t was strange but Fitch got used to this other, secret life of his. Sneaking out to Seyella’s temple twice a week at night and hurrying back before Joure woke. He suffered periodic pangs of guilt about deceiving the old scribe and yet Fitch felt he just could not abandon Nehmar without anxiety.
The more time he spent with her, the more he realised that his initial, intuitive assessment of her was right. She was truly lonely. Surrounded by her priestesses and maids for most part of the days, performing or participating in temple duties, they left her alone during the nights in her private sanctum.
Everyone around her only ever saw, or chose to see, the vessel of Seyella’s grace. No one bothered about the real Nehmar who was mostly always disagreeable and rude, sometimes funny when she related a few stories of her own to Fitch, like how a lesser priestess had fallen asleep on her feet during a particularly long prayer session and started snoring, sometimes withdrawn when her thoughts were distant, and always clamouring to know more of the outside world.
Fitch thought, in a way, they were getting to know a little of the other better. Which he supposed was good but it made him apprehensive too, for the same indefinable reasons that he could not explain.
Things might have continued indefinitely like this, Fitch would wait for Nehmar at the small garden gate and when she came, they would go to the white and ivory house to begin playing rounds of saki until she would ask him for a story or another description of something in Voldar which she had heard from one of the maids. Fitch would start speaking while still continuing to play or, other times, they would stop and just sit in that beautiful, airy room and talk.
Then, one night, she wanted to know about his parents.
“Why do you live with Joure? Why do you not live with your parents? Don’t they want you?” Nehmar shot her questions rapidly with the intensity and concentration of a dwarf who spotted a treasure trove after she had thrown another six in three successions with her blue Paladin dice.
“Of course they did!” Fitch replied, stung. “They just… they died, that’s all. Joure took me in afterwards. It was an infectious sickness, first my mother, then father.”
The sadness returned as he remembered. He was very grateful to Joure for adopting him as his apprentice and he loved the old man dearly but there were times, even now, when he missed his parents with a hurt that cut into his breast.
He fingered his red dice before throwing it, looking on moodily as it stilted to a stop to show a four.
“I remember my mother, a little. I think she was my mother.” Nehmar offered unexpectedly.
“Can’t you remember?”
She shrugged. “I was only a little girl, a baby really, the day the priestesses and soldiers came. The day they said I had been Chosen. The auguries told them where to find me when the Voice before me died. She was very old, ninety-six winters past, practically a relic.” Nehmar reached up and briefly touched the strip of cloth around her eyes.
“I cannot recall much but there was someone… she was holding me and she cried and cried when they took me away to the temple. Her arms felt soft around me, her tears were hot and she smelt nice. I can’t remember what she looks like. But she must have been my mother, she must have been.”
Reaching out with unerring precision, she found and grasped Fitch’s hand, fingers dug into his skin like claws.
“She had to be my mother and she didn’t want to let me go but they made her. Fitch, they made her, didn’t they?”
She was so vehement in her fervour to want to believe that Fitch felt sorry for her… maybe it was a lie but it would be a good lie.
He awkwardly closed his own hand around hers. “Yes, she must have been. And she did not want to let you go.”
For a brief while, her fingers gripped his hand hard, latching on to him like she was drowning. Then she released her hold and turned her head away from him.
“Liar,” she said softly. “The truth of the matter is she sold me away. The priestesses gave her twenty gold coins and she sold me like I was an animal.” Her voice, always so expressive, was expressionless and dead now. “And for those twenty gold coins, she allowed them to do this to me.”
She turned to face him, her hand reaching up to the blindfold and tore it away, releasing her bound hair accidentally so that it cascaded around her face in a dazzling, vivid red halo. However, the face nestled within the fiery locks was… Fitch stared, so shocked that he couldn’t move or speak.
Nehmar laughed with sour bitterness when she perceived his stillness.
“Oh yes, this is the price all the Voices since the First Age pays to receive Seyella’s favour.” Her face turned blindly towards him like some nocturnal animal seeking the darkness. That face with the horrifically scarred sockets, welded shut with thick creases of unevenly healed flesh across where her eyes should be.
“Nothing ever comes free from the Gods. My mother,” she hissed the last word out, “sold me and then they branded my eyes out with hot irons so I could not see but I could hear. And the first thing I heard, when the pain subsided, was the Goddess of Destiny’s voice talking inside me and it was the most beautiful, most hideous thing I have ever known.”
“Nehmar…” Fitch mentally cursed himself for sounding so timid, so hesitant. He did not know what to say, fearful that whatever he said now would exacerbate the situation. He had not wanted to hurt her but he had done it all the same. He had caused the hurt she was obviously tormented by now with his thoughtless, well-meaning lie and then by his powerless silence.
