The Sand Snake

Summary: After a being drugged on his birthday, an engineer finds himself captured by a bizarre cult worshiping an antehuman power.

Zhouyang Lu ended his week face-down in the ice cream cake. Gorging on cookie dough ice cream was his favorite source of junk calories, which his metabolism nevertheless burnt through. As he had spent the day perspiring under the dry heat of a Texan sun, he early downed slice after slice as the chilly treat slid down his waiting throat. The icing, cake, and ice cream merged into a perfect bolus of fattening sweetness, which writhed down his throat like a burrowing mole. On his wrist, he wore a sensor bracelet of his own design, built into a cheap digital watch, in which he used to track the amount of sweets consumed and his location.

Zhou celebrated his birthday the prior weekend, and slowly consumed the leftovers as if to linger over his special day. He consumed another piece of his cake after working hard upon a custom autonomous vehicle project, a van loaded with drones and weapons. Intended for demonstration to a defense contractor, he worked on it in what free hours he had out of vestigial collegiate habits. Working hard outside was enough to work up an appetite only gratuitous amounts of sugar could sate. What he never suspected was that a craven intruder had drugged his sweets.

Zhou awoke without warning under the clear night sky of the Texan desert. The gag bound tightly around his mouth prevented him from shouting, but he could see his captors under the pale illumination of car headlights and long-dead stars. Figures clad in cloaks of writhing vermilion assembled like an infernal legion of blackguards before him. He struggled to move, but was bound tightly by the ropes that bit into his arms. He saw only his watch and glasses had been left by his captors.

Surmising he was on an altar or table of some sort, Zhou thrashed like a netted shark, hoping to loosen himself. A chill gust of wind cut him like a cultist's knife, reminding him how naked he was. His bare skin was raw and irritated, as if he had been flayed during his tenure in oblivion. Given the long, sinuous blades and loaded rifles held by his captors, he wondered if would die beneath the sepulchral night above. Looking down, he saw reassuringly that his frenzy had struck the button on the side of his watch.

"C-cease your resistance," hissed a vaguely familiar voice. From out of the darkness, the ranks of the cultists parted like subjects of a nocturnal sovereign. Standing directly in the blinding glare of a pickup truck's headlight was a silhouette that marched with a demi-human gait. The crest of the hood shifted with the ophidian movement of a charmed snake. Two beady eyes opened before him, with spitted pupils that radiated contempt. "This one survived my non-linear systems and signals class, so his soul will greatly nourish the Master."

"Yes, Prelate," an acolyte said, bowing. "We shall proceed with the ritual."

It was then Zhou recognized the voice as it indulged in inhuman ululations, hisses, and croaks. The underlings mimicked to the limits of human speech organs, with others playing beaded rattles reminiscent of a striking snake. The Prelate's sable robes were the same color as the awful suits he had worn in human guise. Having survived that class, he had little doubt the serpentine Prelate as his former instructor, Dr. Abel Chase. He had resigned from his position at the school under strange circumstances, and his office was emptied the following day.

"Oh, Yig Shoboth, Father of Serpents, hear our call!" Chase chanted, drawing a long knife curved like a sidewinder's body. "Father Yig, I offer the soul of this manling to serve you for eternity!"

Two lights appeared on the distant horizon and grew larger, like the eyes of some charging predator. Zhou smiled and looked up as his captor. The revving of an engine echoed across the ground as the headlights bounded up and down, immediately before the cacophony of frantic shouting and rifle fire. The Prelate looked at the latest intruder, his sacrifice disrupted. The pre-Adamite horror cursed as his forked tongue licked the air.

Zhou smelled his own fear mingle with the exhaust fumes and spent cordite. Something moved upon the top of the van, and the next thing he realized, the ground was painted with a putrid arabesque of cultist innards. His homemade Gauss rifle, an improvement on the Rigsby design, had been especially powerful, thanks to the components from a Yithian friend. Two quadcopters emerged from the rear door, each blasting away with a mounted gun. The cultists ran for their own vehicles, only to be cut down like grain in a macabre harvest.

When a cultist's body fell across Zhou's torso, he was able to use his teeth to free the sacrificial knife from its sheath. He gritted his teeth as he hacked through an already fraying rope, and the rest of bonds came free. He leapt to his feet and reached for a downed cultist's rifle. A heavy boot stepped upon the weapon's muzzle, and he looked up to see Chase holding the sacrificial blade like a headsman. Narrowly avoiding a blow that would separate head and neck, Zhou rolled backwards and leapt to his feet with a blade in hand.

Zhou circled like an angry wasp, looking for an opening. Chase's blade glistened with an unknown, but acrid substance. The engineer bore no desire to test if it was caustic or venomous, but he could easily extrapolate. Deftly dodging each blow, he searched in vain for an opening he could exploit against the skilled foe.

"Perhaps a tracking device in the watch, yes? I see you learned well," the Prelate said nonchalantly. "That is why you will serve Father Yig."

Zhou backed away after a cursory glance over his shoulder. With transhuman celerity, he sprinted towards the van. Chase was undoubtedly emboldened and living up to his namesake, from the inhuman cadence he heard through the gunfire. He turned to see the snake as he reached the door to his van.

Chase raised his sword for the death blow as the Gauss rifle fired. The Prelate vanished in a mist of blue blood and tattered rags as a magnetic slug flew through his body. Zhou covered himself with his hand as the murky substance flew across his face like a grisly baptism. Seeing no more cultists, he recovered his wallet and clothing before departing. Under even the most peculiar of circumstances, Zhou had learned that why an engineer is thorough.