The Temple of the Ophiotheos

Simon Whitechapel

The Temple of the Snake-God was the oldest in the whole of the city of Yihh. In the tales of the sect to whose ceremonial and worship it was dedicated, its foundation coincided almost with the creation of the Universe; proof of this claim was adduced to the incredulous in the form of an irregular stump of ancient rock, scarred and pitted, that projected from the surface of the great altar of the fane and was said to be the apex of a column, sunken mostly from sight by the progression of the centuries, that had formed the spindle on which the God of the sect, the world-devouring serpent Sissessusso, had spun creation from the froth of Its own venom and blood. The other sects of the city held this cosmogony in contempt, which was sharpened by the knowledge of the former size and power of the Snake-God's sect, in the days before the stern and life-denying doctrines of the followers of the Thorn-God had established such sway over the hearts of the powerful of Yihh.

In these latter days, indeed, so shrunken was the congregation of the Snake-God that hitherto unlooked for economies were forced on the Temple officers, and the very fabric of the Temple began to give evidence of neglect and misrepair. Twice, during the minor earthquakes that invariably accompany the first days of spring in the city, massy fragments of marble were dislodged from the ceiling of the place, twice falling amongst worshippers and twice claiming limbs and lives. Rumours of the Temple's impending dissolution through imperial edict waxed within the city, and the cold and cynical eyes of the priests of the Thorn-God turned ever more frequently from their nightly astrometries, high in the steepled towers of their own great Temple, to contemplation of the ancient Temple of their co-sect, which rose, huge and awesome still, like a great vessel of marble stranded by the long-since ebbing of a universal sea, across the silver lane of the river Isth. A scheme of destruction was decided upon, and a little of the vast sea of gold with which the priests of the Thorn-God were wont to lubricate the workings of their nefarities was run to the purchase of the expert knowledge of an architect from the far southern city of Laphthe, who, coached in certain necessities, and cloaked and hooded, spent a day in ostensible worship within the Temple of the Snake-God and a day examining from suitable vantage points the exterior of the place.

Thereafter, there remained only the selection, first of a volunteer from the ranks of the acolytes of the Temple of the Thorn-hhGod, and second, of a day suitable for the deed. The first: Hiots-hhFaalh; the second, the middle day of the Festival of the Extinction of the Flame of the Eastern Firmament, the third-most sacred festival in the calendar of the sect marked for destruction. So, on the day, by the dead of night, Hiots-Faalh, cloaked and hooded, guided a small coracle of crocodile skin to the base of the rear wall of the Temple of the Snake-God, which abutted onto the bank of the river Isth. Here, set into the lower part of the wall, was to be found the opening of a small cloaca through which the the refuse of the Temple was discharged, the cleanlier amongst which refuse being the remains of hieratic meals and, on the ending of the third day of their lying before the great statue of the Snake-God, of the sacrifices made within the Temple. Hiots-Faalh, whose fitness for the task before him was to be found mostly in his extreme leanness, lifted himself carefully in the coracle and reached his hands over the lip of the cloaca. With a muttered request for strength, he hauled himself from the boat and wriggled into the opening, dragging after him on a short length of rope a heavily-wrapped bundle. Having passed the lip of the cloaca, he was forced to squeeze himself along its throat, which ran not on the level, but upwards at an angle. The walls of the place were coated with a thick and evil-smelling slime, and his fingers and bare toes, though they had been heavily dusted in anticipation of this circumstance with chalk, barely found and hardily retained the joins and flaws of the masonry by which he hauled and thrust himself higher. At length, however, he made the upper mouth, and slipped with relief into the chamber from which the priests of the Temple discharged their refuse into the cloaca.

Here, in the darkness, he listened, barely breathing, for some minutes. Satisfied at length that there were no priests of the Snake-God nearby, he unwrapped the bundle and produced a small crystal that glowed with a sere yellow light, dim, but sufficient for his purposes. He was aware that the slime with which he was coated would mark him out at great distances, and so he stripped off his upper garments and the outer wrappings and haul-rope of the bundle he had brought with him. These he consigned to the river. From the bundle he then took a gourd of water and a cloth, with which he cleansed his hands, feet, face and the shaven dome of his skull of their share of the filth. Gourd and cloth followed clothes and bundle-wrappings into the river, and taking the bundle under his arm, he crept from the chamber up the stair that led to the upper levels of the Temple, masking the glow of the crystal in clenched fingers.

The stair let onto a long corridor, branching left and right. He paused, listening, then slipped out and hurried silently to the left. The darkness was nearly absolute, and he stooped occasionally to spill the light of the crystal onto the floor of the corridor, anxious lest his feet should encounter some unexpected obstacle, and the noise of his tripping or falling advertise his presence in the Temple. But the light of the crystal revealed nothing more than dust — thick, it is true, but no danger to the padding passage of his bare feet — and he gained the great central hall of the Temple uneventfully enough. Lamps were lit, and priests performing minor ceremonies prescribed for the hours of darkness within the sect's fantastically complicated liturgy were visible here and there in the vastness of the hall. They were few in number however, and Hiots-hhFaalh felt sure that they would grow fewer with the passage of time, for this sect had not the great liking of his own for the manipulation of the dark energies set flowing within the worlds by the setting of the sun: such ceremonial as he could see seemed more apotrapaic in nature than conjurative. He slipped into the cover of an alcove containing a cunningly realized statue of a heroically muscular youth in the act of transmogrifying into a snake, or perhaps vice versa: an episode, though he knew it not, from the seventh incarnation of the Snake-God. Here he remained crouched for nearly an hour, while the hall gradually emptied of worshippers, the last — and Hiots-Faalh smiled to see it — trimming the wicks of the lamps in the hall to the lowest level consistent with their remaining alight.

