Chapter 23 (Temple of Twilight)

Previously: Mitlan resolves to break the laws of his temple and use witchcraft to destroy Tenoch. Keron discovers the temple supply of liuqui has been tampered with the prevent any of the oracles from having visions. Soshay receives a contraception potion from Setch.  

Chapter 23

Drioux stood before the only oracle left in the Temple of Dawn, “Tell me what will become of Setch’s child?”

The young woman nodded and slowly her breathing changed.  Drioux watched the woman’s eyes grow vacant, and she finally began to speak.

Drioux scrawled the words down as the young woman spoke. It seemed clear enough that Setch would become High Priestess and her daughter would inherit the title. Many of the other images the oracle spoke of were meaningless to Drioux. Priestesses of Zel that carried weapons, Servants of Tzi coming and going openly within the Temple of Dawn, and what made her the most afraid, a darkness descending over Zel herself.

The oracle had ceased in her recitations and Drioux offered her water.  The young woman, barely more than a girl Drioux realized, offered a weak smile in gratitude.  Drioux knew she was overworking the oracle, but she was the only one left to the Sisterhood. The Sisterhood had manufactured endless assignments for most of the priestesses, sending them away from the temple, with no orders to return. But Drioux could not be without the aid of an oracle.  Eventually,Drioux thought we will be able to bring them all back to proper service, but for now, I will protect as many as I can from the Unnamed One’s vile influence. 

She knew of the ritual murder enacted in the altar room, and it filled her with rage. She quelled her anger, reminding herself that the Sisterhood would get their chance to destroy Este and make right what she and the Unnamed had defiled.  Her thoughts were broken by the slow rising of the oracle. She now regretted her failure to remove the novices first. They had witnessed, and participated in a ritual to the Unnamed One. Drioux knew that the young women, children really, didn’t understand what they had done, but they had done it. She had believed they would be safe, too young to be of use to Este’s plans and to powerless to be of interest to the Unnamed One.

“Drioux?”  The oracle asked.

“Yes, child?”

“What will happen to the novices?”

Drioux cringed, realizing that the oracle had seen more than she had intended.

“You have seen what will happen to them.  They cannot remain in the Temple of Dawn.”  She gazed at the young oracle.  “They have been used to commit a grave heresy.  They will be released from temple service and we will find positions from them. Maybe with the lay-midwives in the City, or maybe they could find positions with some of the lesser temples, those without edicts against serving other gods.”

The oracle frowned, “You will exile them and force them into the work of midwives, even without such a calling? What if no other gods call to them? Should they serve unwilling or with half a heart? What happened wasn’t their fault.”

Drioux sighed, “I know that, and I don’t blame them, but what else can I do?”  She heard the sharpness creep into her voice.

“Let them remain in the temple.  Forgive the heresy.”  The oracle’s voice was dull with fatigue.

Drioux frowned at her.  “How can we forget the blasphemy?”

The oracle shook her head, “The same way you are willing to forget Setch’s heresy. She acted as Este’s whore for years, and you accept her as the High Priestess.”

“Peace Oracle,” Drioux felt exhaustion creeping over her.  “I will not debate this now.  It is for me to decide when the time comes.”

The oracle offered a small smile, “No Drioux, it will be for Setch to decide.  Maybe she will offer these girls the sympathy you lack.”

Drioux muttered a curse and strode from the chamber.  Stupid girl, what does she know?  These girls raised energy for Him, they have served Him – how can that be forgotten? She could not even look upon them without seeing the dark taint of Corruption upon them. She locked herself in her chambers and waited for the final meeting of the Sisterhood.  Tonight they would all leave the Temple of Dawn, to keep Setch out of Este’s hands and to destroy the Unnamed One.

***

Setch was heeding Drioux’s command that she stay out of the temple as much as possible.  She had been slowly walking through the plaza for most of the day.  Her thoughts were running in circles.  Drioux wanted her to leave the temple, but Setch sensed that it was not time yet.  Of course, Drioux and the Sisterhood had tried to keep the awful rite that Este had enacted from her.  Setch still seethed remembering how they lied. Those poor novices, Setch thought, I wanted them sent away from the temple, but Drioux was right. If too many priestesses left, it would have been noticed.  Still the unwilling sacrifice, any human sacrifice, made Setch clench her hands and shake with rage. She would have to find a ritual to cleanse the novices and remaining priestesses of the Corruptor’s influence. Those who still wished to remain in Zel’s service would be welcomed and honored. Their suffering would not be blamed upon them.

The day was ending; it was almost Tez’s hour. She thought of Soshay, another terribly young woman being sent into a world she knew little about. She had tried to assuage Soshay’s fears about the sexual part of the initiation. She remembered her first time with fondness and pleasure, and hoped the Lord of Death would be kind to the young priestess.

