A Tale of Terror by MsFicwriter
In the dim light of my bedroom, cast by a single candlestick that made shadows dance on the ceiling, I sought her smiling face. It anchored my life, and my world.
"May I ask you three questions before I go to sleep?"
"Of course." Rustle went her long nightdress; whoosh went the wind outside. There would be a storm tonight, and I didn't even need the omens of our priests to tell me! The Masked Ones would be meditating, ensuring our safety and peace.
Folding my hands on top of my white blanket, I took a deep breath and prepared to take a risk. Normally, I would ask Mother questions like, "Where does the rain come from?" and "How old will you be when I grow up?" Tonight, however, I had more serious matters on my mind. Who cared about rain and age when the three biggest questions in my five-year-old heart had not yet been answered? I almost whispered when I spoke to Mother:
"Who is our god? For some reason, you won't tell me about him. Please do!"
Mother closed her eyes and opened them again slowly. She seemed to be making some sort of decision, but what kind? Her voice was soft and low:
"Our god is the most powerful one in the world. We call him the Faceless, because he lacks a visage. You know what our priests have told you: Though he has no eyes, the Faceless sees. Though he has no ears, the Faceless hears. Though he has no lips, the Faceless speaks. We are all blessed because we live in his holy city, cleft into a mountainside upon the rim of his Maw."
"What's a maw?" I slapped my hands over mine. "Oh, no! That one didn't count!"
Mother chuckled softly. "I'll allow you one free question for tonight, since you're showing such an interest in sacred things. A maw is a mouth, a very large one, and the Maw of the Faceless is the vast crater in the middle of the place we call home. On the night of every full moon, the Masked Ones all gather together and pray. The Maw opens, and the Faceless speaks."
"What does he say?" I paused. "That's my second question."
"Only our priests know that, because they're the ones who can hear him. You may think you only hear the wind on the night of the full moon, but after the Masked Ones have finished praying, they focus their minds and listen. The words of the Faceless echo from his Maw. When dawn comes, our priests tell us what he said. They've never been wrong, and they never can be."
Mother smiled, with candlelight reflected in her eyes. "Is that your third question, daughter mine? We both know you have too many!" We giggled, because this was true. I had a thousand more questions I wanted to ask:
Why aren't we allowed to go into the temple of our god until we're seven? Why don't we get to be chosen to be Masked until we're sixteen? I'm smart! I know I could learn everything they had to teach me before then. Also, why do the Masked Ones wear masks? I asked none of these questions, however. Why not? had stuck in my mind and my mouth for some reason, like a piece of food that had lodged itself between my teeth. I said, "Yes, that's it."
"Our priests can never be wrong, because the Faceless is never wrong."
Really? "I believe that, about our god, but we people make mistakes..."
Mother stood up, smoothing the part of the blanket which had been underneath her and tucking me into bed. "That's all for tonight. If you get scared during the storm, come see me. Yes?" Happily and thankfully, I nodded. "Your father would have been so proud of you, had he heard you tonight! You're a special child, a miracle, and I don't want you to forget it." She drew a warm hand across my cool forehead. "Good night, darling." Blowing out the candle, she turned to leave, and I realized I had one more question:
What happened to Father? You said he died, but how? Was he sick?
Agh! Those were three annoying and unanswered queries, and I pinched myself. I must try not to vex Mother, because her eyes--
Her eyes were so sad, and I didn't know why. What was the reason for that? The wind continued howling, and I heard the roar of thunder in the distance. Despite what Mother had promised me I could do, I pulled the white blanket up over my head and pretended I was dead. That way the storm couldn't hurt me, and neither could the mysteries buzzing in my mind like baby wasps...
TWO YEARS LATER
In order to understand our god, you have to understand our temple first. It's called the Oegon, pronounced "EE-gon" or often "ER-gon," especially by the Masked Ones who live there. I've done some studying, and its name comes from two words meaning "eye" and "shape". When you finish walking down the stone entrance hallway and enter the Oegon itself, you'll see why.
When I first did, I could only gasp, because it was the most beautiful building I'd ever seen! Light poured through seven big windowpanes, one on each side of the Oegon except for one. The eighth side was reserved for its two doors, which were heavy and made almost all out of glass. The wood in these doors only served for strong frames, like the ones for pictures. Because my friends and I were still children, the Masked Ones told us that we could never slam these doors, even though the glass was said to be warded. "Be very careful, for the eyes of the Faceless are upon you."
The windows and doors were like eyes, and two of them were clouded over with strange etchings. When I stood in the middle of the Oegon with the other seven-year-olds in our city, I felt as if I were being watched from all sides. No matter where I looked, the sun streamed in, bathing me in its golden warmth. I felt safe and comfortable, even though the Masked Ones scared me a little. They were very still, standing like statues before us. I decided to hide behind the other children and peek out from behind them when our priests spoke. Were we all in trouble, or was this it?
