He reached his destination two and a half uneventful days later. It had been a long time since he’d been to Oldwatch, yet the town appeared to be almost exactly the same as it had been nearly a century ago. The faces around him were different, but the streets and buildings were untouched by the passage of time.
I’m not sure if that’s comforting or worrying. On the other hand, it should make navigating fairly straightforward.
He dismounted and walked Xantoxu down the main street as was the law, taking a right turn at the first major intersection. If his memory served him right, the hostel he stayed at the last time was in that direction.
Some of the hanging signs in front of the inns and taverns had been replaced since his last visit. One inn that he could’ve sworn was the Rancid Spoon had a new sign over its door proclaiming it to be the Sticky Cauldron. He shook his head and continued on.
A short time later he found the unassuming wood fronted building he was searching for. The fading sign in the window confirmed it to be the Restless Winds, a strange name for a hostel. Likely that was what had drawn Linndan to it in the first place.
A prepubescent child met him out front. They held out their hand to take Xantoxu’s reins. Linndan smiled and handed over the reins and a small coin for their trouble before taking the saddlebags he needed and going inside.
The bell over the door rang as he entered. Strategic oil lamps lit the main room, the aroma of fresh bread wafting out from the kitchen. A well-dressed lunyari man came out from behind the counter.
“Well, well! We don’t get many Scholars in these parts,” he said.
“That’s surprising given how close both the Academy and the Institute are,” Linndan replied.
“Bah. There’s little of interest here to your kind. Faloress is much more to their taste.”
“They lack imagination. There’s something of interest everywhere you go.”
“An interesting philosophy for such a young man.”
“Young physically, but an old soul as my mother used to say.”
“So what can we do for you?”
“I’m in need of a room for a night or two. This hostel came highly recommended to me.”
“Might I ask by whom? We haven’t had any Scholars here in, oh, longer than I can recall.”
“I don’t recall his name off-hand,” Linndan said. “I came across a reference to it in a travel log during my studies.”
“You’re lucky we’re still here.”
“Oldwatch hasn’t changed in nearly a century at least from the looks of your architecture. The odds were good that this establishment was still here.”
The lunyari shrugged. “The building might still have been standing but businesses come and go.”
“Has that happened to many of them?”
“A few. More than I’d like, but times are hard and some of the local Houses don’t have the influence they used to.”
“I see. What’s the going rate for a night’s stay, a meal, and lodgings for my mount?”
The man quoted a price.
Linndan nodded.”That’s higher than what was in the travel log, but that was almost a hundred years ago. Things have changed since then.” He fished some coins out of his voluminous sleeves. “It’s been some time since I’ve needed to pay for lodgings. Is the custom still half in advance, half on departure?”
“I prefer to take full payment up front, but you Scholars are trustworthy. This arrangement is acceptable.”
Linndan handed over the coins and the man showed him to a small but functional room. After he left, Linndan set the saddlebags down and took Ellias out, setting him down on the room’s single table.
“Do you want to stay here or tag along?”
“Why in the name of all the Saints would I want to ‘tag along’?” Ellias grumped.
“You’re the one who offered to be a spy. I’m going to let Xantoxu rest here for a bit while I walk down to the south end where most of the temples are. I didn’t pay that much attention last time but that’s the likeliest place for Tehaksha to have Hers.”
“And that temple is going to be full of skulls?”
“Not necessarily. Skulls and skull imagery will be all over it because of who it’s dedicated to. How much there is really depends on how important this holy site is. Her holy site in Athros is Her most important one and, therefore, will have far more than anything we’ll see here in Miltan. You’ll still blend in, though.”
“That’s not comforting.”
“It wasn’t meant to be.”
“Why don’t you go alone and check the place out first? If you need me, some back and get me. Otherwise, I’d prefer to stay put, thank you very much.”
“That’s fair, I suppose, but that means I’ll have to put you back in the saddlebag just in case someone comes in.”
Ellias sighed. “Very well. It’s boring but at least it’s safe.”
Linndan returned the skull to its hiding place and left the hostel.
