To the End
Hearts, beating, beating, beating. Darkness, swirling with a liquid rush a thousand ways in a thousand places. Pressing out to the edges of veins, cycling through, growing. Spilling on fire, black smoke burning, crawling down his throat with each inhale; soaking in soil, bubbling up beneath his feet, his cracked flesh which seeped too, mingling filth and blood, embedding it into his veins with every step.
His heart, his mind… silent. Tlilocelotlpilli’s teotl was whole. At last.
Around him sin seethed in flesh; sun-hot fury caught aflame, blackening everything in its path, carried aloft on emboldened words, braying laughter, rousing songs. He crossed through them, scattering the blood of his wounds in the soil at their feet, a deeper, truer hole among mere shadows which relied on light to be cast.
With his crossing came silence, the silence of purpose made singular by his presence. It closed like a total eclipse.
Huitzilopochtli’s shame was nigh. All that was left was the waiting.
Tlilocelotlpilli descended the slope to his den, flicking through the curtains and slipping into the darkness. Settled in to wait.
He’d been cast out for his unworthiness, by hands just as stained. After all, darkness curled around Huitzilopochtli’s heart too, a circlet of choking brambles that tightened with each beat. It bled, great liquid, hot rivers, free, so that not even the blue paint of his office could dry it, staunch it, cover it. Oh, the scent, the taste of those wounds were all too familiar: the loss of a love, the agony of rejection, the humiliation of filth on such bald display.
His own heart still carried that pain. A collection of holes just as wide as the day they were punched through his chest—Mamá, three times, and Rita, twice—never healed, merely gone stale. He would carry it for eternity.
And now… and now Huitzilopochtli would face his daughter. Face the sins he thought he could abandon just by casting them away. He would bear each wound he inflicted on her as if he were inflicting them on himself twice. For Tlilocelotlpilli had seen that in his heart too. After all, they were both fathers.
This time, though, Huitzilopochtli would kill her. Tlilocelotlpilli would make sure of that. Afterwards… if Huitzilopochtli was lucky, he’d not have the strength to turn away the call of the blade. Or… or perhaps it was weakness. It was hard to tell, nowadays.
Black fury drew nearer, with the steady, driving cadence of an intent stride. It curled and shifted under the bearer’s heart like some kind of trapped living thing ready to be forced from a womb too long quickened.
~ Our lord Burned Tezcatlipoca.
The bearer of the fury spoke outside the threshold, at the very top of the steps, gentle, no edges to her soft, respectful sounds.
He breathed her name. The filth-laden rage swirled again within her, sending a shiver through her that rippled into the earth itself.
She spoke again: ~ Two have entered our camp seeking audience with you. One is he who had been cast out by your hand; the other is your daughter. Your servant waits on your word, Lord.
The word spiderwebbed through him, sending longing bleeding out through cracked flesh, sending the hair of his right arm standing on end. A summons was carried along by this sudden flood, stemmed as quickly as it had flowed.
~ Your servant obeys, Lord.
The bearer of fury departed.
It had been… a while. Too long? Not long enough. He couldn’t… couldn’t remember. That didn’t seem right somehow. There had never been a time he didn’t count the days until he could see her again.
There had never been a time filth had been so rife.
He smelled it first: thick beast-musk coated with smoke crisped by crackling cold air… and scents of quiet evenings of affection gone by, masked but never completely driven away by cloying aromas of rosebud and sap—except now her scent was different, thicker, richer. He heard it first: the beating of hearts—three, not two, one smaller and quieter and faster than the rest.
The writhing fury remained outside the threshold of his den. But the other two—three?—two approached. Descended. Emerged.
It wasn’t her, but she was there, in the curl of her hair, in the curve of her smile, in the light of her eyes, bright, despite the darkness. Another, sudden ache split through him. Pulled. Something hot like pain tore at him, stretching him beyond the ends of himself.
Spanish. A language they’d seized to make their own.
His throat, his tongue, clumsy with disuse, were still familiar, comfortable enough, with her name to shape it properly.
Her smile spread. Strained, hurt, hopeful. Reserved. A little tight. Like there was a hug waiting at the edges to be invited.
Why was she hesitating?
Why wouldn’t she hesitate?
His longing bled from him again, trailing down his cheeks, clean and clear.
“Hey,” she said, “I’m really glad to see you”.
Be wary. Look. Listen.
In the corner stood the youth, violence prowling through his taut shape, his own filth staining his hands, his lips, spilled down his abdomen like blood. Watching. His arrogant tongue sharp behind his waiting fangs.
And a third heart still beat. Hidden. Waiting.
What is her purpose here?
Her life hadn’t had him in it for longer than it had. And now there was nothing he could offer her.
She stepped closer. “I’m worried about you. Rube is too. I was hoping you’d want to come home with us”.
