Tal Kirna stood atop the blackstone altar, where the old priests once slaughtered kepshu, and watched as hundreds of Batta poured onto the top of the mighty pyramid. They stared back at him as they filled in the gaps, squeezing in tight as they waited to see what would happen next. Tal Kirna scanned the crowd, looking at each face, and was disturbed to see that some of them wore fear and mistrust in their eyes. When he looked closer, he saw that these dark eyes belonged mostly to Batta from the Passage.
U’Slan has poisoned them against me, Tal Kirna thought as an acidic hatred washed over his withering heart. He’s trying to turn them, that snake. He’s-
Don’t worry about them, the master assured his ward. Just do as I say. All will be well.
Tal Kirna’s hands went into the air, his old bones popping along the way. When all had settled, and even those from the Passage were listening quietly, his tongue moved and the master spoke.
“The proof of your piety is your mere presence at this Temple!” he bellowed. “The Gods witnessed your obedience and now wish to reward it. They have given you an opportunity to redeem yourselves, to stand upon the Sacred Realm and start anew. Who among you will repay this kindness?”
A low, pleasant rumble rose from the crowd. Even a few of the Batta from the Passage applauded the sentiment.
“Who among you will take up the opportunity granted to you by the merciful Grandparents? Who will lay down their own will and let their fate fall gently into the loving Hands of Life?”
Louder. More unified.
Tal Kirna’s heart pumped a new vitality into his old limbs. The master stood him up straight and pushed his chest out as he threw a dark glare down upon his doubters. “I stand here, on this former altar, to tell you that the old times are dead and gone. This here - this bloody slab of stone - it is not what Okt and the Grandparents want from us now! They did not bring us here to shed kepshu blood in some desperate attempt to recapture our former paradise. They brought us here to rise above our old ways and show that through our suffering we have ascended into higher beings. Beings worthy of a higher realm. Brothers and sisters, I tell you now - this life is but an illusion, a mirage made by the distractions in our own minds. On the other side of this existence, where the Grandparents reside, there is a peace and understanding like we have never known. But it is hidden behind the veil of our own wicked stubbornness, obscured by the shadows of our own obstinance. Shadows that we have fought to illuminate since our first night in the desert so many years ago. Brothers and sisters, it is with pure joy in my soul that I tell you the fight is nearly won. Praise the Gods.”
The Batta grunted their praise.
Tal Kirna continued.
“Below us, deep within the Temple, is the sacred bath where the High Ones once purified themselves before the sacrifice. That holy place is no longer just for the High Ones - it is now for all of you, as well. Come, follow me there now. We will purify our bodies and our souls so the Gods may accept us into their home.” He stepped down from the altar, careful not to stumble and lose his air of authority. He went toward the well - the dark, winding staircase that led down to the bath - and felt that no one was following him. “Come!” he called out, trying to sound cheerful. “Our time draws down. The storm creeps closer.”
Unnin moved first, followed closely by Rr-Ki, Bal-Iki, and the rest of the Blackneck tribe. Slowly, carefully, Batta from every clan trickled into the stream of silent pilgrims until the only ones left were the Passage priests. They stood in silent defiance, wearing stoic faces though their hearts were gripped in the panic of being left behind. Unnin knew that Tal Kirna, with his slick tongue and ever-changing heart, was up to something bad. Perhaps not something sinister - that may be too strong - but at least something reckless. He had no desire to follow Tal Kirna to a certain death, suffocating in the dark as the storm came roaring over the Temple.
As the last of Tal Kirna’s loyal flock - including those from the Passage - went down the stairwell, U’Slan stepped to the edge of the hole and took in a deep breath. The cool, damp air flowing through his nose was tainted with something nasty that the old Batta couldn’t put his finger on.
“They must smell that,” he mumbled to himself, furrowing his thick eyebrows. “But the fools march on anyway.”
His two wards stepped to either side of him and stared down into the darkness. “They’re scared of being left behind,” said Qint-I, the youngest of the three.
U’Slan shook his head. “So they would rather risk dying than stray from the flock?”
