Book Four: Mazes,
Monsters, & Mythical Heroes
Acalan stood on
a high outcropping looking out over the burnt forests around Tenochtitlan. The
smoke had long since drifted away, but his nose still bristled. Whatever the
strangers had used to burn their lands, it was as foul as them. Everything in
the valley around their great city had been set aflame. It looked almost as
though Huitzilopochtli had turned the invaders away by blasting them from every
direction, his own breath an overpowering inferno.
But that hadn’t
happened. Other than the small group with him and those with Chimalli, everyone
had been slaughtered. All of his people, gone, and with all his training as a
commander of men, he didn’t know what to do. The path hadn’t been opened to his
eyes; he’d received no wisdom from his gods, if they even existed anymore.
Perhaps the strangers had brought their own and overwhelmed them as well.
He scanned the
city also, looking for any sign of life, anything that might warn him to stay
away or ease his worries and allow him to lead the people back to their homes.
For over an hour he’d stared, covering every canal, every shop, every temple.
One thing he felt certain about, none of the strange men that had attacked his
people remained. He saw nothing that would make him believe otherwise. A few
remnants of the battle lay strewn about, a steel helmet here, an iron chest
plate there, but the men had hurried away, called back to the ocean by their
Acalan had seen
the dragons filling the sky as they battled the soldiers and their ships. His
heart shattered when he saw so many fall. Even as far away as he stood, he
could hear their cries and the rough sound of the water when one of the massive
creatures crashed into the lagoon. He wondered again what sort of weapons the
strangers used to fight an army of flying, fire spitting monsters.
eyes, he wondered again about the dragon and the boy who commanded him. He
remembered the first time he saw the black god. He’d been afraid in battle, but
never had he seen his life flash before his eyes. If the dragon had opened his
mouth, he could have walked in standing to his full height. It could have
snapped him in two easily, and Acalan remembered seeing the boy jump to his
shoulders and ride as though he’d been perched there since the day he was born.
He didn’t know if they’d died, he couldn’t know about any of them, but he felt
a connection with the young man and his powerful companion. They hadn’t
returned, and Acalan had been a warrior long enough to know that that meant
injury or death in battle. He repeated his silent prayer, asking again for
He turned and
looked at the great mountain Popocatépetl. He wondered if Chimalli had reached
the halfway point of his journey. He knew Chimalli possessed good hunting
skills, with a few of the other warriors they would keep the people fed. There
would be enough water, but Acalan hoped the collective spirit of the group
would not falter. Even he felt defeated, physically and emotionally drained,
but he would never show that face to the group he led. He knew Chimalli
wouldn’t either, but when the people got frustrated, would he be able to rally
“Acalan,” said a
delicate voice behind him.
He turned and
saw Izel, a wise woman from the inner circle and mother to one of the warriors
that ran with Chimalli. He glanced down at her knee, scraped and bleeding, as
was her wrist.
“Izel,” he said,
jumping from his lookout point to the rock where she stood. “You’re injured.”
“It is nothing,”
said Izel, “an old woman’s inability to keep her balance during the climb.”
said Acalan. “Let me tend to your wounds.”
“With what, a
rock, or some dust blowing up the cliff face from below? There is little left
with which to heal ourselves.”
felt the sting of shame, an overwhelming sense that he’d let his people down.
He tried to hold eye contact with Izel, but found he couldn’t. His chin fell.
“I am sorry.”
“You have saved
all of us, Acalan. Take pride in that and stay strong. If you falter, where
will we be then?”
Izel, all slaughtered. And Moctezhuma, killed like an
animal along with the nobles and priests.”
his head to look at Izel. A single tear traveled passed his nose, over his
cheek, halfway to his trembling jawbone.
Izel reached out
but did not wipe away the tear. Instead, she cradled Acalan’s head in her soft
but strong hand, as a mother would do to her son. “What’s happened is truly
horrible, but let us not allow our pain to consume us. We that remain are
important, both here and at Popocatépetl. We must make for the mountain and
join Chimalli and the rest of our people. We’ll build a new city somewhere,
after we’re sure that the evil that descended upon Tenochtitlan is gone
his palm against his cheek, pressing the tear away. He held it in his hand for
a moment, a reminder of what he’d seen and felt. He had to lead his group to
the great mountain of fire. If they could find Chimalli, perhaps a new life
could be forged. The woman’s words rang true.
