's 2019 Horror Write-off:

The Zaïmph

Submitted by Shakara

The silence of the temple was comparable to deafness. Not a singular breath nor step intruded the perfumed atmosphere of the sanctum. Even during the days of worship, the priests, priestesses and slaves kept quiet. Prayers were whispered and hymns were crooned as the dark blue of night overtook the sinking red.
The temple was built in honour of the goddess of the night, She Who Changes Faces. Constructed of obsidian, inlaid with nacre, it shone in the moonlight. In the dark of the new moon, it looked rather black. Twas a holy place. A beloved place.

Baalshillek and Ahirom didn’t plan to make a late-night tribute.
No, the treasure they sought was worth far more than all the gold in Carthage.
“The cloak?” Ahirom whispered, carefully closing the door to the crypt. He’d known of the weathered brick, and how they could be removed by hand. Him and Baalshillek had passed surreptitiously through the corridor of stone coffins, none to bear witness but the inert statues of the gods.
“What else, you fool? The Mantle of She Who Changes Faces.” Even saying the name made the air tingle.
Legend had it that the cloak was woven by the goddess herself. Made from skeins of her hair and doused in starlight, it was a hallowed thing.
“Nobody has ever tried to steal it before.” Ahirom spoke fearfully, following Baalshillek as they wove past the pillars, avoiding the night guards.
“They were too afraid. But not I.” Hound-like, his smile shone through the dark. Petty thieves and their gold-pilfering- But how would Carthage react to the theft of The Mantle itself? He would be the most powerful man alive.
At last, they made it to the inner sanctum. Several times they were almost caught, but Baalshillek had brought along his dagger for such an occasion. Ahirom followed him with increasing uncertainty. Why had he joined him again?

“Look.” Baalshillek pointed to the high altar. There was a statue of a priestess of old, holding the cloak in her arms. The statue was golden, but was dull compared to the cloak. Unmoving, surrounded by tributes of incense, coin and gemstones.
Ahirom looked to the item, rapt. It shifted colours in the moonlight. Pale blue, silver-violet, light rose-pink, then delicate platinum. The foot-soldier became lost in its shimmering hues, practically hypnotised. Constellations whirled within its silken folds, nebulae of aeons long past shining and spiralling…
With a laugh of mocking exultation, Baalshillek swept the cloak from the stone hands, holding it before him.
“What’re you doing?” Ahirom cried, involuntarily. Baalshillek simply lifted and analysed the glimmering cloak. Cold disgust welled in Ahirom’s heart. He may not have been the most faithful man, but he certainly knew the price of impiety!
Baalshillek wrapped the mantle around his shoulders.
“Does it befit me?” He looked back to his awe-struck companion. Gripping the hem, he spun on one foot and the constellations danced.
“Come. We shall show the others how powerless the gods are. She Who Changes Faces is nothing but a bejewelled whore!”
Ahirom looked to the lone statue, its arms held out now as if beseeching the mantle’s return.
He had read of the lore. He had studied the mythos. Where was the fire from heaven meant to smite thieves?

The two ran through the desert, away from the pilfered temple.
“Where are the gods? Are they asleep?” Baalshillek shouted through the dunes, as if daring a challenge. Homeric laughter rang through the air. Ahirom weakly laughed beside him.
Looking back, he began to hear the clanging of spears on stone. The guard had been alerted.
“So! Now the guards come to scavenge their piece of silk!” The cloak billowed behind him like a pair of starlit wings.
“It’s the divine mantle, you impious parasite!” Ahirom shouted at last, finding his voice, nearly choked with emotion. “It belongs to She Who Changes Faces!”
He gripped his arm and pulled the man back.
“What was that?” His eyes narrowed and the cloak began to dim to a shade of red, struck through with hot yellow lightning, like a robe of hellfire.
Baalshillek paused to circle him, unwary of the approaching guards already on the horizon.
“You wish to stop me? I have divine power!” The silken garb swelled with shimmering blue light.
“Do you have the gall?” the cloak flicked at the air like silent ocean waves.
“I have the sanctity!” Ahirom withdrew his dagger.
“May the desert scour your bones!”

Ahirom was fully ready for a duel to the death. Being a soldier, he had the heart of one, and fully expected the blows to land and sever his tie to this world.
But his death was not to come.
Baalshillek had taken but one step towards Ahirom, when he’d frozen. In that instance, Ahirom noted a new emotion within his eyes. One that he’d never conceptualised he’d see so clearly in his life. Terror. Pure, mortal terror.
Baalshillek gripped the shoulders of the cloak, as if deathly cold. “N-No… What…?”
He began to pull it away, but it would not separate. Disregarding its delicate beauty, he started to tear at it, veins appearing in his hands as he tried vainly to strip it away.
Ahirom saw the first gouts of blood appear on his palms. Lifting his dagger, the soldier tried to cut the mantle, but the blade chipped and splintered with each strike.
He fell to his knees, hands out. The cloak slipped, only a bit, and Ahirom stepped backward as he saw the fresh blood oozing from his shoulders. Raw and pink in the moonlight. His clothes became ragged as they were torn apart.
Baalshillek struggled, now fully in pain, and it could no longer be silenced. He started to scream, yet still, the mantle refused to lift. It clung to him closer than a shadow, glimmered red all throughout the torment.
“Gods above, it hurts!” In his thrashing, the hood lifted up and came down over his face. Baalshillek howled as he peeled it away, and with it, his own scalp and part of his cheek. He began to scream.
“Help me, Ahirom!”
Ahirom didn’t realise it, but he was praying. Baalshillek’s face was now a mess of dark red, his lips vanished by the embrace of the beautiful, shimmering, devouring mantle.
“AHIROM, HELP ME!” His raw hands clutched at the soldier’s arms, slipping as the exposed flesh slid away, retracting like melting snows. The blood soaked into the desert sand, the carmine fluid not daring to stain the mantle.
He walked towards his companion, now splayed out spread-eagle, whimpering.
“The mantle is your burial shroud.”
Baalshillek looked up with lidless eyes, trying to lift himself upon skinned arms. At last, Ahirom took out his dagger and drew it across his companion’s throat in one swift motion. His breath faded into merciful silence.

At last, he was found, the priestess and guards looking over the dunes.
Ahirom was kneeling beside the ruined body, the cloak removed and folded neatly upon the sand.
“What has happened?” she asked. Not that she required an answer, for she already knew.
“Baalshillek stole the mantle of the goddess. It punished him thusly-” he motioned to the skinless body, tendons hanging off the bones like rags. “-and I removed the cloak from him."
“I thank you, soldier. For this deed, you shall be rewarded!”

Baalshillek was buried the next day, and given the burial of a sinner. He was not given candles, but prayers for mercy.
Ahirom had paid visit to the funeral, trying to think of something to say, only to stand wordlessly. No longer a simple foot-soldier, he was now given the priestess’s blessing, to become a night-guard. A fine prize, but his mind was elsewhere.
Ahirom tried in vain to forget how, in the light of the moon, the cloak’s silken folds had resembled miniscule teeth, prising away Baalshillek’s flesh as it grew ever-more colourful…