By Mark Hand
“Aw crap,” I say when I see the dead body. “Not again.”
I close the door behind me and take a few steps towards it. I prod it with my toe, and of course it doesn’t move, but I can’t resist checking. In the circles I move in these days, just because someone’s dead that doesn’t mean they haven’t stopped moving. You never know.
To look at me, you wouldn’t think I am the sort of person who has a lot of experience in dealing with dead people, or undead ones, but in the past few years I’ve had the misfortune of stumbling across more than my fair share of stiffs. But finding a second dead body in only a few minutes is worrying even for me, especially when both of them are–sorry, were–my clients.
Not so long ago I was a simple antiquities dealer, specializing in acquiring unique pieces for select clientele. Now, after that thing that happened a few years back–long story–I have earned a certain reputation with certain people, and I have since found myself entangled in affairs of a far more dubious nature. I tell you, save the world just once from certain doom and suddenly you’re an expert on everything that goes bump in the night. But while the type of client I find myself working for these days tends to be more eccentric than before, at least they never balk when I insist on flying first class. It’s almost enough to offset the hassles of my current line of work, such as, say, walking into a luxury hotel room and finding my client’s dead body rapidly emptying itself of blood onto the slick tiles of the floor through the sizable opening in his chest where his heart used to be.
See, this is why I insist on three-quarters payment up front these days, with the rest held in third-party escrow to be released either upon completion of the job, or upon certain other conditions being met, including the inopportune demise of whoever’s writing the cheque. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like this happens all the time, just often enough that it’s well worth a premature client termination clause in my standard contract. Sure, it tends to raise a few eyebrows when they reach that part and realize that it’s the client and not the contract that’s terminating, yet they keep signing them and I keep getting paid even when they keep occasionally dying. And everyone goes away happy, or I do anyway. Although before I can go home and happily claim the final quarter of my payment for this job I have to get this mess cleaned up, and I don’t just mean the blood on the floor.
Forensic detective work is not my forte, but it doesn’t take a super-genius to figure out what happened. The scene is almost exactly the same as the one I just found elsewhere in the hotel: a dead body lying spread-eagled on its back, bleeding out from a rough slash in its chest. Minus one heart. It happened very recently; old stiffs don’t keep oozing blood like this.
The only significant difference between the two scenes is that there had also been an empty case on the king-sized bed of the first room, spread open to reveal pieces of foam cut in the tantalizing shape of the ceremonial mask that the dead body here had hired me to acquire from the dead body there. I’d gone there to make the buy, but I was wee bit late. Whoever had been there before me had taken the mask along with the seller’s heart.
Pity, I was rather looking forward to finally seeing the mask.
Frankly, I blame Alejandro–the bartender at the hotel’s beachfront café–for putting me in this mess. If only his cappuccinos were a little less delicious I would not have been tempted to stop off for one more taste before going to exchange the briefcase full of money for the mask. If I hadn’t stopped for the coffee I would have made it there to make the deal before the killers arrived, then come back and delivered the mask to the buyer before the killers had been here too, and I would not have to be taking a step backwards towards the door to prevent the blood seeping across the floor from staining my expensive Italian leather shoes.
Damn you, Alejandro.
Ah well, no use crying over perfectly frothed milk. I’m stuck now with a heartless buyer, a heartless seller, and no artifact. Though I do have a briefcase full of money, which is some relief; I’ll probably need to use most of it to bribe my way out of Mexico. Let’s face it, a grisly double homicide of two men, both of whom are here because of me: who do you think is going to be the prime suspect? I do not relish the prospect of finding myself in a Mexican jail again (another long story). Of course, maybe the wacko doomsayers will be right for once and tomorrow the world really will come to an end, and none of this will matter anyway.
This last thought sends tiny shivers down my spine, the kind that makes all the hairs on your body tingle. I’m not psychic, I’m not even particularly intuitive, and I don’t believe in doomsday prophesies, but that tingly hair thing? That’s never a good sign.
I should probably mention that today is December 20, 2012, the day before the supposed end of the Mayan calendar, and of the world. It’s a second chance for all the ardent Millennialists who were disappointed and annoyed when Y2K ticked by and everyone was still alive.
More tingles. That is so not a good sign.
There are a lot of things I don’t know, and even more I don’t want to, but one thing I do know is that this is not the sort of situation your normal antiquities dealer has to deal with. Then again, I am not a normal antiquities dealer. I never was. I have always dealt in specific items, by request only. And not just any old items, I really do mean specific ones. If you want a Louis XIV chair, for example, you go to someone else. But if you happen to see a portrait of Louis XIV and behind him there is a chair you take a fancy to, well then you come to me; other dealers can get you a chair, I will get you that chair.
I like to think I have more in common with Indiana Jones and Lara Croft than that old guy in the musty antique shop down the street who smells like mothballs and furniture polish, but that might give you the wrong impression. After all, I don’t go tomb raiding often–okay, ever–but on the other hand you’ll never find me cruising estate auctions for dead granny’s trinkets. I’ve never touched a bullwhip, and I’m uncomfortable with guns. Let’s be honest here, I am not even in good physical shape; one quick chase along a rickety rope bridge spanning a rocky chasm would leave me wheezing and helpless with vertigo. So while Mark Hand, Treasure Hunter has a nice brazen ring to it, I use the more modest Esoteric Antiquities Acquisition on my business cards.
Granted, what I do does involve a lot of sitting around tracking will-o-the-wisp leads through musty archives, but it’s far from boring. I have broken many laws in many countries in the course of my work, and I have even, once or twice, followed the cryptic instructions of a bona fide treasure map. It’s not a bad life, really, except for the dead bodies.
My bread and butter used to be historical documents and the possessions of famous people: the golden bees from Charlemagne’s coronation robe, Nero’s fiddle, Marilyn Monroe’s suicide note. But I haven’t been doing a lot of standard history jobs lately. Given my recent infamy in occult circles, these days I am almost exclusively engaged to locate objects of a more arcane nature. But honestly, if the price it right, I’ll find whatever you want, esoteric or not.
Like a certain Mayan mask, for example.
When my now-former client came to me with a photograph of a carving that depicted a strange mask and hired me to get the real thing for him, he didn’t say what its significance was. Then again, I didn’t ask. There was something about the look of the thing that made me pretty sure I didn’t want to know. The central image in the mask was a standard human face, though its typical Mayan features were gruesomely contorted in a grimace of pain, or perhaps fear. But far more disturbing were the decorations around it. Your normal Mayan headpiece would have feathers surrounding the face, or maybe those funky geometric blocks they were so fond of, but instead this one had thick, rope-like tendrils of what I hoped was meant to be dreadlocked hair, though the way they waved and curled back on themselves struck me more as more…tentacular. Worst of all, peering out menacingly from the base of those squid-like appendages were dozens of bulbous eyes. I admit it, the thing scared me. I was tempted to tell the client then and there that I would have nothing to do with it, that is until he said those magical words that are always so hard to resist: “money is no object.” And when he proved that was indeed the case by agreeing to the outrageous sum I quoted for the job, I found myself reluctantly committed to getting the horrible thing.
