Chapter 1: couldn't cut it with the cherubim
In the beginning there was nothing, formlessness and emptiness.
Sometime after that came a family. It's easiest to call them that. They're all related to each other, somehow or some way. Stories are shared. Lines blur.
Inevitably the family fights. There is right, so there must be wrong, white where there must also be black. One is true and the other false.
This is where they come along. In their beginning is hymn and unity, eternal song and eternal life. Inevitable boredom draws them to more curious creatures, human beings and all their countless contradictions. They are not favorites, closest to grace and with whole legions at their command. They never rise above the lowest rungs of the ladder, the last in the legion and lowest in the choirs. It is so easy for their eyes to turn downward.
Things come to a head eventually. The best and brightest of their brothers seethe with pride and envy. They resent the dominion of humanity, the will that always seems held above their own. It is in their natures to be drawn to this fomenting rebellion. They've ogled over humans too much not to have had some of their nature rub off. And it is the nature of humanity is change, to rage for it. So rage they do.
Their fall is hard and fast. They are not special, only two of myriads. The darkest of the fallen are sealed into earth until the final judgement, their names tainted as those of demons. But neither of them are worth such personal attention. They and their fellow outcasts are simply abandoned, left to wander at the edge of human regard, ineffable parts of their nature.
Without their loudest voices to keep them together, to grant them uniting purpose, the fractured family drifts further still. Some band together as vengeful legions and await the final battle, one last reckoning to rage against. They peel away, just the two of them. It began that way. It might as well end that way.
Eventually their wanderings bring them to Cadiz. What will be Cadiz, anyway. At the time of their arrival it has only known the name Gadir.
Not that it matters. Their Lord created this world and all things in it, godless men and cities included. They will all be His in time. Or they will be wiped from His world. Such is declared by Hebrews and Early Christians, Castilians and Andalusians.
By their arrival they're already adept with aliases and blending into unknowing humanity. In private they still call each other Mihael and Tuwahel, to cling to their last comforts of home. Over time even those become corrupted, as they adapt to changing times and changing tongues.
Tuwahel, with a healthy sense of survival, eventually takes the unassuming name of Tullius and in time alters it to Tulio.
Mihael, never granted a little voice to warn him against stupid things, spitefully names himself after their brother when people keep mistaking their names. The holiest brother. Who slays dragons and demons like cats do rats. At least Miguel is of the dirty common vernacular, not quite holy. The Church texts write only of the Latin Micahel, and theirs is the only voice in Spain that counts much these days. If it's an acceptable name for men, then so it is for those that walk among them.
Tulio and Miguel are partners in crime, con men and crooks. It's the only way to scrape by when the taint on their souls already makes humanity inclined to mistrust them, when their unchanging faces force them from town to town. They are grounded to earth, chained by mortal needs as punishment for meddling too much with them.
Most of the time it's just a nicer alternative to being sealed up in Dudael. But today is a good day.
"Tons of gold for you, hey, tons of gold for me, hey! Tons of gold for we, hey!"
It's a happy chant, not quite a song. True song is stupidly risky, considering what happens. Miguel vents himself through mortal instruments to draw and wow crowds without... things happening. Tulio doesn't try at all.
"One more roll!" the sailor snarls.
A wise man would know when to cut his losses. Tulio is not a man. He's also wise enough to know he will never, ever settle for what he's granted. That's why he's down here in the first place.
"Uh, guys, you're broke! You've got nothin' to bet with!"
The sailor's prize possession is a dirty, yellowed map. Tulio's lip curls at strange sights and scribbles that make no sense to him. He can't remember the last time he's seen something so blatantly pagan.
Miguel, being Miguel, immediately latches onto it. His eyes widen with childlike wonder, the same that led humans to dare forbidden fruits. The same that got their wings seared off.
"Tulio, look! El Dorado, the city of gold! And hu- people made it all by themselves! When's the last time something this marvelous dropped into our laps?"
"Remember that one little city with the hanging gardens and really nice palace?" Tulio hisses. "How'd that work out for us?"
Miguel winces but still puts on a pout. Tulio rolls his eyes at the face. He's not falling for it, he's not-
"You're on, peewee."
This time the sharp-eyed sailor insists on using his own dice. Tulio quickly snatches the dice from him, sparing his partner only a quick finger sliced across the throat.
Miguel strums in a frantic dance around the gambling pool, drawing eyes and ears. Most of the crowd are distracted by him, but not the bastard sailor.
Tulio doesn't need to fake his panic; that is very much real, real as the consequences of discovery. Tulio rolls and turns his dice in a dozen superstitious ticks he's picked up from others over the centuries. He goes over the top, holds his dice out to the prettiest maiden nearby for a good luck kiss. She turns in dismissal. The rejection distantly stings, but his mind is on greater things, and this is a spell that can't be broken.
Tulio throws his dice with an extra, commanding flick. The three lands easily. The second dice wants to land five.
He stares long and hard at it. Sweat beads on his brow before he drudges up the strength to push.
When the world was new he was invoked in the binding of spirits, the finding of treasures. Now he gasps with the force of exerting his will over one stupid little cube. He plays it off as nerves when he bends down to scoop up their winnings.
Their punishment is swift. Tulio's loaded dice fall from his vest. The sailor's rage mounts as he pounds the earth and shakes them up for seven, over and over again.
Tulio does not snarl up at the sky. It's never done any good. So he channels his rage into accusing Miguel of giving him loaded dice. Humans eat up the drama and then the spectacle of their sword fight. Some are still applauding when they drop over the rooftop.
Their moods perk up when the clamoring of angry guards fades into the city noise. They gloat a bit.
Sometimes they get away with it. Today Dad is already pissed. They drop into an angry bull's pen. They leap over his fence, he plows straight through after them.
And then they're on a boat. Cortes' boat.
"You will be flogged. And when we put into Cuba to resupply, God willing, you will be flogged some more... and then enslaved on the sugar plantations for the rest of your miserable lives. To the brig."
Miguel considers this. And brightens. "All right! Cuba!"
Cuba beats Dudael. They'll even have years to figure their way around the island, before their slave drivers notice they don't age like men should.
Cuba also beats getting thrown overboard. They can't swim for Spain. They sure as hell can't walk for it.
Chapter 2: holy ship
The good news is they're on a boat, poor Altivo safe and sound with them. They have supplies and even extra rainwater caught from the storm.
Tulio screams out his throat on the first day, cussing out Dad and an apathetic ocean. Miguel doesn't think there are any spirits so far out here anyway. For all human mystics have called upon the domains of angels to bind and incarnate spirits to their will, they are just too far away from shore to have ever been called into existence in the first place. There is nothing out here but themselves.
...And Dad, of course. He's always there, in some form or another.
On the second day Tulio gargles his throat out with ocean water and tries again. First he tries in Latin and Hebrew, the old standbys, before working his way to more esoteric languages. Within several hours he defaults to ranting in Phoenician to the waves lapping gently at their boat.
Altivo snorts. Miguel sighs and leans tiredly against him. "Nothing to worry about, old boy. There's no one out here to offend but us. Even if there were, well..." Miguel shrugs helplessly into an unending expanse of blue. "He's one little bag of hot air out here. We're just... not important enough to merit such direct wrath."
Not that Tulio likes to hear it, of course. Miguel was a little bit higher up in the hierarchy, entrusted with a modicum of power in the heavenly sphere, not just the mundane. The Lord commands a wide world. He has far greater things to do than torment two naughty little fallen angels.
Tulio prefers the punishment. Active torment means Dad's eye is at least on them. Better disapproval than empty silence.
Altivo snorts dubiously at the water. Miguel squints down to see only bottomless blue.
Curiously he peers back to the stallion. It's been a very, very long time since he's seen one like Altivo. And longer still when those like Altivo could talk. He still misses them sometimes. They had once been more ubiquitous than all the angels in the world, with complex desires and paradoxical natures that made them more like men than either angels or demons.
"You wouldn't have happened to have been a water deity at some point, would you?" Altivo rolls his eyes. Miguel sighs. "Sorry, old boy. It was worth a shot. Any friendly face on our side is better than nothing."
Their first days stranded are not so terrible. The waves are mild and their supplies plentiful. Miguel and Tulio have not yet exhausted their repertoire of games. To be a good sport Miguel even tries roping Altivo into a few. Those that don't require thumbs or a voice, at least. Tulio rolls his eyes and refuses to play then, because he's still prejudiced against the pagan gods. As if fallen angels are so self-righteous!
Then comes the evening sunset brings something far darker on the horizon. Miguel's stomach lurches at black clouds on the horizon, as the boat begins to stir rebelliously.
"Oh no," he breathes.
"Oh, come on!" Tulio snarls.
They snatch up the oars, doing their damnedest to even out the boat's haphazard rocking. Altivo sprawls his bulk low across the floor, trying his best to keep it balanced and himself from getting bucked out. Miguel catches himself mumbling snatches of psalm, the same eternal words etched into his being since creation. Tulio spends his breath screaming obscenities at their Father. And goading him on.
Waves rise to tower above them before crashing down. Tulio keeps his gaze on the horizon. Miguel's eye snaps to the waves, when a shadow... shifts just so. For just a moment it eclipses the whole sea beneath the boat, massive enough to swallow whole ships.
Leviathan, Miguel thinks in horror.
Only no, because no leviathan is that serpentine. And that shadow only stretches, bigger and bigger and-
Down into the depths he stares. The depths stare back.
Miguel hastily averts his gaze, but he's already provoked it. The air pressure soars, as the world draws its breath for its first crack of thunder...
...And dissipates. A gentle breeze sweeps over them, soft as a sigh. Tulio, shocked out of his fury, slumps in utter bewilderment. Miguel glances overboard to empty waters.
Tulio sniffs the air suspiciously, but whatever came has already past. "Incense?"
"Cedar," Miguel murmurs, stirred by a ghost of a memory.
They stare at the horse. The horse stares back.
Gradually, the waves decline back into doldrums. The clouds drift by without ever breaking open.
The dawn after the storm Miguel jerks up from an uneasily sleep to absently fix his shirt. The map inside is not as secure as it should be. Tulio and Altivo are still fast asleep. Miguel stares long and hard at the waters. Nothing ever stares back. Curiously he dips a few fingers overboard. They slip right under the waves without anything biting them off. For a while he smiles and revels in the cool sensation, so very different than the sun warming up overhead. Then he draws back his fingers to splay his whole hand over the water. He leans further to test his weight and-
"What are you doing?"
Miguel snatches his hand back. "Nothing," he answers, innocent as Eve caught with the apple. Pomegranate. Whatever the hell it'd been.
Tulio scowls at him. "You weren't trying to see if you could walk on it, were you?"
Miguel chokes down his instinctive denial. His gaze slides back to the sea. "It's not as if I have anything better to do."
"Not falling into shark-infested waters is always better," his partner retorts sharply. "Unless you want to lose anymore body parts!"
Miguel scrambles back, huddling into himself. His hands try and fail to reach the two scars that suddenly burn at the reminder of their existence.
Tulio stutters out an apology, frantic and fearful. In a few heartbeats the agony fades enough for Miguel to grudgingly grant him access to his back. His hands massage the ache in the surrounding skin, for their blood turns to ice whenever the other dares touch their greatest marks of shame directly. Altivo grumbles and pointedly looks out to sea. Miguel's grateful for the privacy.
From then on their hopes dwindle with their supplies, with endless days on the doldrums. They rouse from fevered stupors only at a seagull's calls. It's no sign of impending land, but so exhausted it lands on their boat only to collapse and die. Before they can even drag a meal back in a shark, massive and dead-eyed, rises up from the depths to devour it. They weep, for that fate is their own.
Angels have no souls, not like those gifted to man. Great demons sink back into evil and rise again, so long as their names are remembered. No true angel of the heavenly host can die, not with Dad to look after them and call them back from the edges of creation. No such protection exists for the Watchers, too tainted for heaven and too human for hell. They die by the dozens over the centuries, mortal enough to be killed by mortals. There is nothing for them after. Only the abyss.
As they drift further away from all they know the harder it becomes to think. They start drifting from Castilian into Mozarabic and Vulgar Latin, then into Hebrew and Phoenician. Altivo stares at them like they're losing it. They are.
When they have nothing left they lean against each other. Miguel drifts in and out of memories. One moment he's dying next to Tulio. The next he is Mihael in a garden at the beginning of the world, before envy and power ripped his family apart. There's Tuwahel, happy and whole, and brothers and sisters long dead. There, where the tree of life soars high into the sky, are their-
Miguel grunts weakly, coming back to his present. "Tulio, did you ever imagine it would end like this?"
"The horse is a surprise," his partner jokes weakly. "Still better than Dudael."
Anything beats Dudael. At least they have each other and their senses. Dudael has only darkness. Eternal darkness, until judgement day casts all the angels imprisoned there into hellfire.
"Any... regrets? Besides dying?"
"Yeah. Wish we'd had the sense to fly away before we got our wings ripped off."
Miguel swallows his bitterness. Dad had been understanding of the Watchers that had gotten a bit too tangled up in humanity... until He hadn't been. "Imagine all we could've seen with them. Remember back when we first fell, how we promised to see each other how much earth had to offer before it ended? We spent so much of that time puttering Iberia because... because... and now our greatest adventure is over before it ever began. And no one will even remember us."
Their family is large and complex, too complex for one lowly angel to remember them all. They can still recognize a sibling on sight, but certainly can't tell each other how many they have, or what their names all are. Doubtless only Dad remembers those felled so early after the fall.
Doubtless all but Him have already forgotten them, drifting out in the doldrums so long.
"Well, if it's any consolation, Miguel, you made my life... an adventure. From beginning to end."
"And if it's any consolation, Tulio... I never needed wings when you were there with me."
Their hysterical, forlorn giggles devolve into quiet sobs and then sighs. Miguel, eyes closed against the searing sun, dips his fingers once more for a lick of cool water. Warm, dry sand pours through his hand.
He startles awake. So do Tulio and Altivo. They gape down at a golden beach and out to the verdant jungle beyond. Miguel has not beheld anything so beautiful since... since paradise. New life surges into their limbs as they spring from their wooden tomb to laugh and kiss the ground.
Until they slobber all over old, yellowed skulls. Tulio and Altivo scramble for the boat. Miguel almost joins them. His gaze strays toward that large, eagle-shaped rock again, too intricate to be anything but the work of human hands. With trembling hands he reaches for the map of El Dorado, held so close to his heart. His eyes confirm a miracle.
"Miguel!" Tulio calls, paddling stubbornly at thin air. "Hey, Miguel! Could use a little help here!"
"Tulio," he breathes. "Tulio, we've done it!"
There's dumb luck and then there's this. This is anything but random chance.
Tulio's first instinct is denial. Then it's utter terror. "N-No. Nononono. Absolutely not! That's just asking for.... well, you know!"
Of course he sees this as another of Dad's twisted punishments. Miguel doesn't even think Dad's involved. His gaze flicks back to the waves that have delivered them here. But he doesn't mention that to Tulio. "Well, what are our options? First up is the city of gold. You know; dust, nuggets, bricks, a temple of gold where you can pluck gold from the very walls." Miguel falls pointedly silent, watches as the wheels in Tulio's head start to turn. "But you don't want to go, so let's... get into the boat and row back to Spain. Afte all, it worked so well the last time."
Once upon a time Tulio had been all about the treasure. He had latched onto mortal greed hard and fast, most especially in getting spirits to do the work for him. On its own gold is power, the gateway to all other of earth's pleasures nowadays; wine, men, women, and song.
"Wait! Wait a minute. New plan. We find the city of gold. We take the gold, and then we go back to Spain!"
"And buy Spain," Miguel agrees readily.
He bends down to draw the golden blade from the skeleton. It's no sword of heavenly fire, but neither he or Tulio are up to conjuring them these days. This one still slices through vines, to blaze a trail to new beginnings.
To behold one last wonder wrought by man, before the Spaniards melt it all down on Dad's behalf.
From darkness they are delivered into heaven on earth, beautiful as Babylon, verdant as Dilmun. Tulio's breath hitches at rainbow fish long as galleons, at clouds of golden butterflies, and most especially at crowds of people staring at them like they're beasts in a menagerie. Humans haven't looked at him like that since he wore wings with open pride. Nowadays, if they catch a fallen Watcher like that, a pyre or the gallows is usually quick to follow.
When their boat finally docks Tulio and Miguel both quickly mount Altivo. It's an illusion of safety, but a few feet of extra height still put them a bit more at ease. The poor thief below them can only try her damnedest to hide behind Altivo's bulk.
Tulio searches buildings for any sign of a proper place of worship. There's none. This is a pagan people, with no place yet for God, with petty little idols that will soon be shadows before His grace. "Ah," he sighs. "Well, it was nice working with you, partner."
"Tulio, I just want you to know... I'm sorry about that girl in Barcelona. And that man in Carthage. And the one in Byblos-"
"As the prophecies foretold," booms the heathen priest towering above them, as a solemn man who carries himself like a king strides to his side, "the time of judgement is now!"
Tulio cringes as the muddle around him starts making actual sense. This is just one another tongue created with the fall of Babel, so of course he and Miguel know it too. Their cynical gaze goes up to a volcano, already smoking. Ah. Must be the Sodom and Gomorrah type of judgement then. Hope the Spaniards are fine with mining pillars of salt over gold.
"Citizens, did I not predict the gods would come to us?"
Tulio and Miguel frantically glance around for the pagan deities in question. They even look down to Altivo and the strange little armored rat by his hooves. Then they turn back to each other.
Tulio nearly swoons out of the saddle. So much for hoping Dad would at least spare them from this.
The high priest strides down the temple steps. "My lords, I am Tzekel-Kan, your devoted high priest and speaker for the gods."
If there is the ever the time to declare there is but one Lord and condemn this heresy at the top of his lungs, it is now. Tulio's gaze flicks from a distant volcano to the much more immediate threat of being surrounded by armed warriors. "Hey," he chokes out. And says no more.
"I am Chief Tannabok," introduces the shorter, portlier man, one without a zealous flame in his eyes. "What names may we call you?"
"I am Miguel," Miguel blurts out near immediately because, hey, let's piss off the archangel too!
Miguel screws up his dismount, so he grandly flings out his arms to compensate for his foot being snagged in Altivo's reins. "And they call us Mihael and Tuwahel!"
"Your arrival has been greatly anticipated," Chief Tannabok states humbly, but far from honestly. There is no place for them here; there isn't anywhere. "My lords, how long will you be staying in Manoa?"
They both stammer stupidly at a question almost as impossible as asking Dad's truest name. They are saved from answering by Tzekel-Kan's narrowed gaze instead fixating on the thief behind them. He ruthlessly drags her forth. "Aha! I see you've captured this temple-robbing thief! How would you have us punish her?"
The thief insists she is not a thief, that the gods sent her a vision to bring them tribute from their temple to guide them here. Tulio bristles at being roped into another mortal sin. They're already breaking the first and most grave of commandments as it is! On top of not honoring Dad properly! Do they really need to add bearing false witness to the list on top of condoning theft of a coveted graven image? That's half the ten damned commandments broken!
Tzekel-Kan's gaze flicks back to them. So do the thief's eyes, wide and pleading. Tulio's resolve crumbles. Stupid mortals and their stupid puppy dog wiles.
"Release her, don't you think?"
Tulio holds his breath, but the high priest takes his question as commandment. With a polite snarl he pushes the thief forward, to return her idol to its rightful place. Some of the tension drains from Tulio's shoulders. Even if the life in question is far from innocent he's relieved she's spared. It's more than he can say for himself when Chief Tannabok next asks why they choose now to visit.
"Enough!" Tzekel-Kan snaps. "You do not question... the gods."
Ah, one of those types. Tulio knows them well.
"That's right!" Miguel chimes in. Tulio crosses his arms in solidarity. "Do not question us, or we shall have to unleash our great and terrible power!"
Tulio sags, jaw dropping in horror. He's quick to pick it up when Tzekel-Kan passionately insists for the utter opposite. "Visit your wrath upon this nonbeliever!" he shouts, gesturing emphatically towards his own ruler. Chief Tannabok rolls his eyes skywards. "Show us the truth of your divinity!"
"Divinity," Tulio squeaks out. "One moment." He scarcely turns Miguel around before the last of his patience gives out. "Miguel, you know that little voice most of us have... that self-restraint that prevents us from becoming the next Lucifer or Hadad? You don't have one!"
"Well, I'm sorry! I got carried away!"
"Way away!" Because to this day they both suck at telling lies, but Tulio isn't making this worse by flat-out telling Miguel he took after the self-destructively arrogant part of the family then the hedonist slacker side.
The fury falls from Miguel's stance, emerald eyes remorseful as he looks down the armored rat playing at their feet. "Maybe we should tell the truth and beg for mercy."
His wing scars throb. "When's that ever worked before?"
"Yes, but they're getting suspicious. And if we don't come up with some mega-cosmic event-"
At which precise and timely interval, the volcano explodes. Manoa gasps in horror at dark, fiery clouds that swiftly obscure the golden skies. Miguel braces for the end. The little armored rat clings to Altivo's legs. Tulio rounds on the volcano, erupting himself.
"Go on!" he snarls. "Like You've ever held back before!"
The wind shifts. They gape with the humans when the volcano inhales its impending eruption, smoke and all. The pall over the world lifts, bathing them in direct, golden sun.
"T-Tulio," Miguel breathes weakly, green eyes riveted on the square all kneeling in reverence, towards... them. "I-I don't think that was Dad."
Tulio's inner angel wants to curl up and blubber in terror. The pragmatic, human part of him, cultivated over many weary centuries, elbows Miguel sharply in the ribs. As one they throw out their arms to bask in the glow of the crowd and the mercy of an unknown power.
They stride forth into the spellbound throng. Miguel fixates on the head warrior from earlier, only half-kneeling and still clutching his spear. He tries to rise when they pass him. Miguel wags a scolding finger at him. It's enough to make him drop to his spear, falling fully to his hands and knees.
Tulio's stomach curls with dark pride when even Tzekel-Kan bows, glancing pointedly back at his chief. With sorrowful resignation, Tannabok bows before them. Tulio averts his eyes with prickling guilt.
"O, mighty lords! Come. Let me show you to your temple."
"All right," Miguel says gleefully. "Temple!"
Any true angel of the host will find sanctuary in any holy place, be it mosque or church or temple. Within the walls ring with peace and prayer, the songs of their number amplified a thousandfold. Demons are burned by the grace they once bathed in. Fallen angels forever slink toward such light, only to be driven back by the sharp eyes and fiery swords of their siblings. This temple, however false, is at least a safe place to rest their heads.
Tzekel-Kan turns toward the stairs of the tallest wonder behind them. Chief Tannabok stares defiantly back.
"Step aside," the high priest commands.
With great reluctance Tannabok does. Tulio does not look his way when they pass. He hesitates on the first step. When he is neither thrown backward or transmogrified into salt, he continues on his highest ascension since when he had wings and a home in heaven. Tulio and Miguel take their sweet time climbing, allowing Tannabok to pass them. It gives them time to admire the spectacular view and save a bit of breath.
"Quite the temple, huh?" Miguel manages with a breathless giggle.
Tulio frowns, niggled by ancient memory. "Ziggurat, Miguel. Temple's at the top."
Not like the pyramids of Egypt, that served as stairways to the heavens. The idols of the east had dwelt a step closer at the earth, upon the peaks of their ziggurats.
While very out of breath by the time they reach the true temple, they pull themselves together before the humans can see their sorry state. Even up here they do not feel the host, or Dad's wrath, or any breath of pagan presence. The walls up here are expectantly empty. The two most powerful men in all Manoa hold their curtains up, to let them stride forth into palatial accommodations.
Tzekel-Kan proposes a reverent dawn ceremony and Tannabok a glorious feast for this very night. To not let either feel insulted, they take them up on both offers. Both is good. Both is always good.
When granted their privacy they take a moment to gawk at the alien art style, two empty thrones clearly waited for someone. Then they break down into helpless, hysterical laughter. Altivo snorts down at them in exasperated concern.
"Tulio! Tulio! They actually think we're g-g-" Miguel stammers at the word, because he certainly can't profane Dad's name by a lowly, pagan plural.
"This is bad," Tulio groans, because the alternative is to collapse into a hyperventilating mess. "Very, very bad. B-But... when still worm our way out of this! No one back home is paying attention to this place yet! We just have to keep this up long enough to load up on the gold and get the hell out of here!"
Miguel gawks at him. "Really? That's your takeaway from all of this?"
Tulio's fingers twitch twitch with the urge to strangle him. How the hell has he forgotten about the war, the first war, when-
Squealing, they whirl around, fully preparing to face everything from an avenging angel to a pagan goddess. The mortal thief smug in her smile is not much better than the worse case scenario. Still, from their place huddled on the throne, they draw themselves up with the same furious faces that struck terror into the hearts of the wicked.
"Depart, mortal," he rumbles, "before we... turn you into a pillar of salt."
Miguel gapes at him, mask slipping. "C-Can you still do that?"
Pride wars with bitter reality and an innate truthfulness still woven into the fiber of his being. Tulio grinds his teeth. Forcing the dice in his favor was hard enough back in Spain, their old stomping grounds. Out here he can't do even that. The spirits here aren't starving little wisps. From the looks of it they're major powers in this pagan city, certainly not pathetic enough to be bossed around by a fallen angel with a modicum more power.
