CRAZY SNAKE AND THE CAMAZOTZ



CRAZY SNAKE AND THE CAMAZOTZ, by Eric Atkisson

I

There was no word for it in the tongue of his people, the Nermernuh, whom the Utes named Kohmats–They Who Are Always Against Us–but his mother had spoken of something like it when he was a child. He could picture her delicate hands shaping it in the air and almost hear her soft voice as she described it in Spanish to her wide-eyed, half-breed son.

Pyrámide. Yes. That is what she had called it.

The one before him now, in the year 1856 by white man’s reckoning, towered above the wild rain forest, a mountain of dark gray stone smothered in ragged patches of thick green moss and crowned with a square peak. He could not fathom the means or manner of its construction, nor imagine the great civilization that once surrounded it, but he knew from his mother’s lore that it must have perished from the earth in ages past like the others, long before the Nermernuh descended from the mountains, took to horseback, and swept their enemies before them across the open plains.

Though he was far south of those plains now, he could have been mistaken at a distance for a wayward Mexican soldier, for upon his head was the visored cap of a cazador and in his hands a Spanish musket. But there the similarity ended. Instead of polished boots and pressed pants he wore the buckskin moccasins and breeches of the Nermernuh and a leather quiver of arrows strapped across his shirtless back. His horse, too, a finely muscled brown and white-spotted pinto, carried the signs of distant lands and strange journeys–a brightly striped Zapotecan saddle blanket, a buffalo hide war shield fringed with feathers, and the dusty saddlebags of a Texas Ranger long since departed from the world.

A movement caught the horseman’s gray eyes and he frowned, an expression that came naturally to his wide, bronzed face. He was not alone: Three bizarre figures ascended the pyramid’s stairs, attired in such colorful paints and feathers that he at first mistook them for giant birds. One whose feathered headdress dwarfed the others led the way, while the other two pulled along what appeared to be a thin, young woman with blue skin and black hair. She struggled against them, her faint cries carried on the wind.

For a moment the reckless brave known to his people as Crazy Snake considered fleeing down the long, improbable trail whence he had come, as far and as fast as his sturdy pony Aahtaqui could carry him. But he was no stranger to shamans and their rituals–indeed, had studied some of their ways in his nearly thirty summers of life–and unless his eyes deceived him something similar was at work here. After days of weary, damp, and bug-ridden travel–riding by night and avoiding what few roads led into the interior of this wild land–to turn back now, when at last he might learn something useful, was to admit defeat.

He guided Aahtaqui into the trees and dismounted, discarding bow and arrows in favor of musket and tomahawk, and snuck forward on foot, circling wide, keeping to the shadows and using the broken stones and high grass to screen his approach. When he reached the foot of the pyramid his eyes followed the ancient stone upward. It rose in seven layers like giant stacked squares, each one smaller than the last but still twice as tall as a man of his ample height.

He slung the musket over his back, put one hand on the mossy stone, and began to climb with little more than a whisper of sound, as he had often done in the canyons of the Staked Plains and the cliffs of the Red River Valley–the natural haunts of the Nermernuh. Behind him the sun sank slowly beneath a rustling sea of emerald green. An evening breeze stirred, carrying the fragrance of wet fronds and damp earth, and the last rays of sunlight retreated slowly across the treetops.

Crazy Snake heard the woman’s cry again, closer this time. At last he pulled himself on to the final level of the pyramid, pressed his back against the western wall of the square peak, and inched slowly along the narrow ledge until he stood beside the open entrance into which the others had passed. There, he silently unslung the musket, checked its charge, and peeked around the corner.

Inside, a room had been skillfully chiseled from the stone, its walls engraved with strange people, creatures, and scenes that made as little sense to Crazy Snake as the live one unfolding before him now. Dark stains covered a stone slab in the center of the room, where two men forced the young woman—clad only in a loincloth and dry coat of blue paint—to lay back while one held her bound wrists and the other her ankles. Each had a flintlock pistol tucked into a sash around his waist and a short, flat club edged with bright green stones dangling from a leather thong around his wrist. Their leader’s face was painted in the likeness of a skull, its right half twisted and disfigured, beneath a headdress of enormous red, blue, and green feathers sprouting in a giant arc from a black-feathered centerpiece. At his side hung a short jade sword, but it was an ancient blade of glassy black rock he held now, chanting in a tongue unfamiliar to the horseman’s ears.

Skull Head’s deep voice rose, and though it may have been a trick of Crazy Snake’s imagination the jungle seemed to answer, with a sound like a flock of birds rising from distant treetops. Blue Girl’s screams grew louder, her struggles more frantic, but the two men held her wrists and ankles tight. Skull Head stepped closer and pressed the tip of the obsidian knife against the girl’s stomach, just above her navel. The other two joined in their leader’s chant.

It might have been wiser to quietly retreat, with a new tale to tell about the people of this land and their strange ways, but instead Crazy Snake aimed the musket, paused, and pulled the trigger. There was a sharp pop and a flash of smoke, and a metal ball dropped from the end of the barrel and rolled toward the men’s feet. They recoiled with a gasp, as much from the intruder’s outlandish appearance as the spectacular failure of his firearm, and stood in dumbstruck silence until Skull Head drew his jade sword and shouted an angry command at his two companions, who fumbled for their flintlock pistols. The horseman threw the useless musket at them and saw them flinch as he ducked behind the altar. Two wild shots filled the chamber, chips from the wall hitting his back. He arose, tomahawk in hand, and stood again with the entrance at his back. The heavier of the two men charged.

It was a clumsy attack. As Fat Man swung his club, Crazy Snake ducked and tripped him, turning his lunge into a clumsy dive down the steps. His rat-faced companion was not so rash. He stood his ground and eyed Crazy Snake with an ugly sneer. Stepping sideways, he feinted with the club, advanced, feinted again. As the horseman raised the tomahawk and moved to attack, Rat Face’s sneer faded and he stepped back, then suddenly fled with Skull Head through an opening on the far side of the chamber.

