5. The Temple of the Holy Loam (Part 2)

One of Morris’s only memories of his parents had him riding atop the family horse cart, bouncing happily in his mother’s lap. He looked up into her jade green eyes, her face light and playful as she smiled back at him; the setting sun shimmered through her inky black hair and cast her face in an amber halo. Morris’s father must have said something to her, because she turned to him and smiled so radiantly as to put the sun to shame.

She raised Morris and set him on her shoulders so that he could see Redshire rumbling into the distance over the horizon. Angry storm clouds blanketed the sky above the hamlet, spitting down lightning in fits. It was perhaps a portent of things to come.

During the tempestuous autumn of that year, Morris awoke to find that his mother had been stolen in the night by a fatal racking cough. Two months later, his father was thieved under a scorching sun by a festering wound he’d scored defending his yield from some would-be thieves. For months after, Morris lived destitute in the gutters of Redshire, taking shelter in the alley beside the inn. He scraped by on whatever small handouts he could get from kinder of the local merchants and village folk.

As it happened, the cardinal of the Holy Loam had come to visit Redshire during this time to administer medicine to combat a recent outbreak of pox in the city. It was during this venture that he happened upon Morris, who he found filthy and moping about alone in an alley. He was clad only in an overlarge dirty tunic and looked as if he hadn’t eaten in days and smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in weeks. His hollow eyes peered through a sunken face worn thin with sorrow and famine.

The child hastily gulped down the dinner the Cardinal had brought for him, and agreed to take a set of fitting clothes from the local tailor. After inquiring around town about the child and finding about his recent orphaning, the cardinal made young Morris a protective ward of temple and readied him for life as a page in the service of the Holy Loam. Such an activity was not uncommon; Morris soon found himself surrounded by other children unfortunate enough to lose their parents, but fortunate enough to be saved by the temple.

Morris was a diligent child who excelled in his studies and quickly proved himself to be an able page indeed. He was slow to make friends, but the friends he did have were closer than family. By the time Morris was seventeen, he found himself reading and writing as well as some of the Parishioners and he could oft be found reading some thick digest on philosophy he borrowed from his teachers. He was soon graduated to the highest level of learning the Holy Loam provided and was receiving some of his lessons directly from the cardinal.

As time went on, the cardinal began to rely more and more on Morris as his assistant in most tasks. The cardinal was an old man, and sickly at that, so he often asked Morris to mail his letters, write from his dictations, and ferry things back and forth around the temple for him. Eventually it became a common sight to see Morris running up and down the tunnels of the temple, his satchel full to bursting, trying to deliver all manner of things for the cardinal. And now he found himself again racing down channel after channel to deliver the cardinal’s notes.

Morris approached the Grand Library hurriedly; he had to make up for the time he’d spent looking for Vallus. He stopped in front of the Grand Library, gazing up at the building’s spire that corkscrewed desperately into the shadowed heights of the cavern. Though the ages of most of the buildings in the Holy Loam were unknown, it was widely assumed that the Grand Library had been carved out long before the rest. It erupted from the earth as if it had just plunged from depths unknown, spiraling desperately towards the surface.

The Grand Library was an immense building, following the style that each temple’s Grand Library was built in, and it was truly a spectacle to behold. It had a wide, rotund base that rose four stories up, containing the vast majority of the books in the library. Atop the base, the building began to spin and twist, narrowing up to its distant zenith. Inside, the rarer and more valuable books were kept on the ascending floors, with the temple’s original copy of the Fictilus on the very top floor. The libraries were always a labor of love, lavished in carved murals and bedecked in intricate carvings of the words of the Fictilus all along their twining spirals. The inscribed words in the old tongue branched along its twisted ascent, coiling up to infinity.

The Terrun order had long been held as some of the most skilled architects in existence, and they were often contracted out by lords and kings alike to construct their most intricate edifices. Their extreme skill and love of detail was bore out exquisitely in the immaculate detailing of the Holy Loam’s Grand Library. The massive stone arch above the entrance was ornamented with intricate filigree grooves that surrounded a proverb scrawled in the old tongue. It translated roughly to:

┌The heavy weight of stone┐

└Only serves to make its bearer stronger┘

               

The Terrun order had long prided itself on their devotion to the acquisition of knowledge and the protection of history. Throughout much of its storied history, the Terruns had been singularly responsible for saving immense troves of knowledge from the torch of those who would see it burned away. Their collection was immense and diverse, comprised of tomes from all eras of recorded history and most earthly locations. The Terrun order’s love of learning had led them to create a trading network between temples, swapping books freely between their far-flung locations.

