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Tacos for Tezcatlipoca

Kevin Andrew Murphy

Like a familiar, Kevin Andrew Murphy's short fiction keeps appearing various places, including Esther Friesner's Chicks in Chainmail III: Chicks & Chained Males, several anthologies for White Wolf's World of Darkness, and George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards series, including the latest volume, Busted Flush. Kevin's short story "Clove Smoke" is currently being turned into a film in San Francisco, the city of its birth. Kevin himself lives a bit further south in Silicon Valley with three whippets. He is a member and regular contributor to the group blog Deep Genre ( and also has a personal website at


It had gone from one of those summers to that summer. The last summer before college or finding some sort of job more meaningful and lucrative than fast food. Dad and Mom, now divorced, were off with girlfriends and business trips, and Bryce Pierponte had been left to mind the farm, or at least the mission-style ranch house. He had enough money for food, a little gas, maybe a movie, but entertainment pretty much consisted of tv, internet and the odd garage sale.

And odd definitely applied to this one.

The contents of the old Seidel place, the farm from before the surrounding acreage had been transformed into subdivisions, had been turned out onto the actual carriage drive. There were dingy portraits that would probably be worth a mint on Antiques Roadshow, trays of gothy Victorian silver jewelry, crystal jars and pickle castors, piles of books, and this wacky taxidermy project that looked like someone had crossed a kitten with a spider monkey then added spare parts from a bat and a scorpion. "What's that?" Bryce asked.

The overdressed young woman tending to the sale smiled and pointed to the brass tag on the base. Manticore Cub.

This didn't tell Bryce much, but was entertaining anyway. "How much you want for it?"

She smiled brightly. "Oh, any of the usual: your soul, your shadow, the light in your eyes, the voice in your throat, the answer to a great mystery, or anything similar. Make me an offer."

Bryce nodded. Bargaining was fun, and this woman had a cute way of telling him that pretty much everything here was out of his price range. The rest of the people browsing the books and curios had the feel of old money, impeccably and eccentrically dressed in their overly fussy Sunday best, except for the ancient guy in the bathrobe and house slippers. He was probably the richest one there.

"I thought Mr. Seidel died years ago."

"Master Seidel did. Since he has not as yet returned, we're simply executing the last of his will." She continued to smile. "I do not recognize you. How did you know of the sale?"

Bryce shrugged, still looking at the 'manticore cub.' "I saw the gate open and I'd always been curious." He looked up. "Would that be the answer to a mystery?"

Still the smile. "I said 'great mystery.' "

"Okay," said Bryce, "it wasn't a ghost, it was a big dog painted with phosphorous."


"The answer to a great mystery, the end of The Hound of the Baskervilles." Bryce grinned. "Seems a bit Scooby Doo, but I guess standards were lower a hundred years ago."

The woman paused for a moment, considering, and then her smile became pained. "Well and fairly bargained, young master." She placed the stuffed monstrosity in his hands. "May your purchase bring you wonderment."

She went off to attend to the old guy in the bathrobe who was looking at a grandfather clock that could have belonged to Washington. Bryce left before she changed her mind.


Bryce had read about these critters. They were called Jenny Hanivers or Fiji mermaids, things whipped up by mad taxidermists a couple centuries back to fool clueless rubes at carnival peep-shows. It would probably go for a fortune on Ebay.

Of course, he kind of liked it himself. He regarded it, sitting in the middle of Mom's dining room table, grinning at him like a Cheshire cat. Actually, more like a Cheshire shark—it had three rows of teeth, and was stitched together so seamlessly it looked like a real creature. A real creature assuming God had got even more stoned than the day he made the platypus.

"Need to give you a name." Bryce thought a bit. "I know: Matabor." It was a name he used for online games, a serendipitous typo of 'matador,' but sounded just perfect for a manticore. Or manticore cub, according to the plaque.

He giggled slightly and patted it on the head. "Matabor, I choose you!"

