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The Darkness Comes
The Darkness comes, and it is many.
“You must be prepared,” my mother told me. She said it a thousand times throughout my childhood. When other mothers told their children that they loved them, she would say it again. You must be prepared.
But there are some things that you can never be completely prepared for. Death is one of them.
“Are you ready, Priestess?” the soldier asked, and though his face was stern, it was also deathly pale. Whether that pallor was from entering the Priestess’s Temple or from the impending threat, I could not tell, though I suspected that it was a mixture of both.
From my place in front of the Death Goddess’s alter, I bowed my head to the goddess one last time. We will be face-to-face shortly, my goddess, I thought, but did not say anything aloud. Instead, I stood, sweeping the split skirt—more two pieces of cloth on a belt than anything else—back so that I could walk without tripping on it. The heavy headdress dug into my scalp, and I resisted the urge to rip it out of my hair. But the people expected me to dress like a priestess, and so I would.
Unhurried, I walked past the soldier and across the smooth white marble of the Temple’s floor. All around me, the statues of the gods and goddesses that were worshiped throughout the land looked down on me, their stone eyes weighing me and finding me wanting. This should have been my mother’s duty, but she had left, vanished with the captain of the guard three years ago. I suppose that was one of the things I should have been prepared for.
The distance between the alter and the door seemed endless, but I was glad of it. This had been my home, my entire world, for the past three years, and I loved it. There was peace here, contentment is seeking the gods’ will in the sacred fires, in my own dreams. The Priestess of the Dark Moon was the vessel of the gods’ power, gifted with their knowledge and able to walk among them without fear of madness.
As I passed the sacred fire, burning in a great brazier in the center of the floor, I finally paused. From his respectful position a few feet behind me and to the left, the soldier began to protest, but stopped when I reached out and thrust my hands into the heart of the blaze. I scooped up a handful of embers and burning wood, cupping them in my hands.
Is this right? I silently asked the flames as they licked coolly at my arms, bathing me in the smell of applewood and cinnamon. Please, show me a sign, a warning, anything. I have been your faithful servant all my life. Please. Is this the right thing to do?
Pyromancy had always been one of my strongest gifts, and even now it did not fail me. A picture formed within the blaze, a face that no mortal eyes could look upon without it striking terror into their hearts. The goddess of fate stared back at me and nodded, just once. Her dark eyes sparkled with a thousand unknown secrets, holding the very fate of the world in their depths. In those eyes, I saw what was to be.
The one word rumbled through my ears and echoed through the Temple like thunder trapped beneath the earth. The soldier behind me uttered a bare whimper and dropped to his knees, but I ignored him. I bowed my head to the goddess and whispered, “Thank you.”
It was not an over-elegant, flowing thanks, but it was from the heart.
This was what I was meant to do.
Without looking back, I walked past the brazier and to the Temple’s steps, then down them without pausing. My bare feet made no noise, and the other soldiers waiting there jumped at my sudden appearance.
“Priestess,” the first one began, but I swept past him without acknowledgment. In front of me, the paved streets curved down and away towards the great walls that surrounded the city. The Temple was set at the highest point, even higher than the castle where the king lived, but it was not cluttered and surrounded by hundreds of tiny streets and ugly governmental buildings. Instead, a single wide road led down the hill, straight through the city and to the gates of the city themselves.
I took this all in with a single glance, hardly registering the fact that I was outside the temple for the first time in six seasons. My attention was focused solely on the seething dark mass of the army gathered outside the walls.
On the late noon breeze, the smell of night drifted over the city, coming from the other army. The Darkness had come several times since the city’s creation, and every time, the Priestess of the Dark Moon went out to them. No one knew what she did there, or how she did it, but the Darkness would always retreat after she did, and the Priestess was never seen again. This task now fell to me. As Priestess, I had to turn the Darkness from the city. It was my duty, as much as divining the king’s name from the stars or reading the gods’ will in the splatters of blood from a sacrificial animal. I would turn them. I had to.
“Priestess, your chariot…” one of the soldiers tried to protest, but I didn’t even bother glancing at him. I just started down the wide white road, walking steadily, but without hurry. In my mind, my mother’s words sounded again, uttered with the air of prophecy, the resonance of truth. Death comes in its own time. Do not try to rush it. A good Priestess always walks beside Death.
Now, on the eve of my own death, I finally understood her words. All things come in their own time. My death would not come faster for my measured tread. Those who thought to rush me were fools, and not worth listening to.
The easy slope of the road led me into the lower parts of the city, despite my deliberate pace. Here things were not as they seemed from high on my hill, but I was not surprised. Until my mother had come for me, so long ago, I had lived here among the other beggars and urchins, without a hint of my bloodline to set me apart. It had been her way of hiding me, while at the same time showing me just how life could be outside the Temple. And it had worked.
People lined the streets to watch me pass, silent to a man. Unbidden, an old dirge I had heard both princess and farmer’s wife sing came to mind. Without conscious thought, it whirled free into the air, carried on the silence.
“The moon is bright,
The world is white;
I’m dancing in a frozen land;
Death and I dance hand in hand.
Under mountains bathed in cold moonlight,
Death and I dance through the night.
