In the Temple of Midnight, Setch has accepted the cursed Trepantrix and begins the process of understanding the information streaming into her brain.
Soshay has completed her initiation and lain with her god Tez. Unexpectedly, He sanctioned Soshay and Keron’s relationship. After a long, emotional night, she must face the priests of the Temple of Twilight and be accepted as one of them.
Soshay cleaned herself up, the best she could before she walked from the chamber of trials. The darkness of the altar room should hide the worst of her rumpled clothing she decided. She reminded herself that no one could know what she had done, but she still felt embarrassed. She blinked in the brighter altar room and her eyes slowly adjusted to see the room once again filled with priests.
Are they waiting to see if I passed or failed? She wondered looking over the gathered faces.
She stood at the altar and waited for Mitlan to give her the signal to walk over to the altar. As Mitlan began the prayers and invocations, Soshay found her attention drawn to the cups on the altar. Which cup Mitlan chose to give her would indicate whether he accepted her entry into the Temple.
One cup was finely wrought in silver accented with lapis lazuli. To be allowed to drink from the silver cup meant an initiate had completed the trial. The second cup was crafted of clay and painted black. It was rumored to contain poison and was only given to those that failed.
She pulled her eyes from the cups and glanced at Mitlan. His mantle was such a dark blue that it was almost black, and it was decorated with both black and indigo feathers. She could barely see his face paint behind the heavy obsidian mask he wore. The mask was a stylized jaguar with features of both the cat and a human. His eyes glinted from the dark depths of the mask. She shivered seeing it, recalling Tez’s touch.
Mitlan finished the prayers and called her to the altar. “Novice Soshay,” he said as she stopped in front of the altar, “You have completed your time in the chamber of trials.”
Soshay knew no response was expected from her.
Mitlan continued, “Tez, the Lord of Death, has tested you.”
Soshay replied, “I have been tested.”
“Keeper of Ritual,” Mitlan intoned and the man stood, “Did she pass your test?”
The Keeper replied clearly, “She passed my test. Her knowledge is complete.”
Mitlan continued, “High Oracle, did she pass your test?”
Keron stood and looked at Soshay. She felt his gaze almost burn her with its intensity. “She passed my test. Her prophecy was truly given without the aid of liuqui.”
Soshay saw Keron was also dressed in his highest ritual clothing. He did not wear a mask, but the heavy face paint made the hard lines of his face more severe. To hear his voice after their time together made her ache. He is so capable of making his voice so cold, so distant, she thought. Can I achieve the same outward distance? She was certain when she spoke that everyone present would know of their liaison. A quick glance at the assembled priests reminded her that they knew nothing.
The Master of Ritual and Tenoch’s replacement also confirmed her success. She noticed that this time the priest replacing Tenoch offered the correct response.
Mitlan nodded and turned to the assembled priests. “She entered the chamber of trials and has returned whole in both mind and body. Before she entered she already bore The Lord of Death’s mark.” He paused letting everyone look at her arm. Soshay fought to maintain her composure as Mitlan took her arm. She did not want him to touch her again, not after Tenoch’s death. She could understand his reasons for making her take part in the sacrifice, but she did not forgive him. His hands were cold, and the makeup painted on them smeared on her arm. The dark paint left marks on her arm, like a bruise. She fought her instinct to pull away from him as he slid his hand into hers.
“Tez, the Lord of Death, the Godslayer, The Master of the Harvest, named me his voice on earth, and as his voice, I declare that Novice Soshay is his chosen Oracle and a full priestess of the Temple of Twilight. She bears his mark and is his True Bride.”
Soshay felt the words wash over her. They carried none of the power she felt when Tez spoke to her, and none of the weight of the binding she had made with Setch. Maybe it is the blood of Tenoch still between us, but this ritual is empty. I became Tez bride in the truest sense within the chamber of trials. Even if they had cast me out, I would still be His priestess. She thought barely noticing the assembly rising and chanting the ritual welcome.
She caught Keron’s eyes and felt the heat of his gaze. She shivered.
Mitlan noticed her shivering and whispered in her ear, “the ritual will end soon and then you may rest.”
