Chapter 1: The Dare
“Alright Minluzîr, I did mine. Now you have to do yours.”
A Numenorean child laid on the grass, in the shade of some willows. His hands behind his head, he watched the underside of the branches sway in the slight breeze. The sound of flowing water pouring from a fountain could be heard, and he lost himself in it. With the sun high in the sky, the heat had reached its peak. The citizens found their refuge in small walking parks such as this. The fresh air was revitalizing, and the atmosphere relaxing. A completely different world this was, compared to that of being at court (which held no interest for the youths, who only desired to free themselves from the uninteresting existence of politics any chance that they could). Even if it was just to play a game of truths and dares, they could be themselves.
A loud splash brought the boy out of his thoughts, as a girl with blond curls bouncing around her face pushed aside the long leaves. Water dripped from the ends of her dress. She approached the boy, yelling:
“I did my dare. Now I get to dare you! It’s my turn. Minluzîr!” The boy, Minluzîr, sat up from his spot on the ground.
“I told you stand there for three minutes. I counted three seconds. Not long enough.”
“Shut up. I will tell if you don't let me have me turn.” Angrily, the girl threw herself down next to him, squeezing the water out of her clothing.
“Don’t get cross with me, Nil. Who will you tell? Mother? She will just say ‘Nilûphêr, you’ve ruined your clothing. You could have gotten a chill!’.” Minluzîr jabbed a finger at his little sister, in mockery of their mother.
“You have to! Or…or I will say that you pushed me onto that fountain.” She pouted her lower lip in frustration and clenched her fists. The boy sighed, and threw up his hands in defeat. She always got everything she wanted in the end.
“Fine then. It had better be a good dare, then. Hurry up and think of something.” Nil smiled triumphantly, and tapped a pudgy finger to her mouth. A devious glimmer came to her eyes as she thought it over. Normally, that look meant something bad for Minluzîr. Finally, she spoke up, saying:
“Do you know that place? The place where father tells us to stay away from, where the bad people go? The-the tall pointy palace made of black stones?” Minluzîr raised an eyebrow.
“Everyone knows about that place.” he said, kicking at a blade of grass with the tip of his boot. “The…Zîgûr’s house. And it’s not a palace, stupid. It’s a temple.” Even in the bright of day, it made him nervous to say that name. Silently, he prayed to Manwë for protection. It was said that the Zîgûr was always watching. Heard everything that was spoken. Nil nodded.
“I dare you to go there. Tonight. At moonrise.” Immediately, Minluzîr regretted agreeing to the game. He could not back out now. His sister was right. She had done her part. Now it was his turn. And yet, it did nothing to make him feel braver.
“I don’t think so. Don’t you know what they do there? People go there and are never seen again. Never! Is that what you want to happen to me, Nil?” Suddenly, an expression of guilt covered her face. It did not remain long.
“I will tell everyone how much of a goose you are!” she chuckled loudly, thinking herself to be quite clever.
“What if I see…him? What would I do then?” She looked down at her feet in dismay, unable to think of a retort. Disappointment was written all over her face. Fake tears formed in her eyes, and she sniffled. Can’t talk your way out of that one, can you, Nil?.
“But-but Minluzîr. You said you would.”
He hated to see her so gloomy. And if he said no, Minluzîr was sure that he would never hear the end of it. Never. And so he agreed, against his better judgement.
Afterward, as they walked home, came the second battle.
“I want go with you. Please?” Nil demanded, holding Minluzîr’s hand as they pushed through a crowd. The street was packed with market stalls, displaying all sorts of items. Colorful fruits. Clothing. Pottery. Cheap jewelry. “How will I know that you went unless I am there to see?” He turned sharply toward her.
“But I’m strong, just like you! Look! I could beat up that nasty Zigûr if I wanted to.” Proudly, Nil displayed her skinny arm.
