a short story
by Devin Raposo

They strut into focus from a great distance like worker ants. I could not make out even a single visage through the swelter; all I saw was how they each moved purposefully, impeded as my vision was by the low drooping of my velvet-brown robe. Were I to adjust my hood to remove the obfuscation to my vision, I would then be exposing myself to the elements. Here, in this vast and dreary landscape of sandy dunes, such actions are akin to suicide as to survive one must be diligent in matters of upkeep. For one, one must remember to stay hydrated; for two, one must account for all potential intrusions of the body; for three, one must have six eyes: two which face forward, one for each of the other cardinal directions, and finally one which peers with scrutiny at the ground where one will next step.

One can assume the three individuals were coming from the same location of which I am at this point in my recollection currently headed: toward a sacred temple to bow in penance, a sorrowful self-retribution for deeds of yesteryear of which need not retreading. The three figures walked pensively down the side of a desert hill, their heads bobbing in spasmodic reaction to each menacing step down the incline.

Getting closer, I was able to ascertain that each of the three figures clearly possessed a body of the anthropomorphic. Were I to make observations on the contour of their general frames, I might recount the leftmost figure as being tall and lanky; the middle person was short and slightly portly; and the rightmost person rose high and knightly with something of a muscular build.

It was not much longer until what had at first seemed to me an innocuous ensemble of individuals—perhaps engaged in some matter of discourse whether it be political or of economy—revealed itself to me as being much grimmer. The first person whose physical features I could now see were more masculine was not hooded by a robe, as one would tend to do in such inclement weather. Without a hood to hide their true nature, they freely revealed themself to possess the head of a vulture. This smooth bald head was large in such a way that it almost did not match the body it was connected to, to an extent that I first thought it a mask of sorts. But as I approached nearer and the sandstorm subsided, I’d a clear visual of their beady eyes, each a different solid color like voids to extradimensions. They say that for those with different eye colors, one eye sees only the past and the other the future; so never is the present accounted for. I can now corroborate the veracity of this myth; the vulture seemed disinterested in my presence, despite being one of only four intelligent creatures for seemingly kilometers, heading straight toward it from the opposite direction. Its wrinkled head suggested a weathered history, that perhaps it had walked these hallowed lands on more than one occasion.

Were they a rampant sinner or merely a guide for others to seek their penance I’ll not soon discover, as every fiber in my body conspired not to pay this or the two other hooded figures any mind. My eyes averted direct contact with theirs, instead pointing straight ahead to my destination, thoughts of the enormous steps preceded by lush, golden archways to a place which might relinquish me of my sorrows placating my anxious stride.

I cannot profess to know if their eyes were peering directly at mine, but I could feel their petrifying gaze—it seemed to penetrate my skin and worm about my subcutaneous tendrils. I worried I might see the face of a familiar in their ghastly visages dare I look. The sweat dripping down my brow, clattering hands, uneven steps, stifled breath; an ill wind blew through at that moment. To this day I still recall that chill at any temperature. In times like this, during a day of rest, I might play a number on the guitar to ease such troubles. Sound cannot pierce as the look of a stranger will—I hardly registered the sounds of a lion’s growl and a bear’s roar emanating from the other two as our paths eventually crossed, and I began my ascent up the incline just as their descent concluded.

It had been twenty steps since the three had passed with not a word uttered, then fifty, and then eighty, and yet I could not bring myself to look back. There had been something intangible, something indeterminate about their leery presence. Regardless of where I was headed, it could only be a more pleasant place.

Hours of solitudinous walking passed. I couldn’t rid myself of the thought of the vulture-headed person, much less their lion and bear companions. All I could do was walk in mindless stupefaction.

Without hardly realizing it, I found myself standing at the crest of an uneasy dune. The sun above blinded, but its rays were a comforting distraction. Shielding my eyes from its gleaming hello, I peered down at the sights below me with an unreserved sense of confidence. Not even those leering eyes would deter me now.

Houses of brittle, beige stone stood, each connected to each other like some complex interwoven sheltering web, barren and primitive. I stood there, on top of that hill, following each entryway to their shared terminus: a spherical atrium paved of the same material (was it stone?) which made up the buildings surrounding it. It had a square grate on the top of its makeup, possibly for the entrance of light. There were otherwise no windows to peer in on this hub’s interior; it would only be surveyable by foot. Nowhere to be found was the fabled temple I had heard tale of. One could see sconces placed on walls for torches, but none were lit. I did little pondering of who could have made a life in such a strange and desolate outpost, for I had come too far to spend much time on speculation.

This town of sorts was developed in such a way that one would have to either climb over buildings or walk through them in order to reach anterior places, as each path was surrounded by a tall wall, for arcane reasons which I was never able to fully comprehend. These were single room affairs, mostly unfurnished, conservatively littered with any sort of adornments or pleasantries; each less remarkable than the last, save for a spare few which might have housed a dining table or sitting area. It was no wonder then that this place would be long abandoned. But how I wished to find some semblance of society, hypocritical a thought that may be, so as to acquire clean water to quench the latent thirst that had largely escaped me in all my previous anxieties. All one could see around were the coarse sands and rustic ruins. There were no formal doors to open or close, merely dark, oblong apertures just tall and wide enough for one to fit through.

