As the fires burned, smoke climbed high into the afternoon sky. The sun shone hot, it beat upon him like a drum, but nothing could pry the pelt from his back. The hide made him strong, the fangs that hung above his eyes reminded him of who he was, what he had become. He was a man no more. A mere mortal lived in fear, fleeing the cats in the jungle, ducking his head before the club. He was not a man. He was a predator, a creature of the jungle. Now, the paved avenues stretched before him were his jungle. They were the woods where his prey cowered in fear, and today he would feed.
It had taken many years, many bruises and cuts, to earn the spots he wore, and he wore them with pride. His lord had given him the headdress of feathers splayed as though a crest resting upon the jaguar’s head, the feathers that adorned his shield. His club he’d fashioned himself, carefully sharpening each obsidian prism that studded the rim, an aura of death set around ornately carved wood. He’d worn the hide of the jaguar for so long it felt as though an extension of himself: it was his skin, he was the jaguar now, wielding a power his enemies could not understand, bestowed by forces beyond the mortal world. It made him strong. It made him unstoppable.
He swung a leg out and crouched, eyes narrow, scanning for his quarry. Their arrival had been noticed, and amidst the screams of commoners the defenders had arrived. They fanned out into volley lines, arms drawn back, hands gripping spear throwers as though vipers coiled, ready to strike. Their throwers flinched, but he and his brethren stood their ground. Like him, they no longer knew the fear that struck the hearts of men. They were jaguars all, fearsome and strong as the beasts that ruled the jungle. No man could stand against he who had been anointed, who shed blood for the Smoking Mirror. And so as their enemy stood poised, spears prepared, he and his jaguars let out a terrible noise, whooping and shouting and growling as though jungle cats. And without fear, they raised their shields and clubs, and charged.
Once, when they were boys, they had only been mortal. His path had begun in years past, when he was barely tall as the maize, thin and wiry as the stocks in the field. As the birds rose, so would he, and spend his days at the Telpochcalli learning how to war like a man. In those days he’d known pain. Hours each day he’d spend in class, learning the art of war. In training, learning how to defend himself and hurt his enemies. In physical trial, carrying firewood to demonstrate his strength. He’d spend weeks working as little more than a slave; digging canals and irrigation ditches, toiling in the fields, building apartment blocks and temples that aspired to the heavens.
And he had known fear. Every moment was a test; they were watched always. The slightest mistake, the lightest misstep, and he’d be beaten. His instructors beat him. His fellow students fought him. The instructors were keen to weed out the weak and impure. The other students were eager to see him fail. There was no room in his lord’s army for weakness. By the time he was seventeen, he’d seen a lifetime of violence, and it had changed him.
The slingmen hurled their stones. The spearmen loosed their spears. But it was too late. The jaguar warriors were already upon them. They dashed toward the volley lines, and at close range they pounced. The spearmen fell quickly; they were too busy reloading their ahtlatls to defend themselves. As he approached the spearman he’d marked, he’d held his arms back and leapt, macuahuitl raised to strike, carved wood studded with sharpened obsidian death. The fool managed to gather himself in time to draw a dagger. Unfortunate. With one motion, he drew back his macuahuitl and swung through. He barely noticed the jolt of the handle as the blades passed through the spearman’s spine, snapping his neck like a twig. It was a clean blow; the head tumbled carelessly from his macuahuitl and rolled down the steps.
By now, all of the spearmen had been dispatched. No prisoners, but no doubt their sacrifice would have left the Flayed Lord unsated. Now, the slingman stared on in horror, eyes wide like turkeys before the feast. Most threw down their slings and turned, fleeing into the city as though it offered them safety. That wouldn’t do; taking the city would be tedious as it was, without men trained in combat running about. Barking orders back at the other warriors, he ordered them to give chase, and they dashed through the burning gates into the city beyond.
