Hollowed Memories, chapter 7, part 6

February 8, 2015

With a few clunky steps, Yarec emerged onto the metal landing.  “Hello,” he called out.  “Is someone down there?”  He cast his bobbing beam of light down the descending line of the staircase.

There was a clatter and then furious shouts.  “Who’s there?” said a male voice, above the rumble of other voices.  A lank figure stepped into the spot of Yarec’s beam.  A long metal barrel was pointed up at Yarec, and a fulgent blue beam shot up toward Yarec’s face, so that he cast a sharp shadow across the open tunnel mouth.  “Who’s there?” the man with the gun repeated.

“Ho!” Yarec said loudly.  “I don’t mean any harm.”  He raised both arms over his head, so that his wrist light danced across the lumpy wet ceiling.  “There’ve been rumors about people living in here.  I’m just here to check it out.”  He took a single slow step down the staircase.  “I’m coming down,” he shouted.  The man at the bottom, back in shadow now that Yarec’s beam had been turned away, took a small step back himself, but he did not say anything or motion for Yarec to halt.  The other inhabitants, including whoever was holding the stout LED spotlight, which tracked Yarec as he began to descend, remained still and silent further back.  Yarec moved down another step and then another.  Each footfall clattered like the sound of the clapper in a rusty iron bell.

He had left most of his gear behind—waterproof yellow bag laid away in an isolated corner.  However, the xaser was slung across his back, anchored with snap-away straps.  He could flip his arm back and bring the whole weapon to bear in a single motion.

With each step Yarec took, the man at the bottom, who was following Yarec’s descent with the bore of his rifle, took a smaller step backwards.  By the time Yare had reached the floor of the vast chamber, the gunman had backed five or six meters away.  The bottom step ended with a angled mass of flowstone, like a slippery slide that carried Yarec’s booted feet down the last twenty centimeters to the floor.  Yarec’s legs wobbled a bit as he bumped down the short slope, since he did not want to look down at his feet; to do so would mean breaking his tenuous eye contact with the tall fellow covering him.  As he descended, Yarec had maintained a practiced expression—serious, but with just a tiny curl of a smile on one side of his mouth, which human interaction specialists had determined made him look least threatening.  Now, he let his grin grow more pronounced as he addressed the five figures hovering in the shadows before him.

“I just came in here to see what was going on,” Yarec said, putting on his best country bonhomie.  “You can’t be too careful, you know.  But you lot don’t look like bandits to me.”

“Damn right we’re not bandits,” said the man holding the rifle, which was now leveled at Yarec’s neck.  “Damn right.”  A couple of the others murmured in the back.  The tone suggested that they were expressing similar sentiments, but again Yarec could not make out the words.

“I’m just glad that’s sorted out then,” Yarec said, now beaming broadly.  He paused, inhaled, then added, “And I’m sorry to have disturbed you.  I won’t take up any more of your time.”

“Get out of here then,” said the spokesman with the gun, gesturing with it forcefully.  “Leave us to worship in peace.”  However, Yarec did not yet turn to go.  The word “worship” interested him.  He also sensed, correctly, that not everyone present was satisfied that this encounter was over.

“No.  Kill him.  He will betray us,” said the woman standing by the elongated box.  She had halfway turned and was gazing at Yarec now over her bony left shoulder.  One of the inhabitants’ several small lights that had been, up to that point, trained exclusively on Yarec turned to illuminate her.  She had frayed, graying hair and large gray-flecked eyes.  The hair was tousled, and she looked to Yarec like one of the classic images of a prophetess.  If this was a religious cult, she was one of its wise women—not the serene, perfectly coiffured sibyl from a high-columned temple, but a seeress who had been touched by the spirits after a long wandering in the wild.

“This intruder will betray us,” she reiterated, and the other four worshippers looked afraid to disagree.  Her voice was not loud or overwhelmed with emotion, but it still had the tone of command.  “Remember all the others.  They challenged us before we found security here.  They wanted to stop us, so they needed to be dealt with.”  Her companions shifted uncomfortably, clearly not prepared for a peremptory execution.

After chewing his hairy lip for a few seconds, one of the men spoke up.  “Catleen, let’s not get hasty,” he said timidly.  His eyes flicked back and forth between Yarec’s hard frame and his own booted feet.  He did not look at Catleen, but she was glaring at him out of the corner of her eye.

