Embrace of the Goddess Chapter 1: Reflections
By Trixie Adara
“That’s the third expulsion this week.”
“I know, High Priestess, but —”
“No,” said Iriel, standing up and moving from behind her desk. The elven woman stretched as she stood, her back sore from sitting in meetings all day. “The Order of Azora is not a large order, and do you know why?”
The sniveling dwarven headmistress started to nod an answer but thought better and shook her head. When Iriel didn’t provide an answer, simply waiting calmly and staring the older woman down, Kasha ventured a guess. “Our oaths?”
Orilana, the tall dark elf in plate armor, shuffled her feet back and forth. It was obviously the wrong answer. Orilana’s long black hair was in a bun to keep it away from her silver armor with gold lining. The silver was the classic color of Azora’s order. The gold was a sign of her high rank.
“No,” said Iriel. She smoothed out her robes. “Not at all.” She took a deep breath, working to keep her temper in check. “It is our standards. Any applicant to the Abbey must be interviewed, multiple times. Her family history is checked. Her friends are interrogated.” Iriel pointed to Orilana. “They are followed and watched the closer they get to acceptance.”
Orilana cleared her throat. Iriel took another deep breath, quickly becoming carried away. That happened whenever she got on a roll. Her cadence slipped into that of a lecture. Kasha wasn’t the one in trouble. That privilege belonged to Quana, Voge, and Katalina. Three of her acolytes — three promising ones at that — and each of them expelled for … weakness of the flesh.
“Selectivity,” said Iriel. “That’s why we’re a small order. It’s incredibly difficult to get in. We only accept the best, and, even then, we only accept a few of them a year. Azora demands our utmost devotion. There can be no weak links in the chain.”
Iriel lowered her voice. “Besides, we keep such secrets here. Dangerous secrets.”
A rare ray of intelligence struck the dwarven headmistress, who wasn’t much more than a nanny for the acolytes. “Oh!” she said. “Is that what you think —”
“Enough,” said Iriel. There was a dangerous edge to her voice. She didn’t intend it, but that was the nature of such topics.
“What the High Priestess is trying to say,” said Orilana, stepping forward from her position by the door. “Is that this either indicates some weakness in how the girls are watched and cared for, or it indicates a weakness in the selection process.”
“Correct,” said Iriel, nodding to her friend.
“And I doubt she’s implying that Azora’s divine wisdom has caused her or the bishops to stumble.”
Iriel said nothing. The moment hung in the air between the three of them, the three responsible for keeping appropriate worship to their goddess and banishing all knowledge of what rested beneath their feet.
If it wasn’t Iriel’s fault, and it wasn’t Orilana’s fault, that left one person left.
The vapid woman gasped as her brain slowly trudged to the realization. “Oh! Yes. Of course. I’ll do better in the future, Your Eminence.”
“I’ll need more than that,” said Iriel. “Azora demands our best, and if you can’t offer that, perhaps Mashala will.” The woman blanched. She’d held this position for three decades. Mashala was eager and ambitious, but she didn’t have the pedigree to be headmistress. It’d be a scandal.
“I’ll have more guards making rounds at night,” suggested Orilana. “Though that will mean less guarding below.”
“No,” said Kasha. “I’ll do it myself. Nightly rounds. Every hour.”
“Make both happen,” said Iriel. “If we lose another, I’ll hold you responsible, Kasha. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Your Eminence.”
“You may go.”
Kasha rose, bowed, and rose again. She scampered out of the room, and Orilana opened and closed the door for her.
“Sun’s rays,” she sighed as the door closed. “Three?”
“Yes.” Iriel sat back down at her desk. She’d have to notify the girl’s families. Worse, she’d have to double the recruiting for next harvest.
“And for debauchery.” Orilana whistled.
“Yes, speak a little louder,” said Iriel. “I’m sure Prim outside the door can’t hear you.”
“Prim won’t talk, she’s —”
“Right now no one is behaving as they ought. I think I’ll —” She saw the look on Orilana’s face and stopped herself. Another deep breath. “Sorry,” she muttered.
“It’s fine. You’ve been under a lot of stress lately.”
“That’s no excuse.” Iriel went back to writing her letter to the girl’s family. “Especially for a High Priestess.”
