Persia; 1100 B.C.; 4:57 a.m.
Lady Ziba of the Temple of Tehran donned the sacrificial white robes with a heavy heart. Around her the cold, stone walls chilled her to the bone through the many layers of silk she wore as she waited patiently for dawn to rise over the miles of desert sand laid out before her outside her cell’s window. Her mass of alien blonde curls cascaded down her back, organized for the occasion with priceless gem pins and gold combs, though she spent her night waiting in the dank dungeon. She had prayed to her goddess, Kurshid, the goddess of the sun, for the entirety of her stay in the prison, pleading desperately for help that never came. Now, all that was left to be done was to wait.
They came to retrieve her when the horizon began to turn pink with the morning. Fatigue had washed all color from Ziba’s alabaster skin and her blue eyes were rimmed with red but she held her head high as she strode toward the stairs between two of her sister’s priests. The men beside her tried their best to stifle their pity, but she could sense it, regardless. Feeling the burn of the rope against her delicate skin brought on a flush of shame; never in her life had she imagined that she would ever be in this position. Her mother in paradise would be rolling over in her grave if she could see her and what she had done.
Her head swayed of its own accord, her body having abruptly lost all the strength it had mustered to stand. This was the third morning now that she had gone without food while she fasted for the ceremony, per her sister’s demand. “My lady,” a quiet voice murmured beside her, catching the remnants of her focus. Those words, that voice, were so agonizingly familiar that it ached in her heart to realize that the connection she had made was only a part of her imagination. Her love and lordship would not, and had not, come to see her. As she came to this comprehension, a hand, much smaller than that which she so desperately wanted to see, reached out to hand her a bronze goblet of water. She took it obediently and drank under the scrutinizing gaze of the priests, but, in truth, her most recent memory, with its departure, had taken with it the entirety of her appetite.
“Thank you, Lord Deben,” Ziba replied graciously, emptying the goblet and returning it to the priest. He nodded in answer and the group ascended the stairs, each priest grasping the tops of Ziba’s arms so she couldn’t run. Their display of blatant distrust in her depressed Ziba, as she had been a priestess in the temple for eight years now, since her seventh birthday; everyone trusted her, and with good reason, as she was as guileless as the innocent child she was. She couldn’t exactly say, however, that she was surprised by this show of loyalty to her sister. Simply their allowance of the inhumane acts to come that day had sucked away any trace of hope left in Ziba.
The young priestess abruptly collapsed into the arms of the priests, as they expected, on the way to the altar. The sedative they had slipped into her drink on the way to recover her was tasteless, and in her haste to sate her unbearable thirst in the darkened room, Ziba had not noticed the green powder floating in the water. Nevertheless, as detailed to them by Lady Shireen, the priests had come to do a job and did not allow Ziba’s inert body to slow them down. Deben lifted the girl easily into his arms, his companion chasing at his heels, and made his way to their destination. Ziba, for her part, remained blissfully unaware of just how close to her impending doom she really was.
Lady Shireen swept through the marble temple toward the altar like the wrath of God, her blood red robes billowing out and around her. Shireen was pale as far as Persians went; she rarely saw the sun under the roof of the temple, of which she spent all of her time. Her long, black hair was piled around a gold headdress atop her head. The green of her eyes was cold, staring straight ahead and giving away no emotion, but all could tell how she felt. Anger radiated off her very skin. She felt no guilt or regret, only the deepest disgust, and all patrons and priests within the temple hid from the burning rage that they did not want directed at them.
Inwardly, though, Shireen’s mind was in turmoil. By Sraosa, the god of the afterlife, she’d taken solace in the knowledge that her sister would be protected, but, as anyone in her situation would feel, her faith had been shaken. All those to try to resurrect the dead with the Book of Eternity had failed, and she feared her powers were too weak to return her sister to the land of the living. Regardless of her lack of confidence, she didn’t have a choice. Her dominant hand, the one to complete the deed, twitched with anticipation.
