Tewa's keen eyes caught a flash of movement in the dark. The girl worriedly held her breath as one of the hulking creatures paused below her. At night the things roamed freely. But in the day the beasts were penned in pits beneath the temple, lured to their cages by the smell of rancid meat. The wild untamed vas raised its ugly crocodilian head and carefully sniffed the air. The girl's fingers gripped the wall and her knuckles whitened with tension. Had the frightful thing sensed her presence?
The creature slowly swung its head one way, then the other. Its pointed ears twitched. Its slanted eyes raked the wall. Tewa went cold. The girl had oiled her body so she could slide like a twisting serpent between the downward pointing spikes of the outer wall, but now her slick skin worked against her -- she was slipping!
One shapely leg slid off and dislodged a fragment of crumbling masonry. Tewa bit back an oath as the chip struck the courtyard's paving. To the nervous girl the slight sound seemed like thunder in the quietness of the night.
Instantly, the vas leapt forward and sniffed the fallen fragment. Tewa went rigid in knifing fear as the creature jerked up its head and stared directly at her. Its ears swiveled forward and a low ugly hiss slithered from its fearsome jaws. The sweating girl uttered a desperate and silent entreaty to Umis, God of Thieves. A vas possesses poor eyesight, and the girl prayed her dusky skin would blend with the equally dark stone, thus rendering her invisible to the gaze of the formidable temple guardian.
Long moments passed as the creature stared upwards with unnerving sphinx-like patience. Tewa cursed inwardly. Her muscles began to tremble with the strain of keeping her slippery body upon the narrow height of the wall. Would the cursed creature never depart? She gritted her teeth and hung on with grim desperation. One warning hiss from the watching vas would summon all the other brutes and no doubt rouse the priests of Yethchal, thus putting an end to her plans for revenge and possibly her life as well.
Tewa's grip was on the verge of failing when the vas slowly yawned after what seemed an age of breathless tension. Rows of vicious shark-like teeth flashed for a moment in the moonlight; then it shook its spiny canine body and padded quietly away, yellow malefic eyes again searching the darkness for any who dared to violate the sanctity of the Flame God's holy tabernacle.
The girl gradually exhaled a long sigh of relief, obtained a better purchase on the wall and eased the strain upon her aching limbs. Being a thief was a risky profession, but despite the dangers she felt it was better than the degradation of prostitution, which often became the tragic fate of many an orphan girl. For a moment memories came flooding back of the plague three years ago that had carried off her parents and older brother, as well as thousands of Kalaye's other teeming poor.
The girl turned her had and looked down on the darkened mass of the sprawling city. The hill on which the temple was built gave a panoramic view of the ancient metropolis. The palaces of the nobles and mansions of rich merchants near the bay shone brightly with the light of glowstones. They sparkled like jewels of flame in gilded copulas, and shone with rainbow colors from graceful marble towers and curving archways.
The paths in the scented gardens of the wealthy were tastefully lit with the glowing gem's pellucid radiance, which highlighted the exotic shrubs and spreading trees from far Xyzura. Tinkling fountains cast their spray and caught the glowstone's light, which transformed every droplet into a watery pearl of subtle luminescence.
But in the squalid slums was only darkness, and night's shroud hid the poverty and suffering of the downtrodden poor. Bitter tears welled in Tewa's eyes at this injustice, and she tore her gaze from the city and fixed it once more on the temple. Her full lips thinned and she cursed the priests as her narrowed eyes gazed upon the dazzling marble edifice of Yethchal's ancient shrine.
Although the Flame God's priests were few in number they had considerable influence. It was they who had dissuaded king Tegis from spending much gold on providing sewers for the ghettos, and in the unsanitary conditions the plague had raged like a wildfire. The blackened and swollen bodies of the victims had littered the narrow alleys like fallen leaves. They had been carried off by the cart-full and burnt at the edge of the city without ceremony, and without dignity.
Tewa hated the priests intensely. Her loathing had been roused by Manu the philosopher who, before being forced to flee into exile for his scathing criticism of the priesthood, had given free lectures in the city's piazza, and squarely laid the blame for the severity of the plague at the feet of the obstructionist and greedy clergy, who had demanded the money set aside for public works be spent on refurbishing their age old temple.
The girl angrily shook her head, and brought her wandering mind back to the present. For three years she had plotted revenge against the priests of Yethchal, whom she held responsible for the death of her family and many others, and now was the night for the fruition of her carefully laid plans. Her muscles had regained their strength. It was time to move.
