Palenque Ruins, Chiapas
Flying above the Pok-A-Tok playing field, Camazotz saw that five green and black metal boxes on skull-balls stood at the four disk corners of the field. Men dressed in the same colored clothing squatted behind long metal sticks with small round openings aimed toward the field. From out of nowhere, two large boxes with bat-like whirling metal wings rose in what Camazotz considered his Ariel domain. One of the blades clipped his left wing. Tremors raced across his sinews while pockets of air buffeted him from his vantage point. Undeterred, Camaztoz opened his wings back to their full span, slowing his descent. He landed talons first onto the ground.
“That was some flight,” Acan’s voice exploded inside his inner ear.
Folding his giant wings, the god looked upward. The whirling blades kept the large boxes hanging in mid air. Through its transparent walls, Camazotz recognized Gabrielle Tairino and realized that the gauntlet had been thrown down by the other side.
“Acan, get Chet, Kak, and Puch. We need to show these warriors who rules our upper and lower domains.”
“As you wish,” Acan said his voice a distant rumble.
Silence filled the god’s mind as he plotted the strategy that would gain him back his land and people. Swinging his eyes toward the Zapatistas, he noticed Elena, disguised as Subcommandanta Susanna, sitting cross-legged knee to knee, arms linked with her fellow women. Camazotz’s nostrils flared as he caught the scent of an ancient enemy. A red-frocked priest sat beside her, wearing a round red hat with a wide brim, from which hung fifteen knotted cords. The hat reminded Camazotz of Jesus Costillo’s sombrero, but also of the one-god priests of the conquistadores who sealed him and his followers in the bat cave.
As he surveyed his temple ruins, an image snapped into his mind of white-skin warriors with black beards impaled on wooden stakes. He saw not just one or two but hundreds strewn across a bloodied field while a metal-clad man rode on the back of a giant reindeer. Shaking his head, the image vanished, but left behind swirling pictures of arid black smoke, sulfuric fumes, and pocked-marked fields.
Camazotz shrieked, calling out to his brethren.
“Chac, Acan Puch, Ticab, Akna, Chabtan, Cizin, Ixchel, Kakka, and Votan. Bring the jaguar skins, quetzal headdresses, and the ancestral skull ball.”
“It is nowhere to be found,” Kakka screeched back.
“I’ve got it,” Francesca’s voice permeated Camazotz’s mind from below.
Francesca swung her backpack around and rested it on the stone platform. Flipping it open, she reached into the bag and pulled out a round rubber object. From the skull’s skeletal nose an obsidian vampire bat dangled. Camazotz’s mind reeled.
“Acan, get your prey and make her your own. She has touched the face of death and lived.”
A bolt of blue wheeled across the sky, and inside the god’s mind he saw Acan lift Francesca from the temple’s second platform and carry her to one of the stone ledges that bordered the ball court. Folding his wings, his lieutenant perched on the limestone wall alongside his woman.
“You are not playing?” Camazotz asked.
Acan shook his head.
“Not in the beginning. The other teams comes. See how they dress? How can you tell them apart when they strike the ball? Who is the man you knew in one of those flying bat squares?”
“Tairino,” the god spat out. “He should have stayed away with his new master. Elena will be safe as long as she remains the Subcommandanta Susanna. But if Roberto finds her here, she will be dead by morning. Those two creatures that came with her husband from across the seas will make sure of that. They have a sister in mind, but she is . . . . ”
Camazotz didn’t finish. Out of the jungle, Chalam Balam and his warriors, armed with round metal sticks and obsidian blades, bounded from the trees yelling and brandishing their weapons. Francesca’s stepmother and father, Sister Bagdona and Alvarez Cruz hugged the square cut walls of the temple. Acan’s voice whipped inside the god’s mind.
“Conquistadores from the Temple of the Crosses are running toward the Pok-A-Tok field. They are dressed in colors of the animals and the jungle. They too carry round metal sticks and stone boxes dangle from their waists.”
“I see them,” Camazotz growled. “But, they do not see us. Let us see if Susanna’s people hold their line or are swept away by their enemies.”
“You are not going to stop them?”
“We need to even the playing field. Our invaders have not yet arrived, but they will come. Blood lust and the land call out to them. We must prepare and be ready for them. As for Chalam Balam, leave him to me. He wears skins of his ancestor, but will remain the animal he has chosen to be.”
In the charged air, Camazotz and Acan heard an ancient menace override their words.
