Chapter Twenty-Seven (Twilight of the Gods)

Previously: After meeting with Setch, Soshay began her wait for initiation. Today, her testing begins.  

Chapter 27

Soshay spent the remainder of the night, thinking about her conversation with Telmax.  She wanted to dismiss his concerns about her initiation.  It doesn’t matter what powers Tenoch has, and who he can control with his words, if Tez wants me to enter the Chamber of Trials, then He will have to intervene, but even without an initiation, I am Tez’s servant.  It is only a formality after all.  But she could not shake Telmax’s warning that an initiation was more than just a formality, more than her formal entry into the temple.  Either way, she decided that she would heed his request and remain alone in her room until the ritual.  She only had a day left before she would have to speak her prophecy before the entire temple, and then her time in the Chamber of Trials would begin.

She felt restless.  Her rumbling stomach reminded her that she was well into the required fast, and she wondered if it was hunger that made her anxious.  Frustrated with herself, she began to practice the breathing exercises that Ohili had taught her.  The process calmed her, and she released the nervous energy with each breath.  She closed her eyes and continued the breathing.

Soshay found herself in the altar room of the temple.  She glanced down and saw that she wore the clothing of a full priest of Tez.  The altar room was much larger than she had expected.  The gray stone floor could easily hold a few hundred worshipers.  She faced the altar and the frieze of Tez behind it, seemed to glower down at her.  He was seated on his throne of skulls, with the jaguar at his feet.  She felt herself fall to her knees in front of the altar.  She heard a door open, but could not turn to look – her eyes remained fixed on the frieze.

“My Priestess” the voice echoed through the altar room.

She stayed on her knees with her back to Him, afraid to move.  “My Lord.”  She murmured.

“Rise” the voice commanded.

Soshay felt herself rise and turn to look at Tez.  She reminded herself not to look at His eyes, to avoid becoming trapped in his golden gaze.  She raised her eyes from the floor, and gasped.  Keron stood only a few feet from her, but in her vision state he seemed to shimmer, to become someone else.  “My Lord Tez, I know you no matter what body you wear.”  She whispered.

He laughed, “I wanted you to understand, My Priestess.  Tomorrow you will aid me in removing the heretics from my temple.  Then, you give your prophecy and enter the Chamber of Trials.”  He stepped closer to her.

Soshay managed a nod, knowing he meant Tenoch, but wondering what her role could be in exposing him.

Tez gave her a languid smile.  “You are so inquisitive, My Priestess.  Look to Mitlan at your initiation.  He will guide your hand to My will.”  His voice grew low, “After that, in the Chamber of Trials, I will come to you.”

Soshay nodded, “May I ask a question, my Lord?”  She felt his hand on her face.

“Ask.”

“Why do You wear another’s face?  When You come, will it be as Yourself?”  She stumbled over the words, unsure how to ask the question and was terrified of angering him again.

He tilted her head up and she found herself staring into the god’s golden eyes, even if they stared out of Keron’s face.  “You have learned Our secret, My priestess.  I cannot, nor can My Siblings, touch the world without destroying it.  I cannot come to you in the physical world, it would destroy you and tear the world asunder.  I will wear another’s face.”

Soshay’s eyes widened, “So it is true that none of You can touch the world directly?”

Tez narrowed his eyes, “Do not think that this means I am without power, priestess.  You have seen what I can do.”  He held her arm, and the mark, His mark, burned.  “I, at least, can touch the world in small ways and do not think I love the Cetza so much that I would not remake the world again should I desire.”

Soshay grit her teeth against the searing pain in her arm.  “I am no fool, my Lord.  But the Unnamed One, is He also unable to touch the world?”

Tez laughed.  The cold sound filled the room, echoing around Soshay.  “So many questions.  He takes the same risk We do if He touches the world, but I think that perhaps He does not care.  He bears no love for the Cetza, as you subjugated His people. He was brought here in bondage with the Suyu. But without worship, no god can create, so He needs My people.”  He stroked her cheek, “But My priestess, He will be destroyed.  In your world and Mine.  You have already weakened Him with your alliance.”

She wanted to ask more, to finally understand what she would have to do, but abruptly he dropped his hold on her.

“Prepare yourself Soshay, make yourself look like My Bride because they come for you soon.”

Soshay blinked slowly and found herself still lying on her bed.  She could still hear Tez’s words ringing in her ears.  She sat up, only to be hit by a wave of dizziness.  She forced herself to breath slowly, to move slowly.  After a moment the dizziness passed, but she still felt weak.  Just the hunger, she reminded herself.

She finally walked to her desk and hurried to write out the vision. She finished the writing and let it sit on the desk to dry and quickly began a second copy for Setch.  As she was fasting, and had promised to stay cloistered, she would have to wait to find someone to deliver the paper to both Keron and Setch.  She rubbed at her aching fingers, and folded the pages, marking the front with Pelo’s name. She knew if he came, he would take the notes to Keron and Keron could get one to Setch.

