CRAZY SNAKE AND THE TRIBUTE FOR PACHACAMAC- by Eric Atkisson
After defeating the immortal Spanish sorcerer of El Castillo and releasing Cipitio and the Ciguanaba from their curse, Crazy Snake spends the winter of 1856-57 and early spring fighting alongside Nicaraguan rebels against the forces of President William Walker, an American mercenary and usurper. Determined to capture the renegade Comanche at all costs, Walker dispatches a battalion of cavalry that chases Crazy Snake’s band of rebels all the way to Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. With no other option left, Crazy Snake and his horse Aahtaqui board a friendly ship whose fellow rebels are determined to help them escape and fight another day. It is the horseman’s first voyage at sea, though not his first trial by water…
One summer when he was a boy his tribe camped near a bend in the river beneath a high red cliff. Rain was scarce on the plains and canyons of Comancheria but the spirits had been kind that year and brought many showers, turning the dry riverbed into a wondrous place of white rapids and deep, mysterious pools. Few of the Nermernuh, The People, whom white men called Comanches, ever learned to swim, but the young half-breed Stone Eyes had proved an exception, taking to it with an ease that astonished others.
“Of course he can swim,” said Iron Jacket, their great war chief. “He may be my son but he is like a snake, that one. I have always said so.”
“But most snakes are cowards, always slithering away and hiding under rocks,” Two Sticks said later, by the pool at the river’s bend. “Which are you, half-breed”—he pushed Stone Eyes back a step—“a brave snake or a cowardly snake?”
Stone Eyes swatted the older boy’s hand away. “I am no coward.”
“Then prove it.” Two Sticks pointed to the top of the cliff and the other boys whistled. None could swim half as well as Stone Eyes—only paddle around like helpless dogs—but they had found other sport in jumping from the lower ledges of the cliff. Today Two Sticks had gone the highest of anyone yet, about halfway up. None had found the courage to match his feat. Cliff spirits were fickle things and to go yet higher might tempt them to mischief.
If he was intimidated Stone Eyes chose not to show it. Instead he waded into the water, swam to the far side, and took to the cliff without delay. The others cheered as he climbed, though he was not such a fool as to believe they wanted him to succeed. He was not the only half-breed in the tribe, but he was the son of a fair-skinned bruja whom the other women feared and despised and their children knew it. Stone Eyes would always be something less than fully Nermernuh to them, would always have something to prove.
When at last he reached the top of the cliff he stood and looked back down at the others. “Jump! Jump! Jump!” they shouted, making such a commotion that several of their mothers came running from the camp. His own was among them.
“What are you doing, mijo?” she called in Spanish. “Get down from there.”
“I am going to jump!”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because I am not a coward.”
She looked sharply at the others, who turned away, then back up at her son. “Then do it!”
“You heard me. You are braver and stronger than these boys and you always will be, because you are better than them. You are my son. Now jump!”
Stone Eyes backed away and almost lost his nerve then. Unable to see anything but sky and distant hills beyond the edge of the cliff, and with a warm breeze blowing against him, he felt very small and alone. But he was committed now and he knew it. There was no turning back—there was never any turning back—so he ran as fast as he could and he jumped.
But it was not the boy Stone Eyes who hit the water with a heavy splash now; it was the grown man and Comanche warrior Crazy Snake—Scourge of the Camazotz, Curse-breaker of the Ciguanaba—clinging to the back of his magnificent brown and white pinto Aahtaqui. They bobbed beneath the waves of the Caribbean and came up spitting saltwater, the crew of La Libertad cheering wildly from the sloop’s deck behind them, but only for a moment. A cannonball hit the water nearby and sent them scurrying back to their stations.
“Godspeed, my friend!” shouted the captain, Mariano Chamorro, a Nicaraguan rebel like the rest. “I fear you are swimming to your doom, but if you are right we will come back for you after we outrun these jackals!” Already La Libertad was beating faster into the wind without the weight of the horse, as Chamorro had said it would—though in truth he had only suggested losing the horse, not its rider, an option Crazy Snake had dismissed with a snarl.
He urged Aahtaqui forward into the silvery mists. The horse, too, had crossed swollen rivers before, but this was a feat beyond any they had ever risked. Very likely they were swimming to their doom, but there was no turning back now. There was never any turning back.
* * *
A half hour later they staggered onto a narrow beach of sand and rocks, with scattered trees looming in the mist beyond. Aahtaqui sagged to his knees and then to his side, breathing heavily, while Crazy Snake knelt as well, clutching wet sand in one hand and the medicine pouch around his neck with the other. There was precious little else he owned: a necklace of colored beads and jade figurines, a small breastplate of bones, and a buffalo hide war shield fringed—as was his long, wild mane of black hair—with the waterlogged feathers of eagle and macaw. The only article of clothing he had not abandoned on the ship was a buckskin breechclout fastened with a belt. And into the belt was tucked a tomahawk.
A small, ridge-backed lizard watched him from atop a boulder and the horseman tossed wet sand at it, sending it scuttling away. He disliked the place already, but at least he had been right—there was an island in the mists—and the alternative was certain death or capture by the privateers of Nicaragua’s usurper president, William Walker, curse his name. Crazy Snake sat beside Aahtaqui a while, stroking his neck, until at last he stood with a heavy sigh.
The horse needed no convincing so Crazy Snake set off along the shore, studying his surroundings. What little he could see of the island bore no resemblance to Chamorro’s colorful descriptions of sunlit palm trees and hidden coves with wide, sandy beaches. There was more rock than sand, and the trees he passed were tall and sparse with thin trunks and bushy, dark green tops. Nor was it especially warm here. The mists seemed to leach the warmth out of the air.
He saw nothing different for perhaps a mile until a more welcome sight greeted him: a shallow stream trickling downhill and into the sea, where clumps of high, green reeds rose out of the water. The horseman knelt by the stream’s bank, dipped his hand in, and sampled the water. It was cool and sweet. Satisfied, he dropped to his stomach and drank deeply, scooping one handful after another into his mouth. When at last his thirst was slaked he submerged his whole head in the stream, washed the salt of the Great Water from his face and hair, and began to feel something like his old self once more.
