Chapter One – The Palace
This couldn’t be the same Jaguar Empire which Toa had been raised in. These couldn’t be the jungles where he’d scavenged for fruit, the rivers he’d played in all day, or the golden temples which had towered over him. Now the jungles were brown and dead, the rivers were stagnant and dirty, and the gold had been stripped from the half-collapsed temples. And it was all because of the sun.
Toa gazed upwards through the canopy, thin and withered. It was noon, yet he didn’t need to squint, because the sun was a pitch-black disk in the middle of the sky. It had been that way since he’d left ten years ago.
Yet that wasn’t the reason Toa had trekked so far through this dead and overgrown land. It wasn’t why he’d stumbled for days through the endless darkness. That wasn’t why he gripped his club lined with shark’s teeth. He had no reason to care for that sun, but what he was going to do would still restore it to the way it had been.
When the sun had been full, he hadn’t needed to wear much as he traversed through the Jaguar Empire. It had been hot all year round, even underneath the jungle canopy. But now it was so dismally cold, he had to wear a cloak over his mahogany skin and tattoos. He even had to wear shoes woven from reeds, which he wasn’t used to. They rubbed against the back of his feet and left blisters.
But he still kept walking. He would hike as far and as long as it took, cut through any amount of overgrown jungle, and squash any tropical insects or animals he encountered. He’d been waiting for this for ten years, half of his life.
The lack of sunlight left him listless and tired, and made it difficult to know when to stop and rest and when to rise and keep going. He replenished his energy with coca, a plant grown on the lower mountain slopes, although it was weaker than it had been before with no sun to enrich the plants. He’d brought plenty of salted fish with him, which the people in the northern country of Fortis used to deal with their long, dark winters. Using something from that country made his skin crawl, but it was the only way he could continue.
As he approached what had once been Cizon, the capital city, the jungle didn’t thin out as it had once done. He did recognise some landmarks, overgrown by a decade’s worth of withered vegetation. That had been his favourite beach to play on as a child. And that was the temple which had offered free food to travellers heading towards the city on a pilgrimage. His heart beat faster and his blood ran hotter. He was getting closer to what he’d craved for a decade. He’d never killed before, but he would make an exception.
He didn’t realise he had reached Cizon until he stepped on a broken tile. Back when he’d lived in the city, he would have been greeted by music, rows of brightly coloured buildings, and the sounds of a bustling marketplace. The drums, ocarinas, and flutes were silent now, the paint had peeled from the stone walls, and the marketplace was empty. It was nothing more than a huge, barren square full of weeds. Snakes and spiders, even larger than the ones he’d encountered in the jungle, scuttled around the abandoned houses. Black-winged birds gave him warning caws from the branches of trees which had taken root from the buildings.
The city was eerily quiet except for the bird calls. The thousands of people who had once inhabited Cizon had long since fled, or been killed. Fragments of their skeletons littered the streets, still in the positions they’d been left in as they’d tried to escape. Toa did his best to avoid stepping on them, but a few times he heard a sickening ‘crunch’ under his feet. The bones were impossible to avoid entirely in the darkness.
The only part of the city which remained somewhat the same was the surrounding lake, although it now lay murky and still, no longer glittering in the sun. A few abandoned boats lay half-submerged in the harbour. Once, those docks had been full of boats bringing goods from all over the world to the markets, and sending out their own produce to bring in further riches. Toa had escaped from that harbour years ago. The canals criss-crossing Cizon had run dry and were covered in weeds, mud, and sludge.
Toa squeezed through a narrow gap in the wall encircling the palace. He never would have been able to do this before, but the wall had been wrecked by a collapsed statue. The gates were still locked and bolted, even all these years later.
That had been the start of it, Toa remembered with a shiver. The invading army had closed the gate during a festival. Everybody had been dancing, singing, and having a good time. They’d been drinking alcohol and taking peyote which had lowered their guard. That was how the Inquisition had enclosed all the most important people in the Empire – the politicians, nobles, and the royal family – inside the walls. It had made it easy to massacre them.
Toa recognised more places within these walls. That was the square where they’d celebrated his tenth birthday, only a few months before the Inquisition, now stained with blood. And that was the royal library where he’d taken his lessons, still bearing arrow holes in the door. And that was…
Toa seethed and clutched his club tighter. That was a statue of the emperor, towering over the square before the palace. It was supposed to depict him with his arms outstretched in a welcoming gesture, yet with the gold long since stripped and pillaged and the caked-on layers of dirt, it appeared more sinister. Why hadn’t it been torn down? It was Emperor Tezcacoatl’s fault that the Jaguar Empire lay in disarray. It was his fault that Toa no longer had a mother.
