Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
The ground shook. It pulsated. But that was what it always did and nobody paid any attention to it anymore, just as long as the sacrifices were made. The very earth beneath one’s feet would fall and he would be extinguished if not for the sacrifices. All of the dirt, the ground, was alive, and controlled each and every aspect of every villager’s life. Every twelve years, eighteen sacrifices, eighteen innocent people, were demoted and removed from the village and redirected to the Mound, a pile of dirt and rocks and things that was riddled with tunnels and labyrinthine mazes and dead ends. Any who entered never came out, because once insanity is reached or a person starves or dies, the ground is fed.
On one such day, there was mourning and wailing, and women ran into the streets and fell upon the ground and wept, for the earth would only chose children, for the flesh was more alike the ground than those who have lived long. The streets were muddy and the houses were made from earthen bricks and thatch and wheat stalks. The townsmen were poor and ate the dust and rotten apples that fell from the trees.
Only the greatest troublemakers and least valuable children were chosen to run into the Mound. All the children in the slum would line up and the earth would rise up around a chosen child. He then went to the shack outside of the boundary of the Mound. There they ate well and were made fatter, to appease the earth and grant fruitful crops.
Sephtis was one such child. He rarely went outside, for all have a fear of the earth, but he would never even set foot on the ground. So, he fashioned thick-soled shoes.
He was bone-thin, and his face was gaunt and pallid, and his eyes were sunk into his head. He had long, wispy white hair and an abnormally wide nose.
On the morning of when the earth chose its children, the bell in the crude steeple rang out through the town, and all the children lined up on the left side of the street. The priests and magi filed out of the church, with their staves in their hands, and beat the muddy ground and called to the earth,
“O the earth, come, choose your disciples!” The congregation was low in voice and their song was haunting. The clouds hung to the ground on that day, and the sun was gone. There was no joy in the people’s eyes, no light. There was no escaping the earth, for it was ubiquitous, always underneath.
Suddenly a scream echoed down the line of children. The earth had chosen its first victim. A small girl, underfed, disappeared under the raised hump of dirt. Terrifyingly loud bawling continued. Strings of earth slithered around the children, as though snakes or some small animals were burrowing under the ground. But that was not the case. The living earth weaved in and out of the lines of children and many of them cowered in fear. Sephtis was indifferent. He knew what was to come, and he knew what he would have to do if he was chosen. There was no expression on his face, and he looked down at his feet, waiting for this to end.
His feet were wet. Mud was gathering at his feet. In a short panic, he looked to his right and his left, but none else had this happening. Then walls and columns of soil erupted from the street and encircled him. His eyes were closed and the earth washed about him and he was gone.
“God! Wake up!” An old, wrinkly man struck Sephtis across the face. He was lying in a cot in a long room. He was the last of the eighteen sacrifices. Sephtis groaned and swung his legs off the bed and with a little pain in his stomach, got up. The old man must have been a priest, for he wore a lengthy robe of green and brown and silver cloth.
“Go with the others.” He pointed towards the end of the hall, where a door stood. He watched the child stroll down the room on the soil. The priest turned and went the opposite way. The old doors creaked open and both shut equally loud.
Seventeen children greeted Sephtis with blank stares, not being impressed with his physical appearance. They were all sitting at one long table, and each had a large plate of food. He took his place at the end and began to eat. Between bites he looked around him at the building. The walls were of earth, but wooden crossbeams and columns stood to support the heavy thatch roof. A large opening in one wall led to a smaller room full of beds, but these beds looked to be more comfortable than those in the first room.
He finished the meal and followed several others into the bedding room. This room had high windows in the walls and he saw that it was night. He also saw that he was leading a train of children and he broke off and went to one of the beds.
For weeks life was like this. But Sephtis remembered what he had to do. Instead of sitting on his bed and becoming fatter, he sat on the ground and exercised, or he would jog around the rooms, or he would not finish his meal.
Due to the good food and exercise, Sephtis gained some muscle in his arms and legs, and he became stronger and not short of breath such as he was in the town.
Soon came the Mound and not a soul was spared.
