Alyssa wobbled back and forth, nearly collapsing to the floor until that sudden feeling of wrongness that came with falling jolted her awake.
Yzhemal worked her hard the night before. Waiting tables wasn’t exactly difficult work. The menu only had five items on it; porridge, bread, boiled vegetables, stew, and smoked beef. Oh, and ale, of course. Everyone had to have their ale. In fact, she had hardly served any real food if she included alcohol in the ratio.
And the people… ugh. She should have expected it. Weaving around between crowded tables, people were bound to get their hands in places they shouldn’t. Resting her hand on the hilt of her knife usually had them backing away. One of the more rowdy of the bunch had needed a little extra encouragement to keep his hands to himself. Encouragement in the form of a closed fist to the jaw. He hadn’t bothered her after that. Despite nearly the entire tavern laughing at the guy, none of them really bothered her after that either.
At least not until new customers had arrived and the old ones left as the evening went on.
Yzhemal hadn’t been happy with her however. Apparently paying customers were worth more than she was. She hadn’t been fired, but he had said that she would be gone if it happened again.
Alyssa had figured that would have been the end of it.
How wrong she was.
As the evening wound down, Yzhemal sent her out to the stable. She wasn’t sure if it was a punishment or if he had been intending on having her out there regardless. There, Alyssa discovered yet another thing that she absolutely hated. Mucking stalls with nothing but candlelight to go off of. In the middle of the night at that. The cold night. She highly doubted the experience would have been enjoyable in the daylight. Even now, she could still smell it on her.
That had taken so long and had been so exhausting that she hadn’t even opened her bag to look into Aziz’s magic supplies before collapsing onto the bed. Being awoken seemingly an hour later hadn’t helped matters.
Standing out in the grassy courtyard of the temple as the sun started to wane towards nightfall, Alyssa wasn’t sure she would make it through the ceremony without collapsing. And there was still tonight to look forward to, serving customers. Joy.
Nearing evening, the sun hung low in the sky. It was at just the right angle to burn Alyssa’s tired eyes with its harsh light no matter where she looked. She could have turned around, but everyone else was facing the temple as well. She didn’t want to be the only one turned the wrong way.
Though she didn’t know why she bothered. Nothing was happening.
Alyssa stood among a large portion of the gathered townsfolk. Not everyone, but maybe a hundred people. Everyone had gathered around some raised dais in the center of the courtyard made from the same obsidian-like marble that the rest of the temple had been constructed from. The pilgrims had seats—almost more like stone beds, really—evenly spaced around some lavender flower at the middle of the dais.
Aziz was up there, relaxing on one of the beds. He hadn’t been in the tavern the night before, though his bodyguard—or whoever the man with the sword and muscles was—had been drinking at a table. She wasn’t sure where Aziz had gone, but obviously he was alright. Perhaps he had still been upset about their discussion.
To Aziz’s right was that rocker girl. Alyssa hadn’t heard that she had woken up, but she was sitting on her own. A fog hung in her eyes though. She didn’t look at anything in particular. Maybe asphyxiation induced brain damage? Or she could just be high again. Either one seemed likely. Aziz’s bodyguard wasn’t up on the dais, but most of the other strange people Alyssa had noticed were. The old man, the man in the nearly modern tuxedo, and the old woman who had been looking into a crystal ball on the first night all had seats. The sixth seat had a younger woman in it who was dressed in the same simple clothes that most of the village people wore.
In front of the dais, Lazhar stood with his hands clasped in front of him. When Alyssa had first arrived, she had barely recognized him. And not just because of her exhaustion. He barely looked like the jolly old brewmaster. A smooth black suit had replaced his dirt-stained work clothes. It had a line of buttons running up the left side rather than in the middle as modern suits usually had and the shoulders had some sort of silver plates covering them in a wide line. He had replaced his floppy felt hat with a tall and angular hat made from stiff white cloth. A golden ring ran around the top rim while criss-crosses of silver ran straight down the front until they hit the bottom of the brimless hat where the silver looped around his head.
He actually looked like a proper priest, if a bit of a silly one.
But he just stood with his eyes closed, his mouth moving in unheard prayers. A small fire burned to his side with a small obsidian kettle placed on top. She didn’t know what it was for and frankly, she didn’t care. It took all her effort to keep awake. Over an hour of standing around doing nothing was far too much for her.
