She was falling. The darkness clung like syrup, growing ever thicker as she tumbled downwards. The charnel smell reached her first, far worse than a battlefield in the heat of summer. Next came the screams, distant but growing louder.
Lacita clutched at her chest, but found no dagger hilt protruding there, nor cloth to cover her modesty. She’d entered the afterlife without possessions, without even the dignity of clothing. Anger and disbelief rose inside her, but were annulled in moments when the screams, once a distant affair, grew with a speed she could never have believed. The voices of others tumbling downwards added to the cacophony, and only clenched teeth prevented her from joining them in their terrified lament.
Next was the shock of impact as she struck a fleshy mattress, which writhed and screamed. Disorientated, she felt about her, the near perfect darkness adding to the confusion. Hands grasped at her, voices pleaded with her, but she could do nothing for them. Her reward for securing her people’s future was not to stand beside the Gods, but to rot alongside countless others. It hardly seemed fitting.
Was this to be her eternity?
Before Lacita could become accustomed to such a poor payment for a lifetime of sacrifice, something struck her, driving her beneath the surface. With horror, she realised further bodies were piling on top. She became one with the struggling mass, now pressed tight all around as she struggled towards the surface.
But more bodies fell, and she sank deeper. The last air was forced from her lungs as, like a grape in a press, she was squeezed tighter. The screams around her ceased, the writhing becoming twitches as bones snapped and innards spilled from ruptured bodies. There was no way back upwards, for the dead continued to rain downwards, so Lacita tried to force her way sideways. Although no one offered her resistance, those around her were packed too tight, forming an impenetrable wall of spasming cadavers. Downwards she was pulled, the press of the dead and dying constricting her yet further.
Her life, starting as a farmer’s daughter and ending as Queen of a united people, taught her surrender never brought reward. She could not go up, she could not move sideways, but below her was a bloody stew of torn flesh and bone. Intuitively she realised the morass was still aware, screaming in silence as tortured souls, their bodies destroyed, drifted in a sea of blood. While her body was still whole, she forced herself deeper, and those clinging to life offered her free passage for they still sought to clamber towards a surface they could never reach.
Breaking through the underside was like smashing ice atop a fast-flowing river. The current wanted to drag her into the depths, but she felt certain that only oblivion waited her deeper down. Although her lungs no longer needed to hold air, the all-consuming sense of suffocating filled her mind, making rational thought difficult.
She had to move, had to fight, and that meant struggling against the irresistible current. Gaining what little leverage she could on the underside of the mat of fractured bone, Lacita pulled herself along, blind and with little hope of a positive outcome. She sensed a few others around her doing the same, and wondered if they were the fools for not accepting the inevitable. The desire to breathe screamed in her mind, but she was sure to do so would invite her destruction, for there was nothing other than the blood of the dead with which to fill her lungs.
How long she struggled, she could not say, but she did not pause. At one point, a body bounced off her, carried by the current, and she grasped hold of an arm in the hope of lending aid, but their combined mass threatened to drag her away, so she was forced to let go. Why was she here? Why had she been forsaken in the afterlife?
And then she struck something solid. Certain she’d lost her mind, she clung to a rock wall, fearful it would disappear if she let go. She reached a cautious hand upwards, but found no barrier blocking her progress. Lacita moved towards the surface, the rough wall making the climb simple, all the while concerned as to what she would find above. Whatever awaited her could be as nothing compared to what she’d endured since entering this accursed place.
Caution gave her pause when a sliver of light reached her through the ocean of blood, for shapes moved above. A loud splash sounded nearby, and she froze, feeling as she would before battle during her mortal life. When a body landed just beside her, she tensed and edged a few feet to one side, peering upwards in an attempt to see what it was that awaited her beyond the Blood Lake.
Now inches beneath the surface, she could make out a rim to the charnel pit, just a foot above. A shadow fell across her, and she pushed herself flat, aware that whoever was there would be able to see little, if anything, beneath the surface. Someone stood on the edge, peering downwards. To her side, she sensed someone moving back towards the surface. Whoever had just fallen or, more likely, been pushed in, was attempting to clamber out again. She focussed on the hazy outline of the figure overhead and saw a leg thrust outwards at the one trying to escape, knocking them back in.
With no time for consideration, Lacita reached upwards, grabbed the rim and leapt out, dropping into a crouch as she tried to focus on the figure two yards to her side, her eyes now a little better adjusted to the darkness. A man. He took a step towards her, and she kicked at him, catching him on the knee with the ball of her foot. His leg buckled and, too close to the edge of the pit, he tumbled in and was dragged away from the edge where he disappeared beneath the surface.
Off to the side, another man, as dark skinned as her, edged closer. “Don’t even think about it,” Lacita hissed.
The man stopped in his tracks, although murder danced in his eyes. He held up his hands, backed away a few steps and resumed his vigil on the rim of the bloody lake.
What sort of a crazy nightmare had she stumbled into? Fury built inside her when the man kicked a poor soul back into the lake. Ready to confront the foul creature, splashing at her feet caught her attention. A slender woman fought to pull herself out, terror leaving her thrashing with renewed vigour when Lacita turned towards her. “Take my hand,” she said, crouching by the rim. “Quick, before these animals try to push us both back in.” She looked both left and right where further figures ringed the edge of the huge lake that, curving gently, ran for many miles in both directions. When the woman at her feet did nothing but stare, Lacita grasped both of her wrists and dragged her out. “Did you not hear me?”
The woman, awash with blood, stared at Lacita. “Why?” She wrenched her hands free and backed away.
The woman turned and fled before Lacita could even comprehend her question. “What is this place?” She turned back towards the lake and moaned in horror as she beheld what it was. Spared the true understanding of it by the darkness, she could still make out the formless mound of the dead. It stretched upwards towards a maelstrom of blood-red thunderclouds, from which a steady stream of bodies rained. “Where am I?” she shrieked. Lacita dropped to her knees and grasped her head, slick with congealing blood.
As soon as she was prone, the tall dark-skinned man, possibly even a countryman, rushed towards her, his intent obvious. She leapt to her feet and, just as he thought to use his weight to barrel her back into the lake, leaned backwards, planting her foot to his chest. Her attacker’s momentum sent him flying over her head and into the lake, where he disappeared beneath the surface, never to reappear again. “Are you next?” she asked of another man who strode towards her. He was, she noticed, clothed and had not been amongst those stood lakeside.
“This is what you have earned,” the man said, stopping a few yards from her.
“I’ve earned?” Lacita repeated.
“You asked what this place is, and now you have your answer,” the man said. “You’ll serve your tenure here, stirring the broth that feeds our Master and, if you’re lucky, you may earn a place on the Shaded Mountain.”
“I serve no man,” Lacita snapped. “I was a queen in life, and will bow to no one but the gods.” She looked about her at the barren wasteland that stretched to the horizon in all directions. “Whatever this Shaded Mountain is you speak of, I wish no part of it.”
“You serve him, or your flesh and soul are ground down to feed him.” The man nodded at the lake of blood. “There are no other choices.” He pointed over his shoulder. “There lies the Shaded Mountain, and he resides at its zenith. The most favoured amongst us may rest at his feet on the highest tier.”
The Shaded Mountain loomed large behind the man, a red glow surrounding its summit. Lacita was certain it had not been there a moment before. “I do not wish to be the favoured of one who feeds off the blood of others, like a bloated leech. I reject him, and I reject this vile place.” Choosing a direction that put the Shaded Mountain at her back, she walked away, eyes fixed ahead.
“You may have been a queen in life,” the man shouted after her, “but here you are as nothing. You have earned his wrath, so be on your guard, for he is your God and Master.”