He would bring Aahtaqui here to have his fill as well, but the horse needed rest and Crazy Snake would learn what he could of the island first. So he turned his back to the sea and followed the stream up a slight incline, between trees and boulders, and onto a broad section of the slope that suddenly leveled out.
And there he stopped.
The ruins of a wide, circular palisade rose before him, crudely fashioned from a ship’s planks, masts, and spars and supplemented by the trunks of trees that had been felled within the circle. A section of it was smashed through, revealing the rotting remains of shelters, chests, and men, as well as a curious stone figure. About three feet wide and eight feet tall, it was at best a primitive caricature of a man, with impossibly thick, stunted limbs and a giant rectangular face topped with an equally rectangular headdress. Geometric patterns were etched across the figure, including those meant to suggest eyes and mouth. Altogether its design hinted at a civilization the horseman had not yet encountered.
Crazy Snake stepped through the gap. There were five men in all, now little more than decaying skeletons in suits of badly dented armor. Rusted weapons lay beside them—thin swords, long iron spears and axes, crossbows, even an old, moldering flintlock pistol. He knelt by one of the corpses and examined the metal breastplate, so like the one his father wore into battle—passed down to him, he claimed, by an ancestor who had stripped it from the body of a dead conquistador in Mexico. Were these dead men conquistadores as well, shipwrecked here and vanquished in battle? If so, by whom?
The horseman grabbed his tomahawk and spun around.
That he had heard a voice he was certain, though none but the dead kept him company in the palisade. And the voice, he realized with a chill, had spoken the tongue of The People. Or had he just imagined it? All the same he removed the shield from his back and strapped it to his left arm.
There was a grinding of rock as the stone man’s head turned to face him.
The hairs on the nape of the horseman’s neck stood on edge. Stone Man’s etched mouth had not moved, but his voice was as clear as a distant peal of thunder. There was more grinding as he extended an arm, “palm” up—though in truth the hand was a block of stone with only the faint engravings of fingers.
Crazy Snake took a step back. “What tribute?”
Tribute… for Pachacamac. The voice was louder this time.
“I have none.”
Stone Man rumbled to life, shaking dust loose as his legs and other arm pried away from his torso. What manner of evil medicine held him together Crazy Snake could not imagine and had no wish to find out, so he fled.
Tribute for Pachacamac!
Behind him came heavy thumps like boulders dropping and a great crash of wood as the palisade splintered apart in Stone Man’s path. Craze Snake darted between trees and jumped the stream, stumbling downhill and back onto the narrow beach.
And then the earth shook.
He had felt something like it once before, in Nicaragua. But this was more than a tremor. A tree crashed to the ground beside him and tiny fissures snaked through the ground toward the shore. He lost his balance and fell, then rolled on to his back in time to see Stone Man almost upon him.
Tribute for Pachacamac!
The horseman rolled to his left and the thing smashed the ground where he had been. He scrambled to his feet and ran again, lurching left and right as the earth continued to shake. He knew without looking that Stone Man was still behind him, moving with slow, steady strides. Crazy Snake’s foot caught in a sudden fissure and he tripped, cursing and spitting sand as he pushed himself off the beach.
It was not Stone Man’s voice he heard this time but a new one, from the direction of the sea. There in the mists stood a solitary figure with pale skin and short red hair, waving for him to follow. If not for his earthly accouterments—colorfully beaded arm and ankle bands, gold septum ring, seashell necklace, and two plain sashes draped loosely over his narrow shoulders, forming an X across his chest—he might have been a spirit of the mists.
“Who are you?” Crazy Snake demanded in Spanish.
“Later! If you want to live, come with me.”
The heavy thumps drew closer.
The horseman followed the pale stranger, both of them swaying as the earth continued to convulse. Ahead the mists eddied to reveal a long dugout canoe with three others—a boy and two men, one young, one old—standing alongside it in the water. They were short like the pale one, but their hair was dark and their faces broad, not unlike Crazy Snake’s, though their skin was more bronzed. Like him they wore naught but loincloths and had thin ropes looped over their shoulders.
Crazy Snake hesitated. “My horse…”
“Please,” said the pale one. “We must go now!”
Cursing, for he knew there was no other choice, the horseman crawled and stumbled into the canoe while the others pushed off and hopped in with practiced ease. As they began to paddle there was a heavy splash in the water behind them. Stone Man was there, striding into the waves and clutching a giant boulder in his thick arms.
Tribute for Pachacamac!
“Faster!” the pale one shouted.
Stone Man heaved the boulder and it sailed in a high arc, splashing just a few feet to starboard, in a clump of reeds, almost capsizing the canoe. Undeterred he waded in after them, first to his knees, then to his waist, then to his chest. The others paddled furiously—Crazy Snake included, with his bare hands—while Stone Man gained on them. He raised his arms as if to grab the canoe…
And then without warning he dropped beneath the surface and was seen no more.
The quaking grew stronger as the four boatmen struggled to gain more distance from the shore and then it ceased as suddenly as it had begun, leaving just the sound of labored breaths and the splash of paddles cutting the water.
Crazy Snake looked at each of the four in turn.
“Who are you and what was that thing?”
“I am Kantule,” said the younger of the two men. He was shorter and slighter of build than Crazy Snake and seemed about the same age as the horseman. “This is my uncle Balikwa.” He pointed to the older man, whose face was deeply lined by age and sun, his hair receding and thin. Around his neck he wore a string of sharp teeth. “This is my cousin Machigwa.” He pointed at the boy, who could not have older than fifteen years and was the thinnest of the four. “And this”—he gestured at the albino—“is Inakakinya. We are from Kuna Yala. As for that thing and this place, we hoped you could tell us.”
The horseman grunted. “I set foot on this island no more than an hour ago. I know nothing about it.”
“We thought we heard cannon. Was there a battle beyond the mists?”
“No. A chase.”
“Who was chasing you?” asked Inakakinya.
Crazy Snake opened his mouth, then leaned closer. “You’re a woman.”
