CRAZY SNAKE AND THE DEMONS OF OMETEPE



CRAZY SNAKE AND THE DEMONS OF OMETEPE, by Eric Atkisson

 

What has occurred before:

Comanches, white men called them. Lords of the Southern Plains. Warriors and horsemen the likes of which had never been seen, their name was feared and their deeds were legend. From the ranks of this mighty people came one they called Crazy Snake–born of war chief and witch, a creature of two worlds. In the year 1856, as white men reckon time, he rode south, shield and tomahawk in hand, first into the demon-haunted ruins of the Yucatán and thence into the wilds of Nicaragua, where he was captured by forces of the usurper president, William Walker. After escaping his prison and slaying the Spanish necromancer who dwelt there, Crazy Snake joined the country’s rebels in their fight against Walker. Months of hard battle followed. Fleeing by sea to evade capture, Crazy Snake came upon a mist-enshrouded isle–the fabled Paapiti of Incan legend, banished from Lake Titicaca along with its imprisoned god and master, Pachacamac. With the aid of a chakana that once belonged to Crazy Snake’s mother, a descendant of the vanished Chacapoya, Pachacamac escaped his island-prison and would have conquered and enslaved the islands of Kuna Yala but for Inakakinya, an albino Kuna whom fate had joined to Crazy Snake. She rallied her people in time to face Pachacamac and his men when they landed, ultimately defeating them with the help of Crazy Snake and his rebel allies.  Once more the horseman was free to resume his improbable journey south, in search of his mother’s people—no longer alone, but in the company of Inakakinya.

 

I

Nicaragua, 1857

His voice had grown soft and hoarse, his body weak. How long had he been chanting now? Days? Weeks? An eternity, it seemed. Perhaps his puha was not as strong as he thought. Or perhaps the spirits that seemed always to guide his path had finally abandoned him. Who was to say? He began to slump, exhausted and defeated. And that’s when it appeared–a buzzing blur of tiny wings around a curved, needle-like beak. He blinked and raised a weary, trembling hand. The visitor settled on it, still buzzing, vibrating, the sensation of it traveling up his arm.

A hummingbird. Her wings–somehow he knew it was a she–were a dark gray, but her head and back were shades of light green and blue, her neck and abdomen white with spots like blue scales. Of all the exotic birds he had seen in his travels it was both the tiniest and the most beautiful. What could it mean?

And then he was no longer looking at the hummingbird but at himself, vibrating, shimmering–like a mirage or a ghost–from the palm of his own hand; he was the hummingbird. Or was he now a she? No matter. Such was the fickle manner of visions. Up and away from his mortal body he flew, though by his own volition or some other he could not say. The jungle, the sea, the emerald islands to the east from whence he had but recently come, and where his brown-and-white pinto Aahtaqui remained–all faded and were soon gone.

He flew west and north, though the world below was not the same as the one he remembered. The people he saw were different–pale, like fish, with wide, dark eyes and hair like seaweed. Animals he once recognized were hideous mockeries of their former selves, twisted and misshapen, with reptilian features where before there were none. Other creatures of nightmare he could never have imagined passed below and sometimes around him, borne on fell winds. He saw a vast ceiba looming above it all, a World Tree, its thick, manifold roots spread wide and burrowed deep. Through a tiny hole in its bark he flew, into a deep, honeycombed, golden-lit shaft. A man with brown skin, tangled locks of black hair, and red beard was climbing the shaft, carrying what appeared to be an eye in a jar. He seemed oblivious to the hummingbird as it flew by.

Out one of the myriad honeycombs the hummingbird flew, and in the vastness beyond he beheld a great lake and an oblong island with a mountain on either end. The sky above was a pale green. Up the slope of the nearer mountain he flew, past trees and boulders with strange spiral markings into the clouds cloaking its upper heights. When he emerged again there was a large pond with a white man standing beside it. He was gaunt and tall, with short blonde hair above a high forehead and sharp cheekbones. Around him the dead lay–dozens of whites, blacks, mestizos, all mingled together and bloodied, lifeless hands still clutching muskets, rifles, machetes.

The sky above him was a darker green now, swirling, the eye of a vast huracán that shook the roots, trunk, and branches of the ceiba tree that loomed above it all. Creatures that defied description–abominations of scale and fur, talon and tentacle–erupted from the water. But they were as nothing compared to the horror that followed, the tip of what at first seemed to be an obelisk. As it rose from the water, higher and higher, waving appendages appeared, each bearing weapons of unfamiliar and sinister design. Next came a great bulbous eye, borne aloft by thin, translucent wings. Where the eye and that towering body went, Crazy Snake foresaw in a moment that seemed to encompass worlds and ages, madness and destruction followed. The end of all things.

The vision faded. A last feeble chant died on his lips and he slumped to the ground, arms and hair splayed wide, eyes only half open, body shaking, with the image of that hideous destroyer still vivid before him.

