Date Unknown

We sing now of the Soul Eater,

Elder goddess, most holy Mother,

Whose realm in Urtis’s plains 

Is wrapped forever in the depths of night.


Oh! Mother, bend Your ear.

Eternal ruler, terrible and strong.

We revel in Your divine bliss.

Accept these sacred words.


With these rites, we rejoice.

You are venerated in Your crimson robes.

Guide us from Your throne.

May we prove worthy to stand at Your side.


— Hymn to Tehaksha


He reached his destination two and a half blissfully uneventful days later. It had been a long time since he’d been to Oldwatch, yet the town appeared to be almost exactly the same as it had been nearly a century ago. The faces around him were different, but the streets and buildings were largely untouched by the passage of time.

I’m not sure if that’s comforting or worrying. On the other hand, it should make navigating an easy task.

He dismounted and walked Xantoxu down the main street, as was the law, taking a right turn at the first major intersection. If his memory served him right, the hostel he’d stayed at the last time was in that direction.

Some of the hanging signs in front of the inns and taverns had been replaced since his last visit. One inn that he could’ve sworn was the Rancid Spoon had a new sign over its door proclaiming it to be the Sticky Cauldron. Across the street from it was a tavern. He could have sworn that it had been a tailor’s shop. In any case, the tavern’s name, the Dripping Bucket, didn’t sound like it would be a pleasant place to go. It did, however, make him glad that Scholars were prohibited from consuming alcoholic beverages. He shook his head and continued on. 

A short time later, he found the unassuming wood fronted building he was searching for. The fading sign in the window confirmed it to be the Restless Winds, a strange name for a hostel. Likely that was what had drawn Linndan to it in the first place.

A prepubescent child met him out front. They held out their hand to take Xantoxu’s reins. Linndan smiled and handed over the reins and a small coin for their trouble before taking the saddlebags he needed and going inside.

The bell over the door rang as he entered. Strategic oil lamps lit the main room, the aroma of fresh bread wafting out from the kitchen. The wall behind the bar had a large wooden calendar on display. Such things were common, given how fervent Melphorians were about observing any and all religious holidays. At a casual glance, he noted that the year was almost over.

Funny. The weather feels unseasonably warm for winter. There should be several feet of snow on the ground and yet it looks like mid-spring out there.

He studied it, noting that most of the blocks identifying the individual days were turned. Very few were left facing outward. Looking at the date, he felt a chill run down his spine. 

Chankokulen, Tehaksha’mon, 1186 AF. Did the gods deliberately choose Tehaksha’s week to summon me home, or is it a coincidence? Linndan shook his head. No. I don’t believe in coincidences. The gods I’ve dealt with have always been precise in Their actions. He thought about it as he picked up the small bell on the counter and rang it. I wonder if They hope I’ll have better luck finding Her during Her week. But, if that’s the case, why not bring me back on Jalair instead of waiting until the week is halfway over? 

A well-dressed lunyari man came out from the room behind the counter, saving Linndan from his thoughts. The swirls on his dusky skin were white, an uncommon enough colour that Linndan could count each instance on one hand and still have fingers to spare. The man’s general good health and short trimmed blond hair told him the markings were his natural colour rather than markings that had faded due to advanced age or illness.

“Well, well! We don’t get many Scholars in these parts,” he said.

“That’s surprising given how close both the Academy and the Institute are,” Linndan replied.

“Bah. There’s little of interest here to your kind. Faloress is much more to their taste.”

“If they feel the need to make a longer journey, that’s on them and their lack of imagination. There’s something of interest everywhere you go.”

“An interesting philosophy for such a young man.” He held up his left hand and spread his three fingers out while tucking his thumb into his palm. “Dyvore of House Eschalo.”

“Young physically, but an old soul, as my mother used to say.” Linndan mimicked the gesture. “Linndan of House Leshar’ien.”

“So, what can we do for you?”

“I’m in need of a room for a night or two. This hostel came highly recommended to me.”

“Might I ask by whom? We haven’t had any Scholars here in, oh, longer than I can recall. Certainly since before I took over from its previous owner.”

“I don’t recall his name offhand,” Linndan said. “I came across a reference to it in a travel log during my studies.”

“You’re lucky we’re still here.”

