Chapter 12 (Temple of Twilight)

Previously: Finally recovered from the lightning that had burned him, Neldo once again returns to Tenoch’s service. Tenoch has ordered him to find a way to make certain that Soshay will fail her initiation. 

Neldo knew that Tenoch would fail to persuade Soshay to work with them.  Even before the Second Priest told him as much.  Neldo had resorted to overusing liuqui to force the girl to comply with his will. Only by using the drug could he manipulate her visions by suggesting what he wanted her to say.  And even that did not work consistently.  He had warned Tenoch that the girl would never be be party to their schemes. Now Tenoch had tasked him with finding a way to make sure that Soshay failed her initiation.  He thought of all the times he had been wakened to record her visions in the middle of the night, and could not imagine any way to prevent them from coming to her.

He knew that Keron expected him to interfere with Soshay’s initiation and he was taking all precautions against any such actions.  But he will never expect that she will fail on her own.  Neldo smiled and felt the ruined skin of his face pull.  If the old sorceress will help me, then Soshay will fail to deliver her prophecy and she will punished for pretending to have such a gift.

He turned his thoughts to preparing for his meeting.  He hated going to ask the anathema priestess, Anacoana, for help, but her skill with potions was irreplaceable.  Growing up, she had always claimed that for every potion, there was a compound with the opposite effect.  Today he went to test that theory.  If liuqui caused visions, then there must be something to prevent them from occurring.

The old woman lived behind her shop.  He had never learned how she managed to keep her shop open.  The Temple of Midnight, and the sorcerers who served there, jealously guarded their secrets.  Why they allowed her to continue to peddle her small magics was a mystery.

Anacoana had been cast out of Tzi’s temple when Neldo was only a baby.  The rumors of her disgrace were many, but he had wheedled out the truth; after all, she was his grandmother.

As a young priestess in Tzi’s service, Anacoana had broken the covenant with her goddess.  She had allegedly crafted magics for use in the Century War, but she went beyond the bounds of Tzi’s laws.  She sought magics from a foreign source, some Suyu relic.  With its use she rained destruction upon the Lakiti, but her thirst for blood, eventually turned on her own people.  She began sacrificing the novices in the temple to this foreign power. Ultimately, her actions had not even helped end the Century War.  Her reign of destruction had only fueled the Lakiti to fight more ferociously.

Neldo had searched the vast temple archives for the records of her exile and the relic she claimed to have used.  He never found any record that it had existed. He concluded that she crafted the tale to elevate her own importance and to justify her exile from the Temple of Midnight.

He reached the market section of town.  The food vendors were closed.  Their small shops and carts were shuttered and locked.  Only a few of the poorest farmers still hung around the corners, with their pitifully few wares, mostly poor crops, laid out in baskets.  Neldo ignored their questions and attempts to engage his interest in buying their pathetic gourds and vegetables.  Neldo had come from similarly low status, and seeing these poor farmers raised his ire.  Once I rise to power, I will put a stop to these sorts coming into the City.  They will remain at the farms and orchards they tend.  He thought glaring in distain at an old man selling shriveled pumpkins.

The pungent aromas of a hundred herbs and concoctions assaulted his nose.  His grandmother’s shop was not extravagant, but it was well tended.  The small wooden storefront was freshly whitewashed and the adobe, while patched, was well-maintained.  Anacoaana’s show had a cheap mosaic of morning glory flowers adorning the walls.  Rather than the rich lapis, malachite, and obsidian used in temples and better stores, her mosaic made of poorly painted tiles.

He tried to the door, and found it still unlocked.  As he entered the dim interior the claustrophobic feel of the tiny dark room surrounded him.  Herbs and plants hung in tight bunches from the rafters, leaving only a narrow aisle to the counter.  The counter, a slab of smooth stone sat before him.  For a moment he paused in the doorway, as if fearing to step across the threshold.

A million memories of childhood flooded his thoughts, images of his mother and her endless bouts of madness.  Sometimes raving and sometimes frighteningly empty, like her spirit had left her body.  Her early death was a welcome relief. But her death also left him with only his grandmother.  He remembered her, drinking cup after cup of agavti, the intoxicating beverage made from the agave plant.  Regardless of the strict edicts against its use, Anacoana drank it to the point of passing out.  As a child, Neldo was charged with keeping her from leaving the house in a drunken state.  Drunkenness was an inexcusable crime in the Cetza Empire.  Had her vice been discovered, Neldo doubted the local authorities’ fear of her magic would have saved her.

