The Grand Theological Game
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In the temple of Ana, there were a thousand mirrors. They covered the walls, the columns, the arched and vaulted ceiling. Scales of silver, lit by a thousand lamps. One could stand anywhere, and see themselves a thousand times. See every flaw a thousand times. Every fold of meat, every bulge of thick and sagging flesh. One could stand anywhere in the temple and see themselves as they were beneath the glazed gaze of the dishonest eye: Unworthy. Unneeded. Unlovely.

There was no idol or icon in the temple of Ana, for the Goddess Who Does Not Hunger could only be seen in the self, and her judgment was proclaimed in the mirror’s truth.

Ana’s altar sat in the center of the nave: a long stone table with blue-tiled benches, bordered by deep troughs in the floor for the prescribed purging. Wire-thin statues, twice as tall as a man, jugs on their shoulders, poured out twin streams that flowed down the troughs and drained away into the temple’s blessed sewage pipes.

At the head of the altar, the Starvess’ chair had been moved aside and a marble paving stone had been pulled up. The dark space underneath yawned, a throat caked in black dust.

A short distance away, a series of interlocking binding circles had been set out on the floor with iron flakes and salt. At the center of the inner circle sat a massive, brutish skull. It had a weak and sloping forehead, wide cheekbones, sunken sockets, an underbit jaw with fangs the size of a thumb, and thick horns coiling out from the forehead. Bands of darkened metal circled the cranium, hammered into the black bone. At the crown of the head was a metal plate, engraved with the symbol of the goddess: a single, vertical line.

Sitting next to the skull, surrounded by parchment scrolls, was a dark, lanky man named Tokos. He had a wild mane of black hair, which made him look something like a lion, and a sort of large, hooked nose that made him look something like a falcon.

He was having a very bad day.

The self-writing scrolls that surrounded him were covered in narrow, neat lines of bloody red error logs that grew ever longer. All he was here to do was help install a patch and clean out the system, that was it. A maintenance job, half an hour, tops.

A half-hour job had turned into five hours with no end in sight. Fourteen reboots and constant re-entry of his admin credentials had not gotten him anywhere closer to actually installing the patch, or even recovering an earlier operating state. At this point, it wasn’t even recognizing that the patch existed, and each reboot brought with it another crippling series of errors.

These damned mark-ones. If properly maintained, could last for centuries, but that proper maintence required everything to be installed, removed, or cleaned out by hand. Most of the cults in the frontier provinces still used them for their reliability, even when the central kingdoms were now running on mark-fives and mark-sixes, but when they broke, King’s bleeding spears on the Deepest Throne they broke catastrophically.

If this core couldn’t be salvaged, it would be a minimum of three weeks to get a replacement shipped from the provincial capital, and that was if the core was hunted down quickly and the deliverymen didn’t run afoul of the Guild of Highwaymen. Then he’d have to set that skull up and transfer over surviving memories, and then actually install the patch…

It was times like this that Tokos could understand the appeal of getting rid of DemonOS entirely and upgrading to mana-cloud operating systems, even if it meant that he would be out of a job. Among all the typical frustrations, DemonOS systems had a tendency towards actively plotting the demise of those who worked with them. The sign of any good glyph-monkey was a tally of failed assassination attempts. Tokos kept his marks tied in his braid: two attempted exsanguinations and a near impalation. The skull had not outwardly attempted to strike back at him at all in the last five hours, which Tokos took as a sigh that his binding circles were doing their job. At least that worked.

The technician pressed his fingers against his forehead, and ran through the steps of the defragging process once again, inscribing his own scrolls with taps of his fingers and mystical mutterings. He settled into the familiar metronome of arcane coding.

This musing was interrupted by the low, sepulchral groan of the temple doors opening.

“Temple’s closed!” he shouted, standing up sharply. The code on his scroll trailed off and stopped as the errors kept flowing. “Services are to be carried out in the home until further notice!” He strode towards the figure standing in the doors, fists clenched in frustration that had to go somewhere. “There was a sign! I put a sign right on the door!”

A woman stood in the doorway, her head shaved, her skin pallid and yellowing, stretched too tight over bird-thin bones and bulging blue veins. Hollow eyes deep in their sockets. Lips and eyelids pulled back, desiccated. Age uncertain. A bowed stance from brittle bones. A pale silk dress, embroidered with verses of self-recrimination. An unassailable aura of devotion, paired with the creeping image of approaching death. She held a small parcel wrapped in cloth in her hands.

From where she stood, a thousand copies stared back at her, and a thousand and one Tokoses.

The thaumechanic cleared his throat, and reined his frustration back in. Today had been enough trouble. He didn’t like trouble. No need to cause himself more trouble.

“The temple is closed for maintenance,” he said again.

“Oh,” she said. Her voice was like chalk, crumbly and soft.

“I am afraid that you’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

“Ah. I am sorrying.”

A curious accent, Tokos noted. A curious appearance, too – she was too pale to be from among the swarthy-skinned locals, though her bodily condition had deteriorated so much that Tokos could not tell where she came from. Her sandaled feet were caked with dust, as was the hem of her gown. She carried a scent of dried sweat and dirt, covered up with a spice-laden perfume that could not hide it completely.

Not only a foreigner, but a pilgrim, who apparently came alone…

It had been said that it was safe for a woman carrying a sack of gold to walk unmolested from one end of the empire to the other. This was true mostly because the gold could pay off any brigand that had not been eaten up by the slave pits or the conscription masters, so one’s safety was generally tied to how much cash one had to pay the proper bribes or hire the appropriate mercenaries. If this woman truly had journeyed alone, and from so far away, she must have possessed a sizable sum of wealth. Either that, or she possessed a significant amount of power granted from Ana herself.