“Am I beautiful then? As beautiful as your Lylyian?” Nehmar asked contemptuously. “Of course not. Your Lylyian is peerless in all of Voldar, isn’t she? As you’re so fond of telling me.”
Standing up, she re-tied the blindfold around her ruined eyes with the deftness of long practice. “Come.” she merely said to Fitch and walked out of the chamber.
“Nehmar, wait!” Fitch copied her steps and followed. It seemed to him he was forever doing that, always following her shadow since the first night she reluctantly saved him from the thorn bushes. “Where are you taking me?”
“To where the roses grow.” She threw back over her shoulder as she hurried with rapid steps down a long corridor that Fitch had not known existed. The end of the corridor led to a plain wooden door and Nehmar stopped before it with perfect precision. One step more and she would have knocked into its hard surface.
She unlatched the door and Fitch saw a row of steps, leading down to a darkly lit cavern.
Again, without waiting, she walked down the steps in a self-assured manner, never wavering, while Fitch stumbled in the darkness behind. If it were not for the sight of her white robes and red hair, glowing almost softly through the murky tunnel, in front of him, he would have lost his bearings without a candle or lamp to light his way.
The stone-hewed tunnel smelt disused and stale. The air was chilly and Fitch shivered slightly as he followed behind Nehmar who navigated through it swiftly.
They walked for some time until Fitch looked on disbelievingly as Nehmar floated off the ground, nailsbreadths above. He moved forward and the edge of his boot struck a stone step, and he realised that she was not levitating but climbing another set of stairs.
This flight of stairs led to another door, similar to the first one. Nehmar pushed it open to stride through confidently and when Fitch did the same, he blinked a few times in some disorientation as lit lamps shone all around him in an immense and empty hall.
“This is the heart of the temple.” Nehmar said briefly. Then she was off again, weaving in and out of great stone pillars and rooms filled high with strange devices that he did not recognise, with her peculiar unseeing ease. Fitch dogged her footsteps, walking close behind her, his heart beating so hard inside his chest that he thought he might faint.
Sometimes she would stop without warning, her head cocked intently to the side, and unceremoniously dragged him behind a pillar or darted into a convenient chamber, hiding, until a priestess, going about her nightly duties, or a division of temple guards marched past them.
“How do you know your way so well?” he whispered to her.
“I know every nook and cranny of this place.”
“But you’re…” He bit back that word, not wanting to but helpless, remembering those horrific, disfigured eye sockets.
“Blind?” There was a slight mocking tone in her voice and a travesty of a smile spilt her lips. Fitch did not know whether it was directed at him or herself. “Being blind does not mean I’m totally helpless. Whenever the priestesses take me to a new place, I try to remember how many paces it would take to reach it. I count the steps within my head and memorise them. It takes exactly nine hundred and twenty-two steps between that side-gate and to the main hall. It would be longer but I know a shorter way, that tunnel we went through.”
“Nehmar, I am sor…” Fitch started to apologise, the cold, mocking tone too much to bear, but she cut him off.
“We are here.”
The blue roses of Seyella grew in a small garden incongruously situated in a great bare marble room. An oval opening had been cut out of the roof, so that sun and rain could fall lightly upon the garden. In the middle was a patch of green, a large bush, with carefully cultivated and pruned emerald green leaves. Here and there, interspersed between the greenness, a hint of deep blue could be spied, nestling shyly within.
“Temple records show that a trader, a common trader, presented the first rose to Seyella as an offering a score of years ago. He found the roses blooming by an unmarked grave, deep in the heart of the Ysthalinth desert where no plants would grow, could grow in the extreme heat of the sun which is stronger there than anywhere else in the land,.” Nehmar said in a distant, faraway voice.
“But this rose did. It grew and here are the descendants of the original rose the little trader brought back. I use to wonder whose grave was that the trader found. Did the bones and blood and decaying flesh lying beneath the sand give substance to the roses there?”
“They’re beautiful.” Undeterred by her morbid words, Fitch was entranced. The blue roses were famed for their loveliness but to see one and not just one but a profusion of blue roses in bloom was almost unearthly to behold.
When he spoke, a spell seemed to break and Nehmar gave him a push. “Go on, pluck one. That’s what you’re here for.”
“But I never won a game.” The young man protested.
“Just take one and leave!” Nehmar’s voice rose to a harsh shriek. Her countenance was frenzied and Fitch, fearing that she would alert the guards, did as he was told with reluctance and doubt.
Reaching in between the branches, he gripped hold of a stalk and tugged. It broke easily and almost at once, a sweet fragrance, musky and delicate, permeated the entire room.
Wonderingly, Fitch touched the petal of the rose he now held in his hand, marvelling at velvet softness and rich, deep blue colour of it, tinged with a shadowy ebony at the very tips. Admiring the rose, he was not prepared for what happened next.
“Guards!” Nehmar began shouting. “Guards!”
