When the young woman appeared, garbed in robes of green and a wide belt of scarlet, the two treasure-seekers understood at once that she was the temple guardian. And they did not hesitate to approach her.
“Greetings, travelers,” the temple guardian said. “Give me your names.”
The two treasure-seekers gave her their names freely.
She did not return their offer of names, nor did she return their smiles.
“Turn back, travelers,” the temple guardian said, her voice calm and measured. “Go no further than the spot where I now stand.”
One of the treasure-seekers, still smiling, took one and only one step forward. “Are we not welcome here?” he asked.
“You are in danger here, of being lost in the temple.”
The treasure-seekers had, of course, heard rumors, legends, and cautions about the sometimes-curious and sometimes-furious god who ruled the temple.
One of them nodded once to acknowledge the temple guardian’s warning and her authority in that place. But then he offered resistance.
“We are seasoned travelers, guardian,” he said. “We will not damage your temple, or disturb its supplicants and disciplines, and we will not offend the one who inhabits these hallowed grounds.”
“This is the threshold,” the temple guardian said. “Do not pass it, unless you wish to stay for a long, long while. Beyond the length of your next life, and perhaps the one after.”
Again, there was no threat or menace in her words. But the treasure-seekers hesitated.
Though they did not see any other people in the temple just then, they surmised that there must be some burly guards somewhere. There usually tended to be such guards in these kinds of temples, whenever a young and gentle-looking guardian appeared. So the treasure-seekers did not attempt to move past the temple guardian.
Perhaps because of this, the guardian was satisfied, for she gave them a quick nod, stepped behind a column, and vanished.
The treasure-seekers surged forward then, to the very spot where the guardian had been standing, but stopping short of passing the spot. The guardian had indeed vanished. They glanced around at all the identical wide fluted columns that supported the great marble roof of the ancient temple.
Surely, the temple guardian must have vanished into some secret door, and secret doors in temples usually led to valuable treasures. The two treasure-seekers were keen on finding this door. But they knew better than to ignore the temple guardian’s warnings outright. If there were no guards present to remove trespassers bodily, then no doubt there were traps set in those parts of the temple that were forbidden to travelers and supplicants. The temple’s riches would be protected in some way. Of that they were certain.
One of the treasure-seekers took a hesitant step. He glanced around, then took another, and another.
The temple guardian did not reappear, nor did anyone try to stop them. Their careful and cautious search of the column bore no clues as to how the guardian had seemed to vanish. But the treasure-seekers were certain there must be secret doors and passageways in the place.
They found and walked down an empty hallway, lit by torches, though there was enough light during the day to illuminate their way. The walls of the passage were adorned with tiled art depicting the very god in whose temple they were now trespassing. At regular intervals, they encountered a small idol of that same god placed in small alcoves set within the wall at the level of their eyes. They were alert to traps, or hidden guards, but did not encounter any.
They did not mark their way, for they only turned three times, once to the right, once to the left, and again to the left. As they moved further into the temple, their way darkened, and even the light from the torches seemed to be dimmer and dimmer. They had lanterns of their own, which they dared to light, but even at full power, the lanterns were lacking.
“Perhaps we should turn back,” one of the treasure-seekers said.
“Are you afraid?” the other asked.
“No more than you, I’m certain. But I can hardly see three steps ahead of me. We are not likely to find any obvious doorways, much less secret ones.”
The other treasure-seeker sighed. “Agreed. And in any case, if we were to find a secret door, we should have found it already. That temple guardian must not have taken too many steps before vanishing behind a hidden door.”
So the two treasure-seekers went back the way they came, taking a right at the first junction they encountered, then another right, and then a left. But as they walked, they did not see their way lighten to indicate that they were moving toward the open floor of the temple’s main hall.
“Has night fallen already?” one of the treasure-seekers asked aloud.
“Unlikely. Not enough time has passed. Yet…it seems to have grown even dimmer.”
And the air was staler. It was as if they had gone deeper into the temple’s inner passages instead of moving out of them.
They had only taken three turns. They were both certain of that, and of the directions. Nevertheless, they marked the wall with a coal stick, and decided to follow the old rule of mazes, following along one wall until they found their way out. And if they found themselves at the heart of the temple instead of at its entrance, then it was likely they would find either disciples or treasure. If they stumbled upon disciples, the treasure-seekers could coax the disciples into showing them the way out. If they came upon treasure, then they would help themselves to what they could carry, and re-enter the maze, following the opposite wall, which would surely lead them outside. The only uncertainty they faced was the size of the maze. They had provisions for a few days. They hoped that the system of passages was not too extensive.
