Ever since I was small, I loved to hear the bards tell and retell tales of the Old Kingdom.
When I discovered it was a real place, only three days’ journey to the east of my village, I told myself (and anyone who stood still for long enough) that one day I’d visit the ruins and see for myself what remained.
As soon as I was old enough, I set out. I hiked through fields of red stones and crossed angular rivers, following the directions and landmarks I’d learned by heart. When I crested that last hill and finally saw the temple of Kingara, breaching the forest canopy like a salmon leaping out of a river... I let out a shout and ran down [[toward it->the clearing]].
(set: $haveKey to false)
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(set: $rollLoaded to false)I found myself in a wide clearing, lit by pale green light that filtered through the foilage above. The ground was a bare expanse of stone, flat as a frozen pond and large enough for half my village to pitch their tents. On three sides, the forest encroached, fraying the edges of the rock and forcing grass and saplings up through the cracks.
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On the fourth side, the temple dominated. Each layer was made of the same grey stone, walls open to the elements, darkness thick as smoke inside. At ground level, the words “KING GARA” were visible through the vines above [[the entrance]], which yawned wide enough for men on horseback to ride side-by-side.
On the fourth side, the temple towered above me. Inside [[the entrance]], I could see the guardian statue, its thin arm barring the way. I wondered if it was supposed to be a statue *of* a “KING GARA”, or if that phrase meant something else.
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Beside the temple lay a gnarled structure of iron and crystal. Some parts were smooth and regular, but where they touched the ground they split and twisted and bent back, like the splash of a rock dropped in a lake. A few [[old bones]] lay scattered around the base.
Beside the temple lay a gnarled structure of iron and crystal, where I’d found the iron tooth. Now it was the tomb of whoever had owned the tooth before me, their [[old bones]] jutting out from beneath the tangle.
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At the other side, a much smaller structure was half-buried in the undergrowth, with only a few patches of grey stone visible between the fronds. A [[dark hole]] behind the vines promised access to whatever was inside.
At the other side, the stone hut where I found that roll of maybe-snake-skin was half-buried in the undergrowth. Looking at the [[dark hole]] of an entrance reminded me of the odour of rot and droppings inside.
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As I stood in the temple’s entrance, it exhaled a breeze that cooled my face. Sunlight squeezed through gaps in the outer walls, but it clung to the edges of the space, staying well clear of the interior. I peered into the gloom until my eyes adjusted, revealing a forest of pillars and a few silhouettes crouching between them like beasts, or carcasses.
Directly in front of me, however, a waist-high stick stretched across the entrance. I could have easily ducked under or walked around it, so it must have been ceremonial — I imagined in ages past, a pilgrim might present an offering or say a prayer, and then a priest would raise the barrier to let them past. The priests were all gone now, but I wanted to pay my respects if I could figure out how.
The stick was the elongated arm of a statue squatting beside the entrance, perhaps depicting one of the spirits that called this temple home. In place of eyes, a single [[green gem]] glowed faintly, proving a trace of power yet remained here. In place of a mouth, a slit grimaced in judgement. Down below, the navel was a slotted iron dome in the middle of the [[belly->belly chamber]].
Behind me, occasional birdsong echoed across [[the clearing]].
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I stood at the temple’s threshold, the sun-dappled clearing behind me and the cool interior before me. The squat little statue still held its stick-like arm across my path, and its [[green gem]] of an eye still kept watch, but the [[belly chamber]] was open, and its flap swung gently.
Behind me in [[the clearing]], I heard the squawking of smaller birds driving off a larger one.
I stood at the temple’s threshold, the sun’s warmth fading as the day grew long. The guardian statue waited patiently beside me, its arm barring the way, its [[green gem]] gazing across the entrance, its thin mouth grimacing silently. I glimpsed the roll of maybe-snake-skin in the [[belly chamber]] whenever the flap swung open.
Behind me in [[the clearing]], I heard the first few roosting calls of the evening.
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I stroked the green gem, and to my surprise it was loose. I couldn’t get a good grip to pull on it, but when I pushed it, it made a satisfying click and popped back out. Suddenly, a cacophony of buzzing and rattling erupted from the belly of the statue, rocking me back on my heels. After a few seconds, it subsided and the navel slot glowed red.
Apparently, the spirits of this place were displeased with me — for the moment.
I turned my attention back to the rest of [[the entrance]].
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I gently pushed the green gem until it clicked. Within the belly chamber, I saw the iron rod twitch and spin, as thin iron fingers emerged from the walls and rattled in frustation. Once it ceased, the chamber was briefly bathed in a red glow.
After ages of neglect, the spirits were probably very hungry, but I wasn’t sure what to feed them. I glanced around [[the entrance]] for inspiration.
I bent down and pressed the green gem. Inside the belly chamber, the roll of maybe-snake-skin began to spin, and thin iron fingers peeled off the outermost layer to feed it into some other part of the statue. A second later, it emerged from the statue’s mouth like a tongue.
Unsure what activity the statue was proposing, I tried to grasp the statue’s tongue between my lips, as though kissing it. To my surprise, the tongue was loose, and as I straightened up in horror it tore free from the statue’s lips and fluttered to the ground.
I was sure the spirits would curse me (or worse!), and when a low hum began behind me, I jumped. But when I spun around, I saw the ceremonial barrier slowly rising, granting me entry. The spirits of this temple were very gracious, or very strange.
I straightened my back, took a deep breath, and strode into the unknown.
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I stuck a fingernail in the slot and tried to push, pull, or turn the navel. I could rattle it in place, but nothing more — perhaps a longer, flatter tool would help?
