Entrance to the Shrine
About a week before the pilgrims attempted their invasion of the sepulchre, three of their kind were convicted of a similar crime and executed on the steps of the Imperial Temple. The execution was carried out in the Barbaric style, still used in the modern age for crimes of religious belief, which were deemed to be the most serious of all due to their imperilment of every manís soul. To quote a local magistrate, Ďmurder, by contrast, strips only one man of his soul. Sacrilege potentially strips the soul from every man who ever took breath.í The Barbaric style required the convict to lay on the steps of the Temple and have their head pulverised by the steel ferrule of a large oak staff, wielded by an executioner who spent the rest of his time pulling hay-carts, wrestling wild boar, and performing other feats of strength. The process was disgusting but painless. The reigning Emperor prided himself on the civility of his domain. Even to the worst of its civilians.
The worst of its civilians this time were four teenage boys in sackcloth robes. They gathered fungi foraged from the woods surrounding an Imperial Cemetery, planning to survive on these in the underground network of tunnels beneath a certain grave. They'd fled their religious house a week prior, the food they'd stolen having lasted them the week it took to travel by foot to the cemetery. Initially, they were turned away by the guards outside the grave they were planning to invade, which was, they realised, probably a good thing. Entering the chamber by secret means meant that there'd be no one to realise where they were and what they were doing. Within an hour of them not emerging from the chamber, the guards would have gone in, found it empty, and reported the crime to their superiors.
That they had not considered their entrance to the shrine enough to realise this before they were turned away and therefore, at least, seen, was possibly a sign of how doomed their enterprise was. But youth defies sense, and so on the evening of their dismissal, they scaled the walls of the cemetery on their way to the Tomb of Tereska. Tereska was a saint who had gone to the shore to burn herself with coals heated over a campfire. It was in the burning, she wrote, that she saw the Godhead. Telling her of the True Kingdom, it had warned that no frail human shell could live for long with the knowledge it was giving her. And so, she had passed aged just twenty-three, her body wasting away in her father's house.
Her image as depicted in religious texts and iconography had tormented young men chosen for the unworldly life since her election to sainthood, twenty years after her death. Statues gave her large, pert breasts, just barely concealed by a sleeveless blouse. Her brunette hair poured down around her shoulders and gathered on her cleavage; in paintings her hair was haloed with gold, giving it blonde streaks. Whether or not she was beautiful in life, in death she became an icon of male desire. Most of the artworks were signed with men's names, sometimes delicately chiselled into the ankles of statues like tattoos of lovers' names. Paul, Simon, Abraham, Michael, Jonah.
Myths about Tereska proliferated among the orphaned boys chosen by religious houses for training as monks. She haunted their dreams, and soon even the stablest among them became at risk of believing that her grave housed a pleasure palace. 'Just think' said Absolom, 18 years old and leader of the boys, 'as scared as you are now, you'll feel ten times that in pleasure once we get inside.' He took a mushroom from his bag and nibbled at it. 'And besides, once we get down there, we can start a fire and cook some dinner.'
The hungry boys walked among the rows of tombs as the cold night pulled at their robes. They came to the little chapel that housed Tereska's remains, and Absolom picked the ancient lock with a length of wire. The chains clattered against stone, and everyone jumped, looking around. No one had dared to bring a lantern. They considered it a good omen that a full moon lit their way that night.
They entered the chapel and, once inside, Absolom dared to light a match. At the end of a small room was an altar with a jewelled coffin on it, and a door to the left. Each boy glanced at the coffin almost unwillingly as they passed, and entered a declining earthen passage lined with blazing torches. 'The eternal torches' whispered Absolom. They walked down the passage single-file, like a ritual procession.
They heated their mushrooms in a circular chamber overseen by a statue of Tereska, whose sculptor had seen fit to swaddle her breasts in a thick peasant smock. The slightly disappointed boys assumed that bolder statuary awaited and set about their meal. The fumes from the roasted fungi filled the chamber so that its dome-like structure, and the four pilgrims gathered within, evoked the feeling of a desert wigwam in which the elders of a tribe shared a sacred pipe.