He took the lofty stairs leading to the palace, shaped like a pyramid with a flat roof, cutting through the vines which had taken it over. It was fortunate for him that there were no longer guards lining each step. Even the statues of the Empire’s gods sitting on each plinth were smashed to pieces or robbed of their jewels and paint. Not that it mattered to Toa. Those gods had never done him any good, and they’d clearly failed the people they were supposed to protect.
He grimaced at the last remaining statue on the highest plinth, the serpent god Nyzotlyx. Even after a decade of wear, he could still make out the extensive, twisting body and the forked tongue sticking out its regal mouth. He was supposed to be the mightiest of all the gods and defend the Jaguar Empire in its time of greatest need. It was once believed that the emperor was the reincarnation of Nyzotlyx after he had given up his mortal life to live amongst humans. But the Inquisition had proven that the emperor was nothing more than a man like any other. And that meant he could be killed like any other man.
Toa heaved open the massive front door. It was challenging, not only because it had remained closed tightly for ten years, but also because it was the height of two palm trees. Once he had cracked it open and slipped through, Toa marched into the palace. His eyes had grown used to the darkness during his trek through the Empire, but in the gloom of the palace, he almost couldn’t make out anything but an unending cavern of black. Once his eyes finally adjusted, he realised the inside had also been stripped of anything remotely valuable and clearly hadn’t been cleaned in a long time. Rubble, dust, and crumbling pieces of the ceiling lay strewn everywhere. Toa had to pull his cloak over his mouth to avoid coughing and giving himself away.
His footsteps echoed through the wide chambers, which were bigger than he remembered them being as a child. The only other noise was a distant echo from deep within the palace. It sounded almost like a baby’s cry, but that was impossible. It had to be an illusion brought on by the wind wafting through the empty expanse.
Once these rooms had been filled with people; palace servants, officials, and the royal family. Now they were empty of everything but the spiders and rats scuttling around Toa’s feet. At least they had found a comfortable home in this wretched pyramid.
“Hey, what are you…?”
Toa jolted and turned at the sound of voices. So, it wasn’t completely empty after all.
“An intruder!” a woman said, emerging out of the shadows and squinting at Toa’s unfamiliar shape.
“But intruders never come in here,” another, taller woman said, joining her side. A third-gender person, Toa assumed by her build.
They were thin, their spear blades dull, and their faces pinched as they took him in. Judging by their red and yellow tunics, the sun pattern on their collars, and the dusty pelts hanging off their shoulders, Toa could see these were members of the jaguar knights, the emperor’s personal guard. The heads of what had once been wild jaguars hung over their own heads, appearing even more dead than anything else in the palace. He was surprised they were still there. He’d assumed they had abandoned the palace long ago. What reason did they have to remain here? Toa was clearly the first intruder they’d faced in a long time.
“What should we do?” the first woman asked.
“Stop him, of course!” a third knight said, appearing out of the gloom. This one was male, and the straggly plumes of his headdress gave him away as their captain. “That’s what we’re here for.”
“But… but I haven’t done that in a long time, Panen,” the taller woman whined, clutching her spear as if she didn’t know what it was for.
“Well… attack him!” Panen said, taking out his own weapon and lunging towards Toa.
He’d anticipated this. He drew his own weapon far swifter, and was clearly much more practised in combat. The knight grimaced as his club was blocked by Toa’s.
He hadn’t seen weapons such as these in a long time, but he recognised them as macuahuitl – wooden clubs embedded with obsidian blades. Those stones had once been the most precious in the whole Empire, sharp enough to kill an enemy with a single blow, yet precise enough to be used by surgeons. But against an experienced fighter such as Toa, they proved useless.
“How did you get in here?” Panen asked as his weapon-wielding arm shook. It was thin enough for Toa to fit his fist around it.
“I walked in through the front door,” Toa said stoically. “You’re in my way,” he added, quickening past them.
“Wait, you can’t… stop!” the knights called after him, but made no motion to follow.
He strode deeper into the palace, the sights becoming more familiar underneath the layers of dirt. He recognised the mural of the crocodile god Cipactli, who the versed storytellers claimed had created the Jaguar Empire by dragging the land up from the depths of the sea. Tears stung the corners of his eyes. It had to be the dust. He brushed them away. He couldn’t show any weakness now.