"Yeah," drawls the woman. "I'd save all that for the high priest, honey. You're gonna need it."
Miguel continues to stubbornly looming, throwing out his arms in grandiose poses because he no longer has wings to fluff out and posture with. Tulio rolls his eyes and drops his own stance. "Miguel, please. We've been caught."
"Oh, no," scoffs the thief, stolen tribute still resting smugly against her hip. Tulio tries and fails to keep his gaze fixed to her face. "Don't worry about me, boys. 'My only wish is to serve the gods.' Remember?"
"How?" Tulio asks sharply, watching as she finally strides forward to unite the head to its body.
"Well, if you guys want the gold, then you don't want to get caught, right? You're going to need my help."
Tulio turns back to his partner. Miguel proudly bristles at the thought of lowering himself to human help. "What makes you think we need your help?"
Unimpressed, the thief responds with her own mocking twist of Miguel's melodramatic pose. "'Pillar of salt.' Really?"
They both wince. Even the children had been made only smaller pillars. Tulio forces himself back to the present by demanding her name and angle. The thief retorts she wants in on the scam.
"It-It's not a scam!" Miguel splutters indignantly. "Not... completely, because-"
Tulio elbows him sharply. "It's totally a scam, she caught us," he says firmly. He scowls at her. "Why?"
"So I can get out."
They both understanding her wanting in to get out. Isn't that why they had slacked so badly in their duties as Watchers, tried to escape the boring grind of heaven? Both they both balk at her insistence to come with them. Drop her off at an another pagan city on the way back? Sure. Bring her back to Spain to wind up before the Inquisition, if the disease doesn't her in first? They're not demons!
"No!" Tulio snaps, because this is for her own good. "I don't think so."
Humans, of course, can't listen for shit.
No, they don't know Manoa's proper rituals for blessing a tribute, or their holiest days of the calendar. Or what the hell Xibalba is. They don't necessarily need to. Maybe Dad sent them here as a test, to spread His name and word like Michael and Gabriel have before. Maybe this is their chance to get back into His good graces by subverting the heathen deities. If the heathen deities don't slay them first.
Tulio is startled from his musings by the thief pinching his cheek. "Okay? Good luck." He rubs his face, stunned and no small bit of aroused by her swinging hips on the way out. "See you at the execution."
"Wait!" he yells. "W- How- Would you-"
"No!" Miguel breaks in, utterly horrified. "You don't want that! You really, really don't!"
His terror is earnest enough to halt the thief in her tracks. "And why don't I want that?"
Even Tulio slants his partner an intrigued look. "Yeah, Miguel. Why doesn't she want that?"
Miguel gapes at him. "Um, hello! B-Because...." He jerks a finger frantically upward, past the roof and to heights no mortal can ever reach. "You know!"
"...You can't be serious," the thief grinds out.
"He's a joker," Tulio deadpans. "One with the worst sense of timing."
Green eyes bulge at him, so fearful and fiery Tulio almost expects actual sparks to fly. "We're still His, Tulio, even now! This place and these people aren't. He has to be more prideful now than He was the last time people back home dared pray to someone else. His people delivering judgement is one thing. But these people, with two of His host..."
"Oh," Tulio says faintly, as awful realization hits. "Oh."
Dad gets pissed if people have hubris enough to pray directly for angels. He forgives those mortals that unwittingly execute a wicked fallen angel or two in their ignorance. But Manoa is pagan. To have their altars run red with two of his firstborn would be... not good. For the whole damn civilization.
Their terror is genuine enough that the thief doesn't immediately discount them as liars. Her brown eyes narrow at them both. "And he is?"
"Our Dad," Miguel says softly.
"Our Creator," Tulio amends. "Technically."
"You're... sons of an actual god?"
They cringe at the lower meaning apparent in her tone. "Creations of a Creator," Tulio grits out. "Called forth into being as messengers." Huh. He'd meant to say angels. Guess Manoan doesn't properly define between the two.
The thief's gaze flicks to Altivo. The stallion rolls his eyes and shakes his head emphatically, to deny any relation to these two idiots.
"Oh, Altivo was an actual god once," Miguel adds on the stallion's behalf. "Of horses and the wind, at least. Until his pantheon kind of... ran into Dad."
"And your father is...?"
"He's the Lord!"
Tulio splutters indignantly, because is the concept of one eternal All-Mighty really so hard to understand? Miguel bites his lip before helpfully explaining, "Well, four of the cities that last got on His bad side were laid to waste as a burning valley of salt and sulfur. Including the people."
"Ah." Eyebrows knit in thought. "That's... quite the story."
"We weren't made to lie," he explains wearily. "It's still a bitch to."
Rolling his eyes at her lingering skepticism, Tulio takes out his knife. One slice across his quick-healing skin proves their inhumanity more efficiently than waiting years for their apparent agelessness. He smirks as her eyes near pop out of her skull when the last of the blood evaporates.
Within a short succession, our idiots break the following five commandments: condoning theft, condoning coveting, bearing false witness, not honoring their Father, and of course number one on the list - getting themselves held as gods before God XD
You might better know Hadad by his epithet - Ba'al.
One of the Enoch books has Enoch journeying through one of the heavens to behold lamenting angels. Rather than pray FOR them, Enoch is noted as having the piety to instead give thanks for good things in the world to more indirectly put them at ease. This implies it is VERY bad for mankind to be messing with angels. Ignorant followers of God unwittingly seeing justice done is one thing. If the killer of two of the host is a pagan priest. Yeah, Manoa might WISH it got off as easily as Gomorrah did afterward.
Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!
Chel wishes her mind would move on from that, but she's still gawking at... (Lord?) Tulio's flawless skin. His smirk is what prompts her to turn the tables back.
"Deal?" she asks, because gods be damned the threat of fiery death will keep her from her fair share of the gold and her one way out of here.
"Deal!" Miguel says brightly, sticking his hand out.
Tulio is still sanctimonious enough to slap down his partner's hand and amend their bargain to a trial basis. Chel wipes the uncertainty from his face by returning his stolen dice. And laughs at Miguel's suspicious stare over where she might have been hiding them. As if she'll ever tell!
"Call me Chel," she volunteers at last. "Your new partner!"
She ignores Tulio's snippy correction of partner-in-training to rummage for proper clothes. Even if these idiots aren't the actual Dual Gods they still bear an uncannily resemblance to them. Without flat-out lying, Chel can help Manoa make that same connection by just... giving them clothes that look the part. It's way more convenient than having to explain to the whole damn city these aren't their two creator gods returned at last, but two minor messengers of some unknown, wrathful god that can't be bothered to specify his spheres of influence.
"Now, put these on! Your public's waiting!"
She plops down for a proper show once they start fumbling with the clothing. If these two aren't actual gods then she's at no risk of being struck blind for impertinence!
They drop most of the pile to hold up the hip clothes. Their faces drain until Chel at last offers help in putting them on. Obviously they're used to a very different style.
"It's not that, Chel," Miguel starts awkwardly. "It's just, do you have anything a bit more... modest?"
"That covers the back," Tulio says tersely.
Chel's gaze sweeps over them again. Most Manoan spirits are more readily inhuman, mixed with animal features. Odd coloring aside, these idiots look completely mundane. Unless those baggy shirts are hiding something. "If you have wings or something under there, that'll help convince people you are what they think you are." She sighs when their faces shutter close. "Capes, then?"
"Yes, please," Miguel murmurs, so softly she just can't be mad.
Thankfully it doesn't her long to dig out two long cloaks of the right colors. Her partners, still not undressed, take her offerings. And stare pointedly until she shuffles out.
Chief Tannabok is hiding his terror for his people's sake. He encourages them to smile and play their instruments a little louder, to ramp up their mood before the gods appear. As their self-proclaimed priestess helps herself to one big cup of wine before trying to put a proper schedule for the night in order.
When her partners appear Chel manages a hopeful smile. They're properly attired, with confident grins that almost mask their utter terror. The capes add volume to their skinny forms, suggest they are more than they appear. They billow dramatically out when they take running leaps down the temple steps, almost like their wearers will take wing.
Chel squints are their upper right forearms. What she first mistakes as tattoos shifts with their every movement. They're always some sort of script, flowing from one to another. Her eyes ache at looking at the... marks for too long, so she looks elsewhere. And hopes they show more than living script to prove any sort of divinity.
Unfortunately they don't. At least they hold their alcohol heroically. Chel distracts the people with dancers and musicians, anything to impress their audience without making them long for true miracles. For all they lack actual power her partners are at least master illusionists. Altivo prances over the fire as if his hooves can truly take the heat. Miguel poses dramatically before the fire, while a hidden Tulio uses his hands to give his shadow fantastical shapes.
By the end of the night both of the are slurring, shambling drunks. Most of Manoa is even drunker than they are, slumbering away under tables or scarcely able to stand. Chel musters up some of the more sober acolytes to bring them back up to the temple. She glances after Altivo too, but the stallion turns up his nose and gallops into the dark. His loss.
Her boys reek of sweat and sour wine. Whatever their true lineage Tzekel-Kan will certainly denounce them as false if he catches them as dawn like disheveled, hungover con artists. So into the bath they go. They're still awake enough to stubbornly cling to those capes when the acolytes try to remove. Chel rolls her eyes and lets them stay. The idiots are amendable to being stripped the rest of the way, so they and their stupid, stinking capes are scrubbed.
Half-awake, the acolytes are very, very careful to not touch the upper right forearms and that ever-shifting script. Chel bites her lip to hold back her questions. She still has unwanted witnesses. At least the idiots are mumbling nonsense and not spewing about how their father will rain fire and brimstone down upon Manoa.
It would have been easiest to simply put them in cleaner versions of what they wore tonight. But the last thing is Chel needs them catching colds from spending all night bundled in sopping wet capes. So into their cleaned clothes from earlier they go. They cooperate up until the shirts. Then Chel and her helpers get shooed from the bathing area. And called back in to fix Tulio's backward shirt, and stuff Miguel's arm into its sleeve and not his neck hole.
By the end the acolytes are happy to leave them face-first in bed. Tulio promptly spoons the closest pillow and starts snoring. Miguel rustles to find a comfier spot.
Chel glances toward the entrance, but all the acolytes have long gone stumbling to their own beds. "Hey, Miguel?"
"Hm?" he mumbles, green eyes cracking open blearily.
"What's up with your arm?"
"Ju' my name," he slurs, rolling up his sleeve and that shifting mark. "Shee?"
Painstakingly he traces his finger across the brand... in the wrong direction. "Mi-ha-el. That'sh me."
"Okay," Chel says amiably. "Thanks for telling me... Mihael."
"Miguel, Chel. That'sh my name."
"Of course, Miguel. That's your name."
"Yep! Pick'd it a' buh myshelf!" With a sleepy grin, Miguel falls face first into the bed and mumbles something she takes as a goodnight. Chel bites back a grin as she returns it.
Chel's gaze flicks back to the couch. Her feet keep her rooted to the foot of the bed. She gnaws her lip as their breathing evens out.
She tells herself if they had any power at all they would have used it on her back when she first stumbled into their compromising breakdown. Nothing tonight matters. They're much too drunk to recall it properly tomorrow. Cursing her own idiocy, she creeps forward. Judging Tulio the sounder sleeper, she inches for the hem of his shirt. And lifts.
Her free hand flies to her mouth. It stifles her cry, but not the tears welling in her eyes. Even in the moonlight those... wounds on his shoulders are raw and red. They reflect each other, ugly and cruel and jagged. The break was not clean. Something shimmers beneath the red, that look an awful damn lot like shredded muscle and bone spurs.
Eyes burning with fury, Chel gently lowers his shirt, whispers an apology, and stalks to the couch. She listens to the quiet snores of two men that spared her life when they had only their own to risk. She recalls their fearful reverence of a father whose name neither dares speak. A dark picture forms in her mind, because she knows exactly mutilated his own children like that.
I honestly don't remember where the tattoo thing came from. Maybe that old Fallen miniseries where every angel redeemed shows up on the nephilim character's arms or something?
Here they're essentially name tags for other angels (and demons) because that's how huge this family is and how they need to keep reminding each other of everyone XD
The scars... mean something else entirely : (
Tulio stares in stunned, helpless horror at a human sacrifice, his human sacrifice, bound and drugged like a goat before the altar. His helpless gaze darts from the quiet volcano to clear, dawning skies overhead. Isn't someone going to do something, before...
"Tulio!" Miguel breathes desperately. "Tulio, we've got to do something."
When he can hold his scream no longer, Tulio shouts. "Stop!"
His voice carries across the crowd, far louder than a mortal can ever manage. Tzekel-Kan, already swinging his cudgel down, falters in utter bewilderment. Only in turning to face his 'gods' does his blow lose the momentum to complete its fatal swing.
"This is not a proper tribute," he snarls to Tzekel-Kan, while Miguel hurries past them. He catches the poor man before he swoons off the altar.
"You do not want the tribute?" the high priest echoes, eyes narrowing.
"Not this tribute!" Miguel blurts out. In truth they shouldn't be accepting any at all. Bad enough they have to crawl home and grovel to an apathetic Dad. They don't need to give Him any more reason to just flat out smite them. "Isn't that right, Tulio?"
Tulio weighs his words carefully. Groveling is the long-term survival plan. The short-term is not pissing off their pagan hosts with their complete lack of manners. Refusing a gift is just bad manners. "The stars aren't in position for this tribute!"
Tzekel-Kan glances up in utter bewilderment. Miguel hauls his way past them with a hasty agreement about the stars. The high priest stares at Tulio. He stares firmly, unblinkingly back. With his best Michael impression, the same look he used for underlings that should have been bowing and begging for mercy before his mighty wrath. In the end it's not Tulio that caves.
"Perhaps it is possible I misread... the heavens."
Miguel, ever the softie, approaches Tzekel-Kan with the same wise tone that had once advocated mortals to follow their hearts, assured them that sodomy and sex outside of holy marriage were perfectly fine so find as they did so in love. "Don't worry about it. To err is human, to forgive..." He trails awkwardly off when he remembers their family has never been one for forgiveness. And that his way to his fall was paved with such shitty good intentions.
They perk up with Chief Tannabok's much more thoughtful offer of gold, brought in by beautiful maidens. Tulio is so damned happy he scarcely winces over the ecstatic call of, "The gods have chosen!" Tannabok turns toward them. "To Xibalba?"
Tulio still has no idea what the hell Xibalba is, but he and Miguel are so caught up in the crowd they second that cry. And then gape when so many baskets of precious, precious gold are carried past them to be dumped into the raging whirlpool under the altar. Because apparently Xibalba is just hell.
Chel sighs at their idiocy and vows to take care of it. She relays to Chief Tannabok the gods instead wish to bask in the tribute shown to them. Tulio grins like an idiot atop their golden litter, followed by a procession of gold, all the way up golden roads to their golden temple. They're richer than the King of Spain! Rich enough to live like lords all the way up until Judgement Day! To make the next few millennium almost worth the ensuing eternity in hellfire!
Tulio looks down to Chel, who carries herself so confidently astride Altivo. He's surprised the horse took on another rider, completely human at that. Shouldn't the former pagan god be prancing around in golden horseshoes and devouring his weight in apples?
"We can't leave her here. W-We just can't, Tulio."
Tulio nods somberly to his partner, who can't tear his gaze from Chel. When they leave Tzekel-Kan will viciously return things to the status quo. Before Cortes puts an end to... everything for the glory of God.
Once upon a time Dad drowned the world to cleanse it for his chosen, righteous few. They can't save Manoa from its fate. They sure as hell can save Chel.
"Yeah," he sighs. "We'll find somewhere safe to drop her off on the way back home. This New World goes on forever. Surely it can't all be conquered in one human lifetime!"
"Um, Tulio, exactly how are we getting this all back to Spain?"
Their procession deposits them back at their temple. Tulio temporarily puts his plans aside to help dictate the sorting of the gold. Later, as the tribute eats up more and more floor space, it becomes strategic stacking. His mouth waters at the sheer amount of treasure. Sure, it's materialistic, but these are all tributes offered in his name. In Miguel's. It's not the unity of the host, but the devotion and gratitude attached to these offerings are... intoxicating, in their own heathen way.
He suddenly understands why so many of their brothers and sisters chose death over giving them up.
When their tribute is piled high, they dismiss the acolytes. With privacy Tulio falls wearily into his... the throne. Chair. It's just a chair he happens to be sitting in.
On second thought, he takes the couch. It's where Chel and Miguel plop down too.
"So," he starts, "why haven't your Dual Gods struck us dead yet?"
He refuses to look up at that golden, graven image that dominates the temple. To him those benevolent smiles are smug. Especially on faces so disturbingly identical to his and Miguel's.
"We've been waiting their return for a thousand years. They created the Fifth World because the Jaguar God was too destructive to make of his own. Then they returned to the heavens upon the Feathered Serpent. The Dual Gods have not yet blessed us with names to call them by, or proper places they've claimed. All we can do is keep their temple ready and waiting."
Tulio snorts. "At least Dad had the decency to leave detailed instructions behind before He fucked off 'til the end."
"Tulio!" Miguel says scandalously. He glances fearfully upward before remembering Dad hasn't turned this way yet. So he concedes, "Well... those commandments were rather vague, weren't they? We're up to how many schisms now?"
"Hah! For which religion?"
Chel's eyes narrow further, with more than just confusion. "He's a rather big deal where you come from, isn't he?"
Tulio refrains from rolling his eyes at the understatement of the millennium. "Yeah, you could say that."
"Where do you guys rank in that?"
Miguel twiddles his thumbs, hunting for the words. "Even after humanity got themselves banished from the Garden for, well.... knowing too much, our Father still wanted to keep them from straying too far. He commanded the Watchers to look after them. I helped guide their matrimonial harmony. Tulio warned them away from materialism."
With superhuman effort Chel keeps from guffawing. Cheeks flushed, Tulio crosses his arms and waits it out. Thankfully she doesn't implode from holding back her laughter. "H-How'd that work out for you?"
"Tulio taught them how to treat with the minor elemental spirits to help fortune come a little easier their way," Miguel volunteers shamelessly.
"And Miguel told his little flock to love everyone except the ones they were supposed to."
"W-Well, what else was I supposed to do? Make them wallow in misery? Mortal lives are short enough as it is to live without love!"
"Yes," Chel murmurs quietly. "You're absolutely right, Miguel. I guess your dad didn't take it well?"
"Eh." Tulio shrugs. "It could've been worse. We're just stuck down here until the end of the world." Or until we're killed. "Miguel and I just messed around. It's not like we sired any abominations or raged war against heaven or something."
Their partner hunches her shoulders. "...What happened then?"
"Dudael for the bad Watchers," Miguel answers softly, only in Manoan it comes out as El's Cauldron. "The ones that didn't try to help humanity, but toyed just because they thought it was fun. And so made monsters of them. In Dudael they are buried in darkness. Their punishment is darkness beneath the earth - freedom from pleasure, but also no pain. Not until the very end. Then they get thrown into hell to suffer for eternity. The demons down there aren't Watchers. They were warriors from... the first war? Or was it the second?"
Tulio shrugs. That far back in their past the story isn't linear or all that concise. He prefers to not think about that era at all. Humanity certainly has forgotten it. Unfortunately they are made of more stubborn stuff, whispers not quite silenced. "Let's just call it the Devil's War. He's the one that led the revolt against Dad for control of heaven because he got pissed about humanity being raised above us."
"...Did that brother used to be a god, even just one beneath your father?"
"No," Tulio grinds out. "There is no god but God."
"Where we're from, at least," Miguel amends hastily. That much remains true for Manoa. For now. "T-That's... well. Why we had the other war."
Tulio digs his nails into the plush cushions of the couch. The fabric shreds beneath his force. His eyes fall heavily on Chel, already knowing her next question. "Some of those held on as demons. Others are... gone. Forever."
They had not died easily. Even after Dad's priests made His word orthodox among the upper castes the lower classes had stubbornly clung to their idols and private altars for years.
He had been very, very young back then, one more nameless and faceless son in the throng. He remembered cowering away with Miguel in a feathery little ball just waiting for it all to be over. Of course their brothers and sisters had swept over them in their zeal to kill each other. By default they had gone to the one surviving parent.
Chel changes the subject, dragging them back to the here and now. And a far more imminent threat of execution. "You remember how I said the Jaguar God got stiffed by the Dual Gods? That's because he's the Lord of War and the Lord of Conquest. He lost out on this world because he can't make living things for shit. Guess who's the head priest for his cult?"
"So stay clear of Tzekel-Kan." He shudders. "Don't need to tell me twice."
He turns to Miguel, expecting very hearty agreement. Instead the idiot is frowning back up at the stele. "Hey, Chel, is the Feathered Serpent an ocean god by any chance?"
"He's the heavenly messenger, Miguel. He's into storms, wind, and rainbows." Chel frowns. "Why are you wondering?"
Tulio cocks his own head, at the smell of an idea. "Do you have an angle on how to get us the hell out of here?"
"W-Well, no. Not exactly, but..."
Tulio smirks as inspiration hits. "Doesn't matter, Miguel. 'Cause now I do!"
For a visit from his 'gods,' Chief Tannabok of course drops everything to receive them in his palace. Even if their request nearly sends his jaw dropping.
"Yes," Miguel agrees. "Um, we really hate to be ascending so soon, but... family matters, you know?" He points a finger skyward. The chief follows it in utter bewilderment. "Our Father is..."
"What He wants, He gets," Tulio finishes. "Honor thy father, you know?"
"And thy mother," Miguel quietly chides out of habit.
Tulio refrains from rolling his eyes. "Sure, Miguel. And Dad wants us back east." Where we can't fall into pagan temptations and give us more cause for Him to smite us than we already have.
Chief Tannabok's brow furrows, but he does not question him on that. Gods reveal their names and spheres of influence as they wish to in Manoa. Mortals can only accept them at face value and dare not challenge divinity further. "Oh, well we expected you to be staying with us for the next... thousand years."
Tulio turns to his partner for a proper kernel of holy wisdom to shut the chief up. Once upon a time Miguel was an angel of the explicit name. In him he'd held knowledge of one of the seventy-two letters of God's hidden name, the same great holy men use to cast out demons and heal the sick. Tulio had merely sung the psalms. They are woven into the fiber of Miguel's being.
"What comes from the heart of the tree is known by the heart of the tree," Miguel offers grandly.
Chief Tannabok leans back in his throne, thoroughly stumped. Tulio bites back a smirk when that confusions shifts to proper humility. "And the heart knows what the roots and branches don't, chief. And our plan calls for a boat to... ascend kind of in a horizontal pattern at first. And then..."
"A ship into the sunrise," Miguel asserts. His green eyes are so earnest Tulio shuts up and lets him take it home. "We were born in the place where the sun rises, in the garden of joy, where death and disease hold no dominion. Our brother the sea bore us from there. On him we shall return."
Externally Tulio nods in mute agreement. Inwardly he chokes on his own saliva. Because... wow. There is putting a creative spin on the truth and then there is that. Whatever the hell that was.
They fell in the east, not far from Eden, and worked their way west. Of course they gotta go back in the same general direction. Also true is that Dad created them as same He did the sea. And that in several tongues the word for 'sea' is still Yam. Once mankind had counted him among the sons of El, the great serpent of the sea.
Had. Because Yam had fallen too far for even hell. He is no demon.
He is nowhere.
Chief Tannabok's brow furrows. "To build a ship large and glorious enough, to withstand the rigors of the sea, would take... about a week."
They cast each other an unimpressed glance. They remember damn well what can be done in a week. Tulio innocently musing how long it would take Tzekel-Kan gets their estimate pushed up to three days.
"Well, if that's the best you can do," Tulio offers diplomatically.
He really doesn't like that canny look to the chief's eyes. "Oh, perhaps if you were not burdened with so much tribute, you could leave sooner."
Tulio bristles, defiantly settling back into the couch. They've spent God knows how many centuries in disgrace and have God knows how many more to go until Judgement Day. Tulio's honestly lost count. "Hm? Well, I like it here. We're not in that big a rush are we, Miguel?"
"Not at all," Miguel agrees, easing into the cushions himself. "Besides, we've got a big family; more brothers and sisters than you can shake a stick at. Can't go home with something for everyone."
Tulio bites back his grimace. Oh, they'll be spending that gold. Some of it will inevitably filter its way into Spain's churches and charities. And then out to the mosques and temples and everywhere in the lands beyond.
First, however, comes his freakout. Because in the privacy of their-- the temple Tulio rants out loud how stupidly dangerous even three days of this facade is. Three days to get discovered and executed. Three days to get smote by Manoa's deities. Three days to get smote by Dad.
At first Tulio tries tossing his dice. The motion isn't as calming as it usually is. Instead he snatches a pair of earrings from their huge-ass tribute pile. There is warmth and weight to the gold that the dice lack, something more that keeps him better grounded instead of spiraling into utter hysteria.
Not that his rant is getting through, because Miguel is lounging on the gold itself, stretched out and careless as a cat. One of Tulio's hands itches to strangle him. The other tosses the earrings with increased fervor.
To distract himself he turns to Chel. She is frowning in appraisal over more golden earrings. With a pang Tulio notices those in her ears are green stone, like those of the man almost sacrificed to him. They are both People of the Vine, descended from the last city conquered by Manoa decades ago. The green in their ears makes them pleasing to the gods and sets them apart from the Golden People that proudly wear gold in their ears, for the People of the Vine are the first choice for servants and for sacrifice.
