I was pacing back and forth before the fire at the lair. Berber Snake was crouching on the other side of the flames, watching me silently. I was anxious. My bones were aching from severe nervousness. I wanted to peel my skin off of me and stop being me for a while because I could not handle the severity of my screeching instinct.
My instinct to flee.
“Let me hold you.” He had his handdrum slung over his back. “You’re going to work yourself into a frenzy.”
“I’m already in a frenzy. I just don’t know why.”
“Then let me hold you.”
I stopped pacing. “I don’t know if I can trust you.”
He nodded. “I know. You can. You have. You trust me with great things and hoard away the little things. You are afraid. And that fear is muddying your reason.”
“I’m living in the moment, in other words. Allowing what I’m experiencing at this second to blind me from what I have learned previously.”
“The way the Gardenmaster allowed me to hold kir offspring, and the next day I was accusing all y’all of using me like a trained animal in a circus.”
“Yes. You understand.”
“I understand I have more leashes on me than what I first thought.”
Snake sighed deeply and held his head in his hands. When he lowered them I had come around the fire and was standing next to him.
“I also know I am blinded and there is a metric fuck-tonne of information being withheld from me. My instinct tells me I am going to be hurt and betrayed tonight. And that placing myself in your hands is the last thing I should do tonight. But I don’t have much of a choice, do I… Warden.”
Snake stood up. “You are stronger than you think.”
“Hmph. You say ‘stronger’, I hear ‘more gullible’. Do I have a choice, Warden?”
Snake’s emerald eyes glittered in the firelight. “Not really. By trying to avoid it, you’re going to guarantee it is done by someone else that won’t have you in mind when it happens.”
“Might as well get this shit over then.” My shoulders shrugged in surrender. My instinct was still screaming at me to run away, but I smothered it with apathy.
“You’re not asking what or why?”
“Does it matter? I know sometimes you intentionally keep me ignorant of immediate shit because if I know what’s coming, I’ll change the outcome just by knowing. It’s my nature, remember? I fuck shit up just by being there.” I shrugged again. Apathy wanted to bring forth tears and I couldn’t understand why. “If it was important for me to know, you would have told me.”
He cupped my face with his hands. “Do you trust me?” He reminded me of K*, from stance, to gesture, to tone, to the inspection of my face for unspoken responses.
“But you trusted an angel to possess you.”
“Weaver, do you trust me?” His eyes were not emerald. His eyes were green. The purest green I have ever seen. Unfiltered. Unsullied. As if the Dreamer had just cast off this color.
“Fuck you. You manipulating, venomous, game-playing, son of a bitch. Fuck you and all the shit you’re hiding from me. Yes, I trust you, you fucking bastard. I always have. I can’t do otherwise even though I want to. I don’t know the truth from the lie, but I know I trust you. And if you answer with apologizing for what you’re about to do to me and end with some bullshit homily that one day this will all make sense, I will rip your nuts off and throw them into a black hole, and you can go fetch your gonads when this shit finally makes sense to me.”
He kissed me lightly on the forehead, chuckling. “Fine. I’ll break the script this time.” He locked eyes with me again and I saw the jewel-like state return to his orbs. There was a glimmer of red reflected in the facets, as if the fire was adding its hue. I recognized the color too late. My body collapsed into his arms.
“If you start snoring I reserve the right to throw you into the fire.” Hey that sounds like me. But I’m not speaking. I open my eyes to see I’m sitting on the ground before a fire. It is hemmed by bones and rocks. A log holds me in a seated position. Stretched out on the log behind me is Tliltic Ocelotl, apparently napping. To my left, Mxtl is working with the hand rattle. She is looking over a prototype of the physical rattle I was hoping to make. Someday. She smiles grimly.
“Do you know where this is?” She gestures around her.
“No.” I look around and see the ruins of something like Aztec pyramids. Some of the carvings I can sort out. Renditions of feathered snake skulls are everywhere. I see glyphs of priests in regalia and draped with various skins including human. I also see warriors with jaguar skins and obsidian blades. I recognize glyphs and images of Quetzalcoatl, Mictlancihuatl and Mictlantecuhtli, Tlaltecuhtli, Tonatiuh, and Teccuciztecatl in the tops of standing monuments. There are others but they are obscured by the overgrowth or I don’t know them. “Heh. This probably represents my total knowledge of Aztec culture and its pantheon. No wonder it’s sparse and crumbling.”
