Along The Desert Path

by Tamari Erin (玉里えりん)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/5925.html)

Dusk came quickly this late in the season.

The priest lay on his back and watched the clouds trail across the now-aubergine sky. This was the first time he was able to see the sky clearly since he began his pilgrimage. He’d taken only a few steps along the path when the wind began to rake sand across his face. The storm had been particularly vicious, and had lasted hours, showing no signs of stopping until the sun began to set, when it died almost as suddenly as it had appeared.

He had soldiered on; there was no question of stopping, of retreating to the safety of the Shrine. But after only a few hours, he’d abandoned his attempt to walk through the storm, worried that in his blind stumblings he would lose his footing, or worse, stray from the road. He’d sat, cross-legged, pulling his cloak around himself like a tent, and meditated until the storm ended.

The first day into his trek and yet he hadn’t made more than a few hours’ progress. It was not an auspicious start. He exhaled sharply and turned on his side. From his vantage point, he could still see the Shrine, a dark speck on the horizon, the path snaking out from it like a fallen ribbon.

In his mind, he heard the echo of Cardinal Sevrogma’s words as she urged him to make haste, impressing upon him the urgency of the mission. “Walk,” she had said, her ubiquitous laughter stripped from her voice, “walk until you can no longer take another step, walk until you can no longer stand.” Her face had been set in hard white lines. For the first time, in all the years he’d known her, she looked old.

The priest sat up and worked the stiffness from his neck. He rose to his feet, brushed the sand from his robes, and hefted his pack onto his shoulders. That had been more than enough rest for one man.

He worked his tongue in his mouth, and then spat on where he’d been resting. He smeared the saliva into the cobbles with his foot and murmured a quick prayer of thanks. After a deep bow to the sun, now almost invisible behind the horizon, he set off.

The stone of the path still retained much of the heat from the day, but the air was growing cool as night approached. The priest kept his pace brisk to stay warm.

At the end of the path was the High Temple, and the reason for his mission. He had been humbledand more than a little shocked when the Cardinal had chosen him for this. To be permitted to make the pilgrimage along the path was honour enough, but to be given the task — single-handedly — of restoring the sanctity of the Temple, was a heady thing indeed.

The warning had come only a few days ago from the monks stationed at the Temple of the strangers who had emerged from the desert and pled for asylum. They had not walked the path, but they had not been refused entrance — ‘love all men as you would your brother’, after all, was one of the central tenets of the faith. It was the weapons they bore, and the odd object, swathed in fabric, that their leader never let out of his sight, which had given the abbess cause for suspicion.

The next day, nothing. No messages, no follow-ups, no response, nothing.

The council of Cardinals at the Shrine assumed the worst. They chose a representative, armed him with the weapons of the faith — the priest touched the heavy short sword that hung at his hip — and sent him off.

He was dreading his arrival at the Temple, not simply for the carnage he feared, fuelled by his nightmares, but for the fact that this might be his only visit to the Temple in his lifetime. It was a rare occurrence for a Cardinal to make the holy pilgrimage, but for a lowly priest…

The priest laughed. “Alone with my own thoughts for only this long, and already I’ve become as melodramatic as a bad actor.” He shook his head. He thought he’d learnt long ago to not worry about things beyond his control.

From a pouch at his belt, he took out a sprig of purslane and began to chew on it slowly. As the sour taste filled his mouth, he let his mind empty as he walked. To his right, the sun was sinking slowly beneath the horizon.

In the distance, the Holy Mountain looked no different than any of the other hills in the desert. It was going to be an interesting experience, this mission. In all his years, from childhood to his ordaining, he had never been so truly alone for so long. Not only was he isolated from human contact but he was also free from the usual distractions of civilisation.

Well, he thought with a smile, if I’m bored, I’ll only have to blame it on the dull nature of my travelling companion. Sevrogma had been right. He would learn a great deal in the next few days that had nothing to do with the situation at the High Temple.

The priest’s head shot up. He heard footfalls — no, hoof-falls — in the distance. The purslane fell from his lips as he looked around, his head swivelling madly to catch sight of–

There!

A man on horseback was approaching quickly from the south-east. The priest furrowed his brow. That was the direction of the capital, and the few city-dwellers he knew wanted to have as little to do with the desert and the Church as possible. What could he be doing out here, so far from the trade routes? So far from anything, really. The only thing of importance was– was the Temple.

The horse drew closer, and the priest’s mouth went dry as he realised what was going to happen. The stranger — who more than likely was a collaborator of the rebels who had taken over the High Temple — was going to attempt to cross the path without making the proper offerings.

The priest threw his pack from his shoulder and raced forward. He skirted to the very edge of the path, throwing himself in front of the stranger. A tiny, logical part of his brain warned him that this man might simply trample him beneath the horse’s hooves, but the priest did not care. The sanctity of the path was worth more than his life.