Bryce snatched his hand back. The shark teeth were shark sharp and a bright red drop welled up on the tip of his left ring finger.

The manticore cub's lips closed, then a long pink tongue licked them. "Matabor," the creature repeated squeakily like a Pokemon summoned for the first time. Then the little monstrosity yawned, stretched, and finally sat down on its base. It grinned at him. "Ancient charms." Its voice jingled like clockwork or digital cell phone bells. "A drop of heart's blood and one of the magician's names for my own. You've not only awakened me, young master, but bound me to your service." It grinned wider and more toothily. "Well done."

Bryce sucked on his ring finger, uncertain what to say. Several obscenities sprang to mind, but speaking blasphemy didn't seem a particularly good idea at a time like this.

The manticore—Matabor—swished its—his?—tail, a tail banded like a tabby cat's but tipped with a scorpion's sting. Blinking eyes bright as a monkey's, Matabor surveyed the dining room, at last looking askance at the evidence of Bryce's mother's questionable talent with watercolors.

Bryce was used to that look and the answer was automatic: "My mom took an art class."

"Then you get your training in the arts from your father?" Matabor surmised.

"Uh . . . no."

Matabor regarded him, tail swishing like a poisonous metronome. "Natural talent," the manticore cub mused. "Rare in a magician, but useful. Instinctive? You know the right words to say, the gestures spring to hand unbidden?"

"Um, I guess so. . . ." Bryce refrained from mentioning Pokemon cartoons and online gaming. "But, um, nothing like this has ever happened before. . . ."

"Unsurprising," Matabor said. "Most magic is jealously guarded. My old master wove spells and glamours to hide his treasures, then secreted his finest prize among gaudy baubles and lesser wonders, awaiting one canny enough to not only find it but charm its guardian beast. . . ."

Something shimmered distractingly in the corner of Bryce's eye, and while he wanted to keep all his attention on the walking talking hodgepodge of animal bits sitting in the middle of his mother's dining room table, he looked down further and saw that what he'd taken for the stained wooden base of a taxidermy project was in fact a very old leatherbound journal.

Matabor leapt aside on little cat feet. "Behold," said the manticore cub, pointing with his tail's sting, "my former master's formulary. . . ."


The formulary was mostly in English, thankfully, with little swatches of Greek, Latin, Arabic and Old Norse just to keep things interesting, 'interesting' in the same sense that Matabor brought 'wonderment.' The content, however, was a mix of dry theory and esoteric gobbledegook. But Bryce had the luck to be a natural magician, or at least he could cut through the waffle and figure out what Master Seidel had been trying to say.

Glamours were pretty simple. They worked like subliminal advertising, a pinch of truth supporting a false assumption. Bryce pointed his wand, actually the tapered handle of one of his mother's old watercolor brushes, and concentrated. "Appear as a cat."

With wink and a shimmer, Matabor's image changed. A ginger-striped tom sat on the table, looking at him.

Bryce squinted past the glamour, seeing where the kitty fur matched up in both lie and truth, but also perceiving the barest flicker of bat wings. "Appear as a bat."

This illusion was a bit less believable, mostly because it was kind of weird to see a fruitbat sprawled on the dining room table.

"Appear as a monkey," Bryce said, tracing the curl of Matabor's tail he saw beyond the bat glamour. Immediately a round-eyed monkey sat in the bat's place.

"Appear as a scorpion." The tip of the wand described the shape of a giant African scorpion he'd once seen in the bug house at the zoo, and the next moment one menaced the dining room. "Go back to the monkey," Bryce said quickly, dismissing his last illusion.

Matabor the monkey regarded him. "Does this Seeming please you, Master Bryce?"

"More than the scorpion." Bryce shuddered. "And if anyone spots you doing something weird, a monkey will explain it better than a cat. Anyway, wizards with cats are overdone."