He burst through a closed set of doors, which had once been golden and ornately decorated and were now half-rotted. These were the personal quarters of the emperor and his family. At any other time, nobody would have been able to march in here without resistance. The hallway was littered with smashed objects, as if they’d been thrown against the walls in a fit of rage and left to gather dust. The lack of sunlight was even more prominent here and Toa had to feel his way along the wall. Curtains were drawn on every window, even though there was no sunlight to block out. It was as if someone didn’t wish to look upon the outside world.
He checked the emperor’s bedroom. Not there. Then the parlour. Not there either. There was only one other place he could be. He opened the doors to the throne room, where the emperor had once commanded the entire Empire.
On the throne, hunched over a chess set missing half its pieces, Toa found him. His eyes raised as he took in the newcomer. He peered through the gloaming, trying to figure out if he was hallucinating or seeing things in the shadows. As Toa tore across the wide room, the man’s breath caught and his eyes widened with recognition.
“It’s been a while, Father,” Toa addressed Emperor Tezcacoatl.
Chapter Two – Confrontation
Scoping him closer and squinting in the darkness, Toa could see only the barest resemblance of the man he’d once known. He seemed to have aged fifty years in a decade. His hair was stone-grey and his skin wrinkled and sallow from the lack of sunlight. His eyes were baggy and lost. His mouth opened and shut several times before he finally found his words.
“Toa, what are you… You’re so big.”
“I’m not the child I was when I left, Father.”
“What… why are you here?”
“To get revenge for what happened to Mother,” Toa said, pointing his saw-toothed club at his father’s heart.
“I see,” the emperor said, lowering his eyes and letting his body droop. “I should have known this was coming eventually. It may as well come from you. I made you suffer the most, after what I allowed to happen to Leilani.”
Toa stalled. This wasn’t what he’d been expecting. He hadn’t entertained the notion that his father would accept his death willingly.
But that didn’t matter, he realised. He still had to kill him, even if it was what he wanted. He let out the traditional Hanaleila war cry, ensuring his voice filled the entire room, echoing from wall to wall. It was intended to intimidate an enemy and bring fear into their hearts. Finally, he raised his club and lunged towards the emperor. His blood raced. He’d been waiting years for this moment. It was going to be so sweet.
“No!” a shout arose from the side of the room.
Toa was only inches away from his father when his body halted. He couldn’t move. Something restricted his waist, holding him back. He looked in the direction of the shout to see a thin pair of arms wrapped around him, gripping him with all the strength they still held. It was one of the jaguar knights, given his pelt. He would have been handsome and even majestic if it hadn’t been for his dirty clothes, blotchy skin, and weak frame.
“Let go!” Toa said, trying to pull away, but only making it a few inches across the floor.
“No! I won’t let you hurt him,” the knight said as he was dragged behind him, digging his bare heels into the ground. For such a slight man, he was amazingly hardy.
“Don’t you see what he’s done? I have to kill him,” Toa said, breaking out of the man’s grasp.
Before he could rush the final distance to the emperor, an invisible force gripped his entire body. He gaped downwards and saw a purple aura stretched around his body like a gleaming rope. This man was a magic user. Even with all his training, Toa couldn’t match magic. He hadn’t been born with the gift and had never studied spells. Only one person in his family possessed natural magic, but he was revulsed just thinking about her.
“Give it up, Cualli,” Panen, the jaguar knight’s captain, said as he trailed into the room, the other knights following, clutching their weapons clumsily as they tried to figure out what they should do. “You can’t fight somebody like him.”
“I… won’t let… him…” Cualli said, his voice strained as he held out his hands, threads of magical energy emanating from them.
“Uh… shouldn’t we help him?” one of the other knights said, swivelling her gaze to Panen for orders.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Panen said plainly.
The emperor could only gape at the scene before him. He didn’t try to run away and none of the incompetent knights raced to his side to save him. Toa was within arm’s reach. He only had to free his weapon hand, then he could slash at the emperor, cut his throat, and his revenge would be over with. Everything he’d been hoping for years would be done. But this knight was making it so much more difficult.
“Don’t you understand? He has to die!” Toa bellowed.
Even without any sunlight, Toa could see the defeat in his father’s eyes, and the determination in Cualli’s.
