Sharp, clean, square metal framing floor-to-ceiling glass panes which filled the room with light or—more often—staved off the ethereal press of San Francisco fog. Artfully arranged, crisp-looking couches and chairs surrounding a carpet with a Mondrian design done in all warm, inoffensive browns and creams and dark grays. A 72-inch flatscreen television spanned most of the inside wall, flanked by tall, dark-tinted glass cabinets, filled with Blu-Ray boxes: The Avengers, Captain America 1 and 2, Thor 1 and 2, old Hulk and new Hulk, Brave, Cars, Mulan, Wall-E, whole seasons of Adventure Time… all titles that sparked wave after wave of forgotten memories of sitting on the couch or the floor, being so struck with excitement or righteous anger at what was going on up on the screen that it was too much not to jump up, strung with anticipation, or—much rarer but more deeply treasured—leaning against a warm side, lightly draped by a warm arm. Two curved staircases leading to the loft which overlooked the entire room and bore three doors—one to the master bedroom, one to the bathroom, one to another bedroom.
This was the penthouse, exactly the way it was when Sofia last saw it. Before the end of the world.
And someone had just closed the oven in the kitchen.
Sofia hadn’t noticed that there was an ache resting just under her ribs until that one small noise made it grow to the point where it seemed to take over, sending her running around the TV and DVDs, circling around the wall and through the wide, doorless frame that Sofia remembered offered a view of the fireplace just under the loft as one stepped out of the kitchen.
Her padding feet slowed to a stop not long after they touched the cool, marble-tiled floor.
Standing there on her tiptoes, peering into a cabinet, was a woman—not much older than Lisa—with long, deep black hair highlighted by the seemingly concentrated sunlight that currently filled the penthouse, and smooth brownish skin. She wore a hospital gown, its hem stained with the dark blood that trailed languidly down the inside of her legs.
“Um… hello?” Sofia ventured. Her voice sounded different, somehow. Littler.
The woman’s gaze snapped to Sofia. There was something very familiar about her face, the gentle, swooping lines of the cheekbones, the graceful curve of the lips, the shape of her eyes—the very light furrows of stress that marked the corner of her eyes and the knot of her brow.
A little, light gasp crossed her lips and her expression slackened a little in recognition.
“You are… Sofia?” she asked in Spanish.
Sofia nodded slowly, warily.
The woman approached, leaving behind bloody footprints. She wasn’t very tall—she’d had to stand on her tiptoes to get a good look at the cabinets, and she had to reach up to cover Sofia’s face in kisses.
Sofia felt a little bashful blush rise to her cheeks.
She quickly pulled away to get a better look at Sofia, eyes flicking as they took in her features.
“Ay, girlie, you are every last bit of beautiful Alejo said you were,” the woman breathed. After regarding Sofia another moment, she brought one hand to gingerly trace the right side of her face. A little concerned frown played at the edges of the woman’s lips, but it quickly eased.
Suddenly, nagging familiarity shifted into recognition.
“You’re… Grandma Silvia,” Sofia said. It felt foreign, calling this woman ‘Grandma.’
The woman smiled. “I’d longed to meet you someday. I’m glad it wasn’t the way I thought it would be.”
Sofia looked around the kitchen, eyes flicking to the refrigerator, the pantry, the stove. If this was Grandma Silvia, then… “Where’s Dad?”
“In the sky, girlie,” replied the woman, looking around as well. “I think I’m here to take you to him. We could use your help.”
Sofia looked again to the woman, furrowing her brow. A dozen questions vied for her attention, but only one was able to push its way to the front.
“Help?” she asked. “With what?”
“Your father is carrying the sun through Acopa,” Grandma Silvia said. “He’s been doing it almost alone for too long. I don’t know how much longer he can keep it up.”
Something slammed suddenly into her gut, crumbling her knees. Sofia sank to the floor. Grandma Silvia crouched before her, concern once again overtaking her expression.
“Dad’s alive?” she asked, unable to manage much more than a whisper.
