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.
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
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.
© 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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