“The number of people who died because of him… He has to die too!” Toa continued.
“How will that change anything?” Cualli said, his eyes meeting Toa’s, fixed upon him. Even in the darkness, they seemed to be on fire.
“Because when he dies, your sun will turn back to normal,” Toa said, finally wrenching his arm out of the magical bonds and raising his club. He’d practised this killing blow for years.
“I’ve had quite enough of this, boys!” a shrill voice sounded across the room.
Toa’s spine prickled. He recognised that voice. He’d spent years listening to it drone on in libraries and classrooms. But before he had time to fully process it, his body was lifted off the floor and pulled away from Cualli. His weapon fell with a clatter to the ground. Toa reached to grab it, but he couldn’t move. Magical energy circled around him, this one giving off a green glow. He knew magical auras were different colours based upon the user’s type of magic and personality, but he’d never bothered to learn what each colour meant. He noticed the same magic threads wrapped around Cualli, who struggled against the bonds. Before they knew it, they were rushing towards one another. Their heads collided and they let out a collective yelp of pain. The magic dissipated and they fell to the ground, clutching their aching heads.
“Really, Toa, I would have thought you’d matured during the years you’ve been away,” a woman said, stepping towards them, her walking stick clacking against the ground.
“N… Nochtli?” Toa stammered, taking in the Emperor’s Advisor.
She hadn’t been much more than skin stretched across a skeleton when he’d left, and now she was practically a fossil. Her dress was dusty and threadbare, hanging off her near-skeletal body. “I think you need some time to think about what you’ve done,” she said before raising her staff with her bony arms and striking Toa across the head.
His world went as black as the sun.
“You had the good fish yesterday, Zilli,” one of the jaguar knights said, pulling with all her strength but unable to tug the clay bowl out of the other’s hands. “I’ve only eaten rat for three days. It’s my turn.”
“Well you’ve been hogging the only clean bowl, Yoliya,” Zilli said, heaving hers away.
“I have not!” Yoliya whined as she picked herself up from the ground, waving slightly. She’d been at the peyote again, as evident from her dazed eyes and sluggish movements. Her jaguar pelt hung upside down so the head appeared to be roaring at her bottom. “I haven’t had it in over a month.”
“I saw you using it yesterday. If you get the good bowl, I get the good fish,” Zilli said, speaking too loudly as always, shovelling the food into her mouth before Yoliya could grab it off her. Her third-gender body was stouter and stronger than Yoliya’s wiry frame, but it wouldn’t have mattered, for the other knight was far too stoned to move any faster.
“Neither of you deserves fish or clean bowls after your failure yesterday,” Panen said, marching over to the women and knocking the bowl out of Zilli’s hands, smashing it and sending the last of their fish falling to the filthy ground.
They could only look down, afraid to meet the captain’s ink-black eyes, his heavy brows crossed and lingering.
“Now now, I’m sure we can sort this out,” Cualli said, rising and crossing to the other side of the jaguar knight’s barracks to face them. “Surely you can split the fish between you, and you can both use the bowl after it’s been cleaned.”
“But she used all the clean water on her pelt,” Yoliya argued as she kicked Zilli in the stomach.
“Then you can go to the lake and get some more,” Zilli replied, barely feeling the kick.
“But that’s so far! And there are snakes out there.”
“There are snakes in here,” Yoliya said, picking up a piece of vine, throwing it down the back of Zilli’s tunic, and grabbing the bowl as she screamed.
“Give it up, Cualli. It’s not going to work,” Panen said as he returned to lounging on the only chair which still had all four of its original legs. Most of the other knights were doing the same throughout the room. Many of them had barely left the barracks in the ten years they’d been stuck there.
“Panen, you’re our captain. Shouldn’t you be resolving these disputes?” Cualli asked.
“Are you trying to give an order to your captain?” Panen asked, flashing him a sharp gaze.
“Just because you defended the emperor yesterday, that doesn’t automatically make you the new captain.”
“Yeah, you were useless, anyway,” Yoliya said, perking up and swaying to Panen’s side.
“If Nochtli hadn’t been there, the emperor would have been assassinated thanks to you,” Zilli added, her arms crossed over her wide chest.
“I… I didn’t think it through…” Cualli said, gripping his spear tighter.
“Why are you even carrying that thing, anyway?” Panen said, wrenching it out of his hand and throwing it to the ground with a clatter.
