He turned the key in the lock twice, after stepping into the little room he now called home. Downstairs, the saloon was silent. The last cluster of drunkards had headed home an hour ago. Now, he only heard the steady clinking of the glasses and the groaning of the chair legs, being dragged across the hardwood floor, as the innkeeper and his helper tidied up for the night.
The old broom brushing the floor sounded like an old mouser’s purr, full and content. It soothed his nerves, giving him the strength to unlock his drawer, reach inside and take out an old, weathered notebook. From the hidden bottom, he took out an old, ivory-handle pen (his most prized possession). His fingers traced the small, intricate carvings with reverence.
On the handle,there was the very shape round which his life had so far orbited. The engraved jaguar purred, in his mind’s ear, in unison with the broom dragging downstairs. He could feel the beast playfully dragging its claws across the calluses of his thumb, its teeth nibbling at the hard skin.
He looked at the animal, made immortal in ivory, forever pouncing at its enemies, teeth bare and shuddered. A lifetime ago, there was the sound of drums made from taut human skin and the rattle of necklaces made out of human teeth on ceramic plates of armor.
With trembling hands, he opened the notebook. It was a battered, weathered old thing, its pages cracked and yellow. The faint scent of old ink and the sight of words written by someone he used to be took him back. A lifetime ago, there were barefoot marches across a rocky peninsula, the green hell he once called home slowly creeping away into the horizon. There were azure banners with intricate designs, mercilessly whipping at the morning breeze.
The words on paper were symbols. Each symbol was a meaning unto itself and a collection of meanings spelled out thoughts, formed and written down by a dead man. It was the story of his life, written in a language that had no symbol that stood for retreat, mercy or hope. It was a language given unto them by bloodthirsty gods, the language of the Sun himself, who retreated into his great marble palace each night, to feast on human souls.
A lifetime ago, there were blades made out of chipped obsidian, sharp, terrible things that, in the hands of an experienced warrior, could rip through flesh and cut through tendon in one swipe. There was congealed blood in the grooves of the temple floors.
He read the last entry. It was written by a warrior tasked to wait among the tall grasses like a snake, hidden near and out of sight of the enemy’s herd. The snake would lie in wait, killing those who strayed from the herd, the weakest (or boldest) among them. He’d keep the herds in a constant state of panic, unable to ally against the common foe, making sure they were weak enough for his masters to crush, once and for all, when they came back at full strength.
Pompous words, written by a hypocrite, which no longer held any meaning. He’d strayed from that purpose long ago, his snakeskin now a part of him. He’d been part of the enemy herd, even made friends with some of them. He’d lived, laughed and shared some of their troubles. He couldn’t bring himself to hurt any of them now, even if he wanted to.
There were only two pages left now, in the little battered book. He tried to come up with something to write down, something that would undo everything that was in the pages that came before it. Something that would tell his story here, among the enemy herd, which would somehow tear down the sovereignty of the symbols that he would no longer even acknowledge as his mother tongue.
He uttered one of the symbols. The sound that came out his mouth was the sound a stone ax-head makes, striking a tree. Surprised at the sound escaping his lips, he shut his mouth. In his mind, the jaguar growled menacingly.
A lifetime ago, there was the sound of a severed head, tumbling down the steps of a ziggurat.
“Doc? You in there?”
The man in the room nearly jumped with terror. He had almost replied to the innkeeper in his mother tongue.
“You all right? You didn’t look that well tonight.”
“I’m…I’m fine. Thank you.” He muttered. His fingers traced the pouncing jaguar.
“You can come down, if you want. There’s only me and the kid down stairs, so we’re gonna shut down for the night. Care for a drink before you hit the sack?”
“I’d love to.”
“See you downstairs, doc.”
He let out a long sigh of relief after the innkeeper walked back downstairs. How could he be all right? He’d seen his future in the trail of the sortes bonesthis morning. He’d seen, at the borders of his mirror, his killer’s face. He was destined to die,this night.
