4. The Temple of the Holy Loam (Part 1)

“Well, get on with it Morris. I haven’t the time for idleness. And I know that neither do you.” The cardinal remained seated at his intricately carved stone desk, pouring over a thick manuscript. The brown and white robes of the order hung loosely upon his willowy frame, and the small brown pebbles that lined his sleeves clacked softly each time he turned a page.Morris cleared his throat, hoping the cardinal would turn around but he did not. So Morris addressed the back of his head.

                “Yes, well, we’ve recently been receiving a flurry of letters from the capital. ‘War’ seems to be the word on everybody’s lips. Things have been getting heated after Emperor Gaius’s death and people are saying Acaelia should be on the war march before fall.”

                “And every life lost will be a tragedy, but what business do they have with the Terrun order? We blessed the older brother with an exceedingly generous contingent of Terrun priests for his expedition to the new lands. Now what does the younger brother ask of us?”

                “He asks for another sizable deployment of Terrun priests, that they may provide blessings before each battle and say the rites for those that fall.”

                “Yes, and I assume there’s more.”

                “There is. They request use of our architects, that they may create fortifications for them.”

                “Very well, is that all?”

                “No, cardinal, that is not all they ask. The Emperor is personally requesting every Terrun temple spread the official message of the capital: that this war of theirs is one of noble purpose and divine necessity. We are asked to inform the people that Acaelia’s cause is blessed by Saxum and that Galonia has earned the heavens’ ire. The capital requests our help in recruiting soldiers, armorers, tailors, and the lot. Aleius seems to believe that our support will do much to sway the common man to their cause and that we should be some boon to their enlistment efforts.”

                “Preposterous! The very notion of it is madness! The Terrun order is a religion of peace! And Galonia has many devout followers of Saxum as well. Never in Terrus’s thousand year history have we endorsed some political and we won’t be starting now. I will not allow our church to be made into some shills for Aleius’s political ambitions. I will not have it!” The cardinal exhaled slowly, doing his best to restore a sense of calm.

“Besides, Aleius was never a supporter of the church in all his time on the council; I do not see how he could deign to expect so much of us. No, no, it simply is not fair of them to ask. We can’t knowingly recruit some poor hapless men to send off to their deaths, less so against an ally of the church. I will not hear of it. And I intend to tell them as much.”

                “Yes, cardinal, of course. There is one additional matter I must inform you of. The pope himself has drafted a letter addressed specifically to you, cardinal, and the squire who delivered it said that no one but you is to open it. I shall leave it here for you, sir,” Morris said.  He rummaged around in his satchel for a moment, and finally pulled out a crisp parchment scroll emblazoned with the yellow sigil of the pope. He placed it on the cardinal’s desk and wordlessly returned to the entrance, such that the letter was out of view. The cardinal picked up a small stone blade, broke the wax seal, and began viciously devouring the letter’s contents.

When the cardinal had finished, he placed the letter down delicately upon his desk. He stared at the letter for some time, the light from the stone braziers playing terrible shadow games on his face. The cardinal hunched forward and closed his eyes, squeezing the bridge of his nose between his spindly forefinger and thumb. “Yes, thank you for delivering the letter Morris. I ask that you please go wait in my chambers a while; I shall need some time to organize a response. I shall call for you in a bit.”

                “Yes cardinal,” Morris said, stepping through a door in the back of the office and seating himself cross-legged at the foot of the large cloth bed in the cardinal’s chambers. The cardinal resided in a large circular space carved into a stone wall, with numerous lanterns dangling from wooden posts imbedded around the wall. The bed was resplendent in ornate crimson sheets; but for this one splash of rose hue the room was almost completely colorless with grey stone shelves framing grey stone furniture.

