Prolog: Desolation of Xi’
12,872 BPE, Western Caribbean Ocean near modern day Honduras
A sacred verse of the Polpul Vuh tradition of creation:
Here is the story of the beginning, when there was not one bird, not one fish, not one mountain. Here is the sky, all alone. Here is the sea, all alone. There is nothing more. No sound, no movement. Only the sky and the sea. Only Heart-of-Sky, alone. And these are his names: Maker and Modeler, Kukulcan and Hurricane. But no one speaks his names. There is no one to praise his glory. There is no one to nurture his greatness.
Then the creator said, “Let it be done,” and it was done. The earth emerged from the sea. Plants put forth shoots. Wild animals came to be.
During the first creation of the world man was made of mud. Man could hold no form and so he was forgotten. In the second creation of the world man was made of wood. But man had no soul and could not praise the gods. So, it was decided to destroy these wooden people.
Starting as a young apprentice, it took Hun Hanahpu years to create his own personal copy of the sacred scripts and ancient prophecies. Now, he could be the last of the ancient bloodline, the last shaman. The prophesied devastation has come.
Devastated by the catastrophic events of the past few months, it all began with a new light in the sky. By the time he recognized the signs of Bolon-Yokte, he was unable to convince the ruling council to act. The holy men stubbornly insisted that ceremony and ritual would appease the coming portent. It took an act of willful defiance to secretly lead a remnant of the people to hide with him within the mountain caverns of Altun Ha. Without adequate food or preparation, fear spread rapidly until the day the mountain shook them violently for hours until the scorching hurricane, forced them deeper into the caverns.
A week later, when he could finally emerge to scout the mouth of the cave his heart wretched from the sight. A thick blanket of black charred rubble spread across the entire landscape as far as the horizon, and beyond. Even the foothill forests of mahogany and cedar were incinerated into ash. Black smoke filled the sky until there was no sun, and his lungs burned to breathe, and his eyes burned to see. Cold torrential rains had saturated the charred hillsides, arriving too late to extinguish the searing flames. Mountains had dissolved into giant, deadly lahars of noxious mud, reshaping the land around them. For the people within the protection of Altun Ha, the natural spring has become their sole source of fresh water.
Now, he can no longer tell how many weeks had passed, or count how many lives had perished. Of the thousands of exiles who followed him into Altun Ha, many had already died. Survivors suffer from skin pustules, coughing blood, or severe burns left to fester. Few, if anyone will prevail through the coming months.
“Stroke! Stroke,” the deep voice of Ghana yells rhythmically for the oarsman bring him back to the moment.
When Hun Hanahpu discovered the two large trading canoes washed up into the foothills, he saw them as an omen, ancestral guidance to stage a rescue of the holy city. Perched at the bow of the larger canoe, he stares ahead in disbelief and utter horror. Except for the ridge crest of the divine mountains of Tulan, nothing can be seen above the tepid waters. Where there once was a vast wetland of villages, sea ports, crop lands and trade roads, he sees nothing but dark, filthy ocean. The vibrant sights, sounds and exotic aromas of the trading ships, busy markets, or children playing are replaced by the heart shattering slosh of waves, and the stench of death. A whole nation erased from the face of the earth, scorched into char or swallowed by the ocean. The sacred mountain, now a desolate, barren island.
His mouth hangs open in dismay, and his heart implodes with an overwhelming sorrow, as tears track down over the thick grime on his face. Trembling hands clutch his cloak as agonizing grief stifles his willingness to even breathe.
“We are all doomed,” cries a man in the second canoe.
“There’s nothing left,” declares Ghana.
Unable to teach any spiritual truth to erase their misery, Hun Hanahpu holds his tongue. Once a symbol of pride and status, his elongated skull and jaguar cloak no longer hold any meaning. Only survival matters now.
“Why are we here?” shouts a large oarsman, his thick arms fold to appear intimidating, if only to mask the fear in his eyes.
“Tell us the truth,” another shouts.
“We came to search for survivors,” declares Hun Hanahpu, trying to show a brave resolve, yet, even as he speaks, he knows the hopelessness of finding anyone alive. These men deserve to know the whole truth.