“Oldwatch hasn’t changed in nearly a century, at least from the looks of your architecture. The odds were good that this establishment was still here.”

Dyvore shrugged. “The building might still have been standing, but businesses come and go.”

Linndan, remembering the recently seen Dripping Bucket, knew that was true. “Has that happened to many of them?”

“A few. More than I’d like, but times are hard and some of the local Houses don’t have the influence they used to.”

“I see. What’s the going rate for a night’s stay, a meal, and lodgings for my mount?” Dyvore quoted a price. Linndan nodded. “That’s higher than what was in the travel log, but that was almost a hundred years ago. Things have changed since then.” 

“Times are hard,” Dyvore said with a half shrug. 

“Times are always hard.” He fished some coins out of his voluminous sleeves. “It’s been some time since I’ve needed to pay for lodgings. Is the custom still half in advance, half on departure?”

“I prefer to take full payment up front, but you Scholars have a reputation for being trustworthy. This arrangement is acceptable.”

Linndan handed over the coins. “By the way, is it always so warm here this time of year?”

Dyvore frowned and rubbed the back of his head. “You’re not from around these parts, are you?”

“I am, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been in this part of Miltan. I’ve spent the last few winters down in Athros.”

“Ah. Winter’s been coming later and later, but it’s never been this late.”

“How long has that been happening?” Linndan asked, dreading the answer.

“Hard to say for sure. The first I noticed was three, maybe four years ago.”

Well, that’s a small comfort at least, he thought as Dyvore showed him to his room. It was small but functional. After he left, Linndan set the saddlebags down and took Ellias out, setting him down on the room’s single table.

“What was all that about the weather?” Ellias asked.

“Do you recall the difficulty I have with Liulge’s calendar?”

“Hard to forget. What kind of people don’t use months?”

“We divide our year into thirty-two weeks that are twelve days long. Each week is named after one of the gods. This one, Tehaksha’mon, is the official beginning of winter, although some places will have snow as early as Tehvir’mon or Kalhalla’mon. For it to be his warm in western Miltan is unheard of.” Linndan brushed the curtain aside and peered out. “At least it’ll make travel a lot easier.”

“Please tell me you find it incredibly ironic that you were brought back here to look for Tehaksha during Her week.”

“Believe me, it hadn’t escaped my attention.” A thought occurred to him. “I wonder if the gods are messing with the weather to make it easier for me to look for Her.”

“Can They do that?”

Linndan shrugged. “No idea. At any rate, it’s not that important. I’ll take anything if it means not having to trudge through snow.”

“I almost miss the snow,” Ellias said, his tone wistful.

“I’ve never cared for it. Fortunately, there are plenty of worlds that are warm when Melphor isn’t.”

“Now that you’re here, what’s the plan?”

“There’s still daylight left, so I may as well get started. Do you want to stay here or tag along?”

“Why, in the name of all the Saints, would I want to ‘tag along’?” Ellias grumped.

“You’re the one who offered to be a spy. I’m going to let Xantoxu rest here for a bit while I walk down to the south end where most of the temples are. I didn’t pay that much attention last time, but that’s the likeliest place for Tehaksha to have Hers.”

“And that temple is going to be full of skulls?”

“Not necessarily. Skulls and skull imagery will be all over it because of who it’s dedicated to. How much there is really depends on how important this holy site is. Her holy site in Athros is Her most important one and, therefore, will have far more than anything we’ll see here in Miltan. You’d still blend in, though.”

“That’s not comforting.”

“It wasn’t meant to be.”

“Why don’t you go alone and check the place out first? If you need me, come back and get me. Otherwise, I’d prefer to stay put, thank you very much.”

“That’s fair, I suppose, but that means I’ll have to put you back in the saddlebag just in case someone comes in.”

Ellias sighed. “Very well. It’s boring, but at least it’s safe.”

Linndan returned the skull to its hiding place and left the hostel.


* * *


The day was getting late. The people of Oldwatch filled the streets as they headed home from work. He spotted a few white cloaked mavens from the Order of the Rose as he made his way through the crowds. People gave them a wide berth, removing their hats as they passed. It seemed to Linndan that the gesture was more from familiarity than fear. One of the mavens picked up a small child that ran towards her. Though he couldn’t hear her words, she spoke amiably with the child’s mother, confirming his guess. They headed in a different direction from the one Linndan took, so he paid them no further mind.