Morris produced a small wooden block and a stone carving knife from his satchel and went to work. Morris whittled away a couple hours on the edge of the bed. When he was done, Morris blew the lingering wood shavings from his carving and stared at his newly wrought creation. A respectable facsimile of a beautiful woman stared back at him; a delicate carved smile peered through long shaped hair. It still needed a lot of detail work, but there would be plenty of time for that later. He set the figurine on the footboard and fell back into the cardinal’s bed. At this precise moment Morris was sure that no bed in the world was more comfortable than this one and he was asleep within a few minutes.

He was awakened some time later by a loud rapping on the door. After a short pause, the door sailed open and Parishioner Ballick flew into the room, his shift billowing behind him like curtains in a spring breeze. Ballick was a squat man with a very round head who hailed from the southern nation of Khalis. He wore his blonde dyed hair in a massive bun held tight by a leather cord that perpetually looked as though it were about to break. Thick lines of exhaustion ran through his darkly tanned face and he had a wild and somewhat terrifying look dancing in his eyes. “Asleep!?” he shrieked as he slammed the door behind him and yanked Morris out of bed.

Morris rubbed the sleep from him eyes and stared at his crazed teacher. “Hrm? What? Parishioner Ballick! I was just, um, waiting for the cardinal. I guess I dozed off. What’s, uh, going on?”

“I honestly have no idea how you’ve managed to sleep through it! The cardinal has rounded up most of the adepts and parishioners and left! Nowhere to be found! No hint as to where they’ve gone!” Ballick said. He rubbed his thick fingers across the bristle on his chin. “Who he took, and why, also remains a mystery to us. All the cardinal left us was a bundle of letters in my quarters, of which but one was addressed to me. It said, basically, that I would find you here, and that you were to deliver the remaining notes to a few Parishioners. I’m to collect the remaining adepts and meet you at the southernmost exit.”

“Nobody knows anything? Why wouldn’t he come for me himself? What’s…”, Morris began to ask, but he was interrupted by a sudden crash that shook the room, sending books and pottery flying. Thin trails of dust drifted from the ceiling as Ballick and Morris struggled to regain their footing. “What in the blue was that!?” Morris asked.

 

“Something from the surface we suspect. It’s been happening with increasing frequency these past couple of hours. That’s the worst one yet. Quickly child, follow me to the office. I’ve left my bag there. They hurried out of the newly disheveled room and into the office, which seemed to have fared no better. The once organized cabinets now looked as though somebody took their arm and ran it along their shelves, toppling books and ornaments everywhere. A thin layer of dirt seemed to have settled over the entire room, making the office seem as if it had been abandoned for years.

Ballick hurried through the tarnished office to the cardinal’s wide stone desk and recovered his bag. He began rifling through it until he pulled out the three pieces of rolled browning parchment and pressed them in Morris’s hands. Each one was small and tightly wound, bound by a thick cloth cord and pressed with the cardinal’s personal red wax seal.  “I was instructed to only allow you to deliver them. Nobody else is to handle the notes. Oh, it probably goes without saying, but you’re not to open them either.”

 “Take these to Parishioner Vallus, Parishioner Raul, and Parishioner Alexia. Each is marked so you’ll know whom it is for. Hurry and deliver each personally. No diversions, alright? I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t like smell of this at all. I’ll feel much better when this is through.”

                “Yes Parishioner. I will deliver them promptly, sir.”

                “Good, now hurry child. I’ve got matters of my own to tend to,” Ballick said, giving a sweeping bow as he left. Morris stood for a moment in the cardinal’s empty office, breathing in the musty aroma of the centuries old books that once lined cardinal’s shelves and now lined his floors. Then he threw the letters in his haversack and started out the door. He paused a moment, dashed back to the cardinal’s bedchambers, grabbed his figurine from the footboard and tossed it in his satchel, and ran out of the office and into the Temple of the Holy Loam.

---

                The Temple of the Holy Loam was a sanctuary of the Terrun faith, and like all Terrun temples it was buried hundreds of feet beneath the surface. The Holy Loam was situated on the northeastern border of the Auriun Empire and was a scant few miles from Galonia. Over its centuries of operation, it had been visited by Galonians, Acaelians and Dogrissians, emperors and peasants alike.

