Deep in her mind, Ziba thought their first kiss would be enough. Once she knew what it felt like to be loved, she fully intended to denounce any of her deepest, selfish wants and desires. She would go back to the endless hours of prayer she was accustomed to. She would beg Kurshid for forgiveness. She would never stray again.
Unfortunately, as time went on, she realized that it was virtually impossible for her to go on with her life as expected.
Bomani had left for his army’s base camp a day’s journey outside the city just a few hours after their tryst in the temple, giving her one last kiss before he said his goodbyes. It had been a bittersweet affair, but Ziba tried her hardest to forget about him. It consoled her that even if he could stay, she couldn’t keep him. Sadly, the memory of his sweet words haunted her dreams when she slept and lingered in her mind when she woke. The feeling of his lips, even sweeter still, burned hers.
For days she had walked around as a shell of her former self, going through the motions of praying in the temple, but she was feeling lost. The sight of her goddess’s sanctuary didn’t bring her the same joy and fulfillment as it once had, before Bomani stepped into the temple. She feared she would never feel the innocent contentment that had gotten her through the days ever again. If it was so, she didn’t know how life in the temple could ever satisfy her.
Those two weeks without him had been the longest of her life.
After those long days Bomani had returned to the temple in secret, hiding around a corner in the corridor she had seen him. On her way to her chambers that night, Ziba had been dragged into the niche with a hand clasped over her mouth, muffling her shrill scream. Once his face had come into focus against the faded light of the dying candles, she’d thrown all her reservations away and kissed him like she had wanted to since their last rendezvous.
He’d done the same with abandon, kissing her senseless. They had stayed there for hours, sharing the occasional kiss between brief periods of talking about meeting more often.
Six months went by with these visits brightening the lives of both the warrior and the priestess, despite their worry that they would be caught and shamed. When they thought about life alone, it did not matter the risk. Nothing mattered more than the nights he would find her again. After those six months, Ziba could easily claim Bomani was her newest worship, greater even than the Gods she had sworn years ago to hold above everything and everyone else.
They had been living in sin for so long, and it only seemed to get better as the days went on.
At least it was, until the Gods themselves decided to protest to their blasphemous love.
It had been late in the night during the greatest heat wave in years that Ziba was woken from a deep sleep by a peel of thunder. Rain hit the ceiling in torrents for a long time after she opened her eyes to darkness, exhausted but unsure of why she had woken. Another crash of thunder reminded her and she jolted into a sitting position, wrapping her blanket around herself. It did not happen ordinarily that the sky produced such a violent storm. Ziba had never really gotten used to the noise and bright lightning.
“Are you alright, my love?” the groggy voice of her lover asked from his place beside her on the bedroll.
Ziba wiped the sleep from her eyes with the back of her hand, pulling her knees to her chest as she tried to tone out the noise outside. “I am fine, Bomani. I cannot sleep with that noise outside.”
“Are you afraid?”
She looked down at Bomani’s face as he held it up with his hand, supported by his elbow. His brown eyes melted when they met her blue ones, all the love he felt for her swimming in their murky depths. Feeling safer than she had when she woke, Ziba laid back down beside Bomani with a content smile on her face. “Not with you here beside me, My Lord. I could never feel afraid with you beside me.”
One massive arm wrapped itself around her waist, pulling her against his bare form. “I should hope not, my love.”
Ziba pushed her face into the hollow of his neck, inhaling his scent as she fell slowly back into a deep sleep.
The unmistakable knock against the temple doors echoed through the building, sending Ziba, as well as most of the others asleep in their chambers, sprawling off their bedrolls.
“What is going—” Bomani began, sitting up to roll Ziba back onto the roll, but she was already standing, reaching for another robe to pull over her nightdress, knowing it would be inappropriate to run to help the way she was, wearing only one thin, white robe.
“Do not move,” Ziba ordered, placing a light kiss against Bomani’s lips. “Do not make a sound. I will be back.”
“Shh!” she hissed as she opened the door, throwing a final glance his way.
