A square building squatted on the hill, with open sides and a ceiling supported by four pillars of sand. When Arcite caught up to Eventhe, she flung out a claw to stop him entering.
“Yellow clay.” She sniffed the air. “The tang grows stronger.”
“You can smell it?”
Set into the floor was a pit with a gaping mouth. Peering into it, Arcite saw empty jars and decaying wooden tools. “It’s a temple.”
Eventhe nodded. “The pit is for offerings.”
“Offerings to who?” Arcite followed her over the threshold.
Starting at one corner of the floor, a series of carved images ran left to right in lines, like the text of a scroll. Arcite picked out lobsters, all handling small lumps or carting them around. Tumps evolved into towers and piles–yellow and red clay.
The carvings descended into the offering pit, where the jars and shards of jars covered them. When they reappeared, something changed. The lobsters were joined by a creature much greater in size, though never the same creature twice. An enormous lobster in one, a manatee in the next. Then it slid into the shapes of animals Arcite had only heard of from myths–whales, giant squids, a taloned monstrosity like one of the air demons Staever was so afraid of. It was as though–
“–nobody knew what it looked like. Like they couldn’t agree.”
The same positioning, the same size: the carvers were all trying to represent the same being. What kind of animal didn’t have a body?
“I have heard a voice in this place,” Eventhe said. “As though the walls spoke. Their story is bloody.”
“What story? Do you mean really talking, or…”
“This will make it clear.” Eventhe had moved to the final panel in the sequence. It bore a pictograph simpler than the other carvings: a lone tree, a mountain, and a winding river. “The mark of Turner.”
“Turner the Architect?”
“He sealed his completed projects with this mark.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“This temple,” Eventhe said, disgust in her voice, “is a monument to worship clay. The only power Turner believed in.”
“So that big animal thing is…clay?”
“Clay personified. Clay amplified. Its power unbound, its potential unlimited.”
The explanation felt incomplete, but there was something else on Arcite’s mind. “Why did you bring me up here?”
She straightened her mask. “When I was a miner, clay was more important than water. Small grains had great power. Whoever found red clay bought drinks for the rest of us at night. Whoever found yellow clay retired to the Pupil. It was our purpose.”
“They talked like that in the Field,” Arcite said. “Clay is excess, clay is for the ocean alone because lobsters can’t handle it. Hot air. It shouldn’t hurt people.”
Arcite shut up.
“A hairline crack in a tunnel made it unstable. Someone dug up a vein of yellow, and the inspectors were trying to claim their share. They didn’t notice the fracture. I was the last one out.”
“Ev,” Arcite said, “it was you, wasn’t it? You found the yellow clay.”
“Do you intend to blame me for it?” Eventhe snapped. “I was not myself then. I was unwilling to let the yellow clay go. I stayed to protect it as the tunnel fell, then…” Her claw went again to the mask.
Arcite thought he saw underneath it–not the shadow of eyes, but the whole face. Under the cloth, Eventhe’s heart was naked. He wished he could take the burden from her, but it was so obvious she didn’t need his help that the offer would be nonsense. In a life of blurting out everything on his mind, he’d found the one thing he couldn’t say.
For a while they stood in the open temple, blown by the highland winds.
If you liked this chapter, check out the rewards available on my Patreon! I’m a self-supported writer, and even $1 a month helps.