Word of the defeat at the gates spread quickly, and now the city erupted into chaos. Women shrieked as they stumbled hastily down the streets, crying children in hand, fleeing before the invading warriors reached them. No doubt they’d heard stories, no doubt they understood what fate awaited them should they be captured, claimed as tribute by the warriors of Tenochtitlan. And so they ran. They screamed. They begged, and through it all their pleas were for naught. They were a trifling prize next to the warriors, the chieftain, and the city itself. Their service might bring his lord pleasure. Their deaths might bring him joy. But their city would bring immortality.
The heat from the spotted hide on his back, the drag from his shield, the weight of his macuahuitl in his hands, the other weapons clattering at his belt, all of it fell away as he sprinted into his jungle. He was a force of nature, and through fire and screams he tore down the streets toward the palace. The other warriors kept their heads on a swivel, but he was tunnel-visioned, eyes fixed on destiny. His macuahuitl had tasted blood, and it had merely whetted his appetite. The beast on his back was hungry.
Once they’d laughed. He was small as a boy, thin and weak. He was taunted, beaten, threatened every day. For him even more than others, the Telpochcalli was a battlefield. Each day he made it through without being struck by his instructors, maimed in training, injured carrying bundle after bundle of firewood, he had survived. But while he might survive a battle, day by day the war raged on. Their lord needed soldiers; the time to expand had come, and the gods thirsted for blood. There was no room, in the Telpochcalli or anywhere else, for weakness. To show softness, even for a moment, was to invite death.
Many of his friends died beneath the instructors’ clubs, but he survived. When he was sixteen, he’d built up enough strength to carry the shields of the eagle warriors in preparation for battle. When he was seventeen, he helped dig a new canal; months spent mired in sweat and mud that baked into bricks around his feet. Still the others leered at him, told him he would never do more than carry shields, that he would never know the thrill of battle, the taste of pulque, the touch of a woman. So long as he held no favor, he could not see battle. So long as his name carried no weight, he could not carry a macuahuitl. So long as he could not carry a club and see combat, he would never take four prisoners, and he would never take on the jaguar’s skin. He would remain a man…weak, small, mortal…forever. He could not simply accept that. His refusal to accept his place had led him into the jungle, and there he had become a predator.
He skidded to a halt, his sandals clattering across the stones. Ahead, an enemy’s macuahuitl cut the air, narrowly missing his nose. The city’s warrior has arrived at last. They were still several blocks from the palace, and no doubt they’d face a battle every step they took from here. Turning to face his attacker, he locked eyes with an enemy warrior, with a bright headdress not unlike his, bare chest and a long, flowing orange cape. Like him, his enemy carried a feathered shield and a macuahuitl, but he did not wear the jaguar’s skin. He was not an equal in combat.
The enemy warrior whooped as he drew back, swinging his macuahuitl with all his might. He ducked below the enemy’s weapon, rose in time to block another strike with his own macuahuitl. The enemy’s blades chipped, flakes of obsidian peppered them both as he swung hard, a spinning, punishing blow. The force shattered several of the enemy’s blades, dislodging them and leaving a gap in his defenses. It threw the warrior off-balance, and he finished his foe with a hard kick that sent him sprawling. A swift blow with the blunt side of his macuahuitl, and his enemy was unconscious. By the time he awoke, he would be a slave, fattened for sacrifice at the feet of the great pyramids of Tenochtitlan. The Flayed Lord would be pleased.
With the warriors vanquished, they tore off down the road, their passing eliciting screams of terror as they went. By now the city had collapsed into panic: stall owners hastily gathered what they could and ran, mothers clutched tiny children to their breasts as they cried out for help, old men hid behind low walls and abandoned carts, hoping to go unnoticed. All feared that being seen would mean capture, that they’d be hauled off in chains to Tenochtitlan, where at best they would know a life of harsh servitute, at worst they’d be flayed alive to honor the gods.
