In the Belly of the Angel – Henry Szabranski

Metaphorosis_2016-01_1kIt was Full Night, the climax of the two-week Festival of Threll, and the narrow streets of Thranrak heaved with the devout, the curious, and the avaricious. Freya Adinyan plunged past the torch-lit processions and the bustling market stalls, her heart pounding in time to the drums. Tonight she was determined to leave Thranrak and the world of man behind.

She forced her way through the mass of festival-goers crowding Ascension Square, towards the tower at its center. Wooden barricades and, eventually, a balding, pot-bellied guard blocked her way. He eyed her suspiciously as she strained to catch a glimpse of the Angel’s Nest over his shoulder. She bit her lip and turned her fresh-bruised cheek from his gaze.

The gnarled remnants of the Ascension Tree could barely be glimpsed through the corroded metal tower encasing it. Twin staircases spiraled around the outside, identical save for their destinations. White-sashed ascenders, elderly and frail, inched their way up the rickety-looking High Stairs towards the Angel’s Nest, the splay of wooden platforms and gantries that crowned the tower. Meanwhile on the Low Stairs, pike-wielding guards shepherded a ragged line of convicts up to the less accessible decks beneath. These were the scum of the City Justice’s dungeon: the sorcerers, the murderers, the thieves and the insane. Tonight, only the blessed or the cursed would be allowed up.

Almost halfway up, a commotion broke out on the Low Stairs. A prisoner leaped, heedless of the chain binding him to his fellows. He screamed obscenities down at the crowd as he dangled over the railing. The line of black-sashed convicts staggered, the chain pulling them under his weight. The crowd roared.

The pot-bellied guard turned to look up at the disturbance. Freya didn’t hesitate. She ducked beneath the wooden barrier and sprinted across the cobblestones towards the tower, vaulting up the steps of the High Stairs two at a time. She glanced quickly over her shoulder, but the guard was too busy trying to hold back the suddenly surging crowd to notice her.

Her luck held until just beneath the Nest. At least a dozen grim-faced guards congregated on the arrayed platforms there, settling in the last of the white-sashed ascenders and enjoying the elevated view of the city whilst they could. These were the Justice’s best men, hard-bitten and loyal; she wouldn’t get by without challenge. For a moment she hesitated, uncertain what to do. She couldn’t go back down, yet neither could she stay put: the guards would soon descend past her.

To her left loomed the dark bulk of the Ascension Tree. Ignoring her rising fear, she scrambled over the stair rail and leaped onto a protruding branch. She slipped as she landed, the impact knocking the breath from her lungs. Bark peeled beneath her fingers as she scrabbled for purchase. Tonight she sought death, but this was a little too soon! Gasping for air, she edged from the stairs and the garish light cast by the paper lanterns strung around them.

She rested against the leathery bark, breathing in the tree’s sweet floral smell. No reek of fungus and slow decay here, but the familiar, heady scent that brought back so many memories. Lightning flickered across the dark horizon. The great trunk vibrated against her cheek. Freya craned her neck. Overhead, the full disc of the moon Threll stuttered above the gathering clouds. Her stomach cramped. For a moment, her determination wavered. The angel was supposed to fling the unworthy to damnation and lift the rest to an afterlife on the gardens of the moon. What would it make of her?

“Clear the scaffold!”

Her heart jumped. A cry rose from the ground. In the square below, the crowd began to cheer and the drums to pound. The relief was almost palpable. Despite the best assurances of the Temple authorities, in recent days fears had grown the angel would fail to appear. It came back every year, but there were all those rumors of it acting oddly recently: smashing houses, snatching cattle, scooping fish from the sea. Who knew if it would return?

One by one, the remaining guards retreated to the ground. Freya pressed against the tree as they climbed past, the whole trunk seeming to thud with her heartbeat. But the guards’ attention was on the square below. The last one down strung a chain across the Stairs to prevent further access.

Freya climbed carefully back out onto the stairs. Feeling as if the whole of the crowd below were staring up at her, she quickly scurried up to the Nest. None of the elderly ascenders seemed to take any notice of her as she reached the highest platform; they were too busy rousing themselves from their huddled positions, exhausted after their long climb. The more capable supported those who could no longer stand. Consumed by old age, most had only a few days or weeks left to live; this was their last and only chance to achieve paradise, and they knew it. Freya was suddenly conscious of being an impostor amongst them. What right had she to be here, a young girl amongst the elderly and frail, those so near the end? But then she remembered her new stepfather leering down at her. The City Justice himself, the man who had condemned her real father to climb the Low Stairs a year before, the man who had made her life unbearable since. You’re a very pretty young girl, Freya Adinyan. Just like your mother. The sting of his palm striking her face. The stink of his breath.

