Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
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Lord of Snakes

by John Rovito

The labyrinths that time creates vanish,
Only the desert remains.

Garcia Lorca

The tenuous moments just before dawn. Arid strands of light sift down like copper lacings onto the dessert floor. Feint murmurs of life, cactus wrens and black-throated sparrows, coyotes, prairie dogs and white-tailed deer. In the distance the humpbacked Sierra Madre frames a fortified town encircled by a trench, the trench blanketed with wooden spikes, the spikes backed by adobe brick walls studded with razor-tipped metal and broken glass. Set into the walls, a concave portico reinforced by a double iron gate. Beyond the gate, a barren stretch of mesquite and scrub brush, the foliage overgrowing a concrete slab dropped in the sand. A young girl stands on the slab, completely naked, hands tied above her head to a wooden post. More than two hundred Saguaros stare down at the girl from atop the town's battlements, torches in hand, awaiting Tezcacoatl's return.

They do not wait long. Tremors echo across the landscape, cracks in the earth and rumblings in the stones. High-pitched shrieks cut like knives across the paper sky then undulating shapes, long and winding, first blurred by the heat then closer, outlined in sepia, the wavering contours slowly resolving into a phalanx of giant snakes, moss green and ochre brown, yellow purple crimson red, some diamondbacked with a corrugated speckle, others sheathed in translucent skin the color of aqueous silver. The largest are ten feet high and more than eighty feet long. All are mutants, genetic perversions of the Twenty Years War.

The battle line spreads contracts lunges forward tracing out to a half mile arc, mindlessly crushing all in its path. A dust cloud escalates to a blinding penumbra then dissolves into haze and the Saguaros see him, regal atop a coral black viper.

Tezcacoatl. Master of the Sand and Lord of Snakes.

Three Months Earlier...

Rumors of mutants filter down from the Northern provinces, strange tales told by drifters of men transformed into something less than human: into wolves and crows and hammerclawed lizards, bats and insect-like creatures with crusted shells and slicing tentacles. The stories are too fantastic to believe and so the Saguaros assign them to the category of myth born from the fears engendered by war. Until one day the myths collapse and they awaken to a cordon of giant snakes surrounding the town. The snakes are supported by dozens of mutant warriors, all of them naked except for the turquoise ear plugs and green quetzal feathers that adorn their reptile-scaled bodies. Some brandish bows with flint-barbed arrows; others are armed with obsidian swords. One group carries flesh-colored conch shells they continue to blow with a stubborn intensity. Another group holds up heraldic banners. The banners depict a feathered serpent with vestigial claws and plumes round its head: an Aztec god from a time long past.

Twenty years of war have brought about severe climatic change. The rising temperatures unbalance the ecosystem, siphoning off the natural predators and overflowing the cities with an infestation of rats and the bubonic plague they breed. The combination of war and pestilence wipes out more than ninety percent of the population. To escape the scourge, a former lawyer named John Tanner organizes an exodus into the desert. His followers are a polyglot mix of Hispanics, Americans, Asians and Blacks; shop clerks, truck drivers, laborers, salesmen, nurses, and other now extinct occupations. They call themselves Saguaros, not in deference to race or ethnicity but in homage to the region's spiny-armed cactus. To shield themselves, they devise a loose fitting uniform of white shirt and pants to reflect the heat. These are complemented by a squared-off military cap with a low-hanging havelock that covers their necks, plus high-ankle boots to protect against thorns.

The town John Tanner and his followers build features more than one hundred multi-room dwellings, a communal store, a forge, and a large meeting hall. In the beginning, they live off canned goods they scavenge from a burnt out mall. Two years later they've transformed themselves into farmers. They use the nearby river and its tributaries to irrigate the parched land into a hard-won oasis: quilted fields of alfalfa and cotton, cantaloupes lettuce spinach broccoli cauliflower and lemons, all of it overhung with spray-misted canopies that insulate their crops from the overbearing sun. Other than an old hunting rifle, they haven't any weapons. Just knives and shovels and hand-made tools.

