Snow drifted through the hallways of the floating temple, and Tlachoatl shivered. His body was bloated from the fetuses inside it, his faith implants bristled with zeal. Iteration 569 was going well.
Tlachoatl scanned the corridor, hefted his axe, and swung the hungry wood in his hands. The handle chafed his skin, and its obsidian eyes blinked darkly. Ice hung from the ceiling in fields of stalactites that reflected the flashlights hovering behind Tlachoatl.
The temple drifted through the void of space, and its central heating had been damaged during the assault. Tlachoatl was highblood, his body covered in the sacred patterns of scarification, his vitals monitored by the priests outside. Many of the other warriors were mere youths, eager to prove themselves, reckless and irresponsible.
A fetus moved in Tlachoatl’s stomach and made him squirm with a surge of sickness. Tlachoatl captured three, but he needed at least five. The bone god waited in its echoing chamber, deep within the cold wastes of the temple. On live TV, Tlachoatl vowed to reach it, watched by billions.
Tlachoatl was among the handful of warriors who survived more than five iterations. Half the trick was to anticipate the temple’s changes, to understand its patterns and be prepared. The other half, of course, was improvisation.
Tlachoatl knew the temple’s challenges and knew that he could overcome them. Tlachoatl’s destiny was type-2, the path of greatness. Today, he would reach the bone god before his time was up.
Temperatures dropped rapidly. Tlachoatl pulled out an emergency blanket and wrapped it around his stomach. The fetuses shivered. He needed to keep them warm. The temple had embraced and weaponized its heating malfunction, slowing Tlachoatl down by the minute.
The ice cast long shadows over the walls, reminding Tlachoatl of the jungles of home. Moisture dripped in wet streaks over the metal, and black vines seemed to tangle the trees into an impenetrable canopy. Something croaked in the distance, and he blinked.
His muscles spasmed with the outpour of faith from a billion viewers. Ice covered Tlachoatl’s open eyes and froze between his fingers. His feet slipped on the glassy floor and he almost fell.
The temple opened up into a soft spot where the metal walls gave way to skin and tissue. Tlachoatl tried to sense its receptiveness, then put his hand in. The fetus hadn’t been taken. It was waiting for Tlachoatl, and he transferred it quickly. There was always a vulnerable moment there, an opportunity for attack.
In the distance, a younger warrior wandered through a maze of their own making. They clung to a wall while swaying back and forth, pounding their axe against the ground. They had lost all faith, lost their way, and would never reach the bone god.
Suddenly, holes yawned open around Tlachoatl. The ground vanished beneath his feet, but Tlachoatl leaped and sailed over the rift on a combination of faith and augmented leg muscles. He touched down on the other side and rolled forward, bruising his shoulder against crystals and steel.
In a far corner of his mind, he heard applause and cheers. The faith implants hummed under his skin, and new strength pulsated through every artery.
“I will make it.” Tlachoatl jumped back onto his feet and raised the obsidian axe. Its Hunger hollowed out his hand, and blood icicles formed under his palm, but it didn’t matter. Tlachoatl felt close. This was iteration 569, his eighth assault on the temple. He had never progressed further than this, but today he would.
The temple inverted gravity. Up turned to down and down to left, sending loose bolts flying in a hail of shrapnel. Tlachoatl could as well have plunged into pitch-black water—all orientation immediately dissolved into blind motion. He crashed through a pane of ice and into another level, then crashed again as gravity returned to normal.
Tlachoatl felt his ankle shatter on impact and his shin spike up through his knee. He went down hard, supporting himself on the obsidian axe alone.
Tlachoatl had to believe. To hold on. His eyes watered as the implants flooded his circulatory system with painkillers and raised the waves in the algae-covered cisterns of his mind. The fetuses wobbled inside his womb, and he felt certain that one of them would be stillborn.
But he made it. His gaze floated over the ice-covered walls toward a portal, the entrance to the god’s chambers. Intricate bas-reliefs and circuits snaked over stone and pulsated with faith energy. Tlachoatl tasted it in the air and watched his hairs dance in its static electricity.
“Time elapsed in ten. Nine. Eight.”
The synthetic voice echoed through the hallways. Tlachoatl limped toward the portal.
“Seven. Six. Five.”
The pain threatened to overwhelm Tlachoatl, but faith kept him conscious. Viewers across a hundred worlds watched him, their eyes glued to his struggle to straighten himself.
“Four. Three. Two.”
