Nerida forgot to look at her father for the last time. Her mother hadn’t come. Before she could turn around, the heavy stone door was pushed closed, extinguishing the sunlight and all sound except for the clinking of trowels outside the door, cementing it shut. She tried to remember what her final, unceremonious glimpse of her father had been, but she couldn’t find the memory.
The scene laid out before her was a paradox: more riches than her family would see in a hundred lifetimes were spread across the room in piles of golden coins, exotic trinkets, priceless sculptures, paintings, and bloated, cushioned furniture. Even the cat perched atop a chair would have fetched a higher price at market than she could even imagine, some foreign breed she couldn’t pronounce from a conquered land she’d never see. And of course, the sarcophagus – the most spectacular, glitteringly bejeweled thing she’d ever seen. Its effect was nearly blinding. Inside, the king rotted.
The paradox lay in the room itself – not so much a room as the mouth of a cave, fashioned into an ornate tomb. Brutal stone walls radiated a deathly chill, a ghost of a breeze blew through a hole in a far corner and candles cast shadows on the walls, but soon they would burn out and there wouldn’t be any light ever again. The cat purred and began wandering around. Nerida wondered how long it would take her to die in here.
The king had been buried with a cache of bread, wine, and whatever else was stuffed in the numerous crates in the room with her. They were his feast to bring with him into the afterlife, and Nerida was to be the dancer on the threshold. She practiced the sacred dance, the one she’d spent her entire life learning, as all girls did in case they were chosen to convey a spirit into the beyond. There was no food among the king’s bounty she was allowed to eat, no drink, and perhaps not enough air, but that wasn’t the point. She only had to live long enough for the gods of death to arrive and see her dance.
She flitted between piles of riches, going through the motions she’d learned. She thought she’d feel worse, but when the stone door was shut behind her, it was as if the world outside had never been there at all – her father, her mother, the three-legged dog that had followed her home all those years ago, the glover’s boy who’d been giving her looks. A brief lifetime of connections and acquaintances were blown away and forgotten as easily as a spider’s web.
She spun, bowed, and waited.
* * *
There was no way of knowing what time of day it was. She’d been entombed in the morning with dew still on the grass and a damp mist clinging to the ground. Her body was telling her that the sun must be setting by now. The meal she’d eaten was digested long ago and now her stomach clawed and moaned at her. The candles, though expensive and long-lasting, were burning out one by one, gradually plunging the cave into darkness, from which there would be no returning. A couple of hours ago the cat had found a rat somewhere among the food stores and after a moment of yowling and screeching, eaten it.
Nerida reclined across a chair, her feet dangling over one arm and her head resting on the other. After the men outside had finished cementing the door, the whistling of air coming through the hole in the wall, rising from somewhere deep in the caves, seemed to grow – she noticed every dip, every gust. Then, she heard a voice.
It was subtle, nothing more than a rumbling undercurrent, but words, discrete words, intonation, expression – this much she could discern. She ran across the room to where the hole was, and stood upon a barrel to peer into it. It was about as big around as her face, and the air that fell from it like a sigh was cold as winter.
The voice was a low burble, as if she were hearing it from underwater. It grew louder, somewhat clearer. Higher frequencies presented themselves and the sound began to take shape – shape enough that she was able to hear a second, higher voice, responding to the first. The breeze howled, became a wind, whistling around subterranean corners and pouring into the cave, drowning out any sign of the voices and knocking Nerida to the ground.
From her view from the stone floor, the ceiling was becoming occluded by a series of wisps, as if the very wind had color and form. The wisps came together like the sinewy strands that compose the meat and muscle of animals, gliding on the air and pooling several meters away from her. She watched breathlessly as two forms emerged from the strands.
The first to take recognizable shape seemed to be a tall, thin man. The process by which he became a physical entity was imperceptible by her – it seemed to take place between the ticks of the clock in her mind, so that she was never sure that this was anything other than the way the figure had always been – but there he was, a man, or something to which a man was her closest point of comparison. His hands were scaly and taloned, like chicken feet, a beak took the place of his nose and mouth, and extravagant plumage jutted from his spine, feathers ruffling against each other as he surveyed the room.
Beside the man, wisps were working to create what seemed to be a dog-sized lizard. Nerida felt the blood seem to stop in her veins in the presence of the gods of death.
She tried in spite of her trembling to stand, and found her knees unable to support her. She pressed her palm on the surface of a table to hold her upright and cursed herself for failing now. As the green and red pattern on the scales of the giant lizard surfaced before her eyes, she began her dance.
