The pain was terrible.

Step by step Casca made his way back down the long flight of steps, past the intertwined carvings of serpents, past the goggle-eyed rain god Tlaloc.

No chanting.

No ceremony.

This time the only sound was that of the storm raging around the temple and the pyramid. The people and the priests were silent. Motionless. Stunned. Less lifelike than the stone carvings.

As though time had stopped for them.

As though they were frozen in a nightmare.

And only Casca moved.

Casca and the storm.

He and the storm were one.

Step by step.

Casca fought away the tremendous pain. Nausea boiled within him as fiercely as the storm without and threatened to throw the insides of his stomach to the raging wind.

Sweat ran freely down from the inside of his mask. His throat constricted and tightened. Mindless of the people about him he moved. The greater the pain the more powerful became his step until he was striding, head erect, a proud image, a god indeed. They bowed. They prostrated themselves before him.

Step by measured step he proceeded past their prone bodies toward his quarters, himself now the full and only embodiment of ceremony, the thundering storm his only escort.

But, although to them he might be a triumphant god riding the wind, to him the effects of the coca leaves were wearing off, the pain was intensifying, and he was beginning to feel the real world around him, conscious now of the rain starting to fall, rain that would be a curtain of water in moments… like the curtain of unconsciousness rapidly overtaking him. He had only seconds. He might not reach the safety of his quarters. Yet he knew he must not let them see their god collapse in the mud so near to security. His hands and feet felt numb, distant. The aching throbbing in his chest was all-present, the pain there overshadowing all else. He could not endure…

But in the last few seconds before he was certain the end was upon him he found himself at the doorway of his quarters. Turning, he took the jade mask from his face.

“Hear me!” His voice boomed out with all his remaining strength, one tremendous superhuman sound, for the louder he cried out the more bearable the pain seemed to be. His voice overrode the storm. “Let none disturb me until I next come forth! Only the woman Metah will attend my needs. I repeat: Let none disturb me until I am ready!”

With that final roar, he turned to the interior. But the effort exhausted him. Once in the shadows he barely had strength to make it to the couch. In the very act of falling on the blankets he was unconscious.

The coca leaves had done their job.

Now it was time to heal.

For the next two weeks only Metah dared to enter the quarters of the living god. Chills and fever racked Casca’s body. Metah would lie with him, holding herself close against him to give him her warmth to fight off the terrible deathcold enveloping him. She fed him as a mother feeds a child, spoonful by spoonful. Alone in the shadows with him she would cry and kiss tenderly the great wound on his chest. To her he was not a god. He was a man. A man she loved. Everything else was secondary. Even to the priests when they questioned her would she say nothing but that the lord Tectli Casca, sleeps, and when he is ready he will come forth.

Tezmec had a problem. He spent the long days and even longer nights questioning himself. He had been shaken to the roots of his being. All the days of his life he had been taught obedience to the gods and their laws. He had thought he knew all. Now…

True, Casca, the one from the sea, had performed a miracle.

But all that Casca had done was contradictory to Tezmec’s teachings. And the pale stranger could not be right concerning the command that there be no more messengers.

The gods must have sacrifices.

Inside Casca’s body changes were taking place. Millimeter by millimeter his heart was returning to its proper function and position. The severed blood vessels and arteries were repairing the damage, seeking again their accustomed channels. Unknown to Casca in his deep sleep, other blood vessels had taken over the job of circulating his blood through his system, each minutely expanding and contracting and thus pumping the life-giving oxygen and nutrients to the places where they were needed most. In effect, his entire circulatory system was one diffuse temporary heart, adequate to sustain life while, bit by bit, his body took the steps needed to repair itself.

Casca woke.

The first thing he saw was a mass of thick black hair covering his chest. There was confusion for just a moment, then the mass of hair moved. Metah. She was lying on his chest, her hair covering him, and she was sleeping. Gently he raised his scarred hand and stroked her hair as he would a sleeping child.

“Little girl,” he whispered, his voice ragged and unfamiliar from lack of use, “I love you.”