For the second time that night, Fitch was stunned the point of immobility.
“Nehmar, what are you doing?! Stop that! The guards will come if you keep that up!” He tried to shush her but to no avail, Nehmar kept shouting for the temple soldiers like she was demon possessed.
Darting his head desperately around, looking for a way out, his heart sinking even as he did because he knew, without Nehmar’s help, he would be hopelessly lost within the labyrinthine corridors of the temple.
In his frantic urgency, he shoved the rose inside his tunic where it pulsed warm against his skin and grabbed hold of Nehmar’s arm to shake her roughly. “Stop shouting!” He yelled back at her. “Nehmar, stop it, please!”
She stopped, to his great relief, and he relaxed tensed muscles that had been poised to run until she said, very clearly, “No time left. It is all gone.”
Uncomprehending, Fitch stared at her. Then Nehmar added, “Too late.”
The apprentice scribe tensed once more when he saw the soldiers running into the chamber.
Oh no, nonononono, his mind groaned in despair, fury and worse, misery, over Nehmar’s apparent betrayal.
“My Lady?” The head of the guards charging in barked. He was a short, burly man, wearing the white grey uniform of Seyella’s temple soldiers and his face was creased in puzzlement and then outrage when he spied Fitch. “A trespasser! Catch him, do not let him escape!”
Fitch had no intentions of trying to run. He knew it would be futile to resist, let alone contemplate hopes of escape. He stood stock-still, resigned, as the temple guards surrounded him and two stepped forward and caught hold of him roughly, pining his arms behind his back. Discomfort shot through him but Fitch pinned his lips shut, unwilling to let Nehmar or the soldiers have the satisfaction of hearing him whimper.
“Did he hurt you, my Lady?” The officer inquired nervously, glancing at the blindfolded girl standing a little away from them.
Nehmar shook her head regally. Gone was the haughty girl who played saki for peas with Fitch, the girl who insulted him on a regular basis and generally treated him like a servant from the lower orders, the girl who was desperate for any scraps of information about a city she lived in most of her life but had never known beyond the boundaries of a high wall and who loved listening to the old stories of great men and women.
Standing in her place was Seyella’s Voice once more, aloof and otherworldly, the recipient of her gifts and a goddess’s avatar.
“I apologise for this transgression, it is inexcusable. Please forgive me.” The officer bowed deeply. As he straightened, he looked towards Fitch, barely sparing him a glance.
“Kill him.” He indicated to the soldiers holding the young man captive. Obediently, one soldier drew a sword, the slithering sound forbidding as it came out of the scabbard, and raised it high above Fitch’s head.
Fitch closed his eyes, unable to believe that he was going to die.
“Wait!” Nehmar called out and hope surged within Fitch. He opened his eyes, sending a mute plea towards her direction.
With a curt motion of one hand, the officer halted the execution. “My Lady?”
“The Festival of our Goddess draws near and I wish for no blood to stain the temple and mar the auspicious day. Let him go.”
The officer bowed again. “As you command. But…” He paused indecisively, “we cannot simply let him leave like this, my Lady. It might become an encouragement to others who would defile the sanctity of the temple.”
Nehmar strode over to where Fitch was held. The soldiers automatically gave way for her, respect and more than a little fear in their expressions as she passed them by.
Leaning in close, she did an unexpected thing. Lifting her hands, she lightly traced the outlines of Fitch’s features with her fingers. Her fingers were like feather-soft butterfly kisses darting over a nose, feeling the shape of his mouth, flitting over his forehead with delicate carefulness. She lowered her voice and whispered, so softly that only Fitch could hear what she said.
“Leave, Fitch. Go away and do not return.” Her voice resonated with genuine wretchedness even though her features remained composed.
Turning around, she nodded towards the officer. “Punish him. As a warning to others. Beat him but do not kill him.” Seyella’s Voice ordered with casual indifference.
Fitch’s heart sank and he gritted teeth together, trying to gain control of the rising dread.
As fists and legs encased in boots descended upon him and pain, hot and vicious, flared, Fitch never uttered a sound and soon, he could not say anything, even scream, at all.
He hurt everywhere.
That was his first thought. The second one was that he was getting wet, dampness lying on him like a second skin.
Little droplets of coolness trailed with regularity upon his face and he opened his eyes. But even that little motion took effort and brought with it, a fresh bout of pain. His head throbbed and ached unrepentantly and Fitch wished he were dead. At least, death would not hurt so much.
Wincing as he slowly sat up, he realised three things simultaneously. That it was morning. It was raining and he was lying in an ignominious heap outside the temple, against the long, high wall which barricaded the temple from the rest of Voldar.
About him, supplicants to the temple were going about their business, hardly sparing a look towards the battered apprentice lying on the ground, probably figuring he was another young buck who got into a rowdy fight the night before and was now presently sleeping his drunkenness off.
