Chapter 20 (Temple of Twilight)

Previously: While Keron and Mitlan investigate Soshay’s claims about Tenoch, Este begins to understand the risks of the Jade Throne and The Unnamed God. 

Este sat upon the Jade Throne and listened to the whispering of the Unnamed God.  He spoke to her desire to regain her power, to be restored as the consort and advisor to the Imperator. And he gave her the means to do it.

Este listened to his plans shivering.  Taking this step committed her to this path.  It was the ultimate heresy. But it would give the Unnamed God what he desired and it would set her on her path to reclaim her power.

She gathered her will, and began her plans for the ritual.  She must tread carefully, already the midwives were suspicious.  Este knew that Drioux believed her meetings were a secret.  But Este knew, and she knew without the Unnamed One’s aid.  Drioux’s treachery would be dealt with eventually, but for now, Este simple needed to be rid of her and her midwives for one evening.

Finally she sent the servants to begin collecting the priestesses she needed.

The first group, young newly ordained young women were pleased to be singled out and pleased to help with Este’s divine revelation. They scurried off to perform her bidden without any inducement from the throne’s magic.

When Drioux entered, Este expected a fight.

“Drioux,” she said nodding in welcome.  “I have need of you and your midwives.”

Drioux bowed her head, “We serve Zel in all things.”

Este clutched the arms of the throne.  “Tonight, the temple to Ezi holds a rite.”  The priestesses of Ezi, a lesser goddess, often shared their rites with Zel’s servants.  Both goddesses were connected to carnal pleasures, but Ezi’s worship was devoted to the body – to sex.  Before Este’s reign, young priestesses from the Temple of Dawn were sent to Ezi’s temple to learn of the arts of love. Este had taken over that training herself, to create her spy priestesses.  Now, she thought that Ezi could distract Drioux from her true plans.  “I believe it is time to restore our relationship with the Temple of Carnality.”  Este was impressed at Drioux’s skill in hiding her emotions, as the woman’s face betrayed nothing of her thoughts.

“What would you have me do?” Drioux asked.

Este smiled, “I wish you and a group of priestesses attend the rite, and seek an audience with the high priestess. Bring her my offer of a restored relationship.”  Este did not care what Drioux thought about the idea, as long as it got her and her more dangerous followers out of the temple for the evening.  And Este knew that any rites for Ezi would last until dawn.

“Shall I select the priestesses to attend, or have you already made your choices?”

Este was pleased that she had not been forced to coerce Drioux into action. “Leave the first and second year priestesses with me, as the connection between the temples is new to them.  I will instruct them on what it means tonight during dinner.”

Drioux didn’t challenge the lie.  Both women knew that none of the priestesses were ignorant of Zel and Ezi’s connections.  The relationship between the two goddesses was part of the lore of the temple.

In the second world, when the Cetza had to flee their island home, Ezi came with them.  While always a lesser goddess, she was also one of the oldest.  When the second world cataclysm of the floods began, Ezi and Zel taught the Cetza to build vast rafts to travel from the islands to the new land of the jungle.  Ezi of the umber skin and braided hair, who become Zel’s lover, had thrived in the last days of the second world.  Perhaps it was the impending doom, but the Cetza had clung to her ways and rites, living in excess of the flesh. In the third world, she was still depicted as Zel’s lover, but in this fourth world, the Cetza had begun to change.  The hundred year war had made gods of death and violence reign over those of life and love.

Of course the priestesses knew of her.  They knew that it was Ezi who gave birth to the jungle. They knew that Zel had loved her so greatly that when the cataclysm of water drowned Ezi, she had let the world die.

“I am pleased that we will restore our connection to Ezi’s temple.” Drioux said, without reaching Este’s eyes. “The stories of Zel’s despair at being separated from her lover have haunted me.”

Este nodded absently, the Unnamed God once more whispering to her. “So you will take your priestesses to her temple tonight. And we will all be served by it.”

Drioux left while Este was distracted. She saw an opportunity to take some of the more vulnerable priestesses from the temple, and perhaps leave them in the care of Ezi’s servants.  Yes, she would not be able to take those Este wanted to stay, but the acolytes and oracles would go.