Morris stepped out of the cardinal’s office into the dimly lit tunnel beyond, ducking low under a hanging stone brazier. He started back to the temple complex at large, wending his way through the shadowy roughhewn channels that led to the library. Some torches and carved stone braziers meekly lit the underground passage, trying as best they could to fight the crushing darkness that was part and parcel of being hundreds of feet underground.

This far down, the dank air always felt thick and sour in your mouth, like it had grown stale in the preceding centuries. Morris breathed it in deeply; he had been a student at the temple for most of his life and found the stale air far preferable to the musty aroma of incense and old books that permeated the cardinal’s cramped office. He began hurrying down the claustrophobic tunnels that led out of the cardinal’s office, surveying the decrepit wooden crossbeams that were struggling to hold the weight of the world above. It must grow tiresome, to hold all that stone for an eternity without rest.

Morris scurried through the tunnel and down a flight of hewed steps, descending further into the complicated lattice of tunnels and throughways that made up the Temple of the Holy Loam. He ran his hand along the cool stone walls as he descended the steps into the inner sanctum, feeling the chill moisture with the tips of his fingers. His next order of business would be to deliver Vallus’s note, then hurry on to the Grand Library to deliver Raul’s.

 

Eager to get to the bottom of this, Morris followed the long snaking channel that led from the priests’ offices back to the residential district, trekking along the cramped channel for some time. He pulled a small piece of hard bread from his haversack and began eating as he went. He came upon an intersection as he finished his stale hunk and he swung a right, descending a long flight of steps onto a narrow cliff side path that led into the temple grounds proper.

Like all temples of the Terrun order, the temple grounds started as a small burrowing deep beneath the surface that eventually blossomed into a fully developed underground city. The temple grounds were a capacious lot nestled in a huge hand-excavated chasm hundreds of feet below ground which were reachable only by long hand-excavated shafts dug by ancient monks in centuries past. The entirety of the temple was closed off to the surface above, and had initially been started by ancient Terrun monks engaged in a holy diaspora since the destruction of the Temple of the Slab. This cavern had been expanded considerably since its inception, each generation chiseling out a greater foothold for the temple, bit by painstaking bit. The grounds were now a sweeping and grandiose tunnel network, a labyrinthine trellis of channels and shafts and warrens. But once they had been a cramped little hole in the ground.

The grounds were accessible only by long hand-excavated shafts dug by these ancient monks. Most of the buildings and adornments seemed to grow from the very walls themselves, blossoming out the cavern walls like stone fungi. As the temple expanded, new buildings had been fashioned by carving away the stone walls of the cavern as a sculptor carves a figure from marble. As such, the buildings flowed from the walls and floor and poured seamlessly into the stone from which they were sculpted. Almost every building was firmly attached to at least one of the cavern walls, while only the cardinal’s office and reliquary stood freestanding on opposite ends of the cave.

The sunken grounds were bifurcated by a far deeper plunge that ran unevenly down its center. Here and there some dangling rope bridges spanned the chasm, and the two sides had naturally blossomed into the residential district and the service district. The residential district housed all the temple’s permanent inhabitants, save for the cardinal and some high ranking priests, and the service district was home to the many workshops, daises, and other buildings the temple needed to function day-to-day. Most of the buildings that stood in the temple grounds were older than memory, having been carved by early monks in eras long past.

Morris continued on into the residential district around noon as sunlight glittered lazily into the cavern from the few long shafts that connected the grounds to the surface. These painstakingly carved shafts were hundreds of feet long and had been hand mined into the ceiling by some assiduous Terrun monks in times beyond reckoning. While the sunlight that poured was not quite ample, it did succeed in bolstering the meager offerings the torches and braziers struggled to provide. Morris marveled at the sight of the temple basked in noonday glow; the temple was only bequeathed the gift of sunlight for a scant few hours a day and its residents knew to make the most of it. Beyond that they had to make do with torches and braziers beyond counting.