The day was getting late. The people of Oldwatch filled the streets as they headed home from work. He spotted a few white cloaked members of the Order of the Rose as he made his way through the crowds. People gave them a wide berth, removing their hats as they passed. It seemed to Linndan that there was more familiarity than fear with these women. Regardless, they went a different direction from the one Linndan took, so he paid them no further mind.
The temples on the south side of town varied in design and size. Statues beside the doorway identified which god or goddess it was dedicated to. The largest one proudly displayed a pure white statue of Shan-Illu the Shining One, the chief goddess of the Soulforge Alliance. Out of respect, he bowed his head for a few seconds before walking past Her temple. A smaller one to its left displayed a statue of Her consort, Tesha Firestarter.
All good Melphorian children knew the names and faces of the gods whether or not they went to school. Linndan knew them better than most. He often stated his Scholarly studies as the reason, but it went deeper than that. Few people knew the truth and fewer still were still counted among the living.
He found Tehaksha’s statue in front of a grey stone building tucked away at the end of the street. He stood at the base of the steps for a moment, taking in the dark granite figure. He had to admire the artistry that had gone into its creation. Every scale of her long, serpentine tail was visible even at the distance he was standing. Her long hair draped around a very feminie torso. The mask worn by every naga he’d ever met—the gods were no exception to that rule—was displayed proudly on her face. Its every detail carved by someone who both knew what they were doing and was more than likely a devotee of the Soul Eater. Why else would the artist have carved so many skulls around the base of the statue in addition to the one She held in Her hand?
He climbed the steps to get a closer look and almost gagged. The skull in her hand wasn’t part of the statue at all, but real bone. He turned his head and entered the temple before he defiled the steps with what was left of his lunch.
The air inside the temple was a little cooler than it was outside. Red candles in wrought iron lanterns lit the small space. The walls were made of stone but carved to look like natural rock formations. Nooks in the stone contained more skulls and dried flowers. He couldn’t identify the species of the flowers as they were too dried out and it wasn’t a field he was familiar with.
A single person occupied the temple. She knelt in front of the altar at the far end. It was draped in a shimmering red cloth and decorated with an assortment of skulls both recent and ancient. One of them appeared to be a jyelyar and he would have sworn on his mother’s grave that there was a kairyyl among the older skulls.
The woman stood and turned at his approach. The first thing he noticed about her was the elaborate scar under her right eye. It was Tehaksha’s emblem and marked this woman as a high-ranked devotee. Linndan knew from his research that such marks had to be carved into the flesh over and over to prevent them from healing properly and to achieve the depth they required. It was a long and painful process and only someone with true devotion would consider putting themselves through it, let alone go through with it.
“I greet you in the name of our most holy Mother,” the woman said. “What brings you before Her this day?”
“Simple curiosity,” Linndan replied. “This temple was referenced in a book I read, but it was sorely lacking on any of the details. After further research, it seemed that no Scholar had done a proper study on Tehaksha or Her followers in several centuries.”
“That seems like a large oversight.”
“That was my thought as well. This particular temple isn’t her primary one, but it’s the closest one to the Academy, so it seemed as good a place to start my research as any.”
“Devotees of Hebron are, as ever, a joy to speak to, for they don’t judge our most holy Mother. You are welcome here, Scholar. May you find love and acceptance in the embrace of Tehaksha.”
“Thank you for your kind words. Might I ask your name?”
“I am High Priestess Beryna. How may I address you?”
“I am Linndan of House Leshar’ien.” He paused. “You didn’t tell me your House.”
“My House is of no importance. Only my devotion to our Mother matters.”
“I find it interesting that you call Her that. Her official designation is the Soul Eater. There’s a kairyyl goddess who has the appellation of Mother.”
Beryna sniffed. “Tehaksha is our Mother, not the Mother. Besides, the kairyyl were exterminated over a thousand years ago. Such was the sorrow of their gods that they spread themselves on the winds, ending their existence.”
“So you believe that Kiten, Avren, Donn, Astareya, and Junati are dead?”