She looked toward the Temple of Twilight, seeing the line of worshipers slowly entering.  With Este closeted away with Amox and hours until the Sisterhood met, Setch was left with only her own thoughts as a concern.

She continued to gaze at the Temple of Twilight, with her hand resting on her belly.  She missed Qent.  While they had only had one true exchange, Setch had always enjoyed his company, and had found him to have a sharp mind for temple politics.  I cannot go to him.  Our relationship can never be revealed for both our sakes.  The world will think my baby was fathered by Tenoch. It may make life harder for her, having a heretic for a father, but it will protect her better than being Qent’s child. She looked up from her belly, back at the Temple of Twilight, “your father resides there.” She whispered.

She continued to walk through the marketplace.  Only half noting the trinkets sold to the faithful.

“Priestess Setch”

She turned to find Telmax.  “Telmax,” she bowed her head in greeting.  “How does Soshay fare?”

Telmax shrugged, “Well enough, but I came to deliver a warning.”

Setch frowned at him, “From Soshay?”  She wondered if the priests had learned of the potions she had sent to Soshay.  Explaining those away would be difficult.  Even though she had used different bottles, the potions of the Temple of Dawn were easy enough to identify.

Telmax shook his head, “From the High Oracle.”

Setch gestured for him to continue.

“The Corruptor seeks to destroy you, and soon.  Keron warns that you should not return to the Temple of Dawn.”

Setch find her eyes automatically seeking the Temple of Midnight and its black stones.  Soon, I shall go there.  She thought with a fervid certainty, but not yet.  Setch looked back at Telmax, and saw the concern and fear in his eyes. “The time for my confrontation with Him is soon, but I cannot leave the temple yet.”  She took Telmax’s hand, “I thank you and your High Oracle for the warning, but there is still work for me to complete within my temple.”

Telmax opened his mouth to protest, but must have seen the resolve in her face and stopped.  They walked in silence, each lost in their thoughts.  They completed a circuit around the plaza before Telmax broke the silence between them.

“Setch, if you will not go now, will you accept a gift?”

She turned to face him, “a gift?”

He nodded slowly his eyes trained on the Temple of Midnight.  He fumbled with a cord around his neck and pulled out a necklace.  He gazed at it a moment, and Setch thought he looked sad.  He handed the necklace to her.  “Take it. You will need it more than I will.”

She held the stone in her palm.  She was surprised to see it was a midnight stone, obsidian flecked with white spots.  It was wrapped in silver wire that she noticed with a flinch was sharp enough to cut her. “This is a midnight stone.”  She glanced at him for confirmation.  “These are only given to servants of Tzi.”

“They are favored by Tzi’s servants.  This one is spelled for protection, and I think you need protection far more than I do.”

“But where did you get such an item?”

Telmax glanced back at the Temple of Midnight, “From my mother.”

Setch opened her mouth to question him further, but stopped when she saw his expression.  The longing etched in his face as he gazed at the Temple of Midnight was heart-wrenching.  What keeps him from serving in the temple he truly longs for? It was far too personal of a question to ask him. So she kept her silence and managed to mummer her thanks and gratitude.  She slipped the necklace over her head.  She parted company with Telmax, leaving him gazing at the Temple of Midnight, as she made her way back to the Temple of Dawn.

When she reached her chamber, she was accosted by a novice who delivered a summons from Este.  She offered a half-hearted reply, before entering her chamber.  I will meet her in my time and once I am prepared, she thought.

She comforted herself looking at the charm Telmax had given her.  She knew this type of talisman was only given to the highest ranking priests within the Temple of Midnight, and she could not help wondering how a Priest of Twilight had come by such a powerful object.  As she held the stone, she hissed feeling the wire cut her hand.  The blood welled from her palm, and a few drops landed on the stone, seeping beneath the wire.

Regardless she placed the stone around her neck, and straightened her clothing before she left to meet Este to win her daughter’s life. She offered a silent prayer as she left her chamber, Zel, help me and help my daughter.

She knocked without hesitation at Este’s audience room.

“Enter.”

Setch entered the chamber with another prayer to Zel and to Tzi.  Telmax’s gift had better work, she thought.  She walked toward the chair, keeping her head high.

“Setch, I have met with Tenoch and your pregnancy is unnecessary.”  She held out a bottle.

“Thank you, My Lady, but I will not need it.  I will keep this child.”  Setch surprised herself with the strength in her voice.

Este looked started at the refusal.  She leaned forward glaring at Setch, “I did not ask what you wished. I command and you obey.”

Setch smiled at her, “No, I will not.  I have been your whore long enough.  My body is my own.”  She could feel the weight and sharpness of Telmax’s stone against her heart.  “Are we finished, I have real work to attend to.”

