Badlands IX: The Mountain God
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
But she still had to do it, to go looking, and, if she
could, to rescue them. She had no idea how she might lead them to safety. But
she had to try, she told herself grimly. She had to try.
The slope was becoming less steep, the ground flattening as
she neared the summit. Not far above, the crater pulsed fire like a beating
She felt the chanting more than heard it. It was a vibration
in the air, like a string being plucked, an insistent repetitive thrumming, a
wordless tune, but made up of human voices. She hesitated, turning from one
side to the other as she tried to find the source. It was coming round the
curve of the mountain, still very far away, and lower down on the volcano. But
at least now she had something to go on.
She saw the procession while she was still not far below the
crater, a line of tiny dots of flame down the slope. The chanting was louder
now, but still almost lost among the rumbling, which was now almost continuous.
She stopped a few moments, studying the line of lights, judging where she could
intercept the procession best. Then she had a sudden thought, and, before
running on again, she set out to change her appearance.
She took the grey of the ash under her feet and wove that
into fabric that she wrapped round her body, her wings and tail. She took the
darkness of the air and plaited it into her hair, turning it black and draping
it over her horns. She took a stray beam of moonlight† which penetrated through
the smoke overhead,† splashed it over her face and exposed arms and legs,
turning her skin to a pale flesh tone. Lastly, she took the brown of a rock and
spun that into the straps of leather footwear.
Looking down at herself, she took a deep breath. Now she was
no longer a red-golden naked woman with horns and wings and a barbed tail; she was
a long-limbed girl in the clothing of the people of the villages, a loose long
shirt down to her knees and sandals with thongs wrapped round her ankles. She
could not keep up the pretence indefinitely, but for now it would do.
As she ran, the chanting grew louder, more distinct, though
there were still no words she could discern. There were two columns of torches,
held high over bent figures trudging slowly upwards. The flames lit their
grey-robed figures, their hooded heads, and on a large box on poles they bore
between them, like a palanquin.
Racing down the slope, the demon skidded to a halt before
them, ash and cinders pattering around her feet. "Stop," she shouted, loud
enough to be heard over the mountain and over the chanting. "Donít go up any further."
The chanting broke off abruptly. A taller figure, at the
head of the procession shuffled forwards, and pulled the hood back off its
face. It was a man with a deeply lined face. In the hand which held no torch he
carried an ornately carved staff of black stone. It reflected the light of the
torch and turned the lines on his face into canyons of shadow.
"Who are you?" he asked. "And why are you trying to stop
"The mountain is about to erupt," the demon said. "If you go
any further, youíll be burned or..." she glanced upwards as a spurt of flame
towered momentarily into the sky from the crater. "Or," she added, "youíll be
smothered by the gas and ash. Donít go any further."
"You canít stop us," the man with the staff replied. "Itís
our holy duty to go up to the crater and perform sacrifice to appease the god
of the mountain. Then everything will be as it was before."
"Sacrifice?" the demon repeated, astonished. "What are you
going to sacrifice?"
"That is none of your concern, woman. You should not be here
on the slopes anyway. You villagers of the plain should keep to your place."
"Please," the demon said, "try to understand. There is
nothing to be achieved by sacrifice. Canít you feel the eruption coming? The
air is barely breathable anyway, and we arenít even near the crater."
The man with the staff peered at her, actually bending
forward to stare. "Have you been up there, woman, that you tell us not to go
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