She rolled her eyes and turned away with a “Tssssss...”
“Inakakinya is my sister,” said Kantule.
“Why is she so white?”
“Why don’t you ask me yourself?” she snapped.
The horseman said nothing, as he had long since learned to do at the first sign of a woman’s wrath. Between her short hair and concealed chest she could have passed for a boy among The People, whose women only cut their hair in grief or shame. But in contrast to her white skin there was a fire in her pale green eyes that bespoke a warrior’s spirit. A short bow sat beside her in the canoe, and Crazy Snake had no doubt she knew how to use it. The others, he noted, were armed only with spears, knives, and other implements of fishing.
“Inakakinya is an albino, a Sipu. They have a special place among our people,” said Kantule. “We call them Children of the Moon.”
“What do they do?”
“Yes, brother. What is it we do?”
“It is an important role!”
Inakakinya snorted. “A meaningless ritual.”
“You mentioned a chase?” Kantule prompted the horseman, eager to change the subject.
Crazy Snake looked away from the Moon Child. Where to begin? He glanced at his shield, with its crude, painted symbols of a flaming man-bat and a woman with a horse’s skull. Not the time or place for such tales, he decided, and spoke only briefly of his improbable journey from Comancheria to Nicaragua, his imprisonment at El Castillo, and his service among the rebels, culminating in the chase that had forced him and Aahtaqui to abandon La Libertad.
“The captain did not believe there was an island in the mists. But I knew it. I could feel it.”
“Y… you brought a horse all the way here?” stuttered Machigwa, his eyes wide. “Why?”
“Not just any horse. If my friends outrun Walker’s ship they will come back for us. We have only to wait.”
A look passed between the Kunas.
“You would not believe us.”
“You might be surprised.”
“Very well,” said Kantule. “There is no escape from this island. We have been here a week now, since a storm blew us far from our islands. Many times have we attempted to leave the mists. Always we end up back where we started.”
“There is a dark magic to this place that keeps us here,” said Inakakinya. “I am sure of it. And this mist”—she waved an accusing arm—“it is unnatural. There is no day or night, just the mist as you see it now.”
“Perhaps we drowned and this is the Purgatory those Christians warned us about,” said the old man, crossing himself. Again Inakakinya rolled her eyes with a “Tsssss…” and Crazy Snake shook his head. Much as he would like to believe otherwise he suspected the Moon Child was right; that fickle spirits had once again led him to a place of bad medicine for reasons beyond his understanding.
“That is not all,” said Kantule. “There are others on the island. When we first landed there were eight of us. The other four struck inland in search of food and shelter and we never heard from them again. Inakakinya wanted to go after them but I… felt it safer to stay close to our canoes.”
A shape loomed out of the mists and Crazy Snake raised his tomahawk with a start.
“Shipwreck,” said Inakakinya. “There are others around the island.”
They paddled between two broken hulks that had once been the halves of a mighty vessel, the fore and aft ends leaning drunkenly toward the sky. A startled bird squawked and took to flight from the bow’s rotting figurehead, of a robed woman with a broken sword. The beating of the bird’s wings was heavy and ominous in the mists. It seemed an ill omen to Crazy Snake and he shuddered. The sooner they were beyond the wreck the better. It did nothing but fill him with gloom.
“Where are we going?”
Kantule shrugged. “We stay on the move, never landing in the same place twice.”
“Have you seen more of those stone men?”
“Several. But never up close, until today. And never moving.”
“Why did it chase you?” asked Inakakinya.
“I was searching a ruined fort and it came to life, asking me who I was and demanding tribute for”—he thought a moment, but Inakakinya interrupted him.
“Yes. Tribute for Pachacamac. We heard it, too.”
“You speak Comanche?” asked Crazy Snake, astonished.
“What do you mean? It was speaking Kuna.”
The boy, Machigwa, stopped paddling. “W… what was that?”
The others stopped as well.
“What?” said Kantule.
They heard something then, a strange kind of animal scream. Crazy Snake almost stood, but Inakakinya grabbed him. They heard it again.
“What is that?” said Inakakinya.
“A horse. Take me to shore!”
“Do not be a fool,” said Kantule. “You are safer here than—”
“Just do it,” the horseman snarled, raising his tomahawk.
Kantule looked at the others, who were looking at him. He nodded and they changed course, paddling back toward the island. They saw nothing at first, but as they drew closer they could hear stamping, squealing, shouting, and cursing. Vague shapes moved like shadows in the mist, then gradually resolved into men. When at last the canoe’s hull scraped upon sand and rock Crazy Snake was out in an instant, splashing the rest of the way to shore with his shield and tomahawk ready.
Ahead was a man with his back to the beach and a long poleaxe in his hands. He wore sandals, a patterned beige tunic, and glittering jewelry around his wrists and hanging from his ears. Upon his head was a golden helm traversed from side to side by a plume of yellow-orange feathers.
Crazy Snake swung his tomahawk and gashed the back of the man’s neck. Two others clad and armed as the first rushed forward with poleaxes as their companion fell. The taller of the two, a black man, swung his weapon. It glanced off Crazy Snake’s shield and the horseman spun closer, cutting the man’s chest. As the latter staggered back the other, a stocky mestizo, attacked. This time Crazy Snake ducked the intended blow and brought his tomahawk straight up beneath his assailant’s jaw. The helm flew from his head and just as fast the horseman struck again, burying the blade into a bald, tattooed skull.
“W… watch out!” cried Machigwa. Crazy Snake turned in time to see the black man rushing him again, but before he could pull the tomahawk free an arrow pierced the man’s eye and he toppled backward, twitching like a speared fish.
During the brief melee Crazy Snake had caught a glimpse of others retreating in the mist, and now they were gone leaving only their tracks—at least a half dozen men and one horse. He turned back to the beach where the others were joining Inakakinya, who had already notched a second arrow. The first man Crazy Snake had struck was writhing face down on the ground, holding the back of his neck, his hands slick with blood. His helm lay beside him and his exposed head was shaved clean, like the other’s, with the same geometric patterns tattooed across his skull—vaguely reminiscent of those on the stone man. The horseman grabbed him and turned him over. He appeared to be mestizo as well.
