Chapter 18 (Temple of Twilight)

Need to start at the beginning? Sunday Serial

Previously: Soshay remains confined for her week of silence and contemplation before her initiation ritual. Ohili asked Soshay to try to have a vision.  According to him, all of the oracles in the Temple of Twilight have ceased receiving visions, even with the aid of potions. 

She waited until well after moonrise to begin her preparation for using the liuqui.  She had spent the early parts of the evening trying to induce a vision on her own.  Normally this was easy for her, but each effort felt like slamming into a wall.

She opened the sealed bottle and the familiar bitter smell filled the room.  Her stomach clenched in response.  She drank the potion and focused on the priestess from the Temple of Dawn.

Soshay saw the young priestess.  She is beautiful, Soshay thought.  The image coalesced and Soshay watched the priestess enter the Temple of Twilight.  Soshay watched her vision-self.  She and Setch spoke and Soshay tried to memorize every word.  From the vision she knew that their alliance was vital to destroying the unnamed god.  Soshay continued to watch the ritual and noticed indistinct shapes behind both her vision-self and the priestess, Setch.  She focused on these shapes, and while they remained indistinct, she recognized Tez.  The other shape she assumed was Zel.  The gods seemed to eye each other through their priestesses.  Will they agree to an alliance, Soshay wondered?  The gods of the Cetza always warred with other and Tez and Zel more than most.  As Soshay focused on the goddess the vision shifted, and the room was gone.

Soshay stood in near a small stream that fed into a shallow pond. “You have chosen My Brother”.  The voice rolled like water. 

Soshay spun around and was blinded by the light.  She blinked and squinted.  She could see the shape of a woman in the brightness, but nothing more.  “I chose you at birth, but your mother reneged on her promise to Me.”

Soshay shook to hear the voice grow angry. 

“I will not punish you for her transgression, but you will suffer for choosing My Brother. I do not relish this alliance with My Brother. By choosing him, you have risked the fate of the Cetza.”

Soshay whispered, “I am sorry.”

The goddess laughed, and it sounded like rain. “It is the only way to save the Cetza, but I have replaced humans before.  There have been many peoples in this land before you.”

Soshay blanched knowing this was true.  The Cetza lived in the Fourth World, the one Tez created for them, after the third was destroyed. “But we serve you.  Do you love us slow little that you will let us be destroyed?  And what of the Unnamed God, He is a threat to You too.”

“Mayhap I can defeat Him alone.  Already My priestesses begin dispelling the corruption in my temple.”

Soshay fell to her knees, “Please?” 

The goddess laughed again.  “You will beg for My Brother?  He will rejoice to have the underworld overflowing with the spirits of all the Cetza.  He brought death to your people.  I would have allowed you to live forever.”

Soshay heard the crack of thunder behind her. 

“Ah. My Brother comes.  Even if I wished to prevent the alliance, the love We have for Our chosen vessels will persuade Us both.  But remember servant of Death, My hand has touched you as well.  When you look upon your Keron, know that is My work.  My Brother holds no power over the heart.”

Soshay felt the vision slipping away.  She sat shaking on her bed, and pulled the blanket over her shoulders.  She leaned over the side of the bed and vomited.  She rinsed her mouth.  She sat lot for a moment in the hazy effects of the liuqui.

She expected to feel nausea from the liuqui, but felt even worse having seen the goddess Zel.  My love, our love, isn’t even real, she thought.  Can what I feel really only be the product of an angry goddess?  She considered her feelings, the warmth that filled her when she thought of him.  She dissected every interaction she had had with him since entering the temple.  Even if She had not interfered, I would have still cared for him, because of his kindness.  I would have still seen him as an attractive man, but would I have loved him?  Finally with a sigh, she admitted to herself that it did not matter the source of her feelings; the feelings existed and they would complicate her every interaction with Keron.  Maybe I can learn to ignore the feelings. At least I must learn to control my thoughts about him.  She shuddered recalling Tez’s anger when she had thought about Keron at the altar.  If he knew that my love for Keron was Zel’s doing, would he be more forgiving about it?