“HOLD!” he cried.

The horse reared up as the man brought it to a stop.

“Do not pass!” the priest said. “You may not pass.”

The stranger’s mouth curled into a sneer. “Who are you to tell me what I may or may not–”

“This place is holy. There are rituals and customs you must obey.” The priest dropped his arms to his side and took a deep, bracing breath. “The Gods exact a grave penalty if they are not performed with the proper devotion.”

The stranger threw a leg over the saddle and slid off his horse. The anger had melted from his expression, and there was a quiet amusement in his eyes. “Well, I am nothing if not respectful of protocol. I take it you would be able to aid me in properly performing these rituals? Surely I cannot be blamed for being unfamiliar with them.”

The priest gave a stiff bow. “I am a priest, yes. A priest of the One True Church, and am ordained to speak the words of the Gods themselves.”

“Well, it is fortuitous I have run into you, then, priest. I would hate to have passed this way and ignored the Gods in my haste and ignorance.”

“You would have been punished quite harshly. They make no secret of their displeasures, and you would have been marked for it.”

The stranger smiled narrowly.

“You are foreign to these lands?” the priest asked

He shook his head. “No. I live in the capital city–”

“Ah.”

“‘Ah’?”

The priest shifted his weight. He’d not meant to say that aloud. “You city-dwellers are known for your–”

“Debauchery and godless ways? No and no. I live as simple a life as I can, and my relationship with the gods is my own.”

The priest scowled for a moment. Now that the potential crisis had been averted, he took a better look at the stranger. The man was tall and slim, and he wore long, loose robes rather like the priest’s. But where the priest wore a hood to shield his head from the harsh rays of the sun, the stranger had on a headscarf secured with a thick length of cord. He was far handsomer than the priest had expected of a man who might be a brigand, with an elegant, well-formed face.

The stranger caught his eye and smiled knowingly. The priest blushed. He hadn’t realised he’d been staring.

“Well, priest,” the stranger said, gesturing with an flourish. “Might we begin our rituals of appeasement? I certainly do not wish to anger the Gods.”

The priest cleared his throat and straightened his cloak. He nodded rapidly. “Of course. Of course.”

He took a step back to make sure he was giving the stranger enough room. From his belt he drew out his narrow ceremonial dagger and handed it, hilt-first, to the stranger.

The stranger, his expression now solemn and his dark eyes pensive, took the blade from the priest’s hand, and was adept enough to do so without drawing any blood. The priest was grateful; he had a few extra lines on his palms from incautious supplicants who did not know how to handle a blade.

Dagger balanced in his right hand, the stranger examined it closely. “Fine workmanship.”

“It was made in the smithies inside the Shrine.”

“Really! How old is it?”

“Only a few years. It is only as old as my own priesthood. A new blade is forged for every newly-ordained priest. None are identical. The smiths take great pride in that.”

The stranger nodded. “So does the appearance of one’s blade reflect the qualities of one’s future priesthood?”

“Only the youngest novitiates believe such superstitions,” the priest replied with a laugh. “But come, I will tell you more later. We must hurry or it will grow too dark to see even our own noses, let alone the stones of the path.”

“Tell me what I am to do.”

“Hold out your left arm, above the path.”

The stranger did so, and tightened his grip on the blade.

“Now, draw the blade across the back of your hand — gently, we only want to draw blood, not leave a scar.”

The stranger scraped the blade quickly against his hand, without a flinch or hesitation. The priest was impressed; he knew few people who were comfortable drawing their own blood, and most of them were already members of the church.

“Let the blood drip onto the flags.”

A red bead formed at the edge of the cut, and then slowly ran down the stranger’s hand. It splashed against the cobbles and was soon followed by a few more.

“Repeat after me: Lords and Ladies, please accept this offer…”

“Lords and Ladies, please accept this offer…”

“From your humble servant…”

“From your humble servant…”

“And grant me safe passage along your holy path.”

“And grant me safe passage along your holy path.”

The priest closed his eyes, drew the holy rood in the air between them and murmured a simple invocation under his breath. “Step forward,” he said, and opened his eyes.

“That’s it?” The stranger looked sceptical.

The priest scowled. “Yes, now quickly!”

The stranger stepped lightly onto the path, only inches from the priest. He looked briefly over his shoulder. “What about my horse?”

The priest took a few steps back and gestured to the stranger to approach. “Bring him as well. Animals have no souls; they cannot and do not need to ask for the Gods’ favour.” He raised a hand to wipe the sweat from his brow. “But you cannot ride him while on the path. Any journey you make on it must be done on foot.”

The horse whinnied softly, but allowed itself to be led onto the path.