The treasure-seekers walked along for many hours, down passages that looked the same. The same tiled art adorned the walls, the same alcoves housing small idols of the temple god were set in intervals along the wall. When they began encountering their own markings, they realized that their trick had not worked.
They stopped to rest their feet and take a few sips of water.
“Do you suppose she is watching?” one of the treasure-seekers asked as he leaned against one wall and gazed upon its opposite.
“Who, the god?” the other said, following his companion’s gaze to an alcove containing an idol.
But the first treasure-seeker was not gazing at the idol. He was gazing above it, at the tiled image of a young woman wearing green robes and a wide scarlet belt.
“The guardian,” he said. He sighed and drew himself up. “I don’t want to be wandering these halls for eons until some future traveler stumbles upon my bones, and utters a careless word of pity for my nameless skeleton.”
“What do you suggest?” the other said.
They were done with sneaking about. Since entering the temple, they had encountered not a single soul besides the temple guardian. It was her they summoned now, admitting defeat, owning their trespasses, and asking for aid.
They called out and they waited. They heard the echoes of their voices traveling down the passage, and hoped that wherever she was, she could hear them. But the temple guardian did not appear. They looked to the walls of the temple, to the tiled art, for clues or direction. They noted that there were words inscribed on the tiles. And they were in a language that one of the treasure-seekers understood, though it was an ancient form. As he translated, he discovered the temple guardian’s name, and both treasure-seekers realized that she had never given them her name when they had given her theirs.
Tired though they were, and anxious to be out of the stifling maze, the two treasure-seekers were not yet truly worried about their quandary, for they had not yet exhausted all their ideas.
And when they called for the temple guardian again, this time using her name, she appeared.
“I am here,” she said from behind them, and they turned to face her.
And they felt a small measure of relief.
They first begged her forgiveness for allowing their curiosity to overwhelm their caution and lead them to seek more knowledge about the temple and its resident god.
The temple guardian gave no indication of whether or not she believed their claims.
She simply said, “I gave you warning. You did not heed me, and I do not have the power to help you now.”
One of the treasure-seekers plunged his hand into his satchel and pulled out a small sack, heavily laden with its contents. He offered to make a generous donation to the temple in thanks for her help to get them out and for the god’s forgiveness of their foolish trespasses.
When the temple guardian did not answer, he pulled out another small but heavy sack, and offered it as personal thanks to the temple guardian.
“I have no need for whatever you might offer,” the temple guardian said. “And there is no need for you to offer it. There is only one way for you to leave this temple now, and that is to appease the one who resides here. And there is only one way that you might do that.”
The temple guardian pointed to the wall. “The same way you called me. You must call out the name of the one who truly rules this place, the one whose name is far older than the name of the strange creature whose idols adorn the temple.”
“Rumplestiltskin,” one of the treasure-seekers mumbled.
The other hit his partner’s arm. “How many guesses do we get?” he asked the guardian.
She told them that they may make as many guesses as they wished for however long they wished to guess.
“There are no limits to my master’s patience,” she said.
And as she stepped around the corner, the treasure-seekers surged toward her. But when they reached the spot where she had stood, they saw that she had once again vanished. They ran down the hall where she would have been walking if she had stayed in the passage. They could not find her. And they were all the more certain that she must be moving through secret passageways.
They ran their hands along the walls, looking for some kind of release or hidden lever or loose tile, to no avail. They walked along, studying the tiled art for clues to the name of the god, any god, who at any time ruled that temple. Again they encountered their own marks on the wall. They had made fresh marks every time they passed a passage that had already been marked. So they were beginning to map the maze in their minds. But as they walked along, the passages and forks and splits all looked different, unfamiliar. They did not seem to be in the same place they were when they’d been speaking to the guardian. It was as if the temple had reshaped and rearranged itself around them.
Again, they attempted to make sense of what they had perceived. Perhaps secret passages were not the only trick that the builders had placed in the temple to thwart brigands and even treasure-seekers like themselves. Perhaps the structure was cleverly built to shift around, to trap unsuspecting visitors, or rather, unsuspecting invaders.
The treasure-seekers tried to summon the guardian again, but she did not come.
They studied the walls for clues to the temple god’s name and to the temple guardian’s name. They noticed that the tiled art was repetitious, depicting the same scene in many different ways. One of those scenes were of the temple guardian. They discovered that there was another name associated with the image of the temple guardian. And still another.
