguel demands crossly.

The woman raises a sarcastic hand and mimics his earlier hissing sound. Her desire of wanting in to get out is something Tulio understands all too well. He is more than willing to part with a fair share of the loot. Her insistence on returning with them is one even he denies. She doesn't belong in zealous Spain any more than they do in El Dorado.

"All right. Fine. After all, I'm sure you know the proper rituals for blessing a tribute, the holiest days on the calendar... Oh, and of course you all know all about Xibalba. Okay? Good luck." She pinches Tulio's cheek for good measure before sashaying toward the threshold. He rubs the sore spot and stares after her. "See you at the execution."

Of course they know damn well about their rituals and their calendar, but not El Dorado's. Tulio's brow furrows at the mention of Xibalba. He knows it means Place of Fear and not a thing past it.

They are but playthings at the utter mercy of the native divinities. Tulio is fully prepared to walk off with a king's ransom of treasure, but certainly not forever disrupt the natural order through the introduction of foreign traditions. Any ties to this city could bind him to it forever. He would be no one's prisoner.

"Wait!" he cries at last. "W-Would you hold it?"

She smiles hopefully and extends her hand. "Deal?"

"Deal!" Miguel agrees.

Tulio stops him from agreeing to anything binding. For now, their partnership is on a trial basis pending actual results.

"Uh huh," she says nonchalantly. "I suppose you'll be wanting these back."

Tulio stammers when offered his own loaded dice. She had pickpocketed him? Where on earth had she even been keeping them? Miguel eyes her dubiously.

"Call me Chel, your new partner." Tulio is swift to correct her as a partner-in-training. Her response is to throw a bolt of cloth over his head. "Uh huh. Now put these on. Your public is waiting."

Miguel happily begins to undress. Tulio does too until he notices Chel is soaking up the sight. Really, Tulio is all for it. Having their nude bodies admired like artwork has always been satisfying. Inviting their audience to touch is even more so.

And, yet...

A false insistence for privacy is enough to grant them some, even if Chel lingers for one last bask.

Miguel whines plaintively after her. "Oh, come on, Tulio.  Look at her. We should call this place Chel Dorado, am I right?"

"Right," Tulio agrees automatically. Then he shakes himself. "No, not right!" He slings a firm arm around Miguel's shoulders and pulls him close. "Remember that little voice? Imagine you have one now. What would it be saying?"

Miguel purrs with the same self-control that famous for the objects of his ardor turning themselves into trees or flinging themselves off cliffs.

"No. Listen. We're partners, right? Until the bitter end?"

"Partners," Miguel agrees.

"We have a plan, remember?" Tulio pleads. "Get the gold. Get back to Spain."

"And pretending to be gods! Without being smote by the real gods!" Tulio now requests him to put Chel in the mix and really consider what his little voice is saying. "Chel is... off-limits?"

"Bravo! Chel is off-limits." For a moment Tulio considers making him swear on whatever is left of the Styx. Instead he settles for, "Shake on it."

Miguel agrees with an easy smile and a hand shake that goes back to their earliest days as family. Already dressed where Tulio still struggles with the foreign garb, he dons a head-dress of resplendent green feathers. Facing a golden etching of their alleged likenesses, he preens before its shining surface.

"Besides, we are gods. We must avoid giving... into temptation..." Miguel turns from his reflection to look helplessly at Tulio. "Are we that sort of god?"

He recalls an age where they both bedded nymphs and goddesses, princes and princesses, kings and queens, without chagrin. Royal families had once proudly boasted of divine descent, no matter how distant, that they had sprung from their seed. He recalls a God with but one Son, or perhaps no progeny at all, above all base desires.

Interpreting a language is one thing. Travelers have always sought common ground with one another. An entire tradition of myths and legends that had never before mingled with their own...

"Gods. Oh." The clumsy knot on his skirt gives way. Tulio grabs it just before sliding into indecency. "This is gonna be harder than I thought."

"Oh, Tulio, relax." Miguel's deft fingers help tie the knot into place before crowning him with another head dress. "All you have to do is smile, follow my lead, and remember."

Tulio wants nothing more than to snatch him by the wrist and make it clear El Dorado (or whatever the hell this city is really named) is not theirs. Its altars and idols are not consecrated in their names. They are but guests here, bound by a form of foreign hospitality with unknown boundaries, and utterly at the mercy of their hosts.

But Miguel is already herding him out before their adoring public. Their godly masks are firmly in place by the time they emerge from behind the curtain. Musicians are playing. The smiles of the crowd are a touch too wide. Their awe is matched by apprehension.

Miguel basks in the attention like a flower does sunshine and radiates it back to them. Tulio does his damnedest to project benign grace as they descend. At the base of the stairs stands a queenly matron with two children in her arms and another baby passively sucking his thumb in a sling. The younger of the children gawking at him has something of Chief Tannabok in his features.

Tulio can't help a bittersweet smile as he reaches to tickle the boy's cheek. He bites back a curse as he is instead bestowed a bite to the finger and fakes a smile out of his wince. He's experienced far more troublesome children.

All the people of the city kneel down for their progress to a large basin. Even the chief bows as he scoops up a bowl of rich purple liquid and offers it to them.

His mouth waters at the unmistakable tang of mulled wine. The taste is bitter and fortified with spices he has no names for. He downs it all the same.

Long did long-dead philosophers warn the dangers of undiluted wine. For Tulio much of the night passes in a blur.

His memories of early evening are the clearest. Altivo bears him and Miguel over a fire pit. The stallion's hooves endure burning coals until the heat finally forces him to leap the final stretch. Night's shrouding darkness and the people's own expectations help Tulio's deceits. Simple tricks of light and shadow help him suggest Miguel is far more than he is.

Like sailors stranded at sea for centuries, their appetites are voracious. Altivo devours bowl upon bowl of golden apples that uncomfortably remind Tulio of an age best forgotten. There are sizzling cakes and ripe red melons and bowls upon bowls of wine.

Then even Tulio's near infallible memory fails some time after that voluptuous woman, her bosom pressing against his back and her long hair tickling his bare torso, dips his head backward to pour wine directly into his mouth.

Did they stand on a spinning stone head or is it just their own dizziness? The night and their imaginations explode into a spectrum of color. In the darkness demons and puppets dance. They glimpse gods in the skies and the shadows and the pulsing multitude.

He certainly remembers the pounding hangover the morning after.

Chapter Text

Chel wishes for even a five minute primer; a basic rundown of what’s expected of a god so her 'gods' don't make idiots of themselves in front of their disbelieving public. With the city riled as it is she has just enough time to throw the proper garments at them before leaving to announce their impending arrival.

And also that Lord Miguel and Lord Tulio have declared her their priestess. Tzekal-Kan, holed up in his temple feverishly consecrating everything for the morning sacrifice, is not around to protest. Chief Tannabok accepts her claim with barely a nod before he goes back to frantically organizing for the feast.

When her 'partners' make their grand appearance Chel sidles her way deeper into the procession around the temple, quickly becoming lost among the dancing puppets and wild-eyed musicians. For now the crowd is enthralled by these false gods. The moment one slips up she's ready to bolt for the jungle and take her chances with the jaguars.

After all, Tulio made it quite clear she's on a trial basis. So are they. If these brazen liars can't even last the first night than she's sure not getting her heart cut out alongside theirs.

Miguel basks in the crowd's attention, prancing his way through like some big bird. When Tulio is bitten by Chief Tannabok's little son, Miguel graces Chieftess Miya with a dazzling smile and whisks his partner onward. Tulio mirrors his easy grace and Chel stops inching toward the back of the crowd.

"And they call us Who Is Like God and He of the People!" Really, those epithets are genius; one vague enough for not even Tzekal-Kan to pick apart, and the other a warning against those who would dare question a god. With Tulio's caution to rein Miguel's grand gestures in, they might just be able to pull this off.

Chel slides further into the shadows when they reach the bowl of sacrificial wine. Refined by only Paquini's high priests and priestesses, not even the nobility can taste such a sacred drink undiluted. The wine in its purest form is reserved for the altars and those about to go to the gods.

Chel's first fear is that they'll gag on the sour taste and spit it out. Instead their faces split into pleased grins as they help themselves to more.

With a deep breath Chel takes her place among the priesthood. Her newfound rank allows her to partake in the Lady of the Vine's sweetest fruits... if watered down four parts water to one part wine.

She downs a single cup only to take off the edge of her anxiety.

Chel can't pry Manoa's new gods away from their people. The music is too loud to whisper. And there's no way she can be caught coaching deities on proper etiquette.

But she can prevent Manoa from noticing too closely. As priestess she now has the authority to call for anything that might please the gods. When Tulio slips into the shadows to play tricks with firelight and his clever fingers, Chel plays up Miguel's shadow transformations, before calling up the puppeteers for another performance of Xibalba's leaping demons.

The night is a whirlwind; calls for drummers and dancers, masks and merriment, tobacco and a hundred different dishes. Chel is always ready with a new distraction while she readies the next.

She doesn't have time to track her partners' every move, but every time she sees them there's a new cup of wine in hand. Even Altivo is downing bowls of the stuff. Their grace gives in to wild dancing and then drunken stumbling. Chel is half-horrified and half-impressed no one's dropped dead yet.

Not that the crowd is sober enough to care. Lesser wines of fruit, agave, and manioc flow like blood in the Dark Days.

Before her 'gods' can collapse Chel wrangles together some attendants to herd them back to their temple.

She tries for Altivo too, grasping for the same leather binding that allows Miguel to guide him. When her hand strays too close he snorts, dark eyes snapping open as he stands up straight. Only then does Chel realize how deep his gaze is, how high he towers over her.

The attendants shy away, but Chel is too close. She instead goes still, casting her eyes respectfully downward. One false move and she's going to be struck by heavy hooves that endured prancing over fire.

For a moment the world is still. Then Altivo breezes away into the dark.

With a shuddering breath, Chel drops her hand back down to her side, and turns to the drunken idiots that at least make sense. They stumble up the stairs without a fight. Cross-eyed Tulio rambles passionately to her. Sometimes his slurs almost form to coherent words... in a tongue she can't understand. Miguel's dissonant humming almost rises into a song. The tune sinks into her brain, warm and welcome as wine--

And ends in a splutter when the singer is dumped into the waiting bath. Under Chel's watch the 'gods' are bathed and changed into the meticulously laundered clothes they had worn in their arrival. Only then are they ushered to bed.  Tzekal-Kan cannot wake the next morning to discover two disheveled, hung-over men where he had expected sleeping gods whole in their perfection.

Chel shoos the attendants away. By the time she gets back her partners are already snoring. Miguel's arms reach out in search of a warm body. They first close around a pillow he hugs close to his chest.

Chel envies their utter bliss. She eyes the space between them. For one weak moment she steps forward to burrow her way into the huddle.

Of course she curls up on the couch instead.

Just this morning she had fled Manoa an escaped slave, a girl of the Vine People destined for sacrifice. Then she had nearly become an executed prisoner. Now she is priestess to two false gods. Despite the exhaustion drawing down her eyes, her pounding heart won't allow her rest.

Chel still closes her eyes. It doesn't matter how well Tulio can improvise or Miguel can boast if Tzekal-Kan discovers their true ignorance of the Twin Gods and every aspect of Manoan life. She is their one hope, and she needs sleep to keep her mind sharp.

Her rapid heartbeat is no solace so she instead concentrates on the heavy breathing of her partners. Chel forces her eyes shut. Anxiously she awaits the heaviness that will pull her down into welcome darkness.

Sweet cakes upon a wooden altar before a bearded face. Incense burning before a bronze brazier, smoke and savor mingling as one. Beasts; large and lowing, small and bleating, clucking little birds and barking dogs, led through cheering crowds. Knives glint in the sunlight and roads run red.

The faces are unknown, the lands alien, but Chel knows sacrifice all the same.

So too does she see it in beasts like Altivo, screaming as they and their wheeled litter are driven over a cliff and shatter on the jagged rocks below.

Somewhere far away, peaceful snoring deepens into the roar of the sea, vaster than any lake. Yet though she stands upon a rocky coast, unshielded by trees, the air is still and the sailors with it. Their ships are dead in the harbor.

The price for wind is the young girl kneeling in the sand, unbound and willing. Despite the tears streaming down her cheeks she evenly meets the gaze of the man before her. He is her own father, and it is he who holds the knife high upon her head. His face is contorted in agony. His men stare stonily on.

There is a baby amongst them, standing on his own two feet and holding a tortoise high above his head.

The baby meets her gaze and winks. His pudgy legs move incredibly fast as he dashes for the shore.

Chel turns and races blindly after him. She never sees if a father can offer up his own daughter.

The baby glides over the sea without his feet even touching the waves.

With infallible dream logic Chel follows him without sinking herself. She flies over wine-dark seas as the boy becomes a mere blur on the horizon before outpacing her altogether.

Chel still lands in among wooded and rolling hills. Dirt roads wind across the landscape. They are all alike, save for the one marked by a pile of stones, too purposefully located to be anything but intentional.

Chel glides down, following a trail of cairns. Eventually loose piles of stone give way to shapeless columns of stone and wood. Further still down the road the markers grow more defined, bearing proud phalluses and rough-hewn heads.

At last the figure resolves into a man's rugged face, framed by curly hair and beard. His face is pulled into a wry, familiar grin. He stands by a dark cave, set so deep in the rocky mountainside Chel almost mistakes it for a mere shadow. She just spots the baby slip inside.

They are not alone on the path. Chel turns to face their pursuer.

The youth is lithe and tawny, long hair wreathed in green branches and beardless face twisted in fury. In his wake the sun blazes hot and fierce, scorching the grass with every step.

His burning brilliance falls upon the quiet cave and its hiding baby...

Chel is shaken frantically awake by a girl who just yesterday was her superior. She barely has time to get on her feet before Tzekal-Kan and his acolytes stride in.

There is no time to wake Tulio and Miguel before they are bundled into their litter, let alone time to inform them exactly what the high priest has planned.

Chel keeps her mouth shut, plasters a smile on her face, and diligently falls into the resplendent procession.

If the gods are really merciful today then there would be but one sacrifice. And it's not gonna be her.

Chapter Text

There was a time when Miguel once rose with the sun or rose with it behind him. Perhaps he might have even been the sun.

Now, he rises from sleep with a pounding hangover, and a gold-toothed skull leering over him. Miguel jerks back with the instinctive revulsion of one who was once never destined to know death.

"Good morning, my lords!" Tzekal-Kan greets cheerfully beneath the mask before he ducks out of the litter. He announces their awakening to the roaring crowd outside.

"Oh no," Tulio groans.

The people are waiting. Miguel pushes back his mussed hair and tucks in his shirt. He and Tulio greet the multitude as nothing less than the picture of benign grace. Their cheers drive the pounding from his head and make him stand all the straighter.

They stand upon a red stone platform that juts out over a gaping chasm. On the other side stand the people of Manoa. Their litter-bearers are big, strapping men. They stand with their heads bowed and shoulders hunched, trying to make themselves seem all the smaller. There is an odd tightness to the bend of their necks. The air thrums with nervous anticipation.

Chel flits across their path, scattering pink flower petals. Her face is carefully neutral. Her eyes are wide with pure terror. Miguel's neck prickles.

"Hey, Chel," Tulio whispers to her. "What's going on?"

"It's not gonna be good," she hisses back.

No one is quick-witted like Tulio. Miguel awaits the single clever question that will explain the situation. Tulio only manages a soft 'thank you' before Chel hastens out of earshot. Miguel scowls at him. Someone's still not a morning person.

"This city has been granted a great blessing," Tzekal-Kan declares to the crowd. "And what have we done to show our gratitude? A meager... celebration." Chief Tannabok stiffens ever so slightly beneath the high priest's accusing gaze. "The gods deserve a proper tribute!"

Miguel exchanges an intrigued look with his partner. It's been nigh over a millennium since tribute was ever explicitly offered to either of them. Manoa may have mistaken them for two native gods, but the deities themselves are showing no signs of protest. This is a gift to their guests.

Three men enter from the skull-faced archway behind them bearing a massive golden plate between them. The sack upon it is adorned in vibrant red flowers and tied in fine blue silk. It squirms ever so slightly.

Sacrifice.

Miguel's mouth waters. He cannot remember the last time a priest slit a bull's throat in his name and the savor floating up to his high halls. Gold is one thing. A life willingly offered is quite another.

Ravenously he tries to think back to what they'd eaten the night before. Have they seen cows in Manoa? Even little sheep or goats? Tulio still likes a good ram.

The clever men of their homeland had tricked them into accepting only the lesser parts of the sacrifice, the fat and bones burned upon the braziers. Maybe Manoa has known better than to stiff their own gods.

"The dawning of a new age demands... sacrifice."

Tzekal-Kan raises his arms, and the air crackles as the world moves to his will. Magic. Miguel hitches a breath. True magic, not just smoke and mirrors. The men set down their bundle, all too eager to scurry away as their high priest unwraps the offering with his own power.

It is not a sheep or goat trussed up before them. It is a human man. He leans heavily on his knees, bound heads clutched to his chest.

The crowd, Chief Tannabok among them, fall silent. Some gasp. None say a word as Tzekal-Kan holds out a commanding hand. The man's eyes, dazed and drugged, half-open as he meekly rises toward his fate.

"I don't like this," Tulio hisses, but he doesn't move a muscle.

The man plods toward the precipice with Tzekal-Kan marching a pace behind him. From somewhere far down below water roars and rushes. With a wooden cudgel edged in sharp black obsidian, the priest pushes him to the very edge. The man leans forward in a docile bow.

Shock paralyzes Miguel. Horror and outrage stir beneath it. There are other urges, deeper and darker and--

No.

It takes all of Miguel's willpower to make himself clutch Tulio's shoulder and whisper urgently into his hear. "Tulio, we've got to do something." You have to do something, before--

Tzekal-Kan, slowly and steadily, raises his cudgel.

"Stop!"

It is not a desperate cry. It is a command to be obeyed.

Tzekal-Kan stops. So do the crowd, as Tulio's voice carries much further than it should have. The very world seems to hold its breath.

Uncaring of the eyes upon them, mortal or divine, Miguel and Tulio stride forward. Tzekal-Kan lowers his cudgel in bewilderment. Miguel strides past him. The would-be victim safely collapses into his waiting arms.

Tulio faces the head priest head-on. "This is not a proper tribute!"

"You do not want the tribute?" Tzekal-Kan asks, baffled.

Only then does it register to Miguel a human sacrifice might be the epitome of tribute to their host gods. And that they have just blatantly refused that greatest gift.

"No. No, no," Miguel stammers frantically. "Uh, it's just that..."

Tulio's eyes ever so slightly bug out at him. Then he musters up all of his blustering self-righteousness as he rounds upon the high priest, jabbing an imperious finger up to the skies. "The stars are not in position for this tribute!"

Tzekal-Kan glances skyward in utter bewilderment. Miguel heaves the poor man past. His relief is tempered by his own lack of strength.

"Like he says, the stars," Miguel agrees easily. "Can't do it. Not today."

Once Miguel could heal a man with a touch, immediately drive out whatever drug had made him so blindly accepting of imminent death. Now he delivers the man to attendants that come bustling out of the shadows with a firm command to have him sent to a healer. He laments he can't do anything else on his own.

There. Not a refusal of a gift, a postponement. A delay that would last until they were an ocean away from any sort of divine retribution.

"Ah." For a second Tzekal-Kan tries to gather up a protest. Beneath Tulio's firm, unwavering stare, his own resolve finally gives way. He presses his hands in supplication. "Perhaps it is possible I... misread the heavens."

"Don't worry about it. To err is human, to forgive..."

Miguel trails off as he inwardly suppresses an urge to hit himself. Really? Font of poetic wisdom that he was, he spouts that old platitude off? Tulio's never been all that forgiving. In his youth, Miguel was the exact opposite. And they most certainly not divine. Not anymore.

Chief Tannabok clears his throat. All turn toward him. "My lords, may the people of Manoa offer you our tribute."

He grandly raises his arms toward the procession of beautiful maidens in blue-green dresses emerging from the temple's shadows. Miguel salivates even before he notices the heaping platters of gold they support between themselves.

"My lords," the chief repeats, "does this please you?"

"Yes, very nice," he agrees amiably. "Yes, lovely. It'll do."

"Certainly acceptable," Tulio chimes in diplomatically as they hide naked hunger behind a higher dignity.

"The gods have chosen!" Chief Tannabok declares. The gloom hanging over the crowd dissipates like daybreak. Miguel feels his own heart rise with them on heady relief. "To Xibalba?"

Miguel doesn't have a clue what that means, but the crowd is with it, and he with them. He raises his own hands to the heavens, Tulio's following a heartbeat later, and the crowd swells with them.

"To Xibalba!" they declare.

Only then does he notice Chel among the maidens. She buries her face in her palm as they fling their baskets skyward. Miguel gapes as the gold soars over their heads and into the churning waters below. He sheepishly glances at Tulio, who glares daggers back.

"Hey, Chel," he asks awkwardly. "Um, what are they doing?"

Arms crossed, she scowls up at him. "They're sending to Xibalba, the spirit world."

"The spirit world," Tulio echoes grimly.

"I'll take care of it."

Chel calmly strides over to the chief as a king's ransom flies to the underworld. He only blinks for a moment at the idea Miguel and Tulio want to 'bask in the reverence that has been shown to them.' At Tannabok's command the entire offering grinds to a halt. Then the fervor starts up again as the procession instead makes its way back to their temple.

As Miguel joins them, he is not blind to the vicious smile Tzekal-Kan exchanges with Tannabok or the chief's smug little wave back.

Miguel and Tulio climb into their litter. Altivo prances over to them, the crowd parting like water for him. He stands purposefully next to Chel, kneeling ever so slightly. After a moment's hesitation she does her best to climb on.

Altivo has perhaps carried kings and heroes. Whatever he was then, he now patiently uses millennium of experience to nudge Chel into position. She gracefully corrects her posture into a graceful side-saddle that would leave even princesses green with envy. The reins rest slack in her lap.

The parade slowly winds its way through the streets. Much of the time is spent gloating over their gold.

"Not bad for a day's work, eh?" Miguel asks ruefully. It's the last day they'll ever have to work. If they ration or invest their hoard wisely over the coming centuries.

"Not bad at all. We just became richer than the king of Spain." Tulio throws back his head in a haughty laugh. "Plus ultra, my ass. We just went even further beyond!"

Miguel still remembers a time when he had driven the sun down into the waters of a land not that far west of the Pillars of Hercules. Wisely had those ancient men declared there to be nothing further beyond, for they and their gods had found nothing but endless ocean. It stings his pride how wider the skies have become in his absence, how a mortal gloats of glories won a land entirely unknown to the great conquerors of old.

Only through soaring so high does Miguel know how painful the crash down to earth can be. Older and wiser, he hears the arrogance in Tulio's voice, and the need to ground him once more.

"You know, speaking of kings, the chief and high priest seem a bit... tense."

"Excellent!" Tulio leans back in his cushions. "Listen, all we have to do is keep playing the one against the other. I can do that in my sleep. You know, do a little god dance, chant some vaguely worded prophecies, dazzle 'em with smoke and mirrors and then get the hell back to Spain."

Miguel bristles. "If we're here, can't we at least--"

"No." Tulio sits up sharply. "You know we don't have that kind of energy to burn."

"But aren't we--"

"Miguel," his partner interrupts sharply, "who do they think we are?"

Miguel cocks his head. "Miguel and Tulio?"

"And that we're called...?"

"Miguel and Tulio."

"And that Miguel and Tulio can do what exactly?"

"Stop human sacrifices?" he shoots back. He rolls his eyes at his partner's withering stare. "Okay, yes, I get. Make no ripples. Get out unscathed."

"Exactly. Unless you want to, you know..."

Miguel squeezes his eyes shut against a dizzying wave of memories. He knows all too well. It's so much neater to pretend that he's only ever been one of a kind, that peoples all across the Old World had known exactly the same him under different names. At least when the other option was syncretism.

His brow furrows over that first fateful mistaken identity, the two gods on their flying serpent. "Speaking of... the s-word... who exactly do they think we are, anyway?"

"Uh..."

Miguel opens his eyes as he truly takes in the endless treasures following in their wake. "And, Tulio, how are we gonna get all this back to Spain?"

Rarely is he blessed with seeing his partner looked so stumped. If not for the mortal peril, it would be downright adorable.

