The Shadows of Hadshin Chapter 4: The Temple of Hadshin

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The night was calm. The air still around the hastily made Ørkadian camp. There was little sound save the soft snores of weary men. They had, of course, set up a guard, who had long since grown weary of a long uneventful night and were now gathered around a large, flat rock with a smooth enough surface. Here, one man had produced a leather sheet with several rows of square grids. In each corner, and in the centre, the squares were darkened to emphasise their importance in the game. Following the board, he withdrew from a small leather bag with four lots of six game pieces carved from a dark wood as well as thirteen game pieces carved from a lighter wood.

Halatafl was a popular game to occupy a bored mind. The five men began their game in earnest and they soon found themselves too occupied to care about their exhaustion or their previous boredom. The first few rounds were won by the player who controlled the lighter "king" pieces. He'd successfully maneuvered his king to the corner tiles and won. The following games became harder as new tactics were deployed.

The torches they used had long since burned out and they were now relying solely on the light of the moon, which was illuminating the night with its cool white glow. Thousands of stars littered the sky like an ocean of tiny gems. It was said that each star in the sky was the light of the ancestors shining down to guide the way at night. The light of the moon came from the gods themselves, for their light shone the brightest. It had been an ill omen when the light of both had failed on that dark and fearful night.

A silhouette approached from shadows, bearing down from the direction of the camp. The cracking of a branch underfoot disturbed the guards from their vigilance and they turned to meet the cause of the sound.

'Halt! Approach and be recognised!' called one of the guards.

'It's ok Brun,' came a familiar voice.

Brun strained his eyes at the stranger. As he moved into the light of the moon, the figure of a slight man with elongated ears and a narrow, thin face came in to view. The regarded the man with resignation. They didn't hate the man. They grudgingly respected him, but he wasn't one of their kind. He was a stranger, a foreigner.

'Lord Kjartan,' Brun said with as much respect as was dignified for a man of Kjartan's status. Status was everything in Valkrygan society, after all. 'Sir. Nothing to report, it's quiet tonight.'

'No doubt, Brun. We're still deep within our own kingdom here. I should be very surprised if we have anything to worry about tonight.' Kjartan stifled a yawn and shook his head. He found that it took him longer to fully awaken from sleep lately. No doubt he was stressed. War had a habbit of doing that.

''I'll take over the remainder of the watch. Get some sleep. We have a long days march ahead of us.'

'As you wish, my Lord.' Replied Brun. They would not argue with the man. Why bother? They gathered up their game pieces and retreated back to the camp quietly. They poked around looking for adequate bedding for a few moments and then found a satisfactory place to lay down and sleep.
Kjartan was alone once again. He often found comfort in solitude. Eriskarians were oft to be lost in thought. So many of their people sought solitude because of this that it was any wonder they ever built cities at all. With that being said, they were few and far between and Taisu was the biggest.
Still, he relished the time alone so he could think. He had so much to ponder. Yet tonight he would think about the past, not the present. Something had stirred in his mind since they had arrived in the ruins; a wonder which had been deep and dormant in his mind.

He began to stroll around the city. The camp would be fine. There was no need for a guard. Instead, he would explore this mysterious ruin. He'd been here before, of course. As a child his father had talked about Taisu as if it were some great jewelled treasure. Like it was some magical place full of wonder and power. The very thought of it captivated his young mind and he would dream of it at night. Now, he could look around and imagine he was a boy again. He would look in the remains of old buildings and wonder what it must have been like to live in this city when it was populated.

The moon's light reflected off of the roof tops. The white washed stone gleamed in the dark. It was as he rounded a corner that the temple of Hadshin came into view. He was enamoured by it the first time he saw it. A dark and powerful place. He knew the tales from his father. He had even warned the King himself and yet... yet... there was power there. The power of the gods. The power of something wonderous and forgotten. How mighty their gods had been to command such a structure. The Valkrygan gods had small shrines in their name hidden away in dank wooden structures, but this. This was grand. It was majestic. He had to look closer. As he stepped towards the dominating entrance, more of those strange carvings appeared in the stone archway. They had always been there, of course, but the light of the moon shined across their carved lines and almost gave life to them with its caress.

'it's as though the souls of men were forever trapped in this stonework.' He mused. Valkrygan society had no need for such craft. They sang tales of their legends and warmed themselves by the fireplace at night listening to their retelling. They never cared to depict their tales in any other way. His own people must have had an awful lot to tell. Their voices were now lost to the far reaching echoes of the past. Their remnants were nothing more than a scattered shadow of their former selves and very few had the skill of knowledge to pass on their, clearly rich, culture.
He continued on up the steep moss riddled path until he was at the even grander entrance to the the temple itself. It had been quite the climb up to the top of the hill with such sore legs, but he was determined to look inside. He feared not his own warnings. The gods had power, and had was very much a past tense. Valkrygan own gods had already proved that their power to intervene was waning, and with the eventual ruin of Eriskarian society, he doubted little that his own gods were any better.