“You found your spine after all these years?”  She laughed mirthlessly, “It is far too late for you to have some childish rebellion.  You will get rid of it.” Este rose from the chair, “You will take this potion or I will shove it down your throat.”

Setch felt a pressure fill the room; it seemed to press down upon her.  Setch ignored the feeling, her eyes locked with Este’s.  “Do not try your magics on me. They will not work.”  She smiled.

Este narrowed her eyes, “That is not possible.”  She turned her head, as if listening to someone speak.

“Este, do not listen to Him.  He will destroy you. He will destroy us all.”  Setch spoke softly, shocked that she was able maintained her composure.  I will not let Him destroy my daughter.  She repeated over and over.

Este turned to her with blazing eyes, “Do not defy me, and do not speak about things you know nothing about.”  She laid her hands on the chair, “Defy me in this, and I will destroy you.”

Setch smiled, “Try it.”  She felt the stone grow cold.

Este sneered at her, “It seems a waste, but if you will not be my whore, I have no use for you anyway.”

Setch felt the pressure around her dissipate, and felt a jolt of energy.  She watched wide-eyed as angry red lines of power crawled around her, always staying a handbreadth away from touching her.  She feared to move or even breathe.  This must be the stone’s power, but I have no idea how to wield it.  Through the haze of scarlet energy, Setch watched Este rage.  She screamed first at Setch and then at the throne.  Her invectives were barely audible to Setch.  It is almost like I am out of the world, somehow halfway here and halfway elsewhere, she thought ignoring Este for a brief moment.

The room fell silent and the energy dissipated.  Setch looked up.  Este sat upon the chair.  Her gaze was vacant and she barely seemed to breathe.  Is she dead? Setch wondered.

“Whore-Priestess,” She said, and Setch knew it was no longer Este who spoke.  “How do you possess the magic of the Dark Goddess?”

Setch shook her head, “I have no magic, nor a desire to speak with you.”  She whispered and began slowly backing out of the room.

“You think to leave My presence without suffering My wrath?”

Setch shook.  I have to get out of here.  I don’t know if the stone will work again, and I don’t know what He can do to me.  She took another step back, wondering how far from the door she was.  She flinched as the sound in the room muffled again, and she cringed as a wall of fire raced toward her.  She froze.

Run.

Setch heard the voice and for a moment questioned if it was the Corrupter.  She glanced back and saw the door was no more than fifteen steps away.  The firewall struck the field of the stone, but Setch could feel the heat rising.

Run.

Setch ran and felt the fire seeping through the field.  She struggled to open the door and slammed it behind her.  The scent of burnt hair filled the hallway.  The door behind her began to heat up, and Setch ran.

Back in her chamber, she hastily threw some clothing together. She saw the ends of her hair charred and noted that her dress was singed. “Thank you My Lady.” Setch whispered realizing how close she had come to death. “And thanks be to you Tzi of the Midnight.” With her small satchel in hand, she raced to Drioux’s room.  She expected the temple to be awake with alarms, with noise, but it was as silent as the late hour.

Where is Este?  Why hasn’t she come after me?  Setch did not bother to knock on Drioux’s door.  She slipped inside.

The room was dark, but she could hear the older woman breathing.  “Drioux?” She hissed.

Drioux, as a trained midwife, could be fully awake in seconds.  But she remained insensible.  Setch shook her shoulder and was rewarded with a low mumbling.

She felt around for the witchlight she knew Drioux kept next to her bed.  In her haste, her hands knocked over everything on the table, but she finally found the light.

Drioux lay in bed, her face ashen.  “Drioux?”  Setch glanced at the bottles on Drioux’s table and recognized them all as antidotes to poison.

“How did Este find out?  Why were you fool enough to remain here, you have made everyone else leave?” Setch cried.  “Why have we all been foolish enough to remain here?”  She ran to the door that led outside of the temple.  All midwives were housed in room on the outer walls.  It allowed them to leave at any hour to attend a birth.  Outside Setch knew every door had a bell to awaken the midwives.

“I’m sorry Drioux, but I cannot stay.  If you can hear me, I have defied the Unnamed One.  He will kill me and my child.  I must go.”  She laid a hand on Drioux’s cheek.  The older woman had been like a mother to her, and even with their recent disagreements, Setch’s heart still ached to leave her poisoned and alone. “Seek sanctuary outside of the temple, Drioux.  I know you have places, safe places, that you can go.”

Setch raced from the room, stopping only to ring the bell for the midwives.  When the first door cracked opened, she called out, “See to Drioux, she has been poisoned.”  Without waiting to see if the midwife believed her, Setch ran.

She knew only one place that was safe, Coliu and the temple of Itz. None would seek her there. As she hurried through the dark streets, she hoped that going to Coliu would not put her lover in danger.