“That was certainly not as involved as I had expected. Only a bit of blood–”

“Only a bit of blood and a priest’s blessing,” the priest finished. “The blood alone would not have guaranteed safe passage.”

“And what would have happened had I not been lucky enough to meet you? I am not being facetious,” the stranger continued quickly — the priest realised his own displeasure must be writ broadly across his face, “I am truly curious.”

“Did you see the sandstorm from earlier?”

“Yes. It was vicious; delayed my departure from– the city by a good few hours.”

“I believe that is the result of the Gods’ displeasure at the–” the priest clamped his mouth shut. “I am sorry, I cannot speak of that in too much detail. Suffice to say something was done to anger the Gods, and that was one of the consequences. They will grow worse as the days pass if nothing is done.”

The stranger nodded, his expression grim. He froze for a moment, as he seemed to notice something in the direction the priest had come. “Wait here a moment,” he said.

He strode down the path, stopped after a few feet, and bent to retrieve something. The priest watched him with apprehension.

When the stranger returned, he carried with him the priest’s pack. “I saw you drop this as you were running to intercept me.”

The priest flushed. He’d forgotten all about that in the excitement. “Thank you,” he said, taking it from the stranger and shouldering it.

“That seems a heavy burden; my horse is strong, let her carry it for you.”

The priest smiled. “You assume we’re going in the same direction.”

“I believe we are. My destination is the High Temple. Is it not the same for you? I thought that’s what you churchmen use this path for.”

“Ah,” the priest said, blinking in some confusion. “Are you a pilgrim?” If so, it was the strangest pilgrimage he’d ever heard of. Most were done on foot — dispensations were granted to the elderly or the infirm — and all began at the Shrine.

The stranger looked away. “No. No, I am not a pilgrim.”

The priest felt a leaden weight settle into his gut. Then it was as he’d feared.

“I am a hunter,” the stranger continued.

His mouth dry, the priest couldn’t help himself from asking, “What do you hunt?”

There was something dark and frightening in the stranger’s eyes. “I hunt men,” he replied.

The priest fingered the short sword that hung from his belt. “Then you are in league with the men who have taken the Temple?” He never knew his voice could grow so loud.

The stranger took a step towards him and set a bracing hand on his shoulder. “No. They are the men I am hunting.”

He laughed weakly, in relief. “Ah, well, it seems we are indeed heading in the same direction.”

The hunter looked surprised. “Are you the only one the Church is sending?”

The priest pushed his hood back and shook out his sweaty hair. “I am a defender of the faith. It was part of the oath I took when I was ordained.”

“But… all by yourself?”

“I will have the Gods on my side.”

The hunter seemed to consider that for a moment, and then shrugged. He looked up at the sky; it was cloudless and the smallest moon was beginning to rise from the west. “There seems to be enough light to keep walking. Unless you’d like to stop for the night?”

The priest bristled. “No. We walk.” The only reply the hunter gave him was a feral smile.

“So the Church did not send you?” the priest asked once they’d set off, the hunter’s horse keeping pace behind them.

“No.”

The priest eyed him carefully. “Then why are you after them? I know the Church has not let word of this slip to the populace at large.”

The hunter looked thoughtful for a moment, as if he were debating with himself about what he would say. “They stole something. An… an object of great power. The… its original owners hired me to track them down and retrieve it.”

“Can you tell me–”

“No.”

The priest shook his head. “That wasn’t what I was going to ask. Please let me finish.”

The hunter grunted.

“Can you tell me what it can do?”

“No.”

“I–”

The hunter smirked. “Now it is your turn to let me finish. I cannot tell you because I don’t know. My– employers did not see fit to impart to me that wisdom, no matter how it might have helped my quest.”

“Perhaps it can only be used in the High Temple.”

“Hmm. It would explain why they sought refuge there instead of somewhere closer.” The hunter turned to the priest. “Perhaps there is some relic there that could be used in conjunction with it.”

“I would have no idea.”

“Oh?”

“This,” the priest replied, with a grand, sweeping gesture at the path, “is my first visit to the High Temple.”

The hunter made a dismissive gesture. “No matter. We won’t give them enough time to experiment.”

“It normally takes about six days to reach the Temple, if one only walks when the sun is in the sky. We’re about a half-a-day out from the Shrine. The sandstorm managed to delay me.”

“And so if we walk during the night as well, and only sleep as much as we need — I do not know what it is for you, but I have lasted for longer on very little — we should be able to shave a day or two off that estimate.”

“From what I was told by the Council of Cardinals, six days is the average for when an entire family makes the pilgrimage. For two healthy, able-bodied men, it shouldn’t take nearly as long.”

The hunter gave him a pleasant smile. “Isn’t it fortuitous, then, that we crossed paths?”

