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Clint Hardesty Thunderbirds

Behold, the blasphemer! the priest said as he raised his arms to the wine red sun of heaven. The crowd erupted like a thousand frenzied berserkers hungry for a battle in which they would taste blood without risking a drop of their own. These bloodthirsty voices, made more frightening because they came from an otherwise sane populace, resounded off the walls of the temple mound and the other nearby stone structures. Archer! the priest boomed, bring the bow of mercy. At the priests words a large muscled man almost 7 foot tall strode forward amidst the cheers of the crowd. Some 100 feet directly in front of where the archer stood a target had been painted on the ground in blood and bone dust. Skull drums rattled and dancers and chanters and necromancers moved and convulsed and screamed intermittently as the archer fitted the arrow. He pulled back the string and pointed the bow almost straight up toward the sky. He loosed the arrow and it quickly soared into the pale green skies above and out of sight. A hush came over the raucous crowd. After several moments of silence a man pointed to the sky and yelled, They have spoken! A tiny sliver of black falling toward the earth was seen by only a few and then a twanged thud was heard as the arrow hit the ground missing the target that would have signified mercy and release for the blasphemer. The arrow always missed the target. The people sang, cheered, and swooned like theyd been rescued from doom. The priest turned and looked at the blasphemer. The criminals head hung low, his bloodied chin lying on his torn chest. The skin hung off his arms like fleshy ribbons glistening in the red suns rays. The priest lifted his right hand and the crowd grew silent.

Clint Hardesty Fool! the priest said addressing the blasphemer, do you repent of your crimes against the holy name of Tzitzakatchee author of the sky? Do you fall before the winged god of the thousand skies and beg for his mercy? Do you admit that he is creator of all that is good and holy? If you do, then you will have the quick death. If you do not, then you will taste and see the awful wrath of he who takes the wind!

The crowd cheered again but the priest quickly turned and silenced them. He turned back to face the blasphemer. The prisoner tried to raise his head to look at the priest but the muscles in his neck and back had been obliterated by the 100 lashes he had received from the minor servants of Tzitzakatchee. The priest saw the mans lips moving. He moved cautiously towards the condemned as if he was approaching some dangerous beast. Do you, cursed man that you are, ask for mercy? Do you repent of your sins? the priest said. The man raised his eyes defiantly, his vision tainted by blood and sweat. No, I do not ask for mercy, the man said, Tzitzakatchee is not capable of mercy, but you will soon learn this.father. The words vanquished any hope the priest had for his sons salvation. But despite the pain the priest felt in his heart, he prayed that his sons death would not be in vain. Drought, disease, and this latest rebellion had caused the faith of the people to falter. However, if the great priest could persevere in his iron-like fideism, if he could officiate the execution of his one and only son, then perhaps the peoples faith may once again grow strong. At least that was his hope and rationalization. Besides, events had moved well beyond a fathers choice even if that father was the second most powerful man in the land and perhaps because of it.

Clint Hardesty The priest turned away from the son and walked toward the edge of the stage that had been constructed for celebratory events of worship and thanksgiving. He pulled free the lone arrow firmly embedded in the wooden floor of the platform as he walked by. He stopped perilously close to the edge of the stage and the 150-foot drop-off that separated him from his people. He raised the arrow over his head and broke it. The people roared with such maniacal ecstasy that even the priest was momentarily shocked by their zealotry.

At the signal the executioners came on to the stage. They all wore the bird-face masks of their patrons. A man wearing a black-feathered mask used both hands to hold a pair of pincers that glowed orange with absorbed heat and fire. He tore chunks of flesh off the blasphemers body with the pincers demonstrating an almost scientific ceremonial precision: muscle from the right calf and the left bicep, soft fatty tissue from the right buttock, and muscle and tendons from the back. The blasphemer screamed so furiously with each touch it looked as if the veins on his head and neck would explode. When this part of the ritual was finished the blasphemer moaned and cried piteously begging for mercy from some unknown god. The heretical words of his dying son gripped the priests heart like a thousand betraying talons. Other executioners attached strong ropes to the blasphemers hands and feet and then fastened the ropes to four large boulders that sat at each corner of the rectangular stage. Once the ropes were affixed to the iron rings that protruded from the stones, the priest, without even noticing that his only son had already passed into the next world, gave the signal and the boulders were pushed off the stage. The quartering disintegrated the blasphemers body and when the priest looked to the kings throne, seeking approval, there was no one there. The beneficent monarch had already grown bored with the ceremony.