Grandma Silvia nodded.
“So then…” Sofia paused briefly, collecting the thoughts that whizzed through her head. Her throat tightened further, but she pushed her question through. “Is he the Ruler of the Sixth Sun?”
“Not quite.” Grandma Silvia hesitated. “He can explain.” She crouched to Sofia’s level, took Sofia’s hands in each of her own, and gave her a direct look. “Are you ready to go to him, girlie?”
The sunlight intensified suddenly, filling Sofia’s vision with painful white. She clenched her eyes shut, her hands instinctively tightening over Grandma Silvia’s.
Suddenly, a chaotic cacophony assaulted her ears. Screeches, squealing, roaring, thumping—Sofia’s eyes snapped open.
Beside Sofia rested the head of the Great Coatl—just as massive as Sofia remembered it—its scales devoid of all its former color and luster, open eyes veiled by the film of death. It stank of clean char and filthy rot all at once, the conflicting scents clashing and mingling with the overpowering scent of blood. Without thinking, she released Grandma Silvia’s hands to shield her nose from the violent assault. But it was too late.
Like a blow to the stomach, Sofia collapsed to her hands and knees. As she retched, a gentle hand drew her hair back.
Once her body could react no longer, once her senses deadened, Sofia shakily accepted Grandma Silvia’s help to rise. When she’d found her feet again, she turned away from the Great Coatl’s head to assess the surroundings.
Sofia and Grandma Silvia stood upon the immense steps of an Aztec pyramid. The Aztec pyramid, Sofia realized: thirteen concentric, square heavens, crafted from part of Cipactli’s corpse long ago.
All around them was a mess of colors, of writhing, leaping, biting, striking creatures consisted of a patternless conglomeration of animal parts and toothy orifices; it was a battleground of shadow and light frenetically dancing across the nearby ancient stone wall as they vied against each other for dominance.
Sofia clenched her fists and spread her feet. Looked like it was time to fight.
And then shadow crossed over her. A faint, pinpoint pair of yellow glows streaked across the darkness. It disappeared suddenly when the light won out once more—and along with it went the noise and the color, as if the light’s victory had banished every last foe. Bodies lay in a haphazard pile on the stone, their blood spreading over the outcropping before spilling down its edge to the layer below.
Darkness fell over Sofia from behind. Startled, she whirled.
Towering over her was a shadow of a man. His waist was wrapped by cloth so thoroughly bloodstained that it would have seemed black, were it not for the fact that the skin it covered was even blacker. His torso, heaving with harsh, shortened breath, was mostly bare but for a wide belt circling his stomach, pinning to him some kind of charred hide that draped over his shoulders and down his back, black ash flaking off of it with every movement and drifting to the ground. Liquid dripped from a dozen wounds all over his body, glittering red in the brief moment of sunlight between skin and ground. The man’s teeth—a vivid, startling, menacing white—were bared as if each breath was a pained effort. The upper half of his face was concealed by a sooty jaguar head missing its lower jaw, its wicked, yellowed fangs circling his nose and cheekbones, a golden glow emanating from its sockets.
“No…” he said, his voice a harsh whisper rasping against what sounded like a painfully dry throat. “No, no, no, no, no…”
His bloody dagger slipped from nerveless fingers. He dropped to his knees, his head slumped forward and hands hanging limp between his legs as if he had lost all but the barest strength to hold himself up.
Grandma Silvia approached him from behind, holding a shallow bowl before him. But for the continued labored rise and fall of his shoulders, he didn’t move.
“Mijo, you must drink,” she said, gently.
She crossed in front of him, set the bowl down beside one of his knees, and kneeled before him, gently pushing the jaguar skin from his head. The upper half of his face had been spared the charring that the rest of his skin had endured. Curled black hair, with the same shine as Grandma Silvia’s, was plastered to his forehead. She brought a wet, stained rag to bear, applying it first to his brow and then to his wounds.