“I’m sure he would be terrified.” Minluzîr said, humoring Nil. “I said no. You’ll just start crying like a child.” he said, pulling her along up the road. And what would happen if she got hurt…No. Nil would not got with him. It was out of the question. They soon reached a familiar gateway. A well dressed servant was polishing the black iron bars out front, and another was on a ladder clipping back the branches of an apple tree that grew just beyond. Nil rushed inside, releasing her brother’s hand.
“Minluzîr! Nilûphîr! Where have you two been?! The streets are no place for you.” Their mother’s chiding voice floated out to them from a window on the main floor. “I’ve been worried sick, with all of this nonsense going on with the King’s Men. You could have gotten yourself hurt. Don’t ever scare me like that again!”
Pretending at merriment, the thought of the night to come hung over him like a raincloud.
Chapter 2: The Temple
Minluzîr attempts to fulfill the dare that he was given.
Warning for blood, gore, burning bodies, and general unpleasantness.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Minluzîr crept down the servant’s staircase, moonlight his only guide. The boards creaked under his feet as he took one step, and then another. The house was silent, the family having already gone to bed. The back door had been left carelessly unlocked, and as quiet as a shadow, he went through. The streets proved to be just as empty, except for a few stranglers stumbling drunkenly around from a night at some tavern or brothel. With no breeze to speak of, the night air was warm and stagnant. He could feel a bead of sweat on the back of his neck.
The shadow temple was not hard to find, because of the close proximity to the royal palace. A tower standing over every building that surrounded it. Walls tall and smooth, a massive dark shape that thrust upward into the night sky. Threatening. Posing a challenge to anyone who would dare to rise up in defiance. A blemish to a city as golden as Armenelos.
As the boy looked straight up, trying to see the top of the structure, a sense of vertigo gripped him. Feeling suddenly small and insignificant, he focused back on the task at hand. Having to find a way in. The main entrance was obvious, a big iron door with a dragon for a handle. Moving to grip the dragon with two hands, Minluzîr pulled. Other than make a loud rattling sound, nothing happened. Locked from the inside. There had to be another way in.
Nervously, he checked to make sure that no one was watching. Any moment, he expected to see the Zigûr standing there, just behind him. Spying on his every action. Ready to snatch him away, just like the others who had been so unfortunate. Chills ran up the boy’s spine, and felt unseen eyes on him. He wanted to run. All the way back to the district where he lived. Hide under his bedcovers. Safe and sound. Where no monsters or zigûrs could get at him. No. He couldn’t. What would his friends think of him if he did that? Nil was right. He was a coward. It was only a building. What harm could a building to him?
Scurrying around the perimeter, he finally found what he was searching for. A small window, just big enough for a small person to fit through. Minluzîr could just about reach it with the tips of his fingers. Backing up, he prepared to launch himself up and through the dark opening. Just as he was about to break into a run, a little voice yelled out:
“Minluzîr! Wait for me!” Causing him to nearly trip over his own feet, the boy turned. Blond curls shone in the soft light of the moon.
“Nil! I told you to stay in bed!” Angrily, he shushed her.
“I said that I wanted to come.” she said, transfixed by the temple. Under an arm did she grip her favorite doll.
“So you risk your own life, and mine?” Minluzîr scolded. “Just be quiet, then.” The girl climbed into his shoulders, and hoisted herself through the window. Following, the older brother vaulted himself onto the window sill, dropping down.
The room was pitch black, making it impossible to see. Blindly, Minluzîr thrust out a hand, feeling around for anything. He found his sister’s hand, gripping it tightly.
“Be careful. If we are found, run straight home. Don’t even think about be. Just get yourself out.”
“Okay.” the girl whispered. After a few failed attempts, the two found a doorframe. Cautiously, they pushed the door, which whined on its hinges. Beyond, a hallway lit with candles that seemed to go on and on forever. They followed the corridor, which opened to a large hall with a domed ceiling. Long benches filled the room, facing what looked to be a large stone table lined with even more candles. The children approached slowly, awed by the statue that looked down on them. Three times their height it stood. A mighty man, wielding a war-hammer of considerable power.
