Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢ smelled like blood.
You never mistake blood for anything else, not even if you've never smelled it before. We've all tasted it - if nowhere else, when we lose our baby teeth. We all know the taste, and as a corollary, we all know the smell.
The main pyramid is known as El Castillo by most of the folk who go there today - literally, "the castle." As we walked up out of the gallery of pillars, it loomed above us, an enormous mound of cut stone, every bit as large and imposing as the European fortifications for which it was named. It was a ziggurat-style pyramid, made all of square blocks. Levels piled one on top of another as it rose up to the temple at its summit - and every level of the pyramid was lined with a different form of guard.
At the base of the pyramid, and therefore most numerous, were the jaguar warriors we had already seen. They were all men, all appealing, all layered with the lean, swift muscle of a panther. They all wore jaguar skins. Many of them bore traditional weapons. Many more wore swords, some of them of modern make, the best of which were superior in every physical sense to the weapons manufactured in the past. Most of them also carried a Kalashnikov - again, the most modern versions of the weapons, made of steel and polymer, the finest of which were also readily superior to the weapons of earlier manufacture.
The next level up were all women, garbed in ritual clothing as Alamaya had been, but covered in tattoos, much as the jaguar warriors were. They, too, had that same subtle edge to them that suggested greater-than-mortal capability.
Hell's bells. If the numbers were the same on every side of the pyramid, and I had no reason to believe that they were not, then I was looking at nearly a thousand of the jaguar warriors and priestesses. I am a dangerous man - but no one man is that dangerous. I was abruptly glad that we hadn't tried a rope-a-dope or a forward charge. We'd have been swamped by sheer numbers, almost regardless of the plan.
That fact sucks, but that makes it no less true. No matter how just your cause, if you're outnumbered two to one by a comparable force, you're gonna have to be real creative to pull out a victory. Ask the Germans who fought on either front of World War II. German tankers would often complain that they would take out ten Allied tanks for every tank they lost - but the Allies always seemed to have tank number eleven ready to go.
I was looking at an impossible numerical disadvantage, and I did not at all like the way it felt to realize that truth.
And I was only on the second tier of the pyramid.
Vampires occupied the next several levels. None of them were in their monstrous form, but they didn't have to be. They weren't going all out on their disguises, and the all-black coloration of their eyes proclaimed their inhumanity with eloquence. Among the vampires, gender seemed to have no particular recognition. Two more levels were filled with fully vampire jaguar warriors, male and female alike, and the next two with vampire priests and priestesses. Above them came what I presumed to be the Red Court's version of the nobility - individual vampires, male and female, who clearly stood with their own retinues. They tended to wear more and more gold and have fewer and fewer tattoos the higher up the pyramid they went.
Just before the top level were thirteen lone figures, and from what I could see they were taller than most mortals, seven feet or more in height. Each was dressed in a different form of traditional garb, and each had his own signature mask. My Mayan mythology was a bit rusty, but White Council intelligence reports said that the Lords of Outer Dark had posed as gods to the ancient Mayans, each with his own separate identity. What they didn't say was that either they had been a great deal more than that, or that collecting worshipers had made them more than merely ancient vampires.
I saw them and my knees shook. I couldn't stop it.
And a light shone in the temple at the top of the pyramid.
The smell of blood came from the temple.
It wasn't hard to puzzle out. It ran down the steps that led up the pyramid, a trickling stream of red that had washed down the temple steps and onto the earth beyond - which was torn up as if someone had cruised through the bloodied earth with a rototiller and torn it to shreds. The blood slaves, I was willing to bet. My imagination provided me with a picture of that insane mob tearing at the earth, swallowing bloody gob-bets of it, fighting with one another over the freshest mud - until yours truly showed up and kicked off the party.
I looked left and right as we walked across the open courtyard. The cattle car Susan had told us about was still guarded, by a contingent of men in matching khakis and tactical vests - a private security company of some kind. Mercenaries. There were a load of security bozos around, several hundred at least, stationed here and there in soldierly blocks of fifty men.
Without pausing, Alamaya trod across the courtyard and began up the steps, moving with deliberate, reverent strides. I followed her, and everyone else present came with me. I got hostile stares all the way up, from both sides. I ignored them, as if they weren't worth my notice. Alamaya's calves were a lot more interesting anyway.
We reached the level below the temple and Alamaya turned to me. "My lord will speak to only one, Wizard Dresden. Please ask your retainers to wait here."
Here. Right next to the Lords of Outer Night, the expired godlings. If I made a mistake, and if this went bad, it was going to go really bad, really fast. The people who had been willing to risk everything to help me would be the first to suffer because of it. For a moment, I thought about cutting a deal. Send them away. Let me face the Red Court alone. I had enough lives on my conscience already.
