The balmy night was hardly the reason that Majo was covered in sweat. The entire morning and afternoon had been nothing but a torrential downpour as Majo got ready for his journey to the Place of the Gods. The priests had prayed over the young warrior, anointing him with balms and oils made from crushed coca leaves, numbing Majo’s skin along the thin lines their obsidian daggers cut into his forearms. Now, with the rains finally gone and the night upon them, the people of Tenochtitlan were expecting him, along with ten other warriors, to escort the prisoners of war with the sweet Octli carried in dozens of ceramic jars, to the Place of the Gods.
Majo was afraid.
The Place of the Gods was a darkened city of disturbing size and magnitude, inhabited only by the spirits of that could not move on to the next world, as well as the Gods during certain times of the year.
For the next three nights, the Feathered Serpent was to be a resident of the city; and to prevent the gigantic, fire-breathing God from leaving the city in search of food, the warriors were to escort Tarascan slaves along the forty-mile hike along the treacherous path leading to the forbidden city. The path there was well maintained, but hardly guarded.
“Come,” Majo said, pulling on a leather strap over his shoulder, a large jug of Octli dangling on his hip. His warriors perked at the command, grabbing their spears and their feathered-shields. Majo’s own shield held three feathers from the Feathered Serpent itself, according to his father, who had done this grisly task seasons ago, back when he was a warrior. “Gather the slaves and the Octli; we have a sacrifice to make.”
Several of the soldiers, younger ones that had not seen combat, hooted at Majo’s proclamation, whereas the older soldiers merely set their faces to grim determination. One soldier, Joeia, was an older man that had done this once before. He refused to speak of it, and had volunteered to perform this ritual once again when the priests had announced that the time was soon coming. When asked, he merely shrugged.
“I’d rather the younger soldiers not see what I have seen, done what I have done.” He’d said, before turning to go into his own stone dwelling.
Now he stood with Majo, watching as the twenty-odd slaves were loaded down each with two great jugs of the sweet liquor, the milky liquid splashing along inside the stoppered jugs as the men and women adjusted to the new weight added to their shoulders.
“Do you think they know, Majo? Know what we intend to do with them?” Joeia asked, heaving a sigh.
“I don’t even think we know what we are doing, my friend.” Majo said clapping Joeia’s shoulder. “Have you had the priests bless our weapons for the trials to come?”
Joeia nodded, eyes never leaving the slaves as they were loaded down. “Each of our warriors’ spears have been blessed by the blood of the Jaguar and adorned with the feathers of the eagle; they will do their job well, so long as the men wielding them know what they are doing.”
“These are good soldiers,” Majo replied, looking over the younger soldiers as they corralled the slaves. “They may be foolhardy and prone to acting before thinking, but they follow orders well.”
“I hope you are right Majo… I hope you are right.” Joeia replied before walking off into the darkness, the torches of the Aztec outpost casting long shadows that Joeia easily slipped into.
The aged Jaguar warrior was perhaps one of the most skilled men in all of the city of Tenochtitlan, his skills in stealth kills without equal in all of the Empire. Even after watching him drop into the shadows, Majo’s trained eyes could only barely make out the older man’s silhouette, stalking along the roadside near, partially in the underbrush of the jungle.
“Alright men!” Majo shouted as he watched the last of the slaves’ hands be bound to the person in front of them. “We have them prepared so let’s get moving.”
A round of cheers came from the eight other warriors. One, a brash young soldier, grabbed the lead of the rope holding the line of slaves, and tugged, forcing them all to shuffle forward awkwardly. He kept his hand on the rope as he led them down the stone pathway heading west, shouting out orders and threats at them. Majo turned to find Joeia standing beside him, eyes set in grim acceptance.
“The next hundred or so yards is clear, with only a few animals out investigating our presence.” Joeia said, earning a thankful nod from Majo.
“Good, keep scouting ahead for us. When the Feathered Serpent Rises, the dead have a tendency of rising with him; be sure to warn us should you come across anything.” Majo ordered, to which Joeia merely nodded before darting off into the midst of the dense jungle foliage.
And so the procession began, Majo at the front with two younger warriors, while the six others marched alongside the line of slaves porting the potent potable, prodding and poking at the men and women as they went to make sure they kept at a certain speed. The one soldier held the lead of the leash connecting them all together, tugging them along at a confident stride that left most of the captives stumbling. Majo said nothing, as he really didn’t care if one or two jugs of the precious liquor was spilled; so long as they had enough to use when they arrived, that’s all that mattered.
A short whistling pierced the humid night air, causing Majo to raise his spear. The procession stopped short; Joeia had spotted something, something worth sending out a warning over. Looking around at the familiar trees and markings, Majo wracked his brain.
No… he thought desperately, turning and barking orders for his soldiers to get ready for battle, they never come this close to Tenochtitlan. How could they have made it here so fast?
His answer soon arrived, jogging down the path, black pulpy hand prints smeared down his chest. Joeia had a wild look in his eyes, one that Majo had only seen in the old warrior when battle was about to begin.
“Fourteen of them,” He said as he caught his breath, pointing his spear directly down the wide stone road, “they’d gotten ahold of a Capybara and her kits, tearing into them like ravenous monsters.”
“Well, that’s what they are, isn’t it?” Majo said, casting a sidelong look over at the slaves tied together in formation. Pointing to the soldier holding their leash, Majo pointed off the road.
“Take them and hide them as best you can. Keep an eye on them, and allow them to drink from the jugs; use the ladle if you must, but each one takes at least three mouthfuls.”
The soldier nodded before tugging on the leash, pulling the slaves away from where the fight would occur. They all gave looks of bewilderment, calling out in their native tongue. It wasn’t the first time Majo was pleased they didn’t understand him, and it most definitely wouldn’t be the last. Turning his attention back to the other eight soldiers forming a circle around him, he heaved a sigh.
“The enemy we face is unlike anything you have fought before,” He began, locking eyes with each warrior as he turned and addressed them. “Unlike the animals we hunt or the men we fight, these creatures have no weak spots. You must aim for the unnatural growths on their bodies, severing them from the main body.”
“Do not look into their eyes,” Joeia interrupted, moving forward into the circle, “they have a wicked gleam that can root you where you stand.”
“Our weapons are adorned with the blood of the greatest hunter in the jungle, and dressed with the feathers of the swiftest creature of the skies. Together we are strong, and together we will beat these creatures.” Majo said, thumping his chest once with his spear. “We must, because we must deliver our sacrifice in order to gain the Feathered Serpent’s favor for the next ten seasons.”
Whatever his men were about to say, Majo had no clue. Joeia let out a cry as he pushed a young man out of the way of a scaly tendril.
It would appear the Dead had found them.