He looks out across his resplendent city in the glowing sunrise and sees the sacred sun silhouette the Temple of Tlaloc and Huītzilōpōchtli. Will the latter god save them from the annihilation in his recent dreams, or had the war god grown sick of the priests’ gifts of gory hearts and flayed corpses? Had he decided to do the unthinkable and abandon the Mexica to darkness, famine and extinction? The dawn sun basks the sky in a fiery orange. The water of Texcoco scintillates in the light, and the causeways reach out to the world beyond Tenochtitlan, from where the strangers with metal skin and moveable volcanoes for weapons will deceive him and raze his kingdom to the ground.
Sleep has been impossible for weeks. He has shifted restlessly in his royal chamber, dismissing his concubines when they call. His only desire has been to watch Tenochtitlan through the ominous night and keep a vigil over his domain, which is vulnerable to a permanent darkness and damnation should the gods indeed desert them and approve the end of the world. So, he watches, hearing the waking, squawking cacophonies of the myriad birds in his multiple menageries across the metropolis. Why do they cry out so? Why are they agitated? Why do they wake the soldiers, the priests, the artisans, the merchants, the slaves and the sacrifices who want to be fresh and rested when they climb the temple steps, prostrate themselves and face the obsidian blade?
However, he knows only too well that creatures recognize danger more acutely than men and that the force bearing down on the city is pregnant with terrible significance. Watching the brilliant glowing orb in the sky, he trembles. The benevolent Tonatiuh lives again, and gifts them power and life—but for how long will this birth, death and rebirth cycle last? His life had convinced him it was infinite, but his dreams suggested it was finite.
Then it appears. The massive, blindingly brilliant light bursts out of the womb of the sky and streams across the heavens. Its huge head glows more brightly than the sun, and its fiery tale stretches for miles. It assumes the form of the flaming serpent he’s revered from birth. Quetzalcoatl has returned, roaring across the sky! He was coming for his kingdom, and he, Moctezuma II the mere mortal ruler, would not stand in the way of the God of the West, the Patron of Priests and Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. Then he hears Quetzalcoatl roar, and his bellowing shakes the earth, terrifies the air and scatters the birds in the sky. The caged parakeets squawk and the captive jaguars growl as His Lordship grows bigger and brighter. From below his balcony, Moctezuma hears a collective wail from the population of the city. A deafening lament that sounds like the earth pleading for mercy reverberates across the temple-tops, reaches out across the waters and hits the mountains on the horizon. Then, to his dismay, the fiery serpent in the sky passes the sun, Tonatiuh, and hurtles on towards an unknown place with its vast, smoky feathered plume streaking the sky. Quetzalcoatl was not stopping. He was abandoning the Mexica and its citizens to oblivion.
“The end is coming. We are doomed!”
The words eject from his lips, but he is not even sure whether his mind has chosen them. It is as though they had been sent by a higher force in the cosmos, an intermediary of destiny’s gods serving his people.
A gust of wind chills Moctezuma and numbs his body. Trembling, he turns around and returns to his chamber. When, he wonders, will the terrible darkness come? So far, his nightmares have not given up this secret.
He dreads sleep, which has delivered the same cyclical nightmare for more than a year. Each time he drops into the underworld, he sees the four brothers of time facing him on top of the mighty pyramid, far away, that he knows well. The Avenue of the Dead extends below them, and the baleful silhouettes of their freakish bodies glow in the dawn. They always torment him at sunrise. In this particular nightmare however, there is some variation. Whereas before, the brother gods communicated their vision of Mexica’s destruction with indifference, he notices this time the curling, sneering lips and glints in the eyes behind their garish, bestial masks. They regard him now with weariness and contempt, this feeble-minded, mortal worm obliged to do their bidding. They seem finished with Man, through with providing their celestial favours and now appear committed to nothing more than satisfying their primordial lusts in the heavens.
In the dream, Moctezuma speaks with these haughty, vicious gods and their conversation always comes to the same futile conclusion.
“Huītzilōpōchtli, oh god of war, I implore you,” he pleads. “Grant us your power again. Inspire the brave, give us victory and an eternity of suns and I will feed you more blood and flesh than ever before. You will never know hunger again!”
“Silence!” snarls the deity of death. The rasping voice cuts through the air and makes the king freeze in awe. It is the voice of millennia that has intimidated the immortals. Reptilian hisses come at the end of his speech.
“I do not want your tributes. Your people are parasites and you are a coward!”
The god of war’s muscular blue torso is filthy with blood and a net-sack full of severed human heads hangs from his waist. Their faces look bewildered, as if this monster puzzled his victims to death with riddles before butchering them. The warrior deity raises his huge macuahuitl and points it towards him and shakes the weapon. Its blades are caked in matted blood.