"Good day, my children," said one of them, a tall man in a hooded robe. I could only see his mouth move because of his mask. No other parts of his face were visible, though the mask did have two tiny holes for his eyes and two even tinier holes for his nose. "I am Exarch of the Masked Ones. Sit." He gestured to the hard stone benches around us, which were cold to the touch. We obeyed, not even daring to whisper amongst ourselves because we were so in awe. Many of us were scared, and brought our thumbs toward our mouths involuntarily. However, seeing the Exarch again, we quickly dropped them to our sides. No shameful acts would we commit in this place!
"Do you know why you are here?" asked the Exarch, waiting for an answer.
One of my friends, a lively boy, raised his hand. "We're to be punished?"
I thought I heard the sound of soft laughter echoing throughout the Oegon.
"No," replied the Exarch, his lips forming a small smile. "None of you deserves punishment! It is time for you to learn about the Faceless and his ways, and that is why I've called you to the Oegon. For seven years, you were but babes, not truly understanding the difference between what is right, and what is wrong, in the eyes of our god. Now you've reached an age where you know these things, or are beginning to know them. Thus, you must be further taught." He turned to someone standing to his right. "High Priestess? Please fetch the scrolls for novices, and pass them out to these precious children."
A woman as graceful as a willow tree, and just as strong, bowed her head. She was also wearing a hood and a mask which covered everything but her mouth. Turning to leave, she soon returned with an armful of parchments.
"These are sacred scrolls," the Exarch announced, "protected by ritual so that they can never be torn or ripped to pieces. Open them now, and read aloud."
We did, and this is what was written in midnight-dark ink upon them:
EIGHT UTTERANCES FROM THE MAW OF THE FACELESS
All who follow me shall follow me alone.
All who follow me shall not claim statues bear my face, for I have none.
All who follow me shall treat one another as brothers and sisters in me.
All who follow me shall not steal from anyone, even those who lack belief.
All who follow me shall not murder anyone, even those who lack belief.
All who follow me shall remain true to their husband or wife.
All who follow me shall not lie in order to have anyone else condemned.
All who follow me shall seek my face, even though I am Faceless.
When we had finished reading, the Exarch asked us: "Do you understand?"
I raised my hand timidly: "Exarch? How do we do that last part?"
Again, that small smile. "By following his teachings, child: obeying every word spoken through his Maw, and through the mouths of his Masked Ones."
I see... "Is it true that you're the only ones who can hear him?"
"Yes." The Exarch's voice was firm and final. "That is why we are Masked, so that we can be blessed with the power to hear him. Ours is a life of sacrifice, because it is not easy to know our god so very closely. If you wish to do so, then come up to me, one by one, and the High Priestess will anoint your forehead with holy oil. Before you do this, however, state your intent."
"Hmm?" Another friend of mine spoke, who didn't know what that meant.
The High Priestess explained: "Tell the Faceless that you'll seek his face."
My friend nodded frantically, and she was the first to stand before the Exarch. "I'll seek your face!" she cried, her voice full of the joy that comes with understanding. The High Priestess traced a circle of oil upon my friend's seven-year-old forehead with her index finger, and gently filled it in.
"My turn!" yelled the boy who'd spoken before. He practically ran up to the Exarch, who held up his hand to warn him to walk more slowly. "I'll seek your face!" He squirmed under the High Priestess' touch, which was natural because he was always boisterous. The rest of us tried not to laugh.
One after another, we repeated these words and received our anointing.
Something troubled me, though: If the Faceless' name was true, then why did the Exarch keep looking us children directly in the eye when we said our vows? Even though the Exarch seemed to have none--only darkened slits in his mask--the look of his veiled visage was unsettling. That was why, when my turn came, I shut my eyes and let the Oegon's silent darkness enfold me.
"I'll seek your face." I kept my eyes closed as the High Priestess smeared oil with a musky scent upon my forehead. Only then did I open them. As I returned to my seat upon the stone bench, I felt eyes upon me, but not the windows of the Oegon, which were the eyes of the Faceless...
ONE YEAR LATER
"THE FACELESS has fallen silent."
Mother clutched my hand hard enough that her fingernails dug into it. I was so startled that I didn't even scream or cry out, which was odd for me. Being eight years old, it was not yet considered shameful for me to make any sort of noise during services and solemn occasions at the Oegon. However, I didn't want to risk it, and so I pretended not to notice the ooze that was creeping onto the flesh of my palm. Instead, I looked up at Mother's face. Her eyes were riveted upon the Exarch of the Masked Ones, flanked by the other seven. She did not move, except for readjusting her grip on my hand so as not to hurt me. The rest of her body was as rigid as that of a dead one.
