Soshay ran. There was no path, only the knowledge of where she needed to be. The leaves were thick under her feet as the jungle thinned with each step she took up the hill. Even in her haste the thick scents of rotting leaves and clean, green growth filled her nose. She crested the hill and Teoti, the City of the Gods, spread out below her feet. In the distance, she watched the evening torches being lit, small beacons of glowing warmth. She knew that the city was preparing for the arrival of a new god.
She woke with a start. The thin blanket she had spread over her shoulders had tangled around her from her fitful thrashing. The vision itself seemed innocuous, not like the dire scenarios of destruction and death she had seen before; the ones that the priests ignored. But like the others, it wasn’t only about the images. Rather, it was the feeling of cold dread that overwhelmed her as she recalled the vision. She realized, she was terrified of what was coming. A new god was coming. He is coming.
Soshay took deep breaths in slow succession, trying to master her racing heart beat and her sudden shaking. She smiled as her heart slowed. She realized that all the hours that Neldo, priest of the acolytes, had spent drilling her to breathe correctly, to focus, to control the very functions of her body, had always failed. But tonight she had finally mastered her heart beat.
“Breathe” she whispered.
With each measured breath, the dank chill of the stone chamber finally crept back around her. Even while it made her shiver, the familar clammy feeling comforted her. At some point in her training as punishment for some imagined failure, and she no longer remembered when or why, Neldo had ordered her brazier removed, and she had never had more than one thin blanket and a thin mattress. Outside of the Temple of Twilight, in the jungle, these items were enough to be warm and comfortable.
Teoti was rarely cold. During the short rainy season it was hot and endlessly wet, as the rains tapered off, it was hot and humid, ending with the long summer months that were hot and left the earth cracked and arid.
Living in the temple, and under tons of stone, the humidity turned to damp chill, and the sun never entered these walls. Her once caramel skin had faded in the years spent inside to a sallow tone, and Soshay had not felt truly warm in years.
She finally struggled free of the blanket – kicking it away until it slid to the floor. The cold was better than the suffocating feeling of the tangled blanket.
She was cloistered far from the other acolytes and even the other priests, as a concession to her femaleness they said; she thought they feared her unbidden visions, an act some argued was heresy. What they ignored in their complaints was the fact that she would stop the visions if she could. Still Neldo insisted her separation was because of her sex. When she arrived at the templs, with her skinny knees and arms, she was still a child with no hint of a woman’s body. She was indistinguishable from the other acolytes; they all looked like frightened, hollow-eyed children. Then, she had been quartered with the other acolytes. She had received a fair amount of common pranks from the boys, and even played her own pranks on them. It was not her sex that had kept the other boys from truly befriending her; it was her status as a potential oracle kept most of the boys from becoming close to her. Her nightmares terrified them. She woke them with her screams and thrashing often enough that they all kept a distance from her. Even in the temple, witnessing the power of the priests, they found her unnerving. It hadn’t helped that more than once, her eyes had become unfocused and she had unknowingly and unwillingly uttered predictions that all came to pass.
Only a year after her entry into the Temple of Twilight, her bleeding had begun. At thirteen, this change was something she had expected, but she still smiled at the vexation of the priests. Neldo was at a loss when she requested the materials she needed. This was the only time she made the man fumble. He had brought her to her new room, her current small, stone chamber with plain whitewashed walls and a door that locked. Here, he gave her the supplies she needed, and permanently removed her from the company of the other acolytes.
At times like this, she missed the company of the other boys. She hugged her knees to her chest. She pushed her long dark hair back and sighed. She should call a priest or even the High Oracle, Keron, and report the vision. If Keron answered, he would record the vision. He seemed to understand that it was not her fault that the visions came whether she bid them to or not. Of course if another priest answered, she might be chastised for inducing a vision without priestly permission, even if it came to her unbidden. Few in the temple, truly understood what it was to be an oracle.
She gazed the unadorned adobe ceiling. She ignored her empty stomach. She would not call for Keron, the High Oracle, nor would she call any other priest. The vision, this time, would remain hers. “Let Neldo call me a heretic. They came for me. I did not ask to serve here.” She whispered.
She recalled the day that Keron had come to her parents’ home. He had seemed almost magical to Soshay, with his face painted like a skull and his hair hanging unbound past his waist. His dark hair was knotted with so many bone charms that it had clacked as he moved. He had sat with her parents, his indigo mantle looking so dark against the whitewashed abode walls of her childhood home. She thought that he had seemed so kind that day, and he gone to great pains to make sure that she understood it was an honor to serve Tez. She pushed the memory away, not wanting to feel the pain of her family again.
