by Michæl W. Bard
©2006 Michæl W. Bard; illustration ©2006 Cubist
With a last undulation that stretched out into a final beat of his tail, the man touched the tiled roof of the temple. Gripping the slate with the claws strapped to his hands to make sure the gentle water-filled wind didnt blow him off the roof, he pulled himself down behind the peak and crouched out of the wind.
Hed made it!
Here he was, on the roof of the High Temple of the Plighuze. He knew the stories well enough; hed heard that this Temple was supposed to have been built by the holy Engineers, the god-men whod erected The Shell to protect themselves from the Stars (whatever those were) of the Core (whatever that was)oh, and there was something about a hell called Galaxy. Whatever that meantit was all lies anyway. Consistent lies, hed give them that; in a temple of the Epseler, one that drifted with the other buildings above the surface, hed heard some hoof-footed shamen chant the same Tale of the Construction as any other clergy; but he didnt believe a word of it.
Nobody else did, either. Nobody other than the priests, at any rate.
Hed once believed, as a child, but that was before hed flown through the glowing silver roof that lit The Shell, only to find more air and another glowing layer far, far above. Stars, what were they? Lights in the sky? The only light was the glowing layers in the endless heavens. And what was this gravity nonsense? Everybody knew that things just floated in place, or kept going when you pushed them. Nothing was ever pulled down to the surface.
The priesthood, any priesthood, was full of lies.
Humans, Plighuze, Kresden, the race didnt matter; everybody had their own faith, and everybodys priests lied. The Plighuze holy ones in their warren temple below him were no different. He had no qualms about his plan to rob it and make his fortune. Some worried about blasphemy, but he was smarter than that!
He knew that no god could do anything that its followers could not. Which is what made the Plighuze Temple such an obvious target; they were small, covered in dense white fur, and afraid to leave the ground as their arms were too short, weak, and clumsy to hold wings to bring them back down. Not dangerous in the least!
Even as these thoughts ran through his mind, with quick athletic twisting he pulled his nine-foot body around and unstrapped the thin, oiled wood tail he wore on his legs. It was twice his size, yet massed less than a dagger. After removing it, he pulled his arms out of the smaller wings hed used for directional control. Tying the three together, he secured the rope around the outstretched edge of a longer tile so that the wind wouldnt blow them away across the moving sea. A final check of his crossbow, his sword, the claws secured to his hands and his feet, and then he crawled across the roof and down the side until he found a window.
A twist, a stretch out into midair so that only one hand held him secure against the wind, the drawing of a dagger to press into the shutter and pry it open, a swift pull of his own body, never letting go of the edge of the window, and then he was inside. Now it was safe to drift! He pulled the shutter closed, holding his body motionless with his other arm, and then twisted around in the darkness.
Inside the temple it was warm, curiously warm. Letting his eyes adjust, he cracked the light stick hed purchased from the wizard. Its dim glow revealed he was in a small wooden passage, circular, the edges worn and scratched and clawed from the passage of Plighuze. All around was the thick, cloying stench of fur and feces and blood.
In the distance, a blood-curdling inhuman scream of pain and fear echoed and resonated through the wooden tunnels. It rose to a hideous crescendo before it suddenly fell silent, cut off in the middle. He was reminded of another story hed ignored with all the rest; this one said that no human had ever entered the High Temple of the Plighuze and returned He shuddered, then made his way down the passage, jumping from side to side, the metal claws strapped to his hands and feet making metallic scratches that echoed into inaudibility. Proceeding as quietly as he could, he felt the rough wood of the wall, and the occasional slick sections of old, dried blood.
Even before he knew why, he stopped and listened, and then he heard it. Somewhere nearby there was a loud thumpand claws scrabbling against wood. With frightening speed it grew louder, closer. He readied his crossbow and waited, calmly, anchored against the recoil with both legs. The scratching and the thumping grew louder, closer, louder, closer, and then it was past and fading.
Spinning around to follow it, he realized that it must have been from another tunnel! With light taps, he confirmed that the walls all around were hollow. He was surrounded by tunnels and warrens. Good, that greatly reduces my chance of meeting one of the Plighuze. Proceeding on his jumping flying way, he jumped from surface to surface, making small leaps instead of long leaps so that he was almost always in contact with one of the sides and could change his direction if needed.