The underground libraries had long held themselves open for the public to visit and peruse their collection. It was not uncommon for the illiterate to come down to the temples so the Terrun monks could dictate books to them. Due to the Terrun’s ferocious protection of knowledge, their temples became something of a bastion for the literati and learned workmen, a place to study and discuss. Many of the cleverest people in the region would convene in the temple libraries, and over time the temples formed the center of intellectual thought and advanced science in much of the world. The Holy Loam’s Grand Library was a fine example of such a place, housing stacks upon stacks of tomes from times beyond reckoning, pages alight with history of civilizations long dead and sciences to shape the future.

It was within these storied halls that Morris had spent a great deal of his youth, pent up inside the massive stacks of the Great Library. Here he had spent many a night seated beside the other adepts at the library’s great stone tables, studying into the wee hours of the morning by the light of its grand chandeliers. As he had grown older, he had drifted away from the library and its more erudite texts and further into the more practical arts the temple offered. But even still, he often found himself stopping by the library to peruse their newer finds or converse with visiting intellectuals.

Like most of the temple’s residents, Morris held the library’s vast bounty of knowledge in high esteem, even in spite of the head librarian Raul’s rather bizarre demeanor. Parishioner Raul had been the library’s faithful head for as long as Morris had lived there, having succeeded the erstwhile librarian a scant few months before Morris’s arrival. Morris now hoped he would be able to deliver his letter quickly, lest he be caught up in another of Raul’s bizarre philosophical tirades.

Morris ran into the library at full speed, but soon stopped dead in his tracks. His eyes widened as he surveyed the wreckage the library. Books pooled up on the ground and loose pages and manuscripts littered every available surface. The thick wooden bookcases had toppled upon each other like some giant’s anti-intellectual game of dominoes. Morris wandered into the foyer, staring up at where the chandeliers usually dangled from the vaulted ceilings, spying only loose chains dangling from the hard stone ceilings.

“Parishioner Raul!” Morris called out. He solved the mystery of the missing chandeliers as he stepped over one that had embedded itself into the ground in front of the stairs, and he started up to the second level. From appearances it had fared no better than the first, with everything being upended bookshelves and missing chandeliers and generally destroyed. “Parishioner Raul!” he called again.

 “If it isn’t Morris,” a man said, stepping out from what seemed to be the only standing bookcase. “Did you come to see Magister Allastrad speak on artificial division of the physical and metaphysical? It will truly give you something to ponder. I must confess me and the magister stayed up all night debating the way we humans have constructed a rift between ourselves and the spirit world that needn’t exist at all! Perhaps after his lecture, you’d join us in a lively discussion?”

“What are you talking about? Something crazy is going on! Have you not been feeling the rumbling or noticed there’s nobody else here or, more to the point, haven’t you noticed the library falling apart around you? I just came to drop off this note for you.”

“Come, come. Why don’t you stay for a while? If you don’t care for Allastrad’s lecturing, surely you’ll find interest in a new theory I’ve been developing wherein we can directly speak to our Lord Saxum via a complex network of my own devising. You just have to arrange some animal bones, which I call Holy Bestial Diviners, beat on some stone drums, which I call “Consecrated Auditory Communicators”, and break some sticks, which I call “Spirit Sticks.” Once everything is in order, you only need say the words in the old tongue to complete the rite. Now, granted, Saxum hasn’t been too talkative yet, but I can tell it’s just a matter of time! Why, just yesterday I think I heard Saxum say ‘voyage’ to me. Though perhaps it could have been ‘biscuit’; it can be difficult to understand the rumbling of the stones. I’ve spent a great deal of today pondering what it might mean.”

“Are you sure you’re alright Raul? Did you hit your head? Look, something serious is afoot, we don’t have time to waste. You really must read that note. It’s from the cardinal.”

“Ah, a note from Cardinal Rasch? I’ll bet he’s finally going to authorize my trip to Ossil so I might obtain The Weyrdlings of the Wylde. I’ve been asking for the funding for months! Let’s see here,” he said, strolling over to Morris and snatching up the rolled letter from his hands. “Let’s see here.”

As Raul read, his expression of hopeful interest fell into one of grim acceptance. “Very well. Please remain here a moment, Morris. I shall be but a second.” Raul departed, and, after digging through a particularly large pile of books, returned with two interesting volumes: a massive tome with a cover of thick red cloth festooned with intricate gold inscriptions and a squat green book caked in crusted mud.

 “The Tactician’s Mind, and Fielder’s Guide? What is going on Raul? I’m just come from delivering a note to Vallus, and he gave me a…um…a warning. And now this? Just what do the cardinal’s notes say?”

“I fear these are dark tidings Morris. I ask that you cease your questioning for now. I’m certain Alexia will have answers for you. Prepare yourself though, Morris. For I feel we shall all be leaving the Holy Loam soon. I suggest you return to your bunk and prepare your things for travel.”

“Yes Parishioner,” he said, and Morris swept off into the dark cavern beyond.

Morris hurried beyond the temple’s holy daises, racing past the place where the Parishioners would usually be knelt in prayer, reciting holy words from the Fictilus inside the great holy stone circles. The great carved stele blurred past as he weaved in and out of the winding tunnels on his way to Alexia. What must those letters have contained? When he could bear the anticipation no more, he began to run, clutching the books to his chest as he darted down stone corridor after stone corridor. His footfalls echoed out into the cavernous grounds as he stomped along the cold stone floor. On his way to the training grounds, he made a quick detour to his living quarters.

Morris’s scanned his bunk through the hazy glow of the torches along the wall, taking measure of what he would need to bring. His bunk was that of a typical page: a tiny room just big enough to contain a squat wooden bed with an old wooden trunk at its foot and a set of shelves recessed into the wall beside his bed. About fifty wooden figures that Morris had carved stood, sat, ran, danced, and fought in his tiny carved world. In the flickering torchlight, his figures seemed alive; his simulacrum world seemed one that Morris could jump into. But right now, Morris dumped his sack onto his bed

Morris stopped at the front door of her office, doubled over and panting. Alexia’s gotta know what’s going on. With any luck, she would give him the answers that he so hotly desired. Alexia’s office lead directly to the training arena which was probably Morris’s favorite place in the entire temple. It was definitely Alexia’s.

Parishioner Alexia was one of the youngest parishioners at the Holy Loam; at twenty-nine she was only four years Morris’s senior but as brilliant twice over as some of her older fellows. Alexia was well-liked by most of her students; she had an affable and approachable manner that had the lowly adepts speaking freely and comfortably with her. She had spent a great deal of her youth touring the world in tow Sir Gallabee. After Sir Gallabee was horribly slain in a jousting accident outside Blueriver, Alexia was recruited by the Holy Loam and primed as teaching Parishioner, specializing in defensive combat.

She had quickly taken a shine to Morris and at the age of twenty-five he had become something of a star pupil to her. Alexia was one of the more brilliant architects in the Holy Loam, and was probably the singular reason that Morris had become so interested in architecture. She was well versed in the various styles of combat, having been the page of an Auriun knight, and Morris quickly found himself losing duel after duel to her. It was from Alexia that Morris, Liandra, and Ely became proficient in the fighting styles of the Terruns’ and through her they mastered the mace and flail.

Alexia was at this moment the person Morris wanted to see most in the world. He pounded on the sturdy wooden door to her study, the heavy iron handle swinging up with the force of each knock. “Alexia!” he called. “Alexia! It’s me! Morris! I need to talk to you!”

There was no answer.

Morris searched around the office’s entrance until he spotted a bit of the wall that had caved in the recent tremors. He clambered over the rubble and into Alexia’s office, pushed his way through the rubble and debris, and made his way out the back towards the arena. He found Alexia standing alone in the arena, staring up at the vaulted ceiling.

 

“Alexia!” he shouted. She turned her head and stared over her shoulder at him. Alexia was squat and sturdily built woman, not fat but heavily muscled. Her dyed blonde hair slid over her shoulder as she turned, falling down to her waist.

“Yes Morris?”