Chapter Text

As priestess Chel is technically in charge of delegating how, where, and when her 'gods' shall be offered their tribute. Considering that Tulio and Miguel are both very vocal on what should go where, the point is moot. As the pile starts swallowing up floor space, the problem shifts from sorting the gold to making sure there's enough room left over to live around the gold and not in the gold.

Privately Chel wonders how they're gonna get it all out of the city.  Then there's the issue of where the gold is going.

Manoa has isolated itself away from its neighbors since it went out and conquered the People of the Vine. There's still enough news and trade leaking in from the outside for her to roughly know the world around her; deserts of sand to the north with the mound-builders and mesa cities beyond, and the winding trade-roads of the high mountains to the south. Tulio and Miguel have come from neither. She hopes that their people aren't landlocked. They can't carry that much on foot.

As the parade of tribute finally winds down, Tulio catches her eye. It doesn't take long to shoo out the last of the attendants so her 'gods' can bask in peace.

Not that Chel even gives them a moment of it. She is ready to take them by the ears and drag them to the couch. They both beat her to it.

Miguel clears his throat awkwardly. "Um. So... what happened this morning... Is this a thing?"

Chel crosses her arms. "For special occasions. Rather tame for Tzekal-Kan too. Surprised he didn't try cutting out the heart and offering it to you."

Both go a little green. It Tulio who tries, "And does this happen... often?"

Chel shrugs. Prior to the sudden arrival of two physical 'gods,' the world had been as stable as could be. Lord Cassipa neither drowned the world with his tears nor threatened drought. Lake Parime was at a stable level. Its fish and turtles were healthy. The moon and sun rose and set as they should. There is no plague or war. Aside from the ominous rumbling on the day of their arrival, Lady Raima has been quiet, and the crops are growing as they should.

"The world's been good," she says succinctly. "When the gods do get upset a little gold or incense is usually enough to sway them. A lot of gold or animal blood if not. And then you two came along." She rolls her eyes. At least annoyance suppresses the shiver. "Tzekal-Kan believes you two are here to herald the Age of the Jaguar."

Two blank faces blink back at her.

"Maybe I should just start from the beginning? You know, cover the basics of creation and the major gods. So that way you two don't get us all killed."

Her partners nod gamely. "Not getting killed is good," Miguel chimes in dutifully.

Chel waves out the window in the direction of the placid waters of Lake Parime. "Eupana, Lady of the Lake, dwells out there. Way back in the beginning she married Bibi, the trickster god, and birthed the First World. It was paradise. Humans, Bibi's favorite creation, lived without ever knowing hardship."

"Let me guess," Tulio interjects wearily. "Mankind grew insolent and got drowned for it?"

"The whole First World did. Even the gods were unhappy, because now they had nowhere to live. But Bibi liked people. So he found some clever ones and taught them how to build mountains of their own. They were so high they rose above the floodwaters." Chel waves a hand to their surroundings. "And, to prove their loyalty, in each temple a man or woman offered up their own life as tribute to the gods. Now the gods had a place to live above mankind, and mankind a place to make sure the gods were always honored. But Eupana wanted no part, so she retreated into Lake Parime and her island in Xibalba."

Miguel's green eyes widen. "So that's why this place was all furnished and ready for us-- I mean, someone? Because we-- er, the gods we're believed to be, were expected?"

"Sort of. Mostly the temple quarters are just for the sacrifices."

Not for the prisoners of war or the servants to be mass sacrificed in the Dark Days, where sheer quantity triumphs over quality. But the choice sacrifices, the fine young maidens or brave young warriors, allowed to know such earthly pleasures they are for a time near exalted as the gods themselves so that that the offering of that one life would be all the more precious.

As one her partners glance over to their shared bed with revulsion and horror.

"No, no, no! Not these quarters. The Dual Gods have never called for a human sacrifice before." Which meant Tzekal-Kan would keep trying all different sorts of sacrifice methods until finding one that appeals to them.

"And the Dual Gods are...?"

Chel can't help but reach over and press a finger to Tulio's lips to shush him. Miguel's eyes are torn between staring at it and his sudden proximity to her chest. "We're three worlds away, honey. Wait for it."

Miguel bristles ever so slightly when she pulls away from him and Tulio. They still dig into the heaping platters of food left upon the tables as she continues on the history of the current world.

With the ending of the Age of the Turtle it is Raima, Lady of the Mountain, that oversees the creation and ruling of a new world. Under her the Second World is still good, though not quite as prosperous as the one before it. When mankind grew impertinent again, she rained fire and fury down upon them. Raima is not one to be argued with, so clever Bibi instead introduced her Cassipa, Lord of the Rains, to cool her temper. Under their passion life could once more thrive, but never again was a world as green as the Second World. So Bibi taught them the secrets of planting seeds to create their own food, and so sewed the beginnings of farming.

With the raising of a new world, the gods debate over who is to rule it. Balam Qoxtok, the Obsidian Lord, is old and strong. Many challenge him, but he beats and kills many of his challengers until many gods support him.

But just as many back the Two Suns, Lord Kinich and Lady Kama, who have watched over the world since its earliest age.

With both sides evenly matched, the gods look to Lady Eupana, old and wise, as final judge. Balam Qoxtok is mighty, but he is rude, and demands what he sees as his. Grandmother Turtle is not moved. Kinich and Kama are proud, but not arrogant, as their noble natures temper them. Eupana declares them the new rulers and the gods hail her wisdom. Balam Qoxtok, pride bruised, retreats into the lonely shadows of the world to lick his wounds. So does he become the Jaguar God, he who hunts alone.

The Third World is one ruled by the Two Suns, Lord Kinich and Lady Kama. Under them mankind never know darkness. With two gods ruling them, there now must be twice as many sacrifices.

But Youalan, the Crocodile God, is an old and jealous god. Since Eupana raised the First World from the primordial waters he has looked upon its rulers with envy. So Youalan tricks the two suns down into his waters. He devours Kinich and maims Kama before Munah, their brave companion, drives him back into the depths of Xibalba.

With the absence of the Two Suns, mankind first knows night and all its terrors. Youalan and Balam Qoxtok battle for domain of the next world. From their clashes demons of death and disorder are spawned. They fall upon humanity and devour them in droves. But Bibi teaches them how to kindle fire, and keep the dark and the demons at bay.

Munah, the Hero God, follows the Crocodile God down into the spirit world and challenges the Lords of Xibalba to a contest to return Kinich to life. Munah succeeds through strength and cunning, but Balam Qoxtok, the last lord, was not present for the contest as he did battle with the Crocodile God. He bitterly refuses to succeed to Munah's bargain. This is why the sun must die at dusk to be reborn every dawn.

Kama, scarred, hides away from Kinich during the day. Only when he dies every night does the Lady of the Moon show her face, so that the world might still know some pale shadow of his light. Yet the absence from Kinich is still too much to bare at times. So Kama will instead go down to Kinich in Xibalba when he is even lesser than she is, and consign the world to darkness.

Tired of the stalemate between the Jaguar God and the Crocodile God, the other gods finally declare Youalan the winner, as it was he who brought down the Two Suns. The Age of the Crocodile is the bloodiest there has yet been. Youalan's hunger is bottomless, and that of his wife Ayin, the Caiman Goddess, and their children just as so. When humans dared beg for mercy, his rumbles shook the earth just as a lesser crocodile would the water. So did entire cities die before the Lord of Earthquakes.

While Balam Qoxtok feeds upon the blood spilled in war, those lost to other gods are beyond him. With mankind dwindling on the edge of extinction, the Obsidian Lord once more warred against the Lord of Earthquakes. Their battle devastated what was left of the Fourth World.

Bibi sheltered away what humans he could. He taught them the secret desires of the other gods; sweet cakes and fragrant incense, and how beast blood could satiate even a god's thirst. When humans could spare no more sacrifices of their own, the lesser tributes kept their refuges alive, even if the other gods were yet indifferent to helping them.

Balam Qoxtok eventually had his vengeance upon the Crocodile God and slew him, confining his vengeful widow to Xibalba. But the Obsidian Lord could not raise a world on his own. The only lands he drew forth were black and barren. Long ago had the Jaguar God alienated the others. None would spare the effort in helping to fertilize a world from which he intended to lord over them as Youalan had.

All seemed lost.

"Ah hah!" Tulio brandishes a triumphant finger as he sends a bowl of grapes flying across the room from the force of it. "And that's where 'we' enter the story!"

"And Altivo," Miguel interjects. "We-- er, the Dual Gods-- are always riding on a serpent, remember?" Their gazes all flick to one such depiction, etched into gleaming gold.

Chel nods. "Exactly. Down swoops the Feathered Serpent to Lake Parime's shores. Upon him are two gods that raise a new world." She reaches behind her to grab a single trinket from the treasure heap behind her. "And they left behind something even the gods can't get enough of."

Tulio avariciously snatches the bauble out of her hand with a speed that makes her blink. "Gold!" he laughs. "A whole damn city's worth!"

"What else did the Dual Gods do?" Miguel asks eagerly. "Who are they?"

"The Dual Gods," Chel says bluntly. "They came down on the Feathered Serpent, created a new world, and returned to where the gods dwell."

"That's it!?" Tulio squawks. "B-B-But..."

"But they didn't stick around to tell us what to call them or what pleased them. So here we are, in a huge temple meant to honor those who rule the Fifth World, and waiting for their arrival."

Of course all the priests and priestesses had their theories. Chief Tannabok's supporters favor them as the Two Suns anew, to restore the full power of the kingly house. Tzekal-Kan upholds them as his patron god made manifest in mighty new forms, War and Conquest riding in upon a new herald. Chel of course tells them this.

"You know, we never explicitly said we were in any way related to the Dual Gods or the Feathered Serpent," Tulio says cannily. His eyes, blue as the sky, glint impishly.

"I just said we were Tulio and Miguel," Miguel agrees. "And that we were called He of the People and Who Is Like God."

Chel smirks. "Exactly. Remain as vague as possible and not even Tzekal-Kan can call you out on anything. Not even he would dare to presume anything about who you are and what you can do."

Tulio rounds on Miguel with a vindictive smirk of his own. His partner just rolls his eyes. "See, Miguel? What did I tell you about playing one against the other?"

"Hopefully in a way that doesn't entirely tick one off and get us all found and killed in a bloody coup," Chel retorts. She pins him with her stare. "Alright, partner. What do we need to get out of here, and how do we get it?"

Tulio answers. She listens.

Her brows arch.

Huh. Guess he does have the brains to back up his near-suicidal smugness.

Chapter Text

"A boat?" Chief Tannabok echoes blankly.

"Yeah," Tulio says simply. "Unless you expect us to haul all this back ourselves."

Miguel shifts forward to take control. Tulio is all too eager to lean back and give it to him. Sailing has never been his purview. Miguel at least has a little more experience with boats, especially among the odd sailor that blew into ports like Valencia and Tarragona.

"Uh, really sorry to be ascending so soon, but, uh some urgent business has come up. Family matters, you know?" Miguel helpfully points skyward. The chief's flabbergasted gaze follows it.

"Yeah, family matters," Tulio agrees. Inwardly he congratulates the clever excuse. They're all the family the other has left, and it's urgent business it stays that way. "You know what I mean?"

Tannabok does have a wife and kids. Yet Tulio is also sure his family tree doesn't include anywhere near the amount of divine incest or tangled relationships as his own possible lineage does.

Bemused, Tannabok leans back in his throne. "Well, we expected you to be staying with us for the next... thousand years."

Miguel and Tulio glance at each other. Their last thousand years together have been long and bitter. They had witnessed their temples torn down, their followers cast them aside, and their entire pantheon fade into oblivion. At least weathering the next thousand years back in Spain will be a little easier with a hoard of gold to fuel their hungers. Tulio is not about to find out what happens if he stays in this city and plants down roots an older, more established god can swallow up in a heartbeat.

"Well, as we say in the spirit world, there's your plan and then... there's the gods' plan."

"There is nothing permanent except change," Miguel recites enigmatically. Tulio fights the urge to elbow him. That was just spouting Heraclitus, not even anything original! "And our plan calls for a ship, so that we might sail into the sunrise and to where the day is born anew."

Tulio blinks at his heartfelt tone. That isn't just a poetic way of sailing east. They're the words of someone who once emerged from the gates by the shores of a ruddy eastern ocean, sailed across the skies, and descended to the ocean's embrace in the Iberian Sea.

"Hm." Mollified, Tannabok rubs his chin in thought. "To build a boat large and glorious enough, one truly able to bear such a long journey, would take... about a week."

They glance at each other. A week is seven days too many. Seven days to be exposed as frauds and sacrificed up to their indifferent hosts. Seven days to fall into the spell of this place and pretend the last thousand years never happened, to fade away and let the fantasy claim them.

"I wonder how long it would take Tzekal-Kan to do it," Tulio muses aloud.

The mere mention of the high priest's name makes Tannabok pare down his estimate to three days. Miguel's warning nudge to the ribs tells him not to push it further. They need every speck of gold they can swindle out of this place without overstepping the boundaries. What's one little ship of gold to deities who preside over a whole city of it?

Tulio still frets about it the entire way back to their--- their borrowed temple. When in private, he does so out loud. Because, for all that Miguel is older, he sometimes has the attention span of a concussed pigeon. And the sense of survival who has never known reason to be fearful until too late in life.

Chel spends his rant picking through the gold earrings among their tribute. Even the commoners with gold in their ears walk tall and unafraid. The ones with green stone walk as their docile shadows. He has only ever glimpsed those with no adornments at all in the back of crowds, in clothes little better than rags.

Reflexively Tulio picks up an emerald-studded pair off the heap and deftly offers them up. "These are the ones."

Chel's eyes light up. "Oh, thank you." Immediately she discards the old stone for the golden earrings. She stands all the taller in them. They suit her as Tulio's dice suit him or the lute does Miguel. Whatever her origins, she has a place in Manoa they will never have.

Tulio glances at Miguel. His rage spikes at seeing him sprawled out on the gold like a lounging cat. "Miguel, how are we gonna keep this up for three days?"

"You worry too much," Miguel draws. "Three days acting like this? It's not exactly a new-"

"No," Tulio snaps. "I worry exactly the right amount. Worrying this much has kept us alive and it will keep us alive. We just have to lie low."

Miguel stretches languidly and rolls off the gold, staring out into the city with the same like of wide-eyed wanderlust that will inevitably end with an angry husband or wife chasing him out of their spouse's bed. "But, Tulio, this place is amazing. Who know what's-"

"No!" Tulio snarls. "Don't even move!"

Miguel instinctively freezes. It's listening to Tulio that's kept him alive long after others have gone. Then, dammit all, he starts protesting. "Tulio-"

Tulio is in no mood for an argument. Gone is the time three days could pass in the blink of an eye or a miniature eternity. Also gone is the stamina to actually stand still three days as a physical statue. But he still grabs Miguel by the shoulders and holds him firmly. Miguel was once always the taller of the two. He's always been vain like that. Tulio wonders if it's stubborn immaturity or a greater weakness making him the shorter one now.

"For three days," he repeats. "Don't even breathe. All right?"

"All right," Miguel huffs. "We'll lie low."

Tulio stares long and hard into his eyes. For a heartbeat he wants Miguel to swear on the Styx, or whatever is left of it. No. Three days is nothing to them. He can't force a vow like that out of his partner for something ultimately so trivial over their lifetimes

"Promise?"

"Yeah, yeah," Miguel says at last. "All right, all right."

The icy grip on Tulio's chest eases. He shamelessly excuses himself to gloat over his share of the gold. He sinks to his knees and cradles a gold pot to his chest like a newborn child.

It is a gift offered under mostly false pretenses, an extension of another pantheon's pity, but it is a gift nonetheless. It is not a tribute in any of the names he would have liked, but it is a tribute to his name. It's his like a truly stolen prize can never be.

When the strangle-hold on the gold eases, Tulio scoops what he can into a basket. Time to start divvying up their choice shares with Miguel. It's only right that the mortal gets last pickings this time around.

He finds only Chel sitting on the couch with a criminal's casualness. "Hey, what happened to Miguel?"

"I dunno," Chel mumbles noncommittally. Because of course she doesn't know. She only just set Miguel loose upon an unsuspecting populace.

Tulio snaps. He drops the basket of tribute and collapses into the couch. "Dear gods. When in the hell did I become the responsible one?"

Warm, expert hands ease into his shoulders. He can't help but moan and lean into them. "Miguel's right," Chel purrs into his ear. "You worry too much."

Tulio tears himself away. "Look, Chel, we're in the middle of godly business here, walking the razor's edge. On the one hand, gold! On the other, painful, agonizing failure!" He emphatically gestures of a violent mural upon the wall that illustrates his very point of what happens to those that betray Manoa's hospitality. "We can't afford any tempt-- uh, distractions."

Chel settles down in the same place he just deserted. She pulls raven hair over her shoulder to reveal curves that a man could lose himself in forever. A thief's mind and a body just as divine. His fatal weaknesses combined.

"So, I'm sorry. So sorry. But perhaps another time, another place? Somewhere when we're not on the verge of execution?"

"Too bad," she sighed, nimble fingers playing with her hair in a way that made him think of possibilities. "I'm free now."

"I'm... not really sure I trust you." Really, Tulio? That's your best excuse?

"I'm not really asking you to trust me, am I?"

Tulio's resolve crumbles, as it has so many times before. He is a creature of habit. He is a thief and he is not above stealing from those most precious to him, in breaking his own promises to do so.

Tulio reaches out with hands that have known the divine and the destitute, the mundane and the miraculous. Chel leans into his embrace. They lose themselves in each other.

Chapter Text

Miguel once delighted in the walls raised and towns established under the consultation of his oracles. Now he marvels at a masterpiece he's had no part in. He inhales deeply. The air is hot and humid, but the sanitation here is impeccable. There is no sewage darkening the clear waters or hanging heavy. He inhales only the perfume of heady flowers and spices.

Manoa is a rainbow. Birds of every color flit about overhead. He watches them wistfully. The walls range from rich reds and golds to cool blue and greens.

The streets are wide and well-paved, but utterly deserted. Once Miguel glimpses two men dart through an alleyway and out of sight. They are too quick for him to call after.

Suspicious, he follows alabaster streets to a marketplace. Beneath colorful canvas food and pottery and fine fabrics are still displayed. Their stall-owners and customers are nowhere to be found.

Miguel fixates upon the only person present. From the broad shoulders and jaguar cloak draped over his shoulders he knows now from Chel's instructions that this is Chima, head of the warriors in the city and loyal to Tzekal-Kan.

"Excuse me? Excuse me." Chima turns, his look of exasperation crumbling into one of fearful awe as he truly takes in who's addressing him. Part of Miguel stirs in grim satisfaction. This is the man that held him at spear-point just the day before. "Hey, where is everybody?"

"They've been cleared from the streets, my lord, so the city can be cleansed, as you ordered."

Miguel's eyes narrow as Chima's widen ever so slightly. "Cleansed?"

"So the Age of the Jaguar can begin," the warrior says, gaining confidence. "As you ordered."

His eye twitches. Miguel knows those ambitious priests all too well. Sometimes he appreciated the forethought in those that pleased him without him needing to make his demands known. All too often he had been content to sit back and let the mortals carry on with their boring little lives without ever interfering. Only rarely had an insolent priest spoken too brazenly out of turn to be worth punishing.

But all his priests are long dead. He has known the zealous and self-assuming sorts that came after all too well.

The sound of a scuffle makes his head snap to the right. A man falls onto his back, cowering before the two guards advancing behind him.

Something inside him snaps. For the first time since leaving Spain his voice rises above a pleasant as he commands for them to stop. His temper surges when he isn't immediately obeyed. And peaks all the more when he has to physically push the guards away and snarl after them.

Transformation is too gentle a punishment. He should strike them down where they--

"But, my lord," Chima pipes up nervously. He quails when Miguel's focus snaps to him. "Anyone who disobeys your orders... must be punished, as you ordered."

Miguel inhales through clenched teeth as reason returns. "Let me guess, Tzekal-Kan told you this?"

"Y-Yes, my lord."

"Here's a command," Miguel sneers. "You all listen to me and take the day off."

His ire flees as he turns back toward the man on the ground, staring up at him in wide-eyed awe. He smiles warmly as he stoops to offer a helping hand. He chuckles when the man instead offers up his gold earrings and waves them away.

"No. Please, it's all right."

No. No, it's not awe the man feels for him. He stares up with the same naked horror his last followers did when they were cut down by those who feared just as strongly the power they answer too.

The same horror those hunters must have felt when they died one by one to slay the single-minded, vengeful beast his twin had become in the very end.

The man desperately throws his earrings down and flees as if that same beast is on his heels. In his haste he plows into a stall, knocking its contents to the ground, but never stops running. Miguel splutters hopelessly after him.

Being forgotten is one thing. Being feared like a demon is quite another.

His dejected gaze sweeps over the fallen objects. Over a taut drum lays wooden frame with taut wires between.

Lyres are child's play to his expert fingers. They'll always hold a special place in his heart, the first and greatest gift Tulio ever gave him, but so does Miguel love all instruments akin to it. The lute is harder to craft, especially from such makeshift materials. It sounds all the sweeter as he tunes it for the first time.

The soft clop of hooves makes him look up. He smiles fondly as a pale gray head emerges from behind a corner. "Oh, hello, Altivo. What've you been up to?"

Altivo fully strides into view with two girls strolling confidently at his side and a boy bouncing on his back. Upon sighting Miguel the girls gasp and retreat behind the horse's legs.

Miguel smiles softly back. He's always had a soft spot for his daughters, rare as they were. Where words failed before, he trusts in his music to carry him past.

As Tulio knows every turn of the dice and fold of the card, so does Miguel know the lute. Tulio needs no true power to spot a tell or incite a gambler into losing it all. So does Miguel know the upbeat, gentle notes to coax the girls from Altivo and Manoans from behind their doors and windows.

When a true crowd starts to gather, Miguel livens up the tune, fingers dancing across the strings. Laughing, the little girls spin in a circle and join in. Even Altivo bounces to the tune. In the growing crowd tentative smiles break into true grins.

He could play the day away and drag Manoa into the revelry with him, but he has only three days to make memories that must carry him the rest of his life.

One older man is bold enough to stray close, squinting as he bends down to inspect the instrument up close. Miguel slows his song to show him a few beginning strums.

"Hello," he greets brightly. "What's your name?"

"Kaay, my lord," the man answers absently, too intent in studying his instrument to pay much mind to manners. "What is this...?"

Miguel's only answer is to smile and gently press it into his own hands. Kaay strums his first tentative notes. A small crowd gathers around him instead. As always, Miguel sneaks off to leave a new musical tradition to found itself as its players willed.

Manoa does not let him go so easily. Across a canal of glittering fish he catches of the gazes of many who watched him in the square. Their smiles are warm and beckoning. Miguel beams back and allows himself to be welcomed into their world.

Canny Achto takes him first. If Miguel has taken the form of a mortal, then surely he wants to know how the average mortal tries to reach their ancestors. From atop a high wooden post spin people in animal masks, attached only by a single ankle tie.

Lady Pixa might allow the soul of a brave person to return to earth as a bird or butterfly to grant an omen or simply visit their family. The living can only reach so high by emulating the birds, in hopes their thoughts and prayers carry high enough for the Lady of Souls to send on.

Many go up in bird or butterfly masks in hopes of increasing the chances what they might be permitted to return as. Miguel goes up as himself.

Achto ties him to the post and spins him with the others. In the first rotation the blood rushes to his head and lifts him to giddy new heights. Miguel leans back and closes his eyes. Spreading his hands and fingers wide, it is as if he has wings once more, and truly soars back where he belongs.

Seeing how giddy the ride made him, Chee and Talil drag him to feed Tuut's messengers. These birds are the Parrot God's eyes and ears on earth, and what they report to him is passed on to the gods. Miguel intends to scatter seed for the little rainbow pheasants pecking at his feet. Instead the massive beaks of the colossal kingbirds reach down instead. He laughs in delight and holds the bowl up to them instead. They then point him in the direction of the ferry, so that he might see what lays across Lake Parime rather than take the long way back around.

Miguel frantically races to catch the next boat. There is no boat to catch.

Three men step onto the olive green shell of a massive turtle, one of Eupana's own children. Miguel hesitates at the water's edge.

The warrior in the blue eagle headdress that marks him as Chief Tannabok's warrior struggles not to smile at his reluctance. "Don't worry, my lord. She's been ferrying passengers for decades. We give her feed and a safe place for her eggs, and she gives us her circuit around the lake."