She finally pushed the thoughts of Zel’s curse from her mind and returned her attention to the ritual she had seen herself and Setch perform.  Before drinking the potion, she had pulled her small desk next to the bed and set her ink and paper in readiness. Now she reached for the stylus.  It took her a few attempts to get her hand to find the stylus.  Her vision still swam from the liuqui.  She took a few steadying breaths and tried to make her eyes focus on the page.  She slowly began to write.

She could remember all of the details of the meeting with Setch, but she could not remember the words they had spoken.  She wracked her mind, but the words they had spoken in the ritual remained meaningless sounds.  The more she tried to focus on them, the more garbled and nonsensical they became.  She felt tears of frustration begin to fall and quickly moved the pages she had written to prevent her tears from smudging the words.

She hung her head, feel her gorge rising again from the liuqui.  I must remember.  Is it the liuqui, or is it Him preventing me from remembering?  Does the Corrupter have enough power to steal parts of my visions?

She jerked her head up as she felt herself begin to drift into another vision.  The echoing sound of the Unnamed One’s laughter filled her head.  Soshay clapped her hands over her ears, wanting to stop the awful crowing sound.  “Get out of my head; get out of my temple.”  Soshay whispered in the empty room.  She forced herself to uncross her legs, wincing as the blood returned to her limbs.  The laughter still haunted her.  She forced herself to stand, swaying on her feet.  She banged her hip into the table and winced, but the pain at least chased the laughter from her mind.  Wincing and rubbing at the bruise, she was grateful for the pain.  She looked back at the incomplete vision recorded on the pages.  If I cannot remember the words, how will we work the ritual?  She felt her eyes burn with tears again.  She muttered a curse and wiped harshly at her eyes.

“I don’t have time to cry.”  She muttered and sat back down staring at the pages before her. The glyphs blurred in her tired eyes. They became meaningless marks on the page.  She rubbed at her eyes again, but the images remained incomprehensible.  Her heart began to pound.  Why cannot I not understand the words? Has the corrupter cursed me too?  Soshay became frantic.  She rifled through the stack of pages.  All of it is meaningless.  Desperate she grabbed the pen and tried to write her name.  For a moment, she could picture the series of glyphs that formed her name, and then they were lost.

“Tez, please do not let him do this to me.”  She whispered.

The laughter filled the room again.  “Has the Lord of Death forsaken his whore?”

Soshay looked up from the pages and found herself in the plaza between the temples.  The plaza was silent and dark.  Each of the four temples stood in ruins, tumbled stone overgrown by the jungle.  The houses and markets of the city were completely obliterated by the encroaching jungle.  The jungle had devoured the entire city.  “The Lord of Death does not forsake me.”  She shouted across the plaza.  Her voice sounded pitifully weak, as if the air had swallowed her voice.

She felt the presence of the Unnamed One before she saw Him.  He simply appeared before Soshay.

“So little priestess, you seek to see the future.”  His smile was almost a snarl, as He waved a hand around the plaza.  “Look, see the future of your people.  A pile of broken stones, your people gone, your language forgotten, nothing remains.”

Soshay glanced around the plaza and glared at the Unnamed One.  “This is your doing, not a true vision.  The gods of the Cetza will never allow us to perish.”

The Unnamed One laughed again.  “Your devotion is laudable, but so very misplaced.  Your gods will lose in this war.”  He took a step toward Soshay.

Soshay stumbled on the broken stones trying to back away from Him.  Soshay managed to keep her balance, but felt a jagged stone bruise her foot.

“You stand in the future, Death’s Bride.  Look upon it and rejoice in the power of your gods.”

Soshay shook her head, feeling the tears already coursing down her cheeks.  “This is a lie, a trick.”  Soshay lowered her head to her hands, and tried to drown out the Unnamed One’s gloating.

