I feel the weight of my bronze medallion around my neck. The leather cord digs slightly into my skin. Aside from the medallion I am not marked as a cognate. My loose lesai is no different from the robes worn by the other passers-by and my shaven head cannot be seen beneath my hood. They do not know me, but I know them all, for that is my skill.
The legate stands nearby. Though I have not seen him before, I recognize him. I gesture to him and he approaches. He has been expecting me.
"Legate Eirino." I nod to him before he comes close. If he is shocked that I recognize him, he does not show it. He is a small man, though his stomach bulges considerably over his belt. He is dressed in the black tunic and breeches of the magistracy.
"Cognate," he says, smiling thinly. His lips stretch. The narrow mustache above them curves like a wave that Eirino has likely never seen. In my entire journey through the desert, I did not see a single river, though they say that a great sea lies beneath the city. His hand remains upon the dark cedar rod that hangs on his belt. He does not extend it to me. I do not offer mine.
"Will you come with me?" he asks after a moment. "Or would you prefer to rest?"
"I was not sent here to rest, Legate." I motion for him to proceed, then clasp my hands behind my back.
He leads the way.
* * *The legate's offices are small and cramped and hot, as perhaps is to be expected. I study it as the legate sits patiently. At last he clears his throat. "Cognate," he begins. "Might I see your . . . that is, just to be certain."
"The medallion?" I ask. I pause.
He nods, then looks away.
"Not yet. You were informed that I would come. Tell me everything."
"First, I must know. To be certain."
"Very well," I tell him. "You may be trusted." His honesty is written clearly in his physiognomy, which cannot lie; to a cognate, a man's face reveals his every secret. "I am your cognate," I assure him. From my robes I remove the medallion. I hold it out, then turn it so that he may see the back. My name, Vilado, is carved there; the symbol of my school is on the front. I replace the medallion and pull the hood back over my face. "I trust you have no more questions?"
He shakes his head. "I apologize, Cognate, for both the request and for my surprise. The emperor has never. . ." He trails off again, uncomfortable with his words. After a moment, the silence begins to unnerve him as well. I spare him.
"He has not sent one of my school in the past, Legate, because there has not, in the past, been a matter requiring such attention. There is such a need now, and so I am here. That I am here does not reflect judgment against you. Your life is safe, or, at least, I am not here to take it." I smile kindly. "I have been told of the problem in Mishkala, but I would like you to tell me yourself." My high voice is calm and soothing, but sweat beads across his face. But perhaps it is a sign of the desert heat, which afflicts me as well.
"Three months have passed," he begins.
I close my eyes, listen to his words, and put myself into the story he tells.
* * *
The streets around me are blurred and indistinct. They are shadowed by ignorance and twisted by the vagaries of recollection. Only certain details are sharply in focus: the extinguished lanterns, which may be seen by the light of my torch, the unnatural silence, the soft rustling of sand along the paved street. I heard the sound of fast breathing--my own. My hands are damp. My arm rises, the pitch smeared upon my torch crackles and spits. The light of the torch now falls more squarely upon the ground, where my eyes have swung. The smell of putrescence is heavy in the air. I turn sharply and see a shaking man behind me. He points to an alley that winds its way between two buildings. The alley is completely enshrouded by darkness. I nod to him and make my way toward the alley.
My fingers tighten on the torch.
The alley shifts radically in dimensions as I pass into it. Now its walls stretch up above me like those of a canyon, now it widens, now it narrows until I am oppressed by claustrophobia. The only thing constant is the stench of something foul. I am accustomed to such fluctuations. I am trained to see past them. The vision stabilizes; the alley becomes gray and muted, but unchanging. Still I am drawn onward. My arm quakes. I feel myself swallow.