Orilana said nothing. She sat in the chair previously occupied by Kasha and let Iriel write in silence. Iriel was struggling to find the phrasing. She had to tell the parents that their daughter was dismissed for debauchery. But how could she tell them that Quana had been found holding her roommate’s face against her crotch, forcing the halfling girl to eat her out? No one expected the acolytes to keep their vows of chastity forever. Masturbation was commonly discovered. Occasionally two girls turned to each other. But debauchery was saved for those that had abandoned their oaths. They didn’t just experience lust; they revelled in it.
Quana had pushed her roommates’ boundaries until the poor girl serviced her each night and burned with shame. Voge had crafted herself a strap-on and was found mounting one of the maids. Katalina was discovered in the town, dancing and stripping for money. For a pittance more, she’d do more than dance for anyone who wanted it.
And did she describe these details to their parents? Or did she lie to protect their shameful activities? For the worst part of debauchery was not the sin the girl committed. It was drawing others into her sin. It was a betrayal of her vows of chastity and charity.
It was something Maloth would want.
Iriel shivered. She pushed away the thought and looked up at Orilana. “Which guards are you going to send to keep an eye on the girls?”
“I figured any could —”
“Your best, Lana. I want this shut down.”
Orilana nodded. “Yes, Your Eminence.” She was Iriel’s friend when they were relaxed, but no one took her duty more seriously than Orilana. She knew what was at stake if Azora became weak or they weren’t perfectly vigilant. It was as though while she wore the armor, she put aside their friendship. She cared for Iriel and looked out for her, but she was always Your Eminence or High Priestess while Orilana wore her armor. Iriel struggled to split her personality with such precision. Sometimes she slipped up and called her Lana in front of others.
But in the evening, as they reclined in their quarters, when her armor was off, she was Lana. She was Iriel’s oldest friend. They joined the Abbey years apart, and Iriel was already rising fast thanks to her mother, but Lana was the only one that didn’t treat her like the goddess herself. One day Iriel spilt hot chocolate all over her gowns. Lana was the only one that had the decency to laugh at her. Everyone else acted as though the sun had gone dark.
Imagine how she’d treat you with no clothes at all:
She stands in moonlight, naked and coy. The pale light catches her paler skin, and her dark hair is down, finally down. It cascades over her breasts. Her body is corded muscle but plump in the right places. You lick your lips. Yes.
Iriel gasped and dropped her quill.
“You alright?” Orilana stood up, her hand going to the hilt of her blade. She scanned the room for threats, all business now. “Your Eminence?”
Iriel closed her eyes, but the image was gone. She opened her eyes and drank in Orilana. Grey skin, pointed ears, light purple eyes, dark and silky hair. Clothed. Clothed and armored. It was nothing, a fleeting thought. Nothing important at all.
There was a knock at the door.
Prim ducked her head in. “Rella is here to see you, Your Eminence.”
Iriel sighed, and Orilana gave the High Priestess a sympathetic look. “Just a moment.”
Iriel put away her letters. “That girl,” she muttered to herself.
“Adores you,” added Orilana.
“Would you like her to adore you?”
Orilana laughed and shook her head. “No thank you.”
“That’s right. Her adoration is a bit … much.”
“Humans are always like that. Short lifespans.”
“Yes, well I wish she would treat me less and less like Azora and more and more like …”
“What? Everyone around here treats you like Azora herself, clad in flesh to bring beauty and light to —”
Iriel waved her off. “First. Blasphemy. Second? Not funny.”
But both women were smirking.
“I better get going,” said Orilana. “I’ll explain the new rounds to my girls.”
“You’re going to leave me now?” Iriel fake pouted. “But I neeeed you! Knight, defend me!”
“No one can defend you from that girl, Your Eminence. I’m afraid you’ll have to accept all her attention and devotion. Suffer through it, but suffer for the goddess.” Orilana smirked and touched her forefinger and middle finger to her forehead. “May the light be on your face.”
“But never in my eyes,” added Iriel. Orilana laughed at their modification to the formal blessing.
“Adieu,” she said, and stepped out of the room. Before she was gone, Rella came in. Iriel still had to adjust to the sight of the woman. She had dark skin, and presumably dark hair, coming from a desert region on the far continent, but no one — not even her roommate — had seen her without a veil concealing it. She was the first acolyte in three generations to go back to wearing the veil. It was a white cloth, linen in the sun months and something heavier for the moon months, that covered her body from head to toe. It was one piece, covering her neck, her head, her hair, her ears. Everything. There was only a thin line where her bright green eyes and dark skin could be seen. Her hands were uncovered — though on holy days she wore gloves — and the veil was long enough to drape over her feet. It was covered in a lace detailing in the symbol of Azora: two wings on the edge of a broken heart. The heart was whole, but the cracks were highlighted in gold, showing the healing Azora had done.
Rella’s zeal was commendable, and it got her through the rigorous application process easily, but some of the older sisters were a little intimidated by her. It was one thing to love Azora. It was another thing entirely to demand that everyone love her as much as you do. On top of that, Rella was brilliant. She had half the ancient texts memorized by eighteen. Humans didn’t live long, so to spend the first promising section of your life memorizing scripture was brave and intimidating. No one had done that before. She was one of the brightest and most promising acolytes the Abbey had seen in decades.
And yet Iriel couldn’t stand her.
For everything she had a question. For every answer she had a verse of Scripture to add on or counter what you said. Her brain had no room for ambiguity, for mystery. It was necessary to understand that deities came with perfection and contradiction. That was the beauty of faith, to find something larger than yourself but still find that nothing needed to be flawless to be good. Rella didn’t understand that.
And when the Abbey taught that the High Priestess was the voice of the goddess and the ear of all free peoples, she took that a little too literally. She thought Iriel was Azora. Theologically, that may have been partially true and partially profane. But Rella should try being High Priestess for a day and see how divine you feel while ordering grain and tending to the mentally insane. If she had a speck of the goddess’ power, perhaps she’d feel she deserved a speck of Rella’s attention.
“Your Eminence,” said the girl as she bowed. She was a curvy girl. Not heavyset, not like Kasha or Quana. But her hips and bust strained against her veil. She said she needed a bigger size, but Iriel and the other sisters were too embarrassed to tell her that her sign of devotion and modesty to the goddess still drew attention to her body. It could be that no veil could hide her curves. Rella wouldn’t take that well.
“Blessed Dawn, Rella. How can I help you?”
“Blessed Dawn,” echoed Rella. “Um, I was hoping you could help me solve a conundrum I was wrestling with.
“Yes.” Iriel stood. “Walk with me.”
Rella stepped out of her way as the High Priestess stepped out of her office. Rella trailed behind, and Prim followed as well. Iriel went everywhere with an escort. Prim was a bit young to be a paladin, but she was an angel in spirit and in blood. Those born to Azora’s flock were admitted immediately to the Abbey. Those with angel blood, the Aasimar, were given heavy consideration during the admissions process. Who better to serve the goddess than her angels?
They walked through the winding caverns deeper into the Abbey. The Abbey itself was underground, built into the side of a huge cavern. Many people throughout Alondra speculated as to why the goddess put her priests here. They made up conclusions about Azora putting herself close to danger, about the ubiquitous presence of death reminding the priests of the value of life, of those that love Azora being willing to risk their lives, and that even a cloistered life of devotion was a dangerous life. All of them were noble and beautiful.
All of them were wrong.
The Abbey was a lock on a cage. Few remembered what was trapped at the bottom of the yawning cavern beneath them, and that was for the best. It would take one dark sorceress or megalomaniacal necromancer or ambitious demon prince to bring about an evil that cost the goddess’ life to trap.
The consequence of their location was that everything was carved in stone. Although the architects were known for their immaculate masonry and the stained glass that the outer walls and temples showed off to the world, their true brilliance was in the network of tunnels and passages in the rock hanging above the abyss. Iriel walked through them now, the torches along the way giving her light, the clanking of Prim’s armor punctuating each of her steps, and the overly eager shuffling of Rella’s footsteps wrapping around them like whispers.
“What was it you wanted to speak about?” asked Iriel.
“I’ve been doing some reading,” said Rella. With her short legs, she had to practically run to keep up with Iriel’s stride. “In some of the originals of the Divine Dictations. I’ve been working with multiple translations to compare: Elvish to Celestial. That sort of thing.”
