1.4 The stranger

If you considered a brightly-lit palace interior to be weird, the throne room would have made you incredibly uneasy. There were no oil lamps, no torches, no windows. Yet the whole place was dipped in a subdued golden light coming from seemingly everywhere. The golden statues of cows lining up the way to the throne’s steps glistened in the otherworldly light. Every step we made echoed eerily in this place that was filled with whispers. Massive blue-stained pillars marked the edges of the room. Most people and guards remained next to it, leaving the center vastly empty. 

At the top of the stairs, a golden chair with a sun disc ornament towered above the entire room. And before it stood a breathtakingly dark goddess. Her slightly wavy hair reached her knees, with pearls and blossoming white flowers being intricately woven into it. Her blue indigo dress was nearly translucent, showing off each and every feminine curve she possessed. Both wrists were full of golden bracelets. She stood there, like a statue, watching each and every one of our moves.

When we reached the last set of cow statues, she suddenly began walking down the stairs. I noticed that both her ankles were full of anklets as well, and she rustled heavily. This was the only sound I heard, for her bare feet did not echo at all whenever they touched the hard stone floor. When she finally reached the bottom, the tall goddess slowly moved towards us. E’Nun fell onto his knees, averting his gaze. At the same time, he pulled at my rags, urging me to do the same.

“Now, this is a surprise.” Her voice echoed through the room. No, it wasn’t only her voice. It sounded like a choir of voices, young, old, man, woman, and anything in between. And yes, it sounded as unpleasant as you imagine it to be. I had to shut my ears with my hands. The goddess ignored this rude behavior for the moment.

“Your Highness Isis,” E’Nun spoke quietly, almost under his breath.

“Since when is it the General’s responsibility to personally hand-pick a candidate and bring them before me? Particularly, a hero General like you, E’Nun of Hesatset-Ushah? I would suppose you have more pressing things to look after.” All her voices laughed except the female adult one who reprimanded him.

“I chose to intervene since the keepers were mistreating this boy.”

“Hm.” Her gaze shifted to me. I could feel all her versions prodding me, touching me in my mind. It made me feel dirty, even though I had just bathed moments ago. “He is quite old to be considered a candidate. I doubt his magic will be strong enough to survive the test.” She turned around, finally leaving me alone. “You can have him, General.”

Jingling. It seemed as if her verdict was final, and she decided to head back up to her throne — a decision made within just a mere moment. E’Nun quietly sighed, but I felt his disappointment. As he rose to his feet, so did I. He had a gentle smile on him. “I guess you will become a guard now.” He patted me on the head and began accompanying me out when another tall goddess carelessly rushed past us, pushing us apart. She seemed just as tall as Isis, but her outfit looked more like something made for combat. To protect her shins and shoulders, she wore leather armor. In her right hand, she carried a spear.

“That foreigner is here. Again.” She spoke with just one voice reminiscent of an older woman, even though she looked as youthful as Isis herself. It sounded agitated. The discrepancy in her voice made me stop and look at her, trying to figure out whether she was just good at hiding her age or if her voice was just like that.

“What’s the matter, E’Rion?” E’Nun whispered as he took my leash back into his hands and firmly tugged at it. Clearly, this wasn’t a place he wanted to dwell at much longer. And more clearly, he didn’t want me to agitate any of these two women inadvertently.

“Why does she sound old?” Unfortunately, his hopes were crushed the moment I opened my mouth. The spear-wielding goddess turned around to me, her bead-decorated cornrows rustling. Ooh, how I felt the scorching gaze. She opened her mouth as if to speak. However, Isis was faster. 

“Interesting.” She had just reached the top of her throne when she turned around. With a hand gesture, she commanded E’Nun to stop. The old guard was both confused and unwilling, but he abode by her will.

“Let that man in, Bastet,” Isis continued. “And ignore the boy for now. He might be a candidate, after all.” It was a singular voice, matching her age. “General, I will reassess the situation. Until then, please wait here.” As she addressed E’Nun, the plethora of voices returned. This time it seemed as if they were all busily talking with each other, except for the one voice speaking to him.

“As you wish.” E’Nun bowed and pulled me towards the foot of one of the cow statues. He gave me a questioning look, but I couldn’t fully grasp why.