Izel,” he said. “You have found my missing strength and returned it to me.
Let’s go tend to your knee and wrist. Then we’ll talk about following Chimalli
the woman up, carrying her as he would his mother. Izel protested, but when she
realized the warrior would not be put off, she relaxed in his strong arms.
Carefully, he hopped from rock to rock, making his way down the hill.
“Another day at
least,” said Chimalli to his small pack of hunters. “We’ll need a dozen more
kills tonight and tomorrow to keep our people fed.”
“The pace keeps
everyone hungry, Chimalli,” said Matlal. “Perhaps if we slowed, took three days
to cover the remaining distance instead of one. We’re pushing too hard.”
wisely,” said Tochtli. “If we are
tired and sore, think of how much pain our elders feel.”
“What do you
think, Iztli,” said Chimalli, “should we keep running, or should we slow our
pace so the others can rest?”
looking back in the direction of Tenochtitlan. He wrinkled his nose as if he
could still smell the stinking flames that raged through their beautiful
forests. His eyes showed every speck of fear and anguish tearing at his soul.
They never blinked, even when he turned back to look at his friends.
The four of them
had scouted every step of the way for the people that ran with them. Any one of
them could have led the group, but Chimalli had been chosen by Acalan, and
that’s all the rest needed to see. Matlal, Tochtli, and Iztli followed his
commands without question. They hunted in parties of three, always giving one a
chance to rest during the night.
Chimalli. “Tell us what you think.”
“The gods have
left us to die,” he said. “Our temples have gone dark, our people are
scattered, and we run to a place that may or may not be safe.”
continue to run?”
“If I were
alone,” said Itzli, “I would never stop
running. The strangers who came and attacked us, they did not act like normal
men. Their eyes showed uncontrollable rage, and they never tired, no matter how
many of our people they killed. They seemed to grow stronger as the battle wore
on. We need to reach the mountain and seek Popocatépetl’s guidance. Perhaps Huitzilopochtli
will be there with him, plotting to avenge his people. The god of war and sun
is the only one who can defeat the strangers’ wicked magic.”
“I agree. Let’s
feed the people and rouse them for another day of travel.”
“Thank you, my
brothers,” said Chimalli, “your counsel means much to me.”
Acalan set Izel
down gently next to a healer in their group. The woman immediately began
attending to the sores, humming softly as she washed the wounds. She glanced
once at Acalan, a signal he could go about his business without concerning
himself with Izel.
turned and walked among his small group of fifty or sixty people. He asked two
of the stronger men to craft a stretcher in order to carry Izel. She would need
to stay still for a few days to recover.
“Hear me,” he
said to the others. “I have spent much time looking at our city and I believe
no life exists there. No one moves within the borders of the canals. I see no
sign of any spirit either, but I don’t believe it’s dead, or that it has left
“I know you’re
all tired, as am I, but we must eat what we can and make our way to Coatepec.”
asked one of the hunters. “We should run to Popocatépetl and join with
Chimalli. If the strangers follow us there, surely the god of the mountain will
bury them in liquid fire.”
“A wise plan, Quauhtli,”
said Acalan. “It is good to know that belief in our gods still remains strong.
But we must not join with Chimalli, not yet anyway. Until we can be absolutely
certain our enemy has left our lands, we cannot give him a single target to
“We hear your
words, Acalan, but if that is your plan, then splitting our group again might
be wise. Let me take all who would travel to Popocatépetl with me, while you
protect the rest on your way to Coatepec.”
“I lead our people
only as a servant, Quauhtli. If it is your wish to find Chimalli, I won’t stop
you. But I warn you, if the dark spirit remains in Tenochtitlan and it senses
you on your way, we might lose all but a handful of our people.”
The two hunters
stared at each other without emotion, without envy or hatred, their eyes
searching for ways to convince each other that theirs was the correct choice.
“Please stay, Quauhtli,”
said Acalan. “I beg you. We need your hunting skills, and I need your help. If
we get to Coatepec and find a safe place to conceal ourselves, then you may go
with my blessing. I leave it up to you, my friend.”
at Izel, and at the healer’s gentle hands. His eyes moved from person to
person, and he saw how lost they felt.
