Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Ballad of Titian and Midiana: Chapter 4: The Monster in the Temple

Chapter 4
The Monster in the Temple

The salt from my tears added to the Sea. I was sitting upon a rock jutting from the waves, thirty paces from where Valis and I first awakened upon the island. With nostalgia I’d return there, to listen to the crashing waters, to dwell on what seemed another life, my life before Aea. Now I wished to have never survived the shipwreck. In losing Midiana, I was but a walking carcass, without a soul—for my soul belonged to her. Worse still, I was to blame for her affliction, I who envied the loveliest rose in the garden of the world, which in my greed ripped her from the roots, letting her loveliness decay. That cruelest of gods found fault in my beloved when she was guiltless. Why should I have remained human? Why should she not sit here upon this outcropping, feeling the winds and sun and cold lapping against her lovely thighs? I deserved punishment, having wallowed in the Temple of Irene for so long, in that den of debauchery, not she, who never was impure of heart.

If I could have torn off my limbs, or plucked out my eyeballs, or shorn that vile loose organ which doomed her, to make her as she was, I’d have done so. Alas, there was no sacrifice for me to make to undo this evil. I cried aloud, across the Sea so that my own goddess might hear me, yet in this strange land it seemed my cries went unheeded.

It was then that something shining caught my eye. Embedded in a reef, where the waves broke into glittering mist, was my sword, which I had so long been without. It was as if the Ancients had taken pity on me. Seeing that fine blade again, beaded in the salty spray, a new reality overcame me, the joys of war, contesting the awful anguish of love. I took it as an omen and the dreadful solution became clear. Remembering the oath she had made, the promise of her self to Death, I vowed, by my sword, that if I could not lift Maki’s curse, she’d not live a monster.

I walked straightway from the beach, and in that it was midday, the sun beat down on me, and I succumbed to delirium. The sword pulled on my shoulder with greater weight than I remembered. Had I grown weaker since coming to Aea? Or was it the heaviness of the deed that it was to carry out? Never had I lifted the sword to anyone but my enemy, how could I turn it against the one I loved, even if she did not resemble the woman branded in my heart?

And I wondered whether any part of her was still my Midiana. Would she recognize me or was her mind transformed as well? The more I thought on these things, the more uneasy I became, and nearing the city as I had a hundred times before, I fancied it all a dream. After all, who could have believed it?

Harsh truth reared itself against me, however, as with my approach, storm clouds rolled over the city, like those which had brought ruin to the Nibian vessel, casting a shadowy gloom over the rooftops and the gardens and the splendid little fountains and the square with its three temples. I had never seen a sunless day on Aea. It was evident now, not only to me, but to all the islanders, that some curse had befallen the island.

Thousands were gathered at the temple, where the funnel of a storm cloud churned angrily like a black whirlpool in the sky. The shadows were thick as pitch, casting every shape in sharp relief. To my utter amazement, vines had grown overnight, wrapping every pillar in thorns, weaving across the steps and down from the pediment. Despite their number, not a gossiping murmur came from the islanders, not a fearful gasp. It was as if they were holding a silent vigil, a funeral, for one departed. There was no sound but the shuffling of feet, the ripple of robes against the air, as they were drawn, trancelike, to the befouled temple. But they kept distance from it also, as if what had infected the walls might also infect them. My heart, already torn asunder, throbbed with pain—with guilt—to see it, a people who once moved with such free spirit, with such playfulness and innocence, now muted and pitiable, like prisoners condemned to execution. I wanted to surrender myself to their anger; I hungered for their scorn, their jeers, but did not imagine such emotion within their capacity.

With sword at my hip, I moved easily through them, for they parted to let me through like docile sheep. Upon reaching deep into the crowd, I came to a chain of priestesses, joined wrist-to-wrist before the temple. I recognized a few of their faces as devotees of Irene, and was shamed in remembering the things I had done with them. The priestesses of Zoë were there also, as were those from Maki’s befouled temple, yet all stood united, in the same pure white garments, with the same lace of gold about the ankles and ribbons of gold in their hair. Lust and wisdom and virtue stood to confront the angered god. Beneath that great churning cloud, each face was a statuesque beauty masked in shadow, every chin high and proud, no woman less respectable than another. Together, they formed a ring, like a column beneath some invisible circular temple. Their chanting was a low murmur of contrition.

It was a ritual I did not understand, but I was far from keeping my distance, from showing respect to that god of cruelty. Clutching one woman by the shoulder, I demanded to know what was happening. “Maki is angry,” a young, wild-eyed girl told me, and a follower of Zoë added, “The balance has been broken.”

The priestesses looked just as frightened and lost as the rest of the people. I asked if anyone had gone in. “Only one,” a voice replied. It was a woman who had known Valis and me intimately. Her face was solemn in the dim light, lined with world weary wisdom, as a mother might be with aged children, and it seemed inconceivable that she once could have done the things she had done to us. “Your friend, Valis . . .” she said. “We tried to stop him, to lure him away, but nothing could dissuade him. He was adamant to find you. I’m sorry.”