On the ground before me is a naked body. It has been dead for quite some time. There is still skin on the corpse, but it looks brittle. My knees bend and I crouch beside the corpse. There is no smell of embalming fluids, but the body is well preserved. My fingers brush against the skin, which is cold and faintly damp; the dampness may be from my own sweat, or perhaps merely a creation of the legate's memory. I turn the body over. Its hands are torn in the palm, and largely rotted through, but my eyes are drawn to its chest, which has been crushed inward. About the wound is torn flesh and the splintered ends of ribs. There is no blood, not even dried powder inside the body. I should put my hand in, but I do not. I cannot control the past, merely observe it. I feel my stomach turn, abstractedly. The sight of death does not disturb me, but it disturbed the legate. He is telling me so.
The image shifts, the colors smear. There is nothing more of value here.
* * *
I open my eyes. "Thank you, Legate," I tell him. He is visibly shaken. He looks as pale as the corpse he has described to me, and his skin, unnaturally white for one who has lived for years in the south, sweats as it did in the memory. Like me, he is a stranger here in Mishkala, a functionary of a distant and foreign emperor. He seems less certain of his place in the world than I am. That is understandable, for he does not fathom the order of things as I do.
He does not say any more.
"That was the first?" I ask. He is sitting, though I have remained standing. His eyes dart to the chair behind me. He thinks I must be sore from days of travel, that my legs may buckle beneath me. He is a solicitous man, I know that from his face. But he is nervous and has forgotten to offer me the seat.
"The first," he answers. His lip trembles slightly.
"But there have been others, have there not?"
"There have." He nods, assuring me doubly of his assent. "Twelve others."
"Eight others," I correct. I received report by pigeon when I crossed over into the desert. The letter contained descriptions of the corpses and the locations at which they were found.
He shakes his head. "Four more since last. . ." He does not complete the thought. "And yet we know nothing."
"Normally--" he stops abruptly. "You are a cognate," he mumbles, bowing his head.
"Normally what, Legate?" I insist.
"Normally there would be talk. There are criminals in any city," his eyes flick to mine and I grant him a faint nod. "When there are bodies found, we ask questions and find answers." He puts his short, cedar staff on the desk. "We have inquired in many parts, Cognate." The engraved symbols on the staff look worn down by use. "But no answers. They," he waves to the wall, including the whole city in his declaration, "are as afraid as the honest citizens of the Empire."
"And the other bodies?"
"They have varied in their decay. Three were skeletons, six were partly decayed, like the first. The others were . . . fresher. But no blood in any of them, but all have the same wounds here," he points to the palms of his hands, "and all broken, here." He points to his chest and the look of queasiness flashes over his face once more. I do not press him for details. They will be useless now.
"The southern cults flourish here, do they not?" I ask.
His lips press tightly together. I wonder if he, trapped for so long under the merciless Mishkalan sun, has not learned to cope as the natives do. Does he cavort in the copper baths and kiss the desert serpent in the dark temples of Unalindi? Does he wash his face in the crimson juice of the pomegranate? It seems possible. He wets his lips and says, "Yes. The sanctioned cults, and the forbidden."
"The forbidden?" I ask, significantly.
His tension seems to leave him. "Cognate, it must be so."
"You are justice," I tell him. "It is your duty to ensure that the law is obeyed." His jaw straightens and locks itself in defiance. I had not seen this when I studied him.
"You are trained in the law, Cognate Vilado, and you have studied the nature of man. You know that there are limitations. You see what I have." His walls are bare. A single window allows a warm breeze to enter. "Certain violations must be tolerated. Did Corrulus not say, 'He who grasps the reins too tightly will find his hands unable hold on at all?'" He licks his lips. "The people must be allowed their gods." He pauses, then adds nervously, "But not the blood cults. There are none that would do such things."
I allow him a smile and he relaxes. "I, too, am a student of Corrulus," I say. "For 'He who breaks all imperfect things will soon find himself with nothing at all.' I do not require perfection." He relaxes further. "Tell me, Legate, have there been any disappearances in the past months?"
