THE GODS OF BLOOD
On the third planet, between the last two great ice ages, the quest continues.
Raven, the last Sword Lord of Ghedda pursues his dream of leading a new military empire. He journeys from the southward drifting continent of Tar-Tika to the land of the Maytecs, where a blood stained pyramid is the scene of brutal human sacrifice.
Raven is pursued in turn by Kananda and Zela who must bring him back to Karakhor. Only Raven can help to repair and fly the damaged spaceship he has abandoned. Only with Raven’s help can the last life-bearing planet in the solar system be saved from total annihilation.
But in the jungle city of Chaxal Raven must first face a cruel and terrible enemy, an astral adept who is the reincarnation of a historical monster.
The great pyramid of Kukulcan rose high above the surrounding city of Chaxal and the outlying blanket of thick green jungle. At this height, above the bright red and gold rooftops of temples and palaces and the radiating rings of fine noble houses and the lesser dwellings of the warriors and artisans, the air should have been sweet and clean, but it was not. Instead there was the reek of death, the stench of sweat and fear and most of all of blood; old blood, young blood and new blood. The ultimate temple platform and the sacrificial altar that crowned the great pyramid was a place of copious blood-letting.
The man they knew as Chac-Mouel stood impassive at the head of the stained, black granite slab which formed the altar. His flowing robes of red and black, the colours of blood and death, failed to hide his tall, skeletally thin shape, which was a direct contrast to the short, squat bodies of the priests and their patiently waiting assistants. He wore a high serpent headdress over a domed skull of down-like short white hair. The serpent was fashioned from gold with black and silver scales. Its eyes were two vivid red rubies which seemed to glow with an inner fire. The man’s skin colour was grey-white, another contrast to the red-brown bodies of his companions. His eyes were cold grey with large black pupils, like those of a cruel predatory bird.
Chac-Mouel was different from the native Maytecs who populated this central part of the long, tight-waist continent of Mer-Rika. He was not from Earth. Spiritually and psychologically he was rooted in the past of what had once been the fifth planet in this solar system. His biological origins were in the stars, in the constellation of Orion. He was an alien even among aliens.
He was flanked by the two High Priests of the Jaguar and Eagle warrior castes. Calacmu, the Jaguar Priest-King, Lord of the Shadows and Night, held the sacrificial knife, an ancient artifact with a handle wrapped in thin coils of golden wire and encrusted with precious stones. The crude blade was shaped from razor sharp black obsidian. It was a heavy tool, designed to smash as much as cut its way into a victim’s chest.
Calacmu wore a black-mottled cloak made from the flayed skins of seven of the big jungle cats. The empty head of one of the beasts formed a cap with yellow eyes and snarling jaws above his brow. His face was hidden behind a close jaguar face mask of polished black jade where only his eyes gleamed through the eye-slit holes.
Tuluc, the warrior priest of the Eagles, Lord of the Sun and Sky, wore a rainbow cloak of multi-coloured feathers, gathered from all the birds of the forest and the far distant mountains. They included tribute from every city in the lands between north and south Mer-Rika. On his broad chest there hung a long gold pendant that portrayed his Eagle God, the Sun God, the Serpent God, the Jaguar God and the Rain God in descending order. Above his head rose a mask of black and white eagle feathers. His dark cold face looked out from its open beak of hooked yellow gold. His expression was sour because on this day he did not hold the sacrificial knife.
Behind the motionless triad of priests there stood a single priestess. Her name was Tayasal and she represented the Serpent Goddess. Her robes and head-dress were similar to those of Chac-Mouel, although slightly less resplendent. The Serpent priest was the embodiment of Kukulcan, the Creator God. The Serpent Woman was his consort. The relationship between this current pair was not purely symbolic.
Four assistants completed their retinue; four strong young men in simple white robes, their hands and faces were painted a bright vermillion red. The robes were pure and spotless for the first victim had yet to be hauled to the top of the pyramid.
There was one more presence on top of the pyramid. Inside a stout wooden cage a live jaguar restlessly twisted and turned. There was no room to pace and prowl but the animal was constantly on the move. It was a strong muscled adult male, sleek and well fed, but frustrated and angry. Its eyes were hot fire, glowering at the Jaguar priest as though it recognized the dangling pelts of its slain brothers and desired only vengeance.
Sunrise, sunset and high noon were the most precipitous times for the ritual of human sacrifice, the key points in the daily passage of the highest god. Blood, specifically human blood, was necessary to petition the gods, to welcome the Sun God at daybreak, to honor him at his highest point, and to petition for his return before he disappeared below the edge of the world at the end of the day.
