Previously: Soshay has begun to accept her standing in the Temple. She is still trying to understand her place in the temple and the ways everyone in it seek to use her.
Soshay had her final meeting with the Keeper of Records. He began meeting with the novices during the final month before their initiation. He, unlike so many others, seemed content to judge her on her abilities alone, ignoring the persistent rumors of both her relationship with Keron or whatever it may mean that she was the True Bride. She continued to heed Telmax’s words about Keron, and Keron’s ill-fated visit to her bedroom. At her next meeting with Keron, he would answer for his actions. As for the unnerving veneration the servants and many priests gave her as the True Bride, this she ignored.
Soshay had passed all the Keeper’s tests so far. She was grateful to Keron, who had spent so much time teaching her all the Neldo should have about temple scripture. She’d enjoyed the learning and felt a deeper connection to Tez because of it. It was more than just the stories about Tez and his favored servants. The scholars of the Temples, all of them, had devoted lifetimes to study and debate about the gods. She hadn’t found anything that supported the heresy that Telmax shared with her; his claim that the gods couldn’t touch the world and could only work through their servants remained, for Soshay, solely Telmax’s idea. Because it was contrary to the doctrines that she studied, she had not broached the idea with Keron, and she had no one else with whom to discuss theology. She thought perhaps that she would ask Ohili at their next lesson.
“Good day Keeper” Soshay smiled at the old man and took her seat. The Keeper’s hawk-like gaze turned to her.
He nodded at her in greeting. Their visit meeting had been to discuss the ritual of initiation, the parts all novices shared. There were days of fasting, testing of knowledge by the high council, and hours of meditation and prayer in the temple. Then each novice was sent into Tez’s Chamber. What happened there seemed to differ for each novice and was something none spoke of. She knew there was an additional test for novice oracles, but the Keeper had no spoken of it yet.
She waited for his instructions to begin, but instead of speaking, he seemed to be examining her, his eyes flickering over her hair, her clothing, her body. She forced herself to sit without fidgeting or showing concern. Maybe this is simply part of his test. As an oracle, I am always stared at, albeit in dim light and behind clouds of incense.
She was proud that when he suddenly broke the silence, she remained still and silent.
“Tell me novice, what is the standing of magic and sorcery in Tez’s temple.” His voice was firm yet rough with age.
His question caught her off guard. During their first meeting he had questioned her relentlessly regarding the edicts of Tez’s temple and those of the other three major temples, and even some of the lesser temples. She spent a panicked second wondering if he knew of her lessons with Ohili. Yet, when she spoke her voice was firm. “The Temple of Twilight does not practice or condone the magical arts. Tez has forbidden the practices of far-seeing, of potion making, hexes, spells, or the crafting of magical objects.” She silently thanked Keron again for his teaching and added a silent prayer to Tez that the Keeper did not know about her lessons with Ohili.
The Keeper continued to gaze at her. “What are the penalties for the practice of sorcery in the Temple of Twilight?”
Soshay swallowed, “The penalty depends upon the offense,” she returned his gaze, “A minor offense is exile and major offense is death.”
He steepled his hands under his chin, “And what constitutes the use of sorcery?”
She had half expected this question given the nature of his questions and was prepared. “The use of magic, spells, to effect a change on our world, to use magic to force one’s will to change. Creating items that defy the laws of nature, like the witchlights,” she pointed at the lights in the room, “And far-seeing, the ability to send one’s soul out of one’s body and watch distant events.” She was certain her voice never quavered.
His eyes narrowed and he nodded. He seemed to be thinking.
Soshay sat in silence and watch him gaze at her. Maybe he has lost his train of thought? She considered, the next logical question would be why the other gods allowed these practices, but Tez did not. She waited, expecting that question to follow and began preparing her answer in her mind. Tez gave the Cetza prophecy, ability outside of nature to aid us in life. But as the Ruler of Death, he demands we follow the laws of nature, of birth, growth, and death. The answer sounded right to her, but she knew she was unclear on why Tzi accepted the practice. Was it because Tzi praised delving into Mystery more than all else, or was it that she wanted us to challenge ourselves and our limited understanding of the world? Is the last part to close to questioning Tez’s will? She didn’t think he would ask her to explain the doctrines of another temple.
“We will move from this line of questioning. We may need to return to it later.” He laid his hands on top of the codex in front of him. She noticed for the first time that it was hers. “As an oracle, you will have an additional test.”
She nodded expecting as much.
He continued, “After you pray and meditate for the requisite full day, you will be asked to give prophecy without the aid of liuqui.”
