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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Dust and Sand – Chapter 26 – By Sean P. Wallace

This state of confusion, this back and forth between her years of education, her faith and the reality of her situation, persisted until someone banged on her cell door. She was so deep in thought that the great, echoing booms didn’t move her the first time.

Her visitor knocked again. “Hey, girly, you hearin’ me?” he said.

Penelope looked up and saw a thin-moustached guard peering in through the grate, the one who had been dragging the Wanted Man. He smiled, a gesture he probably thought was kind but which actually looked forlorn and sad.

“Good. You’ve been summoned, girly. Time to get your ass upstairs.”

Upstairs? The Bacchanals! Penelope was surely being brought to one of those events as there hadn’t been one since she last woke. The demons and the cold had disappeared the moment she had called on That Which Sins so they must think Penelope ready to take part.

Revulsion rose in her but she immediately questioned it; after all, it was only her education and her faith that told her that free sexuality was wrong. But even that challenge was immediately challenged; what about the beasts she’d heard taking part, she asked herself? What about the monsters and demons? There was a difference between a man and a woman fornicating and a woman and a vicious creature.

The thin-moustached guard unlocked the door, interrupting her inner dialogue. He stepped inside and helped her to her feet, the first friendly touch she’d felt in days.

“Hup we come, girly. Don’t keep people waitin’.”

She allowed herself to be led out into the corridor, a bright passageway with dozens of other cells carved into the walls. Each one was absolutely silent so she couldn’t tell which were full and which were empty.

The guard handed her a bladder that sloshed with liquid. “Here, drink this first.”

Her throat was so dry she didn’t question what it was. The cool liquid went down like honey, welcome as a long-lost relative.

“Excuse me?” she croaked as she handed back the bladder. “May I ask a question?”

“Now ain’t you polite! Fire away, though I may not be able to answer, you know?” he said before cackling and leading her up the corridor. “We’ll walk and talk though.”

“What day is it?”

“Why, it’s Friday the thirteenth.”

Four days. She had been in that cell for four actual days. With her sleeping pattern and the torture and the constant darkness, it’d felt longer. She cast a glance back toward her open cell and felt her body try to descend into shivering again. It took an act of will and the thought that she was free to suppress another episode.

“And what time is it?”

“Nearly midnight, I reckon. Mahrey likes to have the special ‘uns at midnight.”

They carried on up the winding trail. It curved back on itself twice, following some strange design. The cells became bedrooms, the doors becoming cheap and wooden and their locks disappearing. Some rooms were open, revealing people coupling or tripling on rough beds or cooking strange substances that didn’t smell edible. Some of the closed rooms had loud occupants who were hopefully enjoying what they were doing.

After some time, Penelope saw the sky. The corridor levelled out into a junction with another corridor one way and a large kitchen area the other. She was led into the kitchen with its barbecue pits and rough stone surfaces for butchery and food preparation. Primitive chimneys had carved out of the ceiling. Rain fell from dark clouds above them and was caught by large canvases that funnelled it into a series of barrels. And it was through a hole in one of these canvases that she glimpsed the dark and dismal sky.

Penelope just gazed up. She’d taken the sky for granted before, this ultimate ceiling which meant you were close to freedom. A tear of joy formed in her eye. She would always cherish the sky, regardless of what happened.

“C’mon girly,” the thin-moustached guard said. “We’ve gotta keep movin’.”

“Okay,” she said.

The guard led her down a set of stairs carved into a deep plunge cut near one of the barbecue pits. Descending made her warming muscles stiffen and her empty stomach spin like a top, but she could hardly refuse now so she went into the bowels of the earth.

At the bottom of the stairs was a great chamber, wide, tall and deep as a cathedral. A chandelier made from bones and covered in dozens of candles dominated the room, the only source of light and a powerful presence that seemed to throb. Each candle burned a different colour, filling the room with bright wonders. But not the edges. The light could not reach there.

Beneath the chandelier was Mahrey, naked and triumphant on a throne of living flesh. She sat at the head of a circle of cultists who hummed loudly and wore thick, velvet robes with deep-set hoods. The material hid their faces and bodies but some were so short they had to be children. Others’ robes were distended or fit so tightly that they could not be human.

At the centre of the circle was a neatly-cut rectangle of white marble. Unadorned and unspoiled, it sparkled in the multi-faceted light. Whilst it was impressive, Penelope’s eyes were drawn to the floor before it where a sluice allowed whatever dripped from the altar to flow below. It was as she’d suspected; the foul yellow substances in her prison had come from these events.

Sean is an editor, writer, and podcast host at Geek Pride, as well as a novelist. His self-published works can be found at all good eBook stores.

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