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The Gates

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Elisanne had promised Zace a special treat if he helped her with an errand that took them away from the Halidom overnight. The latter wasn't a problem; they could easily afford proper accommodations and Zace didn't mind Elisanne's company.

But Zace wasn't entirely sure what Elisanne would think special enough to specifically invite him along?

The town they were visiting was not large, but it was old and sprawled out from dense stone homes, a shopping district, and a church that surely dated back some centuries. That, Zace supposed, was interesting. It would likely have an old cemetery, and while he didn't expect to see any bones above-ground, there was information to be gained about how the town treated their deceased over time.

Shopping did not take long, and Zace did not mind carrying Elisanne's purchases. She also had several documents to deliver, and they had their room to arrange for the nights, and...

Suddenly, Elisanne seemed to realize the time.

"Oh, we'll need to hurry. The gates will be closing."

Seemingly without thinking, she reached and grabbed Zace's hand and started towing him up the street.

"Gates?" Zace questioned. Elisanne's hands were deceptively strong and her bones bore the marks of a lifetime of training. Her grip on him was firm, and she nodded while still walking.

"In the church," she said as they approached its towering figure. In the shifting sunlight, it seemed far larger and looming, its pale exterior seeming nearly like bone itself. But the entrance bore no gates, and while the cemetery to the side was fenced, it did not seem to have a gate to deny visitors.

"The special treat I promised," Elisanne continued as they marched up the handful of steps to the doors, which were still quite open.

The inside of the church wasn't much different than others that Zace had seen, but he immediately felt like the outsider that he was. There was something in the dark wood and old stone that felt oddly foreboding and if it hadn't been for Elisanne's tight grip on his hand, he would have muttered something about this not being a place he should be in and quietly retreated.

Some sort of priest saw them and quietly started to make his way toward them.

"We came to see the Auspex," Elisanne said quickly, before giving her full name and title and other affiliations so quickly that Zace wasn't sure if she'd added something new in there or not. "It's not too late, is it?"

"The gates have not closed yet," the priest said calmly. "I'm sure she'll be pleased to see you and your companion."

Elisanne nodded and after she gave Zace's hand a little squeeze, he did as well.

But... Auspex? That wasn't what Zace was expecting to hear. Wasn't there only one of those, and wasn't she...? Well, surely Elisanne and the priest knew what they were talking about.

Elisanne led him farther back into a church, through a hallway that seemed to wrap around and around, through a dark wood hallway, and then finally to two gilded gates that were open to allow them to pass through one at a time.

Finally, Elisanne let go of Zace's hand.

"Sorry," she mumbled, her face a bit red. Had she somehow not realized how she'd been leading him or how it looked? Zace had nearly wondered if it was intentional. This likely wasn't a part of the church that just anybody could walk into.

"This room is only open certain days of the year, so when I realized it would be a day I could see the Auspex, when you could see the Auspex, I had to bring you," Elisanne explained quietly as they made one last turn into a larger room lit by what had to be hundreds of lanterns and candles.

Only then did Zace realize exactly why Elisanne had thought of him.

"This is Auspex-" Elisanne started making a full introduction but Zace wasn't entirely listening. They were the only living bodies in the room. The Auspex had been dead for centuries and perhaps the church was even built as her shrine. She was beautiful on her own, but her devotees had taken it upon themselves to decorate her naked bones with what they likely thought made her more beautiful.

She lay in repose in a niche, with grand murals painted around, likely her life story and works as Auspex. The candlelight and endless soot had darkened everything a bit, including her bones and decorations, but not as badly as Zace might have expected. Obviously she'd been very well cared for.

Instead of being posed flat, as a corpse might have been, the Auspex had been carefully positioned with thin golden wire so that she seemed to be resting but attentive, her eye-sockets set with great blue jewels peered out at them and at the hundreds of candles, reflecting their light so deeply inside that for a moment Zace almost expected her to greet them.

Beside him, Elisanne knelt, her words too quiet to hear. Yes, he supposed this was a very holy site, and sight, for her. He bowed his head a moment, giving thanks for this Auspex and for the faith that let her beauty be preserved.

And then he looked back to her candlefire eyes and the gold flowers painted on her skull and the pearls lining her eyes sockets before trailing down her cheekbones. Zace would not have imagined an Auspex to be as decorated in life, but it was difficult to tell from the murals in the room. Perhaps he could inquire to Elisanne later, once their visit had concluded.

A bit of lace hung about her shoulders, but not enough to block his view. There might have been more once, suggesting sleeves, but time had made it less practical and now there was just wire and a bit more gold paint and jewels.

Necklaces hung over her ribs, and over cracks that made Zace wince for just a moment. The Auspex had been killed, perhaps for her faith, perhaps in one of the endless church schisms. No wonder she'd been treated so spectacularly after her death. If she'd been from a wealthy family, then the jewels and gold might even be her own possessions.

Bracelets adorned her arms, dozens of them, some carefully wired further up to cover some areas that hadn't been fully painted. There was a slight unnaturalness to it all. Likely it had to do with whoever positioned her originally, and how her care and cleaning was performed.

The rest of her was not as ornate, mostly decorated with gold paint and small clusters of jewels, but no part of her was hidden away. For a warrior, perhaps, armor would cover the awkwardness of the angle of her pelvis and that her femurs had been accidentally reversed.

Zace reached to touch her but then drew his hand back. Even if there was no physical barrier between them, there were a thousand invisible ones. He could advise to her care if such information was wanted, but otherwise he was just there to see her.

Beside him, Elisanne had finished her prayers and stood.

"Is this sort of enshrinement common in the church?" Zace asked quietly.

"No," Elisanne replied. "I cannot say for certain, but I believe she's the only one."

"She's beautiful."

"Yes." Elisanne smiled. "This is my third time coming to pay my respects."

The soft sound of footsteps interrupted Zace's next comment.

"It's time to close the gates," the priest said softly as he stepped into the room.

"Thank you for allowing us to pay our respects," Elisanne replied.

"Thank you," Zace echoed. "I have never seen anything like her and I will remember her for my entire life."

That was no lie. While he had seen other decorated skeletons in the past, none were like this Auspex.

He admittedly would have liked to have gazed upon her for longer, and they would be staying overnight in the town, so...

"May we visit again in the morning?"

The priest shook his head.

"The gates will not be opened for visitors until next year."

Zace blinked. Elisanne had said certain days, but he hadn't realized that visits were that limited.

A year would not be long to wait, however.

Zace glanced back to the candlefire in the Auspex's eyes.

"Next year," he said softly.

Elisanne did not take his hand, but she did gesture for him to follow her out. Zace was silent, thinking, and did not immediately realize they'd taken a slightly different path back to the main part of the church. Now he understood where she rested behind the high altar, behind dark wood painted with the same gold.

Elisanne pulled out her purse to drop coins into a box.

Of course, an offering to support the Auspex's care would be expected.

"Should I...?" Zace reached for his own coin-purse.

"I brought enough. This was my treat for you, after all."

Zace considered for a moment before pulling, instead, a small bird bone from another pouch. He'd quite liked it, which is why he'd been holding on to it. It was from the wing of a small finch whose skeleton he'd found on the Halidom grounds.

He set it beside the box, beside unlit candles and food and other things.

Elisanne smiled at him.

"I can tell you her story over dinner?"

Zace nodded. Yes, it was time to continue on with their day, and their night. In the morning, he could visit the cemetery at least, and maybe even speak with the priest again.

"I'd like that," he said.

"My treat."