“Jealous Idols” by Jamie Lackey
“We leave the canoe here and continue on foot,” Autumn Snow said as they reached the shore of the high, cold lake. Butterfly nodded without comment, careful to keep her face blank. She wasn’t looking forward to battling their way up the mountain, but she had insisted on coming along. She had no one to blame but herself.
The air smelled like pine, and the spring sunlight was warm on her face. Autumn Snow had caught them a salmon for dinner.
He looked very fine, kneeling next to their tiny fire, cleaning the fish. His hair was as glossy as a raven’s wing, and he was well made, strong and tall.
It was important to dwell on the positive things.
Butterfly gathered wood and found some mushrooms and a handful of berries. Autumn Snow graced her with one of his rare smiles.
“We will be there soon,” he said. “And then you will understand.”
Butterfly reached out and traced one of his high cheekbones. “I didn’t come with you because I wished to see your Snakemen.”
“Don’t call them that. They are not men. They are gods. You will see.”
Butterfly sighed. She was sure that he’d eventually return to the true gods, but his heart still belonged to his strange dreams. At least his body was hers. She took his hand and pulled him away from the fire, to a soft patch of moss that she’d discovered.
“The salmon will burn!” he protested.
“We can be quick,” Butterfly said, pushing him to the ground and pinning his wrists behind his head.
“Is the female causing you trouble, Autumn Snow?” a strange, eerily musical voice asked.
Autumn Snow pushed Butterfly off and prostrated himself before the huge silver snake coiled in the branches above them. Butterfly scrambled away from it, her heart racing. It glistened in the sunlight, bright as still water.
“She is my woman,” Autumn Snow said, his face still pressed to the earth. “She’s no trouble.”
Butterfly thought of a few scathing retorts to that, but she kept them trapped behind her teeth.
“I see.” The snake lowered the top part of its long body down and looked directly into Butterfly’s eyes. “Do you worship my masters, as he does?”
Butterfly blinked. Its masters? This creature was a servant? Something in its manner made her doubt that. She shrugged, tried to keep her fear out of her voice. “I have no reason to. The gods I worship have granted me a good life.”
The snake laughed. The sound sent a shivering through Butterfly’s stomach. “I like your woman, Autumn Snow,” it said. It dropped to the ground with a hollow, ringing clang. It was longer than Butterfly was tall, and as big around as her waist. It slithered toward the fire, its movements fast and smooth. “You should eat, and then I will lead you up the mountain. My masters grow impatient for your arrival.”
The salmon wasn’t burnt. Autumn Snow ate quickly, as impatient as his gods. Butterfly ate slowly and watched the flames reflected on the snake’s strange silver skin. It was as lovely as the sunset. She wondered if it was warm or cool to the touch.
Autumn Snow stood and doused the fire. “Come on. They’re waiting.”
The path that the snake led them up was much easier going than Butterfly had anticipated. It was a small blessing, but she was grateful for it.
They came to the river’s source, a massive waterfall falling from a cave in the mountainside, and the mountain fortress that Autumn Snow’s gods had carved above it. Butterfly could only gape in awe. Autumn Snow looked back at her, smugness written across his features. “I said you would see.”
The fortress loomed over them, ancient and huge. It was hewn from the mountain itself, from the living rock. “How is such a thing possible?” Butterfly whispered.
Autumn Snow shrugged. “They are gods. Look at what they have done. Do you have any other explanation?”
Butterfly shook her head. “But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.”
The snake laughed again. “I like you very much. What is your name?”
“Butterfly. What is yours?”
The snake was silent for a long moment. “You may call me Rakin.”
“I never knew you had a name,” Autumn Snow said.
“You never asked,” Rakin snapped.
“What does it mean?” Butterfly asked.
Rakin turned and looked up at her. “That is a secret. But maybe I will tell you, in time.”
He led them into the fortress. Butterfly shivered as they walked into the shadowy entrance. She had never liked caves–she worried about collapses, about dying crushed beneath layers of rock. This was worse. She stopped. “Can I wait here?”
“Don’t be silly. You’ve come all this way.” Autumn Snow took her hand. She couldn’t tell if he noticed it trembling. “They won’t hurt you.”
“I’m not afraid of them.”
“What are you afraid of?” Rakin asked.
Butterfly shrugged. “I don’t like being underground.”
“This fortress has stood for a very long time. It will stand for as long as you are within it. You have my word,” Rakin said.
Butterfly took a deep breath and let Autumn Snow pull her inside.
There was light inside, but it was like no light Butterfly had ever seen. It was pale blue and shimmery. It was almost like when she opened her eyes deep underwater.
The walls felt close and tight around her. She counted her steps–she needed to know how long it would take her to get out. They reached a long, spiraling set of stairs and climbed up, away from the roar of the water.
When they reached the god’s antechamber, Butterfly’s first feeling was relief. The huge, empty space around them helped ease Butterfly’s tightly controlled fear.
