Normally, we send a story out on its way into the world, naked and unedited, helpless
and never to be seen or heard from again. But it takes the parental instinct to truly
bring a story to its proper place in the world, and that means nurturing it, spending
time on it, and letting it grow. For this two-week long pitch, we each took one of our
old stories and rebuilt it, expanding it from its original length of about 2 pages to a
full fledged 8-page behemoth.
Of the greatest stories told by the Cholokai is the story of Delsin. Born to a dead father, Delsin lived in an age when the nature spirits, Otoakwai, still lived side-by-side with men. Was he tall? Was he lean? Strong? Flight of foot? Details, all, lost to time, faded from memory. Some whisper that he was no he at all, but a she, a young woman who defied the law of man and nature to walk at the front of her brethren. It may be so. The legends speak of a man, and so do I.
What is known is that his mother was taken by a tribe to the south not long after his birth. The Cholokai found themselves at war often in those days, when the tribes remained fragmented and the world was small. Delsin knew nothing of her but her name, Mansi, and that her captors were lead by an Otoakwai of evil bent, called only Matwau, enemy, by the Cholokai.
When Delsin was thirteen, the Cholokai were at war with the Atachape who lived across the mountains to the west. One day, an Atachape war party fell on Delsin’s village like a thunderstorm, tearing through tent and hut alike, slaughtering many a brave before the Cholokai could give them battle. It was during this attack that Delsin became a man, taking up the hatchet despite his years and leaving a trail of the dead behind him. The Atachape were turned back, and the Cholokai gave thanks.
For this, the Chieftain sent Delsin on a vision quest, deep into the forest. It was there that he first heard the cries from Xapatilan, the city in the South. In his dreams, he saw the ziggurats rising from the jungle, the slave people kneeling before the man with death for a face, the serpent and the jackal at his side. And in his dreams, he saw his mother, too, though he could barely remember her face, bound and filthy with the rest of them, her trembling legs climbing the cold stone steps to the altar on top. As the jungle fell around Xapatilan, as pillars of smoke ascended into the sky, the Great Mother gave him a new vision, a vision of himself with warpaint and tomahawk, with allies of all ilk, his face a mask of rage, his village in ruins behind him.
Delsin was weak with the power the Great Mother sent through him, and he was not prepared when the creatures of corruption came for him. They loped from the shadows of the cave, looking like dogs but with fire in their eyes and twisted flesh. Surely, he would have perished there, but the Mother had greater things in store for him. A warrior appeared, taller than any man, stout as the redwood, and placed himself between Delsin and the corrupt creatures. His hatchet flashed as he bade Delsin run.
Run he did, though his will was for battle. Back through the forest he tore, back to his village, to the Chieftain and his Shaman, spilling words of his visions and the evil things that crawled out of the forest. The Shaman, too, had seen visions of the jungle, and the Chieftain had heard tales of corruption. The two were somehow connected, the Shaman told him, though he knew not why they appeared. His dream was a vision from the Great Mother, a sign that Delsin alone would lead the way against these abominations, or else doom would befall the Cholokai.
Here was Delsin, barely a brave, now hardly a man, and the fate of his people had been placed before him based solely on a vision of muddled clarity. He knew not what to do but to accept this fate; to deny it would be to deny his tribe and all those he loved. And so it was that he left. The Chieftain lent him his own hatchet and a buckskin to keep him warm. The Atachape, he said, must know something, for they were closer to the infection. Perhaps, the Chieftain told him, it was this infection that drove them to attack like madmen, sweeping through the village. Delsin set out to cross the mountains, his only direction to seek out his mortal enemies where they gathered in numbers, and he as only one.
He would not remain alone for long, however. Scarcely had he reached the mountain pass when again he was beset by corrupted animals, this time deer and bear together. Again, the warrior came to his aid, his hatchet shining as it cut through the beasts’ tainted flesh. And again, he bade Delsin run, but this time he gave direction; flinging a single stone towards the mountain peak, he yelled that solace could be found on its path.