She closed her eyes, raised a leg, raised her arms, spun, twisting her wrists and slicing her arms through the air as she’d been taught, bent low, threw her arms as if into the sky and let her body follow, tipping her hips in either direction as she shocked her arms into frozen contortions, dragging the tops of her outstretched fingers along the white flesh of her neck —
Needles seemed to puncture her ear drums. The sound of a thousand fortunes in gold coins clattering onto stone rang through the cavern. Nerida opened her eyes, nearly falling, her dance cut short. The gods were gone, or so it seemed until a blot on the opposite wall shifted and she saw the lizard now darting along it toward the source of the metallic crash. “Have your fill.” It was the low voice from beyond the wall, the voice of the man. She couldn’t see him past the stacks and aisles of treasure. She walked gingerly through it all toward the voice. A laugh rippled through the space.
She came out from the mass of treasure and arrived at the scene, near the sealed door of the cave. A large, ornate chest had been smashed and its contents, thousands of coins, were scattered on the floor. The lizard roved over it all, mouth hanging open, its tongue shooting at, sticking to, and reeling dozens of coins into its mouth at a time.
“Look, Ruk, our dancer finished her performance. Was it not magnificent?” the man said and turned away from them, wandering behind further mounds of valuables.
“Didn’t see it,” the lizard Ruk said between bites of gold. This was the higher voice she had heard.
“A shame. I didn’t either. Could we get an encore?” Something crashed from where the man had gone and the lizard disappeared in that direction, leaving hundreds of coins behind. Its body was rounder now and its movements somewhat slower. “Don’t break it!” it complained, unseen.
Nerida then stood alone in the coins, listening to the rummaging and laughter, both high and low. She looked at the royal sarcophagus. Only a few gems remained in a field of empty sockets. She no longer trembled, but instead was utterly numb. Using legs she no longer trusted the reality of, she followed the creatures.
Around a corner, the lizard’s mouth was distended wider than Nerida would have thought possible, rendering it more mouth than lizard. Its lips were wrapped around a sculpture that had been tipped to the ground, the marble man’s upper torso disappearing impossibly into the thing’s throat. The chicken man laughed. “Ruk is a fiend for sculpture.” His arms were crossed at his chest and he clicked a talon against his beak pensively, his eyes inscrutable on his alien face.
The lizard drooled on the sculpture as it sank deeper into its belly and streaks of the sliva ran down it onto the floor. Nerida’s eyes burned. She turned away from the creatures, turned the corner of a shelf of trinkets and leaned against it out of sight, and tried to cry as quietly as she could. She felt it was her neck, not the marble, that the lizard was slobbering on.
She felt the air beside her stir and opened her clouded eyes. The chicken man stood there. He rested his rough hand on her bare shoulder, the points of his talons sitting delicately on her flesh like needles standing upright on the surface of still water.
“Oh, we’ve been cruel. We have – positively monstrous.” He plucked a diadem from the shelf. His jewels flashed wildly in the dimming light for a moment before he perched it on her head. “To have a girl weeping amongst a kingdom’s splendor…”
The other creature appeared at her other side and began pulling objects off the lower shelves with its tongue and into its mouth – fine plates, golden figurines, exotic gadgets of unknown function. The statue had swollen its body past the point of belief – it was now little more than a sphere of seemingly infinite volume.
The chicken man tossed a ring crowned with an oversized sapphire into Ruk’s maw then wrapped an arm behind Nerida, pulling her toward him, his talons resting not painfully on her side. He took her hand in his other claw and waltzed with her to the tune of Ruk’s feast. His claws were gentle on her skin as they shifted among the debris of the painstakingly-arranged crypt, brushing priceless items aside with their feet. The chicken man hummed a tune familiar to her from beyond the giant stone door. Nerida pulled herself closer to the cold warmth of the chicken man, burying a hand in his soft feathers, and closed her eyes as he slowly danced her down the rows of emptied shelves. For a while it seemed as though it had all ceased to exist.
She became aware that the sound of Ruk’s consumption had slowed to a stop. The dance ended, she saw, reluctantly opening her eyes as if for the first time today, near the small hole from which the man and the creature had emerged. Ruk rolled out of a blot of shadow that was now becoming the entire room. The hulking sphere that had been the lizard was lit by only a few flickering candles.
Running a set of talons through Nerida’s hair, the chicken man asked Ruk if he’d gotten all he wanted. A dull groan seeped out of some hidden orifice on the thing’s surface. He held Nerida’s head in a set of talons and she saw tendrils of air rising from behind his face, Ruk’s shadowed form diminishing and disappearing back into the hole. She felt the claws fall from her face as the man dissolved before her.
The wind from the hole quieted. Somewhere among the ruins of the king’s crypt, the cat wailed.
Image: male96 via pixabay