Then she spent the rest of the day in meditation, waiting.

***

After their last meeting, Mitlan had ordered new regalia designed and made for her.  He decreed Tez’s True Bride should be better dressed.  Skirts, shirts, and dresses had arrived with alacrity, and all were woven of the finest fabrics Soshay had ever seen.  Her father dealt in fabrics and none of his fabrics had ever come close to the quality of these clothes.  She let the fabric slide through her fingers, marveling again at its smoothness.  The deep, indigo was almost black in the lights of the temple.  The blouse was embroidered with the feathers of the macaw, making Soshay feel like a pet bird herself.  Am I so different from the trained birds?  I too speak on command.  She thought as she pictured the brightly plumed birds kept for their feathers and as trained pets.  Like them, I cannot fly away.  She thought again recalling her conversation with Telmax.  I am not free to leave this cage.

She carefully slipped the new blouse on.  The new design left her arms bare. She began twisting and pleating the seemingly endless yards of fabric, until the skirt hung correctly.  It rode low on her hips, hanging in pleats that slid closely over her thighs before flaring around her calves.  The fabric was deliciously cool and light.  As she turned to watch the skirt flare, it felt as if she wore nothing at all.

She brushed her hair until her arm ached, but her hair shone.  She still wore the necklace from Setch around her throat and would not take it off.  No one had noticed the small blue stone, or if they had, no one had commented on it.  Stepping into her new sandals, Soshay realized she was ready.

She felt calm, even at peace now that her final trial, her final test had arrived.

A knock at the door made her frown; it is too early for the priests to call me.  She thought and opened the door.  “Pelo, what are you doing here?”

Pelo frowned at her, “Can’t a friend visit?”

She laughed and left the door open, “It is not that.  It’s only that they will come for me soon.”

Pelo nodded, “I know.  But, they are still preparing for your initiation.  That is why I am here.”  He fumbled in his pockets.  “The priestess Setch has sent you a gift for your initiation.”  He held a small wooden box in his hand along with a couple scraps of paper.

She took the box and papers looking at him questioningly.

“A novice from the Temple of Midnight delivered it yesterday.”

Soshay glanced at the top paper and paled.  She knew that Pelo could not read much more than his name and was suddenly very glad that he could not.

He glanced at the paper she held, “What does it say?”

For a moment she almost confided in him, told him the truth of her trial.  Instead she shook her head, “Nothing much, only a token gift.  I think it is commonly done in the Temple of Dawn.  Setch means it as a gesture of our friendship.”  Her voice shook only a little at the lie.  Other than the information about the potion, Soshay knew that Setch’s lengthy note would require much more time to consider than she had at the moment.

Soshay glanced at the second scrap of paper. She quickly saw that it was intended for Qent and she smiled sadly.  “She intended this note for Qent,” she said as she separated the two pages.  “I think they became friends when she used to,” she paused, “Used to visit Tenoch.”

Pelo snorted rudely, “Visit, that isn’t what I’d call it.”

Soshay quickly chastised him for his comment.  She reminded him that Setch was a priestess and deserved more respect.

Pelo managed to look chagrined and apologized.  He hesitated before speaking, “Soshay, are you afraid?”

Soshay looked up from the paper that held the instructions for the potion.  “Afraid? Of what?”

He rolled his eyes, “Your initiation.  The Chamber of Trials?”

She shook her head slowly.  “No, I don’t think so.  I am nervous, but not afraid.  Not anymore.”  She kept her eyes away from the bottle carefully packed in the box.  “Pelo, before you go,” she handed him the note for Qent, “will you see that this gets to Qent.”

He took the page.  “Of course.”  He paused again, “Soshay?”  He sounded hesitant again.

“What is it Pelo?”

He looked sheepish, “After you initiation, will we still be friends?”

She could not stop her laughter.  She stopped when she saw his crestfallen face.  “Oh, oh no Pelo,” she grabbed his hand, “I wasn’t laughing at the question.  I’m just happy you still want to be my friend.”

He looked at her and she could not read his expression.

“I’m sorry I laughed, but I have been worried that after I became a priestess, that you wouldn’t be my friend any longer.”  She could still see the lingering hurt in his eyes, but he gave a stiff nod.

He sighed.  “I will always be your friend, Soshay.”

“That makes me happier than you know, Pelo.”  She wanted to reassure him, but was not sure what to say or do.  “After my initiation, you’ll see it will be the same.”

Again he nodded, “I should go and deliver these for you.”  He said glancing at the pages in his hand.

“Thank you, Pelo.  Thank you for being my friend.”

He smiled and for a moment he looked like the defiant kitchen boy again.

When he had left, she wondered if they would still be friends.  Will he join the cult that worships me? Will I be different after, after being with Tez?

The thought that tonight she gave up her virginity to the god drew her eyes back to the bottle clutched in her hand.  Thank you Setch, for understanding that I would need this, she thought gazing at the bottle.  She shook her head at her own naivety, and wished that she would have had more time with Setch.  She could have told me what to expect, she thought as she hid the bottle in her clothing.