She would not meet his eyes but gave him a tight nod in acknowledgment. He is my High Priest now; even if Tez speaks to me, I must consider Mitlan’s will as Tez’s will. She glanced at Keron, wondering again if they should tell Mitlan the truth about her initiation. This time Keron did not meet her gaze.
When the welcome chanting was completed, Soshay bowed her head. “Thank you for welcoming me into the Temple of Twilight.” She paused, letting her eyes travel over the assembled priests, wondering who among them blamed her for Tenoch’s death, which of them wanted her cast out.
She held her head high as she continued, “I have passed the tests of this temple and accept the mantle of Priestess of Twilight.” She waited while Mitlan hung the tilma across her shoulders. The weight was unexpected. Even her formal tilma weighed less. She covertly glanced at the garment and knew she had not completely managed to hide her shock. The tilma hung in heavy black folds, of some sort of plush fabric that she could not identify. The shoulders were festooned with gleaming indigo feathers. But it was the hemline that made her catch her breath. It was heavily embroidered with silver thread, which based on the weight of the tilma, was a large quantity of metal. The pattern spelled out the names of the stars that made up Tez’s constellation. She could see the first and final names as Mitlan pulled the garment around her.
She gathered her wits back to the ceremony. From the shock on the faces of the assembled priests, no one had seen this tilma before today. And worse none knew what to make of it. Clothing within the temple served to mark a priest’s rank. This new garment was something new, and what it was supposed to signify was unclear to the assembled priests.
She took a steadying breath and continued the ritual. “I give my blood to His service.” She took the ritual knife from Mitlan. She stood at the altar and stared at the black blade a moment. As she cut into her arm she wondered, is this the blade that killed Tenoch? Does my blood mingle with his? She waited for her blood to drip to the altar.
Mitlan was quick with a cloth to bind the wound. She watched the blood blossom underneath the stark, white bandage. The room seemed to sway in her vision. She feared she would be sick or faint. She steadied herself, placing one hand on the altar and felt a frisson of power through the stone. “Tez aid me,” she murmured under her breath before turning back to the priests.
“I give my body to His service.” She used the knife to cut a lock of her hair to place on the altar.
“I give my spirit to His service.” She said and watched Mitlan stand behind the altar.
“As the voice of the Lord of Death on earth, I accept the blood of Soshay.” He placed his finger in her blood and drew a line down her face. She could feel the blood sticky and cold as it dried on her forehead and down the bridge of her nose. His fingers slowed over her lips and drew his hand away.
He picked up the lock of her hair, wrapping it loosely in his hand. “As the voice of the Godslayer, I accept the body of Soshay.” He nodded at her, signaling she was to turn and face the priests.
She turned her eyes seeking the end of the chamber. She could not look at their faces any longer. Again the room swayed. She heard the slight clink of the cup as Mitlan took it from the altar. “As the voice of the Master of Spirits, I accept the spirit of Soshay.” He passed her the cup and she fumbled to hold on to it. He steadied her hand keeping his hand around hers for a moment.
Without looking at the cup, she raised it to her lips and drank. The heavy taste of chocotle flooded her senses. She struggled to swallow. After days of fasting, the taste was overwhelming. She managed to force her throat to work and passed the cup back to Mitlan.
Mitlan set the cup down and walked around the altar to stand next to her. “Tez welcomes you to the Temple of Twilight.” He said bowing his head briefly to her. She knelt before the altar and Mitlan conducted the final prayers.
Soshay drifted in and out of focus as Mitlan spoke. While she knew the evening prayers, she had never heard them performed in the altar room before. She thought that she should pay attention, but the words flowed over her like music, and none of the sounds seemed to make sense. She finally gave in to her exhaustion and closed her eyes, letting the sounds of the prayers lull her senses.
The weight of the tilma pulled at her shoulders and the blood drying on her face began to itch. She tried to ignore all of these things, to take the chance to rest, but could not distance herself from a million distractions. I have never been this tired before. Even during the worst of Neldo’s abuses of my prophecy, I never felt this empty. She fervently hoped the prayers would be short. Her stomach roiled with the chocotle. She began a mantra in her head, promising herself a reward if she stayed awake and kept from vomiting on the altar. I will have a bath, a long bath using that glorious hot water. I will eat, anything I want and as much as I want. I will drink water clear, cold water. I will sleep for a week. She kept repeating the words over and over, using them to bolster her rapidly fading reserves of energy.