He’d been prepared for this. For a faceless, terrible death. For every kind of torture imaginable. He’d been told that, when he died, his soul would descend into the lightless depths of the Inverted Heavens, to fight against the Tzitzime with all the other dead warriors before him at the Sun God’s side. There, he’d be immortal. No wound, no matter how great, would make him back down from the fight. Were he a good and able soldier, then the Sun-god would deign him fit to return among the living, to serve the Emperor, his son.
He was no longer a soldier, however. The Sun-god was no longer the preserver of the universe for him. This life he lived, it was no longer just a pause between wars, an endless cycle of pain and violence. It was a life he wanted to keep on living.
He got out and walked down the stairs, to the saloon. The old wood creaked with each step. For some reason, he was unable to shake the feeling he was a stranger in his own body, one he had hijacked years ago from its rightful owner.
The saloon seemed so much smaller, now that the patrons were gone. Its benches and tables were like elderlyleopards, covered in spots from spilt drinks and cigarette burns. The old piano hunched in the back, an old, sad thing, wilting in the corner, deprived of affection. The innkeeper sat behind the bar counter, keeping an eye on his help, as he kept polishing the old wood.
“Hey there, doc!”
“You closed down early tonight.”
“It’s the good Lord’s day tomorrow, doc! All my patrons are going to ask Him for something, see and they can’t all be wasted!”
“Always thought God was above such petty matters.”
“No he’s not. The only ones he cuts some slack for are innkeepers, doctors and whores. It’s in the good book, see.”
The boy laughed, pausing his scrubbing. The innkeeper whacked him in the back of the head.
“You’re still under scrutiny, boy. So get scrubbing.”
“Don’t be so hard on the boy.”
“He was a boy two weeks ago. Became a man when he stuck it to my daughter, that ungrateful little hussy. He’s working for me till his sins are paid off in full.”
“What about your daughter, then?”
“I absolved her first, after she got belted. What can I get you, doc?”
“What have you got that isn’t watered?”
“Doc, you know I’d never serve you any of that horse-piss.”
The innkeeper took a small jug from under the counter and poured its contents in a shot glass. The doctor gulped it down, before even taking a whiff of the liquor. It was bitter enough to make him want to retch and made his tongue go numb.
“What is this thing?”
“Root wine, doc. How was it?”
“It was like getting my tongue bit by a damn viper, that’s how it was!”
“Have a couple more glasses. Bet you’ll like it then!”
The innkeeper filled his glass again. This time, he sniffed at it, carefully. It had an acrid, metallic scent that crept up his nostrils and set the back of his eyes on fire. He let it settle in, feeling it turn into a slow, happy buzz. A lifetime ago, there were bare chested women with emerald-green eyes, their skin the color of sunset.
“How long have we known each other, Rom?” asked the doctor, peering into his glass.
“Five years, by the end of the month. Are you gonna buy me an anniversary gift?”
“No, it’s just…I got to thinking. About my life, that is. Can you believe I can’t really recall anything since I got here?”
“Can’t handle your liquor, can you, doc?”
“That’s not what I meant. I meant, I can’t remember anything vividly. Sure, I can dig into my brain for some facts, some faces, but that’s all. The rest is just sight and sound. They don’t seem to have any weight anymore.”
“You sound like my father. He thought the same way, since he got back from the Vas’Iiri war. He was a Salted Desert veteran, see. Just him and a handful of men came home after that nightmare was over. I must have been fifteen at the time. Kept pestering the poor bastard, trying to get him to tell me what happened back there. He gave me pretty much the same talk you did.”
He gulped down his drink, then. The glass fell from his hands, on the bar. A few drops creeped across the wood’s surface and formed a familiar shape.
“Kept thinking the old man was holding back on me. That he was somehow trying to shelter me from whatever I could have found out about that day. Looking back, I just think he didn’t have it in him anymore.”
From the shape, a word emerged. The word which had haunted him, that had burned itself into his brain that day.