As night fell, Este felt the Unnamed One’s presence, a constant hum of energy and whispers that distracted her.  She ordered the altar room cleaned and cleared of all offerings. And the priestesses complied.  As they worked, she sent a message to Amox of the Temple of Noon.

He knew of the Unnamed God, and she liked the idea of using Chacon’s lover for this ritual.  The girl had sought to ruin Este’s plans, and then abandoned her service for the man.  Having him attend the rite would please Este.

The Unnamed God remained silent about Amox.

He came to her audience chamber, resplendent in his jaguar pelt. She knew that he sought to elevate his position in the Temple of Noon, and she would offer her aid.

Without preamble, she made her offer. “You wished to learn of the Unnamed God and the power of the Jade Throne.” She was pleased to see him blink in surprise. To see the smug look he habitually wore falter at her blunt words. “Tonight I hold a ritual to welcome him, to initiate his worship here, in the City of the Jungle.”

Amox seemed unable to gather his wits or bearing for a moment and stumbled over his words. “Why do you call me?”

“I need a priest, one who will submit to possession.” God possession was accepted in most Cetza temples.  Some like those who worshiped Tzi or Itz or even Ezi sought out possession. Those in Ezi’s service used dance and sex to feel the touch of their goddess.  Stories of Zel possessing priestesses existed as well.  But Mat’s worship did not hold such practices.  Once again, she was pleased to see Amox faltering.

“Why me? Why not Tenoch? He has been part of your schemes for years.”

Este smiled, a tight feral twisting of her lips “Because Tenoch and his death priests will be the first destroyed by the Unnamed God.

Amox echoed her smile, “And what of Mat?”

“He wears the Unnamed God’s face.” She rose from the throne, and beckoned him to see the back of the carved stone.  This she had kept hidden for so long, the image of a man holding a spear and serpent, the image without a name.  The signs of both Zel and Mat combined, or at least she hoped that was what he would think. “I can show you the power that he bestows on his followers, but for that, you must sacrifice your body.” She laid a hand on his arm, “At least for the night.”  She did not use the throne’s power in this.  A sacrifice must be willing, and she needed Amox to agree.

His dark eyes devoured the images on the throne, and his breathing quickened. What he saw in the iconography, she did not know nor ask. But it was something powerful enough for him to nod, and agree to allow the Unnamed God to possess him.

“Let us prepare you for his coming.” She smiled and led him to her bathing chamber.

Este ordered the remaining priestesses to the altar room.  Only a single witchlight illuminated the space.  While she couldn’t remove all the images of Zel from the space, she had done her best to make it empty of Her.  The altar was bare and scrubbed clean.

The priestesses knelt on the floor, in rows waiting for her commands. Behind her, Amox walked. She had made him into the image of the Unnamed God. His hair hung unbound and he wore a loincloth of scarlet cloth, and around his neck, hung a sliver of the throne itself. This had been a gift from the Unnamed One himself.

Este entered the altar room, and felt the presence of the Unnamed One, the weight of his regard crushing her. And then she remembered nothing at all.

***

Este woke to the sound of someone pounding on her door.  She struggled to shake off sleep, and found herself lying on the floor of her chambers. “What is it?”  She snapped at the locked door.

“High Priestess, Amox, from the Temple of Noon, is here. Yesterday you bade me to remind you.”  The voice was hesitant from behind the thick door.

Este did not recognize the voice of the acolyte who spoke.  She snapped a vague response and slowly sat up.  She fought the fog of sleep and searched her memory for what had happened.  The ritual, when was it? She could not be sure, but she only remembered the rite in snatches. The Unnamed God had possessed Amox, and he had spoken in the God’s voice.  Only a few priestesses protested, and they had… Este felt her stomach roil and she dragged herself to her bath chamber.  Retching at the memory of the blood on her hands, the blood coating her skin as she and Amox conducted the rite.