 

The walls of the cavern had been unevenly carved, so here and there huge craggy overhangs of stone would jut out from the wall, covering long distances of buildings in intimidating shadows. Morris journeyed underneath such a shadowed outcrop, past the stacked stone houses that comprised the living quarters of the wards and other graduated students. They now loomed empty since the cardinal had disappeared most of the temple’s residents. The hazy lights from the braziers outside played devilishly across their cavernous windows and doors, forming ghoulish visages that moaned on eternally in the forever flickering glow of the torchlight. Morris shuttered and scurried past, making his way onto one of the long rope bridges that dangled hundreds of feet over the shadowy abyss below.

Morris began to cross the chasm on the approach to the squat workshop, resting his hands on the rope railings as he tread across the dangling wooden floorboards. As he reached the middle of the bridge, the entire temple gave a mighty shutter and began to rumble violently. The rope bridge began to twist and swing in the seism, sending Morris bowling back and forth into the rope handrails on either side. Morris grabbed the rope railings hard, tightening his fists into a white-knuckled grip as he stumbled his way forward. The bridge creaked and groaned desperately in the quake.

The rumbling subsided as reached terra firma on the other side and he dropped to his knees, staring at his aching rope burned hands. Morris shakily rose to his feet and lurched forward, clenching and unclenching his hands as he made his way to the central channel. He walked through the massive tunnel that lead to the market district and paused for a moment outside Vallus’s enormous workshop.

The raucous pings of engineers’ hammers and the smell of smoke were usually omnipresent far around the workshop, but now the air hung quiet and clear. The workshop would normally be buzzing with artisans and students as they set to working on new projects for the Holy Loam. This type of workshop was not unique; all Terrun temples had workshops such as this which served as the main venue for research and production of science in most of Acaelia. Terrun temples had a long history of being on the bleeding edge of scientific achievement, with people in the surrounding areas often traveling hundreds of miles to benefit from their advanced poultices or learn of advanced techniques to better fortify their buildings.

                Morris passed through the open front door into the thoroughly disheveled workshop, eyeing the scattered books and toppled machines with furrowed brow. “Vallus!” he called out, peeking under tables and dashing from room to room. He spied a toppled machine in the corner, and recalled a conversation he’d had with Vallus a couple months back.

---

“Good morning, Parishioner. How does the day find you?” Morris said, strolling into the bustling workshop.

“Well, Morris. Very well, in fact! Come, come. Over here lad, now look at this,” Vallus instructed, hunching over a squat wooden contraption. It was all seesawing winches and whirring gears and he was fidgeting at a small wooden gear with a look of rapt attention. On top of the device were two large casks suspended on wooden planks.

“I’m sorry sir, I don’t really understand what it is,” Morris said, looking the strange machine up and down. “Uh, what is it?”

“Well I ‘as just about to show yah that, wasn’t I son? Now, pay attention. Come, come. Look here,” he said, filling a large drum on top of the machine with wetted clay. Vallus stood and shifted a large lever on the side of the contraption which seemed to send its gears buzzing into overdrive. A hole opened in the bottom of one of the barrels and wet clay poured into a small stone box at the end of the machine. Vallus flipped another switch and sand began dispensing into the box from the other barrel. After a short time, both drums stopped pouring and he placed a heavy stone lid atop the box now full with a sandy clay mixture.

Vallus knelt down and lifted the box, bringing it over to a kiln on the other end of cramped workshop. He placed the box inside and began pumping the bellows, his muscular frame sweating from a mix of heat and exertion. After some time, grabbed the box with iron tongs, and brought it back to the table in the center of his shop. He let it cool there and then lifted the lid from the box. He flipped the box onto the table, lifted it, and there set a steaming clay brick. He handed Morris the brick with a huge grin.

 

Morris grasped the brick firmly in his hands, feeling its heft and the warmth that oozed from its tan surface. Bricks were something of a sacred object in the Terrun order; they were viewed as the building block for all of human civilization. “A kilned brick?” he asked.