Along the roof were the fractured remains of statuettes carved from the same brilliant white stone. The face of the structure hosted carven figures depicting scenes clearly from Eriskarian legend. A mighty beast with fire in its mane bared its ferocious teeth at a lone, naked man wielding a spear. As he gazed up at the carvings, his imagination was overwhelmed with wonder at the heroic figures it depicted. He wished he could ask his father about them, but he was gone now. His passing had grieved him dearly. His fathers words rang clear in his mind "We all must go eventually, my son. It is not the body which endures, but the spirit." Now he was all alone in the world. Of course, the King was good to him. Treated him as he would any subject in Ørkady and for that he was grateful, but his own people were mostly gone now. He was alone.

Kjartan tore his eyes away from the structure and stared at the entrance, where the remains of a door frame could be seen. He moved over the threshold of the structure, his heart in his mouth as he disappeared into the great black abyss of the unlit building. It was eerily quiet outside but the still silence inside amplified the disturbing nature of this temple. It felt more like a tomb. His heavy steps echoed softly in the vestibule and for a moment he worried that he may disturb some hidden, ancient creature from its slumber.

Who knew what beasts lurked in abandoned old buildings? Dweorh, most likely. They dwelled in hidden spaces when there were no lost travellers to waylay. They took great delight in ensnaring those who stepped into their domain. It was said that they took a fairer form in these moments and offered to guide their unfortunate prey to safety. None would ever see the traveller again, and their bones would line the floor of the impish creatures abode. They were ugly creatures with disfigured noses and great big hands with gnarled fingernails. Only words wrought with magical power could dispel them.

He eased his pace until his steps fell silent. If there were any evil beings in here he would want to see them before they saw him. Sneaking through the door, he found himself in a corridor. It wasn't a long corridor, and he soon found himself entering another room. A wider room with large pillars in the middle, smaller in size to those outside but just as impressive to witness.

'This must be where the worshippers gathered.' He mused to himself quietly. It was not an unfamiliar prospect. Most religions around the world, he was told, featured some room or another where the laity would pray. It was possible that only the higher ranking holy men would be allowed on this sacred outcrop, but he liked to think all had been welcome to seek alms from their gods.

He crept further into the temple, keeping to the walls and in the shadows, as the light of the moon was shining in via a gaping hole in the roof. In the centre of the room, in full view from all angles, was a large circular bowl made of a strange black stone with clusters of unusual white crystals infused within it. Dashed inside the bowl were patches of dry, red marks which Kjartan assumed was likely to be blood.

'A sacrifice altar?' He wondered. 'It seems rather small to hold much blood.' Sacrifice was not unheard of in Raderic. They slaughtered animals, and historically slaves, to satisfy the gods in return for a good harvest. Still, this bowl troubled him. As the light of the moon hit its smooth sides directly, the bowl seemed to change somehow. It no longer looked enchanting and mysterious. The light had revealed a more sinister machination. The smooth sleek sides were mottled with a thick black iqor and strewn around the outside was flesh; rotten flesh with welting puss leaking out. How had he not seen that before? It was as though the moon's rays of light dispelled a veil of illusion, revealing the true horrors which lay beneath.

Kjartan shuddered with repulsion. The smell of dust and damp rock was replaced with a fetid, putrid stench of rot and decay. As he surveyed the room around him once again, the same light which vanquished the bowls mask revealed more gore. Dangling from the rafters were the disembodied remains of old corpses. The flesh still visible but rotten, with clotted splatters of blood along the gaping wounds. Surrounding the walls were markings clearly written in blood, displayed in an archaic language which he could not discern. There was magic at work here. A gruesome and horrible magic. It was so offset from the beauty of the building that he was ready to believe he had somehow stepped into another world altogether.

Soft shadowy smoke billowed along the floor like morning's mist. His feet were quickly absorbed beneath and he worried he may sink into the floor at any moment. He spun around in panic, holding aloft his sword he had now drawn as though he fully expected the mists to attack him. He steeled himself for whatever came next, knowing fully well that he was more likely to die than achieve much. He had utter confidence in his fighting ability, but fighting mortal men was one thing. Having the courage to fight against something truly monstrous? Why, that would take more than bravery than even he possessed.
As Kjartan prepared himself for the inevitable, the impossibly grotesque visage before him disappeared as quickly as it revealed itself. The walls were a smooth white once again. The ceiling held no suspended, mutilated corpses and the floor, and much more importantly his feet, were once again visible. In fact, the room looked so unlike it did a few moments ago that it was only the lingering of the rancid scent in his nostrils which convinced him that what he had just witnessed truly happened.

'By all the gods…' He projected, but trailed off as he struggled to compose himself. The scene was so bizarre, so extraordinary and yet so sudden that he could not understand it. His mind raced with so many questions. What? How? Why? No answer followed. He was left dumbfounded by it all. What more, there seemed to be no purpose behind it. He had witnessed something horrific, yet nothing came of it. No monsters appeared. No demons, no sorcerers…. Nothing. What could it mean? He was deeply troubled.

