The journey to the holy temple was arduous, not because it needed to be but because it pleased the High Priestess that it be unreachable to all but the perserverant. Nen appreciated the practicality in that thinking, but still grumbled as she hauled herself up onto an outcropping of stone no wider than her hand.
“I don’t understand why you can’t use the bridges and path’s setup for pilgrims like any sane person would?” Zazzle said as she landed on the ledge.
“I think the temple guards would object to my taking a parachute into the shrine. It might give away the fact that I was planning to steal their treasure.” Nen said. Zazzle regarded her with unblinking eyes, as crows are wont to do, before giving the avian equivalent of a shrug.
From the crow’s point of view, human’s spent an inordinate amount of time justifying why they wanted to take the shiny pretty things in life. They had rules about making rules that governed the rules that they made. Clearly the entire species had been driven insane by their lack of wings.
Of them all however, Nen was the best. Only Nen could be counted on to produce tasty treats each day. That the sixteen year old girl was an entertaining conversationalist was an added mark in her favor and seemed an adequate reason for Zazzle to hang around even when tasty treats weren’t in the picture.
“Couldn’t you outrun them? You’re very quick,” Zazzle asked.
“This isn’t a quick sort of job. It’s a clever one,” Nen said.
Zazzle could accept that. Sometimes it was the strength of your wings and the keenness of your eyesight that won you the prize. Other times you hand to be smarter than whoever had it. Zazzle felt an electric thrill sparkle down to the end of her wing feathers. Smart prizes were almost always the best ones.
“The sun will be down soon. Can you make it to the top before then?” Zazzle asked.
“No. I won’t even be close by then,” Nen said. “That’s ok though, I don’t want anyone to be around when I reach the temple.”
“They won’t guard it at night?” Zazzle asked.
“From who? No one’s been crazy enough to try this yet,” Nen said. “And maybe for good reason. I don’t see a lot of handholds to work with farther up.”
“It does look very smooth,” Zazzle said. “Do you think you can make it at all?”
“I have to,” Nen said and pulled herself up to resume her trip.
Zazzle thought about the price that hung over Nen’s head. It was a sign of how accustomed to humans she’d become that she was able to grasp the notion of the death mark that Nen bore.
It wasn’t an actual mark of course. That had been the first thing Zazzle had needed to comprehend. Once she understood that, the rest fell into place simply enough. Nen had taken a shiny bit from one person and been paid to deliver it another. The “taking” had gone well. The “delivering” not as much.
Through a series of events which Zazzle didn’t entirely understand the shiny had been taken from Nen, and then taken back and then, ultimately, destroyed. To Zazzle that meant it was time to look for a new shiny. The person who had hired Nen though hadn’t seen it like that. She had wanted the shiny, and if she couldn’t have it, she wanted to make it clear to everyone what a bad idea it was to fail her.
From what Nen had explained, the shiny in the temple wasn’t enough to buy off Nen’s former employer, but it was valuable enough to buy some high quality bodyguards to protect Nen from the assassins that her employer would inevitably send after her.
The rest of the climb to the top was grueling. Zazzle was able to land periodically, but there were no more rest areas for Nen. In the moonless dark of the night, the young girl clung to the sheer cliff and found her path up it as a blind woman would. More than once she had to backtrack and each time Zazzle was sure Nen would abandon the mad plan, but each time Nen pushed forward and found another path forward until she at last hauled herself over the edge of the cliff.
Zazzle landed next to the exhausted girl but refrained from saying anything. The temple might be empty of humans but the eternal lights were burning within it, so the goddess might be listening. Zazzle hoped not. She wasn’t clear on how the human gods worked, except that they seemed to have more interest in shiny things than even crows did.
“You might want to wait out here,” Nen said as she got back to her feet.
Zazzle considered that and hopped up onto Nen’s shoulder. Friends stuck together. And she wanted to see the shiny treasure before Nen hid it away.
Inside the temple, everything was bathed in warm golden light. Pews of polished wood were spaced to seat a hundred or more pilgrims, though with the difficulty of the trip along the normal routes Zazzle couldn’t imagine more than a handful of people being present at any one time. As Nen entered the temple, she paused and lit one of the candles near the door, increasing the light inside just a little bit.
In the center of the temple, high atop a pillar of pearlescent white stone, sat a silver statue of a girl in long robes. On her head, the girl wore a crown of fire and in the argent flames there were thirteen gems of purple and black set. The statue was only two feet high, but from it’s mighty perch the silver girl gazed down on all below her with divine eyes.