Finally, Soshay was rewarded with silence.  She looked up and found the same ruined city surrounding her.  The jungle seemed to have moved closer, taking back more of the city.  Huge banyan trees had begun growing from the ruins of the Temple of Twilight.  The paving stones that lined the plaza were broken and jumbled by the undergrowth forcing its way through.  Slowly the sounds of the jungle began creeping back in, and she found the cries of the birds and the howls of the monkeys to be calming, almost soothing despite the cacophony of sound.  Soshay watched a small band of monkey who had made their home in the trees growing out of the temple.

“Even if this is true, the foundations of the temples still stand.  The jungle can creep in and try and reclaim our works, but even the jungle has failed to swallow our world.”  Her words echoed through the plaza.

***

Soshay slowly blinked as her chamber in the temple came back into focus.  She still stood on her feet, with one hand resting on the desk.  She felt her knees shake, and slowly slid to the floor.  Can He truly make me see a vision?  Was it some sort of trick?

Her thoughts and the second vision left her with a pressing need to do something.  But she could not seem to stop shaking.  She wrapped her arms around her knees, pulling them toward her chest.  She leaned her head back against the desk.  “Was it real?”  She shifted her feet and felt the ache of a bruise.  She shifted to look at the sole of her foot and found the darkening bruise from the broken paving stones in her vision.  She rubbed at the bruise, whispering over and over that what the Corrupter had shown her was a lie.

She finally forced herself to try and write the vision down, and found that she could again read and write.  She whispered her thanks to Tez, and she hastily scrawled the description of the ruined city and the indications of how far into the future the vision showed.  How long would it take for the jungle to retake the city, she wondered.  Finally finished she folded the pages tightly and bound them with a scrap of cloth.  This was a vision she intended to hide from everyone.  She rose from the bed and grabbed her tilma.  Instead of sliding the pages inside, she sewed the pages that contained the vision on the ruined city into the lining.  She hoped that this would prevent anyone from ever finding them.  She glanced at the pages from her first vision and left them on her desk, knowing that she would find a way to get them to Keron.

She paced her chamber, but it seemed to grow smaller with every step.  She wanted to go to Keron and share the visions with him, to talk to him about the implications of Zel’s involvement or to secure his help to get the priestess from the Temple of Dawn, or to hear his comforting words in response to the vision of the ruined city.  Instead, she scowled at the closed door, cursing Neldo and Tenoch.

Eventually a kitchen servant came to bring her breakfast.  She slipped her vision on to the tray, and watched the slave hide it underneath a jumble of dirty dishes.  She asked the boy to take the pages to Keron.

Left alone again, she picked at her breakfast. She spooned some of the pote on the fresh flat bread.  The honeyed fruit puree was usually one her favorite dishes.  When she bit into the bread, the sweet fruit spread made her gag slightly. It was far to cloying and sticky after using the liuqui.  She pushed the fruit spread away and settled for nibbling on the remaining piece of plain bread.  She ignored the fresh fruit on the plate, expecting her body to again reject the sweetness.      

The meal, if she could fairly call it that, took far too little time and provided little distraction.  She cleaned up the plates, and began to set her room to rights.  She returned the desk to its normal spot in the corner and made her bed.  She paced the chamber, counting each step it took to cross the length of it, and always found the number far too small.

She began sorting through her small pile of clothing and set to work on the long put off alterations.  No longer would she wear the sack-like blouses and loosely tied skirts.  I will look like a true priestess, not some child playing dress up in her mother’s oversized clothing. 

When she finished altering her two blouses and practiced trying her skirts in many different ways, she was content.  She washed and dressed in her altered clothing, laying the tilma on her now made bed.  She was brushing her hair, noticing that it now reached to her knees.  She considered what possible penalties she would suffer for binding it up.  Even if I could cut it a little that would help.  She thought, pulling the brush through another section.   Just brushing it out takes so very long.  She had just begun toying with braids and twists when she heard footsteps in the hallway.  She quickly jerked her hair down, shaking her head slightly to make sure all of her hair was down and loose.

Who else will violate temple law to visit me during my confinement, she wondered her curiosity peaked.  She was suddenly glad for her desire to be productive, no matter who was outside, she would look every inch the oracle and priestess that she was.

She answered the knock on her door calmly with a simple, “Enter.”  The man who entered was a stranger, but clearly a priest.  He wore the black kilt of the highest ranking priests and a heavily embellished mantel.  Noting the amount of gold and gems on the mantel she guessed it would be uncomfortably heavy, and she knew it was supposed to convey his importance.  His hair hung past his waist, loose but the ends were knotted with the bones and charms worn by so many of the priests.  What surprised her was seeing that his face was painted stark white and his eyes smudged in black paint.  It was less ornate than the paint worn by acting priests, but she had never seen a priest painted if he was not working in a ritual or finishing one. And she knew no rituals took place during the initiations.

She rose and lowered her head in deference to his standing.

“Novice, it is good to finally meet you.”

She looked up, “You have me at a disadvantage, my lord, for I do not know you.”

He smiled and looked abashed, “I forget how long I have been away.  There was a time that I knew every priest in my temple.  I am High Priest Mitlan.”

Soshay paled and lowered her head again, suddenly chagrined at her mouthy response to him.  “I apologize for my lack of deference, My Lord High Priest.  I did not realize.”  She stumbled over the words.  Until his laughter caused her to stop.  She raised her eyes to find him smiling.  He suddenly reminded her of Telmax – for all of their standing both men exuded mischief, not stoic piety.

“Have no fear, novice.  Some ceremony is important to me, but I see no purpose in dour, overly formal relations between priests in private.  It makes things easier, yes?”  He glanced at her, but did not wait for a reply, before pulling the chair from her desk and sitting.  He motioned for her to do the same.  As he had taken her only chair, she perched on the edge of her bed and felt far too informal doing so.

He began, “I know that you are well into your confinement, but it is permissible for the High Priest to give council at this time.”

Soshay was unsure if he was telling her the truth or not, but assumed that no one would dispute his rule.  This man was not at all what she expected in a High Priest.  She assumed he would be more like Keron, serious and distant.  She swallowed before speaking, “As you wish, My Lord High Priest.”

He looked at her, “That title is a mouthful.  We will be here for days if you keep using it.  For now, why not just use High Priest, Keron told you are not comfortable with a lack of formality.”

She tried to hide her surprise.  She had not realized that Keron spoke of her so openly.  Before she could respond he continued.

“I did warn Keron that it would be difficult to bring a woman into the Temple because it has been so long since we have had any, but I could not go against Tez’s wishes.  I still believe it is his will for you to serve here, but I am concerned about the discord within my temple.”

She managed a nod through the haze of relief flooding her senses.  At least I will not have to convince him that Neldo works against me.  He will make a powerful ally.

“So, let us start at the beginning.  I have many questions for you.  Can you explain to me how you called the lightening down on Neldo?”

She unconsciously rubbed the mark on her arm.  “I did not do that.”  Her voice wavered remembering Neldo’s awful screams.  “I was ill; at least that is what Keron told me.  I remember having a lesson with him, and then I remember waking up.”  She shrugged in confusion.  “On that day, the day Neldo was injured, I had only just awakened after days of sleep.  I was weak and confused.  Keron was there, and had only just begun explaining about my illness when Neldo came in.  He accused me of lying, of making the mark myself.  Then…” her voice trailed off and she took a deep breath, “I did not even see what happened, I only heard his screams.”  Her voice had dropped to a whisper.  She realized that she had never talked about that day with anyone.  “It was awful, My Lord, but I did nothing.  I couldn’t even sit up without help.”  Her voice grew pleading.

Mitlan considered her story, his gaze never leaving her face.  “May I see the mark?”

She nodded and extended her arm.  He did not touch her, but she felt his eyes tracing the names of the stars.  The gold lines glinted in the witchlights, clearly showing them to be something more than ink or paint.

“Thank you.”  He gestured that she could put her arm down.  “Keron has expressed concerns that Neldo will interfere with your initiation, and there are rumors of your strange behavior.”

She looked him blankly.

