Idolatry in Zalahar

Fermín Moreno González

People say that Zalahar, the Forgotten amidst the dunes, Shahir Empire last embers, forgot for some time Yalaud's cult, favouring a new kinder-faced god.

Thus, Mnibo's acolytes entered Zalahar through the Merchant's Gate, among oxcarts loaded with the ice of the Oruma mountains, hawkers and healers, when the South road still existed, in the stormy season, water going through Oldulla and Betella's sandy courses, the uadi which encircled the town and hardly vanished three miles beyond, into the Thorny Desert.

Aldor the ceroferarius went in the temple, heading his doubtful paces towards the black obsidian altar and the tall lean figure, which wearing the holy mitre always gave the impression of being talking with the god Yalaud, in an ominous silence for whoever present. Despite the trained cautiousness of his feet, whose lack was the reason for many novice applicant's expulsion, and his padded dromedaryskin sandals, Arunt the priest had noticed him; without turning back, he descended the worn down flight of steps bowing down before the crude stone idol which symbolized Zalahar's god. Only then he faced his intimidated disciple. His grey pupils sheltered below ignorant of storm desert-coloured dense eyebrows looked at him with grim expectancy, and Aldor found it easier strangely to say what he had to say:

"The heretics have taken away the virgins to their new dwelling in the Slave's Stable, by people's consent. There —there will be no sacrifice to Yalaud the next waning moon, oh Yalaud's high servant."

Arun's face didn't betray his thoughts, as an old roving fighter taking a punch before his spectators. The fibrous sinews of his lean neck and his masticatory muscles stood in an iron calm. He said naught. Only the corner of his mouth seemed to shape an imperceptible grimace of fox-like smile briefly. He knew the fennec god whom he served well; and knew what his answer was going to be.

The rainy season died as abruptly as it was born, and the scarce gardens to the East were not flooded this time with Oldulla and Betella's accustomed overflowing. The greens withered, and the date palms denied its opulent fruit, without, Aldor noticed, that seeming to disturb too much Zalahar's denizens.

"My sweet Yoruna is the most beautiful of all. I tell you she will be chosen by Mnibo as one of his priestesses. You ought to have seen her last night in Prodigies' Temple, Aldor, my boy. She was weaving purest gold threaded fine brocades, as ever she made with the coarse wool of my herd. Thanks to Mnibo's efforts, undoubtedly," Melbos concluded, while he was gnawing the waste core of a clingstone fruit enthusiastically.

The young Aldor concealed his surprise by keeping silent before answering his uncle. He was fond of his cousin the same as he recognized both the sparingness of her charms and her scanty handiness. She wouldn't be able to open an ostrich egg without breaking the yolk, her neighbours said in an undertone as slyly as rightly.

"Each new moon we are going to honour Mnibo's advent to Zalahar with a feast in the large garden of the temple. You can come as well, their priest are magnanimous."

Aldor nodded unenthusiastically and left Melbo's home upset, the not framed question tasting bitter his tongue as a poisoned wine. The usual odour of smoked meat pervading all the abode had disappeared, together with good part of the content of the veined glassy jars, of which his uncle was proud, which presided the room.

At sunset, Aldor stopped his prayers and went out of his novice cubicle, scratched in the very stone of Yalaud's temple by dim prehuman hands and set out for the Slave's Stable, in the recondite Zalahar the Desert Pearl's inside, through twisted alleys a crucified highwayman wide, wherein perpetual shadows' manure begat patient killers and perverse secret meetings. He was grappling strongly between both his hands his worship dun biretta, staving off any encounter, ready for showing it. No normal thief would disturb a Yalaud's disciple's plots, but those were weird times. Times of paganism and conflict. And he wasn't a youth particularly hefty.

His prayers stopped once arrived at the town's main square, at the same time as his surprise sprouted. Making his way through the throng, he approached the vanished Slave's Stable's location. Wherein the old coarse ashlar stone dais had been, accesible only from the rear stairs, the so-called Bid's Place, the new God Mnibo the lavish's magnificent effigy stood up proud now. Its gold-skinned body, that of a ripe warrior with his sword sheathed four man's size irradiated the might of a wise emperor, and his hamadryas silvery temples canine face smiled affable before future years of prosperity. By its right side an immense three-storey spring poured out generously its limpid water over the Merania's grained marble, wherein first the platform for execution of runaway or too haughty slaves had been, to which the inhabitants of Zalahar referred as the Chopping-Block Place. In a city so sparing in water supplies, the fountain caught the eye as much as the god's statue, and the water-diviners bowed ashamed. Crossing the long corridor sumptuously carpeted with an intricate tapestry a lifetime worth, flanked by greening flower beds of never seen blooms, Aldor followed the crowd as far as the former Slave's Stable's gate, before a low structure of level roof and semisubterranean cells, and now a vaulted temple of marmoreal and purest whiteness, shining brilliantly under the desert sun, opened to worship. The vast inner chamber of the recitation-place, open to starlight exhibited the Zalahar's nubile maids, arrayed in finest silken laces which turned their movements as graceful as a dune gazelle's, while playing zithers, harps and lutes around a table of veined alabaster which seemed to hold enough food to furnish the entire town for several weeks. The idolatrous Zalahar's offering to the new god. The Mnibo's immaculate white-robed officiants showed themselves to be friendly. Aldor left unwillingly, mumbling inwardly. Yalaud could not compete with that. Perhaps the time had come to wonder wether his devoutness made him worthy of the fennec god.

