Forgotten Lives
Warrior, Princess, Priestess


FANDOM: Birds of Prey

PAIRING: Barbara/Helena

RATING: PG15 (for violence, to be safe. This is an adventure story – more adventure than sex, so you who look for hard core… look somewhere else)

DISCLAIMER: I don’t own Birds of Prey or any character created by WB or DC Comics used in this story. I’m making no profit on this and wouldn’t want to – as it’s ‘borrowed gods’

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I don’t own the Angel-verse or any character created by Joss Whedon and Company. I’m making no profit on this…

SECOND AUTHOR'S NOTE: A Note on Names: Some names used in this story have specific meanings while others are just made up. Regarding the names with meanings I’ve been very liberal in the interpretation of some of them. As: Badr = full moon – I’ve made it into Badra. Cath = battle – I’ve changed the meaning into warrior. For anyone interested in the meanings of names, check at

More Names: Some names are based on my native language: snok = grass snake: orm = snake/serpent. And the name Nidae is based on a Latin name for one specific specie of bats: Vespertilio nidae.

DISCREPANCIES: Some alterations from what Barbara, Helena and Dinah remember of their past life (in the story Past Lives) may be found, specifically when it comes to their ages. I had to make some adjustments to the story and hope it’s not too disturbing.

SPECIAL THANKS: This story is dedicated to Alex for creating the site Storyland for me. Thank you! :-D

SUMMARY: This is a story relating a past/previous life of Barbara, Helena and Dinah. The story is based on the storyline and on the characters of my previous stories Alternate Lives and Past Lives. It may be read as a stand alone story, but some clues and loose ends are found in Alternate Lives and Past Lives. I’ve tried to be true to the characters of BoP, but as it is a previous/past life (and not a regular über-fan fiction) they can’t be exactly the same – some alterations may be found. Hope you enjoy the read :).

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E-MAIL: jehandira[AT]yahoo[DOT]com

Part One

First Meeting

On a swift horse it took seven days to cross the Divine Empire of Kellara from border to border. Kellara was a small and peaceful empire that held five major cities and a few minor ones, excluding the many villages spread across the land. Goddara, the capital and the largest city, was placed near the coast in the west: a grand city wedged in a valley by mountain sides and jungles on three sides and a rock desert that stretched far to the northeast. The rough, wild coast to the west was visible from the high ridge surrounding the city; spraying waves crushing against massive cliffs far below.

The Imperial Palace, where the Imperial Family lived and those of the nobility that didn’t govern other cities in the empire, was a massive complex in red and white stone, decorated with golden plates. It rose majestically on a hilltop at the center of Goddara; it included a private temple, barracks and training grounds for the Imperial Army, stables and quarters for the servants. The whole complex was surrounded by beautiful gardens and protected by high walls and iron wrought gates, with soldiers of the Imperial Army standing guard.

The city itself consisted of a mismatch of buildings spread around the hilltop at the center: large and beautiful houses belonging to the wealthier citizens and smaller, box like cottages in white clay for the poorer population. People living on the countryside brought their cattle and merchandice, like vegetables and fruits, to the various markets around the city every morning – crowding together with merchants selling religious artifacts, spices, fabric, jewelry and trinkets of various kinds.

The young girl climbing the mountainside on the southern end of the city usually enjoyed taking a daily walk around Goddara at dawn when the scent of baked bread, spices and incense mixed on the streets and at the squares, but this chilly morning she was preoccupied with other things.

Spread outside the city, in the jungle and on the mountainsides, different temples had been erected to honor the many deities of Goddara. The girl wasn’t interested in religion, but she knew the thirteen deities by name and when to call for which one of them. The most powerful was the one whose temple she was sneaking up to visit at that moment. There were many gods and goddesses across the whole of Kellara, but only one who could be called The Goddess, as in a Name: the Goddess of the Dark Moon. The bat goddess.

The stone stair the girl was climbing stretched across a large area of the mountainside, lined with statues of bats and naked women with wings. It took a great deal of time and effort to climb the stairs and very few people from the city ever came to the temple at the top of the steps, in the middle of the mountain. The Temple of the Dark Moon was not a place one entered lightly.

The entrance – leading into the mountain – was large and wide, made of black stone with ancient inscriptions. The carvings were made with inlaid precious stones and metal that blazed through the night during full moon, shining brightly in the dark. High colomns of polished black stone rose at each side of the entrance – also with inscriptions. A large bat crowned the entrance – its wingspan so wide an elephant would look small beneath it.