Clint Hardesty

His father had been a priest, and his father before him, and his father before him. When his son was born he had hoped that he too would carry on this tradition and almost from birth the child seemed destined for the office. The boy had begun reading and even comprehending the sacred texts as early as three years old. Each night before bed, he would grill the father with questions about Tzitzakatchee. Where did the great god reside? When would he return? Why do the ancients both fear and love him? As the boy grew in wisdom and knowledge, he also grew in strength and valor. For a time the boy became such a renowned hunter and fighter the father feared he would forsake the spiritual calling for the calling of the warrior. But when the boy accidentally killed a man eight years his elder in the yearly battle of bound fists, he gave up such violent pursuits and devoted himself completely to the heavenly service of Tzitzakatchee. When the boy was eighteen he finished the Schooling, and was honored by the king for his high marks and devotion. In his first assignment, a minor temple on the western edge of the kingdom, practically on the border of the Outlands, the young priest earned a reputation as a fierce defender of the faith having executed seven blasphemers in his first year. Then after two years of service, without so much as a warning or word, the boy had resigned from his post and from the priesthood. Toulos, the father pleaded when he heard the news, What are you thinking? One day you will be the high priest. Why throw that away now? Father, the boy said with compassion in his large brown eyes, you will understand one

Clint Hardesty day. And I promise that one day you will be proud of the man I will become. The day after their conversation, the boy disappeared and was neither seen nor heard from for several years. On the third day after the execution, the priest walked the streets of Tuahuaco hoping to see signs of the regeneration of faith and hope in the faces of the people he loved so much. The

children played unaware and unconcerned about whatever their future held and the priest coveted their mirthful ignorance. A group of boys had cornered a rabid dog and were moving in for the kill when the voice of a young girl rang out amidst the onlookers. Tzitza! Tzitza, the little girl cried out. It was not uncommon for the children to mistake the large eagles that graced the green skies for the winged god. The priest smiled at the little girls nave sense of wonder and awe. But when he looked to the sky, he saw the flying body was much too large to be that of a mere bird. He hiked up his priestly robe and ran for the temple mound. When he arrived, the king had already made his way to the temple and was now surrounded by his councilors and scholars. They talked in wild gesticulations and would occasionally stop their prattling and speculating and point at the winged creature flying circles in the sky. When the priest approached, the king looked at him questioningly. The priest nodded affirmatively and the king sent two courtesans to fetch his most exquisite garb. Just as the king had donned his robes, the great winged creature landed on the platform. The otherworldly being was at least 7 foot tall. He was covered in brown feathers that almost reflected the sun and his taloned feet were rippled with orange leathery flesh. His face was that of a monstrous black eagle, his eyes like celestial fires.

Clint Hardesty One of the kings advisors cried out, Tzitzakatchee, when the winged creature approached. At these words the birdman raised his right arm towards the speaker and a large projectile came forth and lodged into the throat of the poor fool. The talkative advisor fell grasping at his throat while the others stood in awe. Your people should know better than to utter such blasphemies, the creature said, the great name is not to be spoken by slaves. The king tried to look strong, but the priest saw the right leg of the monarch was trembling in fear. I am Roahuacl, the emissary of the great god of sky. I have come to tell you to prepare for the Return. You have three days. When the emissary completed his brief speech, he turned and ran toward the edge of the temple platform, his large talons thudding and scraping on the wood. He leaped into the air, spread his glorious wings, the wind hitting those enormous foils sounded like thunder and even from 60 feet the priest could feel their power as the birdman ascended into the sky and out of sight. The king and all others gathered sat silently for a moment. Consternation and confusion showed on the kings face even as he tried to project strength. See to the preparations, the king finally said, looking toward the priest. It will be done, the priest said.

As the king and his entourage descended the temple stairs, the priest could hardly contain himself. The Return was at hand! Everything he had ever hoped for and dreamed of was coming true. The people would now see and believe in the great god they hoped in. The priest felt his life and his most painful decisions, even his most painful and recent ones, were now validated.