The temples varied in design and size. Statues beside the doorway identified which god or goddess it was dedicated to. The largest one proudly displayed an alabaster statue of Shan-Illu the Shining One, the chief goddess of the Soulforge Alliance. Out of respect, he bowed his head for a few seconds before walking past Her temple. A smaller one to its left displayed a statue of Her consort, Tesha Firestarter. His statue was colourfully painted. He paused beside it, trying not to smile. The artist had used a shade of red more in line with the spicy peppers that grew wild in the mountains rather than anything close to his actual colour. The depiction was, otherwise, as accurate as human hands could make it.

All good Melphorian children knew the names and faces of the gods, whether or not they went to school. Linndan knew them better than most. He often stated his Scholarly studies as the reason, but it went deeper than that. Few people knew the truth and fewer still were counted among the living.

He found Tehaksha’s statue in front of a grey stone building tucked away at the end of the street. He stood at the base of the steps for a moment, taking in the dark granite figure. He had to admire the artistry that had gone into its creation. Every scale of her long, serpentine tail was visible even at the distance he was standing. Her long hair draped around a very feminine torso. The mask worn by every naga he’d ever met—the gods were no exception to that rule—was displayed proudly on her face. Its every detail carved by someone who both knew what they were doing and was more than likely a devotee of the Soul Eater. Why else would the artist have carved so many skulls around the base of the statue in addition to the one She held in Her hand?

He climbed the steps to get a closer look and almost gagged. The skull in her hand wasn’t part of the statue at all, but real bone. He’d spent enough time around Ellias to know the difference. What he didn’t know was who that person had been. The shape looked human. It hadn’t aged much, so whoever it had been was among the recently deceased. 

An enemy of Hers, perhaps? Or a favourite among Her devotees?

He found he didn’t want to know the answer one way or the other. He turned his head and entered the temple before he defiled the steps with what was left of his lunch.

The air inside the temple was a little cooler than it was outside. Red candles in wrought iron lanterns lit the small space. The stone walls were carved to look like natural rock formations. Nooks in the stone contained more skulls and dried flowers. Unlike the skull outside, these were a mixture of old and new. Some looked to have been there since the founding of Oldwatch. He couldn’t identify the species of the flowers, as they were too desiccated and botany wasn’t a field he was familiar with.

A single person occupied the temple. She knelt in front of the altar at the far end. It was draped in a shimmering red cloth and decorated with an assortment of skulls, both recent and ancient. One of them appeared to be a jyelyar and he would have sworn on his mother’s grave that there was a kairyll felnas among the older skulls, though he supposed it could also have been a wildcat’s skull.

The woman stood and turned at his approach. The first thing he noticed about her was the elaborate scar under her right eye. It was Tehaksha’s emblem and marked this woman as a high-ranked devotee. Linndan knew from his research that such marks had to be carved into the flesh over and over to prevent them from healing properly and to achieve the depth they required. It was a long and painful process, and only someone with true devotion would consider putting themselves through it, let alone go through with it.

The next thing that caught his eye was the ring of bones around her neck. From their colour and size, he figured they were old finger bones. They stood out in stark contrast to the black collar they were attached to. There were small silver beads set into the base of the bones. They were far from the only bones in her ensemble, although he couldn’t tell from where he was standing if the tiny skull on her bodice was real or not.

“I greet you in the name of our most holy Mother,” the woman said. “What brings you before Her this day?”

“Simple curiosity,” Linndan replied, averting his gaze as a sign of respect. “This temple was referenced in a book I read, but it was sorely lacking in any of the details. After further research, it seemed that no Scholar had done a proper study on Tehaksha or Her followers in several centuries.”

“That seems like a massive oversight.”

“That was my thought as well. This particular temple isn’t her primary one, but it’s the closest one to the Academy, so it seemed as good a place to start my research as any.”

“Devotees of Hebron are, as ever, a joy to speak to, for they don’t judge our most holy Mother. You are welcome here, Scholar. May you find love and acceptance in the embrace of Tehaksha.”

“Thank you for your kind words. Might I ask your name?”

“I am Beryna, High Priestess of this temple. How may I address you?”

“I am Linndan of House Leshar’ien.” He paused. “You didn’t tell me your House.”