Despite the prohibition, at least for the adults, against causing any sort of a disturbance in the temple of the Faceless, I heard soft murmuring and people shifting uneasily in their places on the now-familiar stone benches. I was eight at this point, and these seats had ceased to be uncomfortable. In fact, at times I believed their unyielding surfaces to have molded themselves to my contours after the course of one year. I and the other children of our city, my friends included, had certainly spent a lot of mornings in the Oegon. At sixteen, I would finally attend worship services with the adults in the evening, and if--hope against hope!--I were chosen to be Masked, I would attend the midnight services, which lasted until dawn. Please, let me be worthy!
With a jolt, I suddenly realized the importance of what the Exarch had said. Even he, who not only wore a mask but was the highest of the Masked Ones, was no longer worthy to seek the Faceless! Our god had stopped speaking. Only he knew what sort of vile transgressions we had committed in order for him to punish us this way. How were we ever to hear from him again?
The Exarch answered the hidden question in my mind: "We are weak. We are all but mortals, and we have become complacent in our souls." What did this mean? I was trying to learn all I could through our city's wise schoolmaster, but he'd never mentioned that particular word before. "We have taken the Faceless and his words for granted, his revelations. Our lives depend upon him, and yet we consider him beneath our notice, like the air or the trees. Is this acceptable?" Silence. "Is this how we seek his face? If so, we'll reap what we have sown, for he speaks to us no more."
Stark terror cast a pallor upon the faces of all those assembled in the Oegon. If this was true, then how were we to live? Who would save us from the Fate Without a Name, which would condemn our souls to eternal torment after we died? Following the Faceless was the center of our lives, and without it our sacred city would never have been built. Were we to live in vain now?
"Our grandfathers and our great-grandfathers were cast out, exiled into the mountains when the valley folk would hear no one mention the Faceless. They founded this city upon the rim of his Maw for a reason. Now you dare disgrace them, and our god himself? All of us have failed and fallen short, but at least we Masked Ones have spent day and night listening for his voice! We must make ourselves pure and righteous once more, never tiring in our desire to do his will. As of tonight, no one will be allowed outside after dark except for those who are Masked. Nights are to be spent in prayer, not idle pleasures."
The red sun was sinking low, bathing the Oegon in fire. Soon it disappeared behind the Maw of the Faceless, yawning cold and dark. The dawn would come again, but what did that matter if he was no longer communing or communicating with us? We were so terrified that none of us dared raise an objection to the curfew. Spending evenings indoors in order to devote ourselves to our faith was a small price to pay in order to hear the Faceless once more. If we did not, who knew what kind of punishment we'd bear?
"Go now. The sun has set, and may you worship as you ought. Y'lakh."
This ancient word, a formal term for "farewell," was only used by the Masked Ones. Technically, they were the sole people who were supposed to know what it meant, but they found it useful when they needed a stronger word to bless those who were leaving the Oegon. In fact, after our daily children's services, they always said Y'lakh, and that was how we learned its meaning. We responded in kind, "EE-lakh," with a guttural hhh sound at the end. It was spelled with the K so we'd know to pronounce the H instead of saying "la" at the end. How do I know this? Research, and a few conversations with our schoolmaster after the day's lessons were over!
When we arrived home, Mother did something strange. In the twilight that still illuminated our stone cottage, she lit a tall white candle, placed it in a wooden candlestick, and laid it on the kitchen table. "Come," she said, her voice full of that faintly-echoing melancholy that sent shivers down my spine. "It's time I told you." She took my hands in hers, and I stared at the candle uneasily.
In the silence of our kitchen and dining area, I could barely breathe. "What is it, Mother?" I finally managed to whisper, continuing to let her hold my hands.
"This is not the first time that the Faceless has ceased speaking to us."
I couldn't believe it! "When was it? Do you know?" The flame illuminating the room rose and flickered, as if it were as frightened as Mother seemed to be.
"Eight years ago." She trailed off. "I'm starting to doubt that this particular occasion I'm remembering was the first time, but it was truly the beginning of the end for me." With a quivering sigh that she let out slowly, Mother said, "Only you saved me from joining your father after..."
"After what?" My stomach felt hard and twisted, like a rope tied in knots.
"Eight years ago, very near the time you were born, the Exarch made the same announcement that he made tonight. He and his Masked Ones could no longer hear the Faceless, because our god had closed his mouth! None of us in our fair city knew why, but the Exarch warned us that we had indeed transgressed and forgotten the one we worshiped. He said we should pray."
"Like tonight," I said slowly, "but what did he mean when he said to pray as we ought? Is there a particular way to commune with the Faceless at a time like this, or did he simply say that praying is what we ought to do?"