His face darkens. "Every year there are many who vanish without a trace, Cognate. That is the way it has always been. Mishkala is a city of nomads and caravans. Those who wish to disappear have little trouble doing so. If I tried to find them all. . ." He shrugs.
I nod to him. "You have done well with what you have been afforded." His smile returns. "You have performed a great service to your Empire, Eirino. You need not fear a thing." I indicate that I am ready to leave. He hurries to open the door for me, but says no more, and does not ask me where I am bound.
* * *
I am in need of information, more information than the legate could hope to provide. I make my way toward the Imperial Archives. Its dome, layered in concave metal scales, peaks above the adobe rooftops of the city. I saw the incandescent light it reflected during my approach to city. With the dome guiding me, it is easy enough to find my way.
I follow the dome until I reach an alley. Within it, tall buildings, really nothing more than layered hovels, lean inward, blocking out the sight of the dome and even the stars. There is only a thin black strip between the nearly-kissing edges of the roofs.
The alley gives way to a street, which curves about and then at last leads into an open square. I have reached the Archives. The building was once the High Temple of the Imam, and its facade must have been impressive. Now, all decorations have been stripped off and its alabaster walls are bare. Faint light shines out through the open gates. The secrets within beckon.
* * *
The interior of the building is only slightly brighter than the night outside. In the gloom, I can see that it is all a single room, octagonal. A candelabrum hangs in the center of the room. Of its dozen candles, only five still burn. There is a lamp ensconced at each juncture of two walls. Of these eight, six have oil. The other two are dark. Mirrors are affixed above the lanterns, trying vainly to reflect the scarce lighting out into the room. The floor, what I can see of it, is tiled with faded tesserae. In the center of the floor is a great wound. The shattered tiles around it have been smoothed slightly by time, but it is clear that there was once something of value there, an altar or a fountain.
The walls are lined with folios, scrolls, maps, and sheaves of papers, all yellowed and crisp, all chewed upon by rats and stained by their excrement, all torn to pieces by enterprising beetles seeking material to cement with spittle into their parchment palaces, all pawed by any half-literate half-wit with the inclination to expand his horizons. I see the archivist in the penumbral darkness of a corner. He is hunched over one of the shelves, as withered as the pages he tends.
A cornerstone of the cognate tradition is the avoidance of written word. We cognates are literate, and better read than all but the most elite of the Empire, but since ancient times, our school has understood the danger of writing. For there to be any truth there can only be one truth. For there to be only one truth, there must be only one interpretation of the facts, and thus there must be only one interpreter. The danger of recording information--from the broadest historical events to the most trivial of daily encounters--is that it justifies, even invites, speculation from any who read such accounts.
In this sense, we are opposed to the archivists, who, like us, are a sect that deals in secrets and knowledge. We are seekers of the truth, they are seekers of all pretenders to that title. We sift through silt to find grains of gold, they merely dredge rivers for all they contain. Yet though we are opposed in spirit and philosophy, we need each other: the darkness of night justifies the torch and the light of the torch gives meaning to the darkness. For while we keep oral records that remain in unbroken chains for centuries, while our heuristics and mnemonics preserve annals more complex than any historian dared record, we have need of the storehouses the archivists keep. And when we come, they find a vindication of their hoarding.
The archivist has seen me and approaches unsteadily. Like mine, his head is shaven clean, though a halo of white hair encircles the baldness of his pate. Like I, he has forsworn the temptations of drink and gluttony and sloth, and like me, he is most certainly a castrate, for differently as our schools might conceive the path to true wisdom, neither is so foolish as to believe it has a second lane for women. I do not find any comparisons beyond those fitting. He is fragile in mind and body, bereft of the purpose that gives me strength. His hands twitch as he approaches.
"Yes?" he asks.
I remove the medallion from my lesai and hold it out for his weak eyes to see.
He nods. "Cognate," he says.
"Archivist," I reply, returning his nod.
"You are seeking?"
"Your order has its own," he rasps. He taps his skull while clucking with his tongue. "In here."
