Demon in Snake's Clothing

Xiuhcoatl relaxed on the warm stones in the foothills of the mountains. The long, gray-brown snake suited him perfectly and allowed him to enjoy all this world had to offer. In the spirit world there was no time for rest, no sun, and not a single warm stone. Yes, he could use his meager spirit magic to keep his snake body warm, but that magic didn’t have much use over here—and snakes didn’t have any magic of their own for him to draw on. Why exert himself by using spirit mag­ic when the warm spring sun could have the same effect? Over the last few years, he’d certainly gotten used to this place. Hopefully Marek would keep him on permanently once the new council was active.

Resting in the sun on a warm rock, wearing a snakeskin body . . . this was the life. Xiuhcoatl recalled the events that had brought him here: like his comrade Xipil, the spirit had been persuaded by the young Marek Seltin to join his cause. Promises of power on the new council were all well and good, but being out in the sun was even better. Fortunately his task afforded plenty of time for relaxing outdoors.

Thinking back to his first moons in the physical world, he remembered fondly the discovery of his preferred form. Upon emerging he had taken up residence in a small fox. A cunning animal, but not too useful for the task of collecting Magi from around Kartus. To get around a bit faster, he first switched over to a hawk. That was exciting: as a fox, he lured in the bird of prey to what it thought was just another meal. Then he persuaded the hawk to let him inhabit it, which fortunately wasn’t that difficult. At last he ate the fox, getting a final and tasty bit of use from it.

The hawk had taken him as far as the former region of Leikton in the south, where it was rumored there were several powerful Magi living in the area’s wandering clans. During that time he also began to observe other spirit activity on the ground. Before Marek’s leadership, a random assortment of spirits had come across the rift. Now that Marek controlled it from both sides, things were different. But back then in the beginning, most of the spirits which had come across were just angry, violent, hateful creatures. That mindset showed up clearly in their foolish actions in the physical world.

Xiuhcoatl saw these spirits in their animal forms, spending weeks stalking the woods and plains without finding anything but other animals. They became attached to their forms, only leaving a borrowed body when it died or upon finding a more suitable specimen of the same type. Worst of all, he had yet to find another spirit which had bothered to take to the air. Large beasts of the type spirits usually sought to inhabit tended to have no interest in birds—and vice versa. Since no accidental discovery of flight presented itself, they spent most of their time wandering aimlessly until they blundered into a clan by accident. Xiuhcoatl was different: working within a framework of logic and reason gave him a huge advantage.

After some weeks of scouting from the air he found a likely Magus, living in a clan on the plains to the west of Leikton, as his first target. This spellcaster was clearly in charge, and whenever magic was needed, he used it with abandon: whether hunting big game to restock their provisions or levitating himself to get a good overview of the route they traveled.

The clan was completely nomadic, moving every few weeks. As a bird, it was easy enough to observe them without drawing a second glance. Xiuhcoatl also studied the local wildlife to see what would be the most effective way to reach the Magus without being killed. After all, he had no desire to spend hours or days reassociating. That would only end with a rushed search to find a new form before his spirit leached back through to the other side. Eventually, he observed a type of dark colored snake with an inky black mouth, which had particularly strong venom. One bite would immobilize its victim in short order—quite a useful ability. He found a large specimen and approached it one day after it fed, easily persuading its tiny mind to let him in.

With such a strong persuasive element on his side, it was not hard to entrap the Magus that was his target. Xiuhcoatl simply slipped into his tent at night and bit long and hard, injecting a massive amount of venom. The man knew the snake, repeating “Black mamba!” over and over, but even his strong earth magic wasn’t sufficiently fast or powerful to keep the venom’s effects at bay. After fifteen minutes of struggling, the Magus finally realized it was hopeless, and gave in to possession. Once Xiuhcoatl took over, the powerful mix of spirit and human magics was more than enough to drive back the venom, and the body recovered. The very surprised snake was taken along in a thick bag, since Xiuhcoatl wished to inhabit it again when he handed over this Magus at Islingin. Of course, the Magus had a lot of questions and pleas, which he kept trying to communicate in their shared body. However, when one has spent hundreds of years blocking out the cacophony of the other side to retain one’s individuality, ignoring a single voice is easy.