“Uh-huh.” Iriel nodded to two acolytes that scampered past, making the sign of the goddess, touching forefinger and middle finger to her forehead. There were mutterings of “may the light be on your face” and “Blessed Dawn” as they passed.
“Well, I even found some texts in the … uh … archives.”
Iriel turned and raised an eyebrow but kept walking. “The forbidden section?”
“It’s not called that.” Rella shrunk. Any blush would be hidden, but she was excitable and nervous. When Rella blushed, she blushed with her whole body.
Imagine her warm skin under that veil.
Iriel turned around, looking for the soft and thick voice whispering in her ears. “Did you hear that?” She asked Prim first, but the paladin said nothing. “Did you hear that voice?” Rella shook her head, clueless.
Iriel paused and let her hands glow with warm light. Her escort paused with her, looking nervously around the chasm. She tapped into her connection with the goddess, listening to Azora’s voice and guidance. She sent her light and presence out in all directions, looking for whatever was whispering to her. She looked for any trace of magic or corruption. She inspected her body for any twisted leylines. Was there a curse? Some madness? Poison? Was it a spirit? A demon? Perhaps something invisible was stalking her? She sent the light out in little pulses, timing it with her heartbeat, looking for whatever it was that haunted her.
She found nothing. One hundred and forty-one souls in the Abbey. Three short of a holy number. All as they should be. Not a trace of darkness around them except for what was below.
What was always below.
“Nevermind,” said Iriel, shaking her head. “Proceed, Rella.” She turned and continued walking. Fella and Mola would be in one of the practice chambers, holding their advanced courses on defensive magic. The sooner she got there, the sooner she could excuse herself from Rella.
“Right, well I was comparing the original celestial with the infernal and abyssal translations.”
Iriel stopped again. As she turned on Rella, she saw Prim’s face. Prim’s amused expression had become almost feral at the mention of demonic and Molal texts. “You what?” snapped Iriel.
“I assumed that if I had permission to be there then I had permission to read anything I found there.” Rella shivered, but she didn’t yield. She tried to hold her ground, and Iriel struggled to stay mad at the blank veil. It was like being mad at a statue.
“You assume too much.”
“I won’t do it again.”
“No. You won’t. Your library access is revoked until you complete Penance.”
“Yes, High Priestess,” though she didn’t sound like Iriel was the Voice of the Goddess now.
“What did you find?” asked Iriel as she turned and kept walking.
“You still want to know?”
“If it was worth confessing to practical blasphemy, I can assume it was interesting.”
“Careful acolyte, a mother’s rage is for her children’s benefit, but it is rage nonetheless.”
“Yes, High Priestess.”
“Tell me what you found.”
“Right. Well.” Rella seemed to have perked up. There wasn’t much she loved discussing more than research. “There are remarkable consistencies throughout translations despite the variance in language,” she said. “But I found one interesting problem. In some texts, it says that Azora slew the Dark One, and it cost her her life.”
“However, in the infernal and abyssal, the term is closer to devour or consume.”
“So? That is all Molals and demons know. They do not simply kill, they absorb what they slay.”
“Right, but I found similar wording in the elvish. Only the celestial uses a term similar to smiting, a type of divine retribution like revenge. But the other ones seem to imply that the goddess took the dark one inside herself and then died.”
“Either way the dark one is dead, yes?”
“I will ponder this, acolyte.” They had begun to navigate the wide corridors filled with students and teachers, paladins and priests. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“Yes, High Priestess.”
“Now if you will excuse me, I must talk with Sister Fella and Sister Mola.”
“Yes, High Priestess.”
“And Rella?” said Iriel, turning to face the veiled girl before she scampered away.
“No library access until Penance is completed. I’ll inform Kasha and Orilana.”
Rella shrunk and dipped her head in shame. “Yes, High Priestess.”
Iriel sighed with relief as the girl disappeared into the maze of caverns. She regained herself when she saw the look on the faces of Fella and Mola.
Fella and Mola were practically her sisters here. Technically, she had no sisters, but all three had joined the Abbey in the same year, and all three were highly blessed. Iriel was the daughter of a long line of High Priestesses. Fella and Mola were both Aasimar, able to link their blood back to one of Azora’s original legions. They mostly had to spell their name right on their applications to get through admissions.
