Sunday, April 1, 2012

Chapter Twenty-One


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 46,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

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In Farchrist Year Eighty-Five, eighty-one years after his birth, King Gregorovich Farchrist II died. The whole of the valley felt and grieved the passing of such a great and most-loved ruler. Born four years after the start of the Farchrist Empire, he was the son of the people as much as he was the son of his father. He was the first sign that the Empire would continue, that it would not expire like so many other temporary monarchies. He founded the Order of the Farchrist Knights and later, as King, had conveyed that title upon countless deserving young men. He had orchestrated the attack against Dalanmire and lost his only son to the winged lizard. He had opened trade with the dwarven nation to the north and ruled his kingdom with a gentle and loving hand. But of all who loved and respected him, and were saddened at his passing, when the crown was passed on to Gregorovich Farchrist IV, no one grieved more than Sir Gildegarde Brisbane II.

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Brisbane drew the last watch that night. He would guard the camp in the final hours of the night and wake the rest of the party when the sun rose. When Shortwhiskers awoke him after the second watch, Brisbane did not even think about the lost temple and what mysteries it might hold. But when he found himself sitting awake outside, listening for noises in the night, he found it hard to think of anything else.

This was no little shrine. That thought occurred to him time and time again. This was not a tiny place where people passing through could stop and pay their small respects to their god. This was a temple, where a group of ancient people spent and lived out their lives in devotion to a mythology that pleased them so much, they accepted it as doctrine. Who knew what these people had left behind? Who knew what Brisbane and his friends would find inside? Brisbane was not so uneducated that he did not realize his journey and search for the lost temple of Grecolus was not also a journey and search for Grecolus himself. But he also knew this was not a search for the Grecolus of today, the one he had been taught to fear and love, the one who had been turned into the ultimate protective father by the leaders of his religion; but it was a search for the Grecolus of yesterday, the one who used magic to battle Damaleous, the one who gave Stargazer her healing powers, and the one who had angels on earth in the shape of unicorns. Whereas Brisbane was firmly convinced that the Grecolus of today was a sham and a device to instill moral behavior on the populace, he was still open to the possibility that the Grecolus of yesterday might still be alive, stranded out here in the wilderness and abandoned by his own worshippers.

It was one of the longest nights in Brisbane’s life, longer than the nights he had spent beside his mother’s death bed, and when the sun began to lighten the sky, he quickly went over and shook the rest of his companions awake. Only Dantrius seemed annoyed at the disruption of his slumber, and as Brisbane took a small delight in that, he supposed the rest were just as eager as he to begin exploring the temple they had finally found.

The business of breakfast and packing up camp was quickly attended to and it wasn’t long before the party was gathered before the entrance to the temple on their side of the river, ready and anxious to go in.

The portal was almost an exact replica of the one at the shrine down the river. It was ten feet high and five feet wide, placed in the middle of a wall thirty feet wide and twenty feet high. The doorway had the strange and ancient runes bordering it on three sides as well. What was different about this portal was that it did not open directly into the temple itself. Inside there was a small, narrow antechamber, and inside that, directly opposite the entry portal, was a massive stone door.

Stargazer, dressed in a blue tunic and tan trousers and holding her iron-tipped staff before her, stepped up to the portal and examined the runes that surrounded it.

“They’re nearly the same as the ones on the shrine,” she said. “These on the left proclaim this to be a temple devoted to Grecolus, and these on the right warn that entrance to this temple is possible only for the faithful.”

“Does that mean it’s trapped?” Roystnof asked, dressed in red and black, his own staff in hand.

“It doesn’t say so specifically,” Stargazer warned. “It just says only the faithful can enter.”

“The trap is implied,” Roystnof said.

“How can we be sure?” Brisbane asked. His chainmail poncho twinkled in the sunlight.