No. She couldn’t stay in Thranrak one day longer.

Thunder cracked. A hush fell across the square. Only the prisoners could still be heard, segregated on the lower reaches of the Nest, howling and rattling their chains in protest. Freya wondered how many of them were innocent like her father, victims of the Justice’s cruelty and ambition.

She looked up. Her breath caught.

The angel of Threll was directly above.

#

Spiky, multi-jointed legs dangled from a central inverted dome that breached the underbelly of cloud. Globes, gathered in great clusters like eggs, dotted the underside. The visible portion of the angel could easily encompass the whole of Ascension Square, but Freya knew the vast bulk of it lay still hidden in the clouds above. On her upturned face she felt the caress of the angel’s tears, tiny droplets of moisture, their familiar floral smell. The glowing sky seemed to ripple as she breathed in their heady scent.

She felt, more than heard, a long, low ululation. The sound rolled across the city, vibrating doors and windows in their frames. Down in the square, the crowd burst into applause; drums pounded with renewed vigor, a string of firecrackers exploded. This, at last, was the culmination of Full Night, of the whole two week festival.

She heard a shout from below and glanced down. A guard at the base of the High Stairs had spotted her. Moments later he ducked under the chain and began to sprint up towards the Nest. With growing panic Freya strained on her tiptoes, arms outstretched, swaying on the platform as it rocked beneath her.

Take me, angel.

She heard a gasp beside her. An elderly ascender hung suspended in mid-air, a tentacle curled tight around his waist. She glimpsed his look of terror just before he accelerated up towards the angel.

Another shout. Freya looked down. The guard was almost at the Nest. And he wasn’t alone. In desperation Freya squeezed her eyes shut and stretched up her arms as far as she could reach.

She was knocked off her feet. She reached out to stop her fall, but grabbed only air. Opening her eyes, she realized she was falling up, not down. A dark coil circled her waist. Cold, hard and slick, segments interlinked like a worm.

She saw the guard looking up at her, his arms outstretched as if he had only just missed her dangling feet. And next to him — despite all that was happening, Freya still felt a moment of shock — was her mother. How did she find me? She was shouting, reaching up, her face contorted with fear.

Freya’s mind whirled, thrown by the unexpected sight: her mother present, so upset. So sober.

A sickening lurch. Freya rose with dizzying speed. Thranrak spun below, lights whirling to create a thousand glowing circles. Countless other tentacles curled up towards the angel, each loaded with a white- or black-sashed figure. She looked up and saw the belly of the angel approaching.

Leathery flaps slapped against her head. She tried to lift her arms to shield herself but the fibrous canopy forced them down. Like a submerged buoy released from the ocean depths, she shot up through the opening and was tossed into the dim and cavernous space beyond.

#

She landed heavily on a taut surface. It vibrated like stretched canvas beneath her. Hard objects skittered across the slanted floor. Far above, an oval-shaped roof divided into sections by rib-like supports emitted a pale gray light. She groaned and turned her head. Jagged silhouettes surrounded her: rocks and boulders, and further away, up-rooted whole trees and even what looked like a fishing boat lying on its side, nets tangled around its mast and fractured planks fanned out like fingers. She had landed some distance from the lowest point of a large, circular bowl filled with debris and junk; she had been lucky to avoid the rocks.

A nearby shriek. Instinctively she rolled behind one of the nearby boulders. Only a stone’s throw away, a group of large apes hooted, snarling and snapping at each other. Narrow-set eyes glinted in lean, savage faces; elongated snouts bared fanged teeth. The white-furred creatures pulled at a flank of red meat.

A tentacle thrust up through one of the rents in the floor and uncurled a white-sashed ascender from its grasp. He crashed onto rocks not far from the apes and gave out a wail of pain. Immediately, a group of three or four of the beasts broke off from the ongoing tussle and bounded through the jumble of debris towards him. Freya watched in horror as he was torn this way and that, like a toy fought over by demonic children. She heard a sickening crunch and dark fluid spouted as one of the apes clamped its jaws around the ascender’s throat.

Freya ducked back down behind the boulder. Her breath came in short, sharp gasps. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. The angel was supposed to take the white-sashes up to paradise, on the surface of the god moon Threll. Not… this. Not this.