The countdown faded into the distance as Tlachoatl hammered down his axe on the stone and the portal gave way. Darkness swarmed behind the entrance, but it wasn’t empty; pinpoints of light drifted in an abyss, blinking at Tlachoatl like a thousand tiny eyes.
The teleportation dissolved Tlachoatl’s foot before it could touch the ground inside the chamber.
Iteration 570. Assault ships blotted out the stars beyond the temple, a war fleet under Tlachoatl’s command. He scanned the icy hallways and swung his axe, its obsidian eyes blinking with power.
The temperatures had plummeted to absolute zero, but Tlachoatl anticipated that. His plastic insulation shielded him from the cold and left him unscathed, at least from this present iteration.
His leg had been repaired, but it wasn’t as reliable as before. There was a reason warriors rarely made it past eight iterations and never beyond ten. Ten years in the sun, not more. Ten attempts, and then retirement, if they made it that far. Most died in the temple, halfway between the landing and the bone god.
This might be his last shot.
Tlachoatl had lost some faith in the year that passed since the last iteration, but he still held sway over the public. For a dozen iterations, no one had been able to reach the bone god’s chamber and ascend. Tlachoatl at least had come close.
He slid down a slanted hallway and saw other warriors move between ice-encrusted pillars. They recognized him, he saw it in their eyes, and they approached with murder in mind.
Blood steamed from the black stone of Tlachoatl’s axe as he hacked down again and again. The hungry wood feasted. These warriors were hopelessly inferior, only three or four iterations old. Tlachoatl pulled the obsidian axe from the skull of his last enemy and watched the body collapse.
He gorged himself on their remains and moved their fetuses into his womb. The faith implants buzzed with an influx of energy, and he felt his spirit rise again.
For a second, he thought about the young men and women gestating from the fetuses he had brought back. They were still children, but they carried experience with them: blessings from the temple and lessons learned from Tlachoatl anchored within their genes.
Once the warriors entered the temple, everyone fought on their own. The same people Tlachoatl had joked and broken bread with earlier became his bitter enemies, vying for admission to the bone god’s chamber.
The hallways of the temple transformed. Metal became epidermis, fiberglass became wood. Tlachoatl found himself in a jungle blooming with rime, and it swallowed him alive. Humidity condensed on the broad leaves and the elephant grass. Meltwater formed puddles on the forest floor, and Tlachoatl swung his axe to cut a path forward.
He couldn’t see clearly in the thick vegetation, and he shivered from the extreme cold. Blood trickled from the branches above and bent the blades of grass on impact. The drops were the size of Tlachoatl’s fingernails, and they jumped away like frogs wherever they landed.
A part of Tlachoatl’s mind hammered against doors of crooked wood. The jungle stretched endless into shadows, and it grew around him.
The blood drizzled and jumped, the grass gripped at Tlachoatl, and the puddles swelled up to his shins. He would never reach the heart chamber before time elapsed. He would make it to the bone god.
Tlachoatl positioned his faith against the vastness of the jungle, dug in with all remaining strength. The implants heated up, and the patterns of scarification turned into superconductors.
Little by little, the blood forest gave way. The bone god waited for Tlachoatl in its chamber, and he would reach it. There was no jungle—only his path to the bone god.
The illusions receded. Maybe they had been caused by a hallucinogenic gas, or maybe a drug injected into Tlachoatl’s bloodstream. Maybe the temple had actually changed into a jungle. Everything was possible, none of it mattered. He marched along a bare hallway and felt the hungry wood burrow into his palm. He was closing in.
Gravity inversed, but Tlachoatl’s magnetic boots activated, locking his soles in place. He vomited as the hallway shifted into weightlessness, and puke drifted off in a cloud.
The hooks held, and he began to trudge forward. Transmissions streamed through the assault ships and to Tlachoatl, excited feedback from across the gulf of space. The audience believed in him again, and their confidence made him stronger with every step.
Other warriors leaped at him from a yawning shaft, but he deflected them without effort. A flick of his wrist, a swing of the axe, and heads spiraled away like blood-tailed comets.
Tlachoatl gained speed as gravity reverted to normal and crashed through a brittle floor. He rolled and came up, the bone god’s portal right in front of him. The wires and frescoes hadn’t changed, but they seemed to have dug in deeper.
“Time elapsed in ten. Nine. Eight.”
