Chapter Twenty-Four (Twilight of the Gods)

Previously: Setch has been forced out of the Temple of Dawn and has sought sanctuary in the Temple of Midnight. In her escape she discovered that the priests of Mat have been attacking all of the lesser temples, those specifically devoted to foreign gods. In the Temple of Twilight, Keron continues to hide the existence of the Unnamed God from Mitlan, believing that this is Tez’s will.

Chapter 24

Soshay woke with a scream still echoing in her chambers.  My scream, she realized, or the echo of Setch’s?  She had seen the True High Priestess confront the Corrupter and had watched her run to the Temple of Midnight.  Soshay tried to force her heart to slow.  The Corrupter had appeared, baring Soshay from seeing what happened to Setch.  Soshay sat up, huddled in her blankets, and remembered the vow she had made.  Tez himself made me swear, I cannot far-see again.  At least not until the Corrupter is destroyed.  She ran her hands through her hair, but if Setch is dead… her thoughts trailed off.  She offered a brief prayer to Tez, begging his forgiveness for the transgression and flung her spirit into the otherworld to seek the fate of Setch.

***

Setch followed the young priest into the temple.  No matter what Este tells the guards, she told herself, they will never enter the domain of another temple.  The penalty for violating another temple’s space was death, and Setch realized that unless Este had used the Corrupter’s power, the guards of the Temple of Dawn were no longer a concern.  Setch shook off the feeling of foreboding, and glanced at the temple around her.  The priest was leading her through a long hallway, built entirely of shining black obsidian.  The walls were littered with witchlights, all of which glowed a pale blue.  They did little to illuminate the inky hallway.  The pale light was just bright enough that Setch could see her own distorted and ghostly reflection in the walls.  It was disquieting and made the hair on the back of her neck rise.  As they neared the end of the hallway, Setch realized that the darkness and dim light, made the relatively short hallway seem endless. She was beginning to understand the Temple of Midnight.

Each temple used different tricks to represent their god’s power. The Temple of Dawn used colored glass windows of massive size which gave a permanent feeling of dawn to its major rooms. The Temple of Twilight was a maze of underground rooms, to remind its supplicants of the underworld. The Temple of Noon, she knew, boasted many open air rooms for the sunlight. It seemed to her that the Temple of Midnight was using tricks of perspective to evoke the wonder of a night sky

After the hallway, they entered a large chamber.  It vaguely reminded Setch of the public altar room within the Temple of Dawn.  The black obsidian continued into this new chamber, and the room was no brighter than the hallway. Setch glanced around and could not see any witchlights, and wondered where the light came from. She glanced up at the vaulted ceilings wondering if the lights were hidden there.  Craning her neck, all she saw were more shadows.

When she saw the far wall of the room, she gasped aloud and stopped.  The wall was crafted entirely of Midnight Stone.  Unlike the stone she wore, the white flecks in the stone seemed to glow. She assumed it was some sort of magic, but the wall genuinely looked like a slice of the night sky. Setch almost believed that she could walk into the wall and disappear among the field of stars. It was unnerving, and it pushed all of her previous considerations about perspective and tricks of light and color away. Setch continued to stare at the wall of stars.  This is what Tzi brings to the Cetza; she thought in awe, She is this mystery, the vast, unknowable night sky.  Setch shivered and offered a silent prayer, Thank you, Lady of Mysteries, thank you for letting one such as me gaze upon your true face.  Setch bowed her head solemnly for a moment.

She turned to find the priest and found him waiting silently beside her.

“I have seen this wall a hundred times,” he said looking at her, “but still it gives me pause.”  He wore a serene smile, “I even know the magics that went into the crafting of it, but still,” he shook his head in the direction of the wall, “still it makes my heart race with wonder.”

Setch managed a weak nod and swallowed.  “It is a Mystery itself.”  She said, with her voice hoarse with emotion. “The servants of Tzi are fortunate to have such extraordinary reminders of her power.”