They believed they understood now how much value and significance the believers in this temple god placed upon names. Perhaps by using the temple guardian’s name once, they had exhausted it. Perhaps if they called one of the other names, she would answer. And so they did.
The temple guardian did not appear.
But the torches in the passage flickered as a gust of air passed over them. From the direction of that gust, they heard a rasping, scraping sound, as if something were being dragged through the passage, something big. Another gust passed over them, a stronger one, and this time a few of the torches were blown out. The rasping sound grew loud, and now it was joined by a burbling. The ground beneath their feet shook. The treasure-seekers did not know what they had summoned. But they knew they did not want to meet it. They began to run until the rasping and the burbling grew fainter, until the gusts of wind grew weaker, too weak to extinguish the torches. They ran and ran, paying no heed to the turns they took or the marks on the walls. They did not stop until they no longer felt the ground shake under their feet, even slightly. They did not stop until the silence that had made them so anxious before settled upon them again.
For many more hours they listened for the thing, whatever it was that they had somehow summoned in place of the temple guardian. Each wondered in his own thoughts if the thing they had summoned was indeed the guardian, but in a far less gentle form. But they spoke no thoughts aloud, afraid that any utterance might somehow bring them to the attention of the thing.
When the finally dared to speak, the spoke in whispers, and decided to trust the temple guardian’s last instruction and warning to them. They searched the glyphs, writings, and drawings on the temple walls for the names of the god who ruled the temple. To their surprise, they found many names, disparate names. Some of sun gods, some of star gods, some of ocean gods, and some of earth gods.
None of the gods that were named seemed fearsome. There were no gods of war, no gods of death. No gods of pestilence. No gods of chaos.
The treasure-seekers spoke aloud every name they found, though they did not speak in such loud and confident voices as when first they had summoned the temple guardian. After each name, they waited, and watched, and made ready to flee.
But nothing seemed to happen.
They were certain they had spent a full day and night in the maze, and perhaps longer. They rested awhile, sleeping in turns, one keeping watch while the other lay down on the hard ground. But neither was able to sleep much. They waited until both were awake before returning to their recitation of names.
They did not know the nature of the god whose name they spoke when they finally received a response.
“I am here,” a voice answered from behind them.
Weary though they were, the treasure-seekers turned toward the voice, prepared to flee or to fight.
The figure before them was the first new face they had seen in the temple since entering. A man, richly dressed, and grinning. He bowed as if to say he was at their service.
“Greetings travelers,” he said. “Give me your names.”
This time, the treasure-seekers did not surrender their names.
“Your name is greater than ours,” one of the treasure-seekers said, attempting a distraction. “It should be spoken first.”
“It was,” the man said. “You summoned me, did you not?”
“I meant to say that it should be spoken by your own golden voice, not by our mere mortal throats.”
The richly dressed man peered at them. “Why have you summoned me here?”
“We thank you for answering our plea. Are you the true god of this place?”
“I am not.”
“Then we will happily give you our names if you would grant us the favor of giving us a name…the name of the one who resides here.” The treasure-seeker pointed to an alcove containing an idol. “Not this god, but the one who truly rules this place.”
“It is an ill bargain you seek to strike,” the man said. “I know what you would do if you knew the name. You would speak it. And in doing so, you would summon the one who owns it.” He shook his head. “I may wish such a fate on my greatest enemy. But I certainly do not wish it upon two hapless souls who have done me no harm.”
“But how else can we leave?” the treasure-seeker asked, and he explained to the richly dressed man, to the god, the instructions of the temple guardian.
“Ordinarily, I would advise you to discard your mortal skins,” the man said. “Cruel advice, it is true. But that would do no good here.”
“You said we have done you no harm,” the other treasure-seeker said. “Does that mean you are not trapped in this place? You are able to leave?”
“But of course.”
“May we go with you? We have riches—”
“Oh no, I cannot take you. The rules are the rules. I may come and go, but I may not take anything with me, and I may not leave anything behind.”
“Is there anything you can do for us?”
“I already have. I appeared to you and gave warning. Is that not enough?”
“Forgive us, mighty one, but we fear it is not.”
“You want more?”
“We need more.”
The richly dressed man confirmed their suspicions that the maze was shifting around them, adjusting to their movements and keeping them trapped. He showed them how to move through the maze so they could thwart its efforts to confuse them and find the way to their greatest desire. Then, in a sight that had become familiar to them, he stepped around a corner and vanished.