"An antique map. Of Mishkala. Of the Mishkala that was, before the Empire."
"Ah," he sighs. The sigh makes his lips shake slightly, and exposes narrow yellow teeth. His eyes have closed. He turns away from me, as if in a trance, and moves along the shelves by feel. I do not know whether he has developed this second-sight to compensate for the darkness, or whether the darkness has come about because, not needing light, he has come to neglect it. At last he stops, half-swallowed by shadows, and turns, beckoning with his hand.
I approach. As I do, he unfurls a tightly-scrolled piece of vellum. I can see from the faded ink that it is old enough to be the thing I seek. The letters upon it are in the spidery script that served as a common alphabet until the Imperial tongue arrived from the north. It is indeed the key I sought. I can see by the look on the archivist's face that he recognizes his success.
"The writing is in the old trade language," I point out.
"Yes," he replies. His lips purse. "Not in Jifoor. It is from before the Imam. A true relic."
I nod out of professional courtesy. "May I?" I take the map from him and inspect. Over its faded lines I superimpose the city as it is drawn in my mind. Upon that second layer I place the locations of the eight corpses which were found before I entered the desert. I do not know where the other five took place, but eight are enough. I lay the map on the shelf delicately, but even so, the archivist hisses in a quick breath. I put my finger on a circular symbol. "What is this symbol? I do not recognize it from the trade tongue."
"It is an old cartographic mark. A well," he says. He looks up and when he speaks, his voice is low and sly. "You are here because of the corpses?" I nod. I am bound to the truth.
"Ah," he says. "Yes, a well." I move my finger along the map to an empty spot. In my mind, an X is drawn there. "One was here." I move it to the next. "Another." I repeat the motion for the other six bodies.
"Ah." He flinches as if to turn, pats his hand on his smock, takes out a quill, then thrusts it frantically back in. What can he do with this information? I see horror on his face--it is already slipping out of his lazy brain. Without his records, he is nothing.
"I did not see any of these wells on my way here, but there are many marked on the old map."
"Gone, all gone," he sighs. For a moment, he seems unsure whether he is answering my question or lamenting the knowledge he has lost. "They have been replaced by the public fountains." He reaches for another map, but I put my hand on his. He looks up, frightened.
"The wells drew from the aquifer?"
"What was done to them?"
He moves away. I release him. He scurries down the shelf. "Come," he calls, his voice rough. There is a folio clutched in his hands; it seems certain to fall. He brings it to a table near the center of the room, lays it down, and begins flipping through its pages with a mixture of cautious reverence and desperate haste. I walk to him. A page is opened, the writing is in Jifoor. Civic records. I scan the page. The wells were closed over, but not filled, as their depths were immeasurable.
"A last question," I say.
He closes the folio, but says nothing.
"Was the sea beneath the city ever explored?"
His face quivers. He seems as if he is about to weep or cry out desperately. But he says nothing and his half-blind eyes remain dry. The folio is replaced and the scuffing of his slippered feet marks his passage into one of the fully dark corners of the room. When he returns, there is a small manuscript, its pages made of brittle papyrus, bound together by corded reed. He holds it out, but then pulls back as I reach for it.
"Careful," he cries, loudly, so loudly it echoes up into the dome. He looks around to make sure nothing was disturbed by his cry. Nothing has stirred. "You cannot touch this with your disdain for wisdom," he warns, baring his misshapen teeth.
I nod. "I will be careful."
He holds it out again and I take it, allowing only the tips of my fingers to touch the fragile pages. I carefully turn them, one after another. The manuscript has no words, only simple pictures. Frowning, I ask, "You know this describes the aquifer because. . .?"