Alyssa was about ready to walk away. She was tired. She needed a nap before work in the evening. Most of all, she hadn’t wanted to celebrate Tenebrael anyway. The only reason she had shown up was because Yzhemal had given her time off expressly for the ceremony. If she had just gone up to her room to nap, she felt certain that he would get her back out mucking stables.
Even though he didn’t appear to be in attendance himself.
Before she could act on her desire, something tickled at Alyssa’s nose. Brushing her hand over her face, she came away holding a silky black feather.
All traces of sleep vanished from her thoughts as she looked up to the sky. Feathers filled the air, swirling around in a gentle tornado. They wafted down on light gusts of air and landed on everything. People, the ground, the temple, the pilgrims, and even the fire. They didn’t burn though. Alyssa followed one of the feathers as the flames propelled it back up into the air. Not even the edges came away singed.
No one seemed to notice. Most people around her had their hands clasped together just like Lazhar. Some prayed while looking at the ground. Some had their eyes closed. Some stared up at the sky. Yet there was no reaction. Even as a feather landed right in the eye of one of the people next to Alyssa, they didn’t so much as blink.
The feather she was holding exploded into a mist of black motes.
“I almost forgot about you.”
Alyssa’s blood ran cold upon hearing that harmonious voice again. She snapped her gaze to where it had come from.
Tenebrael stood on the dais next to Lazhar with her wings spread wide. But she wasn’t looking at Alyssa. She hadn’t been addressing Alyssa. Her luminescent white eyes were locked on Lazhar. She grinned at him before turning around to look at the pilgrims. “You haven’t even started yet!” she said, hands on her hips as she sighed. “I have so much work to do. This is really not worth it, you know. You should fall down on your knees and lick my boots as thanks for bothering to showing up.”
Yet Lazhar didn’t respond. He didn’t look at Tenebrael. He kept his hands clasped in front of him and continued to pray. As did everyone else around Alyssa. Not a single person reacted to the angel’s words.
Alyssa shimmied over ever so slightly, making sure that she was almost entirely behind the person in front of her. Suddenly thankful for the sun and the warmth that it brought, she wondered what might have happened had she worn the violet cloak. Tenebrael hadn’t noticed her yet, but sticking out like a plum in a dirt patch would definitely have drawn some attention. Her wool jacket did stick out, but only from up close. From a distance, it was as brown as everything else.
Tenebrael turned to face her temple. Just as she had done when Alyssa had a machete in her hands, she raised a finger and pointed towards the doors. A black beam shot out and knocked against the doors, throwing them wide open. Despite their size running up almost the entirety of the six story building, the impossibly large doors opened near instantly, gliding along their hinges with barely any noise. Oddly enough, the doors opened outward.
Despite them opening in near silence, Lazhar ceased his prayer. As did everyone else. He turned with a bright smile to the open doors. “Her Holiness has joined us at last!”
Everyone around her clapped their hands together twice before kneeling down on the ground. Alyssa hesitated for just a moment before joining them in their prostration. Most people had their foreheads touching the grass, but a few looked up to see Lazhar and the pilgrims. She felt safe enough to look up as well.
Along with her vow to get home, Alyssa added finding a way to make Tenebrael pay. Not just for teleporting her to this strange world, but for making her kneel as well.
“Yes, yes,” Tenebrael said with an air of disdain, completely unaware of Alyssa’s thoughts. “Get on with it already.”
But Lazhar didn’t hear her. He turned towards the center where the lavender flower stood in a marble pot. Pot might not have been the best word as the vase was covered in etchings and artwork. The elegance with its flowing curves and two thick handles was a bit much for such a simple term. He reached out with a recently washed hand and plucked a petal from the flower, holding it lovingly in his hands.
“Once a year,” he said as he took two steps to the next petal, “this flower blooms.” He plucked the next petal and continued another two steps around the pot. “Once a year, this flower gifts us with six petals.” Plucking the petal in front of him, he took another two steps. “Six petals, freshly gathered and ground, will make six cups of tea. Six cups of tea that will, for a short time, allow six individuals to gaze upon Her Holiness! Tenebrael!” As he shouted, he came back around to face the majority of the crowd, holding the six petals he had gathered above his head.
Walking back to the fire and kettle, Lazhar dropped the petals into a small stone bowl. He picked up a pestle and began grinding the flower as he continued speaking. “Many of you travel in a parade unto our meeting place; some come from this village, some from across the seas. You may come for different reasons. Perhaps you wished to visit the holy temple and see its majesty with their own eyes.”