Then Xipe Totec, god of the vegetation and spring, leers at him with a crooked smile that reveals his obsidian fangs soaked in blood. His head-dress of giant turquoise feathers towers over him, and his face is covered by the top half of a human skull. He wears the coat of a young warrior’s skin and grasps a golden mace in his claw and begins to move his limbs up and down in a hideous dance like a marionette. He says nothing but points his talon at Moctezuma and wiggles it provocatively and begins to cackle in a high pitch reminiscent of a forest bird. Moctezuma knows this god has no need of words. Xipe Totec feeds on Moctezuma’s terror of the future; the dread he feels about the fate of his people excites this cruel, corrupted creature of Mexica minds who had starved and fed them capriciously for centuries in exchange for hearts torn from chests and oceans of blood. Is this all our gifted lives meant to this wretched, debased freak? Laughter? Xipe Totec hears his insulting, blasphemous thought and emits a shrill and furious cry. He shudders at the god’s flared nostrils and the glare behind the eye sockets of the skull. Totec reaches behind his back and hurls a spear at him which, according to the character of this dream, becomes a serpent in midair.
“Why do you come here, oh sleepless, anxious one?” It is Quetzalcoatl who asks this, with his long dragon snout pointing upwards. His huge white breastplate is smeared with gore and he reeks of rotting bodies.
“I need…answers,” says the emperor.
“But did you not see the comet? Are you blind to the obvious?” Quetzalcoatl’s voice is deep and melodious. It echoes across the expanse of Moctezuma’s mind and lingers in his past. Why had he never heard this voice, supposedly belonging to the Mexica’s great cosmic guide, in the waking world? Why had he been silent for so long? Where had it been when they had marched the doomed captives past the spire that they had erected to revere him? Why had he not bellowed his gratitude when the priests’ hands tore into the chests of the young, the old, and the beautiful and gripped those beating, incarnadine hearts?
“Answers?” The Feathered Serpent god is amazed. The knobbly, scaly skin on his face makes a shrivelled mask of incomprehension. A crow perched on his shoulder caws, and the god’s tail flexes and slaps the ground. He gives a dispiriting laugh, and Moctezuma fears the forthcoming speech, even though he knows it well by now.
“How can I answer you, you fool? I don’t exist!” He looks towards his brothers of the North, East, South and West. “We don’t exist!” Huītzilōpōchtli nods to support this devastating statement, and the ruler of Mexica’s spirits ebb away once more. “Your foolish ancestors planted our deeds in your minds. They embellished nature’s powers with our grandiose names. They imagined us, just as you are doing. We are fictions.”
“Save us from darkness. I beseech you!” cries Moctezuma.
Xipe Totec emits a wheezing laugh and Quetzalcoatl shakes his head in resignation like a teacher giving up on a difficult pupil. He looks over to Tezcatlipoca, the fourth god or Smoking Mirror, and gives a nodded signal. This is the prelude to the climax of these dreams that puts him into a frenzy of fear, for this is when the most intimidating of all the gods gives him fleeting visions of his future and that of his people. Tezcatlipoca, the god of magic, looks terrifying and magnificent in his costume. His headdress of black and yellow feathers, combined with his turquoise mask, make him appear like a peacock that flies between the worlds of above and below bearing the misery and happiness of mortals on his wings. Black stripes cross his skull-white face, and a white necklace of skulls lies on his muscular shoulders and there, in the centre of his chest, is the circular black obsidian mirror whose glinting surface reflects such terrible scenes that make the king shake with fear and wake in the night screaming with his aristocratic sweat soaking his sheets.
“Look, come and see,” calls Smoking Mirror telepathically. Moctezuma feels the familiar power drawing him towards the god whose eyes now glow behind the mask. “Come,” repeats the seductive, hypnotic voice. Resistance is impossible in these dreams, and the king surrenders to the timeless force once again. He floats towards the rays of light and through the glowing sockets behind the mask and is surrounded by the vast, infinite blackness of the universe. Before, when faced by the void at this point in the nightmare, he had seen the reassuring gaze of infinite Ometeotl upon him with his eyes composed of stars. The presence of the suns had been the one comforting part of these terrible journeys in his sleep. Now there is nothing but an impenetrable darkness surrounding him, and he gasps. Suddenly he is projected out through Tezcatlipoca’s eyes, through tunnels of swirling colours, and he is back in his former position, facing the hostile gods again. The risen sun now accentuates their hideous forms, filling them with shadows. They have never been more menacing. They are ebony demons baying for his downfall. In the place where Tezcatlipoca stood, there is now a large black disk. From its centre, he sees the dreaded misty glow forming and the palpitations of Moctezuma’s heart make his chest cavity throb. Now it is time for the show of visions and the entrance of Smoking Mirror’s prophecy!