“I’ve a note for you,” he said, still trying to catch his breath.

“Don’t bother Morris. I already know what it’s going to say.”

“What? What’s happening? Nobody will tell me anything.”

“They’re attacking the temple. They’re breaking the ground above. They’re going to cave us in, my friend.”

“Who’s attacking us? Why? Why would anybody attack a temple?”

“Quiet now, there’s no time for questioning. I hope your things are packed. We must be off” she said, turning and placing her hand on Morris’s shoulder.

“Where? To where are we headed?”

“To war, my friend. To war.”

+++

Six months later, Morris found himself standing over the crumpled form of a Galonian knight, a blood-caked steel dagger clenched in his fist. The knight’s white armor grew a crimson shade as he slipped around on the ground, writhing around as his lifesblood seeped into the fertile soil of the grassy hillock. The knight clenched his stomach, moaning long and loud, begging for mercy. Morris clenched the deep gash in his right arm as the blood poured down his arm and dyed his leathers a sinister shade of red.

“Please,” the knight wheezed. “Let me live, son. I’ve got a family back home.” The knight shakily began rising to his knees, slipping around on the blood slicked ground. Morris kept his distance, clenching the dripping dagger in his right hand. “Just let me go. You’re a man of the cloth; you wouldn’t kill me if you didn’t have to, right?”

Morris stood like a statue a few paces from the man, his dagger outstretched. After a few moments, he said, “Fine. Go, and flee this place. Go home to your family. Gather them up and leave Galonia. Tell them Galonia cannot hope to stand against the might of Acaelia and Dogriss both. They cannot win against Saxum’s blessed army. Tell them this and take them and flee this place.”

“Yes, of course I’ll tell them” the knight said, rising to his feet. He stood there swaying back and forth, looking like a liquored up suit of armor. He waited a moment for his legs to find their strength. And when he could finally stand straight, the chainmailed knight began to slowly stagger forward towards Morris. The knight continued his stumbling march onward, his left arm outstretched and searching like a blind man trying to find his way. When he reached Morris he set his hand upon Morris’s shoulder, clutching hard.

“Thank you, friend,” he said, smiling through his dented iron cervelliere. Morris’s shoulder began to ache as the knight’s gauntleted hand squeezed harder and harder and Morris began to pull back. Morris began to panic as he tried to free himself of the knight’s grasp. The knight just kept smiling as the blood streaked down his face, his twisted grin worsened by the crazed look in his eyes. He shoved Morris back, toppling them both to the ground. The blood dripped from the knight’s demented face onto Morris’s as the knight set pressed atop him, the knight’s arm pinning him to the ground.

“You men of the cloth are far too trusting,” the knight said, drawing a dagger from his belt and pulling back, readying for the mortal blow. Morris jammed his eyes closed, turned his head and threw his arms up.

He heard the sound of metal slicing through the air and hitting flesh.

 

When Morris opened his eyes, he was greeted with the bloody tip of a spear. The spear yanked sideways, hurling the once assaulting knight off of Morris into a heap at his side. A rugged older woman with pleated red hair stood at the other end of the spear, her chest heaving. “By Saxum, he’s heavier than he looks!” she said, shaking her spear free of the corpse. She extended her arm to Morris and lifted him up to his feet.

“You know closing your eyes won’t make it hurt any less, youngling,” she said, wiping the sweat from her scar lined face. The woman was clearly a grizzled combatant, her tall and muscular frame filled out her dinted suit of silver armor. The woman was almost a full head taller than Morris, who himself was taller than most. She was a vision clad in a light chainmail hauberk with a studded steel breastplate atop it and thick steel greaves, all of it littered in pits and dents. Her pleated hair fell over her shoulder and dangled on her breast, and her pale face was covered in cuts both old and new. The numerous scars that crisscrossed her skin somehow only seemed to enhance her natural beauty rather than muddle it.

“Who are you?” Morris asked in a stupor.

“You don’t recognize me youngling? I guess you underground types wouldn’t, would you?” She jammed the butt of her spear into the ground, drew herself up, and said, “Some of the more foolish soldiers call me the battle-scarred beauty. But my name is Meryl. Meryl Maladilles. Of Queen Veronica’s Pewter Guard.”

Author: Kyle "Billus" Kusch

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