Reaching up to feel his face, Fitch winced again when his fingers prodded bruised flesh and came away, stained with blood.
But he was alive. Despite what Nehmar telling the soldiers not to kill him, he had not really expected to be able to see another dawn.
At the thought of Nehmar, memory of her betrayal returned and Fitch clenched his fists in a wave of anger, which he welcomed in place of the hurt he felt within, there since when Nehmar commanded her soldiers to beat him, lodged against his heart like a poisonous arrow. What she had done was unforgivable. Although he knew that she had bullied and blackmailed him into playing her little games and yet, along the way, he had grown to regard her as a friend. Somehow, in spite of his initial wariness, she with her odd mixture of prickly animosity and vulnerability had overcome his barriers and made him like her.
He had trusted her. And she had betrayed him utterly.
He shut his eyes, furious and miserable, and wondered how he was going to walk home and explain all this to Joure.
For a wild moment, he thought it was Nehmar but when he looked up, a pair of violet eyes was staring down at him with concern.
He blinked as the world refocused. “Lylyian?”
“Fitch? Oh, what happened to you?” Lylyian stooped next to him as she helped him struggled to a sitting position. “You look… you look terrible!” She said with real distress stamped upon her lovely face.
“Well, I feel as bad as I look.” Fitch replied, trying for a wry smile but abandoning it when the motion pulled too many muscles that protested at the strain.
Fitch just shook his head slightly, indicating that he was not ready to talk about it yet.
Instead, he asked, “What are you doing here?”
Lylyian wrinkled her nose, a habit she was fond of doing when something puzzled her. “It was strange. You know my father is a patron of the War God. He and the rest of our family had never worshipped any other Gods except Armeros and yet this morning, a temple maid of Seyella came to our house and she specifically asked for me by name. She had a message for me, that I was to come here because you needed help.”
A temple maid? Nehmar…it had to be her who sent the message, she was the only one who knew about Lylyian but …why? After betraying him so completely, why would she even bother? Fitch tried to gather in this new bit of information but his head ached too abominably for him to piece anything coherently. He gave up. In any case, he would have nothing more to do with a traitor.
“Thank you for coming, Lylyian,” Fitch said, grateful.
“We are friends, aren’t we?” Lylyian smiled sweetly at him. “Can you stand? Joure’s been worrying himself sick ever since he found out you never came home last night.”
“Joure knows I’m here?”
Fitch groaned. More unwelcome demands for explanations would be expected when he reached home. Trying to find his centre of balance on wobbly feet, he groaned again when places he thought couldn’t possibly hurt began to hurt, like the soles of his feet for one.
Black spots danced along the perimeter of his sight and he could feel himself swaying dangerously. Nausea welled up and he resisted the urge to retch.
“Fitch!” Lylyian’s worried voice sounded very far away.
Before he could topple over in an undignified heap, someone slipped an arm around his back and lent him blessed support.
Leaning against the new person heavily, Fitch peered at the face of his saviour blearily.
“Good morn, Snitch.” Despite the unflattering nickname, like Lylyian, an expression of anxiety drifted through Eiae’s face as he hefted the other young man up to help him walk. “Gods, you look like a few orcs jumped on you and maybe then some gorbas for fun.”
The bruises eventually healed to spectacular fading shades of blue-black and green. A full week passed and Fitch no longer ventured forth to the temple but stayed within the house when night fell, studiously reading manuscripts by lamplight.
It was over, he thought. It had been over the moment Nehmar ordered his beating. She had broken whatever bond they might have forged during their time spent together.
Expecting questions from Joure when Eiae and Lylyian brought him home, he had been surprised and rather touched when the old man, face creased with distress, merely tsked over his bruises and fetched a healer to look over him. Later, Fitch comfortably settled in bed and drifting into blessed sleep, Joure came over and patted his forehead like he used to when the apprentice had been much younger.
“You can tell me when you are ready.” Joure had said quietly, his ink-stained palm rough lay against his skin. That was all he said on the subject.
And yet, despite his lingering anger over his betrayal, a growing sense of unease grew as each day passed and he knew not why, only the feeling became stronger, persistent like an inflamed wound, when Seyella’s festival day drew nearer.
He kept the rose in a jar of water, not giving it to Lylyian as he had originally planned and for the first few days, the aroma of it filled his room, mysterious and evocative of exotic, faraway desert lands, before the petals wilted.
He wanted to throw it away but could not bring himself to and kept the stalk pressed within the pages of a particularly dusty tome about the mating habits of frost dragons instead.
He became distracted and his work suffered and still Joure said nothing, asked nothing, merely patiently correcting his mistakes, making Fitch feel even worse at keeping secrets from the old man. He decided he would confess all to Joure when the right time came, the latter deserved that much loyalty from him.