Clint Hardesty Almost three years after his disappearance Toulous returned. The priest had not even known that his son had returned until he saw him talking with some of the people in the town bazaar.

The boys muscular yet overfed body had been replaced by one composed of lean sinewy muscle and thin skin. The priests son now looked hardened and wise beyond his years and his lean chiseled face was completely devoid of any trace of youth or softness. Despite the obvious change in appearance, Toulous had retained his characteristic warmth and good humor. He smiled broadly and laughed heartily as he talked with the people and their children. They all swarmed him like he was a prophet of old, come back to declare the new dawn. More than anything, the priest noticed the way the people seemed at ease with the young man. The normal reticence often present when a commoner spoke to a priest was gone. The people seemed to embrace him as their very own, like a wayward son returned from afar. Father, Toulous said with a hesitant smile when he saw the priest approaching. Toulous, the priest said dispassionately as he fought back emotion. Where have you been? I have been beyond the Outlands, Toulous said. How? the priest asked. It was not difficult Father. Id always been taught that it was, but it was not. What did you do there? I studied, Toulous said, I traveled and I talked to people and I listened. The priest did not reply, but only looked at his son. The priests eyes betrayed the trouble already beginning to stir in his soul. Nothing good had ever come from traveling to the Outlands

Clint Hardesty at least that was what he had always been told. Father, we must talk. May I come and see you this evening? Of course. Of course. Good, I will come at moon break. That night the priest had spoken with his son for 5 hours. The conversation had started cordially but had ended with vitriol, at least on the side of the father, who spent the last hour of their conversation chastising his son for heresy. But father, the texts are clear. Look here. Read what is written about the gods, Toulous said, practically shoving the worn book into his fathers face. No, no! I will not look upon those lies. The priest said turning his head and pushing the book away. They are not lies, Father. How do you know that? the priest said, Were you present when the words were

written? No you were not. Were you there when they allegedly laid eyes on the great god of the sky? No you were not. If you were not there, then why do you trust their account and not the account of your own people and of the priestly line from which you were born? Toulous sat looking at his father. He pulled another tattered volume from his pack and laid it on the table in front of his father. The thick leathery cover of the book was beginning to fray at the edges. The words on the cover were burned with such precision they looked as if they had been written with a stylus. The title of the book read: The True Story of The Winged Gods by Toulousanami. Toulousanami was Toulous great great grandfather a man once considered a great priest. The priest, upon reading the title of the book flew into a rage.

Clint Hardesty How dare you bring this forgery into my home! the priest said as he gripped the back of a wooden chair, his knuckles growing white with exertion. Toulous was shocked at his fathers vehemence and suspected it was too sincere and too violent to be born in pure ignorance. It bears the family seal, Father. You know the seal cannot be forged, Toulous said. The priest looked at the raised seal on the lower right hand corner of the book cover and

then rose from the table and began pacing the room. After a minute had passed he rushed toward the table and grabbed the book. Father, what are you doing? Toulous said as the priest ran to the fire and threw the book into the flames. Father! Toulous yelled and rushed to the fire and retrieved the book burning his hands and wrists as he took the book from the hearth. The priest looked at his son. Get out! he cried, Get out and dont come back. You are anathema! You would destroy our world! Toulous looked with sadness at his father, No great priest and voice of Tzitzakatchee, he said with a trace of mockery. It is you who would destroy. In your willful blindness you are the one who hides the eyes from light. Toulous left his father and the priest would not see his sons face up close again until the day of the execution. The three days leading up to the return of Tzitzakatchee were some of the greatest days in the history of Tuahuaco. The people were consumed by their preparations for the upcoming festivities. Large ovens burned brightly as they cooked breads and ceremonial cakes. Wild pigs

Clint Hardesty and goats were slaughtered and their meat prepared for the great feast. The song makers wrote