“Gods cannot truly die,” she scoffed. “They’ve taken on a new manner of existence.”
“I see. So, then, do you believe that Tenyuu has done the same? It’s the common belief that the griffin have gone extinct and He was their god.”
“Griffin are mindless beasts. There is much debate on that topic, but personally I believe He still lives as He once did, though in a diminished capacity.”
Linndan nodded, smiling. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a proper debate with someone.”
“Do you Scholars not talk to each other?”
“Yes, but debates among us often carry on for weeks as more research comes to light. It can get…draining.” He coughed. “Getting back on topic, why do you call Her your Mother? She’s never struck me as being the mothering type.”
“Why? Because she’s the goddess of the underworld? All things must die. It’s an inevitable truth. To those who aren’t afraid to seek out Her truth, She cradles them in Her arms and whispers the secrets of the world to them. When we die, our skulls are given a place of honour in her temples, our bodies put in the ground to nurture the world.”
Linndan grimaced. “How do you condone having that done to your body? It flies in the face of every belief held in regards to death.”
“Human beliefs, perhaps, but it isn’t shared by all,” Beryna countered. “We humans are such limited creatures. Why should it matter to a soul if our body is missing a few parts? No one goes through life completely intact. Our souls, however, remain pure and whole regrdless of the damage done to our shells. It’s our belief that the skulls of the faithful are worthy of remaining in Her temples while their blessed souls have a special place at Her side.”
“I take it this belief isn’t widely accepted outside of Her followers.”
“There are many reasons why She doesn’t enjoy the popularity She rightfully deserves,” Beryna said with a touch of bitterness. “Why should Shan-Illu have all the glory when She hardly does anything?”
“All of the gods have a place and a purpose.”
“All Shan-Illu has done is birth that abomination of an Empress.”
Reflexively, Linndan looked around him but the temple was empty. “You’re awfully close to blasphemy,” he cautioned.
“What do I care? She can’t see or hear me inside these walls. Such is the way of the gods. Their temples are sacrosanct. Only Tehaksha may listen in here.”
“Does She do so often?”
“I haven’t felt our Mother’s presence in a long time,” Beryna admitted.
“Have you ever?” Linndan asked.
Beryna narrowed her eyes. “What, exactly, are you asking?”
“There are some strange rumors I’ve come across while researching Tehaksha and Her followers. Some say She hasn’t visited any of Her faithful in centuries.”
“That’s ridiculous. We receive Her guidance and feel Her presence in Her temples at all times.”
“I don’t pretend to understand how your order works,” he said, spreading his hands in a placating manner. “All I know is what I’ve heard. I’m simply following the trail of evidence. I’d be happier knowing I’m wrong, that your most holy Mother hasn’t disappeared.”
“That’s the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard!”
“So, you haven’t heard anything about her being missing?” Linndan pressed.
“No. As one of her most high priestesses, I would know if something was wrong.”
Linndan bowed. “That’s all the assurance I need. The hour is drawing late and I’ve had a long journey. Would it be alright if I came back tomorrow to speak with you some more?”
Beryna frowned. “I suppose that would be acceptable, although I suggest you chose your words more wisely on your next visit. I will not be so forgiving should you make such insinuations again.”
“I assure you, High Priestess, it won’t happen again.”
“Then you will be most welcome to speak with any one of the acolytes who serve here. I can’t guarantee that I will be present as I have a number of duties to attend to.”
“I expect nothing less of someone in your position.” Linndan bowed again and left the temple.
The streets were less crowded now that the sun was almost down. The magically fueled street lights were lit, shining with an unwavering light. He made his way back to the hostel.
There was a different man at the front desk—a human this time. He looked up and nodded as Linndan entered. The same prepubescent child from before came out from the kitchen and presented him with a small dinner tray. He nodded and took it back to his room.
The meal was nothing special. Two slices of roast, boiled potatoes, a crusty bun, a bowl of thin soup, and a mug of watered down ale. He set the ale aside with a sigh and ate the meal. Then he let Ellias out of the bag.
“Well?” he asked. “Did you learn anything?”