“The Keeper of Ritual said he found you bloodied before Tez’s shrine.  It seemed strange to him.”

She blushed recalling that night.  Her vision of Tez was not something she wished to share in detail.  Will it help or hurt me to tell him everything? And how much will it hurt Keron when he learns the truth?  Mitlan is certain to tell him everything.  “I didn’t think it strange, My Lord.  That night, I wanted,” she paused, “No needed to pray.  Tez has granted me so many gifts, and I have never been allowed to attend the services.  I needed to show gratitude.”  She glanced at him to see if he understood, but his expression remained neutral.

He nodded.  “After Tez marked me, I felt I needed to thank him, to show my devotion.”  She paused to pour herself some water and offered him some; he shook his head at the offer.  She sipped before continuing, “I went to the shrine, intending to pray – to thank Tez for his gifts to me.  Once there, I realized I should have brought a sacrifice, something to give him.  I had nothing, and… and…” she stumbled over the words, wondering how to explain the compulsion to give her blood.  “I gave him my blood, it seemed still less than adequate, but better than anything else I could give.  I cut my arm, and I let it bleed on the altar.”  She paused, unsure of what more he wanted to know.  Will I have to tell him everything?

“Is that all that happened?”  His dark eyes seemed to see through her hesitation.

She shook her head.  “It is difficult to share with anyone.  I… I made vows to Tez, and they are difficult to explain to another,” She felt her face burning, “and more so with you.”

His voice was gentle, “Because I am High Priest, or because I am a man?”

“Both” she whispered, “And because you are a stranger to me, my Lord.  I mean no disrespect, but I have only just met you, and the things I saw, the things I felt that night are…”  Again she let her words trail off, looking at him imploring him to understand.

He offered her a soft smile, “I think I understand, but I need you to tell me everything.  If I know, I can keep much of this from being known by the entire temple.”

Her eyes widened.  It had never occurred to her that everyone would find out the reality of what happened.  They would know the intimate details of her meeting with Tez.  This would be more than she could bear.  Once Keron knew, she realized that he would never view her in the same way again.  He would never risk even the most innocent of touches.  To him, she would only belong to Tez.  “I understand, and I appreciate your efforts at discretion.” She paused and drank again.  “After placing my blood, I had a vision… that was not a vision.”

He looked confused.

“You do not have the gift of prophecy, do you?”

He shook his head, and the charms in his hair rattled.

“When I have a vision, I see.  I watch events, but I am seldom a part of them.  They happen, like a play or ritual acted out for me.  This was different.  I was somewhere else, even if my body remained in the courtyard.  I could feel and interact with the events.”  She paused trying to gauge if he understood her explanation.

He nodded for her to continue, but she noticed his eyes had widened slightly to hear her descriptions of her visions.

“Tez came to me.  We spoke.  It was not only my blood he wanted.”  She whispered the words, cursing her lack of knowledge about how to discuss the relations between men and women.  She did not want the vision to sound vulgar or childish.  She realized that making him understand what she had promised Tez, what Tez had asked for, would only prove her right to remain in the temple.  Her mouth felt dry, and she licked her lips and continued, “He laid me upon the altar in this other place.”  She noticed he watched her speak without expression, “He and I, we… he stopped. He said it was because it was not the time or the place.  He would come to me after my initiation.” Her face burned and her words were barely a whisper.

She fought the feeling of embarrassment at speaking of such intimacies with a stranger. But she reminded herself that Mitlan would have participated in ritual sex as High Priest.

It was a yearly ritual, when a female devotee to Tez was ritually laid on the altar and she and the High Priest consummated the ritual.  The ritual ensured that Tez would remember the value of life and not seek only death.  The woman were well-paid by the temple, and most become honored women in the community.  They worked as matchmakers and acted as death midwives and funeral officiants.  Mitlan had been High Priest for over a decade, so Soshay knew he understood the ritual.

She kept her eyes trained on the floor between them, feeling her face burning.  “I will serve Tez in truth in the bride taking ritual.  I believe he will come to me during my time in the Chamber of Trials.”  Her voice was barely audible.