But then I heard a soft, soft sound from the level above: a child weeping.
It was far too sad and innocent a sound to be the death knell for my friends - but that might be exactly what it was.
"Stay here," I said quietly. "I don't think this is going to turn into a John Woo film for a couple of minutes, at least. Murph, take the lead until I get back. Sanya, back her."
She arched an eyebrow at me, but nodded. Sanya shifted his position by a couple of feet, to stand slightly behind her and at her right hand.
I moved slowly up the last few steps to the temple.
It was a simple, elegant thing: an almost cubic building atop the pyramid, with a single opening the size of a fairly standard doorway on each side. Alamaya went in first, her eyes downcast. The moment she was in the door, she took a step to one side and knelt, her eyes on the ground, as if she were worthy to move no farther forward.
I took a slow breath and stepped past her, to face the king of the Red Court.
He was kinda little.
He stood with his back to me, his hands raised over his head, murmuring in what I presumed to be ancient Mayan or something. He was five-two, five-three, well muscled, but certainly nothing like imposing. He was dressed in a kind of skirt-kilt thing, naked from the waist up and the kneecap down. His hair was black and long, hanging to the top of his shoulder blades. He gripped a bloodied knife in his hand, and lowered it slowly, delicately.
It was only then that I noticed the woman on the altar, bound hand and foot, her eyes wide and hopeless, fixed on that black knife as if she could not look away.
My hands clenched into fists. I wasn't here to fight, I reminded myself. I wasn't here to fight.
But I wasn't here to stand around and let something like this happen, either. And I've never had a clear head when it comes to protecting women. Murphy says it makes me a Neanderthal.
She may be right, but I didn't seize a bone and jump the guy. I just cleared my throat really, really obnoxiously, and said, "Hey."
The knife paused.
Then the Red King lowered it and turned to face me. And I was forcibly reminded that nuclear warheads come in relatively small packages. He made absolutely no threatening gesture. He didn't even glare.
He didn't need to.
The pressure of his eyes was like nothing I had ever felt before - empty darkness that struck at me like a physical blow, that made me feel as if I had to physically lean away from him to keep from being drawn forward into that vacuum and lost to the void. I was suddenly reminded that I was alone, that I had none of my tools, that I was involved in matters way over my head, and that my outfit looked ridiculous.
And all of it was simply his physical presence. It was far too huge for the little body it came in, too large to be contained by the stone of this temple, a kind of psychic body heat that loomed so large that only a fool would not be instantly aware of how generally insignificant he was in the greater scheme of the universe. I felt my resolve being eroded, even as I stood there, and I clenched my jaw and looked away.
The Red King chuckled. He said something. Alamaya answered him, then rose and came to kneel down at his feet, facing me.
The slave on the altar remained in place, crying quietly.
I could hear another, smaller voice coming from behind the altar. Holy crap. I couldn't have cut this one much closer. I focused on my daughter's voice for a moment, small and sweet - and suddenly I didn't feel nearly so small. I just felt angry.
The Red King spoke.
Alamaya listened and then said, "You do not speak the true tongue of the ages, wizard, so my lord will use this slave to ensure that understanding exists between us."
"Radical," I said. "Wicked cool."
Alamaya eyed me for a moment. Then she said something to the Red King, apparently conveying the fact that I had obnoxiously used phrasing that was difficult to translate.
He narrowed his eyes.
I mimicked his expression. I didn't know if he got it, but he sure didn't like it.
He said something in a short, curt tone.
"My lord demands to know why you are here," the priestess said.
"Tell him he fucking well knows why I'm here," I said.
She stared at me in shock. She stammered several times as she translated for me. I don't know if Ancient Mayan has a word for bleep or if she used it.
The Red King listened, his expression slipping from displeasure into careful neutrality. He stared at me for several moments before he spoke again.
" 'I was given a gift by she you know as Duchess Arianna,' " the girl translated. " 'Are you saying that the gift was wrongfully obtained?' "
"Yes," I said, not looking away from him. "And you know it." I shook my head. "I'm sick of dancing. Tell him that I'll kill Arianna for him, take my daughter with me, and leave in peace. Tell him if he does that, it stops being personal. Otherwise, I'm prepared to fight."
The girl translated, her face once more fearful. When she finished, the Red King burst out laughing. He leaned back against the altar, his mouth wide in a grin, his black eyes utterly unsettling. He spoke a few terse sentences.
"My lord says that he will throw one of your limbs from each door if you lift your hand against him."
I snorted. "Yes. But I won't even try to kill him." I leaned forward, speaking to the Red King, not the girl, and showing him my teeth. "I'll try to cripple him. Wound him. Weaken him. Ask him if he thinks the death curse of a wizard of the White Council can deal him a wound. Ask him how well he trusts the people on the nearest couple of levels of the pyramid. Ask him if he thinks that they'll visit and send gifts when they realize he's been hurt."