Mxtl placed the prototype rattle on the large carving of a feathered snake skull beside her. She shook herself as she stood, filling the space with the sound of her rattling beads and calling forth her own personal rattle. “Look up.”
I did, warily. “No stars. No clouds.” I scramble to my feet as she approaches me with measured steps. “No sky. Are we underground?”
Tliltic Ocelotl grabbed me from behind, forcing my arms out to the side. Her interlocked fingers dug into the back of my neck. True to her feline nature, she purred deeply at my discomfort.
“Not underground, [Weaver]. Underworld. Still you do not recognize what I am? What you are?” She took an obsidian blade, about the length of her hand and flaked with a concave curve to the edge, and cut away my clothes so that my chest was exposed. “No. You don’t. Then what is about to happen will confuse and wound you.” She cut into the skin of my chest just enough to draw a finger’s width of blood onto the blade. She balanced the drawn blood on the blade and walked over to the fire sideways so that I would be able to see her actions.
“Do you plan on writing this when you awaken?”
Her question was sincere, but the circumstances made it amusing. I cried and laughed. “Um. Maybe. Probably. If only for my own records so I don’t forget how I fucking betrayed my damn self again!”
Mxtl smiled. “No. Going to [the Red Woman] to feed your addiction to violence is betraying yourself. This… This is fixing some things, for others as well as yourself. The culture you are currently in has blinded you. That’s okay. This is for your benefit. Trust me.”
“Trust you? What the fuck, Mxtl!”
“Okay. Then I’ll say it plain. Trust yourself. Your conscious self will not be in control here. You may not remember anything after it begins.” She lifted the rattle. “No matter what comes after, remember I am you without your American cultural baggage. I have survived events that would crush you. What your mother has done is nothing to me. I… you… we are stronger than you know.”
Mxtl threw back her head and screamed to split the world. At the peak of her shriek, she violently shook her rattle. My legs fell lame at the sound. Only Tliltic Ocelotl’s grip held me vertical. As the rattling began to settle into a pattern, she flung the blood on the obsidian blade into the fire. I felt a great heat in my chest that extended into my bones. I passed out.
The river burbled gently nearby, the coolness of the water enveloping me as I knelt on the sandy shore. The gentle daylight confused me. Wasn’t I under… I forget. A white robe of thin silk was draped over my shoulders and arranged to spread out around me in beautiful display. Glowing softly in the sunlight, it was decorated with red and orange leaves. My hands were being held in my lap. Something soft, intangible, and invisible cupped my hands as my hands cupped water without leaking. Floating in the cupped water was a single lotus bloom. The petals were white with bright blue edges and tips.
I looked around. All was quiet in the Nagalands. The breeze touched me softly. Fragrance from unseen flowers comforted me. The entity held my hands securely. I could not see it, but I could feel it. The grip concerned me. I realized it was doing more than keeping my hands waterproof. It was anchoring me here.
A fear chilled me and I wanted to stand up. But I could not move my legs. I tried to lean away, but the entity’s grip kept me upright. I wanted to speak, but the gentle grip had silenced me. It shifted its touch on my hands, and even the ability to look away was removed.
I had to remain here. I had to hold the water and the lotus floating in it. But I did not know why. It’s not like I was under…
under the ground…
The sun watched with intense gaze and intense glare as Mxtl and Tliltic Ocelotl carried me up the stone steps of the pyramid. I was drugged and unable to move on my own, but I was mostly aware and able to see clearly. They each had an arm over their shoulders. Tliltic Ocelotl was naked except for body paint and the pelt of a black jaguar. Mxtl wore a short shift decorated to resemble the scales of snake skin, but over that was the numerous beads of her regalia.