“My House is of no importance. Only my devotion to our Mother matters.”

“I find it interesting that you call Her that. Her official designation is the Soul Eater. There’s a kairyll goddess who has the appellation of Mother.”

Beryna sniffed. “Tehaksha is our Mother, not the Mother. Besides, the kairyll were exterminated over a thousand years ago. Such was the sorrow of their gods that they spread themselves on the winds, ending their existence.”

“So you believe that Kiten, Avren, Donn, and the others are dead?”

“Gods cannot truly die,” she scoffed. “They’ve taken on a new manner of existence.”

“I see. So, then, do you believe that Tenyuu has done the same? It’s the common belief that the griffins have gone extinct and He was their god.”

“Griffins are mindless beasts. There is much debate on that topic, but personally I believe He still lives as He once did, though in a diminished capacity.”

Linndan nodded, smiling. He knew for a fact that Tenyuu was still around, though he couldn’t speak to any diminishing in His power or influence. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a proper debate with someone.”

“Do you Scholars not talk to each other?”

“Yes, but debates among us often carry on for weeks as more research comes to light. It can get… draining.” He coughed. “Getting back on topic, why do you call Her your Mother? She’s never struck me as being the mothering type.”

“Why? Because she’s the goddess of the underworld? All things must die. It’s an inevitable truth. To those who aren’t afraid to seek out Her truth, She cradles them in Her arms and whispers the secrets of the world to them. When we die, our skulls are given a place of honour in Her temples, our bodies put in the ground to nurture the world.”

Linndan grimaced. “How do you condone having that done to your body? It flies in the face of everything we believe about death.”

“Everything humans believe, perhaps, but not everyone shares it,” Beryna countered. “We humans are such limited creatures. Why should it matter to a soul if our body is missing a few parts? No one goes through life completely intact. Our souls, however, remain pure and whole regardless of the damage done to our shells. It’s our belief that the skulls of the faithful are worthy of remaining in Her temples while their blessed souls have a special place at Her side.”

“I take it this belief isn’t widely accepted outside of Her followers.”

“There are many reasons why She doesn’t enjoy the popularity She rightfully deserves,” Beryna said with a touch of bitterness. “Why should Shan-Illu have all the glory when She hardly does anything?”

“All of the gods have a place and a purpose.”

“All Shan-Illu has done is birth that abomination of an Empress.”

Reflexively, Linndan looked around him, but the temple was empty. “You’re awfully close to blasphemy,” he cautioned.

“What do I care? She can’t see or hear me inside these walls. Such is the way of the gods. Their temples are sacrosanct. Only Tehaksha may listen in here.”

“Does She do so often?”

“I haven’t felt our Mother’s presence in a long time,” Beryna admitted.

“Have you ever?” Linndan asked.

Beryna narrowed her eyes. “What, exactly, are you asking?”

“There are some strange rumours I’ve come across while researching Tehaksha and Her followers. Some say She hasn’t visited any of Her faithful in centuries.”

“That’s ridiculous. We receive Her guidance and feel Her presence in Her temples at all times.”

“I don’t pretend to understand how your order works,” he said, spreading his hands in a placating manner. “All I know is what I’ve heard. I’m simply following the trail of evidence. I’d be happier knowing I’m wrong, that your most holy Mother hasn’t disappeared.”

“That’s the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard!”

“So, you haven’t heard anything about Her being missing?” Linndan pressed.

“No. As one of Her most high priestesses, I would know if something was wrong.”

Linndan bowed. “That’s all the assurance I need. The hour is drawing late and I’ve had a long journey. Would it be alright if I came back tomorrow to speak with you some more?”

Beryna frowned. “I suppose that would be acceptable, although I suggest you choose your words more wisely on your next visit. I will not be so forgiving should you make such insinuations again.”

“I assure you, High Priestess, it won’t happen again.”

“Then you will be most welcome to speak with any one of the acolytes who serve here. I can’t guarantee that I will be present, as I have a number of duties to attend to.”

“I expect nothing less of someone in your position.” Linndan bowed again and left the temple.

The streets were less crowded now that the sun was almost down. The magically fuelled street lights were lit, shining with an unwavering light. He made his way back to the hostel.