Acalan. I acted selfishly. We will all travel to Coatepec together. The safety
of our people is all that matters.”
over to Quauhtli and grabbed the man’s strong shoulder. He shook it, smiling.
“I am glad, Quauhtli. Let us hunt together now and bring a fine feast for our
once. The two warriors grabbed their bows and spears and trotted into the
The Forest of Forever
into the golden eyes of the giant cougar. He couldn’t believe Conor stood so calmly
within a group of giant cats. The smallest of them, the smiling cheetah, could
rip him in half with one blindingly fast swipe of his hardened claws. The lion
stood stone still, a gigantic monolith pressing the broad-leafed ferns aside
with his massive bulk.
forward and crouched, holding a hand out to his friend. “C’mon, Diego, get up
and I’ll introduce you to Ajur’s friends. They’re wild cats, but they can talk,
and they all wield powerful magic. They’re from a different dimension called
Conor’s hand. As he felt himself rising from the ground, he looked at the jaguar.
Ajur stared blankly, giving no indication of his feelings. He had rescued Diego,
brought him to safety on a different world, but Diego couldn’t tell what the
cat’s next move might be.
Conor as he grabbed the cheetah’s ear and shook it, “this is Eha.”
Eha, stepping forward and pressing his forehead into Diego’s chest. He rubbed a
little too hard, causing Diego to stumble backwards.
Eha around his shoulders and held on. “Lay off, you big dope. At least let him
get used to you before you start goofing arou…”
Eha rolled over
before Conor finished his sentence. Clutching him with all four paws, he licked
Conor’s ears and tickled his belly with his hind legs.
“Stop i…” Conor
tried to protest, but fell into fits of laughter along with Eha.
disgusting display if you ask me,” said Surmitang, a stunning Sumatran tiger,
his British accent highlighting the comment. “Not dignified in the least.”
though,” said Therion. “Under different circumstances, we might all join in the
different circumstances,” called a voice within the brush. The leaves parted
and a wise looking, large black and white tabby housecat walked into the middle
of the group. He stood upon ferns, moss, and thick brush flattened by the giant
paws of the big cats. Therion busily rubbed a scruffy tree, ridding himself of
a nasty itch. Bark and burl, raked off the trunk by his movements, flew
righted himself. Conor stood, brushing himself off as quickly as he could.
“Maya,” he said, bowing slightly. “I had no idea you’d followed us.”
The Lord of the
Crossworlds champions ignored Conor. He looked at Diego, as if sizing him up
for a battle against one of his cats. Finally, he sat, sphinx-like. Instantly,
the other cats took their protective stances around him.
“The Lady of the
Light is not happy with our decision, Conor,” said Maya, still gazing at Diego.
“The first warrior has disappeared. The creators are quite alarmed.”
Maya sat quietly
for a while, daring Diego to speak. When he didn’t, Maya knew they’d made the
right decision. He peered deeply into the boy’s soul. He found important qualities,
similar to those they’d seen in Conor.
“We’ve come to
help you, Diego, if we can. Your enemy is powerful, perhaps more powerful than
all of us combined. But we’re going to find Magnifico, and if he’s alive, we’ll
do our best to see that you’re both reunited with Sol.”
moved along another chilly hallway. She’d been down so many staircases and
crisscrossed so many paths, she hadn’t the slightest idea where she was in the
temple. One thing she did know, she was discovering depths unknown to any
modern day explorer.
encased in total darkness, she knew she’d been inside the temple for days.
Every time she turned another corner, she walked carefully, sliding her
delicate fingers across the carvings in the walls. From floor to ceiling she
felt the intricate work of the Mexica people. Once or twice she thought she’d
discovered a row of symbols that might lead her out of the temple. Each time
she followed the posted path she ran into another corner, or at times a dead
end. In these instances she’d have to cautiously retrace her steps in order to
find her way again. Her biggest fear was failing to remember where she’d walked
and backtracking instead of moving forward. She felt certain that as long as
she stayed her course, an exit would eventually be revealed.