The Temple was open, but empty when Setch arrived, out of breath from her rush. “Hello?” she called out into the darkness. “Coliu?” her voice echoed in the empty chamber. Even at this hour, some priest should be waiting to welcome supplicants. It wasn’t unusual for those seeking Itz’s grace, his scourging punishments, to seek it under the cover of darkness.

She paced anxiously, her eyes adjusting to the darkness, and what she saw shocked her. The temple had been desecrated. The walls were covered in paint, and a priest lay crumpled near the door. She raced over to the figure, praying it wasn’t Coliu.

Setch knelt near the priestess, brushing her hair away from her face, and seeking the woman’s breath. It wasn’t Coliu, and Setch blessed all the gods of the empire. “Can you hear me?” she asked, slapping lightly at the woman’s cheeks.

The woman slowly rose to consciousness, blinking at Setch.

“Who has done this, my sister?” Setch asked, holding the woman.

The woman blinked, “Mat, the priests of Mat, came.” She swallowed, and Setch considered seeking water for the woman, but was afraid to leave her alone. “They came and declared us heretics and traitors for worshipping a foreign god.” She clutched at Setch, “They attacked us and desecrated our temple, why would they do that?”

Setch shook her head, finally understanding what Amox and Este had been planning. Amox’s warrior priests were begining a purge in the city. By driving out the priests, they would drive out the other gods. She didn’t understand why they would bother. The lesser gods, were just that, lesser. They held little sway in the empire, worshipped only be a few. “I do not know, my sister.” She helped the woman to sit up. “Tell me, what did they do with the priests? With Coliu?”

“They took some, those that fought. The others ran.” The woman was able to sit on her own now, but her eyes were distant, foggy.

Setch worried about the injuries the woman may have sustained. She’d clearly taken a blow to her head, as her scalp was matted with blood. “And Coliu?”

The woman gazed at Setch, trying to focus on her. “She left the city yesterday. She was seeking information about a Suyuian story, or maybe an artifact or something.” She shook her head, “I am sorry; my mind is addled.”

Setch drew in a breath, thankful that Coliu was safe. “Thank you, sister.” She squatted next to the woman, “Do you have a place to go? Somewhere safe for a few days?”

The woman seemed to consider it, “My family lives in the city, I can go to them.” She struggled to rise, and Setch hurried to help her. She desperately hoped the woman’s family was nearby, because she knew her time was running out.

Supporting the other woman, Setch helped her leave the temple. Outside, they were greeted by the returning priests, those who had run. Setch did not blame them for running. Mat’s priests were all warrior trained, these priests had no hope of surviving a fight with them. She recognized one of the priests, “You,” she said, not recalling the man’s name, “Please see to this priestess.”

She gave the woman over to their care. “You know me.” She looked them over. “I am Setch of the Temple of Dawn.”

“Temple of corruption” one of the priests spat.

Before Setch could speak, the priest she recognized interrupted. “No, this one is working to cleanse her temple. She understands the power of purging.”

Setch nodded, “It is true. The Temple of Dawn harbors corruption, but I am Zel’s servant. She will scourge this menace  from the temple and the city.” She closed her eyes briefly, “In three days time, I will call upon you to send one of your priests to me. Together, all the gods can defeat Him.”

The servants of Itz did not look convinced, but the man before he nodded. “In three days, I will stand for Itz.”

“Thank you,” Setch said, feeling the relief of it. “Please, if you can help the others. All the lesser temples are at risk.” In the distance, she heard the cries of guards on the streets. “I must go,” she said, and clasped the man’s hand. “Three days.” She said, and ran from the temple her eyes locked on the Temple of Midnight, the only place left to her.

She raced toward it, knowing that it was finally time for her to answer the summons of the Goddess of Sorcerers.

As the moon was almost dark, the river of light was missing from the black paving stones.  She paused before stepping on to Tzi’s grounds.  “Please, Zel help me.” She whispered and glanced back at the Temple of Dawn.  It was slowly lighting up, as the priestesses awoke.  Was it my alarm or Este’s that roused them?  She saw the temple guard flowing out of the temple, like angered ants.

Setch stepped onto the black stones of Tzi’s domain.

She hurried up to the temple, hearing the guards calling the alarm.  What charge will Este lay at my feet? She wondered as she reached the entrance to the Temple of Midnight.  A sleepy, young novice sat at the entrance.

“I must see the High Priestess.” She panted.

The young man, to his credit, came to attention quickly.  “The High Priestess is not seeing any supplicants tonight.”  He said, confusion creeping into his voice as he noted she wore the clothing of a priestess of Zel.

“I have no time for this.  She will see me.  Tell her the Unnamed One has risen.”  She glanced across the plaza, wondering if the demarcation of temple grounds would stop the guards.

The novice frowned, still confused, but he too saw the guards entering the plaza.  “This is a conversation better had inside, I think.”  He opened the door and Setch entered the Temple of Midnight.

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