Arun did not turn a hair on hearing his apprentice's ill-fated news. Nor he did when two moons later scrawny raving-eyed spectres started to turn the town upside-down in search of foods for their heretical worship. They looted the dwellings of the first dead, placed traps using his days ago neighbour's flesh to get hold of gerbils and poisonous snake tongue lizards, and excavated like possessed in broad daylight to disinter even the last toad and lungfish out of its viscous seclusion. He and Aldor stood in the cool galleries of the sanctuary. It was said Yalaud's priests owned dreadful defence mechanisms against the desecrators, of which Aldor knew naught. Somehow, the famished puppets kept their distance from the temple. Anyway, he did know about the existence of the underground chamber below the altar, of which the entry had been revealed to him by Arun once the mandatory seven nights and days fast passed. Arun had descended with him to guide him with a rope through a crossroads labyrinth in the darkest obscurity, walking with steadfast paces, amidst weird echoes like hissings until both came to a low ceiling roof, where by candlelight lighted by Arun as if by magic, the apprentice could see the fungi and the scum which grew clustered near a dripping thin trickle of water

They ate fungi and drank frugally from the water of the cave for one, two weeks, and Arun kept on celebrating his solitary divine service as if nothing were happening, impassive in the face of both the shrieks coming from the outside and the sacrilegious litanies which the wind seemed to carry from Mnibo's distant temple. When Aldor was on the point of maddening of terror and cloistering, Arun talked to him close to the sacrificial altar stone:

"Thou wilt go with the full moon to be witness of the apostates' celebration in their enclosure. Thou wilt be my eyes and my ears."

The initial rebelliousness withered as soon as a desert flower, but fear was still there, gripping the apprentice.

"I— I don't— what can I do? How can I reach to there? The— they are prowling round the whole Zalahar. I have seen them through the thick bars above. They will catch me!"

Arun stretched out unhurriedly his rawboned hand toward the salver of Immolation wherein the Claw, the coarse four points knife seemed to yearn for the olde-worlde hearts. With a seasoned gesture, he exposed to view Aldor's chest, who jumped, and carved in his left side four deep marks which immediatly bled profusely, soaking the rough weave of his robe.

"Yalaud is with thee. Here thou art, thou wilt have to carry this," the priest said, almost chanting his words, and handing the most valuable relic of the temple to Aldor.

Aldor seized with both fearful hands Yalaud's Fang, an enormous yellowish tusk which a translucent rock crystal box contained, and sensed an unwonted tingling in his recent wounds. The pain seemed not to cease, but to be in suspense, as though it awaited a new receiver. He set off with the night.

The darkness stank of execrable smelliness. Zalahar was a vigorous corpse, and their deceived dwellers the fleshworms. At that nightfall, after swarming in the dusty alleys in search of offerings, they were heading for Mnibo's temple with their tottering steps. They didn't look at Aldor. It was as if he wasn't there. In their extenuated visage shone an expression of childlike and demented joy, perhaps father's that comes to pay visit to his young and well-cared daughter. On turning a bend he came across the spectre of his uncle Melbos. His former belly had allowed him to survive, changed into prominent ribs and checkbones as sharp as a spur. The most vivid fright made the box fall from his hands. Mnibo's serfs closer to him turned brusquely their necks in an unnaturally wide shake, uttering horrid hungry howls and made their way with their drunk gait to him. Melbos hurled himself at him, grasped him sticking his cutting nails into his nephew's neck, and held his grasp until Aldor, crawling over the ground, could recover Yalaud's Fang. Melbos fell back then, hissing and hitting with his paws at the cold nightly air, and presently renewed his way to the temple beside the others.

