Grey porridge sky sank upon Aerin’s head, and the weight of the world seemed burdened upon her shoulders as she stood, back bent, upon the ashen peppered river scree mound leading up to the stony temple. She looked out down into the surging waters, as Opheus and Fjalar also stopped to wonder. Fjalar parted his bearded lips and let out a gruff bellow and Orpheus thrusted a readied spear forward to point westwards along the river at a large red flicking tail sinking quickly into the water. “It’s a comin’ quick” he said fearfully. Fjalar turned sharpish and headed between two carved feathered snakeheads sculpted into the rock. Here there was the start of a conduit that followed a long tunnel up into temple. Orpheus laid a steadying hand upon Aerin’s shoulder and the trio moved on. They soon parted further from the water as they followed shallow steps cut into mineral-dusted stone to form a concave path that led spiralling upwards in a square pattern through the earth to the centre of the structure. Fjalar spoke in a hushed tone, never stopping, about the strange powder that covered the walls and ceiling. A substance likely composed of pyrite littered serpentine rock to provide a special brightness to the place and a peculiar atmosphere that caused a permanent shiver to run down Aerin’s spine (though that may have just been the snake in the depths below). The glittering black veins of magnetite drew like fingers reaching out to grasp their shadows as they climbed within its tunnel.
Fjalar stopped for a moment to catch his breath and snuck a peek over the side of the steps down the direction from which they had come to spy only a small square of water nestled at the very bottom to which he proclaimed this “pleasing”. He grinned broadly at the thought of being so far away from that “slippery beast” however this was soon to fade as he caught sight, within that small square, of the large reddish bulge of the snake’s grotesque body moving through the water. He pulled back from the side. “I’m no’ likin’ this one bit” said Orpheus as he too had stopped to peer into the deep. Aerin nodded as she too dared to turn back to look down from their position and instantly regretted it. The trio continued on their journey, ever higher in silence.
Soon the climb ended and the travellers entered a more open chamber. A small squall rushed from another passage to their left and lifted dust to swirl about them and make them cough and splutter. They crouched low and made there way along stoney steps that led circling now downwards (much to their displeasure) around the circumference of a circular wall, the crest of which they now saw they stood upon. Aerin jumped down onto the first stone step that jutted out from the edge as though floating in space, and then the second as the other two followed behind. The steps continued spiralling downwards until finally stopping at the entrance to a small temple, nestled within the rocky basin. Flames flickered wildly causing the temple to appear white and translucent. Small jars, made out of the same stone, littered about the temple whilst two large statues, both white cats, stood bearing down upon those that entered the temple. Above the entrance way to the temple lay one keystone calved with the word ‘Bastet’. Fjalar stroked the white stone and then stroked his own beard, muttering under his breath “Alabaster this is, calcite….the stone of the ancients, an’ what statues these are….so intricate”. Orpheus marvelled at the stone sculptures also, “An’ so loif-like, I’ve ne’er seen anythin’ loik it!”
Upon the stone wall Aerin now noticed were figures and shapes carved amongst it. She lit her lamp from the great bowl of flames situated at the temple’s entrance so that she could trace one particular shape with her fingers. The grooves circled the entire wall and were the unmistakable form of a giant snake. Aerin gulped loudly before saying quietly, “ It seems we were not the first to meet the snake, for I am sure this is he who we killed upon the riverbank.” She traced the markings upon its back with her fingers, stopping at its arrow-shaped head. “See here, it’s markings are the same, the colourings are distinct.” Orpheus lit his torch to gain a better light of the strange wall markings. He looked a little higher and said “then the book was not wrong, for there are two more snakes calved upon this wall.” Fjalar’s mouth fell open before he strained to say the words “oh goody”.
Fjalar and Orpheus pushed hard against the old and decaying wooden door of the temple. It opened wildly and the three entered shyly into the building. Its walls were a mix of the alabaster and weathered greenish-white noble serpentine with again long black veins that prominently grew from ground up. Within the temple lay a grove of very tall Jacaranda trees “trees! down ‘ere!” proclaimed Fjalar. He said that he thought he would never see anything stranger, but Aerin reminded him of the snakes and the dragon. “Good point” he said. The Jacaranda decurrens were staggeringly purple growing around what appeared to be a shrine, wherein lay a small sculpture (comparative to those standing at the entrance way) of a white, translucent feline creature. The temple was square in shape, each side measuring twenty paces. Around the shrine (except for the paved pathway that led to it) water collected in a channel before disappearing underground. The ground itself was littered with strange ointment pots, some broken but most not, that littered also the shrine itself. Aerin thought it likely they were used to gather the fragrant flowers, leaves and root to be turned into an aqueous ointment. She remembered reading about its medicinal value, and that the leaves and roots were prepared in the form of tea infusions, decoction and strong potions against inflammatory diseases and infections.
Orpheus strode purposefully towards the sculpted creature, and bent ponderously over spear cemented firmly upon the ground. “Perhaps” he said, staring into the feline sculpture’s eyes, “this be the creature your book proclaimed we was not s’posed to ignore?” Fjalar walked around the shrine swinging one axe from one shoulder to the other. “Well there’s nowt else here, so it must be it, cos it better not be those pesky snakes! I’m quite happy ignoring them, thank you very much. Though what a sculpted cat’s going to do to two giant flipping snakes beats me!” Aerin pondered this thought and walked towards the shrine, placing her book upon its shelf. She opened the book and stared at the white page thinking to herself, what are we supposed to do now, I wonder?
Is that thought directed at me?
Aerin stared down at the page and frowned. “Well unless I can do some magick that I don’t know about, this sculpted creature’s not much use against two giant great lumbering snakes” She desperately looked about her hoping for inspiration, but found none, so her gaze was drawn again to the blank book.
Think of the prison doors, think of the ash tree in Ilus …think of how you came to be here, in this temple.
I’ve been lucky, thought Aerin.
Luck has nothing to do with it…are you stupid? This is your heka, this is your magick!
“My magick?” said Aerin (ignoring the ‘stupid’ comment). Fjalar at this looked quizzically at Aerin, “there is a look in your eye recently… somethin’ has changed, though I cannot put my finger on it…” Orpheus walked towards her and looked to to hold held her gaze, “Yep oi can see it too, your eyes ‘ave darkened, loik they did you wen you looked on tha’ dragon. Look upon the statue now, p’haps somethin’ has changed.”
Aerin gazed at the statue and begun to speak, though she knew it not, in a whispering voice that cut through the air like the snake hissing in the dark.
“ Ubasti, Ubasti, she of the ointment jar, lady of flame and eye of Ra. Ubasti, Ubasti, she of the ointment jar, lady of flame and eye of Ra. Answer this call for the basilisks do circle once more.”
“What the devil?” said Fjalar, for the sculpture began to rise and form a large white cat, elegant and slim with large blue eyes. The cat, once fully formed, jumped down from the shrine with much grace and strolled about the courtyard, in between the trees planted in the temple, brushing lightly over fallen purple flowers.
“Who is it that woke me from my slumber? Who has seen the basilisks of Bastet?” Asked the cat.
Aerin hesitated then bowed to the great cat (for she felt it was only right). “It was me, Aerin Paean of the city of Ilus. This is Orpheus” (she held her hand to him as he backed gingerly away from the cat) “of Goonbell” and this here” (she pointed at Fjalar as he cowered behind an ointment pot) “is Fjalar, a dwarf of the Black Mountains. And who, pray, are you?”
The cat stopped in its tracks and begun to transform again, this time into a young woman, wearing a white robe, still with startling blue eyes that felt as if they pierced your soul. “I am Ubasti, did you not call my name?”
“No” said Aerin curiously. Fjalar and Orpheus looked confused and interjected at the same time, “erm. Ay you did, twice…as a matter o’ fact. Did you not hear yourself?”
“oh, no.” said Aerin “I felt something, but did not hear a word” she said, astonished. She paused to look again at Ubasti. “what is your story Ubasti? How did you come to be?”
Ubasti stretched as if she had been sleeping for many a year before proclaiming, “I am Ubasti of Bastet. How I came to be is a long story that I believe we do not have time for, at least right now, for you called me and I awoke, which means presumably we are in imminent danger. Have the basilisks been seen?”
“Basilisks?” said Fjalar, “I don’t know no Basilisks” said Orpheus. “The serpents” said Ubasti, you must have seen them if you are here in my temple!”
“Oh them” said Aerin. “Ay we ran into one” proclaimed Fjalar “and saw another on our crossing here”.
“The book did say there were two left” said Aerin.
“The book?” asked Ubasti.
“Long story” Aerin said as she gathered it from the shrine, “magickal book, mildly annoying, useful though” and she tapped its cover.
“And the magical book said there were two left, not three?” Ubasti asked.
“Well we killed one, so that leaves two” replied Aerin, “the lowest one drawn upon the temple wall.”
Ubasti looked surprised. “then you are of great wisdom and magic to command both the book and snake.”
“Well she had ‘elp” muttered Fjalar.
“A little” said Orpheus, “we distracted it!”
“Oh that I don’t doubt” said Ubasti, “goodness binds this world that evil seeks to break”, she smiled kindly at them both before she began to walk out of the temple. “The serpents arrive, I must be ready.”
The walls of the temple began to shake and the water that had been held about the shrine dissapeared completely. As the white walls began to quake stones became dislodged and fell to the ground. Aerin, Fjalar and Orpheus ran quickly from the temple out into the hole beneath the stone steps. They watched as two serpents, smaller than the first though just as powerful, descended the abyss walls coiling one clockwise, one anticlockwise along the pathways. Ubasti stood in the middle watching their progression. She bowed her head and closed her eyes to their imminent arrival. She began to speak powerfully “Courage is not the towering oak that sees storms come and go; it is the fragile blossom that opens in the snow.” Her body began to change back into the large cat, her face transposed with long, sensitive whiskers whilst her ears moved to be repositioned upon her head in the style of the cats. Her now cup-shaped ears turned to pinpoint the exact position of the serpents in the gloom whilst her sharp claws extended out her paws to tap upon the rocky floor. She repeated the words over and over filling the temple with a cacophony of sound that lifted each and every petal from the Jacaranda trees.
As the snakes grew closer Fjalar drew his axes, Orpheus readied his spears and Aerin her sword. Ubasti spoke to Orpheus clearly “throw your spears as their two heads do meet above the tip of the temple, no sooner, no later.” Orpheus waited and released his spears as he was commanded when the serpent heads met at the very point Ubasti had said. His aim was true and the snakes writhed in agony but continued down the wall whilst the spears quivered, protruding from their eyes. “a good shot, but it is not enough” said Ubasti. “Fjalar, with your axes, swing true then fall away for their teeth are fast.” Fjalar nodded to Ubasti and stepped forward stern and bold, waiting for the snakes to be drawn to him. They turned their great heads and bore down upon him. As their mouths opened to bite he jumped between them swinging his axes against their necks before ducking out of sight behind a large ointment pot. The snakes writhed around in pain, looking for their attacker, but finding none. Ubasti spoke at last to Aerin, “healer swing your sword to protect alone, for they are angered.” As her final words were uttered the snakes bore down upon Aerin, she sliced with her sword and cut both their snouts before their heads, knocking together, clashed against her shield. She took the force of the snakes and felt her body shudder as she was tossed to meet the wall with a thud. The snakes wailed in pain and moved forward to strike Ubasti but she was no longer still. The cat had leapt into the air to scale the stone steps quickly upon the wall. She gained height above the snakes in seconds before leaping down upon them with the full force of her powerful long legs, her talons protracted gorging out the serpents’ throats, one with each paw. The snakes flashed their heads from side to side trying to catch the cat but Ubasti jumped again up onto a high ledge circling the snakes as they rose up upon their tails, their blood spilling upon the white temple, now lying red. The feline pounced once more, first on one snake then, on the other, slicing her claws as she turned through the air to rip the snakes’ thick scales from flesh with ease before landing upon them with her full force.
The snakes stopped writhing and lay dead, Ubasti now stained blackish scarlet with the blood of basilisk. “Come, we must leave this place” said Ubasti, and so they climbed up from the temple, back down to the tunnel towards the conduit and stepped out into the fresh air. Ubasti protected her eyes from the slight sun and soaked her fur in the water to wash away the blood. Then the trio took the stone steps once more, over the rocky ridge to return to the sandy river bank where the first snake lay dead and rotting. They crossed back towards the south and continued to follow the river to a great waterfall, under which the great cat Ubasti soaked her fur once more, whilst the others did rest their weary souls.