Madame Ixchel roused from a dream of being pursued. In the dream, she flew, great leathery wings beating the air, desperate to gain altitude, to flee, to escape. Her ancient nemesis bounded after her, paws silent on the moist and shadowed forest floor. It was impossible, because Xbalanque, the great jaguar, was dead. All of the ancient gods were dead, never to return. Only she remained of them, only she was awake and able to touch the temporal world of mortals. Only she. Until he somehow felt her from his timeless grave of stone and his ire awakened along with him.
She alit on top of the pyramid, claws scrabbling for purchase on the prehistoric stones, as her voice rang out over the jungle, screeching with fear and anger. He was near, seeking to once again banish her from the realm of time and consign her spirit once more wander the cosmos without form, lost in the timelessness of eternity. She would not succumb to him; not again. He had no right. Her form, the scaled, winged lizard, dark green like the vegetation below, began to turn to mist, melting, the vapor seeping down into the temple below and flowed silently into the sleeping form of a woman.
Nameless acolytes began to scurry around her excitedly as they realized she was returning. Part of her mind understood that the men surely must have names, but it was far beneath her to learn them or even acknowledge. She was a god and their worship and attention was no more than her due. She felt the adoration pour from their souls, adoration that she deserved. They were insects and it was their place and purpose in life to prostrate themselves at her feet and to meet her every whim.
With a shudder, she banished the remnants of the dream from her mind; it must have been a dream. HE could not have returned, could not be roaming the lonely forest even now, seeking her. No, that was not possible, and she would not accept that it could be true. The woman who sat up on the side of the bed, the body that housed her essence, was tall and pale, with hair as black as the pit of hell. Now, though, that ebon hair lacked the luster that was normal, and had been streaked with white. Her face also, with its high cheekbones and alabaster skin was lined and creased. Ixchel silently cursed the use of such frail flesh, and its need to be renewed, but knew that she would not willingly abandon it. There was so much pleasure in wearing a body like the humans who worshipped her. So much pleasure.
Her need was strong this morning, and the acolytes knew it. Painfully, she rose to her feet, weak muscles protesting and brittle bones creaking with the effort. They would be ready for her, ready to provide what she needed. Rafa should have returned by now with the ones she wanted, the pair of beautiful women whose life force would infuse her with vitality for many years. When she saw them many days before, in the little village to the north, she immediately sensed the strength in them; their blood containing a force that was far beyond the others in this world, a force that would allow her to maintain this frail body far beyond the lifespan of humans. He should have returned.
Most of the acolytes who served were mere men, nameless and interchangeable, chosen only to minister to her daily desires, but Rafa was different. He had a spark inside that most did not have, so she had chosen him. He it was who procured the special sacrifices, searching sometimes with her, sometimes alone, until he found the ones she needed. His services were not often needed, as the weekly infusions of blood from other sacrifices would maintain her well enough for short periods of time. Rafa sought the important ones, the ones whose blood provided years of strength and youth. If he ever failed, though, he would be harvested himself.
Today she was in need. It had been long since the last full infusion and she had been forced to content herself with common blood for several years. Those did not renew her for a long enough time. When they saw the young women in the village, Rafa had approached closely enough to feel the vibrations of their souls, and knew that they would be the most powerful they had found in years, perhaps ever. Their essence would rejuvenate Ixchel for generations, but he was still out, still pursuing them. Until he returned, she had to make do with what the acolytes could find in the forest.
Noisy birds flitted and chattered through the rain forest, chasing each other from branch to branch as monkeys scolded them and played their own games of tag. For them, life went on as it had for thousands of years, never changing, but each day new. Near the pyramid, however, the jungle fell silent as if the life had been sucked out of it by the setting sun. All was still save for the three men in dirty black robes who marched solemnly toward the western face of the pyramid and began to ascend the stone steps, thirteen steps with their right foot first, and then thirteen with the left until they had climbed the ninety one steps from the base. Similar stairs were cut into each of the other three sides, giving the pyramid a total of three hundred and sixty five steps, one for each day of the year. Ixchel had appropriated this pyramid after she slew Kukulkan, the feathered serpent god. It was now hers as were the acolytes.
As the priests climbed, they attempted to control the struggles of the young girl they bore in their arms. Bound hand and foot, her eyes were wide with terror, knowing her fate. She had heard the legend of the altar at the top of the pyramid and the stones that were stained black with the blood offered to the gods. She had dismissed the stories as something that mothers told their children to keep them from wandering away, but now she knew the truth. She would die by the hands of these men in their stained robes.
Ixchel sat cross-legged on a stone seat near the altar, contempt in her eyes and a sneer on her lips. There was a day when virgins walked willingly to the altar, freely giving themselves so the goddess might live. Those were the days when people remembered and worshiped. That was before the stories were lost, fading to legend with the passing of the centuries, the days before Xbalanque had banished her. She raised her head, regal and cold, her eyes slits of obsidian fire. Those day would come again. The people would remember and worship again. When she procured the two sacrifices she needed, her power would once again rise and she would be able to move freely in the world. She would be free. Free.
But now she needed blood and the squirming girl below, being laid upon the altar by her servants, would provide it. Leaning forward eagerly, eyes shining, Ixchel licked her lips in anticipation as one man held the girl’s supple brown legs tightly while another grasped her wrists, stretching her painfully across the stone. Her struggles were weak now, but her dark brown eyes were wide with horror. The third man knelt beside her and ripped away the thin cloth of her dress, baring her barely-teen form to the red rays of the setting sun which seemed to turn her whole body to blood. Raising the razor-sharp blade of obsidian, he mumbled words in an ancient language and plunged it down, piercing her chest and then drawing it downward, opening up a gaping wound. With a cry of triumph, Ixchel leaped up and the priest dropped the blade and plunged his hands into the girl’s chest, drawing them forth seconds later with a quivering mass of red muscle, dripping gore as he raised the still-beating heart to his Mistress.
Ixchel approached and knelt over the girl, accepting the bloody heart in her hands as she looked into the eyes of the dying victim. She inhaled deeply, strongly, and a vapor formed above the girl’s mouth, a mist that came from within her and curled up like smoke until it was drawn in by Ixchel. As she breathed in the life force of her sacrifice, she seemed to expand, filling out as the girl below her shriveled like a deflated bladder. The lines in Ixchel’ face faded until her cheeks were once again smooth and supple, the form on the altar becoming wrinkled. With a sigh of exquisite rapture, the goddess fell in a swoon atop the girl who’s life force now flowed through her own body. Her acolytes would soon carry her below to her sleeping chamber and bathe her before putting her to bed to sleep off the effects of the infusion. She would have the energy now to sustain her life for a few more weeks.