Soldiers pass us, three by three—
Their blind eyes stare, but do not see.
Time passes, a grey-gold blur,
But our steps are simple, sure;
A thousand wars, and countless dead,
With every step a life is shed.
The road lies glassy underfoot,
But the air is choked with soot
From the fallen of a city lost,
And those who paid the final cost.
Take my hand and dance with me,
Between the white moon and the frozen sea.
Do not heed those passing by;
With hate and fear, alone, they die.”
Even as my song ended, another voice picked up the tune and sang again, and another, and another, until the entire city hummed with the low requiem. I walked through a trembling world of sound like a living thing, and my only thought was to the beauty of it.
The great gates loomed before me, waiting, but I paused in front of them and turned. The air rang not only with song, but with a call. The next Priestess had been chosen, and I was to deliver the message.
I looked through the masses gathered there, and finally found the one face I needed, a young girl hugging tight to the wall of the building to keep from being crushed by the crowd. There was no hesitating. I simply walked into the crowd, and they parted around me with gasps and murmurs of surprise. They did not divert me, though, and I pushed through to the girl. She stared up at me, eyes wide in surprise, but there was no hint of fear there. That pleased me.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“I have none, Priestess,” she answered quietly, without hesitation.
“You are chosen,” I told her. “The gods have told me that you are to be the Priestess. Will you take this office?” No dainty words, no delicate phrasing. A simple choice, and that was all.
“Yes.” Just as simple, just as direct.
I nodded and lifted the amulet of my office from around my throat, pulling it out of my long hair, and then draped it around her neck. “When I have done what I must, go up to the temple and show them this. And do not worry. The gods will guide you on this path.”
Again, she did not hesitate. She nodded, and I rose. “Good. Farewell, wherever you may go.”
“Goodbye, Priestess,” I heard her whisper as I walked away, back to the gates. They opened before me, swinging wide, and I stepped out onto the plain around the city.
The Darkness was a silent mass, waiting. Waiting for me. I raised my chin and began to walk out to meet them, my head held high. My mother whispered in my mind again, her voice edged with desperation. Your destiny is always wherever you go, usually a day or two ahead of you. I wondered now what destiny she had gone to find.
About fifty feet from the first line of dark soldiers, I stopped. The small puffs of dust raised by my feet twisted around my ankles, then were shredded by the wind and vanished. I remained silent, watching. Waiting.
There was another moment of silence, and then the soldiers parted. A rider on a black horse came down the path they opened. He rode within a few feet of me and halted, looking down.
I gazed at him in return. He was like any other soldier, but his black armor was more ornate, and there was a thin circlet of silver around his brow. His dark eyes weighed me, against what ballast I did not know, and then he smiled.
“Priestess,” he said, and bowed his dark head to me.
I gazed into his eyes for a long moment, and I knew. I knew what I had to do, and I knew what my mother had been running from. She had been scared of what would happen if she had to face the Darkness, but I felt no fear. This man would not hurt me, any more than I would hurt him.
“I’m ready,” I said.
He nodded. “Then we shall leave. What is your name, Priestess?”
For the first time in many years, I smiled. “Does the wind need a name?” I asked. “Do the stars or the stones or the trees? To name those things would be both foolish and unnecessary. Putting a name to them doesn’t make them be any more than they already are.”
The man smiled in return and leaned down, offering me his hand. I took it. “Ah, but my beautiful Priestess, you are not the wind, or a stone, or a star, or a tree. If you do not have a name, then I shall give you one.” He looked at me for a moment, then leaned down and murmured the name in my ear.
“Yes,” I whispered back. “I will come.”
He pulled me up in front of him on the horse, and I grabbed onto his arms to keep from falling. Without needing a signal, the beast wheeled and cantered back into the ranks of the army. As we passed, they turned and followed, once more retreating into the west with their king at their head.
That was the last time anyone ever saw the twenty-third Priestess of the Dark Moon. Anyone, that is, but me, the twenty-fourth Priestess. She chose me, lifted me from where I was and gave me a new life on the eve of her death.
But it was not her death.
I will never forget how she looked that day, walking out to face her destiny. Her head was held high, her ebony hair gleaming, her snow-pale skin making her a glowing creature in the gathering dusk. Her grey eyes, so calm and confident, haunt me even now.
People say I, too, have become a beautiful, confident Priestess. I suppose any amount of time without the sun can make plain brown hair into rich mahogany, turn tanned skin to purest white. But the twenty-third Priestess was something different, something more than mortal. They say that the ones who face the Darkness are always like that, that I am like that. Is it true?
I still see her sometimes, in my dreams, walking down a white hall with the same even, measured tread she used as she was going out to die. Or I see her in some great garden, walking beside a dark man. She would visit my dreams sometimes, after I became Priestess, to help me learn what it was I had to do. And when I asked her what had happened with the Darkness, she just smiled and said, “No one can catch tomorrow. Be patient. Someday, you will know.”
Then, I did not understand what she meant. But now, it is finally clear to me. I know what it was she was trying to tell me.
Why have I stayed as Priestess, when I know that in doing so, I will die?
Well, everyone must be somewhere, and this is as good as anywhere else. Death comes in its own time, and a good Priestess always walks beside Death.