A growl. She looked up. Atop the boulder, above a bloodied snout, a pair of hungry red eyes stared down at her.

Before she could react, she heard a sodden thwack, a grunt, and a heavy weight collapsed on top of her. Strands of coarse hair filled her mouth as she struggled to breathe, crushed beneath a mass of warm fur.

The weight and darkness lifted from her as suddenly as it had descended. She was grabbed and pulled upright; a hand clasped around her mouth. She began to struggle, but an arm tightened around her chest. “Shhh. Quiet! Or you’ll get us both killed.”

She went limp at the urgent whisper. A male voice. A Thranian accent.

The hand withdrew. She looked down at the great white ape at her feet. A dark gash scarred the side of its bald head; hair tangled its still snarling face. Ribs protruded from its sides, and Freya noticed bare patches on its scrawny limbs. It looked half-starved.

“Follow me. Be quiet. Be quick.”

In the dim light, Freya tried to make out her rescuer. He wore a torn canvas shirt and knee-length shorts. Patchy stubble hazed his chin. Gaunt and wiry, his dark hair cut close, he looked to be only two or three years older than her; the lack of light and the dark hollows beneath his eyes made it difficult to tell his age for sure. She followed as he scrambled over the rocks and debris, away from the center of the bowl-like arena. A coil of thick rope netting dangled over his shoulder, and on one hand he clutched a hooked gaff stick, the kind used by fishermen to haul in and kill heavier catch. Neither item slowed his progress as he dodged between the boulders.

Freya struggled to match his pace. She kept slipping and sliding on the yielding and uneven surface. Half-seen obstacles bashed her fingers and grazed her arms. She tried to concentrate on the boy bounding ahead and not on the screams and snarls from behind. Eventually they reached the edge of the chamber, where the rocks and debris thinned out and the slope rose to become a wall.

The boy pointed at a vertical slit in front of them. A series of similar gill-like openings ran along the curved side of the chamber. “Through here,” he said.

Freya wavered. The gap looked too narrow, even for her.

“This way.” The boy knelt down and pulled the taut fabric aside. He pushed first a hand and then his whole head inside the hole. The gaff stick went next. The sides sprang together as he disappeared inside. Freya realized it would be impossible for any pursuer to know, by sight alone, which of the slits he had gone through.

She still hesitated, turning to look down into the cavernous bowl. The angel’s tentacles continued to rise up, looping black fountains that withdrew after depositing their human load. Growing gangs of albino apes descended upon the ascenders, who were too frail and too shocked to resist. The convicts, shackled at hand and foot, were even more helpless. Freya’s throat clenched with horror and disbelief.

This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.

With distant hoots and screams echoing behind her, she stifled her tears and thrust inside the opening, deeper into the angel.

#

She pushed into a dimly lit passageway. Circular in cross-section, it undulated into the darkness. Her rescuer squatted on the floor, some way up the tunnel, silhouetted by pale, glowing material that drooped in long ribbons from the walls.

He gave her a weary look as she made her way towards him across the spongy floor. “Full Night in Thranrak?”

Freya nodded and sat down next to him, exhausted and disorientated. All her plans, all her preparations, all her naive dreams lay in ruins, and now she didn’t know what to do.

“I was supposed to be down there,” the boy said. He had unslung the rope netting from over his shoulder and was busy untangling it. “Ma had arranged for us all to stay in one of the fancy inns beside the square. We’d look out at the celebrations from the balcony. Cost her a small fortune, it did.”

Freya forced herself to focus on the boy. “Freya,” she said.

“Gathan.” He didn’t look up from his net.

“You saved my life.”

Gathan frowned. “I couldn’t help the others. The ascenders. Most were half-dead already. And the prisoners were shackled.”

“You were waiting for us?”

“Knew the angel was due for Full Night. I could feel it maneuvering. Thought I would see if I could get down the tentacles somehow…” He shook his head. “No way.” He hefted the net. “Got this from the Vokran, though. We’ll be needing it.”

Freya remembered the smashed hulk of the boat lying on the boulders. And the rumors that had circulated about the angel before Full Night, about its strange behavior. “The angel lifted your boat?”

Gathan nodded. “Came out of the clear blue sky and picked her clean up out of the water; anchor, sails, nets’n’all.” He shook his head, as if he still couldn’t believe it. “We held on as the boat tilted and heaved — it felt just like a huge wave had hit us.” He frowned at the memory, and Freya watched as his hands clenched. “The angel gobbled us up and wrecked us on those rocks… in there.” He waved in the direction they had just come from.