Miguel steps on just as the turtle pulls away from shore. Her broad flippers push in broad, gentle strokes though the water. The three Manoans stand confident in their sandals and bare feet. His leather soles slip against the shell's wet surface and nearly sends him tumbling.

The warrior catches and steadies him first. "Careful, my lord. Unless you intend to drop in on Lady Eupana today."

"Maybe another time," he laughs off. "What is there to see that's not underwater?"

"Perhaps the bonesticks, my lord? It's the closest we come to your miracles."

Turuk, the warrior, offers no further explanation before directing him toward the plaza. Miguel is too intrigued not to follow.

The bonesticks do not like bone or stick in the slightest. They are little rectangular pieces, painted different on one side than the other. Miguel watches curiously as a few children painstakingly set up the outer circle of a new project.

He looks to a completed, circular image of a golden-winged butterfly just emerging from its chrysalis. The man putting down the final piece catches his eye and winks. A flick of his finger sends the tiles toppling down one after another. Miguel gasps in delight as the fallen pieces take shape to the same butterfly, fully emerged and ready to take flight.

"Would you like to try, my lord?"

Miguel leaps to the challenge. The transformations of the bonesticks are meant to evoke the magic and mysteries of nature, their set-up a time for peaceful prayer and reflection.

Yet when the other groups notice him and Waya starting a new project, they eagerly add their tiles to his. Miguel had only wanted a little taste of recreating nature's power. His vision quickly encloses the entire plaza, raised by his hands and those of his eager followers.

In the end Miguel smiles wistfully down at the work his hands have helped wrought. On a deep blue field shimmers a crescent moon and a blanket of stars. He thinks of his sister, for the crescent is very much intended to evoke her hunting bow.

"Please," he tells Waya. "You should do the honors."

Waya smiles and puts a warm hand on his back. "It was your vision, Lord Miguel. I merely helped bring it to life."

Miguel needs no further coaxing. He tips the first tile in motion. He and his crowd watch as golden ripples consume the night and a brilliant sun dawns. It gleams all the brighter with the true sun shining directly down upon it.

Miguel beams down upon it, almost as proud of it as he was with every dawn he raised.

The thought drives him onward. Waya and the crowd, still absorbed in his marvel, do not notice his departure.

He does not get far before he glimpses Altivo breeze past a window. He dashes to meet to him. The stallion rounds the corner and gracefully halts. He nickers a greeting. The leather ball bouncing at his hooves is an afterthought until three boys go diving after it. Miguel and Altivo freeze, stunned.

The tallest boy scoops up the ball before noticing who he stands before. All three go scurrying back. They gawk up at them. Miguel and Altivo stare back. Miguel's face finally breaks into a grin.

The boy beams back. He holds up his ball invitingly, only to use an elbow to toss it back up among his friends. They bounce it off their hips and legs before the ball sails toward Miguel. He catches it instinctively.

Altivo snorts suspiciously down at it.

Miguel chuckles. "Oh, lighten up, old boy."

No hands. He thinks he gets the gist of it. Bouncing the ball with his knee, he uses his hip to bump it back into the play. As they go racing down the field Altivo whinnies and gallops after them.

The game is on.

Chapter Text

"My lord? Hello?"

Tulio is drowning in bliss and he does not want to resurface. No thank you. But Chel pulls yanks herself away and drags him back to painful reality with her.

"The high priest," she mutters. "What's he gonna think if he finds one of the gods like this with me?"

"Uh, lucky god?" Tulio mumbles flippantly. Because it's been too damn long since people have seen him as either a skirt-chasing scoundrel or sinful sodomizer.

Rolling her eyes, Chel frantically pulls back his mussed hair and tucks in his rumpled shirt. She shoves him toward Tzekel-Kan's direction and sneaks off in the opposite direction. Tulio of course emerges into view with only the slight swagger the priest expects from him. This isn't his first tryst, after all.

"Oh, Tzekel-Kan," Tulio calls casually. "What brings you here?"

"I-I-I humbly request an audience with you, my lord."

The high priest looks ready to burst ready to burst with what he has to say, but Raima's volcano is dormant and no vengeful demons descending on the city. Whatever Miguel has gone and did at least hasn't broken the rules of hospitality.

Tulio musters up his long-mastered patience and waves the priest on. Someone's been turned into a tree, haven't they? So many of Miguel's objects of ardor wind up turning themselves into plants.

"My lord, I have just seen Lord Miguel out among the people."

"Really?" Tulio asks flatly. Should he clarify by asking if all the people are still people? Or do the gods of Manoa just never so freely associate themselves among their people?

Tzekel-Kan sidles uncomfortably, brazenly close. Tulio's eyes narrow and the priest has the good sense to lean just the furthest bit back. "My lord... if I may be so bold so as to offer some advice?"

Chel has snuck her way around Tzekel-Kan. She emphatically cuts a hand across her throat. He really should go ahead and just shut the priest down now. But Tulio wants to see how deep a hole Tzekel-Kan will dig for himself.

"Shoot."

"My lord, you are perfect." Tulio freezes in dread. In his own time he was worshipped and feared, even derided and dismissed. Never has he been considered perfect. That's somebody else's burden. "But in your perfection, you cannot know how imperfect humans are."

Tzekel-Kan raises and weaves his arms. The air crackles with power as the daylight retreats from the room. Vaporous green smoke twists into twin venomous serpents. "Like snakes they are, spineless and slippery."

Chel nervously emerges from hiding to huddle close to his side. Tulio stands rooted to the spot, entranced and envious of such casual display of magic. True magic, from a mortal priest no less.

Tzekel-Kan senses his wonder. He leans over a bowl of succulent pears. In a cloud of green smoke they become flesh and blood rats, scurrying past in a squeaking hoard. Tulio draws away in disgust. Nasty little plague-spreaders.

"They are like rats, stealing and cheating with no remorse," the high priest continues, very much unaware he stands before the patron of thieves. He dangles the last right by the tail. It has scarcely transformed back into a pear before Tzekel-Kan takes a hearty bite.

"Spinning webs of lies, like spiders!"

Chel cowers back behind him as ethereal spider webs take shape. Tulio raises a commanding hand cuts through the illusion.

"Tzekel-Kan," he snaps, "you're human."

Realizing how egregiously he overstepped, Tzekel-Kan abandons his magic for a full bow. Daylight floods back into the room as the darkness dissipates. "F-Forgive me, my lord! I-I-I had no intentions of daring to imply myself closer to your insurmountable level of perfection. I merely meant to warn you how many of my kind cannot rise above their... base impulses. Even when faced before your glory, I fear they do not fear you like they should. And the Age of the Jaguar must be written in blood."

Tulio wearily pinches the bridge of his nose. He's forgotten how bothersome followers can be. There's a good reason he usually left his own to bicker amongst themselves until it was too late to intervene.

Gold is good. One can never have enough gold. Or incense. Or sweet cakes.

...But he was born among the shepherds in the high hills of Arcadia. They had offered up their beasts, most especially the young lambs and goat kids, since his inception.

It has been a very, very long time since someone spilled lamb's blood in his name.

He swallows thickly. "I-I must consult with Lord Miguel on the blood issue."

Tulio doesn't care about what Tzekel-Kan thinks when he grabs Chel's hand and drags her down the steps with him. Beneath the high priest's searching gaze it is very, very hard to not scurry away like a thief in the night.


 

Tulio doesn't realize how much he misses being a face in the crowd until the crowds part for him. Townsfolk scatter to clear a path for him and Chel. They nervously duck away or fall in nervous bows. Children whisper and tug at their mothers' skirts. Every disbelieving eye goes against a thousand years of hiding in plain sight.

He follows the rumors and the throng to an open field. His heart drops to his stomach at the sound of familiar laughter.

Miguel romping with boys in a ballgame is no surprise. Chief Tannabok carelessly playing alongside them while an audience fondly watches on is. Miguel sticks out like a sore thumb and still he moves as if playing with old friends.

Tulio cuts right in front of his path. "What do you think you're doing?"

For a moment he quails beneath his and Chel's withering glares. Then their disapproval rolls off him like water off a duck. "Lying low," he answers like an eternal sassy teenager.

Tulio's hands first move to strangle him, because he knows the bastard can take it. Instead, he rouses up all the self-control their father never had, and places stern hands upon his shoulders. "Look, change of plans. We have to grab what we can carry and get out of here now!"

"What?" Guileless green eyes blink. "Why?"

Because I'm losing you to this place!

Tulio swallows his first instinctive cry, because Miguel will just scoff and dismiss it until it's too late. He knows all his partner's darkest, oldest fears and Tulio is not above twisting them to save him.

"Because the high priest is nuts! He's not gonna stop until--"

And then the crazy bastard himself catches up to them. Then they somehow get dragged into an official arena, spectators and all.

Whatever the Manoan concept of fate is, it is a bitch.


"This is how the gods should play ball!"

On both sides of the court tall white walls rise up as if to pen them in forever. Their audience gazes down upon them from stands above. This is nothing like any gymnasium he's ever known, and Tulio can't see any goal to speak of. He settles for glaring at Miguel.

"Well, don't blame--"

"Oh, I blame you." He turns to Chel, holding onto Altivo's reins. "What is the object of this game, pray tell?"

Some things have been easier to cling to than others. He was born of the people. He'll have his quick hands and quick mind 'til the day he dies. Shepherds are old as the flocks, as old as himself.

But it has been a very, very long time since someone declared him their champion or their lord of the games. Anything resembling the ancient festivities faded away or crumbled before war and disorder centuries ago. These days he's as much an athlete as he is an astronomer!

"You've gotta knock the ball through the hoop."

"What hoop?"

"That hoop." Chel's face scrunches as she points upwards. They follow her finger up to one tiny gold hoop far above their heads.

Tulio's last scrap of self-assurance withers away. "Impossible," he groans. "We're gonna lose."

"Gods don't lose," Chel murmurs pointedly.

Miguel snorts and rolls his eyes. "Tell that to our sister."

Thinking back to phantom spiders that very morning, Tulio winces. It is laughably difficult to try defeating a god at anything, hubristic to even dare dream of offering such a challenge, but immortal has never meant invincible to them. And they are both shadows compared to what they were in that golden age.

Chel retreats to the benches beneath the scoreboard. A bold little brown armadillo fearlessly leaps up to sit beside her. Tulio's eyes narrow as he recognizes the same little messenger that's been tailing them since the road to Manoa. Someone really wants to enjoy the coming bloodbath.

Tzekel-Kan summons their competitors. Tulio doesn't realize his self-esteem can sink any lower until it does. Even the shortest player is twice his width in sheer, broad muscle.

"My lords, Chief Tannabok's warriors are the finest ballplayers in the city. Fifteen mere mortals against two gods. I realize it's a bit uneven, but I do hope they'll challenge you enough to make the game... interesting." Tzekel-Kan sets down the ball in the court's center and declares it in play. He graces them a final, eager smile. "Crush them into the dust."

Their rival team thunders onward like a herd of bulls. After a moment's hesitation Miguel dashes after them. Tulio wills his feet to move. They won't.

With a grunt one player dives forward and sends the ball flying past Miguel and straight toward Tulio's face. Instinctively he, once called the lord of games, ducks and cowers like a tortoise in its shell.

"My lords," Tzekel-Kan calls incredulously down from the stands. "Were you not supposed to put the ball into play?"

Tulio climbs to his feet with as much dignity he can muster beneath the disbelieving stares of the warriors and Miguel's own gaping mouth. "Of course not. I was merely demonstrating the... traditional first avoidance maneuver."

"Ah." The high priest's lip twists. "I've never heard of such a thing."

"Excuse me," Miguel interjects imperiously. "Who invented this game?"

Tzekel-Kan eases back, mollified. "Why, the gods, of course."

Miguel picks up the dropped ball and rolls it easily over his shoulders as if he was born for it and hasn't just played a single game against kids and one old fat chief.

Tulio frowns at his bravado. "I'm warning you, don't push your luck with this."

Miguel laughs as he bounces the ball off him. Tulio goes rigid. "But, Tulio, we're the gods."

Miguel sets the ball back into play and slips his way between the charging warriors. He gracefully deflects it off his hip. His jaw drops in dismay when the ball drops just short of the goal.

"Tulio!" Chel calls, frantically smashing the curled-up armadillo against her side in demonstration. "The hip, the hip!"

Tulio tries. He really does. In a boxing or wrestling match, he might have stood a chance. In this he groans as his body jerks in a way it is not meant to. The pathetic shot falls far shorter than Miguel's arrogant effort.

The game drags on. Miguel's heroic attempts fall short against expert athletes earnestly trying their best against what they believe impossible opponents. Tulio stops really trying as exhaustion and bitterness set in. No one here truly believes in them. Not in the way that counts. It won't take the crowd much longer to realize their 'gods' aren't just playing with the mere mortals. There will be no last minute revelation of abilities that crush the mortal team into the dust.

Miguel seizes on the chance to call foul. Tulio relishes the chance to catch his breath as his partners rush over to his side.

"Tulio," Miguel hisses, "why aren't you--"

"How long does this go on for anyway?" he cuts in with a pointed glance to Chel.

"The game is over when the shadow touches this line." She nods at the white line and the darkness creeping far too close.

"We need a miracle," Miguel whispers, as if anyone cares enough about them to lend that kind of direct hand.

"No," Tulio mutters. "We need to cheat."

Chel smiles impishly as she offers up what he first thinks is a normal ball. Then it uncurls enough to reveal folds in the scaly hide and a nose that peeks out from within. "Why can't it be both?"

Miguel’s eyebrows rise to his forehead. “Bibi? Armadillos are sacred to Bibi, right?”

Chel nods. Bibi. The trickster god. Helper of humanity. Eupana’s ex-husband. All around mischief-maker

Tulio takes the armadillo dubiously. The whims of this little messenger are all that stand between them and Tzekel-Kan's blood thirst.

Back in play, the armadillo rolls out of his hands and runs circles around the incredulous players that dive after it. When it surges up toward Miguel's help he reflexively bumps it along. Their first goal effortlessly clears.

The warriors accept the ball moves on its own power and dive after it. One lands a goal that fails only because the armadillo physically pushes itself out on the wrong side.

With a giddy laugh Miguel intercepts the ball as it descends, knocking it toward Tulio. He's still slow on the uptake, but this time the armadillo uses his pathetic excuse of a hip-bump to score their second goal.

Proud idiot he is, Miguel can't just let the armadillo get all the glory. He ducks and weaves through fifteen other players to help it wherever possible. With the armadillo helping him along Miguel goes from merely a decent ballplayer to the effortless ease Manoa expects of him. His moves grow all the grander with their cheers.

Tulio's eye twitches. In that very first Olympic game Miguel had beaten him, lord of games and fastest being alive, in a footrace. And now he's being outshone again.

Not to be outdone, Tulio throws himself and everything he has into the game. A game is a game. If his partner and all these people can do it, then so can he. Between him and Miguel the ball flies so fast the mere mortals can barely touch it. When they can they inevitably cause it to foul until Chel can toss the armadillo back into play.

Tulio feels himself swelling with the roar of the crowd. Their cheers grow all the louder as he and Miguel shift from masterful displays of athleticism into all-out spectacle. They leap and dance circles around the competition, their opponents just set pieces in their performance. Even Altivo charges onto the court to scatter players like sheep and give them room to push themselves.

Their victory lap on Altivo comes all too quickly. Miguel tosses the ball to Altivo. Never breaking stride in his canter, the stallion hits it square with his nose back to Tulio. Rolling it over his shoulders, he gracefully hands it for Miguel to hit high so they can both wave cheerfully to Chel.

Chel waves frantically back. She points at the poor, concussed armadillo in her other hand. Tulio goes numb.

Too late does he dive for the ball. He hears it smack painfully against Miguel's face as Altivo leaps for the goal.

Instinctively Tulio rises to save the ball. Instead two firm hands take him by the shoulders and force him down against Altivo's broad neck. In his frantic attempt to right himself Tulio just glimpses Miguel leaping into the air before he falls from horseback entirely.

But Miguel does not fall. For a moment he seems to float in midair, curling back just in time to send the ball sailing through in a flying kick. Tulio gasps.

Miguel lands heavily in the dirt just as their winning point is recorded and the horn blows to signal the game's end. It's over.

The crowd explodes. Tulio embraces his partner in a brief, bone-crushing hug. They skip apart to wave and fan the exaltations of their audience. When Chel rushes over Tulio lifts her too into a spinning embrace.

"Yes!" Chel cries when he points her down. She smooshes his cheeks together. "Well done, partner!"

Tulio is about to embrace Miguel again when Tzekel-Kan barges onto the court with Tannabok right behind. "My lords, congratulations on your inevitable victory. And now, you will, of course, wish to have the losing team... sacrificed for your glory."

Tannabok gasps softly, gaze shifting to his warriors. All fall to their knees and fold their trembling hands in terrified submission without a whisper of protest.

"Oh, not again." Tulio's lips twitch at Miguel's scoff and rolling eyes. His expression freezes when his partner then jabs an accusatory finger at the high priest himself and stalks forward. "Look, Tzekel-Kan, forget the sacrifices. We don't want any sacrifices."

Tzekel-Kan does not falter. "But all of the sacred writings say that you will devour the wicked and the unrighteous."

Tulio tries for the articulate putdown. Miguel beats him once again with a flippant, "Well, I don't see anyone here who fits that description."

The high priest spares his chief a vicious, purposeful scowl. "Well, as speaker for the gods, it would be my privilege to point them out."

"The gods are speaking for themselves now." Miguel pushes his way past Tzekel-Kan to the kneeling warriors and helps them to their feet. They rise behind him as a formidable wall of muscle and iron will. "This city and these people... have no need for you anymore!"

Tulio breezes for the vengeful demons or an incinerating thunderbolt to strike them down. He glances incredulously at the little armadillo now casually perched on Altivo's heads and watching the procedures like a spectator. The only sound is the growing murmur of support from all sides of the crowd.

"There will be no more sacrifices!" Miguel declares in the same voice that raised cities and the sun itself. "Not now, not ever!" Tzekel-Kan shrinks back in earnest fear when he brandishes a commanding hand at him. "Now get OUT."

Tzekel-Kan glances around in helpless bewilderment as he seeks out sympathetic faces. He meets only the deafening cheers and jeers of the crowd. Even Chief Tannabok offers him only a giddy little wave.

Priest and false god lock eyes. Tzekel-Kan's back is to him. Tulio cannot see his expression when he finally dips into a low, condescending bow. "Mm," he murmurs as he slowly steps back into the shadows. "As the... gods... command."

The crowd truly breaks out in celebration as five of the pardoned warriors triumphantly lift Miguel high between them. Tulio has only a heartbeat to stare in stunned dismay before he too is vaulted high. At eye-level now he just glimpses a red wound weaving itself shut above Miguel's right brow.

Once they had dined on only nectar and ambrosia. Only great heroes could wound them bad enough to spill ichor, light and ethereal. Their followers long dead, they had lowered themselves to mortal standards. Their blood now runs just as thick and red.

"Hey," Miguel calls brightly. "Not bad for my first commandment, huh?"

"Miguel, the little voice..."

Miguel's attendants bear him off in a different direction. Tulio lets his warning trail off with only a small, fond smile.

Whatever the gods of Manoa have intended for them, they've played their part today as planned. Miguel will never know earnest adoration like this again when they return to Spain.

Really, how much harm could a little celebration be now?

Eventually he convinces his carriers to put him down in the sanctuary of the temple. The moment they’re gone Chel envelops him in a crushing hug. Tulio splutters.

“You crazy, pompous, reckless idiot!” she shouts. “Do you have any idea just how stupidly lucky you are!?”

“C-Chel,” he chokes. “Can’t…” He inhales gratefully as she finally releases her stranglehold on him. “I know, I know. That last goal was pure, dumb luck. But--”

“The last goal?” Chel scoffs. “Do you have any idea how long I was trying to get your attention out there? But you two were so caught up in your--”

His look of creeping suspicion is enough to stop her cold. “Chel,” Tulio tries. “Just… when did the armadillo get switched out?”

Chel tells him.

The latter half of their points is entirely his and Miguel’s own.

Chapter Text

Chalchi is the finest stone carver in the city. He insists on having the gods in the flesh before him so he can memorialize their glorious game in grand steles to adorn their temple. When they next return from the spirit world, the wonders of their last visit to Manoa shall be there to greet them. First he fixates on immortalizing Miguel's miraculous final goal.

Tulio's having one made too, of course, but he's insisted on returning to the temple. With a live god to model from Chalchi isn't letting Miguel escape until his masterpiece is finished.

When Chalchi humbly requests him to model that final kick so he can sketch a quick reference to work off of, Miguel decides to hold his pose not just for the preliminary sketch, but the final carving.

Really, it's not like he has to float there the entire time. Ropes dangle from the ceiling to hold his left foot and the rubber ball in place. It's just a simple matter of holding his upper body just so for a few hours so Chalchi can capture his image. Miguel doesn't even have to wear his shoes.

But Chalchi does insist on him wearing the headdress of quetzal feathers to really assert his divinity in the stele. Miguel doesn't mind. The long, beautiful feathers are all resplendent shades of green that range from deep blue-green to pale jade.

Enraptured by his subject and the lingering height of the ballgame, Chalchi feverishly pounds away with the pace of a man possessed. Miguel has witnessed some sculptors labor years to fully capture his likeness. Panting for breath, Chalchi lays down his hammer and chisel in mere hours.

The stone carver dares not speak when he finally turns his stele for his subject's personal inspection. Miguel tilts his head.

It's not the realistic style his worshipers prized in their last centuries of worship, but Chalchi's work his masterful, and Miguel sees himself in it all the same. He gives a thumbs up.

Miguel has had hours to study this carver's every expression and masterful hands. He's almost tempted to stay longer, but Chalchi is still consumed by frenzied inspiration, and already delving into his next project when Miguel takes his leave.

Breezing in and out of a mortal life as a humble shepherd or two-bit con artist is one thing. An encounter with one believed god is very much another. Miguel dons his shoes and leaves the headdress behind. If he can resist the constant temptation that is Chel then Chalchi and his clever fingers are nothing in comparison.

The crowds in the streets have long dispersed. Chalchi insisted on peace and quiet for his work, and none have dared challenge the artist charged with capturing a physical god's likeness. The sky's still blue, but the dying sun casts long shadows across the city streets.

His temple looms tall above the quarter of high priests and nobility. Chalchi's high station places his residence at the edge of where the wealthy middle-class and the truly privileged live. Miguel takes a hesitant toward it. Tulio must be tearing his hair out over him...

The faintest, smallest of squeaks stops him in his tracks.

Miguel glances down the opposite direction. Buildings and buildings away, he just glimpses a naked, filthy tail whip around the corner. Little claws scrape after the frantic patter of little feet.

His eyes narrow. He still knows a sickness when he sees one.

He's still close to all-seeing when not willfully blind. In Spain, he learned to block out the colossal behemoths of cholera and typhus that devour people by the thousands and sneer down at his powerlessness.

But Miguel has no reason to be blind here. Not against a pipsqueak.

He catches up to the pair in no time at all, swift and silent as if he were still the demise that swooped down from above. It's only fitting this little pest has taken the form of one; an emaciated rat with patchy fur and yellowed teeth.

The pest is so busy snapping after the child's bare ankles it doesn't notice its fate until Miguel swings his foot down and kicks it dead against the wall. It disintegrates in a squeak and noxious little cloud.

At the sudden movement behind him the boy gasps and stumbles, falling flat on his stomach. He gapes at the spot on the wall where the last of the demon disintegrates and then up at Miguel. He tries to sink even lower in a trembling bow.

"Oh, come now," he chides softly as he bends to help the boy up. "That's quite enough of that."

The boy flinches away. Miguel lets him go, but he doesn't bolt. The kid's a little slip of a thing, with only a drab brown cloth around his hips. He's the first child Miguel's not seen ornamented in gold or at least garbed in a rainbow of cloth.

Canny dark eyes flick from Miguel to the spot where his certain death died. "You saw it," he mutters. "You saw it, and you saved me."

"Of course I did," he scoffs gently. "I'm Miguel. What's your name?"

"Patli," the boy answers, and then he hesitates. He still reeks of sickness. No wonder that demon had latched onto him.

Miguel's eyes fixate on the street, down which his unknown quarry lies. "Show me."

Patli seizes him by the hand, just to make sure he doesn't disappear, and marches him down the street.