It’s true: everyone does have a price.
It was simple enough to trace the original carving my client showed me back to around 300 A.D., but then the mask vanished without a trace for the next 1200 years, until the Spanish snuffed out the Mayan civilization. If the Mayans had written anything about it, like what it was supposed to depict or why it was made, those records were probably lost when the Conquistadors destroyed nearly everything the Mayans ever documented. At least, I never found anything. Fortunately, the Spanish were fastidious about keeping their own records, so I went to Spain to see if I could get lucky. In Seville I found a 500 year-old document with a sketch of the mask. Bingo. It chronicled how the mask had been brought back to Spain as a curiosity. While it looked Mayan, the Spanish had determined that it could not have been made by them because it was made of metal, and the Mayans didn’t work in metal. This made it special, special enough to save it from destruction and land it a place in the personal collection of the soldier who found the mask and sent it back home in the first place: none other than Francisco de Montejo, the Conquistador credited with conquering the Maya in 1546. This information led me the man who ultimately inherited the mask, a direct descendent of named Federico de Montejo.
Sometimes you do get lucky.
Well, sometimes I do. Poor Federico bleeding out in his hotel room? Not so lucky.
There’s nothing more to see here, so I slowly back out of the bloody hotel room, using the bottom of my shirt to wipe my fingerprints off the doorknob. Even though I might be destroying evidence of the real murderers, that’s not my problem. It’s probably a pointless gesture anyway; Mexico is not known for the thoroughness of their police investigations–CSI is just a TV show here–but I’m not one who likes taking chances, see.
As I hang the do not disturb sign and pull the door shut on my client’s dead body, I find the hallway pleasingly barren of other people. I start lugging my briefcase full of money back to my own room when a sudden thought gives me pause. Assuming it was the mask they were after, why did the killers come to the buyer’s room and kill him after they’d already taken it? Were they trying to clean up loose ends by disposing of everyone involved in the deal? If so, the only loose end left would be the one who’d put the deal together, the one who happens to be standing in a deserted hotel hallway with a suitcase full of money and every hair on his body standing on end.
So much for heading back to the privacy of my room. If there are killers lurking around ready to rip the heart out of my chest, I can only assume that’s where they’d prefer to do it. Screw that, I need to be around potential witnesses, and I need to be around them now. Luckily, I am in the middle of a hotel, so finding a crowd to hide among shouldn’t be a problem. The first place that comes to mind is the beachfront café, where another of Alejandro’s accursedly delicious cappuccinos will surely help ease my anxiety as I consider my options.
Making my way toward the beach, I find the whole hotel annoyingly devoid of anything remotely resembling a crowd. The swimming pools are uncharacteristically empty, and I don’t pass a single soul as I hurry along the path to the café. When at last I get there and scurry to my usual table I find the café empty as well, just me and Alejandro and a couple of bored-looking staffers.
Alejandro sidles up almost as soon as I sit down. “Senor Hand,” he says politely, offering a bowl of steaming coffee with his trademark luchador mask shape decorating the foam. He even remembered my cinnamon sprinkles.
“Gracias,” I say, taxing the limit of my spoken Spanish.
Sitting outside overlooking the Caribbean Sea, watching the water grow dark as the sun sets behind me, I am struck by how eerily quiet it is. Then I remember why: everyone else has left the resort. I saw them earlier getting packed into buses and carted off to an end-of-the-world party at the ruins of Chichen Itza, a few hours away from all the resorts here along the Mayan Riviera. The hotel I am at is one of dozens that litter the coastline from Cancun to the ruins of Tulum along miles of white sand beaches. All the other resorts are likely just as quiet since almost everyone would have surely joined the exodus to the festivities.
The very thought of it makes me glad I’m not there. Thousands of revelers counting down the last few hours of the 5,125-year cycle of the Mayan calendar in the ruins of one of the largest Mayan cities, all passing the time until the end of the world by getting sloppy-drunk on cheap rum, watery beer, and crappy tourist tequila? Thank you, no.
I know as well as any rational person the only thing that is going to happen is the start of the next 5,125 year cycle and a lot of hangover headaches in the morning. So how come I can’t shake the niggling feeling that the hairs standing up all over my body aren’t being caused by the cool breeze blowing in off the ocean?
The sound of laughter from behind snaps me out of my reverie. Glancing over my shoulder, I see it was Alejandro at the bar with the other employees. Then another man glides into the café and it annoys me. Sure, I did come here seeking a crowd, but I was enjoying the peace and solitude. Though I have to admit, he’s one interesting dude.
I have been all around the world and seen people dress in all manner of strangeness, but this, this is something new. The newcomer’s white linen suit flutters with bright green feathers dangling like tassels off the shoulders and down the arms. Feathers? Seriously? And are those snakeskin boots with–oh my god no–a matching belt? Come on, who wears snakeskin? But you know, somehow he makes it work. He’s got long hair, so white it’s almost silver, pulled back in a ponytail that slithers far down his back. Light skin, almost pale, with vaguely European features. It’s difficult to say how old he is; he carries himself with the confidence of age, but his face has the soft smoothness of a younger man. You hear about people being ageless, but until you meet someone like this you don’t truly know what that means.
I turn back to my view of the ocean, but I can hear him chatting with the boys at the bar in rapid Spanish. I slurp my coffee loudly in an effort to block them out, wishing they would all just piss off.
I have been called a misanthrope before, but I don’t really hate people. It’s just that I’ve never had a very high opinion of our species in general, and I don’t do a very good job hiding it. I’ve never seen what’s so special about humanity. I wouldn’t necessarily use the word insignificant to describe us, but I’ll tell you one thing I know as an absolute fact: we are not at the top of the cosmic food chain, my friend. Our existence is precarious at best; far more so than most people dare to suspect, even in their darkest nightmares. This is a good thing, by the way. Most people, if they happen to realize the truth–especially if they’re unlucky enough to see it with their own eyes–well, they’re never the same after that. Most people can’t handle it. They go mad. Or worse. I’ve seen it happen.
But not me.
I’m not saying I enjoyed the experience, hell no, but for some reason when I gazed into the abyss and saw what stared back at me, it did not drive me completely batshit insane. In a strangely Nietzschean way, I think it only made me stronger. Maybe it’s because I already had a healthily low opinion of my real place in the cosmos, I don’t know. But more than once I have witnessed the countless bulbous eyes of terror, and I have felt the clammy grip of fear tighten around my throat, and I have seen the ravenous nightmare waiting on the other side of the door, yet somehow I have always walked away with my faculties intact. There aren’t many who can say that. And I do not, by the way, remotely consider it a blessing.
My body twitches as I get those shivers again. Reaching into my pocket, I pull out a picture of the mask, the same one my ex-client first showed me. The enigmatic face surrounded by tentacular hair glares back at me. It is not a pleasant thing.
I sit there letting my coffee grow cold as I stare at it, until I am startled by a voice behind me.
“Xipaykaa,” it says.
I spin around and see the man from before, all feathers and snakeskin and bewitching smile.
“Excuse me?” I say.