Having traversed through several of those holed-out abodes to no avail, I soon found myself standing at the foot of a slight staircase leading into that curious orb. My mind raced with the possibilities, but not as fast as my feet could carry my body up the steps. A pair of rusted gates at the top were laden with cultish markings. They were thick, oblique lines, the calligraphy of which I didn’t recognize, painted on with pigment. The drawings had long been dried, so it couldn’t have been the three I’d recently come into contact with. This was a message from someone or something long ago.

The gates were taut, as if they had not been pried open for years. There had been no handles with which to pull them loose, so I first attempted to push both forward at the same time. When this proved for naught, I focused instead on the rightmost door, and then the left, frequently checking my posterior for interlopers. With success by this method far beyond my reach, I pried my right shoe under the right door so that my forefoot just met the threshold for leverage, and pulled the left door with both arms, until finally the blasted hatch gave way. The sound of masonry colliding had never been so satisfying. At last, I’d pried open the gates to absolution!

A brilliant ray of light shone from above in this dome, splintered by the ceiling grates, though ambiently illuminating the entire space. It was uncomfortably warm; I felt compelled to remove my robes to ameliorate the discomfort, but childish superstitions prohibited me from following through.

The luminosity from above helped to ease my eyes in adjusting to the dreary interior; what I saw when I was equipped to do so was unsettling, and I would have rather staged an entire debate with the vulture person than stare any longer than was necessary at the uncomfortable setting.

Row upon row of wooden pews finished with the finest lacquer was populated by the stonified remains of human bodies, each bent forward in prayer. Were they aware of their impending demise? Are they even dead at all?

In the middle, up a trio of steps and situated upon a golden throne with an unsullied bloodred woolen seat, perhaps the most pristine of all sights in this abandoned place, lay a leather-bound book of a thousand pages, propped open about midway through. At this distance, the nature of its readings were foreign to me. I was taken aback by this bizarre tableau of an arrangement. Some had hands raised in the air, their faces peering to the heavens; others prostrated themselves before the tome’s pages. Others still were faced directly at the book, mouths agape, eyes wide open. One woman caressed both her children in her arms; there was no visible patriarch nearby. A boy with a hunchback stood awkwardly mid-step, lurching forward at this celestial codex. One man held up in one hand a sabre, the other a truncheon. One man was in the midst of tossing something in the book’s direction; another stood idly, both hands intertwined, head bowed in prayer. Perturbed but tenacious, I pressed forward toward the book with both an open mind and an uneasy heart in tow.

Despite the tangibly ancient historicity of this place, the pages of the book felt finely-printed and new. But only the one the book had previously been opened to contained any visible text. The other pages were blank, though they were just as pristinely kept to the touch; this book seemed to me to possess some sort of strange, adulterant-deterring aura to it. The prose on display of the first pages was composed of an array of bold and violent lines and strikethroughs from some thick pen or marker, not dissimilar to those painted on the entryway gates; it was a completely foreign relic to a man so naively-educated in the ways of the ancients such as myself.

Determined to decrypt the writing of this phenomena and perhaps reveal its other, even more oblique secrets, I took the book in one hand, closing it, and draped myself with my robe with the other to once again traverse those stone corridors and causeways of these forbidden ruins, caressing my new codified object of uncertain intent in tow.

It was at the moment when I stepped both feet outside of this perhaps holy domain that a sight unlike anything I’d seen before would occur. The book, as if it were possessed by some unscrupulous demon, flung itself out of my grasp and back to its initial resting place. No pages would scatter about the dust, soot, and filth-covered grounds or the rows of laminate seating; rather, the book would return to exactly the same location and orientation as it were when I first encountered it. It opened itself to the same exact page, that with the markings. A bit of time had passed, and the sun had self-aligned in such a way that the light pouring in from the grate above now was shining directly at the book’s golden resting place. It was as if the sky itself were laughing at my sublime misfortune.

Try as I might, again and again I was unable to best the force of the chair upon the book. I would pull against the chair’s invisible clutches with a dignified vigor, but none of my strengths combined were able to conspire against this unstoppable entity. On one occasion, I errantly thought myself victorious having made it a few steps further away from the dome than on previous attempts, but eventually the book would retract itself all the same.

Doomed to repetition were I to obsess over this finding, I left the book at its initial resting place, and walked through those houses (were they houses? Marketplaces? Churches? Surely not) in exit, with new knowledge of the civilization which erected and subsequently abandoned them in pursuit of some greater calling. A noble calling, indeed.

Today, I still walk these sands, resting in the cool nights under makeshift canopies and hunting local game for sustenance, the distant moon my only welcome company. An avian creature soars petulantly overhead each night. Its presence cools my skin and eases my regrets; my only respite from this crushing solitude. Still, the true temple of legend is near, I can tell, for it must be. I had come this far; watched as I were, I must act exemplary, with the stars as my guide, six eyes as my witness.

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