“She is blessed!”
The Temple at Orca was carved into solid rock. It was said that passages extended for miles into the hillside behind it, and that lost souls wandered through the labyrinth they created, going mad in the darkness and unable to find their way back into the real world.
No-one knew whether this was true, for the Temple was guarded day and night by a race of sentient dragons, and only the select few Priestesses who served at the Temple were ever allowed inside its holy caverns.
On this particular night, all the Priestesses were present, and gathered around the young novice, called Lia, who was lying on a stone couch, twitching and jerking, with wisps of aromatic incense swirling around her face.
“Behold, the child is visited again by the Great One,” intoned Maia, the oldest and most senior Priestess. “Let us all pray fervently for her safe journey back to us from His hallowed side.”
She fell to her knees, as did her dozen or so colleagues, all flailing their arms and uttering incantations in the traditional manner.
“Guide her to us!”
“Keep her safe!”
“She is blessed!”
“She is His chosen one!”
On the couch, Lia twisted and turned, unaware of those around her, her eyes sometimes flying open, but not seeing the rich furnishings of the Temple – seeing instead some other, mysterious place.
“Oh Great One,” the Priestess Maia spoke out. “Let our dear young sister tell you of our devotion, let her bring us your messages and your guidance. Let her know your wisdom!”
Beside Maia, another Priestess, called Rami, looked at the young novice in her trance, and felt rising in her heart that dreadful hatred and jealousy with which she had recently become so familiar.
Why is it she who communes with the Great One, and not myself? Have I not spent three times as many years in His service? Have I not devoted myself to His worship, to the exclusion of all else? What is so special about this stripling, that she should be so favoured?
“Behold, she is returning!” someone cried, and the volume of the incantations increased.
From outside came the call of one of the guard dragons, screeching as if in support of the Priestesses’ prayers.
“Return to us, sister,” Maia implored. “Release her to us, oh Great One!”
On the stone couch, Lia had become first more agitated, then more still. Now she calmly opened her eyes and sat up, looking a little shocked and bemused.
The Priestesses rose to their feet and gathered around her, touching and stroking her as if to partake of her holiness.
“Tell us,” said Maia. “What have you seen? What have you been told?”
“Yes,” Rami added, struggling to keep the negative feelings out of her voice. “What wonderous sights have you been shown this time, sweet sister?”
Lia, still largely a child and secretly scared as always by the incense-laden atmosphere of the Temple, put her hands to her head and dutifully tried to articulate what she had just experienced.
“I – I was in a strange place. There were many tall towers and much noise. All around were these strange creatures, square in shape like blocks of stone, but moving fast as if by magic over the ground. So many of them, rushing so quickly in procession, on some secret business.”
“Did these creatures speak to you?” Maia enquired, trying to be gentle, for the poor girl was clearly quite confused.
“No, Priestess,” Lia replied. “But I think I saw the Great One, and I think He spoke to me.”
There was a flurry of indrawn breath as those gathered took in this news.
“It was on the side of one of the tall towers; there was a huge person. He was all colourful and was looking at me and talking to me. I could not understand the words, but He was smiling, nodding, encouraging me. I lingered, fascinated, and watched Him. I was sure He was trying to get a message across to me, but I couldn’t make it out.” Lia broke suddenly into a smile. “And then there was the most beautiful sound, like music, like a song. I tried to learn it, but I can’t remember it now. And after a while, everything was dark, but the towers and the canyons were lit up with a million tiny fires, blinking in different colours. It was most beautiful and amazing, but I don’t know what it all means.”
Maia was nodding to herself, knowingly. “This must be realm of the Great One you are describing. It is like nothing we know. You must tell us more in due course, and we can all dwell on your descriptions and interpret what we can of the Great One’s intentions.”
The Priestesses were now helping Lia from the holy stone, and leading her towards her room, or rather cave – for such were the nature of the dwelling places the women lived in.
The spiteful Rami watched her go, musing on what the young girl had said. ‘These are all just dreams, surely,’ she thought to herself. ‘The deluded dreams of a child who is either weak-willed or mad.’
But, remembering her place as second in command, she did not express these opinions to the Priestess Maia. Instead, she spoke as follows.
“Are we completely sure, dear mother, that it is the Holy Realm this young novice is visiting? I have never heard such descriptions before – they do not resemble the images passed down to us in the ancient scrolls.”
Maia turned on her, not unaware, perhaps, of the extent of Rami’s jealousy. “What are you suggesting? Where then has she been?”
“Who can tell?” Rami said, spreading her hands wide. “Perhaps to some other realm, some evil realm. Should we really be trusting what she tells us?”