“Xipaykaa,” he repeats, pulling out a chair next to me. I give him a scathing look to indicate that that he is both uninvited and unwanted, but he just sits down and takes a long sip from a tiny glass of mescal.
“That’s its name,” he says without a trace of an accent. Any accent. “Xipaykaa.”
“Your demon,” he says, glancing down at the picture in my hands. “That’s what the old Mayans called it, anyway.”
You’ve got to be kidding me. I’ve been researching this thing for months and discovered nothing about it–besides where to find it–then all of a sudden this stranger appears and tells me its name? I wonder what else he knows about it.
“Really,” I say. “Know anything else about it?”
“I know a thing or two,” he says, draining his little glass and flashing that bewitching smile again. I get it. I wave over Alejandro and ask him to bring another drink for my new friend. “You might want to make that two,” the stranger says. “You may soon find yourself wanting a stronger libation.”
“Just bring the whole bottle,” I say, and my new friend nods and smiles his approval. He waits for the mescal to arrive–the good stuff, I notice, not the pissy tourist crap–before taking a long drink.
“The story goes that from time to time the god Kukulkan would come to the Mayan people in his human form,” he says.
“Kukulkan, eh? He’s the one who supposedly taught them the secrets of civilization. The Aztecs called him Quetzalcoatl.”
“Really,” he says. “Know anything else?”
I feel the need to impress this man. “Well it’s a common figure in mythology. Divine messenger, bringer of knowledge. The Egyptians called him Thoth, and there are parallels in Hermes/Mercury, Enki, Ganesha…all cultures had one. At a stretch, you could even go with Nyarlathotep, too, in some of the less malevolent of his thousand faces.”
He seems inordinately pleased that I know this. “Very good,” he says.
“I know a thing or two too,” I say. I give him my best effort at a bewitching smile. His smile is better. I keep going. “The Mormons say that the man the Mayans called Kukulkan was actually Jesus Christ, but honestly the deity the Mayans and Aztecs worshipped had a lot more in common with the Hebrew fallen angel Azazel described in the Book of Enoch, or the Greek Titan Prometheus. And of course those figures evolved into the Christian idea of Lucifer, the light bringer.”
“You don’t say,” he says. Again with that smile. For some reason he finds my lame attempt to show off eminently amusing.
“Sorry,” I say. I gesture at the picture of the mask. “You were telling me about this?”
“Well, in what you would call the year 289 A.D. what you would call a meteorite fell to earth.”
“What would you call it?” I give him a meaningful look, and he gives it back. It’s a look that says we both know about The Big Lie. What lie is that? Well, let’s just say that all that stuff you were taught about the sky, how the moon revolves around the earth, and the earth revolves around the sun, and there are countless suns out there in space…yeah, not so much. But that is a much longer story.
“He continues: “It landed not far from here, actually. At its heart the people found a lump of strange metal. Kukulkan came and taught them how to melt it down–for they had no knowledge of metalwork before this–and instructed them to mold it into the shape of a mask.”
“You don’t say,” I say.
“You don’t believe me.”
“Oh, I never said that. I’m just wondering how you seem to know all this where nobody I’ve talked to in the past six months has been able to tell me a single thing about it?”
“Not able, or not willing?”
I don’t know what to say to that. He just smiles.
“Perhaps I am the only one who knows what really happened,” he says. “But I think not,” he adds before taking another drink.
“So why did Kukulkan do that? Why a mask? Why this mask?” I say, holding up the picture.
“He did this because the metal was not all that fell to the earth.” He glances at the picture. “He was saving them.”
“By any chance was he saving them from a spooky creature with long tentacles and countless bulbous eyes?”
Something about the way he looks at me–without a stitch of humor or irony–gives me the shivers again.
“The alien monster from the meteorite,” he says, “which they called the devil from the sky, or Xipaykaa, feasted upon the Mayan people and their terror. But Kukulkan’s mask had power over the horrible thing, and with it the Mayan priests were able to force the beast into a deep cavern and seal it inside.” He takes a quick sip, his eyes fixed on mine. “Or so the story goes,” he adds with the wry hint of a smile.
A few years ago I would have been one of those people who thought this was a simple moral tale, that the monster in this story was just a metaphor for the darker side of human nature, but I have seen things that have changed the way I look at the world, and what lies beyond it. And I’ll tell you, my experience has led me to believe that the truest words ever written were these: there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. I am such a fan, in fact, that I made a point of seeking out and acquiring for myself the very desk where Francis Bacon wrote those words.
Now every hair on my body quivers on end, telling me to trust my experience. And that, along with something very earnest about this beguiling stranger, makes me believe every word of his preposterous story. Which still doesn’t answer the question: how the hell does he know it? And more importantly, does he know any more?
“So where is this Chippy-kaka now?”
“Xipaykaa,” he says.
“What time is it?” he says.
“Er, what?” I say. He glances at my wristwatch, cocking an eyebrow. I check the time. “It’s just after five o’clock,” I say.
“Then I would assume it is still trapped in the cenote,” he says. “For a few more hours anyway.”
He sits there and takes another sip as he lets this sink in. I bet he can almost see the gears in my head clicking into place.
I realize a number of things in the next few moments. For starters, I think I know why my clients are dead and why the mask is missing, along with their hearts. And I think I know who my new friend is, and why he so conveniently appeared here in the café just now in his feathers and snakeskin. And–dammit dammit dammit–I think I know what I’m doing tonight.
No, scratch that: I know what I’m doing. I know it, because as soon as I resign myself to it the shivery tingles that have been afflicting me all day vanish, replaced by an eerie sense of calm that in some ways is even worse than the goosebumps.
I take a deep gulp of mescal, enjoying the burning sensation down my throat. He was right, a strong drink is definitely what I need. That, and a little more information.
“So,” I begin, “out of curiosity, how did that mask work?” He treats me to his brightest, most bewitching smile so far. I suppose it’s mission accomplished for him. Bastard.
“It is quite simple,” he says. “The priest wearing it concentrates on what he wants Xipaykaa to do. If his spirit is pure, and his mind is focused, then the beast must obey.”
“Pure spirit, eh?” That could be a problem.
He looks at me. I mean, he really looks at me; a deep, penetrating look that seems to go right through me. He speaks slowly and clearly, and I get the feeling I’m meant to hear what he says–I mean really hear it.
“The purest spirits are those that can balance the light with the dark,” he says.
“Right,” I say. I top up our drinks. “Anything else?”
He swirls the clear liquid in his glass. “You know some people say that mescal has hallucinatory properties.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“It isn’t true,” he says. “But if that’s what you wanted, you could always do what the old Mayan priests did and consume the sacred mushroom.”
“And why would I want that?”
“They found it helped focus their minds,” he says.
“Mmmmm,” he says.
“I suppose Kukulkan taught them about that too.”
My new friend just smiles, and my evening plans get even weirder.
“One more thing,” I say.
“Xipaykaa,” he says.
“Whatever. That place they sealed it up in.”
“The sacred cenote, yes.”
“How hard would it be to find that exactly?”
“Not hard at all. The Mayans built a city around it. They called it Chichen Itza.”
“Of course they did,” I say.