Finally, the chimes sounded marking the end of the evening prayers. Soshay remained on her knees, listening to the shuffle of the priests leaving the altar room. She heard the shuffle of sandals in her direction and glanced up to see Mitlan standing over her.
“We are alone.” He said, but within the cavernous space of the altar room, his voice echoed.
Soshay smiled weakly at him, “I don’t know if I can stand unaided.” She blushed to admit the weakness.
Mitlan smiled at her, “It is quite common. Don’t be ashamed. The fasting and trials are a great drain on the body.” He reached out his hand and helped her to rise. “I know you are tired, but I wanted to be certain that you are alright.”
Soshay nodded. She swayed as she stood.
Mitlan placed his arm around her shoulders holding her up. He led her to a chair placed to the side of the altar room. He removed the jaguar mask and set it aside. His eyes sought hers. “Did Tez speak to you about the Unnamed One?”
She shook her head. “He spoke to me, but he said nothing about Him.” She whispered.
He swore under his breath, “I had hoped he would guide us in this.” He glanced at the altar and the image of Tez. “So Tez said nothing about the problems in the Temple of Dawn?”
Soshay raised an eyebrow, “No, during the trial, He said nothing about The Corruptor.”
“Tell me again, what does this god look like?”
She considered the question, “He frightens me.” She shuddered to recall the spear-wielding man. “He holds a spear and there is a snake. The snake…” she murmured, recalling the serpent that had twined around her in the vision. “Why would He have a snake?” She looked to Mitlan, “That is Zel’s animal.”
“What do you mean?” Mitlan asked.
“When I saw Him, the Corrupter, He carried a spear and had a snake. It seemed to be His avatar, like Tez’s black jaguar.”
Mitlan narrowed his eyes, “And I assume you have seen Tez’s Jaguar?”
Soshay nodded, “I see her often. Sometimes, I think in the physical world.” She shrugged that away, “But why would He have the same avatar?” Something about that fact nagged at Soshay. “There is something I am missing,” she paused trying to recall every vision of the Unnamed One, “there is something I am not seeing.” She turned to Mitlan, “Do you understand?”
He nodded his head slowly. “I think I understand.” He glanced at the altar, “It is considered heresy, but those in Temple of Midnight claim that the gods are not eternal.” He paused again as if searching for the words.
Soshay nodded recalling a long-ago conversation with Telmax; “What would that mean, the gods not being eternal?”
Mitlan looked at her, “It could mean that if the Corrupter and Zel share an avatar, it is possible they were once the same god. That the Corrupter seeks to overtake Zel and restore an older form of worship.” His eyes grew distant, “I have heard the Suyu stories from the Imperator’s wife. If the Suyu god and the Unnamed One are the same, then we have much to fear. He destroyed all of the Suyu gods, and now, they live without any gods. It may be better if we learn that He is Lakiti.”
Soshay frowned, “Why would He be Lakiti?”
Mitlan smiled at her, “The City of the Jungle was built by the Lakitis. We took it in conquest long, long ago.” He smiled at her surprised expression, “I doubt many remember that.”
Soshay paled. “Either way, we must find a way to destroy Him,” She whispered. “High Priest, I seek permission to leave the temple.”
Mitlan stared at her.
“I must seek the council of a priestess in the Temple of Midnight. I think together we may be able to find a way of destroying the Unnamed One.”
Mitlan continued to stare at her in silence. He finally shook his head, “I cannot put you at risk.” He glanced at the altar, “You are Tez’s chosen bride. To risk your life would be sacrilege.” He stopped her protests with a wave of his hand. “I will invite anyone you wish to speak with here, and you must be kept safe.”
“The priestess I seek cannot leave the Temple of Midnight. The High Priestess of the Temple of Dawn will kill her the second she leaves the Temple of Midnight.”
Mitlan frowned, looking confused. “Explain this to me, who is this woman you seek?”
“I must speak with the true High Priestess of the Temple of Dawn, high priestess Setch. She fled the Temple of Dawn when the Corrupter tried to kill her. She was given refuge within the Temple of Midnight.” Soshay paused, making sure Mitlan still understood. “She and I have,” Soshay paused, not wanting to tell Mitlan about the alliance. If Telmax’s assessment was correct, Mitlan would worry more about the political implications of the alliance than the spiritual ones. “We have been in communication. She has information about the Unnamed One, possibly a way to destroy Him.”
