Breaking into a temple should be easy; you know, sanctuary and all that. But the nuns at the Church of Flowing Light were apparently unfamiliar with that concept. The shit guarding the place was astonishing. The first level was just plain subtle. The closer you got the more deeply a feeling of dread descended upon you. I had been there in the daytime, and I knew you didn’t feel it then, so it had to be a protective device. I wondered seriously if I would be better off returning tomorrow, when it would be light, but steeled myself instead. Random was in there, and I had no way of knowing if he would still be alive tomorrow.
The temple itself was a misleading little structure. Tucked away on a back street in a rundown part of the city, its smooth plastered walls gave no indication of the activities within. The front entrance was simple and unassuming, a couple of rough wooden posts holding up a rustic porch, and a plain wooden door. Once you got inside the door, however, everything changed. Inside, the place was huge. The ceilings were at least a hundred feet high. The walls, gilded and silvered, encased huge windows streaming with sunlight. Since outside, the sky was uniformly overcast and grim, you had to wonder where the light came from.
The actual altar was a soaring, gleaming concoction of fluted tubing and multiple platforms, all white and pale blue, with a sort of warm glow. Several times a day, the nuns appeared on the platforms and sang. The soaring, beautiful music gave a feeling of serenity and comfort to all who heard it. Nothing made you happier than to just stand there, smiling like an idiot, listening to the swirl of those lovely voices.
Obviously the place was a hit. The crowds came every day, packed into that huge room, shoulder to shoulder like sardines, in a haze of euphoria. Which would be all well and good, except that Random never came back out again.
Random: My friend, my partner, my lover. What a guy. I’m really not sure if he made my life better or worse, but it was certainly interesting. Making a living as wandering performers is sketchy at best, but it would have been a lot easier sticking to that instead of all the tangential enterprises – such as rescuing the man from a bunch of nuns. On the other hand, he could be having the time of his life and totally living it up in there. Which did not endear him to me any further, as it was cold as hell out here, and starting to drizzle.
I wouldn’t worry so much if I hadn’t heard some unsettling things in the day or so since he disappeared. I had waited around for him after the show, or service, or whatever it was, and when he didn’t come out, tried the door, which was locked. There were small windows high in the wall, but I had no way of reaching them. After a prolonged and useless period of yelling and banging on the door, I noticed an old man across the road watching me. “My partner never came out,” I said.
He nodded. “Some don’t,” he replied and continued on his way. Alarmed, I caught up to him. “What do you mean, some don’t? Other people have disappeared in there?”
He glanced back at the Temple a little anxiously, and leaned in closer to me as we hurried along. “Sometimes they don’t come out,” he said again, then turned into a little alleyway and disappeared himself into the shadows, leaving me standing there, puzzled and alone.
I hung around the precincts of the Temple the rest of the day, which faded fast into evening and then dark night. That sense of dread came over me, and finally I stole away to the room we had booked at a nearby inn. It was there we had heard of the wonderful singing, and decided to come hear it for ourselves. It seemed like days ago, but had really only been a few hours. We had only arrived in town that morning. The biggest problem was that we had a show to do in two days, one that would actually pay us money, and if Random didn’t come out of the damn Temple, we were not going to get paid. As buskers, we rarely had this sort of issue. We arrived in town, found a likely street, and started into our act, passing the hat at intervals. It was not the steadiest of income, but it worked well enough to feed us most of the time, and we saw a great deal of the countryside. It did not, however, seem to be quite enough to keep us out of trouble, at least not today.
In other ways, today had been like so many others. We came to town, found a bustling street of commerce, and went into our act, as usual. We had drawn quite a crowd, and were raking in the cash. When we stopped to go find a bite to eat, one man hung back after the crowd dispersed. He was fairly well dressed – lots of lace and velvet, but worn just enough to mark him as a high-level servant of some sort. Still, he had an intelligent, open face and a nice relaxed manner, which warmed us to him. “My name’s Kyle,” he said. “And you are…?”
We introduced ourselves, Random, and me, Selena.
“Look,” he said, “I’m charged with gathering entertainment for a grand celebration tomorrow night. Would you be interested?” “Would this pay?” Random asked.
“Quite well,” the man responded and named a figure both of us knew better than to gasp at.
We allowed as to how we could make ourselves available for his party. He gave us directions, told us when to show up Name of place for questioning later, and recommended a lodging house (this one, actually). He then drew out a purse. “You will need to dress in white,” he said. “This should help keep you until the event.” and he handed Random a few large silver coins, which we knew would keep us quite well, thank you. “The rest is yours upon your arrival.” He smiled (and there was something wistful, maybe even regretful in that smile), bowed slightly, and left us.