“Stay here. I want to get a better look.” Minluzîr sat his sister down on one of the benches, satisfied that she would be fine, as long as she was within sight. The statue, he knew, to be an image of the Dark One. Morgoth, he was called. Whoever had created the statue had placed shining red rubies in place of the eyes. In one outstretched claw-like hand, the statue held three gems. He remembered the stories that his teachers had taught him. The Silmarili. The gems that caused the fall of the Dark Vala himself.
The slam of a door caused the boy to jump. Instinctively, he ran for his sister, shoving her under the bench. Minluzîr followed suit, covering her mouth win his palm. Sshh. Don't cry. They will find us. Please stay quiet.
From their vantage point, they could just make out a line of black boots walking towards the stone alter. Black cloaks dragged along the floor in a line. A language that Minluzîr did not know was being spoken. Along with the procession, was dragged a man in chains. And, at the very end, a pair of white boots. A white robed figure trailed just behind. The most beautiful man that Minluzîr had ever seen, and yet he caused a great terror to fill the boy’s heart. Far more frightening was he, compared to all those others garbed in deepest black. Was he the high priest to the Zigûr?
The white robed man grabbed the prisoner in chains, speaking more strange words. They hurt Minluzîr’s ears like claws ripping at the inside of his head. He could feel his sister’s tears on his hand. The man in white opened the prisoner’s throat with a jeweled dagger in one swipe. Blood sprayed everywhere, even covering the pristine cloth. Staining it. And yet, the prisoner was still alive when set alight with a torch. Screaming. The two children were witness to it all from their hiding spot.
The entire thing seemed to go on for hours, until finally, when the scorched corpse lay on the cold stone floor, its blood collected and consumed, it ended. The faceless shadows in black filed out. When it was safe, Minluzîr released his shaking sister and crawled out from under the bench. The stink of burned flesh remained hanging in the air.
“Are you alright Nil?” he managed to say. The girl nodded, still too scared to speak. Without another thought, they rushed for the only exit that was left to them. The way that the shadows in black had gone. Abruptly, Nilûphêr cried out:
“Wait! Minluzîr, my doll! It’s gone!” He figured that she must have left it behind under the bench. Forgetting secrecy, the distraught Nilu ran off into the darkness.
“Nilu! Come back! Forget about the doll!” he whispered, but she did not hear him. Leaving Minluzîr no choice but to follow, he entered the main hall once again. His heart stopped when he heard a shriek that could only have come from Nilûpher.
He spotted her crouched down low next to where they had previously been, her shaking become even worse. Protectively, he hurried to her side, hugging the girl close, neglecting to notice the one who now observed them. The man in white. In one hand he held the doll.
Minluzîr mustered all the bravery that he had left, and gazed up at the man. Blood from the murdered prisoner had dried on the white robes, and in the white silvery hair. Covered the mouth as well. The man acted as if it wasn't even there. Or that he was proud of it. The boy felt his stomach lurch as the man moved closer.
Dropping down to their level, the white robed man held out the toy to them. A strange smile played over the lips. A sparkle in the eerie golden eyes.
“You’ve dropped this.”
Tentatively, Nilu took the doll.
“You-you’re-the Zigûr.” Minluzîr was surprised to find himself speaking, but found that he was unable to suppress the words. The smile remained.
The siblings did not need to be told twice. Not stopping once, bother and sister sprinted from the shadow temple, never turning back until they found themselves in a familiar and safe setting. They spoke to no one of the encounter. And never again would they venture close to the Temple of Melkor. Afraid that they would not be given a second chance to escape if they strayed too close. To end as the prisoner did. Their bodies burned beyond recognition. Blood drained away by the man in white. Golden eyes. Rubies. Fire. A nightmare that plagued their sleep well into adulthood. Bring down the Zigûr’s wrath upon them.
Thanks for reading :)