Words Unspoken – A Random Picture Prompt

Words Unspoken – A Random Picture Prompt

As always, I had something in mind when I sat down to write this prompt. I got about three paragraphs in before the story decided it was actually completely different. It tripped me up a bit, and I worry it makes the first part a little scattered. But in the end, I’m glad I decided to roll with it. I really like how it ultimately turned out.
. . .

For the first time in her life, Kesi shivered as she crossed the threshold of the temple dedicated to the great goddess Isis. For as long as she could remember – at least since the high priestess had plucked her from the streets to offer steady meals and sturdy shelter – she had found nothing but warmth and security within these walls. Hers was a life of hard work that required absolute dedication to the whims of the goddess, but it was also a fair life that offered reward for those who served well.

But as a lowly initiate, still years from achieving priesthood by her own right, Kesi had no idea why she had been suddenly and unexpectedly called to the goddess’s secret sanctum, which lay hidden deep beneath the sands surrounding the temple proper. Only the goddess’s chosen were allowed to set foot in the marble-carved sanctuary where the goddess’s mortal icon dwelt. There they spoke the goddess’s secret name and performed rituals and ceremonies the common folk were forbidden knowledge of.

Kesi should have spent a decade in study, memorizing the doctrine of the goddess, before she was allowed access to such sacred grounds. As far as she knew, no one so young had ever been invited to make the journey.

But when the goddess made a decry, it could not be ignored.

Kesi was not afraid to serve. The goddess had saved her from a sure and slow death of starvation – if the city guards hadn’t caught her stealing food first. Whatever task she was given would be a small price to pay in exchange for health as well as survival. And Kesi had come to love Lady Isis with the same feverish devotion displayed by the high priestess during the rituals Kesi was allowed to witness.

Zaliki was a woman shrouded in mystic presence. Wherever she walked, heads turned, even when she did not wear the spectacular headdress that marked her as the chosen of the great mother Isis. Her eyes were wise, as though they had seen beyond the stars themselves. Her words were silky sweet, as though the goddess gifted them directly to her tongue. And her gaze was shrewd; nothing ever escaped her notice, as if her vision reached far beyond that of any mere mortal.

Kesi had idolized her since the moment she first laid eyes on her. And despite her anxiety as she tiptoed down the main hall toward the altar where public ceremonies were held, she did not shy away when the woman darted from a side corridor to grasp her shoulder.

“Not that way,” she chided gently, her voice seeming to echo off every surface it touched before it reached Kesi’s ears, granting it the weight and presence of the goddess herself. “You must cleanse yourself before you step into the goddess’s sanctuary. Come. I will show you.”

Biting her lip against the torrent of questions that threatened to spill from her mouth, Kesi nodded and fell into step behind the high priestess, careful not to clip her bare heels with the toes of her worn sandals. She knew the process, of course. She had been tasked with stocking the steaming bathing rooms with sweet sands and incense that allowed the high-ranked priestesses to  prepare for ritual ceremonies. But she had never dared dip so much as a finger into the sacred waters, lest the goddess cast her out of the order all together.

Today she was to perform a ceremony she had only heard described quickly and in passing. First, she removed the thread-worn clothing of the temple acolytes, carefully folded the linens and set them on a shelf outside the bathing room. For they would be distasteful in the great lady’s sight.

She almost forgot to pause in the doorway to murmur the ritual prayer and hoped that Isis wouldn’t mind if her feet were a little farther into the room than they should be when she hurriedly spoke the words.

The next part could not be rushed. Plunging into the steaming bath water, Kesi lowered herself until the water embraced every part of her body, soaking her dark hair and caressing her skin. She scrubbed every inch of her flesh twice, just to make sure it was clean. She could not go unpurified into the goddesses sanctum. She would be struck dead upon entry.

She could tell she had lingered too long when she emerged into the dressing chamber on the far side. The priestess waiting to towel her dry scowled and grumbled something beneath her breath about impudence as she rapidly swished Kesi’s hair between scraps of soft linen.

Then a trio of women descended on her, one young and beautiful, one aged and motherly and the last wrinkled with the weight of her age. Each anointed her with a different scented oil, tracing the goddess’s sacred symbols on her forehead, back and abdomen. This was the most terrifying part of the process, for Kesi understood enough of the chanting to know that her life was about to change. When she returned from the goddess’s chambers, she would not be the same as she was now. She was being prepared for some sort of death – spiritual, she hoped – and offered the potential for rebirth.

After all, it was the great lady Isis who had stolen the secrets of life from the sun god Ra and granted them to Anubis that he might restore her beloved husband to life.

But to what did she owe this great honor? What had she done to draw the goddess’s eyes in her direction? It had never occurred to her that she might pay for the life she had earned with the very life she had been given, and she was starting to wonder if she still wanted to pass through the secret halls beyond.

By the time the priestesses had finished preparing her, she had no choice. The door behind her was soundly locked. The one in front would not open until she donned the ritual dress.