“Look, I don’t mean to cause any trouble,” Yarec began, but several voices burst in to interrupt him.

“Let him decide,” said a heftier man.

“Give him a chance,” said the second woman, who looked younger than Catleen and less worn down by the world.

“Yeah, he might be a convert,” said the third man, somewhere in the back.

“He won’t understand.  I think we should kill him and have done,” Catleen said, but her tone had changed.  She sighed and added, “You should do as I say.”

In the opaque darkness, with a brilliant blue beam shining right in his face, Yarec could not really read any of the faces except Catleen’s.  The neural circuitry of his eyes had been modified, to enhance his visual acuity in extreme conditions—when the light was nearly nonexistent or when it was overpowering.  However, there were still limits to the power of his carefully engineered cones.

Someone mumbled something, but it was either in a language Yarec did not know, or the accent was suddenly too unusual for him to make it out.  Other heads nodded in assent, and the man holding the gun said, “This way, stranger.”  He jerked the barrel to the side, indicating the direction.

Yarec hesitated, and the graying woman glared at him.  Her face, illuminated from below, seemed almost to have a cold, silver-blue glow of its own.  “Will you join us?” she asked, with more than a touch of a sneer in her voice.

“Move stranger,” ordered the man with the weapon.  “You only get one chance.”

None of the people before Yarec looked like hardened fighters.  I could probably kill them all, right now, Yarec thought, but he did not reach for the xaser yet.  He nodded slowly and, with no sudden movements, began walking in the direction the man had indicated.  The floor here, in the midst of the group’s encampment, had been cleared of standing water to the extent that was possible.  However, it was still slick with condensation and fresh drippage.  Yarec’s heavy tread splashed noisily as he crossed ten meters from the base of the staircase to the foot of the container.

Catleen was still standing at the other end of the box, and two of the others padded up to stand along the sides.  Someone began to hum—a low, throaty noise that seemed to echo ominously even in the dank air.  “Open it,” Catleen said.  She pounded her fists on the coffin-like box.  “Open the vessel.”

The box opened silently, without even a whisper from the perfectly formed hinges, and Yarec saw that its oblong shape had not deceived him.  It was indeed a coffin.  Opening the lid revealed a corpse, unlike any Yarec had ever seen.  It was bipedal, clearly of human stock, but it had been bred or altered into a form that was obviously foreign to nature.

The naked male body was dessicated—sapped of useful fluids, probably by the very people who had created it.  In fact, it might have been specifically grown as a farm for some particular class of organic compounds.  The dry skin was stretched taut, which made the legs look even more warped and malformed than they would have been in life.  They were short, narrow at the ankles and probably insufficient to carry the poor man’s weight.  If he could walk at all, it would have only been with a rough stagger.  The corpse’s torso was hairy, tufted with black curls, but the hair could not conceal the massive, corded pectoral muscles that bulged beneath the tightly drawn hide.  The head was swollen up on either side, with mottled growths like twisted horns, framing a face that was almost normal, although fixed in a rigid mask baring stubby teeth.

Yarec gasped, wondering what life could have been like for this sorry fellow.  For a being grown in such an unnatural shape, had existence itself been a source of pain?  Everything he saw was wrong.  Yet somehow he recognized this corpse.  It was an atavism, from a time before reason and technology.  Punisher of oathbreakers, wild man of the countryside, he had returned—and died.  The ancient name came to Yarec from some recess of memory.  “Orcus,” he whispered.

“We found this god at the side of the river,” Catleen said.  “He was dead, so we brought him here to be buried.”  The humming died away.  “But I decided to wait for him to rise again.”

I don’t think that’s going to happen, Yarec thought, but he did not think these worshippers would appreciate the irreverence.

“Will you stay with us now?” said one of the men.  There was an earnestness in his voice that made Yarec uncomfortable.  All the faces around him, except for Catleen’s, looked eerily similar now.  Their gazes were tipped downward, and their eyes were wide with empty adoration.  Yarec decided he had only a few seconds to decide what to do, and he was obviously not planning to spend an eternity waiting for this stale carcass to reanimate.

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