IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
The Serpent of Koboros
Saturday, July 25, 2708, continued
In the golden light before the dusk the shadows stretch out long, like dark old memories spreading. We all ache from our labors, cleaning and repairing buildings, digging potatoes up from the frostbitten ground, trying to get old, clogged aquaducts to flow again. Eventually we just sort of naturally congregate around Damien for a rest—oh, rest!—and perch on various outcroppings near him. He squats beside one boulder settled onto another, and gazes into the great, black void cupped between them. It might stretch deep down under the earth into some vast cavern, it might all be an illusion of shadow, inches deep; you can never tell. When I stare into it long enough, it seems that the blackness moves.
"Under that rock," Damien says, "lives a magician. I know that he looks like a snake, and for all practical purposes he is a snake, but this wasn't always true."
I squat down beside him and almost see colors in the darkness. But I can't be sure.
"See him in there? See the patterns of gold and green, and brown like drying blood? That's what's left of his wife's brocade of silken spider-floss."
"I've heard of that," Ambrette says. "Big monster spiders in these parts. They spin webs thick enough to catch birds."
"Very tiny birds," Damien says with a smile. "And our women used to spin silk from it—but that's another story." More of our number join us, hearing the word "story".
"Just look at him, in there," Damien says. I try to. "Greedy son of shame's got the mass of three, four, maybe five men, from all the people he's devoured."
"Devoured?" I say. "A snake?"
"Sucked 'em from the inside out, he did, while still a man, starting with the soul, partaking a little bit at a time, day by day, till their body-husks just sort of collapsed. That happened before I was born; I just heard about it, about the bad old days before we broke his power down."
Aichi peers in, but Damien pushes her away. "Stand back—don't get too close. Broke it down, didn't get rid of the power altogether. Anyway, even without magic he can still eat a small kid whole, human or goat, either one."
I catch a faint sussuration and Damien chuckles. "Listen to him hiss! He knows we're talking about him, all right. You can still see the intelligence in those hard, yellow eyes of his. Here, hand me your cigarette, Kiril, and that dry branch over there with the needles still on it, let's light the end. He won't attack us when we carry fire."
"Lufti," I rebuke, "I thought I told you not to give Kiril any cigarettes—I'm trying to wean her off."
"Rebels share," he grumbles.
"Fine—can you share her asthma?" But Damien's talking again, as the torch crackles in his hand and sends up fragrant smoke.
"Yeah, his wife made him that beautiful cloak of glossy spider silk. Little thanks she got for it—he devoured her first of all. That's the way it goes sometimes, when mages go bad: they start in on their nearest and dearest. They think it's love, at first. 'I want you', they say, and you don't realize what kind of a bad way they mean it—they don't realize it, themselves. The madness sort of creeps up on them." I can't help but glance at Alysha and Marduk, listening with their arms around each other.
"It all starts with a hunger for power," Damien says. "He meant well, I hear—at first. He used to heal people. Used to find lost children by going out as a snake while his man-body slept, to see what he could sense in ways that a human being might miss. He used to squeeze the life out of brigands and other bad people when they threatened Koboros—all in snake form, but he'd snap back to being a man afterwards." I think I catch a glimpse of golden, moving color deep in there, but it might be firelight reflecting off of quartz.
"Oh, we used to bless him in those days. We got so little trouble from oppression that the whole village got bold. We walked proud and sang defiant songs, all under his protection, and the Purple Mantles never bothered us."
Damien shakes his head. "He got proud, too. He went out as a snake more and more often, with no particular need of the village to send him out, just to see what he could find, what could make him still more powerful. He talked to other snakes—natural born snakes—and learned serpent-wisdom from them."
He sighs and says, "That's tricky stuff, when you think about Adam and Eve and where it got them. I mean, most snakes aren't the devil or anything, and they mean no harm, but they're different creatures from us, on a different path that God gave them. I don't think most people know how to handle serpent-wisdom—he sure didn't, though he thought he did."