Soshay blinked, that is all? She thought. I have done that in my sleep. “I do not anticipate any difficulty, Keeper. Even before entering the temple, visions came to me unbidden,” She paused watching his expression. It remained stoic and unchanged, “With my training, I have built up this gift. I have little difficulty giving prophecy without liuqui.”
He offered a stiff nod, and Soshay thought she saw a slight widening of his eyes, as if he was surprised by her answer. Well, let him be surprised. I am very good at what I do, and I have always been very good at what I do. She thought, maybe they all should stop underestimating me.
“After your prophecy is heard by the high council, you will enter Tez’s chamber and await his guidance.”
She nodded, “Tez’s Chamber,” She paused, seeking his approval to continue speaking, at his nod she continued, “That experience is unique for each novice, and it is never spoken of after.” She offered a shy smile, “at least that is what all of the novices say.”
Soshay thought his expression seemed to soften.
“All novices, even those who fail are sworn to secrecy after their initiation. Can you accept such a vow?”
The question seemed sudden, unplanned to Soshay. She was used to all the priests using very careful, considered language. This question was delivered as an afterthought to her ear. “Yes, even as a novice I am sworn to never reveal my prophecies. To vow secrecy about the chamber is no hardship.”
Soshay watched his reaction to each word. The Keeper seemed to vacillate between acceptance and concern with her answer. She began to question if she had answered incorrectly or irreverently in anyway. She had considered her words, and could find no fault in them.
The Keeper rose, “I will see you again at the start of your initiation.” He waited for her to rise.
She nodded. “Thank you, Keeper,” She offered.
He walked with her to the door. “Tez’s grace is upon you,” He said.
She stumbled to respond in kind, wondering why he had chosen the formal farewell. Maybe it is part of his ritual. This was my last meeting with him.
She managed to walk at a measured pace from the Keeper’s room, still unclear if she had failed the lessons in some unknown way. His responses and questions today were strange, even strange for him. She remained puzzled about the conversation, so different from his usual questions. She was lost in her thoughts and barely acknowledged the greeting addressed at her. She suddenly stopped realizing it was not simply an empty greeting offered in passing; it was the Second Priest, Tenoch.
“I apologize, Second Priest.” She stuttered. “I was lost in my thoughts.”
He offered her a friendly smile. “It is no great matter, I too often get lost in my thoughts.” He continued to smile, “What is it that troubles you so, if I may ask?”
“Only considering my initiation.” She shrugged, wondering again why she was always so willing to share her thoughts with the Second Priest. She spoke without hesitation ad thought in his presence.
He frowned, “You should not be worried about that.” He nodded to her arm, “You already bear Tez’s favor.”
Soshay felt the tension lift at his words. She shrugged, not sure how to respond. She did not want to sound arrogant. She was grateful to hear the chimes for the evening prayers start to ring.
“It will be good when you are initiated so you may join us for prayers. You of all people owe Tez a great debt.” He turned from her and continued down the hall.
While, the Second Priest’s words comforted her, she heard the subtle rebuke in his parting words. Have I failed to truly give thanks to Tez for what he has given me? She turned from the hallway toward her chamber, and headed for the courtyard shrine.
She paused at the door leading outside wondering if it would be locked. She reached slowly for the handle and slowly pushed it down. The door opened. She took a deep breath and walked outside. I am probably breaking some rule, but if I cannot be at the evening service, why should I not find a way to worship? Her thoughts sounded strong, and she assumed if she was questioned, her explanation would be accepted.
The small courtyard was already dark, the sun hidden behind the massive trees of the jungle and the wall. The sconces, holding regular torches, around the wall and at the shrine were lit, casting flickering shadows over the plaza. The trees were little more than massed gray shadows, but the statue and altar seemed to gleam in the light. The gleaming obsidian figure caught the light from the torches. She glanced at the sky and saw the riotous colors of twilight still visible over the wall. Directly overhead, the sky had already turned into a vast dome of blackness and stars.
She walked to the shrine and sank to her knees. She began to whisper the prayers she had carefully memorized during her first year in the temple, but had never spoken within the temple or at a shrine. She found the words came easily – those that called upon Tez and spoke praise to Him. As she knelt on the stone, she realized she should have brought an offering to Him. An animal sacrifice would have been difficult to procure, but food or even flowers would have been acceptable.
She kept her head down and worked through the prayer a second time, knowing the evening ritual required the words to be spoken three times. She had nothing to offer as a sacrifice. She had only the clothes she wore. It seemed hollow to seek out flowers or fruit from the garden around her.