She had time to straighten her clothing that did not need to be straightened and worriedly brush at her hair, before the priests came for her.  They silently escorted her to the altar room.  She knew the way to the altar room, even if she had never been allowed inside.

Tonight my life begins.  I will be a full priestess and none will openly question my right to serve here.  She realized with a small smile.

When they reached the door, the guards motioned for her to enter.  Soshay entered the altar room with trepidation.  She was still a little surprised the priests had finally relented and allowed her to enter the male sanctum. She wondered what sort of complaints Neldo had raised at her being allowed to enter.

She glanced around the altar room, seeing it as it was and how it had appeared in her vision.  It made the experience feel less real, yet strangely more real than anything she had experienced before.

In deference to the edicts against magic, the altar room was only lit with real torches.  They cast flickering shadows that made the room seem more mysterious, more magical than in her vision.  The ceiling soared above her, disappearing into impenetrable darkness.  She took her first steps into the room.  The entire altar room was ringed in windows that stretched from the floor and disappeared into the shadows of the ceiling.  To the west the windows were made of clear glass.  To the east she noticed the windows were colored to mimic twilight.  So even during the day, Tez’s altar room always exists in twilight.

The priests, and the entirety of the temple Soshay guessed, were seated on rows of benches on either side of the room.  All of the painted faces stared resolutely ahead at the altar.  Soshay looked, to see if Neza was within their ranks, but could not find him among the masses of painted faces. She hoped that he had finished his trials successfully and that he got his wish of being sent out into the empire to serve Tez.

As in her vision, the massive frieze of Tez dominated the room.  He was seated on his throne of skulls, but in the flickering torch light, his face shifted at times a skull and at times a man.

No rendering of him will ever capture his real face she thought, how strange that only Telmax and I seem to know thatAre we the only two people in the Empire to have seen His real face? She stopped at the foot of the altar, and slowly dropped to her knees. But would any in the Empire want to look upon the face of Death?

“Novice Oracle,” Mitlan’s voice echoed through the chamber, “Your final trials await.”

Soshay kept her eyes trained on the floor. After his outrage at her accusations about Tenoch, she was afraid to look at him, even with Keron’s reassurances.  She could feel all of the eyes in the temple trained on her.  “I am ready, High Priest.”  Her voice was strong.

“As an Oracle, the temple demands that you prove that you possess the gift of prophecy.”  Mitlan paused, and Soshay imagined he was looking over the assembled priests, or maybe at Tez.

Soshay knew they expected no response from her, so she remained silent.

In unison all the priests spoke, “We will hear your prophecy, Novice Oracle.”

Soshay felt the words echo through the room.  She began the breathing that Ohili had taught her. She struggled to clear her mind, suddenly terrified that the Unnamed One would not let her see.  This is His final chance to destroy me, Soshay realized and her breathing faltered, this is also Tenoch’s last chance to try and disrupt my initiation.  If I fail in this, he has won.  She let her eyes drift to the frieze of Tez.  Even if the carved stone did not capture his true likeness, she felt comforted by his presence.  She corrected her breathing and she felt her mind shift.

Soshay stood in the courtyard between the temples.  She saw the Temple of Noon a crumbled heap of stones, and began to speak, “The Temple of Noon lies in ruins.  The Unnamed One, the Corrupter, has awoken in the Temple of Dawn.  Zel and Tez stand together united against Him, but the Unnamed One stands over the City of the Jungle.  The streets are full of blood and fire. Tzi stands alone, apart from Tez and Zel.” She saw the lesser gods, some standing with Tez and Zel, and some standing alone, outside of the city. None stood with the Temple of Noon. In the vision, Soshay looked again at the Temple of Noon and saw the fallen body of Mat. A dagger had been driven into his back.  “The Unnamed One has destroyed Mat. Through subterfuge, He has tricked Mat and Mat has fallen.” The images grew jumbled and Soshay’s words came faster.  She continued to speak in the silent altar room.

Finally the vision faded and Soshay fell silent, only to hear the room erupt into noise as all the priests began to speak at once.  She could hear the voice of Tenoch over all of the others.  He beseeched the others to be quiet.

“Silence!” Mitlan called, and the room became quiet.  “The Novice Oracle’s revelations will require discussion, but now is not the time.”

Soshay focused on her aching knees.  The vision had battered her senses and she fought to focus on the ritual.

Mitlan began to speak again, “Priests of the Temple of Twilight, do you accept the prophecy of this Novice as the divine words of Tez himself?”

The roar of voices in discord washed over Soshay.

Soshay raised her head and saw Tenoch’s small smile of triumph.  She clenched her hands in anger.  He would dare to interfere now, now that everyone knows about the Corrupter?  He will destroy us all for his ambition.

Tenoch spoke, “Peace brothers.”

The room fell silent, and Soshay felt the power echoing in his words.  She glanced at Mitlan, but could not read his expression.  The jaguar pelt on his head shadowed his face.