I was wearing regalia to remind the viewer of my association with ravens. Leg bindings, arm bindings, capelet, waist wrapping, and headdress all served to firmly identify me as a corvid. I wrinkled my face and from the way the skin itched in the movement, realized my face was painted as well in a very familiar style.
At the top of the pyramid, I expected to see a stone room. Instead, it was flat and bare of all except for a odd stone carving. It was long and thin and dipped in the middle as if a harsh reclining seat. The side of the stonework I was able to see was carved in a stylized serpent pattern, with the head of the snake tilting up.
Behind the snake carving was a man in full regalia. Long green feathers everywhere and snakeskin bands holding them in place. Body paint decorated what the regalia didn’t. His face was painted to resemble a white skull, but his head was gloriously adorned in crowns and halos of mostly green feathers. I did not recognize him until I saw his eyes.
His emerald eyes.
The priest looked at me as Mxtl and Tliltic Ocelotl dipped to one knee in greeting. They started to move me into position on the carving, but the priest held his hand out to stop them.
“Who am I?”, he asked me.
My mouth would not work but I was able to scream with my thoughts. Snake! What…
“I am not him. Not this time. Who am I?” The priest’s words chilled me with painful fear.
My mind worked furiously to recognize the cultural symbols around me. But none of them aligned with what I was taught was proper expressions of Aztec culture. Carvings of feathered snakes everywhere. Aztec style regalia. Predominately green feathers on his regalia but he was haloed by a rainbow of colors. Stone pyramids. The sun was in a tropical altitude.
Quetzalcoatl. Even as I gave my answer, I was not secure in it.
“Do not forget who I am.” He nodded towards the other two aspects of me. Wordlessly they rose and settled my limp body on the carving. It fit me into a tilted reclining position, but with my back unnaturally arched so that my chest jutted upward.
At the Underworld ruins, the sound of rattling brought me back to awareness. Tliltic Ocelotl still held me upright before the fire, but Mxtl was moving about the fire. She cast no shadow from the flames, but floating wisps of shadow was steadily being pulled inward from the surrounding darkness. They dogged her steps without touching her, following her movements with phantasmal echoes. In her right hand was a hand-rattle. In her left was the curved obsidian blade.
Every time she made a pass around the fire before me, she would viciously strike at the air around me. She never touched me, but I felt things and things being cut away just the same. I cried out from pain I could not understand but could feel very vividly.
I jerked to wakefulness at the fire by the lair. I was resting in Berber Snake’s lap. It was a calm night. Stars moved in impossible motions overhead, as was their norm here. The River gossiped loudly in the distance. A cool wind checked on the nearby forest. The polite trees nodded their tips as it passed.
Snake wiped sweat from my brow. “You’re doing fine.”
“Doing fine? Snake!” I eyed him warily. “Snake?”
“Not surprisingly. Ready to work off some of that anxiousness?”
I looked around again. So peaceful. So quiet. Something jerked my body sideways but there was no one here but us.
“It’s time. Stand up.”
“I know. You’ll like this part of it. You take to it so well.”
He helped me to my feet. “You’re being a snide and sarcastic shit. Purposefully. Before you were assuaging my fears, now you’re intentionally trying to provoke me.”
“Yes.” He tugged at my top. “Unless you want this ripped, I suggest taking it off now. Your bra, as well, if you are wearing one.”
“Why are you trying to get a rise out of me?”
“Because you wrap yourself up quite tight, and often the amount of emotional surging it takes to break through that wrapping is self-defeating. I need you to be you, but to be yourself in a cognitive manner. I need you to unleash yourself without losing control.”
“And how does being condescending to me accomplish that?”
“Because when someone else does it, you instantly rage. When I do it, you try to second-guess my motives, which slows you down. So when you finally do spread those wings, it is with all of your faculties.”
“Have I ever told you, that you are a manipulative asshole at times?”
“You might have mentioned it here and there.” He tugged at the shirt. “Trust me. Take it off.”
I gave him severe side-eye and began removing my shirt. He watched me impassively, as if distracted by intense thoughts that had nothing to do with my half-nakedness before him.