“Because it’s our duty as jaguar knights-”
“Look around you, there is nothing to defend.”
“But Prince Toa broke into the palace yesterday and tried to kill the emperor.”
“Are you saying I couldn’t defend the emperor?”
“Well, you didn’t-”
“So, you are trying to become captain, aren’t you? That’s why you jumped in to fight Prince Toa.”
“That’s not why!”
“It didn’t matter, anyway. If Nochtli hadn’t been there, you would have been killed along with him,” Zilli said.
“Honestly, you never think, Cualli,” Panen continued. “Magic is wasted on someone like you. The gods should have granted it to me instead. I would have used it right.”
The knight cowered underneath his pelt.
“At least Prince Toa trying to assassinate the emperor was something to do,” Yoliya said as she swatted at a fly, letting it fall into an ever-growing pile. “It was the first interesting thing that’s happened in ten years.”
“But even that was over too quickly,” Zilli said, picking at the few clean pieces of fish on the ground.
“Maybe if we were to leave…”
“And go where?” Panen cut in. “Nobody else will accept us. And how would we even get through that jungle, anyway?”
“You’re right. It’s safer here.”
“Well, if the emperor doesn’t need us then why don’t we move away? To Fortis or the Ember Deserts?” Zilli asked.
“Because those places are even worse than the Empire,” Panen said.
“How do you know if you’ve never been there?”
“I don’t need to go there to know. They don’t trust people from the Jaguar Empire. They’ll spit on us and call us slurs.”
“I’m not sure if that is any worse than being stuck here.”
“Trust me, it is. We’re better off where we are,” Panen said, leaning back on the faded cushions.
Cualli sat by the window, away from the others. He wasn’t sure whether it was morning or evening. It was impossible to tell anymore, and it didn’t matter. The knights no longer kept to any kind of schedule. Even if there had been any sunlight, there wouldn’t be anything to see. Just the same ruined, gloomy city he’d been gazing over for the past ten years. Nothing ever changed out there, and it didn’t change in here. The Empire which Cualli had been born and raised in was long gone and he was never going to see it again.
Now he was nothing more than a failed knight in a crumbling palace. He was one of the only knights who still maintained his weapons, practised his fighting skills, and made his regular patrols. The others mostly lingered in the barracks and accepted their dismal fate. None of them saw much point in maintaining their weapons or patrolling. Many didn’t even wear their jaguar pelts anymore, except to keep out the chill. Cualli had performed his duty of defending the emperor once in ten years, and he’d even failed at that.
“I deserve more than this,” Panen lamented. “Before the Inquisition, I was part of a noble family. Were you, Cualli?”
“N… no. I’m from a regular family of farmers.”
“And yet you still try to order me around,” Panen said, shaking his head. “I was never supposed to be like you. I was supposed to rise through the ranks of the jaguar knights. But instead, I’m stuck here with all of you, eating spiders and pickled fish.”
“Well, what does it matter?” Yoliya said, sitting on the floor and picking at the grime between her toes. “Even before the Inquisition, the royal family were the only ones with any real power.”
Panen’s eyes widened and he sat up straighter. “The royals are the only ones with power…”
“Is something wrong?” Cualli asked.
“Nothing’s wrong,” Panen said as he rose to his feet with more vigour than Cualli had seen from him in a decade. “I need to go and help the emperor, is all. Unlike some, I can still perform my duties,” he added with a glare at Cualli as he departed the room.
Chapter Three – Family Dinner
Toa wasn’t certain how long he’d lingered in the cold storage room. He’d woken some time ago with a pounding headache, finding himself alone, surrounded by chilled limestone walls and mostly empty shelves. He instinctively reached for his weapons but they weren’t at his waist holster. They must have been taken when he’d been thrown in here. Once his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, he rooted around for food, but found only tins of pickled fish. He wasn’t hungry enough to touch those, and hated to think how long they’d been there.
He was starting to regret ever coming here. It hadn’t gone even remotely as he’d hoped. He should have stayed in Hanaleila like his grandfather had insisted. It was peaceful and prosperous there, unlike the Jaguar Empire. They had magic which kept it hidden from invaders. And the sun still shone, making the ocean sparkle and the crops grow plentiful. But he’d never been able to fully enjoy the peace of his home island with the weight of his mother’s death hanging over him. He’d always known that someday he would return to kill his father, and had been training every day for ten years. But after all that, it had failed spectacularly. He didn’t know what he could do to enact his revenge now.
