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[ Read more about author Leah Cypess ]

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A priestess in an underground temple is faced with a terrible choice…. This story was first published in Issue #35 of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine.

Temple of Stone

by Leah Cypess

Temple of Stone

by Leah Cypess

The priestesses walked through the temple in single rank, knowing that one of them was to be selected for the sacrifice at noon. Their faces were tight and pale; fear flickered visibly in the eyes of some. Yet their steps never faltered, and the line moved smoothly on, past the still and silent Stone that lay on the altar in the center of the temple.

When the chosen sacrifice of the day passed, the Stone would glow briefly with a soft white light. Each girl -- none of them older than sixteen -- could not help but stare at the Stone out of the corner of her eye, like a bird unable to look away from a snake.

And each of them grappled with a choice. It was not an official choice, but it was a choice nonetheless -- a way to avoid the deadly Stone. Every day, a few girls would take that choice and deliberately stumble, fall, interrupt the smooth walk of the priestesses. Punishment would be quick and harsh: fifty lashes, delivered in the small `whipping room' at the far end of the temple. But there was also a reward: the knowledge that today, at least, they would not face possible death.

Most of the priestesses chose to take their chances with the Stone. Fifty lashes were not an easy thing to endure. There were a few who fell every day; they lived in unending pain, clinging grimly to life. Some of the priestesses never fell; they believed that the Stone's choice was always right, and that the truly righteous must submit. Most of the girls, though, made a different choice every time they faced the Stone.

Only one of the priestesses did not fit into any of the three categories. She walked along calmly, at ease, without a trace of agony showing in her dark eyes. For Sarli had a secret: she _knew_ whom the Stone would choose.

Before the Stone glowed, a split-second before the Chosen stepped up in front of it, it emitted a soft, bell-like tone. When Sarli was very young, she'd realized that no one but she could hear the sound, and had been quick to see the advantages of it. She had never fallen -- not even once -- since she began joining the ceremony at the age of five. As a result of her perfect record, she would soon become a high priestess, even though she was only fourteen. When she was a high priestess, there would be no more fear and no more risk. She would be one of the sacrificers, not one of the sacrificed.

In the Temple of the Snake-God, that was a good thing.

She became so involved in dreaming about her promotion that the bell-like sound of the Stone came as a shock, jerking her out of her reverie. And it was with even more shock and confusion that she saw that there were no priestesses in front of her, and that she was about to walk, _herself_, in front of the Stone.

Her mind refused to function. But all the restless nights of fearing this, of planning what to do if it happened, came to her aid. Her feet stopped moving of their own volition; her body fell forward, her arms coming out to catch her. It was a clumsy fall, obviously planned. The other girls did it much more subtly. But she had managed it before the Stone could glow, marking her as victim.

Instantly, two high priestesses were by her side, jerking her roughly to her feet. Sarli let them, unable to think. The stone walls and ceiling of the temple whirled around her. She had seen the marks of the whip on some girls' backs, heard the hoarse screams echoing through the passageways, and she knew she couldn't bear it. Never in her life had she felt serious pain.

Her pride kept her lips pressed together, prevented her from useless pleading as the two high priestesses half-dragged her through the passageways. But when she saw the stark white slab that was the whipping table, her control deserted her and she began to struggle. The high priestesses, emotionless, forced her onto the table and strapped down her arms and legs. One of them selected a whip and stood over her, eyes cold and pitiless.

Sarli began to scream even before the first lash fell.


Back aching from the scars of her punishment, face streaked with tears, Sarli stood beside the Stone in the silent interior of the Temple. Her hands were trembling, despite the dull grief of acceptance that had settled within her. She knew full well what would happen when she passed the Stone; and in the bell-like tone that had already sounded, she heard her fate.

It was night, and the sorcerous lights that illuminated the temple were dimmed. The lights marked night and day for the priestesses, and were the only way they had of marking time. The Temple of the Snake-God was underground, carved into a stony mountain, and the only access to the outside world was through the twisted, convoluted passageways that only the high priestesses dared travel. Getting lost in those passageways would mean a slow death of thirst, alone and lost in the darkness. The quick slash of the sacrifice knife would be easier.

Reluctantly, Sarli walked in front of the Stone; its answering glow confirmed her fears. She had noticed before that the Stone never relinquished its victims. There were many priestesses who had panicked right before they stepped in front of the Stone, and had fallen there as she had. But if the Stone had already sounded their death, there was no escape. The next time they passed the Stone, no matter how long it took them to tire of the pain and choose to take the risk, the Stone would glow for _them_.

And now there was no escape for Sarli, either.

She knew she couldn't face the lash again; surely she would go mad if she did. Her back was throbbing with pain, a constant reminder of what it meant to avoid the Stone. Yet the thought of herself bound on the killing altar, with the knife descending on her throat, was just as unbearable. And death in the passageways was a nightmare; better the killing altar than that.

She was trapped.

Despair welled up within her, yet a stubborn sense of self-preservation forced her to move away from the altar, before the Stone's light alerted somebody. If she was found here, alone, at night, when she should have been in her bed in the priestess's quarters, a whipping would be the least she could expect. But she had to come here; she had to know for sure.

And now she did.

_I was so close!_ A month more, even less than that, and she would have been a high priestess, free of the Stone's threat forever. But she would never become a high priestess now, not if she fell every day rather than undergo the Stone's choice.

Even being a high priestess did not really appeal to her; but it was the only future she had that was any future at all. She had been trapped all her life. The cage had just grown smaller.

Sarli took a deep breath, then lifted the sacrifice knife from the altar.

No godly fire struck her for that sacrilege; the walls of the temple did not shake or crumble, and the Stone did not flare up in outrage. Relieved, Sarli moved away from the Stone and began to walk across the stone floor, her blue tunic hanging to her knees and her bare feet making scarcely a sound. She had never been as devout as some of the other priestesses; now, under the threat of death, her faith had fallen from her completely. Yet it was still hard to do what she was about to do, to transgress so shockingly that no one else would even dream of it.


Copyright © by Leah Cypess . All rights reserved unless specified otherwise above.

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