The sound of a stone falling to the ground drew him away from his private deliberation. It echoed loudly from a doorway to his left. How big was this place? It seemed smaller from the outside, yet there was an impossible amount of rooms within. Corridors and chambers which defied the dimensions of the outer walls of the building. He was drawn now to that same doorway. He had not even seen it previously. Perhaps he had been so focused on the centre of the hall that he had not even noticed the extension. Curiosity got the better of him and he cast aside his previous fear for the sake of discovering more. Who knew what further evil could be found in such a place? He had so desperately wanted to find out about his own people. He had met so very few of them and those he had met were changed something. Not polite or thoughtful or even all that intelligent. They did not match with his expectations of Eriskarian society... true Eriaskarian society. Now, having born witness to this temple, he wondered if he ever truly knew what his people were like.

Pressing forward, he moved with a nimble silence which belied his stature. Caution now setting in a little more, he peeked steadily around the frame of the door and kept himself on a constant alert. He didn't fancy bumping into any more disfigured remains; nor the creature which caused them to be in such a state. He hoped there were no Dweorh nestled deep within these ruins. They were horrible creatures, but deep down he knew he would not slay one. They were a part of this world as much as he was. What right did he have to end their lives for simply existing? Still, he clenched his sword tightly in his hand. He would have to hope his courage would hold out.

The room ahead seemed clear. Another corridor. He moved forward. The glimmer of steel from his sword caught the light which peaked through a small hole in the roof. It was comforting to know he had it there. Sometimes, men need the strength and assurity that a good firm weapon brings. He was beginning to grow calm as he circumvented the rooms ahead of him. Nothing sprang out to meet him. No more gorey spectacles revealed themselves anywhere that he could see, and thank the gods for that.

It wasn't until he moved towards, what he hoped was the final room, when he heard a faint whisper. The sound was not coming from anywhere near him, but seemed to be carried by the very rocky walls themselves, as though the smooth white surfaces were attempting to mimic their contents. The sound was coming from the room ahead. He couldn't make out what was being said, but he knew they were a man's voice.

Kjartan squeezed against the stoney surface as he moved towards the frame of the door, as though he might be detected if he was any less pressed against the walls. He peered into the room and almost exclaimed loudly at what he could see. Before him lay a large golden altar upon a rocky platform. Flights of steps featured at each side with red carpet flowing down to the bottom, trimmed with gold. Kneeling before the altar was a hooded figure. It was impossible to determine any features in the black abyss that shrouded the figures face, yet he could tell from the slim frame that it was no Valkrygan man. His eyes widened in surprise as he came to terms with that fact.

The figure was speaking softly, whispering to the altar as though it expected a reply. When a reply came, Kjartan nearly lost his footing in shock. A disembodied voice rasped in an unfamiliar language at the cloaked man who continued to converse in the same tongue. Above the room was a smooth circular hole in the roof. Unlike other parts of the structure it was clear that this hole was intentional and not a result of neglect. A few moments passed and the moon began to appear above the hole, illuminating the room with its pale white glow. Almost immediately, the room took on a new form. What was once an empty room besides the altar and its inhabitant now became a vast and well populated chamber.

Spectral figures were sat in previously empty seats like attendees at a feasting hall. These grand stone seats stretched either side of the altar and every empty ghostly set of eyes were beaming down at the forlorn figure below. Kjartan's mind began to swim, as though he'd drank more than his fill and was about to keel over. He shut his eyes and shook his head, as though to shake off the drowsiness. The feeling swiftly passed, but when he opened his eyes again he saw that the figures before him were as clear as his own hands. The once ghostly spectres were now made of flesh. Old men mostly, but some young men were scattered about the crowd too. They were chattering amongst themselves, laughing at jokes or cheering in support of another's suggestion. It was all quite real in truth. So real that he was once again reminded of the room with the bowl.
'Why have you summoned us this night?' Cried one of the delegation suddenly. 'Don't you know what time it is? We may be dead but that doesn't mean we like being disturbed.' He was an older man. A short white beard and short cropped white hair. He leaned on a staff as though his frail old years still affected him in death.

'Forgive me grand master. I mean not to disturb you in your rest, nor any of the ancestors.' The hooded figure gestured his hands apologetically to the room. 'I fear it is of the utmost importance that I bear you the news I have learned today.'

The rest of the seated figures leaned in closer, as though the fact may somehow allow them to hear better.

'Speak then. What have you learned?'

'Grand master, I have learned of their movement and know their deepest plans….' The hooded figure stopped. All attention had been drawn away from him and towards Brenjulf. Their eyes glared accusingly at him, like some unwelcome invader in their home.
Before Kjartan could back away towards the door and escape, a gloved hand clamped firmly on his shoulder and tightened its grip. Kjartan turned to meet the gaze of his assailant and found himself staring at a pair of dark green intense eyes, nestles firmly in to an even more intense, square jawed face.
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