“Yes. Exactly,” said Qint-I.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Tioc-Ar groaned, the wrinkles on his forehead turning into deep canyons of worry.
“Yes, it does,” U’Slan said. “Unfortunately, it does.” A heaviness came to his gut, almost like a sense of mourning. If what Tal Kirna said turned out to be true, the portal to paradise could be down there waiting to carry them to the Sacred Realm. A new home where they could stop walking, stop trudging, and lay down their burdens. If what Tal Kirna said turned out to be true, the ones who didn’t go with him would be excluded from the most wonderful existence imaginable.
The only problem was that it wasn’t true.
And U’Slan knew it. Deep in his aching chest, he knew it.
And so did his companions.
The stairwell was wide but dim, lit only by the torches carried by the young Council Guards. The stones - both those on the wall and on the stairs - were wet with a pale green slime that made it hard for the top-heavy Batta to move without slipping. They banded together, wrapped their hands around each other’s broad shoulders, and made their way down.
Tal Kirna, whose cloudy, weak eyes could barely see the steps of his knobby feet, was forced to whisper a prayer over and over as they descended. “Hands of Life, give me your shoulders to lean on. Give me the strength to carry your trust with dignity. Lead me so I may lead others. Blessed is your will and fruitful is your path. Hands of Life, give me your shoulders…”
Every repetition grew louder and more forceful, and soon his voice grew from a whisper into something mighty.
“Hands of Life, give me your shoulders to lean on. Give me the strength to carry your trust with dignity. Lead me so I may lead others. Blessed is your will and fruitful is your path.”
The High Ones joined in, then the lower priests.
“Hands of Life…”
Then the elders.
“Give me your shoulders to lean on.”
Then the young.
“Give me the strength to carry this trust with dignity. Lead me so I may lead others.”
As one giant, powerful chorus.
“Blessed is your will and fruitful is your path.”
Tal Kirna’s mind glowed with ecstasy. His skin tingled and buzzed. All around, his priests felt the same - their souls were wrapped tightly in the love of the Gods, their brains awash in a sea of chaotic joy.
Let us bathe ourselves, the master said as Tal Kirna reached the bottom step.
“Let us bathe ourselves!” Tal Kirna called out, his gruff voice echoing off the stones.
So we may wash away the dust of our past.
“So we may wash away the dust of our past!” He walked confidently to the bath and turned to face his twelve loyal priests, noticing the absence of U’Slan and his kith for the first time.
U’Slan isn’t here, Tal Kirna thought with a flash of panic. Master, do we-
There is no time to worry about that.
They have made their decision. Lead your flock to freedom, Tal Kirna.
The master gave Tal Kirna a soothing pulse of pleasure to worry his troubled mind and calm his nervous feet. Now we start anew.
“Now we start anew!”
I’m ready, Tal Kirna thought. I’m ready to follow you, wherever you may lead. I will foll-guh! Guh!
Shh, the voice cooed. All is well. I can take things from here, Tal Kirna. You can rest now. You have done very well. Very well, indeed.
Quiet now. This will be over soon. All will be well. Just rest now.
Tal Kirna’s hands rose into the air, even though he did not raise them, and his mouth opened, though he did not open it.
The tongue moved.
The master spoke.
“Follow me, brothers. Our time has come.”
Then Tal Kirna’s body turned, faced the green water of the once-sacred bath, and repeated the prayer again. The words were loud but meaningless, symbols of a dead sentiment that was now just a tool in service of the master.
“Hands of Life, give me your shoulders to lean on.”
The body took its first step into the bath. Thin, pale green strings of goo clung to his graying fur. “Give me the strength to carry your trust with dignity.”
Up to his waist, moving slowly, his old legs pushing his giant body along. His hands stretched out to his sides, his fingertips skimming the surface of the water. “Lead me so I may lead others.”
Water to his chest, then his chin, lapping at his lips. “Blessed is your will and fr-fr-f-.”
Mouth, then nose, then cloudy, dead eyes.