“That’s not a straightforward answer,” Linndan replied. He filled Ellias in on the details of his conversation with Beryna.
“Do you believe her?”
“I’m not sure. On the one hand, if anyone were to know if Tehaksha was missing, it would be the higher-ups in Her priesthood. On the other, something about this Beryna is…off.”
“You have a different perspective on this than I do.”
“I know it won’t mean much to you, but it bothered me that she wouldn’t tell me what House she comes from.”
“To a Melphorian, our House is everything. It’s not just what family we come from but our pride. To not have a House is to be alone in the world. This isn’t universally true, but the bulk of the Houseless are irredeemable criminals.”
“Could she have just been trying to hide her identity from you?”
“Even the lowest, most out of favour House is something to be proud of. The reason she gave me is, technically, a valid one, but it doesn’t sit well with me. We’re taught from childhood to give our name and House when introducing ourselves. She didn’t even start to list a House out of reflex as one would expect from someone who’d surrendered her House in that manner.”
“So…you suspect she’s one of these Houseless.”
“I’m saying it’s a possibility, but it’s not something you want to accuse someone of without good reason. If I do and I’m wrong, there are severe consequences if she chooses to pursue them.”
“What bothers me is that she claims to feel Tehaksha’s presence and influence in the Temples, but says she’s never personally felt Her.”
“That does seem contradictory,” Linndan mused. “Although, there’s a difference between feeling a the presence of a god in Their holy site and feeling it in a one-on-one encounter. I’ve done both often enough to know the difference.”
“Huh, I suppose. So, what are you going to do next?”
“I’m going to sleep on it and figure out my next move in the morning,” Linndan said, yawning. “It’s likely that I’ll go back to the temple and talk to Beryna if she’s there. If she’s not, I’ll see if anyone else will talk to me.”
“Do you need me to tag along?”
“I don’t think so at this juncture.”
“That’s a relief.”
Linndan changed into his sleeping clothes and crawled into bed.
“You know,” the skull observed. “That’s one thing I don’t miss about being alive.”
“Good night, Ellias.”
The streets were just as crowded as they’d been the night before as he made his way back to the temple. He didn’t pause in front of Shan-Illu’s statue this time, heading straight to Tehaksha’s and going in. It was surprisingly busy inside. Several priests crowded around the altar as Beryna read the contents of a letter to them. He couldn’t hear what she said, but whatever it was excited the priests.
He waited for them to disperse before approaching the altar. There was no sign of the letter. “Good morning, High Priestess,” he said.
“Ah, a good day to you, Scholar Linndan,” she returned.
“You seem to be in a good mood.”
“This is the most glorious of days.”
“Does that have anything to do with the letter you were reading when I came in?”
She nodded. “It would seem that a larüsorlne has been captured near Paraten.”
Linndan felt a cold pit in his gut. “I didn’t think anyone was foolish enough to go near the Forbidden Lands anymore.”
“I’m not privy to her circumstances, but you know the law as well as I do.”
“Has her execution date been set?”
Beryna’s smile deepened. “Oh, yes. Our most holy Mother will feast on her soul on Her day.”
“No one’s been executed on Tehaksha’s Day in years.”
“Can you think of a more fitting punishment for such a crime?”
“Do you even know she committed any crime?” Linndan asked. “For all you know she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“She was too near to the Forbidden Lands and has invited its corruption into her soul.” Beryna narrowed her eyes. “Everyone knows this to be true. Better to show mercy and end her existence now than to allow her to spread this corruption to the rest of Melphor.”
“I don’t see what this girl has to do with you.”
Beryna straightened up, beaming. “I am the highest ranking devotee of Tehaksha anywhere near Paraten. As such, I’ve been called on to witness the execution and ensure that her soul is delivered to my most holy Mother. I and three of my highest ranked priests will be travelling to Paraten once our daily duties have been discharged and arrangements are made for our absence.”
“Is this something you’re called on to do often?” Linndan asked.
Beryna shook her head. “While members of our order are required to witness all executions, those of my position are rarely required. I find it strange you don’t know this.”