The chance came unexpectedly a few days later when Joure asked him whether he would be going to Seyella’s temple for the festival with some of his friends.
Both were sitting in the study, a small little alcove really, Joure working on a terribly boring scroll about the history of beans in Caelereth while Fitch was copying manuscripts when Joure, without looking up, asked him whether he would like to visit the Seyella’s temple today.
“Why?” Fitch replied, absent-mindedly, his concentration still on the papers before him.
“Well, you went last Festival day with your friends.” Joure’s gentle, raspy voice informed him.
Festival Day? It cannot be here already, can it? Fitch stood up so abruptly that he overturned the ink bottle but fortunately the ink spilt the other way on the desk and not on the manuscript. The ink blotch got larger and somehow, in a peculiar way, ominous.
“Fitch?” His master finally looked up with surprise. “What is wrong?”
Fitch told him everything.
When he was finished, Joure sat, quiet and thoughtful for a while, his leathery old man’s face wrinkled with concentration. Fitch closed his mouth and waited, not quite patiently, but he managed to still his tongue with some effort. Joure was often like this, falling into pensive reveries when he needed to think things, a knotty problem or an especially difficult passage in a scroll, through.
Then Joure said, slowly, “I’m glad you told me, Fitch.”
Fitch nodded awkwardly. “I should have told you sooner. I’m sorry.”
The old man’s rheumy eyes turned sharp and penetrating as they bore into Fitch. “You want to see her again.”
“No!” Fitch shouted. He cleared his throat and tried again, the anger in his voice startling him. “I mean, Nehmar betrayed me, she told those soldiers to beat me. Friends don’t do that to each other.” He muttered and looked away.
Without warning, Joure reached across and hit the top of his head hard with an open palm.
“Ow!” Shocked, his eyes widening, Fitch stared at the old scribe standing above him. “That hurt!”
“Good.” Joure told him unrepentantly. “Now go find this Nehmar of yours.”
“Why should I?” Joure had never hit him before, even when he was younger and burnt an old manuscript to see the blue-red flame crackling merrily as they devoured the stiff paper so fast that it had scared the young boy. When he confessed his crime to the old man, Joure had given him the tongue-lashing of his life, making him cry copious tears of shame, but even then, when Joure had been the angriest he had ever seen, the scribe had never hit him before. Until now.
“Because she needs you.” Joure sighed impatiently when he met Fitch’s uncomprehending stare.
“I thought I had taught you better that this, Fitch. Friends do not betray their friends and from what I’ve heard, she is your friend. Something is very wrong. Her actions were deliberately planned, boy. If she really meant to abandon you, she would not have asked Lylyian to fetch you home after your beating. She is trying to drive you away from her, for what reasons, I do not know but I know you’ve made a terrible mistake in leaving her alone.”
As he sat there, hearing Joure’s reasoning, a pit grew in the middle of his stomach and eventually became a hole of realisation, chagrin and horrible unease. He had been so angry, so unwilling to listen because anger was much simpler to deal with and in his blindness, he had forgotten that someone, someone who would have known he would be and cared enough to summon Lylyian to his aid. Someone in the temple who knew about the existence of the butcher’s daughter and his previous desire to get a blue rose for her.
Joure’s voice turned intense and forceful. “Go. Find her”
Fitch left running.
It was only a few streets from Joure’s house to the temple but it felt like a thousand years had gone as Fitch ran through the streets, his sides on fire from the exertion, ignoring the curious stares of bystanders as he did.
It was behaviour so typical of Nehmar, prickly and always reluctant to show her true feelings, he could see that now. She would never have asked him to leave; instead she made him go through the only means she knew how.
She was not the traitor. He was.
The streets were thronged with people at this time of the day. Fitch pushed his way through without compunction, ignoring the outraged glares directed at him as he did. Only one thought beat in his head now: to get to Seyella’s Temple. Joure was right, something was not right.
The lofty spires of the temple rose above him as he drew nearer, his lungs burning as he ran. Stopping to catch his breath, he laid one hand against the wall of a building for support, and became aware of noise all around him.
Not the usual busy, amiable hustle and bustle of a festival day, but the shocking, tumultuous rush of a screaming mob.
Lifting his head, he saw masses of men and women, festival attendees, running out from the gates leading to the temple grounds, each pushing and shoving the other in their frantic dash to escape.
“What has happened? What is it?” Fitch shouted as he grabbed the arm of a woman, running past him, her mouth opened in a shocked circle.
She stared at him for a moment, her eyes dazed and disbelieving. Then she gulped and mumbled incoherently, “Murder! Someone stabbed the Voice! Seyella’s avatar is dead!”
“No… it cannot be!” Fitch whispered, horrified.
“It’s true!” The woman cried wildly, spittle forming at the side of her mouth. “I saw it with my own eyes! A man rushed out from the crowd and he stabbed her with a dagger. Seyella, Seyella forgive us.” she trailed off, caught in the grip of fresh terror.