Well, we were more than pleasantly surprised. We went straight out and found a tailor for the white clothing (annoying really; white is useless on the road), booked a room in an actual inn (one gets so tired of haylofts), and ate a serious lunch. After lunch (red wine, roast meat and root vegetables, so perfect for an autumn afternoon), we asked the innkeeper if there were any sights or entertainments hereabouts, and he mentioned the singing nuns, so off we went. You know the rest.
After I left the Temple, I returned to the Twining Serpent, and found the innkeeper, a florid, stout fellow with flaxen curls plastered tight to his head and a sweet-tempered, bovine look, wiping down the bar. “We went to that temple, “ I told him, “and my partner never came out. Now the doors are all locked and he’s disappeared.”
He stopped his work and regarded me with sympathy. “Ah, that’s a shame, that is,” he said, shaking his head. “Sometimes they don’t come out.”
I was already very tired of this line. “What do you mean? People can’t just disappear!”
“Oh, they do,” he said. “No one knows why. We think the nuns just keep them. No one minds, really.”
“Well, I mind,” I snapped. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“It’s not very many,” he said, surprised by my anger.
I obviously wasn’t going to get too far with this line of questioning, so I ordered dinner (a really delicious stew) and forced myself to eat it in the common room, listening hard to the conversations for any mention of the Church of Flowing Light. The common room was quite pleasant: smoke darkened, low ceilinged, fire warmed, and full of a convivial lot of fellow travelers and locals out for a beer and a bit of conversation. I did card and coin tricks for an hour to make some money (since that idiot Random had all our cash in his pockets), and listened in on the gossip.
And I heard some very interesting things. The Temple had appeared several months ago in an abandoned building. All of a sudden it was just there. Several times a day, the doors opened, and the mysterious, beautiful singing wafted out. Soon the people found their way inside, and the temple’s reputation grew. Those who went regularly found a source of solace and contentment previously unknown. They brought offerings of food, cloth, whatever they had and left it at the altar’s base. The local folks spoke reverently of the beneficial effects in their lives. I saw many traveler’s set their plan to visit the next day and hear the singing for themselves – just as we had. I wondered how many of them would fail to return. Local folks vs lords (the partygivers?
I paid my dinner bill, went up to my room, dressed all in black, chose a few useful tools, and went back to the Temple to see what I could see. I was not above a spot of breaking and entering, though I preferred an honest living. The dread hit me several yards away, but I pushed through it and approached the low, eyeless walls of the temple.
I had circled around it in the daytime, so I knew there was nothing remarkable about it from any direction: The whole building was only maybe twenty by twenty, with eight-foot walls, the one door, and a few little windows up at the top. But now I had a thin, strong rope with a hook at one end; I swung it around and tossed it up, where it caught upon the roofline. From there it was a simple matter to walk up the wall to one of the little windows and peer in. And I saw – nothing. An empty, trash-strewn, moonlit room looked back at me, no larger than the outside dimensions. How odd, I thought. As if it were still an abandoned building. That’s when the serpent appeared.
I am really not afraid of snakes in the greater scheme of things, but this one scared me. Thicker than a man’s torso, it glided along the roofline with only a cold, unfriendly rustle, like a few dry leaves scraping along a stone floor, to herald its arrival. If I hadn’t been petrified with fear, I would have fallen off the wall. As it was, the snake was upon me before I had time to react. It paused when it reached me, reared up (its head level with my chest, I might add, and its tail nowhere in sight, draped around the corner somewhere) and seemed to size me up for a moment. Then it opened its mouth and poured forth a stream of flame that would have burnt me to a crisp if I hadn’t slid off the roof on my rope and run like hell.
I stopped around the corner of the first alley and peered back at the temple, sitting smugly in its little cul de sac, sweet, innocent, and angelic. No snake, of course, adorned its roofline. No burn marks, either. Annoyingly, my rope had disappeared as well. This was getting very personal.
In the morning I went to see Kyle. Well, to be specific, I went to the location of the party and asked a worker where Kyle was. He turned pale, bowed deeply, and gestured vaguely across the field towards a manor house. Clearly it was going to be quite a party. Lavishly decorated tents were springing up on all sides of me as workers grunted, pulling on ropes and setting stakes. A furious hammering rang from a newly constructed stage, and I felt a pang of sadness at the thought that Random and I might be denied the pleasure of performing on such a lovely surface. I was half-tempted to go walk it and feel it out, but resisted. When I got to the house (huge, crenellated, black stone, ivy-covered, and highly imposing), I found a woman carrying a load of clean laundry and asked again for Kyle. She gave me a look of such shock I made a mental note to find out just who the hell Kyle really was. “Just a moment, Miss,” she said, curtsying despite her heavy load. “Please, just you wait right here.” She gave another look of alarm and scurried away.
I passed the time examining my surroundings. copyright Alia Thabit 11/1/2008