Trail of the Jaguar
(Part I)
by Dal Merlin Jeanis



The jaguar loped through the dark forest, smelling the dark earth and damp leaves, pausing briefly to snuffle some droppings before continuing on its quest. The sloth that had deposited them had been gone for hours, so the jaguar sneezed impatiently and loped off again.
 

Black eyes in a furred face watched it disappear into the mists.

******

El Tornado watched the acrid smoke swirling around the twisted man with no attempt to conceal his distaste. Without comment, he granted himself the luxury of a small pool of clear air, formed by simply preventing the smoke from approaching within a quarter meter of his face. They had waited months for this encounter, and it was going poorly.

Zurdo smiled a gnarled smile and limped around the ancient scrying table to face the Changed One. He pointed an aged finger into Tornado's face, bringing the smell of burnt cloth and herbs with it to assault the leader's nose. "You don't really know what you want, do you?"

El Tornado briefly considered crushing the hand, then stifled the urge. Zurdo was a power. An evil, but a necessary one. And Tornado did, in fact, know exactly what he wanted. The trouble was the unknown price that Zurdo would exact.

"We wish to know the exact location of El Jaguar," La Escorpiona interrupted. "Ahora mismo." Right Now! After waiting through that stupid ritual, and learning nothing from it, a well of anger was building within her.

Zurdo waved back at the remnants on the table. "This was insufficient. Powerful magics are involved."

A quick hiss of disdain escaped La Escorpiona. "From Americans?" She flipped her dark hair dramatically, then cocked her head. "And perhaps the eagles are building piñatas this year instead of nests?"

Zurdo's face twitched a moment, then settled into a quirky leer. "Perhaps. In any case, there will be an increased requirement for materials."

Tornado braced himself internally. This was it. Let the sinister one name his price. Perhaps they could meet it.

"I will need something belonging to Jaguar, more personal than that..." He paused and gestured to the charred swatch of fabric that had focused his preliminary attempt at scrying the werecat.

Tornado nodded impassively. "And?"

"And there is a jewel I require."

"A jewel?" La Escorpiona frowned distractedly, as if he had just requested a turd or a wedding gown. She swatted absently at a fly that buzzed around her hair, powering her backhand with enough bioelectric energy to crisp the insect before it fell.

One of Zurdo's eyes followed the charred fly as it dropped, while the other moved from Scorpion to her leader. "I will give you the particulars. It will not be easy to acquire."

Tornado's gaze became steel. "We are not thieves, little man, to steal your payment."

The twisted mestizo smoothed his leer, but his face could not hold a courtly smile for more than a moment. "Nor am I. But this is a special spell, and it requires a special power source. The jewel is the simplest source I can name."

Tornado did not need to read Zurdo's mind. The man was lying. He glanced from side to side in the cramped room, eyeing the items of power and symbols of dark desires. A severed hand lay as a bookmark on an old book. A silver cup glowed faintly in the light of the dark green candles. He considered leaving the warped mestizo dead as a warning to others. He and Scorpion could probably manage it, and Oscuro and Tanque were nearby to make sure. But first, he must know exactly what the lie meant. "Simplest?"

Zurdo stared at the Changed One for a moment. He could refuse to answer, but he wanted this transaction more than he dared to demonstrate. The jewel was the last piece of a puzzle that he had been constructing for half a century. And it would, in fact, be a boon for conducting a more powerful search for the missing Jaguar. Zurdo grinned again. "Unless you can arrange for the loan of another item from Autocrat."

Tornado frowned, considering the vanished conqueror.  Surely he could, when he finished checking the trees for piñatas.

******

General Hernandez stood up from his leather chair, stomped around his massive desk, and towered over the guard like an ancient golem. "What do you mean, missing?"

"He was not in his bed at midnight check, Presidente." Roberto Rosta had three times survived giving bad news to the General. This fourth time, he was not optimistic about. He shrugged. In this world, it was best to know one's place, while it lasted. In the next, perhaps he could be a farmer. Someplace quiet, with gentle rain.

The General scowled. "And you did not tell me then?"

"You were... otherwise occupied, Presidente." The young women had not left his quarters until a few minutes ago. "And his bunk mates did not realize until this morning that he was not walking a second shift. We are somewhat shorthanded at the moment." Roberto said it without a hint of emotion.

Hernandez considered the little sergeant. There was no fear, no anger, no reproach. Dozens of his compadres killed, and the man felt nothing but a fatalistic stoicism. This was a good soldier. Not like the missing guard, Jorge Tliaza. Such disloyalty must be punished, with certainty. There must be no escape.

"Replacements are coming.  Along with help of a more powerful kind."  The General smiled.  The debacle in Ireland had deprived him of a powerful ally, and even of the promised dominion of the Central Americas, but it had left certain personages of power homeless and without their liege.  And a good commander never wasted free material.

