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The Second Apostate
The heart of the goddess, her new temple—her
But that day had not come.
Here, in the lands to which Ovur and his priesthood had fled, the pulpit was not ancient granite adorned with gold, but a low platform of rough wood rimed with frost. Here, the pews were not carved oak upholstered with silk, but stones and logs stinking of rot and cold. For candles, they had smoking torches of wrapped grass and fat. For the altar, a mound of frozen earth. The air smelled of decay and winter, and the ruddy, early sunset bled across the wide sky.
Ovur looked out from the pulpit over the men who had come to his call. The pure. The few who had heard the truth of his voice and thrilled to the echoes of the goddess with him. At the front, the newest initiates swayed, their eyes glassy and their jaws slack, still rapt with the awe of her transformation, their blood still thickening with the mark of her favor. Three dozen men in a winter swamp at dusk, cold, shivering, and hungry. If it were not for the presence of the goddess within each of them and the glory of the purification they carried, it would have been a sad, squalid scene. Instead, it was like looking upon a rough seed and knowing the vine that grew from it would one day cover all the world.
“For years, my friends, we followed the Basrahip,” Ovur said, his hands lifted to them. “Some of you knew him of old as the voice of the goddess. Others of you saw him first as a conqueror at the side of the Severed Throne when your nation was lifted up from its corruption and ignorance.”
The men in the pews lifted their hands and their voices. Some spoke praise for the power and beauty of the goddess, some their hatred of the false priest who twisted her teachings from his glorified seat beside Antea’s throne. Ovur felt his heart warmed and reassured by both, and the spiders that dwelled in his blood shifted and thrilled. He spoke the truth to his people, and they spoke it back, and with every living voice his certainty grew.
“I stood in his shadow too, as did we all,” Ovur went on, his breath ghosting in the cold. “But even as her voice spread across the world, the Basrahip fell into darkness. As she rose in every temple, her light peeling back the ancient lies of the dragons, the Basrahip was made corrupt. He claimed that of all the temples, only his was true. As if a spider had only one true leg to which all others answered.”
Now none of the responses were of praise; all were of anger and condemnation. Ovur breathed them in, smiling and nodding as if his affirmation was also comfort to them. The threats against the Basrahip were justified by the power of the voices making them.
“Yes, once the Basrahip led straight. Once, his voice was hers. It is a tragedy that his strength was too little to withstand the lies of the world, but it is only a tragedy for him.
A horn blew, three rising notes. Two more answered. Ovur felt a tightening in his throat. Not fear. He was chosen of the goddess, and so protected by her power and her grace. If the quickness of his heart and breath imitated that base feeling, it was only that the man he had once been would have felt fear. Or if not that, surprise. Ovur grinned. In the rough pews, his priests looked to one another, unsure what the noises meant.
The men who came looming up from the swamp’s shadows were a sad, sorry lot. Thin and ragged. Some very old, some very young, and few enough between. They wore the armor of Imperial Antea and the eightfold sigil on their shields. Some carried swords before them, the blades catching the light of torches and fading sunlight. More had pikes braced in two hands, as if to stave off a cavalry charge. Ovur’s laughter rolled out through the wilderness, warm and delighted and thick with threat to the impure. In the pews, one of the new initiates seemed to notice for the first time that something odd was going on. He rose unsteadily to his feet, looking as astounded by the surrounding enemy as if they had woven themselves into being from the grass itself.
The mud-muted steps of horses followed. A dozen men in the saddles. They wore the brown robes that Ovur once had, before the Basrahip had fallen from grace. It was the uniform of the fallen now, and Ovur looked on them with pity. The swords they carried would have been green in the full light of day. In the red light of torches and sunset, they seemed black. The false priests drew the poisoned blades, and the fumes from them gave the air an astringent bite. The spiders in Ovur’s blood, restless, seemed to vibrate and squirm from beneath this thinnest skin down to the pit of his belly.
“I do not fear you,” Ovur said. “You cannot win against the power of the goddess!”
“We do not seek to,” a familiar voice boomed. And there, arriving last among the priests, was the Basrahip himself, his massive body astride a thin-framed pony. And at his side, another rider sat a nobler horse. This man wore a robe of thick grey wool and a hood pulled over his head against the cold. His lips were pressed thin, and his shoulders hunched.
“Prince Geder!” Ovur said. “I praise her light that you have come.”
“I’m not a prince,” Geder Palliako said, his voice high and peevish. “I’m Lord Regent. That’s better than a prince.”
“He has come to see the beginning of her reign,” Basrahip said, and his voice rolled through the growing darkness. “We have brought him to this final battle against lies that he might witness the place where the great age begins.”
In his blood, the spiders shuddered with something like delight. The truth of the Basrahip’s words was like honey on the tongue, and Ovur’s laughter grew almost gentle.
“Yes, old friend, so you have,” Ovur said.
The new initiate moved toward the soldiers, his steps unsteady. The pikemen looked at one another anxiously. The new priest tittered, stumbling toward them. One soldier reached out with his weapon gently enough to push the man back without making it an attack.
“Ovur,” the Basrahip said. “We need not come to a violent end here. Once we were brothers in her light. We can be again.”
“This is so,” Ovur said, and for an instant, his heart filled with joy at the power of the goddess. “Even now your living voice carries truth in it.”
“Does that mean we can go back to camp?” the Lord Regent said, his voice tentative but light, like that of a boy trying to joke among men. “It’s getting cold.”
“Do you renounce your apostasy?” Basrahip asked. His mount shifted, uneasy. The red-lit clouds in the heavens cooled to a sudden grey. Ovur felt a qualm, uncertain not of his faith, but of how the Basrahip who only a moment before seemed to have come to the edge of absolution from his error could now say this.
“I cannot,” Ovur said. “I am no apostate.”
The Basrahip grunted as if he’d been struck. Around in the growing darkness, the brown-robed priests held their blades at the ready. The rickety soldiers of the empire grew more solid in their ranks.
“The goddess speaks through one voice,” the Basrahip said, his tones rougher now. “And that voice is my own.”
In Ovur’s blood a strange thing happened. The spiders, gifts of the goddess, told him that the Basrahip’s words were true, even as he knew that they were not. For a moment, the world seemed to shift under him, the landscape itself heaving a great sigh beneath his feet. And then, rising up from his belly like the heat of a fire, came the rage.
“The goddess speaks through us all!” Ovur called back, his voice hard as gravel. The power of the goddess shook the words, and his throat ached with it. “No one temple holds her truth. All temples are hers, all ...