The sound of birds was much louder now, and a dark cloud swallowed the lingering twilight in the pyramid’s chamber. As he turned, Crazy Snake saw that it was no cloud, and they were not birds. A vast swarm of bats circled the top of the pyramid in a deafening frenzy of flapping and squealing.

Moving quickly, he grabbed Blue Girl’s hand and dragged her through the entrance and down the steps, passing Fat Man as he struggled weakly to his feet, battered and bleeding from the fall. Crazy Snake and the girl reached the ground and kept running until a terrible scream stopped them halfway across the clearing. Fat Man had become a dark blur in the center of the swarm, flailing and stumbling down the rest of the stairs and finally falling motionless beneath the fluttering wings and vicious squeals.

The girl stifled a scream, and Crazy Snake shuddered. He had seen men die before, sometimes terribly, but never like this. Bad medicine was at work here. He took the girl’s hand again and led her to Aahtaqui, who skittered nervously at the jungle’s edge.

 

Blue Girl’s village was little more than a handful of thatched huts, wooden pens, and rows of drooping maize stalks clustered at the end of a muddy trail in the jungle and sheltered on its eastern side by a cliff and high ground. No fires burned, no men stood guard, and the village was strangely silent, save for the occasional bleating or clucking of livestock.

Crazy Snake dismounted, took Aahtaqui’s reins in hand, and led it forward. Blue Girl sat atop the horse wrapped in a colorful poncho the horseman had offered her from his saddlebags. She had been silent since her rescue, unable to respond to his Spanish and simply pointing in the direction of her home from time to time.

He led the horse to what appeared to be the center of the village. There he turned left and right, waiting for someone to acknowledge his presence. That these people had never seen a Nermernuh before was certain, but that alone could not explain their silence. He was a stranger carrying one of their women. Where were their men? Their braves?

“Hello,” he called out in Spanish.

Still there was silence.

“I am… I am returning this girl,” he added, awkwardly.

He heard a soft footstep and turned, reaching for the tomahawk tucked in his belt. An old man seemed to have materialized from the shadows, leaning upon a staff. Beneath his headscarf was a broad, wrinkled face, framed by long gray hair. He looked not unlike a Nermernuh elder, though his clothing was of a different sort: a long overshirt cinched around his waist and beneath it a pair of baggy pants and shirt, woven with elaborate patterns. The old man said nothing, merely gazed at Crazy Snake with eyes like pale beads in the darkness. He seemed to be waiting for something, so Crazy Snake spoke.

“Are you the chief of this tribe?”

There was a long silence, and from the curiously neutral expression on the old man’s face the horseman could not tell if he did not speak Spanish, was weighing his answer carefully, or was simply deaf.

“No,” said the old man at last.

“Can you take me to the chief?”

“No.”

Crazy Snake looked slowly to either side, expecting to see guns or arrows pointed at him from the shadows.

“Can you tell the chief I want to speak to him?”

“There is no chief. He is gone.”

“Can you take me to your puhakut, then?”

The old man raised an eyebrow. “Our what?”

“Your puhakut. Medicine man. Shaman.”

“Ah,” said the old man. “Yes.”

“Good.” Crazy Snake stepped forward, but the old man remained where he was, silent once more. Accustomed to the eccentric ways of his elders, the horseman waited. He noticed the colorful feathers on the stranger’s staff and the small pouch tied to his sash. Crazy Snake half consciously touched the medicine pouch around his own neck and leaned forward.

“Are you the medicine man?”

“Yes,” said the old man. “And you must be Crazy Snake.”

 

Crazy Snake sipped a hot, sweet drink the shaman, who called himself Ahau, had brewed for them over a small fire in an open hearth. “Cocoa,” he had said. “Drink.” The walls of his hut were fashioned of vertical sticks lashed together and decorated inside with feathers, skins, bones, and herbs the likes of which Crazy Snake had never seen. Like Ahau’s clothing, the blanket covering his simple bed and the rug laid upon the floor were beautifully woven in complicated, colorful patterns that rivaled the finest artwork of the Nermernuh.

Blue Girl was gone. On their way here, Ahau had led her to one of the other huts and called inside. A sobbing mother dressed much like Ahau had appeared, embraced the girl, and jabbered gratefully at Crazy Snake in a language unknown to him, until finally he had cut her short with a grunt and a wave of his hand. In truth he might have kept the young woman if he had captured her on the open plains, and if he had a mind to take another wife. As it was he had two already and was none too eager to see either of them anytime soon.

“You knew my name,” he prompted Ahau, who sat now at the other end of a wood table, drinking from an old clay cup. “How?”

“The spirits told me. They said a stranger would come from the north. That his name was Crazy Snake.”

The horseman shifted in his chair. “Spirits?”

“Yes. Did they not lead you here?”

Crazy Snake considered the question a while before finally withdrawing an object from his medicine pouch and setting it on the table between them. Roughly the size of his palm, it was an equal-armed cross with an additional step between each point, as if a smaller square had been superimposed upon the original shape. It was fashioned from a glossy rock of light blue, brown, and green stripes, and in the center was a circular, silvery-white stone.

Ahau leaned forward and studied it with interest. “May I?”

Crazy Snake nodded, and the old man held it in his hand.

“Have you seen its like before?”

“I have not,” Ahau admitted. “Where did you get it?”

“My mother. A Kiowa captured her in Mexico when she was a girl and traded her to my father. She said the spirits spoke to her, and at times she could predict the future. My tribe feared her, and she… died when I was young. The language of her true people was not known to her, and she spoke to me only in Spanish. She claimed her ancestors had ruled a land far to the south before the Spanish came and put them to the sword.”

Ahau nodded sadly. “Such is the way of things here. First it was the Spanish, then the Mexicans, now the Yucatecos–Spaniards and Mestizos who steal our lands and trample on the old ways of the Maya. Every year we are pushed deeper into the jungle and our numbers dwindle. We have fought hard to keep our customs and our language alive, though some of us have learned to speak the Spaniard’s tongue of necessity.” He paused. “So your mother was a bruja. Perhaps it was her spirit that led you here.”

