WE FROZEon the altar, mesmerized by the Grotesque's glinting, demonic eye. As we stood rooted, helpless, its body unfurled and its head rose a metre or two, arcing backwards. It was preparing to attack, but by raising its head, it broke eye contact with us. We snapped out of our daze, realized what was about to happen, and dropped to the floor as the monster struck.
One of the Grotesque's long fangs caught me between my shoulder blades as I hit the floor. It dug into my flesh and ripped down my back. I yelled with pain and fear, rolled over as the beast released me, and slithered behind the crystal cylinder.
The Grotesque jabbed at me as I retreated but missed. It let out a bellow, like a giant baby's angry cry, then turned on Harkat. He was lying on his back, with his face and stomach exposed, an easy target. The Grotesque raised itself up to strike. Harkat got ready to throw his vial of poison at it. The Grotesque shrieked fiercely and withdrew a couple of metres, the fingers near its tail carrying it away from Harkat, the fingers near its head wriggling at him like dozens of snakes or eels. A detached part of me noticed that there were small holes on each finger where its nails would be if it was human, and the sweat came out of these holes in steady streams.
Harkat scrambled around to where I was sheltering. "My back!" I gasped, turning so that he could examine it. "How bad is it?"
Harkat studied my wound swiftly, then grunted. "It's not very deep. It'll leave the mother of - all scars, but it won't kill you."
"Unless there was poison in the fang," I muttered.
"The Kulashkas milked it," Harkat said. "Fresh poison couldn't - have formed already - could it?"
"Not in a snake," I said, "but there's no telling with this thing."
I had no time to worry about it. The Grotesque slid around the altar, to attack us again. We backpedalled, keeping the cylinder between us and the Grotesque's bobbing head.
"Any plans for - getting out?" Harkat asked, drawing a knife but keeping his vial of poison in his left hand.
"I'm taking this second by second," I panted.
We retreated steadily, circling around the cylinder again and again, the monster following impatiently, spitting and growling, its tongue flicking between its lips, ready to strike the instant we relaxed our guard. The Kulashka boy was standing on the path to the altar, cheering the Grotesque on.
A minute later, the rest of the Kulashkas poured into the temple. Most were carrying weapons, and their faces were filled with fury. Hurrying to the altar, they spread out around it, crawled over the Grotesque and moved in on us, murder in their angry white eyes.
"This would be a good time to try talking to them," I said sarcastically to Harkat, but he took my wry advice seriously.
"We mean no harm!" he shouted. "We want to be - your friends."
The Kulashkas stopped and murmured with astonishment when Harkat spoke. One of the men - I guessed it was their chief - stepped ahead of the others and pointed a spear at us. He shouted a question at Harkat but we couldn't understand what he was saying.
"We don't speak your language," I said, following Harkat's lead, keeping one eye on the man and one on the Grotesque, which was still scrabbling after us, though it had pulled back slightly to make room for the Kulashkas. The chief shouted at us again, but slower this time, emphasizing each word. I shook my head. "We can't understand you!" I cried.
"Friends!" Harkat tried desperately. "Amigos! Comrades! Buddies!"
The Kulashka stared at us uncertainly. Then his expression hardened and he barked something at the rest of his clan. Nodding, they advanced, their weapons raised offensively, herding us towards the fangs of the giant Grotesque.
I stabbed at one of the Kulashka women with my knife, a warning gesture, trying to ward her off, but she ignored me and continued to close in, along with the others. Even the children were converging on us, small knives and spears held fast in their tiny hands.
"Let's try the poison!" I screamed at Harkat, pulling out my vial. "They might scatter if we throw it at their eyes!"
"OK!" he roared, and held his vial up high.
When the Kulashkas saw the vial in Harkat's grey hand, they froze with fear and most took a hasty step backwards. I was confused by their reaction, but seized on their fear and raised mine as well. When they saw another of the vials, the men, women and children spilt back off the platform, chattering fearfully, wildly waving their hands and weapons at us.
"What's going on?" I asked Harkat.
"They're afraid of the - poison," he said, waving his vial at a handful of the Kulashka women - they screamed and spun away, covering their faces with their hands. "It's either really sacred - to them, or really dangerous!"
The Grotesque, seeing the Kulashkas grind to a halt, slid over the women and made for Harkat. One of the men darted ahead of the monster and waved his arms at it, shouting at the top of his lungs. The Grotesque paused, then swatted the man aside with its huge head and fixed its gaze on us again. It was snarling now - it meant to throw itself at us and finish us off. I drew back my vial to hurl at the beast, but a woman dashed between me and the Grotesque and waved her arms like the man had. This time the monster didn't swat the Kulashka aside, but stared fiercely at her as she crooned a song and waved her arms above her head.