He couldn’t tell how much time had passed before he heard a ‘click’ on the other side of the door as it was unlocked. He tensed and reached for his holster before remembering he didn’t have any weapons.
Light peeked in through the crack as the door heaved open. His eyes adjusted to the glaring light until he realised it was merely magic emanating from Nochtli’s staff, illuminating the darkness. She also used her walking stick to command her magic.
Now Toa heeded her closer, he saw she still wore the colourful robes of the Emperor’s Advisor, although they hadn’t been fixed and barely washed in a decade. All the leaves in her headdress had long since dried and shrivelled up. Even the earrings of once-colourful stones hanging from her lobes were dull without any sunlight to reflect off them.
“Have you calmed down now, Toa?” she asked as she took him in.
“Why did you lock me up in here?” he replied.
“The spiders in the jail cells tend to bite. And you did need to cool off.” The door opened wider. Nochtli didn’t hesitate or appear afraid. She knew her power could overwhelm him. “You’re probably hungry. I’ve prepared dinner.”
“You did?” Toa asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Yes, the chefs all had to be let go. Or did they leave? I can’t quite remember. But regardless, there’s nobody left to cook so I’ve been doing it myself. Don’t you want anything?”
As if on cue, Toa’s stomach growled. He must have been in the cold storage room for longer than he realised. And he hadn’t eaten anything more than coca leaves and salted fish since arriving on the Empire’s shore. He’d been so driven by his desire for revenge that he’d barely even stopped to eat.
Nochtli shuffled aside to let him out and strained to close the door behind him. A stronger set of arms reached out to heave the door for her. The hairs on the back of Toa’s neck prickled as he recognised the man. He knew the arms which had gripped onto him so tightly.
“You! Why did you stop me from killing my father?” Toa demanded, wishing he had his weapons.
“Because it’s my job. You were going to kill the emperor!” the knight – Toa vaguely remembered his name was Cualli – replied, his russet eyes bearing into Toa. He gripped his obsidian-topped spear tighter.
“This way,” Nochtli said, leading him, hobbling slowly with her staff-turned-walking stick. She didn’t need to remind him that fighting back or trying to escape would be useless with a magician on either side.
“What happened to all our stuff?” Toa asked as he paced the bare hallways.
“Most of it was looted after… well, after what happened. I imagine it’s all in some foreign black markets by now.”
Eventually they reached what had once been the casual dining room. Even back then, the room had been sparse and plain compared to the rest of the palace. Now it was barely more than a table and a few rickety chairs. Toa’s heart lurched when he recalled family dinners in this room.
When his mother had been there. He hoped there was no trace of her left. Seeing it would be too painful, and a harsh reminder of his failure to enact revenge for her death.
“Have a seat,” Nochtli said, indicating a chair at the end of the table.
Emperor Tezcacoatl sat at the other end, looking up as Toa trudged in, then casting his eyes back to his chipped stone plate as he sat down. Toa wasn’t sure whether to glare and snarl at him or avoid his gaze entirely. What he really wanted was to grab a fork, leap across the table, and lodge it into his father’s throat.
But that would be impossible with the jaguar knights lining the side of the room, eyeing him from underneath the heads of their pelts, scraggly and dusty after a decade of disuse. From the way they barely held still and gripped their spears clumsily, it seemed to be the most work they’d done in a decade. Cualli took his place just behind Toa, not near enough that he could see the knight, but just close enough that he could feel his presence.
“Please, tuck in,” Nochtli said, seating herself at the middle of the table and pouring out drinks of dirty water.
In Toa’s youth, this table had been piled up with food, even for a casual dinner. Now the plates were barely half full of wilted vegetables and green-tinged meats.
“You… still have food here?” Toa asked as he speared his fork into a spinach puff, which had barely anything green within.
“Of course. You saw the emergency stores. And there’s just enough growing on the vines covering the palace,” Nochtli said as she struggled to bite into an uncooked ear of corn. “And then there are the creatures within the palace to hunt.”
“Do you mean the animals in the menagerie?”
“Oh no, we ate those long ago. I’m talking about the animals that have moved in since then.”
Toa stared suspiciously at his food, remembering the spiders she’d mentioned earlier. He was too ravenous to question it and cleared the bowl within a few minutes.