“Perhaps.” Crazy Snake returned the device to his medicine pouch. “It is true I had hoped to find some trace of her people here.”

“Then indeed you are well named, Crazy Snake,” said a new voice, “for only a stranger touched with madness would venture so far into this land.”

In the doorway stood a young woman of considerable beauty, with sharp cheekbones and bright green eyes beneath long, exquisitely braided dark hair. There was an air of confidence in her voice and her poise, and of wisdom beyond her years, that Crazy Snake had never seen in such a creature.

“This is our chief’s daughter, Citlali,” said Ahau, with a sigh. “She is prone to speak her mind.”

“The snake is a powerful and respected creature here,” she continued, entering and standing before them in the flickering candlelight. “It was Kukulcan, the feathered snake god, who gave our ancestors the arts of civilization. Do your people know of him?”

“No,” said Crazy Snake. “But we were once called the ‘snake people’ ourselves. It is said the Great Spirit gathered swirls of dust from every direction to create the first Nermernuh, and that they had the strength of mighty storms.”

“Your father’s people, if I overheard you correctly–oh, don’t give me that look, Ahau, half the village can hear you.” She turned back to Crazy Snake. “You saved Eme from being sacrificed to the Camazotz. Why?”

“The what?”

“The Camazotz,” said Ahau. “As well that you have never heard of it. Few outside of the Yucatán have. It is an ancient demon, part man and part bat. A tribe that lived here long ago, when our ancestors dwelt in great cities of stone, worshipped this demon as a god. Every year in the month of Zotz they sacrificed a young woman, and in return he gave them special powers. When their empire fell and the sacrifices stopped, the Camazotz grew angry and vengeful, but his power weakened and he retreated deep beneath the earth into a long, restless slumber. Perhaps he would have stayed there and died, for even such creatures can die, or so our legends tell us, but it was not to be.”

Ahau took another sip of the cocoa while Crazy Snake absorbed the implications of his words with some difficulty. The Nermernuh spoke of spirits as casually as they did of buffalo or the weather, and he sought to appease them often in his travels, but demons and gods were a different matter. Even his mother had seldom spoken of such things.

“For many years our people have been at war with the Yucatecos,” Ahau continued. “Most of our men are dead or rotting in prisons, like Citlali’s father, while some have joined with the men of other tribes to fight our oppressors closer to their homes. A year ago a man named Muluc came to us from somewhere in the north of the Yucatán, bringing others with him. They spent most of their time digging among the ruins around here. Muluc was obsessed with the legend of the Camazotz and the rites of the kuhul ajaw—our ancient holy kings. We thought he was a madman and forbade him from our village. But we are too few, and without our strongest men. For a time we thought he had left us in peace, but then…”

“But then the kidnappings,” said Citlali. “Itzel, Akna, Xoco. Young girls all, and we were powerless to save them. Muluc and his men sacrificed them on the temple as the worshippers of the Camazotz did in ancient times—not once a year, but every month, starting four months ago. We could do little more than cower in our homes with the few weapons we have, hoping the threat would pass. Eme was caught a week ago while fetching water from a stream. We believed she was as good as dead, but you saved her.”

“Long have we prayed to the spirits that watch over our people,” said Ahau. “For a time it seemed they had forgotten us, but the night after Eme disappeared they spoke to me. They whispered your name.”

“But you must be a powerful shaman, to have the spirits speak to you this way,” said Crazy Snake. “Can you not use your puha against this Muluc?” He noted the curious expression on Ahau’s face and added, “Your own medicine. Magic.”

“Ah. Not powerful enough,” Ahau confessed. “I seldom practice any magic other than healing the sick and wounded. There was a time, perhaps, when I could have summoned an ancient spell to aid us in some small way, but I am grown old and feeble.”

“How many men does this Muluc have?”

“A dozen, perhaps. Why?”

“Do you know where they camp?”

Ahau glanced at Citlali. “No.”

“And what is it you think I can do against so many men, hidden in this great forest?”

“But you brought Eme to us,” said Citlali. “Surely that must mean something.”

Crazy Snake shook his head and stood. “It means that I am very tired. It has been a long day, and I have traveled far. Show me to my horse, and we will speak tomorrow.”

But in truth he had heard and seen enough. His reckless curiosity had led him into something much bigger and more disturbing than he could have imagined, when he first saw those four figures on the pyramid, and he wanted no further part in it. The spirits willing, he would be long gone before anyone came looking for him in the morning. He would leave these people to save their own women and fight their own wars. To do otherwise was not the Nermernuh way.

 

II

“When the Great Spirit created The People,” said his mother, her face flickering in the light a campfire that whipped and roared beneath a cold northerly wind, “He also created powerful demons.”

From somewhere in the valley below, where dozens of tipis huddled alongside a bend in the half-frozen river, a medicine drum began to beat. The boy shivered and drew his buffalo robe tighter.

“Your people or father’s?”

“We are all one people, my child, and you”–she poked his chest for emphasis–“are more than Nermernuh. Never forget that.”

The boy nodded. “But why did the Great Spirit create demons?”

His mother smiled. “A good question. Some say they were not demons at first, but higher beings that became twisted by their own malice, jealous of The People and eager to enslave them. Soon they began to torment us, and the Great Spirit grew angry. He cast the demons into deep pits.” The drums below beat louder, stronger. They were no longer on the plains, but on a pyramid, surrounded by jungle. Others rose up, stretching across the land as far as he could see.

“The demons took their revenge through the stingers and fangs of vicious creatures–wasps, scorpions, even snakes–waiting in the dark to be awakened by those who know what should have been forgotten.”