Alyssa glanced behind him at the Gothic cathedral. Begrudgingly, she admitted that it was a fairly impressive sight. Even for modern Earth. Sure, it wasn’t as tall as the skyscrapers of New York, but it had a certain elegance to it that was lost on modern architecture.
“Perhaps you have come on a sabbatical, seeking teaching of the humble caretakers of Her Holiness’ temple. I hope I provided well over the past few days.”
“Ugh, get on with it old man,” Tenebrael said, interrupting Lazhar.
Or not. He continued listing off reasons why people might journey to the temple completely disregarding his… Does she count as a goddess? Alyssa wondered as she watched the angel impatiently pace back and forth.
“Your speeches get worse every year. And longer. I really need to find a new high priest.”
“Or maybe,” Lazhar said, dumping the mulch into the kettle over the fire. “Maybe you have come because you have heard that we offer free ale.” He gave a soft chuckle, one echoed by some of the crowd. “And that’s perfectly fine.
“But those here on pilgrimage, they did not come for any of the frivolities of the festival. These brave few have come to drink of Tenebrael’s tea, to see the Unseen One.” He picked up the kettle with a thick cloth wrapped around its stone handle. The wizened old man on the first bed held out a small cylindrical cup made from the same black marble as the kettle and the temple.
As Lazhar poured tea for each of the pilgrims, Tenebrael moved up into the air, hovering with her gently moving wings just above the flower pot in the middle of all the beds. The tips of her boots just barely skimmed the top. One hand moved to brush a lock of her nearly waist-length hair behind her back. Her other hand moved to the air just above her head. The bright golden light from her halo appearing forced Alyssa to look at the ground with a wince.
Even the sun wasn’t so bright.
Other people didn’t have that problem. The man next to her still had his head up and looking towards Lazhar and the pilgrims. He couldn’t see Tenebrael. He wasn’t blinded by the light. Alyssa couldn’t understand why. Before the attempted robbery, she hadn’t been drinking any strange teas. And Lazhar had just said it was temporary anyway.
She could still hear him walking around, pouring the hot tea for the pilgrims. But she heard something else as well. The wizened man. His voice sounded so weak and decrepit with age. And yet, it was so full of joy.
“I see her,” he cried out. “Just as they said she would be.”
“She’s beautiful,” Aziz said, voice filled with awe. “I can hardly look. Her glory is so bright. But I must. I must see. I… I never believed…”
Completely lacking her earlier disdain, Tenebrael spoke in a voice so radiant that even Alyssa nearly shed a tear. Until she actually heard the words. “Do not fear,” Tenebrael said. “Do not fight it. I will be here, waiting to welcome you with open arms.”
Alyssa snapped her head up despite the blinding light, squinting to see what was happening.
“She spoke,” one of the pilgrims said in absolute awe, quickly echoed by the others.
All except for the old man. He coughed instead. With his arm stretched out towards Tenebrael, he collapsed first. The fortune teller followed almost instantly.
“Is there—” Aziz started, cutting himself off to cough as the punk girl slumped completely off her bed. “Is there anything waiting for us?”
“Nothing.” Tenebrael turned towards him with a serene smile. “Nothing but peace and rest without the wearies of the world to weigh you down.”
He nodded his head without taking his tear-filled eyes off Tenebrael. “Thank you,” he said. But he didn’t slump over. Even as the rest of the pilgrims collapsed, even as foam began dripping from the corner of his mouth, he stared. And Tenebrael stared back, the picture of patience.
Right up until the light in his eyes died out and his head sank to his chest.
“Finally,” she groaned as the halo above her head vanished into nothingness. In a single half-turn of her body, the tips of her wings brushed against all six of the pilgrims. A chill ran through the entire crowd—something everyone felt—as the white mist poured out of their bodies. She consumed the fog just as she had with the two robbers, only without all the writhing and joy on her face. She sucked it up as fast as she could. Once every scrap was gone, she pointed a finger towards her temple. The doors shut just as silently as they had opened. In a flurry of black feathers, Tenebrael vanished.
That seemed to be the signal to everyone else. The crowd rose to their feet. Lazhar started talking again, something about how the pilgrims had gone to her side and that there would be one more bonfire once night fell.
Alyssa didn’t hear. The words went in one ear and out the other without connecting anywhere in the middle. The people around her started walking off. All while she remained on her knees, entirely unable to clamp shut her open jaw.