There was a different man at the front desk—a human this time. He looked up and nodded as Linndan entered. The same prepubescent child from before came out from the kitchen and presented him with a small dinner tray. He nodded and took it back to his room.

The meal was nothing special. Two slices of roast, boiled potatoes, a crusty bun, a bowl of thin soup, and a mug of watered down ale. He set the ale aside with a sigh and ate the meal. Then he let Ellias out of the bag.

“Well?” he asked. “Did you learn anything?”

“That’s not a straightforward answer,” Linndan replied. He filled Ellias in on the details of his conversation with Beryna. 

“Do you believe her?”

“I’m not sure. On the one hand, if anyone were to know if Tehaksha was missing, it would be the higher-ups in Her priesthood. On the other, something about this Beryna is… off.”

“You have a different perspective on this than I do.”

“I know it won’t mean much to you, but it bothered me that she wouldn’t tell me what House she comes from.”

“That’s important?”

“To a Melphorian, our House is everything. It’s not just what family we come from, but our pride. To not have a House is to be alone in the world. This isn’t universally true, but the bulk of the Houseless are irredeemable criminals.”

“Could she have just been trying to hide her identity from you?”

“Even the lowest, most out of favour House is something to be proud of. The reason she gave me is, technically, a valid one, but it doesn’t sit well with me. We’re taught from childhood to give our name and House when introducing ourselves. She didn’t even start to list a House out of reflex as one would expect from someone who’d surrendered her House in that manner.”

“So… you suspect she’s one of these Houseless.”

“I’m saying it’s a possibility, but it’s not something you want to accuse someone of without good reason. If I do and I’m wrong, there are severe consequences if she chooses to pursue them.”

“What bothers me is that she claims to feel Tehaksha’s presence and influence in the Temples, but says she’s never personally felt Her.”

“That does seem contradictory,” Linndan mused. “Although, there’s a difference between feeling the presence of a god in Their holy site and feeling it in a one-on-one encounter. I’ve done both often enough to know the difference.”

“Huh, I suppose. So, what are you going to do next?”

“I’m going to sleep on it and figure out my next move in the morning,” Linndan said, yawning. “It’s likely that I’ll go back to the temple and talk to Beryna if she’s there. If she’s not, I’ll see if anyone else will talk to me. If it’s alright with you, I’ll take you up on your offer to listen in on the temple. Assuming, that is, I can find a place to put you without anyone noticing.”

“I knew I shouldn’t have offered,” Ellias grumbled as Linndan changed into his sleeping clothes and crawled into bed. “You know, sleep is something I don’t miss about being alive.”

“Good night, Ellias.”


* * *


The streets were just as crowded as they’d been the night before as he made his way back to the temple, taking care to keep his satchel out of danger. It made for an awkward walk, but it wouldn’t do to cause further damage to Ellias, who was inside the satchel. He didn’t pause in front of Shan-Illu’s statue this time, heading straight to Tehaksha’s and going in. Inside, it was a hive of activity. Several priests crowded around the altar as Beryna read the contents of a letter to them. He couldn’t hear what she said, but whatever it was excited the priests. While they were occupied, he looked for a good spot to put Ellias. He found an alcove along the far wall that was already occupied, but it was deep enough to slide the original skull back into its shadowy depths and set Ellias down, facing outward. 

“Can I help you?”

He jumped at the sudden voice, spinning around to face an unfamiliar man garbed in priest robes. “Ah, good morning,” he said.

“It is indeed a good morning,” the priest said in return. “Is there something I can help you with?”

Linndan blinked. “Ah, no, nothing. I thought to return and continue my conversation with the High Priestess from yesterday, but she looked busy. It seemed a good opportunity to study the temple itself.”

“You seem fascinated by that particular skull.” The priest’s eyes narrowed.

Linndan swallowed. “In truth, they’re all fascinating. I can’t help but wonder who they were and how they ended up here.”

The priest craned his neck to look behind Linndan and frowned. “Some of these alcoves need to have their plates refreshed, but if memory serves, that skull belonged to Tatheo, a former priest of the Order. He lost his life to illness.”

Linndan turned and squinted at the metal plate beneath the alcove. “I’ll take your word for it. I spend my time reading ancient books with terrible writing and even I can’t make that out.”

The priest shrugged. “Learning the names of the honoured dead is one of our sacred duties. I wouldn’t expect a mere Scholar to understand.”