The treasure-seekers followed the guidance they had been given, and soon reached a part of the maze that bore none of their markings. But they resisted the temptation to feel any hope until they began to notice that the passages through which they moved were growing brighter and brighter, though the number of torches and the brightness of their flames did not vary. They soon discerned that the light was coming from ahead of them.
And they held their breath as they reached the end of a passage in which they felt cool air flowing gently past them.
They emerged into a large chamber, an unfamiliar chamber.
It was filled with treasure, most of it in the form of the temple god’s idol cast in gold…or at least the god they had believed was the temple god. One of the treasure-seekers wondered if the true ruler of the temple would even care if they took a few of the “false” idols with them.
But it was a fleeting foolish thought. Their foremost thought was that they had been betrayed by the richly dressed man, but they were too weary to feel indignant for long. There was still hope in finding the treasure room, even if they were too afraid now to take anything from it. They were out of the maze at least.
They searched the room for other doors. None were apparent, but they searched for hidden doors. They searched for purchase on the walls, so they might climb, for the roof was high, and there appeared to be one small opening. They could not discern if it was big enough for them to pass through, but they gazed at it longingly for a while before continuing their search for some other hidden passage or doorway. They avoided going near the opening that led back into the maze, as if afraid that some hand might dart out of the darkness and pull them inside again.
But soon, their fruitless search had left only one area untouched, a pile of treasure lying just before the opening to the maze.
And it was in that pile that they found the idol.
The idol was not like all the others. It was not made of gold or finely carved. This idol was old and seemed to be made of wood that had petrified. It was crudely carved in a shape that was not recognizable as any particular form or figure, and yet, it stirred a feeling of unease in the treasure-seeker who gazed upon it, and a feeling of complete dread in the one who held it. He set it down at once, and other picked it up, and set it down.
“There is something written under the base,” one of the treasure-seekers said in a quiet and trembling voice.
The other picked it up and tipped it to the side, to read the writing below the base. They could both read this word. And though they did not know its meaning or its nature, they both believed they knew what it was.
It was a name.
The treasure-seekers exchanged a glance.
Neither hesitated to speak the name, and so they spoke it together.
And they held their breaths, and awaited their doom.
When they heard the click and creak, one of them gasped and other trembled.
And they both turned to the source of the sound. On the other side of the room, right opposite to the opening that led to the maze, a door had sprung open.
Light spilled through the doorway. A stair was visible in that light.
The treasure-seekers set down the ancient idol, and they carefully but quickly made their way to the door, fearing that it would close as they approached it. But it did not.
They climbed the stairs, surprised at how short the climb was. They had believed themselves to be deep, deep underground, but they climbed perhaps two stories before reaching a landing, and they emerged into an open chamber, one that did look familiar. Wide fluted columns held up a great marble roof.
The bright light that lit the stair had come from bright torches not sunlight, for they could see that it was night outside.
The treasure-seekers walked closely together, clutching each other’s forearms as they crossed the distance of the main hall. They met no resistance, and they did not turn back when they reached the stairs that led down from the temple entrance. If the temple guardian, or anyone else, watched them leave, they did not know.
As they climbed down the steps into the surrounding forest, the only sound they heard was the beating of their own hearts and their desperate huffs of breath. They heard no chirping of insects. No singing of nightbirds. Not even the otherwise frightening, but now longed-for, rustling of some large and possibly dangerous animal in the foliage. They encountered no people. Not travelers. Not fellow treasure-seekers. Not even the otherwise frightening, but now longed-for, brigands. But it was night, far into the night perhaps. It should not have surprised them to encounter no people.
Just keep walking, each told himself.
So they kept walking and walking. They walked for many hours, wondering when the sun would rise, and wondering when they would leave the forest behind. They could not remember how long it had taken them to reach the temple when first they had entered that forest. They did not think it had taken them as long as they had now been walking. But after being trapped in that maze for two days, they did not trust their sense of time.
Yet when they looked behind themselves, they could clearly see the temple falling further and further behind.
After a while, they both fell asleep. And in their sleep, they dreamed. And in their dreams, they fell. Through nothing but darkness, they fell and they fell. And they did not jolt awake, but only fell and fell.
And a voice called out to them through the darkness.
“I am here,” the voice said. “You called for me and I am here.”
“Please,” the sleepers’ small voices answered as they fell. “Let us go.”
“I have,” the voice said, the voice of the god they had summoned.
“Who are you? What have we summoned?”
“My name,” the god said, “is oblivion.”
And they fell and fell and fell…
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel