Glurg mumbled his incantations as the guards brought the trembling girl up to the altar.
He with the two other senior priests held her in position. High Priest Plurger shouted and raised the sharp stone in the air. As so often happened, the girl jerked violently as she saw the stone descending to her chest. But Glurg and the two others were prepared and held her in position. The stone pierced her chest. Blood spurted.
All four priests said the incantations appropriate to their role. Then the priest Burg dragged the lifeless corpse to the stone chute and sent it down to be handled by acolytes below.
Glurg had been brought to the temple as a small boy and raised to be a priest. He memorized everything he was supposed to, said all the rites and incantations with sincerity and gravity, tracked the stars and recorded his observations on parchment. His care and devotion had been noted, and five years ago Plurger had selected him to replace one of the three senior priests who had died. Now Plurger was getting older.
Since he first arrived at the temple as a small boy he'd witnessed the virgin sacrifices. Every five days, three healthy, beautiful virgins on the cusp of womanhood were brought to the temple, each guaranteed to be at least 14 years of age. The High Priest stabbed each one in turn in the heart with a sharp stone. The Sun God demanded it.
As far as Glurg knew, girls weren't really even people. They never said anything coherent. Sometimes they were silent as their lives were offered to the gods, other times they whimpered or screamed. But they weren't really people, right? Not like men and boys. Since he had ascended to senior priest, he was aware just how hard they thrashed and also aware that all too often they soiled themselves as they prepared to meet the Sun God. Like animals.
He lived a sheltered life among the priests, never venturing outside, and in turn the public never came inside the temple complex.
One festival day as Plurger ascended the steps to the sacrificial altar, his wheezing was worse than usual. He stopped in the stone anteroom behind the altar to rest for a full minute before stepping out into view of the crowd. He dispatched the first girl with vigor, but then groaned and slouched back in the corner against the wall while Burg disposed of her body -- he was supposed to stand with dignity the entire time, of course. He pulled himself upright as the second victim was brought into position. He didn't raise the stone as high as before, and when he plunged it downward it didn't come down straight, so while he gave the girl a deep gash, it didn't puncture her chest and stab into her heart. She wailed. Would the Sun God be unhappy? Would their crops not grow? But Plurger raised his hands once more, to the full required height, and plunged downward once more. This time his aim was true, and the virgin's blood spurted as she gave her life to appease the Sun God. But Plurger gave a huge groan, dropped the stone, clutched his chest, and fell to the ground. The crowd murmured.
The two other senior priests knelt by his side in alarm and anxiety. Glurg saw blood gushing from Plurger's mouth and knew he was dead.
Glurg thought fast. He knew that when the High Priest died, the three senior priests met to select a new High Priest. It had happened when he was a young man, and that was when Plurger had been elevated to High Priest. But a High Priest had never died during the human sacrifice before. There was still one virgin to sacrifice. And here they were, the knot of priests around the altar, one down on the stone deck and two of the others crouched by him, their anxiety palpable. Only Glurg remained upright. What's worse, the hundreds of people murmured louder and shifted restlessly. The people must always see the priests as calm and in control. They must have confidence.
"Burg, Stlug", he hissed to the other two. "Leave him for now; drag him out of the way. Stand up and act like priests..."
He was acting like High Priest. Someone had to do it. The other two dragged the limp Plurger out of the way, then hurried back to the altar where the girl's corpse still bled.
"Now get rid of the sacrifice ... With dignity!" hissed Glurg.
The other two seemed relieved to be following orders, and soon resumed their calm, deliberate movements, their faces assuming once more the impassive expression priests always wore in public.
There was one girl left to sacrifice, and Glurg would have to be the one to plunge the stone into her heart! He hoped he would have the strength and skill to pierce her chest cleanly, without a chance to practice on animals first.
The guards delivered the last girl into the hands of Burg and Stlug, who guided her to the altar. He hoped the two of them could handle her if she thrashed.
Then the girl looked at him and gave a nervous smile. He looked away uneasily. He'd rarely seen a girl smile before. Then she spoke.
