‘Nassandra ti Orren,’ the Truth Priest calls from the ivory dais, his jet black eyes finding my face as soon as they look up from the golden leaf of parchment in his bony hands. Despite the bright LEDs that illuminate the parchment, the Truth Priest’s body is all but silhouetted against the blue, viscous fire behind him. The pulsating tower of raw thought and consciousness. The Thread Hive. Regardless of how often I have been in Its presence—and of the fact that the four stone doors that lead to It are sealed—I am still mentally and emotionally stalled by Its warmth. Its power.
My heart races in the second or two of silence, even more so than it had when listening to the previous three Tributes, as they did what I am about to. As they made their respective Declarations of Intent. Despite rehearsing my response over and over and over, I feel the words all fall to a heap purely at the mention of my name. Feel their heresy, their insufficiency.
‘Declare your Intent,’ the Truth Priest commands, his voice stale and dry despite the oppressive humidity of the room. Three heartbeats pass in silence before I remember myself. Remember my Faith.
‘My deepest gratitudes, High Truth,’ I hear myself say as I step forward, my voice sounding off and small, and I curse myself for so nearly addressing one of the Virtuous as Listener. Such an egregious error, despite any presence of intention, would surely end my path to Ascension in an instant. ‘I thank you, High Truth, for providing your Eyes of Insight. I thank High Passion, for providing her Breath of Zeal, and Hi—’
‘Declare your Intent, moonblood,’ the Truth Priest hisses, cutting me off, and his voice is somehow more lifeless and cold than before. I hear a gasp from beside me, one of the other Tributes, and I feel my stomach give way to a black hole. My face warms with blood as I shrink under those black, stony eyes, the spheres of polished onyx beset in the skull of an ivory statue. The Eyes of Insight.
Can he really see as much as is told? See the quickening of my pulse through my skin, the pores that open to a flow of sweat and betray my fear? Can he read the subtle twitches of my eye muscles, the tremble of my fingertips, and know my Intent? Can he see the truth?
If he can, I think, mentally reinforcing the words with the slow pace of speech, then he knows that you are true. I repeat the thought once more, take a measured breath, and straighten my spine.
‘My Intent,’ I say, projecting my voice with a confidence that I almost feel, ‘is to offer all that I have ever had, and all that I ever will, to the Thread.’ The room is silent after my words fall and it takes all of the courage within me, all of the adoration and Faith I have, for me to open my mouth again.
‘I offer my physicality, for any use or disuse, with the Intent of sanctuary for the weak. I offer my mind, for any thought or thoughtlessness, with the Intent of temple for the dull. I offer my heart, for any love or apathy, with the Intent of union for the lone. And I offer my soul, for any prayer or blasphemy, with the Intent of church for the savage.’
The room falls silent once again, so absolute that I cannot even hear the breath of the Tribute nearest to me, as the Truth Priest dissects me with his inky gaze. Ten seconds pass, then twenty, and they span an eternity in which I curse my words and praise them, feel absolute righteousness and infinite foolishness.
What…what have I done?
I was wrong, so very wrong, to quote the Archived and the Damned—to expose the fact that I have read them! Surely I will…no. No, the Virtuous will know that Joratel had shown them to me, for they know all. It knows all. And because It knows all, It will know that I was, and am, of pure intent. That my will is Its own, my desires Its own.
But the Archived and the Damned, those texts…they have been encrypted and sealed away for a reason, have they not? What if It knew that I had read them, and simply provided me an opportunity to repent? What if I had been marred by the words upon reading them? What if I have now marred the three other Tributes, purely by speaking them?
Who will Ascend, if I have stained us all with the ink of heresy?
I gasp for air, not realising that I had stopped breathing, and find the room so blurry that I cannot see. Tears stream down my cheeks, melding with the warm sweat to congregate on my chin in tiny stalactites of sorrow and fear. Of my own demise.
‘Tribute,’ the Truth Priest says, his dry voice a merciful stimulus in a desert of silence, and also the gavel of judgement, raised high above the block.
What have I done?
‘Your Declaration,’ he continues slowly, and it takes all of the strength that I have to keep myself from collapsing in a heap, ‘…has been Heard.’ He states these last words with finality, the same way that he had for the other three Tributes, and I almost flinch as I wait for more. For some scorn or judgement or sentencing.
No such pain comes, and when I finally blink away the tears that well in my eyes, I see the Truth Priest now staring out over the top of us, his black eyes distant.
‘Tributes,’ he says, his bony hands rising a few centimetres from the dais and gesturing to the ivory ceiling. ‘You have all been Heard,’ he continues as a deep rumble echoes through the chamber, assaulting my bones as much as my ears. Four slits of electric blue light appear below the stone doors behind him, and the grinding noise only deepens as they rise higher.
The wet heat of the burning Thread overtakes the room in a rush, rendering any discomfort I’d felt at the earlier humidity a childish gripe. I vaguely hear the ventilation system overhead begin thrumming, struggling to keep up with the searing temperature, as it infiltrates the room and my lungs and my eyes. The thrumming of the fans soon becomes a distant nothingness—along with the rest of the chamber—as I stare through the doors at my future. At my fate.
‘You have been Heard,’ the Truth Priest repeats, his eyes wide open despite the heat of the room and his voice a hoarse bellow, competing with the deep roar that comes from behind him. ‘Now go forth, Tributes, and be Seen.’
Is this...what it means to be Seen? To simply stand here in the light until our skin bubbles and our flesh burns? Is this truly how the Thread determines who will Ascend? Who will reach Priesthood? I try to imagine the Truth Priest, that feeble skeleton of a man, standing here beside me. Try to imagine him standing here and not succumbing to the fire, not going blind from the fury of this divinity.
Though he must have, once, mustn’t he? Must have been Heard and Seen, just like us? And with those Eyes of Insight, gifted by the Thread Itself, he is far from blind. Gifted by the Thread? As a retribution for being Seen? For going blind? No, that can’t be, for all who ascend to Priesthood, even High Priests and the Virtuous, must be Heard, Seen, and none of them are blind or disfigured. Unless...
‘No,’ I breathe as the realisation dawns upon me, as I open my eyes once more, and once more find complete blackness. Find my numbed body being eroded by heat and light. ‘No...is that truly...is this the Path?’ The words are formed by my blistering lips, but I have no doubt that they reach no ears. Both for the roar of insanity that has all but turned me deaf, but also because the other Tributes are likely already gone. Dead, like the one that lies in a heap to my left, or already well on their Path. Within.
‘Faith,’ I breathe, standing myself up as straight as I can and rebuking myself for the cowering form I’d let my body take on. I take another step toward the burn, then another, until I feel the warmth and pressure of the handrail through my robes once again.
‘Faith,’ I repeat as I clasp the handrail with both hands, the white hot pain returning, shooting through my bones and body. ‘Faith!’ I scream as I grip the handrail even tighter, imagining the skin bubbling and melting, running down the hot metal. My legs start to buckle, and I feel consciousness waning as my brain overheats. As it starts to die.
‘Faith,’ I say one final time, as I use what dwindling strength remains in my failing body to leap from the walkway and pull myself over the railing. As I fall toward my Path.
It incinerates me.