There are many lies in the world, and so few hold any truth.

This lie is true.

For it is true there was a time when our world was newly born and the sun was red and rain was black and the Moon shone with a golden darkness.

And it is true that humanity fell from Paradise, but not the Paradise of any God we know.

Wary and wise are those who keep their minds ignorant of these truths, for those few who learn of how the world was, they pine for it like the kiss of a ghost lover.

Nights of golden moonlight.

And storms of black rain.

—The Book of Whispered Psalms

Look there. Listen. Watch and wait.

Soon, seven horsemen will crest the hill, riding as if the doom of the world was on their heels, smelling the sweat on their backs.

See there? Hear them?

Hear the horses’ breath as they make heat of the cold night air. Black horses with eyes like the sun. One of them holds a banner as they ride, bearing the crest of a blue dragon on a field of silver.

For three nights they have ridden through the furious downfall under that azure banner: the banner of a noble lord from the south whose borders lie too close to another, like a quail’s nest that lies close to an adder’s den.

They ride for the Temple of Many Rooms, the Temple of Secrets, the Temple of Whispers. The Temple where prayers are gasped through sweaty lips. The Temple of Sacred Taboos.

The Temple where two High Priestesses sit and wait for champions worthy of their caresses. One kind, the other, cruel.

All the Priestesses of Talia wear masks, but only two are permitted to wear masks of white and masks of red. The High Priestesses, bathed in the Moon’s Light and the Moon’s Shadow. For the Goddess has two faces and She never shows them both.

One face is silken and white as milk. Honey sweet and hearth. Her breath in your ear, promises that draw tears. The Priestess with white roses.

The other is red as the beating of the heart. Teeth and pain. Her breath in your ear, promises that draw tears. The Priestess with red roses.

Many hours now into the night and before them is the Soul Tree of Cynwych Dyn, the place where four kingdoms meet men call Four Roads Crossing. As twisted as the souls buried there, the Soul Tree looms over the road, its fingers falling just low enough to scrape at the earth when the winds are strong, as if trying to dig up what is buried there.

The winds are very strong tonight, and the branches scramble with mad abandon, leaving deep scars in the soft earth.

Seven riders stop there, and on the other side of the Soul Tree, the Temple.

And a woman in a mask waits for them at the gate. Ready to take them to the baths, to scent their skin, to comb their hair.

Ready to take them to the Great Hall where the Priestesses will choose their favorites.

Seven stories. Stories of courage and conviction. Stories of cowardice. Men are such inconstant fools.

Fires. Smoked meat and spiced wine.

Ready to hear their stories.

Ready to play the Goddess’s Game.

Strange, Part 4
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