Inspired by Whispers of the Snake by Seyorrol.
The cold bit into his knees. Ironic.
Sunset was turning the temple red and gold. Pale marble and white onyx were turning to blood. No, not blood.
Orange lines traced through the white. Some days, it looked like a mountain sky line, the same one he could see by looking out.
Today, it looked like the low flames of long burning coals.
Sandehp chuckled to himself, a small smile twisting his lips.
Maybe fire was just on his mind.
This chamber was the largest in the temple. There was no wall on the fourth side, and the floor kept going past the roof, to turn into a balcony. It looked out over the wide valley below them, and the burning mountains on the other side.
In the winter, when it snowed, the chamber was only good for freezing. But it was warm now. It was mid-summer. Everywhere was warm now.
Sandehp was sitting in a shallow dip in the middle of the room. It was black, scored with old soot and ash. It reflected the light all the same, like looking into a lion’s eyes. The edge of the dip had been marked by a circle drawn in ocher and blood.
It was that time of year.
There were people moving in and out of the chamber. They were tiny in this room, and stuck to its edges. Their movements were whispers on the edge of his hearing. Then the whispers stirred. Someone was speaking.
Their voice bounced off the low roof of the chamber and straight out the gaping hole. The mountains swallowed it.
But their companion’s voice was a sibilant, low, clinging thing. It eased into the corners and seemed to have no trouble staying near the stone. “I disagree. But either way, we will take your prayers with us.”
Sandehp squished his blooming smile and looked around. Nadim had stopped at the door, facing the Chief Acolyte, a crawling schemer with more grease on his head then sense in it.
Okay, that probably wasn’t fair.
But Sandehp didn’t care for him.
Nadim was winding his tail through the door, even while he spoke. He’d lifted his head to about knee height on the Chief, who had stepped back a step so he didn’t have to look down quite so sharply.
Nadim’s subdued colors were hidden by white paint. His browns and dark, dark greens seeped through as texture and shadows. He blended into the floor surprisingly well.
The Acolyte bowed and Nadim dipped his head in response. Then the massive priest lowered himself back to the floor and slid his way toward where Sandehp was sitting in the center of the chamber.
Sandehp waited to greet the snake until he was closer. Nadim’s voice carried in this chamber, but everyone else’s just fell out into the sky. When asked why, Nadim would only say, ‘Snakes cling better then you poor humans.’
“Evening, Slithers.” Sandehp moved one of his hands off his lap and onto the floor. He put it over the painted line. He couldn’t lift Nadim. He was over four hundred pounds. Nadim sniffed his fingers, flickering his tongue across them.
“Good evening, my little hairy monkey.” Nadim moved over the angle of his arm. The paint had to be done in the morning, which meant it was still drying now. They couldn’t have it smeared.
Sandehp ended up bracing his elbow on the floor. His attention narrowed to keeping his arm just a breath off the line as Nadim brought his long weight across it. Sandehp could feel his friend’s muscle, rolling and tensing, shifting beneath his smooth skin.
As Nadim moved into the circle, he drew himself around Sandhep’s legs. Another circle, just for now.
They’d met when Sandehp was five. Almost twenty years ago now. His parents had left him at the foot of the temple, in the hopes that they’d take him in and feed him. Sandehp had gotten bored of waiting and walked up the thirteen thousands steps through the long, balmy night.
Nadim had been lounging on the last one, sunning himself on the black marble porch of dawn-side. Sandehp, quite startled, had shouted ‘Ither!’ which had been what he’d called at home to warn his parents when he saw a snake.
Nadim had lifted his huge, blunt nose and said, ‘Loud hairy monkey!’
Sandehp had been so shocked he’d sat down. That’s where the acolytes had found him, curled up and sleeping on top of the dozing priest.
“What was Chiefy complaining about?” Sandehp asked, in a low voice, as Nadim brought the last of himself into the circle.
“You. What else?” The snake h’mmed, a low chuckle of humor. He slithered over himself and brought his head to the front, where he could look Sandehp in the eye. “He said he was hopeful that my wisdom would balance out your youth.”
Sandehp raised an eyebrow. “You don’t think it will?” He smiled. He was teasing, but he could feel the sharp pit opening up in his chest. “I didn’t realize I was that young.”
Nadim looked at him. His eyes were bronze, split by black from edge to edge. They looked like a great rift in an endless desert. Nadim’s black tongue flickered out. “No.” He said. “I think your strength and energy will balance out my frailty, and the heavy knowledge of my mortality.”
Sandehp dropped his eyes.
“Don’t fear.” Nadim said. “You will continue to search, and some day you will find more faith in yourself.”
“Aren’t we supposed to have respect for the opinions of our elders?” Sandehp said. But he kept his eyes down, waiting to make sure they were going to finish stinging.
Nadim gave the short hiss he used instead of a snort of derision. “Those old fogies? Only if they have something worthwhile to say.”
“Besides,” Nadim went on, “You do not listen well when you are angry.”
“Can’t deny that.” Sandehp adjusted his feet, settling back into his kneeling. The sun was almost hidden behind the hills, and black shadows were starting to fill the chamber.
Nadim eased his head onto Sandehp’s lap, and then started to crawl up his back, arching over his shoulders and curling around his arms.
“No.” The snake said, as the men bearing the tinder came forward. “You can’t.”