Alone at last, he slipped forth from hiding and crept down the hall in the deepest shadow to the foot of the great statue of the Snake-God that stood at the far end of the hall. The statue itself stretched nearly to the roof of the Temple — the height, perhaps, of twenty or thirty men: a cobra, hood inflated with rage, rearing to strike a blow that would fall, it was said, when the marble of the statue quickened to praeternatural life with the threat of destruction to the Temple. To Hiots-Faalh, busying himself, crouched and hidden in the shadow at the rear of the statue, with the loosening of the thongs that bound the instruments of that destruction, this was a superstition worthy merely of contempt. From the bundle he took one by one tools of new bronze, smeared lightly with oil that dulled their fresh-forged brightness against the chance glance of a hieratic eye, and phials of liquid, which he laid in careful order close to hand.

He took up an adze, and a mallet, swathing the head of the latter in a soft cloth of beaten thorahh-bark. Then he set to work on the marble of the statue, slowly, with great care, stopping frequently to judge the accuracy of his work. Despite his slowth, he progressed well, for the tools were of the very best manufacture, and many spells of hardening had been cast upon them. Shortly he was sprinkling the contents of a phial into the hole he had cut; thereafter, the work went even better, for the liquid rendered the marble brittle almost as sandstone or pumice. His only fear now was the noise he making, gentle though this was, and he paused occasionally to strain his ears into the darkness and silence around him. Finally he sprinkled into the hole pinches of a sharp-smelling fulvous powder, and readied himself for the second stage of the sabotage.

Having judged the difficulties of the ascent for a long minute, head lifted slowly from the base of the statue to the great arrow-hhshaped snake's head many, many bweoph above, he climbed into the coil of the snake's lower body, and began to swarm his way up the upreared upper two-thirds, his tools now resting in a wide sash at his waist. Half-way up the statue, he hammered out another hole in the marble, into which he tipped a further phial of fluid. With a muttered couplet of thanksgiving, he climbed down and readied himself for escape. If his work were true, in an hour, or a little more or less, the fluid high up the statue would eat its way through the marble to the base, combine with the fulvous powder, and be woken to furious, mordant life. Then, as the hour of midnight approached, the great hall of the fane would be crowded -- a little thinly, perhaps, by comparison with by-gone years — with the congregation of the Snake-God, laity and clergy gathered for celebration of the middle day of the Festival of the Extinction of the Eastern Flame. The statue, huge as a dozen of the very tallest, heaviest trees, would topple. Many, many would die merely at the toppling, but if his work were true — and he felt sure it was — the statue would fall not along the hall, but across it, striking the eastern wall of the Temple at a point fixed upon by the architect of the south as vital to the fabric of the place. A blow here, firm enough, would shiver half the Temple to fragments in instants: Death would thunder and crash in the hall to satiety of even His vast and unearthly appetite.

Hiots-Faalh gathered his tools and the empty phials and stowed them again in his bundle. Swiftly, silently, he slipped from the the statue and found his way to the door and the corridor and the lip of the stair. Here, warned by some presentiment of danger, he paused, listening.


He padded down the stair, following his nose to the stench of the cloaca. Then suddenly, beneath the stench, he caught the taint of hot metal, and he realized that somewhere in the darkness of this lower chamber there was a hooded lamp. He dove forward, desperate for the lip of the cloaca; hands were suddenly on him from the darkness, and there was a click and light flooded the place, to reveal half-a-dozen priests of the Snake-God upon him. They had not expected his sudden movement, and he half-made the cloaca's miasmic mouth before the hands were dragging him back. He jerked forward, and managed to consign -- a muscle tore somewhere in his back — the bundle to the cloaca's darkness. It slid forward and an instant later there came its splash in the river.

A hand fastened cruelly in his hair and his face was forced back. The lamp was carried forward to illuminate his features.

"Aye, aye," said a voice. "One of the Thorn-Lord scum."

"Question him."

"Sir, your purpose here?"

He said nothing.

"Sir, your silence distresses me. It shall shortly distress you beside. I must press you. Your purpose here?"

He said nothing. His interrogator beckoned to the holder of the lamp.

"Acquaint him with the lamp."

He could move no more than feebly: four pairs of hands clutched him. The metal lamp was brought near to his face and held. Its heat dried the sweat on his skin.

"Sir, your purpose here?"

He drew a fold of lip within his mouth and bit down on it. A bright line of blood ran suddenly down his chin.

"Burn him."