She knew nothing
of Nathan’s whereabouts. Once the wall sealed itself behind her she’d hadn’t
heard a sound. She’d screamed his name as loudly as she could, but after
yelling until her throat burned she determined that Satadon had placed a spell
on the wall, or even moved her to a different temple altogether. Crumpling to
the ground, she cried for the better part of an hour. The thought of Nathan,
alone, at the hands of the Dark Lord, forced her to scream anew and weep
convulsively all over again.
gathered herself and started her long trek through the temple. At first her
feet fell mindlessly one in front of the other. As much as she wanted to give
in to her pain and die, she willed herself forward. Satadon had no doubt taken
Nathan, why not give herself to him as well? In the end, her love for Racquel
and Estrella strengthened her heart and spirit.
And so it went,
day after day, hour after starving hour, with no water except what she could
draw from the damp stones.
lightly across the hallway, switching hands and dragging her left palm across
the faces of the Aztec Gods. She went by one while thinking of Nathan and
almost missed the slight difference in the stonecutter’s creation. Passing two
more before she realized it, she backed up a step, carefully retracing her
It was different, she hadn’t touched this
combination before anywhere within the temple. She knelt, closing her eyes even
though it made no difference in the inky darkness. She felt better doing so,
drawing her powers of concentration to a finely tuned point. Starting with the
bottom stone, she caressed the sculpture, sketching a mental image of the
carving. Balancing her kneecaps against the rough, uneven dirt floor, she
brought her right alongside her left. Using the fingers of both hands, she
worked her way up and around the wall of images.
mistakes trying to find the correct sequence, she grabbed a small pebble,
flinging it to her right. She listened, finally hearing it softly bounce
against more dirt. Frustrated, she grabbed another, a larger stone this time.
She turned and after bracing herself by pressing her palm against the ground,
she threw it as hard as she could. The stone finally clacked against another
wall, signifying the next turn in the maze.
There must be dozens of carvings along this wall,
she thought. Maybe hundreds. She looked straight
down, ready to quit trying. Then she smiled, almost laughing at a thought. She
had nothing but time, and if it took a week or even a month to decipher the
secrets the wall held, she would spend the hours until she solved the riddle.
slowly, stretching her limbs and giving her mind a moment’s peace. Certain she
hadn’t moved from the spot where she’d discovered the first few stones in the
sequence, she sat, facing the wall. Crossing her legs, she took time to make
herself comfortable. She reached out with both hands and began gliding her
fingers lightly along the carvings.
“Don’t give up
on me, Nathan,” she said. “I’ll find my way back to you, I promise.”
The trembling of
the cavern walls worried Misterioso. Cracks appeared from nowhere, sending
showers of pebbles raining down on the two dragons. The floor rippled
underneath Misterioso’s massive paws, daring him to take a wrong step. The
largest of the Sun Dragons draped his body over his lord’s, spreading his
thick, tightly scaled wings from Magnifico’s nose to his tail. He waited,
calling silently to Sol.
how long he’d been hiding in the cave. Many times he’d nearly passed out from
hunger. Now food seemed like something from another life, or a dream. Sleep had
become a luxury. Whenever he fell into a deep slumber the cave would wake
again, jarring him back to his duty. Magnifico’s life came before his, he knew
this, and at times he would repeat the short phrase for hours just to hold
ceased, leaving the cave silent again. A tear fell from the tiny scales around
Misterioso’s eye. He couldn’t remember how many times the walls had come alive,
but he knew what the sound represented. Satadon was searching for Magnifico.
Every time the caverns trembled, the Dark Lord’s fingers stretched a little
farther beyond the Aztec city, deeper into every lake, every canal, every
structure, trying to sense his enemy’s life force. Twice the shaking frightened
Misterioso so badly, he’d left his lord and crept toward the mouth of the cave
a crack in the fragile stone, he’d seen a sickly spirit slowly snaking its way
around the vast lake surrounding Tenochtitlan. The eerie form looked completely
clear, the only way he’d known something had been there was by watching the
leaves and brush momentarily move aside. A shiver had run the length of his
body as he realized it was Satadon in yet another form, and when a finger of
the shimmering spirit turned in his direction, Misterioso almost bolted from
the entrance to save Magnifico. The desperation of fear caused him to vanish
without consciously summoning the spell.
