The Temple of Duma Veil
By Joel Tagert
Art by Ali Hoff
Published Issue 097, January 2022
When the mages finished, Haverna was a blazing ruin. It had been the greatest city on the continent, home to a million souls. In the bazaar, merchants had hawked everything from steel spearheads to aromatic spices, women in bright silk dresses walked with baskets full of fish and fruit, child beggars pulled at your tunic as you sampled chewy candies. It was a place to overwhelm the senses, full of riotous life and color.
Now it was an inferno, the flames hundreds of feet high, the smoke blacking out the sun. It was, we were told, the only option, and this was hard to argue with, considering the trouble we had containing the infected. It was the job of the cavalry to finish off any who made it past the barricades, and I personally must have killed twenty or thirty with my broadsword. Most of the men chose maces instead, leery of getting their blades caught in the skulls of the afflicted.
When we were finally able to return to the camp (heavily fortified on all sides, and each entrant checked by a mage wielding an enchanted censer), I was too weak even to remove my armor. I collapsed in my tent and lay til gray morning.
I woke in pain, gasping. Frantic, I felt at my breastplate and realized it was dented from some blow or fall I did not even remember. When I removed it, I found the ribs beneath tender and badly bruised, probably broken.
But what really panicked me was not the constriction in my side; it was the thought — no, the certainty — that Kesslyn was also lying unbreathing, in her temple at Adder Fich.
I had no real reason to believe this. I had not seen her in six months, and the keep of Adder Fich had high walls and strong battlements. But walls had done nothing to stop the slaughter at Haverna. Moved by a deep compulsion, I packed my saddlebags with what few supplies I had remaining. The breastplate I left behind. I was far too tired to wear it anyway, and I still had my mail shirt.
The sentries were certainly as tired as I was. When I rode past them they asked me nothing, failing to even salute the captain’s insignia on my pauldrons.
Adder Fich was a hundred miles away across the hills, where the River Bryne descended from the Campion Mountains. It was foolish of me to think I could make it alone. The infected might come upon me as I slept, or bandits kill me for my horse and possessions, or another army unit arrest me as a deserter. I kept away from the roads and high places, and slept in brambles with my sword at hand.
When I reached the Bryne, I found its surface iced over, and there was frost on the still-green leaves. The sky was red with cloud and night was near, and again I told myself I should stop, go on in morning; but the keep was just a few miles further, and if all was well I would have a bed and a hot meal.
I took the main road to the gates, and before they were in sight my shoulders were hunched and skin crawling; for the road was covered in snow, snow out of season. By the time I reached the gates the snow was near my horse’s knees. I had hoped for burning torches on the ramparts, a sentry calling a challenge, but instead I saw only empty parapets and spires limned against an eerie sky of low and shifting flame-orange clouds.
I hailed the gate but received no answer; only deeper silence, and deeper cold. At the same time, I also did not hear the growls of the infected; a horde of sharp-toothed demons did not come pouring over the walls to consume my flesh.
I didn’t bother to yell again, but dismounted and approached on foot. The stone walls were fifteen feet high and well made, toothed with crenellations for archers; perhaps I could have climbed them, but not with numb hands. In the end, I took a rope and tied it around the haft of my sword, still in its scabbard. Under ordinary circumstances, this would have been foolish in the extreme, but if my yell had roused no one, I doubted there was anyone to rouse.
It took a few tries, but finally I succeeded in securing the blade between the crenellations, and with great effort pulled myself up the wall. Unfortunately I would have to leave my steed here until I could open the gates from the inside.
The snow was drifted high inside the keep. In places it was higher than my head, and a few thick flakes still floated down from the tormented heavens. My breath billowed in thick clouds before me as I climbed down the icy ladder, glad of my leather gauntlets. I skirted the outbuildings, thinking to open the gate for my horse, but before I reached it I paused, turning.
The castle was not altogether dead. Through the rose window of the cathedral, the Temple of Duma Veil, the goddess of the moon and stars, a shifting scarlet light was burning.
The entry to the cathedral was completely blocked with snow, but I knew there must be other passageways. When I had finally managed to bring my horse inside the gates, I found an open door to the main keep and ventured inside. The vestibule was crammed with bodies.
They were mostly seated, curled on the stone floor in their blankets and cloaks. They were young and old, male and female; most looked poor, or these did, at least. Beside them were bags of clothing, grain, dried meat and cheese. Some had knives, short swords, or spears stacked in the corners. I had seen folks like them many times in the past months. They were refugees. Their skin sparkled with frost.
