Sanctuary – Snippet 01
NOTE: THIS STORY WILL APPEAR IN BILL FAWCETT’S ANTHOLOGY, BY TOOTH AND CLAW, COMING OUT IN APRIL.
SANCTUARY by Eric Flint
Knest died toward the beginning of the durre kot, the witching time before sunrise.
It was a dangerous period. Not as dangerous as midnight, but still perilous — especially this early into durre kot. Knest’s soul would have to withstand the assault of pejeq and milleteq and whatever other demons might be lurking on the great mountainside until the sun finally rose above the horizon and Huwute’s brilliance drove the demons back into their lairs.
Even the strongest disciple would be hard-pressed to survive that long. As the sky brightened, the demons would be driven to greater and greater fury in their assault on Knest’s soul. That was especially true of the pejeq, who were undoubtedly in great numbers at this altitude. Milleteq were often sluggish, but not their hungrier and more ethereal kin — and the greater danger the pejeq faced when Huwute’s rays began piercing the heavens would make them frantic toward the end.
Only the firmest disciple’s soul could hope to pass through that ordeal intact. And Knest….
“He was a weakling,” Herere said harshly. “He won’t last even halfway through the durre kot.”
Aqavo stared down at Knest’s corpse, hissing softly as her eyes traced the long wound left by the grek wadda. The venom had left the flesh pale, putrid-looking, altogether horrid. Fortunately, the plant’s venom rendered its victim unconscious before it began its deadly and hideous work. Knest had at least not died in great pain.
The fourth member of the party, Nabliz, gazed at the horizon where — much too late — Huwute would finally rise. “Herere is right,” he said softly. “You know she is, Sebetwe.”
Sebetwe did know it, but he hesitated to give the order. Aqavo, probably the kindest of the group, put his reluctance into words. “That would be the true death for Knest. His soul gone forever.”
Herere shifted her weight on her haunches. “When his soul is taken by a demon he will also suffer the true death — and we will be at great risk ourselves.”
She was right. A pejeq riding a captured soul or a milleteq enlarged by devouring one would be able to attack them throughout the night. At dawn and dusk also — any time except when Huwute’s glory filled the sky.
“We must do it, Sebetwe,” said Nabliz.
Aqavo said nothing, but her slumped shoulders indicated her agreement. Herere glared at Sebetwe, then down at the corpse of Knest. After a moment, she drew her knife.
Sebetwe raised a hand. “I will do it,” he said. “Aqavo, start the fire.”
He drew out his ax. It was typical of Herere that she would think to use a knife to cut open a skull. The huge female was always prone to displaying her great strength. Sebetwe, average size for a male Liskash, would use a more reliable tool for the purpose.
Delay was dangerous. So, with none of the ritual formality he would have preferred, Sebetwe smashed open Knest’s skull. Two more blows of the axe were enough to expose the narrow brain case. Then, using a taloned hand, he scooped out the brain. He laid it on a bare rock, since Aqavo’s fire was only starting to build.
While he was busy at that task, Herere sliced open Knest’s chest and abdomen. With Nabliz’s help, the dead disciple’s heart, lungs and liver were soon removed from the body.
The heart and lungs, they would eat, to keep what might be left of Knest’s valor and spirit in their midst. Could they have done the same with the brain, they might have been able to save Knest’s soul as well. But that would be perilous. Devilkins usually infested the brains of dead people; not powerful ones like pejeq or milleteq but sly and malicious ones who sought to infest those who ate such brains.
So the brain would have to be burned. Had Knest died at home, or at least in safer surroundings, they could have performed the rites and embalming rituals that would have preserved his soul long enough for it to pass into a newborn.
The liver would also be burned, lest whatever sins and evils had lurked within Knest should escape into the world with his death.
By the time they were done, Huwute had fully risen. The goddess’ splendor was still dim enough that one could gaze upon her without danger, but that would not last long. Huwute was vain and thus dangerous, as deities so often were.
Sebetwe knew that most Liskash tribes actually worshipped Huwute. Primitives, not much more than savages, who could not distinguish the manifestations of the Godhead from itself. In truth, it was sloppy thinking to visualize the sun as a “goddess,” though most disciples did it anyway.
Sebetwe knew that Huwute was not really a deity, simply the manifestation — not the only; but certainly the greatest — of the Godhead’s self-consideration. Dangerous, not in the way that a conscious beast is dangerous but in the way a fire or a rockslide is dangerous.
It was not always easy to remember the teachings, though. Sebetwe found it hard not to resent Huwute’s stately and self-satisfied progression. Could the goddess not have hastened her steps a bit, to keep Knest’s soul in the world?