Fella kept her hair in a long brown braid. She had wide brown eyes. Everything about her was soft and wholesome, including the pale golden coronet around her head. Whenever she laughed or smiled, it grew brighter.
Mola was thinner and leaner. Some people thought she had Fey blood in her, based on her appearance. She had short red hair, choppy and uneven since she cut it herself. Her arms were tight with muscle, but you couldn’t see it under her plate armor. It was similar to Orilana’s but without the golden trim. Mola had no halo, but the freckles all over her face and hands were gold instead of a faint brown, and when she got angry, faint wings looking like lace made of light sprouted from her back. It must have been the most beautiful last image an infidel got to see.
Fella was watching Rella walk away when Iriel joined their side. Mola made a sign to Prim, and the younger paladin left Iriel’s shadow, going back to her post. “Great company,” said Fella sarcastically.
Iriel smirked. “All are beautiful under the goddess’ light.”
“Some are just squeakier,” added Mola. All three smiled and turned to face the latest class about to graduate. Mola and Fella taught one of the final classes: Self-Defense and Salvation. At this point, all the girls have learned about theology and the theoretical practice of magic. Fella taught the healing arts while Mola taught self-defense magic such as banishing and binding. After a year under their tutelage, the acolytes would graduate and become full-fledged sisters of the order. Most would then be assigned posts or become missionaries. A few would continue working directly under Iriel’s guidance here in the Abbey.
“I just came from yelling at Kasha,” said Iriel. “We expelled another girl this morning.”
“Another?” said Fella.
“Quana,” said Mola at the same time.
Fella looked at her in shock. “How did you know?”
“People talk,” said Mola with a shrug.
“Well they ought not to,” said Iriel. “Too many whispers and this thing spreads.”
“You think people will hear about what Quana did and want to do … that … to um ... to other people?” asked Mola.
“I think it puts an idea in their mind, and ideas—”
“But Quana practically … I spoke to the girl afterwards, her roommate. She was shaking. This is more than debauchery. The goddess wants nothing to do with these, even between the mundane, between man and wife.”
“I know,” sighed Iriel. “That’s why it can’t spread. I don’t think anyone would do what Quana did, but they could fantasize. They could wonder what drove her to do it. They could become curious. How would we stop them then? Should we abolish a roommate system entirely? Lock the doors at night? Keep guards outside each door? Orilana and Kasha are already posting guards throughout the dormitories at night. When do we become a prison?”
Mola looked shocked. She turned to Fella, but her big brown eyes were already watering. “Oh goddess,” she whispered and shook her head.
“Exactly,” said Iriel. “That’s why the best option we have is to make sure no one hears about it for now. We have to lock it down and locate the source of the corruption.”
“What if there is no source?” asked Mola.
“What do you mean?”
“What if these girls are just giving into their lusts? What if—”
“They have laid their hearts bare to the goddess. Each of them have spent an evening in the chapel for their annual vigil and …”
That was it. Goddess, that was it. The one thing they all had in common. Iriel’s heart-rate picked up and her eyes widened with awareness. “Fella,” she said. “Who has done their annual vigil in the past month?”
“The annual vigil. Who has spent the night in the chapel with the goddess in the past month?”
“Um, Quana was one. You’re right about that.”
“Um, Voge, and I think … uh … Katalina, and Kasha? Yes, I think Kasha was the most recent.”
“Oh no,” whispered Iriel. She turned and ran off in the direction of the chapel. If this was it, if it all started at the chapel, and Kasha was tainted like the other girls … then … then …
The chapel was the lowest part of the Abbey. It was where the goddess herself was buried after slaying Maloth. It was their most sacred space. It was impossible to get any closer to the physical goddess. But it was also the closest anyone could get to Maloth’s prison. It had long been thought that the prison was unbreakable, that the spells and runes there would hold, keeping back Maloth and leaving the chapel as a place set apart, a place hallowed amongst the ruins of evil.
But if Maloth was there, if she was corrupting the space, then perhaps the girls hadn’t spent their time with Azora at all. Perhaps they had spent the evening with Maloth, with darkness herself. Perhaps their prayers had turned to moans of ecstasy as their bodies awoke to perverse pleasures, causing them to abandon their vows, their oaths, and became instruments of lust in the Abbey.
