"YE'RE CRAZY!" Spits hissed, keeping his voice down so as not to attract the attention of the Kulashkas. "Ye want t' go into that devil's lair and risk yer lives, fer the sake o' some bottles o' poison?"
"There must be something - special about it," Harkat insisted. "We wouldn't have been told we - needed it if it wasn't important."
"Nowt's worth throwing yer lives away fer," Spits snarled. "That monster will have ye both fer pudding, and still be hungry after."
"I'm not sure about that," I muttered. "It fed like a snake. I know about snakes from when I shared a tent with Evra - a snake-boy," I added for Spits's benefit. "A child would take a long time to digest, even for a beast of that size. I doubt it'll need to eat again for a few days. And a snake normally sleeps while it's digesting."
"But this ain't a snake," Spits reminded me. "It's a - what did ye call it?"
"Grotesque," Harkat said.
"Aaarrr. Ye never shared a tent with a Grotesque, did ye? So ye know nothing about 'em. Ye'd be mad t' risk it. And what about that crazy pink-haired mob? If they catch ye, they won't be long offering ye up t' that giant mongrel o' theirs."
"What do you think the deal - is with them?" Harkat asked. "I believe they worship the Grotesque. That's why they - sacrificed the boy."
"A fine how-d'ye-do.'" Spits huffed. "'Tis one thing t' go killing a stranger, but t' willingly give up one o' yer own - madness!"
"They can't do it often," I noted. "There aren't many of them. They'd die out if they made a human sacrifice every time the beast was hungry. They must feed it with sheep and other animals, and only offer up a human on special occasions."
"Should we try - talking to them?" Harkat asked. "Many civilized people in the past - offered human sacrifices to their gods. They might not be violent."
"I've no intention of putting them to the test," I said quickly. "We can't walk away from this - we saw them milk the snake's fangs, and I'm pretty certain that poison is the holy liquid we need. But let's not push our luck. There's no telling what the people of this world are like. The Kulashkas might be lovely folk who welcome strangers with open arms - or they might feed us to the Grotesque the instant they set eyes on us."
"We're stronger than them," Harkat said. "We could fight them off."
"We don't know that," I disagreed. "We've no idea what these people are capable of. They could be ten times as strong as you or me. I say we hit the temple, grab the vials, and beat it quick."
"Forget the vials!" Spits pleaded. He'd been drinking heavily from his jug since we'd retreated to safety and was trembling worse than normal. "We can come back later if we need 'em."
"No," Harkat said. "Darren's right about the Kulashkas. But if we're going to launch a - quick raid, we need to do it while the Grotesque is sleeping. We have to go after the - holy liquid now. You don't have to come - if you don't want."
"I won't!" Spits said quickly. "I ain't gonna chuckmy life away on a crazy thing like this. I'll wait out here. If ye don't return, I'll carry on ahead and look fer yer Lake o' Souls myself. If it holds the dead like ye say, I might meet ye there!" He chuckled wickedly at that.
"Will we go while it's dark," I asked Harkat, "or wait for morning?"
"Wait," Harkat said. "The Kulashkas might have sung themselves - to sleep by then." The pink-haired people had returned to their village an hour after making their sacrifice, and had been singing, dancing and chanting ever since.
We lay back and rested as the moon crossed the cloudless sky (typical - when we wanted clouds for cover, there weren't any!), listening to the music of the strange Kulashkas. Spits kept sipping from his jug of poteen, his beady eyes getting smaller and smaller, tugging at the strands of his tied-back hair, muttering darkly about block-headed fools and their just comeuppances.
The noise from the Kulashka village died away towards morning, and by dawn there was silence. Harkat and I shared a questioning glance, nodded and stood. "We're going," I told Spits, who was half dozing over his jug.
"Wha'?" he grunted, head snapping up.
"We're going," I said again. "Wait here. If we're not back by night, go your own way and don't worry about us."
"I won't wait that long," he sniffed. "I'll be gone by midday, with 'r without ye."
"Suit yourself," I sighed, "but you'd be less visible in the dark. It would be safer."
Spits's features softened. "Ye're mad," he said, "but ye've more guts than any pirate I ever sailed with. I'll wait till sunset and keep the poteen ready - ye might be glad of it if ye survive."
"We might at that," I grinned, then spun away with Harkat and pushed through the tall covering grass to the doorway of the Temple of the Grotesque.
We stopped at the door of the temple, gripping our knives close by our sides, inhaling the foul sweaty stench of the beast. "What if there are guards?" I whispered.
"Knock them out," Harkat said. "Kill them only if we - must. But I doubt there'll be any - they would have - come out with the Grotesque if there were."