Mitlan considered the explanation. “I can offer her an escort here; we too can provide her a safe haven. I will send a messenger to the Temple of Midnight tonight. But, I cannot allow you to leave. If this priestess is in such danger, I cannot allow you to put yourself at risk by meeting with her. Nor can I allow you to potentially be exposed to the practices of the Temple of Midnight.”
Soshay quelled her desire to continue to protest. She remembered Setch telling her about the door in the courtyard, and realized that she could leave and no one would need to know. She nodded and offered Mitlan half-hearted promises to remain in the temple, but her thoughts were already racing with her plans to escape the Temple of Twilight.
Soshay felt the cold hand of Tez on her shoulder. She jerked her head, expecting to see him, but saw only the empty altar room. The room began to swim and her vision began to darken. “My Lord Mitlan, listen carefully.” She said, already her voice growing distant in her ears. Soshay found herself in a vision.
“Este is gone,” Soshay said, as her mind filled with horrific images of the rites demanded by the Corrupter. She shuddered to see the bodies of young priestesses flayed upon Zel’s desecrated altar. “The Temple of Noon, Mat, has entered into an alliance with Him. The name the Corruptor Mat, reborn on earth.” Soshay said, stumbling over her words in her haste to tell Mitlan everything she saw.
“My sister,” Soshay felt the vision waver a moment, “My sister, Chacon comes to the Temple of Dawn.” Soshay watched her sister enter the temple, with distaste evident on her face. Chacon walked arm and arm with a handsome priest of Mat, but in the vision, Soshay could see the mark of the Unnamed One on him. “She will be betrayed the priest Amox,” Soshay’s voice became a whisper.
Soshay watched in mute horror as her sister and the priest entered the audience chamber. The woman who waited for them seemed to waver and double in Soshay’s sight. She was for a brief time, a bedraggled woman, the lines of fear etched into her face. She transformed becoming a goddess, the consort to the Corruptor. The lines slid from the woman’s face, and Soshay flinched from her terrible beauty. Soshay heard the sibilant whisper of the serpent, even if she could not see it.
“The Unnamed One, speaks to them,” Soshay said and began recounting the conversation. “The priest Amox prostrates himself before the Corruptor. Chacon did not know that he was under her control. She didn’t know about the Corrupter; she too thought it was only the throne that contained power. The Temple of Noon kept this from her,” Soshay distantly felt the presence of Tez again, and then felt the warm presence of the jaguar, and looked down and found the cat at her feet. Despite the horrors unfolding before her, she was comforted to see that the jaguar still lived.
“The priest from the Temple of Noon has brought Chacon to the Corrupter. He wants a High Priestess and wants Chacon.” Soshay distantly heard the scratch of a stylus on paper. “Chacon refuses. She is angry at the priest. She accuses him of betrayal. She calls on Mat.”
Soshay watched her sister yelling at the Corrupter. She was impressed with Chacon’s courage, and with her faith in Mat to protect her. Soshay saw the vague shape of a man appear in the room. It was a wraith-like apparition that failed to fully form. She watched the Corrupter laugh at the attempt. Soshay watched Chacon’s face and knew that her sister was afraid now.
Soshay felt the tears begin to run down her face as the guards within the temple grabbed hold of Chacon and forced her on to the altar. “The Corrupter is angry. He will punish Chacon for her refusal.”
The priest of the Temple of Noon, Amox, paused refusing to take the blade from Este’s hand. He argued, pointing at Chacon’s belly, and Soshay understood. Her sister was pregnant, and the Corruptor’s hold was not strong enough to make him kill his own child, even unborn.
She blinked and found herself standing in the jungle clearing next to Tez altar. He stood before her.
“My wife.” He smiled at her. “Tell my High Priest nothing more.”
In the vision, Soshay nodded.
“You must be prepared to leave My temple soon.”
Soshay stared at him, “My Lord?” she stumbled over her words, “Have I displeased You?”
He laid his hand on her cheek, “No, My priestess.” His amber eyes glowed, “You must go to meet My Sister’s servant, soon. Mitlan does not hear My voice, he does not understand the way you do.”