“Where did they take my horse?”
The man groaned. Crazy Snake slapped his face.
“Where did they take my horse?”
“What temple? Where?”
The man turned his gaze inland with a sudden look of peace. “Pacha… camac.”
Crazy Snake struck him again. “Where, damn you?” But the man began to laugh like an intoxicated fool, and there was nothing the horseman could do to stop it except raise his tomahawk and bring it down once more.
So it was tribute this Pachacamac wanted? Then Crazy Snake would give it to him, but it would not be Aahtaqui. It would be the bastard’s own bloody scalp.
He pulled the tomahawk out, stood, and looked at the Kunas. “I am going that way”—he pointed inland—“after my horse and the men who took him. Since I left my home I have seen things I did not believe possible, creatures”—he thumped his shield with the bloody tomahawk—“much worse than men of stone or these horse thieves. I know not why we are here or how we can leave, but I know this: You will not find the answer by hiding in that boat. Sooner or later you will all perish like timid deer, if not from hunger then from something worse. Come with me and be deer no more. Be wolves. Together we will find my horse and your missing kin.”
Again Kantule looked at the others, but it was clear that any leadership he had once held over them was now gone. Inakakinya could not hide her eagerness, signaling Balikwa and Machigwa to help her pull the canoe into the trees, where they covered it with fallen branches and dead reeds. Crazy Snake paced until they were finished and gathered around him.
“Keep your weapons ready,” he said, “and follow me.”
“Wait. You just plan to rush after them, like this?”
He turned to Inakakinya with an impatient snarl. “You have a better idea, woman?”
“Yes,” she said. “A much better idea. Follow me.”
Crazy Snake, Kantule, and Inakakinya hid behind an outcropping of rock, disguised in the helms, tunics, sandals, and jewelry of the dead men they had left on the beach. Balikwa and Machigwa crouched behind them, carrying crossbows retrieved from the ruined palisade.
“This was a bad idea.”
“What would you have us do, brother? Get back in the canoe?”
“Yes. At least until we—”
“Quiet,” said Crazy Snake. “Both of you.”
The tracks had led them uphill until the trees gave way to an uneven landscape of scattered brown grass and barren rock. Here they lost the trail, though soon enough Machigwa spotted a strange mound and then another and between them the trace of what appeared to be—strange though it seemed—a wide, well-worn road. This they followed, between dozens of other evenly spaced mounds, until at last the road led them to its terminus at the foot of a great temple.
Its design was vaguely familiar to Crazy Snake, who had seen the pyramids of the Yucatán. But those were tall, steep, and gray, while this was wide, short, and tan, with four broader levels built upon the summit of a small mountain. A receded stairway ascended the first two levels to an open entrance, only partly visible from where they hid.
“I see no one,” said Inakakinya.
Crazy Snake scanned the upper terrace one last time and nodded. There was a feeling of bad medicine about the place, but he had expected as much on an island with no day or night and stone men that came to life.
“How can we even be certain they went there?”
The horseman shot Kantule a hard expression. “They went there.” The tracks on the road had been faint, but unmistakable to one who had learned his craft on the Staked Plains of Comancheria. “Are you ready?”
“This is madness,” Kantule muttered.
“What about you, uncle?” Inakakinya asked Balikwa. “Have you second thoughts?”
“No.” The old man rested a hand on Machigwa’s slender shoulder. “We will stay and watch the entrance, and if need be cover your retreat. Though I am not sure how well I can shoot this old thing.” He raised the crossbow. “And if this is Purgatory, I fear it will all be for nothing.”
“If we are already dead, then what were those men on the beach? Ghosts?”
Balikwa pondered his niece’s question and finally shrugged. “Perhaps.”
Inakakinya sighed. “Well, if you see more of them at least assume they are real. And may the Great Mother and Father watch over you both.”
The old man nodded, touching his necklace of sharp teeth. “And you.”
Crazy Snake went first, shield and tomahawk concealed beneath his tunic, and the siblings followed, holding the unfamiliar poleaxes in their hands. They walked the final section of road as it curved and rose toward the temple, their footsteps slow and heavy in the mist.
“You mentioned a ritual,” the horseman whispered.
“What?” Kantule and Inakakinya answered.
“You,” he said to Inakakinya. “On the canoe. You said the Moon Children perform some ritual. What is it?”
“I want to know. Before we go into that temple.”
She was silent a moment, then whispered: “Every time it passes behind the earth’s shadow we are supposed to defend the moon from a dragon.”
“A dragon, like those lizards on the beach. But much bigger, and with wings.”
“It can fly?”
“Yes, but it is just a stupid leg—”
“Quiet, you fools! Look!” Kantule hissed. The temple’s stairway and entrance rose before them and something else, a detail they hadn’t seen from their earlier vantage point: two stone men flanking the entrance.
Crazy Snake paused, wondering if Kantule was right and they should never have come. But there was nowhere to go except the mists and the sea, no turning back. There was never any turning back. It was all in the hands of the spirits now, so he shrugged and pressed on, the other two following behind. They passed between the stone men—if indeed they were not just harmless statues—and entered the temple, where the horseman permitted himself a quiet sigh of relief.
Inside, a wide passage continued straight into the heart of the temple. Smaller torchlit passages branched to their left and right, and Crazy Snake quickly led them to the left. They followed the passage until it took a sharp turn to the right and there he stopped, after seeing no one else ahead.
Inakakinya cocked her head. “Do you hear that?”
Crazy Snake nodded. Many times before had he heard the beating of drums and danced around the campfires of The People to their music, but these were different—deeper, slower, portending something other than a raid or plea for rain.
Before the horseman could answer a guard in the same style of beige tunic and plumed helm appeared at the end of the hallway and waved to them. “Come, brothers! The ceremony has begun and the High Priest has called all the faithful to him. Something special is about to happen!”
