Johannes nodded, half-yawning. “You can ride Roomis, yes.” He reached down, trying to get himself more fully clothed before he pulled himself out of the bedroll where Mineasia could see him. Mineasia excitedly ran to the mule and stroked its underbelly, which was all she could reach. It did not kick or snort like when Johannes dealt with it.
Johannes and Mineasia had finished breakfast and were completely packed long before Mindolpha woke. When she did, she looked tired but relaxed, and happier than Johannes had seen her. Even when a brief stab of pain shot through Johannes' head, she did not seem bothered by it.
Johannes frowned thoughtfully, wondering if the effects of the seduction were insulating her from the pain. Then he sighed heavily and waited for Mindolpha to eat, lost in his own thoughts and his growing sense of guilt and uncertainty.
Mindolpha finished her meal and put the utensils into the saddle- bag. “Okay, let's go,” she said, smiling. “If everything goes well, we'll reach Uyithlyaw by noon tomorrow.” Her smile momentarily transformed into a wince as another sharp pain stabbed through Johannes' head.
Although the headaches continued, the journey was pleasant. The trees were relatively thin in this part of the forest, letting sunlight shine through. A tremendous flock of birds passed overhead, which they stopped to watch for a few minutes, at Mineasia's request. Late in the morning, Johannes' headaches strengthened for a few minutes, then weakened again. At noon they stopped for a brief break, and then climbed back onto the horses.
The Orithoran temple…. It was taller than he remembered it, or cleaner, or more stable, or something. It was difficult to tell. It seemed a very long time since he'd visited Yunim, center of Meheiral. He couldn't remember how long. The quarter-sphere, symbol of Orith, was mounted securely to its pedestal. Why did that bother him? The mass of stone seemed like it was in the wrong place, though he remembered it being in exactly that place. A priest exited the temple, and was soon lost to sight. A pain in Johannes' head made the entire world blur for a moment, and vertical lines appeared in his vision as if he was among marble columns, or among trees. Then his vision cleared and the world was back to normal.
He walked forward, rubbing his head, feeling as if he were in a daze. What was wrong with him? The temple had always been the way it was now, hadn't it? He slowly approached the Orithory, his eyes upon it, struggling to bring his mind back to matters at hand.
“Ah, you've arrived,” said the tall, robed man before him. It was strange to be inside the temple again, and he felt that, maybe, the right thing to do was to run away, or to lose himself and wander in circles. The man in front of him thought otherwise.
A knife shot out of a trap on the wall, piercing Johannes' head from ear to ear. He closed his eyes tight to shut out the pain, but could see through his eyelids. A little girl was shaking him, trying to wake him up, and a woman nearby was crippled with pain.
When he opened his eyes, the man was leading him down a hallway. A flash of blue light came from a room off to the side, and the smell of burnt meat filled the air. Then a word was spoken in a language he did not recognize. They passed close enough to the room to see inside, and he stopped to look. A dog, a cat and a raccoon were walking in a tight circle, and a young man stood over them, waving his hand in the same circle. An older man stood off to the side, holding a slate in his arm and a wedge of chalk in his hand, nodding approval.
“Do not concern yourself with the child goddess,” the priest said, and walked down the hall, not looking back.
He followed after, glancing only briefly at the studies in magic. Servants of the child goddess, indeed. But he was here on a different errand. His concentration wavered for a moment as he considered this; his errand couldn't possibly be _that_… it didn't make any sense at all. Seeking out disturbances… what disturbances could be _here_, at the heart of Meheiral? It was disturbing how foggy his thoughts were at the moment. What had come over him? Why was he so disoriented? He shook his head briefly, and continued to follow. He would gather his thoughts momentarily.
The winter festival was held outside this year. Most years half the population of the city crowded into the temple, but this year, Mellith had given them a fine, clear, and most importantly, warm day. Their dealings had been just that year – that was the only explanation. Three witches burned at the stake, one in her house, and two hung. It had been a good year.
People surrounded him, and pushed past to crowd around the entertainers and vendors. Children shrieked in their games, and one child called his name repeatedly, but that was not important.
The temple stood there, empty. What went on inside the temple during a festival? Johannes fell to the ground, holding his head in his hands. When the pain subsided, he was six feet closer. What happened inside the temple?
What was wrong? Why could he think of so little? His thoughts swam in a blurry fog, and he struggled to trace them past the disorientation, while he advanced towards the temple.
No one barred his entrance, and soon he was inside. A few drops of acid fell onto his forehead – someone must have carelessly left an open vial on the ceiling – and he winced in pain until it dissipated.
A hallway presented itself. He walked a bit until he came to a door on his right. Inside the room, a dog, a cat and a raccoon were walking in a tight circle. The young man stopped waving his hand, and another spoke an incomprehensible word. The cat burst into flame. It shrieked and dashed towards the door, but a third man held out his hand and the cat slowed, calmed down, and stood still, staring at Johannes and panting, its fur aflame.
“I told you not to concern yourself with the child goddess,” a voice said, and Johannes turned away and followed the man down the hallway. The hall ended in a staircase, which went down, down, down…
He got to the bottom of the staircase, opened the front door, and walked out of the house. A foot of snow covered the ground, and more was falling from the sky. The streets were almost empty. A cold wind produced a dull ache in Johannes' head. In the distance, he saw the Orithoran temple, rising above the other buildings. What happened under the temple, he wondered, and trudged through the snow to find out.
Finally, he arrived at the door, opened it and entered. He followed a series of hallways until he came to a door on his right. A cat looked at him, heedless of its flaming fur. Its skin began to bubble and melt.
He stood there, blinking, before shaking his head and disregarding the cat. It was unimportant. It did not tell him what truly happened, it only showed what he had known – that there was power here, and power cultivated amongst those who would learn.
“This way,” the priest said, and led him down the staircase. It was very dark. The priest struck a match.
Light poured in through his eyes, and he rubbed his aching head and stood up. The man must have taken him for dead after striking him with the flat of his sword. The battle still raged, but its focus had moved closer to Yunim. Soon the town and the temple would be destroyed.
He took the secret tunnel under the town wall. It brought him within yards of the temple. The priests would have to be warned, to set up a final defense. He would have to go under the temple. Why?
He followed the long hallway, and stopped at a door to his right. The enchanter lowered his hands and the cat, suddenly realizing what was happening to it, shrieked and leapt onto Johannes' head, burning his hair, melting through his skull. A little girl called his name, and this time, it was important. Johannes focused on the sound, and opened his eyes to see Mineasia. He instinctively reached his hand to his head, and though his skull and hair were still there, the burning pain was nearly unbearable.
That was fun. Now back to real life… or real fake life, at least…