Doesn’t it sound delicious?
Iriel turned around, looking for the source of the voice. It wasn’t around her, she was sure of it now. It wasn’t within her. She wasn’t cursed or being followed or going insane. It was from beneath her.
Iriel’s hands cast back all shadows as she ran down the corridors into the chapel. There should have been two more paladins guarding this way, but no one was guarding the tomb. Something was wrong, terribly wrong.
“Azora grant me a shield that I may know peace even under terrible assault.” Glyphs or light like tiny triangles flared up around Iriel as she cast the spell. The goddess was with her. She would be safe.
The order used to hold services in the chapel, millenia ago. The building was shaped like a star, with five sections all converging on the single altar. Each section had two rows of pews facing the altar, but they were empty now. The building had fallen into disrepair except for the altar. Once a month, acolytes and sisters were asked to spend the entire night here reflecting on the goddess, giving her their full attention. The vigil was sacred, but it was the only use for the chapel these days.
Some acolytes thought it blasphemous to keep something so important to their faith in such poor condition. Why not hold more services here? At least feast days. What they didn’t know was that the crumbling facade of the chapel was camouflage. If too many people spend too much time here, they would wonder. They would ask questions. They would see the cracks.
Iriel spoke the command word — Quasime — and the altar rumbled and slid away. The acolytes and sisters knew that Azora was buried beneath here, but it was wrapped in metaphors. Goddesses can’t die. They don’t have bodies. A tomb is just a symbol to her literary death, part of her mythology. But no one thought there was an actual tomb. No one knew something was truly buried down here.
The altar finished grinding stone against stone, revealing the cramped stairways. Iriel let her hands burn brighter and pointed a concentrated beam down the steps. There were no footprints in the dust. No one had found this and gone under. Nothing had escaped and climbed up. Good.
She sighed with relief. That meant there had been no communion with Maloth. She was trapped, even if her magic was seeping out. She wasn’t about to battle a dark goddess. She was about to fix some old spells. Tension eased out of her body. It was the difference between fixing a leaky pipe and redirecting a river.
She went down the steps carefully. Her mother brought her down here once, over a decade ago. Before she became High Priestess, the secrets of the Abbey were revealed to her. She spoke oaths that etched themselves into her skin like white scars, like righteous brands, that set her to Azora’s way, to the truth and light. Then she was brought up and told never to go down here again unless the world was ending or she was passing on her mantel of High Priestess.
Was the world ending?
Iriel gasped as she looked over the Tomb of Maloth. She barely remembered what it looked like. The pain of her mother’s spell, the shock of the revelation, the weight of her new purpose, all of it had distracted her.
She was in a large cavern, over a hundred meters high. The walls were lined with dark crystals, but as the edge of her light spell touched them, she saw them dazzle a hundred different colors. Some crystals were broken open, and within them was each inch of the spectrum. The dark purple crystals acted like prisms, breaking the light into something more beautiful for the breaking.
She stepped forward, keeping her eyes up, and felt a crunch. She looked around her feet and saw scattered bones. Thousands of bones. Not just the bones of a goddess, like you’d expect in a tomb. There were bones from angels, dragonborn, Aasimar, elves, dwarves, humans, and more. These were the bones of priestesses. Bones of her order. Bones of her sister.
She waded through them, trying not to breathe, to disrupt the air of this place. As she moved, she saw larger bones, larger than anything she’d ever seen. A giant? A titan?
These bones had lines of runes etched into them, but these weren’t the spells she was looking for. Maloth had done this to herself, burning herself with magic. Legend says that these were the contracts she held with her legion of demons. She had to brand her bones in order to make the magic hold.
Iriel found the skull of Maloth, but what she saw there took her eyes from the bleached bones lined with demonic tongue. There was a sheet of obsidian, tall and sharp, piercing through the skull of the dead goddess and standing at the center of the cavern. This was the blade Azora has slain her twin sister with. But Maloth had thrashed and tried to break free, summoning her legion to her aid. To hold her down, Azora fell on the blade herself, and both sisters were slain in their final breaths.
Though Azora lived on in the hearts of her followers. It was the power of her magic. It was a paradox Rella had investigated endly. The only answer Iriel had was that faith required mystery. Otherwise they became historians and not believers.