John Tanner realizes that without weapons to fight, the Saguaros are helpless. It's then that Keaton steps into the fray. Middle-aged, tall and thin with brush cut hair the color of shrapnel. He's new to the town, arriving two months earlier with a daughter by his side. No one knows much about him except that he'd been a soldier during the war. Now he works as a carpenter, mending chairs and fixing tables. Other than a steely reserve, nothing in his demeanor hints at a desire to lead. Yet there he is, alone among the Saguaros, standing defiantly atop the adobe walls demanding to speak to whomever controls the surrounding force. In response, an ululating cry rises up from the mutants as the giant black snake slithers forward, Tezcacoatl on its back. Like the warriors he commands, the Lord of Snakes is also a mutant, part man part reptile without ears or eyelids, his tongue forked, the shaven skin of his head and shoulders tempered by brown and orange scales that clamor like brass against the sun.

Arrogant and self-assured, Tezcacoatl sits upon the snake's sloping carcass and bares his fangs. Later, some will say they recognize him, that he was one of those who migrated south after the war. Others insist that he was once a Saguaro though none can remember his name. No one knows how he controls the snakes, whether by telepathic link or some basilisk language. All agree that he is fearsome to behold, a nightmare come to invade their dreams.

Raising his arms to silence the ranks the Lord of Snakes begins to speak, an Indian patois of Nahuatl and English that rolls off his tongue with a sibilant hiss. Northern Mexico and California have been overrun. Soon Texas and Arizona will follow until all of what was once the Southwestern United States falls under his sway. But the Lord of Snakes is merciful. He demands neither food nor water. What he's come for is women, not one or two but all within the town so that his mutants may propagate their newborn species. The Lord of Snakes assures the Saguaros this is not a request. Failure to obey will result in death for all.

Keaton has no reason to doubt what the snake king says. During his years in the military, he's come across entire communities devastated by the horde. The few who survive the atrocities recount the pleasure Tezcacoatl takes in torturing his victims. Keaton understands the pitiless nature of torture. But rather than placate his adversary, Keaton assures Tezcacoatl that regardless of the outcome, the Saguaros will fight. "And if it's the women you want, then come and get them," he adds with a challenge. "All that you'll conquer will be the bodies of the dead."

The Lord of Snakes stares up at Keaton, his eyes narrowed at the blatant insult. He's come to the Sonora fully expecting the Saguaros to bend to his demands. Seeing the high walls and the number of men they have, he now realizes that it would be difficult to take the town without considerable cost. He'll need to return at a later time with the full complement of mutants under his command. And so he grudgingly admits to the logic of Keaton's reply. But logic has nothing to do with power. Power demands fealty if only symbolic. Tezcacoatl therefore responds that he will spare the town but only if Keaton provides him with a token of loyalty. One woman. Flesh upon flesh to carry his seed.

Keeton looks to John Tanner who shakes his head no, then below to the terrified faces of the women huddled together in the town's central square, his daughter among them. All are young having been resilient enough to survive the horrors of war and the ensuing plague. Keaton knows that without their women, the Saguaros will wither. But he also realizes that despite his bravado, this is not the time to fight. Reluctantly, he agrees to consider the offer.

"But not now," he tells Tezcacoatl biding for time. "What you ask requires the consent of more than one person. I need to consult with the others. Return in three months. You'll have your answer then."

Satisfied with what he believes to be Keaton's submission, the Lord of Snakes nods his assent. Three months will give him the time he needs to marshal his forces. He gestures to his heralds. The conch shells sound and the mutants withdraw.

The Birthplace of the Gods...

The Spanish called it the Reconquista when for nearly 800 years they fought to take back the Iberian Peninsula from the Moorish invaders. The Lord of Snakes considers it only fitting that he call his crusade by the same name as he takes back the ancient cities from the hated oppressors. Tezcoco is conquered, then Metztitlan, Cholula, Tlacopan, Chapultapec, and finally Teotihuacan, birthplace of the gods and now the fortress from which he wages his war of revenge. His forces have multiplied since he first traveled north into the Sonoran Desert and demanded the Saguaros submit to his rule. The time is quickly approaching when he'll return for what the town owes him. For that and everything else he can take. To his followers he's promised women and slaves and lands they can govern. Anything less would subvert his power -- something he's not about to permit.