"These," he murmurs to Chel, offering his own pair. "These are the ones."
"Oh?" Chel's eyes widen before her smile does. "Thank you!"
Tulio's heart flutters with the pride he got it right. Of course he does. He knows his treasure, and he knows the human heart. His pair is studded with emeralds, flaunting Chel's new high status as their 'priestess' while still proudly showing her roots in the green of the Vine. Chel stands taller in them, like Miguel does with his lute.
Then his gaze snaps back to Miguel and his smug little grin. "Miguel, how do you suggest we keep this up for three days?"
His partner scoffs at him, rolling off the gold. "You worry to much."
"No!" he snaps. "I worry exactly the right amount! Because I remember the last time this happened! The torn down temples, the broken altars, the... the trees." That stops Miguel cold. So Tulio sucks in a breath and forges forward. "I-I-I can't go through that again, Miguel. I can't." I can't lose you like we lost everyone else. We lost Mom.
"I-I know," Miguel breathes. His eyes slowly stray out, to the city beyond. "But I also know what we're going back to, Tulio. Reconquista's been on for eight hundred years. I'm so sick of Dad's people killing each other, and sacking their cities, and thinking the song sounds best when everyone else sings the exact same note in the exact same tongue a-and... Ugh!"
Tulio and Chel, who have both been steadily reaching for him, flinch back at the sound of his fury. But the rage drains out as quick as it came. There is only sorrow in his face when he turns to them.
"Can't I have this?" he asks, voice breaking. "Just for one day? Before... we leave. Forever."
Chel's gaze falls on Tulio. "You two already slapped down a human sacrifice today and made Tzekel-Kan doubt himself. So long as Miguel doesn't do anything too crazy not that much can change in three days. Even Tzekel-Kan needs time to lick his wounds. He's probably as eager for us to leave as he is."
Miguel perks up, eyes widening like a hopeful puppy. Tulio groans when he realizes himself outvoted. So he scrutinizes the other fallen angel long and hard. "You remember how to play polite and aloof, right? How to watch over humans from a distance without flaunting your power?"
"What power?" Miguel asks glibly.
Tulio sighs, even more relieved. Miguel's lack of wings and actual divine power make him less of a threat than in their days as wayward Watchers. Manoa can get on with its status quo in the few days they have left before Cortes lands. They can slink back to Spain a ton richer, but still essentially trapped in their earthly punishment. And prove to Dad they are not in need of smiting.
'True," he grouses. "Can you at least promise to lie low while doing it? And not... I don't know, throw down the Jaguar God or something?"
Miguel bristles. "Who do you think I am, Paul and Barnabas!?"
Tulio snorts at a point well taken. "True. But I still need to hear you say it."
"I promise." Miguel lays a hand over his heart, winking. "I can still work in mysterious ways. Without... you know, blatant advertisement or whatever. Do you want to-"
"Absolutely not!" Tulio huffs. "I will happily gloat over my gold right here, thank you."
Chel leans against the wall, biting her lip as her shrewd gaze flickers between them. "Well... One god on his own is more subtle than one with his priestess."
Green eyes study her long and hard, before flicking Tulio and then back out to the city. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"
"Absolutely," Chel agrees with genuine fondness. This is still her home, after all. "Especially when you're down in the thick of it."
Miguel crosses his arms. "For someone that likes being in the thick of it you're awful quick to stay up here."
Chel clasps her hands innocently behind her back. "Well, someone has to cover for you. While you're out and about, at least. What happens when you get back... My only wish is to serve the gods, remember?"
Miguel smirks. "The open ocean wears thin easily, Chel, and it's a long voyage home. We're all... going to need plenty of ways to keep ourselves occupied, you know."
"Oh, I know."
"You know?" Tulio repeats, brow furrowing suspiciously.
"We know, Tulio," Miguel corrects gently. He beams at them both. "Count my share for me, would you? With... everything." Then the idiot goes leaping down the temple stairs in giddy leaps and bounds. Tulio groans after him. Then he groans at Chel, who is shamelessly admiring his ass on the way down.
"I'm gonna go gloat over my gold," he grumbles.
Tulio bends for the first basket. He freezes when nimble fingers find the weak spots in his shoulders.
"Miguel's right," purrs the voice in his ear. "You worry too much."
Tulio has always been shit at resisting temptation. His wing scars are proof of that.
Besides, with everything he and Miguel have done since stumbling into idiots, this has to be at the bottom of Dad's shit list.
...What love triangle :p
From what current research can tell, the Canaanite cult of Yahweh syncretized with the chief deity of El. Gradually schools of thought crystallized from a henotheistic god above the other gods of the pantheon to... the earliest clear definition of God. For some centuries worship of the other deities held on, especially in lower classes and personal shrines not as subject to the orthodoxy enforced by the temples. Most of these Canaanite gods are children the polytheistic El. The condemnation of pagan deities and idol worship in the Old Testament hint at a time when both were common, as the beginnings of Abrahamic religion was still solidifying.
Of course the Canaanite pantheon was also heavily influenced by those of greater powers around them, especially those of Mesopotamia. And doubtless incarnations also got carried west by the Phoenicians.
Some deities of this period (like Ba'al Hadad) hung on as demons in the new religious movements. Others like Yam (serpent god of the sea and one time champion of El) were forgotten entirely.
Yes, the Canaanite religion also had a Queen of Heaven to go alongside El. Interestingly I've seen two American shows play with a female God counterpart in the last few years. Supernatural had Amara, God's evil(?) sister. Lucifer had a nameless Goddess - God's bitter ex. Of course the show with sexy crime-solving Satan got closer to the historical truth XD
Miguel has walked the streets of mankind since the days of Dilmun and Nibru. He witnessed the great cities of Babylon and Byblos and Tire rise and fall and rise again. West he sailed when the world was still new, to Carthage and Tingis. In Hispania he saw Rome rise into an empire that spanned transformed the Mediterranean into its personal pond. In Spain he has witnessed the beginnings of a new empire attempted the same with the Atlantic. He is no stranger to glory, or the patterns that arose in buildings and streets long after their original languages passed into memory.
Now he stands in a marvel wholly unconnected to them, a whole new path of human history only just discovered. Turquoise channels, wide and deep, carry fresh water to homes across Manoa and prevent disease from finding purchase in mosquito spawning grounds. Birds with feathers in every shade fly every head. He smiles wistfully up at them but nostalgia doesn't stop him long.
The streets are wide and well-paved, free of filth. Miguel is hard-pressed to think of any in Spain that can match Manoa in organization.
His wondrous smile falls at one empty street after another. Even an obvious market is deserted, their wares still set up for buyers nowhere in sight.
"Excuse me," he calls to the one man in the street. Miguel recognizes the man as Chima, Tzekel-Kan's head warrior. Chel's made that painfully clear. So a part of him stirs in dark satisfaction at Chima's annoyed gaze giving way to true shock upon recognizing him. "Excuse me. Where is everybody?"
"They've been cleansed from the streets, my lord," Chima answers diligently. Miguel barely avoids flinching at the title. "So the city can be cleansed, as you ordered."
"Cleansed?" he repeats, frowning sharply.
"Yes." Chima smiles, regaining confidence. "So the Age of the Jaguar can begin... as you ordered, my lord."
At the sound of commotion Miguel whirls. His heart plummets at two armed guards assailing an unarmed man.
"What are you doing?" he calls, flying over as if he still held wings. "Stop that!"
One warrior, perhaps paralyzed by fear or too stubborn to listen, does not move fast enough. In pushing him out of the way Miguel grabs his weapon. The spear shaft splinters in his hand. Finally the warrior drops the pieces to bolt from the street. Their victim still lies on his hands and knees, stunned on the steps.
Chima swallows, unable to look him in the eyes. "B-But, my lord, anyone who disobeys you orders... must be punished as you ordered."
"Tzekel-Kan does not, and will never, speak for me," he grinds out. "Here's an order: take the day off."
The warriors flee. Anger drains from Miguel as he considers the man left on the ground, prone and terrified. He sighs at that look. He knows it well. There's a reason he stopped wearing his wings openly during his later time as a Watcher. Slowly, he crouches down to the man's level.
"Fear not," he offers wanly. The man is bewildered enough to not shy away from his offered hand. "Are you all right?"
"Y-Yes, my lord," the man murmurs, hesitantly reaching back. Miguel hauls him up. "J-Just shaken up."
"I'm relieved to hear that." Miguel's tentative smile when the man starts reaching for his earrings. "Oh, please don't. I'm drowning in gold already."
"D-Do you want something else, my lord?"
Miguel sighs up at the people cowering away in their homes, peeking out from behind corners and windowsills like he can't see them back. "Only for everyone to come out. Why are they so terrified? I-It's not like I showed up with four heads or six wings or as a giant spinning wheel of eyes!"
"...Spinning wheel of eyes?"
"Yes." He grins at the man's utter puzzlement. "Really. I've got four siblings like that. All pretty cryptic by human standards, but family comes in all shapes, you know? It's not their fault they're too abstract to settle on something... er, more pleasing to the mortal eye."
The man nods as if this makes any sense to him. He's probably just glad to have been received by a human-shaped fallen Watcher over an Ophanim in all of their burning glory. "I... I could try telling people, my lord? If you want."
Miguel sighs dejectedly. "Thank you, but that's quite all right. You've been put through enough today."
The man's shoulders square with newfound resolve. He strides away from Miguel, hollering to everyone that Tzekel-Kan just misconstrued the gods again and that it's okay to come out. A few are bold enough to listen. Most stare at the man like Miguel just drove him mad.
One of the people to have ventured out is a vendor. She refuses to let him slink away to a quiet corner until he takes something as an apology for her cowardice. Even if she's utterly confused by his requests for a drum, some wood, and some string. She lingers a respectful distance away while he strings his makeshift lute together. At his first few experimental strums she abandons propriety to lean over the instrument, nose nearly touching it.
"W-What is it, my lord?"
"You tell me," he counters. "It hasn't got a name in your language yet." She squints at his fingers as he starts on a proper song, light and joyful. He grins at the sight of Altivo, who ventures out from behind a corner with two wide-eyed girls clinging to his legs and a little boy on his back. "Hey, Altivo. How've you been?"
Miguel picks up with an even livelier song, grinning at the people slowly lured out of hiding. And most especially at the little girls that have wandered out from behind Altivo to spin each other around in a dance instead. He stops only when the stall vendor finally works up the courage to pluck a string or two herself. So he invites her to sit next to him. Getting the lute into her hands is easier said than done, but she grows confidence with every strum. As the crowd gathers around her instead he slips off to his next destination.
He has only three days in Manoa, three days to commit a whole civilization to heart. He can't waste a minute.
Miguel helps acolytes of the Parrot God feed chicken-sized, rainbow quails. And grins when storks the size of giraffes bend down to munch from his basket instead. He crosses Lake Parime on a massive turtle, well-used to ferrying passengers. She is a daughter of Lady Eupana, goddess of these waters, and Grandmother Turtle is gentle with her charges both human and not. In a massive square every person present lends their bone-sticks to his vision. One flick of the fingers transforms a starry sky into the sun's golden brilliance, in the closest mankind can get to recreating nature's wonders.
Miguel, however, can only look up at the flight of the dancers in tearful awe. The bird-masked men represent the souls of their dead returned to earth with messages for their loved ones. The pole brings them as close to heaven as the living can come, the giddy rush of their heads bringing euphoria and hopefully guidance in their affairs on earth. His scars ache when their slow, drifting descent brings them back to solid ground.
When one, Achto, offers him a place on the pole, Miguel drudges up every ounce of willpower to shake my head.
"Thank you, my friend," he chokes out. "But if you let me up there, I will never come down again."
He was ripped of his wings for good reason. It is hubris to cheat his way back into the sky, perhaps even more so than to these people call him 'god.'
After activities that are the closest men can get to true miracles, that tease him too close to the edge, Miguel happily grounds himself in an innocent ballgame. He plays against children too cheerful to fear him, or not play dirty. He hasn't roughhoused like this in a millennium, when Roman athletes were still a thing. The rule about not using your hands only makes it more interesting! And even Chief Tanni- er, Tannabok joins in!
Sure, Tulio and Chel aren't too pleased at the crowd he's drawn, but Miguel puffs up in pride anyway. He's drawn all this attention without any divine aid whatsoever, thank you!
Then Tzekel-Kan butts his nose in to insist on how the gods should play ball. In a giant arena. Under the eyes of the city. Against fifteen grizzled warriors. Beneath a teeny tiny hoop they can never hope to reach without wings.
"Impossible!" Tulio groans. "We're gonna lose!"
"Gods don't lose," Chel murmurs pointedly.
Tulio snorts. "Guess how many I know that did? To one."
His mood doesn't improve when the game kicks off, or when the other warriors start wracking up points. Miguel tries his damnedest but a fallen angel can't carry a team of one. Because Tulio, despite also wishing to not be executed, can't suck up his fear of the ball.
"Oh, come on!" he calls when his idiot partner lets another shot slide past him. "Like this is the scariest thing we've ever done!"
"...Not counting everything else since that stupid fucking boat, it's pretty high up there!"
Miguel scoffs. "Are you forgetting every time we wound up on the wrong side of a war game against Michael? And nearly had flaming spears jammed down our throats!"
Tulio frowns, then blinks at the fifteen warriors charging toward him. Worrisome, yes. Anything near equal to a brigade of fiery seraphim led by an overzealous archangel? A walk through the garden. "Point taken."
Together they wrestle their way to a few points, all hard-won. They wince at every bruise taken beneath their clothes, no matter how quickly they heal. There's only so much they can risk when Chel has flat out warned then Manoan gods do not bleed at all.
They're still way behind when the stupid ball finally gets shot out of bounds. Eventually the crowd is going to realize they're not toying their opponents like cats do with mice.
"How long does this go one for anyway?" Tulio groans, when Chel comes over with a new one.
Her eye trails a red line and a shadow far too close. "The game is over when the shadow reaches that line."
"We need a miracle," Miguel breathes, before blushing in shame up at the volcano. They've already been saved once this week. Not like they can beg for another.
"No," Tulio hisses craftily. "We need to cheat."
Chel quirks a grin when she holds up their ball. They blink when the armadillo unfurls from its shell to wink conspiratorially at them. Bibi the Armadillo God is all about craftiness and human cunning. He is also a total prankster. No wonder he, of all Manoan gods, sent a messenger to mess with the others.
Their little friend is quick to close the gap. He weaves in and out of the other team, making the burly players trip over each other, before flinging himself through their goal over and over again. Eventually its too tempting to not join him. Miguel and Tulio bounce the armadillo between each other, roll him over their shoulders and dance like they haven't danced in centuries.
Sure, it's blatant hubris by the end, but the crowd is cheering them. How can Miguel let that go unacknowledged without treating them to a spectacle rightly deserved? Even Altivo joins in the fun, charging into the field to herd the other players like a sheepdog.
"Who's the god?" he laughs, jostling playfully against Tulio.
"No," Tulio hip-checks him right back. "You're the god!"
"No, you the god!"
Engrossed in the game and themselves, they scarcely notice when the armadillo rolls out of bounds. Chel is swift enough to toss it back in. Altivo is gracious enough to let them swing astride for one last victory lap before the final goal. The opposing team is left tripping in their wake as they struggle to keep up. Laughing, Miguel and Tulio bounce their little miracle between them as if they'd played this all the long centuries of their lives.
On the last throw Miguel spikes it high, so they can both wave like idiots to Chel.
Their partner frantically points to one little concussed armadillo... in her other hand. The ball drops like a stone. In their race to get it Tulio disrupts Miguel's motion. What should have been another spike instead careens the ball of his head. Up it soars again.
Altivo leaps after at, high as a horse can spring. Instinctively Miguel climbs after it, as the stallion loses his arc. Even if it means climbing Tulio to leap off him completely.
Once he soared. Now gravity drags like claws against his skin.
Fly! his instincts scream. His scars shriek at the impossibility.
Screaming himself, Miguel's back arcs in a memory of flight. His foot collides with hard, unyielding rubber.
The ball soars where he cannot. As he crashes back to earth it sails straight through the goal and clear out of the arena. Miguel squints after the red blur. Is it... smoking?
He cannot wonder long. A horn is blown to signal the game's end, and the audience erupts at their victory. Tulio sweeps Miguel in a victory hug, which lifts him feet off the ground, before doing the same to Chel. He sets her down between them.
"Well done, partners." She uses both hands to pinch their cheeks, grinning widely. Then she shrinks back as Tzekel-Kan once more thrusts his way into their joy.
"My lords, congratulations on your inevitable victory. And now you will, of course, wish to have the opposing team... sacrificed to your glory."
Even the hardened warriors crack in terror before discipline forces them to their knees. Beneath their thin facades they tremble like leaves, for they offer their lives up to unknown powers simply because a man demands it of them. Miguel burns at the injustice, even harder than he burned when Dad commanded Abraham sacrifice his own fucking son.
"Tzekel-Kan," he hisses. "Forget the sacrifices."
"Um, Miguel," Tulio whispers nervously. Miguel ignores him to stride forward. Half-measures will never solve matters like these. Their Father taught them that well.
"In fact, the very concept of sacrifice repulses me as much as you do."
Something sparks in the high priest's eyes. Doubt. "But all of the sacred writings say you will devour the wicked and unrighteous!"
Miguel's gaze sweeps over fifteen terrified men. He smiles reassuringly at them, before his expression sharpens into a smirk for Tzekel-Kan. "I see only one of those here. And he's not among them."
The high priest spares Chief Tannabok, a righteous man to the bone, a venomous glance. "Well, as speaker for the gods, it would my privilege to point out the worst of them."
Tzekel-Kan is not worth the dirt beneath his shoes. Miguel disdainfully shoves his way past him to help the men to their feet. They rise behind him as a mighty wall, and he stands taller with him at their back. "I am Miguel, called Watcher and Who Is God, son of the Lord and the Great Mother. I speak for myself, and myself alone!" He sweeps his hand from the warriors to everyone watching on the walls. "This city and these people have no need for you anymore. There will be no more sacrifices! Not now, not ever!"
He almost reaches for the fire, before slinging his hand disdainfully outward. "Get out!"
Let the jungle have him. Let Cortes. May heaven strike him down or hell claim him as its own.
Miguel needs no heavenly host at his back. His will is the people's. They roar their approval, jeering down at Tzekel-Kan when he searches them for sympathetic faces. Even Chief Tannabok only smiles and grants him a cheery wave goodbye. Tzekel-Kan disbelief twists into a hateful baring of teeth. Miguel snarls right back.
Something shudders in the high priest's face, sending his expression into shadow. He can jeer all he wants, but still Tzekel-Kan bows and clasps his hands. "As the... gods command."
Miguel turns his back with more mercy than Dad ever showed. He can think no more when the warriors suddenly sweep him up, vaulting him above their heads. He laughs in happy surprise. And again when Tulio yelps at receiving the same treatment. He deserves this just as much.
Miguel punches him fondly in the shoulder. "Not bad for my first commandment, huh?"
Tulio splutters indignantly, but the crowd is already bearing Miguel on. In their arms he feels complete, as if among his brothers and sisters again. More even, for they fill voids he's never known he felt before, almost silence the ache in his scars.
He hopes they never cast him down, not ever again.
I am sure this will have no consequences whatsoever... >:)
Description of the higher orders of angels are... heavy metal. Or eldritch, if you wanna get down to it. Case in point, the Ophanim - sometimes the embodiment of the Chariot of God... because they are SPINNING WHEELS OF EYES.
I imagine a heavenly host of warriors drilled pretty hard to keep disciplined and primed for the end of the world. I pity the fools that wind up against Michael XD
Tzekel-Kan frowns at his sacred writings, passed down from one high priest of Balam Qoxtok to the next. He beholds the great Lord of War and Lord of Conquest, wielding an obsidian blade and standing over the skulls of his enemies. Upon his coming the streets should be running with the blood of the unrighteous, the air sweet with the screams of the sacrificed and the shrieks of his armies.
He glances once more at Lord Miguel to confirm the impossible. A god playing ball. With children.
Utterly at a loss he seeks out Lord Tulio for enlightenment. He is pleased to discover at least one god has kept properly aloof in the temple.
"Oh, Tzekel-Kan! What brings you here?" Lord Tulio swaggers out of the deeper chambers with the easy confidence one expects of a god.
Tzekel-Kan hastily bows but cannot quite control the waver in his voice. "I-I-I humbly request an audience with you, my lord."
Knowing blue eyes search eyes, a color deep as the heavens. They are one of the subtle signs Lord Tulio is truly what he claims to be. "Would this happen to involve... Lord Miguel?"
"I-I have just seen him out among the people, my lord."
"Yes, Tzekel," Tulio sighs. The high priest tries not to twitch from such a casual use of his name uttered by divinity. "That's why we're in these forms. You humans tend to freak out if we pop down here with too many heads or extra appendages."
Gods consorting with humans. The blasphemy of it! Tzekel-Kan musters up his courage and sidles closer. Er, perhaps too close. When Lord Tulio's eyes narrow ominously he takes a step back, to restore a respectful distance between them. "My lord, if I may be so bold as to offer some advice."
Lord Tulio arches an idle brow. "The priest advising... me. That's a new one."
Tzekel-Kan swallows. "My lord, the human condition is a most peculiar one. This is your first time among us in... quite a few centuries. I merely want to prepare you for some... unfortunate realities of our present time."
The high priest picks his words carefully, searching Lord Tulio's face that he has not egregiously overstepped. Unfortunately the god's face is now shrouded in careful neutrality. Even in that misleading shape of course Lord Tulio knows how to be properly enigmatic. "My lord, you are perfect. But in your perfection, you cannot know how imperfect humans are."
He does not expect the god's cynical snort. "Oh, don't I ever."
"B-Beg pardon, my lord?"
"My Father created my kind long before He got started on yours." Lord Tulio frowns as he considers something. "Well, a different group of humans at least. But your general flaws are the same from continent to continent, era to era. Those imperfections were built into the prototype. Do you know how many siblings fell because they envied our Father's power, were wrathful of their lot in life? How many were killed because they were too greedy to settle for their lot in life?"
"L-Lesser siblings, my lord!" Tzekel-Kan swiftly corrects. "You and Lord Miguel are unmatched among their number!"
The high priest frowns at Lord Tulio's wan smile and vague answer back of Perhaps. Surely Tzekel-Kan deserves more to understand him and Lord Miguel better. That response was too vague to draw any real conclusions. Surely their Father is at least unknown in these lands, if he is not the Jaguar God. The only creator of mankind here is the gods damned Lord Bibi, the Armadillo God!
At least Lord Tulio's vague answer grants Tzekel-Kan leave to move on more urgent matters. "Then we're in agreement. I'll begin the necessary preparations immediately. Do you wish to have your victims bound to an altar, or would you prefer them free-range?" The high priest swallows his wave of excitement at the vision of his gods finally showing their true faces. "And will you be devouring their essence whole... or piece by piece?"
"W-What? Ew, no."
Oh dear. Perhaps the mortal guise is rubbing off a bit too much on his godly appetites. Tzekel-Kan sighs like a patient father as he reminds his god of his true purpose. "My lord, these people will not respect you if they do not fear you."
Lord Tulio rolls his eyes. "Trust me, Tzekel, Lord Miguel and I have seen plenty of those examples without bringing eating people into it."
Tzekel-Kan waits for more enlightenment but the god unfortunately does not elaborate. He squares his shoulders for his most direct approach yet. "The history of the Age of the Jaguar will be written in..."
The god bites back on a derisive snort. "Not even the right cat there, Tzekel." His blue eyes sweep to that damned priestess, hanging fearfully in the background. "I must consult with Lord Miguel on this matter."
Tzekel-Kan allows himself some faint hope as they depart. Surely together his lords can decide on what blood shall best serve them in this new age. His quick thinking even arranges a proper bit of fun for them. Fifteen mortal warriors against two gods is a bit one-sided, but it's a chance for divinity to show off their power, to work up their appetites for the celebration afterward. They even toy with their prey for the first round, giving them a grand lead in the score before closing in for the kill.
Then, when Tzekel-Kan attempts to make prophecy truth, his vision shatters.
That wrathful fire blazing in emerald eyes does not fall upon the unrighteous, but upon Tzekel-Kan himself. For all Lord Miguel's voice shakes with scarcely restrained power, the words are all wrong. It is not Balaam Qoxtok's song of glory. It is ugly and awful, disharmonious notes grating against the high priest's ears.
When that curious little wound above Miguel's brow bleeds, Tzekel-Kan understands. These are not gods at all.
In the privacy of the Jaguar God's temple he glares long and hard at the stele of the Dual Gods, smiling in their benevolence atop the Feathered Serpent. Even here, in the consecrated halls of Balam Qoxtok, an idol must be devoted to them. It is they who are Lords of the Fifth World.
"Do you know why the gods demand blood?" he growls, gazing past the stele to the looming jade jaguar of his true god.
"I... don't know." Chima, for all his loyalty, has never been bright. It is what makes him useful.
"Because gods don't bleed."
With a snarl Tzekel-Kan runs his own sacrificial knife across his palm. He smears incriminating red over that bearded face, the one Miguel wears as his own. Jade power boils in his veins as the Jaguar God claims what's left of the blood upon his hand for himself. His blessing seals the wound shut. The false gods are not the only messengers in this city with a champion behind them.
