The Magistocrats

Chapter Nine

Excerpt from The Demon's Scrotum: A Year Among The Devil Worshipers Of Central America by Sir Aubrey Delacey

It is in the area known of old as 'Fifty Rivers Gorge' that the Lodge of Mammon makes its home. A rocky outcrop rears improbably above the jungle valley, the citadel perched precariously at its edge.

At the citadel's heart, standing over a hundred feet tall, looms a monstrous statue of Mammon, dried blood encrusting its great feet, the demon prince's eyes leering out over its domain.

Around the statue stand arrayed the palaces of the diabolists, all rearing octave arches and towers of twisted obsidian, each vying to outdo the others in gothic virtuosity.

By day, the diabolists reside within, attended by their staff of undead servants. Their hours are spent supping wine from cups of silver filigree, studying ancient texts in their solars; in making foul experiments and tending to the birthing pits of the catacombs below.

By night, eldritch flames roar at Mammon's feet and the jungle echoes to the wild drum beat. Zombis and other servants range the valleys in search of victims, human or otherwise, to be offered to the prince of greed. On nights of the full moon, a carnival atmosphere holds sway. The flames leap and crackle and shrieks of wild ecstasy resound from the citadel walls. Half-human creatures look out in terror from the gibbet cages, their pleas lost to the blood-rapture of the celebrants. The women bath in the gore that drips from mammon's chalice and take lovers from the strangely masked courtiers who attend them. The men don their death-robes and perform unspeakable acts upon the altar, finally spending their lust on whatever quivering flesh remains.

Above it all, the ruby eyes of Mammon gleam strangely. A far off breeze stirs the trees, rustling and chuckling its approval.

Beneath The Canopy

The blood-spattered and broken foliage along the deer trail was proving easy to follow. But it was not deer that were being hunted.

Lieutenant Olivander signaled a halt and the Lord Marshal dropped automatically, as obedient to the sign as the rest of them. He crawled into the lee of a tree root and stared out into the jungle, rifle cocked and alert. The men before and behind him did the same; two lines of rifles facing out into the primordial growth that pushed in from every direction. The marshal’s eyes swept his arcs feverishly, alert for any signs of movement. But there was only the leaves and fronds glistening wetly in the late afternoon sunlight, the drip-drip of condensation and the lazy hum of insects. A twig snapped somewhere out in the forest and his rifle barrel snapped up, finger tense upon the trigger.

The jungle was still once more.

He relaxed his grip slightly, unnerved and frustrated by this eerie place. It was the constant hum of the jungle, the sickly odour of overripe verdure and the mocking screams of the things that stalked unseen beneath the canopy. It was the prickly sensation of eyes watching your every move, the closeness of the air and the sense of claustrophobia that lay thick upon the greenery.

Here was a place in which magic had run rampant for centuries, working dark and furtive changes. Here was a reminder of what took root in the absence of order and authority.

They were intruders here. And their presence would not go unchallenged much longer. Soon it would be dark.

He spat angrily.

Damn you, Ortega. You had to make it difficult for us.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, turned to see Olivander’s face before him.

“Sir- the target came through here about ten minutes ago judging by the spoor.” The young mage reported in hushed tones. “Heavy bleeding- torso wound from the crash perhaps. Look.” He handed the marshal an empty syringe, tapped the screen of his tactical thaumometer.

“Adrenalin shot. And some sort of pain-blocking effect.” The marshal said.

Olivander nodded. “Won’t do him much good though. I count four gatopards on his trail. Came through here just before we did and moving fast.”

A flicker passed across the marshal’s face. He glanced furtively towards the jungle.

“Lead on, Olivander. And pick up the pace. We need the sorry bastard alive.”

Olivander nodded, gave a signal. The squad rose as one and the chase resumed.

They moved swiftly now, along the trail left by Ortega and the gatopards, pausing only when their trail met another. After a moment's inspection, Olivander would stand and wave them on. They were being careless, the marshal knew, making far too much noise. But it couldn’t be helped. If they didn’t reach Ortega soon, there would be nothing left of the bastard to question.