Without waiting he turned and disappeared around a corner. Inakakinya reached for her bow but Crazy Snake stopped her and nodded for them to follow. Kantule hesitated and seemed ready to turn back, but Inakakinya grabbed his tunic and pulled him along. They turned the corner and saw the guard heading away, by all appearances now oblivious to their presence. They passed several chambers, all empty save for crude beds, food stores, textiles, pottery, and other signs of habitation. Torches burned in sconces throughout the corridors, with colorful rugs hung upon the walls in the long spaces between. Crazy Snake’s eyes passed over them in a hurry but he saw enough to discern a common motif: of a figure set upon a throne with endless supplicants bringing captives and strange animals—not unlike horses, though smaller and thinner—before him. The flickering shadows almost gave life to the woven portraits and the beating of the drums grew louder, the feeling of bad medicine stronger.
And then at last they turned a final corner and were greeted by a bizarre sight: a large courtyard lit with flaming braziers and above it all—though it seemed impossible—a clear night sky. On the near side of the courtyard a throng of perhaps thirty men knelt, enrapt, while two led a horse—Aahtaqui, with a colored blanket draped upon his back—to the far side, where heaps of glittering gold, jewels, and other treasure were piled around a gilded throne upon which sat a man. Intricate gold bands encircled his wrists and biceps, and he wore a tunic fringed with zigzagged stripes in the colors of a rainbow. Hanging from his shoulders was a scarlet cape and in his hands a golden staff, in bright contrast to his dark skin and darker hair.
And behind him, on a raised section of the courtyard, was a boat.
Not a sailboat like La Libertad, though it was almost as long. This one had no masts but was fitted with dozens of oars and the edges of the hull inlaid with further bands of gold and gems. Why it was here the horseman could not fathom. Beside him Inakakinya was whispering something about the stars—they were wrong, not where they should be—and altogether it gave Crazy Snake a feeling he had only experienced once or twice before, of being in a place not entirely of this world or the next but somewhere in between.
A figure the horseman took to be the “High Priest” stood beside the man on the throne, clad in a checkered tunic and feathered headdress of deep orange, chanting in a tongue that was neither Spanish, nor Comanche, nor Kuna. Two men on the near side of the courtyard beat tall drums while the rest joined in the priest’s chant, occasionally waving their upper bodies and arms toward the stars. They were a mix of races—some brown, some black, even a few white—and all with clean-shaven, tattooed heads like the dead men on the beach, and richly bejeweled as well. Crazy Snake had never seen so much glittering wealth in all his life.
In the center of it all was Aahtaqui, still making every step a bitter, cursing struggle for his captors. The horse had not yet recovered his full strength, though only Crazy Snake—who had raised him from a gangling colt—could tell. Otherwise it would have gone poorly for the men.
Inakakinya drew a sharp breath, tugged on Kantule’s sleeve, and pointed at two kneeling worshippers among the throng. “Is that Oliwitinappi and Mantiwekinya?”
Her brother squinted for a moment, then looked at her in amazement. “Yes!”
The priest raised his hands and the drums and chanting ceased.
“Men of Paapiti!” he cried in Spanish. “Our Lord Pachacamac is pleased with the gift we have brought him this day. Never has he seen such a magnificent animal sacrifice, not even since the days before the island’s curse, when the faithful crossed the waters to bow before him, first of his kind! Son of Inti! Wielder of the Golden Staff! Creator of the Stone Men!”
Groans and cries of adulation filled the cavern, until at length the priest raised his hands again and the voices fell silent.
“But there are more glad tidings. This horse is not just a sacrifice; it is a sign! A sign that our Lord’s—and our—deliverance from Paapiti is almost upon us!”
This time the cries were deafening. Aahtaqui reared and kicked before the priest, who withdrew a long knife from his checkered tunic. Inakakinya reached beneath her tunic as well, retrieving the bow and quiver she had slung over her shoulder.
Crazy Snake waved his hand. “Give them to me.”
“It is my bow and no one is a better shot with it than me. No one.”
For a wild moment Crazy Snake considered overpowering the insolent Kuna and taking the bow, but something stayed his hands. She had, after all, put an arrow through a charging man’s eye, a feat he had rarely seen equaled in all his years among The People. Swallowing, he nodded. The Kuna notched an arrow and aimed her bow, leaving the horseman to clutch his medicine pouch and mutter his prayers. She held the string longer than he would have liked, for the priest was moving toward Aahtaqui now as the men struggled to hold him still.
And then Inakakinya released the arrow.
At first Crazy Snake feared she had missed, for the priest was unharmed, but one of the men pulling the horse screamed and fell, clutching a feathered shaft in his chest. Aahtaqui wrenched the rope from the hands of the other and bolted, galloping by the crowd of worshippers and into a large side entrance while they jumped to their feet in a confused babble, some of them looking to the rear where Crazy Snake, Inakakinya, and Kantule stood exposed now for the impostors they were.
“Run!” said Crazy Snake, arming himself with shield and tomahawk, and they fled the way they had come, pursued by howls of rage and dozens of stampeding feet. Around one corner they went and then another, past other corridors and other rooms, until soon they found themselves in a passage the horseman did not recognize. He stopped short of another intersection and the others careened into him, cursing.
“What? Why have you stopped?” Inakakinya demanded.
The horseman tore the helm from his head and cast it to the ground. “Listen.”
The other two removed their helms as well. The shouts behind them had grown more distant but the beating of feet somehow closer than before. The explanation was not long in coming, for no sooner did Crazy Snake wave them forward than another group of men carrying clubs and maces charged from around a corner of the intersection and rushed at the three, shouting “Here they are!” and “Blasphemers! Infidels!”
“Mercy!” Kantule cried, falling to his knees with his hands up. The mob flowed around him and he was lost from sight.
“No!” Inakakinya screamed.
“Fight!” shouted Crazy Snake. With a shrill, ululating cry he fell upon the first of their assailants, deflecting the blow of a stone-topped mace with his shield and cleaving the man’s neck with his tomahawk. Like the men on the beach these fought with more zeal than skill. Perhaps they were shipwrecked sailors who had spent too long under the influence of the temple’s bad medicine. If so, it was no concern of Crazy Snake’s. As long as they blocked his path he would send as many as he could howling into the Spirit World.
