CHAPTER SIXTEEN

THE STALKSof grass grew thickly together, a couple of metres high. We had to chop our way through, like hacking a path through a jungle. It was hard, slow work, and night had fallen before we reached the temple. Studying it by the light of a strong moon, we were impressed by its stature. Made of large rough stones which had been painted white, it stood thirty-five or forty metres high. A square building, its walls were about a hundred metres in length, and supported a flat roof. We did a full circuit of the exterior and there was only one entrance, a huge open doorway, five metres wide by eight or nine high. We could see the flicker of candlelight from within.

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"I don't like the look o' this place," Spits muttered.

"Me neither," I sighed. "But if it's the Temple of the Grotesque, we have to go in and find the holy liquid that Evanna told us about."

"Ye two can trust a witch's word if ye like," Spits grunted, "but I ain't having nowt t' do with dark forces! If ye want t' enter, best o' luck. I'll wait out here."

"Afraid?" Harkat grinned.

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"Aaarrr," Spits replied. "Ye should be too. Ye can call this the Temple o' the Grotesque if ye like, but I knows what it really is - a Temple o' Death!" And he stormed off to find a hiding place in a patch of nearby grass.

Harkat and I shared Spits's gloomy opinion, but we had to venture in. Knives drawn, we crept to the doorway and were about to enter, when the sound of chanting drifted to us over the clear night air. We paused uncertainly, then drew back to where Spits was hiding in the grass.

"Changed yer minds?" he hooted.

"We heard something," Harkat told him. "It sounded like voices ?human - voices. They were chanting."

" Where'd they come from?" Spits asked.

"To our left," I told him.

"Will I go check 'em out while ye explore yer temple?"

"I think it would be best if we all - went to check," Harkat said. "If there are people here, this temple - must be theirs. We can ask them about it and - maybe they can help us."

"Ye're awfully simple-minded fer a demon," Spits laughed cynically. "Never trust a stranger, that's what I says!"

That was good advice, and we paid heed to it, quietly sliding through the grass - which didn't grow so thickly here - cautiously closing in on the chanting. A short way beyond the temple, we came to the edge of a clearing. In it was a small, peculiar-looking village. The huts were made of grass and built very low to the ground, no more than a metre high. Either we'd come to a village of pygmies, or the huts were only used as shelters to sleep beneath. Rough grey robes were bundled in a pile in the centre of the village. Dead sheep-like animals were stacked one on top of another, close to the robes.

As we were taking in the sight of the village, a naked man appeared through the grass to our right. He was of ordinary height and build, a light brown colour, but with lanky pink hair and dull white eyes. He walked to the mound of dead sheep, dragged one out and returned the way he'd come, pulling the sheep by its rear legs. Without discussing it, Spits, Harkat and I set off after him, keeping to the edge of the village, still hidden in the grass.

The chanting - which had died down - began again as we approached the spot where the man had disappeared into the grass. We found a path of many footprints in the soft earth and traced them to a second, smaller clearing. There was a pond at the centre, around which thirty-seven people stood, eight men, fifteen women and fourteen children. All were naked, brown-skinned, pink-haired and white-eyed.

Two men hung the dead sheep over the pond, stretched lengthways by its legs, while another man took a knife of white bone or stone and sliced the animal's stomach open. Blood and guts plopped into the pond. As I strained my neck, I saw that the water was a dirty red colour. The men held the sheep over the pond until the blood stopped dripping, then slung the carcass to one side and stood back as three women stepped forward.

The women were old and wrinkled, with fierce expressions and bony fingers. Chanting louder than anyone else, they stooped, swirled the water of the pond around with their hands, then filled three leather flasks withit . Standing, they beckoned the other people forward. As they filed past the first woman, she raised her flask high and poured the red water over their heads. The second woman wet her fingers with the water and drew two rough circular diagrams on everybody's chest. The third pressed the mouth of her flask to their lips, and they drank the putrid water within.

After the three women had attended to all of the people, they moved in a line back to the village, eyes closed, chanting softly. We slipped off to one side, then trailed after them, frightened and perplexed, but incredibly curious.

In the village, the people pulled on the grey robes, each of which was cut away in front to reveal their chest and the round crimson signs. Only one person remained unclothed - a young boy, of about twelve or thirteen. When all were dressed, they formed a long line, three abreast, the trio of old women who'd handled the flasks at the fore and the naked boy by himself in front of everybody else. Chanting loudly, they marched in a procession towards the temple. We waited until they'd passed, then followed silently, intrigued.

At the entrance to the temple, the procession stopped and the volume of the chanting increased. I couldn't understand what they were saying - their language was alien to me - but one word was repeated more than any other, and with great emphasis. "Kulashka!"

"Any idea what 'Kulashka' means?" I asked Harkat and Spits.

"No," Harkat said.