Leathery wings flapped in the night and the jungle pulsed with drums and chanting voices, ancient and alien, full of powerful medicine. Citlali, painted blue, was held fast to an altar by Skull Head and his men. Her captors chanted and the drums beat faster, building to a crazed crescendo until at last Skull Head cried “Xibalba!” and slit her open from belly to chest. The blood flowed like a thick red river, splashing down the face of the pyramid and seeping deep into the earth where her screams echoed through dark caverns full of water and crawling with bats—so many bats, shivering and fluttering and squealing in anticipation—and somewhere among them something terrible awoke, a shapeless evil in the dark whose blind eyes snapped open and whose bestial shriek answered the girl’s screams.

 

He awoke on a bed of straw, bathed in sweat and clutching his tomahawk. A child stood in the open entrance to the stable, framed in bright sunlight, staring mutely at the horseman. When Crazy Snake saw him the child fled, shouting in the tongue of Ahau’s people. Minutes later, after splashing his face with cold water from the stable’s cistern, Crazy Snake found Eme and her mother standing where the child had been, holding a plate of warm food.

“Eat?” said the girl’s mother in Spanish. On the plate were several tortillas, a mix of beans, squash, and corn wrapped inside them. Dismayed by the lack of meat but too hungry to refuse, he eagerly took a bite. Eme and her mother lingered, watching him eat, and the child returned as well, staring at Aahtaqui as the horse rooted through a trough of grains meant for smaller livestock. The child pulled on the mother’s skirt and asked her a question. She tried to shoo him away.

“What is it?” said Crazy Snake, looking up from his meal.

“Horse,” she said, searching for the right words. “Has name?”

Crazy Snake nodded. “Grasshopper.” But he could see that his Spanish translation was beyond her, so he leaned forward and used his knife to sketch the shape of a grasshopper in the dirt, surrounded by blades of grass, and made hopping motions with his hands. The boy was the first to grasp the meaning and blurted the native word for it to the other two, who smiled and chattered in agreement, then led the boy off with solicitous glances at the horseman. Crazy Snake admired his artwork as he finished the meal, but his thoughts soon returned to his own mother, of whom he had rarely dreamed so vividly in the many years since her death, and the disturbing images of Citlali, sacrificed on the altar.

The blood. The bats. The bestial shriek. All so real.

We are all one people, my child, and you are more than Nermernuh. Never forget that.

 

Two hours later he appeared in the center of the village on horseback. A small crowd had gathered around Ahau, and they fell silent at the sight of horse and rider. Crazy Snake had left the cazador’s cap behind. His long hair was brushed and braided with eagle feathers hanging on either side, his face streaked with black daubs of paint. Upon his bare chest hung a breastplate of white bones bound by rawhide straps and decorated with brass beads. Strapped to his left forearm was the buffalo hide war shield, and in the same hand he held a bow. The tomahawk hung at his side.

Aside from the familiar faces–Ahau, Eme, her mother, the boy–the Mayans stared at him as if he were a creature from another world. Most of the men were old and graying, though a few younger ones regarded the horseman with sullen frowns. One had lost an eye, another his left arm below the elbow. Yet another leaned on a makeshift crutch fashioned from a tree branch.

Crazy Snake paid them no mind. His gray eyes wandered toward the small cliff at the eastern edge of the village and lingered there a moment, studying the terrain. He clicked his mouth and spurred the horse forward, leading it between the huts and rows of maize, and stopped once he found a clear path to the cliff. He carefully selected an arrow from the quiver, muttered words too softly for anyone to hear, and then, with a piercing cry that startled the crowd, kicked his horse’s flanks and charged forward.

Aahtaqui’s hooves thundered upon the ground, and Crazy Snake leaned forward with a fierce grimace. To the villagers it seemed as if the horse and its mad rider meant to charge straight into the earth itself or to kill themselves trying. But about fifty feet from the cliff Crazy Snake loosed the arrow with another long cry and the horse skidded to a halt, plowing long ruts in the soft dirt. The arrow broke against the rock and clattered down the cliff, landing harmlessly in two pieces on the ground. Satisfied, the horseman nodded, turned Aahtaqui around, and rode calmly back to the square as if nothing unusual had happened.

“I sacrificed my best arrow to the cliff spirits,” he told Ahau, who had watched with keen interest. “It should bring me good fortune.”

“Good fortune for what?”

“For hunting Muluc and his men.”

Ahau smiled and translated his words for the villagers. There was a collective gasp and they pressed forward, some of them reaching out to touch Aahtaqui’s side and Crazy Snake’s legs. The sullenness of the younger men vanished, and a few of them jabbered at Ahau, who told the horseman they wanted to go with him, but Crazy Snake shook his head.

“I must move swiftly. They would only slow me down.”

“You did not seem so eager last night,” said Citlali, emerging from the throng. “What changed?”

Crazy Snake’s eyes lingered on her a moment, then he turned away. “I had a vision.”

“Vision?” said Ahau.

The horseman nodded.

“What did you see?”

“A great cave beneath the earth. Full of water and bats.”

“Our ancestors believed the Camazotz lived beneath the earth in a place called Zotzilaha,” Ahau muttered, “a gateway to the underworld. To Xibalba. But what you described sounds like one of the cenoté in these parts.”

“As you say. But it is Muluc I must find, and now, while my puha is strong.”

“I have something for you,” said Citlali. “Perhaps it will enhance your… puha.” In her delicate hands she held a necklace of red and blue beads interspersed with emeralds and tiny jade figurines in the shapes of animals the horseman had never seen, as well as bands of wrought silver and bright, many-hued feathers. It was a work of art far beyond the abilities of his people.

“It should bring you good fortune. It bears the tokens of our tribe and prayers to the spirits of wind and strength.”

Crazy Snake nodded in gratitude and bowed his head so that Citlali could place it around his neck, where it joined his medicine pouch. He felt that perhaps some words were expected of him, but he had none to offer and was in truth weary of talk, now that he had set his mind on the task. He simply nodded to Ahau and Citlali and turned his horse to leave the village.

“Fare you well, Crazy Snake,” said the shaman. “May Ah Tabai and Ah Cancum bless your hunt and protect you from the evil things of the earth.”