Cardinal Sevrogma had told him that the Gods would lend him aid; perhaps this was what she meant. “Yes, it is.”


They did not speak very much afterwards. After the first day, the priest ran out of things to talk about. Much of his life had been the church, and he had little in common with this battle-scarred man. He’d never before seen his lack of worldly experience as a hindrance.

As for the hunter, no matter how many times the priest tried to subtly push the conversation towards his background, he seemed in no way willing to talk about himself.

Truthfully, the priest did not mind overmuch. The hunter was certainly handsome enough to make up for his reluctance to talk. The priest took to walking a step behind the other so that he could look at him and not seem as if he were staring. After a while, he stopped wondering if the hunter noticed, or cared. Men like him, the priest knew, were well used to being looked at.

As the second day of their walk drew to a close, the priest could see the shape of the Temple clearly. They were close enough that its shape no longer blended into the mountainside.

The hunter inhaled sharply. “It is magnificent.”

The priest allowed himself a private smirk. “Of course. What did you expect?”

“It looks as if it were part of the mountain!”

“It is. The stone it was built from was taken from the mountain itself. They mined a great hole in the mountain face, and brought a score of stone-carvers to live in the mountain’s shadow and shape the stone so that they might build the temple in the hole they carved. They were very skilled; the mountain bears no scars of this great work.”

The hunter laughed. “You sound like my old history master.”

“Ha! No, I was never a teacher, I’ve simply spent too many late nights in the library,” the priest replied, but privately he wondered: what use would a hunter have for history lessons?

“Libraries? Hmh. You don’t have a very bookish look about you.”

“I will take that as a compliment.”

The hunter raised his hand to his brow and stared thoughtfully at the Temple. “I estimate it will take us another day before we reach it. Tomorrow night at dusk. The cover of darkness will give us an advantage.”

“Unless, of course,” the priest replied, struck by a gloomy thought, “the brigands have been watching the path intently and already know we are coming.”

“I suspect it more likely that they think we are a pair of pilgrims. They would be expecting a larger force, one that is armed and moving faster than we.”

“And what if you’re wrong?”

“Then I am wrong,” the hunter replied with a shrug. “It is no matter now. We will only need to take it into account when we reach the Temple.”

The priest hardly found that reassuring.

Later that night, when it came time for them to stop for a few hours and rest, the priest could hardly bring himself to eat. He watched the Temple out of the corner of his eye as he chewed and chewed on a strip of dried meat from the hunter’s supplies.

“Is something troubling you”

“Hmm? Oh,” the priest said, swallowing quickly and turning to face the hunter. “No, I was just thinking.”

“About tomorrow.”

“Yes. How good would you say our chances are?”

“I can’t be certain until I know how many of them there are–”

“Your employers didn’t tell you?”

“No. It was a well-executed raid; we don’t know how many people took part or even if they’re all at the Temple. Nor,” the hunter continued, “can I judge our chances without knowing how good you are with that sword of yours. Is that what you were worried about?”

“Maybe, in a way. I was only thinking that if we failed, the Church would have no idea, there’d be no way to reach them — and by the time they realised, the bandits might have fortified their position so that they would not be able to be removed without the King’s army and severe damage to the Temple.”

The hunter shook his head. “Don’t worry, if things look as if they’re taking a turn for the worse, I will see you safely out of the Temple, and you can take my horse and ride to the Shrine to get word to the Cardinals.”

The priest felt something tighten in his chest. “And… and what of you, then?”

A shrug. “I will hold out as long as I can. The important thing is that the Temple is protected and the object is retrieved.”

The priest stared at him. “What kind of a hunter are you? Isn’t the most important thing for men like you whether or not you get paid?”

An odd expression came over the hunter’s face. “I am a more honourable man than you think, priest.”

“You kill men for money! Where is the honour there?”

The hunter’s expression hardened. “If you must know. The thing that was stolen is no ordinary object. It is an artefact of the Royal House. And I was not employed to retrieve it: I was sent.” He closed his eyes and exhaled sharply. “I was sent by my father.”

The priest felt dizzy as he realised what the hunter was saying. “And your father,” he completed, “is the king.”

“Yes,” was the hunter’s reply.

“You don’t look like the crown prince,” the priest said, then felt stupid.

“No.” His smile was like a knife-edge. “That is because he is my elder brother.”

“Oh, of course, you’re one of the–”

“One of the spares,” the prince finished. He held up his hand to hold back the priest’s apologies. “No matter. I am quite used to being called that. My brother was destined for the throne, and I had my choice of the priesthood or military service.” He gestured at himself. “Obviously, I chose the sword and not the cloth.”

“But… but what happens if you die?”

“My parents will mourn. As would yours if you perished.”