“What has become of me?” She whispered to herself. Her entire body ached.  She glanced in her mirror and was not surprised to find her hair a tangled mass and deep, dark circles under her eyes. She pulled on a robe and ran her hands through her hair.  She could feel the power from the Unnamed God surging inside her head, and wondered if she would once again be sick.

“Enter” she commanded the young priestess.  She glanced over the young woman, but couldn’t recall her name. “Tell me of the ritual last night.”

Her high pitched voice quavered with fear.  “Last night? We held a ritual two nights ago.”

Este felt the blood draining from her face. How have I lost two days? Why had Drioux and the others not sought me out? “Tell me of the ritual,” she demanded her voice brittle.

The girl stared at the ground and began shaking.

“Tell me!” Este snapped, finally forcing her will onto the girl, drawing from the power swirling inside her skull.

The girl began to cry silently, but spoke of a ritual to a new deity, a new god. Amox wore his face and commanded their service, their worship.  When a priestess had spoken out, had called upon Zel to rid the temple of this heresy, Amox had drawn his dagger.  He dragged the woman to the altar, and… the girl’s retelling trailed off. Her crying finally choking out the words.

But Este began to remember. The priestess had been sacrificed in His name. Este recalled Amox demanding she join him. Her hands laid over his on the blade.  Her eyes watching the woman die.  Her hands covered in blood. Este rested her head in her hands, once again sick.  Human sacrifice was common among the gods, even Zel.  But the sacrifice must be a willing one, and the priestess had not been willing. She had fought and prayed to Zel.  Este saw the bruises on her own hands and arms from the girl’s struggle.

This wasn’t what I agreed to.

“The Unnamed God was pleased with our ritual.”  The girl finally said between sniffles. “High Priest Amox spoke in His voice and told us of his pleasure.”

Gods of the fourth world, what have I unleashed?  Este fought to breathe.  “What has happened since the ritual?”

The girl listed a litany of mundane events within the temple.  Drioux and some of the priestesses had returned from Ezi’s Temple, but not all had returned.

“Have any of the priestesses spoken about the ritual?”

The girl looked up, confused.  “How could they?” She clasped her hands tightly. “They do not remember it.  You only bade me remember.”

Este narrowed her eyes at the girl, trying to make sense of this.  And recalled after the ritual, when Amox had become himself again how the priestesses no longer under the thrall of the Unnamed God had begun to wail and pray.  I used the power on them all. I made them all forget, even Amox.  Her eyes fell on the girl, Ztin, a second year priestess.  She recalled the girl had been closest at hand after the ritual.  She had snatched the girl away from the altar and pushed her out the chamber.

Then she had made them all forget.  She ordered Ztin to remember, just as easily as she had ordered the priestesses to remove the body and clean the blood from the altar.

I must destroy the throne.  I must get it out of the temple. She thought, but the power roiling in her brain, overwhelmed her. No, I will find a way to keep its power and to keep Him bound and sleeping.  It was done before, so it can be done again.

“I have a new job for you, Zantin.  You will be my,” she paused considering what title to give the girl, “My memory keeper.”  She smiled pleased with herself.

“Memory-keeper, my lady?”

Este sighed, “You will follow me and remember everything you see.  At night, you can write them down.  I will have a codex made especially for you.”  Este could feel the girl’s discomfort, and she began using the power of the chair.  Este began the same conditioning process she had used on Setch.  She used the girl’s desires and manipulated them into a slavish devotion to Este herself.  She sighed when she felt the girl cease to struggle.

Este found herself exhausted by her exertions, but could not take the time to rest.  After the meeting with Amox, I will find a way to restore the Unnamed One’s bindings, Este thought.  “Zantin, go to the kitchens and ask the cooks to find me some roasted cacao beans.”

The girl rose and left in search of the stimulant.  Este only hoped that they would help her stay awake. She had used other stimulants, but did not like the effects of them.  They tended to cloud her mind.  The cacao will have to suffice.

While the girl was gone, Este began the process of preparing to meet with Amox.  With the holes in her memory, she could not be certain that he recalled nothing of the ritual.  She would have to find out what he knew, and she feared using the throne’s power on him.  Once possessed, it was easy for the God to return.