Mother did not answer, and her silence was as chilling as the draft that seeped in through our cottage's stone walls. "That admonition was only the key that unlocked the door of our nightmares. Prayer and nighttime curfews were things to which we gladly consented, but soon the Exarch held another evening service in which he called for...offerings of highest faith." A pause. "You know that we give eight percent of what we earn through honest labor to the Masked Ones, and the Oegon--the temple of the Faceless." I nodded. "You also know that we are called to serve in whatever capacity we can when the Masked Ones receive such revelations. I myself read the sacred scrolls that are only given to those who reach sixteen, to check for errors."
I nodded. "I've never heard of offerings of highest faith, however."
"And well you haven't! Your father volunteered, along with seven others, to cast himself into the Maw of the Faceless willingly, on the night of the full moon, so that our god might speak again." I was so scared that even though I knew full well how to use the privy, I felt something dribble between my legs. "That was not the worst part, however. These seven souls who so bravely gave their lives so the rest of us might live were heroes, and even then..."
"Something else was wrong, wasn't it?" I could barely hear my own rasping.
"Yes." After a moment, Mother continued: "Your father, though he sacrificed body and soul for us and this sacrosanct city, did not die as a paragon of faith in the eyes of the Masked Ones. He perished as a heretic, because he claimed to hear the Faceless." Another pause. "I believed him."
"You did?!" I was so loud that I startled myself and jumped. "Why?"
"I knew what your father said was true, even though the Exarch, the Masked Ones, and our friends and neighbors denied it. Daughter, I weep for you! You are the only living child of a man deemed a blasphemer and a woman who held fast to what he said, although quietly! The only way that the Exarch allowed your father to redeem himself before the Faceless was if he offered to cast himself into the Maw first..." Sobs crept out from between Mother's wet, trembling lips. "He did, and the Virtuous Seven followed. I have no doubt your father is in the arms of our god, as are they. However--" She sat up very straight, and looked straight at me. "Promise me something."
"Anything!" After her unveiling of the dark secret that had haunted her for eight years, even before my birth, how could I deny her this one comfort?
"I want you to promise me this: that you will never ask, as long as you live, what it was your father said that caused him to be branded a heretic."
I was so curious about this that I thought my very skin would burst, and my body die, if I did not learn the answer to this question. However, I steadied my breath and my voice. "I promise, Mother. I will never inquire about it."
Rising up from the table, Mother darted around it and gave me such an embrace that I thought I was being crushed! "Good. I love you. Be safe."
All I could think was, O Faceless! What heresy could be so horrible as to torment Mother so? Will the Masked Ones call for what they did before?!
It wasn't long before my worst fears, and Mother's, came true. As she had suspected, the nighttime curfew was only the first new commandment in a long list of "shalls" and "shall nots". I couldn't remember them all, being eight, but those that I did remember confused and frightened me. It wasn't just the tone in which they were written; there was something intangible yet insidious in the rules themselves. I had to ask Mother about quite a few of them, such as these:
32. You shall not read anything save your assigned sacred scrolls.
33. You shall dress in white at all times, whether morn or evening.
34. You shall conduct your business and yourselves in all possible silence.
35. You shall keep your countenance reverent and somber.
36. You shall keep your mind on sacred things.
37. You shall pray unceasingly.
38. You shall not profane yourselves in carnal indulgences.
39. You shall not listen to any sort of music.
40. Offerings of highest faith are to be holy, or made holy.
I didn't know what a "countenance" or "carnal indulgences" were, and also couldn't fathom why we weren't to read anything except sacred scrolls or listen to music. It was one of the greatest delights of my life, especially Mother's singing. Why the emphasis on silence? Mother said it was because since the Faceless was not speaking to us, we should be ever-alert for the sound of his returning voice. I nodded, but then thought for a moment.
"Wait: if the Masked Ones are the only people who can hear him, then why have they told the rest of us that we can't enjoy music?" Mother stood tense and silent, and then gave me a hug for a reason I couldn't explain. Was she as afraid of these new rules as I was? Something told me so, but why? What made them so frightening? None of them scared me as much as the fortieth one, however: "What does it mean to be holy, or to be 'made holy', if you're going to be an 'offering of highest faith' like Father?"
"Shhhhh. Hush, child. Please don't speak of him, or of that. The process is painful, and some do not live through it!" I shuddered. "What you need to know is that I would give my own life for you, and that these new commandments are for our own good. If we follow them, then our lives will be better. Perhaps, in time, the Faceless will see that we've made ourselves fully worthy and blameless. For now, however, we must work very hard to do so."