“But–”

“It doesn’t matter now.”

The prince effectively ended the argument by pulling his cloak tightly around himself and lying down to sleep. The priest stared at his back, and with a mournful noise, made to sleep himself.

But it did not come easily for him; too much was weighing on his mind. No matter how much he tried to clear his mind, his thoughts kept straying back to the Temple, to the coming battle…

To the man sleeping beside him. Stranger, hunter, prince. The priest shivered.

He closed his eyes. Sleep finally came to him as he wondered what it would be like to lie together with the prince, to share his warmth, to touch him and be touched. What it would feel like to have the prince’s hands on his body, to kiss that mouth, to be filled with the prince’s essence…

The priest’s dreams that night were sweet.


They reached the High Temple the next day, after dusk had fallen.

The priest carefully eyed the stairs that led up to the Temple. On either side, rude wooden huts had been built. They were old, and bore the marks of habitation. The door on the one to the left looked as if it had been kicked off, the hinge was bent and twisted, and the door itself was nowhere to be seen. The priest frowned.

“They are for horses, obviously,” the prince said, at the sight of his confusion.

The priest pulled the hem of his cloak over his nose as he took a step closer. The stench coming from them nearly made his eyes water. “And they’ve been used recently.” He pointed at the fresh manure on the wooden floor. “I wonder what happened to them.”

The prince looked out at the horizon. “Quite dead, I assume. Killed by the sandstorm. They must have been spooked, trapped inside such a small space.” He pointed at the scratch marks on the walls. “They kicked down the door and made a run for it.”

“And died of panic in the storm itself.”

“It’s a pity, really. They were some of my father’s finest steeds.” The prince looked back over his shoulder and grimaced. “That was how they escaped the palace and threw off our pursuers.”

“Clever,” the priest replied, angry at the thought. “You’ll leave your horse here?”

“In the other stall.” He jerked his chin at the left one. “That one still smells of their fear.”

The priest nodded slowly and watched as the prince led his horse into the structure and secured her, stroking her muzzle and speaking soft words to her all the while.

“Will she be safe if we have another storm?” the priest asked as the prince latched the small door behind him.

“Yes. She is a nearly unflappable beast. I’ve seen her remain calm through lightning storms that scared even the strongest man.” He brushed his hands on his robes and set his foot on the first step.

The priest quickly joined him. “We must hurry,” he said, “we’ve a fair climb ahead of us.”

But despite his words, and the urgency, they took the stairs one at a time, walking at a slow, even pace. The priest followed the prince’s lead, and though he wished they’d hurry, he understood the need to conserve their energy. There was no use reaching the High Temple to find the bandits waiting for them, and being too out of breath to lead an assault.

The prince drew his sword once they reached the Temple’s great wooden doors. After a glance from the prince, the priest slid his own short sword from its scabbard and gripped the hilt tightly in both hands.

Before the priest could push the doors open, the prince held up his hand. Wait.

Two nerve-wracking heartbeats later, the prince spoke. “I hear nothing.” His voice was barely a whisper. “If they know we are coming, they are not waiting for us here.”

The priest nodded and stepped back as the prince approached the doors. He gave them a strong push, and they opened almost soundlessly.

“Heh. You’d think it was only the wind,” the prince murmured. They entered, staying as quiet as the door had been. The priest pushed the door shut behind them — no sense inviting in the desert or giving the bandits a hint that they’d arrived — and turned to face the chamber they’d entered.

It was an oval hall, almost featureless save for the tapestries hanging from the walls and the two rows of columns that led to–

The altar. The High Altar.

The priest’s breath caught in his throat. He took a step forward, intent on taking a closer look.

He felt the prince’s hand close on his shoulder. “Not now,” he whispered.

The priest bowed his head.

“Besides,” the prince continued, pointing at what the priest had, until now, thought of as a flaw in the stone floor, impurities made dark by the harsh moonlight from the windows above them. “You don’t want to step in that.”

The priest blinked and the flaw was revealed for what it was. “It’s– it’s blood.” Bile rose sharply in his throat. “They’ve shed blood in the High Temple.” He groped blindly for the nearest wall, and felt the prince’s strong grip catch him and keep him upright.

There was a sardonic note in the prince’s voice. “This is a bad thing, I take it?”

“Yes,” the priest replied, still feeling faint, “the Gods forbid pointless bloodshed in their places of worship…”

“There are blessings that ask for blood,” the prince said, and the priest could hear the smirk in his voice.

“Then it would be on the Altar! Not– not on the floor!”

“I understand,” the prince replied gravely, all humour gone from his voice. He eyed the bloodstain again. “It looks larger than it is. This was not a fatal wound.”