Soshay shivered to hear Tez speak Mitlan’s name. She wondered if the High Priest would be afraid to know that Tez spoke his name.
“You will have to go soon. Be ready.”
Soshay looked into his golden eyes, “May I ask a question, My Lord?”
His smile was the only answer.
“Will my warning reach my sister?”
Tez shook his head, and Soshay thought he looked confused by her tears.
Tez wiped her tears away and kissed her forehead, “Go back now, My wife.”
Soshay’s vision cleared, and she felt painfully alone. She blinked through her tears and found herself sitting next to Mitlan, still crying.
He tried to comfort her, but his words failed to reach her. She barely registered it when he left her side and hurried from the room.
She heard a rush of footsteps and found herself held by Keron. His presence alone began to soothe her. She managed to sob the story about her sister. “Please, Keron you must send someone to warn her. What the Corrupter will do…” she felt the tears threatening to overwhelm her again, “Please, send someone to the Temple of Noon.”
Keron promised that someone would go. She heard him ask Mitlan if he could escort her back to her room. She never heard his reply, but allowed Keron to lead her from the altar room.
Telmax watched Keron lead Soshay from the altar room. He had heard her prophecy and had already sent a messenger to the Temple of Noon. He hoped that the messenger reached the Temple of Noon in time, but he guessed that Chacon’s fate was already sealed.
Seeing that Keron had Soshay in hand, he left the temple. Ohili’s conversation still haunted him, but not in the way Ohili intended. He knew Ohili’s intention had been to convince him to reconcile with his mother. Instead, the conversation made Telmax realize that he had abandoned Tzi. He could not remember the last time he had served Her in any real way, yet he still utilized all of the arts he had learned in her temple. Tonight, during Her hour, he intended to seek Her guidance.
He walked through the dark and empty streets. It was almost Midnight, and few people were out at such an hour. He could hear the echoing drums from the Temple of Midnight but did not try to enter there. Instead, he turned toward the residential section of the city. He passed into the neighborhood of the politician families. He stopped before a house, set back from the street and while smaller than the others around it, it was no less grand. The stone was freshly white-washed and the decorative tiles gleamed in the moonlight. The silver light of the moon washed out the tiles, leaving them all various shades of gray and black, rather than their true blue hues. He opened the gate to the house and stepped into the courtyard.
He had few memories of the house. He had only lived in it for a few months, and those were months he wanted to forget. It was after he had left his service in the Temple of Midnight, he was not ready to admit to the call from Tez. He had spent days in prayer, but only saw Tez and heard his call. When his trepantrix ceased to function, he knew that Tzi had released him. Once he realized that, he had traveled to the City of the Lake and entered Tez’s service. Those had been the darkest days of his young life.
He found the courtyard garden overgrown and the fountain in the center was filled with stagnant water and weeds. He ignored the decay of the house and made his way to the back courtyard. Once there, he lit the single torch that remained in the yard. It flickered wildly before it settled into a gentle glow.
The light illuminated the small altar of obsidian. The statue of Tzi gazed back at him. The overgrown garden had already begun to creep up to the altar. But Telmax thought the trailing vines and shadowed trees suited the Goddess of Mystery. He walked to the altar and knelt before the statue. He stared at the image a moment and began to pray.
He recited the prayers to Tzi, repeating them six times. He knelt at the altar and realized that he felt peace. For the first time, in more years than he cared to count, he was content. He remained kneeling at the altar, no longer praying, only waiting.
As the hour reached midnight, he felt a prickling at the crown of his head. He gazed at the statue of Tzi, his eyes widening as he recognized the feeling. The long-dormant trepantrix began to stir. He closed his eyes as the first flood of information began pouring into his brain.
He held his head in his hands as the throbbing pain from the trepantrix overwhelmed him. Before the pain overcame him, he recognized the information flooding his mind. It was not the trepantrix that he had received as part of his initiation in the Temple of Midnight, the one returned to him after Anacoana’s had almost killed him. He knew it was not Anacoana’s, but it seemed to be a very close copy. As he wondered how a copy was successfully made when all attempts within the temple had failed, he felt the hand of Tzi.
He rested his head against the cool stone of the altar and felt the tears on his cheeks.