Maia’s piercing eyes bored down into Rami’s soul, but as her own heart was always full of compassion, she held back from criticising what she saw there.
“I will think on what you have said,” she announced. “Now go quickly, and prepare for the evening service.”
Rami scuttled away, nursing her grievances, while Maia stood a moment longer, thinking about Lia.
No other novice had ever shown such promise. It was true, some of the tales she told seemed very strange and irrational, but it was clear that something was happening to her – that she had some sort of gift. And Maia wanted to believe that maybe this girl could communicate with the Great One and learn something of interest. The aging Priestess had spent all of her harsh life searching for meaning and explanation, and this was an opportunity for enlightenment which she didn’t want to miss.
She decided to speak to the novice alone in the morning, to hear every detail of what she had experienced, and see whether she could make anything of it.
In her cell, deep in the rocks, Lia was at last left alone, and she lay on her little narrow bed in stillness for a long while, staring up at nothing.
As had become her private habit after each ritual in the Temple, she ran over in her head all the things she had seen during her ‘experience’, and categorised them firmly into those she would recount to the Priestesses – and those she would keep to herself.
She couldn’t really have explained why, but some deep instinct warned her not to be completely free with her revelations. There was just some sort of mismatch between what she felt the Priestesses wanted to hear, and what she was really experiencing. There was so much that was different and unfamiliar, so much that was confusing – it seemed somehow that the less she disclosed the better, just in case it could somehow be used against her.
Lia was very aware of her own youth, but at the same time – because she had never known her parents and missed out on the normal joys of childhood – she was mature for her years. After each ritual, she ended up concluding ever more firmly that she would tell some of what she had seen, but not all. She would keep those other memories to herself, until such time as she grew older and wiser, and might perhaps have a better idea of what they meant and what she should do about them.
For example – it was true that she had seen a giant figure on the side of one of the mysterious towers, and that he appeared to have spoken to her. But later, when she returned to that place, the man had disappeared, and in his place were other images – now of a giant woman (did this mean that the Great One had a spouse?), now of a giant four legged creature, eating food from a bowl (could He take on the shape of an animal?), now of one of the fast moving boxes which proliferated everywhere, but much larger (were these strange objects his minions?).
It became less clear, as she thought back on it, that it was the Great One himself she had seen.
And how could she find the words to describe to the Priestesses that there were also giant, noisy dragons in this other world, which flew through the air impossibly high overhead, but when they came down to the ground – for she had come across a place where they did so – they opened their mouths and hundreds of people came out of each one, seemingly unharmed. Had the dragons eaten them but they had somehow escaped? Or were they dragon babies, coming forth newly hatched into this strange world? But did that mean that dragons and people were one and the same thing? What was going on? She couldn’t understand what it was she had seen.
Another thing she knew she would always keep to herself was the horrible scene she had once witnessed in a green area of that other place. There were none of the rushing boxes here, and fewer people. She had found herself drawn to it as a peaceful haven, and floated around amongst the trees sometimes, observing tiny animals with bushy tails, and sweeping over the surface of pretty little ponds on which different creatures, many with strangely long necks, floated.
It was in this hitherto quiet place, that she had on that previous occasion come across an altercation between some young males. A group of four or five of them had descended on two others. After much shouting and commotion, one of the victims had run away, but the other was knocked to the ground, and punched and kicked viciously and repeatedly until he no longer moved, at which point his aggressors finally left the scene, sprinting across the darkening grass, back towards the crowds and the lights.
Lia watched horrified, unable to help, unable to understand. She lingered around the boy lying bloodied on the path, alone and unaided, his life force slowly ebbing away. Eventually she left him, feeling shocked and distraught.
When she had returned after that visit, it had taken her some time to come to terms with what she had seen. The Priestesses had told her she was communicating with the realm of the Great One, who was by His nature pure goodness and clemency, or so she had been taught all through her formative years.
How could it be that there, in His very realm, just a short distance from where she had seen Him tonight speaking from His tower, such mindless violence was allowed to occur and went on unhindered and apparently unpunished?
Either He was not the benevolent Deity she had been led to understand, or it was indeed not His realm she was visiting, but somewhere else entirely.
This point troubled her for many nights, until at last she found comfort from the knowledge that at least here, in her home world, she could live in peace and security amongst her sisters.
In the dark corridor outside Lia’s cave, the Priestess Rami stood silently – battling with her conscience, and gripping in her tightly clenched hand a tiny, but very sharp, pocket knife.
Poor Lia was not as safe as she believed.