Neldo’s childhood efforts to keep his drunken grandmother in the house, ended with him enduring the endless tales of her time in Tzi’s service and the relic she allegedly used in the War.  The relic he knew now did not exist. He could still picture the living area behind the store.  The small room was divided by cloth hangings of dubious quality.  One section was the sleeping quarters they all shared, and the other was the main living area.  Here his grandmother would drink, and in the flickering candle light, she would tell him the endless stories of the relic, the throne, she used.  She censored nothing from his young ears, neither sex nor violence were taboo to Anacoana.

“Anacoana?” he called into the darkened building, he knew she must be inside and would never have left the door unlocked had she started drinking.  He heard a rustling from behind the counter, and eventually the old woman came out from behind the curtain that separated the shop and living area.

She still stood straight and proud, age had not worn her down physically nor had it worn down her pride.  She still carried herself like a priestess.  Only her white hair and wrinkled face belied her age.

“What do you want?” She hissed, her sharp eyes finding him framed in the light of the open door.

“Can I not come visit my beloved family?” he asked as he closed the door to the shop and slid the bolt.

She stared at him finally taking in the damage done by Soshay’s attack on him.

“So the stories are true,” Her voice grew low.

He gestured at his ruined face, with his equally scarred hand.  “I often wonder where you hear your stories.  Is it what you expected?”  He snapped.

She offered no response.  She turned back toward the living section of the shop and gestured for him to follow.

He sat at the small, scarred wooden table of his youth while she put together her dinner, he noted she did not offer him anything.  “Grandmother, you look well,” He began as she sat down.

She scowled at him, “Don’t bother with flattery.  If you’re here, you want something.”  She took a mouthful of stew and chewed while looking him over.  “So, out with it.”

He offered her a thin smile, “Yes Anacoana, I do want something. I want your help.”  He forced the words out.

She laughed a high-pitched, grating sound.  “My help?” she folded her hands on the table, “The high and mighty priest, who disdains the poor, collecting his riches, needs the help of a lowly herbalist.”  She glared at him, “what do you need?”

He tamped down his anger, reminding himself he had no choice.  Tenoch was relying on him to find a potion to prevent Soshay from having a vision at her initiation.  “I can and will pay you for your services.  I need to be rid of a,” he paused considering his words, “a problem.” He did not even pretend that he could trust her with the truth. Everyone in the City of the Jungle knew of Soshay, so he could not mention the problem being with an oracle.  He had already decided to tell her the potion was for his own use.  She probably knew that his own power as an oracle was weak, barely enough for him to be considered an oracle, but he hopped to convince her that he held far more power.

“A problem? Eh?” She considered him, “I have access to the potions of Zel. Will that solve your problem?”

He scoffed, “My problem is not an unwanted child.”

She poured a cup of tea and sipped it slowly.  “So you seek the help of a sorceress out of piety?  I know your edicts against magic.”

He knew her words were pointed.  Seeking her help violated the laws in the Temple of Twilight.  Neldo took a deep breath, realizing coming here at all may have been a mistake – that going to a stranger may have been better.  It was only an herbalist he needed, not his grandmother.  But she was the most skilled herbalist outside of any temple.  “It is not a temple problem, nor is it a woman.”  He bit out the words, “I need a way to prevent an oracle from having visions.”

She raised a brow in interest and continued drinking.

He wondered why she was not drinking agavti, and briefly wondered if she had stopped. “Is there such a potion?” He asked.

She lowered the cup.  “Your gift of prophecy isn’t strong enough to require such a thing.”

He gritted his teeth.  “You don’t know the extent of my gift,” He snapped.

She shot him an annoyed glance.

“Does such a thing exist?” He asked again.

“So, you wish my help, but you do not wish me to know your business.”  She poured more tea into her cup, “This makes me curious.  Always you priests seek my help, but don’t want to tell me your secrets.”  She pursed her lips in thought, “Does such a thing exist?”  She stared into the distance her features going blank.  It was a look Neldo knew.  She always wore that look when she considered the lore she had learned in Tzi’s service.  Her face was vacant, distant, and unfocused.  He knew he now must wait.  He wondered what other priests had been to see her, and what they hoped to gain from Anacoana’s services. Probably poisons, he assumed, I wonder if Estle used one of Anacoana’s poisons to help facilitate her rise to power.