The priest knew the prince’s words were meant to comfort him — and it did, somewhat; a man wounded in the High Temple was better than a man killed — but this still worried him. He’d not expected to see any resistance from the monks who lived here. They were the best of the Church, level-headed, peace-loving men and women, all of them. It did not bode well.

The prince was surveying the hall with a much steadier eye. “There must be other rooms here, other places they could hide. How do we get to them? You don’t expect me to believe that the monks eat and live and sleep in the same room as the altar.”

“No, no, of course not.” The priest pointed into the darkness on either side of them. “Those are the stairs, according to the plans I was given. They lead down below, where the archives are kept and the monks live while they are not tending the Altar.”

The prince looked into the darkness and arched an eyebrow. “Really.”

“Yes. Below, it is lit with oil lamps, or candles. The stairwells are kept dark to preserve the– air of mystery.”

The prince chuckled softly. “We have similar in the palace.”

“No one wants to know that the High Temple — or the Imperial palace — contains such mundane things. It is a useful illusion, and one we take pains to preserve.”

“My father simply does it because he doesn’t want commoners looking at his toilet.”

The priest let out a laugh, and regretted it, a flush rising in his cheeks. The vaulted stone chamber amplified the sound. “Have they heard us?” he asked, his voice as low as possible.

The prince scowled as he replied. “We must assume they have, and that we no longer have the advantage of surprise.” He pointed into the darkened stairwell closest to him. “Do you know if they lead to the same place?”

“Yes. They spiral inwards and meet just outside the monks’ living quarters.”

The prince nodded sharply. “Good. I’ll go down this one; you take the other.”

He replied with a grunt and tightened his grip on his sword. The priest stepped into the darkness — he could not hear the prince behind him, but assumed he was making his own silent descent — set a hand on the closest wall and began to inch his way forward. The priest closed his eyes, and took the steps one at a time.

As he rounded the stairs, he saw light through his eyelids. He opened his eyes, blinked, and walked faster. At the base of the stairs, he could see a dark shape. He raised his sword. He could not take the chance that it was not the prince standing there. The priest stepped carefully into the light–

“You took your time,” the prince said.

The priest started at the sound of his voice and lowered his sword.

A single door lay ahead of them, and through there, the priest knew, were the monks’ sleeping quarters, and beyond those, the archives. The prince gestured grandly. “After you,” he said.

The priest pushed the door open– and they stepped into chaos.

Bedrolls were scattered about the floor, papers strewn everywhere, shattered bottles and broken shelves. A curved, foreign sword, its blade broken and streaked with blood, lay by the door. There had been fighting in this room, and somehow this seemed far worse than the bloodstain above. The priest tightened his grip on his sword, and looked around the room.

A monk was huddled in a far corner, his left leg bent at an unnatural angle. Two other monks sat around a third, who appeared to have a deep gash in his shoulder. And at the far end of the room, the rest of the monks were pressed up against the door that led to the Temple’s archives. At their centre was a women with an impromptu, bloodstained turban wrapped around her shaven head.

The priest recognised her. “Abbess,” he said.

She turned to face him. Her face creased into an odd, humourless smile. “You must be here to help us.”

The prince took a step forward and sketched a brief bow. “Where is it?”

The abbess blinked. “Where is what?”

“They had an– object with them when they stormed the temple, where is it?”

She shrugged in reply. “If you mean that odd bundle they brought with them, it’s in there with them,” she said, jerking her head at the door.

The prince was as expressionless as a statue. “How many of them are there?”

“Six. But save for their leader and his brother, they are not big men.”

“That is hardly a challenge.”

The abbess smirked. “So you can defeat them, all by yourself?”

The prince gave the priest a knowing look. “The two of us can.”

She gave them a brisk nod. “Come closer. On my mark, we will open the door, and you will enter.”

The prince stepped into place, and the priest followed him, with some reluctance.

“How long have they been in there?” the priest asked.

The abbess looked thoughtful. “Several days. One loses track of time down here.”

“Have they food?”

“No. Our plan was to starve them out.” The abbess smiled ferally. “We keep all the stores here with us. We don’t want to risk damaging any of the holy manuscripts. It’s no worry now; but I fear what they might have done in there.”

The priest nodded quietly.

The abbess eyed her fellows, and with a raised fist, she signalled to them to step back.

The prince threw open the door and ran in, the priest hot on his heels. The archive room was lit by only a few candles, but that was enough to see the surprise writ large on the bandits’ faces.

The priest’s sword began to glow suddenly in the gloom, and, almost instinctively, he took advantage of their confusion to lop the head off the nearest bandit. He gasped in surprise and stared at the blade. Powerful magic emanated from it in waves, and the bandit’s death seemed to have made it stronger.