Delsin took off after the stone; what else could he do? He tried attacking the deer, but its antlers had become like wrought iron, its mangy skin turned to leather. He scrabbled up over the rocks where the beasts could not follow, up to the summit. Looking down the other side, he could not believe what he saw. A village, bigger than his own, was built in the treetops of the slope, but without sign of the axe or of fire. It was though it had grown there, sprung full-formed from the ground or hanging like fruit from treelimbs; it could only be a city of the Otoakwai.
The forest-folk live differently than us, both in body and soul. Some nature spirits live in natural form; you have heard of Coyote and Rabbit, of the Wolpol Tree and Rattlesnake. Others once lived alongside nature, as brother to it, and these spirits were called the Otoakwai. They came in many forms, in many manners, some more like man, some more like beast, still others in between. Some were loners, some traveled in packs. Still others, the rarest only, lived with men like Matwau who had taken Delsin’s mother. Those Delsin had found chose to live with each other, though they shunned the way of man.
At first, the Otoakwai were most unhappy to see him, but when he told them of his battle, they grew concerned and allowed him to stay. They, more than any other, were attuned to the life of the forest and the world, and they too had seen signs of the corruption. It came from the South, they told him, and they named it Adayesgi.
Delsin learned much from the Otoakwai, but they would scarcely aid him in his quest. Though they fought hard to keep clean their mountains, they were a carefully guarded people, and sought to isolate themselves from men. Only one, a sad woman with flowing hair like white feathers, offered to come with him. Her name was Widow Dove, and she would guide him to the Atachape camp.
Stories do not tell of how Delsin and Widow Dove overcame the Atachape; some say they struck with force, Widow Dove bringing the braves to their knees with her keening song, Delsin striking fiercely with his hatchet. Others say the Otoakwai taught Delsin the way of the spirit, and he stole the Atachape’s secrets disguised as a newt. Perhaps the Atachape were simply not the fierce warriors they had seemed to be after all, and they too were frightened by the adayesgi; perhaps they listened to Delsin’s quick tongue and were charmed by Widow Dove’s beauty.
Whatever the case, Delsin left the Atachape with fewer answers than questions. He knew now that more and more animals were becoming adayesgi. He knew that even humans had fallen to its power. Slavers from the south had brought it with them; they offered strange pearls and sharp black stone to trade, but wherever they touched, corruption followed. These slavers were once merchants, it seemed, who had come across their new wares but recently, and had been enriched enormously by a force the Atachape did not know. Ever since then, the southern tribes grew more and more warlike, and the infection had begun to take the Atachape as well.
From the Atachape, Delsin had taken a machete of the southern black stone; what they had traded for it, he did not know. Soon afterwards, he again encountered the great warrior who had saved his life twice before. This time, Delsin did not run. The machete carved through even the harsh skin of the corrupt, and the two stood together over a pile of dead adayesgi.
The warrior’s name was Yanisin, and he took the bodies of the dead and pulled their hearts from them; these, he said, gave him strength. He came from the south, from the tribes that once were free and now were slaves. He spoke of a nation of men who lived in the jungles beyond a narrow isthmus that divided the land. They warred with each other and built great buildings; they sacrificed and dressed in jaguar skin and colored feathers. These people brought the black stone and the strange pearls, which they traded for slaves. They practiced strange magic. And they brought the corruption.
Over time, Delsin would learn that the people of Yanisin’s village had been willing accomplices in selling their own into slavery. Yanisin himself had been among the slavers. He had taken corruption into himself willingly then, though he now rejected it, and he ate the corruption from the adayesgi still to maintain his power. But for now, Yanisin was silent. He would travel with Delsin and Widow Dove, and prove an invaluable ally.
Delsin’s journeys would take him through many lands on his way to the jungle. He would meet many tribes, and have many adventures. He would see the adayesgi grow more and more corrupted, until they were unrecognizable as animals at all, but were hideous beasts of power. He would meet men that became animals, and animals that became ghosts. He would solve mysteries and crimes, fight many battles and learn the ways of nature magic. Eventually, he would even encounter the people from the South, who he learned were called the Quenteotl, and see their magic.
