The Lorelei Signal
The Magic Temple
Written by Jason Lairamore / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
The story was old, but still it was told.
While lost magic from ages past protected them all.
~ * ~
A circular colonnade with bright, white pillars, too big by half for the small, frieze-filled entablature it supported, sat in the middle of a clearing on the outskirts of Tretomol. The walls of the inner chamber behind the columns were bare, black stone. There was no door to gain entry, not that it mattered. Magic prevented anyone from even touching one of the pillars.
"It's just a story," young Mallik said.
A group of ten students from Tretomol Academy walked across the grass toward the mysterious structure. Leading them was Bells Lotril, their new history teacher, a recent Tretomol graduate.
Bells ignored Mallik's comment and chose instead to address the group as a whole when they were near the building. She knew that each and every one of them would soon change their attitude.
A quiet lay upon the area surrounding the building. No animal ever came near. No bird ever flew close. Even the wind never seemed to touch the place. The air around it tasted old. It was like the years of antiquity had also preserved the taken breath.
As Bells expected, the murmurs and laughter of the children quieted as they neared. She walked to the little temple and extended her hand toward one of the pillars. She felt the magical pushback, gently at first, then with more strength as she strained forward. Her hand remained a full arm's length away from the pillar.
"Try to touch it," she instructed the children.
They hesitated. The utter quiet of the place settled all the more over their small group.
"Go on," she insisted.
One by one, the wide-eyed children followed her example, only to be pushed back by the magical force surrounding the temple.
"How does it do that?" one of the students asked.
Bells turned sidelong and ran a hand against the unseen barrier as she shook her head. "That knowledge is lost." She pointed toward the frieze sitting atop the pillars. "There is the story."
She paused a moment so that the children could gaze at the intricate detail of the stone carvings. The entablature was triangular with identical carvings on either end.
"We begin at far sides of the frieze," she began. "Who can tell me what the picture says?"
"A mountain exploded!" Titho exclaimed.
"Very good Titho," she said. "It was a volcano that erupted. Our scholars believe that this volcano once existed here, where Tretomol now sits."
"But where?" another student asked. Bells smiled and shrugged.
"It was a long time ago," she said. "Perhaps the lake where we get our water is an ancient volcano mouth. Or, maybe it has disappeared off the coast and its remains lay hidden beneath the waves of the ocean. What's important is what the volcano let escape."
She pointed to the next picture.
"The demon!" the entire class said at once. Everyone knew of the demon, even the young who had never been to the temple. It was the monster that kept the children in line. It was the cause of bad fortune when the rains didn't come and the crops suffered. Whatever ill thing happened, the demon was said to be involved.
She studied the carving as she felt sure everyone did when they came for a visit. Of all the depictions on the frieze, the demon was the least descriptive. There was only a pair of sharp, almost squinty eyes, spaced too far apart, and a leering mouth with the corners turned up into a hungry grin.
She shivered despite the warmth of the dead air around her. "The next carving shows destruction," she said. This carving showed multiple images of death and murder and other horrendous acts too graphic by half.
She hurried on to the central picture on the frieze - the largest on the entablature - a crowd of people bowed on either side of a central figure. The head and shoulders of a young woman with her chin lifted and her eyes closed had been carved large and dominant in the very center of the frieze.
"The magic bearer," she said. "She rid the world of the demon's earthly presence."
"But," a little girl said. "My father said the demon made his potatoes rot in the ground last spring."
Bells nodded and gave the girl a smile. "That's the spirit of the demon," she said. "It still causes what disaster it can. And, as I'm sure your parents have told you, it is especially drawn to wayward children."
The little girl nodded. A groan-like noise filled the dead air. She first thought that one of her students had made the noise, but that couldn’t have been it. The noise was too big, too complete.
A thunderclap rent the air followed by a sizzling as grease in a hot pan. The children all screamed. The ground rolled under her and she was thrown toward one of the pillars. Impossibly, she caught herself on the pillar. She jerked back. She couldn't have touched the temple.