And of the white man who summoned it.

 

II

Comanchería, 1845

In the darkness of the hollow there was a campfire, and around the campfire were men–shapes so dim they might have been phantoms, conversing in low, guarded tones, the silhouettes of their hats and rifles like horns in the faint light cast by the guttering flames and glowing embers.

“White men,” said Fire Legs.

Horses.” Coyote Paw could not conceal his excitement. Indeed there were about a half dozen wild ponies in the dark hollow, bunched together and hobbled near the campfire, stamping and nickering.

Crazy Snake said nothing. Had his mother not warned him he would test his mettle against a white man, and in such a place as this? She was a powerful bruja. Her visions seldom lied. But to find not one but a handful of white men here, deep in the land of the Antelope-Eaters–Qahadai in the tongue of the Nermernuh, The People–was a surprise. That they had poached horses rightfully the Qahadai’s for the taking was an outrage.

“I count three,” said Coyote Paw.

“Three of them, three of us,” said Fire Legs. “An even match.” His bravado rang false in the moonless dark; they were, after all, not yet men themselves, each still shy of his sixteenth summer moon. That Iron Jacket had agreed to let them scout a few days’ ride from camp was no great testament to their prowess. Indeed, when he first heard who Crazy Snake proposed to take with him, he had frowned.

“Those two are just boys, like you. Why not take someone older?” Boys. Crazy Snake flinched, but held his temper. Now was not the time for an argument. “Coyote Paw is a good tracker, and Fire Legs…” He searched for the right words as Iron Jacket’s frown deepened. “…is a fair enough shot with a bow. He will be useful if we run across some game.”

“Neither would be much use in a fight.”

“We will not be looking for a fight.” It was true enough. More than that, it was what his father wanted to hear. The People were fierce and brave, but Iron Jacket–erstwhile chieftain of the Qahadai–had oft counseled the virtues of caution and cunning, especially since that day, years ago, when a small army of white men had ambushed Buffalo Hump’s war party on their return from the Great Raid. Iron Jacket, in spite of his bravery and escape, was convinced it was a needless disaster–too many braves lost, along with hundreds of horses and other spoils that would have made him rich beyond the wildest imaginings of The People.

“We should never have returned the way we came,” he was wont to complain, to anyone who would listen. “And we should have split into smaller bands. We were too drunk with success, and we paid a heavy price for it.”

“If we run into trouble I will show them what you taught me,” said Crazy Snake, all too familiar with the lamentations of the Great Raid. “We will be like ghosts. No one will know where we went.”

At length Iron Jacket had nodded. “Take care, then. They will look to you as their chief, whether they know it or not, and as their chief you are responsible for their lives as well as yours. To fail in that responsibility is the heaviest burden one can bare.”

Crazy Snake considered his words now, in the darkness, as he scanned the white man’s camp, taking in what few details he could. His eyes drifted up the far ridge and lingered there a time, focusing more intently.

“There,” he whispered, pointing. “Another one. A sentry.”

“Four, then,” said Coyote Paw. “But we will have the advantage of surprise.”

“What should we do?” Fire Legs asked.

Crazy Snake fell silent. Of course there was his promise to Iron Jacket. But there was also his mother’s vision. And the horses. Bringing them back to the Qahadai would be a mighty coup for the three young braves. Killing white men–trespassers!–would be a greater one, of which even Iron Jacket might approve if the deed was already done. But three boys without firearms against four white men?

There had to be another way.

 

III

Nicaragua, 1857

They made an odd sight on the starboard deck, limned against the rising sun: the tall Comanche with bronzed skin and black mane and the albino-white Kuna with short red hair. Both were lightly dressed in the tropical heat; he wore only buckskin breeches and a bone breastplate suspended from his neck, along with his medicine pouch–the source of his puha—and a necklace of jade figurines the same color as the Kuna’s eyes. Standing only as high as the horseman’s broad shoulders, at first glance she might have appeared a mere fisherman, as most of her people were, with a loose, plain white vest and short pants. Only the colorful, beaded bands of orange, yellow, and green around her arms and ankles, and her gold septum ring and seashell necklace, betrayed her for a woman.

“So this is Lake Nicaragua?”

Crazy Snake dipped the tip of his index finger in a jar of red clay and gently touched it against the buffalo hide war shield propped against the rail, holding the shield steady with his other hand.

“The natives call it Cocibolca. The Sweet Sea.”

“And those two strange hills. The same as in your vision?”

“Not hills,” said the horseman. “Volcanoes.”

“You have been there before?”

Crazy Snake slowly brushed the shield with his fingertip. “Most of the fighting I did was south and east of here, in the countryside. But I heard tales of Ometepe. The place of two volcanoes. There is powerful medicine there.”