“Let me go,” I cried, but their arms were linked and would not let me pass, and many more turned to me, saying it was forbidden. Hearing the word forbidden loosed something dark and torrid within me, and I fell into frenzy, pulling apart their joined hands.

I cut through the web of thorns stretching from one pillar to the next and crossed into that vast, cold lair, dimly lit by unseen torches. Carefully, I took my steps, keeping my blade close, and as I moved toward the altar chamber, sight of the walls vanished in the fading light, and all I could make out were the rows of marble columns rising to their fading capitols, the barrel arches marking the end of one chamber and the beginning of another. The only sounds were those of my own sharp breaths and the crackling of distant flame. No voices could be heard, nor of my friend or that of my beloved, and I dared not call out for fearing what might answer. Like a prowling thief I advanced, hiding quietly from pillar to pillar, and in the depths of that dwelling all hint of daylight was hidden.

Thoughts of Midiana festered in my diseased brain, the image of her beauty contesting with my dreadful imagination. And I recognized my own morbid curiosity, to look wide eyed upon what she had become, to witness the manifestation of her punishment. But the notion also terrified me, all the more as I continued probing the temple. How grotesque can any living creature truly be? Would Maki’s words ring true? Would my mental faculties withhold? I was more frightened than from those terrors that decimated our encampment in the heart of the Dark Hemisphere, for in those dim and dismal days I had no desire for life, as I had never known love which makes life worth living. Death is a trifling thing, a peaceful rest. But to lose sanity is to live a nightmare from which there is no waking.

As if in answer to my thoughts, my foot trespassed upon a long shadow, and where I looked was the silhouette of a man. I approached quickly, knowing it must be Valis. But what I discovered struck me equally with awe and despair. Valis stood like a stone, his every follicle upright, his hair ashen as the marble tile beneath him. Were the dim shadows playing tricks on me? No. I looked into his face, into his pupils, which were like inkblots, fixed into the center of the chalk white orbs that were his eyes. Whether living or dead, I could not say, for there was no trace of life within him but that he remained standing. I went to rouse him, but snapped my hand away in terror, for what I had touched was nothing like flesh. All the warmth in that virile body had gone, and now his arm was cold and stiff. Like weathered flagstone I expected it to break given but a little tug. Suddenly, the inkblots of his eyes shifted in my direction, and I leapt back, startled.

I bid he speak to me, if he could, and placed my ear to his lips. “I came to look for you,” I heard him say in a whisper so subtle I imagined it coming from my own skull. And then he was pleading with me, begging, as if he knew I would not obey. “Don’t look at her, Titian! Don’t look at her! Turn back!”

With those words went his final breath. I mourned the loss of my friend, of my comrade, lamenting that he died senselessly and on my behalf, and vowed to honor him properly, with a funeral pyre, as was the tradition of the Nibian warrior. But I was haunted by his final words, and my heart gave way to such terror, I feared the blood might drain from me completely. There was no denying that Valis was victim to Maki’s curse. Upon seeing my beloved, or the monster she’d become, he was changed into something less like flesh and more like stone.

One thought kept me from fleeing, and that one thought I spoke aloud, so the walls echoed with her name. For in that moment, my love for Midiana resurfaced and I buried all concern for myself, taking strength in the vow I had taken. But as I turned to go in search of her, I became aware of a noise, a thing creeping across the smooth surface beneath my feet, and it was such a noise that the hairs on my neck forewarned its approach. My eyes beheld something familiar shaping the light from the adjoining hall, and with that I  fell into a panic, and could think of nothing but to run. Where I was headed I did not know, back to the safety of daylight, perhaps, but already that voice, that horrid voice was calling me. I prayed in that instance to be smitten with deafness, imagining, with trepidation, what such a creature might look like to make such a sound, knowing that whatever it could be was awful beyond my capacity to reason, and that Valis’ warning was wise and I not turn to face what chased me.

Lost in flight, the temple became a maze of shadows and flame and fluted colonnades. Stopping to catch my breath by the only torch that still burned, I found myself upon the shrine where that accursed idol scowled down at me. At my feet, a splendor of multicolored stones fanned out, and in my mind’s eye our naked and entwined bodies groped like ghosts across the mosaic.

With a little hope, I believed the monster would avoid the light to remain unseen. But her silhouette was already forming in the rims of my eyes, and I was amazed by its size, for surely it stood above me! And then that awful voice came again, and no longer could I resist it, for it was addressing me, with words like poison, “Do you not still love me, Titian? Why do you flee from me?”

“Midiana!” I cried weakly, shamed that I could not bear to lift my eyes, my sword slipping from my numb and quaking fingers. But she answered only, “I am no longer Midiana. I am the guardian of the Shrine of Maki. I am that which you made me.”

I was far beyond redemption, I knew, yet I fell on my knees, my hands across my eyes, begging that she show me some sign of her former self, some understanding of me and of my remorse.

