Harbinger of the Storm - By Aliette De Bodard

ONE

A Hole in the Fifth World

I felt it when it happened, even from where I was: sitting atop the platform of my pyramid temple, so high that the city below seemed a mere child’s toy.

It was as if the entire world were exhaling: a slow, ponderous shift that coursed through the streets and the canals of Tenochtitlan, through the closed marketplace and the houses of joy – extinguishing the glow of the torches in the water, muffling the voices of the singers and the poets in the banqueting halls, and darkening the moon in the sky.

The Revered Speaker Axayacatl-tzin – the protector of the Mexica Empire, the link between us and our patron god Huitzilpochtli, the Southern Hummingbird – was dead.

I looked up at the Heavens. The sky was clouded, but a faint scattering of stars shone through, already smeared against the dark background, their light growing stronger and stronger with every passing moment.

They were coming down; the star-demons, eager to walk the streets and marketplaces of the city, to rend our flesh into bloody ribbons, to open up our chests with a flick of their claws and pluck out our beating hearts. Huitzilpochtli’s divine power, channelled through the Revered Speaker, had kept them away from the Fifth World, the world of mortals.

But not anymore.

I took a deep breath to steady myself. It was not unexpected, by any means; but still… The boundaries between the worlds had become weak, effortlessly breached, and the work of summoners would be easy. Creatures would soon prowl the streets, hungering for human blood. Not a propitious time. We needed to brace for it; to be ready for the worst.

Footsteps echoed beside me: my Fire Priest, Ichtaca, second in command of my order. In one hand he carried a wooden cage with two white owls, their yellow eyes wide in the dim light. The other hand was tightly wrapped around the hilt of a sacrificial obsidian knife.

”Acatl-tzin,” Ichtaca said, curtly bowing his head. The “tzin” honorific was muted, added to my name almost as an afterthought. In that moment, that I was High Priest for the Dead and he my subordinate didn’t matter. We were both kindred spirits, both aware of the magnitude of the threat. Until a new Revered Speaker was invested, the whole of the Fifth World lay defenceless, as tantalising as feathers or jade to an indebted man.

I nodded. “I have to go to the palace.” I had a place in the funeral preparations, small and insignificant. My patron Mictlantecuhtli, Lord Death, was not the god most honoured in the Empire. But, nevertheless, I couldn’t afford to stay away at a time like this. “But let’s see about the wards first.”

Ichtaca didn’t move for a while. On his round face was something very close to fear; unnerving, for Ichtaca had faced down gods, goddesses and underworld creatures without ever losing his composure.

”Ichtaca?”

He shook himself like an otter just out of a stream. “Yes. Let’s do that.”

We descended the steps of the pyramid temple side by side. The temple complex lay below us, low, one-storey buildings fanning out around the central courtyard, shimmering with the remnants of magic. It was not an hour of devotion, and most of my priests were sleeping in their dormitories. Everything was eerily silent, the examination rooms deserted, the bells sewn into the embroidered entrance-curtains gently tinkling in the breeze.

The pyramid temple was in the centre of the courtyard. At the foot of the stairs leading down from it was a large stone circle, engraved with the insignia of Lord Death: a skull, a spider and an owl. Dried blood stained the grooves, remnants of the previous times the wards had been renewed.

Ichtaca and I each took an owl from the cage before moving to opposite ends of the circle, I at the foot of the stairs, Ichtaca facing the temple entrance.

At my belt hung my own obsidian knife, blessed with the magic of Lord Death. I slit the owl’s throat open, feeling its warm blood stain my hands. Then, with the ease of practise, I opened up the chest, and sought out the heart between the ribs, balancing it on the tip of the blade. The obsidian quivered, beating on the rhythm of coiled power. I laid the heart carefully on the boundary of the circle, and, with the blade dipped in blood, traced the contours of the circle with the knife. Blood pooled in the recesses of the carvings, shimmering like dust in sunlight.

Ichtaca started chanting.

“Above us,

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