"Wizards are dull creatures," the monkey remarked, clambering to his shoulder. "Magicians are far more interesting."

Bryce raised an eyebrow, but wasn't going to ask for extra clarification just yet. Seidel's formulary wasn't particularly clear on distinctions, and Matabor often less so.

He turned back to the open workbook. "Are you sure this spell is necessary right now?"

"You have no guardian save me," Matabor explained, "and most skilled in the arts have been about for centuries. It is best to start in the present if you wish to have a future."

The book was open to the section on immortality, and like everything else, it was badly organized. But amid references to everything from spells for stealing bodies to ways to become undead—the former dismissed by Master Seidel as Potentially amusing, but an unnecessary complication, the later as A problem, not a solution—there were two long passages in Greek, attributed to the sorceress Medea: The Greater and Lesser Baths of Hebe, Goddess of Youth.

Her Greater Bath was pretty extreme, requiring not just owl heads and a sacrificial ram, but slashing the throat of the subject then boiling them into a skeleton before rolling them in an elaborate rib rub. This would supposedly cause their flesh to spring back onto their bones, miraculously restoring the aged to youth and vigor. There was obviously a huge chance for screw-up and an even bigger need for a competent assistant if one wanted to use the spell oneself.

In comparison, the Lesser Bath looked like something out of Martha Stewart, basically herbal Oil of Olay plus a simple lunar ritual to keep the subject from aging for the span of one moon. Daily flossing as opposed to oral surgery. As an added bonus, Hebe's blessing would work as misdirection: Most ancient practitioners, on spotting Her astral signature, would assume Bryce had been using Medea's beauty secret for centuries, as opposed to just starting this month—a false assumption supported by an ounce of truth, the same as any glamour.

Or at least that's what his new familiar advised.

Matabor clung to Bryce's shoulder. "Can we acquire the necessary herbs at the bazaar?"

"Most of them. But these days it's called the Farmers' Market."


One corner of the mall parking lot had been taken over by booths and tables selling organic fruits and vegetables, artisanal bread, artisanal cheeses, kettle corn, cheesy corn, cheesy music and face painting. "Get some of the ceremonial pigments," Matabor whispered, and Bryce spent some of the meager supply of bills that were supposed to last him the summer on a set of 'Be A Clown!' fun-and-safe non-toxic face paints.

Of course the alternative was being seen at the drugstore trying out shades of lipstick and eyeshadow. The face paints were a bargain at half the price.

"Hey Pierponte, where'd ya get the monkey?"

Bryce turned. It was Gwen Heffernan, second-string cheerleader and class sleaze, trying for the sexy farmgirl look with a strategically knotted plaid shirt but only succeeding in the sunburnt cleavage look. The same Gwen who, junior year, had asked him to the Sadie Hawkins dance and even got him to show up with a corsage before blowing him off for Zack Schmidt.

"Begone, slattern!" hissed Matabor.

Gwen looked at him. "What did your monkey just call me?"

The strength of glamours lay in suggestion, offering a prettier lie than the bald truth. "It's a monkey," said Bryce, glancing to Matabor. "Monkeys say 'Ook.' What do you think it said?"

Unfortunately, Gwen was just stupid enough to believe in talking monkeys. "It kind of sounded like it called me a slut. . . ."

" 'Ook,' " Matabor repeated pointedly.

Gwen looked at both of them. "You're a serious geek, Pierponte," she pronounced at last. "Monkeys and ventriloquism? Wait till I tell everyone. . . ." She flounced off into the crowd.

"Highschool's over, Gwen!" Bryce called after her lamely, a minute too late, then looked at Matabor. "Everyone's going to think I'm nuts."

The monkey grinned. "Wizards are mad. Magicians are eccentric."