As they came near the temple, the alleys looked more and more crammed with dazzled pilgrims. Aldor was seizing the box in such a frantic way that his fingers of whitish knuckles got numb. Ignoring his nausea, he bound himself to mingle with the insane mob. Soon the impious sanctuary of the baboon god was within sight, its white dome glaring haughty beneath the full moon. To his amazement, the profane litanies which had heard in his haven together with Arun had turned into a melody of caressing songs and harmonious notes when he had scarcely abandoned it.

Aldor went again near both Mnibo's imposing statue and the prodigious fountain, and crossed amid the skinny retinue through the corridor of adorned flooring, until he transposed the threshold of the church. In the recitation-place, over the mass altar, Mnibo's High Acolyte, flanked by the other brethren was chanting lovely words which spoke of friendship and love, and of the contentment Mnibo the lavish found in his sons. The maids were playing a harmonious tune, singing in a captivating voice, and dancing a dance of sensual innocence. Between the altar and the congregants of deep-set eye sockets was set an immense unusually beautiful reddish wooden table, exquisitely served. Some men and women approached it to give that which they had got to a diligent girl —several scorpions, two desert wasps' nests and a swollen rat.

Aldor was wondering whether he might eventually eat something substantial sitting at such a refined table amidst of silvered olive-oil dishes and cutlery when a squall of sudden pain transfixed his body making it bend. For an instant he heard the horrific din of a thousand voices, distinct but still the same as his priest's thundering Yalaud's prayer. Nobody else among those present seemed to hear that inhuman yell. When it was over, and while Aldor was struggling to stand up on his knee he sensed something which made his entire down curl.

He was hearing once more the monotonous cracked-voiced profane litanies, lifeless as a moribund one's. Presently a low buzz raised within the congregation. They were hearing it as well. It hushed completely the High Acolyte's words, and the very melody of the virgins.

Scarcely had he stood up a second numbing surge of agony made Aldor drop. His whole being was tingling as if tortured by the hangman's iron. Through a blinding eldritch mist he looked at Yalaud's high servant beside the altar stone of litatio. Then the vision vanished together with the piercing suffering, as well as both Mnibo's majestic sanctuary and his affable generosity, giving place to a scene of Dantesque and sacrilegious depravation which was happening in the Slave's Stable's ground yard.

The girls were in truth half-naked, unarmed slaves of Mnibo's minions' vilest keen desires, crawling creatures of loathsome semihuman appearance which clustered together round a rotten food mountain upon the worm-eaten scaffold of executions. Almost all the maids were languid sickly skeletons; a few had been cruelly fattened until they burst and left there squashed; on the altar the High Acolyte was drooling his litany while he crammed putrid food into a tied young lady's mouth with dilated eyes and grey-haired of horror whom in unison another of those deformities was raping with raging morbidity. Another one of the girls, her tears dead weeks back, had been buried up to her neck into the pile of maggoty provisions to the monstrous diner's delight which echoed the inhuman canticle of their leader. All the virgins of Zalahar had gone through the flagellation stake, and so through tortures the human being shouldn't even be able to glimpse in his most maddened dreams.

The cadaverous denizens witnessed together with Aldor that demonic frenzy, and an unquenchable anger burned their emaciated bodies up even more. There were those who died on the spot from sheer terror, there were those who surged forward at the food heap, converted into an irreversible animality, and who later would die of the mere surfeit, but the majority pounced on both altar and platform, to apprehend the devils alive. They had won a slow death. Despite townsmen's faintness, Mnibo's acolytes, wanting in superhuman strength, were cornered and rammed down by the madness-driven throng.

Aldor got back on the way to Yalaud's temple in order to give the good piece of news to Arun. He traversed the gap between the Stable and the Bid's Place. Upon the stony platform was erect a mocking figurine, a baboon of coarse terracotta showing off its genitals. He climbed on to the dais and once he seized the infesting idol he smashed it with a stamp against the rocks. There were only one God in Zalahar.

On the right of the tier it would be heard again the agony of the flayings from the Chopping-Block Place when the day arrived

Right away the darkness fell, and Aldor looked up towards the sky. Storm clouds were clouding it over, hiding the moon. He sniffed in ecstasies the promise of rain. How vast and powerful Yalaud's veiled influence was.

The sanctuary reached, he went down humbly and softly the doorway steps, until a smell which conjured up past times to him made him stop before reaching the space which preceded the altar. In the oscillating torchlight he could make out something upon the salver of Immolation. On the altar, the stately figure wearing a sacred mitre was worshiping his god. As usual, the priest sensed his disciple; without turning back, he descended the steps, bowing down before the Zalahar's god's effigy. Only then he faced his agitated disciple. Dried off uadi of blood were flowing both from below his eyebrows and his ears soaking his rough ceremonial robe. His lips were drawing a hardly perceptible fox-like smile.

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