Openings suck. They do. I’d rather write 400 pages total than page one. Inevitably, I end up rewriting the first page at least a dozen times. Last night, I ripped the opening apart again and shuffled it all back together. I think, maybe, possibly, this might work. I’ve pasted the opening section below.
The city once known as the Mouth of Creation kept its secrets for a thousand years, until a hurricane dislodged enough volcanic rubble to reveal the shining peak of the tallest pyramid. People came. Stone by stone, they unburied Chi’Ch’ul.
Hidden in the shadows of his shattered city, the once all-powerful priest watched and prayed. He prayed they wouldn’t find the secret chamber beneath the Pyramid of Dawn. He prayed they wouldn’t discover the last precious codex he’d been unable to destroy. When all his cursed secrets were revealed one by one, he prayed the gods would send a deluge to wash Chi’Ch’ul into Lake Atitlan, the deepest lake in all the world.
His prayers hadn’t been answered since the day he’d broken his oath. The gods had cursed him, destroyed his city, and wiped his name from memory. It was fitting that he be known only as Ruin, set to guard the very magic that had doomed him for eternity.
Inevitably, the fool who’d found the codex soon attempted to work the same magic. At least the man’s victim wasn’t human. The goat bleated pathetically, its cry cut off in a spray of blood on the stone altar. Clumsily, the man dug around in the chest cavity, hacking resistant ligaments to tear the heart free.
Furious regret brought the jaguar that Ruin still carried inside him closer to the surface. Had they learned nothing by studying these crumbled temples he’d once called home? “As Gatekeeper of Chi’Ch’ul, I command you to leave my city or die.”
The man whirled and whipped the bloody heart behind his back. He took a step backward and his ankle turned on a stone, nearly tumbling him off the steep outcropping to the lake below. “Nobody else should know the name of the ruin. Who are you working for?”
Ruin stepped into the moonlight. The encroacher recoiled. With the jaguar prowling the cage of his body, Ruin knew his eyes gleamed gold in the night and his voice rumbled closer to a growl. “I cannot allow you to tamper with my magic. My city has already been destroyed. Would you destroy the world as well?”
The man muttered beneath his breath, “I expected trouble, but from someone much closer.” Raising his voice, he said, “Name your price.”
So be it. Small golden lights began buzzing around Ruin. “Nothing you can possibly offer will stay my hand. As long as I live, these sacred waters shall lie still and silent, and I’ve been alive a very, very long time. My curse demands your death.”
“Please, don’t hurt me.” The man’s gaze darted left and right, but Ruin would ensure there was no escape. “I have a daughter I love very much, even if I haven’t told her so. She’s incredibly brilliant. Without her help, I wouldn’t have figured out the inscriptions to begin the ritual. I owe it all to you, Jaid. I’m sorry…for everything.”
Ruin breathed deeply, but he detected no other humans within his city’s boundary. “Then she’ll die, too.”
The man blanched. “She’s far away and safe. Don’t come here, Jaid! Ever!”
Again, Ruin scented the air but detected no one else but a few humans in the compound they’d built nearby. Perhaps the magic had already damaged the man’s mind. Better he die, then, and quickly, before he attempted a greater sacrifice.
Balls of light blazed brighter. A golden swirling wave obliterated Ruin’s vision. Bones cracked and twisted. His scream of pain rumbled bass, a jaguar’s roar piercing the night.
Tail lashing, the jaguar crouched in a pile of torn denim. The sharp stink of his prey’s fear burned his nose. The big cat knew his purpose. He was only called forth to kill.
Desperate, the man slung the goat’s heart out over the lake and threw his weight off the jutting peninsula. Effortlessly, the jaguar leaped to the rocky sands of the shore. Gasping in pain, the man rolled away, narrowly escaping the slashing claws.
Wet with rain, a sudden gust of wind swept across the shore. Clouds boiled across the sky to hide the moon and stars. Thunder rolled through the night and the ground trembled. Lightning split the sky, winds increasing until the trees thrashed and waves whipped the surface of the lake.