The emperor didn’t say anything and merely pushed his food around his plate with a fork. There had been a time when he’d disciplined Toa for that same action. He was nothing like the man Toa had once known; proud, dominant, yet kind and light-hearted with his family. Their family dinners had been filled with jokes and laughter.
“Now you’re thinking a little clearer, we can talk properly,” Nochtli said, dabbing a stained napkin at the corners of her mouth.
“About what?” Toa said stoically as he scooped up some dried beans.
“Well, first of all, an explanation of where you’ve been since… the incident?”
The emperor did eye him slightly then.
“In Hanaleila. With Grandfather.”
Tezcacoatl’s gaze returned to his food as he muttered something which sounded like ‘That’s good’ before taking a tentative bite of his mystery meat.
“And why have you come back now after all these years?” Nochtli asked.
“Isn’t it obvious? To get revenge on him for what he did to Mother!” Toa clamoured, pointing a fork at his father.
Behind him, he felt Cualli tense. The familiar purple light drifted around him. Texcacoatl only looked away, covering his eyes with a hand. Why wouldn’t he say anything? He wouldn’t even defend himself.
“I know how upset you are. We all miss Leilani,” Nochtli said, her voice slightly strangled. “But you’re old enough to know not to act so rashly. You have to realise that killing your father won’t do any good.”
“It will bring back the sun.”
“No it won’t.”
“It… it won’t? But… he’s the reason the sun turned black.”
“That was the Inquisition,” Nochtli said with a shudder. “They used one of our ancient spells, then destroyed all our codexes so it couldn’t be undone. I’ve been looking in the few books we have left for a way to reverse it, but none of them are the right ones. It seems the magic to restore the sun is gone forever.”
The jaguar knights hung their heads and rocked on their heels at her words. The emperor barely reacted as he slowly chewed his food.
“Killing your father for revenge won’t do anything for your soul, Toa,” Nochtli continued, looking at him directly. “You may think it will give you gratification, but you’ll have to live with the action for the rest of your life. Is that really what you want?”
Toa wanted to say ‘Yes’, but instead he stared at his plate and didn’t say anything.
“Besides, Tez wasn’t even responsible for Leilani’s death. It was the Inquisition.”
“The Inquisition you were supposed to stop!” Toa said, slamming his hands on the table and rising.
Cualli’s spear poked into his arm. His purple aura coiled tighter.
“Let’s not talk about those bad memories anymore. Tez may be innocent, but you did just try to kill him, Toa. You have to face punishment for your actions.”
Toa froze, looking at the knights, their hands tense on their weapons. Cualli’s aura gripped him tighter than a rope.
“Say, I have the perfect idea,” Nochtli said, her face brightening. “You shall go and retrieve your sisters and bring them back here.”
“Nope, not happening!” Toa said, throwing his hands up, dissipating the magic aura. “Put me back in the cold storage if you want, but I’m not going anywhere near those three.”
“But they’re your sisters, Toa.”
“Half sisters,” Toa said, shooting a glare at his father, who had gained a sudden fascination with the faded pattern on his plate. The fact they’d all been born before he’d met Toa’s mother didn’t change his opinion in the slightest.
“They are still your family. Wouldn’t it be nice to have you all back here together again?”
“It wasn’t nice the first time,” Toa said, collapsing back into his seat and putting his feet up on the table. Cualli tensed, but nobody else did anything. If they were going to try and make him do things he didn’t want to, he wasn’t going to care for manners any longer. “Lilabet only ever cared about her clothes and her stupid dances. Jember was annoying and never noticed anything happening around her. And Sura… there’s no way I’m going anywhere near her,” he said with a shudder.
“That was when you were children. You’ve all grown up now. Won’t it be nice to reconnect with them? To bring your family back together?”
“My family isn’t here anymore,” Toa said, his throat tightening as he looked away.
“Yes, I know they’re not all here, but that’s all the more reason to bring back those who are left. Maybe it won’t restore the sun or the Empire, but it will at least restore your family.”
“There’s nothing left to restore,” Toa said, his throat almost closed. “It won’t make anything better. We’ll just fight like we used to and break up again.”
“He’s right, Nochtli,” Tezcacoatl said.
Toa focused on him for the first time. That was the most he’d said for the entire dinner.
“Bringing the girls back won’t do any good. I don’t even know where they are,” the emperor continued.
“Well, you can start with the Ember Deserts, since they’re closer. That’s where Binti took them when they escaped. You remember Jember’s mother, don’t you?”