A hush fell over the room, a silence no Batta knew how to break. The only noise, save for the popping bubbles of Tal Kirna’s last breaths rising to the surface, was the howling of the wind through the opening of the well. The stormwall was close, and getting ever closer. Ever so faintly, when the wind blew just right, they could hear the panicked bleating of the kepshu outside the Temple. The poor beasts had finally stopped eating long enough to realize that their owners had disappeared.
The Batta - commoners and priests alike - stared at the bath, right at the spot where Tal Kirna had gone under just a moment before. They watched, unable to move, unsure of what to do as the bubbles became less frequent and then stopped altogether.
Rr-Ki, who stood on the second to last step, turned and looked up at Unnin with a face that begged for explanation. Unnin looked back with the same hopeless expression, his eyes wide and his mouth agape. His gaze shot to the water, as if he were checking to make sure Tal Kirna had really just done what it seemed he had done.
“What do wuhhh-” Unnin groaned.
Rr-Ki’s heavy brow ridge sank down, obscuring the tops of his eyes. His head rolled slightly to the left before straightening out again. “In the name of the Gods…” he whispered as he looked into Unnin’s suddenly stiff, lifeless face. “Are you all right?”
Unnin took a step forward, or rather he fell forward, pushing his weight against Rr-Ki and the other priests that stood between him and the water.
“Unnin!” Rr-Ki cried as he stumbled backward, struggling to regain his footing on the slick stone. He tried to grab Unnin by the cloak, desperate to hold him back from the bath, but the young priest had a hard and determined strength that Rr-Ki’s tired old muscles simply couldn’t resist. He reached out again as Unnin passed him by and grabbed a solid handful of rough fabric, but a quick and terrible pain shot down into his fingers when he pulled back. He instantly lost his grasp and went stumbling back, landing hard on the floor as Unnin took his first step into the water.
Rr-Ki stood up, determined to try one more time to save his dear friend, when he was suddenly overcome with a strange sensation. A numb tingling in the back of his head, but also...a tightening. A pressure that-
Rr-Ki’s old, crooked back went as straight as a rod and his eyes became cloudy and dull. His feet, tired and sore, moved quickly - recklessly - hurling him at Unnin's heels. As the horrified Blacknecks watched, their two lower priests waded into the murky water, chanting the prayer that Tal Kirna taught them all to pray.
“Hands of Life…”
Bal-Iki’s body took a step into the water, turned to face the shocked congregation still gathered on the stairs, and called out in a strange, loose tongue. “Batta of Blackneck! Follow us to paradise!”
Unnin and Rr-Ki were already sinking into the bath, their faces slowly disappearing into the surface, when their mentor joined them. Within moments, Bal-Iki’s final breaths were bubbling up to the surface with a dull and feeble pop. None of the commons moved - not even the Blacknecks who had just been invited to join in the permanent baptism. The priests and High Ones, however, did move. One by one at first, then in bunches, they let out a soft, low groan that grew into a buzzing chorus. Their spines stiffened and their arms went limp as they shuffled toward the water. Then, all at once, they stopped groaning and started chanting, their numb tongues letting the words slip out lifelessly.
“Hands of Life, give me your shoulders to lean on.”
The lower priests of Ashmound stepped into the water.
“Give me the strength to carry this trust with dignity.”
Then the Gorge.
“Lead me so I may lead others.”
Then the Pillars.
By the time the final line was spoken, these were the only three priests left to speak it. Bulkar of the Pillars. Fernin of the Pillars. Freija of the Pillars.
Together. “Blessed is your will and fruitful is your path.”
Then they, too, disappeared beneath the water.
U’Slan stood at the edge of the Temple and looked west, toward the Point of Kal-Itki and the tribal lands that lay beyond it. Everything seemed so far off and small - the statues at the Point were indistinguishable from each other, and the spiky tops of the Pillars looked like twigs poking out of the dirt. It was hard for U’Slan to believe that he had just walked among the boulders, hills, and trees which were now featureless blobs in the distance. Even the old volcano called Ashmound looked like nothing more than a callu hole, and Blackneck was dwarfed by the humongous stormwall that had already devoured half the mountain. None of it felt real - not the blackstone under his feet, not the harsh wind on his face, not the warmth of the sun as it shined on his shoulders. After so many years of waiting to stand at this sacred place, waiting to pour blood and milk over the altar and redeem his kind, U’Slan couldn’t believe it was ending like this.