“My Lord, High Priest, We cannot accept this outlandish gibberish as true prophecy.”  Tenoch’s voice carried only a trace of pleasure.  “None of our oracles have spoken of any such threat.”

Soshay could hear the soft mummer of agreement from the remaining priests. Soshay felt the undercurrent in his words, something powerful that pulled at her thoughts.  She wanted to believe him.  Setch’s necklace, the stone that lay near her heart grew warm, distracting her from listening to Tenoch’s words.

This is where he will destroy me.  I didn’t even need to worry about Him stopping my initiation.  Tenoch aids Him whether he knows it or not.  She felt the warmth of the necklace again, and drew strength from it.  She offered a silent prayer to both Tez and Zel, hoping to offend neither, but needing the strength of both.

Mitlan had remained silent during Tenoch’s outburst.  He gazed at the assembled priests.  “Ah, my priests.  I have been away from you for far too long.”  Mitlan began.  “I see now what has come to pass.”

Even Tenoch become silent at Mitlan’s cryptic words.  Soshay noticed that the hush that fell over the assembly was as complete as the one Tenoch forced them into.  They really do view Mitlan as Tez on earth.  Soshay realized, but knew that she would never him as anything more than a man.

Mitlan continued. “You doubt the novice’s words; thus, you doubt Tez.  The Lord of Death has spoken through this girl tonight, and all of you have been led astray by sorcery.”  Mitlan’s voice rang out in the quiet chamber.

Soshay listened to the cold anger in Mitlan’s voice, and forced herself not to shake.  She risked another glance at Mitlan.  His eyes glinted in rage, but his voice remained controlled.

No one in the temple spoke, but Soshay was certain that all of them were confused by Mitlan’s accusations of sorcery.

Mitlan called out, “Tez, I call upon you, reveal the sorcerer, the blasphemer so that all your servants may see him.”

Tenoch started to break the silence, his voice sounding weak and hollow in the face of the vast silence.

“Tez, reveals his will.”  Mitlan interrupted him.  Soshay stared at Tenoch.  He glowed with the sharp blue light of Tez’s lightening.  She pulled her eyes away quickly, afraid that the lightening would destroy Tenoch the same way it had burned Neldo.

Tenoch frowned at the assembled priests and again began to interrupt.

“Cease speaking.” Mitlan bit out the words.  “You duplicity and manipulations end now.” Mitlan nodded to the guards, who came forward quickly, and restrained Tenoch.

“Do it.” Mitlan commanded.

The guards slowly drew forth a strip of cloth and began to gag Tenoch.  The assembly once again erupted into a fury of voices.

Tenoch’s own protests were drowned out by the din of voices.  Mitlan allowed the yelling to continue, until the gag was in place.  Tenoch found Soshay’s eyes and she could feel his rage and it was directed at her.

“Silence,” Mitlan commanded, and the assembled priests slowly became silent. “Tenoch, my old friend,” he twisted the words into a curse, “has lied to us all.”  He paused and looked over the assembled priests.  “He has been using sorcery in our temple.  He had been using blood magic to manipulate you all.” He paused to let the others absorb his words. “I do not know how deep his manipulations have gone in the City of the Jungle, and for this I have failed Tez.”  His eyes were pained as he gazed upon the fresco of the god. “You all witnessed his attempts to sway you with magic when he spoke against the True Bride.”

Soshay sat dumbfounded.  Tenoch using magic?  That’s impossible.  Does Mitlan refuse to believe me, to believe Tez?

Mitlan continued, “I allowed Tenoch to disrupt this proceeding to give you all undeniable proof of his guilt.  You all heard her prophecy, the words of Tez himself, yet how quickly you all deny their veracity when Tenoch speaks.”  Mitlan let his eyes travel over the assembled priests.  “You all have seen the mark that the novice wears, and further you all knew of her possession by the Lord of the Underworld himself, yet Tenoch’s use of magic,” he spat the word, “Caused you all to lose faith in Tez and to doubt His will.”

Soshay blinked up at Mitlan. What possession? She wondered, suddenly very afraid of what would occur.  She heard Tez’s words again, “Remove the heretics from my temple.  Mitlan will guide your hand.”  She gazed up at Mitlan.  This is what Tez wants, she realized, but what does Tez want me to do?

Tenoch began to struggle against the guards, attempting to free himself.  The glow around him grew brighter.  He shook his head fiercely at the accusations.

With only a look from Mitlan, the guards redoubled their efforts to hold him.  “As you are all aware, the penalty for sorcery is death.  I decree that for his crimes, he must be executed.”  Mitlan’s voice remained cold and firm.

This was not the anger Soshay witnessed when she had raised the accusations against Tenoch.  This, she realized, went deeper.  Tenoch had been Mitlan’s friend, his ally for years.  And he has betrayed Mitlan beyond measure. 