Bryce checked the formulary. He had procured a virgin brazier. He'd first read it as 'virgin's brassiere' and wondered what sort of kinky magician old man Seidel had been, but after rereading and consulting Matabor, he figured out it meant a charcoal grill that had never been used. A new Weber seemed fine, and dad had one from pre-divorce Father's Day that had never been out of the box. And charcoal was thankfully still charcoal. Now for the fragrant woods . . .

"Are the gods more pleased with hickory or mesquite?"

Matabor, again in manticore cub form, switched his poisonous tail. "The bazaar had no sandalwood and gum tragacanth?"

"Unfortunately no. Maybe the candleshop at the mall?"

Matabor glanced to the sky. "Nightfall is nigh upon us. The moon will not favor us so for a month."

Meaning it was time to make a guess and hope Hebe liked hickory and mesquite as much as Bryce's parents. They were wood, they were fragrant, and they were both on the coals. The olive branch, obtained from the trees planted outside The Olive Garden, was used to stir the brew as Bryce added the Martha Stewart-esque bouquet garni of herbs to his mother's stock pot, then set forth the ritual offering of flat breads, spiced meat and cheeses. He worked part time at the Taco Bell-Pizza Hut-KFC combo, so the last was easily done, plus they had free hot sauce. Bryce squirted the charcoal starter and watched the flames leap as the bag caught fire.

It didn't seem right to burn perfectly good tacos and skip dinner, but that had to be the definition of 'sacrifice' and 'fasting.' Plus the reward looked reasonably worth it: immortality at the price of monthly taco incineration. And since Bryce's dad had gone bald by twenty, eternal youth sounded like a better plan than Rogaine too.

Making older magicians overestimate his age would also be nice.

Bryce broke out the 'ceremonial pigments' and his mom's auto-defogging battery-operated magnifying mirror, another household item that doubled as magical focus. He did his best to mark his brow with the symbol of Hebe, a golden cup filled with ambrosia, food of the gods. The gold cup was easy, but Seidel had left no notes as to what color ambrosia actually was. Bryce suspected the gods' favorite dish was not in fact coconut mandarin marshmallow salad. On inspiration, he used the brown facepaint, filling the cup with the other food of the gods: chocolate.

The hot tub worked for the sacred bath, and the herbal infusion Bryce added to the water smelled like one of his mother's bath bombs. Now to just take the plunge . . .

"Enter the water skyclad," Matabor reminded him.

Bryce remembered looking up the term. "Well duh." He shucked off his shirt and shorts and got into the hot tub.

He was a teenager alone in his own backyard. Who didn't use a hot tub in the buff?


The steam cleared and Bryce realized he'd fallen asleep in the tub. He turned off the jets, feeling boiled and no younger. It was already daylight as he stepped out and toweled off.

"Make haste, master. Make haste," Matabor stressed, but instead of a small kind-of-creepy-cute manticore cub, Bryce was looking at a full-size manticore, full size meaning the size of a Buick with teeth like a great white. "Don the garb of a supplicant and climb atop my back."

Bryce balked, then realized Matabor had said "atop my back" and not "in my belly." He quickly complied, straddling the great beast. He noticed that he'd somehow gotten on his Taco Bell-KFC-Pizza Hut uniform and now had the take-out bag in his hands, no longer incinerated.

They flew through the air, flying on winds scented with mesquite and hickory, until they landed atop a high plateau. There stood a temple with a great mirror, remarkably similar to Mom's make-up mirror but on a grand scale, smoking and shining like the sun.

Guards appeared, men in spotted loincloths with skull-faced masks and obsidian spears.

Lots of obsidian spears.

Bryce bowed his head and presented the take-out bag. One guard took it, opening it suspiciously, then they conferred. Whatever they said was Greek to Bryce, but one left with the bag, coming back a few minutes later with a goblet made from a gilded skull. There was something thick and reddish-brown inside. There was also a very clear implication that Bryce was expected to drink and refusing would not be good for his health, physical or spiritual.

Bryce drank, and the taste was bittersweet. But it burned. . . .