They’d pursued his whirligig from Juventud in the hopes of forcing him down in the deltas outside New Orleans. But the pilot had misjudged, brought them down beneath the clouds too early. Ortega, knowing the marshal’s troop carrier to be sluggish and thinking perhaps of some bolt-hole he knew here, had swung south, guiding his craft past the mosquito-bitten coast of the Yucatan to try and lose them in these accursed jungle valleys; valleys swarming with chuuls, knife-apes and gatopards: creatures once mundane, now grown huge and cruelly intelligent through the ministrations of the diabolists.

Too bad the smuggler was such a shoddy pilot; too bad he'd left his whirligig wrapped around a tree-trunk and led them on this damn fool chase.

The crack of gunfire echoed somewhere ahead, followed by the startled cries of parrots and howlers. The squad paused, every eye turning to the marshal.

“Let’s go!” He roared, breaking into a run.

They pounded though the foliage, no longer paying attention to their surroundings. For the moment, the marshal knew, they were forgotten. The attentions of the entire jungle, from the apex predator to the meanest scavenger was now focused on the struggle unfolding ahead of them. The marshal prayed Ortega would be able to hold them off in his weakened state.

As if in response to his prayers, another shot rang out, not far ahead. The marshal grimaced, forcing his legs to pump faster. The ground began to rise before them, the vegetation growing thin as the terrain became rockier. Crumbling sections of wall flashed past them on either side.

His soldiers were tough and trained; they drew up into formation on either side of him. Olivander hared ahead, eyes peeled for signs of ambush.

Good lads, all of them. The marshal thought proudly, his breath burning like fire in his lungs. He glanced at Ruysch, pounding along beside him, barely slowed by the thirty pound radio unit on her back. He drew a flare gun from his webbing and cocked it.

“Ruysch, tell the troop carrier to stand by for a hard extraction. We’re bringing Ortega in, dead or alive.”

“Sir!”

The flare arced high over the jungle canopy.

“Grenades at the ready!” He roared.

The path narrowed ahead of them, funneled along a narrow gap between two granite escarpments. They found themselves running up the remains of ancient stone steps, lichen-spattered stones rearing like broken teeth on either side of them. Just below the head of the stairs Olivander crouched, waving urgently for silence. The screams of the jungle cats could be heard just beyond.

“Sir, you’ll want to see this.” Olivander said as the marshal drew up beside him.

“Show me.”

They moved up the last of the stairs, crouching low to peer out at the scene before them.

A clearing dominated by a broad plaza met his eyes, crooked boughs pushing up between the flagstones. Ruined buildings loomed on either side of the square, strangely angled and imposing in their construction: a diabolist lodge, long abandoned. Beyond, the jungle crowded in upon the ruins.

“There.”

Ortega lay huddled in the lee of the fountain, his back to them, obscured by the bluish stasis field that enveloped him. Beneath that flickering surface, long gashes were visible on his back and the flagstones around him were streaked with gore. Around him, the gatopards circled, perhaps ten of them, their long, muscular forms tense, hissing and yowling furiously amongst themselves. Their faces, madly grinning, were almost human.

The marshal swore under his breath.

“We’ve got to get in there.” He began to turn away- felt Olivander’s hand grip his shoulder.

“Sir-”

He followed the lieutenant’s finger to the far side of the plaza, where a thick wall of jungle pressed in. The gatopards were uneasy, yowling their agitation. Something stirred within the treeline and a shape the marshal had taken for an enormous tree branch began to move forwards.

He swore softly.

An enormous serpentine head glided forwards, amber eyes glaring with regal outrage at the half-human cats. Its thick body swaying, claws rasping bark from the trees, the basilisk slid smoothly down into the clearing, tossing its head first one way then the other as it examined its opponents, its tongue scenting at the air.

The marshal and the lieutenant watched with horrified fascination.

The basilisk paused, its eyes narrowing as it scented the air. Raising itself up to display the ruff of feathers at its neck, it vented a low and threatening growl. The gatopards drew back, snarling and hissing amongst themselves. At the base of the fountain Ortega stirred feebly and the stasis field flickered, growing weaker.