The Master of Records stared at Mitlan for a moment.  His eyes glinted with fear.  “Mitlan, we cannot – kill him without a trial.”  He stumbled over his words.  “His crime is heinous, and maybe he cannot be trusted, but all priests are given a trial…”  He raised his hands clearly at a loss for further words.

Mitlan’s sneer was evident, even under the makeup, “This was his trial.  He proved his guilt in his efforts to manipulate the judgment of the entire temple.”  Mitlan’s gaze was cold.  “He openly used magic within Tez’s altar room and spoke against Tez’s True Bride.  He dies. Now.”

The words seemed to hang suspended in the altar room.

Tenoch struggled against the guards again – this time freeing himself long enough to loosen the gag.  “The law dictates a trial.  I demand…” his words were cut off by a guard clapping a hand over Tenoch’s mouth.

“You are owed nothing,” he spat.  “You violated every law of this temple.  You who were given one of Tez’s greatest gifts,” Mitlan paused and changed his tone, “Tez allowed you to become Second Priest of the most powerful temple in the Empire, and chose to use this honor for your own petty desire.”  He narrowed his eyes at him, “Do not think that I will allow your influence to further contaminate my temple.”

Soshay watched and finally understood. Mitlan does not want to admit that Tenoch has the gift of diplomacy, maybe he fears that his own judgment will be questioned as well.  So he lies to protect his standing.

Mitlan drew his ritual knife.  The obsidian blade glinted in the lights.  Everyone knew it would be honed to razor sharpness.  “Soshay,” Mitlan’s tone was commanding, she found herself rising without thought.  “Come forward.”

She felt herself take faltering steps toward the altar.

Mitlan’s gaze softened as he saw her confusion and fear.  Soshay halted at the steps to the dais.  Mitlan extended his hand to her, and unsure what else to do, she climbed the steps.

She could feel Tenoch’s rage pouring over her.  She fought to keep from shuddering.  Tez give me strength to serve your will, she thought.

“As the True Bride, you are Tez’s representative on earth.”  His words had softened.  “Tenoch’s machinations were set against you.”  He gazed at the other priests, as if daring them to question him.  “And by acting against you, he has acted against Tez.”

Soshay felt Mitlan take her hand and place the hilt of the knife against her palm. He forced her to close her hand around the hilt.  Her mind seemed frozen.  He cannot mean for me to do this.  She thought and was unsure if her thoughts were about Tez or Mitlan.  Her eyes sought Keron, and she saw him grow pale.

“Out of devotion, you once offered Tez your own blood, now True Bride, give him the blood of a heretic and traitor.”

Soshay stared at Mitlan, feeling the blood drain from her face.  “My… my lord, I… I…” she looked at the blade and looked at Mitlan. “I cannot.” Her voice was weak.  She looked at Tenoch and knew he had abused one of Tez’s greatest gifts, but she could not imagine killing him.

Mitlan leaned down to her ear and whispered, “Tez demands you carry out His will, and I will help you.”

She heard the echo of Tez’s command in Mitlan’s words.  Oh, my god, she prayed, this is what you want of me?  She barely felt Mitlan’s hand slide along her arm, and his fingers wrap around her own.  The bone hilt of the blade bit into her palm.  She felt Mitlan’s warm skin against her back.  His arm, hard and strong, was pressed against her arm.  He placed his other hand on her hip, his top fingers resting on her bare flesh.  She felt his fingers tighten on the curve of her hip.  This isn’t happening.  Mitlan will not make me do this, he can’t.

He tightened his grip on her hand, his fingers twining through hers.  She could not look at Tenoch.  She kept her eyes locked on her fingers, her fingers that grasped a blade and were locked in place by Mitlan’s fingers.  She could feel the hardness of his chest against her back, and the slight tickle of his hair as it fell around them both.  He will drop my hand now.  He will make it look like I wielded the blade, but he will not make me kill Tenoch.  Her thoughts raced, begging Tez to stop this, to make her carry out this deed.

She felt the soft touch of Mitlan’s lips against her ear as he whispered, “It will be alright Soshay.  I am here, it will be alright.”  The words became an endless litany, his lips moving, but the sound ceasing.  She shook her head at him and whispered, “I can’t do this.  Please.”  She shuddered as he bent her arm, ignoring her plea.

“Relax, little priestess – it must happen.”  He whispered.  “I will guide you through this.”

She felt her muscles go limp.  Her arm moved with his, his body holding her upright.  She felt him tighten his grip on her hand until it hurt.  If I focus on the pain, I won’t have to think. She let him draw her arm back; she let him lead her forward.  She watched the blade flash in the lights. “Tez, guide me.”  She whispered.

The guards had laid Tenoch across the altar.  The rage still burned in his eyes. Soshay felt the knife slid effortlessly into Tenoch and she closed her eyes.  She felt the hot spray of Tenoch’s blood spatter over her.

Mitlan drew her hand up, the blade slicing upward, slamming into Tenoch’s breastbone.  Tez, was this your will?  She thought, keeping her eyes closed.