"Mr. Priest, sir, you know, I had a vision last night. I thought, you know, the reason we get sacrificed is so the Sun God will be pleased and make the crops grow and the flocks increase. But He came to me in my dream and said, 'This is a fertility rite. The priest must fertilize you before he sacrifices you.' So I thought I should, like, tell you, because we want to do what the Sun God says, right? I mean, we do want the rains to come on time, right?"
This girl talked just like a human being. Her voice was soft and sweet, and she had a pleasing face. He kept his eyes averted but couldn't help glancing at her. Stlurg and Burg seemed as uneasy as he did. First Plurger dying, and then this girl talking, making sense, making a proposal. This was all very unusual. Glurg weighed the sharp, heavy stone in his hand but did not raise it.
"And, you know, I mean I don't really mind dying and all, but it would seem too bad to get all cut up and bloody and croak if it wasn't really what the Sun God wanted, right? So maybe one of you could fertilize me first? And then kill me later? Besides, I've always kind of wondered what it would be like to get fertilized. Just once, before you kill me."
Fertilize? What did she mean by 'fertilize'? He certainly couldn't ask her -- High Priests knew everything! And while he had held countless girls while Plurger plunged the stone knife into their hearts, he'd never heard one talk like this before. If girls had gazed up into Plurger's face, he'd never noticed it. The idea of plunging the stone into this particular girl's chest and watching while the other two dragged her bloody, lifeless corpse to the chute made him a little sick to his stomach.
He needed to think of something, fast. Something dramatic, and fitting for the High Priest.
He dropped the stone, turned dramatically to the crowd, and raised both hands into the air. "The Sun God commands us to wait!" he intoned. He waited nervously for the crowd's reaction, but he could sense them all relaxing.
"Yessss!" hissed the girl. "Whew! That was close."
"Silence!" intoned Glurg in a low voice.
"Oops ... Sorry," she whispered.
"What do we do with her?" whispered Stlug. "Give her back to the guards?"
"No," said Glurg. "She comes back inside the temple with us."
"A girl, a sacrifice, inside the temple?" asked Stlug with astonishment. No one but priests and acolytes set foot inside the temple. Certainly no female!
Glurg held his ground. "This one is different!" he said. "Just into the anteroom, long enough for us to consider."
The other priests eyed him uneasily, but released the girl and straightened up.
"Follow me," said Glurg to the girl, who scrambled up from the stone with a big smile.
"Cool!" she said, grinning and bouncing on her feet.
"But act dignified, for the Sun God's sake!" he murmured to her.
"Oh, sorry," she said, and assumed the same solemn mask as the others.
Glurg led the way, the girl followed, and the two other priests came behind.
When they were in the private room behind the altar area, out of sight of everyone, Glurg turned to face the girl and the other priests.
"Leave us," he said solemnly to the other two. "This girl has had a vision. I must hear it from her before I decide what course is best."
"Um, are you sure?" asked Stlug.
"Do you question me?" That was a bold move, since he hadn't been elected as the next High Priest. But he was pretty sure they all shared the understanding that he was going to be next.
"See to the body of our departed High Priest," he said, and the two slunk away, looking back over their shoulders. "Lay him out in the courtyard."
"Sit!" said Glurg to the girl, pointing to a woven mat.
She did as asked. He sat down on the other mat, the two of them on adjoining sides of the low, square table.
"So, tell me this dream again."
"OK, sure, Mr. Priest." She repeated what she'd said before, but then elaborated. "He said he appreciated offering him virgins and all, but he's just not as horny as he used to be, and, well, um, he has trouble getting it up for a corpse, you know."
'Horny'? 'Get it up'? What did she mean? Was this village slang? He nodded gravely.
She paused. "So, since he isn't fertilizing the girls any more, he thought, um, someone else should do it. Like probably the High Priest! So if that's what Mr. God said to do, then we really ought to do it, don't you think?"
When Glurg didn't answer, she continued, "And for me, too, I hoped you could, you know, fertilize me first, so at least I'd know what it was like before you plunge that damned -- oops! -- plunge that blessed, sacred stone into my chest and offer my spirit to the Sun God."
.... There is more of this story ...