But he had little time for such wonderment as another man, far larger than the one he’d just killed, ran at him with two daggers in hand. He swung wildly, the magic guiding him, and crashed the sword in a shower of sparks against the bandit’s daggers. The priest nearly lost his footing from the strength of the blow, and a swipe from a dagger grazed his shoulder.

He drove his blade into the man’s stomach, and pulled it out with a lurch as the man vomited blood and collapsed at his feet.

The priest took a sharp breath, heard a grunt behind him, and spun around, sword swinging. The man who’d approached him from the rear collapsed to the floor, sliced neatly in half.

He felt sick at the sight if it, but at the same time oddly proud. Yes, the sword’s magic had killed these men, but he had been the one wielding it.

He looked up from the sword to see the prince neatly skewer the man he’d been fighting. There was a fifth corpse, nearest the door, obviously dispatched by the prince as well.

The last bandit was at the far end of the small room, cradling a large object swathed in his cloak.

Behind him, the priest heard the abbess and the rest of the monks enter.

There was an almost serene look on the bandit’s face. “I should have known this wouldn’t work,” he said with certainty.

“Yes,” the priest replied, with almost the same tone. He took a step forward and raised his glowing sword. “You have lost. Please put that down. There is no point in you resisting.”

The bandit’s eyes did not leave the sword, though he did as he was told. The prince darted forward and retrieved it, his relief plain on his face.

His head bowed, the bandit spoke. “Let me die like a man.”

The priest swallowed, closed his eyes.

Separated from his shoulders, the bandit’s head hit the ground with a hollow thud.

The priest dropped his sword to the ground. He looked up and met the prince’s gaze. They exchanged tired smiles.

The abbess stepped forward and put a hand on the priest’s arm. “Come,” she said softly. “The others will dispose of the bodies and assess the damage. I need to speak with the two of you in private.”

As they followed her up the stairs, the priest’s blood throbbed faster in his veins. He knew where they were going, what the abbess wanted to speak about. The reconsecration. The purification of the Holy Temple.

In his heart, he prayed, pleaded, begged the Gods that he be the one chosen to do it.

He eyed the prince as they entered the hall. It was not fate that had led them together, but divine will.

The abbess cleared her throat. She stood by the altar, an expectant look on her face.

The prince grinned cockily and gave her a brief bow. “What did you wish to discuss, Your Eminence?”

“How familiar is your Imperial Highness,” she stressed the words, and the priest felt a flush creep up his cheeks — she’d known the instant she laid eyes on the prince, but he hadn’t had a clue, “with the nature of the Church’s relations with the Gods?”

He arched a brow. “Familiar enough, Eminence.”

“Good.” She swept her arm around, gesturing at the whole of the High Temple. “This place has been defiled.”

“We saw the blood when we came in.”

“Do you understand the gravity of what this means? This is the Gods’ house, and it has been sullied by bloodshed. Violent bloodshed.”

The abbess pointed out the tall windows above the Temple entrance. The night sky could be seen, heavily overcast. “A storm is coming. Powerful. Violent. It will last for days, and when it is done with the desert, it will head to the city. It is supernatural, and will bring nothing but destruction. And it must be stopped. Here. Tonight.”

The priest cleared his throat. The prince was beginning to look very confused, and, the priest knew, did not appreciate all this circling around the point. “What the abbess is leading to, is that we need to cleanse the Temple of its taint. To appease the Gods before things worsen. We must do it urgently. And we require your aid.”

My help? Aren’t you church-men capable of doing anything by yourselves?” he asked, his tone joking. “How am I supposed to stop a storm?”

“This is no time for levity–”

Eminence,” the priest said sharply. She scowled at him, but he ignored it to face the prince. “We could do it without your help, but it would take time and manpower we simply do not have, and by the time we are done, it might be too late. You are of the royal blood. You are of the Gods’ chosen. With a single offering, you can purify this place.” The priest shook his head. “You could have even walked the desert path without a bloodletting or my blessing.”

The prince pushed up his sleeve. “So we can start now? What do I need to do?”

The priest took a step forward, made bold by desire. “No–”

The abbess smiled slyly and gave them both a shallow bow. “I believe I will leave the two of you be. This will be easier if you are alone.” She set a small bottle of oil on the floor by the altar, and strode back down to the sleeping quarters at a brisk pace.

The priest watched her go before he rolled the prince’s sleeve back down. “That is not what is needed here,” he said quietly. “For such a purification, the Gods require your– your seed.”

Ah.” The prince took a step closer to the altar and began loosening the belt of his robes.

The priest raised a hand. “No. Not like that. You mustn’t simply– deposit it upon the altar. You must deliver it into a vessel.”

“But the altar is bare…”

“It isn’t on the altar.”

“Then where is it? I want to get started.”

The priest set a hand on his breastbone. “It is me,” he said, softly.