Damien stands, dusts himself off, and goes over to sit on a stone without anything particular under it. "Anyway, he got himself a lot of power—but odd-shaped, wriggly power that didn't fit him, that threw him off balance. He got hungry for even more, and the more he got the more he felt he needed, the way some people go crazy over liquor. He sucked all the power out of his wife before he even knew what he'd done, and by then it didn't matter anymore; once she died he had no more reason to even try and stay good."
Susurrations; something moves under the rock again. I know I saw something in there move—a hint of gold and and green, spattered, perhaps, with that deep, ruddy brown called “aliso”. Damien bends low where he sits and peers in with a bard's twinkle in his eye. "Look at him in there," he says. "He can't come out of his snake-form anymore. He's forgotten how." The bard straightens up again.
"That was the trick, you see, how we stopped his predations. I mean half of it he did to himself, spending so much time in snake form that his skin and even his eyes turned yellow, and his voice got raspier—hissier. He spent more time asleep than awake, just to leave his human form behind. He took to walking bent-over like he'd really rather crawl. And he used to scratch—they all told me this. He used to kind of absentmindedly scratch like he wanted to shed his skin, forgot that men can't do that, sometimes scrape his back against a doorpost like a snake against a branch. Oh, you could see the signs, all right, of something very wrong.
Malcolm, Rashid, and I exchange uncomfortable glances at these symptoms. But we hold our peace and let the tale continue. "Anyway, the men of Koboros gathered—it had to be all men, they told me. Some said because of Eve, but others said because he devoured his wife first of all and had a taste for women, mostly because his wife put a lot of her own power into that robe she made for him from misguided love, so that ever since she did that it gave him a knack for coaxing women to part with their power for him."
I glance again at Marduk and Alysha, hoping that Alysha takes a hint. "Be that as it may, the men of Koboros gathered with every mirror in the village. When they ran out of mirrors, they gathered up anything they could polish, metal or glazed pottery, or glass that they could put some kind of backing to. But every single man had something that could reflect an image back."
Now the lowering sun sends a shaft into the space between rocks and I see: there really is a snake coiled up in there—a big one. Maybe. The light’s still tricky.
"Now mind you, my mother always told me that mirrors contain woman-magic, but the women gave their mirrors to the men all the same, so that they could have a role, too, in fighting the sorcerer-snake. Certain times come up when you give away some of your power to someone deserving of your love, in order to get the rest of your power back from somebody who loved you all wrong." His brows knit as he frowns. "I don't really understand it, but that's what my mother told me; she said that one day I'd remember and know just what she meant." Malcolm nods at that.
I hear a hiss that sounds old and dry and empty, almost remorseful. Or maybe it sounds like no soul left at all.
"So. What they did was they caught the sorcerer in his snake-form—you should only attack shapechangers in their inhuman forms—and surrounded him with reflections of himself. He circled 'round and 'round, looking for where to strike, but he only saw himself. Nothing fascinates an evil person more than himself: nothing he more loves, nothing he more hates to see in full, cold clarity. Between love and hate that ol' snake trembled like he'd explode, swirling and dipping and rearing up again, not knowing which way to go.
"He tried to send out a pulse of power, an attack of the spirit. But it reflected back on him—he saw nothing to attack but himself. It hit him as serpent-power, of course, and made him all the more a snake. And all he saw of himself was snake, and as he got more and more confused, battered by his own power, he came to believe himself all snake, could never get up and walk again. And with the loss of his humanity he lost his magic, even the kind which snakes normally keep for themselves, because he'd begun as a man and there in his manhood his power had sunken its root. Sever him from what he began as, and what could he have left?" He pauses a moment and says, “His old human husk died in bed that very moment, collapsed in on itself like one of his victims.”
We all stare at the shadows under the rock, every one of us, though the sun has moved almost under the horizon and no longer illuminates anything. "Look at him, listening to us! Even when he remembers that he once was a man he can't call it back, he can't quite believe it, not deep down where it counts.” The torchlight gilds Damien’s face eerily, magician’s nephew that he is. “Even when people remind him, he can't. He is entirely a snake, now. Now and forever."
I take up the torch from Damien and go over there again, bend low, thrust in the light, and witness what recoils, hissing, fangs bared, yellow eyes staring out balefully from its cavern. Enormous. I don't think snakes that size grow anywhere else in the world.