“The nuances of the justice system aren’t something I’ve spent time studying,” he explained. “Come to think of it, I’ve never been to an execution.”
“No?” Beryna sounded surprised.
“I read of enough horrific things over the course of my studies that to bear witness to something so gruesome…” He shook his head. “Forgive me if that sounds insulting to your order.”
“Not all men have the stomach for such things,” she said in a soothing tone. “This is why men don’t participate in the bloodier affairs of our world.”
“Perhaps that is so,” he agreed.
Beryna tilted her head to one side. “Would you care to accompany us to Paraten?”
“Whyever would I want to do that?”
“This is a unique opportunity for your studies of our order. You could see not only how an execution is carried out, but how one deals with a larüsorlne at the same time. It would provide you with some valuable insight. You may also find the library there to be of use to you.”
“Libraries are always of use. What’s so special about that one?”
“You were concerned about Tehaksha’s wherabouts. There are records there that may help shed some light on the matter.”
“I hadn’t thought to look there,” he muttered. “There are no sites dedicated to Her there.”
“Not unless you count the Shrine of All Gods,” Beryna said. “It’s far too small of a town to have temples dedicated to any one god, so that is their way of providing worship for its people.”
“Clever.” Linndan paused. “When do you need to leave?”
“I would like to arrive in Paraten the day before the executions in order to make sure that all the preparations are in place correctly. We’ll be traveling by cart, so we’ll have to leave by tomorrow afternoon at the latest to get there on time.”
“Then it seems I have some time to prepare.”
“I can’t promise we’ll have room for you in the cart.”
Linndan shrugged. “I wouldn’t expect you to. I have a mount of my own, regardless.”
“How fortunate for you.”
“It makes my life easier, traveling from place to place as I do.”
“I do little traveling these days,” Beryna said. “I have all I need right here. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have many things to prepare.”
Linndan bowed and left the temple.
Back at the hostel, he paid the remainder of his tab and for another night’s lodgings before heading to his room. Ellias waited for him with his customary impatience.
“Learn anything new?”
“Not about my mission, but I’ve been pointed in an interesting direction.” He explained about the letter Beryna received and her invitation.
“Why in the name of all the Saints would anyone want to go watch some poor sap get executed?” Ellias said, shocked.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Linndan sighed. “It’s not like this is a tidy affair, either. The condemned are led up onto a raised platform where they get their heads chopped off with a large axe.”
Linndan’s lips twitched. “Hits a little too close to home?”
“You could say that,” Ellias grumbled. “Heads should remain firmly attached to their necks, thank you.”
“It’s the way things are done here, gruesome as it is. In theory, public executions act as a deterrent for criminal activity. Who knows if it actually works?”
“It would work for me.”
“Says the skull with no body.”
“That wasn’t from an execution,” Ellias grumped. “You know that.”
“It’s a joke, Ellias. Relax.”
“I’ll relax when I’m reunited with the rest of me.”
“So what do you think? Should I take Beryna up on her offer or head to Paraten by myself?”
“As loathe as I am to force myself to stay silent for that long, traveling with Beryna and her priests may present you with some interesting opportunities.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
“So why ask me?”
“Appearances aside, you’re not baggage. You have thoughts and feelings and are entitled to an opinion, even if I can’t fathom how you’re able to do any of that.”
Ellias snorted. “Where was this consideration when you dragged me from Liulge?”
“We’ve been over that.”
“I know, I know. You’re choosing a strange time to be considerate, is all.”
Linndan laid down on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. “Now to figure out how to kill time between now and tomorrow afternoon.”
“Would a town like this have a library?”
“Unless a town is very small it will.” He sat up. “Odds are the books they have are copies of ones I’m already familiar with, but it couldn’t hurt to look. At the very least it will help with the pretense of my being here.”
<a href=”https://keverynn.net/2022/03/22/chapter-1-4/”>Chapter 1</a> ~ <a href=”https://keverynn.net/2022/03/22/chapter-3-4/”>Chapter 3</a>