The Stone by the Stream (Part 29)
The Priestess rushed down the path, flanked by Agatha the Acolyte and perhaps a dozen of the Temple bodyguards. Torn between her rush toward the stone and the urge to listen to the Priestess, Cynthia settled to a stop after a few more steps. Yet she still felt her foot aching to take the next step, even as she turned around to await the Priestess and her company.
“We thought we might be too late,” the Priestess said, breathless, once she reached Cynthia and placed her hands on the younger woman’s shoulders.
“Not quite, Priestess. But I think it’s time for me to meet the Goddess — no matter what the Temple says.”
The Priestess stiffened and Agatha’s face reddened in the dim light. The Priestess said, “I’m afraid we can’t allow that, Cynthia.”
“You think you can control the Goddess!” Cynthia said. “The Temple doesn’t worship her. You block her will every time you can.”
“And they murdered me,” Sofia said.
“And you murdered her!” Cynthia said, pointing to Sofia.
A visible tremor passed among the two women and the bodyguards of the Temple, some of whom cringed and backed away in alarm. Whispers whirled among them and Cynthia thought she heard the word possessed among them.
The Priestess and Agatha exchanged a few anxious words, red-robed Agatha taking furtive glances at Cynthia now and again. At last the Priestess faced Cynthia and asked, “Who was murdered?”
“Sofia, of course! She’s standing right there in front of you all!”
Sofia stood unmoving, and the group from the Temple stared at her. Or rather, they stared in her general direction, but none of them really looked at her. Cynthia’s heart froze and she lowered her hand… slowly, slowly, until it rested by her side.
She said, “She’s… she’s standing right there.”
“There’s no one standing there, child,” Agatha said.
Cynthia was about to answer, but the Priestess asked, “Have you seen her many times before, Cynthia?”
“She’s always there at the Temple when I visit. Talks to me most of the time before I come in. Are you… are you sure you can’t see her? She’s standing right there in her Acolyte robes.”
“Well, at least now we know why we couldn’t find the Acolyte who told her about Silas,” Agatha told the Priestess, who nodded.
“So, Sofia visits you, does she, Cynthia?” the Priestess asked, the wan smile on her face impenetrable.
“She’s not exactly Sofia,” Cynthia said, speaking slowly and with the increasing worry the others would think she was insane. “She’s more like the representative of the Goddess, and she only happens to take Sofia’s form. I didn’t know until now that I was the only one who could see her. She never told me that part.”
This last she said with a reproachful glance at Sofia, who remained silent and shrugged.
“Well,” said the Priestess, “It seems the Goddess is eager to meet you, Cynthia.”
“And what about Sofia?”
“If the Goddess wants you to believe we… if she wants you to believe Sofia’s death wasn’t an unfortunate suicide, I don’t know what to say.”
“So that’s that?” Cynthia asked.
“In time you’ll have to decide if you trust the Temple or not,” the Priestess said. “But for now, it’s getting late. Let’s go back to the Temple and get you Initiated in the morning.”
“Don’t let them take you, Cynthia,” Sofia said, standing beside her as she followed the group to the edge of the clearing. “Once they Initiate you it will never be so easy to reach the stone again. You may never get another chance until they decide.”
Cynthia nodded, the pull of the stone still tugging on her.
“Hurry up, girl!” Agatha shouted, beckoning for Cynthia to follow.
“Go with them and you’ll never stop wondering what would have happened if you’d trusted yourself,” Sofia whispered.
Still following the crowd from the Temple, Cynthia felt her heart pound. Sofia was right. But how could she make her way against all of them… if they really had murdered Sofia, surely they wouldn’t hesitate to do the same to her. And if they thought she was possessed by the Goddess…
Yet still the gleam of the stone glowed in her heart.
“Don’t worry about them, Cynthia,” Sofia said, whispering close and warm in her ear. “Stay true to the Huntress, and you won’t share Sofia’s fate. Commit to her fully, throw yourself on the stone, and the Naiad will be more than enough to keep them away from you. All it takes is your absolute trust in the Goddess.”
“Will you hurry up, child!” Agatha shouted.
Cynthia stopped. Tears welled into her eyes as if she were suddenly dying. And in a way, after all, she was. She reached for Sophia’s phantom hand, which felt so warm and alive as she locked fingers with it. In her mind she silently prayed the Goddess to have mercy on the Priestess and the rest, even Agatha… and on Cynthia herself.
“Cynthia…?” the Priestess said, beckoning for her to follow. But the hopelessness in her deep blue eyes betrayed she already knew or sensed what was about to happen. With eyes of reproach that Cynthia could not bear to meet, the Priestess held out a hand in invitation.
Cynthia wished she didn’t have to decide. That she could somehow go down the path with the Priestess and meet the Goddess through the stone. That what she was about to do wouldn’t mean giving up her hopes in the Temple, her budding friendship with the Priestess, and even… herself, possibly.
Am I about to die? she wondered.
“I’m sorry,” she mouthed to the Priestess, silently.
Then she ran for the stone.