“We cannot,” Roystnof said. “The warning means one of three things. One, it means exactly what it says. The entrance is magically barred and only the truly faithful to Grecolus can pass through. Two, the entrance is trapped so that one who knows the trap can enter and those who do not cannot. And three, it means nothing. It is an empty threat. Since only the second meaning contains some sort of potential danger to us, it would be wise to operate under that stipulation until something compels us to change that viewpoint.”

“Sounds sensible to me,” Shortwhiskers said. He already had his sword out. “What sort of trap should we be looking for?”

No one seemed to know and they looked at each other helplessly. Finally Dantrius, his black hair falling in his hollow face, spoke.

“The deadly sort.”

“Well,” Shortwhiskers said. “I’ll go take a look at the way this thing’s constructed. Maybe I can find a secret way in by looking at the stonework.”

Roystnof said that was a good idea and Shortwhiskers went off to inspect the outside surface of the temple. He returned shortly and proclaimed the place seemed solidly constructed to him.

“On this side of the river, at least,” the dwarf said.

“The place has a certain symmetry to it,” Roystnof said. “I would assume what is present here will be present there.”

Shortwhiskers shrugged. “Doesn’t matter, really. Unless we want to get wet.”

“We will just have to proceed carefully and hope for the best,” Roystnof said. “Nog, you have the best eye for stonework. Why don’t you lead us in?”

Shortwhiskers swallowed visibly. “All right. But don’t crowd me and don’t step anywhere I don’t step. Single file. Get it?”

Everyone agreed and they quickly decided on a marching order. Shortwhiskers would lead the way, followed by Roystnof, Stargazer, and Brisbane. Dantrius would bring up the rear. That wasn’t where anyone wanted to put Dantrius, but he put up his usual stink and this time, instead of arguing, they let him have his way. Brisbane would make it a point to watch his back as well as his front.

Before proceeding, Shortwhiskers sheathed his sword and took Roystnof’s staff. The dwarf then approached the entrance and used the staff to poke the earthen floor inside the portal. He jabbed it sharply in several places and then quickly withdrew it before it could be damaged by whatever trap might have been sprung. Lastly, he set one end of the staff in the center of the antechamber and leaned on it heavily. Still, nothing happened.

Shortwhiskers gave Roystnof back his staff. “Light, please,” he said, and Roystnof waved his hand and filled the small antechamber with one of his light spells.

Brisbane held his breath as Shortwhiskers stepped into the antechamber. This was a nervous business and it was starting to get to Brisbane. He did not like the danger the unseen trap posed for him and his friends, but he knew one thing because of it. There had to be something pretty special inside the temple for the ancient worshippers to build a trap in order to guard it.

Shortwhiskers stood in the center of the antechamber, his hands on his hips and turning in a circle, examining everything he saw. He touched nothing. The antechamber itself seemed to be a perfect ten foot cube of empty space, with hard stone for its ceiling and walls. One wall was cut with the open portal and the one opposite that had the heavy stone door chiseled into it.

The party waited as Shortwhiskers went on with his examination. He looked at the door for a long time, studying the hinges and the small cracks between them. It looked unremarkable to Brisbane but Shortwhiskers seemed absorbed by it. When he was done, he examined the flanking walls, one at a time. With the second one, he got down on his knees before it and crouched way down to peer at the line where it met the earth floor. He still hadn’t touched anything.

He sat back and began running his fingers through his beard. The dwarf isolated one of his short whiskers between his thumb and forefinger and, with a quick jerk, pulled it out of his chin. Bending back over, he brought this hair next to the wall way down by the floor and held it steady.

Brisbane stood on his tiptoes to get a good look at what Shortwhiskers was doing. He could just see the hair in the dwarf’s fingers and he saw it wiggle around in a soft current of air.

Shortwhiskers stood up and craned his neck to look at the ceiling. He walked slowly about the antechamber, holding his head up the whole time. Just when Brisbane thought Shortwhiskers was going to get a neck cramp for the rest of his life, the dwarf stopped looking up and stepped back out of the antechamber.