As the sun finally sinks below the tops of the hotel buildings behind us, there’s not much left to say, despite my best efforts to think of something. I want to make the most of this opportunity, but honestly my mind’s too preoccupied with wrapping itself around what I have just committed myself to doing this evening. Unless I am mistaken, I need to make my way to the end of the world party at Chichen Itza, find and consume some magic mushrooms, locate the people who stole the mask, steal it back, and somehow use the mask to prevent an ancient horror from beyond this world from escaping its subterranean prison and wreaking bloody terror and mayhem upon the assembled masses of drunken revelers before oozing on to consume the rest of humanity. Though not necessarily in that order.
Just another day at the office for mild-mannered Mark Hand, Esoteric Antiquities Dealer.
“Well, I suppose I ought to get going,” I say, gulping down what’s left in my glass. “Busy night and all.” He just looks at me with eyes as deep as the sky.
I’m sure there are a million things I’d like to ask him, but I can’t think of a single thing besides, “why me?” I don’t ask it, though. I’m not sure I’d like the answer. I’ve already figured out what I need to do next, and although I’m not at all keen on the idea I suppose it’s best to just go and get it over with. So I grab my briefcase full of money, turn around, and leave him behind to finish the mescal. Then I head back to greet the cultists who are waiting in my room to kill me and take out my heart…though not necessarily in that order either.
How do I know there are cultists in my room? Call it an educated guess. Whenever some unspeakable horror comes to this stupid little planet, no matter how unspeakably horrible they are some group of nutjobs always seems to form a cult to worship them. Sad to say I’ve smelled it all before, and this whole business with the ritualistic cutting out of my clients’ hearts and taking the mask just reeks of cultist. Dollars to donuts they want to finish their collection with my heart too, and are lurking in my hotel room waiting for me to bring it to them.
At least, that’s what I’m counting on. Because if they’re not, I’m going to have a bitch of a time doing everything I need to do tonight. I just hope I have time to make it to my suitcase and retrieve some trinkets before they jump me with their sacrificial knives, otherwise this adventure is going to reach a sad and abrupt end, and Mister Tall, Pale, and Feathery is going to have to find himself a new hero.
I open the door to my room. All’s quiet. I step inside. Nothing happens. I peer around, looking for signs that someone else is here, but everything appears to be just the way I left it. Except…did I leave the bathroom door ajar?
A few rapid steps take me to where my suitcase rests beside the bed. A few breathless seconds later my hands reach inside, searching for the two small clay cylinders tucked in the mesh pocket under the flap. I swear a shadow moves behind me, but I can’t spare the time or sanity to look. My hands emerge white-knuckled, fingers of each fist clenched around a cylinder, and I can breathe easy. Okay cultists, you can come out now. I’m ready.
In this world, there are three are kinds of people: those who believe in magic, those who do not, and those like me who know for a fact that the complicated science other people call magic is quite real. For those of us in category number three, there are two further subsets: those who work magic, and those–those like me–who try to keep a safe distance while we watch with awe. Maybe if I worked really hard I might be able to do it, I don’t know. Maybe somewhere inside me there’s a powerful sorcerer bursting to get out. I really don’t know. I’ve snuck a look at some of the spells and rituals in the grimoires that have passed through my hands, and I’ve decided the whole business is not for me. Magic takes a lot of time and attention to detail to do it right, and when you do it wrong? Double-plus ungood, my friends. I’m just not wired for that kind of commitment to perfection. I’ve always been a good-enough is good-enough kind of guy.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t benefit from the efforts of those who have more of the anal-retentive aptitude that makes a good magician. I know lovely Swiss fräulein with a real knack for enchanting ordinary things into objects of power, and she’s more than happy to trade the fruits of her talent for some of the things I am so good at tracking down. It doesn’t take any special talent to use an enchanted object, even I can make them work. These mystical trinkets have saved my skin on more than one occasion; once, a certain charmed chicken foot actually stopped a bullet from smearing my brain all over Trafalgar Square, but that’s yet another story.
Sure, it probably took me months to find the spellbook I traded her for the clay cylinders I just pulled out of my suitcase, which she probably spent all of a day and a half fasting and chanting inside a magic circle to create, but if they perform as advertised it will be a more than fair trade. I hear a bit of rustling behind me–hello cultist–so I guess it’s time to find out. As long as there aren’t more than two of them, I should be okay; I only have two of these cylinders.
I spin around, and sure enough I see two big guys moving in on me. I’ve met a few cultists in my day, and one thing they have in common is that they have nothing in common. You can’t usually tell by looking at them that they secretly worship obscene otherworldly monsters, most of the time you have to wait until they do something that reveals their true colors. Like these guys, they look like any another people you’d meet in a resort. If anything, their tacky tourist shirts seem a little too normal, like they’re in trying a little too hard to fit in. But what ruins it for them, what sort of tips me off that they’re probably cultists in not-so-clever disguise, are the enormous glinting knives made of honest-to-god obsidian chipped to a deadly sharp edge that they’re both hefting in a decidedly menacing way as they close in on me.
Here we go.
My hands curl into tight fists around my lucky charms. I couldn’t tell you the precise scientific forces at work inside them, but these clay cylinders seem to know my intent because I can feel them growing warmer in my hands and I can see a faint eldritch glow seeping between my fingers. The cultists see it too. They pause in their advance, just for a split second. It’s all I need. I clench my teeth and let fly with my left fist, and for one brief, exultant moment as I make firm contact with the first one’s jaw, I know what it is to work magic.
I’ve used magic items before, but no matter how prepared I think I am for it that feeling always takes me by surprise. It’s never the same twice. No wonder all the mages I know are like drug addicts, a person could easily get hooked on this.
There’s a brilliant flash when my punch lands, and I feel the clay in my hand disintegrate as it releases its enchanted powers into my opponent’s face. He crumbles to the floor, out cold. At least I hope he’s only out cold. Sure, he may be a cultist trying to murder me and bring about the end of the world, but that’s no reason to kill the poor misguided wretch.
I open my left hand, and all that remains there is dust. The cylinders are one-shot items, but man, it’s a hell of a shot. I tip my palm downward and the dust glitters as it tinkles down on top of the (hopefully) unconscious cultist. The other two take a step back, mouths agape.
Wait a second: the other two? Aw crap. Where’d that other one come from?
In for a penny and all that, I stride forward, right fist raised. Their shock will only last a second, so I need to seize the advantage while I have it. Even with my fist of doom I’m in deep trouble if they start to fight back. I take a swing at the closest one, and miss. Crap. Did I mention I’m left-handed?
We begin to circle in the tight space of my hotel room, both of them hefting their large knives menacingly. As I transfer the cylinder to my more capable left hand, I see the arcane runes carved into the clay smoldering. They see it too, and once I again I seize the moment’s pause to strike. This time I get lucky, and although I only make glancing contact with the cultist’s cheek it’s enough to trigger the enchantment, and as I experience another split second of ecstasy there’s another flash of light and the second cultist goes down. Oh yeah, a guy could get seriously hooked on this stuff.