Miguel hasn't seen this part of the city before, where the buildings are so dull and drawn close together. They leave master paving and then even rough stone behind for rough dirt. These low, ramshackle homes are squeezed next to wild jungle, the terrain any farther too rough for building. People, thin and gaunt, hide in their homes and gape as they pass. Things with beady black eyes and greedy little jaws stalk so many shadows.

Here there are no grand temples to grace the streets. Yet a gracious corner is set aside for the life-size stele of an ample goddess. Her wide, generous smile borders on mischievous. She holds out a bowl overflowing with grapes. It is shaped much like the one that offered up Miguel sacrificial wine in his first night in Manoa. At her feet rest tribute of fresh fruits and flowers, small bowls of pulque and fruit wines. Her eyes seem to watch them as they pass.

Patli leads him to a home more ruin than not. He hesitates at the threshold.

"You don't have to come in," Miguel murmurs. That only makes the boy tilt his head and defiantly lead the charge inside.

His eyes sweep over a small, humble home a kid's done his best to keep up on his own. They climb to the second story on rickety steps. On a threadbare mat lies a frail, flushed woman. Eyes closed, she gasps for every breath.

The child-sized demon on her chest sucks every from her lungs. It is little more than leathery skin stretched taut over a rat's skeletal frame. Its glittering eyes, set deep into their sockets, fall disdainfully upon them.

"Who," it rasps, "are you supposed to be?"

Miguel steps assertively forward, pushing Patli behind him. He spreads out his arms and bares his teeth in what cannot be called a smile. "Haven't you heard? I'm Miguel."

The rat demon sniffs, hunching low over its prize. "Little shadows you are, pitied by the powerful and grabbing for gifts. You have no power here."

"Are you so sure about that?" Miguel stalks another step closer. "I am Miguel, averter of evil and deliverer from plague. I am hunter and healer, and you are in my way."

 The demon hisses and digs his claws in. "This one is mine!" The woman splutters and forces out a sound like a death rattle.

The rat springs just as he does. Its yellowed, broken teeth snap at his face. He catches it by the throat and flings it to the floor. His foot comes down like a hawk's lethal talons on a true rodent.

The sickness disperses as a cloud of foul vapor. Miguel makes a face. Now he's really glad to be wearing shoes.

"Mama!"

Patli races for his mother's side as she takes her first big, shuddering breath. Miguel leans over to help him sit her up. At his touch fresh color floods into her cheeks. Her eyes, bright and alert, fly open. They naturally focus first on her child.

"Patli?" she murmurs in a voice thick with only disuse. "W-What--"

She can say no more before Patli's dam finally bursts. With the weight of the world finally off his shoulders, he throws his arms around her and sobs like the utterly exhausted little boy he is.

Even as she too embraces him, her incredulous gaze glances over and then does a double-take on Miguel. He grins easily back and gives the family their peace.

Turning around, he gets his first good look out the second-story window of Manoa's poorest quarter. Sicknesses that have no courage for Manoa's heart run rampant in its outskirts.  His far-seeing gaze falls upon the small, squirming little parasites scurrying boldly through alleyways and clinging to their chosen victims, drawing health away with every heartbeat.

Once plague and pestilence feared to fall beneath his shadow. Soon they will remember why.

Where Miguel walks that night, sickness flees into the shadows or withers and dies. Where he goes, the whispers follow.

So do the prayers.

Chapter Text

After centuries of blessed silence, Tulio hears the murmurs of others in the back of his mind. They speak of him as something more than man, and spread tales of him and Miguel's on the wind. They are nothing more whispers at this point, soft and tentative, but like so many gnats buzzing in his ears and prickling at his skin.

They'll die down soon enough, when he and Miguel sail down that river and out of sight. Whatever whispers linger behind him will be forgotten or jealously claimed by Manoa's true divinities soon enough. After all, they are oblivious pawns in the best case scenario, and at worst blundering guests on the edge of using up the last bit of patience for their impudence.

To drown out the distractions, Tulio secludes himself away in his-- Miguel's -- the temple with Chel.

"You know," he says casually, "we never did tell you where Miguel and I are going after this."

Chel immediately fixates on him and drops the conversation about his miraculous performance in the ballgame. Her burning desire to leave Manoa behind hasn't gone anywhere. Excellent. "Where are we going?"

"Back home," he declares. "To Spain."

"And Spain is...?"

"Oh, just all the way across the eastern ocean." She eagerly leans in. "Why else do you think we needed a boat?"

Chel snorts and gestures at the heaping gold piles. "Duh. How else are we gonna move so much gold? Stick it all on Altivo?"

"Like he'd ever allow that." Tulio rolls his eyes and allows bravado to mask his unease. Back in Spain Altivo's just a horse. He has nothing to lose by staying here, not like Tulio and Miguel do.

He purposefully lets the conversation die down. Chel frowns and throws a pillow at him. He hides his smirk behind a playful wince.  "Hey, don't just leave it at there. You've gotta tell me more about this Spain... You know, so I decide whether it's worth it for me and my share of the gold to get dropped off earlier or not."

Hook, line, and sinker.

He begins on the coasts of Catalonia, where the colonists of Emporion first carried him; the stately ruins of Tarragona and dancing devils of the Patum. There are the sumptuous hammams of Cordoba and the vibrant streets of Granada; the bullrings of Madrid and fire festivals of the Pyrenees.

Under the cover of night they stray outside, sticking to areas where no worshiper is around to gawk. He cannot physically spirit her away back to Spain, but at least he can lift her imagination to new heights. Tulio weaves his words so that Chel might instead walk the vibrant gardens of the Alhambra and cavernous halls of the Santiago de Compostela. With him she beholds the horseshoe arches of the Mezquita and Saint Eulalia's thirteen white geese in their holy cloister.

Sometimes Tulio starts telling her of festivals long eradicated and temples torn down. They exist now only as memory and ruin. The hills of Rome and Corinth's bustling streets are still extant, but he cannot follow her there. It is her faith that will buoy their safe passage back to Spain and make the next few decades pass all the more sweetly. He can't let her go so soon.

Despite all the walking, Tulio still can't shake the giddy burst of energy still buzzing in the back of his mind. First he drops into the rough, frenzied dances of his rustic youth. With a grin he plucks a flower from a nearby tree. Fluidly he shifts into the smoother, modern motions of the jota and Zambra. He throws in flourishes stolen from the matadors and his own flair until the style can only be called Spanish.

With a final flourish Tulio offers up his flower. Chel takes it. She has only a moment to marvel before purple petals shift into wings and feathers. In wide-eyed delight she watches six little birds fly off into the night.

"Sleight of hand?" she asks with a quirked brow.

Tulio smirks and shrugs. "Something like that."

It's a little thing, paltry compared to the power Tzekel-Kan so casually threw around, but it's more than what Tulio has trusted himself to do in ages. Chel has faith in him and his plan. The least he can do is show a little of his own in return.

Chel twirls the empty stem in her hands. Her eyes never leave his. "You know, for all the hours you talked about your home, I still know next to nothing about you."

"I go where there's gold to get and suckers to be had. Not much else too it."

"'Our sister,'" Chel murmurs. "Not 'my' or 'your.' Our."

Tulio's mind carries him back to the ballgame and Miguel's fleeting, careless comment. He groans. "It's... complicated."

Chel just crosses her arms and looks at him.

No one's exactly related, he could say. People dreamed us up in different times and places before lumping us all up into one big, dysfunctional family.

Or, maybe he could settle for the simpler, Our dad was the whoremonger to end all whoremongers.

"Look, however we might or might not have been related beforehand, circumstances pushed a lot of us together. Where one went, everyone else tended to follow." He takes a shuddering breath and refuses to look up at the stars. They're still the same, even across the sea, but he does not know these skies. He knows only the bones; not the names and the flesh Manoa has draped over them. "And now they're all gone, and it's only me and Miguel. Just us."

Chel squeezes her arms closer to herself. "Yeah? Well, it's only me. Just me."

Tulio shuts up and listens.

Oh, Chel clarifies, the People of the Vine are still a people. When the Golden People had conquered them they had needed somebody that knew how to tend all their foreign new foods and make a wine no Manoan could match. Paquini, their patron goddess, even now has a place in the Manoan pantheon for her wine and revelry.

When the Golden People's last empire collapsed on itself and Manoa retreated back into its city, the People of the Vine had come with them as servants and sacrifices. Most just farm the field and do the manual labor no true citizen should have to. Some have the... honor of serving Manoa, and its gods, more closely.

Of her actual family, Chel says no more. Neither does Tulio. Their names are leaden on his tongue.

So instead he sweeps Chel into his arms, and makes them both focus on the wonderful here and now.

-------

Tulio's eyes blink open in the darkness. Chel slumbers deeply beside him in the bed he and Miguel have made. The goosebumps prickling his skin are not from worshipers.

Until they leave, this temple is the closest he has to a home in Manoa. He feels its violates boundaries violated like someone is walking all over his grave.

Really? Someone's robbing him?

Or was out to do much worse.

He fumbles for the closest weapon. And grabs a shoe.

Rolling his eyes, Tulio casts the shoe aside and lifts a heavy idol instead. Not a golden sword, but still heavy enough to brain someone.

Like a shadow he breezes toward where hard claws tick against solid stone.

He wants to dismiss it as a monstrous rat, but he can't. Even a dog utterly lacking fur and only coming up to a little above his knee is still a dog. Tail tucked between its legs, the dog stares fearfully up at where it's frozen on the threshold, and whines piteously.

"No," he tells it flatly. "Absolutely not. Go bother someone else."

The dog does not move. It cocks its head and gives him a look Miguel pulls off better.

"Fine," he sighs at last. "But I'm not following you naked."

Tulio pulls on every last piece of the clothing he arrived in. He has no idea why the bald old mutt chose him over a deity who's actual job it is to.... help dogs, but really he doesn't care. He just wants to make it perfectly clear who he is and where he still absolutely is dead set on going.

By the time he's dressed the dog is squirming. As soon as it spots him coming it bolts down the stairs.

Tulio rolls his eyes and follows. Gliding down the stairs is no trouble at all. Neither is keeping up with the dog stride for stride. Between the days starving on that boat and out in the jungle he must have been really out of shape to have tired out so easily.

Sometimes the dog glances at him to make sure he's following. Tulio feels almost insulted by the idea he can't keep up with a dog, especially a furless and scrawny one. But the dog's dark eyes are frantic, so he cages the dry commentary and speeds up even further.

City of gold, his ass. The outskirts are rows upon rows of rotting, ruined wood houses clustered tightly together. The streets are paved only with mud and filth. Disdainfully Tulio glides above the mess so his soles scarcely touch the ground. The dog is paws deep in the muck. Sickness hangs so thickly in the air Tulio almost feels it clinging to his skin. So does the sickly yellow light that seems to fill the streets.

They both speed up at the sound of crying.

In an alley huddles a little girl atop a pile of garbage that at least raises her above the filth. She sobs into the white shroud wrapped around her like a security blanket. At the sight of him looming at the alley entrance she gasps and scoots back.

Tulio stops dead but the dog races forward. The girl gawks down at it in shock, stopping her retreat just before she falls off the pile. "Mochi?" she whispers.

The dog tries to scramble onto the pile after her, but its paws keep slipping. It settles for reaching up to frantically lick her hand instead. The girl clings to it like a lifeline, eyes now fixed fearfully on Tulio.

"Er, hi," he tries. "I'm Tulio. Your dog kind of sent for me."

"Mochi," she corrects quietly, not drawing back when he advances a few cautious steps closer. "His name's Mochi. Mine's Cera."

"Hello, Cera," he says gently. "Are you lost?"

She nods, lip trembling. "G-Grandma. I'm supposed to g-go t-t-to..."

Tulio opens his arms. Cera immediately falls into them, trembling arms wrapping around his neck. She sobs long and hard into them.

When her cries quiet into sniffles, he asks, "I'll take you to your grandma, okay? We'll go together."

"W-With Mochi?"

"Yes, with Mochi."

Cera nods shakily and lets herself be bundled into his arms. The shroud is large and cumbersome, so they leave it behind. She seizes his shirt in a death-grip and turns her head down to stare at Mochi. The dog barks happily up at her.

As they leave the alley, he glimpses a gaunt, long-nosed man skulking in the ruined house across the street. Beneath Tulio's glacial gaze the man fearfully bares yellow teeth and vanishes back into the dark.

Cera wrinkles her nose and then glances thoughtfully up at him. "Why's he so scared of you?"

Tulio looks down at Mochi. "Dogs kill rats." The dog still stares intently into the shadows, tense but not aggressive. Then his stance loosens and he trots in the exact opposite of where Tulio wants to go.

He follows anyway.

Down the street it is no easier to breathe. The stench has burned away, but the air is now hot and heavy. It has baked the muddy road bone dry.

One house burns bright and red in in the surrounding darkness. In the threshold lounges a woman garbed only in a dress of leather diamonds. From a bald head unblinking gold eyes appraise them. "Hello, ssstranger," she call in a sedate voice. "Come and ssstay a while."

"No, thank you," he politely replies. He stays a safe distance away, never skirting the harsh rim of light that pours out her home and into the streets. Mochi stays close to his side, teeth bared but silent. Neither dares to look away from the woman until they round the corner and go out of sight.

Beyond her house's harsh red light is only darkness. Mochi's paws squelch in mud. A desolate wind blows through ruins that are little more than tumbled stone and wooden frames. Cera whimpers and burrows her face into his shirt.

Tulio suppresses a groan as he gazes out into the dark. He doesn't have a sword, not even a torch. "Are you sure this is the right way?"

Mochi stalks forward. Tulio follows.

They are not alone. A ragged shadow looms from atop a skeletal building. Shrouded in a tattered leather croak, the big-eared man twists his squashed face into a genial smile.

"My friend," he purrs in a voice scarcely louder than the night wind. "I do believe you have something that belongs to me."

Cera's arms squeeze his neck in a death-grip as she tries and fails to contain her whimper. The man's serrated grin widens.

Tulio's eyes sweep across their surroundings. He plasters on a suave smile as his own as he inches down the street. "Sorry," he calls. "I don't see anyone here fitting that description."

The ugly face twists into a scowl. "You have what is mine right there in your arms. Are you a guest in my home, or are you a thief?"

Blue eyes glance down at Cera. "Funny you should mention that..."

Tulio runs like he hasn't run in ages. Behind him the night wind raises into a hideous shriek as ragged wings unfurl and bear down upon them.

Mochi lunges, barking and snarling. The largest, ugliest bat Tulio has ever seen screams in outrage and rises with the dog dangling from its leg.

Tulio bolts. He shifts his precious cargo in his arms. Cera clings to his back like a monkey. Behind him he hears a yelp and heavy thump as Mochi is violently dislodged. The night wind rips at his air as the bat swoops down again just as Tulio seemingly trips amid a pile of rubble...

His hands close around good, solid wood. Before wicked jaws bite down Tulio turns. He swings with all his strength. The bat screams when hit with the same force that has brained wolves and beaten back big cats.

Tulio keeps his staff firmly raised as he slowly backs down the street. His face even more smashed, the bat shrieks down at them.

"Thief!"

He bears the name easily, for he's been called far, far worse. Even when Mochi darts safely back to their side, the bat dares not swoop down in reach of him again. Never turning away from the bat that circles angrily above, Tulio backs down the street until they leave the bat and the blackness behind.

When they're safe Cera immediately drops off his back and runs to check her dog. Despite the large drop he is not even a little bruised. She even giggles a little when he licks her cheek.

Arms still wrapped around Mochi, she blinks up at Tulio. "A stick," she blurts out. "You beat Lord Tzinacon with a stick."

Tulio's smile at his worst fears confirmed is part giddy euphoria and all wild hysteria. "A crook," he corrects, because he of all people can't resist the wordplay. "A crook beat Lord Tzinacon."

He swings Cera onto his back and they continue on their way. Gradually the filth on the street grows deeper and murkier. Mochi whines as he goes from picking his way through the muck to near-swimming in it. Tulio scoops down to help him up. Above the muck now, the dog sticks closely to his side, growling at suspicious logs floating atop the mire.

Tulio pays them little mind, only whacking the noses of those that stray too close with the butt of his staff.

"I don't think Lady Ayin will like that," Cera hisses into her ear. "Those are all her kids."

Tulio shrugs. "Not my fault she didn't teach them manners."

They pass the remains of a sprawling, half-drowned palace. A large woman with leathery skin and scaly armor stoically watch them from the ruined throne-room, attended only by a court of bones floating atop the mess. She preys on those drowning in the mire, but they are safely above it.

As they proceed down the street the water level declines, but the bones only become all the more numerous. When they happen on the first real corpse, black and bloating, Cera sobs and burrows her head into his shoulder. Mochi's nose wrinkles in disgust.

Tulio gives her his vest to wrap over her face. She drowns out the terrible sight and the even worse smell. Tulio settles for lift his neckline over his nose.

The second palace would actually be nice if not for the rotting corpses strewn over its steps. He thinks them all dead until the most disgusting one lazily turns its head in their direction. Tulio manages a shaky smile as puffed-up eyes fixate on him.

"Oh, hello," he calls lightly. "Just passing through."

Despite its rotted nose the corpse manages to somehow inhale deeply. Appreciatively. "Nice incense," it chokes out. "Got any for us?"

All heads turn toward them. Tulio flinches back with the same bone-deep revulsion all of his kind have toward such blatant displays of mortality.

"Pst," Cera whispers. She fumbles for something on her person and pokes his neck with it.

Tulio raises a hand. Into his palm she presses a small lump of dried resin, smoky sweet. The ugliest corpse stirs eagerly. The others start to follow.

For a moment he considers just chucking the resin at them and running for it. Then he sighs and snaps his staff, the only dry source of wood in this murky place, in two. Cera hands him his vest to wrap around the top half of one.

Fires might be a pain to start, but Tulio invented it. With the dried resin at its heart the torch takes no time to catch his spark and send a sweet smoke spilling out into the world.

As the aroma wafts over them the corpses sigh in contentment and lay back down. Tulio gingerly passes out his torch to the ugliest corpse. He languidly reaches out to take.

"Thank you, friend," he gurgles. "This just the stuff. Be sure to bring us more next time."

"Alright," Tulio squeaks. And then he bolts for it.

Only when the corpses and the stench die down does he pause to scowl at the girl on his back. "Got anything else on you?"

Cera pats the small, bottled gourd tied around her neck. "Just for Lady Iztaya."

Tulio gapes. "And you brought nothing for the ones that wanted to eat you!?"

"Daddy gave me everything I needed!" Cera protests hotly. "Even Mochi. He's Canah's dog, really, 'cause she's the one that found him first and that he liked to follow. But she gave him to me so I wouldn't be lonely." Her lip trembles. "And then I got here, and Lord Hueza kept eating all my gifts, even the ones that weren't his. T-T-Then Mochi ran off a-a-nd..."

Before she can truly start wailing Tulio scoops her into a tight hug. He even kneels down so Mochi can lick her face. They patiently wait out her cries about wanting to go home.

She can't. But Tulio can take her to the next best place. "We still going to your grandma's?"

Cera wipes her snot on her arm and nods. Tulio slings her onto his back.

The streets up ahead are cold and dry, white and bleak as the bones strewn carelessly across them. Cera shivers even before the skeletons start to stir, clutching for Tulio's pants and the snarling dog beside him.

"T-They c-c-can't have any," Cera chatters stubbornly. "'Cause t-they're greedy and they'll d-d-drink it all and j-just want more."

Tulio uses part of his shirt to spark the second half of his staff into a torch. The skeletons and the cold of the grave shrink back when he waves the light in their direction.

The third palace is white as alabaster and grandest of them all. Despite the stark coldness of its exterior from inside radiates a warm red glow. Lady Iztaya waits expectantly on the steps, clad in sumptuous garments of red and gold. Her long black hair and elegant bearing make her beautiful, though her naked bones glow like ivory.

Cera mutely passes him the gourd around her neck. At the steps Mochi stops with an anxious whine. Tulio expects her to wait with him, but she doesn't let go of him even as he climbs the steps and bows before Lady Iztaya with the same grand flourish he uses for royalty and divinity alike. Despite lacking a face capable of expression, the Lady's grinning skull still looks unimpressed.

"So," she rasps in a voice rich and deep, "you are Tulio, the thief and the trickster?"

"Yes," he concedes immediately. Unruffled, he presents Lady Iztaya her tribute. "But I'm also gracious Tulio, giver of joy and good things."

Tulio does not shudder when skeletal fingers brush his. Lady Iztaya delicately takes her tribute... and downs all the milky pulque in a flash. Her eye sockets gaze through Tulio to the little girl clinging fearfully to his back.

"Acceptable," she declares at last. Only when Tulio bows and goes to take his leave does further add, "You will not find Balam Qoxtok so generous tonight. The dog will not be an acceptable trade."

Tulio does his best not to stiffen when Cera muffles a sob into his back. Balam Qoxtok was Tzekel-Kan's god. And just that very day Tulio stood by while Miguel cast down both his high priest and only accepted form of tribute. "Of course he's not. But thank you for the warning."

Lady Iztaya turns her back upon them. "You may thank me with a proper libation next time you drop by."

Her dismissal gives Tulio free rein to grimace.

Beyond the White Lady's palace the road is swallowed by jungle. Peering through the trees Tulio sees only darkness. Even the outskirts are littered with picked bones and fallen weapons. Mochi glares out into the dark with raised hackles.

"Balam Qoxtok is gonna eat us," Cera said bluntly.

"No he's not," Tulio said dryly. Already aware of eyes watching them from the dark, he scans the ground for a suitable weapon to go along with his burning torch, pacing the boundary mark without crossing.

"What about Mochi?" Cera presses.

Tulio glances down at the dog. There are grand protectors out there capable of turning back wolves or mauling a thief to shreds. Tulio knows both sides from personal experience. Mochi is fierce and loyal as all true dogs are to a good master, but he lacks the size and strength to back them. At least he has the senses of a good watchdog.

"Well, kid, I'll try my..." He sighs at the little daggers being glared into his back. "Okay, okay. Mochi's not getting eaten. Not on my watch."

If he can keep Miguel's precious cattle alive for centuries, then he can handle one bald little dog. Probably.

What Tulio wants is one good, sleep-inducing wand. Or at least an adamantine sword capable of cutting down giants. Of course this place is in short supply of either. So again he settles for one long, heavy staff.

Armed with two pieces of wood, he sets off into the jungle with a little girl clinging to his back and a bald dog staring out into the dark by his side. He tries his best to not trip over the gnarled roots and gnawed-on bones in their path.

Aside from the crackle of his torch, all is silent. Still he senses their death stalking on velvet paws.

Tulio best knows the soft rustle of a wolf pack circling for the kill and the heavy silence that precedes a bear charging out of the trees. Now he remembers back to those distant days in the east. This death too stalks on graceful paws, but it stalks alone, not like a lion pride.

He knows this solitary silence like he does fangs in the throat and a scream that scatters the flock.

Mochi stops dead in his track to snarl into the undergrowth. Tulio angles his torch in time to catch the gleam of emerald eyes and a sleek hide that slip back into the shadows. Cera whimpers.

Steadily they progress through the jungle. Mochi confidently leads them on a certain path and Tulio's torch lights the way. Even quivering on the inside Tulio stands tall and firm. When the cat circles close, Tulio is always ready to brandish his torch and drive it back into the dark.

At the first the jaguar ventures close only rarely, toying with them. When it fails to frighten even Cera into proper terror, it instead starts approaching them from different angles, searching for a way to take them by surprise. Mochi's keen nose and ears never fail to stop it. Vigilant Tulio is always there to swing his torch and send their stalker off.

As Balam Qoxtok's patience fails, so do the intervals between attacks. Their seething stalker charges out of the dark with snarls building up into screams, until Tulio swings his brandish and drives it off in a shower of sparks.

The last time it happens, Tulio grunts with the effort of Balam Qoxtok actually getting enough to be hit before he retreats. Grimly he glances down at his torch, half-cracked down the middle, and knows Balam Qoxtok has lost his fear of fire.

"Cera," he murmurs, "can you take this for me?" Quietly she holds out a trembling hand. He passes their only light source to her. "Now hold on tight."

Exhaling shakily, he wraps both hands around his staff, and waits.

With a furious scream Balam Qoxtok explodes out of the undergrowth. Mochi leaps for him, but Tulio uses his hip to shove the dog out of harm's way. Then he brings his staff down.

Solid wood shatters against obsidian fur. Still the jaguar yowls and shies away.

Throwing down what's left of his staff, Tulio yanks the torch from Cera, and runs for it.