"Plurimus glorifcus Procer of Uranicus Armies St. Michael Arhangel, vallo nos in nostrum pugna obviam principalities quod vox, obviam satraps illae universatas of obscurum, obviam phasmatis of nequitia in altus locus. Adeo suffragium hominum quos Deus has partum ut Suus visio quod qos Is has redemptor procul a valde pretium ex dominatus of diabolus. Sanctus Templum veneratio thee ut suus curator quod patronus; ut thee, Senior has mando animus of redemptor ut exsisto led in Olympus Precor proinde Deus of Pacis contero Diabolus subter supter nostrum feet, ut is may haud diutius retain men captivus quod operor malum ut Templum. Dedi nostrum preces ut plurrimi Altus, ut continuo they may duco Suus misericordia down super nos take habitum of extraho, vetus serpent, quod est diabolus quod Diabolus redimio him quod iacio him in bottomless vorago ut is may haud diutius seductor populus.”
The line of Zapatistas stirred as the women’s voices joined and echoed the incantation spoken by Cardinal Michaels. With his inner eye, Camazotz saw Susanna twist her head and stared open-mouth at Adian Michaels.
“What did you say just now?” she asked. “Protection from the Devil? Which devil is that Señor? My husband’s people. The foreign devils who have come to claim our land? The militia sent by the city fathers? Or perhaps you meant the drug cartels?”
She shook her fist at him. Undaunted, Cardinal Michaels replied, his voice smooth and even.
“A prayer against all evil, universal and heart-felt.”
A deep chesty cough ricocheted and echoed within the ball court.
“You will need more than a prayer to protect you from those AK-47′s and machetes. Don’t you know whom you are dealing with?”
Undisturbed, the cardinal resumed speaking in a quiet voice.
“The forces of evil are among us. My prayer shall protect all my lambs. If not, I have my Savior’s relic with me. It is all powerful and will protect us all from any attack. ”
“You believe that?”
Elena’s question hung in the air and echoed in Camaztoz’s brain.
Cardinal Michaels flung up his right hand palm and cried out.
“Oh my God! Save us from this depravity!”
“What?” Elena exclaimed, the word rising with incredulity.
Wild-eye, the indio line shifted, watching their leader’s reaction, as did Chalam Balam, the landowners and their wives, the militia and Detective Cruz, Miriam and Jackson, and Sister Bagdona. Six tree limbs plummeted down from the sky and smashed into the turf surrounding the ball court. Bound to each limb were six boys, naked except for animal skin loin cloths. Their bodies hung at a sharp angle implying impalement, but no stakes jutted through them.
Camazotz flew down to the ball court, his talons gripping the soft clay and his giant wings folding tight against his body. Dropping behind him were other creatures of his tribe, who wore the traditional garb of their ball players: feather headdresses, jade necklaces, and protective cotton padding around their waists, knees, and elbows. The vampire god himself now wore a full feather headdress, a jade pendant, padded cotton cloth beneath both arms, and a human skin lion-cloth. Protective cotton padding covered his ankles, elbows and knees. The bottom of both feet had been coated with rubber by Acan.
“What are they all decked out for?” Francesca whispered to her stepmother who had joined her in the stands with Jackson and Cruz.
“You’ve seen this before,” Miriam said, her hand tapping one of Francesca’s knees. “Who was that boy with you? The one I met at the hospital? Isn’t he a bit too old for you, my dear?”
Francesca shifted her legs beneath Miriam’s hot touch.
“He’s around my age. Don’t worry Miriam. I won’t run off with him. I’ve got to finish high school first and then I’ll leave. At eighteen I’m free of both you and father.”
“Don’t bank on it. There’s many a slip between cup and lip.”
His daughter didn’t answer. Her attention was on a column of things half walking, half flying, up to the Pok-a-Tok court. As they approached the ball court, Francesca saw women and bare-chested muscled men swinging their arms and singing in a language rarely heard in Mexico.
“”Awaken thee, Romanian!
Awaken thee, Romanian, shake off the deadly slumber
The scourge of inauspicious barbarian tyrannies
And now or never to a bright horizon clamber
That shall to shame put all your nocuous enemies.
It’s now or never to the world we readily proclaim
In our veins throbs and ancestry of Roman
And in our hearts forever we glorify a name
Resounding of battle, the name of gallant Trajan.
Do look imperial shadows, Michael, Stephen, Corvinus
At the Romanian nation, your mighty progeny
With arms like steel and hearts of fire impetuous
It’s either free or dead, that’s what they all decree.
Priests, rise the cross, this Christian army’s liberating
The word is freedom, no less sacred is the end
We’d rather die in battle, in elevated glory
Than live again enslaved on our ancestral land.”
“Never heard that language before,” Francesca said.
“No, I wouldn’t think so,” Roberto snorted, as he joined the seated Coleman’s, Alvarez Cruz, and Sister Bagdona who had drawn her hood far forward, all but hiding her face. Behind the wealthy landowner was a boy dressed in a school uniform.