Bryce awoke to the taste of chocolate and taco sauce. This wasn't surprising, considering the empty Taco Bell packets, the open can of cocoa powder, and half the contents of the spice rack littering the counters. There was a recipe scribbled in his own handwriting on a sheet of paper affixed to the front of the refrigerator, and he was standing nude in the kitchen, holding a gold plastic skull mug his parents had got in Vegas at Treasure Island.

"What the hell happened?"

"You are a natural magician." Matabor lounged on the counter and grinned. "I have never visited that god before."

Bryce recalled more of his dream—vision—whatever, then looked at the name scribbled atop the insane recipe on the refrigerator: The Immortal Draught of Tezcatlipoca.

He took a sip of the mixture in the skull mug, then set it down. The burning in his mouth and throat had not been a dream.

Bryce consulted old man Seidel's formulary, trying to make better sense of what had happened, finally finding a note that certain incenses and smokes were sacred to certain gods, but sacred didn't mean pleasing, it meant specific. It wasn't just a matter of making things smell nice, it was more like using the right zip code, and offerings were similar. So instead of using a spell to deliver gyros to Hebe, he'd taken tacos to Tezcatlipoca, and in exchange apparently been given Tezcatlipoca's recipe for Ding Dongs and taco sauce.

Then came the sound of bells, and it wasn't Matabor purring. It was his cell phone. Bryce missed the call, but the message was clear: He was late for work.


Combining a KFC with a Pizza Hut and a Taco Bell made sense like a manticore did: It looked better once you actually saw it together.

Matabor, on the other hand, currently looked like a monkey. Which might be cute for the Farmers' Market, but wouldn't cut it with Jim the shift supervisor. Bryce had his familiar hide in his backpack, along with the formulary, and stowed them both in the supply closet.

Bryce was also not feeling well. He'd spent the night in the hot tub, eaten nothing the night before, and now had a belly full of chocolate and taco sauce. Five minutes into his shift, he excused himself to the restroom. He was sweating profusely and starting to get hives, or at least spots. Black spots, all over his body. Bryce shut himself in the bathroom stall, watching as his fingernails lengthened into claws, then felt the pain as his canine teeth became more feline and he hunched over the toilet, puking up the chocolate and taco sauce mixture as he convulsed and transformed, his ears moving up on his head, his hands shrinking into clawed paws, and a tail emerging and getting painfully cramped and tangled in his underwear.

At last the convulsions stopped, and Bryce reached out with a paw and batted the toilet handle, flushing it. Once it cleared, he looked down and took in his reflection. He was a jaguar. A jaguar in a KFC-Taco Bell-Pizza Hut uniform.

The door of the bathroom opened. "Bryce, you fall in?" It was Jim.

"Uh, no." Bryce said. "Just, uh, a little sick."

"Damn, well, get over it soon. We're going to get slammed with the commute crowd."

Bryce was left alone, a jaguar in a restroom stall. Okay, a talking jaguar in a restroom stall. Bryce looked into the toilet. "Yo quiero Taco Bell." He giggled slightly. They'd fired the Taco Bell chihuahua. Would they want a Taco Bell jaguar?

He had to find some way to change back, but Matabor and the formulary were in the supplies closet, and even the paintbrush he used for a wand in case he wanted to cast a glamour. If he could hold a paintbrush in this form, which didn't seem too likely.

He had to think. He'd drunk a potion, a magical brew invented by an Aztec god, and while it was neat to have discovered something not in Seidel's formulary, writing it down in Pierponte's formulary required changing back.

Bryce thought. The common wisdom when dealing with a poison was to throw up, and if that didn't work, drink lots of milk or water. A potion shouldn't be very different.

Bryce looked at the toilet. There was no way he was operating the soda machine in his current state, and it's not like dogs didn't do it. . . .