“What’s the news?” Roystnof asked.

Shortwhiskers pondered to himself for a moment longer. “Near as I can figure, that ceiling block is rigged to collapse. I’m not sure what triggers it, but I would assume it has something to do with the door. I mean, the floor is obviously not the trigger. Also, there is a passage behind that one wall. There’s most likely a secret entrance there. That’s probably how they got in without crushing themselves.”

“Are you sure?” Roystnof asked.

“No,” Shortwhiskers said. “But I’d bet on it.”

“How do we get in?” Stargazer asked.

“Somebody has to figure out how to open the secret door into the hidden passage,” the dwarf said. “They’ll have to touch it to do that, and that might trip the stone block, too.”

Brisbane looked up at the ceiling of the antechamber. There was the tiniest of cracks running all around it, less than an inch from the tops of the walls. Without Roystnof’s light spell, he didn’t think anyone would have noticed it. The ceiling of the antechamber was ten feet high and the temple itself was twenty feet. That meant the block could be as much as a ten foot cube of stone. That had to weigh several tons and would surely kill whomever it smashed down upon.

“You’re the stone mason, dwarf,” Dantrius said from the back of the group. “Why don’t you do it?”

Shortwhiskers looked angrily at the mage and then dismissed him with a wave of his hand.

“You’ve taken enough risk, Nog,” Roystnof said. “One of us will search for the hidden entrance.”

“No, Roystnof,” Shortwhiskers said. “It’s my game. I set the odds and now I’ll roll the dice. Give me your staff.”

Roystnof gave the dwarf his staff. Shortwhiskers stood outside the antechamber and rapped the end of the staff against the side wall, much like he had done to the floor. When nothing resulted, he gave the staff back to Roystnof and stepped inside the small chamber. He began to run his hands over the surface of the stone, covering as much of the wall as he could reach. He started from the bottom and worked his way up, running both his hands over every inch of stone. When he got up to a spot about four feet off the floor, about even with his forehead, he stopped. He put his finger on the spot and then leaned away from the wall to get a different view of the stone. Lastly, he moved in close and, standing on his tiptoes, placed his nose against the spot and inhaled noisily, sniffing the stone like a bloodhound.

“Gil,” Shortwhiskers said. “Come here.”

Brisbane exchanged glances with the rest of the party. Roystnof’s and Stargazer’s eyes were saying be careful. Dantrius’ were saying so go already. He stepped into the antechamber and stood behind Shortwhiskers, trying not to think about the rock above his head.

Shortwhiskers still had his finger on the spot. “Put your finger here.”

Brisbane placed his index finger next to Shortwhiskers’ and when the dwarf pulled his away, Brisbane moved his over a little to cover the exact same spot. It looked like any other part of the wall to him.

“That’s the spot,” Shortwhiskers said. “It’s too high for me so you’ll have to do it. You have to push on that spot with a hard and constant force. Don’t push against it in jerks, it has to be slow and steady and even. Understand?”

“I think so,” Brisbane said.

“And push directly into the wall,” Shortwhiskers went on. “Don’t push into it on any angle, that’s why I can’t do it, it’s too high for me to push on it right. Slow, steady, and straight into the wall. Okay?”

Brisbane nodded. “Anything else?”

“Just one more thing,” Shortwhiskers said as he looked up at the ceiling and began backing out of the antechamber. “Good luck.”

Brisbane dryly thanked him and turned back to the spot he was saving on the stone wall. He certainly hoped this worked. He placed both hands against the spot, braced himself, and began to push, hard and steady. At first, nothing happened and Brisbane was just glad the stone block didn’t come crashing down on his head. But as he continued to apply pressure, the wall began to turn inward, revealing cracks that were invisible before as the whole slab of rock turned slowly on its center pivot support.

“Keep pushing,” Shortwhiskers reminded him and Brisbane kept pushing. Fairly soon, the wall had been turned ninety degrees and the hidden passageway was open for their travel.