As quickly as it
seemed to spot him, it turned away again. After holding his breath longer than
he wished, Misterioso turned his massive bulk and walked through the maze of
tunnels, backtracking to where he’d left his lord.
condition worried him even more than the unstable cave. If Misterioso didn’t
believe in Sol’s mystical powers, he might have given him up for dead long ago.
Every once in a while he’d nudge Magnifico’s jaw gently, or peel an eyelid up
to try and find a sign of life. When the temperature in the cave dropped, he
would nestle his huge body close, cuddling his lord, hoping that his fire might
ignite something within Magnifico’s soul.
Misterioso to look upon Magnifico, so powerful and capable, and yet here,
completely lifeless. He couldn’t stand seeing him splayed out like a hunter’s
trophy. He’d manhandled Magnifico’s body, pushing the legs, head, and tail into
positions they’d normally assume if a dragon were merely sleeping.
The lack of food
and sun had taken a terrible toll on Misterioso’s mind. During times of extreme
hunger and exhaustion he discussed battle plans with his lord. Even though he
heard no response, he felt better pretending to talk with Magnifico. Sometimes
the giant dragon would play both roles, speaking Magnifico’s parts as well as
his own. He would try anything to keep his mind on his duty.
said to a rock wedged into the wall of the cavern. “Magnifico needs you, and so
forward with one curved, bony claw and plucked the rock from its perch. “I
don’t know how much longer I can hold on. I will stay to the end, but if you
can hear me, make your way here as quickly as you can.”
exhaled a stream of potent dragon fire, heating the cavern wall behind
Magnifico. He waved his mouth and nose around, baking the thick rock until it
glowed brightly. Small portions fell away from the wall, followed by molten
dribbles of liquid stone. He withdrew his fire, watching Magnifico’s back and
He walked the
length of his lord’s body. Grabbing the tip of the tail in his massive teeth,
he pulled it taut and reshaped it so it curled around the body in a regal
fashion. Next he checked each paw, turning a toe or a claw an inch or two one
way or another so all four lay in perfect sequence with each other. He crossed
the two forepaws as his lord always did when relaxing with Estrella or
receiving counsel from his generals. Finally, he repositioned Magnifico’s head,
just a little, laying it across the top forepaw.
He bid the
master dragon a good night’s sleep before stoking the walls one last time.
Closing his eyes, he whispered a personal plea to Sol, once again asking the
sun to use its greatness to revive the lord of the Sun Dragons. Then he looked
up at the cave’s ceiling, through the thick rock, to the stars above.
lady,” he said. “Please hurry.”
The last dragon
of his kind laid his head next to Magnifico’s forepaw and pressed his cheek
against his lord’s. He heaved a great sigh and settled into what he knew would
be another night of troubled sleep.
The Forest of Forever
The mention of
his dragon’s name shook Diego. He recalled the last time he’d seen Magnifico,
just before Ajur had convinced him to run. Unmoving, with no sign of life, and
not a single breath, Diego had left him outside the walls of Tenochtitlan. The
memory brought tears to his eyes. He looked down, quickly wiping away his
Magnifico, every single sharp-tongued part of him. Yes, his dragon harassed him
at times, sometimes even acted downright rudely to him, but Diego understood, and
he loved him all the more for it.
In the time
before the first sun, Magnifico and he were destined to be paired as dragon and
guide. As the leader of the Sol Dragones, it would be Magnifico’s task to train
him, toughen him up, and force him to become a man well before his time. He’d
done his job impressively, sometimes with a little too much spirit. Their fight
at the quarry hadn’t been an act; Magnifico might have killed him if Estrella
hadn’t shown up and surprised them both. Thus were the ways of dragons, it
wasn’t his privilege to understand the ancient code.
The reason for
his tears suddenly shifted. He remembered how fast he’d run to his dragon after
he’d been brought down by his mate. The look on Magnifico’s face when Estrella
began scolding him brought a smile to Diego’s face, but just as quickly the
pain of his loss returned. He looked around at the giant cats, at Conor, and at
the strange, thickly forested world they inhabited.
“We have to go
back,” he said, looking at Maya. He knew by the tabby’s wise composure that he
led this small army of capable warriors. “I want to be there when he wakes.”