With numb fingers, Kesi lifted the fine fabric over her head and shoulders, caressing the soft texture as it fell over her hips and thighs. No noble woman dressed in such finery. In fact, usually such robes were reserved for the high priestess alone. Next, she gathered her hair into the appropriate pattern, fastening it in place with a series of three feathers, each dyed a brilliant shade of red, orange or yellow. Legend said they had been plucked from the goddess’s wings before she hid herself away from the realm of men, and Kesi’s fingers trembled to handle such delicate and valuable things. Last of all, she slid a pair of thick, golden bracelets over her wrists. Real gold, judging by the weight of them.

When she finished dressing, Kesi paused to draw one last trembling breath before she laid her hands on the door that led forward. It gave way for her, granting her access to a dark hallway lit at regular intervals by flaming torches. Gulping, Kesi said one last prayer as she made her way through the gloom.

When I pass this way again, great Isis, let it be in your service and not in your tomb.

The hall had many branches, though Kesi knew she dared not deviate down any of them. What happened here was not for her to know or question. When she had counted ten passages – the exact number the high priestess told her to skip – she took a right. At the end of that short corridor she took a left and one more left again.

She knew she had done it properly because Zaliki waited for her in the center of a brightly lit arch. Beyond her stood a dazzling room of marble decorated in the gold of the sun disc and hung with feathers of every color. The high priestess was dressed in even more spectacular robes than Kesi’s and on her head was the crown of Isis, so wide and so tall that Kesi marveled she could still lift her head beneath its weight.

“The time has come,” Saliki decreed without preamble, “for you to give yourself to the goddess. “During my prayers and meditations, she mentioned you by name. Call Kesi, she said, that she might stand before my might and glory and I might make of her a vessel of my will.”

While Kesi stared, numb and foolish at the high priestess in all her glory, Zaliki grabbed Kesi’s wrist and forced open her hand. Into her palm she deposited an ornate metal knife carved with the wings of Isis on the hilt. Then she shoved her forward, into the sanctum beyond.

The true temple of Isis was beyond anything Kesi had ever imagined. It was so wide and so tall that the edges would have been lost to shadow had a complex series of torches and mirrors not been used to drench every inch of the chapel with light. Pools of water had been carved into the floor, set with mosaics that shimmered and danced as the water rippled and flowed. The pathways between them were lined with marble and ritual icons.

In the center of all was a statue of Isis, three times the size of any mortal. Her arms were lifted skyward, her chin imperiously titled toward the heavens as her eyes looked beyond reality to some secret of the universe. Her wings were spread behind her, painted as brilliantly as the feathers adorning the walls, so wide they nearly brushed each wall of the great sanctum. At her golden feet had been laid offerings of nuts, dates and grain, as well as riches the pharaoh himself would have killed to possess.

Among them was one small, wooden bowl. Empty and waiting to be filled.

No one had told Kesi what she needed to do. But she knew.

She came to rest before the bowl, at the center most point beneath the statue, and knelt. Behind her, the goddess chosen stepped from their alcoves, humming in anticipation, though they did not come as close as Kesi expected. Behind her, she sensed the high priestess’s eyes upon her back, compelling her to act.

Kesi closed her eyes, drew a deep breath and extended her wrist over the bowl.

“When you strike the knife to your flesh, the goddess will empty you,” Zaliki announced, her voice harsh and cold. “Do not hold anything back, Kesi, and she may fill you with something else. Something sacred. Something useful.”

Had this been the purpose Zaliki intended Kesi to serve all along? Had she been brought into the temple, a simple and unwanted street rat, so that she could sacrifice herself before the glory of the goddess? To spare anyone more important from becoming the offering?

Or had the goddess truly chosen her? If the latter were true, she could see no reason the goddess would end her before she could make herself useful.

She pressed the knife to her wrist and watched with fascination as a bright line of blood sprung from her skin. She tilted her arm until it began to flow. Drops of bright crimson stained the bowl, one by one, until a dozen had fallen. Then a dozen more.

Kesi began to feel light headed. The bright light washed her vision, draining the color so that everything in the sanctum seemed white, awash in the holy glow of the goddess. The humming faded to a low buzz, a chorus offering to lift her to the heavens. She tilted her head, seeking the eyes at the top of the statue, but they were so far above her, they seemed impossible to reach.

Until the massive head shifted and the eyes lowered to meet her gaze.

It could not be real. Statues did not move. It must be the blood slowly seeping from her body that made her see such things. She was well aware that the mind filled with foolish visions as life faded.

But this was no ordinary death. She was in the house of the goddess, called to her feet by sacred decree. And the blood she spilled was an offering that the goddess might make use of her.

Use me as you will, she prayed silently, allowing the goddess’s gaze to fill her until she thought she would surly go mad.

“Who is it that stands before me?” a booming voice demanded. Kesi was certain it spoke directly into her mind, but it also seemed to echo off the walls in the same way the high priestess’s voice had.