As he tore down the avenue his lungs pumped fire, but he kept his macuahuitl raised, poised to strike at a moment’s notice. He kept his shield over his midsection, guarding against ambush. At the head of the pack he sprinted, women fleeing from their path, screaming as they ran for cover. By now, the battle was practically over. The enemy would fight to the last man, no doubt, but ultimately they would lose. Now, he had but one task remaining: to find the king of this city. They were to disarm him, drag him from his palace, brutalize him before his people before at last binding him and taking him, with his warriors, to Tenochtitlan to be sacrificed. There, his lord would make an example of this lesser king, so that his city might be added to their growing empire.
That was the plan, but he was a predator. He’d tasted blood, and now he found a change of plan to be in order. His warriors were his to command: they’d grown up together, he’d proven himself many times over. They would die for him even more readily than for their lord, for he had saved their lives in battle. He had been cut and bruised, shed blood in their defense. They would never forget that.
It was dark and quiet the night he snuck out of camp and stole away into the jungle. He was nineteen, and while he left camp as a boy he returned a man. He’d walked slowly, careful not to make a sound, lest so much as an errant snap of a twig alert the sentries. If he were found before he could complete his task, he would be beaten, his weapons reduced and his hair cut. But if he could evade the sentries, by the time he returned from the jungle he’d have something none of the rest had.
The moon was full that night, and that had been a blessing. It wasn’t easy to track a predator, one accustomed to doing the tracking. The jaguar was stealthy, silent…deadly. Following it would no doubt lead him to the animal’s lair, and there the cat would have every advantage. But he, too, was a predator. Bathed in moonlight, he’d crouched low, keeping still, listening for any sign of movement. He lifted his head to sniff the wind, and at last he caught the scent of blood. It led him to a kill some distance up the bank: a deer, by the looks of its remains. Only bits of skin and blood remained; the beast he sought had dragged the bulk of the carcass off to its lair to feed. A trail of blood led off into the reeds, and he followed it cautiously as it led off through the tall grass and into the jungle. He kept low, tiptoeing through the sparse undergrowth that cowered at the feet of the tall trees. Here, it was pitch black, but he’d caught the scent; his quarry could no more escape him than its kill could escape it.
The beast had made its home in a small cavern cut into an outcropping at the foot of a tree, its tangled roots growing down over the stone. As he approached, the smell of blood grew stronger: choking copper filling the air. A few paces more, and he could hear noises: bones crunching, sinew tearing, and the low, hungry snarls of the jaguar greedily devouring his meal. It was preoccupied with his dinner, which was another blessing. Perhaps, he thought, he could sneak up on it, catch the great beast by surprise.
A false step, and his bare foot fell upon a fallen twig, dry as kindling. It snapped beneath his feet, causing both him and his quarry to pause. For a moment there was silence, nothing but the breeze rustling the leaves in the canopy high above. Neither of them had expected this moment. Neither seemed to know quite what to do. Then, at last, he heard a low, angry growl from the small cavern ahead, followed by a sharp snarl.
His instinct was to turn and flee. To run. He could probably make it to the safety of the river. The cat was a good swimmer, but he was a better one, and would be swimming for his very life. The cat might even be content to drive him off, returning quickly to its meal. Yet he stood his ground. A jaguar warrior did not run. The cat was a predator, but so was he. He’d come here to earn his name, and to do that he must stand as equal to the jaguar. A man would run. A warrior would not. And so he stood, coiled like a viper, eyes narrowed on his opponent as he slowly withdrew his dagger…
His battle that night had left him scarred and bloodied, but at sunrise as the rest of the Telpochcalli rose to begin the day, he had emerged from the jungle alone. He was limping, weak from exertion, dizzy for loss of blood, but he was alive. And now, the spots of that fearsome cat were draped across his body, a testament to his identity as a god among men. Those spots gave him strength as he stood poised outside the palace, rallying his men for the final push. Resistance had fully collapsed, as most of the enemy warriors had fled into the jungle, lost amongst the trees to live in cowardice. The only warriors remaining lay within the palace. There, no doubt, the king had reserved his finest warriors for his personal defense. Once again, he found himself poised before the lair of a great beast. Yet now, he knew no fear, and with a final rallying whoop to his men, he swung his macuahuitl forward, and charged.