Shall I speak of those who traveled with him? You already know of Widow Dove and Yanisin, but these were only the first of his companions. Should I tell you of Gaagi the witch-shaman, who taught Delsin how to grow the claws of the bear or the wings of the vulture? What of Onatah, luck-child of a powerful chieftain whose every weakness served her as though it were a strength? So too was there Serrated Jaw, the half-corrupted Otoakwai; torn between his natural spirit and his desire to embrace the adayesgi he was becoming, his struggles are legendary. Less known are Iron Vine, an Otoakwai tree spirit, and Kokyangwuti, the aging crone skilled in poisons and poisonous to even her allies. Still fewer speak of Hototo, the restless shade bound to his living twin Hesutu, or of Brother Wolf, Delsin’s faithful animal companion, but their lack of fame is in no part due to any lack of importance in his quest.
All of these and more Delsin met before he passed the Narrow Isthmus and entered the lands of the Quenteotl, and he would meet more companions thereafter. Of the mysterious Quenteotl, he knew little. He first encountered them in the village of Yanisin’s youth. The Quenteotl had taken it over as an outpost, and they were lead by a sorcerer called Machitehew. Machitehew’s magic was most powerful; he kept himself constantly surrounded by slaves and animals, and whenever he cast a spell, one would die. The more powerful the spell, the larger the creature he would kill. Fire leapt from his fingertips, lightning from his eyes. With a glance, he could turn the air thick like jelly, and whenever a spell was cast, the plants and animals around him shuddered and twisted. There could be no doubt but that the adayesgi came from this power.
Delsin and his allies fought hard to overthrow Machitehew. At first, they approached as traders, knowing from their dealings with other tribes that the Quenteotl would be open for this. They were allowed free reign of the village, and discovered what had become of it since Yanisin left so long ago. Machitehew ruled with a fist of iron, holding sacrifices weekly and using the town as a staging point for sending slaves across the Narrow Isthmus. All the huts had been cleared away, the surrounding forest slashed and burned to make more room for slave pens. Cold stone shelters now surrounded a single ziggurat reserved for Machitehew himself.
The Quenteotl kept many powerful slaves and adayesgi. It took great skill to surpass them, through both stealth and force, trickery and diplomacy. At last, Delsin and his companions faced Machitehew, only to learn that he was but an agent of an even greater lord, a servant of an even greater empire. Machitehew sent his slaves south across the isthmus to the Quenteotl capital of Xapatilan for an ever greater sacrifice, an ultimate sacrifice that would ensure their conquest of the world. Before they could learn more, the vile sorcerer thrust himself on his knife, bringing forth a terrible power that nearly killed them all. Delsin knew that power, for he had seen it once before; in a flash of light, he caught a glimpse, however fleeting, of the death-faced man from his vision-quest.
At last, Delsin and his companions crossed the Narrow Isthmus and entered the jungles of the Quenteotl. There, they saw many strange things. Death was common; spirits and zombies haunted the dark corners of the land. The adayesgi were everywhere, twisted abominations that frequently no longer resembled natural life. The Quenteotl drenched their land with blood and fire, carving back the jungle with their cruel machetes and sacrificing slaves daily to new gods.
For there were New Gods. These were creatures unlike the Great Mother or the powerful nature spirits. They stood apart from the natural world and asserted dominion over it, a bloody pantheon who sowed war and corruption. It was from them that the adayesgi were truly birthed, and for them that the Quenteotl spread death and destruction. There were many of these New Gods, such as Tlaxclota, the Flayed Man, and Metzhuatl, the Rat-Breasted. But chief among them and ruling over them all was Moqueloa, the mocking god, the death-faced, the lord of sorcerers and sacrifice. All bowed before his dark visage.