The flower was centered in the cup of my hands. The entity gripped me so that the water remained level no matter how my body naturally swayed this way or that. Despite the cool of the day, I was breaking out into a sweat. The wind tried to dry my face but it could barely keep up.
Through force of will I was able to speak a few words.
“Don’t let go.”
I kept my gaze on the flower as the white silk robe slightly tightened its wrap around me.
On the pyramid, Mxtl held my arms back, pinning me to the stone. It was unnecessary, I thought, as the method used to immobilize me presented no sign of leaving me anytime soon. Tliltic Ocelotl held my feet. I was able to see the nearly naked woman was kneeling on the stone floor, facing me. She held my feet, but held her head down. Why this detail struck me as important, I do not know.
I was too busy watching Snake Quetzalcoatl standing over me. In his left hand, he held a stone bowl. In his right hand, he held a long obsidian dagger. He held these items up and out. He was watching something above him, but all I could see was the burning glare of the nearly noon sun.
At the Underworld ruins, Mxtl had stopped circling the fire. I was screaming in pain as if my very bones were being cut out of me, but other than the initial blood-letting, she had not touched me with the blade. Swirls of shadows and creeping darkness accumulated around us, to the point where the light of the fire was almost completely obscured.
She now stood with the tip of the obsidian blade pointed at my chest. Tliltic Ocelotl was still holding me upright. They were waiting, but for what, I did not know.
My shirt and bra removed, I was upset with myself. This is the Otherworlds, what the hell do I need to wear a bra for! Snake was amused with my fussing as I walked around the fire half-naked to get accustomed to the immodest display.
He settled down just out of range of my pacing and began playing softly on the handdrum. It was clear he was just playing to warm up his hand and the drum head. I swayed around the fire, still wary, but not concerned. I did not have knowledge of what was happening to me in the other worlds. As far as I was concerned, it was over.
I felt another jerk on my body. It made me stumble and fall. I looked for my minions, and realized they were all absent from me. I looked up at Snake.
“If you’re looking for your seven pieces of trouble, they are inside the lair. Locked down. If they come out, they may not survive the experience.”
“While you were being prepared.”
“And who gave you the right! Those are my minions! That is my hive.”
Snake looked up at me with those glittering emerald eyes and smirked. “You are my ward. I do with you as I please.”
I know he was wording himself to intentionally get a rise out of me. He had just admitted his plan was to push me to the edge of rage. I knew this was part of that pushing. And it was successful.
I meant to cross the fire to slap the shit out of him. Instead of going around the flames, I barreled through them. When I reached the center of the bonfire, he gave a disarming shout and slapped the drum. The combined sound dropped me to my knees in the fire. I lost control over my rage and shrieked a monstrous cry. Black wings erupted from my back. Feathers and flesh surrendered to the disturbed flame. Ash covered hands and legs as I stepped through winged and flaming.
But by the time I had stepped out, I had my rage under control. I snapped my wings and the flames extinguished.
“You wanted me ready to burn the worlds. You have me. You wanted the [wildfire], you have it. Give me something to burn, bitch, or I’ll have another go at you.”
Snake smiled and nodded. “As you wish.” He began to play a serious rhythm on the drum. One that echoed my heartbeat and the sound of my ashen feet on the ground.
The flower trembled in the disturbed water. The grip pulled gently on my hands, grounding me, and pulling my awareness under the surface.
On the pyramid, the sun reached the zenith of its path. High noon. It flashed supernaturally bright. Quetzalcoatl cried out and plunged the dagger into my throat and pulled down, dividing flesh and bone alike. That hurt. Understand, that fucking hurt. But he was wearing Snake’s face while doing it. And to be honest, I still wasn’t sure that wasn’t Snake.
The flower and the water I held jumped as I suddenly jerked. I started trembling but the white robe kept me upright and the entity’s grip kept me from moving.
Mxtl shoved the dagger forward with a swift movement. She buried the obsidian between my ribs and nestled it perfectly in my heart. I coughed up some blood as I felt my heart beating in furious drumming against the cold glass that had invaded it.