She snuggled closer…

The next few days brought an amazing change in him. With every breath he now drew, with every beat of the now-functioning heart, he grew stronger.

Totzin the priest wondered about the progress of the stranger. Casca’s miraculous survival he attributed to an alliance between this foreigner and the hated priest of the Serpent, Tezmec.

Once Casca recovered he found himself in control of the city and the people, and every day he increased that control. The miracle of his survival and the godlike speed of his recovery would have set the stage for him in any event, but the way he was now twisting Tezmec around his little finger speeded up matters greatly. Something had happened to Tezmec since those incredible moments at the altar. He had no will to resist Casca. His thoughts were confused, but he watched in silent bewilderment as Casca stopped all human sacrifice and did nothing to hinder him. He did come in private to Casca and protest that surely disaster would strike his people, the rains would stop, and pestilence would stalk the land as it had done in the days of Cuz-mecli’s father. But when the Tectli Casca would hear nothing of his reasons but merely stated flatly that the sacrifices must stop, Tezmec bowed his old head in obedience.

Even the warriors of the Serpent followed Casca’s lead. They firmly aligned themselves with the living god that walked among them. Casca had more than adequately shown his superiority to all the warriors in the matter of combat and had defeated any who dared to face him in tests of strength and ability.

He was firmly in control.

Except for Totzin.

Only Totzin did not follow the will of Casca in all things. And there were rumors. It was said that young girls who had disappeared were being offered to Teypetel the Jaguar under the blade of Totzin’s dagger. Rumors, though, No proof.

The law concerning sacrifice was clear. Only captives in war or those who came voluntarily from among their own people could be used as messengers. To take maidens against their will was unthinkable, and, though Totzin was hostile to Tezmec, surely he would not break the laws of their people. No, the disappearance of the young women must be accounted for as the acts of raiders from some of the savage tribes living about them, young braves sneaking in to steal brides. It had happened before. Perhaps even the Toltecs could be responsible.

Meanwhile, Totzin carefully avoided any confrontation with Casca. When they did chance to meet, Totzin showed deference and servility. But deep behind his honeyed words his heart was black with hate hate for this pale-skinned one who had by some conspiracy taken over control of Totzin’s nation and proclaimed himself a god. Totzin had seen the runners sent by Casca to the coast where the rest of the accursed foreigner’s men waited. Twice before Casca had sent runners, but Totzin’s Jaguar soldiers had stopped them and offered their hearts to Teypetel. But the last runners had succeeded. Now more like Casca would come. And with them Totzin’s power would decrease even more. The time was now. He must meet with the king of the Olmecs. Between them they could crush this evil that had come and deprived them of their just dues and respects. Soon the great jaws of the jungle hunter, the killer of men, would have all the blood he needed. The god Teypetel would feed to the fullest, and he, Totzin, would himself offer the body of Casca to the god and if the stranger’s heart still beat after the blade, then he would slice him into a thousand separate pieces and feed them one by one to the vultures. That would take care of even the Quetza.

Totzin sent runners secretly to the stronghold of the giant king of the Olmecs. Following Totzin’s instructions, they offered their master’s allegiance if the great Olmec king would come to their aid and rid their city of the foreigner, for surely, was not the great king of the Olmecs the only one powerful enough to stand against the blue-eyed one in combat? And if he did this, would not the wealth of the Teotec nation be his? And, with Totzin as his suzerain, there would be sent him an unending stream of victims for the glory of the Jaguar.

Casca had grown used to being a god and was beginning to enjoy it. On his tours around the city he gained an ever greater appreciation of what these people had accomplished. They had no weapons of metal to speak of. The only ones they did have were poor things beaten out of native raw copper ore. They apparently lacked the knowledge of how to refine the ore itself. But gold and silver were plentiful and they used these metals for the glory of their gods. The metal gold seemed to them to have no value other than its easy pliability in the manufacture of sacred artifacts and art objects.