"Yes, Presidente."

"When they arrive, you will take one squad and follow him." Hernandez clenched his fists, so tight in fact that his knuckles cracked and the shifting of sinews gave off a sound evocative of leather being stretched to its limit.  The General looked down at his knotted hands, smiled, then gave the little sergeant a sideways glance. "I would like him brought to me alive. But if not, then bring back his head."

"Yes, Presidente." To his surprise, Rosta felt vaguely disappointed.

******

The sweat dripped off his skin and fell to the ground, providing the only moisture in the forest. This time of year it would normally be raining, but a drought had begun to eat away at the health of the rainforest. Salvage knew that the dry weather was wrong, somehow, but he couldn't do anything about that. All he could do he was preparing to do.

The world was becoming a wild and deadly place. After all the fighting and killing in Ireland, the enigmatic destruction of Ceratibo nearby, the environmental degradation caused by Autocrat's other little plots, who was to say what was causing this drought? But, for this one small village, he could perhaps prevent starvation.

The machine bit into the dry soil and spun, slowly excavating a two-meter wide hole. Centimeter by centimeter, it dug into the soil and rock, pushing the detritus up and out of the growing well. It was well over twice his height when the seepage of water from the surrounding ground became sufficient for him to stop drilling. The remainder of the work would involve stacking rocks and mortaring them into place.

He activated the lift units and floated slowly out of the hole. The eyes of the gathered Ladinos and their leader followed him with veiled interest. It would not do to be too nosy with the powerful, they believed. He grinned wryly as he floated to the ground.

"Será agua," he said simply. It will be water.

As the hums and echoes of the drilling machine died down, it was replaced by a happy muttering from the small crowd. Hmen Tojil watched the stranger with equal measures of gratitude and suspicion. The streams had stopped flowing days before, a nearly unprecedented occurrence. And it was dry as far north as Tikal, a dozen miles to the north, not merely around Uaxactun. Neither Tojil nor the other elders knew the reason for the omen, but they thought it bad. And when the Gods are acting oddly, one must beware of Gods bringing gifts. But even so, the ceremonial sakan would be drunk with this "Sal-vaj." A drunken God is a happy God.

The silence also filled gradually with the shrieks and calls of chakalakas and toucans and aracaris. Once Tojil heard a harpy eagle in the distance, another strange omen. He stood slowly, and made his way to the edge of the hole the Norteamericano had dug. It was a fine hole, whose base was slowly filling with a trickle of water from the bottom meter of the walls. There was no faulting the straightness of the walls, although it would take several hours to lay the stones.

"Habrá agua," Tojil corrected. There will be water.

******

Jorge Tliaza came to consciousness slowly, waking from the deep dream-filled sleep. His mouth tasted of dirt and death. Finally, with a start, he realized he was sitting in a tree, nearly naked.

The climb to the ground was the longest, most harrowing of his life. His feet were scratched on the tough bark, his hands lacerated, his breath coming in ragged gasps. Nonetheless, he arrived at the jungle floor in a single piece, and felt fairly well, if it were not for his nakedness.

He briefly considered the direction of the General's villa, then realized he hadn't a clue where it might be. In fact, he considered, he might have been gone a long time. His dreams were oddly elongated, as if he had been asleep for weeks. This did not bode well for his job, or his life.

Nothing was really clear since he had been on the detail that buried the remains of El Jaguar. The amulet had shined so, and it had taken merely a moment to spirit it off of the body. Hidden in a niche in the wall, it had called him in the darkness to examine it, to caress it, to protect it from all other eyes. Then one night, he had finally taken it and run into the night.

Sitting at the foot of the tree, he inspected his hands and feet. There was no sign of the cuts and scratches he had experienced on the way down. Perhaps the dreaming had not stopped yet.

He looked around -- definitely a dream. This was the foliage of the jungle near his home in Uaxactun. He sniffed the air, listening, then headed in the direction he thought he smelled water.

******

Salvage was resting in a stone hut when he heard the shouting. He couldn't make out the words, but the tone had him running with his equipment before he was fully awake. Outside, he saw that the well had collapsed inward onto one of the stone-layers.

He quickly connected the circuits for his exoskeleton, then waved the villagers and a little girl back while he threw stone after stone and chunk after chunk into a pile beside the well. It was less than a minute before he had uncovered the man, less than another minute before he had the man flat on the ground and was connecting a stim unit. There were massive injuries, but the man was not yet dead. That was enough for Salvage to salvage him.