“It was a lie,” he told himself. “Meant to control us. Tal Kirna doesn’t know anymore than we do. He just got lucky.” A flash of panic shot through his mind, but he shook it off. It felt good to speak the truth, no matter how dark. “He’s going to get them all killed wasting time down there. He got us all here with no clue what to do next, and now he’s just making it up as he goes, hoping the fools won't notice.”
Again, the panic. Again, he ignored it. His tense shoulders relaxed a bit, and a sense of calm washed over him. He took in a deep breath, held it for a moment, and nodded his head at the undulating red clouds of the approaching behemoth. Now that he had finally let go of Tal Kirna’s dream - of the Batta dream - he felt a new spring of confidence. He no longer felt helpless, no longer felt like a puppet dangling from the fickle fingers of the mysterious Hands of Life. He had a purpose now - a reason to keep going that he could define on his own terms.
He turned toward his lower priests, who were whispering back and forth as they stared nervously at the stairwell. “They need us!” he called out.
The two priests looked at U’Slan, but their eyes instantly shot past him and rose up to the sky. They were looking at the stormwall - the monster that crept closer with every second, the monster that wouldn’t go away. It filled their hearts with terror, as well it should.
“How far down does it go?” Tioc-Ar called back as he pointed to the well. “How long will it take to get them out?”
U’Slan could hear the fear in his voice, and was glad to hear it. At least someone in the flock had some sense. “No,” he said. “Not them. They’ve made their decision, and there is nothing we can do to change that now.” He looked down at the kepshu. “The herd needs us. We can’t just leave them here to die for no reason.”
The lower priests looked at each other with a glimmer of hope in their eyes. “Are you saying we should leave?” Tioc-Ar asked. They never would have suggested such a thing themselves - they wanted to appear courageous, even if they weren't - but if U’Slan was offering a way out they were surely going to take it.
U’Slan nodded his head. “I’m saying we should stop waiting here to die. We can lead the herd through the eastern passage. If we go now, we might make it.”
“But the wagons,” Tioc-Ar countered, his sense of defeat evident in his tone. “What if they won’t make it through? What if they’re too wide?”
U’Slan put his foot on the first step down. His brown and grey fur blew in the ever-strengthening wind. “We unhook as many as we can and get them through.”
“What if we run out of time? What about the ones we don’t get to?”
U’Slan didn’t answer. There was no reason to state the obvious. Quietly, he put one foot in front of the other and walked away from the Temple at Batta Klin.
Qor-R’n felt that burning deep in her mind - that nasty, evil inkling that kept pressing itself against her brain, demanding to be heard, demanding to be obeyed. It didn’t speak, but got its message across crudely, with base emotions. Even so, Qor-R’n knew what it was trying to say.
Go. Go to the water. Go in. Follow.
Her better mind - her stronger, more willful side - was having none of that. She shook her head to cast out the poisonous thoughts and turned away from the sacred pool, unwilling to lay her gaze on the floating, lifeless bodies of Tal Kirna and his priests.
Where are the Gods? Qor-R’n asked herself. Where was the Sacred Realm? Where was the salvation they had been promised? Was it really to be found by filling their lungs with water at the bottom of a muddy bath?
Something's wrong, she thought. The burning in her mind flared, stinging the space behind her eyes. I have to get out.
She turned back up the staircase and pushed through the crowd slowly, her heart heavy with a growing anger. She couldn’t believe that she had followed those maniacal priests, that she had put her faith in the hands of those suicidal zealots who were carried along by the lavish Carag Astri while the rest of the Batta trudged through the sand on exhausted feet. The same priests who sat in that grand wagon with its cool air and clean water and artificial light, not once thinking about sharing the last remnants of the Batta’s former glory with the commons, not once sitting down to a meal of recycled water and kepshu blood so they could understand what life was really like in the eye of the storm. What life was really like as one of the flock.
