Ancient places have a memory all their own, stored in the blood that seeps in the sand, and in the dust that pits the stone. Memories of sin and death long since passed haunt the shadows still. Unlike men who are quick to remember and just as easily forget, these memories simmer just beneath the surface. They endure in the wind and in the quiet, dark places. The most sensitive of men and women can sense flashes in such places. Flashes of the traumas adrift in time, the sum of forces bearing us ceaselessly toward the future.
It was in one such temple to quiescent memories that our ‘heroes’ found themselves. Hounded into hiding by their predilections for bloodshed. A band of thieves, of usurers, of killers, flew to the ruins, deaf to the whispering dark, blind to the grasping wind, forced from a nearby town by a robbery gone wrong. They approached the ancient foundations, remnants of a temple to a lost religion, hiding amongst statues that did not look quite human. Townsfolk gave it a wide-berth.
They did not know, or care to know, the legends of poor fools who came there, seeking solace or fortune. Poor fools who entered those dark places and never escaped. They did not care to even learn its name, the Temple to Bilal, Bilal the rapacious, the bloodthirsty, Bilal the fallen God, worshipped only by the most desperate of men.
Just inside the temple door, in a hall choked by dust, where was swallowed every trace of light, they paused.
“Are they behind us?” Asked their leader, peering out into the courtyard from the temple shadows.
“No, no, they stopped at the gate. I think we’re safe, for now.” His #2 replied. They holstered their weapons and moved further inward.
The pursuit forgotten, the motley band turned to their surroundings, still obscured by the shade. Their torches, what little light they gave was swallowed in the black. They could not see the end of the hall they walked in. They could barely see the walls mere feet from their faces. There were five of them, three men, two women, all with innocent blood drawn in their pasts.
“Was this a good idea… coming here?” One frightened bandit, named Van Zant, asked, glancing around him like for the first time he saw himself deep in the belly of an avaricious beast. He blinked and in a flash saw…
A man, bound by snakes to a wooden stake, born down the hall by painted warriors, chanting in low voices the name of their forgotten God.
He blinked and…
…was back to the world.
“Did you see that?” He gibbered, wiping his eyes as if to clear away the vision.
“Quiet!” The leader, Arcturus, barked. “They say this place is empty, but I’d rather not tempt fate. Keep yer voices down until we’re further in and we get a better sense of the place.”
They walked in silence, the five of them. In front, Arc, the taciturn leader. Small pistol in one hand, flickering torch in the other. Blood from a small cut above his eye mottled his brow, he wiped it away, staunched the wound, but instead of clotting it bled through every bandage, painting his face in red. The further they walked into the temple, down an endless hall, the more he heard the whispers. They ceaselessly chanted a strange name, growing ever more familiar as it echoed in his mind.
BILAL… BILAL… BILAL…
It stirred something in his blood, reminding him of a past life. Or was it the one he lived now? The name… of a Lord he once served, or served still. This was his place, Bilal’s, and all men here belonged to him.
Who was he to think any different?
Arc shook his head, and these foreign thoughts fell away like cobwebs, though he could still hear the spiders skittering through his mind.
I am my own man, no ‘God’ can claim me!
“We shouldn’t be here. You all hear it, don’t you? The name, the chanting, this place… it is not certain of when it is. We will be dragged with it to whatever time it can remember.” Van Zant whimpered, but felt certain that what he said was true. They would be claimed. What was the will of man when faced with time’s hurricane winds? They would be blown away, and all that would remain was mindless flesh, fully in the throes of the past.
A woman, rippling muscle on her frame, dark fingers grasping a long curved blade, sneered at his fear, long white teeth sharpened like stakes. “Ah, Van Zant… do you want Mommy’s protection? Come to my bosom, child. You be safe from that which bumps in the night.”
Ariadne, that was this warrior’s name, laughed at her own joke at the cowardly killer’s expense, and ignored his warning. Even so, she could hear the name, repeated, that stoked her bloodlust. She could hear him calling to hear, appealing to her, demanding a sacrifice for his altar.