Next came the matter of getting from the south of the continent back to the north. Boats were hard to come by because there was no infrastructure left, and there was no one who could help sail one up the coast. Of course Xiuhcoatl couldn’t go back the way he’d come, as a bird. In the end he took a fine horse from the clan and departed in his new Magus form. The old road from Leikton through Silville to Islingin was still there, and although not in good repair, the journey only took about six weeks. Along the deserted road he found plenty of places to feed both horse and snake.

Finally Xiuhcoatl arrived at Islingin, its city wall rising up right beside the riverbank. After entering through a deserted gate, he navigated the empty streets to Islingin Keep at the center, mamba bag in hand. The huge towers and battlements rose above him, not exactly a welcome sight to one who preferred the sun on his shoulders to a roof over his head. He walked down winding corridors deep into the Keep until he reached the entrance to the Spirit Chamber.

When Marek and his disciples had first created the passage to the spirit world in the chamber, there was prey aplenty for the spirits who came across. There were not only the humans themselves (foolish Magi anxious to taste the power promised by the spirits), but also animals living on their refuse in the Keep. After its residents’ flight, however, the Keep had become a deserted maze of solid stone. Spirits could not travel fast or far in their non-corporeal forms, and recently most newcomers had leached back to the other side before they could find a host.

Now, with Marek in charge on the other side, everything had changed. One of his followers named Umkoome, who was fortunate (and clever) enough to have found a Major Adept’s body to inhabit in the forests near Islingin, stood by the Spirit Chamber. The door she guarded was made of solid oak, the same as the new wooden interior of the room.

Xiuhcoatl entered the gateway chamber with his snake, and Umkoome closed the door behind him. The warding spell was now active: no out-of-body spirit could disturb him now. Only Marek’s chosen spirits would be allowed through the rift. He walked to the pedestal marking the opening, and held his hand to it carefully. From the other side he felt the presence of Clayne, Marek’s gatekeeper in the spirit world. —⁠Brother, I have found a candidate of just the type our master is seeking, and he is strong. Send over Marek’s first Council member to take his new host!—

There was a moment’s pause. —⁠Of course. Prepare yourself, and have your next host ready. Tynan Maltus will come across shortly—

Xiuhcoatl carefully opened the bag with the mamba, and loosed it on the floor. As it reared up to strike, he soothed it, spoke to it with his spirit magic as well as his voice. “If you let me in, your suffering will end. Out in the wild, you and I will travel together. Otherwise, it’s back into the bag for you.”

He felt another pressing on his consciousness. —⁠Xiuhcoatl. I am Tynan, here to claim what Marek promised⁠— As Xiuhcoatl started his transfer into the snake, Tynan gracefully took his place inside the Magus. For a second he could hear the helpless man’s wailing in the background, but it faded as he slipped fully back into the beautiful, sleek, and deadly black mamba.

The thrill of that first capture was long behind him, but the excitement came anew with each additional Magus he found for the growing Council led by Tynan. Sometimes Xiuhcoatl switched bodies for his journey and found a new mamba in the plains of the south. Other times he coerced a fellow spirit to carry him to his destination, with the promise of bloodshed at the other end (which was of course delivered). He had brought Magi from every corner of Kartus, and now had fond memories of each hunt. The western coast, the southern plains, the eastern deltas, the mountains and forests—they all called to him.

Now he was on his way back to Silville, having heard rumors of a strong Magus there. The trip had become a little complicated. Xiuhcoatl had hitched a ride with a spirit in wolf form thus far. But the imbecile was too lost in the form, listening to the wolf’s desires, and had run off into the high mountains one night. It seemed that now Xiuhcoatl was on his own in mamba form to weave his way through the rocky mountain foothills leading to Silville. It would take time, but that was one thing he had in plenty. His master Marek might not be happy about it, but the master wasn’t here—and the warm sun was.