Carefully, Tewa drew up the rope attached to the padded grappling hook she had used to scale the outer wall, and then slowly lowered the knotted line to the paving of the temple courtyard. No vas were nearby and so, heart thudding, she commenced her slow descent, dropping into a crouch the moment her bare feet touched the ground.
A deft flick of the rope freed the grappling hook. Tewa caught it and quickly coiled the line. Again, the girl looked nervously about as she sank to her belly. No nearby threat presented itself to her roving gaze, and so she began to crawl towards the portico of the temple some fifty yards away, her sleek limbs trembling with a mixture of nervousness and excitement.
The building loomed above her, impressive with majestic height. The gilded frieze caught the moonlight brilliantly as did the jeweled eyes of the portico's caryatids -- statue-pillars of the Flame God's many concubines. Tewa slithered quietly up the steps. Before her were massive timber doors of ornately carved shelim, securely barred. But above the massive portal was a narrow window through which she could squeeze her svelte and oiled form.
As the girl neared the door a frightening hiss cut the silence with its sibilant rasp. The girl froze and the sweat of terror came upon her brow. A vas stepped out from concealing shadows and stalked towards her, venomous spittle dripping from its gaping jaws.
uen the acolyte stood before the idol of Yethchal and gazed broodingly upon its gilded ten foot form. The god sat tailor fashion upon a dais, hands cupped in his lap, with the Sacred Flame leaping from his palms in wavering tongues of burning crimson fire.
The young man raised his pale eyes to the face of the image. Stylized flames danced across Yethchal's broad shoulders and crowned his head. The god's face was beatific and serene, but made sinister by a single eye in the middle of the idol's forehead -- a sparkling faceted ruby the size of a large man's fist.
Quen shivered as he looked upon the god's ominous visage. But it was not fear of the supernatural that engendered this reaction, for he had ceased to believe in the reality of his deity. No, it was the horror of what men do in the name of the gods that made him tremble with revulsion. His eyes dropped to the granite altar before the statue. Sickness rose within him and again he relived the evil events of yesterday evening -- events that had been indelibly seared upon his brain in all their brutal and bloody detail.
Someone had forgotten to lock the door to the inner sanctum when the secret ceremonies were taking place -- sacred rites that were hidden from the populace and novices alike. Quen had crept within the tabernacle and concealed himself behind a pillar to observe the ceremony -- an act of defiance and rebellion against the oppressiveness of his restricted monastic existence. Little did he realize the dark and brutal evil he was about to witness.
His eyes had widened in shock and horror at what he had seen -- a young girl bound to the altar, weeping and struggling wildly, the flash of the knife and the terrible scream. Then there was the gagging stench of burning flesh as the bloody internal organs were consumed by the idol's Sacred Flame.
Quen had staggered from the inner sanctum, one hand clapped across his mouth and bitter vomit rising in his throat. He had madly dashed to his Spartan cell, burst within and collapsed upon the floor where he had been violently ill for many long and agonizing minutes. But at last his churning stomach settled and his shaken mind regained coherence, and it seemed to him that a dark veil had been brutally torn from his eyes, for now he saw the priests and their religion for the vile evil that it was.
The young man drew his mind to the present and again looked on the image of the god. At the age of fourteen he had been taken from his highborn parents by the temple to replace a priest who had passed away, as was the custom. At the time it had seemed a great honor to all concerned. But now he knew with acidic bitterness that he had wasted four years of life unknowingly serving an evil cause.
Quen clenched his fists and a fearsome scowl marred his handsome features. The entire edifice of the state religion was revealed to him as base hypocrisy -- the priests spoke of their creed in lofty terms enshrined in noble sounding words, and all the while the wickedness of human sacrifice lurked behind this facade of sanctity. He now realized how their cunning and sugared tongues had been gradually steering him down this abysmal path.
Raw anger blazed in Quen's heart at the thought. His gaze locked fiercely upon the Eye of Yethchal. According to the sacred texts this was where the spirit of the god resided when drawn to earth by holy ceremonies. He'd smash the eye - rip it from its socket and hurl it with all his might upon the marble floor. That would put an end to the abomination!
Driven by rage and uncaring of the consequences for himself, Quen stepped towards the horrid idol, and at that very moment Tewa struck him from behind. Her padded grappling hook crashed against his skull and sent him spinning into dark unconsciousness.
Tewa stood above the senseless youth. The vas scent glands she had stolen from an apothecary earlier in the day and mixed with the oil smeared upon her body had fooled the beast, which relied more on its sense of smell than sight. It had been a horrible and terrifying experience when the guardian had nosed her trembling body with its cold, hard muzzle. But she had maintained her self control with an iron will and eventually it had wandered off, thinking the girl was a brother creature.
Quen moaned as the girl rolled him on his back and drew a dagger from her girdle. She pressed the blade to his throat, and then hesitated. Here was a hated priest whose pale skin was the mark of the dusky poor's oppressors. Why did she still her hand when she had every reason to slit his throat? Could it be that the faint resemblance to someone she felt she knew but couldn't quite place made her waver? But who could it be?
The girl firmed her resolve. Nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of her quest for vengeance. Her knuckles whitened on the dagger's hilt. Grim faced, she pressed it to the helpless youth's unresisting jugular; then cursed. She couldn't do it. With a muttered oath the girl tore strips from Quen's robe and then securely bound and gagged him with the sundered cloth.
Tewa, satisfied that her prisoner couldn't cause any trouble, swiftly climbed the stairs of the dais and approached the idol. The girl looked upon the Eye of Yethchal, and knew that the glittering jewel was something she had no compunctions about destroying, but how? The leaping tongues of fire were a burning barrier that blocked her upward climb towards the gem.
Then her observant gaze saw the lever beneath the cupped hands of the statue, and her sharp mind swiftly divined its purpose. The girl bent forward, slid the tiny rod to the right and grinned when the flame was extinguished. The room plunged into darkness.
Quen uttered a muffled curse and opened his eyes. Through the gloom he saw Tewa gingerly feel the idol's cupped hands. Finding the metal tolerably hot, she placed one foot in them. The youth watched the girl use the god's palms like a stepladder to raise herself up towards the eye. His dazed mind struggled to comprehend what was going on, the task made even more difficult by a splitting headache.
Tewa placed her other foot on the statue's forearm and rose higher, gripping one of the gilded flames on the idol's shoulder for extra support. Her head was now level with the Eye of Yethchal and the girl-thief examined the sparkling jewel with care. The crimson orb caught moonbeams slanting through a high window and glittered like the eye of a venomous serpent. It seemed to stare at her with malefic intensity, and she shuddered slightly.
Thoughts of her dead family drove out the girl's superstitious dread. She would avenge them by destroying the eye of the deity. The thought of the priesthood's consternation at the violation of their god brought a cruel smile to her lips and leant further strength to her resolve.
A circular band of filigree ran around the circumference of the glinting jewel, and it seemed to Tewa that the gem could be unscrewed from its setting. She placed her free hand upon the eye and twisted.
A mechanism behind the gem was activated. Plungers driven by powerful springs sent jets of black powder as fine as talc squirting in explosive puffs from tiny holes concealed within the ornamental band. The substance enveloped the startled girl's countenance in a cloud of ebon dust.
An alarm bell rang in clamorous warning as Tewa leapt from the idol. Dizziness struck her as her feet hit the floor. Quen saw her stagger; then fall upon the ground. The girl-thief tried to rise, to fight off the soporific drug. Her senses swam. She collapsed again with a sobbing curse. All her carefully laid plans had come to ruin. Her vision began to fade and the last thing she saw was a blurred glimpse of enraged priests bursting within the chamber and rushing towards her.
uen paced his monkish cell in a lather of indecision. He was safe from suspicion. His brother priests had believed his lie that he had come to pray before the god. Their attention was entirely focused on the girl and he shuddered at what he suspected would be her fate.
Should he try and save her? He touched the lump on his head where she had struck him and winced. Pain roused his anger and he swore in a most unholy manner. Still, she could have slit his throat but mercifully hadn't.
He thought again of the other girl who had died so horribly on the altar of the god. He'd done nothing to try and save her and guilt lay heavily upon him. He cursed again and chewed his lip. But what could one young novice do to thwart the nefarious plan of a dozen ruthless priests?
He paced the cell in muttering fury as his mind spun useless schemes. He had neither weapons nor skill to use them. He stopped his pacing and leaned heavily against the wall, sick with worry. No sounds of snoring came from the adjoining rooms -- all the priests had gathered to perform their brutal ceremony. There was no one to help him and the vas patrolled the temple compound so he couldn't leave to summon aid.
An idea burst within Quen's mind at this thought and he was suddenly transformed. He leapt away from the wall, no longer a vacillating novice but a man of action. Infused with dynamic purpose he sprinted from his cell and raced madly down the corridor determined to do what must be done.
He gained the entrance to the temple in record time. Quen grabbed the massive bolt that locked the door and threw his weight upon it, heaving strenuously. Usually it took two men to shift the bar, but now he alone must move it. His muscles bulged. His breath came in labored gasps as he struggled with all his might. The rod shifted. It moved a little more, and then slid free with a steely rasp.
Quen flung the portal wide and leaned upon it, swaying breathlessly as he gulped air into his heaving lungs. But he knew he dared not take too long to rest for the dark ritual would surely be commencing in but moments. Spurred by this thought he took a deep breath and uttered a long ululating cry of singular weirdness.
ewa struggled futilely against her bonds. The cold hard stone of the altar pressed against her back - stone as hard and chill as the eyes of Kadur, high priest of Yethchal who now gazed remorselessly upon her naked form.
"So, blasphemous whore", he hissed with all the vileness of a serpent. "You sought to steal the sacred eye, and thus profane Yethchal with your filthy touch! Repent of your foul crime before I commend you to the god's embrace, and he may show you mercy yet."
Wild fear tore through the girl like a flashing blade as she looked upon the harsh planes of Kadur's merciless visage. The man resembled a carrion bird with his narrow hairless head perched upon a scrawny wrinkled neck, and his huge nose, hooked with all the cruelty of a vicious beak. Whatever humanity he may have once possessed seemed to have been burnt away by the fires of unquenched fanaticism.
Tewa rallied her courage. She knew she was going to die, but was determined not to cower before this sadistic zealot if she could help it.
"Filthy murderer," she cried. "A curse upon you and your vile god", she yelled, and then spat full in Kadur's livid and boney face.
Howls of outrage erupted from the other priests that stood about the altar. The girl tensed as they stepped forward, clawing hands reaching for her like the talons of a raptor.
Kadur stopped them with a raised and trembling hand. The high priest's face was a twisted mask of utter wrath. His mouth opened and closed and spittle gathered at the corners of his narrow lips. He was inarticulate and trembling with burning rage and despite her earlier bravery the girl cringed as raw hared brought the evil in Kadur's soul upon his face for her to see in all its unrelieved diabolism.
A moment passed in tense silence as Kadur regained his self control. Slowly, his contorted features resumed their normal ugliness, and he spoke again in a voice as cold as ice and as hard as iron.
"For that insult you shall not die an easy death", he said as he drew a glittering blade from his robe. "I shall slice off your breasts first and burn them in the Scared Fame, then slowly slit you open from groin to navel and offer up your womanhood as a plaything for the god."
Tewa gasped in horror at his vile words then shrilly screamed as Kadur cruelly grasped her breast, and pressed his sacrificial knife against her trembling flesh.
he echoes of Quen's strange cry fluttered in the temple's courtyard as his gaze strove to pierce the blanketing shadows of overarching night. Eyes suddenly blazed like sulfurs lamps in the gloom -- glowing and malefic orbs that sent an icy shiver down the young man's spine.
The vas approached slowly in response to his challenging cry. They stalked forward, converging upon him, their sinuous forms vibrant with deadly menace. He could hear them now as they loomed in the darkness before him -- their feted breath hissing in and out of their dripping jaws like the rushing waves of a restless sea.
The sweat of naked fear lay heavily upon Quen as he backed away from the gaping door and again uttered the weird call. The vas increased their pace and sniffed the air. A breeze stirred in the darkness and carried the hated scent of man to their quivering nostrils. Like darts released from a crossbow, the savage beasts sprang forward in a loping run.
Quen fled as the vas shattered the night with their unnerving cries. Behind him he heard the clatter of their wicked claws upon the temple's marble floor. His heart pounded wildly with frenetic exertion. Terror leant wings to his feet as he sprinted madly for the locked doors on the inner sanctum.
The beasts gained upon him. Quen was certain he could feel their hot breath on the calves of his wildly flashing legs. He dared not look back. The door loomed before him. His face was a rigid mask of grim determination. If he failed … He shoved aside the thought and hurled his shoulder against the portal in a wild rush of bruising force.
The thin bolt snapped like a rotten twig under the impetus of his reckless charge. Kadur's head jerked around. His mouth gaped like a fish at the terrible vision his startled eyes beheld, and sudden fear pierced his vile heart. The wildly struggling girl was forgotten in the terror of the moment.
Quen burst into the room with a tide of hissing vas in his wake. Their dark bodies streamed into the chamber at his very heels as he charged madly towards the group of gawping priests.
With a wild cry, Quen bounded up the steps of the dais. Kadur cursed. In an instant he knew by the youth's murderous expression what had happened.
"Blasphemer! Apostate!" Kadur madly screamed as he struck viciously with his dagger. Quen caught the raging high priest's descending arm, and the blade quivered to a halt within inches of his throat. From the edge of vision the youth glimpsed a leaping form. He twisted Kadur with all his strength and the hurtling vas crashed upon the high priest's back.