“Well done, Gil,” Shortwhiskers said as he again took his position at the head of the line. “Was it heavy?”

“Not too bad,” Brisbane said as he took his own place in the line-up.

The passageway they had found was a narrow one, and even walking in single file, it was a tight squeeze. Brisbane’s broad shoulders brushed both sides of the corridor and his head nearly touched the ceiling. He suffered a momentary pang of claustrophobia but he put it aside when he realized the passageway must open up into a larger room eventually. The corridor went in a few feet, turn to the right, went on for a few more feet, and then did open up as Brisbane had hoped.

Shortwhiskers stepped out of the secret corridor and into a dark room. He stood in the way and let no one else in.

“There’s nothing warm in here,” he said after a while, his voice echoing strangely in the open space. “Light it up, Roystnof.”

The dwarf stepped aside and let Roystnof in. The wizard set his backpack down, rummaged through it, and pulled out a small crystal ball, about the size of a grapefruit. He also brought out a small sling made of gold chain with a specially-designed ring, meant to carry a small round object. He put the ball in the sling and held onto the end of the chain. The ball hung from the chain’s length a foot below his hand.

“What are you doing?” Stargazer asked him, slipping her way into the room.

“You’ll see,” he told her.

Roystnof cast his light spell, but this time, instead of casting it into the room, he cast it into the crystal ball. The ball flared with an inner light and began to illuminate their surroundings like the most powerful lantern.

Brisbane and Dantrius stumbled into the room as their heads looked around, with those of the others, at their newfound surroundings. The room was thirty feet square with a twenty foot ceiling. To their immediate right was the stone door Shortwhiskers had said was trapped, still shut, and thirty feet away, on the opposite wall of the room, was an archway leading into another chamber. Running down the other two walls, creating a sort of hall down the middle, were lined a great number of tall slender statues. They were all of men, they were all ten feet tall, and they were all squeezed next to each other like peas in a pod.

For a moment, the sight of the statues reminded Brisbane of the run-in they had with the basilisk and the sorry fate from which Roystnof had to save Roundtower. But almost immediately, Brisbane saw these could not possibly be the victims of such a creature. They were much too tall to have once been human. Their slender figures could not have existed in the flesh. Their arms ran down their sides and their vertical lines only enhanced their thin height. Most had long beards and all had their heads bowed as if to watch people walking through the room.

Stargazer stepped out to get a better look at them.

“What are they?” Brisbane asked.

“They’re the ancient prophets,” Stargazer said, counting them with her finger and mouthing their names with her lips. “All twelve of them.”

She spun around to look at the twelve against the other wall. They were the same but they were in the reverse order.

“The ancient prophets?” Roystnof asked.

Stargazer nodded. “The men who wrote the scriptures. Grecolus made his will known through them. They now all reside on the highest thrones in the heavens.”

Brisbane knew all this from his childhood teachings. He tried to remember all their names now, but could only come up with three or four. They were men who had devoted their whole lives to the worship of Grecolus and to the teachings of his religion. They were men whose lives were to be emulated by all devoted children of Grecolus. They were often called saints.

They also made Brisbane nervous. He thought of the centuries these statues had spent in the dark before they had come along with Roystnof’s magic lantern. He imagined the ancient priests of the temple looking up at their stone faces in awe and wonderment. To elevate men so far above their fellows felt somehow wrong to Brisbane. These prophets were just men, uneducated men largely, who, because of their ravings about Grecolus speaking to them, were now remembered as great men, more than men and less than gods. Brisbane wondered how a man who claimed Grecolus spoke to him today would be received. He would be called blasphemous or insane, and could be thrown into prison for either.

Shortwhiskers called for a search of the room and everyone began to investigate all the corners of the chamber. All kept a discrete distance from the stone door they had bypassed. After several minutes, it was obvious the room contained nothing but the statues.