The glow grows brighter and sharper and begins to shimmer, and soon it engulfs the black circle of the mirror. He is now on top of Huēyi Teōcalli, the city’s temple of Tlaloc and Huītzilōpōchtli, surveying a gruesome panorama. A torrent of blood gushes down the temple’s sacrificial steps and collects in a gutter at the bottom of the structure, and from there it flows into Tenochtitlan’s main canal. Blood fills all the architectural arteries of the city, floating boats of decaying maize and slaughtered passengers. Vultures are everywhere, perched on the tops of temples, the window ledges of homes, and the stone icons protruding from the walls of the civic buildings. Their feathers are coated in gore, and their talons are loaded with human carrion. Their coarse screeches carry across the city, but the rest of Tenochtitlan’s birds are silent. Most ominously, the dream sky is a dark, dirty, smoky grey which smothers the sun. No rays can pierce it or bring any warm fragments of hope to this nightmare, which has slammed its pitiless message of Mexica’s oblivion into his senses forevermore. This time, however, the sky is darker than ever.
Then he hears the low, glottal human sound in the distance; it is omnidirectional. It is a tormented groan which encapsulates the city and reverberates throughout its flagstones and temple-tops, carrying its harrowing cry of suffering for miles. It emanates from a ubiquitous source. It carries from the mouth of Tōnatiuh himself, implacable and omnipotent at the centre of the Sun Stone which sits in a relief carved into the wall of the opposite temple. It rises from beneath the cracks in the pavestones, from behind the ornate doors of the unseen nobles and from the glossy, muscular rock of the mountains beyond the water.
In the distance, he sees them beyond the floating gardens at the start of the causeway. There is a vast throng of bloody corpses assembled, standing with patience and purpose, their glowing yellow eyes glowering at him. The procession begins to move across the causeway, edging slowly and gradually towards the temple. When it is nearly halfway across, he appreciates its magnitude. It reaches back for miles, a column thick with butchered bodies that begin to move. The cadavers do not walk but slouch forward with heavy strides while groaning in sync through open mouths. He notices the glistening flayed bodies and feels the peculiar nausea: as emperor in the conscious world, seeing one Tepanec prisoner after another torn open at the summit of this temple to the accompaniment of beating drums and priestly incantations evoked neither revulsion nor excitement but ennui; after a while, witnessing each sacrifice became as stale as the taste of the limbs he was obliged to eat. Yet sleep accentuated the vividness and energy of these scenes and he saw them with a clarity not present while awake. When he looked at the distressed, dismembered victims of his culture’s pantheon shuffling towards him en masse with the wounds in their chests festering, and the skinless flesh of the most unfortunate ones rotting, he recognized in––and only in––this didactic dream the concept he had hitherto not known in his life as a potentate: suffering.
The march of the sacrificed has now reached the temple, and as it passes him below, all of its participants turn their heads, or their skulls, towards the noble at the top of the temple and express their silent curse. Moctezuma II knows what to expect next, and on cue the meteor of guilt now crashes down on him, flattening his royal immunity from the consequences of his ancestors’ three-hundred-year legacy of purchasing Tōnatiuh’s solar protection with human hearts.
“It was the will of the gods!” he cries in an effort to placate their anger.
“Impostor! Traitor! Animal and thief of life!” comes the deafening, chorused reply of the no-longer-silent mass of moving dead. He sees the flayed and beheaded rising from the soil of the chinampa gardens and from the blood canals to join the demonstration. Now, the dream takes, if it were possible, a more disturbing direction as the bloody, mutilated mob is succeeded by a new generation of Mexican dead following behind. These chanting corpses have not been cut open or cut up, but their emaciated bodies are coated with hideous sores that weep as they lurch forward. They do not look at the emperor but merely stare ahead with glazed eyes, too weak and wasting to show anger. They look fit only for death, again and again. Over and over.
The number of the diseased dead is greater than the sacrificed, and the pestilential procession staggering across the causeway reaches back almost to the mountains but finally the last column of his doomed subjects starts to cross the bridge into the city. They are pursued by the most terrifying elements of these dreams, which are the mysterious foreigners with silver skin, strange weapons, baffling flags and extraordinary creatures. The fundamental difference between this cluster of entrants to Tenochtitlan and that which preceded it is that the men within it are very much alive. Moctezuma sees him again. The sallow-faced, hook-nosed, bearded man with the silver head at the front of the column points to Moctezuma from the center of the causeway, and at that moment a part of the dream occurs that was not in its previous iterations. The bright, brilliant comet of that morning whistles through the filthy sky followed by its smoky tail. In place of its head, he does not see the serpentine face of Quetzalcoatl however, but an ominous symbol consisting of two bisecting red lines, with the vertical line longer than the horizontal.