Even though I nodded meekly, I still didn't understand. What did all of these recent rules have to do with seeking the face of the Faceless? Once upon a time, not so very long ago at all, there were only eight laws that he would have us follow, eight utterances from his bottomless Maw. If he had fallen silent, as the Masked Ones said, then the rest of these sixty-four precepts had come from somewhere else, or someone else. Humbly, I asked:
"Mother? If the Masked Ones are the people who have truly written all of these new commandments, then why won't they tell us why they did that?"
She closed her eyes and opened them again, like she had on one stormy night three years ago, when I had first asked about the Faceless. "They have not told you children why," she said slowly when she regained her voice, "because they believe you are too young and simple to understand. The Faceless may be silent, but that's all the more reason why we must trust the words that emerge from the mouths of his priests. The Masked Ones said that since we had become impure and complacent, since we had taken the Faceless for granted, then we had to purify ourselves through austerity. We must follow these new commandments to prove that we're ready to hear his voice again." She knelt down before me. "Promise me that you will, yes?"
I smiled impishly. "I won't promise anything unless I get two more questions."
Why was there a tear forming in the corner of Mother's eye? "Ask them."
"What's a 'countenance'?"
Mother returned my grin. "That's the look on your face. Keep it serious."
"I see. What about 'carnal indulgences'?"
She pondered this question, then leaned forward and whispered in my ear. I flushed hot, and then started giggling all of a sudden. Slapping my hand over my mouth, I couldn't keep the laughter from bubbling out of me, and neither could Mother! It was a good thing we weren't in the Oegon, or we would have been severely punished by the Exarch and High Priestess. Once all of our merriment had poured out of us like rain, we wiped our eyes and went to bed.
Oddly enough, that was when the rains began. The skies above our city clouded over to an ominous degree, slate-gray instead of softly glowing blue. The never-ending storms made showers cascade endlessly into the Maw...
YES! IT'S BACK!
In order to keep from being driven mad by the incessant rain, one week later the Masked Ones called us to a special evening service at the Oegon. "Not only has our god abandoned us," the Exarch said, "but our once-holy city has been cursed. If offerings of highest faith are not given to him, then we shall literally drown in our own iniquity!" I shuddered, because Father had willingly volunteered to be one of these offerings. He had thrown himself into the Maw of the Faceless in order to save us, and now we needed saving again. Who would be brave enough to do this, or wise enough? Eight years was an eternity to a child like me, but to grown-ups it was not so long ago. Would everyone remember the greater good, or would they only remember their own fear at what had happened? True, eight people had become one with the Faceless, leaving the rest of us behind. However, it was for a good reason--wasn't it?
"Who is worthy? Who is virtuous, and will volunteer as one of eight who shall open the Maw of the Faceless again? If you will, come unto me..." The Exarch began to count, and when he reached the number seven, I rose up from my seat on one of the stone benches and ran forward. Mother gasped, crying out, but I wouldn't let her dissuade me. Our city was condemned, not just abandoned by the Faceless. It needed people to redeem it, and I was going to be one of them! The Exarch put his hands on his hips. I knew he was glaring at me even though I couldn't see his face:
"You? A blasphemer's daughter? How dare you offer yourself, foolish child!"
Even though I was terrified to speak to him, I cleared my throat. "Our fortieth commandment states that offerings of highest faith are to be holy, or made holy. Exarch, cannot I be made holy, and help to save our city from this curse of storms? Ever since the Faceless stopped talking to us, I can't eat! I can't sleep! I don't really want to do these things anymore, and look how thin I've gotten..." I knelt down before him. "Give me a chance to redeem us all. I know I'm only one of eight, but can't I be that one?" I shut my eyes, because the sight of the Exarch's white mask made my stomach turn.
After a pause that lasted a thousand years, he spoke again: "Your faith is great, young one, and for this reason I hereby select you. High Priestess? The others need no preparation save a single night's continuous prayer here in the Oegon, but this child should be taken to the U'um--the Mind of the Faceless. She must understand everything, and what her self-sacrifice truly means." He turned to the rest of us. "You may leave, and meditate upon the Eight. They are prepared to give themselves to the Faceless for the sake of all, so pray and ponder their significance. I release you. Y'lakh." The Exarch folded his hands in front of him and bowed. Mother ran to the High Priestess:
"Please! Return my child to me. I never saw my husband again after he--"
"She volunteered," the High Priestess replied, "and I cannot deny her this. All she desires is an opportunity to save our city, and what more can you ask of so selfless a daughter? I assure you she will be safe within the U'um."
Someone else tugged on Mother's arm. I felt tears dripping down my cheeks as a middle-aged woman forced her to leave. It had not been one of the Masked Ones, but one of our nearest neighbors. How could she be so cruel?