He takes the manuscript back and opens it, reverently, to a page midway through. Drawn upon it is a map. The features are minimal because the desert is a place always changing, but the map unmistakably depicts the region near Mishkala. Inscribed near the center is an eye, open and staring unblinkingly out. He turns the page, slowly, as if he is enjoying the anticipation he causes, but a glance to his face reveals tension and almost terror. The next page: a picture of a spring, surrounded by unknown glyphs. And then the next: a cavern, beside the spring. He turns more quickly now and the ink now shows the interior of the cavern, a winding series of pathways leading ever down, stylized explorers descending along them with one-line torches held aloft before them.
And now they are kneeling, their faces pressed to the ground, a glowing eye watching above them. And now two of the explorers stand before the third, who is fixed to a wooden post. The eye has widened and seems to burn. Another page, and the third explorer's chest is cut open, blood pours forth, the others dance with religious ecstasy within the great circumference of the further-widened eye.
He closes the pages and says, "You see?"
I nod. "As I suspected."
He laughs a dusty laugh.
"An old cult. From beneath. A blood cult. Not surprising in the least." I incline my head slightly. "Thank you."
He wheezes once more, in mockery I suspect. I leave before he has a chance to say anything more.
* * *
There are too many wells for me to hope to search them all myself, yet my investigation has not yet come far enough that I am willing to involve Eirino. I must find something, a clue, a key. There is a better way than merely searching each well, one by one--I need only determine it.
If there have been disappearances, then there will be those who know things. Legate Eirino is a thorough man and no doubt performed a thorough search, but I know things that he did not. I will find my answer among those who know the city and the streets, those who know the movements and whispers of people.
I walk down an avenue. In the shadows move human forms. Mishkala is filled with beggars. Their whispering carries in the night like a soft desert breeze.
I walk over to a group of beggars. I can see only the silhouettes of their bodies in the darkness, huddled forms that seem more like piles of refuse than human beings. I say nothing to them, but wait until my eyes have focused, until I can make out each squalid man and woman. With the toe of my boot, I scratch the symbol of the eye in the light sand that covers the street.
I watch them. They can see the glyph easily for it lies in the light. Most make no response at all. A few, perhaps more freshly come to this miserable existence, express curiosity. They lean forward or touch their faces. They outline the eye in the air before them with their fingers. But one is different. He is staring at the eye and cannot look away. He does not gesture or lean forward, but he trembles. He is the one I need.
I step toward him and he begins to inch away. I take a silver coin from my pocket and throw it to him. He catches it and it disappears into his rags. "You have seen it," I say. "Tell me."
He shakes his head. The others back away from him, and then a moment later they have vanished. He is alone. Now he nods, stands, and steps out of the shadows. His face is covered by an unkempt beard and his small eyes are made smaller by their squinting. He wears a tattered lesai about his body, far too large for his emaciated frame. He says nothing but gestures for me to follow.
We walk until we reach another beggar, this one attired even more raggedly than the first. The first beggar nudges him with his foot and the second looks up. His face is flushed with drunkenness.
"The eye," hisses the first. "Show him where you saw them. The pale ones."
The drunkard recoils in terror and shakes his head. I take out another coin, and hold it out, but the man shakes his head again. "No," he whispers. I replace the coin and draw my long dagger. At this, the man puts up his hands pleadingly, and then seems to collapse.
After a moment, he stands, then nods to the other. He looks at me and holds out his hand. I give him the coin.
* * *
He takes me to a part of the city I had not seen before, poor and abandoned. The moment we arrive, he points down a street and then turns and runs. I could chase him, but I do not. There is no need.
The old well has been paved over. Unsurprising. I glance about me. The buildings are run-down and press in close. I turn to the window of the nearest building and push aside the curtain covering it. Looking in, I can see clearly that it has been abandoned. I open the door and enter. The floor is covered by a layer of sand, no doubt blown in through the windows. The sand has lain undisturbed for some time. I squat down and poke my finger to test the depth--almost half an inch. I have no idea what that means, however, I do not know the nature of Mishkalan sand and wind.
I begin brushing the sand away, pushing it against the corner. At first I use my feet, but it takes too long, so I employ my hands. By the time the floor is cleared, I have begun to sweat, and my lesai is covered in sand. The floor is stone, cracked in numerous places. Tapping my foot along it, I find no hollow sound.