He smiled at her words, “You are well spoken priestess.”  He gestured to another door, “Are you ready to meet with the High Priestess, or would you rather spend more time here?  You are welcome to contemplate Her Mystery as long as you wish.”

Setch hesitate a moment, the thought of remaining here, to simply stand and gaze into the field of stars, made her heart ache with longing.  Instead, she turned away from the wall and shook her head.  “I wish I could stay here, but it is vital that I see the High Priestess.”

The priest nodded and led her through another door, and down another hallway.  She realized that as she followed him, the Temple of Midnight was much like the lower levels of the Temple of Twilight.  Both seemed to be purposefully built in labyrinthine corridors. Again she considered the significance of the design.  Here, in the Temple of Midnight, the confusing passages made sense.  Setch assumed the winding corridors symbolized the mysteries that Tzi represented.  She forced her thoughts to remain on the significance of the designs of the temples, comparing them to the far more simple passages of the Temple of Dawn.  By focusing on the architecture of the temples she did not have to consider the fate of herself or the poisoned Drioux.  She barely noticed when the priest paused at a door.

“The High Priestess awaits you.”

Setch thanked the young priest and entered the audience chamber.  She found the room to be similar in size to Este’s personal audience chamber, but that was the only similarity that Setch could see.  One wall of this chamber was covered in shelving from floor to ceiling.  Every shelf contained a row of codices.  She tried not to gape at the collection, immediately recognizing the amount of work the number of books represented.  She knew from her own time as a novice that every codex must be hand copied.  The expenditure of time and energy needed to create that many books, astounded her.  The remaining walls were plain simply whitewashed stone.  A few upholstered chairs were placed in a semi-circle in the center of the room, each with a witchlight on a small table.  A small brazier glowed in the corner warming the room.

Setch made her way over to the chairs.  With the warmth of the room, and the dim lighting, she felt exhaustion threaten to overwhelm her.  Her race to the Temple of Midnight had left her little time to think of anything else.  She sat in one of the chairs, hoping the High Priestess would forgive her for violating protocol.  To sit before the High Priest or Priestess, was considered at the very least rude, but Setch was too tired to care.  Besides, she tried to assuage her disquiet at breaking protocol; the goddess of midnight has been calling me here for months.  While she knew that she was supposed to be in the Temple of Midnight, she did not think that Drioux’s poisoning was part of Zel’s plans.

I hope one of the midwives remained loyal to Drioux, loyal enough to try and save her.  Setch pictured the bottles and potions that had been scattered on Drioux’s beside table.  While Setch was no expert on poisons, she could identify each of the antidotes represented by its bottle.  She could not think an antidote that was not on the table in Drioux’s room.  Zel, Setch prayed, Drioux is a true and faithful servant.  Please send her your aid.  Your temple needs her, and I will need her when I am High Priestess.  Setch heard the door open.

She hurried to stand, but the woman who entered gestured for her to remain sitting.

“You have asked for an audience with me,” The woman began, “my priest tells me you ran from the Temple of Dawn and begged sanctuary of us.”

Setch nodded slowly.  This woman was not what she expected for a High Priestess.  Her clothing, while of the highest quality, was simple and unadorned and her hair was bound in a simple knot at the back of her head.  But it was the stamp of confidence and leadership in her features that surprised Setch. While Setch herself came from an elevated background, there was something in the High Priestess’s carriage, her poise that made Setch realize this woman was descended from the highest ranking nobles in the empire.

Setch pulled her eyes away from the woman and bowed her head in respect.  “I apologize for my unexpected arrival, High Priestess.”

“Why do you seek sanctuary here, priestess to Zel?”  The high priestess’s voice was lyrical and soft.

Setch raised her head unsure how to answer.  She recalled Telmax’s assurances that the Temple of Midnight was an ally.  “The Unnamed God, the Corrupter as you know Him, has risen within the Temple of Dawn.  Este has been overtaken by Him.”  She felt the words rush out of her.

The High Priestess muttered a curse.  “I had hoped it would not have progressed so far yet.”  She sat in a chair across from Setch.  “I know the Sisterhood has removed most of the priestesses to protect them from Him, but He has truly awakened?”