 

They rode fast and hard, as if Piamempits himself–the great, man-eating owl of Nermernuh nightmares–was screeching in pursuit. Crazy Snake felt the thrill of the hunt quickening his blood, driving him on, and even his horse seemed to feel it, pounding ever faster at the trail, longing for the open plains. When they finally rode into the clearing, he charged Aahtaqui up to the base of the pyramid with half a mind to keep going, straight up the stairway and into the blue sky, like a fabled warrior of old from his mother’s tales.

Instead he reined the horse to a stop and reluctantly dismounted, leaving Aahtaqui to graze while he searched the area. Fat Man’s body was gone, as he knew it would be, shreds of feathers and bloody stains all that remained of his gruesome death. Crazy Snake’s worthless musket, too, had vanished from the chamber above the treetops. The tracks were easy to find to his practiced eye: Four men had come, searched the area as Crazy Snake was doing now, and carried Fat Man’s body away with them, two on either side, laboring through the high grass back into the jungle. Only a buffalo could have left a more obvious trail.

He followed it to the jungle’s edge. The way ahead was too thick for a horse to follow. Much as he regretted it Aahtaqui would have to wait behind, as it had in past raids, when attacks on horseback were impossible and whooping braves might come running back to their mounts at a moment’s notice, ready for a hot pursuit or hasty retreat.

Crazy Snake armed himself with tomahawk and shield and pushed on, following the trail as it wound through the trees, listening to the calls of the strange birds and insects. When there were no broken blades or branches to follow, there were still the four sets of footprints in the damp soil. After an hour they led him into a thick bed of ferns. The strange sounds of the jungle were quieter here, and his instincts told him something was wrong.

He was about to turn back when the ferns erupted with men—as many as eight in a near circle around him, armed with a motley collection of pistols, muskets, and bows and shouting in their own dialect. The horseman dropped to the ground and rolled, and chaos exploded above; the blast of a gunshot, an agonized scream, curses, trampling in every direction. A pair of legs tripped over Crazy Snake and he lashed out with his tomahawk, severing flesh and sinew in a gout of blood, and another scream joined the bedlam. He grabbed another passing ankle and yanked hard, tripping someone, and crawled fast through the ferns like a wild, hunted animal.

But a sudden blow to the back of his head stopped him, and a veil of darkness descended.

 

He awoke to the splash of cold water on his face.

“Wake up, horse man,” said a familiar voice.

Crazy Snake opened his eyes slowly, wincing at the pain in his head and body. His hands were bound with leather straps behind his back. Five men surrounded him, and two of them held Citlali, whose own hands were bound before her. One of the men was Rat Face. They stood at the edge of an encampment in the jungle, near a vast hole in the earth more than a stone’s throw across. Something about it made the horseman uneasy. The bad medicine here was strong.

Citlali struggled furiously, and their captors laughed.

This is your savior?” the man spoke again, studying Crazy Snake as one might examine an exotic animal captured in the wild. Even had Crazy Snake not recognized the deep voice, the mass of twisted and disfigured flesh on the right half of his face confirmed it was Muluc.

“Let him go. If it’s a sacrifice you want, take me.”

“In a moment,” said Muluc, holding up his hand. “But tell me, horse man, why came you here alone? Where are the other Komántcia? The dreaded Comanche.” He added this last word in thick English, like an amusing, exotic profanity.

Crazy Snake saw the flinch and the question in Citlali’s expression, but said nothing. Muluc caught it as well and laughed.

“Ah, you poor child. You didn’t know? It seems your village has a habit of picking the wrong sides. Oh yes, we have heard of your kind, horse man. The reputation of the Komántcia precedes you. We know of your summer raids into Mexico, when the moon is full. Whole towns ransacked, the men slain and the women carried north, never to be seen again. Is that why you came here? As a scout in search of easy spoils for your war party?”

Citlali kept her eyes fixed on Crazy Snake for some hint of a response, but still the horseman remained silent.

“It doesn’t matter,” she snarled and turned to Muluc. “Let him go. He is no part of this.”

“Perhaps he is, perhaps he is not,” said Muluc. “If only I had more time to loosen his tongue. But I am in a generous mood. By following horse man here, you’ve spared us precious hours. The men I sent to your village to fetch a new sacrifice will have to content themselves with other… sport… tonight, when our work is finished. Votan, Yaluk: You may let him go, as the young princess commands.”

Rat Face and another man grabbed Crazy Snake and hauled him to his feet, pushed him forward toward the edge of the cenoté.

“No!” Citlali screamed.

“Trust me, child,” said Muluc, “this man is a thief and a murderer. One day your people will thank me for ridding the world of his kind and any others who would dare think to conquer us.”

Crazy Snake stopped, tried to stand his ground. His captors pushed him again. It was a shame it had to end like this, he thought. Perhaps the spirits were wrong about him after all, or perhaps he had proved unworthy through some fault of his own. As the dark pit yawned closer, he began to chant a Nermernuh death song, praying that he would not languish forever in the hell below but soar free like the Great Eagle.

As Rat Face prodded him in the back one last time with the barrel of what looked like his old musket, Crazy Snake grabbed it with his bound hands and twisted violently to his side. Rat Face spun forward and let go too late, falling over the edge with a terrified scream.

“Kill him!” Muluc roared, but before the others could aim Crazy Snake turned and dove into the cenoté. The last thing he heard as he fell was the sound of gunfire and Citlali screaming, and then he clenched his eyes shut and waited for death.

 

III

Citlali dropped to her knees, the gunshots ringing in her ears and echoing off the fathomless walls of the cenoté. She stared at the spot where Crazy Snake had disappeared, feeling the sting of defeat and despair.

“Enjoy Zotzilaha, Komántcia,” said Muluc, staring down the precipice.

He waved to the two men holding Citlali. “Come. We haven’t any time to waste.”

They dragged her to her feet and followed Muluc into a large tent. Inside were piles of artifacts—old bits of pottery, jewelry, knives, tablets, and ceremonial masks, all relics of the ancient empire that had once thrived here.