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new songs of worship, the tailors made new festal garb. Children danced and played with even more vigor than normal. The granaries were plundered and the fruit trees were picked clean. The kings advisors and courtesans worked from dawn till dusk preparing the monarch for the visitation. Speeches were written and re-written and speechwriters were praised one minute and sacked the next, some were even beaten from the kings lair. The priest saw to the preparation of the temple mound and ensured all the appropriate sacrifices were made ready. Several new attendants were inducted into service, and mothers and even some fathers wept tears of joy as their children were deemed worthy of service to the god of the skies. While the priest was nothing less than joyous in appearance and countenance during these high times, in his heart he mourned the passing of his son. He mourned the error of his sons ways and tried to pinpoint the parental mistakes that might have led his son to such an awful end. He thought of his wife, dead these many years and how thrilled she would have been at the prospect of the Great Return, but he was also glad that she was not alive to see her sons tragic end. The priest offered a prayer of thanks to Tzitzakatchee for sparing his wife from such a heartbreaking experience. On the final day before the return, as the priest walked the streets talking to old women and patting little children on the head, he was approached by the village idiot. Ketawasche, the priest said, blessed child of the air. How are you today? The crazy man did not respond at first, but only stood swaying back and forth, his eyes rolling back in his head until the priest could see the whites. The priest leaned forward, put out his hand and said, Ketawasche?

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Clint Hardesty Dreams! Dreams I tell you, the insane man roared, frightening the priest, dreams of betrayal. Night and day they haunt me.

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The priest taken aback by the ferocity of the insane mans rant said, Ketawasche. Why trouble yourself with such thoughts? It is time to be joyful and joyous, the day of the Great Return is upon us. The sin must be punished. That one, the betrayer, must suffer the thousand deaths. He must pay for his blindness. The priest was on the verge of being offended by the mans words. He assumed the poor idiot was referring to Toulous heresy and the accorded punishment. Perhaps the insane man thought his queer diatribe might encourage the priest. Dear Friend, the priest said, Do not trouble yourself with these thoughts. The sin has been punished. The deranged man laughed, his yellow tooth dripped festered saliva. No! the man said loudly and then leaned over to the priest. The idiots corpse reeked of slow death as he whispered, It will be punished. You will be punished! With these words the crazy man ran at the priest and bowled him over in a mad rush. The man ran to the edge of the town like one possessed and disappeared into an overgrown thatch where he had previously made his home. Some of the villagers came running toward the priest as he got to his feet. Great one! an old man said as he approached, Are you okay? Yes I am fine, the priest said, that Ketwasachee seems to get more interesting every time I speak with him. The old man looked puzzled, Pardon me great one. Ketwasachee?

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Clint Hardesty

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Yes, the old fool was blathering on and on and then knocked me down, the priest said. At these words the old man and the other people who now gathered exchanged troubled looks with one another and suddenly seemed unwilling to look at the priest. Its okay, the priest said, Do not fret. I would not do anything to that poor man. Hes insane, thats all. The old man looked again at the people gathered around the priest and then sheepishly said, Great one, Ketwasachee has been dead for three weeks. When the red sun broke the grey dawn on the morning of the Great Return, the people were already assembled in front of the temple mound. A reverent silence pervaded the crowd and even the most energetic children sat expectantly at their parents feet and babies slept peacefully in the arms of their mothers. The king looked as if he had regained the youthful strength and confidence, and his spirit was like a contagion touching and encouraging the hearts of his people. His purple robe shone in the new days sun and his face was stern and resolute. The humble homage of the people and the resplendent magnificence of the king in all his justified pride brought tears to the priests eyes. The great high priest had not slept the night before. As he lie in awake he pondered the many prophecies that surrounded the Great Return. Would the dead, gone these many years, be brought back? he wondered. Would the constant fear and hand wringing over the yearly harvests be wiped away like dust on a table? Would the Outlands once again be subsumed under the benevolent leadership of the god of the sky? He also thought of the blessed moment when he might hear the words he had so often wanted to hear from the god he served, You have done well, my faithful servant. Now, you may reap the reward of your many sacrifices.