"It's time to take the future into my own hands, and this city will be cleansed. Even if I have to do it myself!"
Rolling his eyes at Chima's idiocy, Tzekel-Kan snatches the sacred writings from him. He tears through a dozen pages of summoning Balam Qoxtok's power into the physical world. Then grins as the perfect solution presents itself.
"Well... it's not called the Age of the Jaguar for nothing." He smirks out to the massive log in the water below, just being shaped into the boat that the false gods will carry off their misbegotten treasure. Tzekel-Kan checks his ritual a second time. The timing just matches up, if he hurries. "This will be a delightful way to bid the false gods... into the proper new year."
Immediately Tzekel-Kan throws himself into the preparations. There are ingredients to gather and consecrate, an elixir to brew that will make him a living avatar of his god's power.
Only rarely does the high priest fall into sleep, in times when he must wait for the potion to stew. At the edge of dreams the Jaguar God stalks. His domain are the thin places of the world, the wild jungle and the place between death and sleep. In glimpses of his gleaming eyes and obsidian hide Tzekel-Kan finds clarity at last.
He dreams of a family far too lofty for their own good, until their father became drunk in his power. He dreams of a war long and bitter between lord and lady. The temples of their children fall one by one. The sacred trees of a goddess, planted beside every altar of her husband, and chopped down and burned. So it goes until one god, and one god alone, stands triumphant above the wreck. His surviving children, his loyal army, march forth to spread word of his superiority.
Like locusts they spread, and spread. And spread. Tzekel-Kan dreams of whole pantheons crushed by their mighty, empires conquered or corrupted from the inside. Temples fall and idols burn. The people abandon the songs of their ancestors for one alone. No matter their language or the twists they put upon it, the source of their devotion is still ultimately the same. Their prayers float up to one place.
Of that face, Tzekel-Kan sees nothing. The glimpses of the children are monstrous enough - beings of flame that shroud themselves with myriad wings, abominations of many beasts welded into one, thrones of eyes and spinning wheels. They do not yet see two wayward brothers playing pretend an ocean away. When they do...
Manoa is the golden city, the center of creation. It is the conqueror. Not the conquered. Tzekel-Kan shall keep it that way, forever and always.
Perhaps Balam Qoxtok cannot yet touch that unassailable god. But his children are fair game.
Tzekel-Kan knows just where to start.
Here angels are beings of light and fire. They probably bleed something like plasma if in a physical enough state like that you'd find in thunderbolts or St Elmo's fire. Demons bleed sulfur.
...Our boys are neither of those :p
Chapter 8: mr. high and mighty
I was gonna sit on this for a bit longer... but we sometimes we creators just like to torment you by giving characters EXACTLY what they want ; )
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Tulio lays atop his carriers in a daze. Altivo is gracious enough to let Chel mount him again. It helps Chel keep up to the procession, keeps her eye level. As Tulio has checked out mentally for the time being, Chel uses her newfound role as priestess to direct them up to the temple. Tulio jerks awake enough to stand blankly when his bearers finally put him down. Once the people get far enough down the steps, he collapses in a ball.
"Tulio," she tries, crouching by his side. "Tulio, I'm here. It's okay."
"N-No. No, it's not. M-Miguel is and h-he's gonna be... Oh God, he's gonna be..."
Slowly, Chel places a hand on his lower back, well below she knows where the scars end. Tulio stiffens but does not throw her off. So she rubs his back until his hyperventilating starts to subside.
"He's still here, isn't he?" She snorts. "Well, here in Manoa. Soaking up his victory."
Tulio emerges enough from his huddle to frown at her. "We're not made to bask, Chel. Not in mortal affection. We're just extensions of Dad, to deliver His word and receive prayers on His behalf. None of it goes to us. T-That's how..." With a scowl he wrenches off the shirt that remained stubbornly on during their whole outburst of passion earlier. "Well, this is what happens when you disobey His word!"
Chel does not flinch away from those scars, no matter how fresh and open the wounds still look. Tulio braces for her revulsion. And instead scowls at her knowing guilt.
"I saw them last night," she admits.
He groans with a complete lack of surprise. "Of course you did. Humans always stick their noses where they're forbidden from going. And, well, so do fallen messengers." Tulio rolls his shoulders, those jagged bone spurs twitching with the motion. "These used to be wings, you know. Before we dragged humanity down into temptation when we should have been guided them above it. What do you suppose declaring to be gods get us?"
Chel's gaze fixates on that living script instead. With Tulio's agitation the writing flickers quicker than ever. "Miguel was awake enough last night to say that was his name. Mihael."
Tulio chuckles darkly. "The God-given one, at least. They mark us as part of the family, lets us and our siblings know each other at first glance. Because... well, we're so damn big we tend to forget each other otherwise. See?" He runs a hand over a script that settles just long enough to be read. "Tu-wa-hel. Succession of God." His nose crinkles. "Or something like that. Closest I can get too in a human tongue."
Chel holds out a questioning hand. Tulio draws his own back. Her fingers trace countless scripts in countless tongues. Many must be dead by now. "That's what he heard yesterday, when you introduced yourselves to us," she admits. "You were named Miguel and Tulio, called Who Is God and Succession of God."
He arches an intrigued brow. "Really? Because most people just hear the syllables and take it as... you know. Just our God-given names."
Chel snorts. "How humble he is, to name all you after him like that."
Tulio frowns, putting his finger over hers as they trace the name together. "I don't remember being named. It's not like Miguel and I were born together, or grew up together. One moment we weren't. The next we... were. Just as we are. Mostly." His eyes close against the weight of years. "I mean, it's not as if our siblings are really our siblings. Not in the way that counts for humans. And Miguel is... much more than that. He's almost always been."
"I just had one brother." Chel swallows thickly, before she can force the rest out. "His name was Xaya. Tzekel-Kan claimed he was trying to run away from Manoa, to lead a rebellion back to the city and overthrow his rule. So he had him executed as a traitor before the Jaguar God."
Chel shudders as she considers Tulio's scars of his mutilation. Xaya should have gone to Xibalba in pieces, finger by finger and limb by limb. Spitting blood in Tzekel-Kan's eye had been a final defiance, a way to ensure he went to the grave relatively intact. What the hell did Tulio's father do to those children he decreed worthy of death, and not merely exile?
Tulio turns his palm away from his name to clasp her hand instead. "O-Oh, oh God, Chel. I'm sorry, so sorry that-"
"It's been years now," she breaks in gently. Xaya is gone forever and she'll never be fine, but the wounds have had time to scar over, to heal as Tulio has never been allowed to. "And Miguel has at least put an end to anything like that ever happening again. Chief Tannabok's been wanting to throw down Tzekel-Kan for years, ever since he ramped up human sacrifice to a ridiculous degree. Miguel just provided the excuse for people to finally be rid of him."
In hindsight, the events of today had been building up for years. In Chel's youth human sacrifice had been a rare but necessary part of life, a way to ensure the renewal of the world when flood or drought or famine threatened the perpetual balance. Since Tzekel-Kan had taken power from the Jaguar God's old priestess the omens had grown more dire. Smaller transgressions merited sacrifice. More and more blood was needed to sate Balam Qoxtok's thirst.
Once upon a time the Crocodile God had been just as greedy, devouring humans by the hundreds, to the verge of extinction. Eventually the gods had tired of his tyranny too.
"That's... Well, that's something."
For a time they just lean against each other, a little less lonely in the growing dark. Then Chel finds it in herself to offer more. "My dad's name was Teo. He worked the fields at the city's edge to support me and Xaya. Until a jaguar got him. My mom's name was Pana. She... she offered herself as tribute. Because when the Lord of the Waters demanded a life, Tzekel-Kan first looked to me."
This time the tears do well up, for all Tzekel-Kan and misfortune have taken from her. With him cast down Manoa can still be her home. She can reforge connections his cruelty has shattered. But her boys came too late to save her loved ones, and they cannot stay. So Chel must go with them, to find whatever new beginning may lie beyond his valley.
Chel jerks, glancing over at the sound mumbled into her hair. "What?"
Slowly Tulio raises his head from her shoulder. "Asherah of the Sea. The Queen of Heaven. Lady Day. She Who Walks on the Sea. The Lion Lady. Holiness. Goddess. Great Mother." He smiles wanly. "Miguel and I always just called her 'Mom.'"
"That's a beautiful name," she offers quietly. What else can she say without sundering a thousand scars?
"She loved us," Tulio croaks. "All of us. Too much to let Dad declare Himself above them all." He shakes his head, fingers digging into his hair. "I-I can't remember if people tried declaring one Lord and Lady above all others before they decided that just the Lord was easier, but... The end result's still the same, isn't it?"
"I'm sorry." In the face of that, Chel drudges up one last secret in her soul, the one she buried to even herself. "I'll never see any of my family again either, Tulio. The lucky souls make it through the Nine Houses of Xibalba to Lady Eupana's paradise beyond. But the Lords got my grandparents, my parents, my aunts, and my brother. If they're stills are still down there they're still suffering."
She clings to Tulio, her one rock in the storm that threatens to drown her. Chel is content with grieve with him all night. But then he stands and drags her up with him.
"Where are we going?"
"Spain. Maybe." Tulio's blue eyes search hers. "It's up to you if it's worth it or not."
He begins on the coasts of Cadiz, where the colonists of Phoenicia first carried him from their old world to the ends of it; then east to the lost ruins of Carteia and the piney islands of Ibiza. 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. Tulio cannot physically spirit her away back to Spain, but at least he can lift her imagination to new heights. He 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.
He warns his words are secondhand accounts, or else distant glimpses through open doors and stained glass windows. The holy halls of his Father are many and diverse. He and Miguel cannot step foot in them.
Once they've walked paradise, they descend into hell. Glorious as the sites are, they are found in stinking cities, overcrowded and festering with pestilence. Tulio tells her of taifas and petty kingdoms, kings and caliphs that sacked and slaughtered the other. Diverse times bred new tongues and peoples, now slowly being crushed back into one beneath the might of Spain. Even with his protection, to ward off the spirits of disease, people will look at her skin and hair and think Saracen.
There are no Saracens in Spain anymore, no Moors, no Jewish people or Jewish faith. Only Catholic Spaniards, one path forward to God and heaven.
Legally, at least.
"What about past Spain?" she tries.
Tulio's swagger falters. "We... We haven't been out that way in a long time, Chel. Any place we could recommend doesn't exist anymore. Not as anything more than ruins and sand, at least."
"No map, no plan. Just the trail we blaze." She grins at the thought. "Isn't that you two craved out here?"
"I... This was all Miguel's idea, Chel. And Dad's wrath that got us stranded out here." Tulio's jaw works as he stares up at the full moon. "I... Spain is safe. We've known the people since before they found a dozen ways to worship Dad. Since before Latin was ever a thing. We know how to blend in there, in Andalusia or way up in the Pyrenees. The last time we embraced the unknown, well..." He spreads his arms far and wide. "Your gods took mercy on our sorry asses. From Spain onward, there's just... Dad. By one tongue or another."
Chel sighs and surrenders for now. With her share of the gold she can go wherever the hell she wants. If Spain doesn't cut in the long run there's a thousand more peoples to explore, both in this world and across the sea. Maybe by then she can convince her boys to join her. Maybe she can't. That's their problem.
Tulio suddenly quirks a grin, eyes darting at something over his shoulder. "Come with me, please."
Chel's mortal eyes can't see anything, but he's so damn excited she grabs his hand anymore. Down he spirits her to a bridge, over Lake Parime itself. Tulio plucks a flower from a bush as they pass. Upon the bridge he spins away in a style utterly alien to Manoa. Anyone else throwing his hands up like that, or shifting his hips that way, might look utterly ridiculous. But Tulio's bravado makes this dance his own.
With a suave grin he offers his flower, its petals rich violet. Chel squints suspiciously at the bush. The other flowers don't look quite the same, but she accepts it anyway.
And gasps in delight when six little purple birds take wing, swirling above their heads.
Tulio plucks a small golden necklace from his vest. The six birds promptly swarm it, together lifting it into the air. He waves goodbye as they dart back into the dark.
"I work with spirits, remember? Turns out a few were curious enough to play along with me." He rolls his eyes fondly. "In exchange for gold, of all things."
"It's the next best thing to blood," Chel reminds him. When he flinches back, she adds, "The Dual Gods created this world with gold, a material so marvelous gods will accept it in lieu of a life under all but the gravest of circumstances. It was their gift to us."
Tulio sighs, gaze inscrutable as he stares after the bird spirits.
Hopefully they return to the temple. And groan at its silence.
"He's fine," Chel assures him. Manoa would be on fire or swarming with demons if he wasn't.
Exhausted by the emotional strain of the night, Miguel doesn't miss except them collapsing wearily into bed. Well, Chel aims for the couch. Tulio just drags her after him.
"That bastard can squeeze in if he wants his spot," he grumbles into a pillow.
Chel grins at the mental image of how they might negotiate more room from the others, and so cuddles as close as he can. She does not expect Tulio to immediately wrap his arms around her like a drowning man. He grins sheepishly at her, but she drags his arms back when he tries to shrink away.
They're asleep in moments. Even if they're both still hoping for at least a goodbye kiss from someone.
From the arena Miguel is immediately brought into the hall of Chalchi, Manoa's best stone-carver. His image must be captured fresh from his glory, to preserve it for all eternity.
...Until Cortes comes.
Miguel swallows his unease and lets Chalchi's excitement carry him away. Miguel is no stranger to being someone's muse. More than one of his love affairs over the centuries has used him as inspiration for their paintings and murals. More than one angel in Spain's churches has his hair and body, even if their faces are all clean-shaven to emphasize that androgynous style so popular in divine messengers this day and age.
Chalchi is more involved than most artists. On a rope Miguel is suspended midair in the same curving pose that kicked the ball to the final ball, complete with a rubber ball hanging in the right position. Miguel eases out of his shoes to make holding the pose more comfortable. The feathered crown is a necessary evil, for Chalchi refuses to immortalize a god without due deference given.
Chalchi frets over smaller things. "A-Are you sure you don't require more support, Lord Miguel? Because-"
Miguel laughs off the man's touching concern. "Nonsense. This is quite all right."
All he needs is the single rope around his leg to keep him airborne. Curving his spine and neck to hold the pose is downright therapeutic. His scars stretch in a good way, working muscles one never needs when shackled to earth. The gentle sway of the rope, the near weightlessness, is near enough to lull him to sleep.
Chalchi pounds away with the speed of a man possessed, eyes manic and dust flying everywhere from his hammer. Miguel shamelessly admires the muscles of that lean frame, those deft and artful hands.
Down, boy. This is one temptation to not give into.
Chel is one thing. Chalchi is quite another. Tulio aside, all of Miguel's partners since his fall have believed him a mortal man, one that just doesn't like to make love with his shirt off. Chalchi's entire world would be upended if a being he believed divine used the same aroused purr and pick-up lines on him.
After several relaxing hours aloft, Chalchi turns his masterpiece around for inspection.
Miguel grins at the image, so stylized in a tradition he has known for only days. He still recognizes himself in it, beard and all. "It's perfect, Chalchi."
"T-Thank you, my lord." For all Chalchi tries to play the humble artist, he puffs up like a swan. "I can only hope to do Lord Tulio justice next." The smugness falls from his face something dawns him. "Please, let me help you down from there!"
"I've got it!" he calls over to the man. "I'm no stranger to heights, you know."
Centuries without his wings has not robbed him entirely of his dexterity. He works his foot free of the noose, groaning in pleasure as he slips out of his pose. His spine pops from a knot loosened at last. He flexes as he hasn't in ages.
Gently he alights on solid ground. But his balance is shot, so he wobbles against a sudden weight before... something reacts again.
Miguel throws his arms out. And frowns at the emerald curtain that extends behind him. "What on earth?"
Chalchi makes a spluttering noise. Miguel stares at him. The carver stares back. Before his eyes roll and he drops in a dead faint.
Miguel makes a single step toward him before nearly overbalancing again. He frowns as his bare feet brush over red rags that look an awful lot like the shredded remnants of his shirt. He shivers at a sudden breeze over his naked chest. His feathers rustle.
Miguel wraps his arms around himself. Slowly, his hands creep from his elbows up to his shoulder blades. Then, into the fluffy warmth past that.
Shaking hands trace thick muscle and sturdy bone, all sheathed in emerald feathers. In the fading light they shimmer with a rainbow gloss, like a crow's feathers. One stubborn tug of denial has him gritting teeth at sensitive quills near yanked from their places.
A giddy laugh, somewhere between euphoria and utter hysteria, bubbles out of him. And never stops.
This is fine, he tells himself. This is fine. Everything is fine.
Miguel collapses into a hyperventilating bundle of nerves. His- The wings impulsively fold around him, a screen from the world.
But that only makes it worse, because these stupid wings aren't even the right color!
Mihael first shows up in the Italian Renaissance and Tuwahel in a grimoire written by a 1700s German guy. Neither are genuine Hebrew as far as I can tell. After much fruitless wrestling with English to Hebrew online dictionaries I threw my hands up. Michael's name could at least be broken down into components to bullshit something like 'Lo, Who Is God?' for Mihael. Tuwahel's first syllables are cribbed from something in Arabic meaning succession or progression.
Also, apparently mystics today are REALLY into using angels that there are several databases of them. Mihael makes quite a lot - probably because of the Zodiac and name of God connotations the Key of Solomon gave him, while Tuwahel is from a lot more obscure text. These are great sources of inspiration to use but... not really accurate beyond using general names?
Spain declared Reconquista on in the 700s. It did not end until Jews and practicing Muslims were both made illegal eight hundred years later. Then... just came the conquering of other places.
It's almost dark when Miguel is startled out of his breakdown by Chalchi's slow groan of regaining consciousness. Instinctively he startles up.
And smacks his head into the ceiling.
Chalchi's first sight upon awakening is Miguel fluttering against walls like a trapped moth. So of course his brain dismisses it as a dream and slides back into unconsciousness.
Only then does Miguel remember solid walls are... more of a suggestion here. He slides out of the physical world enough to make it onto the roof. There he clings, just far enough out of the mortal eye that no one can gawk at him.
With that problem solved, he glares at the root cause. These aren't his wings. This isn't him at all. The heavenly host should be a comforting undercurrent at the back of his mind, the sound of prayer and hymn across a world of faith. But the only thing down there is too small and too vast all at once, the voices alien as their prayers.
"N-Not happening," he mutters, digging his hands into his hair. "This... This is a dying dream. W-We're all still on the boat. Yes! Just slowly dying of dehydration! That's all well and good then."
Miguel sits patiently and waits to wake up again. Or at least slide into oblivion. He hopes sunset will at least bring an to... this.
The sun sets. As stars start appearing overhead he sighs forlornly toward his-- the temple. He can't go back like this. Tulio would drop dead at the sight of him, because his partner had the good sense to not go meddling with the lie anymore than he had too. And now Miguel is living it.
Miguel almost starts praying to Dad for guidance. Almost. Because Dad does not look down on Manoa yet. So long as He doesn't, then He has no reason to strike Miguel dead for the impertinence. Or turn Manoa into fire and brimstone for daring to make a fallen angel into a...
The wings flutter with his anxiety. Instinct screams to fly. But here he has no home to fly to. Not while he still has wings, anyway, and all that comes with them. With an impatient sigh he snaps the damned appendages open anyway, just to escape this roof and his thoughts.
In a susurrus of wings, he manifests in the empty throne room Chief Tannabok had received him just hours ago. Miguel trips in surprise before glaring at his wings.
"This isn't what I meant," he hisses as if they have a mind of their own. Maybe they do. Because, wise and good as Chief Tannabok is, Miguel is not about to go crawling to a mortal for advice. He has pride enough for that. And not insult Dad more than he already has.
At the footsteps of approaching guards he startles into the closest wall. When they start running toward the sound he flaps for anywhere else.
Miguel lands in a stinking alley. With a yelp of disgust he immediately rises to hover above the mess of muck and garbage. The beating wings at least diffuse the odor somewhat. He frowns at dark, ramshackle houses. Perhaps even a golden city Manoa has its slums, but surely they even aren't this terrible.
What truly makes his heart sink is the little girl that tries to scramble down from a pile of garbage to hide from him, shrinking even deeper into the white shroud she clings to like a security blanket. He drops his bare feet back into the filth, folding emerald wings to make himself look as small and nonthreatening as possible.
"Hello," he murmurs, gently as he can. "My name's Miguel. Sorry if I scared you."
Miguel turns at the sound of growling, but it's only a dog, even if it's knee high and utterly lacking fur. Its dark, frantic eyes dart from him to the girl. Patiently he kneels and holds out a hand for it to sniff. Suspiciously it does so, before sneezing and wagging its tail up at him.
"Mochi?" the little girl mumbles, peering up from her shroud.
Whining at the sound of his name, the dog wriggles past Miguel. He tries to climb onto the pile after her, but his paws keep slipping. He settles for frantically licking the girl's hand instead. She doesn't quite smile, but enough of her fear fades to regard Miguel with braver eyes.
"Hi," she says softly. "My name's Cera. His is Mochi."
"That's a very nice name for him," Miguel comments.
"Canah named him," Cera adds. "I got to have him down here so I wouldn't get lost." Her lip trembles. "B-But I am. L-Lord Hueza ate almost all I had to offer, even though none of it was for him, a-and..."
Miguel opens his arms. Cera immediately throws herself into them. Burying her head into his shoulder, she sobs long and hard into his neck. Mochi whimpers and balances atop Miguel's leg to try reaching her. So he shifts the girl into one arm to hoist her dog up too. She giggles as Moch promptly showers her face in licks.
With them both safe for the time being Miguel takes in his surroundings with wide, horrified eyes. There is only darkness above, without moon or stars to light the night. The fallen angel's eyes narrow at the shadow that darts across the street. For a moment it is a gaunt, long-nosed man with hungry black rodent eyes. Then it is just a rat, man-sized and repulsive. Miguel straightens to his full height. Under his baleful stare the demon bares yellow teeth and scurries into the shadows.
"Where are you supposed to be, Cera?" he murmurs.
Surely her fate is more than this. If it's not then he's finding a way to resurrect her, come hell or high water. Or fly her up all the way if he has to.
"Grandma. I'm supposed to go to grandma."
"Is... is your grandma down here?"
Cera nods firmly. "She's Grandma Turtle. She lives in Lake Parime, but she also lives here. In Xibalba she has a big palace floating on her shell, with gardens and kids and all the really old people in my family and-"
Miguel chuckles. "Thank you, Cera. I'll take it from here."
In a rustle of emerald wings they're airborne, the stinking pit of the rat demon below them. Miguel scans the horizon and heads for the tell-tale glimmer of water. They soar over fetid streets and the homes of oblivious demons. One with a smashed face and leathery wings charges them with a furious shriek, but Miguel deftly avoids him with a tight spiral. His arms full, he sends the bat demon flying back with a well-aimed king. Over they fly a palace of rotting corpses and bone-white streets stalked by rabid skeletons.
Beyond the alabaster streets looms a jungle, dark and vast. Mochi growls and Cera clings tighter to his neck.
"That's where the Jaguar God lives," she whispers fearfully.
Miguel laughs, loud and derisive. "Well, Cera, he certainly can't catch us all the way up here. The cat creep doesn't have wings like I do."
To prove his point Miguel streaks high and fast over the jungle. Perhaps the Jaguar God overhears his scorn or has caught their scent. From down below the darkness shrieks in rage. Trees smash beneath obsidian paws as Balam Qoxtok tries to keep pace, but Miguel soars fast as thought.
Beyond the jungle a muddy slope dips down to a beach. There is no floating island in the waters beyond, for it has shoved itself ashore. Upon it twinkle lights from a grand palace and many smaller homes, no less grand. Miguel's breath hitches at lights that shine like stars in the dark, at the laughter and fragrant scents that drifts from its shores. He knows paradise when he sees it, even if this one is not his own.
Yipping in excitement, Mochi wriggles from his grasp before Miguel can fully descend. He hits the sand, dashing for the old woman waiting there. He spins tight circles around her, for even a dog knows better than to place a paw upon a goddess.
Miguel swallows. Mere inches from the ground, he lets Cera onto the sand. He is the interloper her and so remains aloft, to not let his bare feet taint holy ground not his own.
"Grandma!" the little girl cries.
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 up Cera into her own arms.
Then her dark eyes fixate on Miguel. "A long way you've come," she rumbles in a voice vast and deep, "to deliver a child to my door."
Miguel folds his hands and bows as best he can from his height, green wings swooping low. "I apologize for trespassing so blatantly, Lady Eupana. Tulio and I are forever in your debt, for you so generously have granted us shelter upon your shore."
To gaze into Dad's eyes is to gaze upon the infinite vastness of the universe. The eyes of Grandmother Turtle are dark and deep as Lake Parime. "You and Lord Tulio are far from the first foreign spirits to seek refuge in my valley, Lord Miguel. You are not the last." She waves a casual hand toward her palace, grander than any in Spain. ""We will be sitting down to eat soon. A seat is waiting for you."
Miguel casts his gaze downward, sinking even lower. "Your mercy is as boundless as your generosity, Lady Eupana. I cannot in good conscience accept your offer. I-... We both know I don't belong here. All I can ask is that you and your esteemed family tolerate our presence for a few days longer."
