The Stone by the Stream (Part 19)

“Sofia?” Cynthia asked. “I thought you were dead!”

“Oh, I’m dead, all right. Or, you know, that whole story about them burning my body after they killed me. That happened. Definitely not the most enjoyable day I’ve ever had, let me tell you!”

Cynthia looked over her shoulder, thinking maybe she’d just go get her three hours of sleep and put up with being thirsty in the meantime. She did not want to deal with… Sofia?

It couldn’t be her. This was another Temple trick. Had to be!

Anything else would be…

“You’re not Sofia. You can’t be.”

“This body is hers,” the acolyte said, waving her right hand to indicate herself.

“But she burned.”

“She did. And now I’m here!”

“But… how? And if you’re Sofia, why do you just stand around sweeping the entranceway all the time? You could be the Temple’s oracle by now.”

“There’s much you still don’t understand, Cynthia,” Sofia said. “Sofia is dead, after all. But the Huntress sent what’s left of her to guide the new Vessel to the stone. Don’t you want to meet her?”

“The Huntress? Yes, of course I want to meet her. It’s all I’ve wanted for so long… so long. But I’m not ready, the priestess is right. I can’t force these things. I wouldn’t be ready. I’m not ready to encounter her. Not fully to encounter her.”

“Come on, Cynthia… you know how that’s going to end. Follow the Temple and they’ll turn you into their puppet. Constantly training you for some wonderful thing that never comes. Do you think they would be able to tell when you’re ready? And even when they decide you are — you’ll have to hold back. Never entirely encounter her. You’ll always have to dilute her message to serve them, to make it palatable for them. To keep from upsetting them.”

“So you think I should go right now?”

“Like a jump into cold clean water,” Sofia said. She held up her broom. “If you like, we can fly there on my broomstick!”

“… are you serious?”

“Would you like to find out?”

Cynthia stepped around Sofia, headed to the kitchens. “I just want to get a glass of water and sleep a few hours.”

As Cynthia entered the kitchens, she heard Sofia call, “I’ll see you on your way back, Cynthia.”

Though darkness had covered the courtyard, it swallowed the inside of the kitchen. Without a light, Cynthia had to feel her way through the darkness, imagining all manner of creatures hiding in the night. Cold stone, smooth metal, grained wood flitted beneath her hands. As the dryness of her throat called out for moisture, she tensed up as she expected a loud noise to echo through the black room. Secretly, she hoped it would take her a long time to find the water.

She couldn’t bear to see Sofia again — if that was Sofia. Both the priestess and Sofia seemed to make so much sense when they talked. Of course she needed time and discipline to be ready to meet the Huntress. Of course spending time preparing to meet the Goddess was only an elaborate excuse to avoid the inevitable.

And she had to choose between them somehow.

She felt something metal brush her fingers and jerked it away when she realized it was a sharpened cooking knife.

But no… it wasn’t just that she had to choose between them. Because while if she went with Sofia that might decide things immediately… Cynthia had a feeling Sofia wouldn’t go away if she stayed in the Temple. She’d always be there whispering doubts into her ears, making her question the Temple’s motives.

And did she trust the Temple’s motives?

Yes.

No.

Yes!

No!

Was “Sofia” genuinely sent by the Goddess to bring Cynthia to her? That would make a difference.

Wouldn’t it?

Thinking was too much for her. Cynthia muttered a prayer to the Goddess as she searched in the darkness, repeating the chant over and over until it drowned out any thoughts other than itself. She begged the Huntress to guide her — just a couple hours ago she’d been in contact with her, and how she longed to be enfolded in that embrace again! Enfolded totally.

And then she found it.

A clay vessel on a wooden counter, filled with quiet water. Cynthia found a few earthen cups beside the jug and filled one of them up, struggling not to spill anything — difficult on account of the heaviness of the vessel and the darkness all around. She wondered if the water was drawn from the stream that ran by the stone.

Calm but still filled with uncertainty, Cynthia lifted the cup to her lips and drained it in one draft. The water — the very same sort of water she’d had every day of her life — seemed so precious and life-giving, like mother’s milk drawn from the folds of the earth.

She filled the cup again and drank again, more slowly this time. This satisfied her thirst.

Cynthia thought she may well choose to go with Sofia in the end. But now was time to sleep.

“Not tonight,” she said to Sofia as she walked back across the courtyard.

She fell asleep in her bed of thin sheets almost as soon as she curled up.

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