They moved on, this time in a small group instead of single file, with Roystnof and his magic lantern near the front. They went through the archway in the far wall and entered into a large chamber that could only be the chapel room of the temple. It was much wider than it was long, the far wall being another thirty feet away, the left wall ten feet from the arch, and the right wall lost on the other side of the lantern’s range. There was a stairway leading down into the mountain in the visible corner.

The party walked out into the center of the room so that the lantern could illuminate all of it. They stood on the floor that was suspended over the Mystic River and saw that the hall was fully ninety feet wide. Two pillars supported the arched ceiling and between them were the chamber’s two main features. The first, hanging against the wall through which they had come, was a gigantic tapestry, depicting a scene much like the one back at the shrine, that of titanic, powerful hands parting a cloudbank against a blue sky. The second feature, sitting near the opposite wall, was a solid stone altar, five feet high and ten feet long, decorated with the strange runes seen around the entrance portal. There was a matching staircase and archway on the far side of the room.

No one said anything for many moments. There was a stale smell in the air and not a sound to be heard.

“I’ll go check the other arch,” Roystnof said and everyone looked at him as if he had shouted.

The wizard went over to the arch, held up his lantern and peered in. When he came back to the group he reported the room inside to be an exact duplicate of the one they had come through.

“Looks like you were right about the symmetry of this place,” Shortwhiskers told Roystnof. “I hope that keeps up. We’ll only have to search half of it.”

Roystnof laughed nervously and another silence fell over the group. Stargazer went over to examine the altar and Brisbane went with her. The others looked around the room aimlessly. A detailed search would not be necessary. It was obvious this place was as empty as the last chamber.

“So where is everything?” Dantrius asked the air. Brisbane was sure it was a question on everyone’s mind. “Where’s all the treasure and gold?” He turned to Shortwhiskers. “Wasn’t this place supposed to be full of treasure?”

Shortwhiskers shrugged. “Those were the rumors I heard. Rumors aren’t always true.”

“Well, what the hells kind of religion was this, anyway?” Dantrius said, his voice much too loud for such a long silent place. “Did they make everything out of stone? Don’t they have anything made out of gold? Sacramental candlesticks or bowls or something? Jewel-eyed idols or jewel-handled daggers or something? Anything? I mean, look at that altar. It could be a snack table.”

A very uneasy silence settled down among them after Dantrius’ outburst. Shortwhiskers broke it.

“This place has been deserted for quite some time. Who knows how many times it has been looted?”

Dantrius shook his head and moved away from the group.

Brisbane was still with Stargazer at the altar. She stepped closer to him.

“Grecolus does not require such baubles for his worship,” she whispered to him. “They serve no useful purpose. Flashy things only cause trouble and take minds off Grecolus and puts them on greed and sin.”

“You don’t have to tell me, Allie,” Brisbane said. “I didn’t say anything about it.”

Stargazer smiled at him. “I know, Gil. It’s just that Dantrius. He makes me so mad.”

“Well,” Brisbane said, “you won’t have to worry about him much longer. Once this adventure is over, Roy plans on giving him the boot.”

Stargazer shook her head. “He must be truly evil if he can’t even get one of his own kind to tolerate him.”

Brisbane stiffened.

“I’m sorry, Gil,” Stargazer said. “You know what I meant.”

Brisbane nodded. “I know,” he said, forgiving her. He thought again of what he was going to do when Roystnof really did give Dantrius the boot, and he expected Brisbane to officially continue his training as Roystnof’s apprentice. He didn’t know what he could do. He only knew that he couldn’t tell Roystnof no and he couldn’t say yes and continue to see Stargazer. It was not going to be an easy time for him.

“Come on, everybody,” Roystnof called out to the group. “Let’s go check out downstairs.”

It was the next logical step in their exploration of the temple, and if it hadn’t brought the time in which Brisbane would have to make his difficult decision another step closer, Brisbane might have welcomed it. 

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