She bolted up in bed, confused by what she had seen and not sure how she returned to her room. The pounding continued, and she finally put together that it was someone knocking.
“A moment” she choked out, before untangling herself from her bedclothes.
When she opened the door and stood face to face with Keron, she thought she was still trapped in the dream, and the dream had left her with muddled feelings about the High Oracle. In the past she had viewed him, as not kind, but not cruel like the others. Now he seemed different, kinder more passionate in his devotion to Tez.
He looked at her questioningly, taking in the left-over food and her bedraggled appearance.
“Novice Oracle, are you unwell?” the question was clear in his voice.
It took a moment for her to parse the words. Was today my lesson with him? It was a weekly ritual. I thought I met with him two days ago? Have I slept for so long? Did I lose track of the days?
“I apologize, High Oracle. Nel – the Priest of the Acolytes had my give prophecy with liuqui, yesterday,” she drew the word out into a question. “Sometimes the drink of visions makes me,” she paused, “unwell” she finished. She sounded like a child making excuses for oversleeping. For a brief moment, she though he almost looked concerned, and her first instinct was to disregard it as a trick of light, but the dream made her think. Could he truly be concerned? She quickly tamed her foolish thoughts. It was only a dream, she chastised herself. She knew the difference between a dream and a prophecy, and what she had experienced was no prophecy. “I can be ready in a moment” her voice was still raspy.
Keron persisted, “I spoke to Neldo. Soshay, did you drink the liuqui after I forbad it?”
“Neldo ordered it” she replied attempting to straighten her sleep rumpled clothing. She saw Keron stifle a response.
“Are you always ill for so long?”
She shrugged. “Only if I use liuqui or sun opener tea.” She stifled a yawn. “I see perfectly fine without them, and I’d prefer to not use either, but The Priest of the Acolytes says it is required.” She watched him carefully searching for a reaction that would confirm her dream. “But it is how I serve Tez.” She rubbed her eyes and stretched her neck, wanting desperately to close the door and have a moment to compose herself.
Keron, looked confused as if considering more questions, “Are you certain you want to work today?”
She nodded, “Only allow me a moment to compose myself.”
Keron nodded, and this time she was sure that his lips twitched as if he wanted to smile.
Soshay hurried to dress, still puzzling over the dream that wasn’t a dream or a prophecy. She quickly washed her face and brushed her hair. She quickly dressed and the routine actions calmed her. She wasn’t sure if she wanted the dream to be true because she wanted to trust Keron or because she wanted to like him.
He always took her to the Records Room to work. In one of his rare moments of sharing with her, he had expressed that he preferred working in the room to any of the more comfortable meditation rooms. He said he was humbled to be surrounded by centuries of prophecy.
Soshay understood his feelings about it. Each codex was contained a lifetime of prophecies recorded on the thick paper made of pounded bark with the glyphs carefully inked on to the page. The vast size of the room always left her in awe. The shelves of codices stretched to the far end of the chamber. It must have stretched the entire width of the temple – maybe a full mile. She wondered what visions all of the seemingly endless stacks of codices held and what oracles had spoken the carefully recorded words.
Keron sat at the table; her book was already opened and a sharpened pen and bottle of ink at the ready. At some point, she had begun to think of that book as hers, even knowing that it was foolish to consider it as her property. Even Keron could not claim ownership of his books of prophecy; no oracle was allowed to copy down their own visions. All prophecies belonged to Tez and through Tez to the temple. Her book, like all the others, contained all of her prophecies gathered from her time in the temple. She spoke and her words were captured forever by another’s hand. Her codex, she noted, was already more than half full.
She knew that her skills had increased the number of patrons who came seeking Tez’s guidance. Her success became Tez’s success, and she was proud of her part in that.
The four major gods of the Cetza were forever rising and falling in the esteem. Tez had been held in the highest regard after the end of the Century War. His worship had surpassed Mat, the God of War and Noon. In her lessons, she learned that a god’s favor often depended on outside influences, politics and even chance. She hadn’t paid attention to the popularity of gods before being sequestered into the temple.
“Shall we being?” Keron asked.
She nodded and watched him light the meditation candle. She began to clear her mind and focus on her breathing. She gazed into the candle flame and felt the shift, as her consciousness seemed to separate from her body. As she drifted, she stiffened suddenly terrified she would relate the dream of the council chamber, and prayed desperately that she would not divulge that secret to Keron.
Then, she began to speak.
She finally stopped speaking, even her soft voice found an echo in the vast records chamber. Keron stopped scratching the words into her book.
“Is that all?” he asked.
She nodded. She could recall vague details of her recitation. It was the same vision she had had for weeks now, the rising of a new god, a god that seemed a threat to them all. She still didn’t understand why this god as so threatening. The Cetza people had adopted gods from others before. Rastban, while a minor god, had been taken from some conquered people long ago. He still enjoyed popularity and worship from many people. But there was something different about this god in her vision.