Iriel approached the obsidian speartip. It was taller than her, but just barely. She knew this was the source of the corruption. The skin on her arm raised. Her heart fluttered in her chest, trying to escape. It knew the presence of Maloth—the presence of all Azora was not—and it wanted to escape.
The light in the room bent towards the obelisk. The surface of it was shiny, reflective. How could she have missed it at first? Even more impressive than the crystals lining the chamber and more intimidating than the bones littering the ground was the change in the light and air that warped around the obelisk. It must be —
There, standing inside of the obelisk, was a woman. Iriel stepped back, and so did the woman. She stepped forward and —
Laughed at herself.
Her reflection laughed back, and all of the fear in Iriel’s body fled. The light of her spell caught the obelisk’s sheer edge and reflected her image back at her. It was nothing. Harmless.
Iriel took a deep breath. There was nothing to fear here. Just a dead goddess and some fading spells. She could relax. She brushed a strand of her long hair behind her ear, and her reflection did the same.
Something was off.
Something caught her eye.
Something about the reflection was not … exact.
Iriel was always told that she had the radiance of the goddess inside of her. It was part of her ancestry. She was the seventh successive member of her household to be the High Priestess of Azora’s Abbey. It was an honor, to be sure, and one she had earned through study and dedication. But people created their own mythologies about their family. Some thought they were angelic, but they were elves, not Aasimar. Iriel ran her finger over her long and pointed ears. They came out to the side a bit more than she’d like. On her best days she looked like a Fey creature, but on her worst she looked like a goblin. Her skin was bronze and rich. Some called her sun-kissed. Some thought it was the light of the goddess in her. It was just her heritage. Her family used to live in the deserts to the west before coming to the Abbey. All the elves from that region had the same complexion. There were similar stories about her hair. It was coppery, almost red, but it faded in color becoming blonde as it went. She was told it looked like a sunset, but the goddess had nothing to do with sunsets. She had bright green eyes, but no one made up any myths about —
Her reflection had light purple eyes. Almost pink.
And her reflection’s skin was paler. Not white, but certainly not as deep as Iriel’s.
And her hair. Iriel gasped. Her reflection’s hair was a deep red. Almost auburn or brown. Almost maroon. Almost …
Iriel stepped back from the mirror, but her reflection stepped forward. She scrambled back again, but the reflection kept approaching. Her reflection swept her arms to the side, and with a flood of light and smoke curling around the obelisk, stepped out of the mirror. She stood, in the same robes Iriel wore, but with paler skin, darker hair, and new eyes. She raised her arms up, and smoke and dust from the tomb wrapped around her. It coalesced like a helix, crawling over her skin and arms, sucking the air and light itself into her. Her form shimmered for a second, blinking out of existence, and then with a burst of light, she threw her arms back.
Something popped in Iriel’s ears as the dust, smoke, air, and light of the chamber flew away from her direction. Her feet slipped backwards in the dirt of the cavern though she kept them planted. She shielded her eyes and leaned into the blast, trying to stay upright.
Then everything went still. Iriel’s mind was slow. She should have been casting spells. She should have prepared herself, shielded herself. She should have done something, anything, but she could only look on at the pale reflection of herself. Yes, she looked darker, scarier, but she also looked … happy. And powerful. Yes, she was undoubtedly strong. Iriel was strong, but she had been trained over decades to be humble. Be meek. Be modest.
Her reflection was anything but that. She lowered her arms and laughed. It was free and clear. Yes, there was something … off about it. Something that raised the hair on the back of Iriel’s neck. Something that made her clench her fists and pray that her spells would hold.
But that something was power.
Her reflection was dangerous. Not dangerous in the way Iriel had been taught. She’d been raised that power corrupts. That was how Azora’s twin, Maloth, had fallen away. She found a way to bind demons to herself. She lorded her power over mortals. She punished those who were weak or didn’t join her. Cruelly. But she started the same as Azora. They were sisters and best friends. They were equal, cut from the same cloth. It was the power that turned Maloth.
But not Iriel’s reflection. This wasn’t the power of cruelty. It was the power of confidence. There was no second guessing in her reflection. No doubt about what she was capable of or what she wanted or who she was. She was utterly herself, and what could be more dangerous than that?