He pauses to scoop up the dog too. Tulio knows where they're going now, and it's anywhere but here.

Heavy paws thud after them and somehow he flies even faster.

The torch has guttered down to near nothing by the time he finally bursts out of the undergrowth. The muddy slope dips down into a beach, but the verdant mound of island beyond has shoved itself ashore. Upon it twinkle lights from the grand palace and many smaller homes upon it. Waves lap gently at its sides.

Barking in excitement, Mochi wriggles from his grasp and dashes for the old woman waiting on the shore. He yips and spins tight circles around her, but even he knows better than to lunge up and place a paw on her.

Tulio freezes, but Cera drops right from his back. "Grandma!"

The old woman upon the shore is small and stout, yet in a resplendent green dress with a deep emerald shawl draped over her. Her ancient face breaks into a warm, maternal smile as she scoops the little girl up into her own arms.

Then her dark eyes fixate on Tulio. "A long way you've come," she rumbles in a voice vast and deep, "to deliver a child to my door."

Tulio drops into a bow. "For all you've done for me and Miguel, Lady Eupana, it was the least I could do."

"By swatting two of my children across the face and stealing what they considered rightfully theirs?"

"Er..."

Lady Eupana waves a casual hand toward her palace, grand as Olympus. "We will be sitting down to eat soon. A seat is waiting for you."

Tulio swallows down mortal terror. "T-Thank you, Lady Eupana, but I've intruded on your hospitality long enough."

Manoa's oldest goddess watches him with an expression unfathomable as her lake. "A good guest knows when he stops being welcome and a leech upon his host."

Tulio relaxes slightly. He too knows the unspoken pact guests must not overstay their welcome, not when it would be bad hospitality for the host to outright turn them out. "Yes, Lady Eupana. We'll be gone by the next sunset."

Lady Eupana turns away just as the torch gutters out.

Tulio is not on some distant shore gazing upon paradise. He stands on the outskirts of Manoa, a red tinge on the horizon, and gazes down upon the last remnants of a dying fire. Charred bone fragments smolder among the ashes. Not all of them are canine.

Across the pyre a girl with Cera's face gapes back at him. Wide-eyed, she tugs at her father's arm and...

Tulio flees back to his temple.

Safe in Chel's arms, he buries himself in her, and tries to drown the night away.

Guide, insists the small, niggling whisper in the back of his mind. Messenger. Shepherd of souls.

Chapter Text

When Tulio weaves his homeland into a spectacular paradise, Chel lets herself be entranced by his spell, if only for a little while. After a while, she stops hearing of Spain, and only of the suspicious gaps between. A man is defined by more than the people and places that surround him. For all the hours of grandiose praise he gives to dance and the rolling hills, Tulio has not said one word about himself.

Chel wonders how many lovers he's beguiled before, if he's left wives and children behind as he flitted off to his next great con. She prods him, just a little, to see if there's room in his heart for more than Tulio himself.

Oh, who's she kidding? Tulio loves Miguel above all else. Even himself, if he can pull his head out of his ass enough to see it.

The subject of family near shuts him down completely. On that Chel leaves him alone.

She reciprocates with tales of her own people, for generations later that distinction between the People of Gold and the People of the Vine is still insisted upon. But not about her actual family. Their names are stones on her tongue. Their faces swim before her even as Tulio tries to spirit her away with him into carnal bliss.

She fully expects them in her dreams tonight.

And dream she does, though it is not her mother Chel walks beside.

Despite the roundness of her belly, the woman is modesty personified. Her form is concealed beneath a loose, flowing gown and her lovely face visible only from behind her veil. When she requests only a safe place to deliver her children, the men of a thousand lands deny her refuge.

No rejection, no matter how cruel or callous, can make the woman's proud, certain stance waver. Beneath her veil, her voice is even as she vows their hospitality shall be repaid in kind.

Of all places, it is a floating island that finally grants her safe haven. There, with enviable ease, the veiled woman brings forth a daughter fair and flawless.

Chel only raises her eyebrows a little when the newborn girl expertly delivers her baby brother. After the turtle-carrying baby from last night she's used to these people being impossible.

If the world is a little fairer with the daughter's entrance, the burden all women bear a little lighter, then the world shines in a new golden dawn when the son is brought forth. He makes his family glow so bright Chel can only shut her eyes and look away.

No longer is the new mother alone, but attended by a court of ladies just as powerful, in their own unique ways. Her daughter rests easily in her arms. Her son doesn't cry, only demandingly reaches for her breast.

Instead his mother pawns him off to another. From something like a honeycomb the nursemaid dribbles a nectar, thin and shining, into his mouth instead.

With her children in arms, the woman departs the floating island, leaving behind a land so sacred no mere mortals will ever be allowed to give birth there ever again.

Yet, despite the twins, men still deny her even the smallest sip from the spring where they water their large, lowing animals. Spitefully they muddy the water with their feet. The woman's face darkens as she condemns them to the spring before. She leaves behind a pool of croaking, cursed frogs in her wake.

The dream flows onward. Now the girl is fierce as she is fair, her brother all the brighter. The girl shears her hair and wears only a short tunic that doesn't impede her hunting. Her brother's golden tresses are uncut and his dress as long as his mother's. They delight in the bows and arrows their mother gifts to them.

Where their mother walks, they follow. She returns to the same lands that once denied her. Her children reign down plague and pestilence.

When a mere mortal queen dares boast to be the greater mother, to have so many children than two who defy mortal nature, she sends the hunter to strike down her seven strong sons, and the huntress her seven darling daughters. So great is the queen's grief it transforms her into a weeping stone.

Sickened, Chel turns away, for these cruel and callous children seem but their mother's weapons.

She wants to wake up. But the dream won't let her go. Instead it drags her to another mother.

Where one mother fearlessly strode beneath broad daylight and demanded sanctuary, this one fearfully hides away in a lonely mountain cave. In the day her white skin is pallid and night-black hair washed out. She sleeps beside an empty basket.

In sneaks that same little baby from the night before. His tortoise is dead and gutted, now only a hollow shell tucked beneath his arm. He steals into his cradle and swaddles himself up like he never left.

Yet his mother wakes and immediately knows his crime, for already he is the prince of thieves. At her despair her boy boldly assures her all will be well, and they their rightful place in his father's shining halls.

Chel anxiously hovers by the cradle when the golden youth from earlier storms in, the cool darkness of the cave dissolving before his searing light. The baby sleeps innocently in his cradle and his mother stands stoically by while the youth furiously tears their home apart.

His burning gaze finally falls upon the baby in his cradle, tortoise shell tucked by his side, and he demands his stolen cattle back.

Realizing the jig is up, brilliant blue eyes open as the prince of thieves grins up at his victim. Chel doesn't want to see him pierced through by an arrow or transformed into weeping stone, but the hunter won't strike until he gets back what is his.

Dreading the conclusion, Chel speeds through the con. Never does the baby go anywhere without the shell by his side. When she finally sees him raise the shell to pluck the strings strung across its hollow, she pauses in breathless anticipation.

The youth freezes at the first note. His narrowed, scornful eyes go wide in awe as the baby's deft fingers weave a bargaining song.

Demands are bantered back and forth. The day-old newborn keeps up blow for blow.

A vow is made; one to never steal from the other, and the other to love no one else above him.

It won't take long for both to break their promise.

Chel awakens to eyes, blue and bottomless, peering down into her own. For a moment she thinks someone's followed her out of her dreams. Then she notices they're Tulio's eyes. There are dark shadows under them and an almost manic edge to them.

"Morning," he says brightly. "Good dream?"

She hums noncommittally. "How about you?"

"I..." Tulio's silver tongue fails him, so he leans forward to try distracting her another way.

Chel pulls away and rolls out of bed. The same bed he'd first made with Miguel the night before. Their scent clings to the sheets, they cling to her. Her heart clenches.

Her eye roves to safe, solid ground; the mounds of gold piled away around them.

"You know, we probably should start dividing our shares now, so we're not fighting over it on a tiny little boat."

Tulio's despondency gives way to avarice and the thrill of driving a hard bargain. He seeks out his partner.

Of course Miguel isn't around. His absence makes Tulio deflate a bit and pour all the more effort into haggling for the best bits of tribute.

Chel wishes Miguel was here. If their lives are to be entwined together for the foreseeable future (or forever), then they need to work out what they are with each other, and what they are to Tulio.

They're all partners, aren't they? The glances and the banter that passes so easily between them... Chel doesn't want to steal them away. But Tulio's given her a taste of it, and now she can't let go of him anymore than he can of her.

She doesn't know Miguel the same way, not yet, but by gods does she want to. She wants to know every reason why Tulio loves Miguel like she knows how Miguel must love Tulio, so she can share those looks the way they were meant to be.

But Miguel's not here. Tulio and the gold are. And it's just so easy for that quiet little absence to be lost in the shuffle.

Chapter Text

Scouring sickness from Manoa's outskirts is no easy task. Plagues and pestilence are ubiquitous, stalking victims from sewers and refuse piles. Epidemics do not burn through the city, but simmer among the poor, for Manoa's wealthy physicians only stir when the sickness spills over into their districts.

Every pox and cough, no matter how small, learn they are no exception when Miguel's gaze falls upon them. After a millennium of turning a blind, helpless eye upon disease he relishes the hunt.

Most of the people gape dumbly up at him or hurry into bows. A few remember themselves enough to offer up tribute, no matter how small. Miguel pauses to sniff every small stick of incense or nibble a small biscuit. They are not the grand hecatombs he once demanded of his worshipers, but they are offered in his name, and are his alone.

Not that he minds sharing a heaping pile of gold with Tulio, of course. But his partner is still choosing to seclude himself in their temple. Just because he's wasting this opportunity doesn't mean Miguel will.

Dawn is still breaking when Miguel wanders over to check on the ship. His heart sinks when he discovers Chief Tannabok supervising the earliest stages of loading up their tribute onto a fine, finished vessel.

Miguel climbs aboard to inspect the construction for himself. Out of all of them he's the most experienced with shipbuilding. If he finds a fault large enough even Tulio will have to delay their stay in Manoa by a few days.

Instead he grudgingly marvels at the master craftsmanship of a seaworthy vessel that was a log less than three days ago. Lake Parime may be small and landlocked, but Manoa retains knowledge of how to build a hull that can withstand the ocean's rigors. The mast can weather even storms on the open sea. The ship is easily small enough for a crew of two to manage.

"It's a... nice start," he concedes at last. "But is it really fit for the gods?"

"A 'nice start?'" Chief Tannabok echoes in bemusement.

"Yes," Miguel replies, growing in confidence as he takes in careful carvings and painted wood that would have made his past self turn up his nose in disgust. "I've traveled my fair share of days in a boat, I'll have you know. And it was amethyst and emerald, jasper and turquoise, gold and lazuli. This boat is just... naked."

Not that he hasn't traveled in bare boats, of course. But that had been at night, through the underworld, when at best he had been considered dying or at worst outright dead. His innate nature still curdles in disgust at the memory, faded and warped across time and distance.

Chief Tannabok's brow furrows in confusion as he takes in the boat. "You... want more tribute, my lord?"

"Er, no," Miguel corrects hastily, because his hosts have been generous enough as it is. And he can't make a boat of solid gold float across the sea any more than he can sail across the sky. "Just... take some of the gold we have here, and hammer it over the hull. For a gilded ship."

The chief's face twists even more as he considers the work at hand. "That... is a sizeable request, Lord Miguel. If I mustered up the goldsmiths and shipbuilders immediately, that would still take--"

Miguel's heart clenches at the thought of overstaying his welcome. He can't push his hosts to their limits and Tulio's own growing anxiety just so he can indulge in his foolish fantasy a bit more.

"You know, in three days, you have given us a workable vessel worthy of ascending in," Miguel amends at last. "We accept your tribute as it is."

Now would be the time to make his grand exit, but suddenly he can't muster up the energy to do so. Instead he glumly leans against the rail to glumly stare down into the dark cavern that will swallow him up and spit him back out into a faithless, uncaring world.

He looks over in surprise when Chief Tannabok chooses to lean casually at his side, close enough to reach out and touch him. "You know, Lord Miguel, if you wish to stay, you need only say so."

His eyes widen in disbelief. "You mean... forever?"

"Of course," the chief says certainly.

The skies don't darken in contradiction. Lady Raima doesn't rumble her displeasure. The morning remains fair and golden.

Born to the royal line, Chief Tannabok carries a drop of Lord Kinich's golden power in his veins, and with it the royal authority to be the highest worldly power in Manoa's hierarchy. His invitation is on his people's behalf.

If the people welcome him into their hearts, then so shall their pantheon.

Once Miguel would have immediately blurted out his acceptance. Older and wiser now, he bites back the impulse, and remembers himself and his promises.

"Oh, no, I can't. I have to go back with Tulio. We're..." Bound. All the other has left. "We're partners."

"Big plans in the other world, huh?"

Ruefully Miguel smiles up at apathetic skies. "Yep. Big plans." Most of which involved glutting themselves like kings and spending their last years together in hedonistic bliss as they staved off the inevitable as long as possible.

Chief Tannabok turns away. "Well, then, I better get those goldsmiths, huh? Can't have the gods go off in an unworthy vessel."

Miguel frantically whirls around to grab his arm, stopping himself just in time. Idiot. This isn't Admetus, no matter how Tannabok reminds him at times. His friend, wise and just, is centuries dead. If he ever existed at all.

"Oh, chief, forget about the goldsmiths," he blurts out. "My mistake."

"Hey, to err is human."

Half over the railing, Miguel freezes, unsure whether to laugh or sob. "No," he says softly. "It's not. You got it from us."

Leaving a bewildered chief in his wake, he drops down from the ship without bothering with the ladder.

Altivo is waiting for him on the dock, dark eyes expectant. Flowers are woven into his mane and tail. He firmly strikes the dock with a gold-shod hoof.

Miguel smiles wanly when he reaches up to pat his neck. "Staying, old boy? I can't say I blame you. There's nothing for you to go back for."

Not that there is anything left in Spain for himself, not when Tulio is still here by his side. But there will be, soon, and he can't leave that beind.

Altivo rolls his eyes and snorts his disapproval, but still follows him up the temple stairs.

Miguel is not remotely surprised to catch Tulio and Chel arguing once more over their shares in the gold. It is the tones of their voices, laden with insinuation, that stop him short.

"You know, maybe I won't go to Spain with you and take a third."

"Oh!" Tulio retorts indignantly. "Like you don't want to go to Spain."

"Oh," Chel counters. "Like you don't want me to go to Spain."

Miguel waits for Tulio's witty retort, but the idiot is too far gone to counter with anything more than a weak, "I want you to want... what you want."

Miguel's heart clenches at such clueless sincerity. Tulio is a thief, ruthless and self-serving. When did he last hold up a mortal's own wishes in such high regard?

"Uh, I want you to come to Spain with me and Miguel." Chel pushes further, and Tulio reveals the inner avarice that makes Miguel's heart crumble to ash. "Mostly me. Especially me. Forget Miguel."

Miguel doesn't stick around to have the knife twisted further. Altivo's mouth has dropped in shock. He swings astride the stallion and spurs him away from the nightmare.

Tulio's had his toys before. So has Miguel; lovers that consume their time and obsessions until their beauty fades or their fickle natures move them onward. Once in a very great while, there is a mortal heart that can capture their love and hold it through old age until that final, bitter end.

But Tulio promised on this one and he's already broken it before they even leave Manoa.

Miguel doesn't care if Tulio was plotting to betray him the moment he forced that promise, or if his love for Chel was an afterthought. The aftermath is still very much the same. To him Altivo's hooves gallop in the beat of Chione, Chione, Chio-

The stallion gracefully halts at the edge of training ground. Miguel's eyebrows fly to his hairline. Either his bitterness made the time fly by or Manoa is doing great things for the old boy.

With a grateful pat to the neck Miguel slides from Altivo's back. Boys and men gape at the great wind left in the stallion's wake and at Miguel himself, but he casually waves them onward.

Manoa's warriors through themselves back into their training with fervor. Miguel politely watches their melee practice with blunted clubs and maces, spears and batons. He's been rather jaded with warriors since those of his homeland started going to war in the name of one God only, but earnest displays of training meant to impress him stir faint, old interest.

Soon enough he finds his way to where warriors practice with the ranged weapons. The richest and boldest of the boys there has a golden jaguar pelt hanging from his shoulders. From a wooden shaft he hurtles spear after spear at targets with lethal accuracy.

"Impressive," Miguel remarks.

The boy grins proudly. "Thank you, my lord, although I'm sure my aim is nothing compared to a god's. We'd be honored for a proper demonstration."

Boldly he shoves his weapon into Miguel's hands. A few of his peers gasp at the arrogance. Most just wait for the spectacle.

Miguel tentatively mimics the warrior's graceful, arching swings. After a few testing motions he waves away the offered spear and hands back the spear-thrower. "A fine weapon, yes, but not for me."

The boy gapes at him. "My lord, I'm one of the few warriors out here even privileged to use this. It's the weapon of the gods."

Miguel shows his teeth in a terse smile. "A different god, perhaps."

Tentatively a few others offer alternatives, slings and blowguns and others. Some he tests before handing back. Others he refuses outright. Anxiety grows among the crowd. So do impatience and disbelief. They radiate strongest from that first, jaguar-cloaked boy. Miguel's eye twitches ever so slightly.

At last a youth lacking the bright feathers or rich pelts of his nobler peers humbly offers up a bow and quiver. "I-I'm afraid this all I have to offer, my lord."

Miguel grins, wide and earnest, at the bow, five feet long and stringed with sinew. He can tell the endless hours of careful craftsman and maintenance poured into every inch, including the flint-tipped arrow he notches. The jaguar boy snorts. Miguel's smirk gains an edge as he lines up his first shot.

The noble boy's closest spear near hit the target's center dead-on. Miguel's first arrow hits a perfect bulls' eye. His next five neatly impale through the boy's, cleaving through five feet of wooden shaft to knock down every spear.

His seventh shot sails hundreds of feet to strike a target on the polar opposite edge of the training yard.

Color draining from his face, the jaguar-cloaked boy falls to his knees. He rips off his earrings and offers them up with shaking hands. "M-My lord, I-I-I..."

Miguel casually waves him off. "Oh, I have quite enough of that." He thoughtfully twirls an arrow lined in plain dark feathers. Finely-fletched, yes, but so dull. "A fine quiver of arrows should suffice. Fletched with feathers of every color in the rainbow, and collected only from unharmed and living birds. And given to me in person before I ascend tomorrow, of course."

It was the sort of challenge his sister would have delighted in. He grins as the boy goes running.

Then he remembers archery is increasingly obsolete in a world of cannons and gunpowder.

His smile curdles as he instinctively aims for a shot to really show Manoa he is the shooter from afar. He knows in his gut it will sail true across the city and strike Tzekel-Kan right between the eyes....

A whisper, too low and indistinct to make out, nags at him. It's definitely not guilt, but he can't quite put his finger on it...

Shaking his head, Miguel gives up and instead aims more to the right. At this angle Chel will die before she even hits the ground. As fair Hyacinthus once did when his discus, driven by the jealous west wind, slammed straight into his skull.

But Miguel is not so petty. Not anymore. The very thought of those bright eyes dimming, of Tulio's horrified cry echoing his own, turns his eye away from any living target whatsoever.

So instead Miguel strikes the eye of a stone statue a thousand feet away and makes every shot grander than the last. One by the one the warriors abandon their training for the spectacle. Archers reverently offer up their quivers in tribute, and then their bows when he grows increasingly prone to snapping sinew or solid wood in his zeal.

Bow-carrying, reverberates through the crowd. Far-sighted. Far-shooting. All-seeing.

His being sings with the rightness of it all.

He's not leaving this behind. Not ever again. Certainly not for a chronic, backstabbing thief and his mortal prize.

Chapter Text

Chief Tannabok's childhood by his mother should have prepared him for every conceivable scenario imaginable, including the dawning of the Age of the Jaguar and a world ruled by war and strife. It's a possibility he's been secretly dreading and preparing for ever since young, zealous Tzekel-Kan seized control of the high priesthood.

Of course even his mother, thorough as she'd been, hadn't foreseen the headache that were allegedly the Dual Gods and the Feathered Serpent in the flesh.

Once the initial wave of utter terror had worn off, Chief Tannabok has had his doubts about that.

If there a true god amongst them, then it must be Lord Altivo. His incarnation is the one Tannabok always expected of a physical god; an unknowable form unmatched in speed and majesty, understandable only by raw intent transcending human language. On that first fateful night Tannabok made the mistake of looking into his eyes and almost drowned in the centuries swimming within them.

Lord Miguel and Lord Tulio, on the other hand, are not so typical. Even gods that favor human form retain extraordinary qualities to remind their followers of their place; Lord Kinich has his sky-blue eagle's head and brilliant plume of feathers, the Obsidian Lord his stone hide and wicked fangs, and so on. True, Lord Miguel's golden hair and Lord Tulio's bright blue eyes are not mundane, but everything else about them.... is.

Tannabok has not been blind to the silent looks and smiles exchanged between them and their 'priestess.' He has glimpsed Lord Tulio's eye follow the swing of her hips more than once.

Yet, if these are merely mortal men, they are not just charlatans. Tannabok has also seen one of Bibi's messengers at their heels. Lord Tulio's shout that first day made Lady Raima stay her wrath. At the very least they are divine messengers that have forever freed Manoa from Tzekel-Kan's tyranny and the threat of sacrifice.

His doubts already swirling, Tannabok swiftly sees through Lord Miguel's demands for a gilded ship as an attempt to delay their departure.

As father to six, it's hard in that moment to not see Lord Miguel as not much older than his firstborn when he looks so utterly terrified and despairing at the thought of ever leaving Manoa.

Lord Miguel has been so kind and caring for not only Tannabok's boys, but everyone in Manoa. He is gentle and so unsure of himself beneath the bravado and so... very unlike the proud and aloof lord Tulio is very much at heart.

So Tannabok inhales, hesitates, and takes a gamble. "Hey, to err is human."

He expects Lord Miguel to either freeze at being caught in the act or for himself to drop dead for the impertinence.

Instead, Lord Miguel shakes as if torn between laughter and despair. He leaves with a final, cryptic comment that Tannabok turns over and over again in his head long after he returns to his palace.

"No, it's not. You got it from us."

Only then do breathless messengers start trickling in from the poor districts, carrying with them news of exactly how Lord Miguel spent last night. And the hours before and after the ballgame. Tannabok's eyebrows climb past his crown as the list of titles and great deeds grows by the minute. Finally he wordlessly waves the couriers away and falls into his throne.

Tannabok wants to hit himself for ever doubting. Instead he buries his head in his palm.

Of course Lord Miguel and Lord Tulio are so human. How else can they relate to the horrors humanity faced and command against them?

All the years Tzekel-Kan has craved everything but human, a power through which to work his will, and makes the streets of Manoa run red with tribute to the Obsidian Lord.

And Manoa's people, be they born of Vine or Gold, have prayed fervently for Tzekel-Kan's vision to never come to true. Tannabok certainly has.

Now the literal answers to their prayers are about to sail into the sunrise and back to whence they came.

He wishes they'd stay forever. If they leave...

Considering the extreme circumstances that first brought them here, he hopes they never again feel the need to return.


Manoa has deserted him. So have his warriors, his followers, even his very acolytes. Save for Chima, of course, dull and dutiful as ever.

But not the gods. Never the gods. Balam Qoxtok is with him still.

Even he, the high priest, once had to starve and seclude himself in hopes the Obsidian Lord would walk his dreams and leave fleeting visions of his will behind. Now Balam Qoxtok stalks his every step.

The mania grabs hold of him. Hour after hour, Tzekel-Kan prays and plots. Every precious ingredient for the elixir, the greatest offering of all, must be gathered and consecrated.

Word occasionally leaks in from the outside of impossible things from impossible men, but Tzekel-Kan shrugs off lies and magic tricks blown out of proportion. The gods the people bow and scrape to are false. Tzekel-Kan knows this down to his bones.

In his rare snatches of sleep, Balam Qoxtok stalks his dreams, and brings with him the truth.

They have a thousand names and a thousand faces, all false as themselves. He witnesses their fickle greed and petty cruelties tear families and whole kingdoms asunder. Boys and girls alike are carried off and defiled, left dead or in fates even worse than death. They are pestilence and lies, famine and theft, avarice and arrogance.