I approach the walls, run my hands along them and feel only faint scratches, nothing more than the imperfections of a crude mason. A glance shows the etchings to be just what I thought: random, shallow, without purpose. A dead-end.
I leave the building and glance into the next. It, too, is empty, but its floors are relatively bare. Perhaps vagrants have been using it? I enter through the door, which has no covering save a bar from which a curtain might once have hung. On closer inspection, I see that there is a fine layer of sand. Repeating my tapping exploration, I satisfy myself that there is no secret entrance here either.
I leave, and look once more into the first building. Frustration causes me to roll my lip slightly between my teeth. I put my hands on the sill of the window and lean in. Still no sign, no clue. As I remove them, however, I notice that the sill is clear of sand; not just where I had put my hands, but everywhere. Frowning, I reenter the building. It is obvious now--the sand on the edges of the room is nearly four inches deep. Four inches of sand? Short of a sandstorm, nothing could blow that much in. And there is a wooden door.. The other one had no door whatsoever, and no coverings at all on the windows. Yet it had hardly any sand at all.
There is something amiss. This place is near one of the ancient wells. If my theory is correct, this building--or someplace else nearby--must still have a tunnel leading below the city. A door and curtains on an abandoned building, in a poor section of the city. A wooden door, in the desert, where everything has been stone and adobe. Yes, this is the place, certainly.
I examine the walls and see on them the scratches that I had previously dismissed as meaningless. Now I look closer, but the scratches are too shallow to reveal any design. While some are slightly deeper, it is almost impossible to differentiate between the deep scratches and the shallow: the light from the moon and the public lanterns outside is insufficient.
I look more closely, run my fingers across the wall once more, and my face begins to tremble into a smile. It is not adobe beneath my fingers. It is a quicklime skim coat, to keep out moisture. The adobe is beneath. Without hesitation, I take out my dagger, hold out my hand and cut through my skin. I put the dagger back, and rapidly begin smearing my blood across the surface where the scratches are most dense. Once done, I wrap my hand in the folds of my lesai and spit on the wall. With my other hand, I wipe away as much of the blood as I can; it remains stained only where the scratches were deep enough to pierce the skim coat and reach down to the adobe.
And a pattern becomes clear.
An eye, complete save for the pupil.
I press my finger against the stone where the pupil should be, hear the screech of scraping metal and then the clanking of gears. I turn back, and watch as part of the floor slowly begins to descend.
I rush outside to one of the public lanterns. I recognize the design of these lanterns as Imperial standard and draw my dagger. Using it, I remove the screws and then unhinge the joints using the technique I have been taught. I take my left hand out from my robes. The bleeding has stopped, but appears to be ready to start again. I put my hand back, will the bleeding to slow, and return to the building, lantern in hand.
* * *
The pit drops down five feet, onto the section of stone that lowered itself from the floor. Once I have leapt down, I am surrounded by a sea of darkness pierced only slightly by my lantern. I check the oil and confirm that I have at least three hours' worth. At my side is a lever; presumably this lever will cause the platform to rise back up by means of the chains that dangle down from the cavern's ceiling. The gears and winches are not to be found, and must surely be beneath the stone on which I stand.
There is a pathway that spirals down around a rough stone pillar. I cannot see how far the pillar, or the path, descends. The floor of the cavern is hidden in darkness. Having no recourse, I begin walking. The pathway is soft and spongy, most likely due to the moisture from the aquifer.
I check my hand and see that the wound has clotted. I pass the lantern into that hand and draw my dagger with the other. The dagger is meager protection, but I am skilled in its usage, and it is likely sufficient for anything I will encounter.