He smiled and pulled the blanket over his head through the dark, hidden again, like he had been when she found him there earlier that evening. She hated to leave him, especially after such an extraordinary night, but she desperately needed to know who was knocking at this hour. As she threw herself out the door she crashed into her sister as Shireen sprinted down the hall. She pulled the other robe on as they walked, padding after Shireen.
“Ziba,” her sister greeted in disapproval. “Go back to bed.”
Her blonde counterpart narrowed her eyes. “No. I have just as much of a right to see who has come than anyone else here, High Priestess. What if the poor soul needs help?”
“What if they do?” Shireen challenged, arms outstretched toward the door.
As she pulled it open, the weight of a body leaned against the doors gave way and a man fell before their feet, bleeding from cuts across nearly every inch of his body, bruised, and broken.
“Goddess!” Ziba cried, falling to her knees beside him. Her hands prodded lightly across his skin, looking for some kind of clue as to what could have injured him in such a way, but she was afraid to touch him. “Shireen, surely you do not expect that you will be able to attend to him on your own! Look at him!”
A moan from their guest drew the eyes of all those convened in the room to his face. Ziba’s attention, however, became suddenly ensnared by his hand as he lifted it off the floor, with great difficulty. Delicately, his palm touched the back of her hand where it rested on his chest, but the shock that coursed through her veins when their flesh met burned her.
Instinctively, she withdrew her hand as fast as she could, but his was faster, reaching out to grab her forearm and hold her in place. Ziba gasped as she trailed her eyes up his body, appraising his exposed skin, stretched taut over his wiry muscles, his numerous open wounds, gaping like screaming mouths, to his pointed chin. As she glanced over his pinched lips and sharp nose, she found his open eyes, glowing red like a demon’s.
Terror caught the young priestess in its fierce gaze, willing her to stay completely still while it searched her soul.
“Hosrael!” Shireen called, spinning around to turn her frosty gaze on the fatigued priests standing in a line behind her.
One priest straightened up to face her. “Yes, High Priestess?”
A small, infinitesimally small, smile turned up Shireen’s lips as she gestured to the man on the floor, practically cradled in her sister’s arms. “Please, take your priests and find something to clean this man’s wounds. The rest of you, help him to a room. He will catch his death laying out here in the rain.”
“Yes, High Priestess.”
Two of the priest’s stooped down to lift the man into their arms; still, he didn’t relinquish his hold on Ziba. She followed closely beside the priests as they carried him toward the corridor of bedchambers, but she tried fruitlessly to free herself the entire way. Even as they placed him on an empty bedroll at the end of the hall he held her hand captive. His grip was merciless and, as the moments went on, she began to lose feeling in her fingers.
“My Lord,” Shireen said, breaking his eye contact with Ziba as she knelt between them.
Taking advantage of his distraction, Ziba viciously tore her hand away from him and relished in the sudden relief flowing through her hand. She deeply regretted going to the door now. Bomani was waiting for her in her bedchamber and she had a horrible foreboding that she would not be seeing him again before he slipped out of the temple at daybreak.
“What is your name?” the High Priestess finished, pulling his hand into both of hers.
Ziba could feel him looking in her direction as he answered, in a clipped voice, thick with an oncoming groan, “Mainyu.”
“What has happened to put you in such a state, Mainyu?” she continued as the priests strode into the room with a rag, a pail of water, and a stack of robes. “Thank you,” she said as she turned to them. “Return to bed, now, the Lady Ziba and I can take it from here.”
“Yes, High Priestess,” they chorused, bowing deeply before they backed out of the room, leaving behind a quiet room.
Ziba submerged the rag in the water as Shireen continued to stroke the hand of their visitor. She placed it gingerly to the gash cutting across his chest. He hissed and his back arched against the sting, but Ziba gave comforting hums in the hope that he would calm down. “Mainyu—?” Shireen trailed off.
The man in question chuckled darkly as his back slumped unceremoniously back onto the bedroll. “I must admit: I am unaccustomed to mortal pain. It is not something I will take for granted ever again.”