She noted that the candle on the table had burnt down by half. Long enough to have spoken more than just the vision of the god, she thought, what else did I speak of? If Keron knew about the dream of the council, would he be angry? “Yes,” she broke from her worries, “that is all.”
He rose and poured cool water into a cup for her. He set it on the table and slid it toward her. Most of the priests were loath to actually touch her, as if she would somehow contaminate them. She often wondered if her femaleness was such a problem, why the Temple of Twilight demanded her as a servant. The Temple of Dawn, Zel’s temple, took only women. The Temple of Midnight, Tzi’s temple, also happily accepted women into service. Certainly she would be far less of a disruption in those temples.
Nevertheless, Tez demanded her service, so she began her service. While she had developed a piety and love for Tez, she had not begun her service in such a state. Her family had given her to the temple to regain the favor they lost when her sister repudiated her service to the Goddess Zel and fled to her lover. Her family has lost both their children to the temples, but had also lost considerable social standing.
A failed priestess could have destroyed her family’s reputation, and for the Cetza, reputation was everything. So when the High Oracle of Tez came to her home and demanded her service, she was sent and her family was restored, mostly.
Keron capped the ink and sprinkled sand over the pages he had written. He watched as she drank the water. His dark eyes seemed to trace the lines of her face, from her high forehead down her sharp cheekbones, and stopped at her stubborn chin. Why her appearance today garnered more of Keron’s attention was a much a mystery as the visions she couldn’t decipher.
His unceasing gaze made her fidget, and she toyed with the cup sliding it around a few inches on the table, left and right – only a few inches. The motion would have been unremarkable for an average girl, but one in the priesthood would notice. All the priests of the Cetza were trained to observe people. To learn what the small movements, tones of voice, flicker of the eye meant. Usually the priests used this training to detect lies, and to read the hidden feelings of the people. To Keron, Soshay’s action of toying with the cup spoke volumes. The movement expressed nervousness, fear, anxiety; all of which an oracle would never show to anyone.
Keron raised a dark eyebrow at her fidgeting. He slid the book toward her.
“Read the vision back to me. I want to be sure I have not left out any detail.”
It was a strange request, and she recalled the dream. She wondered if this was a test, if Neldo’s arguments against her had started to work on him. She felt the hairs on her arms rise and her skin prickled, as if with electricity. Words began to pour forth from her without volition. “Do not seek to test my oracle based on the lies of those who pervert my service. I heard your supplication, Keron. Those that seek earthly power have worked to destroy her.”
Soshay felt the words flooding from her mouth, clipped and angry. Her throat ached with her efforts to stop speaking, to run, to move. It was like a vision where she could not move, but worse because it was her voice that said these words to Keron. She felt the Other inside her mind, controlling her limbs, her actions, and her very words. The Other was cold – not the chilled cold she had lived with in the temple, but frozen cold, like the strange ice her father once brought back from trading. The Other was so cold; it seemed to burn her from within.
Keron started a harsh rebuke for her insolence, but suddenly froze in his seat – his own eyes white with fear.
Trapped in her mind, Soshay took a slight pleasure to see him afraid, to see anyone other than herself afraid.
“I marked her. I choose her. She is My voice on Earth and you blaspheme Me by refusing to believe her. Your decision to leave her training in the hands of others was ill-conceived. You feared for your reputation, for your standing and did not trust Me. You will examine the priests; you will put My house to rights. You well know my sister Zel, desires still this girl. If you cannot make her my too, she will belong to my sister. You fail Me, My temple, and your people.” Soshay felt her eyes glare at Keron. She was standing now, leaning over the table glaring down at Keron. “Train her, forge her into a worthy servant for Me, or you will suffer eternities of torment on earth and in My underworld.” Her voice dropped down to a hiss, “I rule your life and your afterlife Keron – do not fail Me.”
As the last words left her mouth, Soshay felt the Other, the alien force seem to caress her soul. Mine. Her arms, no longer supported her weight as she leaned over the table, and she fell forward insensible, burned out with cold and fear.
The vision began with the four temples of the City of the Jungle destroyed. All that remained of each soaring pyramid was jumble of demolished stone. The fear crept up – with the tightening of her muscles and the sick ache spreading from her stomach. It will come, the end will come.
She heard a rustle in the jungle behind her and the soft pad of feet and low, throaty rumble of a jaguar’s growl. She whipped around, her unbound hair flying into her eyes. She tensed. The jaguar was recognized as fearless predator. He would enter villages disregarding the natural fear of man and fire that other animals held. For a moment she forgot she was in a vision. All the childhood warnings about the great cats flooded her mind but froze her limbs. Her eyes came to rest not on the spotted boogeyman she feared, but rather she faced a man. He was tall, taller than most men – and wore the mantel of the priesthood of Twilight. His hair, like all priests was long and the ends were tangled and knotted with bones and charms. On his head rested the pelt of the black jaguar, larger than any she had seen or heard of. The pelt seemed to swallow the light of the setting sun in its darkness.
