She sat on the stone bench, contemplating the darkness.
Darkness is never empty. At times it hangs close about the eyes, forcing itself on them with an energy and vigor that possesses the depth of the soul and disturbs its balance. Ghosts and phantoms populated the darkness in her imagination, filling the space with their indefinite threat and unsatisfied yearning.
And were they real?
She’d heard more than once, and sometimes believed, that anything arising in the dimness of the imagination possessed a reality equal to any spreading tree, indifferent stone, or grazing horse perceived in the daylight eye. That the possibility of chimeras, minotaurs, unicorns, and even stranger creatures arising in the imagination proved such creatures must exist in reality, somewhere.
In the daylight, she usually dismissed such ideas. To think reality could be so easily impregnated by the force of imagination — or was it that imagination was so limited by the barriers of reality? — seemed the stuff of tales for the children of the poor or for superstitious spinsters. A serious mind dedicated itself to what could be directly known through the eye or intuited through the spirit. The ghostly realm of imagination was best left for the very young, poets, and other fuzzy thinkers.
With the darkness pressing into her eyes the phantoms whirled in darkness. Never directly before her senses, never overtly, but in the spirit-world of the imagination.
Or was that —
There! For the shred of a moment she thought she saw the glimmer of a ghost’s incorporeal body. Or was it that her straining ears made out an inexplicable change in the motion of the air?
She told herself, more than once, that it was only her imagination. That nothing arising from the imagination alone was real. That reality was only what could be known through the senses. But on that night, her eyes staring into darkness, her ears pressing into silence, she could not fully believe these comforting suppositions.
What was taking that woman so long? She ought to have been back by now.
She sighed, willed her turbulent mind to still itself, and when it refused to be calm she returned to examining the darkness. The darkness so full of what might be, what could be… and what was.
She sighed. Partly to distract herself and partly to get rid of the obtrusive darkness, she walked to the wall to grab a torch from one of the mountings. Once she’d found the wall and felt her way along the moist stone to find a torch, she shuffled her way to the Chamber of Initiation, lighting the torch from the flame in the alcove. Then returning to the main chamber, she set the torch in the mount, sat down at the bench before the altar, and resumed her wait.
After not much longer, footsteps greeted her from outside the Temple entranceway. She turned to the Temple and at long last saw by the light of a single torch the face of the woman she awaited. “Priestess! You’re back!”
Her hair matted, her white robes spattered with mud, the blue-eyed Priestess half-walked, half-staggered to sit next to her. “I’m back, Agatha, thank the Huntr — or… well, no thanks to her, I suppose. You brought the bodyguards back to the Temple, right?”
“Yes, Priestess, as you instructed. All except for the wounded… and the dead.”
“I managed to round up the wounded and return with them. As for the dead, they’ll have to wait until daylight. We may be able to gather their remains for the pyre.”
“Three dead… and Silas two nights ago! I worry we won’t be able to keep this situation secret much longer.”
Staring into the torch-flame on the wall, the Priestess said, “That may not be our concern for much longer.”
“You don’t mean…? Priestess. Isn’t there any hope?”
A tear rolled down the Priestess’s cheek, her eyes glassy in memory and contemplation. She said, “There may be one hope left for us. Something I’ve prayed I wouldn’t have to do again. It was hard enough to bear the first time.”
“You did what you had to, Priestess.”
“Tell that to my nightmares.”
“You don’t have to be the one to do it… not this time. Do you know where the girl is?”
The Priestess flinched. “I saw her the last time any of us saw her. Just before the Naiad attacked, when she threw herself on top of the stone. As far as I could tell, she was still there as we left the clearing. Or her body was, at least.”
The Priestess stood up and continued, “Anyway. There’s nothing more to be done tonight. I’m off to see if I can get any sleep. Make sure you set a guard before you get to bed. Oh, and Agatha?”
“No doubt there will be rumors going around the Temple tomorrow. And the Goddess only knows what new horrors we’ll have to meet then. But… whatever happens, there’s no need for you to tell the others about… about what I have to do with Cynthia.”
“She’s not Cynthia anymore, Priestess. She ceased to be Cynthia the moment she touched that stone.”
The Priestess nodded. “That’s what I told myself about Sofia. Anyway. Good night, Agatha.”
“Good night, Priestess.”