Ziba and Shireen exchanged looks of confusion before he spoke again:
“High Priestess, I would like to speak to the Lady Ziba…alone.”
Shireen’s back went rigid and Ziba jerked her hand away from Mainyu’s chest. He arched his back again as she opened the gash with the rag, and blood stained her already soiled robes along with it. Panicked, she pressed the cloth in her hand back against his chest. Shireen looked down her nose at Mainyu’s face, though he was far from taking back his demand, even through the pain that had him hyperventilating below them. “I am afraid that would not be appropriate, Mainyu.”
“It is imperative, High Priestess that I speak to her.”
“Whatever you have to say to me, Mainyu, I am sure you can say it in the presence of my sister,” Ziba said, wishing to diffuse the situation. It did not seem to work, since the look passing between her sister and the visitor was making her physically uncomfortable.
He shook his head. “I must speak to you.”
Shireen gave a heavy sigh as she stood. “I will return soon, Mainyu. I hope what you need to say can be said by then.”
Mainyu scowled at her back until she disappeared over the threshold. A lighthearted grin took its place. “I cannot describe to you how glad I am to finally be in your presence, Lady Ziba.”
“Thank you, Mainyu, but this cannot be what it is you needed to speak to me about,” Ziba countered.
“I have been watching you for so long. You seemed to be something ethereal. You were untouchable for so long that—” he pressed his fingertips to her arm. She shivered. “—the thought that you are here, so close and so tangible, fills me with joy.”
“S…Sir—?” Ziba began, but couldn’t find the words to ask what he was trying to tell her.
“My name is Angra Mainyu, Priestess,” he confessed. “I have been watching you for some time and have decided that I needed to tell you of my feelings for you.”
Ziba sat, flabbergasted, for a long moment before she threw herself into a bow on the floor. “My Lord, how can I serve you? Who has done you such damage? Surely the God of Destruction could not be injured by a mere mortal!”
“You need not worry yourself,” he promised. “My mortal injuries were done by myself. I had to take this body from a human so that I may walk the Earth as a human. He was not willing to give over his body, therefore I took it by force. Unfortunately, I seem to have done great damage to it. I had only hoped to tell you of my feelings and take you with me back to the nether-plane. But it seems that I have been stranded on the mortal plane until I can recover.”
Ziba kept her forehead pressed against the cold floor. “What feelings do you speak of, My Lord?” she squeaked.
His cold fingers tilted her chin up to look into his grimace when the movement caused him pain. His thumb rubbed circles into her cheek and emotion swam in his crimson eyes.
“I have been in love with you for quite some time, Ziba.”
A lump formed in her throat and she tried desperately not to jerk her head away from his touch.
“I am sorry, My Lord. My position as a priestess stops me from succumbing to mortal love. I made a promise.”
Neither spoke for a while; Ziba did not dare breathe.
A low chuckle rumbled in the back of Mainyu’s throat before it emerged as a guffaw from his lips. The priestess stared up into the eyes of the hunter as he mocked her with only his wild laughter.
“My Lord, I—” she interjected.
He snapped to attention. “Ziba, you and I both know that your promise means absolutely nothing at this point.”
Ziba’s heart beat in her ears like a drum. She begged any Gods that would listen, excluding the one before her, that he not speak what she thought he would, that which could end her life and her love’s, but it was not to be.
“That man in your chambers is not to return again.”
She gulped. “My Lord, please do not tell anyone of Lord Bomani. If you did, I would be killed!”
“You have nothing to fear, young one, if you send him away. If you never see him again, you will be safe.”
“And what of him?” she demanded, sitting up straighter so his hand fell away from her face.
His eyes narrowed. “What?”
Ziba knew immediately that she had said something wrong. “Will he be safe?”
Many emotions passed across Mainyu’s face as he scowled at her. His hand reached up and circled the back of her neck, pulling her face down to his level. “You will think nothing of him, or his safety, ever again, Ziba. You will realize soon enough, young one, that now, and forever, you are mine!”