In those days I entertained a sporadic spirituality, feeble and transient at my weakest moments yet running deep, like a vein of gold in basest rock. I was, as St. Paul instructed, working out my own salvation.
For some, great suffering can serve as a wedge driven between a man and God; for others, a catalyst to draw him closer to his Creator. It has served as both for me, at differing times, and at times what I believed the wedge became in fact the reconciler. As I contemplated later my experience of suffering, there in the lower level of that heathen temple, it did draw me closer to my Lord. How great and all-consuming must have been His love for wretched mankind, that He would willingly undertake such extreme agony as the Crucifixion? I pondered this later as I admitted to myself, with complete and convicting honesty, this fact: I, unlike Him, would have sacrificed the lives, the souls of all humanity to end my suffering. Such is the degree of selfishness to which my pain had brought me.
I say that I contemplated this later, for at the time of its occurrence I could not think at all. I ceased to exist, in truth, as did the world around me. Nothing existed except pain, and my individualism, my self faded to nothing save a single purpose, to experience the pain. The event needed its observer. The pain even followed me into unconsciousness. No line existed between sleeping and waking. All was pain, I myself nothing save a part of it.
I cannot say how long I existed in this state. The pain had swallowed time. I know it could not have been for long, the time it took Oran to snag me, casting a rope from the safety beyond the reach of the Devil’s Hand, and drag me to him over the floor.
“I believed you dead, my lord,” he told me later. “I had no doubt of it. But I could not leave you there in that awful place.” My loyal Oran.
As it turned out, and fortunate it proved for me, I’d been right in my theory that the Hand would not bother to attack any inanimate, unliving object passing within its reach. Unable to reach me where I lay, shattered—I have explained that the chamber of the hand formed a rectangle, with space at either end to escape the hand but none in the center—Oran dragged me to him with a rope. The Hand did not see any need to smash down on the shattered, lifeless husk of my body, and again I say, it is well for me that it did not. Oran, shocked to find me still living, succeeded after some time in rousing me. I could scarce form the breath to speak with my lungs collapsed and ribs crushed, but I managed: “The…p-powder!”
He grasped my meaning. The two pouches given to me by the witch had somehow remained unbroken, somehow not burst, and were still affixed to my girdle. The larger sack, from which I partook little dosages that kept me from transforming into the beast, and the smaller one, from which I had taken nothing, the little sack filled with the witch’s drug, the one she had promised would trigger my transformation.
Oran understood. It is sometimes necessary to use evil to combat evil. The same unholy force that animated the giant stone Hand and the dead flesh of the baboon’s mummy might, if anything could, save me. Perhaps we were wrong to employ evil for any purpose, should have trusted to prayer, let the Almighty heal me if He so chose, and if not accept it. But I have already mentioned the depths to which I would have resorted to escape my state, and even Oran in his piety did not hesitate to untie the smaller sack and feed me its entire contents. We were both too desperate for moral objections.
Swallowing the powder constituted an exquisite agony. Oran gave me water from his water skin.
“Leave me,” I managed.
“No, my lord,” he began to protest. But the change had already started to take me. The witch had not deceived me. Her magicks worked. The powder transformed me into the beast.
How long did I lay there, in the darkness, after Oran and the others had fled? I do not know. How long did it take for my destroyed flesh and bones, now changed into the shape of the monster, to knit back together? I cannot say. I remember nothing save the pain, wallowing on the floor, unable to get up, snapping and snarling in impotent fury, until after a time I could get up. I have little memory of, devoid of all intelligence or caution, attacking the Devil’s Hand. The beast must have moved fast enough to avoid the hand, as I do not recall being reinjured. I do recall climbing the Devil’s Hand, scratching and biting the hard stone as if doing so could somehow hurt it. After some few minutes, the Doghead had voided its senseless rage in its attempts to cause injury, to kill solid rock. Giving up or satiated—who can say?—it then turned its rage upon living flesh.
For days I hunted, under the thrall of the drugs, trapped in the form of the beast. Day and night I haunted the forest, seeking out anything I could find, to kill it. I remember finding the native village, or one of them. The fierce black men with their spears and warpaint were not prepared for the monster. I remember the ease with which I tore through the crude fence of wooden poles which surrounded the village. The beast struck during the night; I know not whether by design or happenstance. I suspect the latter. I do know the natives were taken unawares. So many died. Survivors fled into the forest. I spent the next two days hunting them down.
Dozens were killed by the beast. True, they were our enemies and had attacked us; at least their warriors had done; the women and children had done us no wrong, but these likewise perished beneath its—beneath my—fangs and claws. Whether enemies or no, were all those lives taken worth the salvaging of my own? The beast had saved my life, but it had taken its payment in full, and in blood. As terrible a transgression as it was, I know that were I placed in the same circumstances again I would do the same thing. I would summon the Doghead and damn the consequences. Damn the victims.
I did not tell Oran about all the people I killed. I bear the knowledge, and the guilt of it, alone.
Oran and the other Marmorcans had sense enough, for their part, to rush back to the ship after my transformation, and to wait there until the witch’s drugs had burned out of my system and I changed back to a man. When this happened I found them waiting for me at dock. I learned that the natives had staged one additional attack against the ship since I, Oran and the others had left to seek the temple, but the Marmorca, on guard, had seen the attackers coming and thus were able to defend the ship without losing it, although we had lost two more men.
That there were no other raids against the Marmorca during this time I credit to the Doghead and its attack on the native village. Our enemies had found themselves too busy with hiding and grieving their dead to worry about our ship.
When the magicks at last wore off and I became myself again, I found myself whole, healed in full. The witch’s magicks were potent, and the power of the beast even moreso. Naked and stained with the blood of my victims, I wandered for days, and at last made my way back to the temple. There I discovered that I, as the Doghead, had broken off a finger from the Devils Hand. It had done me great harm but I had repaid some of that. I confess a sense of some satisfaction at this.
I had to return to the temple to collect the basket filed with the jars and jugs, among these the witch’s tribute. Again I had to dodge the Hand. Did my imagination suggest it, or did the Hand move with a little less speed now? I saw gouges in the surface of the stone, made by the beast’s claws. Had I somehow wounded this unfeeling rock after all? It satisfied me to believe so.
I took the jars and jugs and returned to the ship. We set sail upriver, bound for the witch’s hut, within an hour of my arrival.
“Her magicks work, Oran,” I told him. “I will have my cure.”
“I still do not trust her, my lord. What if she refuses to help you, even after you have paid her fee?”
“For her sake, my friend,” I answered him, “let us hope that she is not as imprudent as that. I have done what she asked of me. If she denies me now, I will peel the flesh from her old bones like the skin from a banana.”
And, God help me, despite my fledgling, slow-growing yet maturing spiritual awareness, my rising hunger for and understanding of my need for His eternal grace—my ever-burgeoning need, as I became more and more steeped in innocent blood, for the redemption only He could grant—despite this, I would have done as I threatened. In a heartbeat.