Fitch abandoned her and ran towards the temple, not caring who he was shoving as he fought against the tidal mass of frightened devotees.
The great hall of the temple was curiously empty when he finally arrived, no soldiers stopped him and only a few maids in their grey robes hurrying around aimlessly and he found Nehmar with ease.
She was there still, slumped back, her head lolling to one side. Fitch had once thought Nehmar resembled a doll in all its fixed rigidity when the grace of Seyella was upon her and she resembled one now, but a broken, limp one sitting on a ridiculously over-large and ostentatious throne.
There was no one around her. Her priestesses had fled, their panic greater than their devotion, and the guards were out hunting down the assassin.
For a terrible moment, he thought he was too late, that she was dead already.
Then he noticed how the hilt of blade, which protruded almost obscenely out from her chest, lifted in a slow, irregular rhythm. She was still breathing and Fitch could have cried out with relief.
He wanted to run to her side but his legs felt as heavy as stone now, devoid of the previous swiftness birthed from panic. His body was sluggish as if moving through thick sludge, eyes unable to tear themselves away from the sight of a figure on the throne. Eventually, he climbed up the dais and came near enough to gently gather her, so light like a bird, into his arms, careful not to jostle her too much.
He swallowed convulsively when he saw the dark stains on her ceremonial robe, blooming like deadly flowers as her blood pumped unceasingly out from around the edges of the dagger.
A healer, must find a healer or cleric, his mind babbled.
He was about to lift her up and carry her to find one when Nehmar spoke, her voice breathy with pain.
“Hurts.” she grunted, wincing. “More than I had expected. Leave me alone.” Her words came out weak but clear.
“Nehmar? It’s me. I’m going to get you to a healer.”
Nehmar stiffened. “Fitch?” She sucked in a deeper breath, hissing softly as she did. “What are you doing here? I told you not to come.” The agony was still reflected in her voice but that proud, irritated tone, so familiar to Fitch by now, was back. And he was never as glad to hear it as he was then.
“I had to.” He told her simply.
A small little smile curved her lips. “You never do what I tell you anyway.” She grumbled. The slight grin died away and she grimaced again.
“Ah, it hurts.” She repeated helplessly.
“The healers of Nehtor can help you.” Fitch’s arms tightened around her thin shoulders. “They will mend your wound. It… it does not look so serious.”
“Fitch, ever the optimist still.” Nehmar tried to laugh but failed as she started coughing instead, a fine mist of scarlet bursting forth from her lips, alarming Fitch even more. When she managed to stop, she panted tiredly, “I’m dying, Fitch. It is too late.”
“Don’t say that!”
“It’s the truth. I did not want you to see this. But you would not listen. You never listen.” She scolded him feebly.
Everything became horrendously clear and transparently lucid for Fitch now. The way Nehmar had acted, the words she had said, and the beating she had allowed. It had been all so carefully orchestrated to drive him away, to wedge a stick on conflict between them so he would be angry enough not to want to see her ever again.
The insight of Joure’s words hit Fitch with deadly retaliation and he whispered, “You knew, you knew all along that this would happen. But why?”
“One of the privileges of being an avatar for the Goddess of Destiny. It is our blessing and our curse to bear. Seyella always gifts Her Voices with the knowledge of their deaths, how and when it would come about, the moment they become Her avatar.”
“Fitch, don’t you understand? I wanted to spare you my death.” Nehmar explained gently.
“You could have avoided it if you already knew! Go away or something, leave the temple.” Fitch shouted at her, his face white with anguish and furious anger.
“You should have told me and…and…” he stuttered to a stop, too enraged because all this could have been so easily prevented. If only she had told him, if only…! The myriad possibilities of avoidance tore at his heart and Fitch could have howled at the unfairness of it all.
“Oh do be quiet, Fitch. You’ll wake up the dead.” Nehmar murmured, her words an ironic ghostly echo as she repeated the first ever thing she had directly said to him. “I am not going to waste whatever time I have left to argue with you.”
“I’m not going to let you die.”
“And how are you going to prevent it?” She made a minute mocking gesture towards the dagger jutting up from her chest. “Fitch, just let me die. It has to be. No mortal, not even Her Voice, can escape the hand of Seyella when She wishes it.”
With every word she spoke, Nehmar’s remaining strength was visibly dwindling.
“Since Seyella wishes you to die, then She can unwish it as well.” If no human can change their fates, than he would make the weaver of destinies herself do it for him. Fitch had no idea how he was going to call upon a goddess but he was going to try.
“Seyella!” He hollered with all the strength he could muster. “Seyella!”
“Fitch, She will not come. Stop this madness at once.” Nehmar tried to stop him.