The girl, called Cat by her friends for lack of any other Name, stopped at the side of the entrance – hiding in the shadows behind a statue of a winged woman – and looked out across the city below. The view was spectacular. In the east the sun was rising, in the west the ocean was dark and brooding. In the city the golden plates of the palace gleamed when they reflected the first light of the sun and the ziggurat behind the palace rose like a dark giant, its black stones shining in the morning light.

Cat wasn’t sure what purpose the ziggurat had; she’d heard horror stories of the past when the pyramid was a place used to sacrifice to the gods – human sacrifice. But that was a long time ago, before the palace had been built and before the empire was even an empire. These days the pyramid was a part of the palace, constructed with corridors connecting the two buildings.

The girl took a deep breath and turned back to the temple behind her. It was time. With trembling heart she entered the temple, prepared to be struck dead at any given minute as soon as she set her feet on the ground beneath the dark bat above the entrance. When nothing happened she moved on into the dark.

She moved carefully down slippery steps and peeked around the corner before her. The moist corridor was empty, but she heard faint footsteps ahead. There was a heavy scent of incense floating in the air, dispersing nearer the entrance she had just left behind her. Hastily she glanced over her shoulder, at the square opening about ten feet away.

The morning sun was rising and she could see the glistening top of the ziggurat from where she was hiding. She swallowed, wondering what she was doing at this sacred place; wondering at the courage that finally – after so many weeks of cowardice – had claimed her and driven her to the temple. Her grandfather would lock her up for good if he ever found out where she had gone this morning.

Hesitating at the thought of the older man that had cared for her her whole life – she called him grandfather, although they weren’t related – she wondered at the wisdom of her actions, but then shrugged and made up her mind. She wasn’t known amongst the homeless children of Goddara to be especially wise. They knew her to be mischievous and fearless, a young girl always ready with her fists to defend the younger ones on the street.

They should see me now, she thought and was grateful they didn’t. She didn’t want them to know how her heart pounded behind its ribcage or how sweaty her palms were.

She slid down the corridor on bare feet, trying to ignore how dry her mouth was and the insistent pounding of her heart in her ears. Why am I here? The thought had chased her since she sneaked up the long, wide stair to the temple. What am I doing here?

She knew the answer to those questions, although anyone who knew her would think she had lost her mind – or that she just acted upon another of her stupid, reckless impulses, which always got her in trouble. They would have been right – if not for...

She had always feared this particular temple. Everyone did. This was the grandest temple – the oldest, where the true power had its seat. The place on the mountainside where the entrance lay was said to have been the birthplace of the Goddess. Thus the temple had been built at that spot.

The Goddess brought peace and prosperity to the Empire of Kellara, whose citizens worshipped her alongside several other gods and goddesses. She was the most important deity in many ways, because she represented the cycles of life and death – of birth and passing away.

Despite the respect the people of Goddara held for the Goddess it wasn’t her they feared so much that they wouldn’t visit her temple. There was another temple raised to worship her: the Temple of the Radiant Orb. It was placed nearer the city, at the base of a hilltop on the other side of the city walls, and people visited it all the time. That particular temple was governed by a kind and generous priest, who was much loved by the people and respected by the hailed emperor and the beautiful empress.

No, what made the temple in which the girl was sneaking around so frightening to the people was not the goddess Nidae – but her priestess.

The corridor split in three directions and the young girl hesitated before she continued straight ahead – following the still faint sound of footsteps. She knew she was in a place where she wasn’t supposed to be and she feared that if she was caught she would be executed without mercy. The thought would probably have made anyone else reconsider their actions and made them return to the city. She knew her grandfather would think her reckless if he found out, yelling at her that she was thoughtless and stupid, but how could she explain...?

Once her grandfather would have been right, the girl thought as she moved closer to the people walking ahead of her, a group of priestesses in brown robes. She could see them ahead of her: a slow moving procession of women carrying flickering candles and brass holders with incense. Their sandals made whispering sounds on the sandy stone floor and their low murmuring voices – mumbling psalms or prayers – drowned any noise she could possibly have made on her bare feet.

The girl had never feared anything in her life… except the Temple of the Dark Moon. She had always known she must visit it one day, to prove to herself that she could. But she had always thought that day would come when she was older, maybe in two, three years... She had always believed that she would act in response to a stupid challenge, proving her grandfather right: that she was reckless and without good sense. She had never thought she would enter the temple by following a dream.