Behind him Inakakinya fought with a speed and ferocity that surprised the horseman, cutting down one foeman after another with her long knife. Even with their backs to each other there was a strange kind of synchronicity to their actions, with one always striking at the right moment when the other might have been struck, like a whirling, four-armed, two-faced demon. And the more Crazy Snake and Inakakinya fought the more strength they seemed to gain from each other, dispatching men in a mad fury the likes of which their astonished enemies had never seen, until they seemed all but invincible—the few blows that hit them only glancing off their chests with a hard clink.
But the weight of numbers was on the side of the temple’s faithful and it began to tell. For every man the Comanche or Kuna struck down another took his place. The keening death cry of The People was upon Crazy Snake’s lips as he struck again and again, mingled with the shouts and cries of his enemies, who failed to hear the thunder of hooves until it was too late. Aahtaqui broke through their ranks on Inakakinya’s side, knocking men to the ground and against the walls. Those few still standing shrank away from the horse and the ceremonial blanket upon his back, long enough for Crazy Snake to vault on top and pull Inakakinya up in front of him.
“Heeyah!” he cried, tapping the horse’s flanks with his heels, and Aahtaqui charged forward, down what Crazy Snake guessed was the temple’s central corridor. Ahead was a faint block of light and mist beyond—surely the entrance through which they had come.
He urged the horse faster as a spear clattered to the floor behind them. Inakakinya, who had seldom seen and never ridden a horse before, could have been flying to the moon on the dragon of Kuna legend as tightly as she held Aahtaqui and clenched her eyes shut. Suddenly there was a great whoosh above her and a heavy impact as of stone on iron, and she no longer felt Crazy Snake behind her as the horse charged down the steps and onto the road beyond. Soon he slowed to a gallop and then to a trot and finally turned back toward the temple. Only then did Inakakinya open her eyes.
There, at the top of the steps, the two stone men that had flanked the entrance stood with their backs to the road. Lying motionless at their feet was Crazy Snake. Several men emerged from the temple, chattering and waving their weapons, and then they dragged the horseman from sight.
Back into the Temple of Pachacamac.
The impact of the river had knocked young Stone Eyes unconscious that day. When he awoke it was to the sound of his mother’s voice, chanting in a strange tongue he had seldom heard before, and only from her lips. There was something hypnotic about the words, and although he could not understand them he sensed that powerful medicine was at work.
A small fire burned in the center of her tipi. In one of his mother’s hands, suspended over a wooden bowl, was an animal’s heart, still dripping blood. Her other hand rested on his right leg. The pain there was sharp and he knew without asking that he had broken it on the river bottom. But as his mother chanted the pain began to recede.
The tipi’s hide flap was suddenly pulled back, flooding the dark interior with a moment of daylight. Iron Jacket stepped inside. He scowled at them both but waited until his wife had finished chanting and put the heart back in the bowl before he spoke.
“Is it true what happened?”
“It is true. And I was the one who told him to do it.”
Iron Jacket frowned. “I asked the boy.”
“It is true,” said Stone Eyes.
“And his leg? Will he ever walk again?”
“Of course he will walk. And run. And ride. And fight. Am I not a powerful bruja, husband?” As always there was an undisguised scorn in the way she said bruja.
His father knelt and inspected the leg. He touched the spot where the pain had been so sharp before, but was now little more than a mild ache. He began to wipe the dried blood away, slowly at first and then faster, as if searching for something. His eyes widened and he looked at his wife, then at their son.
“Do you remember anything?”
Stone Eyes shook his head. “Not after I jumped.”
Iron Jacket stood with a sigh. “Just as well, and fortunate for you your mother is a powerful bruja. As for this foolishness with the cliff, it is time you take a new name. When you leave this tipi you are Stone Eyes no more. You are Crazy Snake. I have spoken.”
He left and Crazy Snake’s mother put the bowl aside with a smile, her own grey eyes flashing beneath loose strands of black hair. “It is a good name,” she said. “A very good name. Carry it with pride, my son, for there will be other cliffs and other falls and others who will doubt you—even hate you. Such is life, but especially will it be yours… Crazy Snake. No matter what happens, you must never lose faith in yourself or your sense of purpose. Do you understand?”
But before he could answer he realized he wasn’t in his mother’s tipi now, and it wasn’t his leg that pained him; it was his chest and back. The conquistador’s breastplate beneath his tunic had no doubt saved his life from the stone man’s blow, as Iron Jacket’s had saved his in many a battle, but even so it felt like something was broken. And it could not protect the rest of him when he fell from the horse. Next to him he saw Kantule, sitting cross-legged and apparently unharmed. Above them was the priest, standing beside Pachacamac, and beyond them night sky. It was then Crazy Snake realized that Pachacamac had never once moved, earlier or now. He might have been a stone man himself except that his eyes, skin, and hair seemed all too real.
“Good, you are awake!” the priest cried, with an enthusiasm belied by his sagging face, weak chin, and—what seemed to the horseman, now that he could see him up close without his feathered headdress—slumped and unimposing demeanor. “And you have come before our Lord at last with the tribute he seeks—if not of your own free will, then by his.”
The horseman’s lips curled and he spat a gob of blood at the priest’s sandaled feet. “You had my tribute. You took it from me and now it runs free.”
The priest seemed surprised a moment, then laughed. “Is that what you thought? That we wanted your horse? No. It would have made a splendid sacrifice, true, but you had something of much greater value, worth more than all the horses in the world. Even from beyond the mists of Paapiti our Lord could see it, like a bright star, and it was only through his power that you came here at all.” He saw the flicker of confusion on the horseman’s face. “You did not think it was mere chance that brought you here? Oh, no. I will tell you both what I tell all penitents”—he glanced at Kantule now—“who are brought before our Lord. It is a glorious tale.”