As she said the prayer a third time, her voice rose, carrying over the courtyard. She finished her prayer her eyes trained on the altar. She stared at its stained surface, and raised her hand over it. The stone was smooth, but the edge sharply cut. She ran her thumb over the edge and considered with only a little effort it would suffice. She took a breath, “Accept my sacrifice.” She slid her right arm over the edge, and pressed. It sliced through her flesh, deeply enough to draw blood.
She held her arm over the altar. “I thank You for Your gifts.” The blood ran down her arm, dripping onto the stone. She laid her arm on the still sun warm stone and felt a surge of energy pass through her arm. She shook, wanting to jerk away, but forced herself to stay still.
Her blood pooled in a small, sticky puddle under her arm, but it had already slowed flowing from her arm. The energy crept through her body, warming and electrifying. The sensations overwhelmed her, and she bit her lip against a moan of pleasure and closed her eyes.
She opened them in another place. She recognized the intangible feel of a vision as she looked around. The shrine was gone, but the altar remained. The stone was still slick, gleaming with her blood. Instead of the wall and trees of the courtyard, the jungle stretched, dark and damp, before her. Craning her neck she looked up, and found only the tangled canopy of the jungle, the few breaks in the trees allowed her to see the sky was no longer the dome of stars she had witnessed in the courtyard. It was an indigo, twilight sky. And she guesses that in this place it was always twilight.
The jungle was quiet, completely soundless. Not even the leaves rustled. Her feet made no sound as she shifted from her knees back to her feet on the thick layer of leaves on the ground.
She noticed her arm was healed; no sign of the cut remained. Most of her visions immediately showed her a sequence of events; this experience was closer to far-seeing, witnessing a place and time, without being able to interact. She heard the growl of a jaguar and knew she was not alone.
The cat stepped from the shadows of the jungle, huge and black. Instead of freezing at the sight of the deadliest predator she knew, she simply drank in the wild, danger of the animal. It padded from the jungle on silent feet. Its gleaming golden eyes never leaving her face. As the cat left the jungle the air around it shimmered for an instant, and in place of the jaguar stood a man.
The man stood behind the altar, tall and as imposing. He still bore all the features of Cetza. The high cheekbones and hawkish nose and slightly tilted eyes, but he bore no trace of the bronzed coloring. He was as pale as the moon. Soshay felt his golden eyes burning into hers and she forced her gaze down, her body following to rest on her knees in supplication. She bowed her head, realizing who the man was and realizing He had appeared to her before.
“You offer your blood My priestess” his voice rumbled around her, through her, over her, like the roar of a waterfall.
Her mouth was suddenly dry and her heart hammered against her chest. She tried to swallow, “yes, my God.” She stumbled on the words, even her additional lessons did not prepare her to speak directly to a god. “I give my blood to You in thanks for the gifts You bestow upon me.” The words came easier now. She was suddenly glad for the edicts demanding all priests wear their hair long and loose, with her head bowed, her hair made a curtain to shield her face from his gaze.
While the deafening silence of the place still surrounded her, she felt him move around the altar. His presence was a tactile force, like the pressure that built before a rainstorm.
“Why do you hide your face from Me?” the words were a question, but Soshay felt them like a command and snapped her head up, her eyes finding his waist and following the hard lines of his chest to his face.
She did not offer a reply, only responded to what she felt was a command. She felt trapped in his gaze, and reminded herself to breathe and tried to focus on the air filling her lungs, not the eyes that bound her in place.
“You offer Me your blood; do you offer yourself to My service? Do you offer your spirit? Your body?”
The questions washed over her, pounding her like waves at the seashore, she had visited as a child. Again, she struggled to find words. He shifted his eyes away from her, staring past her, into the jungle that surrounded them. Freed from his gaze she could move again and now had to fight to stop shivering.
How does one answer a god? Her panicked thoughts screamed at her. “I offer all that I am.” She said the words, but knew they were not enough. They were not the correct answer. “I have given my blood to You. My spirit and body are Yours as well.” The words were barely a whisper, but she felt the power or them; the reality of them stirred the preternaturally still air. The landscape around her seemed to tilt, to shift, and still remained off kilter. In her spirit, into her bones, into every ounce of her being, she recognized the words as a vow, an inescapable binding of herself to Tez. She shuddered, feeling the weight, the gravity of her words settle around her.
She watched his mouth curl into a languid smile. She tried to keep her eyes trained on his mouth, not wanting to become trapped in his gaze again.
“Stand, My priestess.”
She rose, unable to do anything else. She stood before him with the altar between them.
He laid his hand on the altar, placing his hand in the blood. He reached with his free hand and placed her hand next to his. The blood, her blood, she reminded herself was sticky against her palm.
He took her free hand in his own, “Repeat your vow.”