Taking deep, nervous breaths, we slid inside the temple, back to back, moving slowly and warily. Candles jutted from the walls, not a huge number, but enough to light our way. We were in a short, narrow corridor, covered by a low roof. A large room lay ahead. We paused at the entrance. The room was enormous. The roof was supported by giant pillars, but there were no other dividing structures. In the centre of the temple, the Grotesque was curled around a raised circular platform, upon which we saw a tall, hollow, upright crystal cylinder packed with vials like the ones the Kulashkas had used to milk the monsters venom.
"No lack of holy liquid," I whispered to Harkat.
"The trouble will be - getting to it," he replied. "I think the Grotesque's body goes - all the way around the altar."
I hadn't thought of the platform as an altar, but now that I looked again, I saw that Harkat was right - the cylinder holding the vials had the appearance of some religious relic.
We started across the room to the altar, the only sound our shallow breathing. The Grotesque's head was buried underneath its fleshy rear, so it shouldn't have a view of us if it was awake - though I hoped with all my being that it wasn't! There was a path leading directly from the doorway to the altar, lit by tall candles, but we approached the altar from the side, where we'd be less conspicuous.
We soon ran into an unexpected obstacle. The floorboards at the sides of the path were rotten and creaked heavily as we crossed them. "The path must be the only one reinforced from below," I hissed as we stopped to ponder our options. "By the echoes of the creaks, there's a pit beneath the boards."
"Should we return to - the path?" Harkat asked.
I shook my head. "Let's continue - but tread carefully!" Despite our attempts to proceed with care, a few metres further on, Harkat's left foot snapped through a board and his leg shot down into darkness. He gasped painfully but bit down on a cry. My eyes snapped to where the Grotesque was coiled, to see if it had stirred, but it was in the same position as before. The fingers close to its head twitched a few times - I hoped that meant it was asleep and dreaming. Stooping, I examined the board around Harkat's leg, carefully snapped more of it away to increase the width of the hole, then helped ease him out of it and back on to slightly sturdier boards.
"Are you hurt?" I asked softly.
"Cut," Harkat answered, probing his leg. "Not bad."
"We can't chance these boards any longer," I said. "We'll have to use the path."
Together we hobbled back to the path, where we rested a minute, before advancing to the altar. By the luck of the vampires the Grotesque slept on. Once there, we walked around the putrid monster, looking for a gap where we could mount the altar. But the Grotesque had fully encircled it, chunks of its flesh draped off it in places. This close to the beast, I couldn't help but stare and marvel that such a thing could have come to exist. What troubled me most was its obviously human features. It was like a nightmare come to life - but a human nightmare. What was its history? How had it been born?
Having walked around the Grotesque a couple of times, I tore my gaze away. Not daring to talk this close to the creature, I tucked my knife away and made hand signals at Harkat, indicating that we'd have to jump over the monster at its narrowest point, close to where its tail lapped over its head. Harkat didn't look thrilled with that idea, but there was no other way of getting to the altar, so he nodded reluctantly. I made a second set of hand signals, to the effect that I could jump and Harkat should remain where he was, but he shook his head and held up two stubby grey fingers, to show we should both go.
I jumped first. I crouched low, then leapt over the muscular coils of the giant beast. I landed softly, but spun quickly, not wishing to stand with my back to the Grotesque. It hadn't moved. Stepping aside, I nodded for Harkat to join me. He didn't leap quite as smoothly, but his feet cleared the monster, and I caught him as he landed, steadying him and muffling the sound.
We checked to make sure we hadn't disturbed the Grotesque, then faced the tall cylinder and studied the vials resting on see-through shelves within. Those at the top hadn't been filled, but there were dozens underneath, heavy with the thick poison from the Grotesque's fangs. The Kulashkas must have been milking the giant for decades to have amassed such a collection.
There was a frosty crystal front to the cylinder. I eased it open, reached inside, and pulled out a vial. It was cool and surprisingly heavy. I slipped it inside my shirt, pulled out a second vial and passed it to Harkat. He held it up to the light of the candles, scrutinizing the liquid inside.
As I was reaching for more vials, there was a shout from just inside the temple door. Looking up, startled, we saw two Kulashka children, a boy and girl. I raised my fingers to my lips and waved at the children, hoping they'd stop shouting, but that only agitated them more. The girl turned and shot out the doorway, doubtless fleeing to wake the adults. The boy remained and raced towards us, yelling and clapping, grabbing a candle to use as a weapon.
I knew instantly that we'd have to forget the rest of the vials. Our only hope was to get out quick, before the Grotesque awoke or the Kulashkas poured into the temple. The pair of vials we'd stolen would have to do. Leaving the door of the cylinder hanging open, I stepped down to where Harkat was waiting and we got ready to jump. But before we could leap, the Grotesque's rear section swished back, its head whipped up, and we found ourselves gazing straight into its furious red eye - and at its bared, sabre-like fangs!