And she was inclined to listen, the blood in the men around her demanded to be spilled. Even though they were her comrades, all bonds of fealty fell away before the cries of the hunt. She looked at her twin sister, Ezreya, and saw the lust in her eyes, and knew they were of a like mind.
My dear sister, we will wait until the time is right…
When the altar is before us…
Praise be to Bilal.
It did not concern them that Bilal was not a name they had known before, nor that moments before they entered this sacred space, they would have died for their fellow killers, and they vice versa. It did not concern them that these feelings pressed upon them from the outside, from beyond, that their minds contorted to fit the echoes of the thousand deaths that bled from the ground. It did not concern them, it merely consumed, their minds entirely open to its thrall.
Only the #2, only Borsk, remained entirely deaf to the temple’s hiss. Van Zant, he cowered, Arcturus fought, and the sisters gleefully succumbed. Borsk however, marched down the hall like it was any other place. Until they came to the altar, etched of red sandstone, where the voices called louder than ever for blood to be spilled. Still he was deaf to them, turning back to the group.
“Now what do ye make of th-“
The sisters struck as one, not seeing in their minds eye themselves and their kin any longer, but the reflections of long dead men. Their blades cut into Borsk’s skin and throat, his blood spilled upon the stone beneath their feet, staining it redder still. He quivered, eyes bulging in shock, trembling for a moment as he stood choking in silence, before sinking to the ground, shuddering, shuddering, and finally going still.
Before the other two men could react, the temple came alive. Light burst from the stone. The ceilings, the walls, and the floor below. The light curved and hissed, and bound the men where they stood, burning their skin where it touched before cooling into scales and fang. They were tied before the altar by snakes of the past, that lived only in the potential moments before, during, and after the living transgressed upon this space.
Arc spoke first, “Ariadne, Ezreya, what are you doin-”
They are gone.
The voice that came from the sisters’ mouths in unison was not their own, quiet and male, imbued with the divine’s certainty, the calm only the omnipotent possessed.
They are gone. Were gone. Will always have been gone. In all times, only Bilal remains.
Both Van Zant and Arc’s eyes go wide in recognition. That name, that lost name, that dangerous God who had whispered to them as well. A warning, an invitation, heeded to late and accepted by the warriors who stood before them, scimitars held high above their heads. Once comrades, now it seemed, their executioners.
“What… who… what are, what are you?” Van Zant stuttered in fear, shivering in the warm darkness of the space around them. In the altar room, the walls fell away, their words did not echo, but disappeared. Even a scream would sound like a whisper, stunted by the sand and the stone, by the blood that pulsed behind every wall.
The sisters spoke, in their own voices this time. “Bilal… Bilal… Bilal!”
The newborn snakes bore the men towards the altar in the center of the darkness, tied them to the depressions the length of a man on either side. There they constricted and bit into their flesh, hissing menacingly. They knew their roles, they had ensured many a death before.
The sisters advanced on the gang they once considered brothers. And Arc saw one more chance to save his skin, of not Van Zant’s.
“Now listen, Ariadne, Ezreya, remember who you are! Remember what we were to each other. You don’t just throw that away. Bilal? What is Bilal but a name that lives only here in the black? He is nothing! Not outside these walls… but we, we could rule th-”
Silence! This nattering bores me.
Ariadne jerked forward, like a marionette caught on its own strings, striking wildly. Her scimitar cut a long, deep slice down Arcturus’ chest.
You had your chance, Arc, to lead. And in leading survive. But those who do not join me must bleed, we… this temple… requires your sacrifice to endure.
The gang leader’s eyes fluttered briefly, before he fell slack and limp against the stone.
And in the altar’s chamber, the stone glows even brighter.
Now for the quiet coward. Who danced on the edge, who warned of my power. With you… we will take our time.
And the sisters turned to their next victim. Van Zant, eyes bulging, struggled against the snakes that hissed and snapped and held him fast.
“No… please, no…”
They did not respond, their eyes were pure white, so wholly were they under the yoke of the blooded God.
“Bilal… Bilal… Bilal,” They chanted. Their blades rose.
And even villagers in the town over heard his screams on the wind.