Time passed and he proceeded deeper. There were no branches, no sharp bends. Instead the passage slowly curved inward and downward, apparently spiraling to the middle of the temple. Another hideous scream of pain and terror, louder, shriller, and this time it sounded humanthe cry of a lost soul watching his own flesh being eaten! Just as suddenly as before, it fell silent.
He stopped, swallowed, his mouth dry. With his foot-claws he held himself in place and pulled out a waterskin, taking a deep sip. The atmosphere was almost painfully hot, and sweat was pouring freely from his body. The air was thick with the overpowering stink of mobs of Plighuze. Sealing the skin he paused, again listening as the thump of a body and the scratch of claws swiftly came closer, and again he readied the crossbow just in case. Before him was a staccato scratch of claws, the slight creak of wood as thick muscles pressed against it, and glittering red eyes glaring at him, the eyes of an approaching Plighuze! By the Engineers! He pulled the trigger; the crossbow fired; the bolt went straight and true into the skull of the white-furred body. There was a scream of pain and hatred that echoed down the passage, and then the glowing red eyes were upon him.
The creature slammed into him, shoving him back along the tunnel. All around him echoed the scrape of his passage and the creak of the wood. He could only fumble for his dagger. He slid to a stop, feeling the scraping of wood and splinters against his back through the boiled leather. Only then did he realize that the Plighuze was dead; his shot must have gone straight into the brain to kill its soul. But it had set its body into motion, so of course the body had remained in motion, continuing its demonic course Slowly he pushed the corpse off, his eyes drawn to stare at the mouth filled with sharp triangular teeth. That was close. Too close.
For a moment there was only his breathing, but then a loud stacatto thumping of hind legs on wood echoed from all around. The Plighuze could not fly in the open, but in these tunnels their immensely strong hind-legs gave them fearsome power; their slight forepaws, with which they could never fly free, were more than enough to grasp their prey for their teeth to rip into. More thumping, louder. He swallowed, it was time to go while he still could.
All around him echoed the pounding of individual hops. Some were below him, some on top, most in front, and even a few behind By the Engineers, there must be hidden doors linking the tunnels! A scream ripped itself from his throat and he leapt back up the cramped passage, from wall to wall to wall, desperate, his crossbow forgotten. All around him was the scratching of claws, the thumping of heavy bodies as they landed for a second and then leapt off. Behind him, too close, he heard a sudden screech of pain. For a second the thumping vanished, the only sound the scratch of his claws on the wood, and then the faint sound of teeth ripping flesh echoing from behind. Was something consuming the corpse of the Plighuze hed left? Glancing behind him, back into the darkness, he misjudged his leap; slamming into the side he scraped to a stop, the wood slick against his worn leather.
Then the thumping, the scrabbling of claws was back.
All around him the sounds grew louder, more frantic. All he could hear was a cacophonous mob of drums, all scratching to get in and at him. Screaming, he started jumping back for the entrance hed come through. The gateway to The Shell beyond, to freedom from the hot, stinking darkness. He could see the light, closer, closera shadow loomed across it! Before him was a white form, its red eyes glittering with hatred and hunger. More forms, countless forms, silhouetted in the fading light of safety. He stopped, and they stopped, all waiting. Behind him he heard other forms approaching, their movement echoing all around him.
They wont take me alive!
Screaming, he drew his dagger just as they leapt upon him with a loud scratching and scrabbling of claws. Then all was screeching and screaming. Open jaws full of pointed teeth. Flashes of big floppy ears pulled back and out of the way. He was doomed, but he refused to die alone! Striking and thrusting with his dagger, he struck back. Each blow made wounds that oozed blood that drifted in the air around him; he couldnt hope to see past the red blobs, but there were so many targets that he couldnt miss. From all directions bodies overwhelmed him. His boiled leather was no protection against the sharp teeth, and he felt them digging into his legs, his arms, his thighs. Each point was an exquisite instrument of pain. Flesh was torn from his body as he struggled, the Plighuze mobbing him with their white-furred bodies covered in blood. Most of it his.
He screamed again and again, each scream punctuated by a strike of his dagger.