Inakakinya shook her head. They had been over this before, but the finer details of Nicaragua, its civil war, and Crazy Snake’s passing role in it still confused her. Until two weeks ago her entire world had extended no further than the outermost islands of Kuna Yala, off the Isthmus of Panama, among a people who shunned conflict. Even after all she had experienced since meeting Crazy Snake and all that she had learned of his strange travels before then, Inakakinya could not quite fathom why they were here. It had been her understanding they would press further south into Gran Colombia, where the horseman hoped to find some trace of his mother’s people. But no sooner had they set foot upon the mainland than Crazy Snake retreated to a hilltop with instructions to be left alone, to “seek guidance from the spirit world” for the great journey ahead of them. For two nights, as Inakakinya huddled around a campfire with the captain and crew of La Libertad, the tropical breeze carried snatches of the horseman’s voice, chanting in the tongue of his people. On the second morning he returned to them, tired and shaken.

“What is it?” she had asked, but Crazy Snake’s only answer was that they must head north, not south. Only later did she glean, from his grudging responses, that his vision had been of these volcanoes and of a white man called Walker–the norte americano at the center of the war.

“You are sure it was him?”

“Yes.”

“Even though you have never seen him before?”

The horseman grunted.

“On an island you have never seen before, either?”

“Enough, woman!” He waved his arms. “If you want to go back to your islands, there is the sea.”

But Inakakinya had no intention of going back and calmly shrugged off his outburst. She had no great reason to doubt Crazy Snake, not after everything they experienced on Paapiti. And what difference whether they traveled north or south? One direction was as good as the other. Besides, Chamorro, the cheerful captain of La Libertad, was delighted. He had planned to return that way with or without Crazy Snake, whose company he seemed to enjoy.

So north they had sailed, the crew ever watchful for any sign of Walker’s privateers, but they saw none and passed without incident all the way to the mouth of the San Juan River. There they encountered other rebels with news Chamorro and his men greeted with cheers: a combined army of Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans had defeated Walker’s army at Rivas, on the western shore of Lake Nicaragua. Walker’s men were scattered now, leaderless, Walker himself nowhere to be found.

“I know where to find him,” Crazy Snake had muttered, too low for anyone but Inakakinya to hear.

And so they had parted with the crew of La Libertad and taken a series of smaller boats upriver, through territory now held firmly by the rebels. On the third day they docked at a small village in the shadow of a hilltop stone fort the horseman named, with a grim smile, El Castillo. This, he told Inakakinya, is where he had been held prisoner by some of Walker’s men, months back. No sooner had they docked than they were met by an unlikely band of dark-skinned natives Crazy Snake called Garifunas, led by a grinning giant of a man named Nakili.

“My friend! My brother!” Nakili cried, arms wide. “You have come back to us!”

“Gather all the men and boats you can and meet us on the southern shore of Cocibolca as soon as possible,” said Crazy Snake, as soon as the pleasantries were over. “I know where to find Walker.”

Nakili wasted no time turning to his men and barking orders, and they parted as swiftly as they had met. The rest of the journey upriver Crazy Snake spent alone, sharpening his tomahawk, knife, and arrowheads, and now, finally, painting his shield. What exactly he hoped to find on Ometepe, other than Walker, he did not say. Inakakinya had simply followed his example and sharpened her own knives for battle.

At last Crazy Snake wiped the paint from his finger with a rag, tossed it aside, and held the shield at arm’s length. Though he seldom smiled, the hint of one teased at the corners of his mouth.

“Well? What do you think?”

Inakakinya studied the crude figures on his shield: the flaming man-bat and woman with a horse’s skull for a head, and now, in fresh paint, what appeared to be a scarlet-robed bald man on a throne.

“Can it stop a bullet?”

“What?”

“The shield. Can it stop a bullet?”

“Of course,” said Crazy Snake, the faint smile gone. “It is thick and its puha strong.”

“Has it stopped one before?”

“You do not like my artwork.”

“I did not say that.”

“Then why that face?”

“What face?”

That face. Like…”

The boat lurched, sending them both tumbling across the deck. The half dozen men manning the old sloop cursed and shouted.

“What was that?” Crazy Snake groped for something firm.

Inakakinya righted herself with a hand on the mast. It did not feel as if they had run aground but snagged on something. The bow rocked toward the sky and there was a scream from the stern, where they beheld a sight their minds could not at first credit–a writhing, horse-sized scaly mass of talons, barbed tentacles, and teeth hoisting itself up from the water and onto the deck. As the nearest of the crew fled, shrieking, one of the tentacles seized the man and swiftly pulled him toward a long reptilian maw of razorlike teeth.

Crazy Snake reached over his shoulder for an arrow, found only thin air, and cursed. But Inakakinya was already rifling through a heap of gear and tossed him his bow and a quiver of arrows, then retrieved her own. Faster than would have seemed possible to most men, each had an arrow nocked and aimed. As the creature leaned forward to snap at its captive’s head, there was a twang of bow strings and two arrows pierced its flesh, one in the side of its head and the other in its neck. With a terrible, gurgling scream it dropped the man and retreated into the dark water from whence it came.

Inakakinya rushed to the stern and leaned out, scanning the lake’s surface with another arrow already nocked. Crazy Snake did the same, circling the boat, oblivious to the crew babbling and pointing not at the water but the sky.

“Look, señor!” one of them cried.

A dull orange only minutes earlier, the sky was now a sickly, pale green. Another beastly scream sounded in the distance. As they looked they saw things moving in the water–glimpses of dark scales and fins. The men on one of Nakili’s boats were fighting another creature like the one Crazy Snake and Inakakinya had just driven off. Several of the crew on the horseman’s sloop made the sign of the cross and began to bring it around, back toward the San Juan River.

“No!” said Crazy Snake, grabbing the ship’s captain by his shirt and pointing. “That way! Toward the island.”

“But señor…”

“There is nowhere you will be safe. Walker is there, on that island! If we stop him, we stop this.”

The captain nodded, slowly, and bade his nervous men stay the course, toward the island.

Toward Ometepe.

 

IV

Comanchería, 1845

Long Mustache was the first to die. One moment he was shuffling along the perimeter, stifling a yawn, the next he was raising his rifle with a start. Before he could raise an alarm a rawhide strip was slipped around his neck and pulled tight, and the dark shape he had seen in the brush shot forward and grabbed the rifle from his hand before he could fire or drop it.

Finish him,” Crazy Snake hissed, pulling the strap tighter. Long Mustache’s hands clawed at the strap and then over his shoulders, scratching at the horseman’s face. Coyote Paw set the rifle down, fumbled out his knife, and stuck it in the man’s stomach.

“His heart, you fool. His heart.”

It took two more tries before Coyote Paw struck the knife home, and the man went limp with a stifled whimper. Crazy Snake gently lowered the body to the ground and looked toward the center of the hollow, certain they must have been heard. But fortune had smiled on them, as he was sure it would. The hollow was silent but for the restless stir of the horses and the snoring of white men.

Crazy Snake picked up the dead man’s rifle. “Let’s go,” he whispered, circling back the way they had come. They found Fire Legs where they had left him, bow and arrow ready in case any of Long Mustache’s friends had awakened–though in this moonless gloom even a marksman like Fire Legs would have had difficulty finding an easy target. What little fire the white men had risked they had snuffed out before going to sleep, with their horses gathered and hobbled around them.

“Ready?”

Fire Legs and Coyote Paw nodded in the dark, shifting on their feet, flexing and clenching their free arrow hands in anticipation. Crazy Snake muttered a quiet prayer to the spirits, to steady their nerves and guide their hands. One white man was dead, three more soon would be, and his tribe would be half a dozen horses and a few rifles richer for it. Not a bad showing for three young Comanche braves, he thought with a grin. His mother’s vision had been right after all. Iron Jacket would have no choice but to sing his praises to the rest of the tribe.

Knife in hand, he crept forward, the other two close behind. The nearest horse, a fair-skinned Spanish mustang, raised its head and snorted. Crazy Snake stopped and held up his other hand, as if to soothe it, but the horse only snorted again, and stamped. The others became restless as well.

Shhh,” Crazy Snake whispered, swiftly cutting the rope used to hobble it.

“What the hell was that?” a weary voice mumbled from the far side of the horses.

“What was what?” said another.

“Thought I heard something. Mosely? You up there?”

Crazy Snake groped in the dark until he found another hobble, then sawed at it frantically. Coyote Paw nocked an arrow of his own, and he and Fire Legs looked at each other in the dark, eyes wide.

“Mosely? Shit. Lazy sumbitch. What about you, Ford? You ain’t asleep at the switch too, is you?”

“Nah, I’m still here,” said a voice from the far side of the hollow, in a dense clump of bushes opposite where they had killed Long Mustache. All three Comanches looked that way at once, alarmed. Another sentry. There was a sound of movement near the campfire and then of a match being lit. The glow of a lantern began to light the hollow, while the two horses Crazy Snake had cut free suddenly began to buck, trying to rid themselves of the dangling ropes that had hobbled them. The rest of the horses grew frantic, pulling at their own hobbles, while the white men began to curse and shout.

“Comanches!” one of them shouted. As the two free horses bucked away from the group there was a sharp twang in the dark and one of the white men screamed. Another raised a revolver and fired into the dark.

There was no turning back now, no way out but to fight. “Aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” Crazy Snake cried, charging through the gap of horses with the knife still bared, followed by the echoing war cry of the two young braves behind him.

 

V

Nicaragua, 1857

They landed on the southeastern shore of Ometepe, wooden hulls scraping against sand and rock. Not far from the beach rose the broad, forest-mantled slope of Volcan Maderas, its upper heights disappearing into the clouds. It was not the tallest mountain he had seen, but to Crazy Snake, reared on the wind-blasted plains, every mountain was a forbidding sight. And the thought of mountains that could belch fire, like Maderas and its larger twin on the far side of the island, was more forbidding still. Such things were beyond even the imagination of his father’s people.