Now it’s just me and the third cultist, and I’m all out of magic punches. Only he doesn’t know that, does he? I can tell he’s a little shaken after watching little old me take down his two hulking buddies with a single thump each, so I advance, fist raised. The bluff works. He backs away. And I get lucky again, because he backs up into the recumbent body of one of his pals, tripping over it. He goes down, dropping his knife. I kick it clattering away under the bed.
“You want to die too?” I say. He shakes his head. “Then don’t move,” I say, fist raised in threat over the cowering cultist. He doesn’t move.
If there’s one thing I love about cultists, and to be honest it’s probably the only thing I love about cultists, it’s that they’ve got such weak wills. I mean, how else do you become a cultist in the first place? Anyone with a shred of self-worth isn’t usually attracted to eternal servitude under an amoral monster from beyond time and space, you know?
“Okay, roll over,” I say, and after a brief glare he rolls over. “Face on the floor,” I say, and it takes the encouragement of a sharp kick to the ribs before he obeys. “Don’t move.”
I step over the bodies on the floor to reach my suitcase again. This time I pull out a thin, coiled rope, another present from my enchantress friend. I tie a quick slipknot around one end, then loop it around the terrified cultist’s neck. I tell him to take a seat on the bed. He obeys without question. Of course he does, that’s the magic of the rope: obedience. Making sure to keep hold of the other end of the rope–the magic ends when I let go–I take a seat myself. The surge of adrenaline has run its course, and now I’m left feeling drained and shaky after the fight.
I am so not used to this shit.
We sit together for a minute or two, side by side on the bed, this murderous cultist and I. Once I start to feel a bit more normal again, I ask him where the mask is.
He stammers something in rapid Spanish.
“Aw crap,” I say. “Please tell me you know English.”
He nods. “El Corazón has it,” he says.
“Who’s he, leader of your little Xipoodoo cult?”
“Whatever. So where’s this El Corazón now?”
He doesn’t want to tell me, and to his credit he puts up a respectable fight, but he doesn’t stand a chance against the enchantment of the rope. “Chichen Itza,” he blurts.
Guess we are going to have to do this the hard way.
“One more question. You already had the mask, why kill the other guy and come after me?”
“You were not there when we came for the mask.”
“I was getting coffee,” I explain. He shrugs. “But you got the mask,” I say. “Why did you need me?”
“I wanted the money,” he says.
“Ah. Fair enough.”
There’s a rustle from the floor. The cultists I knocked out are starting to come around again. I fasten my end of the rope around my wrist to free my hands. There’s work to do.
“Hand me those bedsheets,” I tell my captive, and he does. I use them to tie up the two unconscious cultists, stuffing towels in their mouths as gags, then rifle through their pockets. There’s nothing of interest except a set of car keys.
I collect my belongings and hastily stuff them into my suitcase. I’m about to lift it up when I remember my captive trailing at the end of the rope connecting us, and order him to bring the heavy baggage. He does. Good boy.
I toss him the car keys. “Let’s go,” I say. I grab the briefcase full of money–I will hang onto that myself–and together we leave my hotel room.
The cultist’s car is an old Toyota, one of those immortal Tercels from the nineties, and with a bit of squirming we manage to get ourselves inside without breaking contact with the magic rope. There’s a bulging backpack in the back seat, so I peek inside. What I see makes me whistle through my teeth.
It’s full of guns. I’d tell you what kind, but I don’t know squat about weapons, and I have no intention of using them anyway, so it doesn’t matter. Of far more interest to me is the large baggie full of mushrooms sitting on top. I’m guessing they’re not for making risotto. Funny that Senõr Snakefeathers would mention magic mushrooms then I happen to find some. Quite a coincidence, don’t you think?
I tilt the open bag at my pet cultist so he can see, then grin and say, “Shoot! A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff,” but he doesn’t seem to get the joke, so I ask him how long it’ll take us to get to Chichen Itza. He says it’s about two hours, so popping open the ziplock top of the baggie of drugs I sit back and order him to drive. He does.
We drive in silence. The narrow roads are empty, whether because nobody ever uses these winding country cowpaths or because everyone’s already at the end of the world party I don’t know, but I’m glad. It means there’s no cops around either, which is a good thing. What would be harder to explain, I wonder: the rope tied around my driver’s neck, the sack of guns in the back seat, the briefcase full of American hundred dollar bills, or the enormous bag of drugs in my lap? Not to mention the pair of men tied up back in my hotel room, and the two more dead ones bleeding out in theirs.
Eventually I get bored. “So,” I say, “what’s the deal with this cult of yours?”
Turns out that once he gets going he’s a chatty one, this captive cultist of mine, and he ends up telling me his life story. Orphaned as a kid, made his way working for a Mexican drug cartel, blah blah blah. I’m having a hard time listening to what he’s saying because I’m looking out the window and damn, the stars are just so amazing. He’s talking away and I’m sitting here bobbing my head back and forth enjoying the celestial light show. At some point he ends up hooking up with El Corazón and learning about the end of the world, then the story takes on a familiar culty sound. Seems El Corazón learned the story of the beast in the cenote from his grandmother, who heard it from her grandmother, back through generations of Mayan ancestors. He made my cultist an offer: be like everyone else and face certain and eternal doom in Xipaykaa’s angry maw, or join him in worshipping the beast and helping it arise.
That’s another thing all these cultists have in common: they all want to be on the winning team, even when the only tangible benefit is getting eaten last.
Speaking of eating, this is when I realize that the whole time he’s been talking I’ve been idly plucking magic mushrooms from the bag and tossing them into my mouth like popcorn.
When I started the bag was full. I’ve no idea how much was in there–a pound? maybe two?–now it’s about a quarter empty.
“Say,” I say to my driver, “how long do these things take to kick in?”
His eyes slowly pan away from the road to look at me. They glance down at the baggie in my lap, and when they look back up at me they’re open a lot wider.
“What?” I say.
“How many did you eat?” he says.
“Er, some.” I say. “Why?”
“No reason,” he says, and turns his attention back to the road. I think he’s smiling.
“So how long before I feel anything?”
“Oh, not long,” he says, and even though it’s dark here in the car I know he’s smiling.
I get the feeling I may have had more than enough mushrooms so I pinch my fingers at one end of baggie top and drag them across, watching them slowly blur along the edge as they seal up the ziplock.
“Blue and red make purple,” I murmur as a roll down the window and toss the mushrooms out of the car.
“No, not long at all,” he says.
The cultist drives in as far as he can, but the place is packed with vehicles so he parks behind a long row of tour buses and we get out. The briefcase is an awkward thing to be lugging around but there’s no way I’m leaving this money behind, so I dump the guns out of the backpack and transfer the stacks of bills into it. It occurs to me that everything happens for a reason, and even though I know it’s a bad idea I figure since I found guns that in some Chekovian way I’ll probably need them before this is over so I pick out a couple of smaller ones at random and stuff them on top of the cash before slinging the pack onto my back and starting the hike into the ruins of Chichen Itza.
“Giddeyap,” I say to my cultist with a tug on the rope. “Take me to your leader.”