I abandoned Nan and Onn, for this? she asked herself. To kill myself in some puddle? No.
“Pardon my passing,” she mumbled as she climbed the stairs. Behind her, some members of the Passage tribe were beginning to follow her, wanting very badly to get away from the stinking pool of death. They were thinking exactly what Qor-R’n was thinking - if they went quickly, they might still have time to get the herd through the eastern passage before the second wave of the storm hit the valley. The wagons wouldn’t make it, that was for sure, but if they survived long enough they would eventually come across an oasis, or at least a dead forest, and more could be built.
Qor-R’n was already well on her way through the crowd when a voice called out from below. It was harsh, creaky, old - but willful and strong. “Stop there!” The words were stiff and lifeless despite their power, like they were coming from the loudspeakers of the Carag Astri.
Qor-R’n turned and saw Jott Nar of the Pillars, one of the Old Mothers - the keepers of Batta history and the ritualistic mates of the High Ones - pointing up at her with a determined, hateful scowl.
“No one will leave here! We were all brought here for the sacrifice, and we must all continue to follow the path Tal Kirna laid out for us. If even one of us turns back, we will all be denied entry to our promised paradise!” Jott Nar then turned her angry gaze to the Batta who stood between Qor-R’n and the exit. “Do not let this heathen destroy all that we have suffered to achieve!”
A rumble went up in the flock. Some of the Batta were on her side, but not enough. She took another step away from the Old Mother and the supposed gateway to paradise, and as soon as she did Jott Nar called out again. This time it was even more forceful.
“Do not turn your sinful hide on your Gods, you little twit! If you cast us into the wastelands, we will chase you down and slay you, do you understand?”
A gasp went up from the crowd. Threats like that were practically unheard of in Batta culture, but Jott Nar was serious. Determined.
A young Blackneck - a tall, thick male, not very bright by the look of his slack face - stepped in front of Qor-R’n. With no way around him, she stopped and held her gaze steady with his own, trying to match his show of intimidation. “Move,” she demanded. “Right now.”
A young female from the Gorge stepped behind the slack-faced roadblock. Qor-R’n recognized her as the daughter of a couple her parents used to trade with. She pointed down at the pool, her face an odd mixture of sympathy and malice - and told Qor-R’n to turn around for her own good.
“Get out of our way!” an old male from the Passage called out. He was several steps behind Qor-R’n, but was dragging himself upward as fast as he could. “The storm will be here soon! We don’t have time for this insanity! We must go now!”
“Do not let them pass!” Jott Nar screamed at the young idiot standing in Qor-R’n’s path. “Bring them here so we can please the Gods and-”
“Forget the Gods!” the old Batta yelled with desperation dripping from his voice.
Another gasp went up from the crowd, filling the dark, damp space with its odd echo.
“Shame!” someone screamed. “Shame!”
“Shut your mouth!” someone else called back. “Leave him be!”
The old Batta put himself directly behind Qor-R’n. His entire body shook with fear - even his voice. “Out of my way!” He pushed Qor-R’n in the back, transferring his panic to her since it had nowhere else to go. “Go!” He pushed her again, this time causing her to fall against the idiot, who simply shoved her back. A chorus of jeers rose from the crowd, but it was too chaotic to tell whose side they were on, if they were on anybody’s side at all.
“Bring them here!” Jott Nar demanded again. The other Old Mothers were flanking her on both sides, most of them presenting the same authoritative stare. They held the line - arms crossed, eyes focused and cold. Yet a few looked very nervous. These particular Old Mothers - the ones from the Passage, whose minds were still their own - shuffled anxiously beside the suicide pool, afraid of its dark contents and terrified by the intentions of their peers. These Old Mothers did not lack courage, rather they were torn about where that courage should lead them. Should it carry them against Jott Nar, who had seemingly appointed herself new leader of the flock? Or should it carry them into the arms of death so that they might achieve rebirth in paradise? Should they leave the Temple and return to their own Hell, or walk into the water and hope to find Heaven?