I decided to [[step back->the entrance]] and look around.
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As I looked at the navel-slot, it occurred to me that the iron tooth I picked up outside might be the lever I needed. I fished the tooth out of my satchel, pressed the tip into the slot and twisted, but it wouldn’t budge. I pushed the tooth in deeper to get more leverage, but when it slid to the hilt, I discovered the navel could suddenly rotate smoothly.
I know it sounds mad, but it’s true! One moment, that navel was stuck tight, the next it turned as freely as anything. I realised I was poking at ancient powers I did not understand, so I decided to offer them a deal.
“This temple is a ruin,” I declared, “and your worshippers are long gone! But if you will guide and teach me, I swear I will restore it, and teach new generations to worship you!” I paused, straining for any glimpse or whisper of reply, as my words echoed through the structure.
I didn’t receive an obvious “no,” so I gripped the iron tooth and slowly turned it, still listening intently. After half a rotation, it stopped. I glanced around, motionless and quiet, and waited for a sign. Eventually, though, my caution decayed to boredom. I wondered if I’d been wrong about what the spirits wanted, I sighed, and I let go of the key.
Suddenly, the statue squawked as the whole front of the belly swung open. I yelled my thanks to the spirits who’d answered my prayer, and examined the chamber closely. To my surprise, there were no treasures or secrets within, just some dust, a dead spider, and a thick iron rod affixed to the wall.
I wondered why the spirits had given me access to such a place. What did they expect should be placed into or taken out of the statue’s belly? Food? I needed to [[step back->the entrance]] and reassess the situation.
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I swung the belly chamber’s flap open and closed a few times, but nothing seemed to happen. I looked at the iron rod protruding from the wall of the chamber, and wondered what might fit onto it.
I decided I should probably [[step back->the entrance]] and consider my options.
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I fished the roll of maybe-snake-skin out of my satchel and held it up beside the iron rod in the belly chamber — I didn’t know what the statue wanted, but this was the only thing I had that might concievably fit. However, despite trying several angles and approaches, I couldn’t fit the roll into place. After taking a moment to think, I flipped it over, pressing the other side against the spindle. This time it slid on smoothly, and locked into place with a satisfying //snickt//.
Apparently the spirits of this temple ate snake-skin. Who’d have guessed?
Time to see if the [[spirits were appeased->the entrance]].
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I swung open the belly chamber, and checked that the roll of maybe-snake-skin was still securely in place. I’d never heard of snake-skin eating spirits before, but I wasn’t a great fan of snakes myself, and any spirit that wanted to eat them was a spirit I’d be glad to have on my side.
I wanted to find out whether the [[spirits were apppeased->the entrance]] by my offering.
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I peered through the vines into the smaller structure, wondering if anything venomous would object to my presence. I saw many ledges inside, covered in stuff — droppings, small skeletons, things rotted to dust and a variety of (sacred?) objects I could not recognise.
Deep inside, I saw something like peeled bark, or a shed snake skin, but smooth and straight and very long. I don’t know how long it was, since it was coiled up tightly, but the coil was as large around as my fist. I figured it [[might come in handy->Take roll]] for something.
Leaning in under the vines made me nervous, worrying about something crawling down the back of my neck. I’d be happier once I returned to [[the clearing]].
Once more I leaned through the vines, to see if there was anything useful here that I’d missed. Before my eyes could adjust to the darkness, I heard skittering and something fell to the floor with a clang, startling me.
Whatever secrets this building might have held in the past, it clearly held unpleasant things in the present, and I resolved to return to [[the clearing]].
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The outermost coils of the maybe-snake-skin were soiled by dust and moisture, so I peeled them off and discarded them on the floor. The remaining material was clean and pale and smooth all the way down to the centre, which was a hollow ring made of something thicker and browner and more sturdy. I picked up the roll by the centre ring and placed it carefully in my satchel.
I didn’t see anything else that interested me, so I went back to [[the clearing]].(if: not $haveKey)[\
Twisted iron and splintered crystal were piled before me. This thing might once have been a feast table, or a holy image, but right now it was a tomb — trapped beneath it were a cracked and pitted hip-bone, some vertebrae and a femur. I assumed the rest of the skeleton was further underneath, or taken by animals many summers ago.
In the dirt beside the hip-bone, I saw the glint of iron. It wasn’t grave goods, since this poor fellow was never properly buried, and it clearly wasn’t a good luck charm. I [[wondered what it was->Take tooth]].
Around me, the buzzing of insects filled [[the clearing]].
I wondered who this person had been in life. A pilgrim? A priest? Perhaps they were exploring the ruins as I was, and somehow angered the gods? Whoever they were, they probably deserved a better fate than this.
I tried to remember the words the shaman recited at my grandmother’s funeral, but that was a while ago and I struggled to remember them. I stuttered and coughed until embarrassment slowed my words to a halt, and I walked back to [[the clearing]].
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I bent down and picked up the piece of iron, scraped away some dirt, and turned it over in my hands. It was flat, about as long as the first part of my thumb, flaring out at one end and tapering at the other. It wasn’t an arrow-head, because it was only serrated on one side. It wasn’t a saw, because it was far too small. I’d heard of fish with teeth that were serrated on one side, but I’d never heard of fish with teeth made of iron.
And yet, this unlucky wretch had valued this iron tooth so much that they carried it up to the moment of their death. I didn’t want to steal from a corpse, but I felt sure this thing would help unlock the secrets I came here to discover. I said a quiet apology to the skeleton, promised to take care of the tooth and to return it when I could, then slipped it into my satchel.
I resolved to look for places where this tooth might be useful, and I turned back to [[the clearing]].