Cast in shadow by the waning moon, he looks out over his sleeping army to the broad expanse of Teotihuacan, to time-worn temples, markets and the Avenue of the Dead, a mordant thoroughfare filled with thousands of sun-bleached skulls the mutants have mounted on ten-foot pikes. For over a millennium the city had been the largest in Mesoamerica, a center of religion trade and indigenous culture. And what was it now? A silent relic stripped of its beauty, a curiosity without sanctity or grace. But that will change. The gods will return and the ancient ways restored. Darkness will fall away and be reborn to a dazzling light as the fifth sun arises from the bones of the dead. Tezcacoatl will make it so.

He retreats to a chamber deep within the temple of the feathered serpent. There he sits cross-legged, a ceremonial strand of human teeth hung round his neck. A heart torn from the chest of a living captive burns brightly atop a copper brazier. The red and orange flames splinter against the blood-stained walls to reveal a sacrificial altar backed by a row of six serpent-headed sculptures. The eyes of each are filled with a milky white glass.

Dipping his finger into a bowl beside him, Tezcacoatl presses his tongue to the dry brown powder: teonanácatl, the divine mushroom. After several minutes, he feels the onrush, his senses heightened...

And his body begins to glow, a precious emerald that transcends the earthly limitations of time and space. Colors dance, the wood on the brazier cracks like a whip, surfaces ripple shimmer begin to breath, the stones morph to jaguars eagles spider monkeys then screaming green lizards until finally the walls of the chamber melt away and he is descended to the underworld.

He hears music but not music, rather the sounds of a waterfall the wind in the trees the evening whispers of the forest. There are people in the forest, native women desperately running, pursued by dogs, giant mastiffs intent on tearing flesh from bone.

The scene changes, the room darkens, the ancient cities burn. Slaughter everywhere. War horses, bearded men in armor, murder and rape, the streets clogged thick with the dismembered bodies of Jaguar and Eagle warriors, the capital Tenochtitlan destroyed. He tries to turn away but his eyes remain fixed. He passes forward through time yet nothing changes. The people remain subjugated humiliated oppressed, his own parents deemed less than human, less than dogs, robbed of their heritage honor dignity by the Spanish the Americans and now the Saguaros, a mongrel breed that dares to claim the land as their own.

But that time is past. A new people, a transcendent species has been born, more than human, more powerful more lasting than even their great Aztec forbears. Joined together with their brother serpents they will take back in blood what is rightfully theirs.

And so it begins. With angled precision, he draws the obsidian blade thinly across his earlobes calves tongue and penis, the droplets of blood spilling down into the sacred mask of Xipe Totec, the flayed god, master of death and eternal rebirth. It is by the god's power that Tezcacoatl's crusted skin now molts and falls from his serpent-scaled body, imbuing the receiving earth with the seed of new life.

In the Trenches...

The Saguaros work steadily through the night, their labors illuminated by a row of bonfires. Carpenters hammer slats into makeshift shields. Masons pile rocks onto a wooden battlement braced high against the inner walls. Women grind chili peppers with mortars and pestles while the young men load dirt onto mule-drawn carts. When the carts are full, they drop the dirt onto a mound at the town's central square. Everyone understands the need to complete their work before Tezcacoatl's return.

Keaton surveys the progress and calls out to Mallory, who was also a soldier during the war. Mallory directs a work crew charged with digging the two trenches that girdle the walls. Keaton checks the spikes in the first trench making sure they're strong enough to withstand a body's falling weight. He reminds Mallory to coat the bottom of the second trench with the pine tar they've produced from roots gathered along the Western slopes. Finally assured that everything will be ready, he continues on to his meeting with Tanner.

Keaton may have assumed command of the town's defenses but it's John Tanner who's responsible for keeping everyone together, for convincing the others that Keaton was correct to challenge the snake king and that they should stay and fight, not simply run as they've done in the past.