She took great care in her appearance putting on all of the official clothing of her office.  The vibrant green gown, artfully twisted, pleated, and tied hung like a second skin over her breasts and hips. She tried to use her cosmetics to hide the circles under her eyes.  The golden flesh tones only seemed to highlight the purple circles.  Frustrated, Este scrubbed her face clean.  I could easily use the power from the chair to hide every flaw, she thought examining her face, but cannot trust drawing more energy from the chair.  She dismissed the idea, feeling the energy already in her head.  It seemed to almost purr with contentment when she considered using the throne.  Instead she used the traditional paint of the temple.  The ones she had abandoned when she rose to high priestess.

She spread the pale golden paint over her face and chest. Satisfied with the golden color she had achieved, she began painting a swath of emerald across her eyes, like a mask. She continued the paint, until the line stretched from ear to ear as well.

She tilted her head at the mirror, feeling a frisson of fear at using Zel’s symbols to cover her own heresy.  With a shaking hand, she continued to paint her face, staining her lips the same rich green, before applying glyphs that named the stars in Zel’s constellation along her collarbone.

She rubbed scented oil into her palms and ran her hands through her hair before twisting and braiding it high atop her head. The oil made her hair glow in both flame and witchlights and while it made her cringe to leave it unwashed, the oil at least it hid its dirty state.  She added a jeweled hairpin in the shape of a serpent.  She carefully wrapped the yellow feathered tilma over her shoulders, careful to keep it from the wet pain.  She had no time to allow it to dry.

She was finishing her preparations with Zantin finally returned.  The girl dutifully carried a small bowl of the cacao seeds and a tray of flat bread.  Este was impressed with the girl’s forethought.

She took the tray without a word and began chewing the seeds.  They were bitter and awful, but she ate them all before devouring the bread.  After her scant meal, she could feel her own energy returning.  The fog of sleep that had clung to her mind slowly began lifting.

“Come Zantin, you begin your new work today.”

Este finally rummaged through the chest of altar clothes.  She found a sheer yellow cloth that bore a border of serpents around the edges.  Draping the gauzy, yellow fabric around the girl, like a veil, it hid the girl’s face. She cocked her head at the girl, noting the strangeness the veiled figure presented.  Hmm, this conceit may work to my advantage, she thought imagining the reactions of others to this silent, ethereal shadow. I won’t even bother with the pretext of a codex for her.  With my control of her, she will record everything simply by being present.  She pushed more energy into the girl, further suppressing the girl’s will.

With a normal priestess, Este would have hesitated to use so much power.  Her early experiments had taught her that too much energy used too often, could leave the victim with no will at all.  It doesn’t matter if the girl becomes an empty shell.  As long as she can see and speak when I command it, she will suffice.

Este was seated at the table when Amox arrived.  “Amox,” She gestured for him to sit.  She noticed that the yards of space between them had slowly diminished.  Whether he remembered the ritual or not, he seemed less afraid of her touch.

Chacon had taught him well about the throne’s power, she thought watching him select his seat, a pity she does not know how I have corrupted him.

“Este,” he nodded his head in respect, “I have the information you asked for.”

Este had no memory of what information she had asked for, but smiled and nodded in response.

“It seems that since his return, Mitlan has spent much of his time questioning those in his temple about Soshay.”

Este nodded, this information was hardly surprising.  But his casual tone made Este think that her magic had held, and he did not remember the ritual or his part in it.

“But, our far-seer did manage to witness his questioning of Soshay.”

Este made no attempt to hide her glee. The power surging in her head also seemed to purr contentedly to hear of Soshay.

I want her.  The Unnamed One purred in Este’s mind.

Este ignored him, but was for a moment concerned.  Why does he want Soshay? Why should this one oracle matter so much? Este pushed the concerns aside, focusing on Amox’s information.

Amox smiled, “It seems he is very unhappy with her.  We, in the Temple of Noon, had assumed he would protect her – if for no other reason than his friendship with Keron.  That does not seem to the case.”

“What happened?  I want the details” Este said.