The jaguar clamped his ears and tail tight to his body. He’d failed. Again. This time, the world would not survive the gods’ wrath.
A shape formed in the darkened waters. Thrashing, bulging outward, a hand rose from the depths. Water broke, cascading down the sceptered arm, white and blotched with spots of age and disease.
Terror rippled through the jaguar’s fur. Oh, stupid human fool! Why had he opened Xibalba, with no wards to lock the demons beyond? Had he not read a single word of the codex’s warning?
Shuddering with horror, the man whimpered. “Where are the golden plumes? The jade feathers? This isn’t Great Feathered Serpent!”
The jaguar swiped at the man’s abdomen. Jerking away, he screamed and fell backward into the lake. He thrashed helplessly and sank like a stone through the Gate, while a Lord of Death crawled onto the beach with another demon right behind.
Snarling, the jaguar slammed into the first demon, trying to knock it back through the Gate. Even as weak as a newborn babe, it refused to go back to the Place of Fright. The other Death Lord crawled out of the lake clutching a small hunk of flesh. Cradling the now cold heart to its mouth, the demon feasted, while the other sniffed the air. Its gaze turned unerringly to the goat carcass above.
Every drop of blood would give them power. Power to destroy the world.
Abandoning the shore, the jaguar scrambled up the obsidian outcropping to the altar. Back hunched, fur writhing, bones snapping in agony, he transformed back to the Gatekeeper. Shaking, Ruin grabbed the edge of the stone altar and pulled himself upright. Desperation pulsed through him with every beat of his heart.
He picked up the blade left by the human. The sacrificial goat was cold, but the demons would still find power in it. They would find more power in him if he couldn’t send them back. He refused to consider it. After all these centuries, he would not fail again.
Blowing out his breath to center himself, he drew the knife across his left palm and sprinkled blood on the altar. He raised the knife toward the glowing Eveningstar. “High Lord Sun, may you journey well and defeat the Lords of Death. Follow the White Road, paddle across the endless Sky, and rise again on the morrow. The heart of your jaguar beats within my body. Your breath fills my lungs. My blood is yours. I call upon your power, Jaguar Night Sun, to cast the demons back to their caverns of Death.”
A rattling sound like wind through dead branches rustled through the night. “Enough, Priest. You can’t send us back. There’s not enough blood in your body. If you give yourself, who will lock the Gate?”
Blood Gatherer gave a mighty leap and landed on the rocky outcrop. Corpse-white flesh locked onto the dead goat, and the demon shivered with ecstasy.
A cold rolling wave slammed into Ruin. He stumbled. His vision darkened. His heart drummed, frantic and arrhythmic, answering the demon’s call. Thick and hot, boiling toward the surface, blood fought his body’s prison. Even fresh from the bowels of Xibalba, the demon possessed power to suck the spark of life out of his body without laying a single finger on him.
How could he possibly stop them?
“I have use for you, Priest.” Blood Gatherer smiled, blood streaking his bleached jawbone. “Bring us sacrifice so we may grow in power, and we will give you every power beneath us. You will rule the goats of this time.”
“No.” Ruin drew himself up, shoulders high and square. He raised the knife to his chest, directly over his heart. Wind clawed at his body, buffeting him in fury. Warm trickles down his cheeks confirmed his eyes and nose already bled at the demon’s command. “I’ll kill myself first.”
Blood Gatherer laughed, a deep, painful sound like a boulder crushing flesh. “You can’t die, Priest. Don’t you think I know what my brothers did to you? You’re tied to the Gates, always watching, doomed to kill anyone who dares use their precious magic. Yet you failed, for here I am, breathing and walking in flesh outside Xibalba.”
Ruin bowed his head, hiding his eyes and his face behind a curtain of hair so he could think. If he surrendered to them, they’d use him to slaughter innocents. Eventually, they’d gain enough power to open another Gate. They’d release all the demons of Xibalba to walk this earth.
