Master says I'm not supposed to leave the ziggurat. So I don't. But I like to climb to the top and glimpse out across the green jungle. Master thinks I sleep all day, but I always stay awake long enough to see the sea of leaves below our mountains. But then I see the humans coming down the path from the village and climbing the steep stairs. When they're halfway to the top, I have to scurry back to my special chamber deep underground. I'm very careful.
Then I sleep, and I dream of Master. He teaches me how to pretend to be something I'm not. Like a human. Or a snake. Master teaches me how to hunt, and how to protect myself. He teaches me about magic. Master knows so much, and he says I have to learn it all quickly.
Sometimes, after my lessons are over, I dream of other things. I dream of the village in the jungle, and I imagine myself walking through the plaza with an obsidian dagger in my hand. The humans are screaming and running away. I look down at my hands, and they're bloody. But they're human hands. So I start screaming, too, and then I wake up, safe inside the ziggurat.
I wonder whether the real village looks like the one I dream about. And I wonder why there's so much blood that it goes to waste on my hands.
Master teaches me to be fastidious. Blood is never to be wasted.
Yesterday the dreams were particularly intense, and I am sluggish as I rouse in my chamber. I stretch my limbs, preen the few feathers I have left on my back, and look for the bowl Master always leaves for me.
The bowl is empty. I double over in hunger briefly, but then I inhale the stuffy air of the ziggurat, and the tingle sets my veins afire. I smell humans! And they're still inside the ziggurat, even though the sun must have set long ago.
An empty bowl, and humans in the ziggurat -- Master must want me to hunt. I begin to climb. My lips curl back to reveal my teeth, and I find I can't close my mouth. And by the time I reach the first flight of stairs, I don't want to.
The first one is a woman, bent over a piece of paper like the ones Master sometimes looks at. I leap on her back and sink my teeth deep into her back. She gurgles -- is she trying to scream? -- and starts thrashing around the dusty hallway floor. Oh, and her blood! It has a tang that I've never tasted before, and it froths between my teeth. I can hear my own blood singing in my ears as I drink deeply. I'm so excited that I spill a little blood when she arches her back for the last time. When I'm done with her, I lick my mess off the floor. Even mixed with the dust of the corridor, it's a rich, red feast, and I consume it without shame.
The second one is a man, his boots clicking on the stone of the Chamber of Serpents. I have to concentrate and push away his smell, lest I be overwhelmed. Master would want me to be careful. I slip into the man's shadow and travel with him as he walks, flickering as he passes each torch on the wall. The man wears green clothes and carries a strange medicine stick in his hands. (A fragment of a dream speaks to me: "Soldier." But the word is meaningless to me.)
I sniff the air, exhilarating in the aroma of the human. But I do so too loudly and he hears me. He spins around, waving the medicine stick around in front of him. But I'm inside his shadow, and I spin around when he does, so I'm still behind him.
This human is smart. After a moment, he realizes that his shadow isn't supposed to move behind him when he spins around. He spins around again, watching his shadow rotate behind him, then spins a third time, his face twisting with disbelief and fear. He points his medicine stick at his shadow, and it roars, expelling an angry little stone that puts a gouge in the floor.
I can't resist the smell of blood anymore. I leap out of the human's shadow, bury my fangs in his chest, and start feeding. With a crunch, his bones give way under my jaws, and I taste his blood. It's even richer and more intoxicating, and now I know why. The man's scent changed once he saw his shadow move. It must be fear that makes humans smell and taste so good.
I'm fastidious, just like Master would want, and this time I don't spill a drop. Now I know what I must do: bathe the humans in fear before I consume them. I ascend quickly through the ziggurat, passing through each silent, stony chamber like a wisp of torch smoke.
At the Slave's Staircase, I pause again, my mind struggling to stay afloat in a tidal wave of sensation. Three new scents intermingle. They're stronger scents than I've ever inhaled, and it takes me a moment to identify each one.
The first is a flat, ugly smell. It's a massive, scaly, earthy scent, but it also smells of smoke and decay. It has no blood-smell, and nothing of the jungle about it. This is a smell from elsewhere.
The second is a human smell -- a woman whose blood sings with power. In her blood I scent feathers, salt, and the weight of secret age. And her scent has a heat to it -- almost as if it would sear my nostrils if I breathe too deeply.
The first scent repels me, but the second promises a blood-feast that beggars my pitiful imagination. But neither draws me up the staircase.
I'm drawn by the third scent. It smells of the jungle and the village, of shining gold and darkest obsidian. A dream-fragment whispers a word to me: "Xihouto."
Compelled by Master's scent, I begin to creep up the staircase.
To be continued...
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