One of them, an old man with a thin beard, had his eyes open. The black edges of his sclera and tear ducts looked only too familiar. He was infected. Had he lived, his teeth would have fallen out, replaced with terrifying yellow fangs; his limbs would twist and lengthen; he would be strong, fearless, and above all, bloodthirsty.
I leaned in closer with a lamp I had found to examine him. As I did, his pupils contracted.
I jumped back, hand on my sword, but the man — probably a farmer — did not move. He was dead, but alive; alive, but dead.
Further investigation revealed a similar condition among all those I had assumed to be corpses. Not all showed signs of infection, but many did, some in far more advanced stages than that old man. And I swear they were aware of me, their eyes turning with unbearable slowness as I passed, their ears imperceptibly twitching. Were they to awake, they would tear me apart.
There were hundreds in the castle, perhaps thousands. They had come for refuge, and brought the black seed of their demise with them. I wandered through that frigid mausoleum until I found a way to the cathedral.
The worshippers jammed the pews, heads bowed before a tall statue of Duma Veil carved from black schist. She held a shield etched with silver constellations and a cup filled with sea water. High above them, on the south wall, was another rose window, and the full moon shone directly through it an angle, sending a silver beam upon the matching window lower in the north wall. It was this light I had seen from outside.
I picked my way through the congregation until I stood before the goddess. The idol’s eyes were set with polished abalone shell, the swirling mirrored surfaces gripping me. The silence was loud in my ears, humming with power.
It was broken by the turning of a knob. A door to the right of the altar opened.
The woman who opened it stepped back as soon as she saw me and slammed the door shut, but not before I saw who it was. “Kess! It’s Tal!” I tried the knob, but she had bolted the door. “Kess! Please! I’m not infected!”
Slowly the door cracked open again. Her pale blue eyes regarded me wonderingly. She was wearing a gray nun’s habit, the wimple double-pointed, like a recumbent crescent moon. “Tal? What are you doing here?”
“I came for you, obviously.”
Slowly she emerged. Though her cheeks were hollow and skin drawn, I saw no mark of the virus on her. She looked only very tired. “What about the Legion?”
“They gave me leave,” I lied. I wanted to say, I never should have left, or Come away with me, some words out of a story, but what I actually said, inevitably, was, “What happened here?”
“We saved our people,” she said.
“But they’re infected,” I protested.
Unbidden, she took my hand. “Yes, but they’re not dead. And we’ve slowed its progress immensely. Mother Pharan realized that the infected don’t have the same kind of metabolism we do. They don’t have any internal heat. So when they get cold enough, they just … slow down.
“The keep was already nearly overrun. When we decided there really was no other hope, we invoked the goddess’s power and called the winter. Now we wait, and hope.”
“Hope for what?” I was baffled. “There’s no cure. How long can you do this?”
“As long as the goddess permits. Weeks, months, maybe years.”
“To what end?”
“Life, Tal. Their life.”
I took her hand. “Listen to me. You have to gather your things and come with me. Now. This … this is madness. What happens when they finally do wake up? Will you release a thousand of these things onto the countryside, when we’ve just finished cleansing the capital? Come with me, now.”
She pulled away. “You don’t know that. Some of the sisters have gone to the temple at Bharat. They might be able to find a cure in time. We just need to be patient.”
“I’ve already lit fire to the outer buildings,” I blurted.
“What?” She stepped back.
“Maybe you’re not clear what needs to be done, but I am. We don’t have much time. Gather your things. In an hour this whole keep will be in flames.”
“Tal!” Tears fell down her cheeks. “What have you done?”
“What was necessary. Hurry, Kess!” I reached for her, but she stepped quickly away, turning to the idol of her cold goddess.
“I can quell the flames,” she said. “Duma Veil, hear me!” The moonlight through the rose window brightened.
“You’ll die when they wake! Others will die!”
But she would not heed my pleas. From the statue a tremendous cold was emanating, crystalline in its extremity. Kess’s skin shone like ice. I knew if I stayed I would end like these others; and so I ran. The flames were already consuming the outbuildings, but the moon was bright as a lighthouse’s mirror.
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.
Ali Hoff is UK-based freelance concept artist and 3D Modeller who creates strange otherly worlds, scapes, characters and more.
Check out Joel’s December Birdy install, She’s All Right, and Ali’s last issue contribution, Once Glittering and Proud Now Pitted and Gnawed, or head to our Explore section to see more from these creatives.