Both men were hurled painfully against the altar. The beast's jaws clamped upon Kadur's head. Its wicked claws raked bloody furrows upon his body. Vas and screaming priest fell back and tumbled down the steps. Tewa screamed as another monster leapt. Quen ducked and the hissing fury hurtled above his head. It crashed against the idol and then slithered senseless to the floor.
The other shrieking priests tried to flee, only to be pulled down by leaping forms. Quen snatched up the fallen sacrificial knife. Sickening screams rent the air. Blood spurted in gory streams. Clerics died between slobbering jaws as he slashed the ropes that bound the struggling girl to the stone.
Tewa screamed again -- a leaping vas had landed on the altar and straddled her. She stared into its blazing eyes, wild with feral violence. The girl cried in terror as its slavering jaws whipped down to tear her throat apart. It seemed reality had become one endless nightmare.
Quen sprang forward and thrust his blade through a vicious and glaring eye. The vas screamed once; then tumbled lifeless to the floor. The other beasts, attracted by its death-cry, leapt towards the couple in a wild and overwhelming rush.
Quen seized Tewa and hauled her from the block. "This way", he cried as he dragged her behind the idol. The girl followed in a staggering run, trying to comprehend the swift and unexpected change of circumstances.
She glimpsed dark and loping bodies on every side, the flash of yellow eyes and gleam of fangs. The things were following in a maddened rush. A thick wall soared up behind the statue cutting off escape. Her heart quailed at the thought of being devoured alive. Then hope rose as her fear wide eyes fell upon the narrow door set in the stone.
Quen wrenched the portal open. A vas leapt, hissing furiously. He thrust Tewa in the closet and quickly followed. The vas crashed against the slamming door.
t was mid morning of the following day. Quen and Tewa stood at the rail of the Mawon as she sailed out upon Orophoran Sea. The ship's square sails, spread by battens, caught the stiff breeze whose windy currents sent her scudding across the glass smooth blueness with the grace of a floating cloud. From the vessel's high stern the couple gazed thoughtfully at Kalaye as the city of their birth shrunk steadily with growing distance.
Quen could take no pleasure from the beautiful vista, for the terror of the previous night still shadowed his mind. They had been trapped for hours in the cramped confines of the closet and its religious paraphernalia as the beasts scratched and bit at the thick timber of the door. At one stage Tewa had been certain that they were finished as the wood vibrated under the impact of heavy bodies. But the door held and eventually the creatures gave up and began to feed upon the bodies of the slain priests.
Tewa continued to hug Quen tightly as the terrible sound of the feeding frenzy broke upon their ears -- the crunching of bones and ripping of flesh, and the unnerving cries of the vas as they fought over the bloody scraps of their gruesome feast.
Quen tried to comfort the frightened girl as best he could by reassuring her with soothing words and massaging the tension from her back and shoulders. Gradually, his touch upon her naked body grew more daring, and by dawn they were no longer strangers to each other.
The vas, too, were completely sated by daybreak. The couple had cautiously emerged from their hiding place and found the temple deserted. The creatures had slunk away and now lay about the courtyard in a state of contented torpor as they digested their grisly meal, for their physiology was similar to that of reptiles.
After smashing the Eye of Yethchal to tinkling fragments with a well aimed candelabra, both had escaped the temple unmolested and with a small fortune in square gold coins from the shrine's treasury. A change of clothing stolen from a washing line had completed their disguise, and they had boarded the ship without incident.
The next ceremony was a day away and it would be then that the slaying of the priests and the profanation of the idol would be discovered, but by then they would be well clear of pursuit. Despite this, a shadow still hung upon the former acolyte.
The girl's voice broke in upon Quen's thoughts and brought him to the present with a jar.
"You've mixed feelings about leaving?" she observed.
"I'll never see my parents again", he sadly said. "Still, we have no choice considering what we've done, and I don't want to involve them in what has happened. But it will mean my father will have lost another son."
"How so?" she queried.
"My older brother is Manu," he replied. "He fled to Catan where we are bound."
Tewa's eyes widened. "Yes", she gasped. "I see the resemblance clearly now. That is what must have made me spare your life -- my high regard for Manu and your likeness to him."
Quen grinned, his dark mood broken. "For the first time in my life I'm glad of the resemblance."
The girl laughed pleasantly as she took his hand. "No more so than I."
They embraced. Then, after a time, both turned their backs on the fading shore and faced the risen sun whose halcyon light held the golden promise of a brighter future.