The sun now was at its zenith, a scorching orb in a brilliant blue sky. The priests were hot in their heavy robes but they showed no sign. They waited, hearing the first sounds of movement from the steep flight of steps that led down to the great plaza below.
The plaza was crowded, almost the entire population of Chaxal had gathered to witness the daily ritual. At the base of the pyramid a line of bound prisoners stood with their hands tied behind their backs, each one wearing a simple white shift over his loincloth. Their feet and heads were bare. A few stood straight-backed and proud, the rest slumped in various stages of resignation and dejection. They had been captured in a Jaguar clan raid into the territories of a neighboring city. Each of them was flanked by two armed warriors of the Jaguars.
The first prisoner was already half way up the flight of steep brick steps which cut through the nine terraces of the pyramid. Nine was the believed number of layers of the underworld, and thirteen layers of the heavens were believed to ascend invisible above them. The prisoner on the steps was a nobleman who climbed between his two guards with slow dignity and his head held high. A third guard followed behind with an obsidian blade spear but he was not needed. The captives were sacrificed in order of rank and usually only the last few in line would have to be dragged or pushed up to meet their fate.
There was a hushed silence in and around the plaza. The vendors who sold sugared fruits and drinks, corn cakes and roast meats of dubious origin, were briefly silent. The great roar of approval would go up when a bleeding heart was presented, held aloft for all to see, and the corpse was thrown down the side of the pyramid.
The prisoner reached the top level of the temple and stood between carved square columns that were richly decorated with depictions of the gods. The columns supported no roof. The temple was open to the sky. The sun was directly overhead, sending down hammer-blows of heat. The prisoner stared into the grim visages of Serpent, Jaguar and Eagle. His body trembled slightly. He was a young man of prime fighting age but he did not attempt to resist. By his code it would have been shameful to do so.
The three guards turned and began their descent of the pyramid. The four attendants moved forward and quickly stripped the prisoner of his single garment, leaving him naked but for a brief loincloth. They turned him with his back to the altar and carried him swiftly backward by his arms and legs. The prisoner closed his eyes and grimaced as his shoulders thumped down on the hard black granite. The attendants knelt two on either side of the altar, pulling hard on the four spread limbs and crouching in positions of supplication.
Calacmu moved forward, gripped the thick black blade knife in both hands and raised it above his head. His eyes blazed, his lips compressed. He plunged down with all his strength, hacking and twisting to open the shattered chest.
The prisoner died without a sound except for the crunching of his broken sternum. The Jaguar priest turned and handed the bloodied knife to the Serpent priestess. Tayasal cleaned it reverently with a cloth, ready for the next victim. Calacmu pushed both hands into the chest cavity he had created and tore out the still beating heart. The red blood sprayed and spilled and ran over the still warm corpse and the altar table.
The heart had one more duty before it was displayed to the crowd. Chac-Mouel stepped back from the head of the altar and away from the square of white cloth that had been laid ready upon the stone tiles at his feet. Calacmu held out his prize and deliberately dropped it.
The dripping heart splashed down on the crisp white cloth and sprayed more blood from its severed arteries. The Jaguar priest leaned forward to study the patterns of bright scarlet that now stained the purity of white. One long streak ran like a broken river to the top edge of the cloth. It stopped short of one large splash stain and four smaller splashes.
“A stranger comes from the east, from the sea. He brings danger and four companions.” Calacmu spoke slowly, as though mystified and uncertain. He looked up into the eyes of Chac-Mouel for confirmation.
The Serpent priest nodded slowly. He knew this already, but he was intrigued. He had watched from the astral plane as the blue warrior who threatened his fledgling empire had embarked with his friends. Their ship was now at sea, midway between the continents of Tar-Tika and Mer-Rika. What he could not understand was how Calacmu could interpret these events so accurately from his own crude method of divination.
“They come,” he agreed. “One is a blue-skinned stranger who is very dangerous. Two are of another earth race from beyond another ocean, they are similar to you. And two are Tar-Tikans.”
Calacmu’s unblinking eyes stared at him from behind the jaguar mask, almost as black and evil as the jade mask itself. “Your people we know,” he said slowly. “Another earth race we can understand. But who is the blue-skin one?”
Chac-Mouel could have explained. The blue-skinned man was named Raven. He was a warrior of Ghedda, perhaps even a Sword Lord, from the planet Dooma which had recently disappeared from the night sky. How he came to be here on this planet was a mystery and it was too hot for a long session of question and answer. There was other business to attend and the crowd below would grow impatient. They had to be kept both fearful and appreciative.
“I will deal with him when they arrive,” he said enigmatically, and gestured for the ritual to continue.
Calacmu was still for another moment, his eyes still staring but with his face unreadable behind the black beast mask. Then he stooped and picked up the bloodied heart. He carried it to the edge of the platform and held it high above his head. A great cheer rang up from the massed thousands in the plaza below. The four acolytes, their robes now splashed with red had already pulled the corpse from the altar and dragged it to the edge of the platform. Now they rolled it over the edge and watched it bounce down the steps in a cartwheel of flapping limp limbs. The continuing cheers from below were ecstatic.
There was a receptacle for the extracted hearts. A seated stone statue of Kukulcan was positioned on the edge of the platform where it could be seen from the plaza below. The god’s harsh, grim face was carved from grey granite and in his lap he held a stone bowl. The bowl had a deep centre and there was room for many offerings.
The hearts were symbolically offered to the god but most of them would be roasted later to provide a feast for the priests. The discarded bodies would be cooked and eaten to provide yet more strength and courage for the Jaguar warriors who had captured them in battle.
Calacmu hesitated with the dripping organ still in his hand, but the jaguar snarled from within its cage. It was a deep-throated, threatening sound. Calacmu turned, held the heart for a moment over the cage and then dropped it though a gap between the wooden bars. The jungle cat caught it neatly between its fearsome jaws, chewed, shook its head and swallowed. The living god also had to be fed.
In the meantime the next sacrificial victim was already being escorted up to the top of the pyramid.
As the killing continued, Chac-Mouel lost interest. Instead he was thinking of what he had seen on his last disembodied flight in the astral realm. He had seen the large reed boat captained by the black man Karuba as it sailed across the vast ocean from the southbound drifting continent of Tar-Tika. The ship’s course was bringing it directly to this part of Mer-Rika.
On board was the man Raven, his brown-skin woman and the brown-skin warrior who was their companion. With them were Kel-Khotal and his sister Oriana. Chac-Mouel knew the latter pair well. They were of his own race, fifth generation descendents of the crew of the starship that had crashed long ago into the ice of Tar-Tika. Kel-Khotal still saw their mission here as Teachers and it was Kel-Khotal who had helped him to first establish himself among the Maytecs. Now Kel-Khotal was coming to investigate his achievements and that meant that the interfering Kel-Khotal and his sister must die.
Chac-Mouel had tried to kill Kel-Khotal before, using his powers of coercion from the astral plane, but each time he had been foiled by Raven. The Gheddan was a worthy swordsman full of reckless courage. Chac-Mouel knew that he would kill Kel-Khotal and that he should kill Raven. But the mystery of the lone Gheddan intrigued him and he saw that although they were enemies now they could well be allies.
Raven might well be the last biological Gheddan to survive in this solar system but Chac-Mouel was Gheddan in spirit. He had been reborn into the body of a Tar-Tikan but once he had been Strang, the First Sword Lord, the man who had forged the Gheddan Empire, the man who had built the City of Swords. He had ruled by creating rivers of blood. They had called him Strang the Bloody and Strang the Butcher, Strang the Conqueror.
Chac-Mouel was merely a flesh vessel. He was truly Strang. He would be Strang the powerful, Strang the tyrant yet again. The Maytecs were ideally malleable to his purpose and their obsession with blood rites was more than he could have hoped.
It was a glorious vision that any true Gheddan must share and if the blue man could be suborned he would make an able lieutenant.
He was briefly brought back from his thoughts by another triumphant bellow of voices from the plaza below. Another uplifted heart was being shown to the mob before being dropped into Kukulcan’s bowl.
Strang, he was thinking of himself as Strang now, returned to his meditations. There was another group, he knew, following the first. This second group was led by a brown skin swordsman who styled himself a king and included four gold skins who could only be Alphans who had also originated on the lost planet of Dooma. The fifth planet was gone forever but it seemed that a small group of its inhabitants had somehow escaped to earth.
Strang did not know if the second group were friends or enemies of the first or what part they intended to play in whatever events were to come. However he had become aware that three of the Alphans and the earth swordsman were also astral travelers. They were weak, mere children compared to his own abilities which were honed through many reincarnations, but they would bear watching
Another sacrificial victim died beneath the plunging knife, this one kicking and screaming in terror. The intrusion of noise and struggle dispelled Strang’s thoughts once again. The white cloth with its red splashes of divination was still at his feet and he kicked it to one side.
Tayasal saw the movement and smiled at him briefly, her teeth a flash of gleaming white in her dark shadowed face. Then she turned her rapt attention back to the blood-letting on the altar. She was breathing rapidly and he could smell her sexual excitement.
The serpent priestess was aroused and that meant another duty he had to perform as soon as possible once the present spectacle was over. In his imagination he could already taste her hungry mouth and feel the sharp, long talons of her fingernails raking his back.
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