“Yes, She will.” Fitch said with fierce conviction, clutching her hand. “I’ll make Her come, kicking and screaming if I have to. Seyella, do you hear me? You’ve made her suffer long enough. Help Nehmar now! You owe her that much! Damn you, answer me!”
This was absolute lunacy, to invite the wrath of the Goddess upon him but he had to try. If not, Nehmar was going to die and the thought of her dying was worse than anything the Goddess could do to him.
As the heated echo of his words died away, something did happen.
The very air around the young man and the dying girl in his arms grew heavy and sluggish as if time itself was slowing. The space within the hall seemed to expand, hanging motionless for an unbearable second that lasted ceaselessly, before contracting outwards again in a rush, trying to squeeze back from an unrealisable, unimaginable void. A white silence filled the hall and paradoxes abruptly become possible and co-existed alongside previously set and immutable laws of existence as chaos and order fought for balance.
And the fabric of Fitch and Nehmar’s world tore as Seyella walked through the fissure.
First, there was a vast, resounding emptiness and then, the Goddess of Destiny stood before them.
She was tall but no taller than a human woman and blindfolded. Her hair streamed out around pale, calm features while stars and entire constellations glittered within the dark stresses.
Fitch could hardly stand to look upon her, seeing the Goddess with his naked eye was almost too much. He could feel his mind screaming not to look, as her presence skimmed fleetingly over his consciousness.
But the pressure subsided quickly as it came as if Seyella had realised how close he was skittering on the brink of utter madness and somehow, the Goddess dampened her excruciating essence until Fitch could think clearly once more.
Later he could not describe with accuracy what Seyella looked like even as she had been standing only a little distance away. His confused, somehow bewildered impression was that the statue carved in her supposed likeness outside the temple grounds was but a shadow, a shadow a thousand times less than her actuality. She was brighter than the sun and moon combined and each aspect of her was so sharp it could cut.
“Oh, Seyella...” Nehmar breathed as she reached out blindly with her hand. She could not physically see her goddess but she felt her. Despite the white-hot agony from her wound throbbing through her veins, it felt wonderful and awful at the same time to be so near her Goddess and she would have wept with joy or grief if her tear-ducts had not been burnt dry a long time ago.
Why hath thee dared to call upon my name in the sanctity of my shrine?
Seyella’s lips remained closed but Fitch heard her as clear as if she had spoken. It was the same beautiful, golden and heartbreakingly sad tones that he had listened to when he saw Nehmar for the first time during that long ago Festival Day. Only this time, it really was the Goddess speaking and not through the necessity of a mortal throat and Fitch now understood why. If Seyella had not diminished the force of her presence, the mere resonance of her words would have shattered his eardrums irrevocably.
My time here is brief. Already I can feel the thing you perceive as reality twisting in ways you cannot comprehend. Soon, not even I will know the extent of the damage if I stay for too long. Speak.
“Save Nehmar, I want you to save her. Don’t let her die.” Fitch pleaded.
It is her time. Her destiny. She has to die. No mortal can change his or her fate. I am governed by rules as well.
“Then break those rules! You owe Nehmar that much at least. You took her eyes away and condemned her to a life of darkness and loneliness.”
“Fitch, do not.” Nehmar tried to warn her friend but he ignored her.
She was blinded but in return she became my vessel and through her, I poured my grace and blessings. I gave her all my love.
“No one asked Nehmar if she wanted to be chosen as your avatar. No one gave her the choice!” Fitch retorted. “You never asked her. You just took her away from her family and her life. You’re no better than a common thief!”
“You owe her,” he repeated doggedly and quickly undid the blindfold around Nehmar’s eyes with trembling fingers, revealing the gruesomely scarred and disfigured flesh puckering around the sealed sockets to Seyella. It was an accusation, distinct as day, and Fitch laid the blame squarely upon Seyella’s shoulders.
He glared defiantly while Nehmar held her breath, waiting agonisingly, so sure was the girl that her Goddess would strike Fitch down for his impudence.
The golden aura around the Goddess pulsed with swift, increased energy and was streaked with blue-violet jagged streams of lightning that violently spiralled around and above her as Seyella gathered her powers.
Seyella’s angry, Fitch is going to die, Nehmar was thinking with confused distress. She is going to squash him like an insect! Oh, stupid, idiot fool of a boy!
Minutes passed and Seyella did not squash Fitch despite Nehmar’s expectations. Instead the ferocious sense of might enveloping Seyella lessened, the galaxies hidden in her hair slowed to lazy circles once more and Fitch somehow remained very much alive, still glaring angrily, and unaware how close he had been to fatality.
So you dare challenge the Goddess of Destiny for a life. You are foolishly brave if nothing else.
Fitch thought, he wasn’t sure, but he thought he could detect a note of wry, satirical amusement within Seyella’s exquisite voice.