Alamaya spoke in a fearful whisper, earning a sharp word of reproof and a command from the Red King. I guessed at the subject matter: "I don't want to tell you this, my lord." "Stupid slave, translate the way I damned well told you to do or I'll break my foot off in your ass."
Okay. Maybe not that last part.
Alamaya got on with her unpleasant job, and the words pushed the Red King into a rage. He gritted his teeth, and . . . things moved beneath his skin, shifting and rolling where nothing should have existed that could shift and roll.
I stared at him with one eyebrow lifted and that same wolf smile on my face, waiting for his reaction. He hadn't been talked to like this in a long time, if ever. He might not have much of a coping mechanism for dealing with it. If he didn't, I was going to die really horribly.
He did. He mastered himself, but I thought it was close - and it cost the woman on the altar her life.
He spun and slammed the obsidian knife into her right eye with such force that the blade broke off. She arched her body up as much as her restraints allowed and let out a short, choked scream of agony, throwing her head left and right - and then she sort of slowly relaxed into death. One leg kept twitching and moving.
The Red King ran two fingertips through the blood that was seeping from her eye socket. He slipped the fingers into his mouth and shuddered. Then he turned to face me, completely composed again.
I'd seen behavior like that before. It was the mark of an addict scoring a fix and full of contentment that he had a body full of booze or drugs or whatever, and therefore the illusion that he could handle emotional issues more capably.
That . . . explained a lot about how the Red Court had behaved during the war. Hell's bells, their king was a junkie. No wonder they had performed so inconsistently - brilliant and aggressive one moment, capable of making insane and idiotic mistakes the next. It also explained why there was strife within the Court. If the mark of power was control of one's blood thirst, indulging it only when and where one chose, and not with every random impulse, then anyone who knew about the Red King's condition would know that he was weak, inconsistent, and irrational.
Hell's bells. This guy wasn't just a monster. He was also paranoid. He had to be, because he knew that his bloodlust would be seen as a sign that he should be overthrown. If it had been happening for very long, it would have driven him insane. Even for one of the Red Court, I mean.
And that must be what had happened. Arianna had somehow tumbled to the Red King's weakness, and was building a power base aimed at deposing him. She'd be building her own power, personal, political, and social, inasmuch as the vampires had a psychotic, blood-spattered, ax-murdering version of a society. Dealing appropriately with one's enemies was critical to maintaining standing in any society - and for the Red Court, the only two enemies were those who had been dealt with appropriately and those who were still alive. She literally had no choice but to take me down if she was to succeed. And a Pearl Harbor for the White Council wouldn't hurt her any either, if she pulled it off.
Oh, I had to make sure this little lunatic stayed king. As long as he was, the Council would never face a competent, united Red Court.
The Red King spoke a moment later, and wiped off his fingers in Alamaya's hair as he did.
"My lord accepts your petition to challenge the duchess. This slave will be sent to fetch her while you wait."
"Not so fast," I said, as Alamaya began to rise. "Tell him I want to see the girl."
She froze between us, wide-eyed.
The king moved a hand in a permissive gesture. She spoke quietly to him.
His lip twitched up away from his teeth a couple of times. But he gave me a curt nod and gestured at the altar. Then he stepped to one side and watched me.
I kept track of him out of the corner of my eye as I approached the altar.
Maggie, wearing little metal restraints that had, ugh, been made to fit children, huddled on the far side of the altar. Blood had spilled out from the altar, and she had retreated from it until she was pressed against the wall, trying to keep her little shoes and dress, both filthy already, out of the blood. Her hair was a tangled mess. Her dark eyes were wide and bloodshot. She was shivering. It wasn't terribly cold out tonight - but it was cold enough to torment a child dressed in only a little cotton dress.
I wanted to go to her. Take those restraints off. Wrap her up in my ridiculous cloak and get her some food and some hot chocolate and a bath and a comb and a brush and a teddy bear and a bed and . . .
She saw me and flinched away with a whimper.
I ached, seeing her there, frightened and miserable and alone. I know how to handle pain when I'm the one feeling it. But the hurt that went through me upon seeing my child, my blood, suffering there in front of my eyes - it went to a whole new level, and I had no idea how to deal with it.
But I thought it would probably start with tearing some more vampires to bloody shreds.
I took that pain and fed it to the storm inside me, the one that had been raging for endless hours and that flared up white-hot again. I waited until my rage had been stoked hot enough to dry the tears in my eyes. Then I turned to the Red King and nodded.
"Deal," I said. "Go get the duchess. I'll take out the garbage for you."