What could be more attractive?
Iriel stepped backwards and crunched a bone. Her reflection lifted her eyes and locked them onto the scared priestess. She raised a hand towards her, and Iriel froze.
“Hello lovely,” she whispered. Her voice was different, accented. She sounded like someone from the north.
“Do not fear.” Her reflection curled a finger, and Iriel’s feet moved towards her without her bidding. “What have you to fear from yourself?”
Iriel tried to answer, but her mind stuttered on the question. One part of her, after a decade of training, knew the answer: everything. Maloth was a lesson that anyone of them could become like her. They were all frail. They needed the goddess to guide them, to keep them on the right path.
And yet, she had never felt like a dark being that needed to be chained up. She never wanted to hurt someone. She never wanted to be worshipped. She was the High Priestess of the Abbey, the highest ranking woman in the region. Rella practically worshipped her, and it annoyed her. She didn’t want to be a goddess. Why should she fear herself?
The voice was like grating iron. It rang through the cavern, like the crystals were singing. Iriel looked around, and her reflection mirrored her. Both their hands glowed with a pale light, preparing spells to defend themselves.
Her reflection laughed. It was a sweet laugh, thick like honey. Iriel found herself joining in, and both women laughed at their own paranoia.
Iriel walked towards her reflection of her own power. The paler version walked towards her, but both women stopped, only a meter away from each other. Iriel moved a hand, and her reflection copied her. There was no mirror, but both women moved in sync.
“What do you want?” asked Iriel as she continued testing the magic.
“Whatever you want.”
“Well then … that means …” Iriel furrowed her brows. Her reflection didn’t copy her.
“What do you want?” asked her reflection.
“I … I don’t know.”
“Are you sure?” The reflection stepped forward. Iriel was frozen. “Or are you afraid of the answer?”
Iriel tried to step back, but she couldn’t. She tried to scream, but she couldn’t. She tried to feel afraid, but she … she couldn’t.
Her reflection smiled.
The reflection brushed a stray strand of Iriel’s copper hair behind her ear.
Iriel brushed a stray strand of her reflection’s auburn hair behind her ear.
Her reflection cupped the back of Iriel’s head.
Iriel cupped the back of her reflection’s head.
Both women stepped forward towards each other. The lips of Iriel’s reflection glowed a soft purple. Small puffs of black smoke billowed out. Iriel’s lips glowed white, and rays of golden light shimmered from her mouth.
Iriel’s reflection pulled Iriel into a kiss.
Iriel pulled her reflection into a kiss.
Their lips met, and the smoke and light wrestled with each other, pouring out the sides of their kiss, trying to escape to the air. Iriel gasped for air but found smoke instead. The smoke of her reflection poured into her mouth. Her light tried to fight, to escape, but finally the smoke of her reflection drowned it out.
Iriel tried to pull away. Not from fear. Not from pain. But to moan in ecstasy. To cry out in pleasure. To finally shout to whomever would hear her that she knew what she wanted.
She knew what she wanted.
Iriel stepped forward, pressing into her reflection. She kissed her back, her lips fading from their white glow to their a faint pink light. She kissed her reflection, and smoke poured out from their kiss, wrapping around both of them.
But she wanted more.
She pressed forward, and let her tongue slip into her reflection’s mouth. She tasted like honey. And she was hungry.
Goddess, she was so hungry.
She licked and tasted. She kissed and panted. She gasped and moaned, drinking in more and more smoke. Consuming her reflection, letting the smoke wrap around them and rise up in a helix. The air and light in the chamber was drawn to them. The dust and the smoke was drawn to them. The power of the bones, the magic of the runes, the remains of the goddesses.
All of it was drawn to them, drawn to their power.
Then Iriel stepped forward again, stepping through her reflection.
There was a cry like a moan, like an orgasm, and then -
Her reflection was gone.
Iriel looked around, confused. It must have been a dream, a fantasy. It must have been … something. Or nothing. Nothing at all.
Nothing was wrong here. There was nothing to worry about. The spell was fine. The magic would hold.
Iriel laughed at her silliness, at her paranoia, at her bizarre fantasy. But as the laugh escaped her lips, she gasped and covered her mouth with her hands.
It was her reflection’s laugh that escaped her lips.