“Look at me!” she wailed and crept closer, the shadow on the wall suggesting a slithering motion, moving far more quickly than I thought possible. “Look at what you've done to me!”

Embattled by my own emotions, I wept bitterly, like a small child, and beat at my chest like a madman.

Coming within the circle of light, I heard her in that anguished, tortured, gurgling voice, “Titian! Oh, Titian . . .!” and every hair on my body bristled at my name. “Truly, you must love me, for even as I am, you return to me. Now we shall be together, forever.”

With that, such terror seized me that I screamed, and cast down the blazing stand, to banish the sight of her. I only managed, however, to dim the light, for the flame still flickered up from the tiles of the floor. And in that instance I chanced to look upon that rough surface where the light crept and it was like a stinging in my eyeballs: it was a reptilian thing, with dead, cream-colored fish eyes, framed in what vaguely suggested a woman’s—Midiana’s—face. I turned and guarded my eyes against it, but already I could feel her, drawing long bloody lines across my shoulders. It was not a hard, stabbing motion, as a predator atop its prey, but a kind of wounding caress. I knew then what I must do. Gathering my sword, I pressed the broad shaft against my lips, and stretched out my arm. I knew it was to be done quickly if mercifully, but even in that moment I loved her. In hesitating, a new horror came writhing about the edges of my sword, a host of braid shaped serpents, their fangs like needles against my face. And fear gave way to wonder, from where such things might have spawned if not the monster’s scalp. Two of her claws were at my throat now and the wiry serpents continued to nip and draw blood, and I was paralyzed, and should I have been able to move, my sword was far too long to use in her embrace. But I remembered the fallen torch, and in righting it with my foot, the monster saw its own hideousness upon the surface of my steel and recoiled, and with clenched eyelids I struck again. The blade lodged into hard, leathery flesh, and cold blood like syrup oozed against my bosom. Her anguished screams would have made any man mad, yet I blotted out all but my aim, and realizing I had yet to cut through bone, I struck again and freed my love.

As the monster’s body fell away, something rolled over my feet, and I dared to look, seeing braids where there had been serpents. With the head removed, the goddess’ curse lifted, to remind me of what she had once been. My priestess looked peaceful now, as someone deep in slumber. I cradled her head, letting my tears fall against her brow, and with every kiss upon those soft, red-stained lips, my heart throbbed as if to burst. Too brief a time was given me, as already the face was turning pale and cold, her beauty restored only to wilt. With the suddenness of a killing blow, I realized that I had been her killer. Of this world which I so detested, I loved but two things, Valis, and the priestess of Maki’s temple, and I was the death of both. The loathing for this wretched mortal coil was such that I longed to turn my sword against my  throat, but there was more evil to be done. For there was one thing I hated above all, and I lifted my sword from the shrine floor, lunging toward that scowling idol with a cry of fury, sparks flying from my blade as it rebounded from the goddess’ granite heel.

I cannot say for how long my hatred was loosed upon it, to little avail, but the sound of many rising gasps gave me pause. “Enough!” It was the priestess of Zoë who had taught me the Aean language. Every priestess, from every temple, was standing with her. “You have done enough harm,” she said to me. “Leave now. Men are forbidden here.”

Something monstrous stirred in me at the reverence shown to that evil deity and at the lack of bereavement given for their fallen sister. And then many things happened at once. I turned back to the idol, to topple the statue from the base, and they moved to stop me. When the blood cooled and I came again to my senses, three women lay at my feet, a crimson color spreading across the pure white of their garments from where my sword had cut through them. One of the women, fatally wounded, had been my lover in the Temple of Irene. The other two were followers of Maki.

At the sight of this massacre, I expected the warriors to attack me, to become as enraged as I had been. I wanted nothing more than to be punished, to be killed. But they did not move against me. Their eyes were full of fear and pity and sorrow, but rage and hatred was unknown to them.

“You disrespect the Temple of Maki,” said the one who had spoken before, “you do not accept its ways. And yet, did you not partake in the orgies at the Temple of Irene?”

I was dumbfounded by the question, and a great sense of shame washed over me, stilling my lust for battle.

“You cannot revere one god and blaspheme another. There must be balance between them. In your lands, there is only war and desolation. You came here, envying our innocence and prosperity, yet you cannot accept the balance which gives us peace.

“Leave this island now. Leave never to return, never to speak of it to outsiders, for your kind is unworthy of paradise.”

That night, I claimed the bodies of Valis and Midiana, letting their ashes rise to the gods from the pyre I set upon the beach. The following morning, I commissioned a boat for my departure, and the gods favored me with a strong wind in my sails. 

It has been decades since that time, but the memory of those events has never faded. Someday, whether on the battlefield or on my deathbed, Death will come for me, and I shall welcome him as a friend, for there is no more compassionate a god. And he shall take me to the land where the dead dwell, where she waits for me, where Midiana waits, and over the goddess of virtue our love will have triumphed.

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