The coils of the spiral are so tightly bound that it is impossible to calculate how many times I have gone around. Neither does counting my steps serve any purpose, as the grade of the path is too variable for me to determine the depth by the distance I have traveled. I resign myself to merely keeping track of the elapsed time--a simple enough determination--so that I will know how long a retreat will take, should it prove necessary. As I walk, I hear a wailing noise, like that of a bat, only louder. It is not abnormal that there should be bats, or their like, in such a place as this, and it is surely possible that cut off from the predators of the world of light, they would grow to extreme sizes. I tighten my grip on the dagger.
I consider, briefly, returning to find a lictor to escort me. But I can defend myself, it would be best that others do not witness what I find below, for they might seek to find their own truths in what they would see.
There is a flash of movement beyond the curve of the path, and I hear a sound behind me. As I turn, my skull erupts with pain. I clutch at consciousness but it escapes. Darkness consumes me.
* * *
I awaken to a pounding in my brain and a feeling of nausea. The muscles of my arms feel strained and exhausted, and my hands burn. I am naked. Moist, heavy air clings to my skin. My eyes are closed and the back of my head feels sticky. As awareness comes to me more fully, I realize that I am suspended by means of my hands, which have been spiked or nailed above my head.
I open my eyes, but my vision is blurred. I blink twice and the swirl of color before me begins to resolve itself.
There is a man standing there. He wears golden robes and a tasseled, crimson headdress. His face is unnaturally pale and the blue veins beneath stand out harshly against his albino skin. His lips are thick and his eyes are huge and almost entirely black. Only a tiny ring of green, encircled by a slightly wider ring of white, tells me that these are eyes at all, and not merely spheres of black glass. He is small and heavy and slightly hunched over. In his hand he holds a long staff made of silvery wood--either some rare species of birch, or silver shaped to look like a branch. On its tip, held by foil-thin vines and leaves, is an amethyst of impressive size.
He says words in a language that sounds at first like nothing more than nonsense, or the croaking of some gargantuan bullfrog. I strain to understand, and recognize that this is a dialect of the old desert trade tongue, or perhaps one of the ancient progenitors of that hybrid language. I can understand it sufficiently that his speech is no longer bestial, and is instead the ranting of a child.
"Look darkness came you steal be stolen now eyes feed hunger." There is a horrible rhythm to his speech, the measured cadence of a priest reciting a prayer or an arbiter a verdict.
"Release me," I intone, as calmly and measuredly as he, allowing the persuasion I have been taught to work its way into his mind.
He laughs, again like a frog. "Death eyes feed. All-death coming." He places the staff against my sternum, exactly where the bursting wound was found on the victims. I do not flinch away, but I steel the muscles of my stomach.
He points the staff now to my groin. "Not-man die like as man, like as woman. Blood same, same hunger fed. Feed eyes. Go impure-dead must city, not join pure all-death."
"You will die if you do not free me."
Another laugh. This time he turns away and shambles off. I am left alone. I hear the lap of waves against shore and realize I must be at the very bottom of the cavern. I relax my muscles and breathe softly. My mind is the master of my body. They have nailed my hands to a block of wood. If they had nailed my wrists, all would be lost: the bone and muscle of the wrist can more easily support a man's weight. The hands, however, when turned vertically, cannot. The tendons tear, the flesh rips, the small bones break, the body falls. It is just a matter of moving muscles.
Through the pain I begin to command my body. My hands clench, turn slightly, and I breathe heavily out. Sweat is pouring down my face. It is unnaturally humid. I clench and turn again, feel my stomach twist. I calm it, slow the pounding of my heart. Another turn. I feel the tearing begin. I relax my muscles, freeze my stomach and bowels, hold my tongue and my throat and deny the urge to scream.
Blood is pouring off my hands. I devote all my thoughts to closing the arteries, sealing the capillaries, quieting the agony. The bleeding is not stopping, but it does seem to slow slightly. My hands feel numb now, which is good. I glance quickly about. It is hard to see anything in the darkness. I listen, but hear nothing. The sound of my fall was muffled by the waves, my captors must not have heard.