Linndan’s teeth bit down hard to keep from saying something he shouldn’t. Instead, he nodded. “Ah, it looks as though the High Priestess is free. If you’ll excuse me.” He stepped around the priest and headed straight for Beryna.

The High Priestess stood in front of the altar, her face turned up to the ceiling, her hands spread out to her sides. Her eyes were closed, a beatific smile on her face.

“You look happy,” he observed.

She lowered her head and turned to look at him. “This is the most glorious of days.”

“Does that have anything to do with the letter you were reading earlier?”

She nodded. “It would seem that a sokekne has been captured near Paraten.”

Linndan felt a cold pit in his gut. “I didn’t think anyone was foolish enough to go near the Forbidden Lands anymore.”

“I’m not privy to her circumstances, but you know the law as well as I do.”

Unfortunately, he did. This wasn’t the first sokekne he’d heard of in his long life, but it had been a long time since then. The treatment of these unfortunate people was one of the reasons he stayed away from Melphor. He swallowed and made himself say, “Has her execution date been set?”

Beryna’s smile deepened. “Oh, yes. Our most holy Mother will feast on her soul on Her day.”

“No one’s been executed on Tehaksha’s Day in years.” At least, he hoped that was still the case. It had been so long since the last time he’d been home. Fortunately, Beryna’s reaction led him to believe it was still true.

“Can you think of a more fitting punishment for such a crime?”

“Do you even know she committed any crime?” Linndan asked. “For all you know, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“She was too near to the Forbidden Lands and has invited its corruption into her soul.” Beryna narrowed her eyes. “Everyone knows this to be true. Better to show mercy and end her existence now than to allow her to spread this corruption to the rest of Melphor.”

“I don’t see what this girl has to do with you.”

Beryna straightened up, beaming. “I am the highest ranking devotee of Tehaksha anywhere near Paraten. As such, I’ve been called on to witness the execution and ensure that her soul is delivered to my most holy Mother. I and three of my highest ranked priests will be travelling to Paraten once our daily duties have been discharged and arrangements are made for our absence.”

 ”Is this something you’re called on to do often?” Linndan asked.

Beryna shook her head. “While members of our order are required to witness all executions, those of my position are rarely required. I find it strange you don’t know this.”

“The nuances of the justice system aren’t something I’ve studied,” he explained. “Come to think of it, I’ve never been to an execution.”

“No?” Beryna sounded surprised. 

“I read of enough horrific things over the course of my studies that to bear witness to something so gruesome…” He shook his head. “Forgive me if that sounds insulting to your order.”

“Not all men have the stomach for such things,” she said in a soothing tone. “This is why men don’t participate in the bloodier affairs of our world.”

“Perhaps that is so,” he agreed.

Beryna tilted her head to one side. “Would you care to accompany us to Paraten?”

“Why ever would I want to do that?” he asked, his stomach lurching.

“This is a unique opportunity for your studies of our order. You could see not only how an execution is carried out, but how one deals with a sokekne at the same time. It would provide you with some valuable insight. You may also find the library there to be of use to you.”

“Libraries are always of use. What’s so special about that one?”

“You were concerned about Tehaksha’s whereabouts. There are records there that may help shed some light on the matter.”

“I hadn’t thought to look there,” he muttered. “There are no sites dedicated to Her there.”

“Not unless you count the Shrine of All Gods,” Beryna said. “It’s far too small of a town to have temples dedicated to any one god, so that is their way of providing worship for its people.”

Linndan paused, considering. “When do you need to leave?”

“I would like to arrive in Paraten the day before the executions to ensure that all necessary preparations are in place. We’ll be travelling by cart, so we’ll have to leave by tomorrow afternoon at the latest to get there on time.”

“Then it seems I have some time to prepare.”

“I can’t promise we’ll have room for you in the cart.”

Linndan shrugged. “I wouldn’t expect you to. I have a mount of my own, regardless.”

“How fortunate for you.”

“It makes my life easier, travelling from place to place as I do.”

“I do little travelling these days,” Beryna said. “I have all I need right here. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have many things to prepare.”

Linndan bowed, stepping away as she turned back to the altar. He left the temple, forcing himself not to look at the alcove where he’d put Ellias.