Her first prophecy in the temple had been far clearer than anyone expected. Soshay had learned that day, that most oracles saw far less and far less clearly than she did. They saw ideas, symbols, or feelings that all needed to be interpreted. She saw stories, clear narratives of events. She recalled how impressed they had been when she had seen the early rains, rains that would have deluged the city, without enough warning to open the cisterns. She knew that without her prophecy the city’s cisterns would be empty and the crops rotting in the fields. Instead, the city had food and water. The traveling merchants, asked for her when they planned their journeys to sell and acquire goods, and nobles still come and beg for Soshay and no other when matters of politics are discussed. She decided that, no, she would not tell anyone of this vision and she took comfort in her tiny rebellion. She lay back, thinking maybe to sleep, but instead, she was haunted by the foreboding feeling of the vision.
She had been awake for hours when Neldo finally came for her. She had dressed in her sleeveless blouse of woven cotton, dyed a deep indigo, like the kilts and mantles of the priests, and a skirt of the same color.
Neldo’s eyes raked her form, as if searching for anything to criticize. Her clothing hung perfectly, the wrap skirt tied simply, without any of the twists and pleats other young women wore, and she had scrubbed her face and hands hours ago. Soshay knew she presented a better image than any other acolyte. It seemed to Soshay that she passed whatever criteria Neldo had for today. Instead of criticism he simply commanded “Come.”
She knew she would not be going to any lessons. Neldo had ceased her training once he began to profit from her innate skills. Even though she did not need the pungent fermented sun opener tea nor the bitter liuqui to induce her visions, but Neldo seemed to delight in making her drink the entire bowl of one of the vile potions. Today it was the liuqui that burned her throat and would leave her with a pounding headache. Soshay had realized that he insisted on this because both brews took her memory of the vision, sometimes she had fragments, but rarely enough to recreate what she had seen or spoken.
She followed him, watching the ornately carved and vibrantly painted frescos that told the lore of the Cetza and of Tez. She scanned the walls, reading the stories as she walked. This passage told of the demise of the fifth world. The dim lights and shadows cast by the witchligths, made the images appear to shift and move. The catacylsm of the fifth world with its volcanos and endless night, reminded her of her own reoccring vision. The destruction she fortold was one of metal and blood, rather than the poison smoke and endless darkness of the fifth.
They passed into another section, and another story. The supplicants before Tez on his throne in the underworld seemed to bow in his presence. The enemies dying on a battlefield seemed to writhe in agony. As they neared the door to the meditation room, she knew that frieze would show Tez transforming into his avatar, the black jaguar. It was her favorite of the images. The flickering shadows on this fresco made Tez’s transformation seem real. The lines of the god appeared to melt into the lithe form of the jaguar. Every panel was bordered with stylized animals, curved lines, plants, elements of nature all bound together in various combinations to make words.
They passed the meditation room with the transforming frieze, followed by the dormitory. As they neared the kitchen, the latent scent of chili that permeated everything grew stronger. Today the rich scent of roasting meat filled the hallway. She glared at Neldo’s back, filling her nose, but ignoring her empty stomach.
They continued further, another two hundred steps before stopping at a door she knew well. Neldo unlocked the large door, and paused to glare back at her. “The Master of Crops wishes to hear a prophecy from you.”
“The High Oracle ordered that I was not to work prophecy for a week.” She responded keeping her tone flat, not wanting to be accused of outright defiance. “Another oracle can sit for him.” She managed a glare in his direction, one she did not regret, even as his hand shot out to grab her upper arm. His fingers dug into the soft flesh, leaving red marks that would bruise by evening.
“You will drink liuqui and speak” he snapped and shook her. He glared down at her, “The High Oracle” he spat the title, “cannot dictate your training to me. Do not question me again.”
She wanted to jerk away from his bruising grip, to rub away the pain, but she willed herself still and blinked away tears. “His standing is above yours.”
He shook her so hard her teeth clacked. “And yours is below everyone’s.” He hissed. “If you embarrass this temple with your heresy, I will have you punished in ways you cannot begin to imagine.” He smiled as she lowered her head feigning submission and nodded.
He led her up the stairs to a tiny preparation chamber. All of the audience chambers had these small closet-like rooms, rooms devoid of decoration or comfort. Inside all of rooms hung a black mantle with a border of black jaguars along the bottom, and an obsidian bowl for liuqui. Neldo had already filled the bowl. And at his instruction, she picked up the bowl and drank. Biting back her desire to remind him again that Keron had forbad her work for a week. But the dull pain of her bruises kept her silent. The drug burned down her throat and hit her empty stomach causing it to clench, wanting to reject the vile concoction. She sucked in a breath fighting the nausea. She felt the mantle placed over her shoulders. As the elaborately feathered headdress was placed on her head, the real world began to fade.
Neldo led her out of the preparation chamber into a prophecy room. All of these rooms looked the same. A small alcove with the high backed chair for the oracle was dimly lit. The main room contained a few comfortable chairs, crafted of rich woods and padded with finely woven cushions. A scribe’s desk was always in the corner. Sometimes a temple scribe would record the visions; sometimes it was the acting priest.
She took her seat in the oracle’s chair, her mind already drifting away. For a moment, she pulled back from the drink, and the weight of five years of darkness fell upon her until the liuqui again took hold of her senses and the world faded away.