A quiet morning brought the sunlight over the Calaveras Flotantes. The hovering skull-shaped islands were the secret fortress where alebrijes of all kinds improved their abilities. Under the command of Xolotl, the canine demigod, the Alebrije Forces were thriving once again after centuries of silence. He towered over everyone, standing on two thin dog legs with a matching tail, the torso and arms of a human being and the head of a xoloitzcuintle.
Zacapi, a brunet apple-skinned god with spore freckles and round glasses, always had felt an immense admiration toward him and his stern attitude, perhaps because of how such a mysterious divinity came to be. His mentor never talked about his origins and, truth be told, didn’t need to. The demigod’s conviction to keep every soul safe and sound was more than enough to keep Zacapi quiet as he watched the training.
Zacapi left his spot on the grass to stand next to the demigod, who studied a group of alebrijes in human form practicing melee combat in the training fields. Despite the success of his mentor’s system, something didn’t feel right to the young god.
“Xolotl…” He whispered. “I know that my father trusted you to handle the alebrijes, but there are so few here. Where are the others? I can sense their auras, but…”
The demigod huffed and swallowed his tongue. His canine head gave him some problems to keep a serious appearance, as he missed some teeth as well. Because of this, his tongue had a tendency to slide out.
“They haven’t earned their wings yet, my prince. You know how it goes: they have to prove themselves useful to the souls under their watch.” He calmly spoke. “Only the alebrijes who earn their wings can reach this place. Once they can fly to the Calaveras, they’re ready to join the elite guard and protect not only their protegeés, but the gods as well.”
Zacapi was only eight godly years old, but he was smart enough to see the flaws of such a system. He narrowed his eyes. “We gods don’t need protection. We’re the most powerful beings in the Land of the Dead, aren’t we?”
“Well…” Xolotl slightly bowed to him. “I am in no position to discuss this, Séptima Flor. I was born to instruct, train and ensure that the Alebrije Forces become as strong as possible to ensure your safety. I don’t know why the Great Powers put me in this position, but it’s a job I am very proud of.” He closed his eyes and lowered his ears. His tail wiggled in a playful manner. “Also, your brother Quetzalcoatl said I’m very good at it.”
Zacapi smiled weakly. Deep down, even if he had a very human-looking body, Xolotl couldn’t shake the wish to “be a good boy” in his superior’s eyes. “Of course you are. You’re a good leader, Xolotl, and you’re doing your best. I know that. But I have… some concerns.”
Xolotl looked down at the Sea of Oblivion extending below the floating islands. The young deity could sense his friend’s concern, which became painfully obvious the moment that he knelt before him. “My prince, if there’s anything I can do, I’ll be glad to be of assistance.”
“Por favor, Xolotl, get up.” Zacapi gently took his hand into his. “You’re my mentor, not my servant. Besides…” He squeezed his hand. “I’ve heard my parents talking. Some demigods have disappeared recently. They always talk about doing something - and then, they just… forget. This is why I don’t think I can trust them to help minor deities anymore. I don’t want anything to happen to you and I know Quetzal would be devastated if you vanished. You’re his best friend after all. Remember how my mom called you ‘gemelitos’ as a joke?”
“How to forget.” Xolotl got up and released his hand to pat Zacapi’s head. “You don’t need to worry about me, though. I’m a very powerful warrior, and so are my alebrijes. But tell me - what is the matter that worries you?”
Zacapi sighed and walked slightly to the edge of the field. “Have you ever wondered what happens to the alebrijes who never earn their wings, Xolotl?”
“Mmmh… No, to be honest.” The demigod huffed and let his tongue sneak through his teeth. “But I think all alebrijes earn their wings eventually, right?”
Zacapi turned to face him. “I am not so sure, Xolotl,” he answered. “My mushrooms grow all over the Land of the Dead and sometimes…” He knelt on the floor and touched the ground, making some phosphorescent mushrooms grow between his fingers. “Sometimes I can sense sadness, despair, solitude--and it doesn’t come from the souls we receive every day. It’s from alebrijes that mourn themselves.”
“That can’t be. Alebrijes receive an animal form so they don’t succumb to despair if their protegeé takes too long to arrive. Animals don’t have a perception of time.” Xolotl joined his hands. “They don’t reach that level of human awareness until they earn the wings… right?”
“I’m starting to think that they do. They might be able to do much more than we think.” Zacapi stared at the horizon. “In a way… I feel identified with them.”
“How so?” Xolotl asked, as he sat by his side.