He’d been stripped of every home he’d ever had the temerity to try and keep. Tecotlán. San Diego. Woodside. Acopa. His Mamá’s heart. Rita’s.
But… but not Sofie’s.
“Papá”. Sofie straightened. “My home is your home”. She strengthened. “Always”.
Hadn’t he promised to work to earn her faith in him, long ago? When she’d given him that first hug, at three, and introduced herself?
That ship had long sailed.
Yes. It had. Sofie’s happiness did not call for him anymore. He’d missed more of it than he’d ever caused.
“Papá, I miss you”. She stepped closer. Tall. Firm. But warm. Open. So brave. So vulnerable. For him. For him. “You don’t have to keep fighting anymore. Please come home with me”.
Life was fighting. Always fighting.
But… he’d once been fighting for her. That was the only good reason to fight. But… that wasn’t why he’d fought Huitzilopochtli. And he’d done it every day. For years. When had he lost his way? How had he forgotten?
That feeling split through him again. Set his arm afire. It twitched, clenching and unclenching.
Your teotl is corruption. It’s yours to scent, to taste, to draw out and hunt down, excising it from power wherever it has spread, before it can finish eating everything from the inside out. That is what you fight for. You will never be able to ignore it.
Yes… but he could excise it from himself first. This world would one day end anyway, borne as it was by hands stained with sin. It didn’t need his help. The next world would be new. Clean. And then he could hunt darkness while it was still young. He could do it better, even, having already ended it in himself.
And… and… he missed Sofie too.
And you will continue to. Her home will never truly be your home. Remember?
The scent of roses and sap and soil.
The last time he’d been there, the smell of her husband… her husband… was everywhere, filled it, pressing in against the senses, steadily, driving him back until there was no space left but out the door. That was her home now. He could smell it even now, so far from it.
If you live in her home she will be there, right in front of you, but you will not be able to reach her. Not ever.
But Sofie was here now. Reaching for him. She’d made him a promise. Couldn’t he give her a fraction of the same faith she was giving him?
Smell. Listen. Your senses will reveal the truth of it.
Her husband’s scent. He knew it too well. It was the one mingled with hers. It had changed her scent, even. To something barely familiar, now that he was paying attention. And there was a third heartbeat, hidden under her own. Always with her.
The mark on her chest. A heart, woven like choking vines, like brambles. Her husband’s mark, his brand. Just like the humiliation in Mamá’s eyes, branded on her by Parsons and son, strung in every flinch and withering touch, which she tried so hard to hide from him from her defilement to her death. Just like the resignation in Rita’s eyes, constricting her longing, her love, forced there by Hephaestus, which she, too, tried to hide.
Just like the hurt in Sofie’s eyes.
But it wasn’t embedded in her yet. She wasn’t trying to hide it, she was showing it to him, freely and openly. It was just a surface mark.
We can excise it.
It’d be simple enough. Quick.
The youth shifted, slow. His heart sped. His fingers twitched. But no matter. Tlilocelotlpilli knew better than anyone else how to deal with beasts.
Blinding sunspot heat built in his hand. Focused.
He gathered. His arm twitched.
“Rube, wait!” Sofie cried.
A weight slammed against him. Claws sank into his shoulder. Fire burst through him. Sang through his bones. A roar split from his throat.
But agony held no surprises for him anymore.
Tlilocelotlpilli closed his fingers on soft flesh. Dug, deep, burrowing into muscle, hooking through his ribs, seizing his sternum. Squeezed. Cracked. Tore. Skin bubbled under the heat of his grip.
There was a scream of pain. The claws came free, sliding fresh agony with them.
Tlilocelotlpilli breathed the beast’s filth. It unfurled. Wove into thorned vines, bramble-like, barbed wire-like. Upon bidding, they enfolded the beast, binding his feet, ankles, wrists, arms, cocoon-like, digging ever deeper. Runnels of blood seeped into the dark soil beneath. He dropped the beast to the ground, to shudder with each shallow, gasped, panicked breath.
There wasn’t much time, then.
His black heat met her white arm. Cracked it. She took in a sharp breath.
“¡Papá! Please stop—¡please let Rube go!”
A crack sliced hot through him. Split open. Spilled fresh fire.
She’d made that arm herself, because she’d had to. He’d seen her make it, in his fevered daydreams.
Just get that one spot.
The sunspot further scored her scars. Scorched them. She gritted the pain between her teeth.
“¡Papá! I’m not gonna fight you, ¿okay?”
It burned at his skin, crawling deeper, wider.
Those were scars he’d caused. And now he was giving her more.
It’s right there.
The sunspot sank into muscle. Seared it. She let out a strangled cry.
“Please, ¡I just wanna talk with you!”
His thigh flinched, buckled. There had been a tattoo there, the one she’d gotten for him. Because after all those years she’d still loved him. Now it was warped, disfigured. It’d be just another scar.