"Come." The High Priestess took me further into the Oegon as the crowd departed. We stepped onto a crude stone platform of some sort. "This is a lift," she explained, "which will carry us toward the highest point of our temple, known as the Faceless' Mind." I was immediately curious as to how the lift worked, because I couldn't see any sort of lever or control on it. "Hold my hand tightly," said my masked companion, and I obeyed. "Uuuuuu-um..." I shrieked, startled, as the platform began to rise. I shut my eyes again and clung to the High Priestess' waist as it continued upward through utter darkness. When it finally stopped, it exited into a tiny octagonal room with eight tall windows. "Welcome," the High Priestess said. "Please sit down."
The U'um contained four benches, covered in amber velvet, around a flowing fountain. Eight amber candles glowed in each of the windows. I felt safe and at peace here, despite my tightly-clenched stomach. "Why do I need to be prepared?" I asked. "What do I need to do to be made holy?"
"First," said the High Priestess, "I would like you to make a choice. Thus far, you have only seen me and the other Masked Ones with covered faces. This is for a reason--at least in my case." She sighed, and her lips relaxed. "In order to begin to understand the real reason why the Faceless has ceased communing with us, and why these storms lash our city without relief, you must understand what I truly am. Are you willing to do so?" I agreed quickly.
"Please place your hands upon my mask." Trembling, I did so. "Can you see the tiny holes for my nostrils?" I nodded, and thunder crashed overhead. "Feel them." I did, and her warm breath tickled my fingertips. "Good. Now, gently feel the holes for my eyes." I brought my hands upward toward them and was shocked: they were painted on, and weren't actual holes at all..."I knew you'd be surprised," the High Priestess said gently. "Now: in order to begin to acquire the holiness to make you One of Eight--take off my mask."
Biting my lower lip, I did so, and then screamed and screamed into the night.
The High Priestess had no eyes. Neither did she possess a nose--only a forehead, cheekbones, and a mouth. She had no face. She was faceless. When I had finally stopped shrieking, she drew me into her arms and held me. "I have sacrificed the visage you though you'd see," the High Priestess explained, "in order to gain a sense of hearing blessed by the Faceless. All of us Masked Ones have done this, including the Exarch, but his ears have long since ceased to hear." She wiped my tears away with her thumb gently.
All I could blubber through my sobs was, "Why? What does he want?"
"The Faceless wants our fellowship," said she, "but the Exarch wants power..."
Another bolt of lightning split the air, and I buried my head in the High Priestess' shoulder. She gave me one more long hug, just as Mother would have done if she were here right now. "Our Exarch was once one of eight, a humble Masked One like myself. He went about his duties to this city with compassion and true loving-kindness toward others, being one of the faces of the Faceless. Yet, around the time a new Exarch was to be selected, something changed in him."
I rolled my eyes. "Let me guess: he wanted to be chosen, and turned cruel!"
With her mask mercifully back in place, the High Priestess nodded. "Yes, and it was far worse than that. He claimed to be the only one, even out of all of us Masked Ones, to be able to truly hear the Faceless. Therefore, he ought to be ordained as Exarch, and was. The most terrible thing about this, however, was the method he used to prove his worth. He--he made it rain for months on end, and claimed the Faceless had abandoned and cursed us! At the time, however, I sincerely believed that our god had forsaken this city. I didn't even suspect the Exarch's cunning, or his power. All of our prayers were utterly useless, because the Faceless did not speak to us--or so we thought."
Holding up my hand, I said, "Wait! What about the Virtuous Eight? Why did the Exarch call for offerings of highest faith, if he himself is the one who can start and stop the rain? Is he simply throwing us into the Maw for nothing?"
A chilling smile spread across the High Priestess' lips. "Not for nothing, child. You cannot have known this, but all of the others who stepped forward besides you are those who feel most guilty about grumbling against the Exarch and his rule. The thirty-two extra commandments are his and his alone: he wrote them without the aid of the Faceless' revelations! These rules, the Exarch says, are meant to bring us closer to our god, but they separate us from him further. No one knows this, save me, because I--" She stopped abruptly. "Will you believe me if I tell you I can hear him?"
"Of course! You're a Masked One, aren't you? You're supposed to do that..."
"No. I mean actually hear him."There was a three-second pause between these last two words. "My seven fellows believe that I am mad."
The rain poured down in sheets. "Is that why you can't do anything against the Exarch?" The High Priestess nodded. "Does he want to hurt you?" She nodded again. "Why would he trust you with me, then, if he's so evil?"
She leaned and whispered into my ear: "He wished for me to Mask you."
"You mean for me to lose my face?!" My cry echoed through the U'um.
