Ixtab fled through the Underworld, the pack of jaguar wayob so close on her heels she could smell the scent of rotted meat on their lolling tongues. Larger and more powerful still than even a natural jaguar, the skin changers enjoyed vigor and battle prowess that she could never hope to match. Only the knowledge that the traditions of the bat wayob would die with her if she fell kept her bare soles hammering the ground.
The last one.
The thought stuck like a rag stuffed down her throat, suffocating her. If she couldn’t find The White Path, The World Tree, all was lost. She prayed for a glimpse of the the great Ceiba, its many worlds hanging heavy from its branches like ripe fruits, colors and smells and textures so varied that the average human could never have comprehended it. If she could change her fortunes and find a new reality to hide in, there was hope.
She wanted to shift to her smallest most difficult to spot form, the second soul that gifted her with the form of a great spectral bat, but the magic of her enemies kept her trapped in her weak human wrapping. Her all too mortal body felt the limitations imposed on her even here in the spirit world, trembling limbs that threatened to send her to the ground, lungs deflated and seizing. With each hard won breath the merciless thorns of exertion ripped at her windpipe. Whatever hideous thing the Jaguar Queen had done to gain such power, she could only imagine. No atrocity was beneath the traitorous priestess of the Moon Goddess, the beautiful face that hid a withered heart.
Shadows clung to her, the wispy essences of those who had found only torment after death. The murmurings of ghosts awakened the memories of her slain brothers and sisters, memories she held deep within her many souls. If she died like all the others, rent apart by jaguar claws, the essence of every spirit she had ever guided to the afterlife would be lost with her. If it weren’t for the fact that she was more than the sum of her parts, that she carried all that remained of her people, she would have laid down in the loam and let her enemies tear her throat out. At least it would be an escape from the misery of what she had seen only a few mornings before, the red day when the jaguars had come.
Even though she embodied a death goddess, the creeping horror inherent in this place tangled up in her hair and slapped a cruel hand across her mouth. Whatever sacred words had been on her lips died stillborn. The humid air itself carried the scent of despair; sweat, decay, burning straw and the dust from cracked stones. Not even Rope Woman could protect her here. The goddess of suicide took lost souls to paradise and this was no paradise; She had little sway over the other pathways to the afterlife, to this place of fear.
There was nothing of the high priestess in her now either, only the blind terror of an abandoned pup. She tripped over a tangle of black roots in her haste and hit the ground so hard she couldn’t move for a full minute, the scent of befouled burial shrouds rising from the black soil as if the bodies below yet longed to rise. She tried to push herself up before a jaguar could find and kill her. The sight of her fingers fighting for purchase closed her throat with terror. The red powder she wore, meant to symbolize rebirth, was almost gone. Only her naked hands remained.
A rush of body heat and sizzling magic over her head told her that one of the jaguars had gone flying past, misjudging the distance needed to take her down for the kill. Before she could rejoice over that the roots sprouted staring green eyes, all fixed on her. A great shrieking arose and the roots whipped at her legs, trying to gather her up the way a constricting serpent might have done. The ground shifted, threatening to vomit up whatever deadly secrets lurked below.
If she had any air for it, she would have screamed. As it was she only just managed to kick free, though one of her hair ribbons paid the price. At least that was all she had lost. She stood just in time to dodge the second jaguar, swiping at her face with its wicked black claws. She set out running once more, desperately trying to call up some sort of magic, to remember any spell that might help her. She was no warrior and she knew she would never best a jaguar way in a physical fight.
She sensed the last of the cats bunching up behind her. She dropped and rolled, wrenching her shoulder. The giant animal thudded to the ground beside her, and she knew then that she couldn’t get up and keep running. She had spent herself too recklessly. She also knew that despite her fear, she would have to summon up a curse if she wanted to survive. She fumbled for the wand hanging from the sash around her waist. It was made from the leg bone of her most impressive sacrifice, a lord from the neighboring city-state, and it was her only hope of surviving. She screamed as the jaguar rounded on her, but not out of fear; wild magic filled her with purpose and life as if she were a sacred well.
Instead of the healing and prosperity that came from mundane wells, however, she was filled with the power of pestilence and blood. The curse took shape in her belly, a monstrous child so unnatural and malformed she would have dashed it upon the rocks had it been a literal child of flesh and bone. The jaguar leapt on her and she jammed the wand between its jaws, terror giving way to fury. The sacred words bubbled up like a geyser. The spell-child came squalling in to the world. The jaguar’s eyes turned to bloody mush, pus leaking from the ruined sockets. With all of her strength she pushed up on the wand, throwing the big cat back a few paces even as she threw the curse. She stood as bile streamed from its mouth and nose, and decay split its back and belly.
She fled before the others could regroup and come for her again, the harsh cries of the fallen jaguar in her ears. She longed for the visions of paradise that she’d been granted when guiding the souls of the dead, the grove of ancestors with trees so majestic and powerful she couldn’t see their tops. Where was the air redolent with fruits, the temples ensouled with such amazing energy that she wept to look on them? She thought of the masks carved in to her temple in the city she had been forced to abandon, the masks she had always perceived as looking down on her with benevolence. But now even the visage of the Midnight Sun stared after her with reproach in his red eyes.
A new world loomed before her and she grabbed for the bark of the great Ceiba Tree, finally shedding her human body in favor of her huge middle form. She dug the gleaming claws at her wing joints in and climbed through a storm of gleaming green energy. What she would find when she emerged in to the mundane again she didn’t know. The face of her most beloved sister, gentle and kind Imix K’awak, swam before her mind’s eye. Imix’s neck was broken, head nearly twisted from her shoulders. Blood spattered the ground, the bodies of still more sisters left broken in the dust nearby.
She tried to will the image away, but it wouldn’t leave her. She swallowed a sob, even as the Tree’s energy slipped over her like a sacred feather cloak. Whatever waited for her across the Primordial Sea, it couldn’t be worse than what she had left behind.