So too does Tzekel-Kan dream of vengeance. He stalks succulent herds of beast, some large and lowing, and others small and bleating. His claws render their soft flesh. He relishes their choked, dying cries and his fangs deep in their throats. Hot, iron blood rushes down his gullet.

Tzekel-Kan wakes and wipes away the drool. He pulls himself together and checks upon Chima. His teeth grind at that cheerful, grating whistle but his gaze fixates on the elixir, now glowing a bright green matched only by Balam Qoxtok's eyes, flashing through his memories.

"Well," he hisses. "Is it ready yet?"

Chima diligently scoops up a bowl and moves to offer it up. Then he remembers himself and adds the final touch, a little umbrella from a discarded fruit bowl.

Tzekel-Kan snatches his offering and inhales deeply, waiting for his god's power to claim him. But something falls just short. Far off, he hears his lord snarl in frustration. Disdainfully he tosses the bowl aside.

"Hmm. It seems to be missing something." He consults the spell book, the secret laboring of a hundred high priests before him, and frowns as he mentally checks off every ingredient. Then he realizes the solution has been staring up at him the entire time.

Oh. Of course. How could he, of all people, have missed the glaringly obvious?

"Ah, that's it. It needs more.... body." Dumb, dutiful Chima blinks up in confusion. When Tzekel-Kan casually strides forward to kick him in, the idiot falls with only a short yelp.

True power erupts, bright and searing. Tzekel-Kan laughs in delight as it throws him against the temple stele and those ancient, holy runes wend their way across his flesh.

During every cycle of Dark Days the temple is consecrated anew. Though the human blood from the last cleansing has long faded away the power still flows true across their channels.

Wrenching his eyes open against the wave, Tzekel-Kan bares his teeth in a victorious snarl, for his are not the only eyes to open. He flexes new claws, and ancient stone groans as something inside gives way. He falls onto all fours.

Balam Qoxtok's jade idol moves with him, wrenching itself free of its pedestal and shattering the steles of lesser deities.

Laughing, Tzekel-Kan raises and slams down his right hand. The jade colossus moves with him.

If Balam Qoxtok cannot walk with him in the flesh, then he shall walk in his god's stead, and render the doorway necessary for him to walk through.

His lord demands blood, for he has none of his own, and nothing less than those of the false gods themselves can sate his hunger.

He think he'll start with Miguel's.

Chapter Text

Tulio knows all too well Miguel is brooding. Of course he blithely ignores it. Feeding into his partner's melodrama, especially in front of a crowd, is asking for trouble. Or a... schism, even, with how this week is going.

So Tulio settles back in his throne, sips his wine, and relishes the cute little show that is almost like the grand theatrical exaltations of their youth. Gods know he won't be watching one of these ever again.

"That kid does you better than you do!" he laughs, going for a good-natured punch to the shoulder. Scowling, Miguel leans away before the first can connect. Tulio plows steadfastly on. "Some send-off, huh? We're finally at the 'go back to Spain and live like kings' part."

Searching for a friendly face, he fixates on Chel. A small line of children eagerly cluster around her as she gently lifts a boy to pet Altivo's nose. Tulio's heart flutters. If there has ever been a temptation to make him seriously try for a family again, this is it.

Putting the child down, Chel brushes back her hair and gives a little wave. Completely aware he is grinning like an idiot, Tulio waves back.

"Well, isn't king kind of a step down from god?"

Tulio spews his wine near down to the spectators. He turns toward Miguel, who stoically stares out into the crowd as if carved from stone.

"Miguel," he says gently. "We can't stay here. We have a plan, remember?"

"Do we?" Miguel fixates him with his intense, all-seeing stare. Tulio freezes. "It's not as if I promised."

Mouth very dry, Tulio quails against his throne.

Chel.

Of course Miguel knows. He always finds out first when Tulio breaks his first and most sacred of promises. This time Tulio wasn't able to hold it for even a full day.

Tulio tries to string a coherent apology together, but there is something more to Miguel's stare than mere burning rage and betrayal. It's almost as if...

Words die in his throat as the very earth seems to buckle and shake. Their gazes snap to Tzekel-Kan's temple just as its roof collapses in sickly green light. From the ruins springs a stone behemoth. Its glowing gaze fixates upon them.

For a moment Tulio and Miguel gape up at their demise as they once gawked upon Typhon in all his colossal terror. Tulio screams, high and shrill, as the fear escapes him.

When they first beheld Typhon, scraping the skies and hurtling red-hot rocks as their father did thunderbolts, they alongside so many fled in terror. They had hidden themselves away in the south in the form of birds, a hawk and ibis, to wait out the storm.

Only their father had stayed to fight. Typhon had hamstringed the very king of the heavens and tossed his broken body aside.

But Tulio can't fly away anymore. He is rooted to the earth as their death descends.

Eyes alight with the power of his god, Tzekel-Kan laughs triumphantly from the background as a dark shadow stalks his every step. "Now everyone will know the truth of your divinity!"

Most people scatter. Tannabok's warriors try to rally. Their spears bounce harmlessly off solid stone. One brave soul is smashed beneath a massive paw. Another dies screaming when mashed by serrated teeth.

"Come on!" Chel calls from astride Altivo. The stallion whinnies shrilly. "Get on!"

Tulio needs no encouragement, but Miguel is rooted to the spot. Not by fear, but with the same brazen boldness that made him stare down monsters and giants. Tulio shudders.

"Miguel!" he cries desperately, tugging at his hand. "Come on."

At last Miguel looks back and remembers himself. He silently lets Tulio drag him up onto Altivo.

Despite three passengers Altivo gallops like the wind. Yet the jade jaguar and its hulking shadow dog his every step. Altivo is a warhorse and still very much prey without a herd.

With the titan barreling through stone archways Altivo bolts for a stairway. The jaguar follows, bulk crumbling the staircase beneath it. Even surefooted Altivo stumbles as the steps give way.

When he is about to slip the jaguar rears up behind them. With a bugling cry Altivo delivers a kick with his back hooves with a force that once shattered the ribs of wolves and big cats. Its eye shatters like glass.

Far off, Tulio hears a pained cry, and knows it is not a god controlling this avatar, but one of flesh and blood.

Then the jaguar swipes out its right paw and catches Altivo right in the side. His passengers go flying.

Tulio and Miguel land with only the wind knocked out of them. Chel's head smashes against solid stone. Blood pools beneath her.

It is enough. The shadow resolves into Balam Qoxtok, gleaming eyes and obsidian hide. He springs forward for his prize...

And claims it.

Tulio screams in rage and horror as the Obsidian Lord slips away with his sacrifice. With a snarl he rises to face the death still bearing down upon them, to at least take the bastard down with him--

"Tulio!" Miguel's grip is around his shoulder as he shakes him. "She's not dead, Tulio! Not yet!"

Tulio still hesitates. He glances to his partner and Tzekel-Kan's avatar, still in awe at the brief appearance of his god.

"Go!" Miguel snarls, hurtling a stone with deadly accuracy at the jade jaguar's shattered eye. Tzekel-Kan shrieks again as his wrath fixates upon him. Alone, Miguel goes running with the colossus eating up the space between them.

Tulio is both sheep and shepherd, wolf and watchdog. He knows the lethal consequences of splitting the herd. So too does he know the bloody reward.

Tulio bolts in the opposite direction, following Chel down into that dark and depthless jungle. She stands at the threshold between one world and the next, its boundary. He was born from boundaries. He's all about them! It's more than enough to trace her trail, burning bright as a beacon through gnarled roots and yellowed bone.

He flies as fast as two feet will carry him. When that's still enough he falls forward and flies all the faster.

No matter their size, cats are all the same. Safe and sound in his domain, Balam Qoxtok likes to play with his prey. But Chel isn't screaming in fear. She's swearing and shouting and giving everything she's god. His chase turns into a charge.

He is a thief and a coward, a liar and lecher.

He is also so much more.

With a bellow of rage, he springs from the undergrowth, and meets the Jaguar God head-on.

Chapter Text

Chel grunts when a stone paw whacks her against another tree and feels rather like a rat caught by an ocelot. Out of all the Lords of Xibalba to claim her, of course it had to be the one that plays with his food.

The roots are thick and gnarled. Just as Balam Qoxtok springs she ducks between them. Above her the ancient tree shakes as his head slams against it. The obsidian jaguar slinks back, his yowl of rage muffled by the soil he chokes on.

Chel bares her teeth in a vicious smile. Good. The Obsidian Lord has devoured her people by the thousands. During the last Dark Days he claimed three maiden aunts she never was able to meet. Eventually she too will disappear down that gullet. Until then, she's going to be the most fucking miserable meal imaginable.

With the Jaguar God still coughing up dirt she bolts for a spear. She squeezes into a true hollow just as he pounces for her again.

Balam Qoxtok's hide may be stone, but Altivo's shown her his eyes are fragile glass. Gritting her teeth, she heaves up her spear point with all her strength, and wedges flint in deep as it will go.

Balam Qoxtok screams and swipes blindly as eyes. Chel dashes for another weapon, but his ears swivel in her direction. Her second demise pounces...

Another figure, black and lean, erupts from the undergrowth in a bellow of rage. The Jaguar God goes flying as curled horns butt into his side and sends him flying.

With curly black hair and a scraggly beard, the second beast paws the ground with a cloven hoof before going in for the second charge.

Ram, Chel thinks blankly. Tulio's painted such a vivid picture of the herds of his homeland she knows one on sight. She scrambles wildly against a tree as she gets up and out of the fray.

Balam Qoxtok is back on his paws. He leaps over curled horns, claws instead sinking into living flesh as he drags his prey down...

A little bird tumbles out of his grip. It pecks incessantly at the Jaguar God's shattered eye, ducking and diving between the paws that try swatting it down like a gnat.

Tenacious as the bird is, its claws and beak score harmlessly against solid stone. So the bird becomes a bull, slamming heavy hooves down. It bellows as Balam Qoxtok rolls to spring his claws into his vulnerable belly.

Chel surges to her feet. A gentle hand on her shoulder eases her back down into a... chair?

The tree at her back has obediently bent itself into a seat twined in graceful loops of vine. A reddish-violet violet eye winks down at her from a rosy face. Hair so dark it shimmers deep purple cascades down a voluptuous form.

"Come now," the Lady of the Vine chides softly as she presses a cup of wine into her hands. "Sit down and enjoy the show."

Though the battle below never falters the surrounding jungle fades away. Trees twist themselves into thrones and roots into an arena's boundaries. Chel is not the only spectator. Lady Paquini saunters away from her side, a goblet in hand for every god taking shape.

For all their dread reputations, the Lords of Xibalba are quite placid for the moment. Lord Hueza is lost to a drunken stupor, alternating between snores and hiccups. Itzli, Lady of the Liquid Flame, basks in the glow of drunkenness like a snake in sunlight. Tzinacon's and Ayin's dark, hungry stares are considerably less threatening when Paquini frequently stops to refill their goblets. The Black Lord chatters amiably on to the White Lady. Iztaya, thirsty as the desert, downs cup after cup without ever replying to Tlilihui.

There are others. Chel spots Lord Kinich, dull and listless. Lord Munah sits at his side, jabbing a playful elbow into his ribs. She's almost positive they're making a bet. Even Lady Eupana is there, calm and quiet as the waters of Lake Parime. Seated at her side, garbed in robes that shimmer every color of the rainbow, is her second husband.

Chel wishes it was Lord Bibi, that loveable old trickster, but no. It's Lord Xarayes, Lord of the Waters. It is his streams and rivers that feed Lake Parime, the same streams that flow down into Xibalba. He is the Fish God, father of the rainbow fish that Manoans feed on in the world above... and that feast upon human souls in the world below. Lord Xarayes is the only spectator to coldly refuse Paquini's offering.

Chel tries very hard to ignore the whispers and focus only the battle. Balam Qoxtok is stubborn and resolute as stone. His challenger, with a thousand turns and a thousand faces, flows from shape to shape like water. He ducks and weaves as dog and wolf. As a slender-billed ibis he smashes the last of Balam Qoxtok's wounded eye to glittering shards.

"Deceiver," ripples through the murmuring gossip of gods. "Trickster. Contriver."

Chel grips her chair in a stranglehold. Balam Qoxtok draws blood, but his challenger's wounds weave themselves closed. Balam Qoxtok is glass and obsidian. Every scratch on his gleaming hide glows stark white and doesn't vanish. But no one else sees what she does, and their words hang heavy in the air.

The stranger falters once. Balam Qoxtok falls upon him. Chel stifles a horrified scream as the Jaguar God bites down not on vulnerable flesh, but a sturdy tortoise shell.

Balam Qoxtok brings his jaws a little closer together. Under relentless, obsidian teeth, cracks start to appear.

"Busy One," she chants contrarily, with iron certainty. She knows which one fights to save her life. "Ready-Helper. Giver of Good Things."

Fire blazes against the night. Chel doesn't realize how dark this world is until it is set alight.

With a pained snarl Jaguar God drops his victim and tries slinking back to the shadows. Burning brand in hand, his challenger pursues him.

"Bright," Chel continues, for with every reverent breath her champion gains ground and her death slinks back. "Luck-Bringing. Watchful."

His face flickers, wild as the fire; impish youth, a man rough and bearded, even a hauntingly familiar brat of a baby. But always human, and always armed. His torch mars the Jaguar God in streaks of soot. The firm, heavy swats of his staff repel obsidian paws and a toothsome snout.

"Splendid," Chel declares loudly and triumphantly, as her champion casts his staff aside for the gleaming sword at his side, golden as the flame. He raises it for the ending blow. "Strong. Mighty. Suppor-"

Balam Qoxtok's querulous yowl drowns her out, shaking the arena like thunder. "THIEF!"

His sonorous accusation is not to his challenger, but a plea to the other gods. Just realizing he has an audience, Chel's champion shrinks back. The Jaguar God shoves past him, pacing the edge where his fellow gods have gathered.

"Three times a guest has stolen from me," he growls. "Three times shall he go unpunished if you let him strut away once more."

"Really?" Lord Munah scoffs. "'Cause I definitely would have heard about it if he kicked your snarly ass more than twice."

The Jaguar God snaps his teeth up at him. "First he stole from me twice! Two offerings from their very pyre!"

Lady Iztaya momentarily pulls the goblet away from her grinning skull, red running down her ribs. "Actually, I recall one of Lord Hueza's little plagues claimed her first."

All eyes turn toward the diseased little rat god. Belly swollen with wine, he snores obliviously on.

The champion spreads bare hands wide. "Hey," he starts in a voice smooth as silver. "I didn't steal the girl or her dog. I just guided them where they wanted to go."

"To my shores," Lady Eupana adds neutrally. "Cera and Mochi are mine now."

Even the Jaguar God shrinks back against Grandmother Turtle's placid tone and does not challenge her words. But Lord Xarayes still eyes his wife with a gaze deep and dark as Xibalba. "They did not cross my domain."

Lady Eupana appraises him with eyes just as fathomless. "I swim where I please, and a little rest upon a beach pleased me."

Lord Xarayes flicks a dismissive gaze to the stranger. "You and your own cause too many ripples. They disturb me and my children. Enter my domain, and I shall wash all you and all you ever were away."

A formless face grimaces. "Trust me. Really not planning on doing so. Ever."

Balam Qoxtok's emerald gaze fixates hungrily upon Chel. "This one, thief, is mine. My high priest sacrificed her in my name. All of Manoa may soon follow."

"No," Chel snaps, leaping out of her chair. "I'm sure as hell not."

"There are no more human sacrifices," Lord Kinich murmurs, stirring faintly in his throne. "Not now. Not ever."

A ripple passes through the gods. Not through the Lords of Xibalba. Most are too intoxicated to care. Balam Qoxtok snarls in helpless outrage. Lady Eupana sternly shushes him.

"Right," Lord Munah draws. "So who does the little mortal belong to?"

Chel squares her shoulders and stands straight. Her gold earrings are an assuring weight against her head. "Uh, myself?"

"Er." A throat awkwardly clears. Without its silver undercurrent, the voice is painfully familiar. "Actually, it's kind of more like I'm hers. If she'll have me."

Eyes deep and blue as the sky stare beseechingly up from a face that finally resolves out of a shifting mess. He is somewhere between sharp-faced youth and bearded man. Chel knows this face like she knows her own.

"Tulio!?"

Tulio manages an awkward wave and just chokes out an answer. "Um, hey." Clearing his throat again, he glances at their audience. "So, um, we'll just be going now."

Balam Qoxtok snarls at him. "Intrude upon my domain again, little thief, and you'll never see the sun again."

"Not happening, peewee," Tulio grinds out.

With a humiliated growl the Jaguar God flees into the darkness. Uncaring of the gods still looking on, Chel jumps down into the arena and throws her arms around him. He clings to her like a life-line.

For an eternity, they just hold onto each other and celebrate being alive. Only a short eternity later do the last few days start skipping chaotically through Chel's head. She constantly comes back to that first private encounter with Tulio and Miguel.

"'Mighty and powerful gods?'" she mutters into his ear.

Tulio chuckles in giddy hysteria. "You know, Miguel and I technically never said we weren't gods."

Chel opens her mouth to protest....

And closes it.

Oh, all right. She'll give them that one.

Chapter Text

Miguel can't help a reckless, giddy laugh as he hops over rocks and squeezes through canyons with a giant stone jaguar bearing down on him. A thousand years of tedious monotony, and he's being chased by a giant feline! It's almost like being young in Tenedos again, when agents of his prophetic power scrabbled forth from the earth on little mouse paws.

Tzekel-Kan's avatar is, gigantically speaking, a modest size. Miguel's definitely brought down bigger. And this cat has nothing on Python, and it only took him a hundred arrows to kill a monster that big.

But not even Python had been solid stone. And Miguel doesn't have a bow and quiver on him. He can't go grab one without bringing his destructive shadow back into a populated area.

When the ground around him opens into a flat, rocky valley, Miguel breaks into a full out run, fast as he can without leaving his hunter in the dust. Once he lures it over a cliff it'll be no trouble at all to hunt down and snuff out Tzekel-Kan.

Behind him, he feels the earth shift as the jaguar rears up to ponderous weight on two legs. When its forepaws slam down the ground erupts in molten geysers from the hidden magma chamber below.

Mere proximity to such heat would broil a human alive... if they didn't first suffocate from fumes that would have overwhelmed his most resilient oracles.

Miguel grins and inhales the noxious aroma deeply. He hasn't basked in such warmth since he last drove a chariot across the sky. Invigorated, he dances around gushing streams and over widening cracks and deeper into mortal peril.

Incensed, the jaguar follows. Too late it realizes its mistake as the cracks beneath it widen. With a final desperate swipe in Miguel's direction it leaps for solid ground.

But this is a caldera, and a cat made of stone. The sheer force of its landing sends it falling through brittle rock. The jade jaguar struggles valiantly, but the magma sticks like tar to its limbs, and only makes it sink faster.

Miguel allows himself a moment to gloat at the edge... and is nearly flattened when the colossus erupts from the molten pool. Of course jade would be resilient enough to withstand even a dip in molten magma.

Their chase winds out of the caldera and through dark jungle. It ends with him standing at the edge of the altar where he and Tulio saved their first intended human sacrifice. Below the precipice the dark waters to Xibalba churn in a furious maelstrom.

Miguel smiles. The threads of fate in this moment are woven so heavy even he, numbed as he is, can feel them.

His expression widens into a smug, satisfied smirk when the jaguar 'corners' him, the light in its eyes dying as Tzekel-Kan swaggers out of hiding.

"I know what you are," he hisses, "and I know what you are not."

Miguel quirks one lazy eyebrow. "No," he drawls. "I really don't think you do."

He is the master of sickness, healer and harbinger both. He does not need a bow to call down a fever so violent Tzekel-Kan is dead before he could even hit the ground. Or he could make the infection slow and sweet, leaving the high priest plenty of time to choke through dissolving lungs and really contemplate the powers he crossed.

No, murmur a myriad of voices from every direction. They echo from a void he thought long dead.

Eyes wide, and a little tearful, he allows destiny to stay his hand.

Tzekel-Kan, deaf to the pattern weaving around them, snarls back. "And you are not a god!"

Miguel takes a single step forward. The high priest, unknowing of the threat before him, sneers. "Are you really so sure of that?"

The stone jaguar shifts into a pounce. "You, and your little paramour," Tzekel-Kan growls, "are thieves and liars, spineless and slippery! You're beyond disgusting!"

"Yes," Miguel agrees easily, for his crimes against Daphne and Hyacinthus and Niobe's innocent sons and a thousand others are spoken of still. "We are. And we also still happen to be gods."

Tzekel-Kan tenses as he takes another step forward, but laughs in defiance. "I serve the true god; Balam Qoxtok, Lord of War and Lord of Conquest! Already I've seen him walk this world when he stepped forward to claim his sacrifice. He shall gorge himself upon you and all your ilk, and birth a new world from your blood!"

Slow and inevitable as death, Miguel strides forward. He speaks in the iron certainty of prophecy. "There shall be no more sacrifice. Chel is ours, and Tulio's taken her back. He whipped your lord so badly he went running off with his tail between his legs. So long as I'm here, he'll never step foot in Manoa again. No matter his form, I'll know him, and strike him down."

Tzekel-Kan's nerve finally snaps. His jade jaguar lunges forward onto the thin little altar. Fragile stone gives way.

Miguel deftly side-steps the blundering titan. He casually seizes the priest by the arm and takes him away too.

Tzekel-Kan blinks down in bewilderment as the crumbled altar and his idol tumble down into Xibalba's churning waters. Only then does he dangle in thin air, the same emptiness Miguel stands so solidly upon.

His jaw drops. At last he looks up to Miguel, and truly sees. Fear floods into dark eyes as a new of Manoa's stares grimly down.

"Now. Get. Out."

Miguel lets go. Tzekel-Kan falls with a high, final scream.

He tells himself it's destiny Tzekel-Kan is swallowed by the waters he threw so many victims to. Maybe it's just petty satisfaction.

When even his eyes can no longer see the priest, Miguel casually strolls to the edge. His people are waiting.

Dawn is breaking.

The age is his own.


 

Tzekel-Kan's final, impossible sight before Lord Xarayes' water claims him is Lord Miguel hanging the air easily as a bird.

Then darkness pulls him under and into another world entirely.

When he emerges on the other side, flopping to shore and gasping for breath, it takes him a long moment to realize he is still alive. Lord Xarayes, in his deep and infinite wisdom, has seen fit to spit him up in the living world than into Xibalba.

As his vision clears, Tzekel-Kan beholds the reason he was spared.

He has glimpsed Balam Qoxtok in his cryptic form as Lord of Darkness, the primordial predator that rules supreme in the dark and untamed jungles.

Now he gazes upon the true form of his god, armored in obsidian and armed with iron. A demon army, including his own harbinger, stands at his back. Here is War, here is Conquest. Here is the destruction of the old world and maker of the new.

Tzekel-Kan falls forward into full supplication.

His god, never one for empty gestures, commandingly nudges one gold earring with the blunt of his club. Gold; the gift of the Dual Gods, the symbol of their age and their avarice. The paltry substitution for human blood and human life.

Tzekel-Kan bares his teeth in a vicious grin of understanding. His god has never lowered himself to speaking in a direct manner with his followers. Tzekel-Kan has learned his hungers well, and every child knows the Obsidian Lord was twice denied a world to rule. He shall not be denied a third.

He is the Lord of War's harbinger still. And he shall guide that wrath upon the Fifth World and its pathetically human little gods, so that a new age of blood and glory could arise from their ashes.

Chapter Text

With Chel safe and sound at his side, Tulio feels that miraculous tide of power ebb away and back to... wherever it came from. However he stumbled out of Xibalba that night after Cera and Mochi, he takes the long way out of this strange little detour.

One moment they're treading through dark jungle. The next he's dangling from a vine just above swirling waters and Chel's soft curves clinging firmly to his back.

Her arms, momentarily slack with shock, tighten around his neck in a stranglehold. "How did we...?"

"Just go with it," he says wearily. He shudders at the hungry waters below and starts the long climb up. "Trust me."

Belatedly he realizes the words that tumbled out of his mouth. He expects Chel to make a witty retort about who trusted whom and blatant lies by omission. But she doesn't. Instead she shakes with the suppressed, hysterical laughter of someone who never actually expected to summon a shade or attract a god's direct presence.

"You two owe me one hell of an explanation," she says at last. "Or... you three?"

"Two," he corrects. "I don't think we'll ever get anything out of Altivo."

"Altivo," Chel murmurs. "So those are your real names?"

Tulio snorts. "Real as can be. Though Miguel and I could fill whole books with just the others."

