The feathered serpent faltered as it dropped below the smog line. Thousands of vehicles covered its former hunting grounds, covering the land in metal rivers and choking clouds. As it passed over the plateau’s heart, its iridescent scales faded to monoxide grey; no one saw it flutter and glide to a stop at a dilapidated church. The serpent settled in an eave, tucking in its sunlight wings and curling muscular coils beneath them. It remembered when the church was a temple, and thought the change was not for the better.
A low rumble came from a shadow in the church’s small courtyard. The feathered serpent turned its head toward the sound, light grey eyes flashing. It flicked its pinfeathers. A sharp breeze rustled the cypress branches, and as the dappled light shifted, a massive black jaguar skulked from the shadows, a yellow stripe slashing downward across its mouth. The jaguar lifted its gaze.
“Tezcatlipoca,” the feathered serpent said.
“Quetzalcoatl,” the jaguar replied. Cabled muscles moved slowly under rolls of fur and fat. Quetzalcoatl knew its size was just for show; if he attacked, he would do so with all his unearthly speed and grace. Being the god of war suited him.
The feathered serpent drew his wings in close, waiting for his brother to get to the reason behind his invitation. It had been centuries since last they spoke. Quetzalcoatl hadn’t missed his brother, but that was no excuse to be rude.
“Haven’t seen you since Xolotl passed,” Tezcatlipoca growled.
“True,” Quetzalcoatl said. He shifted his scaled bulk, stone dust puffing from his perch.
“And you’re not curious?”
“I assume you intend to kill me, brother. Why else appear as a jaguar?”
“You must be tired of flying, then. You didn’t have to come.”
“I’d heard you got fat; I wanted to see,” Quetzalcoatl said, his eyes narrowing. “Besides, did you forget my charge? Learning, knowledge: that’s me, night wind. Curiosity isn’t just for cats.”
Tezcatlipoca chuckled. The ruff at his neck shook in time with his mirth.
“So serious, brother. Your charge, as if we still commanded the world. Have you been paying attention?”
“Jaguars are terrible listeners,” Quetzalcoatl said. “Learning and knowledge are my whole raison d’etre, brother. Of course I pay attention.” The feathered serpent stretched his scaly neck. “Just not to you.”
“Tsk, tsk,” Tezcatlipoca said. “Never sleep with anyone crazier than you, never get involved in a land war in Asia, and never anger a jaguar. You know better.”
“You’re no more a jaguar than I am a flying snake,” Quetzalcoatl said. He knew that Tezcatlipoca was trying to get under his skin, and it was working. The thought that his brother should have been the god of mild irritation crossed his mind, a familiar sensation.
“But we are something less,” Tezcatlipoca said, the rumble of his voice softening. “That is why I asked you here.”
The feathered serpent raised his head, suspicious now. Only the tremor of muscles gathering betrayed Tezcatlipoca’s intent, but by the time his bulk sailed through the air, a muscled coil was already unwinding. Quetzalcoatl’s armored tail smashed into the god jaguar, crashing him into a ruined wall. Under the breaking of ancient masonry, Quetzalcoatl thought he heard his brother laugh. A flap of his wings, and Quetzalcoatl was perched on the highest wall overlooking Tezcatlipoca, softly laughing as he sprawled in the rubble.
“You’ve proved my point, brother,” Tezcatlipoca said, craning his head up to meet his brother’s gaze. “Could you ever do that?”
“A bluff,” Quetzalcoatl said.
“Ah, but you know better,” Tezcatlipoca said. With a shrug, the jaguar got to its feet, shaking dust from its haunches. “You know better than me.”
“Time catches even us,” Quetzalcoatl agreed.
“Yes,” Tezcatlipoca said. “So, I wish to ask a favor.”
The feathered serpent listened to the painted jaguar’s request, his reasoning, and despite himself, could not help but be moved. Interesting, he mused, that my brother, the obsidian mirror of all creation, would see past entropy into hope. I didn’t think he had it in him.
Quetzalcoatl thought for several moments after his brother finished. In theory, what Tezcatlipoca suggested would work. In theory.
“There aren’t any guarantees,” the feathered serpent said.
The painted jaguar nodded. “Of course, but I believe it will work. War is many things, but above all else, it is a choice. Choices can be revoked, ignored. The drive to know, to understand, is a fundament of being. Thus, you have the stronger charge, and the more durable mission.”
Quetzalcoatl nodded in return. He felt the same, though whether he was up to the change was unknown. There were many war gods, while keepers of knowledge were rarer on the vine. That, Quetzalcoatl realized, was the answer. What his brother asked frightened him, but he had to know.
“No time like now,” Quetzalcoatl said.
The painted jaguar lifted his face to the sun. He said nothing, but his smile, outlined in a yellow slash, was unmistakable.
The feathered serpent launched from his perch, and dove. As he fell, the solidity of both gods’ forms wavered and softened, maintaining only their shapes as they allowed their godhoods to emerge. All that they were, ancient and terrible knowledge and power and responsibility, suffused them as Quetzalcoatl spread ephemeral wings and came to rest in the light of Tezcatlipoca’s being.
The boundaries of Quetzalcoatl’s being wavered in and out of sight as he absorbed his brother, jags of panic flaring and fading as they merged. As the light changed, the feathered serpent felt Tezcatlipoca surface briefly.
“Is it working, brother?”
The god once named Quetzalcoatl raised its wing. Under the brilliant feathers, a velvet shadow could be seen, obsidian taking its place within the rainbow. He smiled, the corners of his mouth disappearing in a yellow slash across his scaled face.
“We continue, together,” the being of feathers and fur said, and took wing into a polluted sky, rising into a light beyond metal rivers and choking clouds.
Brandon Nolta lives in north Idaho with his wife and two children. His poetry and fiction have appeared in, among many other places, Stupefying Stories, The Pedestal Magazine, Digital Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, and in anthologies from JayHenge Publishing and Mad Scientist Review. His novel Iron and Smoke was published by Montag Press in 2015.