At that moment, a person walked past us. Their white wool robe obscured both figure and face. The robe’s trimmings had an interesting geometrical pattern woven into it, something I had never seen before. 

Rach yab,” a deep male voice spoke as the person bowed down to her. It was a simple greeting, yet the stranger had not only gotten it wrong, they obviously were struggling with pronouncing the words right. I had never met a foreigner before, so my initial thought was that this person just struggled with speech. Maybe they were deaf as well? No. Whenever my mother tried to say a word, it sounded slurred, not just plain wrong. My mind began to wander, trying to figure this person out. Eventually, I reached a dark place deep in my mind. Amidst the shadows, I could discern this stranger’s robes, as if they were self-illuminating. I watched in awe as the stranger continued to speak and gesture, but make no sound. As I walked closer, I dared to touch the robes. Nothing happened. I grew bolder. I played around with the bottom of their robe, tugging and pulling it, but all this stranger ever did was slightly kick the air, as if an insect had attached itself onto their leg. Curious and even bolder, I decided to see how this person looked like. Grabbing onto the tip of their hood at the back, I pulled it down to reveal their face.

Only that their face was nothing I expected it to look like. It was a bearded man, deathly pale. He had long pointed ears, with golden cuffs protecting the tips. His dark green eyes stared off into the empty space as he continued to speak with no sound. However, he noticed something. He halted his speech, running his gloved hand through the dark brown bread. The ethereal light of his robe began to dim away as if he became more real in my imaginative realm. And suddenly, he looked straight at me. At first, I thought he just was looking in the same direction, but no. Those eyes were focused on me. 

Ti!” It was a language I had never heard before. But he sounded angry. His hand reached out to me and grabbed me by my rags. His eyes began to glow up as if he was about to shoot a beam at me. I quickly raised both of my hands to shield myself. And I’m glad I did. I felt something burning hot scorching me, but at that very moment, whatever it was that he did, it projected right back at the stranger. After a sharp cry, he suddenly let me go, and I found myself back in the real world, standing next to E’Nun. I was panting heavily and looked at my forearms, which seemed to be red, but nothing worse.

“What’s the matter? Why are your arms suddenly red?” He asked with a worried undertone. Before I could answer, the stranger further ahead cried out and grabbed his face. His hood fell back, revealing that what I already knew.

“Stupid… boy!” He gasped, heavily mispronouncing words again. Isis and Bastet looked alarmed. “Mind… invade dangerously!” As he let go of his face, I could see his eyes were tearing up and red. The skin around them was swollen and made him look like a caricature. Bastet began chuckling. “Not funny!” He exclaimed angrily. Even Isis smiled. “Indeed, it is no laughing matter,” the goddess began. “I recommend you let our healers take care of you first before you continue with your,” she paused, “exposition.”

“Well, good riddance, I’d say. He talks too much, that pointy ear.” Bastet’s old voice commented as the entire courtroom watched the man curse in his mother tongue, flip the hood back on, and walk back, making sure to avoid me best as possible.

“You, boy, come here.” It was the male voice of Isis that suddenly addressed me. He sounded quite intimidating, so I quickly grabbed my leash out of E’Nun’s hands and carefully approached the throne. Judging from E’Nun’s surprised face, he hadn’t heard this voice at all.

“I see.” This time the male voice chuckled. “An interesting gift. Peering into the minds of others and even interacting with each other.”

“Or causing harm,” Bastet’s old voice joined Isis’ contemplation. “But wait, doesn’t he wear a leash? No human before was able to demonstrate their gift with it on?”

“Have I finally succeeded?” Pause. Isis’ gaze focused much longer on me. It felt increasingly uncomfortable and I found myself slowly backpedaling towards the comfort of E’Nun’s presence. Tiny hands were everywhere again, trying to get a hold of me. I tried best as I could to swat the imaginary feeling away, but I failed. Shaking and insecure, I crouched on the ground, hugging my knees. Suddenly, I felt somebody approach me from behind. No words needed be spoken. I knew it was the old guard. He simply stood behind me, like a solid pillar, and I was able to return back to reality.

“You shall commence the test immediately.” Finally, Isis spoke. This time, all her voices spoke as one.

A wave of murmur went through the court. 

“Oh, I quite like this!” Bastet spoke excitedly, this time, with a young female voice. “Let the suffering begin!”

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