There's much to be admired in that, thinks Keaton. Building trust. For the past two decades all Keaton has built are the skills of a killer, an operative adept at ambush and deceit. But the only one he's really deceived is himself, believing the lie of how he and his comrades were simply crusaders, fighting for freedom when what they really were doing was trying to prop up a world gone to seed. Not that the other side was any different. And so the war extended not for a few months as they'd originally planned but for years and then decades until finally everything was torn irrevocably apart, the whole rotting fabric of civilization. In the end, there were no winners. Everyone lost, Keaton most of all. First his wife, dead from the plague, then his son, legs blown off by a roadside bomb. All he has left is a corrosive cynicism.

That and his daughter Anne. They've been together for two years now, traveling alone sleeping in the open fields, never knowing who to trust what towns to avoid where to go next. Two years together yet Keaton barely knows her. For most of her life he's been away fighting. He has no idea what she thinks or believes, whether she's proud to be his daughter or hates him for abandoning his family for the war. It doesn't matter. Having her with him is enough.

She's still young, on the cusp of being a woman. The time for reconciliation will come later once they've had a chance at a normal life, never mind that he has no idea what a normal life means. This is his home now, the only home he's ever really had. For the first time he feels hopeful of the future and he isn't about to let anyone take that away, especially some mutated freaks.

Keaton finds Tanner and his senior advisors waiting for him in the town's meeting hall. Over the past three months there's been heated debate among the Saguaros as to what should be done regarding Tezcacoatl's demands. All are in agreement that to arbitrarily hand over even one of their women is unacceptable.

"After all," says Tanner with a lawyer's rationale, "we're not savages."

No, thinks Keaton, they're not and that's the problem. Tanner wants to rebuild their community in the image of what existed prior to the war. Yet outside the walls, every vestige of the civilization they've known has disappeared completely, not simply cars, computers, phones, and electricity, but most importantly the rule of law.

All that remains is the instinct for survival. It's an instinct that John Tanner lacks but Tezcacoatl has in abundance. If he wins -- and everything Keaton knows about war says that he will -- then Keaton has no doubt that the few Saguaros who remain will be dragged back to by the snake king to have their hearts cut out on sacrificial slabs. Tezcacoatl's gods will demand it.

"The only way to defeat him is by deceit," Keaton argues. "Tezcacoatl is no fool. Why risk his forces in an attack when by simply surrounding the town he bars us from the river and the water we need?"

"But we've prepared for that," answers Tanner. "There's more than enough water stored in the caves under the forge. Plus ample food that will last for up to six months."

"And when the water runs out and there's no more food," asks Keaton. "What happens then?"

It's a question for which Tanner, for all his planning, has no reply. "So what is it you're suggesting? That we give him what he wants?"

"We've spent the last three months building up our defenses," explains Keaton pointing out towards the Saguaros working on the battlements. "But even with everything we've done, there's still no way we can survive a siege. But what we can do is take advantage of his overconfidence. When Tezcacoatl comes, we need to force him to attack us. It's the only chance we have. But for that to happen he has to see a woman waiting for him. Otherwise he'll know that we've lied."

The Deadly Embrace...

The sun creeps over the jagged edge of the Sierra Madre bathing the desert in a sterile glow. The conch shells sound, low then three times high and the densely-packed battle line branches out, organizing into three concentric circles that surround the town in a deadly embrace. Closest are the giant snakes which slither and hiss, hungry for prey. Behind them stand more than a thousand serpent warriors, swords drawn, braced for the attack. The last rank consists of kneeling archers. Opposite the battle lines, the Saguaros wait atop the battlements, torches in hand, their pale white garb in stark contrast to the kaleidoscopic array of the mutants lined up against them. Next to each man rests a pile of rocks as well as a large pear-shaped gourd filled with a combination of ground chili peppers and smoking black ash.

The blare of the conch shells stops, the ranks part and Tezcacoatl rides forward on his coral black snake. If he sees the town's newly constructed defenses he gives no indication. His eyes are instead locked on the girl tied to the wooden post. Without fear of the town's defenders, he dismounts and walks toward her, ready to claim his prize.

What he finds is not the young bride he'd anticipated but a desiccated body scabbed and diseased, dead from the plague. Tezcacoatl's jaw tightens.

Keaton lifts his hand and motions for his men to wait. There is a long moment of silence, the desert air filled with a palpable tension until slowly, the Lord of Snakes holds aloft his clenched fist and in a cry filled with both anger and despair lets out a plaintive wail.

