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The sense of dread I'd been feeling ever since we entered the cavern increased a hundred-fold the moment I crossed the line into the area defined by the six small pillars. Every trace of interest in Læ's nudity vanished instandly, as the hair on my forearms snapped to fearful attention.
One by one, the others joined us in that terrible space.
When Carleton took my hand in his, I almost jumped out of my skin.
"What the hell? Don't do that!"
"Shut up!" Carleton whispered. "Can't you see you're distracting her?"
"Join hands in a circle and be quiet!"
I reached out and took Pith's big paw in mine. It should have been comforting, but, instead, his hand was as clammy and slippery with sweat as my own.
Læ began waving her own hands in slow, intricate patterns. Her chanting grew louder and the yeasty, woman-smell pouring off of her acquired a rank edge of fear.
I thought I'd been frightened before, but I discovered that my original uneasiness was more like mild concern by comparison with what I was now feeling. I literally had to clamp my jaw shut to keep my teeth from chattering and my skin broke out in gooseflesh the consistency of gravel.
The swirling, murky luminance within the central pillar began to stretch out toward us like a ropy, glimmering mist, like tentacles lazily reaching for prey. It coiled around Læ like an immaterial anaconda, wrapping itself first around her legs, then slowly, lasciviously reaching higher and higher as it pulled her ever more tightly into its embrace.
Her chant became a controlled screech, full of wild fear and horror. Her hands flickered through arcane gestures, too fast for the eye to follow.
The arms of turbid light reached out now toward the rest of us.
We all screamed.
The light was blinding, not as the midday sun is blinding, but as dense fog is blinding, obscuring everything but itself from my view, leaving me so very, very alone in my skin.
I screamed and screamed and screamed.
Distantly, I heard the others shrieking, too, but my own terror was so overwhelming that I had no pity to spare for them, no attention for anything but my own panic. My heart threatened to leap from my chest and each breath I took required superhuman effort. The naked, animal fear was too great even to permit me to flee.
Læ's horrified, horrifying incantation peaked in a last, despairing howl of profound grief and hopelessness. For half a heartbeat, there was silence, before she brought her hands together in a single, furious clap.
Inside my head, a burst of brilliance and a thunderclap went off like a nuclear weapon detonating directly behind my eyes.
I felt myself being stretched in all directions to the size of the universe and simultaneously crushed down to quark size. In the same instant, every individual nerve in my being was lanced with white-hot flame, each separate capillary limned in fire, every single synapse exploding in an inferno of searing sensation, as if my brainstem had been plugged into a million-watt power main, just as my body was plunged into the heart of an exploding sun.
It was the most horrible torture I have ever endured and it went on and on and on and on forever. Just when I could not possibly endure it for another nanosecond, it became infinitely worse as I was--agonizingly slowly--turned inside out, my bones and guts and skin and blood and eyes and teeth and brain pulled out of me through my nose; raw, red, dripping inch by horrible, excruciating inch.
Then, in a heartbeat, it was over.
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(Copyright© 1997 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)