His voice was softer now; it still seemed to flow through her, but it did not compel her to action. I have given my blood,” she nodded to the altar and the blood beneath her palm warmed, “I give my body and my spirit to Your service.” The warmth from her blood traveled through her fingers, spreading through her body with burning urgency. She heard Him sigh, and to her He sounded content.
His hand tightened on hers and he drew his hand from the altar. The blood dripped slowly down his wrist and arm as he raised his hand to his mouth. He licked his fingers, lapping at her blood.
She shivered watching his tongue trace over each of his fingers, the vivid crimson staining his tongue and lips. Why aren’t I frightened, Why am I not repulsed watching Him consume my blood. Her hand, still on the altar, tingled as if it was her hand he licked. Because this is my God. The answer flooded her with contentment.
“I accept your blood.”
She felt the world tilt again, and he released her hand, only to capture her hand on the altar. He drew it up and kissed her palm, the blood staining his lips. Soshay gasped at the touch. His lips were cold through the warm blood.
“I accept your body.”
His fingers were tight around her wrist, not hurting her, but letting her feel his strength, his power. He leaned down, and she watched his lips, red with her blood draw nearer. She closed her eyes as he kissed her. His lips were hard, hungry against hers. She tasted her blood, salt and copper, in the kiss. Her body responded to the kiss, rigid and relaxed simultaneously.
He broke the kiss and smiled, “I accept your spirit.”
The air around them crackled with energy, and the world seemed to snap back into place. The world was level again but somehow changed. Again, she felt the weight of her words, of the vow she had made.
“You are Mine.”
The words roared again, buffeting her with sound. She felt herself speak, “I am Yours, My God.” The words felt right, but she did not know where they sprang from. He still held her hand in his adamant grip. He smiled and for a moment she saw a skull. He was death incarnate in that moment.
He released her hand and was suddenly next to her. He slid his arms around her. She felt his hand tangle in her hair as he kissed her again, his mouth brutal, demanding. She responded with fervor, moving her lips over his, still tasting her blood on his mouth. She felt him lift her, laying her across the altar. The blood soaked through her blouse and skirt. She lay underneath him on the altar, her legs wrapped around his waist. As her skirt slid, back revealing her legs, he ran his hands over her calves and up her thighs.
She moaned at his touch, his hands icy cold, but leaving a path of heat on her skin. She broke the kiss to gasp as she felt his hard phallus press against her. Suddenly the enormity of the situation hit her. She reeled, realizing she was about to give her virginity on a bloody altar to her God. When she broke the kiss his lips moved to her neck and collar, his hands crept farther his cold fingers, sliding through her wetness.
Her thoughts were overwhelmed with the sensations he invoked in her, his touch making her shiver and writhe, but in that instant, she thought of Keron, and his visit to her chamber – how his touch had made her cry out as well.
Everything stopped. She still lay on the altar, bloodied clothes askew, her legs open. Tez stood away from her, his amber eyes blazing. The anger radiating from him eradicated the confusion torrent of physical sensation. She struggled to sit up on the blood slicked altar, terrified. What have I done?
His gaze was black. “Does your human lover please you so much, you long for him?”
Each word was a physical assault, and she cringed, biting her lip in physical pain. She tried to shake her head, to deny his words.
“Will you forsake your vow so quickly?”
She curled on her side, her body writhing now in pain. Her muscles burned and twitched. She hid her face in her hands, and watched her fingers swell and curl, her bones melting and reforming. Her hands were becoming paws, and the whimper she released was an animal cry.
“When he takes you, it will be me – I will be within him.”
She forced herself to look at him, tears streaming down her face. She shook uncontrollably, and her head exploded in pain, her jaw elongating. Her vision swam, as she tried to keep her eyes locked on his, before the world exploded in pain.
She was still on the altar lying on her back. The jungle around her was still quiet. Her eyes flitted to her arms. She expected to see the mottled fur of a jaguar but found only her pale skin. She sat up and found Tez standing with his back facing her. The black pelt slung over his shoulders only highlighted his pallor.
She stared at his back, bereft and empty. I am His servant, and He turns His back to me. I have failed. She knew without being told that he had taken his gifts, even his mark was gone. She was only a pale-skinned woman on an altar. The loss of the mark broke her; “Forgive me!” the words were a sob. “Forgive me,” she struggled to sit up, slipping on the blood and the slick stone. She stumbled over the words managing only to sputter gibberish, and he remained as still as a statue. “Please,” she finally managed to whisper and she dragged herself from the altar, and fell to her knees. “Please, forgive me.” Her words were barely a whisper.