They drew back down the stair, formed a breathless huddle.

“Ruysch, get the carrier on the radio again.” The marshal hissed. “We’re going to need air support.”

“I just spoke to them, Sir: they’re still five minutes out.”

“Ortega doesn’t have five minutes. We’ve no choice but to go in.”

He examined the troops crouched before him, their faces hard, rifles gripped tightly. At his elbow Olivander was pale.

“Olivander- take Ruysch, Khan and Jones, move into cover in the abandoned buildings on that side. I'll take Wombosi, Singh and Addison the other way. We’ll drive the creatures away from the target. Then Kulak and the rest will move up and form a perimeter around the target until the carrier gets here. Everyone got that?”

They all nodded. He turned to the sergeant.

“Kulak, keep those things off us while we’re moving. After that focus on the basilisk and knock its eyes out if you get a shot. For Xristos' sake, don't make eye contact or you're dead.” He turned to Olivander. “What’ve you got for crowd control?”

Grasping Tentacles.”

“Good.”

He turned to regard the ashen faces before him.

“Courage, all of you.” He growled.

He led the way up the steps, his soldiers at his back.

A huge pack of gatopards had assembled. They yowled and snarled about the fountain, grinning furiously all the while. Above them, the basilisk swayed and snapped, its armoured scales gleaming in the sunlight. Suddenly, a young female erupted from her hiding spot between two branches. She flew towards the basilisk’s throat with outstretched claws, screaming in triumph. It turned furious eyes upon her, and an instant later, 200 pounds of masonry hit the ground and exploded into shards. Snapping their jaws in fury, the others threw themselves forward to avenge their fallen sister.

A fragment of rubble landed at the marshal’s feet as he raced towards the ruins- a low growl came from above. Looking up, he saw her crouched in the branches above him, tail flicking from side to side. A female, her massive body almost human.

“Hello Meat.” She growled.

He fought to raise his gun barrel, a yell rising to his lips-

Shots rang out behind him and the beast crashed to the ground, frothing and gurgling. He sprinted forwards, leapt through a doorway into the vine-choked ruins.

Chaos ruled everywhere. Salvos of bullets and grenade fragments ripped through the air, tearing flesh and sending up deadly splinters from trees and masonry. Caught between the basilisk and the sudden onslaught, the gatopards withdrew into the trees, leaping high and fast to throw themselves down upon the soldiers.

Flying from above, a huge male barreled into a private of Olivander’s squad as he ran for cover, its jaws snapping at his neck. Ruysch’s pistol found the creature’s skull an instant later, and it slumped forwards with an idiotic grin, brains spattered across the stones. She rolled the thing away and, half-dragging the shocked private, pulled him into the ruins where Olivander had taken up position, firing grimly over their heads.

In the centre of the plaza, Ortega groaned weakly, hands shaking as he fought to maintain the stasis effect, oblivious to the nightmare unfolding around him.

The battle entered a new phase. Forgetting the basilisk, the gatopards reorganised themselves, charging in waves at Kulak's troops where they stood exposed at the head of the stairs, while those in the trees sought a way into the upper levels of the ruins on both sides of the plaza.

Crouching at a window, the marshal grimaced as he shot the legs out from under a gato trying to outflank Kulak’s team.

“Magazine!” He screamed, falling back to replace his spent clip. The call was repeated from the stairwell, followed by the rattle of Singh’s rifle as something landed heavily on the floor above.

“Short bursts!” The marshal roared. “Use your grenades!”

The carrier was still a mile out.

The marshal moved back to the window, signaling to Olivander in between shots. The lieutenant nodded and fell back.

“Fresh mag, Wombosi.” The marshal grunted to the hulking corporal beside him. “I’m going to cast.”

Wombosi grunted, the bolt of his rifle slamming into place. The marshal stepped back, thoughts turning inwards, searching for the first logogram of the spell. It fluttered delicately in his mind’s eye, almost sentient; a butterfly encased in jelly. He raised a hand before him.

At the fountain, the basilisk reared, saliva dripping from its maw onto the stasis field below.

THOOM!