“We are out of food at the survivor camp,” he confirms what they must be suspecting. “The crops have burned, and the jungles are charred to the ground, barren of life.” Pointing to the dead fish floating on the water. “The rivers and oceans that once fed us with plenty, now offer up only poison and death.”
Gesturing toward the second canoe, traveling close alongside them. “I have asked my brother Xibalque to lead a team to find the temple maze, stored deep in the caves above the ridge.”
The sailor unfolds his arms in a grudging concession, the chances of finding maze worth the risk of death. Hun Hanahpu hesitates, unsure he wants to admit his personal motives for braving death.
“For myself alone, I vow to search for the Bac’tun Tae (star calendar) and salvage what I can of the sacred scripts,” he chokes down the shame of his confession. The Bac’tun Tae had predicted the destruction, but it was his failure to read the signs. An unforgivable shame. He can only hope the ancient passageways may still be open.
Excited whispers spread. “You risked our lives for that cursed talisman?” shouts the oarsman, once again defiant.
Others also cast derision, claiming the ancient religion had failed them, the pride and hubris of the chief priests had failed them, that Hun Hanahpu had failed them. Empathetic to the consuming anguish of men who have lost everyone, and everything that once gave their life meaning, he listens in silence. Saturated with his own aching emptiness, he endures the accusations until at last their anger subsides.
Raising up his right palm, he waits for each man to return the gesture in silence as the large, double-hulled canoes drift together.
“Bolon-Yokte sent his rage to rip open the sky above us with an act so savage that it has ripped open our very hearts, even while they still beat within us!” he cries with a genuine lament, gritty tears staining his cloak.
“Our epoch has ended,” his voice catches, swallowing hard. “Our entire world has ended.” The words strike his heart with an unrelenting, searing ache. “And we are the cursed souls to bear witness to such horrors!”
Gazing into the faces of the shattered survivors of the unimaginable some stare into the void with silent, bitter tears, while others wail, pounding their chests as if they could scream away the inner torment.
“As long as two of survive they will call us brothers, they will call us the Xi’ of Matwiil!” he shouts above the lamenting cries.
Slowly, one by one, each man committed to his purpose, they pick up their oars, and row inside a small bay, once a busy seaside harbor. Bile builds in the back of his throat from the smell of sulfur and decay that hangs in the damp acidic air, stinging his eyes. Canoes creep toward a shredded, singed tree limb sticking out of the water. Approaching the blackened limb a mournful vibration resonates within Hun Hanahpu’s chest, ringing within his ears.
Ghana grips the tree, then lurches backward, falling into others. “It’s alive!”
Hun Hanaphu climbs into the bow and reaches out for the branch. A mild tingling emanates from its roots causing the mournful lament within him to resonate louder. A hundred thousand voices crying out in unison, pulsating within his chest, radiating out to his fingers and toes, echoing harshly between his ears, growing louder and deeper like a massive, swarming hive of human suffering.
Letting go of the branch, he tosses the bow line around the limb to tie the canoe. Even without touching, he can still sense the mournful, chanting chorus within his head.
“What is it?” asks an oarsman.
For a long moment, no one answers. “Souls wailing in the anguish of ba (tormented death),” whispers Ghana.
Hundreds of thousands of souls had vanished beneath the crusty rock and rancid sea. It’s an unworldly, dreadful, fearful place, a place of Xiba (catacombs of the Xi’).
Overcome with waves of clammy chills, Hun Hanahpu’s stomach tightens into a knot, then tightens again. Pale and dizzy, cold sweat beads down his burning face until he lurches over the rail of the canoe, and vomits into the murky, rank water. As his spasms subside, he recalls the final passage of the ancient prophecy.
‘The earth will blacken before a terrible flood. Hurricane will make a great rain.’
The fulfillment of prophecy before his eyes more horrid than any man could imagine. After a moment, he pulls up his head, spits out the bitter residue, and wipes the putrid drool on his bare arm.
“Let’s get going, while we still have light.”