Amox sat back in his chair wearing a slight smile.

Este knew that she sounded too eager for the information. She foundered for and moment, unsure what role to adopt with him.  “The details?” Este asked.  Her tone sounded too eager.

Amox laughed, “You are so very determined, so focused on one goal.  I wonder, are this determined in all of your pursuits?”

And with his crude attempt at innuendo, Este knew he did not remember.  During the ritual she had lain with him upon the altar; that much she knew. Este gave Amox a considering look.  “If you are so interested in my skills, mayhap I could spend a few hours teaching you.”  She gazed at him, and reflexively began pushing the energy of the throne toward him.  His words, an attempt to rattle her, laid the groundwork for her compulsion. He would serve her after this meeting, not Mat, not the Empire, and certainly not the Unnamed One.

He cleared his throat, looking shaken.  “Mayhap, one day we will,” He meet her gaze or a brief moment, before dropping his eyes.  “But your information beckons.”

She leaned forward, letting her arms push her breasts out.  She hid her smile.  “Yes, my information, please,” She purred.  I can play the seductress with him.  She mentally smiled, thinking how simple men were, and wondered if such tricks could be used on the Unnamed One.

Amox quickly moved his eyes back up to meet her eyes.  “Soshay has accused Tenoch of some sort of magic.  She claims that he uses some sort of manipulation with his words.”

Este raised an eyebrow, considering this.  “And how did Mitlan respond to an attack against his life-long friend?”

Amox laughed, “As you would expect.  He was furious with the girl.  She may have destroyed her chances to remain within the Temple of Twilight.  I doubt even Keron will be able to calm his rage.”

Este smiled, “This is good news.”  She sat back slowly.  “But why would Tenoch be in possession of magic?  He, more than any of the others in that temple, despises all magic.”

“We are not overly concerned with the fate of the Temple of Twilight, nor its servants.  If he uses magic, we do not care.  If the oracle is killed or exiled it makes no difference to us.”

Este looked up at him with a small smile, “Of course you do not care.” She hid her smile at the short sightedness of Mat’s servants. Their short-sightedness will be for my benefit.  If he is using magic, I will find out what it is and if I can use it for my plans.   

Amox seemed to consider her words, his eyes narrowed as if he tried to puzzle out her meaning.

“No matter,” she said, breaking the silence.  She glanced at the windows, gauging the time, “But I must return to my duties.”  She rose gracefully, and bit back her smile as he awkwardly tried to rise and offer his hand to help her.  It seems his desire has overridden his instructions to avoid my touch she thought and took his offered hand, using the physical contact to further her coercion of him.

“Until tomorrow,” He said and offered a quick bow before leaving.

Este smiled to see that he did not leave as quickly as he usually did.  She began to consider Amox’s information.  She already had plans to meet with Tenoch tonight.  She had planned on using Setch’s pregnancy against him, but the potential that he too was using magic intrigued her.  That would be far greater leverage, but she could not reconcile the Tenoch she knew to using magic.  He despised all magic use, with more fervor than even the edicts of his temple required.

“His words…” She mused aloud, “words, or his voice?”  She asked in the empty room.  Is it possible?  Her eyes widened and she absently ordered Zantin to follow her back to her chambers and her books.

If he, could he really be hiding this from them all?  She hurriedly paged through a codex on Tez and his gifts, headless of tearing the pages.  “The voice of diplomacy.”  She read aloud.  Her eyes scanned the words.  She committed the signs of the gift to memory, nodding as she read.  “With this information, I will have Soshay and the Temple of Twilight.”  She felt her lips curl into a smile, with this information, I can destroy Mitlan as well.  I can destroy them all. 

She felt the power of the Unnamed God flow through her.  Yes, I have the means to destroy our enemies, if you can prevent his powers from influencing me.

And once again, the Unnamed God slipped inside her, taking control of her body and mind.  For  a moment, with only the silent Zantin as witness, Este stood as if frozen. The Unnamed God twisting her thoughts and plans.

When she moved again, it was to whisper, “Soshay will be yours, and the Empire will be mine.”

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