The Saguaros have tricked him and for this they will die.

His minions take up the call and the desert fills with an overwhelming din, with chants and catcalls, the stamping of feet and thundering of rattles. A blast from the conch shells shoots out through the clamor and the Saguaros brace themselves, ready for the first wave of the attack. It comes seconds later as a deluge of flint-tipped arrows rains down upon the town. Some bounce harmlessly off the walls, others strike hard against the wooden shields the Saguaros use to cover their heads.

Keaton takes aim and fires his assault rifle, a remnant of the war and one of only two guns in the town. His first burst is high. He adjusts the markers on the rifle's sight and with the second burst more than a dozen of the kneeling bowmen fall bleeding to the ground. The Saguaros cheer. Then crouch as another wave of arrows rains down from above. Then another until it's impossible to stand and see over the walls. A second blast from the conch shells is followed by a rallying cry and the serpent warriors charge under the protective canopy of arrows. The first line drags long wooden boards to bridge the spiked trench. The second carries leather bound ladders to mount the walls.

There's of a momentary break in the fusillade as the archers reload. The Saguaros take advantage of the pause to stand and toss their smoking gourds down at the incoming ranks. The gourds shatter and release a stinging cloud of pepper smoke that wafts across the outer trench. A barrage of curses fills the air as the attackers rub at their eyes and begin to choke.

Keaton fires and catches the wavering vanguard on full automatic. Heads explode and arms tear away, the dismembered bodies jerking like shadow puppets in a grotesque dance as they stumble forward into the trench and are impaled on the sharpened stakes. Then the arrows return and Keaton is back against the wall as the main body of the attack reaches the spiked trench, throws down its wooden boards and crosses over. Keeping low, Keaton looks to Mallory who he's stationed above the front gate.

In his hands, Mallory grips an old hunting rifle. His intent is to kill Tezcacoatl and halt the advance, if only for the time it takes the horde to choose a new leader. The problem is that the gun doesn't have a telescopic sight. Given the swirling dust as well as the haze from the morning sun, Mallory finds it nearly impossible to hone in and locate Tezcacoatl amid the general frenzy.

Keaton understands and is about to reposition him when a thud of ladders slams against the wall and dozens of warriors catapult over the top, their obsidian blades slicing mercilessly into the defenders.

The Saguaros respond by ramming their torches into the faces of the attackers and driving them back, then throwing down the rocks piled at their sides to crush the skulls of those climbing up.

Keaton fires from the hip and cuts down three of the mutants as they race towards him along the battlement. He uses the butt of his assault rifle to push off the ladder nearest to him, then a second to his right.

But there are too many ladders and the warriors continue to flood over, crazed and howling, flailing wildly with their swords. One warrior charges Keaton from behind and is about to strike down with his blade when his neck snaps back and he keels over, a bullet in his spine.

Keaton looks up to see Mallory waving. And then a second warrior is on him, knocking away his gun, gripping his arms and throwing him down onto the battlement. Keaton tries to push him off but the mutant is too strong, stronger than anything Keaton has ever encountered, pressing down and baring its fangs, about to tear into Keaton's throat and then John Tanner is standing over them and the mutant is screaming, its head ablaze from John Tanner's torch.

His arms freed, Keaton retrieve his rifle and blasts the mutant point blank in the gut. From the corner of his eye he sees another group of mutants that's jumped into the square below. He aims and cuts them down just before they reach the meeting hall where the women are gathered. Then a third roar of the conch shells startles him and he turns to see a phalanx of giant snakes rushing towards the town. This is what he's been hoping for.

The snakes surge forward, their outsized torsos sliding easily over the boards that cover the spiked trench, coming on with ferocious abandon until suddenly the ground beneath them gives way and they tumble into the second trench that for the past three months the Saguaros have been digging. The trench is over twenty feet deep, hidden under straw and dirt and pinewood boards. The Saguaros have reinforced the boards so that the mutants can pass over without recognizing what lies below. But not the snakes which topple and squirm, trying to gain purchase against the collapsing sand.

