As Hugh walked through the quiet streets, the sound of celebration faded behind him. He meandered about, looking at the buildings and statues, and before long he wandered down the road towards the Temple of the Sibyl. He stood outside the gates until a priest approached him.
“The sibyl is done giving readings for today, please come back tomorrow,” he said.
“It’s barely supper time,” said Hugh.
“And the sibyl also needs to eat,” said the priest, turning to leave.
“I would like to eat with her,” said Hugh.
The priest laughed, still walking, not even turning back around.
“Wait!” Hugh cried out.
The priest sighed, then slowly faced him. “I take it you received some bad news?” he asked.
“I understand,” said the priest. “I really do. And I sympathize, but the sibyl is not the one you seek if what you want is counsel.” He slowly approached the gates and looked up at Hugh. “You cannot dine with the sibyl, but if you’d like, you can dine with me. I won’t even charge you for the meal.”
Hugh nodded and agreed.
The priest led Hugh to an underground dining hall. It was relatively large, but Hugh still had to hunch over a bit to walk in most places, often dodging braziers hanging from the ceiling.
As they sat down, servants came with large bowls. They mixed water into wine to dilute it a bit, then poured it into cups for them.
“Perhaps you can help me with a dilemma,” said the priest. “You see… one of the privileges of my office is that I am afforded the opportunity to learn the time and manner of my own death. I have gone decades now without ever wanting to know, but now that my hair has turned gray and my joints ache, my curiosity has been piqued. Surely my end cannot be far now, so I am left wondering… would it be better to know, or not to know?”
“Have you been happy not knowing?” asked Hugh.
“I suppose so,” said the priest. “Though what is happiness? Is ignorance happiness? Or, is real happiness knowing, but overcoming the pains of knowledge?”
“I have known about my death since I was a small child,” said Hugh. “It has hung over me like a dead tree branch, one which I knew could fall at any moment.”
“Perhaps,” said the priest, “It would be best, then, to know when I will die, but not how.”
Hugh nodded, rubbing his chin. “I suppose that would be acceptable. I wouldn’t know, though. I never knew when… and then, it happened… and I’m still here.”
The priest blinked a few times. “Interesting. So, the prophecy you received was wrong, then?”
“Your sibyl says otherwise.”
“Did you also get the original reading from a sibyl here?”
Hugh shrugged. “I don’t know, to be honest. It was my mother who told me. She said that one day, I would kill my own father, and that by doing so, I would die. Upon hearing this when I was just an infant, my father fled. My mother said that had he been a lesser being, he might have tried to kill me then and there in my crib. But he didn’t. Knowing I would one day bring about his end, he left me to grow up and fulfill my destiny. And just a few weeks ago…” Hugh trailed off.
The priest reached across the table and touched Hugh’s hand. “Do not blame yourself.”
“Who can I blame? I did it.”
“You had no choice in the matter,” said the priest. “We only have an illusion of choice in this life. That is perhaps the saddest truth I have learned in all my time here. I have seen great men be told of their ruinous end with incredible detail, and none of them were able to overcome their fate. It is no crime to fulfill your destiny. What’s more… it would seem that your own end is inevitable. Your death is a sacrifice that will more than repay the crime you feel you have committed.”
“That doesn’t really help. They’re nice sentiments, though.”
The priest smirked. “Sentiments? Or excuses?”
Hugh snorted once in amusement.
“How old are you?” the priest asked.
“Fifty-one,” said Hugh.
“How long does your kind typically live?”
“Several centuries,” said Hugh. “Many live to be eight-hundred. My father said he was over a thousand years old.”
“Over a thousand?” asked the priest. “How specific.”
“I imagine you lose count after a while,” said Hugh. “I have known many whose lives span centuries. They all seem to lose some sense of themselves. It’s almost as if they have become so accustomed to their own existence that they don’t even notice themselves anymore, like how you or I don’t notice every breath we are taking… until we are reminded of it.”
The priest nodded. “I’ve never met anyone with a long life. I mostly know the priests here, and the sibyl, of course, but she does not live very long at all.”
“Why not?” asked Hugh.
“What she does… it takes something out of her. It drains her. She is only twenty-three, but she looks like an old woman. She has been doing this for ten years, and she has aged to the point of looking decrepit. She’s not going to be around much longer, to be honest.”
“What will you do then without her?” asked Hugh.
“The same thing we’ve done since this temple began: find the next sibyl. You see, there are always two. One is here, and before she dies, she will reveal where the other sibyl can be found. When this sibyl does die, she will be reborn somewhere, and she will grow up like any other child. Then, when the new sibyl nears death, we will be given the directions for finding the next.”