The entrance was low and Sephtis had to stoop to get in. The earth brushed onto his back and he had to shake it off. There were some crude earthen stairs that descended a few steps into the ground. The cave was dark. A little light was brought in by the entranceway, and a little was supplied by the small torches lining the walls that split off from the main room. The air seemed thick and was musty and humid. Puddles of mud and waste were scattered around.
The old man was behind the crowd of children. He shoved them into the cave opening and without even taking a glance at them; he closed a large, heavy door and locked them in. Through one of the cracks he saw the man turn and leave, and on his face was the expression of sadness.
Now the time had come. Sephtis turned and saw the other children looking about. They were confused. He was not. Without any hesitation he meandered from the steps to the pathway that split off from the first room in the center. The sacrifices looked at him and waited to see if he had anything to say.
He had nothing.
“To the death.”
There was a stick and some rocks and from that, Sephtis fashioned a makeshift knife. There was nothing to eat, just as there had been for days. His thick-soled shoes were wet and muddy. He crouched in a corner of a junction of paths. None of the sacrifices he had seen were living, and he longed to hear someone’s voice. All one could hear was the hunger pains in his stomach. Any color that had been put in his face by the good food and jogging and exercising was gone, and in its place was left the face of fear. Sephtis’s ears picked up at the sound of a scream. Slowly, he stood.
He did not want to venture out from his corner, for it was the unknowing of what lied ahead that terrified him the most. His grip on the dagger was sweaty but strong. The mud squished beneath his feet, and several times it felt as though he was sinking.
He continued cautiously down the tunnel, being as quiet as possible so as not to draw any attention from anyone who may be near.
The pathway, after getting narrower, widened out into a sizable room. It was vacant, but several other paths branched out from the walls. The sound of a raspy and low gasp emanated from the earthen walls. Sephtis jumped when he heard this but his heart did not skip any beats, because being on edge was a thing that he had gotten used to.
A body staggered from one such path. Its head was down and it caught itself on one of the walls. The clothes it was wearing were torn, and it was still.
It had long hair covering its face. Blood was dripping down its leg. Something red was in its hand. The body was quivering but silent; it was not cold in the caves, but still one would shiver in fear. The body must have been a girl. She raised her head to see, for she had heard Sephtis. But she could not see- she had no face. The only facial features that he could recognize were the muscles that skin should have been covering. She opened her mouth. Blood trickled down the flap of flesh that resembled a chin and she did her best to beckon to Sephtis. In her hands was her face. It was mangled and stained in dirt and blood.
With a disgustingly horrifying sound, the girl put the skin to her face. Without warning, she screamed in pain. Some madman had ripped off her face. Sephtis ran as fast as he could in his shoes down a path that did not contain such a horror as the girl. He looked behind him to see if she was following her, but he had to keep an eye in front as well.
When he thought he had ran far enough, he stopped and squatted in the dirt and tried to think of what to do next.
Droplet after droplet of murky water dropped on Sephtis’s sleeping face. He sat up and jumped to his feet. There was mud in his hair and in his clothes. He sighed, frustrated, and anxiously looked around for his blade. He splashed in the mud, looking for it, but it was gone. Something had happened to it. Either someone had taken it, or the earth had swallowed it up.
There were a few rocks lying around near him, so he hurriedly began to search for one that would make a suitable weapon. He found two or three that could be used.
There was a fork in the pathway near Sephtis, and because he knew he needed to keep moving, he took the left path. Still clutching the rocks, he stalked down the hall. It was perfectly silent.
After a while of twists and turns and forks and such, he came to a string of several dead ends. He decided that he must have been near the edge of the Mound. As much as he wished to break through the wall or start to dig, the earth would not be pleased. So he turned and went the opposite direction. This needed to end.
He shouted as loud as he could, but being without water and food for a few days had made him weary, and so his feeble shout could not have been heard by many. The sudden feeling of being very thirsty came upon him. He kept walking. By now, he had noticed that on his way from the edge of the Mound the earthen path had been sloping down a tad, and the puddles of vomit-brown mud were trickling slowly down with him. Surely if he followed this stream there would be some reservoir at the end.