“See Soshay, it is alright,” Mitlan whispered.  “It only takes a moment, and I am here with you.”

She shook as he pulled the blade from Tenoch’s body.  The blade dragged along bone with an awful rasp.  She could not open her eyes to see if Tenoch still lived.  She felt Mitlan loosen his hold on her hand, and together they laid the blade on the altar.  She let herself fall against Mitlan, certain she could not stand on her own.

“Now, little priestess, we must finish this while his heart still beats.” Again his lips brushed her ear and cheek as he whispered to her.

Soshay forced her eyes to open and gazed at the ground.  She glanced at Tenoch’s eyes, watching them begin to cloud.  She continued to whisper her prayers to Tez, unable to think about what was happening.

She knew that Mitlan would remove Tenoch’s heart now. He shifted his position, keeping her close at his side, but he dropped her hand.  “Just breathe, Soshay.  It is almost over.” He whispered.  “Close your eyes.”

She closed her eyes.  Trying to hear nothing in the deathly silence of the altar room.  She felt herself sway and Mitlan wrapped his arm around her again holding her upright.

“May Tez be pleased with this sacrifice.  The traitor’s blood is split in His name.”  His voice carried in the silent chamber.  Mitlan maintained his hold on Soshay, and pressed tightly against her.

Soshay stared at the ground, breathing swallowing.  I am going to be sick.  She felt the bile rising and she forced herself to fight it.  I cannot… she thought, but was unsure what she could not do.

“You did well, little priestess.  You were magnificent.” Mitlan whispered in her ear.

Soshay shuddered at the words, her eyes finally searching for Keron.  His eyes were trained Tenoch’s body.  She looked away and turned to the fresco of Tez.  And it seemed to her, that Tez smiled at her.  I have sworn to serve You in all ways My Lord, did You truly want this of me?  She thought in silent prayer.

The priests were unsettled.  But with a glare from Mitlan, they began the ritual prayers of the sacrifice.  The words welled in the altar room, as the priests’ voices gained strength.

Mitlan maintained his hold on her.  Slowly the reality of the situation dawned on her.  I killed him.  My words condemned him and I wielded the blade that killed him.  Tez, he was an awful man, but must I become Your instrument of death?  Her eyes stared at the fresco.  She felt cold.  Only Mitlan’s warmth seemed to penetrate.  She could not focus.  She heard a roar of voices, and the deep rumble of Mitlan’s words that she felt through her back as he pressed her against him.  The other voices grew distant a mere buzzing in her head.  All she could focus on was the blood drying on her arms, her face.

As the prayers continued, Soshay felt the stirring of power in the room.  She wanted to compare it to the energy she had felt with Setch, but knew that it paled in comparison to this.  The energy built in the room becoming a tangible force.  Soshay felt the hair on her arms rise.  The prayers ended, but the pressure of the energy remained.

Mitlan addressed the priests.  “There is blood and power in this room,” his words were confident with the ritual, his hand splayed against her stomach, his fingers softly touching her.  He pushed Soshay gently into his chair.  “Tell me, tell us, what do you see, Oracle?”

She gasped for air.  Overwhelmed and suffocating.  She forced herself to take a deep breath, and was happy to fade away.

Soshay was outside the temple of Twilight.  The temple glowed with power, and lightening raged above it.  She knew Tez was there.  She turned and found him. 

“My Bride, you have given me another gift.”  Tez said with a chilling smile.  “Speak my words.”  She could feel the cold radiating from him.  He leaned forward and lapped at the blood on her face.  He smiled at her.

Soshay began to speak, “The Corrupter is rising in the Temple of Dawn.  He seeks to enslave and pervert our people. He is an interloper, an entity of only darkness and destruction.  Already He has degraded Zel’s temple, and know He has turned His attentions to wooing those in the Temple of Noon, but this will not be enough.”  Soshay paused to breathe, “We must join with Zel’s servants and with Tzi’s. It is nearly too late for the Temple of Noon.”  Soshay felt the vision shift, and saw the ruins of the City of the Jungle. She recognized it as the future the Corrupter had shown her.  She described the scene in detail.  Finally, Tez allowed her to cease speaking.

Distantly she could hear the sounds of the temple, the priests in an uproar, but she found that she was still trapped in the vision.

She found herself in gazing upon Tez.  “Please my Lord, will You ask this of me again?” her words were barely a whisper.  Tez drew back and she felt herself trapped in his eyes.  His eyes were black, and endless like the night sky, and she felt like she was drowning in darkness.

“You will give what I ask; you have vowed yourself to Me.” His words echoed through her head.  He kissed her and she tasted Tenoch’s blood on his mouth.  Tez broke away from her, “Remember you are Mine.”

Soshay blinked in the chair.  Mitlan stood over her.  “Did you hear my Lord?”  Her voice was rough.

He gave her a sympathetic nod and gestured for Keron to take her away.  He came quickly and helped her to stand.  He led her through a small door to the side of the altar.  The door led to a narrow hallway.  She heard Mitlan addressing the priests again, explaining that her time in the chamber of trials would proceed the following evening.