With the obsidian came the shadows. All the darkness and shades that her movements had previously summoned were now pouring into the plugged wound in my chest. I no longer felt pain. I felt cold. Very cold. Cold and numb and I couldn’t feel my body and…
Shrieks and screeches chased away anything resembling gentility from the night. I was angry. Howling in fury and covered in self-inflicted wounds from my own hands. I could not reach what I was angry at, so I pried at my own flesh to satisfy the deep instinct of Anger.
There was a person in white cloths banging furiously on a drum. He was just out of my reach. The noise of this drum caged me, kept me within the fire’s light. The fire’s reach. Not even the sweep of my wings could reach him.
But that’s okay.
I have the fire.
It delights me.
Things fall out of the sound I am making. I know they should be impossible things, but that doesn’t matter right now. They are hemmed in by the drum’s sound as well. They try to scramble away from the flames and from me. I pounce upon them, rend them, and feed them to the only thing more angry than I, the ever devouring flame.
Quetzalcoatl has cut my heart out of my body but I’m still alive. I’m still aware. I’m still immobilized. On contact with air, my heart bursts into flame but does not consume itself. He holds it aloft and presents it to the sun which has stopped moving across the sky. He takes up the stone bowl, fills it with what blood is still streaming fresh out of me, and lowers the flaming heart to it. The blood in the bowl ignites. He places my inflamed quivering heart to the side and holds the bowl of burning blood up to the sun.
The glare briefly intensifies, and I realize a shaft of light just came down from the sun, touched the burning blood in the bowl, and retreated back into the sun. The impossibility of what I see strikes me as humorous, as does everything else that is happening on the stone pyramid. I want to escape. I try to exert scientific fact. The light from the sun takes a little over eight minutes to reach the surface of the earth, and is filtered by the earth’s atmosphere.
Quetzalcoatl lowers the still burning bowl and looks at me. “This is no place for your ‘science’. The masters of that world do not rule here.” He looks up at the sun once more and shouts in what I now recognize as Nahua, but I am unable to understand any word of it. His proclamation completed, he drinks from the stone bowl, taking in every drop of my burning blood.
I can feel him drinking from my innermost as he does. He is using the blood to connect with something within me. I start to shudder on the carved stone.
I am flame. I am burning. I am the howls and the feathers of plasma and the desire to consume everything and embrace it in unquenchable flames…
Mxtl is staring me in the eyes. The last of the shades she has summoned has entered my body through the wound she still holds plugged with the dagger. The cold has passed. I’m hot and feverish. I feel my muscles trembling around my bones.
“Soon.”, she whispers.
The flower quakes in the water. I do not know when the water in my hands was refreshed. The entity holds me with a firm grip still, keeping my sight focused on the flower, keeping my body from voluntary movement. The sweat is dripping off my face. I am soaking the robe. A part of me wishes to be concerned about staining the robe.
Far in the recesses of my mind, I am aware of what is happening to me elsewhere. I whimper. The wind turns cold in desperate effort to cool me.
Quetzalcoatl is a messy drinker. My blood drips from his mouth and chin down the front of his body. I’m actually upset by this. I want to mock him saying that the sun was a better imbiber than he. But I am at my limit for cognition in this state. As long as my heart is out of my body, I’m stuck. He empties the bowl and takes up my still flaming heart from where he had placed it out of my sight. He places the heart in the bowl and lifts it up towards the sun. There is another flash of glare. The flames in the bowl leap high.
He stands over me, and pours my melted heart into my chest cavity.
The searing flame claims all of my body at once. Mxtl and Tliltic Ocelotl are forced to release me.
My cognition flees.
Mxtl pulls the dagger out of my chest. A spurt of blood races after the blade, followed by a jet of flame. Tliltic Ocelotl holds me ever upright as the trembling seizes all of me. My eyes roll back into my head. I cough blood, plasma, and flame.
Burn it all.
Burn until it is all ashes.
Ashes and dust.
The intangible hands lift my cupped hands. The motion focuses my attention back on the flower. Wisps of smoke is dancing across my skin. The water is moving from convection currents caused by my hands. I smell something burning. For all that is going on, I am worried about the robe. I don’t want to burn the beautiful robe.
Not the robe with the red and orange leaves.