"Yes. That is how you were to be made holy enough to cast yourself into the Maw, but I'm not going to do it. Instead, I'm going to tell you the final secret of the Exarch's reign of terror. This call for offerings of highest faith is not the first one, as you know. It's not even the second one, or third. Our current Exarch was ordained when he was twenty-four years old, and now he's eighty-eight. That means that this is the eighth cycle of slaughter."
I blinked. I couldn't believe what I was hearing! What had happened to the comfort of our faith, the warmth and safety of the Oegon, and the peace I'd always felt at services? Were they all lies? Apparently so, but why? Why had the Exarch chosen to send sixty-four brave souls to meet our deity, who had possibly never spoken with the highest of the Masked Ones at all?
"Every eight years, the storms come. Every eight years, our city seethes, and there are murmurs of unrest. Every eight years, certain people wish to see our Exarch cast down, and these are always the ones who volunteer. Fear is one of the most powerful forces in this world, child, and guilt is its silent partner. Redemption is a desire that lies in all our hearts, for all of the things we've done wrong. However, that doesn't mean we deserve the Maw or its aim!"
"What is its aim?" I'd wet myself a little, though I was fully privy-trained.
"Death." The High Priestess' voice was soft yet adamant.
I let all of this sink in, and my sense of dread grew by the second. "High Priestess, isn't there anything we can do? I mean, the Exarch is about to send eight more people straight into the Maw of the Faceless, and if everything you say is true, then they're going to dive in willingly!" That brought an urgent question to my mind: "Why have you chosen to help me, and tell me all this? Why not tell the other seven people who volunteered tonight, too?" A tree branch suddenly scraped against one of the windows, clawing it like a gnarled arm. "Won't they believe you?"
"They might, but it's far more likely that they won't. Also, the more people who know this secret, the more dangerous our situation will become. I've chosen to tell you because you have your whole life ahead of you, untainted by rumors of me losing my mind soon after the Exarch was ordained. I swear to you upon my very life that I can hear the Faceless speak, even now when my superior says he has fallen silent! Would you like me to prove it?"
The eight amber candles in the towering windows of the U'um flickered uneasily, as if they were in immediate danger of being extinguished. "How can you? What has he told you lately, besides about these storms and their cure?"
"The Faceless revealed the heresy that condemned your father to the Maw."
I gripped her aged hands so hard she flinched and stepped back. "Tell me!"
She took a deep breath. "No one except the Exarch would tell anyone what it was, and yet he insisted that your father throw himself into our deity's mouth first without anyone else knowing why. For years his death haunted me, until I was lying in bed one night and I could hear the Faceless' voice clearly. All he said, in the ancient tongue of our eldest ancestors, was roughly translated as: 'The blasphemer says I speak to every human heart, and he is right.' I was horrified, because if even the Faceless believed your father's words, then there was no need for us. Think of it! If our god does speak to everyone, then we Masked Ones are irrelevant. I had to guard this revelation with my whole heart, lest the Exarch find out and slay me for revealing it!"
"Or, could it be that you were just too proud to say so? Could it be that you didn't want to be ir-rel-e-vant, so you kept my father's secret to yourself?"
The High Priestess bowed her head. "I believe it's a bit of both, and that's what keeps me up nights when the other seven Masked Ones are asleep. I have been complacent ever since your father died, for eight years, and now it's time to stop. It's time to defeat the Exarch, and put an end to his reign over our city! He has exalted himself, and so now he must be cast down!"
"One more thing: What's 'complacent'? Mother can't explain that very well."
The High Priestess gave me a long look with her eyeless, noseless, faceless face. I could tell that she was coming to the same kind of decision that Mother herself had, right before she told me about Father. "It means you sit back and pretend everything's fine when you know it isn't. It means that in the midst of great evil happening all around you, you shut your eyes and pretend it isn't there. Above all, in my own situation, it means that I've sat on my hands and kept my own mouth closed while fifty-six people hurled themselves to their deaths in the Maw of the Faceless! I could have cried out for justice, but fear and complacency held me back. No more. It's time."
"How are we going to do it?" I asked.
"The Exarch has called upon the machinations of a series of spells that existed long before this city did. Our grandfathers eight generations ago practiced them, before they came to know the Faceless and his omnipotence. We believe that, nevertheless, these spells are imbued with our deity's power. The chief of all the Masked Ones is misusing them. He calls for rain, and yet he does not make it stop because he wants to see us cower in submission! He used one incantation in particular to make himself as magnificent as he is."
"What is it?" I asked meekly.
"It's a spell that exalts its caster above not only the natural world, but above the souls of ordinary men. It is forbidden except in the direst cases, yet the Exarch used it anyway. Thus, he not only gained the power to make it rain. He inspires terror and awe in anyone who comes near him, and to such a degree that they literally lose their minds for as long as he wants them to. Perhaps that is why no one dares murmur against him save every eight years, because that's when the great ritual wears off and he has to cast it again..."