“Use your magic, Gatekeeper, and help me punish them. We’ll lock my brothers in First Five Sky where they’ll never be able to make their Return. This earth will be ours to devour.” Blood Gatherer lowered his voice to the croon of death whispering, sleep, sleep forever. “I can end your curse. I can give you exactly what you want, brave Priest. You crave death, eternal rest? I will even give you your twin and you can drag him to the bowels of Xibalba for me.”
Ruin jerked his head up, his face twisted into a snarl.
“Oh, yes,” Blood Gatherer purred. “Fight me. Let me bleed you. Your sacrifice will be worth a lakeful of measly goat blood. I can sacrifice you again and again, an eternity of suffering. Think of the power you’ll give me.”
The other demon had already disappeared, too anxious to spread disease and blight upon the land to bother with him. Another demon hand reached for the night sky through the angry waters of the lake. I must lock the Gate before they kill me.
“Do you know what they call me and my brother in this time? Because we’re doomed to destruction, we’re known as Wrack and Ruin. He blames me for the death of his beloved Seven Butterfly. He hates me because I dragged him back from death. I seized him from out of your clutches and brought him back to life.”
The demon bared bloodstained teeth, red eyes blazing with fury. In a temper, he whirled and thrashed about, his voice raising the wind to hurricane strength. “He was mine! He died according to plan! You doomed an entire people by breaking your oath and using the Gate to save him!”
Gripping the stone altar with one hand to brace against the gale, Ruin turned the stone circle to align the glyphs with his purpose. “I damned my entire city to save my brother. I broke my solemn oath to the gods. I walked the White Road alive and breathing to find his soul and drag him back. I am Ruin, cursed by the gods to never die until my debt has been paid.”
The smaller circle was easier to adjust. The stone clicked into place and the wind died.
Blood Gatherer turned his head, slowly, his mouth twisted into a parody of a smile. “His woman still suffers in the lowest level of Xibalba because of you. Do you think he will ever forgive you for that?”
Guilt tore into Ruin’s heart as viciously as jaguar claws. Wrack would never forgive him; he would never forgive himself. Yet he could not allow the demons to escape. He raised the knife and methodically sliced the locking glyph into his left forearm.
Power pulsed through the night, moonlight braiding with the magic in his blood to shine on the lake. Bubbling, swirling dark waters stilled to reflect the light of the moon once more.
The Lord of Death shrieked with fury. He lunged across the altar and seized Ruin around the neck, bony fingers crushing his windpipe. “What will they call you when I use your soul to destroy this world?”
“Dead at last,” he wheezed. “Kill me and end my misery. I welcome your torments in Xibalba.”
Blood Gatherer drew him close to his skeletal face. The stench of rotten, putrid flesh made Ruin gag. “Not yet, Priest. The greatest torment I can give you is to force you to watch while I destroy this world you’ve protected for centuries. Watch the pitiful humans die with plague, crippled with disease, maddened and corrupted by our power. Watch me rise up other priests and bathe in blood. Watch me claim your Gates one by one until I control the worlds within. Only when I reign below and above while the worlds are lost to utter darkness will I give you the death you deserve.”
The demon heaved him backward. Tumbling through the air, he slammed into a stone column. His skull cracked and his spine shattered. Pain exploded.
Then Blood Gatherer released his terrible gift for which he’d been named.
Ruin felt his blood leap eagerly from his body, called by the Lord of Night to strengthen him. Blood poured from every wound and orifice, spraying the demon with incredible strength.
Lost to darkness, Ruin could only lie there and wait for his body to die. His heart thumped ever more awkwardly, trying to compensate for the trauma and only speeding his death. His lungs refused to draw air. He felt every pain, every horror of death, until his heart ceased beating.
Yet he knew he would rise up and walk again when the gods refused him shade beneath the Great Ceiba.
Please let me die this time.