A horrendous wind hit her back and ripped her forward. She stumbled and fell onto the temple's porch. The black wall of the inner chamber broke as she continued to roll. Before she could stop herself, she was inside.
The wind died away as she came to hands and knees. Ears ringing, she gained her feet and gazed about. The floor was smooth, hard-packed dirt. The hole in the wall let in enough light for her to see the inner side of the remaining black, stone walls.
A statue stood a short distance away. The light fell onto its lower legs. Trembling, she focused on the shadowy face, but before she could even discern any detail, its head fell off and a hideous laugh echoed off the walls.
Screaming, she ran out of the temple.
She fell to the porch and scrambled away on hands and knees. She nearly ran over the first student she came upon, but pulled up short. Tears streamed down the little girl's face.
The children had been pushed up against the edge of the portico. She tried her best to calm them as she checked for any injuries. Outside of a few scratches and a couple of bumps, the group was fine.
"What happened?" young Mallick asked.
She shook her head. It wouldn't do to cause more fear to the already shaken children. She turned and looked at the hole in the temple wall. The quiet of this place was gone.
"Collect yourselves," she said.
She stepped onto the porch and faced the hole in the temple wall. She feared her knees might give way at any moment, but knew that she had to check inside the temple one more time. The King and the council would want answers. She couldn't run away like a scared child. She was a teacher now and had a responsibility to Tretomol.
By force of will, she advanced. That evil laugh kept repeating in her mind. Was the demon free? If so, they were doomed. They no longer possessed the ancient's magic that had powered the temple.
She saw the head of the statue. It was the head of the girl from the entablature. There lay the magic bearer.
Her thoughts raced as she turned around and gazed at the scared faces of the children. They were waiting on her to lead them.
"Come," she said as bravely as she could, though her voice trembled. "Let's go back to the school."
~ * ~
She rushed across the field until one of the kids complained she was going too fast. They gained the empty roadway and her nerves settled a little. The whole experience seemed a little less daunting with the connection to civilization. She looked at the city up ahead and thought about the Academy. There were people there who could help. She could lean on those with more years of responsibility and learn how best to inform the King of what had happened.
Dean Wassir was who she would seek first. The kindly old man, with his stooping back and gentle grin, would know what to do.
The kids were quiet. Nobody so much as coughed. Glancing at them, she noted that they all had their eyes on the nearing city. They too must be taking comfort in the known security up ahead.
She heard a loud laugh and stopped in her tracks. It sounded too much like the laughter she had heard from the temple.
Atop the wall that marked the edge of the farmer's market there stood a naked man. He was facing the city and seemed to be putting on a show for whoever was on the other side of the wall.
Bells gaped at the scene. Other sounds could be heard coming from deeper inside the city. There were screams and hoots and hollering, and over it all there was more of that chilling, echoing laughter.
She glanced about. They were in an area dominated by crops and grazing land. Off to the left, there was a little, slanted cattle barn.
"Follow me," she said and left the roadway.
"I want to go home," a little girl cried.
She paused at the edge of the wooden fence separating the road and the pasture and gazed at the children's fearful faces. The demon was loose. The city wasn’t safe. They wanted their parents and the safety of their strong, loving arms. She knew this, because, deep down, she wanted the same.
“Listen,” she said. “I know you want to go home.” The cries and laughter of the city continued in the background. “But, it’s not safe. I need you to go hide in the barn till I can find help.”
A loud explosion sounded from inside the city. The kids started crying almost as one. They ran to her in a rush.
"Hush," she chided. "Let's go."
She pushed them under the fence and led them to the little barn. She kept an eye toward the city. The naked man was no longer on the wall, but the noise still made her stomach turn.
As she left the children and headed towards the city she wondered if she was doing the right thing.
The gate to the commons stood open and inviting with no one in sight. She walked slowly, scared to make a sound. The commons were full of housing where laborers and their families lived. It was here, this place, with its tight community and playing children, where she thought of when she daydreamed of the day when she would have a husband and children of her own.