“Soshay?”  Keron asked, as they walked.

As she exited the room, she felt the power from the sacrifice diminish, and she sagged in Keron’s arms.

Human sacrifice was part of the worship of all the Cetza gods, but only in dire need and always publicly.  That this sacrifice was an execution and used for Mitlan’s revenge felt wrong to Soshay.  Tez, I know You looked on and approved of this sacrifice, but it, it weighs on me to have committed this act.  She wondered if she would have felt better about it, if the sacrifice had followed temple law.  She could feel the last thrum of power from the sacrifice waning.

“Soshay?” Keron asked again.

She turned to look at him and could not read his expression, but when she met his eyes, all she could do was cry.

Her shoulders shook as she sobbed.  She felt his arms around her, his hands stroking her hair.  She could hear his murmurs of comfort.  For a moment, she wanted to pull away from him, to not allow his presence, his touch to comfort her.  Instead, she drew a shuddering breath and flung her arms around him.

They stood in the hallway and he held her tightly while she cried.  He finally lessened his grip when her sobbing became quieter.  “Soshay…” his voice was barely a whisper.  “I do not know what to say.”

She met his eyes, “Then say nothing, but take me away from here.”

He nodded, and she leaned heavily on him, no longer concerned about appearing weak, no longer concerned that anyone one would misinterpret their relationship.

“I need to wash the blood off” she whispered as they followed the winding path of the narrow hallway.

Keron paused, “I expected as much.”

He stopped at a door, that opened into the regular pathways of the temple.  She vaguely recognized the friezes and realized there were in the priests’ quarters.  He took her to someone’s chamber.  A priest’s she guessed by the size.  By its austere furnishings, she guessed not a very high ranking priest.

She glanced at him confused.

“I have a private bath.” He offered.  “And with the events of today, no one within the temple would dare question your virtue.”

She turned from him to look around the room with new eyes.  This is his room.  She reconsidered her thoughts about the plain furnishings.  The austereness suits him.  She thought.  She sat where he directed and watched him disappear behind a wooden screen.  She could hear water begin to flow, splashing against stone.

“Come,” he said taking her hand.  Behind the screen she found a stone tub, being fed hot water from a spout in the wall.  She wondered if the water was heated through magic, or simply a hot spring.  She stared at the water, all of her exhaustion taking its toll.  The trial was strain enough, and she could not begin to fathom the events that had transpired.

“Do you want to be alone?” Keron asked quietly.

She jerked her gaze from the water and hesitated before shaking her head.

He nodded and helped her begin to undress.

She slowly pulled her blouse off.  It was already stiff with blood.  She untied her skirt, letting it fall to the floor. The beautiful clothing was destroyed, and she would see it burn. She slowly slid into the tub.  She hissed as the hot water hit her skin.  It was almost too hot to bear, but she thought it might wash away the horror of everything.

She watched the water turn pink with Tenoch’s blood.  She simply sat for a few minutes, letting the water cover her, and Keron let her sit in silence.

Finally he moved and sat behind her.  He began to scrub at her hair.  While he worked the soap through her tangled, matted hair, she scrubbed at her hands, her stomach, her arms, anything part of her that may have been touched by Mitlan.  She began to cry, this time without sound.

She had scrubbed and washed herself countless times, always hearing Keron’s soothing voice.

When she rose from the tub, she let him carefully wrapped her in a towel.  She wrung the water from her hair.  She could not meet his eyes as they stepped from behind the screen.

“Am I… am I… to be Tez’s blade, now?”  Her voice broke.

Keron turned quickly.  “Gods, Soshay,” he tilted her head up, “You will never be asked to perform the sacrifice again.  I will make certain of that.”

She offered a shy smile at his fierce tone.  And she held the towel tighter.

He blushed, but did not turn away.  The awkward silence stretched between them, until fatigue hit her again and she swayed on her feet.  He helped her to sit, kneeling in front of her.

“I am sorry” he whispered.  “I didn’t know that Tenoch’s execution was part of Mitlan’s plans.  He refused to see anyone before tonight.  He was concerned about Tenoch’s influence.”

She looked down at him, reading the sorrow in his gaze.  “I believe you.  But why did Mitlan lie about Tenoch’s crime?”

His gaze grew sadder at her question.  Instead of answering, he rose and found a brush.  He began to carefully brush out her hair.  The brush slid through her hair, and she finally felt the tension draining.  He continued to brush her hair, even when she knew it was untangled.  She closed her eyes savoring the sensation.

He finally began to speak.  “If the temple knew of the truth, we would all be in danger.  Just imagine the repercussions, not only to us, but the empire.  The Imperator’s reign could be jeopardized.”

Soshay nodded slowly, starting to piece together the effects of the truth.  The temple itself, Tez’s place in the Cetza world, the Imperator – even our patrons would be in danger.

“Can we talk…” he began, “Are you…” he stopped brushing her hair.