“Who are you?” Miriam asked him.
Smelling of sweet sweat, Jesus Costilla sat and hunched closer to Roberto, timidly holding the landowner’s left hand. Roberto grimaced, but tightened his grip on Jesus’ hand even though he stank of marijuana and cocaine.
“He works for me. We have come to see the ritual demonstration of Pok-a-Tok. I see that the other team has arrived. It’s a pretty gruesome sight up close. I understand that the original version of the game was a bit . . . violent.”
“How violent?” Francesca asked.
“Punching. Elbowing. Head butting. Kicking below the neck is legal. Let’s see: did I leavve anything out. It’s called caccia in their language. It’s more like kick-boxing with a ball in motion at all times. Once the ball hits the ground, it’s dead, and the game starts up once again. Oh yeah, when the ball sails through those hoops attached to the sides of the ball court, that team wins the game.”
“Fascinating,” Jackson said. “Everyone gets a chance at road kill. How many teams get to play?”
“As many as possible. Last time I watched this game, there were five teams playing. It will be interesting to see how well that Mayan god demon can play his ball game against our side.”
“Our side?” Miriam asked. “How can you tell? They are all nearly naked, except for that big fellow over there wearing an American Indian headdress. How cute. Jackson, I want one of those for our living room fireplace mantle.”
Jackson grunted, his eyes never leaving the ball court. In the center one of the winged creatures held up an oblong-shaped ball. On opposite sides were the players either wearing animal skins with painted blue faces or oiled bare chests with red fringed sashes tied around their waists. Neither side wore helmets or protective gear. Holding his breath, Jackson watched as the central figure threw the ball high into the sky.
When it came down, Camazotz threw himself on his back and kicked the ball toward Acan. Catching the ball between his knees, the young vampire crossed his legs and threaded the ball up toward his waist. In this awkward position, Chac came from behind him and kicked the ball skyward. It soared toward the stone hoop and bounced off. The ball angled toward the ground where Count Erros stopped it with his left foot and slammed it toward Count Ambros, who butted it with his head.
The ball struck the outer rim of the hoop and ricocheted toward Pok. The ball hit him and fell to the ground. Sliding around Pok’s legs, Chac landed on his back and caught the skull-ball with his stomach as he doubled over it. Panting, gasping for breath, Chac searched the field, looking for either Camazotz or Acan to kick the ball from its protective perch. He saw neither, but his vampire’s ears twitched as he heard voices from the spectator stands providing him with a visual image of the stone hoop. Turning sideways, lying on his hips, Chac thrust his stomach forward and the ball soared forward.
Silence surrounded the field.
Francesca screamed herself hoarse.
“Not so fast,” Chalam Balam’s voice roared, blanketing the ball court.
“I want her, her, her, him, and you as hostages.”
Camazotz broke free of the jubilant Acan and Chac and flew toward the man pretending to be a beast.
“We won. You know our rules. The losers are sacrificed to me.”
Chalam Balam pointed toward the impaled boys.
“I see no death coins in their eyes,” continued. “I see no victors here in the field. Show me your power or die and stay dead.”
Francesca eyed the boys tied to the tree limbs. She could just make out the bug eyed and open mouth of Joseph as he shuddered on the stake.
“Acan, do something!”
He rose from the field and full wing flew toward the bound bodies. As he hovered near each boy, Acan screwed into each eyelid the silver coins of death.
The boys scream echoed throughout the ruins. Undeterred, the city-fathers’ militia attacked Chalam Balam with AK-47′s blazing. Two of the drug lord’s men fell writhing to the field while others ran to the temples for cover. The Zapatista line held. Camazotz zeroed in on Elena, still in her role as Subcomandanta Susanna.
“Stay put. I’ll be right there.”
At Elena’s side, Cardinal Michaels stirred. Holding up his crucifix to the sky, a billowing white cloud shot down and enfolded him and Elena as the metal square box with see-through windows hovered twenty feet above them. A wicker basket was lowered and landed alongside Elena.
“Is that for me?”
“Climb in. This smoke screen won’t last long,” the cardinal said.
“I don’t want to leave,” Elena protested.
Cardinal Michaels lifted a protesting Susanna into the basket. He took off his red sash and tied her to the lift rope.
“Don’t argue. You can thank me later.”
Tugging on the rope, the basket swung like a pendulum as it rose toward the metal squared box. Below, the cardinal surveyed the Pok-a-Tok field. The god and his enemies fought with clubs, knives, machetes, and tree limbs. No one in the stands had moved, as if held in their seats by invisible hands. Laughing to himself, the cardinal waited while the remainder of the line stayed in place bereft of their leader. A rope dropped down from the sky. Cardinal Michaels grabbed it and wound it around his waist. Tugging on it, he was lifted upward toward his waiting heavenly chariot.
