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.