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A murmur moved through the crowd of thousands like lighting striking in a forest. Many of the people were hopping up and down like excited children pointing toward the sky. Then in an instant a black swarm that seemed to appear out of nowhere blocked the visage of the sun. The winged creatures numbered in the thousands. They descended in columns and rows of perfect precision. At the head of the procession, a winged creature, almost twice as large as the others flew. Its wings stretched out almost twice the width of any of the other wingspans. The priest felt a mixture of awe, fear, and wonder as the great god descended onto the platform. Tzitzakatchee was at least 9 feet tall and his plumage was a dark blue streaked with red. He had the regal face, wings and talons of an eagle and the arms and legs of a powerful and graceful giant. His entourage was beside him, all of them landing in perfect unison, their sharp talons clicking loudly on the wooden platform. The priest saw the messenger Rohuacl walking beside Tzitzakatchee as the magnificent creatures moved toward the king. The king and the priest were the only two men who had not yet kneeled, but as Tzitzakatchee approached they both went down on both knees. As the priest knelt, he saw several hundred other birdmen landing outside the area of the temple mound, while a large horde continued to circle above. With his head bowed, the priest tried to look at the king who was just 5 or 6 feet ahead of him and to the left. The priests palms were sweaty with anticipation and he found himself wishing he had relieved himself before he ascended the stage. Tzitzakatchee walked up to the king. The king bowed his head not daring to look the keeper of the wind in his face. Tzitzakatchee spread his glorious wings and exposed the golden brown major and minor coverts of his wings. The tips of the primary and secondary flights looked liked theyd been dipped in bright red blood. The priest felt a warm tide of spiritual ecstasy and deliverance roll over him and he reveled in the wonder of what he was witnessing.

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Clint Hardesty Tzitzakatchee bent down over the king, as if to offer a blessing, his orange beak reflecting in the sun. Then, with a violent bob of his feathered head the winged god bit the

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kings head completely off. The priest watched in shock as Tzitzakatchee lifted his beaked face to the sky and forced the kings severed head down his gullet. The sight reminded the priest of the way baby birds would crane their infantile necks as they swallowed morsels their mother had tenderly placed in their beaks. The kings body slumped forward and landed on the wooden platform with a dull thud. Screams emanated from the crowd as the people watched the demise of their blessed leader and as they witnessed the destruction of all their nave presuppositions. The birdmen that hovered above the crowd descended in violent groups of three and plucked prey from the bewildered horde. The priest watched as men and women of the village were ripped and torn by terrible beaks and powerful talons. Some of the birdmen carried their prizes into the woods to have their way with the fresh flesh. Men, women, and children ran in every direction confused and frightened. The ground was littered with headless corpses and abandoned infants. The priest watched as two of the birdmen fought in midflight over a rather obese woman he recognized as the chief bakers wife. Tzitzakatchee stood over the priest, staring at the stupefied man. Behold priest, the Great Return! the god of the sky boomed. The priest thought he heard laughter coming from the other birdmen. As he waited for his death, he thought of his son. Of course not everyone died on the day of the Great Return. Many of the people escaped immediate death only to experience a much more painful and prolonged death as slaves to the benevolent god of the sky. The priest was spared as were many of his attendants and in many

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Clint Hardesty ways the work of the clergy was only multiplied by the horrible events of that day.

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Records of the Great Return needed to be created. The paradise established by the return of Tzitzakatchee could not last forever. One day the great god would have to return to his

abode in the heavenly realms and the truth of his visit must be preserved and kept safe from feeble minds who could not understand his godly ways. After a few years the gods grew bored of their reign and of their ridiculous subjects and left almost as quickly as they had came. In a few short months, Tuahuaco returned to its previously unblessed state. The priest grew feeble age and sorrow and eventually took his seat with the priests of old. He was still treated with deference as he walked the streets, but he could not help but notice the pity he saw in the peoples eyes. At night he would sit alone staring at the fire he used for cooking and for warmth, the bright orange flames and embers reflecting off his glassy blank eyes. Sometimes, the new high priest, a young man with no living memory of the Great Return, would come and sit with him. Little was said beyond the basic transference of bureaucratic knowledge and ceremonial banalities. Any genuine interest in the great mysteries was kept safe from dangerous stimulation in the fortressed heart and mind of this ambitious young man. When the young fool would depart, the elderly priest would retire to a secret room he had constructed underneath the floor of his sleeping quarters. The regretful old man had begun to record a history of his life and times, even though such documents were expressly forbidden. However, the priest suspected that even if his activities were discovered, his crimes would more than likely be written of as the eccentricities of a old harmless fool. On the final night of his life as the red sun sat on Tuahuaco and the people moved to their homes, the priest sat down to pen his final words. As his end approached, he put down the pen

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Clint Hardesty

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and closed the cover of his magnum opus. He wept as he placed the priestly seal on the leather cover of the book that so many later generations of blasphemers would look to for strength and evidence. Then, when he could rage no more, he took up his wings and joined his son.

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