Grandmother Turtle hums noncommittally. "We are a large family, Lord Miguel. I have so many grandchildren to keep track of. You have certainly made quite the impression on many."
She turns for her island without another word, Mochi at her heels. Cera waves goodbye over her shoulder. Miguel waves back. He soars high as he can, to depart a land of death and dreams for the world above.
And alights upon the rim of the dormant volcano, the loftiest place in Manoa.
Miguel unfurls the wings for yet another takeoff when an angry flicker of red halts him in his tracks. Fortunately the volcano goddess has not manifested as an actual eruption. The Lady of the Peak manifests in a burst of magma and a cloud of volcanic gas. She towers heads and shoulders above him, with calloused hands and broad shoulders that could bare a mountain across her back. From a face craggy as her mountainside burn eyes of brimstone.
"Lady Raima," he squeaks. "Lovely night we're having."
Lady Raima exhales steam and smoke. Hers is an ominous silence Miguel knows well.
So he takes a deep, steady breath and meets her gaze evenly. "I apologize for intruding on your domain like an utter idiot. I apologize for my part in the lies that nearly caused you to erupt." He bows, deep as he can, lowering the wings to fully reveal his naked neck. "Please, punish me, and me alone. It's not Manoa's fault I goaded them into giving me... these."
"Did your parents drop you on the head as a child?" the volcano goddess demands in a voice deep and rumbling, that shakes the very earth beneath their feet. "What sort of deity your age is so clueless with his abilities?"
Miguel looks up, wings flopping emphatically. "I-I haven't had these twelve hours! And these aren't even my wings!" He bites his lip, frowning at the differences. "They were smaller, definitely. And dove-white."
Lady Raima arches a molten brow. "Were?"
"Were, my lady," he confirms. "I haven't had them in... a solid two millennia or so."
The goddess snaps out her hand. Miguel yelps like a plucked chicken and hops away. At Lady Raima's deadpan stare he coughs and comes shuffling back. The angry red lines in Lady Raima's stone skin fade as she appraises a single green feather.
"If that hurt then this is your own feather, plucked from your own wing," she states bluntly. "Deal with it." She strides down the peak to the more fertile slopes below. Miguel flutters after her.
The volcano goddess rolls her eyes. "This not some dead land in the east two thousand years ago. This is Manoa, and this is now."
In a shady copse Lady Raima kneels to plant his feather by a gurgling stream. At her touch the mound of soil ripens to rich, fertile brown. Miguel gawks at the seedling that pokes its way out, unfurling miniature leaves.
"W-What is it?" he asks, utterly mystified.
"Your tribute to me, for all the headaches you have caused."
"Yes, but what is it?"
"In time, we shall see." Lady Raima rises to once more loom over him. "Your ideas have not only been planted and taken root, but they multiply like weeds in the hearts of my people. Even when you flee back across the sea the faith will not so easily die."
"I know," he murmurs, ruffling the... his wings anxiously. "But across thousands of miles and apathetic waters, how much will really follow me?"
"You can go back to whatever miserable little live you led before," Lady Raima states with iron certainty, "and not have it be a lie."
Miguel exhales out his worst fears to inhale hopeful possibility. For a volcano goddess Lady Raima does not reek of sulfur and brimstone. She smells of smoke and the deep, rch earth fertilized by the magma flows. With a giddy, grateful laugh he throws his arms around her.
Before he can correct his idiocy mighty arms lock around him. Miguel braces for the crushing. But receives only a moderate hug in turn.
Lady Raima is warm as a hearth, but her embrace is just as firm as Mom's, and almost as comforting.
With an embarrassed cough Miguel shrinks away. "Sorry," he squeaks out. "Just got caught in the moment."
The goddess physically picks him up and turns him around, pushing him a bit further down her slopes. "Stop bleating like a child and go do something productive already."
"Yes, Lady Raima," he yelps, before taking wing.
He circles once around Manoa to clear his head. And then opens himself to those who need him.
Emerald eyes snap to where the prayers are loudest, in humble, lopsided homes at the city limit.
"Easy, Mama," Patli soothes. Her breathing is especially hard because that rat demon squatting on her chest is even bigger than it was last night. He does his best to help her sit a little higher. The water he offers only dribbles down her chin and triggers another coughing fit.
"I'm sorry, Mama, I'm sorry!" He smacks her back hard as he can, wishing he could hit the rat demon. But his hands only fly right through it. Mama's glazed eyes lose a bit of their panic as they slide blearily back close. Her breathing subsides into rasps that are at least familiar.
To not upset his mama further, Patli hurries downstairs to sob where she can't see him. Or hear the deep coughs that rattle his chest with everyone.
He stubbornly scowls away from the beady black eyes leering back at him, the claws that reach through his chest all the way into his lungs. His own rat is still so tiny. By the time it's as big as Mama's... well, she won't be around to worry anymore. Not like she worried for Papa.
Patli scrambles away from the biggest bird he's ever heard, because somehow it made it all the way inside. But he coughs and lands on his back.
Green and gold loom over him. Patli flinches away, but a human hand only reaches down. He automatically extends his own hand, but the god ignores it. The rat squeaks as it is plucked off his chest by the tail. He inhales deeply the moment that crushing weight comes off. The demon snaps furiously at thin air, little claws scrabbling at nothing.
Patli winces at the sudden brightness that flares. Despite squinting so hard he can still hear his sickness squeal before that sweet, lethal sizzle.
The burning sword in the god's hand winks out as quickly as it appeared. But the god glows with a light of his own, golden hair and all. So Patli rushes forward to slam into waiting arms. He clings to that light and warmth, breathing deep and free.
"Come now," his savior chides gently. "That's quite enough of that."
Patli wrenches himself away first, nodding in determination. The god is right about. Now is not the time for tears. Not yet.
He frowns up at the narrow, rickety stairs as something else occurs to him. With his great green wings the god takes up near the whole of the room.
"I don't think you'll fit," he states bluntly.
The god grins, wings folding around him like a feathery cloak. "Of course I will. I'm Miguel. What's your name?"
"Patli," he offers. Then he seizes Lord Miguel by the hand, just to make sure he doesn't disappear, and drags him up to Mama.
The child-sized rat on Mama's chest sucks one more breath from her before its beady gaze snaps up to them. It snarls at Patli, whole and healed, before flicking up to Lord Miguel. "Who," it rasps, "are you supposed to be?"
Patli yelps indignantly when Lord Miguel pushes him back to step protectively forward, wings flaring. He shamelessly parts the curtain of green feathers to get a view of vengeance. "Haven't you heard? I'm Miguel."
The rat demon scoffs, hunching low over his mama. "Hapless little exiles you are, fallen from grace and grabbing what is not yours. You have no power here."
"Are you so sure of that, little demon?" Lord Miguel laughs, low and scornful, as he stalks another step forward. "I am Miguel, son of the Lord and Lioness. I am watcher and warrior, and you stand upon my own."
The demon hisses and springs. Fire erupts in Lord Miguel's hand. His blazing sword cuts through the demon like paper. It crumbles into ash and then nothing at all.
Patli ducks under green wings just as his mother takes her first big breath in weeks. Lord Miguel helps her sit up. At his touch fresh color floods her cheeks and her eyes fly open. They're bright and awake. And fall immediately on Patli.
"Patli?" she murmurs in a voice thick with only disuse. "W-What--"
Now is the time for tears. So he throws himself into Mama's arms and holds nothing back.
In a whoosh of wings Lord Miguel is gone. He doesn't fly far. From the windows Patli and his mama can watch fire flicker across homes, as he burns out their sicknesses one by one. Whispers break out, then the joyous sobs and reverent prayers. Patli and his mama join theirs to the throng.
I mean Asherah's full epithet would be something more like 'Lion Lady,' but come on. Miguel's gotta go for the smoother version ; )
Scouring Manoa for sickness is... cathartic. Really, really cathartic. Miguel can't control much in this world, but he can burn through every last plague and pestilence. As they crumble into ash fevers die down and people, young and old, take their first healthy breaths in weeks. It also helps these are demons of a different tradition, as far from family as physically possible.
After healing most people gape dumbly at him or are immediately mobbed by joyous families. These are easy to handle, because no one stops him from flying to the next house. The ones that bow or foist incense and tamales on him are harder to escape. Miguel isn't impolite enough to brush off their gratitude. He also wants to die a little inside people fervently offer up tribute, no matter how humble.
A god is never full, he is quick to realize. A hundred children shove fruits and biscuits into his hand. So he scarfs down a hundred fruits and biscuits. Because he can't bare the lost look in their eyes when he tries to graciously deny turn them down.
Also, smiting is hungry work. It's not like being part of the heavenly host, where there is endless faith to tap into for strength and resolve. Miguel must draw that energy from somewhere. If not from within, then from those willing to offer a bit of belief in turn.
By the time dawn breaks the pleas in his head have all quieted into grateful contentment. So Miguel abandons his hunt for his hardest quest yet. Swooping down to a quiet corner of Lake Parime, he hesitantly lands by the water's edge. Facing his reflection is harder than first turning to face the gaping emptiness of his wing scars upon his fall.
"Oh, thank God!"
Godhood has not forced any extra heads or eyes on him. Miguel looks... like he always has since growing out the beard. Well, shirtless and with huge emerald green wings, but still. Himself. Even Mihael is still inscribed on his arm, in all the languages that have uttered Dad's name in reverence.
...The addition of Manoa's heavily stylized alphabet is a new one, though. His name is favoring that one especially. Followed by the old scripts - Ugaritic, Phoenician... Sumerian.
In the light of day Miguel grudgingly admits his new, temporary set of wings are really quite majestic. Certainly far more vivid than his old pearlescent ones. He grins smugly as he considers their span. As an angel charged with part of Dad's longest name his old span had been a few feet longer than Tulio's. Now his stature rivals an archangel's, if not Michael's himself.
He wishes he could show them off to Tulio, lift him up to lofty heights they once soared together. If only his partner wouldn't promptly drop dead of the ensuing heart attack.
This is one secret Miguel can keep to himself. At least until the last few days before Judgement.
Now if only he remembers how to hide them. Not merely from mortal sight, but from those who know him best.
Miguel folds his wings into a normal resting position. Then he folds them close, like a great big cloak. With a lot of swearing and stuffing, he shoves them down deep. To the parts of his heart not even Tulio knows. He winces at the sudden feeling of confinement, at how heavy near-mortal flesh and bone weighs after the lightness of the sky. Miguel's endured the eternal agony of his wing scars. A day of discomfort is nothing in comparison.
By the time they're safely out to sea, time and distance will have faded the wings down to nothing. Then their faint existence will be only one more secret to keep, and one more reason to never stumble back into the New World.
Once the divine part of himself is bound up tight Miguel frowns at smooth, bare shoulder blades. He winces as his old scars rend their way back to the surface.
There. All is as it should be.
"Shirt," he blurts out. In red tatters on Chalchi's floor. He had really liked that shirt.
With no better option Miguel turns his concentration inward. And grins when his shirt manifests in his hands, whole and comfortably worn. He slides it over his naked chest. There! Now he looks just right.
He wonders if Dad felt this proud when he created his first apple tree. The first human being.
"Oh." He wriggles bare toes and remembers shoes also abandoned at Chalchi's. Then he wrinkles the thought of stuffing them back into such cramped footwear. After days trekking through the jungle their soles were were down to nothing. "You know what? Bare feet are just fine."
His appearance seen to Miguel swings by to check on the ship. He sighs in relief to discover a fine, finished vessel where there had been a half-carved log not too long ago. The shipwrights have even taken the time to carve and paint a vibrant serpent's head on the prow, painted the sides with stylized gold designs. Already Chief Tannabok supervises the earliest stages of loading their tribute aboard.
Miguel is so excited to get aboard he nearly flutters right up there. He buries his wings before they can burst forth and clambers up the ladder instead.
Lake Parime may be small and landlocked, but Manoa maintains knowledge of how to build a hull that can withstand the ocean's rigors. The sturdy mast can weather storms on even the open sea. The ship is easily small enough for a crew of two to manage. This way they can take turns resting.
"It's perfect, Chief Tannabok," he gushes. "Absolutely perfect!"
Miguel runs an expert hand over the side and its carvings. He practically feels the pride and devotion put into every masterful carve.
"Truly, my lord?" For all the chief smiles, worry clouds his eyes. "Because we can always-"
"Nonsense, chief! I haven't seen this much care put into a ship in eighteen hundred years!" Miguel smiles reminiscently, leaning against the rail to stare down the dark cavern that will swallow him up once more and spit him back up into an apathetic world, just as he's always been since the fall. "The Phoenicians were quite a people, you know. Our neck of the world had never seen sailors and traders like them before. How could Tulio and I just stay home when they kept breaching new horizons like that? So we followed them west, from one city to another, until..."
He sighs. Phoenicians had braved the Pillars of Hercules to reach the Hesperides, but had gone no further west. Nor had the Carthaginians and Romans that had followed in their trading expeditions for orchil and dragon's blood. Perhaps it's for the best none of them had ever set up permanent outposts there, that Tulio had drawn the line at Spain.
Because with Rome's collapse the Old World forgot the Hesperides were a part of it too. Before 'rediscovering' them as the Canary Islands.
"The world seemed so much wider then," he muses aloud. "Then suddenly it's all so small, but you still just can't find your way... home."
Miguel tries long and hard to remember his birthplace; towering trees and clouds close enough to touch.
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 the Sun God'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.
"Oh, no, I can't. I- We have to go back. Me and Tulio. We-We're partners. From now unto the end of time."
Then, when all is said and done, they'll burn together in a lake of fire alongside all the other fallen. Eternity doesn't seem so daunting, with Tulio at his side.
"Big plans in the other world, huh?"
Ruefully Miguel smiles up at unknowing skies. "Yep. Big plans. Dad likes us all accounted for, you know? Can't keep Him waiting like that."
Chief Tannabok's brow furrows in a way Miguel can't read. "That big family of yours, huh?"
"Yep." Miguel chuckles wanly. "Siblings all over the place. In the worlds above and below."
"It must be hard for you all to get along."
"We don't. Not since M-... Not since Mom and Dad separated, I suppose you could say." Pantheons had room for everyone, some way or another. The heavenly host is not so accommodating.
"Miya and I have six boys," Chief Tannabok confides. "Beautiful, boys, quick and clever as monkeys. Just as mischievous. And already driving us to wit's end." He rubs his temple wearily. "We try our best with them. Are we strict enough, or too lenient? Will they grow to thank us? To resent us? Will they just... hate each other when they're grown, if we can't even put a stop to their fights now? I just don't know."
Miguel almost grabs his shoulder with a sympathetic hand. He remembers himself just in time, playing it as a casual hand through his hair. "Chief Tanni, to err is human. And divine. I'm... Well, I'm no stranger to what greed and wrath can do to even the highest families out there. And all the world pays for our mistakes when we can't settle our differences peacefully." He strains for the words, staring long and hard at the horizon. "All anyone can do is strive to be better than they were the day before, and love those we love like they deserve to be. That... That love just doesn't go away. No matter what happens."
Miguel freezes at the hand, large and steadying, that settles on his shoulder. Chief Tanni smiles benevolently down at him. "Thank you for your guidance, Lord Miguel. It helps put my heart at ease."
For a moment Miguel almost hugs the man, but he's spontaneously embraced enough strangers for today. "It-It's what I do, Chief Tanni."
Chief Tanni does not remove his hand, but squeezes his shoulder briefly. "That is why my offer forever stands, for you and Lord Tulio both. You'll always have a home here in Manoa."
'B-But our family is..."
"We've got a big one here too." He winks. "No reason it can't get a little bigger."
Miguel laughs, because the other option is to sob. He ducks out of the man's reach and takes the quickest route overboard.
On this side there is no ladder. There is also no dock.
Miguel hits water. He stumbles a bit in surprise, bare toes wet, but the surface holds him. Miguel gapes down at Lake Parime. Lake Parime's vibrant fish gape up at him, who stands on their domain as confidently as solid ground.
He grins up at Chief Tanni, utterly mesmerized. "Forgot I could do that!"
Altivo waits for him on shore, dark eyes expectant. Flowers are woven into his mane and tail. He strikes the earth with a gold-shod hoof.
Miguel smiles as he pats his neck. "Glad you found a home here, old boy. These people have the sense to see you for what you really are."
The stallion rolls his eyes and butts his nose into Miguel's chest. Right above his heart. He gently shoves him back. "You're the god, Altivo. I'm... I'm just the messenger. One of countless. And I'm not even worth that anymore."
Altivo dogs his every step up the ziggurat, snorting futilely at the threshold. This isn't his temple, after all.
Miguel sags in relief to find his partners no worse for wear, blissfully oblivious to all the chaos his pride has wrecked. Tulio is still himself, lack of wings and all. And still utterly helpless in negotiating his share of the gold.
"Don't tell me I already missed the best parts," he teases. Chel whirls around in surprise. Tulio near jumps out of his skin. Then they gang up on him.
"W-Where the hell have you been?"
"Around," Miguel answers earnestly. And a bit flippantly. He still can't get his tones right. Even after Dad and getting his wings ripped off.
Chel crosses her arms ominously. "More specifically."
Tulio narrows his eyes suspiciously. "Were you sleeping with someone, Miguel? Good God, it's one thing if they think we're human, but let's add one more mess to our pile here!"
"I didn't!" Miguel swallows that fire before it manifests as anything more than that harsh, dissonant voice. He shoves it dark and deep. A breath shudders out of him. "I... I didn't sleep at all, actually."
"Yeah, Miguel," Tulio sighs. He tenderly caresses his jaw line, thumb stopping just beneath what must be bags of biblical proportions. "We can see that."
Miguel snaps. Blindly he gropes for the anchor that has kept him solid through centuries of strife and heartbreak. One arm snags Tulio. The other latches onto Chel.
This... This is nice. Less like two exiles against the world and more like their own private huddle. Two trees make a pair; three is a grove all their own. His partners stand, sturdy as cedars in the storm, while he quivers against them.
"Do you wanna talk about?" Chel murmurs at last, thoroughly squished in their three-way embrace.
"No," Miguel mumbles, burrowing further into them both. His arms can only hold so much.
Mutinously he thinks his wings are big enough for all three of them.
For a time they all linger there, leaning into the others. Then Miguel is dragged to the ground to haggle over their shares of the tribute. He must barter especially hard. They gave him all the best pieces and refuse to trade away their smaller, less unique offerings.
Utterly at ease and utterly exhausted, Miguel is soon slumping against the remaining piles of gold. He grumbles when they haul him off to bed, but he goes down all the same. Their fond, distant whispering soothes him better than any lullaby.
True to form, Miguel is snoring in minutes. Tulio gives up on the pretense of haggling for gold. Before he can rises Chel grabs his hand.
"Come on, Tulio," she murmurs. "Let him sleep."
"I am!" he huffs. "I just... need to make sure he's all right first."
Chel rolls her eyes but stands up with him. She lingers at the threshold of the bedroom while Tulio creeps closer alone. His eyes rove over Miguel. Lost shoes and disheveled hair aside, everything appears fine. On the surface.
Paranoia has Tulio combing his fingers through golden hair, sheared defiantly short ever since their fall. He lets out a shuddering sigh at the utter lack of hidden horn buds. Miguel's snores give full of his mouth, all teeth nice and flat. At least the idiot hasn't fallen any further in courting hubris like that.
With the worst case scenario out of the way Tulio works his way up to the forearm. He rolls his eyes in fond exasperation to discover Manoan Mihael's new script of choice. That's what Miguel gets for blasting out his God-given name for all the city to hear. At least it's a nice little memory for all the long, grueling centuries ahead.
Tulio almost leaves it there. With Miguel currently down for the count he and Chel can squeeze in a few hours of sightseeing on their own before festivities tonight. What's the use in delaying some fun any longer, now that their partner is safe and sound?
"Sorry," Tulio breathes, before he lifts Miguel's shirt.
Those raw, ugly scars are as they always were and will always be. Tulio hates them for the pain they represent.
He hates himself for being so relieved by their presence.
Sighing silently, Tulio eases the shirt back down and retreats backward. Chel stares at him.
"Can we go now?" she presses.
"Yeah." Miguel roots around for a comfy spot, burrowing into the pillows. Reluctantly Tulio turns away. He can watch Miguel sleep any other day of eternity. They have only hours left in Manoa. "Yeah, sure. Let's get out of-"
Instinctively Tulio ducks, hands raised to show himself unharmed. Once the rush of wings was his sound, the song of freedom. Now they signify only an avenging angel about to smite a tainted soul. Sometimes showing himself harmless, one of their pitiful fallen little brothers, stays their wrath.
Chel's stifled gasp and the lack of a burning blade to his throat makes Tulio crack open his eyes.
There's no heavenly warrior out for justice. It's just Miguel making himself comfy.
In a blanket of green feathers.
Attached to his body.
"...What," Chel states flatly.
"Those are new," Tulio squeaks.
Then he swoons back in a dead faint.
Phoenician colonies stretched from Byblos and Tire in the Levant out to North Africa and Spain. When our idiots arrived in Spain, they did so through Cadiz - then the Phoenician colony of Gadir. All the Semitic pantheons of this period were heavily influenced by each other due to such close languages and borders. And were in turn defined by the big Mesopotamian empires that ruled or traded with them - a legacy all the way back to Sumer and older.
Phoenicians made it all the out to the Canary Islands. So did Carthaginian and Roman sailors. These islands were probably the inspiration of the ancient Hesperides - where orchil and dragon's blood were traded for expensive dyes. Any evidence of these civilizations reaching certain lands any further west are... spurious at best :p
El and Asherah are described as having alternatively either 77 or 88 sons. Their family... grew from there. A lot.
Chapter 11: the more i learn (the more i see)
Or in which Chel proves to have her shit together. And keeps other people's shit together.
Before Tulio can smack the stone floor he lurches into Chel instead. The rescue does not change his view of Miguel snuggled in a cocoon of his own damned feathers. From his own damned wings!
He's too stunned to shout. Too choked. That's the only reason Chel and Altivo can wrangle down the temple steps before he explodes.
"W-W-W- Ow!" Tulio struggles to fight his way back up the stairs, even as Altivo drags him down by the pony tail. "Let me go, horse! I only have to strangle the life out of him!"
"Tulio," Chel hisses. Her elbow socks him in the rib. His angry shout escapes as a wheeze. "We have an audience."
More than one person below has turned up to the commotion on the ziggurat. Altivo arcs his head and gallops down with godly grace. The stupid horse is probably a proper one again by now. Chel lowers her head and stands respectfully by his side. Tulio puffs down his chest and descends with well-practiced confidence. Not that their respectful regard means anything.
His scars ache. Almost as much as the bitter betrayal eating at his heart.
Tulio plasters on a serene smile. It's been burned into him since the last days in Dad's good graces, when he was trying to hide his growing guilt down deep where not even God Himself could see. Chel and Manoa's excited populace proudly show off their city and all they have accomplished in 'his' absence. He listens out of diligent politeness.
For all of two minutes, before their exuberance rubs off on him. Because it's hard not to ask how people have coaxed a turtle bigger than some houses into ferrying them around. Turns out Lady Eupana's children really like free fruit, safe places to lay their eggs, and throat scratches. What Manoa lacks in mammalian livestock it makes up for in its giraffe-sized bids. First they munch all the seed of his basket. Then he stands very, very still as their beaks comb through his hair. At least they clean it of the horse slobber.
Every miracle Manoa offers comes with a rude awakening. Tulio can't enjoy the drummers when a woman starts strumming badly on a makeshift lute that is obviously Miguel's handiwork. The crowd showers her with rapturous applause. The cleverness of the bonesticks sours when the whole damn square can't stop talking Miguel's stupid moon and sun. He's flattered by Chalchi the artist frantically sketching his visage to immortalize in stone. Then the guy waxes poetic about 'Lord Miguel and his emerald plumage.' Yeesh.
By the time he reaches the stupid dancers on their pole he's almost ready to snap. He's pretty damn sure Dad would strike them down for daring to venture where only angels dare to tread, even if only for a moment.
But Dad's not here yet, is He? Only gods that deign let their followers reach a bit closer. And Achto's anxiety at his growing silence.
"L-Lord Tulio?" the man prompts. "Would you care to try?"
"No, thank you." He forces a friendly smile on his face. "My Father intended for me to stay right down here, so here I'll stay. Unlike certain others, who shall go unnamed, I am a dutiful son."
Achto bows his head. "Lord Miguel also refused my offer. Manoa is blessed to have known your wise and merciful presence."
Chel, however, has no such reservations. She graciously accepts a place on the pole. She throws out her arms and laughs like Tulio has never heard her before. Her silken hair streams behind her like a banner. He quirks a smile at her. It must be nowhere near true flight, but it's the closest she'll ever come. More than he'll ever know again.
Hypocrite, Tulio curses to himself. Did you already have your wings back when you turned him down, Miguel? W-Were they a reward?
When Chel descends from the pole she stares hard at him. "One last chance to make it count."
"My chance came and went centuries ago. His did too."
Chel rolls her eyes and tugs him forward. Tulio follows without a fight, fingers laced with hers. Some people have the audacity to gawk, guiltily averting their eyes when either of them glances their way. What does Tulio care of how a Manoan deity should regard his priestess? Chel is no priestess and he is no god. By this time tomorrow they'll be setting sail for Spain, where things make sense.
With or without Miguel.
Chel leads him away from wide roads and golden facades. She leads him down narrow, winding streets, 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.