“I can’t…” he whispered. “I can’t fight. Not anymore.”
“You can. Look who I brought,” Grandma Silvia said. She regarded Sofia, and beckoned her forth.
It was as if being addressed set her heart a-beat again, though it was fluttered by fear, fear that none of this was real, fear that she’d wake up to a world where her dad was dead. The rest of her body seemed locked, every last muscle wound too tightly to move.
“She doesn’t belong here,” the blackened god rasped. “She belongs on the World. If she’s not there, what’s left that’s worth saving?”
Grandma Silvia stopped and pulled the rag away from him. Sofia couldn’t see her expression, but the air around her seemed suddenly tight.
When she didn’t respond, he looked up at her, his entire face drawn tight with grief. “The world is already doomed. I did this for her, mamá. So she could have a chance at living, the way I never had.”
A hard ache formed just under Sofia’s heart. Real or not, she couldn’t stand seeing him like this.
“Dad…” She started forward.
But Grandma Silvia’s sudden, sharp movement brought pause. Her palm smacked the back of the blackened god’s head, jerking it forward. The jaguar skin plopped back over his eyes, this time askew.
“Ow!” he exclaimed, his voice cracking. Then he drew his lips back to bare his teeth, his gaze snapping back to Grandma Silvia. “Ay, mamá, what was that for?”
“She’s not dead,” Grandma Silvia said. “She’s dreaming. And even if she were dead, who are you to deem the entire world unworthy of your efforts, eh? I don’t remember raising you to be so arrogant, talking like those rich white men you had to work with, who thought they were the kings of everything.”
The blackened god snarled and rose suddenly. The jaguar skin settled over his face again and the golden glow began to shine from its sockets. “Look around you, spirit!” His sweeping motion was sharp, abrupt, his tanned arm and blackened arm crossing only briefly. He circled with his arms outspread, his marble foot tapping against the stone, then spoke again. His voice a low growl. “It is I alone who climbs the steps of this forsaken temple. It is I alone who sees to the Fifth Sun. I am the king of everything.” Shadows deepened and flickered around him like some kind of inversion of a star. “I am the Black Tezcatlipoca, and I deem the World of the Fifth Sun unworthy! It deserves to fall into darkness, to match the color of men’s hearts.”
Grandma Silvia rose, squaring her shoulders and tilting her chin up towards him. “Alejandro Miguel Xaxalpa, you cut that nonsense out right now.” She paused, flicking a look over her shoulder. “What kind of example are you being for Sofia, huh? Throwing a temper tantrum like that.”
His arms lowered and his jaw slackened a little in puzzlement. “Sofia.” His hands finally dropped to his sides, and the shadows retreated. “She’s… she’s alive?”
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?” She looked back over her shoulder to Sofia and held a hand out toward her. “Come here, girlie.” Her tone had softened considerably. “Give your father a hug, and maybe talk some sense into him.”
The ache burned too much, too close to her pulse for Sofia to hesitate any longer. In a bare moment, she darted forward and flung her arms around him. They didn’t pass through, like she half-expected, nor did she wake up, as the other half expected. She could feel him, solid, real, his chest rising and falling with his breath, his wounds wet and copper-smelling and his skin almost unbearably hot. Never had she a dream as vivid as this. It had to be real.
“I missed you, Dad,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.
Slowly she felt his arms closing around her, his hands trembling.
“I missed you too, mija,” he replied, his voice barely a breath.
He pulled away and drew his jaguar hood back to reveal his face again. His eyes searched her for a long moment. “Gods. You’re so… grown up now.” They were squinted and his brow furrowed and his mouth twisted as if he were crying, but no tears spilled down his cheeks. “Please,” he said, a shaky smile pushing at the edges of his mouth. “Tell me everything.”
As she did, he listened, placidly drinking from the bowl and then donning his headdress again to rise and wrap his arms around the neck of the half-rotted Great Coatl. She climbed down the steps of the pyramid between him and Grandma Silvia, talking the whole way.