We walk along the path, catching glances from a group of bus drivers drinking and smoking by their vehicles. I hear a few snickers, but none of them seems concerned that I’m leading another man along on a leash. End of the world parties always attract a certain fringe element of society, so I suppose they’ve seen a lot weirder already tonight.
This is where things start to get a little fuzzy.
There is a long history of shamans and other magic-types using drugs to aid their mystical thingies. I dunno how it works exactly, but for sure your mind is open to all kinds of strange shit when you’re under the influence. Maybe it is as simple as my feathery friend from the café put it–it helps focus the mind–but I’ll tell you, my mind is a lot of things right now, and none of them is anything I would describe as focused.
I am tripping. I am tripping hard.
We stroll up to the Chichen Itza entrance and I’m fighting the urge to wig out, trying to remind myself that it’s all gonna go away in a few hours. You know, provided I manage to save the world and all that before then.
The place is packed. And loud. Somehow we weave our way into the crowd. My cultist leads and I’m behind with a firm grip on my end of the rope. It’s my lifeline and I am not gonna lose it.
They’ve set up bright and colorful spotlights on all the ruins. He leads me past the central pyramid–the temple of Kukulkan–and I see the shape of a serpent formed by the shadows of the lights winding its way down the stairs in the middle. The snake shadow writhes and wriggles for me so I give it a knowing nod as my cultist leads me deeper into the ancient city.
It’s so loud. So many people, all moving. Then the crowd thins as I’m led out of the main city complex along a narrow causeway. Suddenly, the cultist darts off the path and I’m stumbling through jungle to keep up. Just as suddenly the cultist stops and I run full force into his back. He’s far bigger than I am so I bounce off and fall down in a bleary heap.
I look up and have to chuckle. I did tell him to take me to his leader, after all. I suppose I ought to have specified that I wanted to see only his leader, and not his entire cult. In the flickering light of the burning torches they carry, the menacing shapes of at least a dozen cultists envelop me.
One of them strides over. El Corazón, I presume. He shares some harsh words in Spanish with my captive as he removes the magic rope from around his neck, breaking the spell. I don’t know what they’re saying, but I can guess.
El Corazón grabs the pack off my back and shoves his hand inside. He pulls it out clutching a wad of bills.
He bellows something in Spanish.
I shouldn’t giggle, I know I shouldn’t. But I just can’t help myself.
There’s more back and forth in Spanish, and by the gestures of my former captive I can tell El Corazón is learning his magic mushrooms are somewhere by the side of the road.
El Corazón barks some orders at his minions and I find myself being picked up by a couple of cultists–including my former pet–and carried along in a procession through the jungle. The dancing firelight of the torches throws wicked shadows around us, and I see the silhouette of El Corazón ahead of me shift and shimmy like a wraith. I’m almost glad I’m out of my mind on hallucinogens right now; if I was sober I’d be pissing myself, but as it is I let the drugs take over and in a twisted sort of way I find myself enjoying the show. I’m pretty sure it’s going to end with me watching them cut the heart from my chest and throw it into the hungry maw of a hideous monster from the celestial aether in a few minutes, and who the hell wants to be sober for that?
Soon we’re back on the path, then in a few moments we’re marching into a large clearing, in the middle of which what looks like a small round lake at the bottom of a pit. Jungle trees and vines grow along the sides of the pit, and a small stone hut lies in crumbled ruins near the edge. If I had to guess, I’d say this would be the sacred cenote.
The cultists begin their rites. I try to take an academic interest, or at least pay attention to what’s going on, but I find the whole ritual thing boring. I’ve never been able to stay awake in church, I even drift off during weddings. This is why I’ll never make even a passable sorcerer, I just do not have the patience. The endless depths of cosmic horror don’t seem to phase me, but tedium? Man, that drives me crazy. So while they chant their chants and do their deeds I just let my drug-addled mind wander and reflect on the gaping hole of the cenote they’ve dragged me to the edge of.
Apparently this part of Mexico is pockmarked with these things. I saw a poster about cenotes while waiting in the customs line in the airport worrying about whether or not my fake passport would trigger alarm bells, but I can’t remember much. Something about fresh water sinkholes or caverns or something. The one here at Chichen Itza is famous as a sacred site where the ancient Maya performed their blood rituals. I suppose I can take some comfort in the thought that when they toss my beating heart into this abyss it won’t be the first one that ended up down there, though it might be the last.
Certain events back in the real world wrench me back into the present. Namely, El Corazón has put on the mask. Finally, I get to see it. It looks pretty much just like the picture, yet somehow in real life it’s even more hideous. As he stands there, swaying on the lip of the cenote, shirtless with the torchlight gleaming on his naked torso, waving one of those big obsidian knives and wearing that horrible alien mask, all I can think is that I would kill for one more of Alejandro’s marvelous cappuccinos.
That’s when El Corazón jabs the knife into the ground in front of him and plunges both hands into a box held by one of the cultists, and when he pulls them out each is clutching a dripping lump of something black. He holds them above his head and shouts something Spanish, and I hear the word ‘corazón’ again. Something clicks. Somehow I realize that ‘corazón’ is the Spanish word for ‘heart,’ which is pretty impressive considering the only Spanish I ever learned is ‘gracias’ and ‘cerveza por favor.’ More cerebral clicks bring added insight. El Corazón, the leader, is the heart of this little cult. And those things he’s holding, those lumps that look black in this light but are actually red, those are my clients’ hearts.
El Corazón reels back then pitches them into the cenote, where countless ripped-out hearts have gone before, and moments after they splash into the water the ground begins to rumble and quite literally all hell begins to break loose.
As the earth rumbles beneath our feet my captors reel unsteadily, but their grip on my arms holds fast, never loosening enough to allow me to either escape or pitch forward into the pit. One of the other cultists lurking a little too close to the edge is not so lucky, and he tumbles forward into the murky depths. His short bark for help is silenced by the splash, which is quickly followed by another, even more powerful tremor.
Then there is a tremendous crunching sound and with a sudden heave it feels like every drop of water in the cenote has splattered up at once, as though forced up by a colossal underwater explosion. Only it wasn’t an explosion, at least not in the normal sense. It was Xipaykaa, awakened and hungry after his long imprisoned slumber.
It rises from the pit, or the top of it does, anyway. A shapeless mass of fleshy protoplasm. With gelatinous fluidity its obscene body ripples and shifts, growing thick tentacular appendages that snake out to latch onto trees and branches. It uses them to help haul its enormity up, then sucks the tendril arms back into its central oozing core. A dim greenish light emanates from the monster, specifically from the glowing eyes that bubble and pop all over its undulating surface. A deep gurgling and smacking hints at the presence of an unseen mouth lurking somewhere in the nebulous dark below.
It’s unclear what the cultists were expecting to see rise from the eldritch depths of their sacred cenote, but clearly they were not prepared for the horrible truth. One glimpse of the enormous thing emerging from the hole is enough to drive most of them instantly insane and send them shrieking and jabbering back into the jungle. Those are the lucky ones. One of the cultists holding my arms lets go and prostrates himself on the edge of the pit, touching his head to the ground and muttering prayers. Whether he’s worshipping this monster or praying to some other entity for salvation from it doesn’t matter, because a second later a puckered tentacle slithers from the pit and curls around him, sucking him down towards the belly of the beast. There’s an unfortunate-sounding crunch that makes me kind of happy I can’t see what’s happening down there.