“Ah, so you do have working eyes then, do you?”

“Well, don’t the wards usually make these? I’ve made more than enough of these myself to last a lifetime.”

“Yes, of course they do. But this machine don’t just make any bricks. It makes perfect bricks.”

“I think our bricks do just fine.”

“Yeah, they do fine. But these’ll do even better ‘an that. They’ll do great. They’re flatter ‘n stronger than the ones made by hand. It gets the mixture perfect every time lad. These bricks will form sturdier buildings than this world has ever seen. Well, enough about bricks building the edifices of my imagination. What’s filling your days now, lad?”

“Did you hear? I’m up to graduate in three months! It looks like I may be your equal sooner than you think,” he said. He straightened up and a massive grin spread across his face.

“Aye, even if by some fluke they let you be a Parishioner, you never be my equal!” Vallus gave a deep belly laugh and said, “Ah, you best be back to your training son. You don’t want to keep that Alexia waiting. Least I know I wouldn’t.”

---

                Now the brick-making machine lay toppled in a corner, covered in the dirt that rained from the ceiling with each quake. It’s two mixing barrels lay sideways, spilling out their contents into a decidedly unperfect mixture. “Vallus!” Morris yelled. He began tearing through the workshop, upending tables and shelves in a mad dash to find him. It was then he remembered that Vallus had a small private workshop in the attic and he sped to the rickety wooden ladder.

                Morris found Vallus crouched at a chest behind a tall oaken bookshelf, rummaging through its contents like a man possessed.

 “Vallus!” Morris said. Vallus yanked his head around and stared at Morris with a furious look in his eyes. When he saw who it was, his face lifted into a familiar smile Morris. “Vallus, I have to speak with you, it’s urgent,” Morris said, walking towards him. Vallus remained crouched in front of the squat chest, rooting around while Morris spoke.

“Yes, what is it lad? I’ve got urgent matters of mine own to tend to.”

“The cardinal has dispatched me to give this letter to you,” Morris said, crossing the room and handing him the letter marked V.

Vallus broke the seal on the letter, drew a pair of spectacles from his breast pocket, and began to read. As he poured over the letter’s contents, his brow furrowed and a thin frown spread across his bearded face. When he had finished reading the letter, he crumpled it in his hands and addressed Morris.

“Lad, you best hurry on and deliver those other letters. You haven’t the time to be wasting with me. Don’t bother asking me questions; I’ve nothing to tell you.”

Morris was taken aback by his uncharacteristically serious tone and did as he was bid.

“I’ll be off then, Vallus. Uh, good day to you,” he said, starting back toward the door.

“Wait, wait, wait. Before you leave, I’ve something for you. Come here,” Vallus said, returning to the chest he’d been so interested in all this time. He began rummaging through its contents with redoubled fervor and started pitching its contents onto the floor. He must have found whatever he was searching for because he gave a cheer and produced a pair of small leather cases from it. He pulled a small object from one case then the other, twisted the object so that it glinted in the candlelight, and shoved it back into its sheath.

Vallus hurriedly jammed all the spilled contents back into the oaken chest, closed the lid, and gave it a shove with his boot. It flew back and clattered into a small niche behind his bookshelf with a thud. He walked over to Morris and gingerly placed the polished leather case in his hands. Morris stared down into his open hands and pulled the object free of its container.

 

“A dagger? Is this steel!? By Saxum, where did you get something like this?” Morris held the dagger at length in his fist, as if it was a gorgon’s head meant to turn him to stone. Morris would be in grave trouble indeed if he was ever found with it; cutting weapons had long been prohibited to the members of the Terrun order and only battlefield priests were allowed to carry weapons at all. “I can’t keep this! If I’m caught, I’ll be expelled!”

“Never mind that! I’ve reason to believe you’re going to have need of it soon. Carry this with you, lad. So that if trouble ever finds you, at least it won’t find you unarmed.”

Author: Kyle "Billus" Kusch