This comet, unlike the one that had appeared in reality that morning in the azure sky above the metropolis, does not pass over them and continue its trajectory. It lands in front of the temple and erupts in a giant sphere of fire, sending blazing debris in all directions. The assembly of the sacrificed and infected below reacts with anger. Thousands of aggrieved voices accuse in unison, calling the emperor a murderer and a traitor. He then notices a large pile of jagged stones in front of the temple steps. In it there are flints, pieces of quartz and, of course, deadly sharp slates of obsidian. Many in the multitude now reach for these and use them as missiles, hurling them at him with superhuman, catapultic force. As the first stone strikes him in the forehead, he screams and suddenly he is awake and upright in his bed shaking and sweating heavily while his traumatized concubine staggers out of the bed and runs down the corridor screaming for help.
“They are coming, Your Highness,” whispers the court official into the left side of the divine ruler’s face. The official has interrupted a meeting of elders: a cabinet of conquerors counselling the emperor on tactics for a new campaign to terrify and exploit upstart new states beyond their borders that have dared to defy their demands for human tribute. They are also discussing new raids on Teotihuacan and Alcoman because the crops have been failing and the gods have never been thirstier.
“Where are they now?” he asks, taking a gulp of chocolate from a golden goblet.
“They are on the other side of the lake approaching the causeway, Your Highness,” answers the official, who withdraws at the emperor’s signal.
The news makes him apprehensive, although he has been prepared to receive it for months after hearing the reports of the floating mountains cutting through the ocean off the coast of Yucatan. The apprehension then becomes a heavier, more crippling dread. The very words they have arrived seem cursed. Poisoned. Deadlier than blowpipe darts. The notion of greeting these troublesome travellers from afar evokes buried terror. As a boy he had once nearly drowned in the waters of the Texcoco. He remembers the helplessness as the salty water forced its way down his mouth and into his nostrils and the panic as he saw through the blurry filter of the water not only the fuzzy shapes of fish but the glowing and malevolent skull face of the death god Mictlāntēcutli smiling. A friend, and stronger swimmer than himself, saved him and allowed him to inherit his exalted adult life but that terrifying face intruded on many dreams and jolted him out of sleep often, until the more potent nightmare about the comet and procession of death replaced it. Now Mictlāntēcutli is clawing back into his consciousness once more.
He is at the head of his welcoming party, walking down the center of the vast causeway, which is exactly as it was in his dreams. However, the sun is high and blazing and the sky is clear, which encourages him. He declined both his litter and escort of jaguar knights because he did not want to convey the impression of indolence or insecurity to these trespassers, who they say are stirring up sedition in the vassal states. This will be a diplomatic encounter, he reasons, and nothing more. He told the treasury to prepare the gold objects that he heard they covet and ordered his concubines to scent their breasts and loosen their thighs. One week of hospitality, and with his celebrated charm, they will be on their way. And if not, well….
As the foreign party advances, and their forms and faces become more distinct, he recognizes the silver on their bodies and the creatures from another world that carry them. There, at the front of the column of beasts is the dream character with the hooked nose, beard and crafty eyes. The vast column of the dream is also there, except that it is not composed of the dead but thousands of living mercenaries from the rebellious states.
“No! Quetzalcoatl! Save us!” he blurts out. His aides look at him with bewilderment, believing the emperor is seeing the immortal deity leading the people approaching them on the causeway, and this conviction contaminates them with awe.
Moctezuma sees the four gods towering over the mountains, sneering, and then they are gone. Helplessness takes possession of him, and all he can do is watch his destiny dismount from its beast and approach him accompanied by a black-clad character, obviously from this man’s priest class, whose robe bears the symbol of the two red lines that decorated the comet’s face. Behind them, a Mexica woman in strange dress follows.
The bearded man walks up, bows and offers his hand. He then speaks in a language Moctezuma does not know.
“Greetings, Your Highness,” says the Mexica woman in Nahuatl. “I am Hernan Cortes, an emissary of the Spanish Crown.”
“Quetzalcoatl Comet” first appeared in The Collidescope in 2019.
Titus Green was born in Canada but grew up in the UK. His short fiction has appeared in numerous online and print magazines, including The Collidescope, Adelaide Literary Magazine, HORLA, Literally Stories, Sediments Literary Arts, Stag Hill Literary Journal, Sediments Literary Arts and others. He teaches English as a foreign language for a living.