“You have no idea what power lays beneath our feet, do you?” said Muluc. “Oh, you know bits and pieces, you have your superstitions. The Camazotz,” he said, selecting the same obsidian knife he had used to sacrifice the other girls and waving it before her. “He is just the beginning. Others will follow when my work is done; others in whose mighty, winged shadows he is but a gnat.”

“If that is true,” said Citlali, “you are a fool to think you can control such evil.”

Muluc smiled and rested a hand on the pommel of his jade sword. “I have taken precautions, child. And besides, what is evil? A simple notion. A name the mewling weak give to the strong. Tell me, how many men has your village lost against the Spanish? The Mexicans? The Yucatecos? How do you think I came by these scars?” He pointed to the disfigured half of his face. “Yes, I have tasted the ‘justice’ of our enemies, those who claim to be ‘good men’ acting in the name of their God and their laws. Never again. When the Lords of Xibalba have returned and I am their faithful high priest, there will be no more hiding in the jungle like hunted rats; your people will help rebuild the cities and temples of our ancestors. They will need never fear oppression again, as long as they offer their hearts and souls to our new lords.”

“You are insane.”

Muluc sighed. “So little faith. I had hoped you at least would understand what the others did not.” He grabbed her blouse with one hand and cut it straight down the front with the knife, then tore it off roughly. “It would make your sacrifice more… pleasing… to the Camazotz, if you were a true believer in your last screaming moments of life.”

He and the other men dipped their hands in a bowl of blue paint and began to smear it on her flesh, as they had done to Itzel, Akna, Xoco, and Eme. When they were finished they washed their hands and donned their own body paint and feathers. Muluc tucked the obsidian knife into the sash around his waist, opposite the jade sword, and led Citlali out into the darkening forest, where two others joined them. One of them handed Muluc a torch.

“The others should have returned by now,” Muluc said, frowning. “Bring your firearms. Even with the horse man dead, we cannot risk more delay. If we fail tonight, then everything we have done is in vain.”

The night pressed heavily upon them as they went. Shadows danced like living things at the edge of their torchlight, while in the branches above birds cackled and cawed and monkeys chattered and shrieked. The men fidgeted with their pistols and their eyes darted at every sound, but Muluc pushed on, grinning. A jaguar roared somewhere in the distance—the living voice of Citlali’s rage. She was no helpless victim to be led to the slaughter. If the spirits had been wrong about Crazy Snake, then to Xibalba with them! Silently she prayed to the old gods, begging for the safety of her village. For the strength to escape these men and make them pay for what they had done.

For Itzel. Akna. Xoco.

*   *   *

When the sudden impact came, it was not from rock or demon but water–a deep pool of cold, clear water into which Crazy Snake plunged, sinking several fathoms down before his body came to rest against a sandy floor. With a single thrust of his thick legs he pushed himself back to the surface, but his hands were still bound behind his back and he began to sink, thrashing in vain until he again felt the bottom, a sharp rock pressing against his side. Wriggling against the heavy weight of the water, he positioned the leather straps against the rock and began to pump his hands. His lungs rapidly failing, he had almost despaired of survival when the straps broke at last and he pushed himself once more to the surface, gasping for air and savoring every breath.

With no sign of a shore in the palpable darkness, he began to swim. Soon enough he felt ground beneath his feet, and several weary strides later he emerged from the water, dripping and groping blindly. The strip of land between the pool’s edge and the wall of the cenoté was narrow, and he rested there a time, catching his breath and regaining a measure of strength in his cold, aching limbs. Although it seemed impossible, he could see no light from the jungle above. It was as if the darkness swallowed everything.

When his eyes did at last discern a faint glow, it wasn’t from above but across the pool. Again the feeling of bad medicine assailed him. He stood and stepped gingerly along the pool’s jagged, uncertain shore, feeling his way with one hand against the wall of the cenoté. At length he came to the source of the dim light, a ragged tunnel dripping with moisture and filled with the familiar, rancid reek of guano. With nowhere else to go, Crazy Snake followed the tunnel as it led perceptibly deeper into the earth, the light and warmth growing stronger. The stench was worse now, the ground sticky. He could sense if not entirely see that the ceiling above him was a living thing, a solid mass of bats beyond all count, their nervous, restless slumber a low, ominous susurration that might at any moment erupt into chaos. The sound triggered memories of his vision, but he stifled them with another prayer. The spirits had given him another chance. He would escape this nightmare and live to see the sun and sky once more, or die trying.

It was then Crazy Snake noticed a sound he at first mistook for an echo of his own soft footsteps. When he stopped and listened, he heard the sound again, and then again. Soon, as he snuck forward, he made out the shape of a man in the tunnel ahead of him, moving in the same direction.

Rat Face. He had given no thought to the little villain since plunging after him into the cenoté. He must have found the tunnel while Crazy Snake was struggling for survival in the water or recovering on the shore. For a moment he considered sneaking up and breaking the man’s neck, but their struggle might disturb the bats… or something worse. Instead he shadowed him, moving as closely in step with Rat Face as he could, determined not to betray his presence.

Before long Rat Face drew in a sharp breath and stopped, and sneaking closer Crazy Snake beheld the reason: Here the tunnel opened into a vast cavern from which the source of light and heat revealed itself, along with a stench of death and corruption far worse than the bat droppings. Long, thin cones of rock seemed to drip from the cavern’s ceiling and to rise from its floor, bringing to the horseman’s mind the gaping maw of a terrible fiend. But there was more to this place than rock; a number of fissures in the cavern’s floor glowed with a hellish red light, like open wounds, illuming a charnel house of bones and refuse. At the far side of the cavern a giant likeness was carved into the wall, of a demonic figure that stood like a man but sported the wings and monstrous, leering visage of a bat.

The sight of it was more than Rat Face could bear. He turned to flee, only to be stunned by a vicious blow to his face. As he staggered dazed and bleeding, Crazy Snake grabbed him from behind and held him fast in a crushing chokehold.