And they heard of the dread emperor, Otliotli, who ruled the Quenteotl. It was he who did the work of Moqueloa on earth, he who commanded his legions to spread doom to the north. Otliotli had single-handedly united the southern continent into the Quenteotl nation and overseen the birth of its temples. It was he who first spoke to Moqueloa so many years ago (for Moqueloa gave him the gift of eternal life), and he who spread the words of the New Gods by blade and flame.
Delsin fought and tricked his way through the jungle, through cities made of stone, to Xapatilan itself, the floating city. It was so named for the series of springs that carved up the land beneath it, creating flowing rivers and pools throughout, extending into the great gulf which it bordered. Some portions of the city, including the temple of Juxjumet the storm bringer, were even built on the water itself, supported by masses of buoyant palm trees harvested from the shore.
Again, Delsin and his companions hid their identities and were welcomed, if uneasily, into the city. They learned more of the New Gods there, of how the Quenteotl believed them to be the gods of men, and their power; the power of men to conquer nature, not subordinate to it. The Quenteotl believed that the weak served the strong, and that whatever was taken belonged to the taker. The world existed, they thought, as man’s garden; all within were his to use or destroy as he saw fit. They scoffed at the Great Mother, and called her only “the Slave-Girl.”
Of course, none of this was true. We all know that the spirits lived eternal in the darkness of the underworld until the Great Mother rent the surface of the earth and brought the spirits out into the light. She allowed men, too, to escape through the rent, and made them her children, brothers to the forest and the animals. But the Quenteotl denied this. They believed that the underworld was the land of the dead, and through death there came power. The New Gods lived in the underworld, and the Great Chasm that led to it was where they would emerge when the time was right for them to walk the earth.
In Xapatilan, the Quenteotl kept great slave pens for the day of the emergence. Only through death could the New Gods enter this world. Thus, the nature of Quenteotl magic; that one must die so that a god might temporarily step into our world and release his power. The deaths of thousands of slaves would allow Moqueloa and his kin to emerge fully into the light, and lead the Quenteotl to permanent victory!
In the slave pens, Delsin found his mother, Mansi, bedraggled from years of torment and labor. She knew him immediately, and told him of her love for him, and how she had willingly given herself to the southern tribes as a slave that they might leave the Cholokai, and her little boy, alone. It was a tearful reunion, if short-lived, for some few corrupted Otoakwai now worked hand-in-hand with Otliotli, and Matwau, his mother’s captor, was chief among them.
Matwau, whose real name was Rattlesnake Feather, was no fool and word had already reached his scaled ears of the avenger from the north whose mother had been enslaved by an Otoakwai so many years ago. He recognized Delsin quickly and had him followed closely. When Delsin met his mother, there was no doubt. Matwau had him seized and brought before him. There, the plumed serpent offered Delsin a choice: to fight him, and die, or to join him, to serve one of the New Gods as a priest, and usher in a new age of power in the world.
Matwau offered Delsin great power, and his forked tongue proved greatly persuasive. Men were the real new power, Matwau explained, a creature above nature, a beast above beasts. It was their role to rule the world, to take their place at its head, and obeisance to the Great Mother merely held them back. The New Gods were bloody, true, but blood was needed to place the powerful where they belonged; once that time was over, these Gods would be replaced with others, or their bloodlust would die down. Matwau had seen the light, and joined the Quenteotl that he might see them properly guided. Delsin, he said, could join him.
Matwau’s words held some truth, and Delsin struggled with them as with the serpent’s venom. But could the blood and death of the Quenteotl ever achieve peace? Could man truly exist apart from nature? And what guidance had Matwau given, but to facilitate the war on the northern tribes? Delsin denied him, and battle ensued. When it was finished, the plumed serpent lay slain.
One more thing had Matwau revealed. These gods, these new gods, had sprung fully formed from the conquests of Otliotli. They had not been discovered, but birthed from evil of the dread tyrant. Delsin and his friends resolved to kill the emperor, and great battle ensued. The slaves were freed, and took up arms against their oppressors. Delsin’s companions led them like generals, fighting through the streets to the High Ziggurat of Moqueloa.