“Because practically everyone in my family has a purpose. Sartana will become Queen of the Remembered once my mother decides to step down and she’ll visit the human world on her own for the first time very soon. Itzpa will probably be her advisor as the two of them are very close. Quetzal, Tezca, Xipeto and Huitzi rule over the four directions and the magic of the wind, the darkness, the seasons, and the sun. Need I keep going?”
Xolotl’s gaze fell into a shadow that the young god couldn’t decipher at first. Without a word the canine demigod pulled him close with one of his arms and noogied him. “You’re too young to think so deeply about your future, young man!”
“Hahahaha!” Zacapi burst into laughter. Not many people had the ability to make him laugh - but Xolotl always did. “Alright, alright, stop! STOP!”
“Hahaha! That’s much better!” The demigod wheezed a little and released him. “I’m not fond of ignoring the protocol, but I can’t stand the sadness on your face, Séptima Flor. For you, I’m willing to ignore it and just… be a puppy.”
“A very good puppy.” Zacapi stretched one of his arms and patted Xolotl’s head this time. Xolotl leaned into his touch with ease. “Gracias. I feel a little better now. Still… it’s true.” He let go of him and looked at his own hands. “I feel like I have no purpose and I believe my parents think so, too. Who am I supposed to be? A god of hallucinatory plants with a neverending wanderlust? It doesn’t sound like anything impressive...”
“Well…” Xolotl raised his head and faced the dawn. “Now, think of it this way, young prince. Has anyone else before you thought about the fate of the wingless alebrijes?”
“Creo que no…” Zacapi cocked his head.
“Who wears the magic that makes the humans feel good when they’re on drugs?” Xolotl raised one of his ears and waggled his tail a little.
“Well… The people who resort to them often feel so bad that I just want them to feel good, if only for a few hours. I can’t change their fates, but I can do that, at least.” Zacapi rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed.
“¿Lo ves?” Xolotl patted his back and smiled in the best way that his face allowed him to do. “You’re more capable than you think, young prince. I’m very proud of everything you’ve accomplished so far. I’m sure you’ll soar like an eagle and become an amazing god when you grow up. Besides…”He turned to face the sun and narrowed his eyes. “Some of my alebrijes have witnessed glowing creatures in the Forest of the Lost. Perhaps that place will be a good spot to investigate what happens to those alebrijes who never earn their wings...”
Zacapi smiled and got up. “I will investigate those creatures, if you open the doors of the Calaveras Flotantes to the wingless. Rules are meant to be broken--especially if you weren’t the one to decide them!”
“I can’t promise anything about that…” Xolotl got up as well and touched his shoulder. “But I’ll use my power to help as many alebrijes as I can. Winged or not.”
“It's a deal~!” Zacapi covered his hand with his and smiled. “We can do it, Estrella de la Tarde! We can make something big, you and me!!”
Sadly, not many alebrijes could benefit from their agreement. After the coming of age festival hosted to celebrate Sartana’s first trip to Earth on her own, many demigods who assisted at the party began to disappear. Again, neither his parents or his siblings seemed to remember them. Zacapi could feel his own memory wavering to the point he began to wonder if the names written in his scrolls belonged to anyone who truly ever existed. Were these names even real? Why couldn’t he let go? The stress and the sense of danger didn’t let him rest. It got bad enough to make him age much faster than any other of his siblings.
Sartana’s sin and Itzpa’s memory loss caught him by surprise. He couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more the eye could meet. But his pleas for mercy fell on deaf ears: his father refused to listen and his siblings were too upset (or too young) to take action. This was something he expected - it wasn’t like they had paid him too much attention before, either.
But nothing could prepare Zacapi for the death of his mentor. Xolotl had jumped in to protect Itzpa from a midnight attacker and from the remains of dog fur, maguey leaves and axolotl skin, it was powerful enough to trigger all of his transformations. Itzpa raised the alarm with her screams, but her aggressor escaped before anyone could see him. Though Xolotl survived the fight, the blood loss was too much for him...
“Xolotl! Don’t leave me! Xolotl-!”
“Séptima Flor… Trust no one…”
Zacapi only could squeeze his hand before his parents took him to the Candle Maker. Though he waited and waited, Xolotl never returned. The case was closed for good - again, too soon for his liking. Even when Nanahuatzin, the very disfigured minor god of disease and deformities, became a very kind mentor to him and a fair leader to the Alebrije Forces, Zacapi never truly could connect to him in the way he did with Xolotl. And what was even worse... soon, no one remembered Xolotl. Not even Quetzal.
Only Zacapi kept clinging to his memories of the canine demigod, even if those memories were fading little by little.
And so, the young prince closed off his heart to everyone, only to listen to the voices deeply buried into his soul.