“Are you still praying, Oran?” I asked my friend over my shoulder as we enetered the ruined temple.
“Yes, my lord. I am praying in earnest.”
The roof of the structure had collapsed in places, leaving jagged holes in the ceiling a good twenty feet above our heads through which sunlight streamed and roots dangled, like denuded bones or stalactites. Insects swarmed and danced in the shafts of light. Is God watching, peering down through one of those holes? I wondered.
We could see the floor, an uneven carpet of broken rocks and dirt from which nothing living grew, for several yards in any direction, illuminated by the intrusive sunlight, but we saw nothing else. A brooding darkness swallowed up the distance, made all the darker by the shafts of outside light streaming downward. It felt hotter inside than outside; a bead of sweat trickled down my neck. The place smelled musty, decayed.
“We’ll need torches,” one of the men said, and set about lighting some.
“The old woman spoke of several chambers,” I said, talking as much to myself as to anyone. “And an upper and lower floor. We should be able to locate some interior walls and some stairs.”
“Gah!” Oran shrieked.
“What is it?” I said.
“I just saw a rat as big as a full-grown goat!”
I chuckled. “Let us hope rats are all we run into.”
As we spread out and my eyes adjusted more to the darkness, I came to appreciate the enormity of the structure. One couldn’t tell from the outside, but the temple comprised some several acres. There were columns, square in shape and smooth as skin, fashioned of the same dark stone as the floor and walls; we discovered several of the latter, some of them collapsed, dividing the place into several large rooms. Also we came across more of Oran’s rats. He had exaggerated the size of the one he had seen, but not by much. We could hear the clicking of their teeth and see their red eyes gleaming in the dark, reflecting back the fire from our torches.
“I believe they’d try to make a meal of us,” I said to Oran,” if not for the flames.”
“If your offer to lend me a weapon still stands, my lord…”
I offered a grim smile as I slipped a large dagger from the sheath at my belt and handed it to him.
“Look here, Reprobus!” one of the other men called to me. He had found an opening in the floor, a perfect circle with smooth stairs leading down into greater darkness.
“The old woman told me that which we seek would be located on the lower floor,” I said. “I will lead the way.”
“Throw down a torch first, my lord,” Oran suggested. “There could be traps of some sort.”
“Or even bigger rats,” I said. I took his suggestion and tossed down a firebrand, the illumination revealing only spiders’ webs. Something—it looked like a monkey—hung, suspended and dead, wrapped up like a little mummy in the webs.
“Big spiders, too,” I said. Drawing my sword, I cut through the webs, descending the steps, which went down some twenty feet. I felt thankful not to see any of those spiders.
At the bottom of the steps I found myself in a narrow hallway; narrow, that is to say, in relation to the size of the chamber above me. This latter measured some ten feet across and as high, a square-shaped tunnel. There were more spiders’ webs here and there, but not too many. The air smelled even more stagnant down here, chalky, as if air itself can grow old and brittle. I followed the hallway, the others descending the stairs behind me. The hallway led to another room, from which debouched still other halls. We had to search them all. We’d brought with us plenty of firebrands, and these we used to mark our progress, leaving one burning in each of the chambers we quitted so as not to become lost.
We had been inside the temple in all about an hour when we came across the giant hand.