Spits began to shake his head, then stopped, eyes widening, lips thinning with fear. "Saints o' the sailors!" he croaked, and fell to his knees.

Harkat and I gawped at Spits, then looked up and saw the cause of his shock. Our jaws dropped as we set eyes on the most nightmarishly monstrous creature imaginable, wriggling out of the temple like a mutant worm.

It must have been human once, or descended from humans. It had a human face, except its head was the size of six or seven normal heads. Andit had dozens of hands. No arms - and no legs or feet - just loads of hands sticking out of it like pin heads in a pincushion. It was a couple of metres wide and maybe ten or eleven metres long. Its body tapered back like a giant slug. It crept forward slowly on its hundreds of fingers, dragging itself along, though it looked capable of moving more quickly if it wished. It had just one enormous bloodshot eye, hanging low on the left side of its face. Several ears dotted its head in various places, and there were two huge, bulging noses set high above its upper lip. Its skin was a dirty white colour, hanging from its obscene frame in saggy, flabby folds, which quivered wildly every time it moved.

Evanna had named the monster well. It was utterly and totally grotesque. No other word could have conveyed its repulsive qualities as simply and clearly.

As I recovered from my initial shock, I focused on what was happening. The naked boy was on his knees beneath the Grotesque, arms spread wide, roaring over and over, "Kulashka! Kulashka! Kulashka!"

As the boy roared and the people chanted, the Grotesque paused and raised its head. It did this like a snake, arching its body back so that the front section came up. From where we were hiding I got a closer look at its face. It was lumpy and ill formed, as though it had been carved from putty by a sculptor with a shaky hand. There were scraps of hair everywhere I looked, nasty dark tufts, more like skin growths than hair. I saw no teeth inside its gaping maw of a mouth, except for two long, curved fangs near the front.

The Grotesque lowered itself and slithered around the group of people. It left a thin, slimy trail of sweat. The sweat oozed from pores all over its body. I caught the salty scent, and although it wasn't as overpowering as that of the giant toad, it was enough to make me clamp my hand over my nose and mouth so that I didn't throw up. The people - the Kulashkas, for want of a better word - didn't mind the stench though. They knelt as their - god? king? pet? - whatever it was to them, passed and rubbed their faces in its trail of sweat. Some even stuck out their tongues and licked it up!

When the Grotesque had circled all of its worshippers, it returned to the boy at the front. Raising its head again, it leant forward and stuck out its tongue, a huge pink slab, dripping with thick globs of saliva. It licked the boy's face. He didn't flinch, but smiled proudly. The Grotesque licked him again, then wrapped its unnatural body around him once, twice, three times, and suffocated him with its fleshy coils, the way a boa constrictor kills its victims.

My first impulse was to rush to the boy's aid when I saw him disappearing beneath the sweaty flesh of the Grotesque, but I couldn't have saved him. Besides, I could see that he didn't wish to be saved. It was clear by his smile that he considered this an honour. So I stayed crouched low in the grass and kept out of it.

The Grotesque crushed the life out of the boy - he cried out once, briefly, as the creature made splinters of his bones - then unwrapped itself and set about swallowing him whole. Again, in this respect, it acted like a snake. It had a supple lower jaw which stretched down far enough for the monster to get its mouth around the boy's head and shoulders. By using its tongue, jaw and some of its hands, it slowly but steadily fed the rest of the boy's body down its eager throat.

As the Grotesque devoured the boy, two of the women entered the temple. They emerged shortly afterwards, clasping two glass vials, about forty centimetres long, with thick glass walls and cork stoppers. A dark liquid ran about three-quarters of the way to the top of each vial - it had to be Evanna's "holy liquid".

When the Grotesque had finished devouring the boy, a man stepped forward and took one of the vials. Stepping up to the beast, he held the vial aloft and chanted softly. The Grotesque studied him coldly. I thought it meant to kill him too, but then it lowered its head and opened its enormous mouth. The man reached into the Grotesque's mouth, removed the cork from the vial and raised it to one of the creature's fangs. Inserting the tip of the fang into the vial, he pressed the glass wall hard against it. A thick, viscous substance oozed out of the fang and trickled down the side of the tube. I'd seen Evra milking poison from his snake's fangs many times - this was exactly the same.

When no more liquid seeped from the fang, the man corked the vial, handed it back to the woman, took the second vial and milked the Grotesque's other fang. When he'd finished, he stepped away and the monster's mouth closed. The man passed the vial back, joined the rest of the group, and began chanting loudly along with everyone else. The Grotesque studied them with its single red eye, its inhumanly human-like head swaying from side to side in time with the chanting. Then it slowly turned and scuttled back into the temple on its carriage of fingers. As it entered, the people followed, in rows of three, chanting softly, vanishing into the gloom of the temple after the Grotesque, leaving us shaken and alone outside, to withdraw and discuss the sinister spectacle.

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