He took a step, and the whole corridor collapsed. Ice shattered around him like glass, filled the air with a hundred ringing explosions. He rolled again, crashing hard against a wall.
“Seven. Six. Five.”
The portal rose high above Tlachoatl now, at the level of the destroyed floor. He could see it, but he had no way of getting up again.
“Four. Three. Two.”
Tlachoatl hurled the axe, and it smashed the stone portal on impact.
Tlachoatl saw the blinking pinpoints of light again as the teleportation started, close but firmly out of grasp.
The temple floated among the stars. Tlachoatl had relinquished command of the fleet, and it was the last time he would be part of it.
Tlachoatl stood in the landing pod as it left the assault ship, and he kept standing as it dashed into the temple. This was iteration 571, his tenth attempt to ascension. If Tlachoatl failed now, he would never get another chance.
Warriors streamed out of the pods and stormed into the hallways. Skirmishes broke out immediately, and Tlachoatl parried a series of heavy blows. He struck back, sent an attacker flying with a kick, and split another one’s skull.
Power streamed from the implants into the dark eyes of the axe. Tlachoatl’s muscles were tense like strings, an instrument for the bone god to play on. Only one in a million got the chance to enter the temple in their lifetime. Only one in a billion made it through to ascension.
Everyone who survived the initial bloodbath scattered into the corridors of the temple. The race to the heart chamber began, and destiny quivered in the air. Tlachoatl marched along the outer hallways and smiled.
He adjusted the cooling tubes around his body. If there was frost again, the water inside the tubes would freeze: but the temple went through two cycles of cold already. It would adapt and change.
Tlachoatl passed organic patches in the walls but didn’t stop. Whatever happened today, he would not bring anything back. He would ascend or die, just as he had vowed for a third time, just as the audience wanted him to. Across the planets, eyes rested on Tlachoatl, and their faith flooded into his implants.
He entered a pillared chamber and stopped. The air boiled with heat haze, and it would have cooked him alive. Tlachoatl stepped over two corpses he knew by name, two veteran competitors with scarified bodies. Their blanket-armors had turned into the tinfoil around oven potatoes.
They should have known better.
Tlachoatl could only hope his children would not end up like this. They had been conceived by the temple and Tlachoatl, and he had carried them out to be born. The eldest had already begun their training, and one day—when he wasn’t there anymore—they would try to ascend as well.
Tlachoatl returned to the present as he turned a corner. The portal loomed at the other end of the hallway. The bas-reliefs flickered before Tlachoatl’s eyes, and his implants responded to the flow of energy.
Tlachoatl gauged the distance and took a run. The floor collapsed beneath him, but he already leaped, flying toward the gate with the axe above his head. It was an impossible distance to jump, but Tlachoatl traversed it in an instant, faster than the corridor could dissolve.
“Time elapsed in ten. Nine. Eight.”
The hungry wood shattered on impact, a thousand pieces screaming through the air. The portal gleamed in white-hot steel, not stone. Tlachoatl’s hands shriveled as moisture evaporated from them. He could not break through without tools or weapons.
The faith implants seared his flesh as he channeled their energy. If he truly believed, everything was possible. The bone god meant for Tlachoatl to get there.
“Seven. Six. Five.”
Pain exploded from his fists and surged into his body as he hit the surface. Bones shattered on impact, and the incredible heat of the metal melted his fingers together. The faith of billions streamed through Tlachoatl, and he knew that the pain didn’t matter: the gate would break. This was iteration 571, his tenth and last attempt. The gate was destined to break.
“Four. Three. Two.”
The portal collapsed, and Tlachoatl stepped through without hesitation.
Tlachoatl entered the bone god. He entered the temple, the true temple.
The walls stripped off their stone and metal for Tlachoatl, sucked the faith from his implants, unmade the marrow from his spine and the scars from his skin. Behind the walls, he saw lights.
Tlachoatl saw himself and his father-mother, the warrior who had carried his fetus out of here. Input turned to output. He saw patterns that evolved over each iteration, and he recognized them, as they corresponded to the scarification he designed from his dreams.
A transformation that started 571 iterations ago and would never end. Trial and error. Reiteration and reinforcement. Features emerging from the gloom and fading away as they turned vestigial. Output turned to input.
The bone god was the temple. The chamber was a node among many. Tlachoatl was a node among many. Input turned to output. Output turned inside out. The god learned. The temple evolved.
One year from now, iteration 572 would begin. Tlachoatl would be the temple, and the temple would be him.