Something odd occurs to me: "Why are we obsessed with the number eight?"
"Eight sides in the Oegon, Eyes of the Faceless, and windows here. Eight years to this cycle of death, and eight people perish each time. Why eight?"
A brief pause. "Turn the number on its side, and you'll understand why."
I didn't understand, but I was far more curious about this spell: "What is it?"
"If I tell you, the Exarch will know that a usurper is trying to take his place. Therefore, I will not, but I shall tell you this: there's a reverse incantation, which I have prayed to learn for decades now. It is almost the exact same as the spell itself, except it's said backwards with a few crucial lines added. Someone must be alive to cast it, and if tomorrow's Opening of the Maw goes as planned, I may not be. That means that you..." Thunder rumbled again.
Eight turned on its side? ∞
You are a clever one.
"No! I can't do this. I won't! Just let me jump in the Maw, and--"
"I know you're scared, but I need your help to save us all. If the Exarch isn't vanquished once and for all through this reverse incantation, he'll continue to cling to power long after this. Who knows? He may even learn the secret of immortality, to which even I am not privy! Come to my aid, child, and listen."
Despite sobbing anew, I did, and the High Priestess taught me the words that would save us all. The rain would cease, and so would the Exarch's power...
The next evening, it was time for the Opening of the Maw, the dread and deadly service upon the rim of the Faceless' Mouth. It was pouring harder than ever, and yet everyone in the city braved the drenching torrents. I knew that we were all hoping and praying for the storms to stop, but I and the High Priestess knew something else: mere prayer would not be enough this time. Even though I was but a little child, I had been given the key to unlock the doorway of the Exarch's evil mind. I listened to his words with trepidation:
"My good people in this fair city! It is time for this curse to end. Let our homes be flooded no more, and our crops no more be submerged so they cannot grow. Let the Faceless speak again, and let his pronouncements echo forth from the Maw! In order for that to happen, however, the Virtuous Eight, made holy by the sacred rite of Masking, must present themselves to him." I was wearing a small mask, along with the other seven volunteers, who wore larger ones. According to the High Priestess, this had melted our faces in the course of twenty-four hours, but she had given me a false mask instead.
"Blasphemer's daughter?" the Exarch asked me. "Recite your final prayer to our silent god. Then unmask yourself, and enter the Faceless' Maw!"
I took a deep breath, raised my arms to the sky as the High Priestess had directed me, and shrieked with all my might above the roaring thunder:
"Ch'ya to govruyu i'a, s'ela ve'ya byeslitsi'i! Nichiu v'v'vlast!"
Before the Exarch could react, his feet seemed rooted to the ground, and his body became as stiff as a board. He began to shriek himself, because when I opened my eyes again, I saw his mask had fallen off. He'd kept his face! Against all the precepts of our faith, and against the sacrifice that the High Priestess herself had made, the Exarch had worn a false mask all these years! Now, however, it was literally liquefying. As the storm continued, his body dissolved, blood and bone running together in a viscous fluid. It was all I could do to kneel on the rim of the Maw and vomit into it while she held me fast to keep me from falling in. When all was said and done, all that was left of the Exarch that had held us in bondage for decades was his stained white tunic.
When even this had tumbled into the Maw, the heavy rain ceased at last.
The other seven volunteers who had agreed to become part of the Virtuous Eight, oddly enough, had worn the masks the Exarch had given them. They were also false! Nevertheless, they knelt before me: "Teach us, child..."
The first thing I taught them to do was to throw their masks into the abyss.
I've been one of the visages of the Faceless for more than a half-century. I was never Masked; rather, I was anointed as a healer and prime warden against any wicked spellcraft that anyone might attempt. The High Priestess taught me everything she knew, and Father's "blasphemy" became one of the new tenets we followed as we sought our deity's face. Mother wept for joy when she realized what I'd done on that fateful night when I was eight, and passed away soon afterward. The grief she'd felt at Father's death had eaten her alive, but peace came to her heart before her eyes closed for the final time. Several of my friends became fellow priests, who helped me visit the bedsides of the sick and the dying. Far from being irrelevant, as the years passed we became more needed. The Faceless may speak to every human heart, but it takes our human souls and bodies to tend to one another...
I'm lying in the U'um now, tracing the number eight in the air with my bony finger. I am eighty-eight years old myself, and still cannot fathom what the High Priestess meant by telling me to do this "so I'd understand". All I'm doing is forming a symbol that keeps circling around, forever and ever, in a continuous and endless loop. It brings something to mind, and...ah...
The Faceless is calling me. I shall hear his loving voice, throughout infinity.
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