Setch gaped at her, how did this woman know of the Sisterhood?

The High Priestess smiled, “I see I’ve surprised you.  Maybe we should start at the beginning?  First, names I think.  I am Teo.”

Setch finally found her voice, “I’m Setch under-priestess to,” she paused, “I was under-priestess to Este.”

Teo looked her over, her sharp eyes reminding Setch suddenly of Telmax.  “Ah, but you are the true High Priestess of the Temple of Dawn.  Drioux has told me much about you.”

At Drioux’s name Setch felt herself grow pale, again worried that her mentor has dead.  “Drioux has been poisoned.  I fear by those corrupted by the Unnamed One.  I don’t know yet if she lives or dies.”  She felt her throat grow thick and her eyes burn with tears.

Teo’s eyes widened.  “She was a fool to stay within the temple.  I told her weeks ago that she should leave and take you with her.”  Teo paused and her eyes grew distant, unfocused for a moment.  “I have my servants searching for her now. Mayhap there is still time to save her.”

Setch blinked confused at how Teo could command anyone when she was sitting across from her.  “How?”

Teo smiled again, “It is one of the secrets of our temple, Setch.  Please, trust me. I am doing everything that I can to find her.”  She paused her eyes again becoming distant.  “Before we go any further, let me put your mind at ease. I grant you sanctuary here, as long as you need it.  You will be an honored guest among us.”

Setch mumbled her thanks and was interrupted by a novice bringing a tray of food and drinks.

Teo gestured for the tray to be set on one of the tables and turned to Setch, “I thought you might need refreshment.”

Setch accepted a cup of steaming chocotle, relishing the warmth more than the drink.  “Thank you,” Setch indicated the food and the drink.  “But, please can you tell me, how do you know of the Sisterhood?”

“We have been allies to them for many years, longer than I have been in the Temple of Midnight. I fear it was our friendship that allowed the Jade Chair to leave the Temple of Midnight and find a new place in the Temple of Dawn.  It was supposed to be safe there, unused and undiscovered in the vaults beneath your temple.” Teo sipped her own drink.  “It did not remain hidden long or maybe it was hidden for too long, and I fear that is our fault.”  She shook her head, “I should have demanded its return to us before Este become High Priestess.”

Setch narrowed her eyes in thought, “Has Este always been corrupt?”  It was a blunt question, but one she needed the answer to.

Teo considered the question, “Corrupt?” she shook her head, “No, I don’t think so.  She was always ambitious, always hungry for power and control.  The unprecedented speed with which she rose within the Temple of Dawn is testament to that.  She may have been a shrewd High Priestess, one that had the potential to elevate Zel’s status throughout the Empire, but her methods were questionable from the start.  And her interests were always her own, never those of Zel.”

Setch nodded slowly.  “So once she was ambitious, but she has never been pious.”

“Setch, what she is or was no longer matters.  If you are correct and the Corrupter has awakened, Este is as good as dead.  The Corrupter seems to enjoy taking human form. He will use Este, until there is nothing left of her.”

Setch grew cold.  “How do we stop Him, the Corrupter?”

Teo refilled Setch’s cup.  “We must find a way to destroy Him this time.”

Setch looked up, “This time?”

Teo nodded.  “The Jade Chair was once a relic we were studying.  We discovered the truth of its nature too late, and one of our priestesses was also corrupted like Este.  She overcame the Corrupter and with the help of a Priestess of Zel, they were able to force the Corrupter into a kind of sleep. We sent the chair to the Temple of Dawn for safe-keeping.  Those who serve the Lady of Dawn do not explore the Mysteries, so the former High Priestess thought that it would be safer in the care of the Temple of Dawn, than without our own vaults. I see now that our choice was a poor one. Still, we continued to seek for a way to kill the Corrupter, but have not found the way.”

Setch frowned recalling Telmax saying something similar, “But if He is a god, how can He die?”