“Move,” he growled, and marched him forward into the cavern. Rat Face whimpered and struggled as he came to his senses, but he was no match for the Comanche’s raw strength. They moved cautiously between stalagmites and fissures, stepping around piles of moldering bones and bits of rusted weapons and armor. Crazy Snake scanned the sides of the cavern hoping to see other tunnels that might lead out, but aside from the way they had come and the fissures themselves, there appeared to be no escape from this hell.

The graven image of the bat-demon loomed before them, and Crazy Snake felt the raw force of its bad medicine pushing against him. Surely it was just stone, of a piece with the rock from which it had been carved in some long-forgotten past, but its eyes seemed to follow their approach and the hiss of the fissures suddenly sounded, with disturbing clarity, like a distant cacophony of groans and screams.

Whatever tenuous grip on sanity Rat Face still held abandoned him then. He let out a long, terrified scream of his own that echoed through the cavern and set the ceiling seething into motion with the fluttering of wings and hisses. Out of that unwholesome chorus a single hiss emerged, unnaturally deep, and it drew Crazy Snake’s eyes toward the ceiling above them, where a bestial bat face peered down from between the stalactites, jaws opening and vast wings stretching to their full, frightening length. It was a living incarnation of the statue itself, smaller than its stone likeness but still taller than either man beneath it, suspended from the ceiling by humanoid limbs of thickly muscled flesh beneath dark, mottled fur.

Everything happened at once. Crazy Snake sprang backward as the demon dropped from the ceiling, engulfed Rat Face within the leathery fold of its wings, and began to feed in an orgy of thrashing and blood. The horseman scrambled backward amongst the bones, and as he did his right hand seized upon a femur that had been gnawed in half, leaving a sharp, serrated edge. To cower and wait for the demon was certain suicide, so he charged forward with a fierce, ululating war cry, flinging himself onto its back and stabbing the bone into its side.

The Camazotz screeched and the cavern exploded with bats.

*   *   *

They reached the pyramid as the moon began to rise above the treetops. Muluc quickened his pace, the others hurrying to keep up. Citlali scanned the clearing but saw nothing. She faltered for a moment, felt her grim determination begin to fade, but then something caught her eye, a sign that perhaps the gods had not entirely abandoned her after all: Aahtaqui’s white face, watching from across the clearing. The horse swished its tail and stamped the ground, then raised its head and neighed. Muluc stopped at the base of the stairway and turned. The other four men followed his gaze, and they saw the horse.

“Come,” snarled Muluc. “We must hurry.”

They turned back toward the stairs, and the horse neighed again, more urgently. Muluc paused, but it wasn’t the horse that stopped him this time. It was something else. Citlali and the rest of her captors heard it, too.

It was the sound of bats in the distance, growing closer.

“Something’s wrong,” Muluc muttered, gazing to the east. “Hurry!”

Citlali struggled now, but the two men guarding her were stronger; they lifted her by the elbows and carried her up the stairs, following Muluc. The sound of the approaching bats rose, and another sound rose with it, something shrill. A piercing cry.

It was joined by a whinnying from the clearing. Citlali looked over her shoulder and saw Aahtaqui skittering sideways on its hind legs, rearing up at the sky. It shook its head, stamped, and reared up again. She looked toward the east and saw a black stain blotting out the stars and growing.

They were half way up the stairs when the first of the bats poured over the treetops, the flapping crest of a hellish wave that engulfed the pyramid’s chamber, the shrill cry almost upon the clearing now.

And then it came, a sight that made even Muluc’s men quail: a dark humanoid shape with massive wings in the center of the swarm. All fell to their knees but Muluc, whose hand again strayed to the pommel of the jade sword. He stared up at the demon as it circled high above the temple, reeling and spinning, rising and falling.

The shrill cry came again, and it broke the spell of fear that had paralyzed Citlali. She looked up in amazement, doubting her own sanity. From far below the horse answered again, hopping in the grass and beating its white forelegs at the sky.

The Camazotz fell toward them, and as it passed over Citlali and her captors toward the chamber’s entrance, they saw through the blur of beating batwings that something was clinging to the demon’s back. It was a fleeting glimpse and nothing more, of bare human flesh and sinew, of dark hair and feathers. The demon and its burden disappeared into the temple’s chamber, and the bats began swarming in a thick circle above it like the roiling eye of a hurricane.

“Kukulcan!” a voice cried from the clearing, followed by the twang of a bowstring. An arrow broke against the stone near Muluc’s feet, and he turned in time to see an old man in the high grass, aiming his bow for another shot. At least a dozen Mayans followed him, women and a handful of able men armed with bows and blowguns, wearing long loincloths and stripes of colored paint on their faces and naked limbs, like their ancestors of old. Ahau moved among them, chanting words unheard in the Yucatán since the days when these ruins were a mighty city of holy kings, high priests, and magic conjured from the spirits and gods to whom they had prayed.

“The Feathered Snake returns!” Another twang of a bowstring, but this time one of Muluc’s men fell, screaming and clutching his thigh where an arrow had pierced to bone, aided by Ahau’s spell. The two men carrying Citlali fumbled for the pistols in their belts but Muluc screamed, “No! Bring the girl!” One of them threw her over his shoulder and struggled ahead while the other followed, shooting his pistol behind him. As they neared the top a poisoned dart hit his back and he crumpled with a groan.

Muluc and the other man reached the top and fled into the chamber with Citlali. There they beheld the Camazotz in its terrible glory, reeking of death, decay, and madness. Crazy Snake’s left arm held the demon’s neck in a tight lock while the right plunged a sharp bone into its side, again and again. The Camazotz slammed its back against the chamber wall once, twice, three times, and at last the horseman fell to the ground, bruised and bloodied, but still snarling and poised to strike again.

You maniac!” Muluc drew the jade sword and pointed it at him. “What have you done?”

If Crazy Snake heard him he gave no sign of it, his eyes still fixed firmly on the Camazotz. The demon’s pointed ears twitched, its flat snout sniffed the air. Blood matted the sides of its hairy torso, but the wounds from the Comanche’s crude weapon had already begun to heal.