Nakili joined Crazy Snake and Inakakinya, no longer grinning but pale and shaken. “I lost three men on the lake. What were those things? What is happening here?”

Crazy Snake frowned. “I had a vision of this place. A powerful vision. Walker was in it. Whatever he was doing, it was bad medicine, like”–he groped for the right words–“opening a door and letting something through.”

“It would seem he already has,” said Nakili, offering Crazy Snake a musket.

“Worse is yet to come, unless we stop him.”

“Then what is our plan?”

“Yes,” said Inakakinya, eying the steep incline. “A plan would be good.”

The horseman grunted, checking to ensure the musket was primed and loaded. “We scout up the mountain until we find Walker and his men.”

Somewhere in the forest above them came a long, bestial roar followed by a chorus of eerie shrieks from the treetops. The rebels stirred uneasily, looking at one another and at Crazy Snake. Inakakinya, too, looked at the horseman, with a raised eyebrow.

“A scout in force.”

“And when we find them?”

Crazy Snake shrugged. “We kill them all.”

“How many men does he have?” Inakakinya asked.

“It cannot be many,” said Nakili. “Most of his army was captured.”

Crazy Snake frowned. “Less than we do, I think. And if we catch them by surprise we will have the advantage.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” Inakakinya pulled out the two knives she kept tucked in the sash around her waist. While Nakili left to share their plan with the rest of the men, Crazy Snake looked at the Kuna and hesitated.

“Do not say it,” she said.

“Say what?”

“Whatever it is you were planning to say. Something about how I should stay behind.”

“Mmm,” said Crazy Snake.

“You think something bad will happen up there,” said Inakakinya. “That much has been obvious since the first time you told me to go home and all the sulking you have done since your vision. But whatever you saw, or whatever you think is going to happen up there, is of no concern to me. I put my trust in the Great Mother and Father. If it is their wish that I die here today, then so be it. But I do not think that is my fate.

Crazy Snake nodded. “I thought you would say something like that.” He looked around for a moment, then walked off and knelt by the banks of a thin stream that emptied into the lake. He scooped up a handful of the dark mud and returned to Inakakinya. Without asking or explaining he dipped a finger in the mud and touched it against the Kuna’s pale, freckled skin. He drew stripes on her face, below her eyes and along her cheekbones, while her jade eyes simply watched him. Then he did the same for himself, still watching her. There was no time for drums and wild cries around the campfire as braves whipped themselves into a frenzy for the coming battle. This would have to do.

“Ready?” said Nakili, returning with a band of armed rebels behind him.

“Yes,” said Crazy Snake and Inakakinya both as they turned toward the mountain.

 

VI

Comanchería, 1845

When the young braves returned to camp, the first of the Qahadai to see them whooped at the sight of the six horses strung along behind them, and soon others joined in the whooping as well. Crazy Snake and Fire Legs, riding upon their own horses, looked at each other and then ahead, at no one in particular. Any pride in their victory was nowhere to be seen on their grim, hard-set faces. On the last horse was Coyote Paw, draped across the saddle and tied down. The whoops soon fell silent, one by one, as the other Qahadai saw him, replaced by the long keening wail of an older woman who ran forward to hold the boy’s lifeless face in her hands.

As they rode further into camp, past other women, children, and a few idle men, the wail of Coyote Paw’s mother preceded them. They were met by silent, somber faces. Two of Coyote Paw’s sisters dropped the buffalo skins they were dressing and joined their mother, wailing and tearing at their hair. By the time they reached the center of camp the small train of horses and Qahadai had become a kind of funeral procession. Iron Jacket stood outside of his tipi, between two of his younger wives, watching their approach. His face was unreadable, though Crazy Snake knew well enough what the old chieftain must be thinking. He and Fire Legs dismounted.

“I am sorry,” Crazy Snake told Coyote Paw’s mother. “Your son died bravely. Please take his share of the horses and my own for your loss.”

After handing off the reins and Coyote Paw’s body, Crazy Snake walked past Iron Jacket’s tipi, ignoring his gaze, and pushed aside the flap to the next one over. Inside was dark, but for a few glowing embers where a fire had burned the night before. A woman sat cross-legged, draped in animal furs, facing the embers and the entrance to the tipi. Her hair was dark as night and her skin fair—almost pale. Her eyes, like her son’s, were grey as stone.

“You said I would kill a white man and win glory.”

“I said you would defeat a white man, and you did. Several, if I am not mistaken.”

“But I won no glory.”

“Then none of them were the white man I saw in my vision. He was powerful, like a great chief.”