Jim checked in three times before Bryce was done. He was still spotty, and he'd had to piss like a racehorse, or at least an anthropomorphic jaguar man, but at least he was able to able to stand up on two legs. "Appear as usual. . . ." Bryce said into the mirror, watching as a glamour of his normal Seeming overlaid the hybrid form he was in now. He had realized that while a wand was a focus, an extended conductor to cast magic at another creature, a mirror worked too.

Jim was grumbling but didn't stop Bryce from opening the dairy case and downing three single-serving cartons of milk before starting in on his shift. Bryce had a bit of trouble, since Nachos Bel Grande and Personal Pan Pizzas weren't intended to be made with claws, but his shift supervisor didn't care. He was there and it was the commute slam.

"Taco Pizza KFC, may I take your order?"

"Yeah, Pierponte." Gwen Heffernan's whiny voice came over the intercom, and when he looked at the video monitor, he saw her and her friends in her dad's convertible. "You can."

Bryce took her order. "I'll make it personally."

"There better not be any monkey fur in it. If I find any monkey fur, I'll have my brother punch your face in."

"No, no monkey fur," Bryce promised.

The formula sprang to mind unbidden, Tezcatlipoca's sacred brew for his jaguar priests, mostly chocolate and spices and certain herbs. A jaguar had a sensitive nose and all it took was a pinch of the Colonel's secret blend, a squirt of taco sauce, and a few splashes of chocolate milk.

"Enjoy your order," Bryce said, handing the bag to Gwen.

"Are these diet Pepsis?"

"Of course. Enjoy."

"We will. Later, loser."

By the time Bryce finished up his shift, his actual form had pretty much synched up with his illusory Seeming, the last of the draught of Tezcatlipoca leaving his system. The police were in, hanging out at their usual table, and talking the night's business.

A convertible had been found abandoned on the side of the road, the keys still in it. And someone had been reporting leopards escaped from the zoo.

Jaguars, Bryce corrected mentally, then stifled a chuckle. Let Gwen and her friends discover their own toilets.

Just before closing, an old man came up to the counter. "May I take your order?" asked Bryce.

"You bought Seidel's formulary," the old man said, his eyes twinkling. "The one with Medea's spells."

Bryce recognized the old man from the estate sale. He'd swapped his bathrobe for a rumpled sportcoat, but it was the same man. "Excuse me?"

"No need to play coy," the old man said. "I just saw your work. Jaguars? Very nice. I hadn't realized that was in the formulary."

"Um, that's my own," Bryce said. "Actually, Tezcatlipoca's."

"Oh? Where did you find it?"

"In a dream."

The old man looked favorably impressed. "Pleased to meet you. You may call me, oh, Roger Bacon." He squinted at Bryce's nametag. "And I suppose I should call you Bryce, given your current Seeming."

"You're a wizard."

The old man looked insulted. "Please, forgive my youthful follies. I'm a fellow magician. We magicians don't concern ourselves with petty nonsense like good and evil. Leave that to wizards and the sillier witches."

"And magicians?"

"Range from the entertaining to the wicked. Usually both." He smiled. "I can tell you're new to the area, but I'd really like to get that jaguar spell, and the others would love to hear about it. We meet on Fridays over on Frisby Street in the back room at Denny's."

Bryce nodded and the old man chuckled again. "Tezcatlipoca's jaguar spell. Oh, wait till the boys hear about this. There's so much more to vengeance spells than frivolous death curses, don't you agree?"

"Yes," said Bryce, "couldn't agree more. Fridays at Denny's?"

"Fridays," the old man agreed. "Bring, oh, five or ten new spells. Show the others what tricks you've been up to the past century."

"Past century?"

"Just the past century. Leave some surprises for later meetings. After all, we have all the time in the world." He looked up at the board and mused. "But for right now, I think I'll have a Nachos Bel Grande." He leaned forward conspiratorially. "Magic makes life interesting, and it's always interesting to reinvent oneself, isn't it?"

"Yes," Bryce agreed. "Yes, it is."


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