Along the way, he passed several soggy twigs and branches that somehow made their way down into the soil. Using his rocks and other strips of thatch and wheat stalk he formed two other creations that could vaguely resemble knives.
Sephtis stopped. There was a gaping chasm in the ground where the floor opened to some great cavern. The drop must have been hundreds of feet, yet that was where all the muddy water was flowing. A single, small torch was illuminating the ground below. He then took a step back, for fear that there might have been an overhang into the cavern and his weight collapse it.
The squish of his shoes in the mud was drowned in the sound of a man’s heavy breathing. He jumped, truly surprised, and looked around. There was no one behind him, but on the other side of the hole in the floor was a large young man. The man was stooped, probably from the low ceilings in parts of the Mound, and his eyes were a reddish hue, possibly from getting the mud in them. As far as Sephtis could see, there were no weapons in this boy’s hands.
The young man stepped back and put himself into a stance as though he was going to jump. He pushed off of the walls of the path and in two long was strides was in midair. Impossible! He was not going to make the jump, Sephtis knew. The span must have been ten, twelve feet. The man grabbed the edge of the cliff and tried to pull himself up, but Sephtis rested his foot on the boy’s head and pushed him off the slippery, wet surface.
A few moments later, a defeated roar echoed from the pit. The light from the torch down below had been extinguished. Sephtis trekked on.
He picked a substantially large puddle to fill his needs. After taking a few sips of the murk, he spat the last out. In his hands was a small grub. He reeled back, not so much because of the discovery of the worm, but because of the disease that one received from being so close to one grub.
His thirst was quenched, though.
“This is the end.”
He staggered from wall to wall, a terrible pain in his stomach. He felt something different on his chest and he looked down. The skin of his abdomen had changed from human to the skin of that of a grub or worm.
Soon the pain was gone and he was able to walk unimpaired, but it was noticeable that he was slowing down from the lack of food. He could have eaten the grub, but he would be dead right now. His chest was that of a grub. It was slimy and smooth, and two of three pairs of tiny legs had sprouted from where his ribs should have been. It disgusted him but he could not get away. Even as he walked, his arms swung back and forth and brushed against the feelers.
A girl was crouched in a room ahead and she saw him. She had made a large weapon and, in fear, reached for it and stood and held it in front of her.
“Stay away. Please.” She said, in a whisper, tears rushing down her face. Sephtis held his hands out as well as a sign of peace. His shirt was just a wet rag clinging onto his body, but he tried to hide his deformity. He hesitated, but dropped his blades into the soil.
She had a lovely voice. It was a great sensation as her words rushed to his ears. Possibly too great was his want of a friend, and he rushed too quickly at her. She backed up and her blade went right up at his neck.
Sephtis backed to an opposing wall. Her façade of innocent helplessness was gone and she hulked toward him with her sword in hand.
A great pain arose in his legs. He dropped to the ground and put his head down. He ran his hands up and down his thighs, and to his horror, they were now insect-like, just as his chest was. The girl stopped advancing. They waited, in the silence, for a moment or two. The pain slowly mitigated and because Sephtis knew that the girl was still ready to skewer him, he pause and prepared to jump her.
He jumped up and pounced out of the way of the first blow the girl dealt. His grub-legs were great on the muddy floors, and with inhuman speed he knelt and swiped the girl’s feet out from under her. The fallen blade was snatched up by Sephtis and he held it to her nose as she scooted back to the wall of the room. He drove the blade into her head and heard her skull crack as the sword passed into the earthen wall.
Warm blood spurted out at him.
His arms and stomach were as a grub. His eyes were yellow now, and there was blood in his cough. Hopefully, this would all soon be over. Scurrying down the corridors on all fours, he held the blades he had accumulated in his extra appendages.
It was then when he was running that the transformation was completed. A pain like a lightning strike bolted through his head. A terrible migraine began, and he felt his lips dissolve into silky tentacles and his eyes divide and he saw things a thousand times at once. His ears were gone, and his neck had swelled and become flush with his back. His nose fell from his face and burrowed in the sand. He lay on the ground curled up in a perfect circle and he died.
He was the last person alive and the last to die. The ground engulfed him and he was gone.
Credit To – Chandy and Gart