The chamber had three doors aside from the one they entered by. As they ate their dinner, the boys speculated what each passage held for them. 'Martin said there's a room where five statues of Tereska come to life if you spill a drop of your blood on a shroud' said Peter, the youngest of the group, 'and pleasure you so well that you feel like an Emperor in the most exquisite harem you can imagine.'
Absolom scoffed, his mouth full of mushrooms and his nose filled with smoke, eyes watering a little. He brushed away the tears on his sleeve. 'And who told Martin that' he said.
'Well, what are you hoping for?' said Thomas, who was wiping his own face.
Absolom smiled. 'You go to the right place' he said, 'and you hear a girl singing. You follow that voice, and you get what's coming to you.' His smile expanded into a grin and he wolfed down a few more mushrooms.
By the time the other three had finished eating, Michael had fallen asleep. He was a tall and stocky boy, whom Absolom had been relying on to open any stone doors that might block his path during his exploration of the tunnels. He tried waking him up, but Michael was a deep sleeper, and grumpy when woken. He turned to Thomas, who at least had strong upper arms from his work in the fields that fed their monastery.
Peter was reluctant to stay behind but was convinced that he needed to be there if Michael woke up. 'And then you two can find your own Tereskas in one of the other tunnels' said Absolom, winking.
A little way into their chosen tunnel, as the torches were becoming more and more infrequent, the world as they could see it down there started to shiver. Thomas' eyes were bloodshot, raw lines of deep red forging paths through the whites. He started to stumble, seemed sleepy. They hadn't come across any stone doors, which Absolom was thankful for since Thomas seemed hardly fit to shift any of them.
Absolom himself wasn't altogether steady on his feet. His mind swam, returning to a shore of distant memory on which stood a girl he'd once seen while working in the monastic laundry. He'd been fourteen and she looked about seventeen, tall and strawberry blonde. He saw her through a window, onto a courtyard in which she was bathing herself. She stood in a steel tub, cheerfully washing as the sun dried her flesh almost as fast as she could wet it. She seemed to sense that someone was watching her and turned her head towards Absolom. To the moment he stood in the tunnels below Tereska's grave, he regretted having not been bold enough to meet her gaze, however he might have been punished. She was the only living woman he'd seen since his mother died when he was five, and his life was bequeathed to God.
He steadied himself against the wall, his coordination weakening. He looked behind him and saw that Thomas had collapsed a little way behind, and was now sleeping. Just as he was beginning to despair, however, he heard singing. A soft and gentle song, of lyrics made up by the singer but set to an old folk tune:
Come to Tereska,
give her a ring,
sit down beside her
and hear her sing...
Take her lovely hand and then,
see her turn into a wren...
Absolom followed the singing. Though he heard the name Tereska he imagined the girl that he'd seen four years ago. The image then became a chimaera of the two girls, one half of her flowing hair black, one strawberry blonde, one side of her body equipped with downy and unblemished limbs, one with dark spots from where the coals had burned her. He entered what seemed like a gigantic and endless hall, though he can't have been so far underground. He fell to his knees, strength having suddenly fled his lower body.
The ceiling was swaddled in clouds, grey and pregnant with rain. Clinging to the walls were lattices of bone. And opposite the door through which Absolom had come, a short distance from where he knelt, was a tub in which a woman bathed. But she was neither the girl of his memory nor St Tereska as depicted in her statuary. She wasn't even the chimaera.
What he saw in the bath was a wizened and insane woman, covered in scars. She rocked back and forth, wailing, crying out as raindrops fell from the clouds and landed on her flesh, leaving large black bruises that seemed to spread like spilt wine staining a carpet. Absolom tried to stand but couldn't. As he watched, her breasts rotted away from her body. It felt like an age since he'd heard that lovely singing.