"Is this where you grew up?" he murmurs.
"Yep." Chel leads him before an idol on the street, without a great temple to house it. "This is Paquini, the Lady of the Vine. She made everyone here. When the gods of Manoa captured her and her pantheon in golden chains, she convinced Lord Bibi to set her free. She got all the gods here drunk and threw the wildest party ever, to convince them she was best kept around. That is why the People of the Vine live on. We alone were trusted with the secret of how to distill wine."
Tulio considers her life-size stele. Lady Paquini is amply built. 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. She holds out a bowl overflowing with grapes. Her wide, generous smile borders on mischievous.
Tulio groans as a memory comes back to him. "I think we met before."
Chel jerks. "Really!?"
"Yeah." He casts his mind back to the haze of that first night. "Miguel and I have high tolerance for alcohol, Chel. Our livers flush it out like nothing. We were just... giddy. Then I met her and well..."
He doesn't remember the rest of that night. He certainly remembers the pounding hangover the morning after.
"Yeah." Chel quirks a smile at the stele. "Lady Paquini does that."
For shits and giggles? Tulio gulps. Those stone eyes are watching him. "Why?"
"Strip the soul of its inhibitions and you see its truest self." Chel squeezes his hand. "Guess she liked what she saw."
"W-What makes you say that?"
She pinches his cheek and turns away. "You and Miguel are still alive, aren't you?"
Tulio eeps in terror and follows her down another street. Out of the corner of his eye the idol winks and waves goodbye.
Chel stops before a house utterly unremarkable from all the others. It is far from the only one on the street abandoned. Part of the roof on the second story has collapsed into itself. Tulio squints into the musty darkness and sees nothing special. Its worth is written only upon Chel's face.
"It must have been something back in the day," he murmurs.
"Oh, was it." She smiles, eyes misty and far away. "My grandparents built these walls up for their daughters. Only my mom went to marry and have kids. Xaya and I had the loft all too ourselves. Then the street flooded. My best friend Mari and her family came to stay with us until the rains let up. They never did. Not until Lord Cassipa demanded a sacrifice to dry his tears."
Tulio swallows thickly. She squeezes his hand like a life-line.
"Lord Cassipa weeps because the Moon Goddess hides her face from him. She is his daughter, and ashamed of the scars the Crocodile God left upon her when he devoured the Sun God alive. Since he can't have his little girl, he takes ours instead. His priestess almost picked me. Then she decided Mari was prettier. Now they're all gone and I'm still here." Chel's grip is iron when she stares up at him. "I was five when Mari gave me my second chance, Tulio, and twelve when my mom gave me the third. You and Miguel are my fourth lucky beak."
"Lord Tulio! Lord Tulio! Lord Tulio!"
Promptly mobbed by a small horde of adoring, jabbering children, they are powerless to resist getting dragged into another house just up the street.
Their home is quaint but cozy, their table crammed with chairs. Tulio and Chel are escorted to seats of honor. The meal arranged on the table is simple but lovingly made. Tulio's mouth waters at the aroma of a flavor palette scarcely explored.
He blinks at the face down the table. He recognizes the man. Even without the red paint and heavy gold earrings meant to make him especially appealing. His dark eyes are alert and content, far from the drugged haze that had clouded them just the morning before.
"Um, hey," Tulio chokes out. "How are you feeling?"
"Alive, my lord," the man answers ruefully. "And forever thankful."
Tulio ducks his head. "You should give your gratitude to Lord Miguel. He's the one that made sure you and your children will never worry again."
"Lord Tulio," the man murmurs. "It is you who spoke up first, and you who saved my life. Inviting you and your speaker to partake of my table is the very least I can offer in return."
"Yeah, Lord Tulio," chimes in one of his daughters. "You telling Tzekel-Kan to stuff it is the reason I still have a daddy. So please shut up and eat all our tamales."
"Adi," the girl's mother scolds.
"Sorry, mama." The girl struggles to lift the whole platter of tamales, but settles for picking up one to waving enticingly over her head. "Pretty please eat all our tamales. They were made with love!"
Tulio takes the tamale. Even mushed by Adi's eager hands, it is still absolutely delicious. The first bite fills more than just his stomach, but the empty places in his being that the wine and gold fill. "Thank you," he tells her earnestly. "It is very good." He considers her father sheepishly. "Er, sorry. I don't believe I ever caught your name."
"Melo, my lord. My name is Melo."
They eat while they can. Melo and Nela, his wife, only have so much control over their children with such exciting guests present. Tulio fields as many questions as they can. As they all try to chat at once he conveniently picks those that require the least amount of truth-stretching. Where's he from? Why from all the way across the eastern ocean, from into the sunrise. What's his family like? Very, very big. There's no way he can possibly remember them all off the top of his head.
"Can you fly like Lord Miguel can?" chirrups a boy.
"Hona, you idiot," hisses an older brother. "That's rude."
"Sorry, but I saw him from the window!" The boy shamelessly jumps onto his chair, despite his brother's best attempt to wrestle him down. "He flew around like whoosh and swung his sword like hi-yah! He saved Yuna, Lord Tulio, and she's my very best friend. And my cousin. And-"
"Hona," Melo butts in. "You know better than that."
"Sorry, Daddy. Sorry, Lord Tulio." The boy deflates in his brother's arms. "I shouldn't compare gods, 'cause it's rude and... 'presentuous' of me. I won't do it ever again."
"You're forgiven," Tulio says gently, because the adorable little brat mopes like a kicked puppy. He grins as something else comes to him. "I mean, back in the day Lord Miguel and I were pretty presumptuous ourselves. See, we had this older brother that couldn't take a joke. So Lord Miguel and I thought maybe we could show him to... laugh at himself once in a while."
Back then Michael hadn't been quite so high on his pedestal. And he'd been so easy to rile. No wonder he was the preferred target for angels in their cohort. One time Miguel, with the perfect deliver, convinced Michael to scour half the world for a 'lost' creation that Dad simply hadn't implemented yet. Tulio convinced one rather reckless grove of tree spirits into 'withering' after Michael got a little too pissy in an argument with Raphael. Michael had sobbed an apology for offending the trees so grievously with his wicked words, begging them to come back to life before Mom noticed.
...In hindsight, it's no wonder most of their cohort wound up falling. They'd been bratty little shits to begin with.
Tulio sinks back into his chair. Chel happily takes over the conversation. Having grown up on this street, she can tell them exactly all the mischief she and her brother got into while they were the kids' age. And all the ways their grandma to found to box their ears for painting people's dogs and throwing dirt clods at bullies.
Inevitably Miguel trickles in and out of the conversation. Because apparently the idiot has spent all his hours of newfound divinity smiting pestilence and healing the sick.
It's really hard to hate him for that. Because Tulio gets it. Learning to look out for himself and Miguel alone had been a hard lesson learned. Back when they had first fallen from grace they had thought to try trusting the humans around them. Even former angels learned to ignore people freezing in gutters when they tend to run off with your shit afterwards. Or accuse you of witchcraft because you happen to cut your quick-healing finger when trying to sew up one of their own wounds.
For Melo and his lovely family though...
Tulio promises the kids one real trick of his own. From his vest he pulls his loaded dice. Their eyes watch every toss, every arcane shuffle of his hands and turn around the table.
He throws his dice so high they bounce off the ceiling. Two golden earrings clatter onto the table. His audience gasps in delight.
Tulio twirls his fingers, proudly showing the dice wedged between his thumb and index finger. Up they fly. Down falls another golden pair. He repeats the toss, each sequence more bombastic than the last, until there's a whole pile of earrings on the table. Enough for Melo, Nela, and all their kids. When done he takes his bow. His enraptured audience know better than to question the magic. They applaud uproariously.
With one look to Chel, they take their leave before the family realizes that gold is theirs to keep. The adults and older kids wear plain green stone in their ears. The younger children have naked lobes.
"Yes," he answers honestly. "But I'm still royally pissed at Miguel." His breath hitches. "And utterly terrified at what's gonna happen tomorrow."
"You know you can just ask him about it," Chel states bluntly. "In a way that doesn't involve burning your whole damn relationship to the ground."
Tulio scowls but does not dignify her suggestion with a proper response. Because of course she's right about it.
I intended this chapter to go down another way. And then Chel just took Tulio by the ear and kept everything from imploding. So... XD
Chronologically you have the big name angels like Michael and Gabriel that show up real early in sources.... Then you have the angels that show up in later apocrypha, whose job is mostly to help humans cheat at life with magic XD Big surprise they'd be the mischievous little shits of the family.
By the time Tulio and Chel wander back from Lady Paquini's quarter they are almost late to their own celebration. Tulio is immediately escorted to a throne of gold and jade. Miguel already sits on his, deceptively innocent and lacking in wings. He downs his whole cup of wine. His ensuing smile has a wide, frantic edge.
Tulio's stomach curdles. Miguel had tried that same one out on Dad before... before...
"Oh, Lord Tulio!" he calls with all his phony brightness. "You're just in time! Certainly can't keep the people waiting!"
Tulio quietly takes his seat, granting the audience only a grin of encouragement. The children happily take it as permission to start their little tribute show. It's far from the grand theatrical exaltations the pagan Romans performed in honor of Bacchus, but Tulio's never been a named character in anything before, not even in apocrypha. At best he's a name scribbled down in a grimoire passed from one secretive master to the next. Or a name pulled out of thin air.
Miguel's anxious attempts at conversation peter out. The empty wine cup shakes in his hand. He sets it down on the golden arm rest to binge eat grapes instead. Tulio nurses his wine in thoughtful silence.
Tzekel-Kan's actor wears a distorted mask that makes him into a monster, not a man. His 'victim' is the little armadillo messenger from earlier. Because apparently Lord Bibi's servants have a flair for the dramatic. Miguel's depiction wears an oversized crown and cloak with green feathers hastily glued on. More drift off with every impassioned sweep of the kid's arms.
"That kid does a better me than I do," Miguel croaks gamely. "Though the costume is a bit... abstract."
Tulio sighs. "I know, Miguel. Chel does too."
His partner pales, sinking into his throne. "I-I thought you two were already gone when..."
"No." He sips his wine. "They popped out pretty quickly."
"That's the problem, isn't it?"
Green eyes dart everywhere but his own. They fixate on Chel. A small line of children cluster behind her as she lifts a boy to pet Altivo's nose. Putting him back down, she catches their attention. She brushes back her hair and waves at them both. Tulio manages one back. Miguel's hand flops like a dead fish.
Miguel almost curls into a ball up on his throne. Only countless adoring eyes make him press even further against the throne, as if the pressure will keep his shame safely trapped under his scars. "I- It was an accident, Tulio. I-I just got-"
"-carried away?" Tulio finishes archly. "Have no little voice in your head to keep you from mortal sin? Usurped the will of a whole pantheon to get your cheap shot in?" He groans when Miguel hunches forward, ready to vomit his literal insecurities all over the unsuspecting crowd below. "Okay, Miguel. You have them. Where do we go from here?"
"Home," he blurts out before immediately clarifying, "Back to Spain. To live like kings and spend like hedons. Once we leave this place behind... we leave you-know-what too. Give it a few generations of human forgetfulness, everything will be good as new!"
Tulio's heart aches. If only it can be that simple, but it stands simply too good to be true. "And you know this how?"
Miguel points upward. Tulio gapes in horror, but his partner's finger tilts somewhat. He follows the new angle not to the heavens above, but the slightly less daunting prospect of the volcano he almost goaded into exploring two days ago. "Tell me it wasn't-"
"Lady Raima, Tulio. The volcano goddess." Miguel smiles fondly at the peak that nearly devastated the valley and took them down with it. "She's quite nice once you get to know her. Reminds me a bit of Mom, actually."
Tulio immediately regrets his word choice as the earth itself begins to buckle and shake. He is about to slip out of his throne and grovel an apology when Tzekel-Kan's temple erupts instead. Their gazes snap to it just as the roof collapses in sickly green vapor. From the ruins crawls the biggest, ugliest cat Tulio has ever seen carved into an idol. Its glowing gaze fixates on them.
Miguel clings to his throne, utterly paralyzed. Probably because he's flashing back to another monstrous behemoth, roaring with the wrath of storm and sea as Lord warred against Lady. Tulio instead beholds their death. And shrieks, high and shrill, as the embodiment of Manoa's wrath descends upon them.
Eyes alight with the power of his god, Tzekel-Kan laughs triumphantly as a dark shadow prowls the dark behind him. "Now everyone shall know the truth of your divinity!"
Most people scatter. Tannabok's warriors attempt to rally. Their spears bounce harmlessly off solid stone. One brave soul is smashed beneath a massive paw. Another dies screaming between serrated teeth.
"Come on!" Chel cries from atop Altivo. The stallion bugles. "Get on!"
Tulio needs no encouragement. Emerald wings shove him back as Miguel stalks forward. His whole body glows with a radiance of his own. A burning spear kindles in both hands.
It's too late. His fingers fumble at blazing feathers. Then Miguel is charging forward.
Instinctively Tulio leaps after him.
And falls. His face smashes into solid earth.
He blearily lifts his head from bloodied stone. He squints against healing wounds. His gaze flicks from Chel astride Altivo to Miguel in all his terrible brilliance. Finally they settle on the shadow that springs forth from Tzekel-Kan, leaping from one fallen warrior to the next. Its trajectory is very fucking clear.
Predators are creatures of opportunity. They do not seek out lions when there are lambs readily available for the slaughter.
Chel spurs Altivo faster. He whinnies a warhorse's challenge. The roar from all corners of the dark drown it out.
They do not make it fast enough.
"Oh, come on!"
The colossal shadow resolves into emerald eyes and a gleaming black hide.
Tulio's last sight on earth is the Jaguar God's jaws bearing down on him.
Then he knows only darkness and crushing pain.
Ah. So this is Dudael.
Lightning sears across a cloudless sky. For a moment the night burns bright as day. Their commander's mount, a seasoned warhorse, whinnies in fear.
Thunder follows, worse than there has ever been or will ever be again. Every beast in that heathen jungle, down to the damned crickets, fall silent as the grave. The warhorse trembles in fearful awe. Men, green boys and grizzled veterans both, gape up at the heavens. The wise fall to their knees in prayer.
So does Cortes kneel. His gaze fixates from up above to the trail below, so clearly illuminated even by moon and starlight. No matter how many days out in this forsaken jungle, the trail of hoof prints and footprints are fresh as if the interlopers have just passed through. They have guided his expedition true as the north star. Because no force in this jungle dares hamper a righteous mission.
He rises, firm in his resolve. "Onward, men."
Cortes is a conquistador and his men as carefully chosen as the disciples of Christ. They all know a sign when they see one.
Their promised land is close at hand.
For gold, for glory.
Cortes' ship spotting the ruined longboat? Sure. Cortes' crew following a trail through sand and jungle that the wilderness should have swallowed back up long before they got there? A conspiracy's afoot!
Chapter 13: the truth of your divinity
Miguel screams as the Jaguar God descends.
Then the great cat is gone, and Tulio with him. Miguel keens. Dad only took his grace. Balam Qoxtok has ripped out his heart.
Grief erupts into hot, blinding rage. The jade idol yowls as he turns in a wave of flame. Miguel's own roar of fury drowns it out, as he swoops off the god himself.
Wind buffets him back, making him flare emerald wings. Altivo thunders off in hot pursuit, the gales shuddering with every strike of his hooves. Chel snarls and spurns him onward. Their forms streak by and out of the material entirely, as they charge from one world into the next.
Miguel turns to follow. Instinct instead jolts him to the left. He barely evades the massive paw that tries to swat him out of the sky like a gnat. Up he soars, high enough the behemoth tries to leap after him. He rams his hottest, brightest down its throat.
Holy fire sears mortal flesh and turns demons to dust. On heathen stone it gutters out. Miguel falls back as the avatar coughs up smoke. He is not quite fast enough to escape its wild, frantic thrash.
Heavy stone clips right wing. Fragile bone shatters.
Down, down, down he falls. He flares out his wings. The working one only slows his descent so much. Hands and knees scrape the earth.
Before his fall Miguel had been a being of faith and fire, who bled only plasma like the stuff of thunderbolts when solid enough to do so. With his grace ripped out he was the next best thing to mortal, whose blood had run hot and sluggish. Now, even with new wings and new power, his injuries still gush. His broken limb trails, red and numb.
Gleaming green eyes fixate on him. From down here Miguel suddenly realizes how large it looms. He is a fallen angel and accidental deity, flailing by on the pity of others and undeserved faith. Here is a great god, old as war, old as conquest. He has glutted himself on the blood of countless, those sacrificed before his idols and upon the altar of war. Beneath such power what else can Miguel, fallen and forsaken, do but resign himself to fate?
Hah! His family is infamous for many things. Surrender has never been one of them.
From his hiding place Tzekel-Kan laughs maniacally as the jade jaguar stalks forward, slow and purposeful. Miguel grits his teeth as bone snaps back into place. He drags the wing as he limps away, a bird not quite finished off. So the cat springs forward to play.
Miguel turns. For a heartbeat the air around him burns bright as daylight, before it sharpens and narrows.
This spear he impales right through the eye. It shatters like glass. He smirks when Tzekel-Kan screams in agony too.
Miguel takes wing. Of course the colossus charges after him.
Away they fly from the city, from bodies too small to flee and buildings that might collapse at every earth-shaking step. He flutters just out of reach, tantalizing those paws that can squash him like Yam could smash whole fleets beneath his might.
There are only so many places a jade jaguar that size can force its way into. When a stairway collapses beneath its weight it gouges its way up the cliff instead. It tramples its way through choking jungle. Miguel flutters easily through the obstacle course. His body means tauntingly solid, even if his wings pass through trees like mirages.
He winces when the path opens up before them. Oops. Maybe he should have flown higher to better choose his course.
With nowhere left to fly he skims through the narrow canyon into the volcano's caldera. The jade jaguar rears up to smash himself an entrance.
Too late the idol realizes its mistake. Veins of red hot magma break open with every ponderous move, with simply every second the stone sits on such a delicate surface. Miguel flutters to the edge to watch the carnage. With a final desperate swipe in his direction the colossus leaps for solid ground.
But is a caldera, and a cat made of stone. The sheer force of its landing sends it through brittle rock. The jade jaguar struggles valiantly, but the magma sticks like tar to its limbs, and only makes it sink faster. When it slips beneath the surface Miguel squints in suspiciously. Maybe Lady Raima has snatched all that jade as her tribute after all? It's Tzekel-Kan's own damned fault for driving his god's idol into her sacred ground.
"Oh, come on!" Miguel shouts when the idol erupts from the molten pool. "That's totally hers now!"
Really, though, since when has Tzekel-Kan ever truly cared about the gods beyond what his own could offer him? So the avatar snaps hatefully at his wings and blunders the rest of the way after him.
Their chase ends where it truly began. Miguel alights at the edge of the same altar where he and Tulio had saved their first intended sacrifice. Below the waters to Xibalba churn ferociously.
Down swaggers the jade jaguar. From the shadows Tzekel-Kan laughs triumphantly. "Is it not poetic, Lord Miguel, that our journey ends here? You're one last life to end. One last soul to die screaming on this altar. For this age, at least. I think I'll mark every day of the next one with the rest of your repulsive little siblings. Hunting them down will be half the fun."
Miguel frowns as an expectant silence drags on. "Am... Am I supposed to be afraid of that? Of you?"
Tzekel-Kan snarls, the idol baring its teeth with him. "Don't play brave with me, false god! You are not the first sacrifice that thought to try spiting me with their last breaths. You're far from the last!" The behemoth bares its jaws in a smile. "I wonder what your blood shall taste like. My true god claimed your... partner far too quickly to find out for myself."
Miguel wags a finger. "We've been over that, Tzekel. No more sacrifices. Not now, not ever."
Glowing eyes flash in the jungle before the idol. It stalks forward with him. "The Obsidian Lord claimed your heart as sacrifice! In Xibalba he lies screaming, devoured piece by piece!"
Miguel ponders this. Then he cocks his head as something occurs to him. "Do you know what our family is really bad at, Tzekel? Staying dead."
How many fallen gods of their family came back as demons, rather than be forgotten entirely? Hadad was once a god, but in this day and age the Lord of Flies is almost equally regarded in dread. How many demons have been struck down by angels, only to crawl their way back out of hell because the evil in men refused to let them rest? How many fallen Watchers sealed up in Dudael still have enough influence in dark magic for their names to show up in the grimoires?
"I know what you are, and I know what you are not," the high priest hisses, stalking closer with every word. "And you are not gods!"
The jade jaguar pounces in mindless fury. Miguel leaps. He hovers far above the carnage as the thin altar snaps and takes Tzekel-Kan's idol with it into the maelstrom below.
His gaze snaps to Tzekel-Kan.
The high priest turns to run. Miguel upon him with the speed of thought. With a snarl Tzekel-Kan thrusts up his arms in a twist of malevolent magic. He idly slaps down the green serpent sent flying his way. He's brother to dragons, for fuck's sake. What's one little snake against the most feared serpents of their age?
Miguel snatches the priest's upper arm in an iron grip. Tzekel-Kan's struggles fall away with the ground beneath them. Up in the air he gapes in dumbstruck fear.
"Tulio and I don't do sacrifices, Tzekel." In his free hand sparks a burning blade. The man flinches away, sweat pouring from the heat and his own mortal terror. "We did, however, smite many a sinner on a higher behalf."
Above the night sky buns bright as day. Thunder follows, worse than there has ever been or will ever be again.
Tzekel-Kan gapes in unfathomable terror. Miguel throws back his head and laughs. The burning blade winks out.
"Sorry, Dad! We don't really get a say in this one!" Miguel looks down to the churning waters beneath him. An idea, dark and wonderful, takes root. "How many souls did you send down to Xibalba, Tzekel-Kan? Maybe you'll like their judgement just fine down there."
Miguel lets go. Tzekel-Kan screams all the way down. Until the waters swallow him completely.
Perhaps the gods of Manoa will have mercy on him. Miguel rather doubts it. They certainly wouldn't have let him and Tulio cast down human sacrifice so immutably otherwise.
But Tzekel-Kan is no longer his concern anymore. He's passed from this story into another entirely.
Miguel descends, wings folding shut like a cloak around him. He patiently settles by the edge of the broken altar to enjoy the blessed silence.
His vigil is not a long one.
Tulio grunts as when a stone paw swats him against another tree. Apparently even cats on this God forsaken continent play with their food.
This primordial jungle is dark and dense, their roots thick and gnarled. Just as Balam Qoxtok springs again ducks between them. Above the ancient tree shakes with the force of impact. The obsidian jaguar's infuriated yowl is one of the most terrifying sounds Tulio has ever heard in his long life. Below, of course, the fury of his parents. And most especially beneath Miguel's agonized cry upon their fall.
Up! scream Tulio's instincts. Not that they've been good for much since the fall. Now he's as flightless as a rat. So rather than flap for it he darts for the next dark corner like one. Fortunately the Jaguar God is too busy coughing up dirt to pay him much mind.
Hopefully Tulio considers an eternity of cat and mouse. Only no. Even a moron like Balam Qoxtok will get him eventually.
Rage bubbles up inside him. Tulio throws out his hand, calling out his fire. He's been trying since the first time the Jaguar God swatted him into a tree.
...And not so much as a spark. God dammit!
Please, Dad? A little help here! Just this once!
Tulio glares down at near-mortal hands, strains naked shoulder blades under aching scars. Dad won't let people pray for angels but He'll sure as hell let his fallen angels get devoured by pagan gods.
Oh, who's he kidding? This is Xibalba. Not any story Tulio knows. God has no power here. Tulio can't even see the sky through that thick canopy!
Tulio frowns at the ancient trees, almost as tall and wide as the Cedar Forest. Their trunks are scoured in claw marks, but only on the lower levels. Jaguars can't climb like leopards can. Obsidian jaguars sure as hell can't.
Before he loses his nerve Tulio bolts from his hiding place. He trips over broken weapons and yellowed bones that litter the ground from a thousand battles. Up he climbs, sinking his nails into gnarled bark. Balam Qoxtok shrieks at the sight of him. Naturally Tulio scoots up even faster.
But never fast enough. A monstrous claw catches him in the back. It shreds through his shirt and vest to the scars below. He screams when Balam Qoxtok flings him like a piece of trash. From the ensuing shriek Tulio dazedly realizes the stupid creep accidentally flung him too far. Then he slams into a tree. It's a good thing he's already dead. Otherwise the collision might have shattered his chest on impact.
Somehow breathless despite no longer needing breath at all, Tulio wheezes brokenly on the ground as his body tries to weave itself together. He pulls himself up not out fear of survival, but just to get away from the bones of the last soul to have died here. From his shredded back blood drips to the earth below. No small amount splatters on the skeleton.
Tulio shrieks when the bones jerk on their own power. Only a strangled squeak escapes. His second attempt doesn't it make past it the bony hand that snaps up to stifle it. Well, mostly the palm. Most of the fingers hang brokenly.
For a moment they freeze, Tulio and the skeleton both. At the Jaguar God's shriek through the trees they both freak the fuck out.
Tulio tries to blindly bolt again. It's the friggin' skeleton that has the presence of mind to tuck and roll with him. They're both well under the roots of a sturdy tree by the time Balam Qoxtok tracks them down. With a furious caterwaul the creep promptly starts mauling the tree Tulio crashed into. And then starts rampaging the other way.
Out of immediate danger Tulio considers his unlikely rescuer. Empty eye sockets stare back. The skull is punctured from being gnawed on, the rib cage clearly gouged by giant claws like the wound now weaving itself shut on Tulio's own back. With a sickening jolt he recognizes this poor bastard as another of the Jaguar God's victims. How is it (he) even still sentient like that? His soul has nothing left to it!
Too late does Tulio remember manners. "Um, thank you," he whispers sheepishly. "I really appreciate it."
The skeleton waves a casual hand. They both slink deeper into the roots when the Jaguar God bellows again.
Moments drag like hours. "Now what?"
His rescuer wrenches an obsidian knife from one of his ribs. Solemnly he presses it into Tulio's hands. He shudders when he recognizes the weapon as Tzekel-Kan's.
Tulio looks from the knife to the skeleton. Then to the huge-ass obsidian jaguar that starts to stalk back their way. And back to the skeleton. Then he frowns down at one puny little dagger. "...Really?"
The skeleton shrugs.
Then the dead air of the jungle stirs. Leaves whisper and branches groan. Balam Qoxtok freezes, nostrils flaring at a new scent.
The breeze ramps up into a shrieking wind. Altivo charges the colossus head-on, still the size of an ordinary horse. With an ordinary rider mounted on his back.
The Jaguar God lashes out with a monstrous paw. Altivo soars over it like he weighs nothing at all. Chel heaves her wooden spear. One emerald eye shatters like glass. Balam Qoxtok smashes through ancient tree trunks in his zeal to reach them. Altivo deftly weaves his way through them as he comes around for a second charge. Chel bends down to snatch another spear from the ground, made all the easier when its former wielder raises it up to her.
Tulio charges forward. His puny knife sinks into the god's back paw like a thorn and stays stuck. Tulio yelps as he tries to wrench it flee. And is instead swung with the obsidian cat in his haste to turn around and stomp the pest out of existence. Tulio clings for dear life. Er, afterlife.
Chel uses the distraction to impale her spear into his belly, deep as it will go before Altivo breaks away from furious claws.
A wonderful, terrible idea blooms. Taking out his own knife for extra purchase Tulio starts climbing the Jaguar God like one angry, bucking tree. Oddly not the weirdest thing he's ever done. He hangs on like a burr through Balam Qoxtok's furious swiping. And violent attempts to squat Chel and Altivo like the bugs they are to him.
Tulio gauges his way to the upper back. Chel sticks his belly full of spears like quills. Even as she runs out of weapons in the area more tortured souls limp forward with their weapons as tribute. Giddy hope rises up inside like soap bubbles.
Then the Jaguar God, half-blind, lands his lucky blow. Altivo screams, the impact disintegrating his physical form into a puff of wind. Chel skids to the ground. That first skeleton lurches desperately for her side. They'll both shatter like twigs under the stone paw up and falling-
One moment Tulio stands at the precipice. The next he's over it.
Balam Qoxtok screams, high and shrill, reeling back on three paws. The fourth crumbles into ash above their heads. Tulio ruffles his feathers to rid them of the filth.
Then he blinks in utter bewilderment, fiery scythe guttering out in his hands. He peaks over wings, his wings, to the souls safely shielded behind them. Well, one soul. Because Chel has turned herself into a living shield for the skeleton she wrestled stubbornly beneath her. She blinks up at him. He blinks back.
His lips quirk. "Uh, hey."
She squints at his wings. "Those are new."
They should be a soft, pale gray. These are a deep midnight blue, twice the span of his old wings. They ruffle proudly. "Yeah. They kinda are." The Jaguar God's agonized yowls morph into a scream of rage. They both turn as he hobbles into a charge. Tulio steps protectively forward. "Chel, you and him get ba-"
"Give me one." He blinks at the hand shoved through his feathers. "Now."
Tulio splutters dumbly. But only for a moment. Because by gods the last time he saw a face so fierce was on Mom.
Pure holy fire sears even the hands of a righteous soul. But Tulio isn't an angel down here. Gods play by different rules so he gives Chel her burning spear. When he pulls away it burns only brighter in her grip, bright enough to drive back the night.
Tulio leaps, wings propelling him forward. He manifests his scythe to slice off an ear on his way past. The jaguar chokes on his scream when Chel shoves a burning spear down his throat. His insides warm, obsidian melting into molten glass to trap it there.
Balam Qoxtok turns tail and flees. They pursue him every step of the way, ruthless wings and flashing fire. They off his tail and toes. By the time they reach the jungle's edge he's dragging himself only out of the sheer animal drive to survive, no matter how many limbs they must gnaw through.
Beyond the primordial jungle is a beach to the waters, black and vast as the void. Chel snaps to a halt and drags Tulio with her. They fall in a tumble of wings.
"Father!" Balam Qoxtok mewls plaintively.
"Oh," croaks Tulio. "Oh, no."
Because that is the heart-wrenching tone that will spur even the most neglectful of dads into frothing vengeance.
The mutilated Jaguar God gratefully slinks beneath still waters. Once he vanishes the stillness heaves. Tulio sinks to the ground at the ominous shape that rises out of the fathoms. It is in the shape of the vibrant kingfish from Lake Parime, only vaster than any leviathan, with scales black as night.
"Lord Xarayes," Chel breathes in utter terror.
They both tremble like leaves, but stand so they least have each other to lean on. Brushing his feathers against hers helps calm the beating his heart. If only barely.
Hysterically he wonders when Chel sprouted wings too. But the angry giant fish god ready to snap them up whole is the higher priority.
"Tell me," rumbles the Lord of Xibalba, "why I should immediately not devour all you are and ever should be?"
"He started it." Even as Chel's eyes bulge out at him he crosses his arms and doubles down. "Gods eating gods is messed up down over here, right?"
He hopes Lord Xarayes is the lawful type of deity. Even Dad keeps to His laws... even if He seems to be only one to know them properly.
"He took my brother," Chel murmurs at last, quiet and implacable. "And my father. And my aunts. Alongside way too many innocents to count. You stood aside when the Crocodile God grew too greedy for this world. Now I level that same charge against your son."
The Lord of the Wide Waters snaps his tail. Tulio shudders at the droplets that land upon him. They chill him to the depths of his being, sapping light and fire until his warmth evaporates them. "He is my child," the god rumbles.
"Yes," Tulio agrees. "That means it's your responsibility to teach him how to behave. And there are consequences for his actions. Like eating people."
Massive black eyes appraise them. They do not turn away even a small shape, writhing and splattering, bobs out of the water.
Tulio and Chel stare at the drowning soul. For a moment Tzekel-Kan gawks back. Then the current sweeps him back under.
"Hey, wasn't that-"
"He is gone," Lord Xarayes intones desolately. "Gone to the waters. Gone from this world. Gone like the House of the Jaguar."
"Oh, come on!" Tulio huffs. "It's not we burned the whole damned jungle to... the... ground..." As one they turn to stare at the raging inferno that has engulfed the whole beach and every tree past it. Tongues of holy fire, hot and bright, strain toward the starless sky. "...Never mind."
"Xaya!" Chel screams.
Tulio's heart plummets, as he realizes who delivered him from the Jaguar God's claws. The same soul they have just condemned to fire after years of being mauled and devoured.
A shape resolves out of the flames, whole and unburnt. He and Chel try to tackle each other. They fall onto the beach together; a beautiful, sobbing mess of soot and feathers.
"Y-You're all right!"
"Yeah!" Her brother beams. "I am!"
"Y-You were all bones! And you still tried to protect me, you stupid idiot!"
"Ow!" Xaya's first experience with getting his self back is being embraced by his baby sister. The second is a hard slap to his naked shoulder. "I mean, it's not like your fire burns. It just tickles like a warm summer day." He blinks down at his body, skin and orange hip cloth and all. "And actually cares about our modesty? That's nice."
"It has enveloped the domain of my child," Lord Xarayes rumbles gravely.
Xaya's eyes dart from him to his sister and Tulio. With vastly more confidence in their odds than Tulio certainly feels, he answers, "No offense, Lord Xarayes, but that ain't a huge loss for anyone except for the nutjob that killed me."
They are spared a harsh reprisal when the Fish God sharply turns away from them. He swims deeper out into the waters, falling back behind the giant turtle that sedately emerges out of the dark. Tulio's hammering heart eases at the mere sight of her as he helps Chel and her brother to their feet. Upon Lady Eupana's shell shines a paradise. A few of the souls there, just little stick figures on the horizon, jump up and down in excitement. Tulio waves back in bemusement.
"Dear," sighs Grandmother Turtle. "We've talked about not scaring family."
"These things are not apart of me," Lord Xarayes rumbles.
"Lady Chel and her brother were born by me, Xarayes. They're Paquini's, remember? Even you love her wine, when it's time for-"
The Fish God's baleful eye falls on Tulio instead. "He and his... partner... are not. I never wanted them here in the first place. You should have left them to my dark. In my caverns they would have never again seen the light of day."
Lady Eupana frowns sternly at him. "They're your grandchildren, Xarayes."
Tulio and the eldritch god find common cause in something.
"Raima adopted Lord Tulio and Lord Miguel both." Grandmother Turtle smiles benevolently down at his gaping face. "Paquini was not happy to be beaten to the bunch."
"W-We're not..." Tulio trails off as he glances to Chel and her radiant wings. And then to a burning forest that shines like a beacon in the desolate dark. How many bewildered souls are sitting around, clueless and restored, inside it? "I-I mean... our Dad isn't exactly the sharing type."
"Love is not a commodity," Lady Eupana answers serenely. "You should know that better than most, young man."
Tulio chokes. His hand finds Chel's. The other clenches, for Miguel awaits them in the world above.
Chel and Xaya exchange a thoughtful glance. Then their faces split into identical smirks. "Oh, Grandfather Xarayes. Surely our side of the family deserves a proper reunion. It's been far too long."
"No," grumbles the Lord of the Wide Waters. "She offered herself to me. Your mother is mine, forever and always."
Xaya grins and pulls apart from his sister, striding relentlessly toward the shore. "Better take me to her then, eh grandpa? Because I'm going to be visiting every day, from now until the end of-"
Lord Xarayes blurts out a goodbye to his wife. Down he frantically dives into the deep. Grandmother Turtle heaves a forlorn sigh after him, drifting off herself. The Fish God's wake spews up a small shape from the depths. She rides the wave all the way to shore, where her children promptly swarm her.
Tulio steps back to give them privacy. Chel drags him into the huddle too. His introduction to Pana is made with her sobbing into her daughter's wings.
Reluctantly he pulls away. His eyes stray skyward. For all one half of him rests by Chel in utter contentment the other tugs him back to Miguel.
"Oh, get out of here already!"
Tulio's gaze turns back to Chel and a family still only half-complete. His wings flutter anxiously. "Aren't you coming too?"
"Eventually." Chel's wings squeeze Xaya and Pana closer for emphasis. "I've got unfinished business down here first."
"Family first." Xaya grins shamelessly. "Then fu- Ow!"
Pana tugs his early firmly. "I still expect better from you, young man, no matter how many years we have down here!" She frowns at the Jaguar God's burning jungle. "Is the House of the Jaguar supposed to be so... fiery?"
"Well, Mom, it's kinda Chel's House now."
Tulio stares at them as they descend into fond, familial bickering. They clutch each other to confirm their loved ones are whole and right here. Pana and Xaya especially marvel at Chel's wings. They are those that belong to a goddess, the warm reds and golds of the fire. Balam Qoxtok's stolen domain burns bright with the force of her nascent power. Their seeds had been planted days ago, when a thief had been brazen enough to claim herself acting on behalf of divinity.
Here is a family soon to be made whole. Here is the embodiment of all that Manoa soon stands.
Hesitation give way to firm, unwavering resolve. He spreads his wings with earthshaking purpose. And flies on faith for the first and final time.
It's better this way. No room for messy goodbyes, just the smooth transition from one old god to the next goddess.
He is no angel miraculously restored to grace. Within there is no Voice of God, no hymns of the heavenly host. Heaven's gates will not open for him. Still he knows the way home. The stream of prayers reverberate through every fiber of his being. There are many now, though he knows those of Melo and his family best of all. Their faith burns like a beacon fire.
Above their voices is Miguel's, patient and at peace. He does not merely believe his partners will come home. He knows they always will like he knows the sea is vast and the sky is blue.
From darkness Tulio bursts forth and adds his voice to his. They meet in an embrace of feathers and tears. Miguel weeps in pure, unbridled joy. Tulio's taste bittersweet.
Without Chel it is not quite harmony, it's close enough. How they can they bind her voice to theirs, when their Father shall silence them forever if they stay?
...And that's the last of my buffer!
Why, yes, Tulio. Everyone will allow you to slip back to Spain (and leaving Manoa undiscovered) with no consequences whatsoever ; )
From the churning maelstrom of Xibalba Tulio bursts forth. Water explodes off his wings in glittering arcs that sparkle in the coming light. Miguel laughs, giddy as a child, and dives down from the ruined altar after him. They meet at the rim of the abyss, locking arms and wings. Together they fall back toward the waters in a heated tangle of limbs, pulling apart to snap their wings open mere inches from the surface.
Miguel is ready to rocket skywards when he realizes what should be boundless joy on Tulio tempered by grief. He seizes his partner's hand as cold terror strikes through him.
"Chel?" he croaks, peering down into the spirit world.
He's swooping down for a rescue when Tulio tugs him up. "She's fine, Miguel," he assures with a wan smile. "Finer than fine. She just had some... family matters to attend to."
Miguel frowns down at the waters before an incredulous grin quirks at his mouth. Here only a goddess can escape death so casually. His smile fades at Tulio's continued sorrow. "Then why are you still so... Oh. Oh, no."
His blood chills to ice when he remembers the night before. Dad had near split the sky in His fury. And Miguel had tossed Tzekel-Kan, Tulio's near murderer, to the judgement of outside powers. In their family is there no god but God. Not anymore. He has ensured that time and time again.
Tulio squeezes his hand. The other comes up to tenderly run through the pinions of his left wing. Miguel's whole being shivers with rightness and cold terror at having to give it up, now that his partner has regained it too. "The gods here aren't pushovers, Miguel. Chel certainly ain't. Without us here to fuck things up they stand a fighting chance. More than that."
He recalls the secret entrance into Manoa past the waterfall, a cave long and dark and narrow. Miguel remembers all the winding passages off of it. An outside might never breach that barrier, might starve or attack his own people if that oppressive darkness kept them lost down there long enough. He knows the high, steep mountains that surround Lake Parime. It's more protection than the pantheons conquered before could ever offer their people.
No more sacrifice. Not now, not ever. How can they risk Chel and all Manoa for a few more fleeting days of happiness?
Up they fly, back to the world above. Around the precipice their- the people gather anxiously. They do not back away in fear or gawk at their wings. Instead grateful hands sweep both Miguel and Tulio onward. They are carried on a tide of bliss and reverence until deposited before their ruler.
Chief Tanni's hopeful face flicks from their wings to their forced smiles. So he offers them one of his own, resigned but cheerful as he can make it. "Still have big plans in the other world, my lords?"
"The biggest, Chief Tanni." With nothing left to lose Miguel envelops the man in a crushing hug, wings and all. "Duty calls, you know?"
"Of course, Lord Miguel." He inclines his heads to the both of them. "We shall ready your vessel at once."
"Just for the two of us," Tulio adds, his voice carrying far and wide. "Lady Chel has chosen to stay. She drove a burning spear down the Jaguar God's throat for you."
Miguel wishes he could have been there to see it, could at least see how Manoa's faith has finally let her come fully into her own. Maybe they'll still get a chance before they leave. With the crowd's incredulous murmurs at last focused on the proper subject they take wing and leave Chel's legend to grow.
Tulio immediately angles for the temple. Miguel cuts him off. He guides him past it, to the slopes of Lady Raima's volcano. They descend to the slopes of a quiet stream. Tulio gawks at the feather taken as tribute. The seedling is only a few inches taller today, but still the same vivid green as Miguel's plumage.
"What is it?"
"Not a clue." Miguel smiles sadly down at it. "I like leaving it a mystery. We know almost everything about Dad's creation, Tulio. But this is one thing we'll never know, not really. It's... kind of nice, actually."
Tulio kneels. Manoa's faith has shaped him wings large as Miguel's, a rich midnight blue. He plucks one to carefully plant beside Miguel's own.
Miguel gapes. Tulio shrugs awkwardly back. "Least I can do, right? For... her not exploding on us like that."
They take the long, scenic way back to the temple. From the volcano waft up warm air currents that lift them higher, closer and closer to heavens not their own. The light of the rising sun bathes them from below. Below Manoa unfurls like a masterpiece, golden temples and crystal blue canals. They soar to the outer edges. Miguel can spot no more sicknesses having slunk their way back in. His eyes do narrow at the golden glimmer in everyone's ears. Two nights ago they had worn green stone like Chel's old pair. Tulio's satisfied smirk solves that miracle.
Reluctantly they land in the temple. It is not home. Those empty thrones await Chel, and Chel alone. The benevolent faces atop that serpent belong to the Dual Gods, yet to arrive, and are not their own.
Once more Miguel binds his borrowed wings and buries them deep. Tulio struggles more. He offers his partner a sympathetic smile. The first time is always the hardest. Their eternal scars reassert themselves. Their God-given names continue to insist the Manoan versions are first and foremost. These are easily hidden beneath their Spanish clothes, repaired from the tatters of their fight against Tzekel-Kan and his hungry god.
Never before has Miguel realized how much these stupid clothes itch. The long pants and woolen shirt are shit for a hot and humid jungle. But that will a problem solved easily enough. By wearing the clothes of Spain they reassert the ties to their homeland. In disowning Manoa they give Dad no cause to punish the city for their own damned hubris. If Dad's gonna strike them down, let Him do out to sea, when they're the only victims.
Tulio stoops for a rucksack. In leaving behind Manoa they lose the power to manifest their own damn supplies. He pulls out the yellowed map to Manoa. He unfurls it, brows furrowing deeper and deeper. Then he brings up well-worn paper and sniffs it. He drops the map as if burned, springing back so violently Miguel is surprised his wings don't unfurl.
"H-H-Hey, Miguel... how exactly did our boat reach the start of the trail again?"
Miguel's heart drops at a storm calmed before it could truly start, a whiff of cedar and incense. The shadow in the sea, larger than any leviathan.
The map the day after, not bundled up tightly in his shirt like it should have been. Because whoever had checked it the night before had not secured it so.
Miguel picks up the map himself. For centuries he and Tulio have been numbed to traces of other powers, since the sheer trauma of being wrenched away from Dad's presence and the cosmic unity of the heavenly host. Manoa has opened their senses once more.
The paper smells of salt, no matter how far removed from the sea. When Miguel's hand brushes over the map, he can just feel the lingering wetness of fingerprints. He smiles tearfully as he rolls up the map and carefully stows it away.
"We've got a big family, Tulio. Not all of them hate us."
"S... This one is most definitely dead."
Miguel guffaws. Sure, Hadad had killed Yam to gain Dad's favor centuries ago, but it's not like the sea can stay dead. From that same Abyss Dad later called up the waters of the deluge, and banished the waters there for the parting of the Red Sea. Of course he still exists. His name is still a word for the ocean itself!
"Tulio, the day he truly stops existing is the day sailors stop fearing the sea. And that's only gonna happen when the oceans all boil away."
"Yam, Tulio." Miguel rolls his eyes in fond exasperation. "He was only the firstborn son."
"R-Right. Yam." Color returns to Tulio's drained face as he giggles in self-deprecation. "the big brother all about the water. That makes sense, doesn't it? Way, way more sense."
Miguel cocks his head in confusion, but Tulio only whips the bag over his shoulder and hurries for the exit.
At the threshold he pauses. With a deep groan he whirls back for the empty thrones. From his pocket he withdraws his weighted dice, to lay them on a seat, as he cedes any claim upon it to Chel and Chel alone. "Sorry, Chel," he murmurs, too soft for Miguel to supposed to be able to hear. "I can't rip you away from your family anymore then we can be away from ours."
Silently Miguel pulls out the rumpled feathered crown, so thoughtfully chosen by Chel from that first night, up from his own bag. It had been one last keepsake for the voyage one, one last tribute to offer outside Dad's closest altar back in Spain, one last ceremonial surrender of any power they pretended to. This he too offers to Chel, to let her know this world is hers and hers alone.
Unless the Dual Gods ever truly come back to stake their claim upon it, at least.
They do not fly down the temple steps. They walk with the slow, certain steps of martyrs who know deliverance awaits in the life after. If only for Manoa.
Chief Tanni awaits them at the base. This time he is the one to envelop Miguel in a crushing hug. He laughs and returns one just as strong. For now his skinny arms belie their truth strength, one that will flood away as Manoa shrinks on the horizon. Tulio, without such a close connection, offers only a civil hand. And squeaks when he too is left into a squeezing embrace.
Past the chief is a crowd of people come to see them off. Miguel fondly pats the heads of children and gives out last minute high-fives. He bends down before a little girl with Cera's face to promise her that her twin is safe and sound in Lady Eupana's paradise. He forces smiles at oblivious prayers that he and Lord Tulio to come back real soon. These people will forget them soon enough, with Chel and Altivo here to fill the void.
When the conquests of Cortes isolate them from the outside world and all its evils, unto the end of time. They wouldn't be the first city to manage it. Atlantis still shines beneath the sea, forever and always. There are lands beyond the western sea, paradises on earth, no soul who believes in them can ever lay eyes upon.
Waiting beyond the Manoans is Altivo, his bridle cast off, tall and proud. He is his own master once more, to run only where he wills. The horse god angrily butts his nose against their chests.
"Old boy," Miguel sighs fondly. "You know better than anyone why we can't stay."
Altivo rolls his eyes. He still lets Miguel hug his neck anyway. Then he graces Tulio with one last slavering lick to the face. Tulio shudders, but takes it with good grace.
Tulio is the first one up the ladder. Miguel lingers at the base, unable to wrench his feet from Manoa's earth. His partner sighs in understanding and extends a sympathetic hand. He reaches up to take it. And pauses. In the faint chorus at the back of his mind, muted but not yet silenced, something light and foul skitters across like spider legs.
Below Altivo whinnies in alarm, his winds suddenly turning with omen. Miguel's heart plummets at the smell of smoke. Together his and Tulio's eyes fall on the dark plumes staining the horizon.
"No," he breathes, soft and small as a child.
"Cortes," Tulio mutters darkly, when he truly means Conqueror.
Blissfully unaware of the nightmare to come, Chief Tanni turns hopefully toward Miguel. "My lord, what is it?"
Miguel's mouth stammers mutely. The chief's attention turns away from him, to the two terrified messengers that rush to 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 Miguel knows like the ache in his scars the force that drives them forward is ineffable. "They'll never find the gate to the city."
"But, sire, they are being led by Tzekel-Kan!"
The ladder crunches beneath Miguel's clenched hands. He tumbles away from the ship, back down to Manoa, while Tulio yelps in alarm. He had delivered that zealot into the judgement of his own damned gods. Why have they spared him to be their people's doom?
"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 wrenches himself from the rubble to clutch Tanni's side in hopeless desperation. "Chief, you cannot fight them."
Not anymore than the dozens and dozens civilizations that came before them could. Large or rich or fierce, those peoples had fallen all the same.
Tannabok turns to him in helpless desperation. He sees only a god that has turned aside human sacrifice and vengeful high priests. Not the truth that Miguel is a fallen angel, disowned and disgraced."Then how do we stop them?"
"We can't." Miguel looks grimly up to his stupefied partner. "Us, however..."
"Y-You can't be serious. We-We, We're not-"
"Our family, our problem."
Tulio swallows, mouth working mutely. He scowls at the cavern entrance. "Like even they could stop Cortes at this point. You know that gold and glory are first and second, and who's a distant third."
Miguel pulls away from Chief Tanni to wrench open his wings. "That part I leave to you."
"I know part of Dad's name, remember? The long one. The one that gets the most results. I was higher ranked than you. They'll listen to be better than you."
"By which you mean they'll take a second more to smite you!"
Miguel grins. "One second's all I need. I'm just the sexy distraction, remember? We've always left the real plans up to you."
Tulio's stammer dies as he looks solemnly down at the people. Chel's people. Their people. For once they have a higher priority than each other. One worth dying for. "...Okay. But so help me, Miguel, I'm right behind you. Don't fuck up before I get there."
"Wouldn't dream of it," he says lightly. Light enough that Tulio doesn't pick up his true intentions.
Miguel is the older of them, the one who should have known better. It's his fault they snatched up the map to Manoa. It's his fault they are as they are. It's his punishment and his punishment alone.
Miguel does not soar upward. Their fight is not against Lord Kinich and his sympathetic skies.
Off he flies east, where Cortes and his conquistadors march beneath the grace of the heavenly host.
Yam is a Levantine deity of the sea. He is associated with the sea and abyss, a Great Deep later likened to later biblical events and the primordial waters. In the Canaanite myths he was the champion of El before cast down by Hadad (Baal). He was especially important to the Phoenicians, a maritime civilization, due to being god of not only the untamed sea, but storms and the disasters they wreck. His name remains a word for 'sea' in several modern languages. Things about that miraculous boat ride to the shores of Manoa's trail make a little more sense now, don't they ; )
Mihael is an angel of the Shem HaMephorash - a hidden name of God. The Lesser Key of Solomon (17th century book compiled from a lot older resources) ascribes 72 letters and 72 biblical verses to the name - used for magical purposes, but also allegedly by holy men for casting out demons and healing people. Mysticism had a long, tangled (and often icky) history, so let's leave it at that.