Sensing his partner waiting at the top, he climbs all the faster to close the distance between them. It seems an eternity since he last held Miguel in his arms. Now he longs to be nowhere else but within them.

There is no one to help them up. "Hey," he calls out forlornly. "A little help here?"

Manoa has gathered, but not for him. They raise Miguel into their arms and bear him onward in a reverent tide. Miguel rests as easily in their embrace as he once did soaring upon the wind.

"Chief Tanni!" he cries out joyfully, heedless of dignity. "Chief Tanni! I've decided to stay!"

"Oh, what wonderful news!" Chief Tannabok exclaims. "What a glorious day for Manoa. Lord Miguel has decided to live among us!"

With exultant cries of hunter and healer and champion the people bear him onward to his new home. Tulio watches them go, all strength lost in his limbs.  He scarcely notices Chel scramble onto solid ground and help him up. For once the touch of his one faithful follower is cold comfort as a crowd of them sweep away without him.

"Tulio," Chel states firmly, shaking him again. "Is everything okay?"

Tulio chokes back his cry of grief and rage. He forces those feelings dark and dip. "Everything is... fine."

Together they take the long, slow way back to the-- Miguel's temple. Like water through a broken pipe, his past comes out in spits and bursts.

He is Hermes of the rugged hills of Arcadia and Mercury of the seven high hills of Rome. He is messenger and guide, thief and watchman, bringer of peace and bringer of lies.

"Were you ever...?"

"Yes," he says hollowly. "Once."

To Peitho or to Suada, she who was persuasion and seduction and charming speech personified. Yes, they had children. No, not with each other.

When he falls into sullen silence, Chel haltingly tells him of her family.

She lost her mother to Lord Xarayes when the kingfish started dying in droves and three maiden aunts in the Dark Days of her youth, when blood had been spilled in the hundreds to renew Lord Kinich's strength for another round of years. The rest have been claimed by the Lords of Xibalba; her grandfather to snakebite and her grandmother the night air. In clearing away the jungle for a new field, her father had been taken by Balam Qoxtok, and her brother by him again when Tzekel-Kan accused him of trying to escape and leak Manoa's location to the outside world so as to spark rebellion.

"I'm sorry," he says with the earnest sympathy of a father to children whose shades, mortal and immortal, have long faded away.

Chel wipes at watery eyes. "Don't be. It's because of you I got to watch the Jaguar God get his butt kicked in front of an audience. He'll never live that down."

Tulio grimaces as he considers exactly how many of Manoa's gods are out for his blood. "Yeah. All the more reason to get out of here today."

For a moment he fears Chel will ask about Miguel. Instead she points out, "You know, if you're all Spanish gods, how did you ever get over here? Why would you ever leave?"

"Because," Tulio grits out, "there are no Spanish gods. There's a God. And a Son. Maybe. Depends on who you talk to. It's..."

"Complicated. I get it. Why not go home, then, to the lands east of Spain?"

"Because in a way part of me never really left." He hopes it's explanation enough. At Chel's look of deadpanned confusion, he sighs and gropes for a comparison. "Just because I got carried west doesn't mean my older temples didn't stay behind. If you cut off part of a vine and plant the cutting somewhere else, does the original one just drop dead?"

"Oh." Chel's eyes clear a little. "So there's... multiple yous?"

"Does every vine cutting grow into an exact replica of the original?" Tulio counters. "They depend on where they're planted and who's tending to them. And we've been all disconnected for centuries. I'm the one and only Tulio, an echo of an older god. But if I keep wandering further east into all those other echoes..."

Tulio might still be fine being called Castilian or Aragonese, but first and foremost he's a Spaniard. He hasn't been Roman or Hispanian in centuries. He's sure as hell not French or  whatever else other lingering branches of his cult might have become.

Tired of talking about himself, Tulio realizes he does indeed want to talk about his children, most especially the divinities that walked beside him for centuries.

Proudly he tells Chel about his wily, goat-footed sons and wild, mountain-dwelling daughters. Then his other girls, the one who followed in his footsteps as messenger and the other unmatched in skill and passion for wrestling. Finally his child by the goddess of beauty personified, the loveliest child of them all.

Their names, he still can't speak.


 

By the time they make it back to the temple, night has truly given way to dawn. Nearly unmade by the force of the history that poured out of him, and yet all the stronger for it, Tulio is able to climb those steps without crumbling with what's waiting for him at the peak.

Miguel's cast off the last vestiges of Spain. He stands as confidently in the rich green wrap from their first night in Manoa as he once did wearing nothing at all. In the newborn daylight his hair and skin gleam the slightest bit brighter than normal, a nascent god in his element.

Tulio's composed enough to not break down in furious tears or an explicit rant. Far too late he remembers Miguel isn't his to possess or steal away.

So Tulio silently pushes past him to load up his bag with one last share of all the gold he's ever going to get. Reflexively he pulls out useless belongings to make more room.

Gazing down at the map, Tulio can't help the wistful smile as he wanders back to those last precious, tender days together. All alone on an adventure, for once with nothing and no one to come between them (well, excepting the horse.)

Aware of emerald eyes upon him, Tulio rips the map to pieces, and damns destiny for stealing away his last precious person away.

Glancing out of the corner of his eye, he can just see the hurt that flashes across Miguel's face. Then, with a slow and deliberate yawn, he knocks over one of the few idols depicting Tulio. No doubt the rest will be melted down by day's end.

Miguel's still getting the reflexes back, though, for Tulio manages to knock his bag across his head as he shoulders it.

At the threshold, Tulio pauses as the full weight of today crashes down upon him. He can't leave in total silence like this, slipping away like so many lost friends and family over the centuries that left without so much as a goodbye.

He turns to find Miguel donning a crown and rich emerald cape, preening in front of his golden reflection. The apology dies on his lips.

Tulio descends without ever looking back at his golden shadow. At the bottom Manoa has gathered to wish him farewell. Chief Tannabok extends a hand in truce.

Tulio doesn't blame the chief, not really. Miguel's been in love with this place since he laid eyes upon that damned map. It just didn't help Tannabok is the same kind of just, fatherly man Miguel has eaten up since long before Admetus.

So Tulio concedes a smile. He takes Chief Tannabok's hand... and is pulled into a crushing hug that would have put some of his burlier relatives to shame.

Out of the corner of his eye he glimpses Chel approach Miguel. He freezes in dread, ready to throw himself between them, and frowns in utter bafflement at the look that passes between them.

Proud, jealous Miguel offers a neutral hand. Chel gazes into the face of a newborn god... And ventures close enough to kiss him on the lips.

Tulio's heart drops to his stomach. Deaf to the murmurs rippling through the crowd, he thinks what might have been if and Miguel had both seized their chance that first night, and aches at the glimpse of the messy, brilliant thing that could have blossomed between them.

Miguel doesn't stiffen in shocked outrage. He melts in fond, stupefied sadness that makes Tulio wrench his gaze away.

Instead he grins down at the kids clambering around his feet. He pats heads and gives out last minute high-fives. He nods at fast-paced, excited rambling he belatedly realizes are prayers for him to come back real soon.

A hard, demanding nose butts into his back. Tulio bristles at Altivo's scowling face. Is the horse really about to lecture him on staying?

But the stallion's face softens as he nudges again for a pet. Tulio gives it and then does his very best not to wince when Altivo deliberately licks his hand like a dog.

When he turns, and a wet tongue rasps up from his back all the way into his hair, Tulio can't help his shudder of revulsion. Or his frustrated flush at Altivo's whinnying laugh.

With a brief squeezing hug, Chel passes Tulio to expectantly wait at the base of a ship laden with gold. A king's ransom and a faithful follower that will remain by his side until the end of her days. What else could a go-- guy want?

Very much aware of the god standing at his side, Tulio can't find it in himself to look him in the eye.

"Well, good luck," Miguel offers politely, without even the promise of a safe voyage home.

"Yeah," Tulio forces out. "You too."

Tulio strides back to where he belongs, Chel's side, and smiles reassuringly down at her concerned frown. He's the first one onto the boat.

Oh, he hates sailing, but after centuries with one maritime culture after another he's picked up enough of it to hopefully flounder back on the last of his borrowed power. He reaches for the first mooring line...

And hesitates. In the faint chorus of murmurs at the back of his head, something light and foul scurries across like spider legs skittering across his back. It feels almost like--

Tulio's eyes are the first to find the dark plumes of smoke on the horizon. Altivo's are the second. He nickers in alarm, the winds suddenly turning to carry the omen of smoke. Miguel is the third. He pales, the warm glow evaporating from his skin.

"Cortes," Tulio mutters darkly the same time his mind murmurs Conqueror.

"No," Miguel murmurs, soft and small as a child.

This is a nightmare they've lived before. It's one they even once helped perpetrate.

Blissfully oblivious of what is to come, Tannabok turns toward Miguel. "My lord, what is it?"

Miguel's mouth stammers mutely. The chief's attention sharply turns to the two terrified messengers that rush into his arms like frightened children.

"Chief Tanni! Chief Tanni! Approaching the city... is an army of strangers."

"We are safe here," the chief consoles in vain, for Tulio knows they have already crossed the boundary markers into Manoa's outer limits. "They'll never find the gate to the city."

"But, sire, they are being led by Tzekel-Kan!"

Tulio looks sharply over at Miguel. Shaking in his cape, the newborn god huddles into himself. His face is wide with helpless, all-consuming dead Tulio knows all too well. Even he's not wilfully blind enough to see fucking fate's fingerprints all over this.

Oh, you dramatic irony-loving fuc--

"What?" Chief Tannabok snarls. "He survived?" Immediately he channels his rage into action, thunderous passion spreading like wildfire through his men. "Warriors, prepare yourselves for battle!"

"Chief!" Miguel cries shamelessly, clutching at him with the same helpless desperation that always failed to prevent their favorites from riding out to meet their doom. "Chief, you cannot fight them."

Tannabok helplessly gazes upon a god that has turned aside human sacrifice and vengeful high priests. "Then how can we stop them?"

"We can't," Miguel sighs resolutely, for this a prophecy that has come true a hundred times before and will come true a hundred times again.

Tulio mutely appraises these doomed people that Miguel has shackled himself to. Then he pauses.

Not dead, he realizes. Not yet.

Tulio clears his throat. All eyes turn toward him. "Uh, one moment, please."

Frantically he ducks out sight onboard. He tries very hard to ignore the same damn armadillo guzzling a goblet of wine as he arranges two strings of gold and a cigar into position.

"Okay," he mutters. "Here's the gate. Here's the boat."

"Uh huh," Chel says diligently. "And?"

Tulio repeats himself in growing frustration, waving his arms around as the pressure behind his eyes mounts. The plan's not unfurling itself before him like it should. All he feels is fate. Icky, sticky fate as the strands weave tighter and tighter around them....

An errant hand knocks the armadillo's aside. Rich red wine sweeps the cigar boat into the golden gate before washing everything away.

Tulio lights up with serendipity, even as he distrustfully eyes the little messenger. The armadillo sighs mournfully down at its lost wine.

"That's it," he declares. "We'll crash the boat into the pillars."

"That's it?" Chel utters. "What about the gold?"

"Well..." Tulio's mouth twists as he clutches her hand for strength. He's a gatekeeper, sure, but not Manoa's gatekeeper. These aren't his boundaries, and it's going to take serious firepower for him to even hope of pulling this off. "I do owe Lord Xarayes for what I'm about to do to his river."

Downing a cup of wine himself for liquid courage, he quickly refills it and pops up before the expectant crowd. Miguel brightens up in that special way he does only when he knows Tulio's about to pull off something brilliant.

"Chief!" Tulio proclaims. "I've got a plan."


Tulio feels all of Manoa behind him as they secure the pillars. Chel is a beacon of faith at his side, burning high and bright as she helps him pivot the boat into position.

Their faith in his plan, in him, should be a buoyant tide....

So why does he gaze into that dark tunnel and feel like he's never going to see sunlight again?

He glances back at Chel. She nods resolutely back.

Tulio's easy confidence slips when he sneaks one final look at Miguel, perched atop the cliff and radiant in his rebirth. His eyes convey all that needed to be said.

Miguel's mouth opens in the tiniest of gasps. Then it firms with a minuscule tilt of the head only Tulio can call a nod.

With a shuddering inhale Tulio brushes back his hair and sounds what might be his death sentence. "Okay, chief, on my signal!"

Further and further their boat flows up Lake Parime, to the edge of no return. As they sail past the men holding the pillars firm, he gives the wave that seals whatever his fate shall be.

Before the force of the Manoan battering rams the columns supporting the pillars crumble with little resistance. One by one they fall, sending the column falling with the boat still right in its path. They crawl through the water as if through lead.

"Tulio!" Chel cries frantically. "The sail!"

He fights the stubborn rope with every muscle in his body. It's not enough. It's never going to be enough, not with the hungry mouths swarming beneath them now. "It's stuck!"

Chief Tannabok's jaw drops in horror. On his own he pulls the weight of twenty men. It's still not enough to hold back unrelenting gravity.

"Altivo!" commands a deep, sonorous voice.

Swift as the wind, the stallion thunders past. Miguel mounts him at full speed.

They charge beneath the falling pillar. They charge to the edge of the earth.

And leap.

Altivo is not like the wind. He is the wind. His physical form dissolves into a thousand screaming gales. They rip the sail free and skim the ship over sluggish, grasping waves.

For a moment, Miguel hangs suspended in the gale, arms outstretched and cape snapping in the sunlight.

Then, he soars.

Tears pool in Tulio's eyes. He has forgotten how beautiful Miguel is in all his forms. Manoa has only made him more magnificent. Dull brown wings now range from lustrous blue to green and everything between. His flight feathers shine every color of the rainbow.

Carried far by Altivo's gust, Miguel dives beneath the falling shadow, and snatches his prize. Chel cries out Tulio's name, her voice lost to the shrieking winds and Miguel's own high, keening cry.

Rainbow wings flare as the impossible hawk rises safely back into blue sky. Two sets of wide, terrified eyes gaze down at him.

Tulio, utterly at peace, sighs and smiles back.

They are the last sight he sees before the darkness slams down.

He fights as long as he can, straining to bring the ship broadside against his target. He knocks, from the sickening crunch beneath, the way is closed.

Chel is safe. Manoa is safe. In their hearts Miguel shall live forever.

When the waters rise up to claim that their final price for such a fate, Tulio surrenders with open arms.

Chapter Text

Chel struggles all she can against the sun-warm talons suspending her in air. She screams Tulio's name, but her voice is lost to the shrieking gales and Miguel's high, mournful cry.

When the wave of water rushes in, she remembers the promise of the Lord of the Waters, and knows Tulio simply hasn't washed up on the other side.

Miguel lands. Between one breath and the next Chel goes from dangling from a hawk's talons to being held against a bare chest. She rips herself free of his arms and pounds uselessly against his naked torso. She might as well be hitting stone.

"What are you doing? Go and bring him back!"

"Chel," Miguel says quietly. "He's gone."

"Gone!? He's a god. He can't be..."

Chel trails off as she truly takes in the being she stands before. This is still Miguel. She'd know him anywhere. But Miguel no longer just means one little sun-haired man with boundless passion for the world. He's so much more than that.

Hunter, whispers a chorus of thousands. Healer. Rescuer. Averter of Evil.

Nauseated from the sheer multitude, Chel looks away and bites back her vomit. Tulio isn't a god. Not like Miguel is now.

Chel believes in him like no other, and has denied all others the opportunity. When Tulio could have learned to love Manoa and its people like he did her she had instead secluded herself away with him.

Miguel smiles bitterly. "Gods die all the time, Chel. Even those stronger than we ever were."

"I was dead," Chel murmurs. Her hand creeps up to her head as she recalls those last dark, painful heartbeats before fighting off the Jaguar God in a dark jungle. "And Tulio brought me--"

"No," Miguel corrects sharply, the air around him flaring hot as the sun. "Dying. I bring back those from the brink, not beyond it. I can't heal the dead. I never could. You were dying and T-Tulio is..."

He curls into himself, growing fainter and fainter until he fades away into nothing. Chel is alone.

She bites down hard on her quivering lip. Hard enough to taste salt and iron. Better blood than the flood of tears. Miguel is grieving with the iron certainty their partner is dead and never coming back. If she allows herself to give into the same, then that shall be true now and forever.

They can't be alone, can they, her and Miguel? Surely there's someone else out there that believes in Tulio like he deserves to be...

The wind stirs her hair. Gold-shod hooves clop on stone. A velvet muzzle snuffles at her ear, and Chel is no longer forsaken.

For a short eternity Chel clings to Altivo's powerful neck. She heaves with repressed sobs. Now is not yet the time for weeping.

Altivo is the wind. He has roamed Manoa when and where he willed. A thousand careless voices have tossed their words and prayers upon him.

So Chel shuts up and listens. She listens for a lifetime, straining to hear beyond the cavernous echo of her own thoughts and fears.

Finally she swings herself up onto his broad back. She seizes his reins and commands him onward. Altivo obeys.

They breeze through wealthy streets where Tulio's name and last great deed hang heavy on the lips of every speaker. Their words are beholden and fatalist. For though they all believe Tulio has helped save their city not a one believes in his triumphant return. Since his arrival Tulio has made it so very clear to them he never intended on staying. Whether he sacrificed himself for them or returned into the lands beyond the sunrise is meaningless. Gone is gone.

Gone too, Chel suddenly realizes, is the faint little whisper that once briefly rang alongside her own. The cold and skeptical silence of his peers have stifled him.

The other little voice, small and stubborn, is only softened.

Altivo flits through the streets where Chel once lived as a girl and past Lady Paquini's open air altar.

The doorways of the homes here are small and narrow, the steps too fragile to support a stallion's bulk. But Altivo is also the wind. He breezes right in through the broken slats on the second floor window. Here his hooves are light as air.

The incense burning in the corner flares only stronger at the sudden influx of fresh air. Altivo snorts at the smell and snuffles at the lumpy honey cakes sitting on the makeshift altar. A tiny hand bats him away. His miffed huff is promptly appeased by an offered apple.

Chel knows every offering in this humble little shrine has been nicked by clever little hands from some stall or another. That only makes her like this girl more. After all, none of this tribute was actually stolen from another god's altar.

Chel slides off from Altivo and kneels to the girl's eye level. "Hi," she murmurs. "I'm Chel. I help speak for the gods."

"Yeah," says the girl. "I know. I'm Canah." She sticks out a hand and Chel deftly takes it. Her mouth skews as she glances at her makeshift altar, strewn with beads and morsels and all the little things a little girl can find priceless. "Are you to hear to tell me what Lord Tulio likes? 'Cause I don't know how to thank him properly, and Daddy won't let me ask people how to anymore."

"Lord Tulio really likes stories," Chel says honestly, because he has a way with words and a chronic need to talk about himself. "Why not start about telling us how he helped you?"

"Not me." Canah's eyes stray to the cot in the corner, still with indentations where two small bodies once huddled close on cold nights. "Cera. Daddy said we should give her Mochi so she wouldn't get lost in Xibalba, and we did, but the Jaguar God still sometimes eats people before they get to Grandma Turtle's. Lord Tulio helped them get there, even Mochi, so he wouldn't get eaten."

Chel inhales sharply. The Gold People who cannot afford a proper human substitute will instead sacrifice a dog in hopes of tricking a Lord of Xibalba into accepting a different life. Among the Vine People an animal companion or clay effigies are instead sacrificed and burned in the funeral pyre so that they might have a guide through the Houses of Xibalba. And, should Balam Qoxtok be hungry, a chance to appease him so he did not devour their soul instead. But neither is a safe guarantee of actually reaching Lady Eupana's paradise in the waters beyond.

"That was very brave of Lord Tulio," Chel murmurs.

Her heart quivers. Of course she is not surprised at Lord Tulio coming to her own rescue, but helping a lost little girl and her dog through the Jaguar God's dark jungle when they had done nothing for him? Good gods. Even she had underestimated him!

"Yeah, but no one will listen to us! They keep telling me I made it up!" Canah's shoulders hunch. "Even Daddy is asking me now to stop talking about it."

Chel's gaze squarely meets the man gawking in the doorway. "Well," she declares, "come with us and they'll sure as hell listen."

Canah nods resolutely. Chel stoops down to help her onto Altivo, but first the girl scoops up a honey cake from her altar. She doesn't get on until Chel gives in and pops the cake in her mouth.

A little Vine girl with naked ears and a dead twin is just one with a fanciful story. A little Vine girl astride the wind and with the speaker of the gods at her back commands crowds that swell as her words are carried far and wide.

Yes, Lord Tulio is Lord Miguel's dark and reclusive counterpart, but so is he splendid champion that blazes beside him in the game of gods. He is luck-bringing and ready-helper. He is the keen-sighted watcher of the heavens that turns aside unlucky stars. He is guide and messenger of the blessed. He is the thief that shall steal their very souls from beneath the Lords of Xibalba and the shepherd of souls that shall safely see them into the paradise after.

And, most importantly of all, he is the wanderer that always returns to his people, for all the borders and paths to Manoa are his to keep safe and its people his to watch over.

Busy One, chant the prayers of thousands. Glad-Hearted. Keen-Sighted. Guide. Shepherd.

There are other prayers carried on the wind too, something about some goddess, but Chel ignores them. What's important are the tales of the quick, clever god flowing from Manoa's heart to its outskirts.

This world still very much has a place for Tulio and a people to welcome him. Their prayers shall be the beacon to guide him home.

Chel doesn't believe Tulio will return to them. She knows it to be true like she knows the sky is blue, like how she knows the hearts of their people.

Chapter Text

Dying isn't so bad, he thinks dreamily as he drifts formless and faithless on the waters. Little by little everything he was and is and ever will be dissolves in the swirling eddies that carry him away bit by bit.

He's god and demon and conman. He's the face put on a pile of stones and the tale told by people long dead. He's dry words in a dusty book.

Sometimes he thinks he floats by remnants of hope and dream he recognizes as friend and family. Brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, united at last in the collective public unconsciousness that wants to pretend they never were at all.

Then sharp coldness sinks into his sense of self, and the pleasant nothingness burns away. He remembers pain and dear gods has he known pain. He knows what is to be ripped apart by a ravenous wolf pack and his throat slit before a screaming crowd. So too does he know the feeling of being eviscerated, every last inning scraped out so strings can be lashed across his bones and song in every strum.

He fights with every last sundered scrap of will as it hauls him out of the swirling dark and into the light...

Stubby little legs beat on thin air. He dangles from a line, the hook biting into the tender flesh between his plastrons.

A brown, leathery face appraises him and then breaks into a grin. "You, my friend, are a very hard catch indeed."

His slow, sluggish mind is still working on a snappy comment when fanged jaws erupt from the dark water below. His mind goes blank. Even as the old fisherman deftly steps back a massive, emerald fin dismissively slaps the rainbow kingfish back down.

"Tenacious little guy," the old man chuckles. "You must be so proud."

"Hmph," sniffs Grandmother Turtle as she cranes her head to gaze upon them. Beneath their feet the ground --shell-- shakes with the force of her exhale. "They all take too much after their father."

"By which you mean no manners whatsoever?"

"Like you're one to talk, you old scoundrel."

He can't go much but glare balefully at the banter passing over his head, and so glare he does. He focuses on the fisherman. He's hairless, wrinkled old and brown as the earth. He's naked but for a simple brown wrap around his hips. His back is hunched; not from age, but the thick bone plates that serve as home and defense.

He knows this man. Not as a man, but as a...

"Y-You, you f-fu--"

The fishing hook holding up falls away. So does the fisherman. As he plummets to earth he instinctively retreats into his shell.

A long snout pokes its way in after him. "I've been called that quite a bit over the years, yes. It's a name I probably deserve. But, please, call me Bibi."

He scowls sourly back out at the armadillo. Then he freezes in horror.

Name! What's his name?

They come in a flurry, a flood; hermesturmsangelosdolisthothmercury and endless others. He's been all of them at some point or another. They're all what he was, not who he is.

No longer is the tortoise hiding away in its shell. He cycles through forms and faces. He's the bleating lamb and the hare too stunned to move. He's the fierce-eyed hawk and a hundred other fluttering birds that can't get off the ground. As wolf and scrawny mongrel he chases his tail in frantic circles. He's all of them and none of them.

Through it all the armadillo looks on in bemusement. And he hates it. Because, oh, he remembers; a hellish, winding trek through jungle that should have lasted eternity, a ballgame half-fraud and half-miracle. That final, final sacrifice demanded of him.