Autumn Snow prostrated himself.
The light flickered, turned orange. “What news?” a strange voice boomed. It was less musical than Rakin’s.
“Strangers have come from the east,” Autumn Snow said, slowly standing. “But I do not think they will come here.”
“What do these strangers want?” A huge figure, four times the height of a man, stepped forward from a recess in the wall. It had the arms and legs of a man, but its face was that of a snake. Its skin shone gold in the orange light.
“They are looking for gold.”
“They could find that here,” the Snakeman said.
“But no one will lead them here,” Autumn Snow said.
The Snakeman was silent for a long moment. “Why have you brought this woman?”
“I wanted her to see your glory.” Autumn Snow fell to his knees. “Have I done wrong?”
“Our secrecy is our greatest weapon.” The Snakeman took a step toward Butterfly.
Autumn Snow moved between them. “I trust her–she is not some stranger led to your gates. If I have offended you, I repent. If you must punish someone, punish me.”
“So be it.” The Snakeman’s huge fist shot out with the same smooth speed Butterfly had noticed in Rakin. Autumn Snow flew through the air and crumpled against a distant wall.
Butterfly screamed and charged toward the Snakeman. She knew little about fighting, but she would rather die trying than standing still.
It stood motionless under her assault. Hitting it was like punching rock. She stopped.
“It will not harm you,” Rakin said.
“Why not?” Butterfly asked, her voice thick with tears.
“Only one sacrifice wad demanded.”
“I don’t understand. He worshipped you,” Butterfly said, looking up at the huge golden figure.
The Snakeman remained silent.
She went to Autumn Snow’s broken body, cradled his head in her lap. She’d never earn another of his smiles, never see him light up with pride from his service to his strange gods.
His gods had killed him.
Rakin curled up her arm, onto her shoulder. The snake was heavy and cold. “I will tell you now,” it said.
“Tell me what?” Butterfly brushed Autumn Snow’s hair away from his face. It was wet from her tears.
“Rakin means god.”
Rakin ordered the Snakeman to lock Butterfly in a tiny, dark room with a single, narrow window. If she hadn’t already hated him, that would have been enough. Then he made a fine silver copy of Autumn Snow for her. She wept. The copy of Autumn Snow stood in the corner. His voice, when he relayed messages from Rakin, sounded nothing like her lover’s. It was a small comfort.
She refused to speak to the copy, refused to eat.
She spent her days praying to the true gods. She thanked them for the blessings they’d given her. She asked them for strength and wisdom.
The sunlight whispered suggestions, and the stone beneath her drank her tears.
Eventually, Rakin came to her cell. “This needs to stop,” it said.
“What do you want with me?” she asked.
“I want you to worship me.”
Butterfly imagined crushing its silver skull beneath her heel. She’d seen snakes die that way. “If you wanted worship, you shouldn’t have killed him.”
“He was unworthy.”
“He was worth fifty of you.”
“I wanted to show you that I have power over life and death,” Rakin said. “I made you another Autumn Snow. This one is just as capable of independent thought as the last.”
Rage flashed through her, stronger than her sorrow. “I will destroy you,” Butterfly said.
“Eat something.” Rakin slid her a plate of dried meat and nuts.
She ate the nuts. She didn’t touch the meat. She couldn’t tell what it had been.
Butterfly escaped when she’d lost enough weight to slip through the narrow window. She ordered the fake Autumn Snow to boost her up. It had obeyed. She paused, looking down into the beloved face.
It smiled up at her.
She blinked back tears and thought about revenge.
She followed the first stairs she found, down to the river. The river, the only thing she could think of that was older and more powerful than Rakin. She knelt by the water and prayed.
“What are you doing?” Rakin slithered up beside her.
“Praying,” Butterfly whispered.
“But not to me.” Rakin’s musical voice almost sounded defeated.
“Never to you.”
“So be it.” Rakin lunged toward her, its teeth flashing, sinking deep into her arm. Pain spiked through her.
Butterfly wrapped herself around its coils and threw herself backwards, into the gushing water.
The cold was worse than the snakebite. A scream ripped its way out of her throat, then water rushed in.
In a heartbeat, they were over the waterfall, tumbling toward the rocks below.
The river had heard her prayer. Rainbow hands slowed her fall, pushed her out from the rocks.
Nothing slowed Rakin’s fall. When he hit the rocks, there was a sound like nothing Butterfly had ever heard. A deep, rich, ringing.
It was beautiful.
Rakin’s body broke into pieces, and the water washed them away.
Butterfly bandaged her arm and climbed back up to the fortress. The gold figures were still, silent. She searched for Autumn Snow’s body, but she couldn’t find it.
She returned to the tiny, hated cell. The silver Autumn Snow still stood beneath the window. She stared at him for a long moment. “Follow me,” Butterfly ordered.
The canoe was where they’d left it.
Butterfly let the river take her home.
|Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Penumbra. She’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her Kickstarter-funded short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.|