Mitlan shifted in his seat, and she glanced up catching his blush.  I guess I am not the only one made uncomfortable by this.  The realization bolstered her confidence.

“I understand why you have been hesitant to speak of this.”  He said his own blush still evident.  “You don’t need to explain any further.  I will be certain that this matter is handled delicately.  I had not realized that Tez would make you a bride in truth.”  He cleared his throat, “No one will know of this.  The initiation process is arduous enough without having everyone in the temple know of such a private matter.”

She offered him a bashful smile of thanks.

He paused a moment, seemingly to fight his own discomfort with the conversation.

She nodded slowly and found herself speaking, but could not control the words.  “Forgive me for what I must say, My Lord.  But Tenoch seeks to destroy you.”  She paused, frozen in fear.

The records room, after Neldo’s injury.  You hid there to avoid Neldo, but he entered with Tenoch.  He and Tenoch were plotting against you, against Keron, against Mitlan, and against My Will.  Remember My priestess, for Tenoch has misused My gift long enough.  She felt the blood drain from her face.  She suddenly remembered what happened in the records room, and she remembered when he tried to manipulate her prophecies.  The conversation I had with him at the frieze of the jaguar woman, his questions about my prophecies, his command that I would speak the words he gave me.  He said he was Tez’s voice on earth.  Tenoch seeks to destroy us all, she thought shaken.

Mitlan’s face clouded, “Why would he do this?” He words were sharp.

I cannot lose him as an ally, her thoughts were frantic, Tez help me! You made me speak against Tenoch, please help me.  Her thoughts remained her own.  “I know because I heard him.  I understand that you have known him a long time, but I heard him with Neldo, only Tenoch made me forget.  They spoke of orchestrating your downfall.  Neldo does not act alone in his efforts to discredit me.  He hopes it will lead to discrediting you too.”  She spoke the words in a rush.  She watched his expression remain troubled.  “I am sorry to speak ill of your friend, but he is an ambitious man and resents your standing.  He wants to destroy you.”

His face froze and Soshay worried she had gone too far, that her words were too much.  Mitlan rose knocking the chair over.

“Tenoch has faithfully served me for a long time, novice.  You must have misunderstood.”  His words were a warning Soshay understood.  She must not speak against Tenoch any further.  To do so would turn Mitlan against her.

She nodded slowly, not trusting her voice.  She watched him pace the small room.  “My Lord? I am still a novice, and I admit I know very little, but may I ask a question?”

He whirled to face her, anger and confusion radiating from him. “Be wise in your words.”  He bit out the words.

She finally realized what nagged her about the conversation she had overheard.  “Tez speaks to me, My Lord.  The vision at the altar was not the first time that he came to me and it is His will that I ask you this.”  She took a deep breath watching Mitlan warily.    “Once our priests possessed an ability to make their words seem true to the listener.  Is it possible that this gift is not all together lost to us?”  She watched him stop moving and stare at her, “Does this gift exist, My Lord?”

“You imply that Tenoch has this gift and manipulates us all? That he would use such a gift for his own ends?”  The words were still sharp, but she heard the hesitation, the consideration in them.

“I only ask if it is possible, My Lord.”

He narrowed his eyes at her, “Keron is right to say you are clever with words, Novice.”  He turned and left the room.

Soshay sat shaking on her bed wondering if she had gone too far, wondering if waiting would have been wiser.  But he needed to know, her mind wailed.  The gift of diplomacy would be a great power to wield, to convince patrons, to convince the Tlatoani to heed the words of a priest.  One could control the empire with such a gift, so why is Tenoch here?

“Maybe I have erred.” She whispered to the empty room, “This mistake may cost more than I can pay.”  She shuddered at the implications.  If Tenoch and Neldo are able to destroy me at my initiation, how will the Unnamed One be defeated?  The Unnamed God, the Corrupter, will destroy us all.  Without the alliance between Zel and Tez, all the Cetza are at risk.

She pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around herself.

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