Now, as she edged ever nearer to the gate, she wanted nothing more than to run from the place. She was glad that she had had the children hide in the barn. This was no place for them. There was smoke in the air, and screams, and laughter.
The road beyond the gate extended for a short ways before bending out of sight. So far, she had seen nobody cross the street. Taking a deep breath, she steeled her resolve. She would run. She would run all the way to the Academy and not stop for anything. Running was better than this nervous edging about.
She bolted through the gate. Her eyes remained fixed forward, on the road. There were people on the side-streets who were barely registered motions at the far edge of her field of vision. The laughter that had been a distant thing surrounded her. Only shrills of terror and the crashing of burning buildings and her own ragged breathing broke the continuity of that laughter.
The main gate to the city proper was up ahead. It too, was open, but it was not free of people. Beyond, she saw thousands of people, all moving, all doing things her mind refused to believe. It was as if the city were alive in one violent, bloody melee. It was a cacophony of screams and moans and harsh laughter by an undulating mass of bodies.
She dared not slow, but she couldn't go running headlong into that storm of people. She crossed the gate and darted quickly into the first doorway she saw. Once inside, she leaned against the door and caught her breath. The room looked to be some sort of small barrack used by the guards manning the main gate.
Quietly, she walked across the room to another door. There, she peeked out. An alley, darkened by the buildings that crowded it, lay before her. She stepped out.
She snuck down one alley after another and into building after building. Many times she was forced to backtrack due to the people she saw. She avoided everybody. She couldn't be sure of the madness gripping the city. Had it affected everyone? Had she too lost her sense? The world had taken on such horrific overtures.
Finally, she did make it to the Academy. She wasted no time in climbing the stairs to Dean Wassir's office. She knocked and there was no answer. She tried the latch and the door opened on silent hinges. Inside was a small room with a large window that overlooked the courtyard where people gathered to hear the King's proclamations. Tomes upon tomes filled the shelves lining the walls. At the desk in the back of the room, Dean Wassir sat, leaning back, with his face skyward. He was shirtless and there was blood matted on his gray chest hair.
The old man's head snapped forward so quickly that she jerked. His eyes, which she remembered being soft and caring, were wide. They seemed to drink her in all in one glance. He cackled a high-pitched laugh as he got to his feet and came around his desk.
He was naked.
"No," she whispered.
He cackled again and trounced on her like a wild animal. She was struck frozen by his grotesque transformation and didn't move until his clammy hands began to rove over the contours of her body. She pushed him back with a fierce yelp and shuddered at the nastiness that seemed to crawl over her body.
He fell against the desk then paused to look at her. There was an added edge of hate to his face as he stared. He squinted at her and the corners of his lips curled into a leering grin. She gasped at that face. It was demon's image from the carving on the frieze.
"An innocent," he said, his leer growing.
He jumped at her again.
Her fear turned to anger at seeing the demon in this beloved man's face. She met him in his jump and knocked him back again. This time, his head hit the edge of his desk. He slumped to the floor.
Her breath came in labored huffs. The vileness that had covered her body at his groping still lingered.
A commotion drew her attention to the window. She edged to it and looked down at the courtyard below. There were children down there, and young people her age, even a few older and more than one gray-haired elder. They were being herded together by a mass of screaming, blood-smeared people. As she stared in horror, one from the crazed crowd swung an axe into the back of a boy that couldn't have been far into manhood. Blood flew everywhere as the axe bit into the crumpled body again and again. The screaming redoubled and she back away from the sight.
'Innocent', Dean Wassir had said. They must be killing the innocent. She thought back on the temple's frieze. The magic bearer. They didn't have one. She looked out at the King's castle so near to the Academy. Her hope, her only hope, was that the King might have the answer.
~ * ~
Her eyes continuously roved for signs of anybody about as she hit the stairs leading down from Dean Wassir’s office. The screams from outside were loud enough to cover her heavy breathing.