She watched his shoulders rise, fall, and finally shudder as if with a deep breath. He did not turn.
“You have felt My wrath, and still live, still retain your human form.” The words carried across the distance between them. “This is My mercy.”
She felt the truth in the words and felt some of the heart stopping fear dissipate, “Th… tha… thank you… thank you, my words can never be enough to express my thanks.”
He turned then, the anger gone from his eyes. “I have placed you on a hard road My priestess. And my kin only seek to make it harder.”
She thought his eyes soften for a moment, shifting like molten gold. With the distance between them, she could not be sure. “Can I be forgiven?” Her words were quiet, and she wondered at her own daring, to ask an angry god for forgiveness was no small thing.
He closed the distance between them and stood before her. “You are forgiven.” The words tolled through the air, “but know that when he takes you, it will be Me. You are sworn to Me of your own will.”
She did not understand what he meant, but she felt her arm burn and saw his mark return. The nagging extra sense of her ability to see the future returned. Her eyes stung with tears and she bowed her head, murmuring prayers of thanks.
She rose to her feet, feeling her clothing stick, adhered to her flesh with blood. She swayed on her feet, deluged with emotion. He stared into her eyes, and she felt comforted. All her terror was gone. He was once again her God.
“You cannot understand.” He shook his head slightly, a very human gesture to Soshay’s eyes. “She could not either.” His voice was low, and Soshay saw the black jaguar enter the clearing. She knew it to be female, and knew it was the spurned lover of legend. Her heart broke for the poor woman, trapped forever an animal.
She felt the tears run down her cheeks for the woman.
“Ah, Soshay, you feel so much. Will you cry for Me when I am gone?” His voice was soft, almost human.
She jerked her eyes back to him, “My lord, You cannot die. You are eternal. You are the Lord of Death itself.”
He gave a weak smile, “My siblings and I are eternal and ever-dying.” He saw her confusion, and only shook his head. He kissed her gently, and she closed her eyes reveling in the sensation. His cold lips, soft without demand or hunger.
The kiss faded and she opened her eyes to find herself alone kneeling in front of the shrine. The sky was completely dark overhead, twilight well past, and the moon rising over the tree-line.
Her cut arm ached, but her blood had clotted and dried in itchy lines to her elbow. Her eyes found Tez’s mark, still glittering on her arm. “Thank you for your forgiveness, My Lord. I will become a servant worthy of Your attention.” She gazed at the statue, realizing it did not come close to capturing the terrible, inhumanness of the God. It was only a stern-faced man in the statue. Tez was both awful and awe-invoking. But also almost human, she thought recalling his parting words. Her lips tingled with the memory.
She rose on to aching limbs, her muscles burning after the hours of stillness. She began to limp toward the door, still open with the light from within the temple streaming out. She frowned, certain she had closed it behind her. She saw a figure outlined in the brightness, and squinted to see. I do not need anyone to see me in this state, she thought noting her bloodied arm, and disheveled state. Please, she thought, whoever you are, just go away.
She walked slowly, and she hoped composedly toward the door. Deciding she would deal with whoever was watching her with all the nobility of her status as oracle and as Tez’s bride. She straightened her clothing and kept her head high as she walked toward the door.
The figured moved from the door as she neared. She recognized the Keeper of Ritual. “Good evening, Keeper” she inclined her head in respect.
His eyes raked over her, focusing on her bloodied arm, and she noticed the blood that had smeared over her blouse and skirt. She stifled a sigh at her appearance, knowing the Keeper would not easily accept her “important person” act.
“What have you been doing?” his words carried an edge of horror.
She looked him in the eye, “The Second-Priest suggested that I have been remiss in in showing my gratitude to My Lord Tez. I have sacrificed by blood to thank Him for all his gifts to me.”
He paled and stared at her and out into the darkened courtyard.
“As I cannot attend the services within the temple, I came to the shrine to pray.” She said this as if it was the most natural, normal thing to do. She suddenly thought of her sister, Chacon. She had always envied her sister’s fearlessness. Tonight, she would be proud of me, she thought watching the Keeper’s face lose some of its confusion.
“The blood?” He looked pointedly at her arm, not, she observed, at the blood stains over her breasts.
She ignored her bloodied arm, “I have nothing else to offer in sacrifice to Tez. He has given me so many gifts, I felt…” she paused, “I knew I should offer something, no matter how small, to show my gratitude properly.” Her body tingled with the memory of his touch. “I have only my body and my life to offer Him.”
His eyes widen briefly at her words. “It is late, novice. You should return to your room.”
She recognized the dismissal and bid him good night and turned toward her room, walking proudly with her head held high.