Because when leaves are red and orange…
My heart-flame has claimed my body in the Underworld Ruins. Tliltic Ocelotl is finally forced to release me. She has no companion in flame. I crumple into a heap of burning flesh. Mxtl crouches just out of reach of the heat.
“Ashes. Dust. Then blood. Complete the cycle.”
My cognition flees as the flames begin to melt my flesh.
I want to spread beyond these cold rocks. But the vibrations hem me. The source circles me, round and round. An unending serpent of sound.
The water boils in my hands. The flower is blackened in the naked heat as my body bursts into flame. I shout but my voice is consumed. A great force throws me into the nearby river. The cold of the water is as great a shock as the heat of the flame.
I sink until I am at the bottom of the river. The current pulls me into the middle of the stream.
Something grabs me and lifts me to the surface. It holds me so the current points my feet downstream. Only my face is exposed to the air, and even then, waves of water wash over me with regular timing.
I shudder from what I think is a fever. The river feels as cold as mountain runoff. “Yes. That’s right. The mountains and the temple and the water source from high above. The river is glacier runoff. Science. Yes. There are rules. Yes.” I try to talk more but the fever destroys my coordination and all my sounds descend into jibberish as my body shakes uncontrollably.
That sound! I will reach it! And I will break it! It hems me! It holds me! It forces me into blood and bones and I will not go!
I open my eyes and see my room. The air is cold. I slept nearly naked with the fan on, I should be shivering. I am shaking, but not from any temperature. My mouth is bitter with an unnatural taste. My fingers and toes are bending far past what I can will from them. My back is arched. My arms and legs are straining from the forced pose. I’ve bitten my tongue.
The fit breaks and I fall. My body is embraced by the bed but my cognition keeps falling.
The heat breaks. The river has won. My body temperature falls sharply. I shudder from cold now.
I’m only worried about the robe.
“T… t… the… r… ro…” I can’t ask. I’m too cold to move.
I am lifted partially out of the river so that my head is tilted down. I am wrapped in a long length of white silk that is decorated with red and orange leaves. The cloth extends past my immobile legs. I don’t see any charring on the cloth.
“G… g… good.” I relax, allowing the river to sweep my cognition away.
Screaming. Someone is in pain. Someone is scared. Someone is screaming. Someone is disoriented. Someone is confused. Someone is covered in dust and ashes. Someone smells like blood.
“I have you. Here. All of you.”
Someone doesn’t know who said those words, but someone recognizes what they mean. The screaming stops.
“Your minions are going to try and have my ass if all of you doesn’t come back to them. They are rather fond of you, you know.” Minions?
Someone remembers what minions are. And whose minions they are. Someone opens kir eyes but ke doesn’t know who ke is.
“That’s it. Pull yourself together. You have been ashes. You have been dust. Now you need to be…”
“Blood.” My voice sounds alien to me. It is the last thing needed to cause the rest of my cognition to reassemble itself. My mouth tastes like dust. I smack my lips. “Dust and ashes and blood. Is it finished?”
“For now.”, said Snake. My Snake. My beloved Snake wrapped in the white robes of the Berber.
I’m lying in his lap. I would say I was naked but I am covered with such a layer of dust and ashes, I probably look more like a museum statue than a person. I hope I can be mistaken for one of Bernini’s works. I doubt it. I’m far too filthy for his smooth lines.
The sun is dawning. Brightening amber hues grace the cliffs over the lair. Seeing it made me remember Quetzalcoatl. I whimpered.
“What’s wrong?” He sounded genuine. That did not help my concern.
“Was that you?”
I realized I did not want the answer to that question. Not now. “Never mind.” I tried to get up but found the hard way that I was utterly exhausted. Snake picked me up as he stood. I gestured towards the River. “Bath.”
“For us both. You succeeded in burning my hair. And I am covered in the ashes you threw at me.” I noticed the smudges of charcoal on him. A good portion of his robes were burned away. “It was worth it. It was necessary.”
I tried to speak again, but exhaustion caught up with me and pulled the last of my lucid cognition away with a series of violent shudders that chased me into waking.