I glance at my hands again. Their state has not improved. I begin searching for my lesai. If I can find it, I will bind my hands with strips of cloth. I can still tear with my teeth, holding the robes in my feet.
Suddenly, the darkness begins to lift. Light fills the cavern, much too bright for any torch to have cast.
My shadow lies before me, so I turn about.
I see the eye, open and staring, huge and merciless. It has brought light to the darkness. I scream, for what I see defies all the truth I have fought for. The cavern, or what small part I can see, is filled by a terrible mass. The pathway I descended and a dozen more like it are not pathways at all, but instead the dark tentacles of the giant beast. If it has a body, it is obscured by the scores of limbs that writhe about it, so that only the eye and the tentacles may be seen. The beast is caged in by the pillars and its great bulk is half-submerged in the inky waters of the aquifer.
Its eye is turned upon me, glowing with baleful luminescence.
A tentacle, far smaller than the path upon which I walked, begins questing toward me, leisurely. Tentacles have moved away from the eye, revealing half of a massive, bony beak. The creature's mouth opens and emits a shrill call--the sound I had thought to be a bat. Another cry, louder, almost deafening.
It is impossible. The thing is like a nightmare, a defiance of all that is natural. I turn to the left, but there is nothing but darkness, so too to the right. I cannot bear it, this screaming, the wailing of the beast and the wailing of my own throat and the agonizing death-cries of my mind. All is madness.
And yet I force myself into silence. I breathe deeply and set my mind to work, as I have done so often in the past.
The creature does not move, cannot move: it is too large. Perhaps it entered here long ago, feasting on the beasts in the aquifer. As it fed, it grew larger, too large to return from whence it came, and its hunger outgrew its food. Found by ancient explorers, whose pagan faith was struck by the creature's immensity, it changed from primordial monstrosity to god. And blood was brought to it, first the pure blood of the faithful, then, as the size of the cult dwindled--sealed off as they were from the city--and its members became increasingly inbred and twisted, new blood was needed. All the while, the beast grew, wrapping its arms about the pillars that bound it like prison bars, dreaming of tearing them down, bringing the proverbial All-Death which was the end of time for the cultists.
Then new blood was found, as the questing tentacles made pathways up the pillars and the tireless cultists dug their secret ways into the city. In a city where disappearances meant nothing, they were able to take whatever human stock they needed to feed their ravenous god. A sacrifice a week would be possible, if they were careful, and like all beings that live in the darkness, they were surely devious in their ways. One human body could sustain it, barely. Barely, but it would be enough. And so the caverns became filled with the emptied husks of those whose blood the demon had sucked, until the time of All-Death drew close.
As the fated moment came nearer, the cultists, obsessed with purity, cast out the corpses. Note the darkness of their skin, the priests would whisper, their small and shifty eyes, their sealed lips. Of course they were impure. And so the bodies were found near the wells not because they had been killed near them, but rather because their killers dared not venture far with their human refuse.
The tentacle comes closer and I jump back. I cannot bear to see its groping limbs, reaching out like tendrils of nightmare. My mind cannot bear it. Real or impossible, this beast offends the truth.
I swing around and stare at the wood to which I was nailed. Near its base are two lateral wooden bars, their purpose unclear. With a kick, I break one free and grab it in my bloody hands. I hurry forward to the nearest pillar and run to its opposite side.
In that moment of silence, I am engulfed in darkness, for the light of the demon's eye casts a great shadow where it strikes the pillar. It is in that shadow that I stand, and with the endless time that stretches before oblivion, I know the path that truth has set before me. In my mind, I see the demon, its gaping eye obscenely spread like a blight on reality. I shall blind it with the cudgel. If the creature lives, then so too can it die.
By my killing hand or with my dying breath, I shall mend the truth. Either the beast shall die, or its secret shall, with me. In the end, the truth by which I lived shall endure.
I step from behind the pillar and the world becomes resplendent. Let the demon come. I am ready.
© 2001 Mark Yohalem