What would you do in exchange for possession of my avatar’s destiny then?
Anything, Fitch started to say but stopped when he felt Nehmar’s hand pressing against his and two objects, hard and solid, gouged into the flesh of his palm.
“Play.” Nehmar got this one single word through parched and bloodless lips with difficulty and a renewed shock of fear tingled inside Fitch when he realised Nehmar was but one breath away from being accepted into Queprur’s dominion. Once she was there, he would have no hopes whatsoever of wrestling her back from the Death Goddess’s jealous, ashen arms.
He looked down into his hand and saw two familiar dices nestled within, one red and one blue.
Comprehension dawned almost immediately and briefly, he did not know if he was able to do it. It seemed so completely reckless and impossible. The odds were fantastically stacked against him…and yet, he had called upon the Goddess of Destiny, and she had answered his summons. A miracle had happened, why not another one?
Lifting his head towards Seyella, he called out clearly, “For Nehmar’s life, I would play a game with you. A game of chance.” He hesitated. “Of destiny. If I win, you change Nehmar’s fate and let her live.”
And if you lose?
“If I lose, you may take me as well.” Fitch’s heart hammered in his ribs but his voice was unwavering and strong as he offered his life as the stake and for that, he was momentarily proud of himself.
The Goddess contemplated his offer, and one finger tapped the side of her mouth in a uniquely human gesture. Then she replied.
If Fitch thought his heart had been beating hard previously, it was going to burst into pieces from the sheer exhilaration and apprehension now as Seyella accepted his challenge. What had he gotten himself into? It was too late for normalcy or regrets. Nehmar’s life was literally in his hand.
Let us begin. One throw will decide for I cannot stay any longer. Things that would drive your mind mad just to glance at them are seeping through and I am hard-pressed to stop them.
It was at that instant that Fitch noticed the incredible, massive effort of holding the balance etched upon the goddess’s face, lines of exertion marring the corners of her perfect mouth. Then he saw, high above Seyella’s head, a thin rip, slicing vertically into the air of the hall. It was like a tear in a painting, and inside the tear, he saw….he did not know what he saw. Colours he had never seen and could not describe, colours like nothing belonging to his world, bizarre and profoundly disturbing.
And there were other things as well, smells he could taste with his fingertips and sights that hurt his eyes and the sensory excess of what lay beyond the other side of the crack made him ill. He tore his eyes away, breathing deeply, and for the first time, was glad that Nehmar was blind and could not see what he had glimpsed.
“You can have the first throw if you like.” Fitch offered, his throat dry.
You are most kind. I will take the blue dice.
Seyella’s lips curled in a thin ironic twist. The dice she chose rose of its own accord from Fitch’s hand, lifting easily into the air, to drop into her own opened palm.
The Goddess held the dice delicately between her thumb and forefinger and with a deft flick, she spun it up and it hung there, in the air above her palm, spinning frantically, a pinprick of blue blurring around the edges.
She closed her palm into a fist and the dice dropped upon the marble floor where it clattered and rolled a few feet away, stopping almost in the exact middle of the distance between the mortals and the Goddess.
Fitch blinked hard and stared at the number on top of the dice.
Five dots upon the ivory surface. Seyella had thrown a five.
Light-headed, Fitch clutched his own dice. He had to throw a six to win or at least another five for a draw…but somehow he realised the goddess would not wait for a stalemate to be broken. He had to spin a six to win.
All those times he played with Nehmar he had never won a single game from her and at that thought, his confidence leeched away.
His fingers felt leaden and unable to move.
Throw your turn.
Seyella’s voice was pitiless and Fitch thought so would her eyes be equally ruthless behind that blindfold, severe and unpitying.
Balancing Nehmar’s weight awkwardly with one arm, he glanced down. The girl’s face was drained of colour and her lips tinged a dark blue-black. The dagger buried in her chest barely stirred.
For Nehmar. For his friend.
Fitch closed his eyes and he would have prayed except he did not know who to pray to. He opened his eyes and at the same time, he flung out the red dice and knew instinctively it was a good one, the strength behind his wrist strong and true.
Unlike the goddess’s soaring throw, his dice was governed by gravity and landed upon the floor where it balanced upon one edge and whirled perfectly like a child’s spinning toy.
On and on it spun, seemingly unable to stop.
However, eventually, its trajectory slowed with leisurely, unhurried grace and Fitch could see the crimson shadow of numbers, trailing long streams of phantom luminosity, as the dice came to a gradual stop.
In his arms, Nehmar shifted, rustling against him softly like a moth’s wings, before falling deathly still and quiet. He gathered her tightly, trying to see through the hot rush of tears gathering in the corners of his eyes.
Both, a mortal man and a Goddess, then watched silently as the dice trembled delicately on its cusp and…
…fell, toppling slowly…
…onto its side…
Story written by Dalá'Valannía