The metal of the lamp kissed his skin. He did not shriek but his back bent like the crescent of the moon, and had not the hands on him been very strong, he would surely have broken free of them. The lamp was taken away.

"Oh, so you are a silent one. Well, there are fuller tortures than this. Come, come with me up the stair."

He was carried back up the stair. He closed his eyes with a prayer to the Thorn-God. Oblivion was given him.

He awoke first to pain, and then to darkness. He was naked, lying face-down on cold stone. The side of his face burnt by the lamp was swollen and throbbing, and his left foot burned and tingled with a fierce urtication. He guessed that they had tried to recall him to consciousness for a continuation of the interrogation, but had failed. Or given up.

Puzzling, he sat up, feeling his foot. Where his fingers touched it, they too began to tingle and burn, and he withdrew them quickly, wiping them free of the poison with which his foot had been laced on the stone floor on which he was sitting. Where was he? He tried to stand and failed. He listened, hard.


Then, from above him, a sudden faint upraising of voices in austere harmony. Many voices, far above. The approach of the Festival had interrupted — nay, postponed — his torture. He was beneath the Temple, secure in some cell while the Festival proceeded above him. Secure until he was sought for. And yet, he never would be, for in the base of the statue even now, a modrant fluid ate its way towards fiery awakening. Unless his purpose had been uncovered. Then why leave him here, alive? He clicked his tongue, listening to the echoes of the place in which he found himself. Twice more and he judged it long, high-ceilinged. Him at one end.

He began to grope his way forward. As he did so, he heard from the far end of the chamber a faint sussuration, a stirring, thin, faint rasping as of rough scales on stone. The pain of his cheek and foot were lost suddenly in an ecstacy of terror. They had discovered his purpose, and had placed him in a chamber of execution. Some hidden, silent listener had noted his awakening and released into the chamber the instrument of his destruction. His fears pierced the darkness and he saw sliding smoothly towards him across the floor of the chamber a tide of life.

He found his feet and scrabbled at the wall behind him. Smooth, flawless stone. The pain in his foot was too great; he collapsed, weeping almost in the extremity of his terror. In moments they would reach him. His flesh shuddered and crawled. He sprawled and slid to a corner and clutched his knees to his chest. Death in many forms he saw as a gift; death received in the service of his pale master a blessing: but death in this form was a terror beyond his awfullest imaginings, for his soul, lunatic at the manner of its departure, would flee beyond the protection of the Thorn-God, and forever wander the freezing darkness of the outermost limits of Hell.

And yet the moments were stretching very long, and his ears, straining into the darkness, told him that the passage of the snakes had advanced no more than a third of the way towards him. Suddenly, there was a smooth thump, and his heart twisted within him with hope. He slid forward from the corner, hands spread and searching before him. Yes, yes! His fingers met a sudden edge, and dipped down into nothingness. He slid to a wall and back, back, sobbing with relief to a far corner. Across the centre of the chamber there stretched a deep trench, into which, even as the relief of this knowledge sweetened and slowed the racing of his heart, another snake slid with a thump. He crouched in the wall, weeping for joy. A third, fourth snake slid into the trench. They sought him, he knew, milling on the floor of the trenching, crossing and criss-crossing the stone, raising their heads and trilling the loathsome silence of their tongues, but he was safe.

As he thought this, there came from above a crash, huge as thunder, and the chamber, deep as it was, shook and trembled around him. The statue had fallen, and yes, from the deep rumble that cloaked the echoes of its fall, the Temple fell upon and around its ruin. He was doomed to a death by starvation, and met the prospect lightly, in face of the death he had waited a minute before.

Some time after the statue's fall, blood began to trickle into the chamber. He thought at first it was water, a storage tank broken above in the ruin of the Temple, but the smell was of blood, and it fell thickly and heavily. He smiled in the darkness. Many, many had died above him. The sect his own had marked for destruction was smashed. The blood came more copiously, showering down into the chamber from a single point in its high ceiling. He thought this would be the access to the place, a single hole through which a prisoner might be lowered or raised. The blood was collecting far above and running down a long stair. He marvelled at the skill of builders of the shattered Temple, which served to transport the fluid so deep without wastage. It came thicker yet. The air stank with it. It was sweet in his nostrils. He thought, it will collect in the trench. The snakes there will be drowned. Shortly, if it comes thick as this a time longer. But beneath the gurgle and splatter of the blood showering into the chamber he caught the thrash and churn of swimming bodies, and the occasional splash of an addition to the number already in the trench. They must be thick there now, churning the rising blood to froth.

More splashes, and the fall of the snakes to the level of the blood seemed greatly lessened now. The blood fell thickly into the chamber. He thought, it has no escape from here, and must inevitably collect at the lowest level, and rise. Rise. He thought of the many hundreds above crushed and mangled. Of their blood, seeping down through the lower levels of the Temple. Many hundreds. The trench was wide and deep. Many hundreds. And the blood need not rise to the lip. A handsbreath or two below, and they, the snakes churning the blood to froth in their eagerness, could gain his side.

He wept, waiting for a lessening in the steady flow of blood into the chamber.

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