A hungry look came over the prince’s face. “I knew I didn’t go to church enough.”

The priest chuckled weakly. “As I am a physical representative of the Gods, it is through me that you must make your offering.”

The prince reached up and caressed the priest’s face. “Here?” he asked.

He leaned into the touch and let the prince draw him closer. “No. On the altar. Where it will be the most sacred.”

He received a smile in reply, and the prince drew him into a slow kiss. He shifted and allowed the tongue nudging at his lips into his mouth. As the prince explored him, the priest allowed himself to become familiar with the geography of the prince’s mouth, the taste of him, both sour and sweet.

But the priest was the one who broke off first. His pulse was quickening. “No. Not here.”

The prince ran a thumb over the priest’s mouth, and the priest had to repress a shiver of delight. “Aren’t you insistent?” the prince said. “Well, who am I to deny the Gods what they want.”

Robes and cloaks were shed quickly to make an impromptu mattress upon the altar, to serve as protection against the cold, hard stone. The priest could not help but stare at the prince — he was so very beautiful, far more than he’d imagined. It was near impossible to keep his eyes from sliding down the lean lines of his body.

He lay on the altar, and the prince knelt between his legs. Their eyes met, and the prince leaned forward to kiss the skin beneath the priest’s navel. And the priest gasped as the prince trailed his tongue down the priest’s stomach to the base of his pubic hair, before drawing himself upright.

Between them, the priest’s cock was also unfurling its way up, and at the sight of it, the two men exchanged a laugh.

“I do believe,” the prince murmured, “that that is my sign to begin.”

The priest drew up his legs, and the prince reached to the floor for the bottle of ceremonial oil the Abbess had left them. He held it up for a moment and arched an eyebrow at the priest.

“The Church,” the priest replied to the unasked question, as primly as possible, “readies itself for all eventualities.”

The prince’s smile grew wider, a devious light dancing in his eyes. “Lie down,” he murmured.

The priest complied, stretching his arms above his head, and looked up at the Temple’s hewn stone ceiling. He heard the prince uncork the oil and reposition himself. Oil being poured. Skin rubbing against skin.

He closed his eyes; his breath was coming in shallow bursts–

And he groaned as an oil-slick finger trailed up the side of his cock and swirled around the tip. The prince’s low laughter filled the chamber.

The clink of the oil bottle being set on the floor. The prince shifting his weight once again. The priest wanted to cry out every time the prince touched him; even the merest brush of skin on skin made him grow harder, made the world constrict down to nothing but the two of them on the altar.

He could not help but make soft, contented noises as the prince shifted his legs to get more room.

“Like that,” the prince said, “almost around me.”

The priest balled his fists in the soft fabrics of cloaks and robes, and tightened his grip on the prince.

“Lords and Ladies,” the prince began, and it was the first thing that approached an honest prayer that the priest had heard from the prince’s mouth, “I beseech of you to accept this offering in the spirit it was delivered, and cleanse this place.”

And the priest’s eyes flew open, breath caught in his throat, as the prince drove into him, as he was filled, filled completely, by the hard length of the prince’s cock.

He could almost taste it, almost touch it. Knew, as the prince grunted, growing faster and — impossibly — deeper with every thrust, knew that he was hovering on the edges of something perfect, knew that he was in the presence of something divine.

The prince made an almost pained, animalistic noise, buried deep himself within the priest, and filled him with his seed.

The priest’s own cock spurted onto the prince’s chest, and at that moment, the priest felt almost as if his body was not his own. As if at the sweet, blissful moment, he had been pushed out of his own flesh.

The breath was jolted out of him, and the sensation vanished, as the prince nearly collapsed on top of him, himself spent from the holy act.

He gathered the prince in his arms, and smoothed the hair from his brow. He could not remember ever seeing the prince look so vulnerable, so– naked. His eyes were distant, as though he were seeing something beyond the chamber, the Temple.

But after a blink of his eyes, the look vanished, and the prince’s usual cunning smirk replaced it. The priest nuzzled his neck.

“How do we know,” the prince asked, “whether or not it worked?”

“Mmm… Well, the Gods, the Gods are fickle, and easy to anger. Their tempers can be difficult to assuage.” He felt the prince twine his fingers through his hair. “I can’t quite see,” he continued, pointing out the windows, “if the storm clouds have dissipated yet.”

“If that’s so…”

The prince’s breath was warm on his neck.

“If that’s so,” he continued, “then would it not be a good idea to not stop? To keep going until we’re sure that they consider themselves– fulfilled? To keep going until– morning?”

The priest loosened his embrace as the prince straddled him once more.

“I think,” the priest said, voice low, as he met the prince’s hooded eyes, “that that is an excellent idea…”

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