“We will return,
Diego, but at the appropriate time. The Dark Lord may not be able to see
everything, but I fear his presence can touch every square inch of that city.
When I’m confident we can access a corridor that will place us beyond the
boundary of his senses, I will draw it forth.”
understands,” said Purugama, extending a wing over Diego’s shoulder. “We all
appreciate your feelings for Magnifico. He is a cunning warrior and a brilliant
leader for the Sol Dragones. The two of you have bonded in a way only other
dragons and guides will ever understand.”
golden eyes shifted, and he paused momentarily. “Or perhaps in a way Conor and
I will always comprehend.”
He blinked once,
returning to the task at hand. “But we must be cautious, because Satadon may
not be our only concern.”
Conor. “When did the first warrior disappear from the Crossworlds?”
The Lord of the
champions shifted his gaze. “He vanished the instant Ajur passed through to
this world. He left word with no one, least of all with the Lady of the Light.”
“Who’s the first
warrior?” asked Diego.
sitting around Maya turned their eyes in his direction. Maya looked down, shook
his furry head.
“It might be
kinda tough to explain,” said Conor.
“Try me,” said
Diego. “After everything I’ve seen in the last few years, I think I can handle
Conor,” said Purugama. “Tell him exactly as you’d wish to be told.”
“He’s me,” said
warrior of the Crossworlds is the mightiest champion ever to fight for good in
the worlds where all these cats live.”
“So, what do you
mean, he’s you?”
“When I was
eighteen years old,” said Conor, “I fought…”
“Espera un minuto,” said Diego. “What do you mean, when you were eighteen?”
“I told you it’d
“I fought the
most horrible creature you can imagine, and after defeating it, I had only
seconds to turn back a gigantic weapon that would have destroyed our world. I
decided to accept a reincarnation, a transformation that allowed the first
warrior to re-emerge in my body.”
Like a damp
blanket dropped onto a bed of flowers, silence fell over the forest of forever.
“So the warrior
lives with these big cats?” asked Diego.
disappeared from the earth when you were eighteen and just showed up in my
little town as a twelve year old, is that right?”
“Pretty much. I
guess the change happened to both of us at the same time. The first warrior
took over my body when I was eighteen and I transformed into a younger version
Diego. “No way.”
that is how it happened,” said Maya. “All souls have a right to continue,
Diego, whether they take form in another life or live eternally in a blissful
existence of their own belief.
At first the
creators of the Crossworlds didn’t agree with our decision about Conor. They’d
waited twenty thousand years for their champion to return. They felt no
connection to the young boy Purugama had found, and they showed little faith in
“The Lady of the
Light chose Conor, Diego. He fought beside us for eight years before finally
yielding to the creators’ plan. He gave his life for the woman he loved, for
every person living on your world, and for the Crossworlds.”
“¡El espíritu! The
spirit on the soccer field,” said Diego, looking over at Conor. “The day
everyone started disappearing. You knew it was a dark spirit from a different
place. That’s why you told me to run after you said it hadn’t come for you.”
Diego paced a
few steps, then suddenly stopped and looked up. “That’s why Magnifico and
Estrella treated you the way they did at the horse club.”
are interlinked, Diego,” said Maya. “All mystical creatures are aware of each
other, of the good and evil surrounding them, of each other’s struggles,
battles, and triumphs.”
“And yet you
came here to help Diego,” said Conor. “After what Purugama told me, about the
danger to everything in the Crossworlds.”
“No,” said Maya
without changing his expression. He looked at his champions, then back at
Conor. “We crossed over to save Magnifico.”
The tension slid
off Diego’s shoulders like melting ice from a cliff. “Órale. Gracias.”
Surmitang both chuffed silently. Eha smiled. Ajur’s granite face gave away
nothing. Purugama withdrew his wing from Diego’s shoulder.
appreciation is unnecessary, young man. We are here to try and save one of the
greatest creatures dimensional space has ever known. You are his guide. For
that reason you’re important to him and to us. In the end, after everything has
been accomplished, after everyone attempts to revive him, it may be up to you.
You could be the only person with the ability to draw him out of the darkness.
continued Maya. “I believe you were in the middle of introductions. Please
continue. I must go and try to establish contact with our Lady.”