With a sad smile Teo continued, “All gods can die, Setch.  Even our own can be killed,” she paused, “It may be hard for you to accept, but our gods have died and been reborn many times throughout the course of millennia.”

“I have heard such,” she paused not wanting to offend Teo, “such a theory before.  A priest in the Temple of Twilight said as much.”  She glanced at the older woman, looking for some trace of anger at her skepticism.  Finding none, she continued, “I don’t know that I can accept such an idea.”  She shrugged weakly, knowing she sounded petulant and foolish, like a child clinging to bedtime tales.

“I do not ask you to believe anything, Setch. In the Temple of Midnight, we value free-will above all else.  I only tell you what I know. And I know that the Corrupter can be destroyed.”  She rubbed at her forehead.  “Sadly, we have not found the spells needed to destroy Him.  I had hoped that Drioux would bring you here herself. She had been searching the Sisterhood’s archives for a record of how both our temples subdued the Corrupter in the past.”  Teo paused a moment, her eyes again becoming distant. “My servants tell me that Drioux is no longer within the Temple of Dawn, but they have not found her yet.”

“Will you keep looking?”

Teo nodded, and suddenly grew pale.  She turned away from Setch. “You should not be here.  Didn’t they warn you it wasn’t safe to travel the otherworld?”

Setch jerked and followed Teo’s gaze.  She found nothing.

“Yes, of course I can hear you.” Teo paused as if listening, “Soshay, you use one of Tzi’s gifts, of course it is different for us.” Teo turned to face Setch.  “I’m sorry this must seem strange to you, Setch. It seems the oracle Soshay has gifts that she has until now hidden.”  Teo turned back to the empty room, “She wishes to know if you are safe.”

Setch gaped at Teo, “Where is she?”

Teo smiled, “Her spirit is here, not her body.”

Setch nodded, recalling that those who served the goddess of Midnight were supposed to have the gift to send their spirits from their bodies.  It was something she had never witnessed before.

Teo seemed to be listening.  “She had a vision of the Corrupter’s attack on you.  She was worried about you” Teo paused.

“Can Soshay hear me?”

Teo nodded.

“Soshay, I am safe.  I have been given sanctuary here.”  She felt foolish speaking to an empty room.

Teo again seemed to listen and then spoke, “She says her initiation will be completed in three days.”

Setch nodded.  “Soshay, the Temple of Dawn has fallen to Him.  My allies there are scattered.”

Teo glanced around the room, as if seeking the source of a sound.  “I’m sorry Soshay, but you cannot stay here.  You know it is not safe.”  She paused, listening to a response.  She inhaled sharply, “He taught you? For now, you must go and though I am loath to say it, listen to his advice. Do not seek to travel the otherworld until He is destroyed. Seek out Telmax; he can answer your questions.” Teo raised her hands as if pushing a door closed.  Teo sat back heavily in her chair, her breathing labored.  “She is impetuous and far too brave for her own good.” Teo finally whispered.

Setch wasn’t sure if she was supposed to hear the words at all.  “Is she gone?”

Teo nodded.  “I sent her back to the Temple of Twilight.  At least, I hope I did.”  She rubbed at her forehead, “Since the Corrupter began waking the otherworld falls more and more to His control.”

“I don’t have experience with the otherworld.  In the Temple of Dawn all of our gifts bind us to this world.” Setch could see the dark circles of exhaustion under Teo’s eyes.

“Be glad of it.  Such work drains us.”  Teo smiled at her, “I should have considered that you too must be tired.  Maybe it would be better to continue our conversation when we are both rested?”

Setch nodded. “About what Soshay said, about our pact.”

Teo nodded.

“She and I have formed an alliance, binding both Tez and Zel to the cause of destroying the Corrupter.”

Teo looked surprised.  “For the God of Death and the Goddess of Birth to put aside their eternal enmity is a great accomplishment. The two of you are very special to your gods.”

Before Setch could say more, a young novice appeared.

“Ixchell will take you to your rooms.  She will get you anything you need.”  Teo said.

Setch knew a dismissal when she heard one.  She again thanked Teo and followed the young novice.

 

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