The other cultist still clutches my arm, his fingers now digging into my bicep in fear. It’s my former captive, suddenly realizing that maybe he joined the wrong team after all.
“Do you mind?” I say, tugging my arm free. He gawps at me with crazy eyes, and I see another tentacle slither towards us, reaching, seeking.
“Sorry about this,” I say, ducking away and putting him between me and the monster’s arm as it darts forward to find another victim. He claws at me with one hand as the thick tentacle wraps around him and starts drawing him back, and that’s when I see that in the other hand he’s holding my backpack of cash. I grab it. It’s a lot of cash.
We have a brief tug-of-war on the precipice of the pit, a desperate gasp at survival fueling his need to hang onto the bag, greed fueling mine. In the end, it’s the monster who decides who wins as the tentacle clenches itself tighter around the cultist. He lets go when his crushed ribs crackle like wet firewood, and as I tumble away from the cenote he is sucked into it, and into eternal oblivion.
El Corazón is still planted at the edge, chanting and waving his big black knife. As the rest of his cult flees or dies around him, the monster seems to ignore him. It must be the mask. While it’s clear the mask is not helping him to control the beast–that is, unless El Corazón’s intention is to force the creature to pluck and eat his followers like crunchy cultist canapes–it does seem to at least offer some protection. He is not getting eaten. As I scramble away from the tip of a groping tentacle, that’s good enough for me. I want that mask.
Dodging tentacles, I pull myself to my feet and cautiously approach El Corazón from behind. Just as I’m getting close, he spins and waves his obsidian blade at me.
Screw this. I shove my hand into the backpack until I feel something cold and hard, then wrapping my fingers around the handle of the first gun I find I pull it out and wave it back at him. He doesn’t seem to care, because he takes a swipe at me with the knife. It could be the drugs, but everything seems to be moving in slow motion and it’s a simple matter to duck out of the way. Seriously, screw this.
I point the gun vaguely at El Corazón, trying to aim at the knife and not at the man–it would really suck if I hit him and he fell into the pit with the mask–but I’m in no position to be picky. I’ll be lucky if I don’t shoot myself.
I’ve seen enough movies with guns to know about the safety catch, but not handled enough guns to know what it looks like. But if were to design a pistol, I’d probably put the catch somewhere convenient and easy to reach with my thumb, and there’s a little thing there by my thumb that feels like a catch and moves when I touch it, so I’m hoping this is one of those times I get lucky.
I squeeze the trigger a few times and there are some loud bangs, then a scream as the knife goes spinning away into the cenote. Blood spurts from his hand. Hey, what do you know: I actually hit what I was aiming for.
The next fake passport I make, I’m using the name Lucky.
Things are still moving in slow motion for me, so while he flails and bleeds I reach in to grab the mask off his face. My fingers curl around the edge and I tug, but it doesn’t budge. His whole head jerks forward as I pull. Thinking it must be held on by straps I try lifting it up, but that only raises his chin and tilts his whole head back. It’s like the thing is fused to his face. And then I realize that there are no straps holding it on. I think it really is fused to his face.
Well that’s just great.
Our of the corner of my eye I notice a tentacle snaking towards me, so I let go of the mask and point my gun at it, squeezing the trigger until the bangs stop and all I hear are clicks. Something must have hit the mark because the monster’s arm twitches back into the pit, only to be replaced by two more squirming towards me. I toss the empty pistol at them, which is about as effective as you’d think.
There’s still another gun in the backpack, so I quickly retrieve it and duck behind El Corazón, using him as a human shield between me and the groping tentacles. Realizing what I’m doing he dodges to one side exposing me to one of the tentacles, so I shoot at it and dodge with him. He dodges back, so I fire off another shot and follow him back. We engage in this ridiculous dance back and forth for a while, until I get worried about how many bullets might be left in the gun.
“Screw this,” I say.
My free hand reaches out and grabs the mask again while I place the barrel of the gun against El Corazón’s chest and squeeze off two quick shots, straight through his heart. Tap tap, bang bang. Like magic, the mask comes loose in my hand and I leap backwards with my prize.
They say it’s hard to kill someone. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the mushrooms, or maybe it’s because killing him was the only way to pry loose the mask I need to protect myself from the hideous creature the idiot summoned up, but I have to admit I didn’t find it all that hard to pull the trigger.
El Corazón reels on the edge of the cenote, blood gushing from the twin holes gaping in his chest. The two tentacles turn their attention to the dying cultist, snaking themselves around him before pulling him screaming down into the pit. Maybe he had a wife somewhere, maybe some kids. Maybe his parents are still alive somewhere, and still love him. I don’t know. I don’t care. One less murderous cult leader in the world is a good thing in my book. Especially when his sacrifice might be the only thing that saves my skin.
I drop the gun and take the mask in both hands. An electric tingle shimmers through my body as I place it against my face and the cool otherworldly metal of the mask fuses itself to me. A rush of light and sounds and images sends me to my knees as I try to make sense of the visions that force themselves into my consciousness all at once.
I see scenes unfold like the most vibrant dreams. I am here at the same cenote, though it looks different. The jungle immediately surrounding it is sparser, tamer. The stone hut on the edge is not in ruins, and I am surrounded by short, ruddy-skinned people festooned with feathers. I realize I am 1700 years in the past, watching the Mayan priests trap the monster in the pit. No, scratch that; I am not watching it, I am the Mayan priest making it happen.
Down into the cenote the rippling monstrous mass disappears, swallowed up by the brackish green water and sealed deep in the muddy depths; trapped forever, or until some idiot decides to raise it back up again.
The vision shifts. I am no longer in Mexico. Judging by the peculiar foliage and the bizarre geometry of the strangely angular buildings around me, I’m not sure I am even on Earth anymore. The five-sided barrel-shaped beings that surround me spark a memory of arcane lore I managed to pick up over the course of my recent work, and I think I have a rough idea where I am, and when. If I’m right, I am far outside the sphere of our planetary system, and a long, long time before any human ever stepped two feet on our little globe.
Again, I am not watching this but am an active participant. I am overwhelmed by vertigo with the sensation of being inside this alien body. Shuffling along on the five limbs of the starfish-like appendage at the bottom of my oblong torso feels completely unlike the bipedal human walking I am used to, yet seems perfectly natural as I move toward a large object in the middle of a circle of aliens. Somehow I know it’s a spaceship. As one of my five tentacle arms reaches out to place an ornate metal ring inside a fitted recess on the ship’s side, I see that contained within it is a small version of the Xipaykaa monster. But of course it is Xipaykaa, back when it was very young. Whether this ancient interstellar vessel was a cargo ship or a colony ship I don’t know; I suspect it had to have been destined for Earth because I have it on good authority that nothing comes here by accident, but I couldn’t say for sure. But I do know that the ring that I in my alien form am snapping into place on the side of the ship is some sort of mechanism for controlling the beast, the original shape of the metal that is fused to my face as a mask.