He stifled his annoyance thinking of Estle.  He and the High Priestess of Zel had once been lovers and allies, until she decided that the Imperator made a better lover.  It rankled every time he thought of her, and how easily she had tossed him aside.  But, he reminded himself, her rise to power had ended with Century War.  For all he hated Keron, he had to admit to himself that it was Keron who had precipitated her fall, and for that, he hadn’t tried to poison the oracle.

He allowed his thoughts to wander, knowing that it may take minutes or hours before she returned to awareness.  He had often wondered if this process was something unique to her, or something taught to those in Tzi’s service.  His spies had learned little of Her service.  The Temple of Midnight hid its secrets well.

Finally he saw her pupils dilate and her eyes flicker.  She would answer soon.

“Yes, such a thing exists.”  Her voice was flat, distant – similar to the voices of the oracles.  “But I cannot help you interfere with His True Bride.  The Lady of Mysteries forbids it.”

Neldo cursed in anger.  “I did not mention her,” His voice was low.

She laughed again, the same grating sound, “You cannot hide anything from me, Grandson.  We are bound by blood – I can see all.”  Her eyes glinted, “do not bother to try.”

Neldo paled but keep his voice level, “Do not try your act with me. The fools out there,” he gestured toward the marketpace,” may fall for your mystic knowledge act, but I am temple trained – I know all your tricks.  Do not peddle your false piety for me.”  He rose and turned toward the door.  “Thank you for your time.”

She smiled, “You will not be rid of Soshay so easily.  Your hated oracle has much to accomplish in this life.  Death himself has touched her, marked her as his own.  And he is not the only one interested in this girl.”

Neldo froze curtain in hand.  He turned back to her furious.  “Do not speak of what you do not understand.  Everyone knows of Soshay.  Sell your tricks elsewhere.”  He stepped back into the tiny kitchen and pulled a bottle of agavti from his tilma.  “Here,” he nodded at the bottle, “For your help and your silence. Keep your erroneous speculations to yourself.”

She eyed the bottle.  And her voice followed him through the darkened shop, “She is more important than you will ever know.  The Unnamed God is awakening and He will seek your oracle.  He is a terrible force, and this girl may be the key to stopping Him.”  The words chased after him as he unbolted the door.  “Disgrace her at your own peril, grandson.”

Neldo slammed the door behind him.  He leaned against the door, pale and breathing hard.  He told himself it was only her tricks, the same clever guesses and watching of reactions that worked to fool the common folk.

The sky was dark and the market around him was quiet and finally deserted, still

He glanced around to make sure no one had seen his visit to Anacoana or his discomfited state.  The street was empty and all the houses appeared dark.

Her words about Soshay and some new God were nothing more than the ramblings of a mad, drunken old woman.  He pushed aside the nagging reminded that he had not seen her drinking anything more than tea.  He turned away from the shop, heading back towards the temple.  He may have believed her warnings if he had not already investigated her wild stories of the throne and the Unnamed God and found them to be false.  No she sought only revenge for a million imagined wrongs committed by me, committed by the Temple of Midnight, by the gods themselves.  He pushed her ramblings from his mind as he walked through the city.  But why would she seek to protect Soshay?  Anacoana gains nothing if Soshay succeeds and gains nothing if the girl fails.  He felt a niggling worm of doubt start to creep through his thoughts. As he neared the temple, he realized he had no plan, nothing left to use get rid of Soshay, short of murder he was out of options.  He entered the temple, hoping to reach his chambers before seeing Tenoch and having to report his final failure.

He could use any of his carefully cultivated novices to smuggle many of his treasures out of the temple. With them hidden away, he would have a means of survival, but he would lose all his prestige.  But with enough wealth, I can buy prestige, he told himself. It occurred to him as he made his way to his chamber, that hiding his treasures may come to nothing.  Another failure might be enough for Tenoch to deal with him permanently.  Once beyond the common areas of the temple, he rushed toward his chambers.

A young novice waited at his door.  Neldo paled and struggled to breathe, Tenoch knows I have failed.

“Priest Neldo, I have a message.”

Neldo simply stared at the boy.

The boy looked at him confused, “The Second Priest requires you.”

Neldo felt the band of fear around his chest tighten.  He mouthed words.  “Tell him, tell him,” he stumbled on the words, “I will attend him shortly.”

Neldo passed the boy and entered his chambers.  Will I survive this?  He worked to control his breathing.  He washed his face and straightened his hair before leaving the chamber to meet with Tenoch.