Tokos realized that he might have made a massive mistake. Crossing someone with wealth was dangerous enough. Someone channeling divine magic was even worse, because gods did not have to play by rules. Gods did what they wanted, and a sorcerer like Tokos, who had schooling and rules and limits and methods and systems, could not pose any sort of resistance.

He scrambled to salvage the situation. The pilgrim appeared to not be of the vengeful type, he could salvage this and go back to not meddling in affairs which might attract attention.

“Wait. Wait, wait. Actually…I think that I can make an exception,” he said. “You’ve clearly come a long way, and so long as you don’t need to use the tenet core for anything, you should be okay.” With luck she would be in and out and gone, and he would not even have to explain it to the Starvess.

“I am gratefuling to yun,” she said, bowing creakily. She walked past him and approached the altar. Illiterate, Tokos decided. Or at least unfamiliar with common script – if she was as rich or as powerful as he thought, she would have had some sort of education.

She sat down and unfolded her parcel. She was less substantial than a skeleton. She was…nothing. A wisp of silk and a breath. Tokos caught a glimpse of a small brick of cheese, coated in white wax. The red glyph on the side explained everything Tokos needed to know. If she could afford whale cheese, he was not fool enough to step between her and anything. Whale cheese was limited to the highest echelons of the cult – they were the only ones who could buy it or survive eating it.

Tokos went back to the skull, back to the scrolls, back to the ciphers. He tried to work as quietly and nondescriptly as possible now accompanied by cycles of faint chewing and splashes of vomit in the trough.

Tokos wasn’t particularly familiar with the cult of Ana. He knew the basics, from back in his time in seminary. They starved themselves to a state of perfected beauty beyond the cage of physical nature, and then died. They were popular among frontier nobility and the disenfranchised youth of the central kingdoms. Rival of the Mother and the Flesh, no major alliances. Never known to manifest directly. Enough money and power to make someone miserable and / or dead.

That was enough for him.

Time passed, and eventually the chewing and retching stopped, though Tokos did not hear the pilgrim rise from her bench. The skull was still obtuse.

“I am not wishing to be causing dis-ruption, but I am questioning,” the pilgrim said. “Who is those who be crossified outwards?”

Ah. Yes. The crucifixions in the street. Something of a notable feature of the city’s temple district, along with the sacred prostitutes of the Mother, the fried vegetable sellers, and the arthritic donkey that had been pissing everywhere for the last sixty years.

“The Sarkists claim they’re factors of the Crucible who tried desecrating the Flesh Sanctuary. The Crucible claims they’re rogue unionists and denies any connection.”

“War is sooning?”

“I don’t know.” Tokas redoubled his current isolation technique. It was a total lie, of course. Lapsed in his practice as he was for the last two decades, he had to work in the shadows of the gods on a regular basis.

There was going to be war. Tensions had been high for months. The theological situation in the Empire was a cosmic wargame, a tangled cannibalistic orgy, a nest of vipers tied in knots. The Scarlet King sat on his throne above a court of squabbling kings and queens and princes. Alliances and rivalries shifted constantly, bubbled up and boiled away, and anyone could see that the temples were hiring out more guards than usual…

The Buried Giants, Tokos’ once-patrons in that ancient retreat on the steppes, had gone quiet. The Flesh and the Mother had formed a tentative alliance, allowing the Flesh to focus on the Crucible and Ana. The Prince of Many Faces appeared on a near-weekly basis to stir up old grudges. The Hanged King had isolated himself in Alagadda and had called together his dwindling demesne to plot. Moloch was ascendant, and his furnaces grew bright on the bones of children. The devotionaries of the First Sword had revived alongside the Butcher’s campaigns with a strength not seen in generations, and looked to grow even stronger with the planned march to the west. Minor gods scrambled over each other for scraps.

"I am thoughting that war be quick,” the pilgrim said. “Many such on the road, I be eyeing. Some even thoughting that the King rises.”

The worst of all possible outcomes, that. The Scarlet King was not worshipped for boon or blessing – it was only to keep his gaze pointed elsewhere. Only the high daevas would dare draw the King’s attention or siphon off his power – all of his temples, save the great temple in Daevon, were devoted to one of the King’s minor titles, so as to not to draw up notice.

Tokos couldn’t really think of what that would be like. He didn’t want to think about it, and got along with his life not thinking that it would ever happen. The consideration was exceedingly uncomfortable.

“More likely that Moloch and Ab-Leshal will go at it, or the Flesh start a war.”

“Fleshly Yaldabaoth hungrying always for blood. Good blood with the Butcher.”

“Ana will step in, I suppose.”

“No. Outside the fleshing and fat, Ana is.”

The skull made a sort of awkward rumbling sound, which meant either progress or a trap going off.

“So she won’t do anything?

“The doings are left to us bones.” The pilgrim stood up, her dress swishing against twiglike legs. “Again and again, I am gratefuling to yun. Be not prisoning in yuns fleshly cage for longlike.”

She left, and Tokos watched her leave. Curious, curious, all of this. But he was still alive, and the awkward rumbling had in fact been progress.

Sometime later, when the sun was setting, and its last beams were trapped in the thousand mirrors, Tokos was roused from his stupor by screams from outside.

He stepped out of the temple to see that up the street, the tumorous bulbs of the Flesh Sanctuary were caving in on themselves as if they had been starved, their meat turned to flakes like ash floating in the air.

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