There was a warrior house in Coyo’an whose only daughter was chosen to pay the debt of blood we owed to the gods.
Her name was Quetzalin, meaning Plume, and all were willing to give her up but for her elder brother.
He was a bitter man, selfish and spiteful and not so fair to look upon. A blow from a nightsaw had cleaved off half his face, reducing it to rough meat and half-grinning teeth.
His name was Huitzilin, meaning Hummingbird, and behind his back he was called Ghoul.
When they had reached the Red Temple, Quetzalin accepted a nightsaw with blades of soft white feathers.
Huitzilin grabbed her wrist. “Wait! If you go through with this, you’ll… you’ll die. You’ll die…”
“In case you’ve forgotten,” said Quetzalin with a glare, tearing her wrist from her brother’s grasp, “if I don’t go through this, we all die.”
She nodded at the White Warriors of the Gentle Petals, who held nightsaws with blades of sharp obsidian. Huitzilin cried out as the White Warriors fell upon his sister.
Quetzalin danced with the grace of the moon, feather skirts shifting and rolling like sea foam. Feathers flew as a nightsaw hacked off a chunk of white gown.
Scarred face twisted in fury, Huitzilin shoved aside the stern watchers. They pulled at his arms, trying to drag him back.
Obsidian blades jabbed into her arm, splattering her holy white gown.
“QUETZALIN!” the ghoulish man roared a thunderclap, descending upon the White Warriors. They were so startled by such madness that the first of them fell, at a crushing blow to the temple, dead.
He raised a dead man’s nightsaw and a one-eyed gaze to the White Warriors. Casting aside all honor, Huitzilin leapt, as if his ankles had wings, and beat down the holy man from the sky. Even after his opponent had fallen, Huitzilin hacked and butchered him, until his own scarred face was the fairer of the two.
He rose, wielding the blades of two dead men, and turned on the White Warriors. Their precious red water sank into the earth as the horizon swallowed the bleeding sun.
The watchers rushed forward, crying protest and grief against the murders against the White Warriors. Fitting the blades at the hooks on his waist, Ghoul scooped his sister into his arms and flew up the steps of the Red Temple with his sister beating at his chest.
“Why?” Quetzalin sobbed. “Why, brother? Why?”
“Quetzalin — ” Huitzilin stumbled, cracking a knee on the steps. “I would destroy myself to save you.”
“THEN YOU’RE A FOOL!” she screamed at the exact moment he climbed the last step of the Red Temple, at the exact moment the sun died, at the exact moment tear-salt fell upon the bloodstained pyramid.
The stars winked out, the moon flared red, and the world filled with a blood-scented mist, dripping wet with crimson dew. Before the Temple rose a skeleton as large as a mountain, painted red and blue, wearing a great feathered headdress and earrings of jade. Stars nested in its eye sockets, giving them a pale glow in the New Dark.
The Red God scraped his obsidian knife over his bottom teeth.“What do you think you are doing, Little One?”
“This one,” Huitzilin growled, “you cannot have.”
Crimson mist hissed from the corners of the Red God’s grinning skeleton mouth. His teeth chattered terribly, trembling in the chest of every living being. But Huitzilin was quite stupid, and would not know fear if it stuck its finger through the hole in his cheek.
“Who are you, Fair Insect?” the Red God asked Quetzalin.
Quetzalin lowered her eyes. “I am one who did not die when I should have died.” Her tone sharpened. “And I would have, if not for this half-blind idiot.”
“A warrior with one eye.” The Red God tilted his head. “How interesting!”
“If you will have my eye,” rasped Huitzilin, chest drenched and heaving, “I will exchange it for my sister.”
“Will you let me pull off your legs?”
“For Quetzalin, yes.”
“Your heart? Brain? Organs?”
“If I give every part of myself and my sister stands alive, I will have lost nothing.”
“Ha!” The creature bent over the Red Temple. “I like you, Ugly Insect! I will make you your deal. Battle me until dawn. Die —or submit before the sun resurrects— and I will skin your sister and flay her with her own pretty hide.” The Red God tilted his head, chattering his teeth. “Then I will pull her limbs off, and swallow her still-beating heart.”
Huitzilin lowered Quetzalin to the top of the pyramid. He had scarcely nodded and raised his second nightsaw when the Red God swatted him off the pyramid. Branches snapped beneath him, breaking his fall until he hit the ground with a wet crack of bone.
The trees parted above him, pushed aside by skeletal red-and-blue hands. The Red God loomed over him, bloodmist hissing from the corners of his grinning teeth.
“Do you fear me now, Ugly Insect?”
Face pale in agony, Huitzilin hopped, stepped, and leapt at the Red God’s grinning face. The skeletal hand came up to swat him, but he ricocheted off the bony palm and stabbed both nightsaws into the Red God’s eyes.
A screech tore across Coyo’an, blowing the leaves off the trees and the snow off the mountaintops. The Red God whipped his head from side to side, dislodging the nightsaws and throwing the Ghoul to the ground.
“I am the Emissary of Chaos! I am the Red God of Despair! My breath is plague. My touch is fire. My presence…”
On and on went the Red God to the warrior.
“I don’t have a title or any of that crap,” grunted Huitzilin.
The Red God’s laugh thundered over the valley.
“You are nothing. Nothing you do or make will remain once you are gone. The world will not mourn. The world will exist and exist and exist until…”
On and on went the Red God to the warrior.
“But you’re too stupid to realize that I’m playing with you. How could you know?”
“I know,” rasped Huitzilin, leaning on one leg, raising his blades with trembling arms, “I’ll die and in a hundred years no one will know me, and I might as well have never existed. The world will go on just as well without me.”
The Red God raised his fist.“Then die.”
“Because that doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. Except,” he raised his bitter eye to the face of the towering god, “that I stand here, in defiance of gods and men, to face you!”
“You will die.”
“I will,” Huitzilin agreed, “but not today.”
“Today? The sun has not yet — ”
Dawn glowed on the warrior’s bronze shoulders, setting aglow the edges of his nightsaws. The Red God tipped back his head and screamed as the sun crowned itself on the head of ugly, one-eyed Huitzilin.
“How? HOW?” The Red God clutched his head. “I had ten hours of darkness! ”
“Because you talk too much…”
The light of the reborn sun hissed on the painted bones, which bubbled and boiled and melted.
And so it was that the Last Payment was made. Pain for pain. Blood for blood.
A god for a god.