Sunday, January 15, 2017

MYTHS OF THE WEIRD WEST: Cowboy Gods of the Apocalypse

Our friend Charles Skinner (Ghost Train No. 19, remember?) wrote a tale called Sacrifice of the Toltecs, rife with strange notions. When you're done here, give it a read in Myths & Legends of Our Own Land and you'll see what I mean. Loved the scene he set, though, so had to make it my own. It's got nothing to do with Toltecs now, it's just about the West.

And it how it got Weird.

   Centuries past, a Great Empire loomed over the endless desert wastes. Across Mexico and up into what is now Arizona and California. The entire southwest was their world, arenas and temples hunched against the pale, blue sky. They were a mighty people and much feared. Their enemies lurked at their ever-expanding boundary, swords and spears clutched in dark, trembling fists.
   Their king was a vain and pompous man, whose soul was only for his Gods, that they might deliver power and prosperity for all time. His coffers brimmed with an ocean of gold coins, his army stood bristling with weapons upon every ledge and parapet. The Empire’s men were fat and happy, the women were languid and scheming.
   It is no surprise then, they fell prey to luxuriant boredom and ruthless over-confidence. Often the sky rumbled black threats and the borders grew menacing shadows, but they would not abate. The king would merely take a young woman and shove her at the high priest, demanding the Gods be satisfied. The city would choke the temples in their lustful fury and bellow ecstatic cries as the blade was punched deep within the maiden’s heart.
   But the Gods would not be swayed. They owed their lives to the worship of this kingdom, true, but its anguished melancholy was now their own. They looked across the vast, blasted tracts of their own empire and sighed. The time had come to see if the Gods themselves had souls. They cast their eyes below and set to work.
   Then the whole earth shook and great fissures split the underworked fields. Lazy farmers sat up from their naps beneath the trees and gaped at the destruction. Cracks like forks of brutal lightning sliced through the city. Houses burst, shops crashed and the arena fell.
   The king pushed away his concubines and ran to the window. His city threw great clouds of dust and debris and the screams of the dead were deafening. He fled from his chamber and cried for the high priest.
   There was no time to prepare a maiden he knew, for the world would soon end. He grasped the robes of the high priest and pulled him close. “Go to my daughter’s chambers!” he roared, “Drag her to the temple!”
   No Gods could deny the loyalty of an empire willing to sacrifice its own lifeblood.
   Tears streaming, the princess kicked and spat as the robed minions of the high priest wrestled her out of the palace. Outside, chunks of rock tumbled, fires blazed and the dead littered the streets. A cry went up that the reservoir was next and all would be drowned. The high priest whipped his horses to a frenzy, the young woman held tight by his men in the back of the wagon.
   The temple pillars wobbled and fell as the holy retinue galloped inside. The altar stood high upon its dais, shivering in a shaft of sunlight where the ceiling had collapsed. Picking their way over the destruction, the priest pushed the princess onto the warm, black marble and fitted the chains to her wrists and ankles. She thrashed for his prayers and invocations and spit the wine he poured in her mouth.
   A wall of the temple fell outward, crushing a caravan fleeing down the street. Children screamed for their mothers. All was dust and smoke and the frantic silhouettes of the damned within. There was a great boom in the distance. A growl of throaty, raw thunder.
   The reservoir had burst.
   The holy man wiped the blade of his jade knife and kissed it. The princess screamed as it came down, grunting blood through her nose. Her eyes rolled in their sockets. The priest raised his hands to the sky then, palms together, calling upon the will of the Gods. The temple collapsed upon him.
   All was ash and darkness. The ground tore apart and shelves of rock sawed together, spewing magma and spires of flame. The reservoir surged in and swept all before it, carrying a froth of mud and bodies into a deep, grand, canyon that led to the bowels of the earth. For hours the empire was torn asunder amid fire and water and lashing rain.
   And the princess stood over it all, the edges of her spectral form wafting like ribbons. All the maidens past stood with her and they looked into the canyon as a waterfall of shattered stone and broken bodies tumbled over its rim. They greeted these souls as they were torn from the depths and soon, the entire Empire was watching itself die.
   Then the sky opened up and the princess led her people to the world beyond, empty of Gods and pettiness and fear.
   No survivors remained. Only a few foundations, only a few bones sticking up from the mud to ever know an entire world was no more. From now on, there would only be god souls and shadows. Only whispers to suggest the merest sense of far-flung kingdoms and their foolish notions.
   But it would be more than enough, to let men know they were indeed, in a weird land.

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