She ran down the hallways, heedless, desperate. She exited the Academy through the kitchen's back entrance. There was an alleyway there. The screams of the nearby crowd intensified as she slowly opened the door. Steeling herself, she stepped out.
The entrance to the King’s castle, the only way in or out that she knew, was the main gate in front of the courtyard, where a crowd had gathered. Silently, she edged her way along the alleyway. When she reached the alley's mouth, she crouched and scanned the hideous, ever-moving crowd. To her left were the steps leading up to the King's gate. Taking an unsteady breathe, she edged out of the alleyway and hugged the wall of the building just outside. So far, the horde had not seen her. Their focus was on the poor people in their center. Her heart ached at the thought of those being killed. She continued to edge along the wall.
Her eyes never left the mob. She froze when one of the naked, blood-smeared people half-turned in her direction. When she reached the foot of the steps leading to the King’s gate, she paused. She had no doubt that some in the crowd would see her when she made her run for the gate. Still, she had to do it. She had to try to reach the King.
She rubbed her hands together and tensed to spring. She would have to be fast.
The gate swung open.
Dozens of people, all naked and many bloody, came running through. She crouched low as they flew down the steps and joined the ever-growing crowd. Her blood ran cold at the sight. If the madness was inside the castle …
The King came out. He walked slowly and majestically, just like she remembered him during the few times she had seen him in the city. Her heart sang at the sight. She rose with her hand to her chest and a smile growing on her face. He had his hands on his hips. He was looking out at the growing, screaming crowd. His back was to her. She tensed and waited for him to do something, anything.
The King laughed. He laughed a laugh that made her insides quiver. She had heard that laugh the moment the temple had cracked open.
No. She took a step toward him. It could not be. She took another step. She would plead with her lord. She began running. She had to shake this madness out of him. She must make him see this devastation.
The King turned toward her as she stumbled up the steps. That squinty-eyed leer was stamped on his face. It made her sick. No. She wouldn't let this evil have their King. She reached the topmost step and jumped toward the leader of their people.
The King's face lost its evil leer even before she had made her lunge. His eyes widened at her approach. He stepped back, but she was on him. She grabbed his hands and dropped to her knees. Her face went up to his as her tears broke loose.
"Please -," she began, but her words stopped. A jolting jerked her hands free of the King. The leader of their people fell down as if he'd been struck. She stood and faced the crowd as he rolled away.
The demon was inside her, tearing at her heart and straining outward toward her arms and legs. The people who had been acting like beasts collapsed as her gaze fell upon them. Those remaining standing were the weeping few who had been the object of torment only a moment before.
Still, the evil clawed at her insides. It whispered sweet promises of freedom from worry. It told her to cast her cares aside and all would be well.
She shook her head, unable to speak as her tears continued to run down her cheeks. The demon could not be allowed to escape. She had told her students that she would return once she knew it was safe and now she knew how to make it safe. Somebody else would have to go and collect the children. She knew they would be alright now. Everyone would be alright.
She closed her eyes, tilted her head skyward, and silently told the demon that he wasn't going anywhere.
~ * ~
The young woman, Bells Lotril, had frozen solid as any statue. The King, and all that were able in the city, carefully carried her to the temple. The kids, her students, were found and absorbed into the crowd. They placed Bells inside the broken structure and mended its walls. Once the last worker had finished, the magic protecting the temple returned. Nobody could touch it.
After a time, people once again started visiting the temple.
The story remained the same.
The Magic Temple was originally published in Outposts of Beyond Jan 2020
Jason Lairamore is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror who lives in Oklahoma with his beautiful wife and their three monstrously marvelous children. He is a published finalist and a third place winner in the SQ Mag contest. He has won honorable mention thirteen times and Semi-Finalists once in the Writers of the Future contest. His work is both featured and forthcoming in over 97 publications to include Neo-Opsis, New Myths, Stupefying Stories, and Third Flatiron publications, to name a few.