Undissuaded by the spectacle, Nen strode to the base of the pillar and retrieved a package from her sack. Zazzle watched as Nen unwrapped the package with great care and then turned towards the pillar.
Before she climbed the pillar, Nen blessed herself with the standard gesture of those who worshipped the goddess. She touched her eyes, symbolically promising to see things clearly, then her ears to listen to what others needed say and finally she clasped her hands and touched her chest.
With the religious observance done, Nen turned to her package and pulled out a statue that looked startling similar to the one on top of the pillar. Under close observation, Zazzle could see that the gems weren’t the rich ones the actual statue held, and the silver was only a thin veneer. Apart from that though, Zazzle thought that Nen’s version of the statue looked nice enough to put in a nest somewhere.
In spite of all the climbing she had already done, Nen proceed to shimmy up the pillar and, with great care exchange the real statue for the one she had brought. At any moment, Zazzle expected something would go wrong, but for once there was no backtracking and no alternate paths to find. The whole transfer went smoothly.
It wasn’t until Nen was back on the ground and had the real statue packed away that either of them noticed they weren’t alone in the temple.
“You’re visiting very late,” a young woman said. She was dressed in the temple’s white and pink robes and held a simple broom in her hands that she was sweeping the floor with.
Zazzle stiffened. She hadn’t heard the woman enter the temple and her ears were good. Very good.
“I like temples at night,” Nen said. “And it kind of makes sense as the right time to visit the Dreaming Goddess don’t you think?”
“I guess it would be,” the sweeper woman said.
Zazzle felt that there was something very wrong with the sweeper, but she couldn’t put a feather on what it was. The woman looked normal enough. Short but not exceptionally so. Plain black hair and clear features. It might have been the eyes, but they looked normal enough too.
“Are you one of the sisters here?” Nen asked.
“My name’s Jin.” the sweeper said. “I’m sorry to disturb you. I’m just cleaning up at the moment.”
“That’s ok,” Nen said. “I probably shouldn’t be in here this late anyways.”
“I don’t think the goddess will mind,” Jin said. “Was your pilgrimage difficult?”
“No worse than I thought it would be,” Nen said.
“What did you come to ask the goddess for?” Jin said. “If you don’t mind me asking that is.”
“It’s no problem,” Nen said. “I didn’t come to ask the goddess for anything actually.”
“That’s unusual for a pilgrim,” Jin said.
“I guess,” Nen said. “It shouldn’t be though.”
“Why’s that?” Jin asked.
“I know a lot of people come to pray to goddess like it’s some kind of magic spell. I don’t think that works though,” Nen said.
“You don’t think the Dreaming Goddess answers the prayers of her faithful?” Jin asked.
“I think it depends on the prayers,” Nen said. “I don’t think you can trade a hundred Blessed Chants to bribe the goddess into doing what you want, and lighting a candle to ask the goddess to remember you is a bit insulting to her.”
“So why would you light a candle?” Jin asked.
“My Mom told me the candles weren’t for the goddess, they’re for us. The goddess remembers us always, because she’s a goddess, we’re the ones who need the rituals to help remind us of the connection we have to her.”
“And the prayers? What about those?” Jin asked.
“It’s the same. We can’t bribe the goddess with prayers. She doesn’t rearrange the world to suite our needs. She gave us the world and held it together when it was going to fall apart into darkness. That’s her job. Dealing with the world? That’s on us,” Nen said.
“Even the worst parts? Even the bits that no one can bear? Doesn’t the goddess have a place there.” Jin asked.
“Sure, but it’s inside us,” Nen said. “What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen, but how we respond to it? The strength we can find when we’re really down and out? Or the kindness? Or any of the good qualities in us? That’s the kind of stuff we can pray for. That’s what being close to the goddess gives us.”
Jin was silent for a moment and regarded Nen with a contemplative expression.
“I don’t know if that’s the official dogma, but I like your ideas,” she said at last.
Zazzle felt herself relax as tension she hadn’t been aware of flowed her small body like a river.
“They’re nothing special, just some stuff I came up with,” Nen said.
“You might want to try sharing them. I think other people might like them too,” Jin said. “I shouldn’t be taking up your time though. I’m sorry.”
“It’s ok. I should be going anyways,” Nen said and turned to head out.
“Have a good trip down,” Jin said from behind her. “And thanks for the new statue. I think it has a lot more character!”
Nen whirled in place, but neither she nor Zazzle could see any sign of the girl they’d been speaking to.
The trip down from the shrine by parachute was indeed a good one, and the purloined statue did fetch Nen a handsome fee that covered the services of a most capable bodyguard, but that was really just the beginning of her adventures.