“I don’t understand,” Crazy Snake snarled, exasperated. “These men were even in the kind of hollow, or hole, or whatever it was you described. Father will be furious with me for months, and Coyote Paw’s family…” His voice trailed off, not wanting to finish the thought. The fallen Qahadai’s mother and sisters would bury his body in a crevice and mutilate themselves in grief, while his one surviving brother would struggle to provide for them in the hard winter ahead. The horses would help, but they could not replace a son. A brother. A friend.

His mother sighed, gently. “Visions are rarely so specific or accurate, mijo. Sometimes the spirits show you the immediate future, sometimes the distant future. And sometimes what they show you may not come to pass. Else what is the point of living, if our futures are already made for us? The only thing certain, visions or no, is that we all must die–some young, like Coyote Paw, and some old, as your father will one day. It is the harsh way of things.”

Crazy Snake turned and pushed back out of the tipi, sorry that he had come and sorrier still that he had asked. Iron Jacket had mercifully disappeared back into his own tipi. The fact that he had not come for his son, nor sent someone to fetch him, told Crazy Snake all he needed to know. His father’s point had been made.

It was up to Crazy Snake to make of the bitter lesson what he would.

 

VII

Nicaragua, 1857

The small force of rebels kept as close as they could, following Crazy Snake and Inakakinya as they moved swiftly uphill between trees and over wet grass, streams, and slicks of mud–even the occasional boulder with strange spiral markings, like those Crazy Snake had seen in his vision. Nakili had estimated a climb of perhaps three and a half hours, but the impatient horseman seemed determined to do it in half that time.

“Some of my men cannot keep this pace up,” Nakili muttered. “They need to rest.”

“They can rest when they are dead,” said Crazy Snake. “Which will be sooner than they think, if they stop.”

Nakili’s hearty laugh startled Inakakinya. “Ah, how I have missed you, my friend. When you left I was sure we had seen the last of you, but here you are, returned to us, and with a companion no less. It gladdens my heart. A man should have…” He hesitated under Inakakinya’s suspicious glare at the word companion. “Friends. Especially a man like you, always fighting one battle or another.”

“I have had friends before,” said Crazy Snake. “It never ended well for them.”

“Maybe you didn’t have the right kind of friends,” said Nakili.

“Maybe.”

“And what kind is that?” Inakakinya asked.

Nakili smiled. “The tough kind.”

“She is tough,” said Crazy Snake. “I have seen her fight.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

“Among her people she is called a sipu, a Child of the Moon,” the horseman added.

“Oh? And why is that?”

Inakakinya scowled. “I told you. It’s just a silly ritual.”

“What ritual?” Nakili asked.

But she wouldn’t answer, so it was Crazy Snake who volunteered, “Something involving a drag–

There was a scream from the rear of their column, followed by a commotion of panicked shouts. Nakili, Inakakinya, and Crazy Snake pushed their way back, bringing the nearest rebels with them. They found a handful of men nervously gripping their weapons and eyeing the jungle. A trail of blood led from where they were standing into the dense undergrowth.

“One of the creatures from the lake,” a frightened rebel told Nakili. “It was fast. Took Barüna before we could react.”

“We must keep moving,” said Crazy Snake. “There will be more of these things.”

This time there was no disagreement, no grumbling. They pressed on, and Nakili’s men kept even closer than they had before. Soon they were climbing through a heavy mist that reduced visibility to just a few yards. “Just like Paapiti,” muttered Crazy Snake, hacking branches out of his way. Inakakinya, who had been thinking the same thing, grimaced.

“This is just a cloud,” she said. “No magic.”

“How do you know? Have you ever been inside one?”

“Well, no, but–”

“Exactly,” the horseman grunted, his point made. Cloud or not, as at Paapiti the feeling of bad medicine here was strong. And there were sounds in the mist, strange sounds that Crazy Snake at first dismissed as the tramp of feet and muttering of men behind them, weirdly distorted, though Nakili and Inakakinya seemed to hear them as well–from ahead. The cloud thinned for a moment, letting in a flash of pale green sunlight. On the slope above they saw one of the creatures from the lake, shaking a man in its jaw. With a Nermernuh war chant on his lips, Crazy Snake raised his musket, took aim, and fired. The creature howled, and as it did Crazy Snake took Nakili’s musket and fired another shot. This time the creature dropped its prey and disappeared. As the victim of its attack stood, Crazy Snake saw that it was no man at all but a woman, clad in quilted armor, head shaved but for a single lock that hung over her left ear. In her hand she held a weapon that looked like a saw-toothed paddle, spattered with blood. She gazed at Crazy Snake in awe, but before he could call out to her the cloud shifted and she, too, shifted and was gone.

Crazy Snake looked at Nakili, who shrugged.

“Not one of ours.”

Crazy Snake shook his head. “We must hurry.”

