Geoffrey was very good at riding horses. Sowing hatred and discord usually required lots of travel. He was even better at riding dragons, since they were the faster mode of transportation on World of Battle. Krim, unfortunately, had no dragons. That was a pity, because it could have significantly reduced the time it took to get from Krim City to Heartburgh.
When he caught up to Bartram, the financier pretended to ignore him for a few steps before stopping.
“I thought you were going to stick around the village, looking for sick puppies to save so you can impress Flame,” said Bartram.
“I was.” Geoffrey got down from his horse. “But then I saw you walking down the road looking cold and miserable and pathetic. And I thought that she’d feel sorry for you. Plus, if I had to spend more time with you, it would be awful for me, and she’s be sorry about that, as well.”
“I may be developing a blister on my foot,” said Bartram.
“Perfect. She’d love that.”
“Happy to be of service.”
They made good time on horseback. Jim was right — the road led right past the temple. For a secret, hidden temple, it was neither hidden nor secret. They could see it from miles away, a white stone edifice dwarfed by the mountain behind it. But as they got closer it became clear that the building was immense.
“How did they ever build this out here?” asked Geoffrey.
“It was built five thousand years ago by an army of slaves,” said Bartram. “The walls are made of sandstone from Gaulrane. The floors are black marble, from mines a thousand miles to the south. Ten thousand people died constructing the temple.”
“First, how do you know that? Second, wasn’t Krim founded ten years ago?”
“Twelve. Krim was founded twelve years ago, but the temple was already here.”
“So the grid owners created it when they made the world, and the Cult of Qualdir just occupied it?”
“Basically,” said Bartram. “There may have been a few scuffles with some other cults first.”
“And how do you know all this?”
“I picked up a guidebook before I left for Heartburgh. The Gallivanter’s Guide to Orgies, Sex Cults and Cannibals of the Northern Mountain. They also have a guide to the orgies, sex cults and cannibals of the Great Gedran Desert. It was a best seller.”
“Did they have a guidebook to the bandits of the Northern Mountains?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“Well, did the guide say what they were going to do to us if we just showed up?”
“It said that visitors were often invited to participate in rites, rituals, and festivals.”
“How, exactly? As religious sacrifices? As the main course?”
“I don’t know. But I’m hungry. I hope they have food.”
“You should have had the soup. It was good.”
“I wanted to work up an appetite in case there was a feast. I wouldn’t want to offend the cultists by not being hungry.”
As they got closer to the temple, Geoffrey started looking around for guards or any other signs of life. There were no windows in the temple — just a solid wall of white stone that looked to be at least ten stories high, with a set of iron doors as the only entrance.
They turned off the road and rode up to the doors, which was more than twenty feet high and wide enough for a coach to pass through. Inside the right-hand door was a smaller door, this one built to human scale. It had a rope pull.
While Bartram struggled to get down off his horse, Geoffrey jumped down from his and pulled the rope. Somewhere deep in the temple a bell clanged. They waited for several minutes, then Geoffrey pulled the rope again.
“Is anyone even here?”
“They have to be,” said Bartram. “The Gallivanter’s Guide says that the temple is prosperous filled with people.”
Geoffrey was about to pull the rope again when a small window opened at eye level and an eye peered out.
“What do you want?” said the eye’s owner. “Did you bring the groceries? You’re late. Did you get lost? You look new.”
“No,” said Geoffrey.
“We’re religious pilgrims,” said Bartram. “On a pilgrimage to this sacred site.”
“Uh huh. Did you bring any food?”
“No,” said Bartram. “Were we supposed to bring an offering? The Gallivanter’s Guide didn’t say anything…”
The little window snapped shut.
“Wait!” said Bartram.
The window slid back open, half way. “What?”
Bartram looked around, then started searching through his pockets.
“I’ve got some apples,” said Geoffrey. They were for the horses. Geoffrey hoped that Bessie and Luna wouldn’t be too upset if they had to share.
“Fine.” The little window clanged closed, then the door opened. “I’m Brother Wallace. Come on in. Oh, you’ve got Luna and Bessie with you. Hold on.”
The little door closed again, then the big iron door it was set into started opening, one slow inch at a time.
“Can you guys help?”
Bartram and Geoffrey pulled and got it open enough to bring the horses through into a small open air courtyard.
“I expected black marble,” said Bartram, looking down at the cobblestones at his feet.
“That’s just in the rituals room,” said Brother Wallace. “You wouldn’t want marble outside, anyway. It would get too slippery when it rains, and it chips easily. The Temple of Glesau has marble everywhere and they wound up having to rip up half it. It barely lasted six months. You wouldn’t believe how much maintenance and upkeep these old temples require. Some day, it barely even seems worth it.”
“So,” said Bartram. “What do you guys have going on here now?”
“Well, I’m about to throw some more wood on the fire, eat those apples you mentioned, and go back to the scarf I was knitting. You look disappointed.”
“I was expecting…” Bartram began.
“What? Orgies? Naked women dancing in the moonlight?”
“We do those in the summer, when it’s warmer,” said Brother Wallace. “Come back for the summer solstice. We’re going all out.”
“But what about now?”
“What about now? It’s cold. The grocery delivery is late again. And, also, everyone is back in Krim City.”
“You’re the one one here?”
“What, are you disappointed? Well, we can do a quick orgy if you want. As long as I get to keep my warm wooly socks on.”
“I’ll pass,” said Geoffrey and handed Brother Wallace an apple.
“I guess it’s just you and me,” Brother Wallace told Bartram.
“It hardly seems like an orgy, if it’s just two people,” said Bartram.
“Well, you can stay for our evening feast and prayers,” said Brother Wallace.
“There’s a feast?”
“It’s mostly porridge,” said Brother Wallace. “The groceries are late. Porridge, and an apple. And I usually skip the prayers part. Hey, I can sacrifice you to Qualdir.”
Bartram looked over at Geoffrey. “What do you think? I’ve never been sacrificed before.”
“I cut out your heart with a stone knife,” said Brother Wallace.
“That sounds tempting,” said Geoffrey. If Bartram was dead, he’s be out of Geoffrey’s hair for at least two weeks. He could focus all his attention on Flame while Heartburgh dissolved into chaos around them. A nudge here, a nudge there… and Flame would blame him for whatever happened. “Sorry,” he said. “Old habits.” He clapped Bartram on the shoulder. “Remember how annoying that two-week trip from Krim City is. You can always come back and be sacrificed later.”
“Sure,” said Brother Wallace. “Our doors are always open. Unless they’re closed, in which case I go and open them.”
“Maybe I’ll come back in the summer,” said Bartram.
He slowly walked back out of the temple, leading his horse behind him.
He and Geoffrey helped Brother Wallace get the door closed again. Then the cultist opened up the little window and looked out at them. “Ride safe,” he said. “And tell Quartas I’ll stop by tomorrow morning. I wouldn’t mind bringing some of her soup back with me.”
He closed the window and the two of them were alone again.
“Well, we got a chance to do some bonding,” said Bartram. “And isn’t that the important thing?”
“We also found out that the temple isn’t going to be much of a strategic military ally,” said Geoffrey. “Not if it’s just Brother Wallace and his wooly socks. Need some help getting back on the horse?”
As he bent down and clasped his hands together, a half-dozen armed men stepped out of the woods and onto the path that led back to the main road.