Seeing the snakes helpless, Tanner reaches for a thin whistle that hangs from a leather cord around his neck, bites down hard and blows. The sound is shrill and high-pitched, high enough to pierce through the battle's mayhem and alert the Saguaros that the time has come.

In a single collective motion they hurl their torches over the walls and into the hysterical mass. The torches ignite the pine tar that now coats not only the bottom of the hidden trench but the bodies of the snakes that struggle within. The snakes are immediately engulfed by a towering flame, the flame spreading out to encompass the mutants who become trapped on the ladders and are unable to escape.

The Saguaros huddle under their wooden shields and listen as the cries of battle are replaced by agonizing screams and the simmering crackle of burning flesh. Within minutes the attack force is completely incinerated. On the walls, men vomit from the nauseating stench.

It takes nearly an hour for the blackened smoke to clear. Tezcacoatl watches from behind the archers at the rear of his battle line. He tells himself he can still take the town. But with the first wave of the attack completely destroyed he reluctantly acknowledges that the cost will be high. Too high, he decides, and gestures to his heralds who raise their conch shells to sound the recall.

As they do, Mallory takes aim through the dissipating haze. A single shot rings out and Tezcacoatl falls from atop the coral black snake. With their leader down, the mutants turn silent, confused as to what to do next. Keaton looks to Mallory then Tanner knowing what they're all thinking. With Tezcacoatl dead... and then they see him, pressing one hand then another against the ground, rising unsteadily to his feet, his forehead creased with blood but definitely alive, a mocking smile implanted on his face, staring directly up at Keaton, wanting his adversary to know that the Saguaros may have won, but only for today.

To Bury the Dead...

Over the next forty-eight hours the Saguaros clear the trenches, dragging the dead snakes and mutants to a clearing on the outskirts of the town where they've dug a massive ditch. They throw the burnt bodies and carcasses into the gaping cavity -- deep enough so that the rats can't get at them -- and cover them first with lime, then sand and dirt until all traces of a burial mound have been swept away by the winds. Their own people they inter inside the walls, in a picket fence graveyard with carved rock headstones bearing each person's name.

Keaton takes part in none of this. Unlike the others he feels neither elation from the victory nor relief that the threat to their existence has been turned away. The Saguaros have been severely depleted, losing over forty men to the attack. Losses mean nothing to Tezcacoatl. Keaton estimates that in less than a month's time, the Lord of Snakes will replenish his forces and return with a vengeance. Keaton tries not to think of that now, tries to put the future out of his mind and concentrate only on the dead girl whose hands he cuts free from the wooden post. Gently, he lays her down on a woolen blanket and clothes her in a long white dress with a ruffled lace collar and satin sleeves. It had been his wife's wedding dress, kept by Keaton for the past two years in a small cedar box to preserve it from molding. Now it would be his daughter's burial shroud.

Since the war's early years, the plague has ravaged across the cities. Yet for some unknown reason, only the women become infected, never the men. Whether they have a natural immunity, none can say. All anyone knows is that the female population continues to dwindle.

Without doctors or medicine, the only means the Saguaros have to ensure their women's safety is to keep them within the protection of the walls. And it works until one day Keaton returns home to find his daughter covered with large black swellings in her armpits and groin, the swellings oozing blood and pus. Three days later she's dead. Tanner wants the body to be taken outside the gates and immediately burned. But Keaton says no. He's lost his daughter but finally found the woman he needs to lure the snake king to his ill-fated attack.

The morning is clear and bright and Keaton can hear the rush of water from a nearby stream. He needs to work quickly. Another hour and the sun will be high and the heat unbearable. He lifts his daughter's body, the white dress billowing softly against his arms. Carefully, he carries her away from the town towards the Western mountains where he buries her on a gentle slope amid the high chaparral and a flowering cactus. And then he puts her out of his mind.

Keaton had come to the desert to cleanse himself of the past, if only to salvage what was left of his humanity. All of that's gone now. What remains is his pain. That and the reek of the foul charnel winds.

The End

© 2012 John Rovito

Bio: John Rovito lives in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. His story The Individual Is Nothing appeared in the August 2012 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: John Rovito

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