“Cap’n kept saying it was a great honor, that we had been chosen by the gods. But then those apes came at us. We tried to fight ‘em off… but there was just too many, and Cap’n had already hurt his leg bad when we was lifted.” He reached out and touched the gaff stick nestled against his knee. “I managed to brain a few and get away. Been rummaging about in the darkness ever since.”

Freya couldn’t decide if she should believe the gaunt boy’s story. It sounded incredible. Yet… here he was. And so was she. “How long for?”

Gathan pursed his lips. “Seems a long time. But it’s probably only been three or four days.”

Freya rubbed her bruised face. Her hand trembled. She couldn’t stop images tumbling through her mind: the stricken expression on her mother’s face as she stared up at Freya rising towards the angel; the looks of confused and still hopeful disbelief on the ascenders faces, even as the snarling apes descended upon them. She kept shaking her head, as if the motion would detach the memories from her mind.

Gathan returned to untangling his net. “What’re you doing here? You’re far too young to climb either Stairs.”

“I had to escape Thranrak.”

Gathan raised his eyebrow. “Why?”

She shuddered. You’re a very pretty little girl, Freya Adinyan.

She said, “My father was forced to take the Low Stairs, last year. My mother… hasn’t coped. I thought… I thought…” She thought Father would be waiting for her. She thought he would tell her that everything would be all right. That the angel had recognized the good in his heart and that she would be allowed to join him in paradise on the surface of Threll, away from the City Justice. Away from his corrupt power, his leer and grasping fingers, his stinking breath. She had meant to escape it all. Escape even life itself, if she had to.

She hung her head. “I don’t know what I thought.”

Gathan looked up from the net. He hesitated, then reached out, resting his hand on her shoulder. His fingers were rough and callused, but his touch was gentle, almost timid. “Look, I don’t hold much with all the Temple talk of gardens of paradise and all that. Come from a family of fisherfolk, and what we know is the wind and the tides and the moods of the sea. Some say they’ve seen the faces of Ueldu moving in the depths, or angels and dragons fighting each other in the storm clouds, but until the Vokran was taken I never saw anything like that. All I’ve seen here, inside the belly of the angel, is that it’s just a big critter. A great floating whale.”

“Don’t say that!” Freya said, angered by his skepticism. She had never before seriously questioned the teachings of the Temple. It wasn’t a matter of faith: she had seen the faces of the gods with her own eyes on many occasions, striding twelve-feet tall through the festival crowds. Her entire focus this past year had been to reach the Angel’s Nest on Full Night, be chosen by the angel, join her father…

But this wasn’t how it was supposed to be, was it?

Gathan shrugged. “Who knows? There could still be some way to Threll in here; this thing’s huge and I’ve only crawled through a small part of it. But I’m more interested in getting back to Thranrak and my family.” He leaned forward. “And I think I’ve found a way.”

She looked at the ragged boy in surprise. The possibility of leaving the angel, so soon after her hard-won arrival — it hadn’t even occurred to her. And what did she have to return to, after all? A drunken, half-mad mother? An abusive stepfather who was one of the most powerful men in Thranrak?

Gathan seemed perplexed by her silence. “What? You want to stay in this stinking place?”

“What if we’re just being tested? What if we’re supposed to find our own way to Threll…?” She trailed off, her justifications sounding unreasonable even to herself.

“Little Freya. You’ve got it so wrong. The angel isn’t all-powerful. In fact, I think it’s in trouble.”

“What do you mean?”

Gathan re-slung the untangled netting over his shoulder, picked up the gaff stick and stood up. He stooped to avoid his head sliding along the top of the passageway. “Come on, I’ll show you. It’s on the way to the seed bay.”

Without waiting to see if she would follow, he set off up the corridor, into the darkness.

#

Freya lost her balance and stumbled as the angel rocked beneath her.

“Goodbye, Thranrak,” Gathan announced. He was already well ahead of her.

“What’s happening?” Freya could not hide the concern in her voice.

“We’re rising. Your ears will start to hurt, and it’s going to get a lot colder.” He disappeared around a bend in the tunnel. “Keep up.”

Freya let out a shriek as the floor dropped out beneath her, and then, just as suddenly, seemed to rise. Gathan did not turn back. Swallowing hard, she gritted her teeth and concentrated on moving forward. She was concentrating so hard, moving one foot in front of the other, ignoring the awful swaying sensations, that she didn’t notice Gathan stopping ahead of her. She almost collided with him.

“Shhh,” he warned her. “We have to be quiet here.” He took hold of her hand. Together they emerged into another dimly lit chamber.

This new cavern was much smaller than the one they had escaped from, but still sizeable, at least thirty yards in diameter. Here again a bowl-shaped floor, but much shallower, and flooded with a clear liquid; the surface of the pool swirled with faint rainbow reflections, visible even in the gloom. The curved walls glistened with moisture. Huge interlocking teeth formed one entire wall, bowing deep into the chamber; each tapered from a wide circular root to a vicious-looking needle tip. A series of dark cavities pockmarked the wall opposite, openings to further passageways and chambers. To Freya it seemed they stood on the grotesquely stretched lower lip of a giant mouth.

She wrinkled her nose. The chamber stank. Saliva-like liquid trickled into the pool through narrow gaps between the teeth. Side channels, fissures and half-hidden recesses drained the overspill away. The intensely sweet, rose-like scent that filled the chamber made Freya’s head ache. Even Gathan seemed unsteady, his face flushed.

“We can’t stay here,” he said. “We’ll start having waking dreams.”

“What is this place?”

“It’s where the angel’s tears are made.” He crouched and pointed across the pool, towards the lower set of teeth. “Hush, now. I don’t think they’ve seen us.”

Freya suddenly realized they weren’t alone in the chamber. A pair of shapes squatted beside the teeth. One was humanoid and human-sized, but Freya wasn’t sure it was human. So many distended sac-like growths and tumors weighed the creature down it seemed it could scarcely move. Dark tendrils grew like snakes from its head and disappeared into the ceiling above it. The deformed figure swayed from side to side in a slow rhythmic dance; its twisted hands moved as if conducting an invisible orchestra.

At the feet of the swaying conductor sat a second, hulking, shape: one of the white-furred apes, but much larger than any of the others Freya had seen. No protruding ribs on this specimen; it was meaty and heavily muscled. A mound of cracked bones, skulls, and scraps of bloody hair rose out of the shimmering pool beside it. The ape loudly sucked and chewed on what looked like a human rib.

At first Freya thought the beast sported a strange, lop-sided hat, a comical-looking beret worn at a jaunty angle, and she couldn’t quite believe her eyes. Then she realized the covering was more like a grotesque fungal infection, bulging out of the sloped skull. Delicate, root-like tendrils ran back to the conductor who swayed behind the ape.

“Who… what are they?” Freya stared at the malformed couple with horror.

Gathan shook his head. “I’m not sure. But you know how the Justice likes to haul sorcerers up the Low Stairs. He’s terrified of them. I reckon most are frauds or plain crazy… but what if one had real power? What do you think they’d do once they were inside here?”

Freya shrugged. The idea had never occurred to her. Sorcerers were just bogeymen in stories. Although Gathan was right: the Justice had a terror of them.

“Well, I think this one is trying to take control of the angel.”

Not much sign of any sorcerer remained, if Gathan’s theory was true — but was that a stray clump of white hair she glimpsed amongst the pulsating mess atop the swollen head? And the tattered remnants of a black sash?

And if a sorcerer, and Gathan, had survived this long inside the angel, then perhaps other people had too. Freya felt a sudden squirm of hope. Like her father…

Gathan pointed. “That collection of… things, back in the belly of the angel. That isn’t normal. Rocks, houses, uprooted trees — boats — I’ve never heard of angels picking things up like that before. Those apes, I’m pretty sure they were brought inside accidentally when the angel grabbed up part of a forest. I’ve seen plenty of the monsters dead, starved or diseased, or killed and half-eaten by their own. They’re no more happy here than we are.”

Freya stared at the shuffling form of the sorcerer. “But the angel still returned for Full Night.”

Gathan shrugged. “Maybe he hasn’t got complete control. Not yet. Maybe he can only take charge at certain times. Maybe all this grabbing things is just him practicing. I don’t know.” Gathan placed a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s go. Before he stops concentrating on the angel. Or that ape of his runs out of bones to crack. This isn’t what I wanted to show you, anyway.”

Freya shook his hand off. “But we need to stop him.”

“Believe me, you don’t want to attract his attention.” He looked at her pointedly. “This isn’t a place where being noticed brings good fortune, in case you hadn’t realized.”

Freya ignored him. She began to edge towards the giant mouth.

Gathan pulled her back. “Not that way. Our way out, it’s just past here.” He pointed to the openings on their left.

“We can’t just leave him here,” Freya insisted. “This isn’t right. This isn’t what Threll would want. The sorcerer’s a… a leech.”

“I’m sure Threll can sort His own matters out without our help. We need to get out of His angel, that’s what we need to do.”

“You’re wrong. This is up to us.” Freya was suddenly convinced this was the test of faith Threll has set them. It was the only thing that made sense.

“We have to go!” Gathan hissed. “Or that big ape will brain the both of us. And who knows what other tricks the sorcerer’s got up his sleeves? I’m telling you: the best thing we can do is get out of here. Before these damned fumes poison our brains permanently.”

Freya didn’t agree, but she didn’t see what else she could do on her own. She glanced at the gaff stick in Gathan’s hand. She didn’t think she could grab it from him. And besides, he was right; the ape would shrug off any attack by either of them. Reluctantly, Freya followed Gathan as he crept around the edge of the pool, away from the tooth wall.

Gathan peered into the first couple of side-openings before deciding on the third one. Freya briefly glanced into the rejected passages — it was like looking into a pair of giant nostrils, she decided, and shuddered at the thought of moving through them.

The third opening was more appealing, but only in comparison. A short passageway opened into another chamber, smaller and darker than the mouth chamber. Freya immediately noticed the rounded, egg-shaped objects, each twice her height, dangling from the ceiling like huge, obscene fruit. The floor sagged towards a central, sphincter-like opening, a circular hole large enough for a person to fall through. The air was so cold her breath fogged.

Gathan half-walked, half-slid towards the hole in the floor, beckoning Freya to follow him. “Don’t slip,” he warned.

She eyed the large shapes crowding the narrow space. Each was an elongated, pear-shaped bulb. Veined, paper-thin wings, slick with moisture, sprouted from flukes and furled tightly around each seedpod. Like everything else inside the angel, they gave off the same pungent, sweet smell. She remembered the scent of the Ascension Tree as she had gripped it. Had it grown from a seed like these? She had never heard of a tree turning into an angel… but then, it hadn’t really felt like a tree, had it, up close?

Gathan stared down into the hole at the center of the floor. He motioned Freya towards him. She approached as close as she dared. An icy cold blast swirled around her. Through the opening, she saw a ragged carpet of cloud or mist, barely visible in the dark. There was no sign of Thranrak’s festival lights.

“This is our way out,” Gathan said.

Freya eyed the hole uncertainly. “It’s a long way down.”

Gathan crawled over to the seedpod closest to the hole. It had separated from its stalk and sagged on the floor. “These have got wings — see?” He peeled off a gossamer section. “You ever watch those chute-gliders above Throndak Head on calm summer evenings?” He tugged at the translucent material. “This stuff is strong. I reckon we can ride one of these all the way down to the ground.”

Freya grimaced. “You’re crazy.”

“Look — I’ve been searching for a way out for days. I’ve thought about sliding down the tentacles, or jumping out over open water, or even asking the sorcerer to bring the angel down to land… trust me: this is the only way.” Gathan eyed Freya with growing exasperation. “You want to stay here and grub around like those crazed apes? We don’t belong here. The angel doesn’t know or care about us; we’re like stowed away rats. We have to find a way off.”

He drew a small knife from a pocket in his shorts, hefted the net he had retrieved from his wrecked boat, and began to saw at it. Freya watched as he fashioned a makeshift harness. He strung the net around the fallen seedpod, taking care not to snag the wings. He checked and tightened the knots, his face furrowed with concentration. He hummed a shanty as he worked. Eventually, he stood back to admire his handiwork. He grinned at Freya. “There. We’re ready to fly.”

She pointed back in the direction of the chamber with the teeth. “We can’t just leave the sorcerer in there, doing whatever he’s doing to the angel.”

As Gathan had worked, she had grown increasingly agitated. She couldn’t understand why the angel had allowed itself to be harmed by the sorcerer. Surely the divine entity had some means of defense? Was it even aware it was under attack?

Gathan’s smile disappeared. “There’s nothing we can do about it.”

“But he’s damaging the angel! He’s… he’s the cause of all this. He’s ruined what’s supposed to happen!”

“What? You think we were supposed to go to heaven? Live forever in the lush gardens of Threll?” Gathan snorted. “Grow up, Freya. Whatever the sorcerer’s done, he hasn’t changed that outcome. Face it. The angel is just an animal. Like a fish, or a bird. Just bigger.”

“You’re wrong.”

A thought kept racing through her mind, something Gathan had said earlier. This isn’t a place where being noticed brings good fortune.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “Don’t you want to return to Thranrak? To your friends, your family? I’ve rigged the harness for both of us.”

Instead of answering, Freya reached down and grabbed the discarded gaff stick. She turned and bounded back towards the chamber of teeth.

Maybe the sorcerer had evaded the angel’s attention for so long because he was like a blood-sucking insect, numbing the skin near its bite until it had drawn enough sustenance.

But if that was the case, all she had to do was bring the sorcerer to the angel’s attention.

#

She approached as close as she dared to the guardian ape. The great beast glanced up at her with disinterest before returning to sucking the marrow from a splintered rib. The sorcerer continued to conduct his invisible orchestra, oblivious to her presence.

She hefted the gaff stick and stabbed its metal hook into the chamber wall. Again and again, she wrenched the hook free and then stabbed it back into the grey flesh. Clear ichor oozed from the wounded tissue.

There was a splash. The ape had dropped the rib and risen out of the pool. It now lumbered towards her. Freya turned her back on it and continued to hack into the chamber wall.

A deep and resonant sound filled the chamber. Aaaaaah. It grew louder. With a hiss and a clang, the huge teeth unlocked and began to part. A blast of moist, fetid air almost blew Freya off her feet. The sorcerer staggered as the cavern shook.

“What have you done?”

Freya turned. Gathan stood in the entranceway to the seed chamber, his eyes wide. He wasn’t looking at her.

A huge wet bulge of pink, fleshy material pushed from behind the opening teeth. Freya made a last vicious stab and then let go of the gaff stick. She backed away as quickly as she could. The sorcerer’s ape, oblivious to the threat behind, splashed through the pool towards her, its fangs bared and its muscular arms outstretched.

The ape did not get far. The tendrils that connected its skull to the sorcerer did not stretch far enough for it to reach Freya. Realizing this, she couldn’t help but give a triumphant laugh.

The sorcerer turned to see the huge tongue emerging from behind the teeth. He staggered back; the cords trailing from his skull and upper body stretched taut. Some of them snapped and tore, but the thicker, older connections refused to separate. The sorcerer twisted, tethered to the angel he had sought to subvert, and Freya heard him mewl in panic as the immense tongue oozed towards him.

She ran towards the seed chamber, past Gathan, who had strode out and stood knee-deep in the saliva pool.

“Get back!” she cried.

But Gathan didn’t move. “Look at that,” he said. He stared towards the opening jaws.

Freya didn’t wait. The chamber shook. The sound emerging from the angel’s throat grew louder and higher pitched. She dived back into the seedpod nursery and saw that here, too, the hole in the floor was widening. The entire inside of the angel appeared to be reconfiguring itself, with flesh stretching and huge bones and muscles shifting and re-arranging themselves.

“Look!” Freya cried. “I think I see land.”

She twisted round when she received no reply. Gathan still stood in the mouth chamber. He stared in the direction of the opening maw, although Freya could no longer see it from her position. The interior of the cavern was bathed in light, and the young fisherman’s face, still registering shock, was turned towards the source.

“Gathan! It’s time to go!” She had done her bit, released the angel from the sorcerer’s malign grip. Perhaps Threll would show His gratitude once she was safely back in Thranrak.

Freya tried to heave the seedpod towards the hole. The pod hardly moved, much heavier than it looked. Her feet struggled to find purchase on the slippery soft floor. By rotating the seedpod back and forth, she eventually managed to position it near the rim of the hole. She paused, still panting from the effort, and looked back to check on Gathan.

She couldn’t see him.

For a moment she considered climbing into the harness and jumping without him. Then she cursed loudly, using words she had heard her mother use when drunk and angry. Gathan had saved her life. And this escape route was his idea. She couldn’t just abandon him. Besides… he seemed nice.

“Gathan!”

She ran back into the mouth chamber. The air inside vibrated with the sound of the powerful exhalation from between the opened teeth. She wrinkled her nose in disgust as another wave of humid, sickly sweet air belched out. The chamber jaws were closing now, the huge tongue withdrawing.

There was no sign of Gathan, the sorcerer, the ape, nor the mound of discarded bones. The tendrils that had linked the sorcerer to the cavern walls were gone. The floor, walls and ceiling shone with a pearly iridescence, scoured clean. A long smear of bright red streaked the tongue’s surface, a jellied mass mixed with crushed bones and dotted with bloodied white fur. Freya couldn’t tell if there was more than one body in the carnage. She suddenly felt light-headed and dizzy, the cloying fumes in the chamber overwhelming her.

“Gathan! Where are you?”

Freya thought she heard a faint answering cry from behind the closing teeth. Cursing again, she slogged through the saliva pool towards the mouth. Another blast of sweet, moist air hissed around her, and her dizziness grew. She shielded her eyes from the glare as best she could and peered into the long throat.

The tunnel beyond the teeth started in similar fashion to the mouth chamber, but quickly narrowed and sloped upwards. The retreating tongue also thinned, and displayed regular horizontal creases further back.

Steps. Those are steps.

Freya squinted against the intensity of the light… but then her eyes widened in wonder.

There were clouds, deep in the back of the throat. And open, star-scattered sky. And the full round face of Threll, a gleaming silver disc, suddenly and inexplicably so large that for the first time in her life Freya could make out patterns on it — silver traceries of concentric circles, canals, complex interlocking circuits… the breath caught in her throat. It was beautiful… and so close! The disc rippled, as if distorted by a heat haze. She had but to jump over the teeth and make her way up the stairway… just the same way she had climbed the High Stairs. These steps were just an extension of those, she realized. These were the Highest Stairs.

And there was Gathan! A tiny figure, impossibly far away now. He was climbing towards Threll itself, to paradise. His movements were odd, she thought, jerky, like those of a marionette. But it was definitely him.

“Wait for me!” Freya was seized with a sudden fear she would be left behind. She splashed through the remnants of the pool, but the bottom was slick; she slipped and fell face forward. She spluttered out mouthfuls of oily liquid and scrabbled back to her feet. The jaws were closing. They were almost shut.

“Father!” she shouted. “Are you there?”

She grasped the ivory-colored enamel of the lower teeth and tried to vault over, but the upper teeth bore down upon her hands. She barely got them away before the teeth locked shut with a loud, wet clack. The seal was tight, airtight, and the light and the noise and the wind were gone.

#

The chamber spun around her. She leaned over and threw up. Her head pounded. Her eyeballs felt gritty and too large for their sockets. She had once drunk half of one of her mother’s hidden bottles of spirit, just to spite her. This was how she had felt the morning after — only much worse.

She groaned, suddenly filled with relief she hadn’t succeeded in hurdling the teeth before they closed. The glimpsed vision of Threll must have been nothing more than a mirage, induced by the vapors flooding the chamber. There were no stairs up to Threll — of course there weren’t: it had just been an illusion. Hadn’t it? The intoxicating fumes had overwhelmed Gathan, led him to who knew what grisly fate. She had only narrowly escaped following him.

She trembled with sudden guilt. They could have jumped already and been free, had it not been for her. She stood and battered her hand against the slick wall of teeth. “Open up!” Perhaps she could force them apart again. Perhaps —

The angel lurched, this time for real. The remaining liquid in the pool slosh wildly. Grunts and snarls came from what seemed like a newly opened passageway into the chamber. Apes approaching. She didn’t have much time.

Still feeling nauseous, head throbbing, she stumbled back into the seedpod chamber. She couldn’t stay here any longer. Her father must be dead, she knew that now. Gathan too. She should concentrate on the living, on those she could still help. On her mother. She had to return to Thranrak, try and free her from the grip of the City Justice. The old tyrant no longer scared her now — nothing could be worse than what she had faced here. Freya burned with sudden anger: at the angel, at the lies of the Temple, most of all at herself, at her weakness in running away, giving up, praying for escape at any cost. The least she could do for Gathan was let people know he had been right — there were no answers up here. Only death. Even for those who didn’t seek it.

The angel rocked and bucked beneath her as she scrambled towards the seedpod. She tugged at the net, checking it wouldn’t slip once the pod started to fall. She climbed into the harness and prayed Gathan’s skill with knots was better than her own. Her feet dangled free of the net and she used them to inch the seedpod closer to the hole.

Without warning, the floor tore and gave way. The seedpod lurched and fell.

Freya screamed as she plunged, as the seedpod tumbled end over end. The air tore at her like a thousand furious hands. For a brief moment the angel tilted into view, and she had an impression of an enormous cyclopean eye on its underside, blinking open to stare down at her. Then it was gone.

Below, glittering water, wisps of cloud, golden desert. Lands new and totally unfamiliar. The great dome of the ground rushing towards her, faster, faster.

The seedpod’s wings snapped open.

And Freya held on for dear, precious life.

###

2 Comments

  1. A rich tale and disturbing. Beautifully told. Good balance between what Freya learns and what we are left wondering.

  2. Mind-blowingly imaginative!!!

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