She heard him walk around to face her again, and opened her eyes.  She could see his terrible conflict.

“I have no experience in these matters.” He sat heavily in the chair across from her.  “I fear anything I say will make it worse.  We are oracles…”  He shrugged, “We witness sacrifice, but we do not perform them.”

“What will happen to me now?”  Her tone was quiet.

He looked at her, “You are the True Bride.” He paused, “and you are, you.  You are a woman, an intelligent, witty, beautiful woman – but you are also the most powerful Oracle I have ever met. Your abilities already surpass mine. You see farther into the future and with more clarity than I can ever hope to. And Tez marked you.  He has physically touched you.” He paused again, “And you are a clever woman who constantly amazes me.  You are all of these things and much more to me.”  He finished.

“What if it is only the will of the Gods that makes you want me?” She whispered, knowing she sounded petulant, childish.

He frowned, “Soshay, Tez influences us all, but it is not in his power to make me love you.”

She bit her lip, “It is not Tez who makes you love me.”  She continued, “Zel has spoken to me.  I sought a vision, before…” she paused, unsure if Keron knew about her alliance with Setch.  She believed that he had truly not known of Mitlan’s intention to use her to sacrifice Tenoch, mayhap she thought, Ohili lays his own plans as well?  “Before the trial.” She finished.  “Zel says my mother promised me to Her, not my sister.  She is angry I chose Tez.” Keron opened his mouth as if to speak, but Soshay continued, “We are simply part of her rivalry with Tez.”  She closed her eyes, “None of this is real.  It is not our choice.  What we feel has been forced upon us, by Her.”  She opened her eyes, but she could not look at Keron.

She sat silently letting him consider what she had said.  Wondering again, if Zel’s interference in their lives mattered, or was their connection inevitable?

“You spoke to Zel?”

Her jaw dropped, “That is all that concerns you?”

Keron shook his head, “It does not concern me if She claims my feelings come from her.  Love is her domain.  I love you; that I have accepted.”  He shrugged.

“Mayhap we are less alike than I thought.” She whispered.  “I do not know if I can accept it so easily.  Do we make any choices in life or is everything laid out for us?”  Her eyes searched his face for an answer.

“Soshay, we see the future.  We are given this gift to change the future.  We choose.”

She shook her head, unsure it was so simple.

The light tap on the door filled Soshay with relief.  She did not want to continue the conversation.  I need rest, and time to think. She thought.

Telmax slipped into the room, with a bundle of clothing in hand.  “Hello, little sister.”  He said handing her clothing.

“Thank you, big brother.” She took the clothes and hurried behind the curtain to dress.

“I think I should get some rest.” She said from behind the curtain.  She did not know how to end the conversation with Keron, and simply wanted to be alone.

“I will take you back to your room” Telmax called.

She stepped from behind the screen.  “I need to think, I need time, Keron.”  She looked at him, ignoring Telmax for the moment.  “Now that Mitlan knows, know that the temple knows about the Corrupter,” She felt her words stumble, “Ohili should know too; he knows more of Him than he has told me.”  She turned to Telmax, noting that both men stood stunned.  “Lead me back to my room, please.” She said.

She exited the room before him, not wanting to give either man the opportunity to question her further.  She paused outside waiting for Telmax to join her, wishing she had paid more attention to how to get back to her room.

“Big brother, please for once, allow me silence.”  She whispered.

He nodded and led her back to her room.  She tried to leave him at her door, attempting to slip inside, but he caught the door holding it open.

“Soshay, you will survive this.  You have not broken yet; do not let this be what destroys you.”  His words were serious.

She offered a weak smile, “I think I broke long ago.”

He started to say more, but she shook her head.  “Give me time, Telmax.”

He nodded and stepped away from the door.

She closed the door and stumbled to her bed.  She wondered if sleep would really make anything clearer to her, and curled up under her blankets.

***

Telmax walked slowly back toward Keron’s chamber.  If Soshay fails what will become of us?  For a moment he wished he could speak to the High Priestess of the Temple of Midnight.  Even though he had parted ways with his mother on poor terms, her guidance would help him now.  He was left with only prophecy and the few remnants of memory from the treppantrix to guide his next moves.  Everything points to Soshay being a vital part of finally destroying Him, but if she fails, will I be able to take her place?  She is touched by two gods, and so am I.  He sighed and felt his lips twist into a sardonic smile.  My mother would be so pleased to know that I have finally begun to consider my destiny.  He shook off the smile and pushed the thoughts away as he entered Keron’s chamber.  He could consider the end of the world later, but now he needed to focus on helping his friend.  He knew Keron would be distraught over Soshay being used by Mitlan in the sacrifice of Tenoch.  And both of them would have to face the consequences of Soshay’s final initiation tomorrow.  Even if both of the seemed to be ignoring the obvious, Telmax knew what would happen.  He hoped that it would not break Keron’s heart when he learned the truth.

2019-01-14-14-17-57

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