It was only a matter of time before the Quenteotl regained control, but the time was enough for Delsin to make his way to Otliotli’s throne and engage him in battle. But the tyrant was unsurprised; he had foreseen Delsin’s coming, and taken Mansi hostage at the altar atop the temple. There, he brought Delsin to his knees, but the fight was not over; Mansi once more sacrificed herself for her son, leaping at Otliotli, who did not expect such an act from a feeble old woman. His machete cut into her, but her strength was enough. She bore him off the temple’s side, where the fall was straight down, and down they both fell to their deaths.
Otliotli’s death was only the beginning; so powerful a sacrifice, combined with all the deaths in the street, was just what Moqueloa needed to bring himself partway into the world. He easily fought back Delsin and suppressed the rebellion; the party was lucky to escape alive. Or at least in part—Yanisin had died, poisoned from eating the corruption of Otliotli’s jackal-headed servant, Matwau’s counterpart. He had sucked the corruption free with his last breath, killing the adayesgi who had first brought evil to his people, but killing himself in the process.
Moqueloa brought war with a speed Otliotli could never match. Delsin raced to the north, fleeing the damned south lands, only to find his village burning at the hands of the Quenteotl. A few of the Cholokai were saved, but most were lost. The Shaman, dying, gave Delsin his greatest gift: a tomahawk made from the stones of the underworld, embued with the light of the sun. It was a blessing from the Great Mother, and the symbol of the leaders of the Cholokai.
And so Delsin stood in his vision fulfilled, years later, a man through his hardship. His village burned behind him, but his allies gathered under his tomahawk. His resolve grew firm, and he knew what he must do. Moqueloa was divided; though he grew stronger every day, his power still remained in the underworld. Delsin would descend through the Great Chasm and fight Moqueloa there, cut him off from behind and destroy him forever!
So it was. The underworld was a forbidding place full of dark spirits, and it held much danger and adventure for the companions. Ultimately, they found Moqueloa’s temple and all the New Gods, and despite their strength, they were brought low before that power. Moqueloa laughed as he drained the life from Delsin, but his laughter did not last long. For there, at the door to his temple, stood the shade of Mansi.
The New Gods were born of man, of his war and his evil. But evil is not all that makes up a man, and war is not all that puts him apart from nature. Mansi embodied something better, something beautiful: the love man can have, and the sacrifice he will put into it. Her son, now dead by the dark god’s hands, embodied something else: the triumph of man against evil, the progress men make, the drive to make the world a better place for all people in it. These two represented something different than the New Gods: a man who lived with nature as a shepherd rather than an adversary, who lived with his own as a brother, not a conqueror.
And so were born two other new gods: Abedabun and Apotheosis. Before them, Moqueloa’s power melted, and he was drawn fully back into the underworld. His empire crumbled around him, and the Quenteotl fell back to their jungles. The northern tribes united under Abedabun and Apotheosis, and the Otoakwai joined them, with the Great Mother’s blessing. Soon, the corruption faded from the land.
But life did not return to normal, at least not as it had been. Moqueloa and his ilk were defeated, but not destroyed, for the dark side of men can never be defeated entirely. They brood still in the underworld, and still they reach out their corruption into the hearts of men.
Likewise, life could not return to the simple way it was; men grew stronger, and banded together. They began to build cities, though they were careful never to exclude nature. The world’s simplicity was lost forever, but a new age had dawned.
Of course, things did not have to be this way. Delsin could have given in to the darkness and accepted the New Gods. Certainly there were those who would have followed him; perhaps even Matwau would have bowed before his tomahawk. The visions he had seen when he was young would still have come true, but this time he would be the destroyer of his village, not its savior. Who then would have birthed Abedabun and Apotheosis? Perhaps Delsin would still have cast down the New Gods in the end, assuming their mantle and creating something different entirely, a tyranny of the hard-handed and strong-hearted. Perhaps, after all, Delsin did do this, and we live in the world he devised. Perhaps there is more to this adventure, and more adventures still after it. The legends do not say.