A slow smile spread over his full lips. He had the same high cheek bones as Keron, but his eyes were golden like the jungle cat. He lacked the bronze skin of the Cetza. Instead he was pale, not pale and sallow like she had become being kept out of the sun for five years, but white like milk, like the moon. “Priestess” the words sounded like thunder. “You must watch and you must understand.”
He placed his hands on her shoulders and turned her around to face the city. His touch was bitingly cold. She turned unable to stop and her eyes found the city. She felt him standing behind her.
She watched the temples burn and crumble and the jungle grow over them. What she knew must be lifetimes of growth, in seconds. It made her head spin.
“Now you begin to see My priestess” the man whispered in her ear, but the words roared through her senses.
She tried to speak, but he placed a finger over her lips. “Listen.”
“You must learn to see. You are My voice. I give you these visions so that you may save My people.”
He turned her back to face him, his visage a mass of shifting shadows, lit only by the fires of the ravaged city. The roar of fire and exploding stone were drowned out by a woman’s laughter. He took her hand. “Learn to see.” He raised her hand and kissed the inside of her wrist. His kiss stung, sending aching cold through her arm. “You are My prophetess. See and speak for Me.”
She woke slowly with her head pounding – her left arm ached from the kiss. She tried to move and the pain exploded behind her eyes.
She struggled to open her eyes, to form words.
“Stay still. You have been… you have been ill” hands straightened her blankets. And she realized, for the first time in years she was warm.
“Just rest. I have sent for food. You will need to eat; you have been sleeping for two days.”
She finally placed the voice as the stone-faced Keron. Tonight his voice dripped emotion, somewhere between fear, awe, and concern. “Keron?” her voice croaked, a rusty, harsh whisper of sound. She felt his hand brush hers.
“Yes. Do you want water?”
She managed a weak nod and finally was able to open her eyes. The room was a blur while she blinked slowly. As her vision came into focus she realized the room was brighter. Gone was the single rationed candle. In its place were three pale witchlights, each dimmed from their usual full-moon brightness. A bright, orange glow issued from the corner. She realized it was a glowing brazier. She struggled to sit up enough to drink and was horrified at her physical weakness.
“Here, let me” Keron’s soft voice followed his arm sliding around her and pulling her up. She jerked slightly at his touch, expecting the chill of the man in her vision. He pulled his arm away quickly when she stiffened.
“Did I hurt you?”
Again fear and concern warred in his voice. She managed to mumble a soft “No,” as she shook her head.
He held the cup to her lips and she sipped carefully and while the water soothed her throat, it did little for her aching head.
Keron’s voice was soft, “Drink only a little. Too much will make you ill.”
She removed her lips from the cup. They tingled remembering his finger placed over them. “Keron, I saw. I think I saw Him.” Her voice gained strength with each word. “Could it have been Him?”
He stared at her a moment, his eyes searching her face. Probably thinking I have gone mad. Did I really see Him? No it must have been a vision, or maybe just a dream. He would never appear to me.
“I know you had a vision. When you are stronger, we will record it.” His attention shifted to the door and a second later a loud knock echoed through the room and her aching head exploded again. She flinched as the door flew open slamming against the wall and the Priest of the Acolytes stormed in.
“Keron!” his voice rang harsh with anger. “You have been absent and neglecting you work for her?” His words dripped disdain at Soshay. ”We allowed you to accept her,” he nodded toward Soshay, “five years ago and for what? She will never be an oracle. You were wrong. The God cannot want her for his service. All she is good for is to be laid in sacrifice on his altar.” His eyes blazed, “We do not need to wait for her to fail her initiation. Her tricks and deceit will not aid her in the rites of initiation.” Each word grew in volume and disgust.
With a quick glance at her pained expression Keron rose in a fluid motion. The tiny bones tied in his hair clicked, the only sound in the now silent chamber. “Fool” he spat. “Look!” and Keron took her arm. The arm that now bore the mark from His kiss.
Starting at her wrist and moving almost to her elbow, were eleven stars. Not dots, but the complex glyphs for each star’s name. They spoke the names of each of the stars that made the constellation of the black jaguar, Tez’s constellation. She bore the mark of the God in impossible gold lines under her skin.
Keron’s fingers held her wrist delicately and his touch was warm, but her skin prickled and the tiny hairs on her arm rose. He laid her arm gently back on the bed.
“Neldo, she wears his mark!” Keron spat.