“I think that what he saw…hurt him, somehow. In his mind, see. And he never really recovered from that.”
“When the Government got in power, they made us move, all of us Old Guard families. He died a few days after we got in town. I remember my mother was relieved. He’d found a way out of what he’d seen then, she said.”
“You’d never told me about your father. My condolences.”
“My father was dead long time before we even came here, doc. I remember my mother told me he was like a sick tree. Rotting from the inside.”
The doctor looked right back at the shape on the bench. Had a single drop been off, then the word it formed would have been Peace.
“It was the Vas’Iiri, that did this to him. He killed a lot of them, on that day, this much I’m sure of. Heard everyone talk for days about the way they beat their retreat. Hope they all got their holes in their backs, like proper cowards.”
“Have you ever seen a Vas’Iiri?”
“I haven’t and I never will. We pushed them far from our borders and killed those that were left behind, hunted them down like they were dogs.”
“What if some of them evaded capture? What if you found out there were Vas’Iiri agents everywhere, scattered across the regions, hidden for a good part of a decade. What would you do then?”
“I’d buy myself a mile of rope and find a good, tall tree where I could hang them all. One by one.”
“And what if one of them was a good friend of yours?”
“I’d hang him first.” The innkeeper unsheathed a long-bladed knife with a curved blade, a thing made out of chiseled obsidian and nailed it down on the stool. “First though, I’d cut his belly open, so I could watch him spill his insides before his neck snapped.”
The sight of the blade unearthed secrets he’d thought long buried from his mind. A lifetime ago, an instructor had taught him to split the enemy open from side to side: a single swipe, one end to another, shaped like the Moon goddess, as she rests.
“You know of any Vas’Iiri, doc?”
“One of them is going to die here, tonight. That’s all I know.”
The innkeeper was about to speak, when the door to the saloon creaked open. The doctor looked at the figure walking in. His every step seemed to reverberate across the hardwood floor.
“We’re closed, stranger.”
“I just need to rest for a while. Just came from Vane Flats.” Said the stranger and sat by the bench. The doctor snuck a peek at his face, then looked away. His eyes were pitch-black beads.
“You a messenger?” The innkeeper asked.
“More or less. What are you serving?”
The doctor stole a glance at the stranger. He wore a duster coat and a broad-rimed hat, both caked in dust. The stranger looked as if he’d just burst out of the desert. A lifetime ago, he’d heard the legend of the clay warrior, sent by the Sun god to slay the men who had sided with the Tzitzime, many years before the first sunset.
The innkeeper poured some root wine for the stranger, his eyes darting back and forth between the doctor and the boy. The stranger took the shot glass, sniffed at the content as if he were a dog, then put it back on the bench, untouched. He looked at the long, curved knife and said:
“That’s an impressive knife. Yours?”
The doctor tried hard not to look at the stranger. He could feel the hairs on the back of his head stand at attention, every time he’d hear his voice. Keeping his head down, he stole glances at him.
“It’s my father’s. Ripped it off a dead Vas’Iiri Jaguar’s hands, after he crushed his windpipe.”
The stranger nodded. His right hand slid down his coat, all the way to his waist. The doctor looked then, at the mirror across the stranger and noticed in it the outline of his face, for the very first time. His heart skipped a beat, right then.
That was the face in the mirror. That was the man that would kill him.
It was then that his instinct dug up years of training he could have sworn he’d forgotten. His hand went for the knife with blinding speed, his muscles taught under his skin. His fingers wrapped round the handle and applied just the right pressure, enough to free the blade’s tip. With the blade now freed, his arm made a horizontal sweep, aimed at the stranger’s neck. His momentum and the sharpness of the blade would be more than enough to sever the stranger’s head from his body.