Inside the metal box, Tairino grinned.
“She’s bedded down and won’t cause a fuss. Where to father?”
Down below the militia and the drug lord’s gang fought with automatic rifles and pistols. Drawn sabers slashed at the militia while the soldiers targeted their enemies and shot with abandon. Bullets flew among the seated women and children. Two slumped over, blood pouring from their chests, stomachs, and necks. Scrambling among the bloodied bodies, Camazotz prevented his followers from sucking their victims.
“Watch and wait,” he commanded.
Erros and Ambros halted Father Valorous and his congregation. The sweet smell of blood surged and pulsated around them. The chief novice’s lips twitched. Red tongues darted past chapped lips as the entire congregation sighed and angled their pinched noses toward the bloodletting on the peon’s bodies.
“Can we feed now? No one will notice,” the novice whined.
Father Valorous looked at the two counts. Erros pointed toward the fallen bodies.
“Eat your fill, but don’t drain others who are not bleeding. Any one I catch feeding upon a dry body will pay for it with his life. Understood?”
His menacing voice warned the Father not to let his congregation get out of hand, especially the younger novices who couldn’t contain their beastie impulses. Erros flapped one wing, and his men flew with Father Valorous’ group.
Back at the stands, Francesca scrambled to her feet and backed away from the field with her father and mother nearby.
“Where’s the stairs?” Miriam demanded. “We need to catch the bus and get out of here. Did you see those rifles those men are firing? Real bullets! And those poor boys, Jackson, do something.”
Jackson Coleman and Alvarez Cruz stumbled down the steps and ran toward the god. Crouching over, the two men wove their way through the horde of fighting men and women. A bullet whizzed past Alvarez’s ear and Jackson stumbled over a prostrate body.
Alvarez almost reached Camazotz when horse’s hoofs brushed his shoulder, knocking him to the ground. He scampered away and continued running. The Zapatistas ran into the ball court throwing Mayan souvenirs from the tourist shops. Erros and Ambros turned and attacked blood faced with extended fangs. The women and children threw grains of millet, scattering them among the vampires and their followers. Immediately, the ball court quieted as Father Valorous and his congregation stopped sucking blood and flew toward the millet littered Mayan turf.
Through narrowed eyes, Camazotz watched his ancient enemies pick up millet seeds one at a time. Oblivious to all, the cross stuffed skull balls added the final blow as Counts Erros and Ambros, Father Valorous, his novices, and his congregation fell under the spell of seed gathering.
The militia kept fighting, but Chalam Balam and his followers high-tailed it back to the anonymity of the jungle.
“Who’s left?” Sister Bagdona bellowed.
“No one that I can see,” Roberto said.
“Where’s Elena? I know she was here with that thing called Camazotz.”
A deep throated laugh penetrated the ruins. With opened wings and a full feathered headdress adorning his head and outlining the sides of his bat body, Camazotz stood three feet from the wealthy landowner.
“She is gone. You have planned well. It is not over. Go now before you become food. It is easily arranged. Go ask those boys on the stakes. I am sure they were well meaning when they came with their class to view my land, but they too are now a thing of the past.”
Roberto jerked his head to the side.
“What about them?”
“Your friends? They will be dead tired by the time the yellow orb rises in the east. I have a few relics for them. Here, take this one. Francesca had it. It once belonged to your family. Worship it well. You might not get a second chance.”
Camazotz dropped the cross T skull-ball at Roberto’s feet.
“Tell your friends to stay off my land. As your god would say, retribution is mine!”
Roberto fell backward as the Mayan god opened his wings, took three mincing steps and flew toward the Temple of the Crosses. Alvarez ran up to him and helped Roberto to your feet.
“You okay?” the police detective asked.
“Like you care. Where’s my wife?”
“Elena is gone?” Alvarez winced. “I had not known. Francesca Coleman was here with her parents, but now has run off with that boy.”
“Sounds like things are back to normal,” Roberto grinned.
“Not if you’re a parent. Where’s that kid who came in with you? I don’t see him,” Miriam sneered. “An out-of-wedlock child perhaps?”
Roberto’s face flushed scarlet while lumps of red bumps circled his protruding black eyes.
“You wish. The boy is a gift from a landowner. His mother works in the kitchens and he needs a job to keep him off the streets. As for your sudden interest in my lifestyle, you should pay attention to your own daughter since she has run away in my country. Runaway girls aren’t treated well in Mexico. They’re considered prostitutes and are treated accordingly.”
In a menacing voice, Roberto added.
“It is time for foreigners to go home. You’ve got your own land to tend and till. And, I’ve got mine to expand and build upon. Good-bye!”