Again they pressed on, and a few minutes later, as he was about to urge more speed yet again, Crazy Snake almost pitched forward and down a smaller slope. They had reached the peak, but instead of a proper summit there was a wide rim surrounding a crater at least a few stones’ throw across. The cloud was thinner here, offering glimpses of a pond below and men along its shore. Crazy Snake, Nakili, and Inakakinya dropped to their bellies. There was something eerily familiar about the crater that Crazy Snake had not seen in his vision… a kind of hollow, or hole, or whatever it was...

The hairs on the nape of his neck stood on edge.

Sometimes the spirits show you the immediate future, sometimes the distant future.

“Bring your men up,” Crazy Snake whispered harshly to Nakili, “like this, in a line, with their rifles and bows ready. When I give the signal, we attack.”

“Just like that?” Inakakinya asked.

“No,” said Crazy Snake. “There is something else we must do first, just you and me. Come. And have your arrows ready.”

He led her off around the outside of the crater, knife in hand, keeping well enough below its rim that no one would see them from below.

“What are we looking for?” she whispered.

“Sentries.”

Sure enough, they saw one within a minute of leaving Nakili, standing near the rim and peering into the mist. He hadn’t seen them yet and never would. A Kuna arrow sprouted from his chest, near his heart. Before he could make a sound the horseman closed the distance and clamped one hand over the sentry’s mouth while the other slit his throat with the knife. He waited for the man’s body to go limp before he set him down, then gestured with the bloody knife for Inakakinya to continue following him. For a moment he saw not the Kuna’s face but Coyote Paw’s. He looked away. This time would be different. There would be no surprises, no wails of grief nor the silent, judgmental gaze of Iron Jacket.

Soon they found another guard. This one did see them, but before he could sound an alert an arrow pierced his eye and he fell twitching while Crazy Snake again finished him off. They moved on and found another. And another. And another. Each met the same grim fate by arrow and knife–the horseman doing his part with savage, determined efficiency, as if battling more than just men–until he and Inakakinya were back where they had begun, with Nakili and the other rebels now in position.

Then none of them were the white man I saw… He was powerful, like a great chief.

“Aim for the tall, gaunt one with the pale hair,” said the horseman, pointing him out to Inakakinya. Walker was standing by the crater’s pond, speaking softly with his eyes closed and his hands raised. The water seemed to boil near where he stood, and a circular breeze began to stir within the crater, dispersing much of the remaining mist. The Kuna nodded and took aim while Crazy Snake did the same, this time with his bow. If he was to kill Walker, he would do it the proper Comanche way.

“Now!” he shouted.

The roar of gunfire filled the crater like a clap of thunder, followed before it even subsided by a long, ululating Comanche war cry. While the men inside the crater who had not been hit fumbled with their firearms, Crazy Snake charged down the slope with Inakakinya, Nakili, and over twenty rebels close behind him.

There were a few scattered shots as some of Walker’s men returned fire. It was all they could manage before the rebels fell upon them with knives, machetes, musket butts, and tomahawk. Crazy Snake was sure at least one of the arrows he and Inakakinya had loosed had hit Walker, but in the confusion of the volley and their charge he had lost sight of the white man. As the horseman made his way toward the pond, deflecting blows with his shield and returning them with his tomahawk, there were cries of surprise and new sounds of combat behind him. He turned to see one of Walker’s men fall, a saw-toothed paddle like the one he had seen earlier lodged in the man’s back. Beyond him, amid a clamor of strangely clad, shimmering figures who had not been there a moment earlier, was the woman he had saved on the slope. Her eyes, when they met Crazy Snake’s, changed. The look of awe faded, as if she had expected to see someone else. And then she and the others around her were gone–vanished, like ghosts, fighting some other battle beyond this world.

“There!” Inakakinya shouted, and the horseman turned. Walker still stood by the pond, leaning to one side with an arrow in his thigh. Two of his men had rallied to their leader’s defense, trying to cover him, their eyes darting between the melee and the rim of the crater. Crazy Snake charged, shield raised in front of his face. The men turned in time to each fire a shot, one high and one low, and while they did Inakakinya loosed another arrow. One man fell clutching the shaft in his chest. The other fell with a tomahawk in his forehead, and the horseman fell with him, still clutching the haft. He rolled onto his back and touched his side, blood streaming between his fingers from where a bullet had hit.

“You can’t stop this! Nothing can now!” Walker screamed. “I will have my victory!”

At that moment the pond erupted, spraying everyone in the crater. The fighting ceased, and they all turned. There, above the water, was a sight before which every man shrank back: a creature of nightmare, not unlike those Crazy Snake had glimpsed from afar in his vision, with vast, brightly feathered wings that seemed to span half the pond, the deep thumps of their beating filling the stunned silence. Its talons, too, were those of a raptor’s, but its golden-hued body was serpentine, with a long, barbed tail, and its head strangely feline–like a jaguar’s.