Hmen Tojil watched the God Sal-vaj as he pulled Juan Tliaza from the well and quickly lay him flat, moving a buzzing wand over the worker. Tliaza was a good man, but Tojil could see at a glance that he would die. Even if he were to live, he would be crippled for life, with the broken shoulder and broken hip. It was a grave loss, for Tliaza was a skilled stone-layer, a good weaver and a fair hunter and farmer. For this entire cycle, the omens had been getting more and more ominous. There was a crisis coming, and each day brought it nearer. Tliaza would not be the last to die.

Juan's daughter Chel ran to his side, where the God motioned her to a position out of his way. The chakalakas resumed their shrieking, and some toucans began squawking again. He listened for the harpy eagle, but the bird did not speak to him this time.

Salvage ran a quick scan over the body, noting the internal hemorrhaging, the soft tissue damage, the broken hip and shoulder. In another time, thought Salvage, the man would have been crippled for life if he survived at all. But this was not another time.

The internal bleeding was the worst problem of the moment. Salvage adjusted the stim unit to focus its effects on that region. At full power, the danger was over in minutes. The man began to regain consciousness, but Salvage could not allow him to move. "Keep him still," he told the girl in Spanish. "Or he will hurt himself."

Chel's crying joined with the noise of the birds. Hurt himself? Her father was dying because of Sal-vaj's well! How could he hurt himself more?

"Keep him still!" Salvage could see that the admonition was having no effect. These people were not trained soldiers or agents; they were simple agrarians. The man would begin to thrash from the pain in moments, injuring himself more. That hip was the most in danger from that, with sharp bits of bone near a major artery. Salvage left the stim unit on the torso and quickly built a pain suppressor. He called to a woman villager to bring the rest of his equipment. En Punto!

Salvage slipped the pain suppressor around the man's neck, to block sensation from the lower extremities. Tliaza groaned slightly, then opened his eyes. "I feel nothing," he whispered.

"That will change. Lay still while you heal."

"Se me cayeron las piedras" The stones fell on me. His eyes spoke of his worry, his burden. Chel cried against his good shoulder, her dark hair falling across her father's face and chest. First her mother, now her father? Who would care for her now?

"Yes. But you will be fine." Salvage moved the stim unit to the broken shoulder. "This will hurt for a moment, but do not worry." Salvage counted to three in Spanish, then jerked the shoulder into place. Tliaza cried out, and the noise of the birds was silenced for a moment. When Salvage swept the area again, the bones were in place correctly, and the knitting had begun.

He stepped back for a moment to receive the rest of his equipment from the hut, nodding to the woman in thanks. According to the scan, the hip would be tricky. The bone had shattered into a dozen shards, all sitting within centimeters of the femoral artery. No simple shove would move those bones back into place, not without Tliaza bleeding to death.

Salvage stared at the electronics and grav-works that remained in his pack. How the heck could he make this work? He cannibalized the scanner, used all the parts, but he would still need several more items. That meant that either the stim unit or the pain suppressor would have to go. Unless...

He stood, hands on hips, looking around at the gathered villagers. Finally he focused on elder Hmen Tojil and asked, "Does anyone have a radio?"

******

Roberto Rosta sighed as he followed yet another trail through the jungle. He and his men had been forced to avoid local patrols for days, being no longer in Santo Domingo. It was not as if the Presidente were looking to expand his territory again. But no one would expect Belize or Guatamala to believe that.

The trail through the increasingly dry forest had changed several times over the course of days. At first, they had followed a man's footprints. But soon, it became those of a cat, then again a man.

The others muttered about magic, and skinwalkers, and other things less well known. Once someone mentioned an English curse, that anyone who killed a stag in a certain forest was doomed to become one himself. It bothered Rosta, since someone had killed a werecat in El Presidente's villa, then Jorge Tliaza had taken to the woods and appeared to become a cat. It would not do for Rosta to become a cat himself. His wife would not like it.

Rosta sighed again. He would really like to be a farmer. Preferably where there was a gentle rain.

******

Zurdo spoke to General Hernandez via the ancient telephone he kept in a dark closet just off his laboratory. Zurdo felt a certain satisfaction, that several of his plans were simultaneously bearing fruit. Los Soldados would soon be returning with the jewel, and then he could also do a favor for the Presidente of Santo Domingo, a powerful man with certain useful connections of his own.

"They want to know where is El Jaguar," he quietly informed the dictator, smiling his sickly courtier's smile in the darkness.

"I do not know that location." Hernandez spoke with conviction and only a small amount of fear. El Zurdo, a connoisseur of darkness, knew instinctively that the truth Hernandez spoke held a bigger lie. A much bigger lie.

"Yes, of course. That is the answer to that question. But there is another question just as important. Where would you want them to go?"

In the darkness, amidst the silence at the other end of the telephone, Zurdo heard the General begin to smile.
 

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