Then he remembers what was gained in exchange.

Green eyes and golden hair and endless laughter, endless youth; the warmth of the summer sun and summer song and centuries passed in misadventure. Dark eyes and raven hair and a quick tongue, beauty precious in its fleetingness; quick hands and quick words and days that should have lasted centuries.

Miguel. Chel.

With them warm in his mind the last of his panic drains away. He settles into the form they love, the face they know, for it is his face.

Tulio. They call him Tulio. And he has died so that they might live. For Chel, a long and peaceful mortal life before inevitably finding her way to Lady Eupana's paradise. For Miguel, an eternity in the hearts and minds of her people.

Tulio's naked. Pants would probably be preferable, but a part of him now and forever still insists pants are for barbarians. Briefly he contemplates chitons and togas and a thousand other styles dead and gone. Let them stay there.

His shape is right, and that's all that counts.

So Tulio crosses his arms and glares down at the little armadillo that had its sights upon him and Miguel nigh the moment they washed up in this damned New World. Messenger, his ass. They've been dealing with the real Trickster God from the very beginning.

 He's dead now. What left does he have to be afraid of? "You had it in for me since the beginning, haven't you?"

Bibi shrugs. "Eh. More like the moment you both decided to seek out the city of gold. I had to see if anything you came with was worth keeping."

Tulio's mouth dries. It was Cortes' ship that brought them forth into this New World. It was death and destruction that followed in their wake. They had brought to Manoa's doorstep, and still the gods had let them in.

"You should have struck us down before we ever step foot in your city," he rasps.

"Our daughter thought the same way," Lady Eupana rumbles from far above their heads, for Lady Raima of the simmering volcano is born of both her and Bibi. "Yet my old scoundrel asked for lenience, and made me convince Raima to stay her hand."

Tulio thinks back to his stunned belief that a true goddess had heeded his thoughtless plea for calm. "If she hadn't listened, things would still be... the same."

Chel, sacrificed to the same gods she had stolen from. Tzekel-Kan, smug and safe in his power to do so for decades more, until he perhaps managed to bring his god into the world. Tannabok, helpless to stop the tide.

"The people willed change," Bibi says succinctly. "And so change came. Why could it not come with you?"

Tulio smiles wanly. Change had come with him alright. Miguel was right by his side, and in one fell stroke he has cast down human sacrifice and the high priest's tyranny. Tulio's death is the sacrifice to ensure such change will last, without bringing Cortes down upon them.

Lady Eupana levels her colossal gaze to his. Eyes fathomless as Lake Parime gaze into him. "Many strangers have settled my shores before. Yet, in the hearts of my people, they can be strangers no longer. They had plenty of room to welcome three more."

Tulio thinks back to the stone stele that had sealed their fate. Not a single god, great in his might. Not even a single god upon a steed. Dual Gods and their Heavenly Messenger.

"B-But I died."

Bibi rolls his eyes at him. "Really? Gods die where you come from?"

No. Not his grandfather, cut up in pieces and still breathing in every one. Not in his father's first wife, swallowed and still counselling from within. Still pregnant with a doom delayed, not denied.

In Manoa? The Two Suns are gone, but still Lady Kama lights the night and Lord Kinich rises reborn with the dawn. The Crocodile God is still in his death throes, every thrash an earthquake and every drop of blood one more demon for the world.

Xarayes is Lord of the Waters, the rivers and streams that wend their way down to Xibalba's darkness. The Lords of Xibalba might rule the underworld, but he is the underworld itself. Of course they all hate Tulio. It's a grudge that will endure eternity.

But no soul in Xibalba is calling for Tulio now. He's staved off that doom. They're safe and sound in the world above. He's gonna keep them that way.

"My offer to a seat at my table still stands," Lady Eupana says evenly. "Even to you, you old scoundrel. It's good for family to sit down for a nice dinner every once in a while."

A laugh, light and jubilant, bubbles out of Tulio. "Another time, maybe."

He's feeling light enough to fly. So he spreads his wings and does.

He's patron of travelers, guide and herald and shepherd. Of course he'd know the way out even if he doesn't have the stream of prayers reverberating through every fiber of his being. Their faith burns bright as a beacon fire.

He's a god, trying to be better than what he was. That still doesn't mean he's not pettily vindictive to those bastards that deserve it.

So first he angles his wings and breaks from the shimmering path for a little detour.


As high priest Tzekel-Kan is not one for leaving the city. It is up to others to seek him and his Obsidian Lord out.

But of course he still knows the landmarks home like he knows the holy days of the calendar, when which god needs what blood and how much of it, and how to offer it.

The Lord of War and his army follows. Just as they should. Some of the soldiers mutter in a tongue he cannot yet understand. No matter. Tzekel-Kan has divined the will of the gods before from a language of dreams and omens. He can learn to do so again.

In the treetops overhead something cackles, high and maniacal.

The Lord of War jars his dark mount to a halt. His army halts behind them. Through the treetops flits something small and dark.

Despite the gloom beneath the jungle canopy it is still very much daylight. Still an owl, black as night, swoops down to a low branch. Eyes, bright and blue, stare down at them.

Tzekel-Kan shrinks beneath Lord Tulio's gaze, but his gaze disdainfully sweeps over to him to lock eyes with the Lord of War. His god glares stoically back.

In his deep, obsidian voice he rumbles something to his soldiers. One lifts his weapon. A crack like thunder splits the air. Even Tzekel-Kan, wise as he is, is struck by such power. He falls to his knees, hands clapped over his ears.

When the surge of terror fades, he discovers the branch of the ancient tree exploded to pieces with a power Manoa and its golden gods could not possibly comprehend.

In the darkness Lord Tulio laughs again.

With the might of his god behind him Tzekel-Kan squares his shoulders and rises again. Once more he leads Manoa's doom upon them.

Chapter Text

Miguel is a healer. His hand can turn destiny aside for death to claim a soul another day. In his glory days he had once even persuaded death to claim another soul entirely on his beloved Admetus' destined day of dying.

Yet, for all the fates speak through Miguel, he is powerless to call back one already claimed by them. He can heal those even on the brink of death, for there is still a spark of life, no matter how faint, to make flare up anew. The dead are dead. There are no injuries left to heal. Their spark is just... gone.

In their golden age the greatest gods of all had blazed bright and proud as suns. Few had shone brighter than him. When the faith of their followers faded away, their pantheon had remained as stars, pinpricks of lingering faith and power stark against an apathetic night.

One by one, Miguel has watched them gutter out. Some, like his father and his twin, chose not to fade, but explode and wreck the greatest damage they could upon a changing world. There came the point where, of their seemingly infinite pantheon, only him and Tulio remained.

And now he is alone.

Oh, there are the gods of Manoa everywhere around him, but he hides himself away from all of them. It is they that demanded that final sacrifice, a final life for their people's safety and Miguel's eternal place amongst them. It is they that have taken Tulio from him.

So Miguel will hide himself away where only his own grief can find him. When Conquest and Cortes' ilk lurk at the borders, only then shall he emerge, and his face will be pestilence. His plagues will strike down every last one long before they can breach the borders his partner gave his very life to uphold.

Yet, for all he tries to seclude himself away, the whispers still find him. Drowning destiny out is one thing. Chel's utter defiance against it is quite another.

Miguel can't help but listen, and remember. Even at the height of his power, there were those who could what he could not.

When Admetus' wife died in his place, and his friend withered away in his misery, it was not Miguel who strode into the underworld and brought her back out.

Once, in his rage and arrogance, he struck down an adulterous lover without thought of hypocrisy or the innocent unborn life she carried. Tulio, seeing what he had not, had rescued that same child from his mother's funeral pyre and delivered him into the safekeeping of a responsible guardian.

Plenty of Miguel's sons over the centuries have grown up as healers in their own right. Only one had the power to raise the dead. When Miguel's own heavenly father, fearful and envious, had struck that mortal healer down for daring to defy death, Miguel's son had only sprung up again as deathless and godly as the rest of them.

Remembering the impossible, Miguel cannot turn away. He scurries at the feet of followers that carry tales of wily trickster outsmarting the mighty Jaguar God and spiriting away souls beneath his very nose. He drifts invisibly on Altivo's winds, the same that carry prayers to a lord of thieves and shepherd of souls.

He waits. And he prays. At first he intones every name he knows for his partner, in Greek and Latin and a thousand other languages never spoken in these lands before. Soon he abandons it for a desperate, all-consuming chant of Tulio, Tulio, Tulio...

In one moment, Miguel is alone, with only his and Chel's and the people's prayers reverberating through him.

In the next, he is not. He'll never be alone again.

They meet on the border, somewhere between Manoa and the fearful unknown, between day and night, death and dreaming. Time and time again they have embraced as something roughly flesh and bone, shackled to singular forms and disconnected from all else.

Now their beings are untethered. They throw everything they are and ever will be at each other. The line between Miguel and Tulio fades until there's just a we and utter, infinite bliss...

They pull apart, uncertain, for something is still missing. It wasn't before, in the Old World, but they've left all of that behind in the boat they washed up in. In this lush golden paradise they've been reborn. A duet is no longer harmony. It's one crucial voice short.

Chel, they realize, for in her heart they first found their home long before the rest of Manoa invited them in.

She is their priestess and their guide, their speaker and salvation. How can they be without her by their side?

She's waiting for them. Long before Manoa realizes their return, her face breaks into a smile bright as the sun as she locks eyes on something just beyond mortal range of sight.

She doesn't quite know how to reach them, yet, so they reach down to her.

Before mortal eyes two gods manifest atop Chel and they collapse together in a graceless heap, torn between hysterical laughter and hysterical tears.

Blissfully oblivious of their wondrous crowd, they smoosh cheeks and stroke hair and cling to each other like lifelines. Their stuttered attempts at words are interrupted by crushing hugs and crushing kisses.

Miguel knows every intimate facet of Tulio's being. Chel is virgin territory; triumphant speaker of the gods and the servant once intended for sacrifice, prayer and persuasion, theft and redemption. Her new depths are vague and nebulous, waiting definition in the hearts of the people, but existent all the same.

Miguel delights in Tulio's bewilderment. For one who must think he knows every curve of Chel's being, her new perplexity makes him squint and tilt his head like a confused puppy as he tries to take her all in. At last, the god of speech manages an eloquent "Huh."

Chel, confused by his confusion, scowls at him. "What? You're a god that came back from the dead, and you're gaping at me?"

Miguel smiles knowingly. Apotheosis is not new for him. More than one of his children with a knack for healing or prophecy once awakened to discover themselves deified by some small local shrine or another. In his and Tulio's old pantheon there were many other instances. They do not happen so gently... for in most cases a deified mortal's cult only gains ground after their mortal demise.

Apparently the Manoans do not need such initiative. From the beginning Chel has asserted herself as their partner. A mortal priestess, no matter how quick or clever, cannot so brazenly consort with her gods. A goddess, however....

Chel and Tulio both bristle a bit at his beatific smile. Miguel only beams wider and draws them close, for now all three of their fates have been woven together from now unto the end of time. He wouldn't have it any other way.

Speaking of destiny, Miguel is utterly at peace when the fates sing Tzekel-Kan has arrived at Manoa's gates. It is no longer his destiny to breach them, for Tulio holds the border now. As one their physical faces turn in the direction where Cortes' army marches. Tulio bares his teeth in what cannot be called a smile. Miguel's smirk is vindication personified.

Chel is just aware of her new self to sense this new, sudden zealousness prowling at the border of her new contingent. Her face falls into a worried frown.

Miguel rests an arm on her shoulder. His smile eases as something like sunshine and laughter at a prank well-played drifts between them. "Lighten up, Chel. This will be a show worth watching. I promise."

Tulio grins like a wolf. "Oh, so that's a prophecy then? What about for what happens afterwards?"

Well, they have all of eternity for that. The opportunity before them now is once in a lifetime. So they grin like idiots and hold their hands out for their partner.

Chel takes them. Altivo carries them all onward on a gale of wind, so that together they might watch exactly what the fates will unfold.

Chapter Text

The gods are watching him. Tzekel-Kan feels their presence like mosquitoes biting at every inch of him. He glimpses them flitting through the forest shadows and soaring overhead. He hears their mockery carried on the wind itself. It's almost like being a young acolyte again, shadowed every step by his jeering peers.

No matter. Tzekel-Kan first brought Balam Qoxtok to him in bringing such inadequate followers low and offering their blood up for sacrifice. Now Lord of Conquest and an army of demons march at his back. He shall lead them to Manoa's golden heart so that they might feast upon all the false, lesser gods inside. It's the poetic resonance all the best myths are made of.

Mist hangs heavy in the valley. Tzekel-Kan sometimes spots unfriendly faces circling them, as if they are a wolf pack's prey and not the lords of the jungle. Some of the demons mutter amongst themselves in their low, rolling tongue. Yet the Lord of Conquest's gaze never flits to the shadows. With obsidian resolve he focuses only on his priest, and the prize ahead.

Despite his certainty Tzekel-Kan still cannot help but hesitate before the Dual Gods' stele. Lord Miguel looks as cruel as he did when he cast Tzekel-Kan down into the waters of Xibalba. Lord Tulio's lips have twisted into a vicious smirk. Lord Altivo's face is no longer neutral but prepared to bring his hooves smashing down upon him. Even Chel, their supplicant, no longer gazes reverently up at them. Her disdainful frown is entirely fixated outward at him.

The Lord of Conquest rumbles his impatience and drives his priest onward. Tzekel-Kan wades into the water... and finds the one reliable passage into Manoa swallowed by stone.

With a gasp of horror, Tzekel-Kan still wanders forward. A desperate part of him hopes the stone is an illusion that will crumble at his touch. He instead discovers the thousands of pounds of rock utterly immovable.

The Lord of Conquest rumbles in disgust.

"Wait, my lord," Tzekel-Kan pleads, sidling to his side. "There's another--"

With a dismissive foot the Lord of Conquest kicks him back into the water. Two of his soldiers stride forward to take Tzekel-Kan in their grasp. They haul him back as their god turns their army back.

Peering through the mist, Tzekel-Kan gasps in horror. Clear as day the gods perch upon the rocks. The goddess he once intended to offer up as tribute lifts her hand in a cheery wave goodbye.

"My lord!" Tzekel-Kan cries desperately. "My lord, please! Your prey is right--"

One soldier elbows him in the gut so violently Tzekel-Kan is left gasping for breath. They are deaf to his pleas long after the gate and its guardian gods are swallowed by the mist.


Cortes remains thankfully oblivious to the lying heathen's delusional ranting. His men are not so easily dismissed. Their eyes uneasily stray to the graven idol.

"My lord," one murmurs to him. "Shouldn't we at least tear that godless thing down while we're here?"

Cortes sneers down at him. "Are you suggesting we waste more time today than we've already have?"

His man averts his eyes and falls quiet. So do the whispers of demons.

Cortes is a faithful, practical man. There is no god but God, no power higher than the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. His expedition has no room for those who foolishly that devils have any true dominion in the Lord's creation.

"There is no El Dorado here," he repeats certainly, with the implied promise there may yet be one to find. "Onward, men."

This new land is dark and ignorant in its lack of faith, but there are no monsters lurking in the dark. The strange birds and beasts calling in the trees are mere animals that can be killed and driven back same as any other. There is no malevolence in illness and delay and natural disaster. There is but God's will and the blasphemous who believe powers capable of foiling His will.

The whispers of El Dorado, however, are more pervasive. Surely the lying heathen has gotten his gold from somewhere, a place where men truly paint their kings in gold and live upon floating cities.

Even if there is not and has never been an El Dorado, if the rumors of savages are wildly blown out of proportion... Cortes will not mind. No matter how carefully chosen his men, their resolve has wavered when faced against the true unknown and its ubiquitous risks. The myth of gold and glory shall drive them onward where even their faith in God fails.

So Cortes leads his men into the dark unknown to bring light and the Lord to all they find there.

The graven image and its demon deities is left behind. Soon enough it will be swallowed by the jungle and forgotten by the new faithful.


Chel feels no pity when Cortes and his Spaniards haul Tzekel-Kan into the mist and away from the lands of his birth for now and forever. Too many innocent men and women fell under his knife or the blow of his cudgel, their blood offered up to sate War and Conquest. Tzekel-Kan wished to bring death and destruction upon their people. Now he must suffer the demon he nearly unleashed upon them.

Soon enough Tzekel-Kan and his captors shall discover tongues intelligible with Manoan, even the traveler few and far between that actually speaks it. Tales of Manoa and its marvels shall inevitably spread with these soldiers and through all the lands they conquer. Chel knows this like she knows the sun shall rise tomorrow.

She isn't concerned in the slightest, not with Tulio to hold the border firm and Miguel to spot any threat long before they do the city. Outsiders know only the main passage to the city, now destroyed. The secret paths are known only to the trusted sentinels.

No matter how hard Tzekel-Kan will struggle to keep the story straight, there's a countless crowd out there to mishear and misinterpret as they see fit. Any detailed instructions to the city's whereabouts are destined to die in a wave of endless permutations.

Chel swings astride Altivo. A golden shaft of sunlight has burned away the mist in the opposite direction where doom marches onward. There is yet virgin vista to see and untrodden roads to ride down.

The wanderlust is still there. It always will be. Chel gazes in the opposite direction, beyond the mountain, where a people murmur her name. Home is in their hearts.

She glances down to her two lovable idiots. Home is with her partners, wherever they may be.

"Hey, guys," she prompts quietly. "You don't wanna stay here forever, do you?"

"There's gold," Tulio points out. "So much gold. And a temple, some pretty cute kids, some petty little lords I really think I could enjoy messing with..."

Miguel chimes in with his own benefits, ticking them off finger by finger. At first Chel is charmed how he lists individual names; Chief Tanni and clever Chalchi, brave little Patli and bold little Cera, patient Waya and curious Kaay. Then she realizes every worshiper is precious to him, and he has them by the thousands.

Tulio is grinning fondly when he elbows their partner in the ribs. "She gets it, Miguel. But do we wanna stay here forever?"

Miguel's face skews up in thought. "A thousand years, at the very least. They've been expecting us for quite some time. It'd be rude to leave them all behind so soon."

Chel considers a millennium in Manoa. The idea no longer sounds like prison. Not with her boys at her side and an entire people to know.

Tulio grins as he takes her hand. "God of travelers, remember?" With his free hand he joins Miguel's to their own. "And god of embarkation. Just because this place is our home doesn't mean we can't go on holiday. We already have invitations a world away."

Miguel beams. "For a proper feast? With music and poetry? What a perfect chance to meet the family!"

Bemused at Miguel's excitement at dining down in the underworld, Chel instead settles for arching an eyebrow at Tulio. "Dinner plans in Xibalba?"

Tulio shrugs. "Guest right goes a long way. And it's not like some of the lords can hate me more than they already do."

Emerald eyes peering skyward, Miguel hums thoughtfully as he considers the afternoon sun. "A trip in the opposite direction will be here soon enough."

The possibilities are as limitless as the future, but Chel is best at thinking on her feet in the moment. So she ignores the far-off forever in favor of the here and now.

"How about first we follow the trail right in front of us?" she suggests innocently.

Miguel's wide and earnest eyes peer up at her. Tulio's narrow in speculation. "To where?"

Chel smirks in a way that ignites the fire in them both. "A bed big enough for three."

Altivo rears up into the air, the mist scattering before the force of his gales as she spurs him into full gallop. Not that even the wind himself can leave her partners in the dust. Tulio matches them stride for stride. Miguel soars overhead, his rainbow wings brushing against them both.

They are hers. She is theirs. For now and eternity.

Chel wouldn't have it any other way.

Chapter Text

El Dorado is real. Of course it is. It is true as Tír na nÓg, certain as the Seven Heavens. Even those who doubt the Seven Cities of Gold and the City of Caesars know in their hearts El Dorado is real. Once you could even find it on maps, right on the shores of Lake Parime.

How do you know? Why, from the word of good, God-fearing men. Devoted men.

Sir Walter Raleigh believed in it he sacrificed his own son. And himself, for he sailed home to die with dignity for his failure to reach it. Lawrence Kemys sacrificed himself for Lake Parime's golden shores. So did Manuel Centurion and the hundreds of souls that followed him on his expedition.

Diego de Ordaz and his men never made it, but Juan Martinez did. He allowed a store of gunpowder to catch fire, you see, and was condemned to death for it. But Juan's friends let him escape downriver in a canoe.

Juan paddled further than any man of the West has gone before or since. He paddled so far he encountered men that had never before seen one on his faith or one his skin color. He practically became a legend to them, the strange white man in his little canoe. Town to town, they and the river only carried him deeper down into the heart of the unknown, where the true legends live.

Eventually Juan Martinez's escorts left him behind with only the direction to continue. Continue he did, until he reached he river's source and the shores of Lake Parime.

El Dorado's guardians blindfolded him. In total darkness, Juan was carried by them through the city. By his estimate they perhaps carried him fourteen or fifteen days, through rushing waters and through jungles thick with sound.

When Juan Martinez next saw the sun as it glinted on the golden crown of Manoa's own emperor. Juan fell to his knees and begged the emperor for mercy. Inga, the emperor, declared him to be both stranger and outsider. It was up to his lords.

Once more was Juan Martinez blindfolded and carried forth in darkness. When next allowed to see light he could scarce open his eyes, so radiantly did these thrones and throne room shine. Inga might have been emperor of all Manoa, but Manoa was a strange place strange as its golden palaces, for even Inga bowed to mere lords.

Immediately the lords beheld him and knew him to be a Christian.

For a moment, Juan was hopeful he had stumbled across fellow strangers in a strange land, for they alone knew him and knew his God.

But Juan beheld the lords and knew them like one remembers an unpleasant childhood memory best left forgotten. Their faces were both familiar and all that was alien in this New World. Immediately he knew they held no love for God.

For the lords did not sit alone. Enshrined beside them was the lady they loved instead, and she was as strange and magnificent as Manoa itself.

The lords and lady dismissed him from their sight.

Juan did not remember how long he stayed in Manoa. It could have been seven days or seven months or seven years. Inga lavished him as a guest of honor. He sailed on shells large as ships over rainbow leviathans and walked streets free of fear and filth. He watched men fly like birds and make miniature suns rise.

Perhaps it was paradise, but not to Juan Martinez. He watched witless heathens throw perfectly good food to pyres and throw gold away to the waters. Once he watched the streets run red with the blood of beasts he could not name. That night the city descended into drunken depravity. Even in the height of their hedonism, Juan's escorts never let him be.

Those even Inga answered to never deigned give them their names. The one Juan called the Lord of Lies was clever enough to know every lie he attempted. So Juan stopped lying, lest the Lord of Lies throw him beyond the border to be eaten by the beasts. The Lady of Truth already knew anything and everything about him. Juan could only act his best around her, lest she turn the people against him and order Inga to exile or execute him.

Worst of all was the Lord of Fate. The Lord of Lies and Lady of Truth were at least honest in their power and their intentions to destroy him the moment he erred. The Lord of Fate acted warm and welcoming but never let Juan know what he wanted of him. All Juan knew was that the Lord of Fate could order him dead with but a word, and he had no idea how to appease him.

Eventually Juan learned enough of the tongue to get by. When he did Inga asked whether he wanted to willingly return to his country or stay in Manoa forever.

Juan Martinez was most polite and most firm in his desire not to stay. He was a good and faithful man who longed only to return to a good, godly world where two men could not take the same wife and where even emperors obeyed but one true Lord and God. There is no heaven on earth, only the Heaven that awaits the faithful after a life well-lived.

Once more Juan Martinez was cast into darkness. He awoke by the banks of an unknown river with only the clothes on his back. By good fortune he made it back to civilization.

For years and years, Juan Martinez kept his story to himself. Only on his deathbed did the truth come pouring loose. Sure, perhaps dulled by the decades and exaggerated by an old man's dying delusions, but close enough to truth.

He told the truth for everyone he could to listen. They passed it on for him and they passed it on again and again and again.

Juan Martinez is a fable, you say? No more real than his story?

Manoa is very much real. It's right on the shores of Lake Parime. It's in Colombia and Brazil. Venezuela and Las Vegas. Maybe even in parts of Guyana. It's among the Muisca and among those just waiting to strike it rich. It's the last great archaeological find left to be brought to light and the last great treasure trove to be plundered.

Never mind that Alexander von Humboldt and all the maps that came after. For three hundred years, Lake Parime was right there on the map. It's still there, if you find the right one.

Gold and glory are waiting.

So are the gods.