The room was large and completely silent; the various priests scattered across the marble floor didn’t dare to breathe. Each man was bedecked in gold robes to stand behind Shireen for the ritual, but it was evident that they were reluctant. Use of the Book of Eternity for this purpose had angered the gods before and they knew this sacrifice could, and would, bring the wrath of the god of darkness and personification of evil itself, Angra Mainyu, down upon them. Lady Shireen had warned them all earlier that this was inevitable. Fortunately, the priests were devoted enough to her that they had agreed to help despite the risk.
At the far end of the room, a stone table was organized in the center of a plethora of offerings to the gods, from flowers to the preserved organs of rams. The table was grey, but stained with the remnants of blood from past offerings, all of which was unseen beneath the long, white silk of Ziba’s robes. The younger girl’s hair, as fair as the glorious desert sunshine, cascaded over the edges of the table in long ringlets, brushing silently against the floor. Her chest rose and fell evenly with each of her breaths and her long eyelashes painted black half moons against her porcelain cheeks. Coal symbols marked her forehead and cheekbones for the ceremony.
The priests in gold advanced toward the altar ahead of the High Priestess, beginning to chant the spell in Old Persian, “Spenta Mainyu who breathes life into you, now take it away. May our holy sister, Ziba, be held in the safe, merciful arms of the gods, and be returned to the living anew. Deliver her from the lust of Angra Mainyu. Protect her, your holiest servant. Spenta Mainyu who breathes life…”
Shireen picked up the chanting as she approached the altar and lifted the ominous dagger beside her sister’s body into her hand. She stared down at the petite form with an expression that could freeze an entire ocean, and brought the dagger up with one hand into position over her sister’s body. One of the priestesses held the silver Book of Eternity open in her arms for Shireen to read. Shireen’s free hand pushed passed page after page until she found the page to bring a soul back from the dead.
As she flipped through the pages, the body on the stone began to stir and a light voice murmured, “Shireen?”
Ziba’s unusually blue eyes stared up at the High Priestess and filled with tears. Shireen bit the inside of her mouth to keep her own emotions behind closed doors and continued to read. With the words of the blessings on her lips, Shireen lifted the ceremonial dagger above her head as Ziba looked on helplessly. The other men and women standing around the altar inconspicuously closed their eyes. Shireen continued to proclaim the ancient words, even when Ziba gazed up into her face, searching for eye contact, and murmured a whisper that rocked the resolve of every person there as though it was screamed. “We will meet again.”
It seemed to Lady Shireen that the stain of blood sprung forth from Ziba’s white robes before the damage had even been done. Her eyes pricked with inevitable tears, but it didn’t stop her from viciously impaling her sister with the knife. The dagger came down swiftly into Ziba’s chest, bringing forth an ear-splitting scream that would haunt Shireen until the day she died as she watched the life leave her sister’s hypnotic eyes. It was an eternity that Shireen watched Ziba struggle to catch her breath and reach uselessly for the obstruction in her chest, spreading crimson to her hands while she shook with sudden cold. Ziba tried to speak again, but nothing emerged from the mouth that was slowly beginning to fill with blood. Her eyes went flat and dull, and then Shireen knew her sister was dead.
But, she knew it was for the best.
Even as she waited, though, she never felt another sting of doubt over her powers until the last moment. She had hoped for a small sign or hint that the ceremony had been successful, but there was nothing. She had expected the white vapor of her sister’s spirit to float into the jar they had set forth for that exact purpose, but it never happened. Instead, the cork tied to the bottle’s neck closed the opening on its own, closing off any sanctuary to Ziba’s soul. The entire building began to shake beneath their feet, throwing Shireen and her associates to the floor, smashing the jars of offerings, and splitting the stone altar while the sound of a man’s cry of pain reverberated through the tense air. All at once, they knew that Angra Mainyu, the immortal lover of the newly deceased Ziba, had found out what they had done to the young priestess.
All at once, they knew they would suffer for it.