The lone remaining guard holding Citlali blanched at the sight of the demon, loosened his grip on her arm, and she wrenched free, grabbed the pistol from his belt, and fired at Muluc. The bullet tore a bloody hole in his shoulder and he staggered backward, clutching the wound and screaming in pain. The Camazotz paused and sniffed the air, looking from Crazy Snake to Citlali and at last to Muluc, who stood before him. The demon opened its mouth and hissed.

“This… this cannot be,” Muluc stuttered, pointing the jade sword at the demon now. “I serve the Lords of Xibalba! Long live the L—”

The Camazotz struck the sword from his hand and plunged a hairy fist into Muluc’s chest, ripping his heart free and spraying wet, crimson streaks across the walls of the chamber. Before it could savor the feast, Crazy Snake leapt forward for another strike, but the demon was not so easily surprised this time and caught his throat in an iron grip. The bone clattered to the floor while the horseman tried to pry the demon’s fingers apart, but his own strength was fading and no match for the Camazotz. His eyes bulged and his face purpled as the demon lifted him from the ground in triumph.

Citlali moved swiftly. Though her wrists were still bound, she grabbed Muluc’s sword from the floor, rushed forward, and plunged the blade into the creature’s chest with surprising ease, as if it needed only a willing hand to guide it home.

The Camazotz screamed and the tempest of bats outside answered. The demon dropped Crazy Snake and wrenched the jade sword from its chest, but the wound had already begun to glow and the hairs on its body curled and smoked, as if a terrible fire was consuming it from within. The hairy body twisted and shook, wings beating helplessly against the walls. Flames erupted from its fur, filling the chamber with a searing heat and the stench of burning hair and flesh. The Camazotz raised its face toward the ceiling, screeching and blackening beneath the fire, and fell to its knees.

Then, with a final and terrible shudder, it collapsed in a smoking ruin before their eyes.

Whatever strength had possessed Crazy Snake deserted him now, and he too fell to his knees, utterly dazed and spent. Citlali rushed to his side and held his arm until Ahau hobbled into the room moments later, leaning heavily on his staff and wheezing from the long climb up the stairs.

“The strength of mighty storms, indeed,” he said, helping her ease the horseman gently to the floor. “Rest, my friend. Your work is done, and you must heal. You too, my brave child.” He cut the straps that bound her wrists.

Citlali nodded, not really hearing his words. Others entered. An old woman helped her up, while two younger men grabbed Crazy Snake, pulled his long arms over their shoulders, and carried him toward the stairs.

Outside the night was surprisingly calm, the bats dispersed, free of the demon’s will.

The villagers crowded around Citlali, covering her with a shawl and smiling and touching her arms, tears in their eyes, thanking the gods and the spirits to whom they had prayed. The men carrying Crazy Snake laid him on the ground and gently restrained Aahtaqui from nudging its master while Ahau tended to his wounds.

Citlali looked to the stars, rubbed her wrists, and breathed deeply.

“We are free,” she said. “We are finally free.”

 

IV

“So. Is this the last we will see of you, Crazy Snake of the northern plains?” said Citlali.

It was a clear day, and the horseman savored the sun’s warmth on his skin. He looked at Citlali and Ahau and the gathering of villagers who had come to see him off, bearing gifts of food and other tokens of gratitude they believed might aid him in his journeys.

“I cannot say,” he said, truthfully. He whistled and Aahtaqui came forward, nudged his face. He patted the horse’s side and vaulted on to its back with practiced ease. Saddlebags hung from its sides, bulging with enough provisions to see him to the ends of the earth and back, it seemed.

“Citlali and I have discussed the matter, and we have agreed this is for you to keep,” said Ahau, reverently handing him the jade sword. “If my eyes and my lore have not deceived me, it is one of the weapons forged by the god-twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque, before their battle against the forces of Xibalba. How or where Muluc found it I do not know, but it belongs in the hands of a true hero.”

Crazy Snake took the sword and held it a long time, remembering the horrors of Zotzilaha and the Camazotz, now two weeks past. The Great Spirit willing, he would never see a bat or the inside of a cave again. Might be wise to avoid pyramids, too, for that matter. At length, and with equal reverence, he offered the blade to Citlali and nodded for her to take it.

“So it does,” he said.

There were several gasps among the other Mayans, but Citlali seemed not in the least surprised and took the blade from him with a small, knowing nod. Before he could turn to leave, she laid a gentle hand on Aahtaqui’s reins and held them tight.

“There is something I would know before you leave us. You call yourself Nermernuh, but Muluc said you are Comanche. Which is it?”

The faint hint of a smile played on the horseman’s lips. “Both. And neither.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Comanche is the white man’s name for us. We call ourselves Nermernuh. The People. But I am only half Nermernuh, as you learned when we first met.”

“And will you return to your… people?”

He could hear the concern in her voice, and see it in Ahau’s eyes as well.

Crazy Snake shook his head. “The war band I rode south with is long gone by now. And besides,” he added, his hand idly touching the medicine pouch around his neck. “If the world continues as far as you say, there is more I would see of it before I turn north again. Perhaps, if the spirits will it, I will find some trace of my mother’s people.”

He tapped Aahtaqui’s flanks with the heels of his moccasins and they trotted forward, Crazy Snake raising a hand in farewell. Strapped to his forearm was the buffalo hide war shield, retrieved from Muluc’s camp by the villagers, a section of it freshly painted with his own inspired depiction of a flaming man-bat.

Citlali’s eyes followed horse and rider until they disappeared from sight, and then, with a growing smile, she tucked the jade sword into the sash around her waist and turned to Ahau and the men and women of her village.

Her people.

_____________________________________________________________

Eric Atkisson was born in Texas, grew up in Wisconsin, and now lives in Northern Virginia, where he writes speeches for a living and fiction for fun. You can find his most recent stories at Every Day Fiction and Frontier Tales and follow him on Twitter at @ENAtkisson.


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