Inakakinya dropped to the ground as it swooped low above her, the breeze of its passing ruffling her short red hair, followed by the sounds of men running and screaming. When she looked up she saw the creature circling back with one of the men clenched in its talons. A few rebels and white men fired their muskets at it, but most were running toward the slope of the crater, trying to get away. The creature, or dragon—for what else could it be?–alit upon the crater’s rim, above the far side of the pond, where it tore the upper torso off its prey and devoured it within seconds, leaving the rest of him to tumble down the slope in a grisly heap. There was another half-hearted round of scattered fire, and the dragon’s head whipped toward the source with a high-pitched, jaguar’s roar, bloody lips peeled back in a snarl. It launched and dove again, catching another rifleman in its talons and carrying him straight up into the cloud. Moments later the man reappeared, flailing and screaming until the impact of the fall shattered his skull and stilled his voice. The rest dropped their muskets and fled.

 

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“I am a Child of the Moon,” Inakakinya muttered, rising to a knee and fumbling for another arrow. She took aim as the dragon burst from the cloud and released the bowstring, hitting it in one of its armpits. It roared again, this time in a wounded rage. Reflexively, Inakakinya began to chant. The familiar incantations, the old stories and rituals of her people, were suddenly as vivid as they were when she first learned them as a child. She was a sipu, sworn to protect the moon from a mythical dragon that would consume it. Perhaps it was just a silly story. Perhaps not. Perhaps in every story and every ritual there was some element of truth that only time and wisdom could reveal. She nocked another arrow and took aim as the dragon wheeled around. It dove toward her, jaws open. “I am a Child of the Moon!” Inakakinya cried, jade eyes flaring. She released the arrow and rolled to the side. There was a giant splash in the pond, where the creature now thrashed, the arrow lodged in its throat. Inakakinya nocked another one, aimed for the dragon’s head, and let it fly. The dragon thrashed a few more times and then fell still, sinking slowly beneath the surface.

Inakakinya closed her eyes and muttered her thanks to the Great Mother and Father.

“I don’t understand,” said Walker, who had sunk to his knees by the pond. “The ritual… it was all but complete, but Pedrarias is gone. The portal closed.” He turned his gaunt face and dull, hollowed eyes to look at Crazy Snake, who was struggling to kneel himself, still clutching his bleeding side. Nakili was shouting, attempting to rally the rebels back. A few of the injured remained, including some of Walker’s men, but they made no move to retrieve their weapons. The fight had gone out of them, and they blinked like newborns at the tropical sun now filling the crater with steam and light, burning away the last vestiges of the sickly green hue.

You,” said Walker.

Crazy Snake spat.

“I could have turned the tide here. Changed everything. With Pedrarias’s creatures at my command and my weapons at his, we could have ruled our two worlds like gods.”

“You were nothing but a pawn to open a door,” said Crazy Snake. “And what came through would have destroyed everything. Including you.”

Walker sneered. “You know nothing, Comanche.” He reached for his hip and pulled a pistol out of a holster, cocked the hammer back, and aimed it at Crazy Snake. Before he could pull the trigger a foot kicked his hand, sending the shot wide and the pistol into the pond. Nakili followed the kick with a blow to Walker’s face, from the flat side of the strange, saw-toothed paddle he had retrieved from the back of a white man. It knocked Walker to the ground, senseless, and the Garifuna quickly proceeded to tie Walker’s hands behind his back. Inakakinya appeared at Crazy Snake’s side with a handful of rags. She pushed his bloody hands aside and pressed the rags against the wound, then wrapped them in place around his midsection with a long strap she had found among the abandoned gear.

The horseman winced and swayed for a moment. “I want his scalp.”

Nakili chuckled. “I am afraid that will have to wait, my friend. The norte americanos have offered a handsome price for his man, alive and intact. After we have the money, well…” He shrugged. “You can do whatever you like, if you can capture him back. But first you need to heal and rest, so you can explain to me what just happened here. And how your Kuna friend managed to kill that… thing… with a couple of arrows.”

“Three,” said Inakakinya.

“What?”

“Three arrows. It was the third that killed it.”

Nakili laughed. “Well, that was three more hits than any of these faithless curs managed. Crazy Snake is lucky to have you by his”–he rushed forward to help her, as the horseman passed out—“side.” Together they laid him down in a comfortable position. Inakakinya gently removed the buffalo hide war shield from Crazy Snake’s arm and was about to prop it beneath his head when she laughed, startling herself as much as Nakili. It had been so long, she had almost forgotten the sound of her own laughter–a bit too high and sharp, like the call of a strange bird. Nakili looked at her expectantly, unsure of the joke, as she took her knife and pried at the shield’s surface. Something came loose and rolled into her hand. She held it up for Nakili to see: a small metal ball, of the kind fired by muskets.

“Great Mother, he was right. It does stop bullets.”

_________________________________

A professional wordsmith, photographer, and veteran, Eric was born in Texas, grew up in Wisconsin, and now lives in Northern Virginia, where he works for the government and writes fiction for fun.  Follow him on Twitter at @ENAtkisson.


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