They surged into the palace as though a flood, fanning out to engage the defenders. They were not like the lowly soldiers in the city below; they were tall and strong, rippling beneath scarlet capes and coronas of feathers. They were strong and skilled, but he and his warriors were fast and fearsome. He bolted toward the guard captain: a towering warrior with a spray of feathers across his shield. The captain swung his club with all his might, but he ducked beneath it, sliding forward and slashing at the captain’s legs. The captain fell quickly, flailing his club in vain hopes of landing a maiming blow. Looking down at him, the jaguar warrior drove the blunt end of his club into the side of his head, dislodging his headdress as he fell to the floor, incapacitated. Looking back, he found his warriors had likewise maimed their foes, leaving them alive to please their Flayed Lord. Smiling, he motioned forward with his club, and the group advanced toward the throne room.
The great king sat upon a wide throne of ornately carved stone. Upon seeing them, he rose slowly, regally as he stared down his nose at them. He had been expecting them: he wore cotton armor beneath his heavy robes, an ornate shield in one hand and a long, terrible club in the other. His face was painted, bright red and blue beneath a spray of feathers radiating from his head. He appeared as though a god, as was his right for the power he held. All present knew what must be done. The king’s goal would be to dispatch his assailants or die in combat; he would not allow himself to be taken alive, to be hauled back to Tenochtitlan in chains, sacrificed to the Flayed Lord.
Behind him, he could hear his warriors shifting their weight, hoisting their shields and clubs, but with a wave of his macuahuitl he ordered them back. They had come this far together, but the king was his, and his alone. He walked forward slowly, locking eyes with the king as he, too, advanced. The king, like him, was not mortal. He had fought every day of his life to hold the power he wielded, to make his word absolute among men. No doubt his war paint hid myriad scars, earned in combat defending his throne. Like the jaguar he’d faced so long ago, this king knew that this was his jungle. No doubt he believed that here, if nowhere else, he could not fall. No doubt the jaguar had believed that as well.
The king would not make the first move, and so he changed, macuahuitl held high. As he entered striking distance the king raised his club, pulling his shield across his midsection before letting loose a wide, powerful stroke. He parried the blow with his own shield, but the force was punishing. Pain shot through his arm; the arm was likely broken, but to stop to tend his wound, to flinch, would mean death. And so he lowered his shield arm, winding back and swinging his macuahuitl with all his strength. His club sliced the air, shearing the king’s robes as he spun away in retreat. Another swing of the king’s great club and he rolled to the side, avoiding the killing blow before swiping at the king’s legs. The king leapt over the blades, but one of them caught his robes. He yanked hard, tearing the cloth and sending the king sprawling.
Before he could right himself, the king looked up to find his attacker upon him, macuahuitl at his throat. He glared in fury at his defeat, spat at his assailant. No doubt the great king expected now to be struck, brutalized, as had been their orders. But the king had intended to perish in the battle. It seemed wrong to deny him that.
He pulled back for a full swing, and released. With one swift stroke, he slashed through the king’s neck, his severed head clattering toward the far wall as his lifeless corpse fell to the floor. His task complete, he turned back slowly toward his warriors. He stood before them bruised and cut, his jaguar pelt soaked in blood, just as he had so many years ago. Now, standing in the throne room of a vanquished king, it felt as though he remembered a different lifetime. This was all he had ever been, and now, taking up the bloodied, feathered crown of the vanquished king he stood at last as a god among men. One by one, they deferred to him, pledging their loyalty to the new king of their new dominion.
Soon after, he stood upon a high pedestal outside the palace, draped in the torn and stained robes of his predecessor, and surveyed his city. The fires had begun to die down, the panic of the streets replaced with calm resignation, the battle ended. The peace would not last; soon word would reach Tenochtitlan of his defiance, his claim to the throne. Soon, they would send more warriors to do to him what he had done to the king before him. He looked forward to that. After all, he was not a man: he was a predator. And like any predator, he knew only violence, and the endless struggle to defend his territory, until a more powerful predator came for his skin, as he’d come for the skin he now wore.