Suddenly the strength returned to his limbs and he fled that place of torture, back down the passageway, barely noticing that Thomas was missing from where he'd left him. He found himself back in the chamber where they'd been roasting mushrooms, only now Michael was missing. When his gaze cleared enough to take in the scene what he saw was a tableau from a nightmare. Thomas and Peter lay like mice flung from a cat's maw. Their innards in ropes were scattered about the chamber, red and tinged with pink in the light of the flaming torches that divided the stone Tereskas.
And in all that blood and gore, like the girl from the long-ago courtyard, stood a flesh Tereska, stark naked and with arms outstretched, dalmatian-spotted with bruises. A sunny and radiant smile featured on her blood-spattered face. Her breasts and hips and legs were perfect, as per the demands of adolescent male fantasy. And yet Absolom couldn't have imagined finding any vision less attractive. 'What's the matter?' she said, her girlish smile faltering slightly. 'Don't you find me beautiful? Isn't this what you wanted?' She moved as if to approach him. He screamed and turned to run back through the passage. He was stopped short by the sight of a figure running at him through that darkness, intermittently lit by the torches. It was Michael, his facial expression crazed to a point where the boy that Absolom had known was unrecognisable. Ropes of intestine hung about his neck like regal jewellery.
A jagged slice of stone was raised above his head, and Absolom saw that he'd somehow torn it from a statue. That he'd beaten his friends to death with one of Tereska's lovely thighs. Michael was screaming, an atavistic howl of inchoate rage. Absolom dodged him at the last moment and Michael fell, the disembodied stone thigh flying across the room as he fell into Thomas' chest cavity. 'My lovely boys' said Tereska, stroking Michael's hair as he fell into a paroxysm of sobbing. 'I've waited so long for my suitors. You understand, I know, the burden of virginity. How it aches inside you, rips you apart as you dream and dream and dream... But I've waited long enough. I never had a husband. And now I have four. And what dowries you've brung!' She picked up the stone thigh, which pinked and plumped until it was live flesh. She took a large bite of it. Absolom's ears filled with the sound of skin and muscle torn from bone. She knelt down to embrace Michael, a mother bird feeding her young.
Absolom chose another passage and ran, faster and longer than he'd ever thought himself capable of. At some point he lost consciousness and woke in a damp cave-like chamber, low-ceilinged and crudely constructed, lit by a fire pit built into the floor. The fire gave a flickering impression of yet another Tereska, glancing down at a basket of flowers cradled in her arms. Absolom's mind had lost some of its fog, but in its wake was a migraine. He slumped against a wall and stared at Tereska with the basket. He realised that he still had his satchel and took from this the hidebound diary he'd been keeping for a year. To distract from his headache and claw his way a little further back to reality, he started writing. He wrote of everything he'd seen. 'When I'm stronger I'll go back and find the others. No doubt they'll be ribbing me for years about this, my first experience of sleepwalking.' He heard a noise and glanced up. Tereska was offering him her basket, but there were no flowers in it. In their stead was a fresh and steaming pile of human offal.
In the cemetery above a group of scholars were foraging for fungi among the foliage, which extended from a bordering forest, over a wall, and in among the graves themselves. 'These' said one to a couple of his proteges, holding out a handful of small mushroom heads, 'have been known to assist in the summoning of infernal visions to the mind's eye. Not fifty years ago seven witches were burned in a nearby village. They'd been employed as truffle hunters for the local gentry and would scour the woods with their hunting pigs, plucking fungi to keep for themselves. To stave off hunger, so they said. They were exposed when one was found in the throes of a fit, having brutally sacrificed one of her confederates to a heathen god whose name she kept screaming, all the way to the gallows.'
One of the proteges tilted his head. For a moment he thought that he'd heard a voice far away, possibly underground. He glanced behind him and saw in the distance the chapel of Tereska, at the crest of a small hill.
Neither Absolom nor his friends were found before hundreds of years had passed, during an excavation of the underground tunnels that revealed the network dedicated to Tereska and her statuary. A hidebound diary was found resting atop a stone bouquet cradled by the saint. She appeared to be looking at it with a smile of humour and affection.
Written by Casted_Runes
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