When she had the full attention of the Grotesque, the woman stepped away from the altar and led the beast aside. The rest of the Kulashkas filed into the gap the Grotesque had left and stared at us hatefully - but also fearfully.
"Keep your vial up!" Harkat warned me, shaking his at the Kulashkas, who flinched miserably. Following a quick conference, a few of the women chased the children out of the temple and ran after them, leaving only the men and the sturdier, more warlike women.
The chief lowered his spear and again tried to communicate, making gestures with his hands, pointing to the Grotesque, the altar and the vials. We tried making sense of his signals, but couldn't.
"We don't understand.'" I shouted, frustrated. I pointed to my ears, shook my head and shrugged.
The chief cursed - I didn't need to speak his language to know that - then took a deep breath and said something to his clan. They hesitated. He barked the words again, and this time they parted, clearing a space between us and the path to the temple doorway. The chief pointed at the path, then us, then back at the path. He looked at us questioningly to seeif we understood.
"You're going to - let us go?" Harkat asked, repeating the Kulashka's gestures.
The chief smiled, then raised a warning finger. He pointed to the vials in our hands, then at the cylinder behind us. "He wants us to replace the vials first," I whispered to Harkat.
"But we need the - holy liquid," Harkat objected.
"This is no time to dig your heels in!" I hissed. "They'll kill us if we don't do what they say!"
"What's to stop them killing - us anyway?" Harkat asked. "The vials are all that's - keeping us safe. If we abandon them, why shouldn't they - cut us down dead?"
I licked my lips nervously, gazing at the Kulashka chief, who repeated his gestures, smiling warmly this time. I pointed to his spear when he finished. He looked at it, then tossed it away. He snapped at the rest of the Kulashkas and they too disposed of their weapons. Then they took another few steps away from us, spreading wide their empty hands.
"We have to trust them," I sighed. "Let's quit while we're ahead, put the vials back, and pray they're people of their word."
Harkat delayed for another frustrating moment, then nodded gruffly. "OK. But if they kill us on - our way out, I'll never speak - to you again."
I laughed at that, then stepped up to the crystal cylinder to return the vial of poison to its rightful place. As I did, a bearded man stumbled out of the shadows of the temple, waving a jug over his head and whooping loudly. "Fear not, lads! The fleet's here t' save ye!"
"Spits!" I bellowed. "No! We're sorting this out! Don't?"
I never finished. Spits raced past the chief and smashed him over the head with a long curved knife. The chief fell, screaming, blood pumping from his scalp. The other Kulashkas yelled with confusion and anger, then dived for their weapons.
"You moron!" I roared at Spits as he bounded on to the altar. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Saving ye!" the ex-pirate yelled with delight. He was weaving heavily from side to side, drunker than I'd ever seen him, his eyes barely focused. "Gimme that bottle o' pus," he grunted, snatching Harkat's vial from him. "If this is what the freaks is scared of, this is what we'll let 'em have!"
Spits raised the vial to lob at the Kulashkas. A loud shriek stopped him - the Grotesque was returning! Either the woman controlling it had been distracted by Spits's wild entrance, or she'd decided to set the beast on us. Either way, it was scampering towards us on its fingers at a frightening speed. In a couple of seconds it would be on us and the fight would be over.
Yelping with a drunken mixture of excitement and terror, Spits tossed the vial at the Grotesque. The glass missed its head, but connected with its long, fleshy body and smashed open. The instant it did, there was a huge explosion and the Grotesque and the floorboards beneath it disappeared in a spray of blood, flesh, bone and splintered wood.
The explosion blasted us from the platform and sent the Kulashkas crashing to the floor like bowling pins. I had just enough presence of mind to cradle my vial close to my chest as I fell, then tucked it inside my shirt to keep it safe as I rolled over on to my back in the aftermath of the blast. I now knew why the Kulashkas were so afraid of the vials - the Grotesque's venom was liquid explosive!
As I sat up, stunned, ears ringing, eyes stinging, I saw that the Grotesque wasn't the only casualty. Several of the Kulashkas - those who'd been closest to the monster - were lying dead on the floor. But I hadn't time to feel sorry for the Grotesque worshippers. The blast had also shattered a couple of the huge pillars supporting the roof, and as I watched, one pillar tipped over and crashed into another, which toppled into another and then another, like giant dominoes. Gazing up at the ceiling, I saw a series of cracks run across it, then huge chunks of the roof broke loose and cascaded down around the collapsing pillars. Within a matter of seconds the temple was going to fold in on itself, crushing all who lay within!