The question was agonizing.
“Let them pass!”
All the eyes shot in one direction. This voice was not meek or powerless. It was strong, important, respected - the voice of Osh-Kani of the Pillars. Jott Nar’s older sister. “You will let them pass, along with anyone else who wishes to-”
“Quiet!” Jott Nar demanded, spit flying from her wrinkled lips.
“-go along with them. We will not-”
“-force anyone to take part in this ritual against their will. Now, step aside and -GUH!”
There was an awful smack. A terrible grunt. A cloud of purple mist.
Then there was a body on the floor, its head cracked open and its blood pouring onto the grimy blackstone. Jott Nar, bloody stone in hand, glared at the Batta cowering on the steps. Her dull eyes were a terrifying shadow. “Into the water! Every one of you!
Another Old Mother - Va’ar of Ashmound - stepped forward and took in a deep breath. Her voice was dark. Demonic. “By the dying breaths of these heathens, we shall know paradise! We shall know bliss! We shall know everlasting life in the loving arms of the Grandparents! Come, my brothers and sisters - let us take these devils into the water as our sacrifice!”
Jott Nar moved quick as a callu and snatched up one of the timid Old Mothers from the Passage. Her creaky, bony hands wrapped around the poor thing’s mane of dark brown hair and yanked her to the ground with brutal force. The Old Mother let out a sickening moan as the back of her skull bounced off the stone and her arms and legs went limp. Jott Nar grabbed her by the ankles and dragged her into the water.
Qor-R’n - always a quick-thinking young thing - struck the loyal moron before he could grab her. She swung her fist sideways into the side of his head, knocking him off balance so he couldn't defend himself. When he put his hands on the stairs to steady himself, Qor-R’n slammed the ridge of her right hand into his throat as hard as she could. The noise that escaped his mouth was sickening - a gasp that sounded like the rattle of Death himself. Qor-R’n squeezed past him, too decent to push the damn oaf off the stairs to his death, and almost toppled over in the process. When she righted herself and straightened her back, she was face to face with the young female from the Gorge.
“Into the water!” the young thing screamed, her wide, angry eyes filled with a heartfelt hatred. She didn’t just want Qor-R’n to sacrifice herself, she wanted to see it happen, to make sure the heathen took in two good lungfuls of that filthy holy water before she passed on to the other side.
Qor-R’n didn’t bother responding. There would be no talking her way out of this. At the bottom of the long, curving staircase, once-decent Batta were forcing their terrified friends, mates, and children into the sacrificial pool - smashing them on the heads and pushing them into the water when they didn't comply. Qor-R’n had no interest in meeting the same fate. She planted her feet firmly on the steps, coiled her thick, powerful legs, and lunged at the little thing that dared stand between her and her freedom. The girl, also quick and clever, threw a foot up just in time to catch Qor-R’n in the chest. The two Batta went flying back from each other. The girl went hard into the wall, screaming out in pain as her back slammed against the edge of a sharp stone, while Qor-R’n slid down several stairs and came to a stop against a wall of kicking legs.
She barely felt the pain. It didn’t seem quite real, but rather like a muted, fuzzy replica of what actual pain felt like. She tried to scramble back up the stairs, but the attack was too brutal. Each kick was filled with the dark passion of disappointed, bitter souls.
There was no mercy in the eighteen kicks to her head and body. No nobility in the hands that grasped her shoulders and lifted her up off the blackstone. No love in the bodies that pushed her down.
There was a moment of weightlessness that poor Qor-R’n mistook for the arrival of death. Then a moment - very brief - of intense pain. After that she felt nothing but a numb tingling, an uncomfortable fuzziness that seemed to weigh her down and hold her to the floor. Slowly she lost her vision. A tunnel closed in around the square of light that marked the top of the stairwell, and within seconds everything was dark. She closed her useless eyes and let the peace of surrender wash over her.