Each move was carried out perfectly. The angle, the blade’s path, were both sublime. All that was left was for the blow to connect. Trace the blade in the likeness of the Moon goddess, as she rests. For an instant, he shut his eyes and waited for the soft, almost inaudible hiss the stranger’s thick neck would make, as the obsidian edge would cut through flesh, muscle, tendon and bone in one motion. His only regret was that, after this, he’d have to kill the innkeeper and the boy and leave this town for another. He’d have to hide all over again, somewhere else. But at least, he’d be alive.
Opening his eyes, he saw that the stranger had ducked his dead, dodging the blow. His right hand was a blur, reaching at something on his waist. The next instant, he was staring right in the bottomless depth of his gun’s barrel.
“You’re a Vas’Iiri Jaguar.” Said the man, in the doctor’s mother tongue.
“I am a Jaguar clad in snake skin.”
“A spy. You’re an agent with the intent of enacting sabotage and causing panic behind enemy lines.”
The innkeeper looked mortified at the scene. He kept glancing back and forth between the doctor, a close friend of his for five years now and the stranger, as they spoke in gibberish.
“What the Devil is this?” he exclaimed. He received no reply.
“There’s no way you’re Government. I didn’t see any badge.”
“I was sent by the Old Guard. Came all the way from the Salted Desert for you, once I’d taken care of a traitor.”
“You can’t be Old Guard. The Government killed them off..”
“I’m not one of them. I’m just carrying out their revenge.”
The innkeeper stepped back and made a vague signal at the kid. The boy creeped to the other side of the bench and took an old, well-oiled shotgun from its hiding place under the counter. The boy placed it in the innkeeper’s hands, then backed away.
“You made me lose my cover. I’ve been living for a half a decade here now, not having harmed a single soul in this town and with nobody being the wiser. I was one of you. Now I’m just a Jaguar.”
“I’m sorry to hear this. But I have to kill you.”
“Spare me the drama, stranger.”
“Doc, get down!” shouted the innkeeper, as he cocked both barrels of his gun and shot the stranger. The man was blasted right on his chest, falling on his back. The doctor raised his knife, pouncing at the incapacitated man.
The innkeeper barely had time to see the doctor in mid-air, his blade already at the end of a deadly arc, as the edge ripped through the coat, into the man’s flesh. A trickle of blood ran down between the ripped folds of the fabric. The damn thing seemed impossibly sharp, then and there. Another second, and it would have cut the stranger’s arm clean off.
Then, he heard the gunshots. The doctor was tossed back in the air, then fell hard on the floor, clutching at a hole in his chest. He stared at the stranger, as he got up, with a huge white spot on his duster coat, where the shot got him. There was the smell of cordite, seeping from the barrels of his revolvers.
I never saw him draw that other revolver, did I? How the hell did he do it? How could he draw the other damn thing then shoot, when he was getting his damn arm cut off?
The stranger walked toward the doctor, who writhed on the floor with a hole in his belly. Turned him on his back with his boot, as if he were a dying turtle. The doctor coughed blood, then said, in his mother tongue:
“In my room… top floor. There’s a pen and a notepad there. Please, take them. Don’t let them find out who I really was. Don’t…don’t want them to think I was going to betray them…”
The stranger shot the doctor once with each gun, before he was done pleading. A bullet in the chest and one between the eyes. The doctor was still, then. The innkeeper was shaking like a leaf.
“Shot you… I shot you right in the damn chest! Why are you still standing?”
The stranger looked at the white spot on his chest and smiled a mirthless smile.
“Next time you want someone taken down, use buckshot.” He tossed a tarnished silver dollar on the counter. “Rock salt is for kittens.”
The stranger turned around and left the saloon then, just like that. In the doctor’s room, on the top floor, the dry desert wind rustled the dead man’s journal pages. The paper ruffled, silently narrating the story of his crimes. He was absolved in the final pages, but he was a proud sinner and a traitor in the first, once more. The man who died on that night was a Vas’Iiri Jaguar, with the snake skin he had once donned lifeless and cracked on the salloon’s floor downstairs. The doctor, who thought he’d escaped the burden of slaughtered children, poisoned wells and the curses of widows was gone, just like that.
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