A chorus of alien voices rise in a chant, which little Xipaykaa in its spaceship echoes pitifully: “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!”
Then I snap back to the here and now, and suddenly, somehow, I know what to do. Maybe it’s the mushrooms giving that promised focus after all, maybe it’s some kind of telepathy across time and space–who knows, and who cares; all I know is that for whatever reason, I am absolutely certain of exactly what I need to do.
I need to get this monster into the party.
Yeah, yeah, I’m sure it sounds crazy. I’m sure coercing a monstrosity from outer space into a crowd of tens of thousands of revelers seems like the last thing I ought to do, but run with me. Let’s see where this goes.
I turn towards Xipaykaa. As I’d hoped, wearing the mask seems to make me immune to its attacks because there are a number of tentacles twitching and groping around me, but they are all keeping a safe, if not entirely comfortable distance. Now it’s time to see about this whole control thing.
Turns out it’s pretty easy. All I have to do is think about moving out towards the city centre of Chichen Itza, and Xipaykaa begins sloshing its bulk out of the pit. Forming new arms to grab trees and help heave itself up and out, the monster follows me as I back up down the path towards the party. I’d like nothing more than to turn around and run away, but even with this mask on there’s no way in hell I’m turning my back on this thing.
As we amble along the path I decide to test the limits of my control over the beast. I think about ripping a tree out of the ground, and the next thing I know a newly-formed tentacle has uprooted a large ficus tree. Nice.
I think stop. It stops.
I think cube, and the monster’s body ripples with tension as it pulls its sides in to form a reasonably square shape on all sides. Very nice.
I decide I need to stop doing this right now and get on with my plan, because it would be very easy to let this kind of power corrupt me. It takes a lot of effort to put aside the idea of using this monster instead of destroying it–with a thought I could be master of this little ball of dirt–but soon we’re on the move again, squelching ever closer to the crowd in the ancient ruins.
The noise gets much louder and lights much brighter when we emerge from the jungle into the city clearing. I feel the monster’s desire to run wild among the people, feasting and crushing, its hatred of our species having grown and festered over hundreds of years of subterranean captivity. It is but an eyeblink over the interminable years of its lifespan, but that only means the wounds inflicted by the Mayan priests when they trapped it in the cenote are, relatively speaking, still fresh. My will clamps down on its primal urges, and maybe it’s the mushrooms or maybe it’s the mask or maybe I’ve got a kickass will, but the monster obeys.
There’s a roar of fear as the first partygoers see us appear, but that soon switches to cheers and whoops of joy as the psychic suggestions I’m broadcasting prevent them from seeing the monster for what it truly is and convince them it’s all part of the show. See, one of the grand insights I had back with the visions when I first put on the mask is that its hypnotic power is not limited to the monster: I can control people as well. So instead of a terrified little man leading along a hideous monstrosity, I make them see a proud man dressed as an ancient Mayan priest shooting fireworks.
As the beast and I move out of the forest toward the city centre the crowd parts for us. I keep sending out waves of good vibes for the humans while at the same time keeping a tight vice on the monster’s desire to eat them. It’s a difficult balancing act, and I know that if I allow either one to falter we’re all in big trouble. Either there’ll be tens of thousands of people driven insane by the unclouded sight of the thing, or a gory bloodbath as Xipaykaa exacts its revenge on the human species. That, my friends, is focus.
I even remember to make everyone forget to whip out their phones and take pictures and videos. This is 2012, after all, and even if I am wearing a mask I’d rather not see this on YouTube tomorrow.
Eventually we reach the middle of the crowd, which surges and shrieks around us. This next bit’s going to be the hardest yet, and probably very unpleasant.
To be honest, I only have a vague sense of what needs to be done now that we’re here in the middle of the party. My conscious mind is quite frankly a total wreck, so I turn myself off and switch to subconscious autopilot. I feel myself begin to make subtle changes to the telepathic messages I’m sending out. The euphoria begins to slowly ramp up, feeding upon itself as more and more of the crowd becomes involved in a collective cycle of primitive emotion. It builds and builds, a psychic feedback loop channeled through the mask that demands one thing and one thing only: climax. I let it grow, the mob writhing and bellowing around me in what can only be described as an orgy of primal need, until I start to feel vibrations in the mask that begin to scare me. That’s when I know it’s time.
With a last psychic blast to summon the all the mental and emotional energy back into the mask, I yank it from my face. The instant I break contact with the mask the monster roars and heaves, a dozen tentacles shooting out towards me in loathing fury. But before they can reach me I hurl the mask into the protoplasmic mass of the monster where it gets sucked into the gooey breach of a bursting eye bubble.
The beast instantly recoils, its arms flailing as every eye bubble pops at once and it erupts in a pitiful howl of pain. The gelatinous body gurgles and churns, like a sun contracting upon itself as it prepares to supernova, which frankly isn’t far from the mark. I do not want to be anywhere near it when that happens, so clutching the backpack I’ve somehow managed to keep with me this whole time I turn tail and force my way through the ecstatic throng. Then I haul ass out of there.
I manage to make it just far enough away that by the time the psychic feedback loop causes the shapeless mass of Xipaykaa’s body to explode, sending chunks of blubbery protoplasmic flesh and dripping alien gore spewing over anyone unfortunate enough to be caught nearby, only a few smaller morsels manage to make it as far as where I’ve fled to. I notice that within seconds of splattering onto people or the ground the bits and pieces of Xipaykaa begin to sizzle and smoke, soon disintegrating into a powdery mist. In a few minutes, all trace of the thing will be gone.
“Good riddance,” I say to myself, and push my way through the crowd. I need to get the hell out of Mexico.
“Senor Hand,” the voice says. “Wake up, Senor, we here.”
Normally it takes me a little bit to transition from sleep to wakefulness, but not this time. I dart upward from where I was sleeping, clutching a backpack to my chest as I blink into the daylight.
I am on a small fishing boat, bobbing and rocking on the waves as a Mexican fisherman peers at me.
“You say wake you up when we reach the Caymans, Senor. We reach it.”
“Did I?” I say. “Of course I did.”
It’s coming back to me now. Chichen Itza. The crazy drug-addled drive back to Cozumel in a dead cultist’s Toyota. Bribing a hotel concierge with a fistful of American hundred dollar bills to erase any record of me being there. Finding a fisherman willing to accept another fistful of cash to sail me discreetly to the Cayman Islands where I know a guy who can launder the rest. This is not my first time fleeing a country, and it seems I can even manage it while completely out of my mind on hallucinogens. Nice to know.
I look around. There’s nothing but crisp blue Caribbean water behind us, and the speck of an island far off the bow. On the boat, there is only my fisherman friend and his assistant who pretends to busy himself with some nets as he watches me warily. Along with the precious backpack, my suitcase sits in a small puddle on the deck of the boat near my feet.
“How long…” I say.
“Have you sleep? Long time. Many hour.”
As I sit back and watch Grand Cayman grow steadily larger on the horizon he hands me a tin cup full of coffee. It’s bitter and weak, but sorry, Alejandro: I think it might be the best coffee I’ve ever had.