Qor-R’n awoke with a raspy, desperate gasp. Her hearing had returned, but the chamber - which had been so violently raucous when she lost consciousness - was now as quiet as the abandoned caves of the Passage. There was the howl of the wind - stronger than before, but still distant and subtle - and the gentle lapping of the water as it splashed against fur and stone. Yet there was no screaming, no crying. No pleading or demanding.
Her vision came back gradually. When she could see again, she sat up straight, pushed aside the intense pain that dominated her lower back, and scanned the room. The pool, which had seemed so tiny from the top of the stairs, was filled with the floating corpses of hundreds of dead Batta. Some were face up with their arms outstretched, but most were facing down with only their deeply arched backs peeking up from the surface. In the darkness it looked like a field of callu mounds dotted with the decaying remains of some unlucky wanderers.
Beside the pool - lying in lifeless, bloody lumps - were several injured Batta who had never been dragged into the water. They were mostly young, and Qor-R’n recognized many of them as Passagens. In the corner by the stairs, tucked in between two hulking blackstone blocks, was a dead Council Guard. He was surrounded by five older Batta - a couple of Blacknecks and three Gorgites, by the looks of them - that he had apparently killed in a desperate bid to defend himself. Someone - perhaps one of the dead elders - had managed to get a dagger into his chest before the poor thing could escape. A look of terror and confusion could still be seen on his rigid face.
Qor-R’n got to her feet and tried to stand up straight, but could only shuffle about, hunched over, straining to arch her neck so she could see. She made her way to the staircase and was happy to see it clear of bodies. As she gingerly placed her feet on the first step, she tried not to think about how high she had to climb, how far she had to go. All she focused on was that first movement. When that one was conquered, she focused on the next.
Step, step step.
Despite the pain, despite the building panic, she made it along. Her focus and resilience grew stronger as she went higher, until her mind was soaked in the task.
Step, step, step.
A noise in the water caught her ear, but she paid it no mind.
That damn pool of death was no longer her concern. Now there was only survival.
Step, step step.
Qor-R’n climbed as fast as her broken body and its dwindling stores of adrenaline would allow. There were no torches now, no fellow Batta to hold onto for support. There was only a young kepherd, in the dark, climbing out of Hell with her eyes on Heaven.
The howl of the storm was strong and menacing, so vicious it made her legs tremble as she took the final few steps out of the Temple. She was right to be afraid. The monster was already crawling along the Passage, filling the caves with its thick dust as it approached the Point of Kal-Itki.
“Still time,” she grunted as she pulled her broken body along the wide platform. “Still time.” She repeated this over and over, trying to keep her mind free of panic and focused on the plan. Find Nan and Onn. Find the priests and the eastern passage. If she could do that, she had a chance. “Still time.”
And if it comes to it, she thought with a heavy heart, let them go on without you. Her beloved kepshu, dumb as they were, were loyal and innocent creatures that deserved far better than to die in the teeth of the storm. She would do all she could to save them from that fate, even if it meant sending them ahead without her.
She could see the path the kepshu had trampled into the sand as she reached the edge of the Temple platform. Her eyes followed it east and came upon U’Slan and his companions, who were busy unhooking the nervous kepshu from their carts. Their perseverance gave a new spark to Qor-R’n’s heart, and she descended the Temple stairs with a hopeful eye on the herd.
Good, she thought, trying to comfort herself as she came down from the Temple. This is good. We won’t be alone. We’ll save Nan and Onn and be on our way.
That crude, rough part of her brain called out again. It insisted that she was throwing her life away by going off to die with U’Slan and his blasphemous lot instead of sacrificing herself to the Grandparents. She was doomed no matter what, so the only way to find meaning in her impending death was to go back down into that Temple well and send her soul to the other side.
But this pathetic compulsion was no match for the hopeful chant that dominated Qor-R’ns mind. Nan and Onn. Nan and Onn. Nan and Onn. The chant grew stronger as Qor-R’n’s feet touched the wet sand of the valley and pushed eastward. Nan and Onn. Her beloved companions. Her stubborn old pullies.