Neldo, the Priest of the Acolyte’s, eyes were locked on Soshay’s arm. Keron grabbed Neldo’s arm and began to drag him from the room. “Impossible!” Neldo muttered. “He would never give his mark to that girl!” He looked frantically at Keron, “It is a trick of some sort. She painted that herself; it is a lie.” Neldo lunged toward her twisting away from Keron. He went to reach for her arm and the scent of ozone filled the air.
Neldo screamed as the blinding azure lightening arced through him. The scent of ozone melded with the stink of burning hair and flesh.
Soshay heard a low moan, probably from Neldo, and a soft curse from Keron. She kept her eyes closed, but the lightening seemed burned on her eyelids, the blinding blue flash, the scream, the lightening crawling over Neldo – making his eyes glow blue for an instant. She heard Keron call for help and listened to the sick moaning of Neldo. She tried to take shallow breaths, wanting to avoid the stench of burnt flesh, but it caught in her throat, in her hair, and her skin. It was everywhere.
Finally Keron’s calls for aid were answered, and Neldo was carried from the room amid hushed whispers. She risked opening her eyes, but none of the other priests dared glance at her. They carefully carried Neldo out of the room, leaving her alone with Keron again.
He left the door open, maybe in an effort to clear the stench, maybe to try and alleviate the temple gossip. He shifted uncomfortably, and finally walked to the brazier and tossed some sage into the fire. “That should help the air in here,” he offered, “I would move you, but the healers say you should rest.”
She nodded weakly. She did not know what to say, and she wanted to ask what had happened but could not find the words, and she was suddenly exhausted. The strain of the confrontation and the horrible lightening enervated her. She heard someone stop outside her door, and a whispered conversation, all struggling to stay awake.
“Sleep now.” Keron said from the doorway. “I will return.”
As he left the room, she risked a glance at her arm. The names of the stars still glittered in gold lines. She mouthed the sounds the coupled symbols made. Her eyes grew wide.
The coupled and commingled glyphs held meaning only in understanding which parts of the sound to pronounce, how they melded together to form a new word. She gazed in fascination at each of the eleven marks, no longer taking apart their individual images. It is not possible, her thoughts mingled with the words zosma, the golden eye of the black jaguar. The symbols told her everything. Her eyes watered with pain and her head ached, but she read all the stars’ names before sleep overcame her, she murmured her thanks to Tez and wondered again, if He had truly been the man in her vision.
Keron hurried from her chamber. Soshay’s mark was unheard of within temple history. His assistant, Telmax, had been searching the temple histories, but had found nothing that matched, yet.
Keron entered his austere chambers and found Telmax waiting. “Did you find anything?”
Telmax nodded and gestured to a codex sitting on the table. “I don’t know if you will like it, Keron.”
Keron sat heavily, ignoring the codex. He realized he was exhausted from tending to Soshay. Keron had returned to the City of the Jungle at the High Priest, Mitlan’s, bidding. Mitlan had feared a corruption in the temple for years now. With Soshay’s possession, it seemed his fears were correct. It’s been days of constant vigilance over her. At least I can trust the kitchen boy, Pelo, to keep anyone from entering her room, but how long will that last? He finally glanced up at Telmax, “So, what did you find?”
“A mark like hers appears in only one text.” He paused, “It’s an old codex, the original record of the Jaguar Woman story.”
Keron felt the blood drain from his face. “Soshay is to be His avatar?”
Telmax shook his head, “Not His avatar. According to the original story, it is the mark of Tez’s intended bride.” Before Keron could speak, Telmax continued. “Not his ritual bride. If I understand the codex correctly, and it is written in an archaic form of Cetza, Soshay will be his actual bride.”
Keron shook his head, “How is that even possible?”
Telmax shrugged, “It may only be metaphoric. Mayhap she is meant to be a new kind of priest for him. I have spoken to the other scholars about this, but they have even less understanding than I do of this.”
Keron closed his eyes briefly. “Then we must redouble our efforts to protect her. I have failed her so far, but I will not fail her or Tez again.”
Telmax frowned, “You did everything you could for her.”
Keron remained silent.
Telmax still frowning said, “I’ll leave you the codex. Get some rest, and then see what you can make of it.” He stopped and picked up the codex, “If I leave this, you will promise to sleep?”
Keron gave a tired nod and a weak smile. “Yes, I will sleep.”
Telmax narrowed his eyes at him, “Be sure that you do. I will go and watch over Soshay. No one will disturb her, I swear it.”
Keron eyed the codex still in Telmax’s hand. “Leave it,” he nodded toward the codex, “I want to see it after I sleep for a week.”
Image is the constellation Leo. I’m not saying the image on Soshay is the same constellation, but I’m not saying it isn’t.
Image by NASA/U. Birmingham/A.Read – CHANDRA X-ray Observatory CXC Operated for NASA by SAO, url=http://chandra.harvard.edu/photo/2002/arp270/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8704519