Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Hallowed Walls

by Alana Boltz





Sometimes, in his eons-long slumber, he would dream about the light. It was always the same dream. It began with a fracture in the rock, gleaming faintly in the absolute darkness like a distant star. His old bones would twitch slightly, trying to escape their stone prison. The fracture spread. There were voices on the other side, but their language was one he had long forgotten. He stretched a little further, imagining the feeling of fresh air and sunshine, but he always stopped short. This was his asylum, and he was its dutiful guardian. The glow would wait for him a little while longer, but it always faded. He had lost his chance. He always did.

It was hard to remember anything from before his imprisonment. Abstractly, he was aware that sunlight and sky existed, but he couldn't recall seeing either. His memories truly began when, brick by brick, the light was shut out. It had not been done quickly. There was no reason for it. He had been chained to the wall with bands of unyielding bronze, in case his vows alone weren't strong enough. Music swelled from an unseen choir, accompanied by bells and booming drums. It was strange how well he remembered those sounds, even now, as if fear had engraved them on his heart just as his dedication had been engraved in cold marble. The brothers intoned the ceremony, chanting in monotone. With each refrain, a novice added another brick. One of them met his eye. The youth hesitated, his eyes black and unknowable. Then his features took on a less yielding cast. It was an expression he knew well. Men were always crueler when they knew they did the work of the gods. Without a word, the youth placed another brick into the newly laid mortar. All the while the drums pounded faster and faster. The sound of the choir turned harsh and shrill. And then at last, there was one final great boom that rattled the very foundations of the temple--

A muffled sound outside the walls roused him from this terrible memory. A roar like distant thunder shook the ground. It was a sound that frequently awakened him now. So far, the temple had remained untouched. This was a holy place, even if nothing was worshiped here now. It could not be breached easily.

The sounds of the earthquake faded away, replaced by voices too muffled to even begin to understand. They were not shouts of battle. Their tone was too easy for that. All of them sounded male. Their purpose he could only guess at. Soldiers, perhaps? Or perhaps even the descendants of the brothers, come to take their watch after such a long absence. It was a foolish hope, and he rejected it outright. He listened, uneasy. Each moment was paradoxically long, even to one who was so used to waiting.

At first, the sounds seemed random. The men stayed close to the top of the walls, going only a few feet before stopping again for a long time. The building must be half submerged in sand by now. They exchanged a few words. Something struck the wall with the muffled clang of metal. They lingered a few minutes longer then moved on again. But it happened a second time. Then a third. They always placed something in the wall where they weakened it. He heard it scraping up against the stone. Finally, they returned to where they had started. Footsteps receded until they were on the very edge of his hearing.

Silence.

Then, a sharp word of command.

The walls convulsed. He wanted to take cover, but his body could not obey. Massive objects fell to the earth on every side. And then, all was still. But no, that was not quite right. The once muffled voices rang out in distant cheers, growing closer as they did so. Something else had changed, too. High above, there was a glimmer of radiant light. He wondered at first how he could see it at all. His eyes had long since rotted away. But seeing wasn't the right word. He sensed it in the way one could sense being watched. Somewhere, still hidden by the darkness, his hand twitched.

What that always had inspired him now made him uneasy. His dreams of the outside world were mere abstractions. He hated being kept here alone, but this was the only home he remembered. Its confinement was familiar, and thus comforting. As he stared up at the light, he realized that it was not the tiny fracture he had imagined; it was only distance that made it seem that way. The outer wall must have been damaged. Beyond it, the sky was a shocking blue, unbelievably vivid against the shadows of the inner walls.

His hand twitched again, a little stronger this time. There must be something, some life still remaining in his ancient carcass. Concentrating as he had not done in untold eons, he made his hand curl slowly into a fist. Bony fingers scraped against each other with only a thin carapace of flesh to intervene. Somehow, they moved. He was still whole.

The opening above no longer looked narrow, but just the right size. And what about the manacles that held him here? They were still unyielding, but they had been made for a larger man, one still hindered by thick layers of flesh and muscle. His skin had contracted until it stretched taut over bone. Once he began his escape, nothing could hinder him. Even the men outside were hardly a concern. Their magic was slow and methodical. Not like he must be. Only one thing made him stay: His vows. The choice shouldn't have been difficult. There was nothing here but a shrine to long-departed gods. Beyond here was the sky and the freedom he had dreamed of for so long.

So why did he hesitate?

The voices returned to their place at the foot of the temple. Their ritual was the same, and its outcome clear. He needed to act soon. The next blast would bury him under the rubble. Then there would be no choice left. He stared at the opening. To even get there, he needed to scale the tight passageway between the double walls. After a quick prayer, he willed himself to move. A shudder rippled throughout his limbs as they awakened once more. He clambered up out of the bands, perching on the uppermost one like a falcon on its master's wrist. The gods were merciful.

He scraped his hand across the stone surface, looking for a place where it could find purchase. But there was no need for it. His soft fingertips had transformed into sharp, durable bone that could gouge handholds out of even solid rock. Instinctively, he scrambled up the wall like a spider until he reached a place just below the breach.

Sunlight streamed down into the gap. The vast sky stretched out above, empty other than a distant spirit whose path was marked by cloudy tracks. Voices floated up from the base of the wall. Some gave instructions, while several more continued the slow pilgrimage around the walls. Their voices were bright and young. Novices, perhaps.

The ritual had progressed since it first commenced. Two walls had been prepared for destruction. Now they were nearly done with the third. The wall below him. If he were to escape at last, now was the time. He crept closer to the breach, at last in the sunlight's domain. His long, clawed hands looked abhorrent under the light of day, but he was not afraid. The brothers said he would live again. They did not lie, it seemed.

Somewhere below, a man cried out in alarm. He had been found. Others took up the cry. The same word of command rang out, this time uncertain. Instinctively, he leapt clear of the opening as the wall behind him was struck by an invisible onslaught. For a moment there was nothing but thin, empty air. Then he landed, arms outstretched for balance as if he had done this a thousand times before. The outer walls were gone, and the inner temple half destroyed. Only shattered fragments of stone remained. A small band of men stood against him. They wore drab, short tunics and loose sleeves of fabric that covered each leg and joined in the middle. In their hands were strange black devices, with a grip at one end and a long hollow tube that he sensed hid something unpleasant in its maw. The men cried out in horror, turning the devices toward him. Insects flew past, so fast that he only felt their impact. Their bodies struck him hard, tearing through his shrunken frame. But that was all. His eyes met theirs silently as the dust stirred up by the insects dissipated. There was fear in their wide, dark eyes, but something else too. A resolute self-certainty, just like that young acolyte whose face was forever scarred into his memory. There was no decision here. He had vowed to defend this holy place. How could he have considered leaving it to fall to such heretics?

His desiccated flesh was already scarring over the wounds. Beneath them, broken bones shifted, resealing themselves with a faint crack. He was ready now. Those who defiled this temple could not go unpunished. But, for their sake, he hoped they would run.


THE END


2017 Alana Boltz

Bio: Ms. Boltz is a writer, librarian, and classical singer. She currently lives in Kentucky with her two cats.

E-mail: Alana Boltz

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