“My name is Kesi, holy goddess,” she murmured, her voice meek and small in comparison. “And I offer myself freely.”

“Do you know what that means?” the booming voice replied.

Kesi shook her head. “But I live to serve the lady, so I will do as she asks.”

“The priestess who stands behind you would sacrifice you to hear the words of the divine. She wishes my words to flow from your lips that all might hear and obey them. If I grant her desire, you will leave this temple as an empty shell, cradled in her arms.”

Death, then, was the fate the high priestess had chosen for her. “Would my spirit serve the lady if I do so?” she asked, humble even in her curiosity.

“It would.”

“Then I offer you my body to be your sacred vessel. To die in the embrace of the great Isis is more than most humble women, such as myself, can ever hope to achieve.”

“Your devotion is noble indeed. But what if I told you it was the priestess behind you who spoke your name to me and not the other way around.”

What?

Kesi didn’t know if she spoke the query aloud, but the shock that rippled through her almost sent her tumbling to the floor. Only the knowledge that she dared not soil the floor of the temple with a single drop of her blood kept her upright.

“It is true. She asked me speak prophecy for her and when I asked what she offered in return, she spoke your name. Kesi is spirited in her devotion. She will make a worthy sacrifice. That is what she said.”

And do you find me worthy? She could no longer form the words with her lips, but trusted the goddess would hear them.

“Far more worthy than a mere sacrifice would make you.” A brief pause. Then the voice said, “Do you know the secret name of the goddess?”

Here, Kesi hesitated. To speak the truth would condemn her. But to lie to the goddess herself was unthinkable.

I heard it once, she admitted in the silent depths of her soul. I heard the high priestess speak it to one of her lower initiates in a moment of spiritual fervor. But I swear that I have never repeated it, great lady. Never would I dream.

“Careless,” the voice boomed. “That my chosen right hand could be so foolish… Tell me, child, do you know how I came to know the secret of life?”

You tricked the great god Ra into speaking it with your clever tongue and quick wit.

“Aye. As you have learned the secrets of my ritual through careful and shrewd observation.”

Kesi expected to be ashamed as the goddess peeled open her mind and began to leaf through it as if it were no more than a pile of papyrus scrolls. But there was no point in trying to hide all the times she had huddled in corners, listening to whispered conversations. Or the fact that she had taught herself to read the hieroglyphs on the walls so that she could read messages as they were delivered, or when a scroll was left open on one of the priestess’s desks.

And there seemed no point in denying that she had longed to serve the goddess as the initiates did since the first time she saw Zaliki perform a ritual ceremony in the name of the goddess. How glorious it would be to stand in her place, Kesi had often thought, to be moved by the goddess, to speak in her voice, to let all of her life be directed by the hand of the great mother’s will.

“Every priestess also serves herself,” the voice warned. “Devotion gives way to ambition and they begin to believe they can fool me.”

Not I! Kesi insisted. I was nothing before the hand of your servant found me. And though it terrifies me more than any wrath-filled story I have ever heard, I will not hesitate to become your vessel this very moment. Empty me and fill me as the high priestess promised and I will move always according to your desires.

“Remember these words, child. You may one day come to regret them. You are not the first to speak them, and you shall not be the last. But in your heart I see the truth. And for that reason, you are chosen.”

The blade was in her hand. The blood no longer flowed from her wrist. The small bowl was almost full, but there was no mark or stain upon her arm, nor would there ever be a scar. Color had returned to her vision and clarity to her head.

No one had told her what to do, but Kesi knew.

She rose and the power of the goddess flowed within her, radiant and glorious as the sun high above. The child from the streets was gone. She died when she slit her wrist at the feet of the goddess. In her place was someone new. Someone wise. Someone clever. Someone fearsome.

Zaliki stared at her with eyes gone wide. There was something crazed in the edges of her vision, as if devotion had become madness. “Speak your prophecy to me,” she hissed. “I and my faithful are ready to comply!”

“You mean My faithful.” The voice that spoke through Kesi’s lips was not her own, but she embraced the use of her body. The goddess was within her and, goddess willing, some part of her would always linger.

“You have used My name for your purposes too long,” Kesi went on as Zaliki’s jaw fell open.

The errant high-priestess took a step backward, but she was too slow. Kesi moved with speed beyond a mortal’s comprehension. Three slashes appeared on Zaliki’s form. One across the eyes, one across the neck and one across the abdomen.

Her scream of protest became a gurgle as she slumped to her knees. The headdress would have clattered to the floor if Kesi hadn’t bent to claim it, cradling it gently between both hands as she lifted it from the dead priestess’s body.

It was lighter than she expected. Almost as light as a feather.

It fit her head more perfectly than she could have imagined, flowing with her as she turned as easily as the fabric of a cloak.

“Now go,”  the booming voice spoke from her lips, “and fulfill your promise to serve my will. For so long as you do, you shall be my earthly avatar.”

The goddess did not need to tell her what fate awaited her if she changed her mind. When she stepped over the limp form of Zaliki, she knew.

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