Casca discovered what many another innovator had before him and since that it is not easy to change a people’s technology. For the children he had made a cart of clay with wheels that rolled. The children were delighted. Casca decided this would be a good way to teach the people the use of the wheel for heavy transport, for, although the idea of the wheel was known, it was not used here for the obvious purpose. Casca demonstrated the ability of the wheel to haul heavy loads. Demonstrated but that was all. God or no god, he got nowhere with the people; they merely smiled, agreed and went back to doing things as they always had, hauling their loads on their backs with a strap about the forehead to keep it in position.

While Casca busied himself with the load-carrying activities of the people of Teotah, however, in the land of the Olmecs quite a different kind of traffic was going on. The loads being brought into the Olmec cities were not food nor articles of trade. They were tribute from the villages in the Olmec domain, tribute in the form of weapons: spears and axes and clubs sided with flint; deer horn shields; and quilted suits of cotton armor. The king of the Olmecs had arrived at a decision: he would march on the city of Teotah. His ego had been bruised by the reports he had received of the Quetza’s great strength. That and the opportunity to have warriors loyal to his cause already within the city was too much to pass up. He would prove to all that he was the greatest warrior in the world. After Teotah he would march against all who opposed his divinity. He would leave his monuments behind: the great heads of his and his father’s likenesses, fat lips sneering in a grin that showed teeth filed to needle points (as the teeth of the jaguar were pointed, so must his be). The decision made, the king rose from his throne and gave orders to his captains to make ready. When the moon was full they would march.

And on the coast, other men were already marching.

The runners had finally gotten through to the dragon ships. The Vikings had the word from Casca and had set out to rejoin their leader. They were not aware of what a strange sight they made in this land… large men with tanned skins and hair of many colors, their armor gleaming in the sun, helmets with the horns of beasts on them… strong men who cursed at every step that took them away from the security of the sea and their only link with their homes, the dragon ships that had brought them safely thus far. But their master called, and they obeyed, leaving the dragon ships in the care of warriors bearing the emblem of a snake and of such few Vikings who were too ill or too injured to make the journey to the city where Casca the Walker was a god.

Olaf Glamson, however, relished the change and the chance for action. His high spirits and laughter did much to dispel the gloom that many of his countrymen felt in these forbidding jungles.

Every step took them closer. Word of their coming reached Casca while he was with the young king. Casca and the king were fast becoming great friends. Casca liked the young man for his spirit and courage. The youngster was eager to meet these approaching strangers, for the Quetza had said that with them came a new order. And Cuz-mecli, though he had believed in the need for it since that was his teaching, had never really liked the sight of men’s hearts being torn from them. Now, if the gods were all like the Quetza, surely it would be better for his people. He had seen no disaster befall them since the sacrifices had stopped. The rains still came, and the people prospered and were content. They gloried that only they, of all peoples, had a god living with them.

As for Metah, she gloried in her man. Casca took no other women and seemed to be content with her. She was always at his side. The close association brought a subtle change: she grew more beautiful every day, carrying herself as if she had to the royal manor been born. She was the consort of a god… but she knew him as a man…

The days were warm and good. Casca walked among his people, watching the women spin, watching them turn the spindles to convert the cotton wool into thread for cloth. The young children were learning the arts of their fathers… to be either warriors or priests. But the ones who really made the city live were the farmers, merchants, and artisans. Casca took a special delight in the workers of stone and gold. Watching a goldsmith refining his precious metal, Casca noted that there was no difference in the method here from that of his own homeland, Rome. The gold was stacked in earthenware plates and placed in a pot, each plate separated by powdered stone or brick dust. Then the pot was covered and heated until it glowed red. The smith would build up the heat with a blowing bellows until the gold was hot enough to melt. The impurities would combine with the dust, and when the process was finished the gold was purified and ready to be worked.

Casca was thus absorbed in watching the goldsmith when the runner came and fell to his knees before the Quetza.

“Lord,” the runner reported, “they come! The giant and the ones with the shining skins come as you ordered.”

The Vikings had reached Teotah.