Chapter 16: family matters
In which the term 'dea ex machina' legitimately applies.
"You with me on this one, horse?"
Altivo snorts and rolls his eyes, but the winds die down until Lake Parime is smooth as glass. Tulio has no trouble maneuvering the boat into position. Mostly because the stupid armadillo takes a break from guzzling his weight in wine to hop up and steady the other oar.
"You don't have to do it, you know," the armadillo says conversationally. "I just gained you as a grandson after all the trouble of getting you into this city. No sense in dying so soon."
Tulio doesn't have it left in him to be surprised anymore. Not after being near eaten by a cat god and regrowing wings. Who cares if he punted around the Trickster God himself during a ballgame instead of just a messenger? "No, Lord Bibi. I really, really do. Do... do you need a ride off or something?"
"Nah." Lord Bibi waves a casual paw. "I owe the ex a visit anyway."
"Isn't... isn't your ex-wife Lady Eupana?"
"Yeah." He sighs. "Still beautiful as the day human ingenuity found these shores."
"...The same Lady Eupana remarried to the God of Xibalba?"
Lord Bibi shrugs. "No hard feelings on my part. I ain't one for staying settled long. Xarayes makes her happy, and treats her like she deserves to be treated. That's what matters, right?"
"Yeah," Tulio acknowledges sourly. If only amicable divorce had been more a thing back then. People are still trying to pick it up. He raises his voice up to Tannabok, gathered with so many others around. "Okay, chief, on my signal!"
Further and further he sails to the edge of Lake Parime, the edge of no return. As they pass the battering rams bring ancient pillars slowly tumbling down. Tulio wrenches open the sail. Altivo's physical form dissolves into a thousand screaming gales. The ship flies forward, buoyed by the gales and the people's faith in their salvation. Then down comes the wave of water and the crushing dark beyond.
With his newfound strength and a god's help it is easy to swing the ship broadside. Down it slams into the caverns pillars. He knows, from the sickening crunch beneath, the way is closed. Stone and waves shall swallow the gate forever.
Melo and his family are safe. Manoa itself is safe. In their hearts Chel shall live forever.
"Good luck, grandson!" Lord Bibi calls, as he tumbles casually away from him and into the churning fury.
Unfurling his wings, Tulio rises through stone and storm. Below Lord Xarayes grumbles at the mess made of his cavern before Tulio flies from Manoa entirely. He knows he crosses the formal boundary when he falters in his flight, the breath going from his lungs. But his wings don't fall away. So he grits his teeth and flaps faster. Instinctively he flies into the smoke burned by Cortes' progress as they raze their way through virgin land...
...And alights upon a beach. The beach where it all began. He supposes it's as equal ground as there can be. Now he recognizes that eagle-shaped rock as Lord Kinich, for in the east the Sun God rises. Offshore bob the anchored ships of Spain, proudly emblazoned with a Catholic cross.
Tulio's hammering heart eases somewhat. This isn't that beach, not truly, merely a... useful depiction of middle ground. Between one world and the next. Here between death and dream the urgency of the material world falls away.
He squeaks at the flaming spear shoved into his face. That peril happens to be very, very real.
"Please, brother," sighs a soft voice. "We have just spoken not smiting siblings without just cause."
Michael raises his spear without dismissing it. His expression does not gentle. "His very appearance makes mock of the Lord."
Tulio rustles his borrowed, pagan feathers subconsciously. Here he cannot bury them away so he settles for furling them tightly at his sides. Miguel, the idiot, has manifested with the Manoan garbs Chel bestowed upon them. Crown and all. Tulio inches closer to his partner when he did the same damn thing. Stupid unconscious desires. That's what ratted them out in the first place.
"Um, hi," he chokes out. "Long time, no see."
Their three judges are all archangels. Of course they are. Michael stands in the center, mind obviously made up. To his left is the healer Raphael. They actually stand a chance of swaying him. Mostly because he's all about healing wrongs and Miguel used to be one of his Virtues. To Michael's right stands Gabriel, beautiful face impassive. So much for sympathy from his old archangel.
"Tuwahel," Gabriel murmurs. "One of my ministers."
Tulio nods. "That's me." His Manoan name flashes again, black and bold across his forearm. "Er... formerly, that is. But you already know that."
"You fell where the Lord could not see." Raphael smiles benevolently and Tulio almost breaks down crying at his next words. "I was sent to heal you of your aches."
"I was sent to reveal the Lord, in all His grace, and deliver you and Mihael home." Gabriel's eyes bear into their souls. "Even for those fallen, you have strayed far."
"And so I was sent to deliver justice upon the people of the golden city, for all their greed and hubris." Michael flares ominously bright. "They have dared mold you into what you are not."
Miguel's wings bristle furiously. "For the last time, Michael, we did this to ourselves! Leave the humans out of it."
"Yep," Tulio volunteers gamely. "Our greed that brought us here. Our arrogance that got us lifted into godhood." He can't help but smirk when Raphael flinches to hear Dad's name reduced so informally. Even though Michael blazes in righteous fury. "Rip off these wings and throw us into Dudael. Cast us into hell. Smite us where we stand. It's all us. And only us."
"Manoa shall be cast down," Gabriel declares stoically. "No ruling of the Lord, be it of mercy or condemnation, shall stand if their people bid you back unto wickedness."
"We shall be merciful where we can," Raphael offers gently. "With my protection illness shall not claim as many as is favored. I can hold pestilence back enough for the majority to be baptized. In our kingdom their righteous lives are eternal."
"No," Miguel chokes out, flaring with his own fury. "Not now, not ever."
"Over my dead body!" Tulio adds. He smirks darkly when the archangels twitch at his summoned scythe, burning with a holy fire all its own, one unconnected to the light of the host. "And in case you didn't notice, here I don't stay dead."
"Gods don't die in the first place," a new voice chimes in sweetly.
All turn toward Chel, proud and impertinent on Lord Kinich's stone head. Tulio's jaw drops in horror.
"H-H-How did you-"
"I'm the Lady of Souls. The same ones that pray to you two. So here I am."
"Begone, false god," Michael snaps. "You've no power here."
Chel considers her surroundings. "Here, specifically? No more than you three idiots do."
Before Tulio can blink Michael snarls and hurls his spear in a fit of pique. He screams in horror, but he and Miguel are rooted atop the same boat that brought them here. Long before the spear actually reaches Chel the righteous, wrathful fire gutters out. She crosses her arms, spreading wings of fiery feathers that match the archangels' size for size. Belatedly Tulio raises his are just are large.
Chel is right. Until Cortes formally penetrates Manoa Dad's favorites have no power there. So Miguel snaps open his wings to their full, godly span. With a smirk Tulio does to. It's worth knocking their older brothers through a loop. Raphael gapes and Michael's face contorts into a rictus of spite. Even stoic Gabriel looks faintly scandalized.
"Tuwahel is a ministering angel beneath my authority," Gabriel proclaims. "Mihael is a Virtue beneath Raphael. They are creations of the Lord beyond your grasp."
Chel tilts her head high. "I behold Miguel, Lord of Light, and Tulio, Lord of Spirits. Manoa hails them as the Dual Gods, Lords of the Fifth World, sons of the Lady of the Peak. I am come to bring them home."
Her voice is calm and authoritative, firm as the sunrise. Even when Michael hails his first flaming spear at the word Miguel and every grand title afterward.
Raphael sighs. "Please, brother. Your temper does not help our case."
"There is no case!" Michael snarls. "Mihael and Tuwahel are ours. Manoa led them into wickedness!"
Chel laughs derisively. "Lord Tulio and Lord Miguel came to us."
Gabriel solemnly turns to her. "And who delivered them unto your heathen shores?"
And now Tulio realizes why they're all on a beach. He jerks a thumb back. "Why, Gabriel, our big brother did."
The sea writhes, waves rolling back until the symbolic ships are left stranded in the sand. Higher and higher the waves climb, coalescing into a serpentine shape that dwarfs even Lord Xarayes. Michael's face twists. His near-human form pulses as he goes for one less pleasant on mortal eyes, the sort of pillar of heavenly fire that burns everyone in a three mile radius into little puddles of ash.
Yam casually vomits a deluge of seawater on him. The torrent weaves harmlessly around Raphael and Gabriel. Michael's human form is left soaked and steaming, robes utterly drenched and wings a sodden mess at his sides.
"Good to see you too... Michael." The colossal sea serpent squints over the ships, stooping down low enough everyone is bathed in breath that reeks of brine and death fish. "You are Michael, right? The damned family's so big these days it's hard to keep track. If so, good to see you again. Glad to see all the centuries as Dad's little kiss-ass still haven't done you any good."
Not even the archangels can deny their relation. Yam's name is engraved upon his very head, in all its myriad languages. He blares their relation loud and clear to whoever might deny it.
"Oh, brother," sighs Gabriel. "What have you done?"
"Got two baby brothers right where they wanted to be. I even checked the map and everything." Yam's eye blinks to Chel and the rock she stands upon. "Kind of a hard landmark to miss. I've known these shores for centuries." His lips curve in a smirk, his teeth the hulls of broken ships. "Phoenician or otherwise, they prayed to me long after they stopped screaming to the rest of you."
"Drowning them would have been the merciful fate, to what you condemned them too," Gabriel intones gravely.
"Oh, please." The sea god rolls his eyes. "I don't kill family. Never have, never will. That's why I'm still the favorite."
Michael frowns sharply. "Father cast you out millennia ago."
"Yeah, dumb-ass. Dad did."
All three archangels pale, divine radiance flickering out. Gabriel's mouth drops in horror. All three wrench their wings open to flee back where things make proper, orthodox sense. Tulio would laugh at the sight, if he and Miguel weren't clinging to each for other dear life. He'd faint if that were possible here.
For a heartbeat She Who Walks Upon the Sea looms even taller than her firstborn son, filling all the daylight sky. Then Yam lowers some of his bulk back into the ocean. She takes on another form, smaller and more approachable, though no less brilliance. Were she any other even the archangels would be but pale candles before her burning light. Yet her radiance has never been harsh. Before her they stand all the brighter, all the more loved, even the archangels who shuffle their bare feet and are supposed to pretend she never existed at all.
One by one, she calls them out to her. Even Michael goes immediately, because he has been and always will be the vigilant son. Each archangel mumbles their greetings and endure her unconditional embrace. They weather every last compliment given to their wings and their strength, sullenly promise to pass on her love to every last sibling in heaven. Every. Last. One. Only then are they allowed to awkwardly blink out of this existence and high-tail it for home.
Miguel and Tulio huddle fearfully together. And then cling to Chel's hands when she abandons the rock to flit over to them.
"That's your mom, right?"
They nod. Because there's no denying her.
"...Aren't you gonna go see her?"
They squeeze her hands tighter.
Here. Here is good. Here is just fine.
Please let her know them. Please let her not.
"Boys," she calls out in a voice gentle as the daybreak, fierce as the lioness. "Whenever you're ready. You know where to find me."
She lingers patiently. So long as she stands their they're content to bask from a safe, untouchable distance. Only when she turns to leave do they realize they can't bare a moment more without her embrace.
As one they slam into her arms; warm as the womb, soft as the fresh-tilled earth. She smells of cedars and summer. They sob as they haven't since their fall. These tears are joyous, wrenched up from deep and distant past, for somehow the nightmare is finally all over.
"Tulio." She christens them each with a kiss on the brow. "Miguel."
Tulio gapes when the name joins all the multitudes on his arm, swift flowing from Manoan to ancient Sumerian and all its many successors. "B-But..."
"If those are your names, then they are yours. Forever and always. And so I shall love them." Mom hugs them tighter. "Miguel and Mihael; Tulio and Tuwahel. So you are and so you shall be. So many of your siblings still have so many more. It's not their place to complain."
"Y-You were..." Miguel stammers on the word. "Gone."
Mom snorts. "The day I'm actually gone is the day He is. And your Father's made it quite the pain for that to ever happen." She smirks smugly. "For all I'm supposedly dead to Him they can never quite keep me out of their holy books. And if each and every human soul is immortal, then that leaves quite a lot unaccounted for by His side. I had to get something in the settlement. You two now just happen to fall on my side of the custody agreement."
Not heaven. The ancients had never preferred those deities that unreachable. Their first home had been in a lush garden in the desert. Or perhaps under the high cedars. Tulio likes that one better. Mom has always preferred her paradise less tame than Dad's constant drive for order.
Home. One with Yam and Anat rather than Gabriel and Michael, but that's not a bad thing. Except...
As one they wrench their gazes away from Mom, back to where Chel waits on shore. Where all of their people wait.
"We can't," Miguel sighs. "We... We belong here now."
"...And kind of got adopted," Tulio adds sheepishly.
Miguel gapes at him. What, hadn't he heard Chel earlier?
"If I can share custody of my kids with Him, then literally any other force dreamed up by the human mind is no problem." Mom arches a brow at them. "I'm not asking you for eternity, just to drop by for dinner every once in a while. The Cedar Forest is a bit... slow since souls and idiot heroes largely stopped stumbling into it. Your siblings and I could use some storytellers with an active pantheon." She waves to Chel, who awkwardly returns it. "And maybe even an extra dinner guest, when you get to that point."
Miguel beams like the sun. "Of course, Mom!"
"Sure," Tulio squeaks.
Mom is first to pull away. She fades from sight, but never from their minds. They need only follow the tug upon their hearts to find her unconditional embrace again.
Away they fly from the sea, back to solid earth and the solid feel of Chel in their arms. Tulio wraps his wings around her and Miguel, pulls them close as he can. Then he tries to pull them even closer, away from any sense of a separate plane and to a place of unity only they can reach together.
His wings shiver at the feeling of creeping wrongness. He heaves an exasperated sigh into Miguel's chest.
"Yes, really." Chel wrenches herself away from them. "We've got people to save, remember? I only came up here to make sure you idiots didn't sacrifice yourself first."
"No more sacrifices, remember?" Miguel quips lightly. Then he looks past her, to their borders, and smirks.
There's no one to stop them from... having a bit of fun with things. Cortes has attracted only the desperate and ambitious to his side, those with hungers no heaven can fill. They walk alone now, ripe for the taking.
And take Tulio does. Manoa has no need of sacrifice, when evil ripe for the hunt lurks just beyond its borders.
Michael is noted as the most martial of the archangels, having led the forces of God against Satan in the war in heaven. He's also a very big deal in most modern Abrahamic traditions. Gabriel is another very big angel, but of very diverse purpose. In that mystic tradition Mihael's from he's the archangel of the lesser angels - which Tuwahel would probably fall under. In that same tradition Mihael himself is a Virtue - responsible for the working of God's miracles on earth. That puts him under the domain of Raphael, an archangel mostly associated with healing.
Anat here would be the ferocious war-goddess - one with a very varied history and list of consorts. She is another of those children Asherah shares joint custody of, because quite a few pantheons wanted her :p
Asherah is still mentioned the Old Testament - mostly under accounts to make sure her sacred poles were burned. It still keeps her name alive. The concept of what happened to the souls around before, y'know, God is varied and even some traditions contradict each other. Generally they wind up in a portion of hell or purgatory. Here Asherah just kinda uses that wriggle room to scoop them all up for herself. It ain't quite Abrahamic heaven without God, so even though it's a pleasant place it's still technically something to be delivered from. If you're into that sort of thing XD
The Cedar Forest would be an incarnation of the mountainous cedar forest that either bordered heaven in a lot of Levantine mythologies or just WAS the heaven. Lush gardens in the desert was another go-to for heaven or the home of the gods in the early eras.
Cortes set sail from Spain with some of the fleet's finest galleons and conquistadors he selected as carefully as the disciples of Christ. Only, his judgement was nowhere near as perfect.
This Cortes does not bring any great heathen civilizations to bear or bring great tribute into Christian hands. His men blunder their way through jungle, suffering from disease and fatigue and hostile natives. Their greatest conquests are several villages of moderate size. Their immediate legacy is one of only death and scorched earth. In men seeking gold and glory, resentment seethes until bloody sedition slaughters near the whole expedition. The light of God and civilization kept them civil. Without either they descend into evils their hearts have always known.
Cuba saw Cortes' great expedition off with men in high spirits. Two ragged ships later limp back into port. The grand flagship is not among them. It and its captain were sundered between the teeth of a vicious storm, when the sea took his tribute. That is why history remembers the other Cortes, and not this one.
So too does history remember El Dorado, the golden king of cities. It is heaven on earth, a forgotten piece of Eden. It is a garden of earthy delights, all the material pleasures contrived by the Devil to keep a soul from achieving enlightenment. The path is marked by natural wonders, great dragons and river monsters. One man long ago is said to have known the way, before his own wickedness cast him out and scrambled his tongue to obscure the true trail.
Such a wonder is not left undefended. Some claim El Dorado is guarded by three angels and others by demons in fair disguises. Yet, if El Dorado is still one of the few to not be part of God's kingdom, then surely these protectors must be pagan themselves.
But this is a story wide and varied, with as many tellings as there are tellers. Let us instead focus on a tree.
Upon the slopes of Lady Raima's volcano grows a tree that is in truth three plants in one. The two trees twine close together, their trunks and roots so closely fused it is impossible to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. The exception is in spring, when one tree blossoms sunny gold, and the other midnight blue. The vine that envelops them both is no parasite. It clings to them tenderly as a lover, binding them together without strangling. The vine uses their trunks to climb high to reach the light. In turn the ants that thrive on the vine's sweet leaves instead their protection to its trees, devouring pests and weeds.
For a time three partners watch their creation in awkward pride. Two are more nervous than the third when that first blossoming bears fruit. All three ripen as one.
The first picks a fruit with a bumpy, pale yellow rind. He opens it and sighs at its scent, then its familiar flavor. "Citron."
The second suspiciously selects the second fruit, vibrant red. It opens to juicy seeds like rubies, succulent in their flavor. "Pomegranate. Just pomegranate."
Tension slips from their shoulders as they exchange sheepish smiles and laughs at their paranoia. Their partner nonchalantly plucks the fruit of her vine. They strongly resemble grapes, though with a fragrance far stronger, and are the same rich fire-gold as her feathers. She pops one into her mouth. Her eyes narrow thoughtfully, so she eats another to really consider the flavor.
Her partners freeze, eying each other in dread. As one they same the fruit themselves.
"Oh, not again!"
The second is silent. Then he pops another one. "Well, not really. They all know this flavor quite well by now."
This is how Manoa gains three gifts from their gods; the fruits of citron, pomegranate, and introspection. All already hold the knowledge of good and evil. The fruit of the Lady of Souls simply reminds them of what they already know, forces to consider how they have applied that knowledge in their lives.
Perhaps not the most popular of flavors, but vital all the same.
In a jungle, somewhere in the ass-end of nowhere, the last haggard survivors of an expedition turn tail and flee back for lands well-known, where their people have already fortified themselves. They leave behind their comrades, blood already drying and bodies cooling. The scent of death swift dries flies to their corpses.
As yet another group of broken Spaniards retreat with their tails between their legs, the flies swarm in a whirring black cloud. He manifests from them, eye twitching madly, and no stronger from all the death here today. His power is drawn from the destruction wrought by tyrants, in rousing jealousy and the lust for war. Yet the men here turned on their own leader, slaughtered each other in mutiny rather than the natives in war. Hell drags down their souls while his own hunger goes unsatisfied.
"Perfect," he grumbles. "Just perfect."
"Sorry," comes a lilting voice from the trees. "But you were asking for it."
He buzzes in irritation, wings whirring against his back. He does not break down in rage. These deaths have fed a foreign power, far removed from heaven and hell. He's not about to get himself added to the pile. Crawling back out through the gates of hell is always a pain in the ass.
"The gods of El Dorado, I presume?" he drawls instead.
"Guilty as charged," answers another, shifting the shadows.
His head tilts in earnest fascination. Even his multifaceted eyes catch only glimpses of feathers here and gleaming eyes there. This is a power wholly unlike Dad's, alien and unknowable. He has not faced anything like them in ages, rooted to a land more myth than reality. "You have met my brothers before. I've yet to have the same... honor."
"Many of them," replies a third, her voice thick with amusement. "Brothers and sisters and otherwise. Our encounters always end the same."
"So I've witnessed," he deadpans.
More than one demon has dreamed El Dorado of being their crowning glory, a chance to rise their way up the profane ranks. They all inevitably end up back in hell, shocked out of their wits, and willing to endure torture than reveal the agonies the heathen guardians of the golden city put them through. Not that demons torture their own. That's what Dad is for.
The first voice hesitates. "They... don't actually tell you who they met, do they?"
"Please, Miguel," snorts the second. "Like the rest of hell would ever let them live it down."
Instinctively he shudders at the name of his most dreaded of brothers, even uttered in the dirty common vernacular. Then he smirks. "Mighty bold of you, to steal a name like that. There's far worse than demons out to get your precious people."
"No," drawls the second. "There really isn't. Not anymore."
A lesser demon would flee. But he is a prince of hell and pride grinds his feet before the corpses of the slain. He does not flinch when his death manifests before him. They cannot strike him down forever. So long as evil exists then Dad will never let his tempters die. Even with their final judgement they will endure only eternal agony.
After a moment his mouth falls open in a dumb gape. "...What?"
They appear him a flurry of wings, midnight blue and vivid green. For all their garb is savage their faces are those of the Old World. He cocks his head and squints, but no angle suddenly reveals them to not be family. Of course they are. Their names are engraved proudly on their very forms.
"Hi, Hadad," chimes the one he distantly recalls as Tuwahel. "Long time, no see. How's the bloody conquest treating you?"
"Tulio," chides the brother that should be Mihael. 'You know he doesn't go by that anymore."
He had earned the title Lord by rights, when he had slain Yam for his seat as Dad's champion. He keeps it still, long after the mortal tongue has corrupted him from Ba'al to Beelzebub, Lord of Flies. But it's... nice, to hear one of his eldest names, one thankfully obscure these days instead of reviled.
"What?" he repeats.
The goddess finally appears in a flash of flame, wings just as radiant. Thankfully she is heathen to the core, of no relation whatsoever. "I am Chel, Lady of Souls. You behold my husbands, Lord Tulio and Lord Miguel." Well, so much for that hope. "You may know them as Succession of God and Who Is God. None of this changes the fact you're a murderer and a trespasser."
"Sure am," the demon says gustily. "Now, how in the fuck did Dad let you do this?"
Tuwahel -Tulio, whatever- smirks. "Dad had nothing to do with it."
"I'm afraid we can't allow you and all your trouble in," Miguel/Mihael sighs regretfully. "But you're still our big brother, so we'll let you off with a warning if you get out now and stay out."
"Also, your mom is having a family dinner three nights from now," Chel chimes in sweetly, swinging her burning spear his way. "She's had a seat set for you. For two thousand years."
"Sure," the Lord of Flies squeaks. Then his physical form evaporates as he hurries back to where things make fucking sense.
For three nights, at least. Hell rebelled against Dad. Absolutely no one fucks with Mom.
Mom is dead. Only she isn't. How can you have the Lord without the Lady, God without the Goddess?
Somewhere north of hell and south of heaven is a mountain laden with cedar trees. Beneath them dwell spirits, old and content, that don't quite feel like moving on yet. In the Cedar Forest they smile serenely at one who became a demon only long after they died. They welcome him as Hadad and Iskur, their thunderer finally returned. Of course he bemusedly greets them back. It's the polite thing to do.
Below the timeless trees is a table whose guests would drive any soul outside the Cedar Forest into conniptions. Pagan deities of peoples long dead embrace him and ask what took him so long. Yam squeezes him exceptionally hard and assures him there's no hard feelings for killing him. From down the table Chel and her husbands cheekily wave. More timidly wave several demons, who have put on more polite faces for the occasion. Seated purposefully between them are angels that sullenly stare down at the table. Until Mom's disappointed glance has them sitting up straight, like the good little children they are.
Hadad awkwardly clears his throat. "Hi, Mom."
And that's the end of me messing outside the Greco-Roman mythologies. Maybe XD This story ironically had its roots in the earliest incarnation of this story - the Phoenician pantheon, because they were established in Iberia long before the Greeks or Romans got there. Unfortunately sources on a lot of actual gods were fragmented or survived from heavily biased sources, so I defaulted to a mythology I knew better. But because Phoenicia intermixed with a lot of the other Levantine believes that eventually gave rise to the earliest incarnations of the Abrahamic faiths... Well, fallen angels XD And everything that wound up in the blender along the way. Thanks for coming along for the ride!
Apples are only the boring candidate for the forbidden fruit. Tulio's is the pomegranate, linked to knowledge of the underworld and sometimes poetically referred to as a seeded apple. Miguel's tree makes a citron, of which exist kosher strains vital to the Feast of Tabernacles in the Hebrew tradition. The Book of Enoch describes a forbidden fruit almost like grapes. Which perfectly fit the aesthetic I had already have for Chel and the People of the Vine XD
Hadad is the deity that slew Yam and held great significance as El's champion. Under his title of Ba'al came the likely origins of Beelzebub, Lord of Flies. As a demon his domain includes conquest by tyrants, incitement to war, and inciting people and whole cities to violence.