For some reason he wasnt dead. Even the pain he felt was distant and remote. He could feel soft-furred hands on his chest; he could feel the bristly round tails against his face; but he couldnt see a thing. Trying to move his hands, his arms, his legs, he realized that they were gone. All were gone! He could feel fur against their stumps and he could feel the stinging saliva that was somehow keeping him from bleeding to death. Surrounding him were the Plighuze, carrying him with anger and hatred. The only thing he could smell was the stench of their hunger. They carried him for a long time, the only sounds the thumping of their bodies as they leapt from side to side. With each breath he got a mouthful of bloody fur, mixed with just enough air to live.
Suddenly the passage opened and he could breathe easily. There was light. Most of the bodies around him left, but a few remained, holding his torso and twisting him around to face the inner sanctum of the High Temple.
At that moment he couldnt have spoken to save his life.
The inner sanctum was huge, perhaps half the temples interior volume. It was round, the walls the same smooth and polished wood that made up the tunnels. Crowds of Plighuze clung to all surfaces; their eyes glittered red, and they all looked up towards the centre where the picture was. But the picture wasnt a painting or a drawing, it was a translucent image that took up almost two-thirds of the inner sanctum. Its shape was spherical, and in the centre was a massive sea of brilliant lights in all colours; blue, red, green, yellow, white; more than he could count. Around them in all directions, after a great distance, were a multitude of thin streaks of many coloursgreen, brown, blue, tan, silverall in tiny splotches and crooked lines and patterns.
It was The Shell: A picture of what The Engineers had built, as described by the shamen. And the lights at the centre must be the Stars of the Galactic Core!
The picture was immense, staggering, a work of art and beauty. A statement to all of the power of The Engineers. It took him minutes to realize that his body, still tightly held, was slowly moving towards the image of hell the Galactic Core a terrible nothingness of fire and Vacuum that would consume him. He didnt believe in it, but the priesthood did. And he could believe that the priests had built themselves a hell to throw him into. Frantically he struggled, but the Plighuze that held him wouldnt let go, and together they began to slowly tumble. As the room rotated, he could see the growing translucent Galactic Core and then The Shell, and then the hungry, staring, glittering red eyes. He screamed, loud, ragged, and totally ineffectual, and then he struggled harder. But with a ponderous inevitability, he drifted towards the Galactic Core and his own damnation.
That was when he realized, he knew, that he believed. And that made his screams all the louder.
After an eternity he passed through The Shell, feeling only a tingle across his skin, and then the rude shoves of his captors as they thrust away from him. They were escaping as he sped towards hell! His screams grew ragged as he tumbled, but there was nothing he could do. Blood oozed out of his stumps, spreading outward from him in globules of his own death. The Galactic Core grew nearer, brighter, became blinding
And then the first of the Stars touched him, a burning spark that fell through him and grabbed him and yanked him towards the centre, towards the deepest hell of all. He could no longer scream, could no longer even struggle. Lightning sparkled, grabbed him, pulled him deeper, moving from his skin into his body, tugging, pulling, squeezing. Everything went dark as the pain increased. A pounding sensation stabbed into his brain. Then he felt his mind being ripped apart, pulled from his skull and into his body. Pain lanced through him, stabbing, thudding, scrunching him into a too-small place, tearing off all that wouldnt fit
And then the pain was gone. All was black. He tried to inhalebut he couldnt breathe! Thrusting out with his hind legs, he felt bone and flesh give. And then the hunger hit him. He opened his mouth and ripped at the flesh that cocooned him, swallowing the warm blood and beginning to fill the emptiness inside him. He could see around him a glittering light, a thousand spots of colour moving away, but all he could feel was hunger. He ate the flesh around him, biting, tearing, feeling the love and honour and hunger of all those around him. Love and honour that hed fought to the end, and the eternal hunger that they all felt always. He was moving out of the Galactic Core, out of hell, and into the loving embrace of his fellows. His speed quickened and he frantically swallowed the flesh and bone around him. He didnt want to share itit was all his! Too soon he reached the embracing mob of his fellows and they fell upon the flesh hed missed, ripping and tearing to assuage their hunger. A frantic mob of fur and claws and teeth fought over the scraps. Bodies thrust at him, legs kicked, and finally the last bit was consumed a fleshy mask of his old face.
With the body gone the mob quieted, their claws digging into the soft wood around their God. Someone began to gently lick the blood from his flesh and he returned the favour on another in front of him. All around him were glittering red eyes; all around him the comforting scent of Plighuze. Together, all shared the eternal hunger as the priesthood waited for their people to throw them the next prisoner.