The cry of the temple whores cut like sighs in the night, and the thrumming of the ritual drums gave the temple of Shadlao a rumbling, thrumming pulse. The night of sacrifice was upon the land, and in the court below, whore and noble, neophyte and hierophant mingled in debauched reverence. Commingled with plumes of incense stinking of exotic blossoms and dry, dessert places, the sickly-sweet perfume of the purple lily hung in hazy tendrils that writhed and quivered with a life all their own.
Over it all, squatting on the tall wall that segregated the temple grounds from the streets of Khlun, the hunchback stared on in disgust. For an hour he had watched, hidden in the moonless night, as the obscene festivities waxed stronger. The hour of sacrifice was almost upon the temple, when ancient rites would be worked, old pacts honored and new demons brought to the world.
A sneer revealed crooked, fanglike teeth, and the hunchback swung from his perch. From the unwieldy shape of him, none would imagine the hunchback capable of such deft movement. Deft he was, however, swinging from handhold to handhold like some great ape, his fingers like tree roots finding the weakness in each stone, securing his course until at last he came to the earth once more, squatting and spreading his broad spade of a hand on the cobblestones to steady himself.
Drawing a tattered and much worn cloak over his face, the hunchback made for the temple’s vaulted portico, its ebon caryatids worked in grotesque displays of lust, their eyes making mock of all who made supplication in this whore’s paradise. Here, the light thrown from the braziers cast the hunchback in their stark green glow. A massive beast, hunched as he was the thief stood taller than the tallest reveler. Face obscured by a strip of cloak, the hunchback’s one good eye glared out from the ruined mass of his face.
No guards challenged the hunchback, no wardens barred his path. They too had abandoned their stations on this, the holiest night. On heavy feet he padded, tread a ponderous, rolling gait. From brazier to brazier, curtain to curtain he moved, turning aside the welcoming embrace of man and woman alike. Those that marked the hunchback’s passing turned a lazy, irritated eye his way. No protest was given, however, for other diversions swift presented themselves.
To the grand altar the hunchback went, to the ebon effigy of Shadlao itself. A cruelly beautiful face gazed down on the intruder, the grotesque bulk to which it was attached defying any natural order while giving the perception of a monstrous bat, thick rolls covered in a serpent’s scales. Reclining on its haunches, the thing’s spindly limbs folded before the great gut. In those bony-fingered hands, the effigy cupped a squalling girl-child, nude save for thick chains of gem-laced gold that girt her all about. Baring his teeth in challenge to the false god, the hunchback warily approached the altar. There was his prize, a child no more than three springs old, clad in an emperor’s fortune.
-Harken, Mongrel- The voice was soft, a lover’s caress against the hunchback’s mind. –Turn aside, for you walk the road of your own ruination.- Above the hunchback the effigy shifted, stone eyes following his every move.
From his side the hunchback draw a length of wood, too rough to be properly named a club, the metal bands encircling its girth etched in a long-dead tongue. A wary look around, and the mongrel hunchback reached out to snag the child. Clasping the screaming babe to his chest, the monstrous thief gave a start as a low moan emanated from the lips of the statue. All throughout the temple the cry echoed, whore and guard, neophyte and hierophant abandoning their play to answer their god’s summons. A stinking, sweating wave of flesh rolled through the temple, converging on the wild-eyed hunchback that dared to defy the temple of Shadlao.
Drunk on wine and the aromatic dreamdust of the lilies, the worshipers fought with tooth and nail, trying to pull the hunchback down, rend the child from his grasp. The hunchback, howling in blind fury, swung his club in long, heavy strokes. Flayed by the grasping hands, blood running from countless gashes, the hunchback crushed the skull of the high priestess before turning, bolting for an open window.
Bellowing in drunken anger, the crowd gave pursuit, but they were too clumsy, too thick with the night’s festivities to keep abreast of the hunchback. On he ran, thundering ponderously through the city as behind him the temple gongs began to ring, the temple wailing its outrage to the city beyond. Towards the Gate of Fools Mongrel ran, teeth bared in vicious amusement.
And so did Mongrel pass from Khlun, and forever was his name anathema to the house of Shadlao and those who kept its wicked court.