Much of what followed was lost on Crazy Snake, to whom the names and places meant nothing. Hundreds of years ago someone named Huaina Ccapac—the eleventh Sapa Inca of the Incan Empire—built a temple to Pachacamac on an island called Paapiti in a lake called Titicaca. The presence of the temple and its god offended the goddess of the lake, who lashed the waters into such a frenzy that the island and everything on it disappeared beneath the waves and were never seen again by the people of that land.
But the island was not destroyed. The goddess had sent it somewhere else—not unlike the Spirit World, it sounded to Crazy Snake—but in this she only half succeeded. Pachacamac’s power kept the island partly in this world, appearing in one place for a time and then in another, but never back in the lake from whence it had been banished. In the course of these wanderings Paapiti acquired visitors who landed or washed up on its shores, oblivious to its magical nature. At first these encounters were random, but over time Pachacamac developed greater control over the island’s movements, placing it in the path of those he felt—through far-seeing powers no mere mortal could understand—might be of some use to him.
Or had something he wanted.
“Like this,” said the priest, holding up the glossy stone amulet of light blue, brown, and green stripes that had belonged to Crazy Snake’s mother. The horseman’s hand shot to the empty medicine pouch around his neck and then he lurched toward the priest, but the searing pains stopped him fast.
The priest smiled. “It is every bit as beautiful as our Lord said it would be. I can see why you prize it so. Tell me, do you even know what it is? I would not have either, before I came here. It is a chakana, an Incan cross. These four arms represent the directions of the compass in our world, Kay Pacha, and the superimposed square represents the other two levels of existence: Hana Pacha, the upper world of the gods, and Ucu Pacha, the underworld of the dead. And this”—he put his finger on the silvery-white stone at the center of the cross—“ah, this is very special indeed. It is the key by which one who knows how to unlock its powers can transit the cosmos to the other levels. One such as our Lord Pachacamac.”
Crazy Snake looked at the man on the throne, who had still not moved or even blinked. “Your god is either dead or a madman.”
“Blasphemy!” cried one of the guards, who kicked him and cursed as his bare toes hit the metal breastplate beneath. The other raised his poleaxe as if to strike the horseman’s head, but the priest raised a hand and they stopped.
“It does not matter what you believe, for soon you will see the light as I did—as all do who agree to serve our Lord.” He paused as if listening to some inner voice and then his eyes refocused on Crazy Snake. “One last thing: how came you by this, friend? The truth, mind you, for our Lord knows when a man is lying.”
“If he is so powerful why does he not tell you, ‘friend’?”
Kicking Guard kicked Crazy Snake again—this time aiming for his unprotected side—and once more the priest waved for him to stop.
“It is true, he knows and sees much, but not all—for most of his great power is spent holding this island between the worlds and the seas at bay, lest the Curse of Paapiti finally consume it. Will you not tell him yourself, to atone for your insolence?”
“Tell him!” Kantule hissed.
Crazy Snake spat again, this time at the feet of Pachacamac himself.
Still the priest maintained an air of patience, but his smile seemed strained now. “Bring the others,” he said.
The two Kunas they had spotted earlier—Oliwitinappi and Mantiwekinya—brought Machigwa and Balikwa into the courtyard and forced them to their knees in front of the priest and Pachacamac. The boy trembled as he looked from one Kuna to the other and the old man stared at the floor, muttering something about Purgatory in his native tongue.
The priest stood behind Machigwa and gently stroked the boy’s short hair.
“Perhaps you noticed the huacas along the road to the temple? Do you know what they are? Before the Curse of Paapiti the faithful brought many fine sacrifices to this island: precious metals, animals, and—especially pleasing to our Lord Pachacamac—children. It was considered a great honor to be raised a child sacrifice for a god. Within those huacas are the bones of many such children, most of them younger than this boy. It has been a long time since there was a child sacrifice within these walls… perhaps too long.” He held his knife to Machigwa’s throat and looked at Crazy Snake. “Let me ask again: where did you get the chakana?”
“Great Father and Mother, tell them!” Kantule cried. “I beg of you. I have their word they will not harm us if we cooperate.”
“Their word,” the horseman snarled, finally turning on the Kuna. “Is that why you betrayed your own kin?”
“I had no choice!”
“You always have a choice. And what of your other two friends who went missing? Where are they?”
Kantule looked to the priest, who nodded gravely.
“They met the fate of all who refuse to submit to our Lord, when given”—he smiled—“the choice. Oliwitinappi and Mantiwekinya—yes, I know them well, as I know all who have embraced the light—they chose wisely. As I chose when our Lord himself called me—a shipwrecked merchant, a nobody—to be his humble servant.”
Crazy Snake watched with a hard stare as Kantule sagged beneath the weight of the priest’s words, then he turned to Machigwa. The boy could have been one of the others on that distant day when young Stone Eyes leaped from the cliff, so similar in appearance was his dark hair, bronzed skin, and wide face. He was trembling still but did not beg for his life, as Kantule no doubt would if he had the knife to his throat.
“It was my mother’s,” said the horseman.
“And where did she get it?”
“Her parents and grandparents before them.”
The priest pressed the knife against the soft flesh of Machigwa’s throat. “Go on.”
“She was born in Mexico, but her people came from a land of powerful medicine much farther south, many years before even her grandparents were born. She said this was a relic of that land. Beyond that I know nothing.”
The priest paused again, his eyes shifting as he listened.
“Yes. Yes, of course. Gray eyes. The Chacapoyas. It begins to make sense, my Lord. What is your command?” A look of rapture slowly transformed his features. “At last. At long last! And what of the horseman and the others? Yes, very good. I will tell the faithful at once!”
He turned to the guards. “My brothers, our Lord Pachacamac has answered our prayers. We begin the Ritual of Ascension at once!” He released the boy and the guards pulled Crazy Snake to his feet, gasping in pain. Kantule was escorted in one direction, watching them over his shoulder as he went, while the horseman, the old man, and the boy were taken in another.
By the time the eastern sky began to glow with the approaching dawn they were ready—a score of the remaining faithful, gathered upon the deck of the courtyard’s boat.
