IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
The Serpent of Koboros
Saturday, July 25, 2708,
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.
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."
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.
"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
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
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."
rebuke, "I thought I told you not to give Kiril any cigarettes—I'm trying
to wean her off."
"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."
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
"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.