The sunspot chipped against bone. Charred it. A cry escaped her.
“Papá, I love you, ¡but if you keep hurting me and Rube I’ll have to leave!”
No. It was too much. He staggered under it.
Agony still held surprises for him after all.
The sunspot burned under his grip.
Sofie stood before him. Her blood trickled down, soaked the dark soil beneath, too clean to be mingled with such filth. She stood straight and tall, even now. But exhaustion weighed on her. She clutched at her middle with her white arm.
One last strike. It’s there. Open to you. There’s only so much longer she can resist.
His arm twitched, ready.
What was he doing? Was this how he was trying to earn her faith? She’d already suffered so much at his hands.
It’ll be quick.
No. He’d never wanted to hurt her in the first place. He’d promised to himself that he wouldn’t, ages ago, as she lay there, drugged to unconsciousness, helpless, in the hospital, while they cut away her arm. Not for anything. Least of all for himself.
It was time for him to walk away. He didn’t deserve her.
Wallow in your self-pity, then.
His arm thrust.
And then the beast tore free from his filth. Leaped up. Wrapped himself around the arm, listing it lower.
The point of the sunspot dipped. Dropped from the brand at her chest. Sank through her belly.
The beast stilled suddenly, horror seizing him. Let go. Dropped. Slammed into the ground with a whimper. The thorns drove further into his flesh at the impact, sending him into a flinching shudder again.
Sofie just stood there. Stone. Eyes wide. Words gone.
It was quiet. Quieter than he remembered it being since she’d arrived.
Blood trailed down the inside of her legs. Soaked the dark soil. Hers, yes. But mingling with another’s. New blood.
She’d asked him something. Some time ago, lost somewhere in the blur of blood and pain and filth. He’d forgotten it. Or maybe he’d dismissed it as a dream. But there was one word that struck him. What was—
When had she—
The third heartbeat. It was silent.
No no no no no no.
How did he forget? How did he fail to realize? How did this happen? All he was trying to do was—
No. That was a weapon in his fist. Those were wounds he’d inflicted.
He’d been trying to kill her.
This wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t hesitated.
He opened his hand. It twitched, resisting him. So he flickered the sunspot away into nothing.
You should have—
He slammed his cracked, charred fingers into the claw wounds at his shoulder. Probed through the fire, seeking.
The other hand straightened, thrust up under his ribs. Stole his breath. Burrowed through the fire, seeking.
Fingers tucked into his socket. Pried.
Fingers found his heart. Dug.
He drained into the dark soil. Sank to his knees. Blood bubbled from his chest, up his throat, choked out his mouth. Slicked his burned fingers, his hand, his forearm.
And then, with a pop, it came free. The fingers clawed in his chest faltered.
He tore the arm—his father’s arm—from himself. Fibers and nerves snapped, skin tore. Inert fingernails raked at his heart, ripped from under his ribs. He gripped tighter and tighter. Took the black heat of the sunspot, pressed it into dying flesh, harder and hotter. The skin bubbled, cracked, blackened, peeled away. The muscle withered, curled, dropped off in flakes. The bone powdered to ash.
And, finally, he let go.
The ground hit him. Dull fire lit his nerves, burning hot and fierce in his chest, in his shoulder. His life, his strength, seeped from him, into the soaked, dark soil. His ribs rattled with his ragged, halting, skipping pulse. His ears rang, loud and steady and merciless.
For the first time in an eternity—even through the heat of this agony which, even now, held no surprises for him—his skin was cooling on its own.
That was it, then. The answer, right there in his reach this whole time.
He’d been too slow. Learned far too late. And once again, Sofie would live on to bear his scars.
“… say goodbye.” A voice, through the ringing. Ruined. Wheezing.
Ruben. Still alive. How—?
It didn’t matter. Not anymore. All he could do now was wait until the last of him spilled out into the saturated soil.
“Papá… Papá, ¿are you still there?”
Her voice. Soft. Shattered.
Hands moved his head. Rested it against something warm, firm.
A hand moved over his brow. Water dropped on his face.
He opened his eyes.
Sofie. Crying. For him?
For her child.
“Sofie. ’M sorr”— The words slipped. “I’m sorr”— Fell thick. “’M sorry”. Tasted like iron.
She nodded. Her mouth twisted. Tears dripped. Cool. “I know”. Hand, on his brow. Gentle. She tried a smile. Failed. “Papá. I love you to the end of the world and back, ¿okay?”
Scraped his tattered heart. Hurt. Hurt.
“No… no… nhh”…
She deserved better. So much better.
She nodded again. More tears dripped. “I do”.
Nothing, no one more divine than her. She should’ve been his teotl all along.
He wanted to touch… wipe her tears.
Oh. Arm gone. Couldn’t.
“’M sorr’, Sof’”
Lips, soft on his head
His job to hold her
to kiss her
“’m s… sss”