When she reached the edge of the herd she started smacking the backsides of every lagging kepshu within arm’s reach, yelling at them to get on and go. Some got the message and started toward U’slan and the eastern passage, but most of them kept up their nervous pacing and shifting, too terrified to think straight as the roar of the storm got closer. Her own kepshu - simple Onn and stubborn old Nan - had smelled Qor-R’n’s approach and were trying to pull the wagon backwards toward her. “Stay, stay!” she demanded, trying to sound forceful despite her wide smile. “Het-het-het!”
With two quick pulls of the ropes, Qor-R’n pulled her kepshu free. After giving them both a quick hug, she walked to the front of the wagon and unhooked the other two beasts from the yoke. A good smack to their rears sent them both running in the right direction. Then she brought Nan and Onn forward and looked them both in the eyes, hoping that somewhere in those brains there was an understanding of their dire situation. “Go on,” she said, shifting her gaze from Nan to Onn then back again several times. “Go on, now, and follow U’Slan. I will be right behind you.”
Nan mewled harshly and Onn followed suit. They did not approve.
“Go on! Follow U’Slan through the eastern passage, and I’ll find you again on the other side.” She walked to their rears and delivered hard smacks to both. “Go on!”
Nan mewled again and Qor-R’n laid down a harsh smack that turned the groan into a strange stutter. “Go!”
Onn moved immediately. Nan was only a moment behind. When Qor-R’n was sure they weren’t coming back for her, she went back to lifting hitches and pulling ropes.
When the stormwall had devoured the Point of Kal-Itki and was making its first swirling gestures at the edge of the valley, U’Slan sent his priests on with the herd and stepped up on the closest driver’s plank. He didn’t know the young female who had joined their endeavour, but he recognized her as a tribesfellow.
“It’s time to leave!” he called out, waving his left arm in the air as high as he could. “To the eastern passage!”
Qor-R’n turned, returned the wave, and gave herself a number. “Ten more. Save ten more.”
She pulled five more hitches, ten more ropes, and then cut off her heart to the desperate cries of the kepshu she was forced to leave behind. It’s the only way.
With the monster chomping at the wet sand behind her, Qor-R’n stumbled off to the east. Her heart hung heavy and numb in her chest.
In the dark, filthy waters of the sacred pool - among the bloating, rotting bodies - there was a stirring. A harsh, grating noise that started as a mere whisper before growing into a growl.
Guhrrr-guhr, guhrrr-guhr, guhrrr-guhr.
The bodies bobbed in the soft chop, carelessly bumping into each other like the debris they had become.
The noise grew louder and echoed softly through the damp well.
In the back of the pool, at the point farthest from the stairs, the wet, grey-speckled fur that covered Tal Kirna’s head began to twitch. The skin under it undulated up and down like the rhythm of a heartbeat - guhrrr-guhr! - and was accompanied by the creaking of stressed bone.
A few feet away, nestled between the bodies of Unnin and Bal-Iki, Rr-Ki’s skin and bone began the same dark dance, bouncing to a sickening rhythm.
Others joined in. Some priests, some commons, until the group had formed a devilish chorus.
As it rose to a crescendo, led by the master Tal Kirna himself, there was a great POP!
A blast of blood, bone, and brain shot high into the air before falling back with a splat. A good chunk of Tal Kirna’s head was reduced to a bloody crater, and in the middle - where his very mind had once lived - there was a thick, translucent worm thrashing in the pulp. It had pure white eyes and a small mouth full of sharp, tearing teeth. It used those teeth to grab a hold of Tal Kirna’s flesh and pull itself out of the hole, then it dangled by its powerful jaws before dropping into the water. With the grace of an aqtu it swam amongst the corpses of the priests and their flock, secreting from a slit in its abdomen a white fluid that sank down to the floor and congealed into long strands.
The thing was happy - pleased to sense the grinding of bone, to feel the vibrations of three hundred Batta skulls.
Growing stronger and stronger.
Closer and closer.
Guhrrr-guhr!The others would be along soon.
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