The blue sphere shuddered beneath the impact of coiling muscle. Inside, Ortega moaned weakly. The stasis field flickered, grew dimmer.

At the stairs, the gatopards charged and retreated with lightning speed, each wave turned aside by the weight of rifle fire, only to be replaced by more grinning cats an instant later. A private at Kulak’s side crouched to replace her clip, yelling that it was her last. Kulak's eyes darted furiously. Seeing the cats that moved to outflank them on either side and the mass of grinning jaws before him, he finally gave the order.

“Fall back!”

They drew back down the stairs, raking the escarpments as they went, holding the mass of attackers off just long enough to pull the grenade pins and throw themselves clear-

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

The explosions threw the cats back, the living and dying falling together in a screaming mass. At the fountain the basilisk paused, its eyes wide, claws raised above the dying stasis field.

And in the ruins, Lieutenant Olivander’s lips faltered for half an instant, almost losing the thread of his spell.

Almost.

He stretched out a finger, the logograms burning behind his eyes.

“ƾȱ!”

The sound rent the air like white-hot flame.

Great black tentacles erupted from the plaza terrace, arcing up ten feet to writhe and grasp at the air. Lashing forward, they snatched up the screaming cats and dashed them against the ground with brutal savagery, tossing the limp bodies aside to seize their next unhappy victim.

At almost the same instant, the marshal cast.

“ĞÆÇ!”

The ground heaved like a ship in a storm, tossing soldiers and animals alike as local reality was set in flux. The basilisk clung to the fountain, hissing angrily.

The effect stablised, focused into an immense gravity well which came into being at the foot of the ruins.

“Hold on!” The marshal roared, grabbing a horrified Wombosi as he slid towards the doorway.

The cats caught near the effect wailed in surprise and horror, scrabbling madly at branches that had borne them easily a moment ago. One by one they slid loose, pelting down to hit the ground with bone-shattering force. The pile grew, a bloody pulp of creatures gurgling in terror as each fresh victim crashed down upon them.

A grenade flew from the marshal’s hand. The mound of writhing flesh gave a final convulsion and was still. At the opposite side of the plaza, the last terrified cat had its brains dashed against the flagstones. The surviving gatopards sprang away into the jungle, fleeing in terror before the power of these cruel gods. The gravity well and tentacles winked out of existence at almost the same instant, their tremendous energies spent. Silence reigned for one breathless instant.

THOOM!

The sound echoed across the plaza. The stasis field juddered horribly for a second then flickered and died. The basilisk drew back, its eyes gleaming in savage triumph.

“Kulak!” The marshal roared. “Where the hell’s Kulak?!”

The basilisk reached down with a claw and gently raised the stricken Ortega. The smuggler moaned softly as he felt its hot breath upon his face.

“OI! LIZARD DICK!”

A hail of bullets raked the basilisk's hide, stinging like hornets. Roaring furiously, the great head swung about in search of its tormenter, the stones of the fountain cracking beneath its convulsive grip.

Atop the ruins Olivander glared down the barrel of his rifle, casting for the gleam of amber within the crosshairs. He’d only have an instant.

Almost, almost-

“OLIVANDER, NO!” The marshal bellowed.

The golden orb glittered beautifully in the rifle sights as it pierced Olivander's soul.

The lieutenant was perfectly still for a moment. Then he tilted forwards and, with the rigid motion of a child essaying a dive, pitched from the roof. He hit the ground head-first, shattering into a hundred pieces. The basilisk roared in triumph, the sounds lost in the wash of noise now coming from above.

Grasping Ortega between two stubby foreclaws, it drew the smuggler towards its slavering jaws, blind to everything except its meal of manflesh. Then, caught in the hail of armour-piercing rounds that ripped through the fountain, it dropped him and fell to the ground, writhing and snapping in agony, its thick body almost cut in half.

Driving bayonets into those furious eyes, the soldiers hacked the basilisk’s head from its neck. The marshal crouched by the unconscious Ortega, bellowing orders for the extraction, barely able to hear himself over the roar of the carrier. He turned his eyes away from the marble hand that lay nearby and spat bitterly.

Christopher Moiser