“Of course I remember,” Toa said, giving his father a slight glance to gauge his reaction. He simply chewed on a piece of meat that might have come from a rat.
“Jember is probably still there. And Lilabet is most likely in Morteus. She always loved culture and art. Sura no doubt went back to Fortis.”
“Even if they agree to return, which they won’t, I can’t expect them to live here,” the emperor said, indicating the chipped paintwork, the scurrying rats, and the layers of dust. “Wherever they are, they’re probably much happier now. I can’t take that away from them.”
“Exactly,” Toa said, as much as he loathed to agree with his father. “So, I’m not going.”
“You can return to Hanaleila. I don’t want to punish you. You’ll be better off with Leilani’s family,” Tezcacoatl said without looking at him.
“Maybe the journey will do more than just find your sisters,” Nochtli said. “It could be an opportunity to find yourself, too.”
“Don’t give me that. I already know who I am.”
“I mean to find your nagual. Your shadow self. It will do wonders. I met my nagual years ago and she’s led me well ever since.”
“I can find my nagual without having to find the girls.”
“Finding your nagual can only come through great trial and hardship.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m still not going out alone to some countries I’ve never even been to.”
“Oh, I never said I was sending you out alone. One of the jaguar knights will accompany you.”
The knights lining the side of the room tensed, all exchanging wide-eyed looks.
“Which of you wants to volunteer?” Nochtli asked them. “I warn you, it will be a long and likely dangerous journey.”
“Cualli wants to do it,” the knight named Panen said, pointing at the man behind Toa. “He wants to assist one of the emperor’s children.”
“I… I do?” Cualli asked, his voice brittle.
Toa turned and took him in fully. His hair was dark and long, the sign of a skilled warrior, and tattoos criss-crossed his arms. Otherwise, he didn’t look much like a warrior or a bodyguard. Although that might have been from the lack of sunlight and food in the palace.
“Yes, he wants to do it,” Panen said firmer.
“He’d love to,” said another as the knights seemed to silently agree something amongst themselves.
“If the Captain says so,” another added.
“I… alright, then. If you really want me to,” Cualli said meekly. This couldn’t be the same man who’d overpowered Toa earlier. He couldn’t be the same person who had defended the emperor with such fervour. It was as if the fire which had burned inside him at that moment had been smothered. It reminded Toa of how he’d always been around his oldest sister, Sura. The knights probably treated him the same way she’d treated Toa. A shiver ran through him. He couldn’t actually be emphasising with the knight, could he?
“Very well,” Nochtli said, using her staff to rise to her feet, multiple joints creaking. “Both of you, stand before me.”
“I already told you, I’m not going,” Toa said, remaining rooted to the spot as Cualli paced towards the decrepit woman.
“Fine, you can stay where you are,” Nochtli said before closing her eyes.
A moment later, her staff glowed green. The magic grew in intensity, spreading around the two men. It snapped onto Toa’s left wrist and Cualli’s right. He felt it pressing into him before it dissipated. Nochtli opened her eyes.
“That should do it,” she said, wobbling slightly.
“What… did you do?” Toa asked.
“Well, I can’t risk you running off or giving up on this quest, Toa, so I bound you two together.”
“Bound?” he cried out, glaring at the faint green glow around his wrist, resembling a prisoner’s wristlet. “You mean…?”
“Yes, you two will stay close together until you bring all three of your sisters within the walls of this palace. Only then will the spell be broken,” Nochtli said, sinking to her seat and taking a long sip of her drink, the magic seeming to have drained her energy. That was the disadvantage of natural magic. Even a powerful magician such as Nochtli could be weakened by using too much at once.
“You can’t do this! Take it off!” Toa said, advancing towards the woman and holding his wrist out.
“It can’t be undone. Not until you complete your quest.”
Toa opened his mouth to protest, but nothing came out. The old woman had tricked him. She’d given him no other choice. His body sagged.
“You’ll leave at moonset,” Nochtli said.
Toa shot a gaze at his father, who didn’t say anything and pushed his still-full plate away.
The jaguar knights snickered and Cualli slanted his eyes away. He briefly caught Toa’s gaze before inspecting his own binding. This had just made things infinitely harder. How was he supposed to kill his father when he was magically bound to one of his guards? And how was he going to return home?
It seemed he had no choice. He would have to go through with this ridiculous quest and retrieve his sisters. It would be the only way to release himself from this bond. And once he did, he wouldn’t fail to kill his father.
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