“Quite an efficient system,” said Hugh.
“It’s worked for centuries,” said the priest.
Servants brought bread and vegetable soup before them. Hugh dunked his bread first, then drank down the soup. The priest watched him, slowly nibbling at his own meal.
“Would you like more?” asked the priest.
“To be honest, I do,” said Hugh, “But I would just as soon not eat you out of house and home. I didn’t come in to eat, though I am hungry.”
“Please,” said the priest, “Don’t starve yourself. I know how sad events can cause you to lose your appetite. You still need to eat, though. Best to take advantage of hunger while you have it.”
The priest waved over a servant and had them bring Hugh some more.
“Do you mind if I ask about what the sibyl told you?” he asked.
“She just said, ‘No,’” said Hugh.
“And what was your question?” asked the priest.
“To be honest… I don’t know. I had a couple questions.”
“Could ‘No’ apply to all of them?”
Hugh frowned. “I don’t see how it could.”
“Well, would you be bothered telling me what the questions were?”
“I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to ask if I would die soon, or if the prophecy about me dying after killing my father was wrong. It seems like one cannot be true without the other being false.”
“Do you remember precisely what the original prophecy was?”
Hugh thought for a moment. “I can remember what my mother told me the one time. ‘One day, you will kill your father, and in the process you will seal your own fate.’ I don’t know if that is verbatim, either, or if she was repeating it exactly.”
The priest shook his head. “Sounds like an oracle or soothsayer’s rambling. They’re very tricky. The sibyl will give you a straight answer, and she won’t try to trick you. Well… obviously it is half fulfilled, correct?”
“Assuming those are the exact words… fate could mean anything. It could mean that you will suffer for your action. It could mean your act of patricide has angered the Divas, and they may punish you for it. I suppose it could mean you will die as a result, but we all die…” The priest sat there, slowly tearing off pieces of dry bread and popping them in his mouth.
“You know what?” said the priest after a long pause. “I’m intrigued. I love getting to the bottom of these sorts of things. How about I have a reading done for you on this matter?”
“Really? I don’t have anything to donate.”
“Nonsense, you have yourself. We have a little task maybe you can help us with. If you do it for us, I’m sure we could help you out in return.”
“What do you need done?”
“After we’re done eating, of course,” said the priest, “Or even sometime tomorrow, if you prefer. We need to move several large chests full of manuscripts. They’re surprisingly heavy. It’s like lifting a box of lead. If you could carry a few of them to their new home in the archives, it would save a couple of us from sore backs for a week.”
“Sounds easy enough,” said Hugh.
They finished eating and Hugh effortlessly moved the chests. He even took two, one under each arm, on the final trip, though he had trouble fitting through some doorways.
Hugh was taken to a large room with many torches lining the walls. Everything was stone, and very dusty. A figure draped with a white sheet walked to a large tripod with a seat and sat down. In a few moments, winds blew through the chamber and the torches all went out. There was a rumbling sound, and Hugh felt the ground vibrate underneath him.
The figure under the white sheet hissed out something Hugh could barely understand. After a few moments, he recognized it as an old language he had been taught growing up. He could only make out bits and pieces of what were said.
The priest stood next to Hugh, his eyes closed. When the ground ceased shaking, the figure began panting heavily, then she cried. She slowly got up and walked out, sobbing.
“What did she say?” asked Hugh.
The priest stepped back from Hugh and down at the ground. “Nothing the sibyl says has ever been wrong,” he said.
“So… what did she say?” Hugh repeated.
“She… said you are already dead, and that your father lives.”
Hugh stood there silently for a bit. “That’s it? She spoke for a full minute and that’s all she said? I thought I heard something about dying tonight.”
Tears filled the priest’s eyes. “No. That was for me.”
“How does it happen?” asked Hugh.
“I don’t know… I didn’t ask,” the priest said between sobs. “But that wasn’t all. I will not leave this chamber alive.” He looked around nervously. “Sit with me a moment?”
Hugh nodded and sat on the ground with him.
The tears rolled down the old priest’s face, and he wiped snot from his nose with the sleeve of his robe. He looked down at what he wore, took off a pendant, and held it out to Hugh. “Can you do me a favor?”
“Of course,” Hugh said. “One dead man to another.”
The priest smiled despite himself. “If you can, see that this is brought to Kole and given to my brother.”
“How will I find him?”
“He won’t be hard to miss,” said the priest. “He’s the king.”
Hugh took the pendant, which shone bright with gold, with an intricately embossed image of a bird, wings spread out, about to take flight.
The priest stood up and walked towards the exit, collapsing just a few feet from the doorway.
To be continued…