A special place was reserved for Crazy Snake, whom they lashed to the prow at the priest’s command—a living figurehead not unlike the wooden one he had seen on the shipwreck off Paapiti. The tunic and iron breastplate were gone, leaving only his breechclout and the smaller breastplate of bones and rawhide strips that hung around his neck. Several of the bones had been shattered from the force of the stone man’s blow.
The tight ropes that bound him aggravated the pain from his injuries and the horseman drifted in and out of consciousness, only dimly aware of the strange events now transpiring. One moment the priest was holding his face and pronouncing on the justness of his fate as last of the Chacapoyas, the next the priest was standing in the center of the boat beside Pachacamac, now seated and motionless on a wooden throne. Among the men on the ship was Kantule. He wore the same tunic as the others and his head was freshly shaved, though not yet tattooed. Balikwa and Machigwa were on the boat as well, still bound as captives.
Heightening the dreamlike quality of it all was the presence of nine stone men standing in two ranks in the center of the courtyard—with an empty spot where a tenth once belonged. It was to the nine the priest spoke now.
“First Men of Pachacamac, our great Lord regrets that he must consign you to the sea with your fallen brother and the rest of this island upon which you have served him nobly, lo these many years. Know that you will ever have a special place in his heart and that one day you shall be reunited with him in Hana Pacha for all eternity.”
If the words had any effect on the stone men they did not show it, and the priest began to chant in the same tongue Crazy Snake had heard the night before. Turning as far as he could and wincing at the pain, he saw through the corner of his eye that the priest was facing the fiery dawn with the chakana held high. As the sun slowly crested the wall he chanted louder, and surrounding the courtyard in every direction it seemed to Crazy Snake there appeared the faint, shimmering outline of mountains. He had seen no such mountains before he took that fateful leap from the deck of La Libertad—only the large bank of mist and open sea around it. Where were they, then, if not still somewhere on the Great Water? The moment the sun rose fully above the wall the priest hung the amulet around Pachacamac’s neck and stepped back, still chanting.
At first nothing happened. But then a breeze stirred and the temperature rose. There was a distant flash of light and a faint rumble of thunder. With effort the horseman raised his head again and saw that heavy clouds were gathering above the temple. A single, fat raindrop hit his cheek and then another. Again there was a rumble, though this time it came not from the sky but the temple itself. It was shaking. Behind him there was a creaking of wood at the center of the boat and a sudden chorus of gasps and cries among the followers of Pachacamac.
And then there was no longer one voice chanting but two.
Aahtaqui did not move at first, other than to snort and stomp as Crazy Snake was dragged from sight. But no sooner had the stone men turned back than one of them began to stride down the stairs toward the horse and rider. This spurred Aahtaqui to action and he galloped away down the ancient road. They passed the outcropping where they had left Balikwa and Machigwa but Inakakinya saw nothing, and the horse’s movements were so unfamiliar and terrifying that she felt to look anywhere but the road ahead was to invite disaster. How Crazy Snake rode with such skill she could not begin to fathom.
When Aahtaqui reached the trees lower down the mountain he stopped again. There was no sign of the stone man behind them and no telltale thumps of its approach, so Inakakinya slid off the horse. He did not leave, as she had expected, but instead sniffed and nuzzled her. Inakakinya hesitated a moment, then patted his neck.
Stay put, she could almost hear Kantule say, and she cursed aloud at the thought of her fool brother. What had he been thinking to surrender so easily? And why had Oliwitinappi and Mantiwekinya been among the temple’s fanatics? Had some foul magic turned them against their own kith and kin? And would the same not happen to her brother? Perhaps even Crazy Snake, now that they held him captive? The thought of it all was almost too much for Inakakinya and she found herself wiping tears from her cheeks in a moment of weakness. But only a moment. She was a Sipu after all, a Child of the Moon. To her people she might be a slayer of imaginary dragons, but to herself she was something more. Someone who was not afraid and did not give up. She would wait a while for Balikwa and Machigwa, who had surely seen her leave the temple, and if they failed to return then she would go and find them.
But first she threw her weapons to the ground, tore off the tunic and the metal breastplate beneath, and rubbed her sore thighs and shoulders. The horse found a stream nearby and they had their fill of it. An hour passed and Aahtaqui began to pace and snort. Inakakinya was not sure how much longer he would remain before wandering off, and then she began to pace as well. Finally, when close to two hours had passed—as best she could judge in the island’s perpetual twilight gloom—Inakakinya gathered her weapons and set off up the road, making no pretense of stealth lest Balikwa and Machigwa were looking for her. To her surprise Aahtaqui followed close behind, nudging her back with his nose. Inakakinya quickened her pace. Before long they came to the final bend that she knew would bring them within sight of the temple, so she left the road and scrambled up the rocky slope to the outcropping.
Balikwa and Machigwa were not there. And as before there was no sign of movement upon the temple’s walls. Had they taken a different path down the mountain and missed her, or been captured? The first she hoped, but the second she feared more likely. And if so, what could she do? Earlier with Crazy Snake at her back she had fought like never before. The thought of it now quickened her heart and her hand strayed to the knife at her side. But could she hope to fight her way through the temple alone and free the others? It seemed an impossible task.
It was then a breeze stirred and the temperature dropped. The light dimmed. Somewhere above the thick mists there was a low rumble of thunder and then, without warning, the earth began to shake.
Rocks tumbled down the slope, and below on the road Aahtaqui squealed. Inakakinya lurched and stumbled her way back down, cutting and scraping herself on the sharp boulders. A great crack rent the air and she turned to see a section of the temple wall split and crumble inward upon itself, sending more loose rubble down the slope.
Finally she reached the horse. There was another great rumbling now, but this time it was neither thunder nor avalanche—more like a massive, crashing rush of water. The familiar, briny smell of the sea filled the air and Aahtaqui began to scream.
Inakakinya turned back the way they had come and gasped. The last of the mists fled before a warm breeze and below it the sea came roaring up the mountain in a wild, foaming fury, sweeping everything in its path.
“Great Mother…” she whispered.
And then it was upon them.
A professional wordsmith, photographer and veteran, Eric 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. Follow him on Twitter at @ENAtkisson.