Without warning the priestesses ahead of her stopped and she came to an abrupt halt, sliding into the shadows. She heard the echo of female voices around her – words spoken in a foreign language, strong and powerful – and she felt a strange tug at her heart. Suddenly she wasn’t afraid anymore. She listened intently to the chanting voices, whose pitch grew higher and higher around her – drumming against her ears, against her senses. Then, as if on cue, there was an abrupt silence and the women progressed ahead.

The girl slowly exhaled and silently resumed her stealthy stalking along the corridor.

Two weeks ago she had seen some of the women ahead of her, wandering in a different procession through the city, quietly singing and offering incense to the Goddess. It had been a special occasion: the fifth birthday of the youngest princess had coincided with a lunar eclipse. The preparations for the ceremonies taking place had according to her grandfather been prepared for years. She hadn’t bothered much with either ceremony – until she had, by accident, come by the person in charge of the whole thing: the High Priestess of the Temple of the Dark Moon.

Since that moment the girl hadn’t been able to forget the temple, dreaming strangely about it and about the young priestess she had seen standing late one night in streaming moonlight.

Cat hadn’t seen the priestess’ face – it had been hidden in shadows – but she had felt her power. The woman had red hair – like fire.

Now, hiding in the shadows of the temple, the young girl looked down at an arena below her. The procession of priestesses moved along a wide set of stairs, splitting up in two lines and meeting up again at the center of the arena. The hall was circular, lit with torches and magical orbs containing fire. At the center of the arena a lone figure stood with her back towards the room: a woman dressed in white – with red hair gleaming in the torchlight.

At the other end of the great hall there was a large opening: a vault reaching from the floor almost up to the high, domed ceiling. There were a few other entrances as well, but none as majestic as this one. Along the walls on both sides of the vault, tall statues of women warriors and women in long robes stood lined up. The stone warriors carried drawn swords in their hands and the rest carried crowns on their heads and staffs in their hands.

Near the large entrance there was a high fountain. The overflowing water was gathered in canals running in an intricate pattern across the entire floor and disappearing out of sight through a low, flat opening below the main stairs – atop of which Cat was hiding in the shadows of the much smaller entrance.

The channels left open areas on the stone for the priestesses to stand on, giving room for five priestesses a piece. They gathered in a long row before the stairs, with their backs to the steps. The girl watched as they silently formed a tight line, but then she happened to glance upwards and caught her breath. She hadn’t noticed it before, but the ceiling in the great hall was covered with carvings and paintings of – bats.

“Goddess of the night”, she whispered, suddenly overcame by a deep reverence. She swallowed, again wondering what she was doing there trespassing on holy ground. She shivered.

Bats were holy in the Empire of Kellara, said to belong to the goddess Nidae. Other animals were also revered as sacred: the snake, belonging to the god Mara; or the horse, belonging to the young goddess Ebony. The bat was the animal the goddess Nidae shape-shifted into when she wanted to travel anonymously through the empire. Other times she was said to travel like an old lady leaning on a staff, but her true form was, according to the legend, so glorious no one could gaze upon her without falling, struck blind, to the ground.

Cat didn’t know what to think about all the stories that circulated about the Goddess; she wasn’t a particularly devout child, but her grandfather had instilled the fear of the deities in her since her first baby steps. “If nothing else shall restrain you at least the fear of the divine may caution your steps”, he’d said and added, with a weary sigh: “Hopefully...”

There were so many gods and goddesses in their empire it was difficult to keep up with them all, but the Goddess of the Dark Moon had always held a special place in the girl’s heart. It was at the steps to the Temple of the Radiant Orb she’d been found. Her grandfather had been a priest at the temple and he’d taken her in and raised her. “You were a bloody mess, my child… Left at those stairs only heartbeats after your birth, drawing every wild beast to the temple with the smell of blood. I found you only moments before the god Fang’s striped tiger took you for a meal. The Goddess of the Moon must have guarded you well that night. You were born during New Moon, the Goddess’ own moon. A dark moon.”

Born beneath a dark moon. In all the tales Cat had heard people born beneath a dark moon were destined to become something great – or live a tragic life. She’d always wondered in which category she’d end up.

Looking at the bats on the ceiling the girl pulled herself together and sneaked into the hall with trembling heart. She kept in the shadows along the wall, where the lights from the torches didn’t reach, and carefully moved downwards behind the priestess’s backs. She had come too far to turn around and she knew she needed to be closer to… Cat swallowed, remembering the first sight she’d caught of the red haired High Priestess two weeks ago.

She’d been bored with the ceremonies during the day, moving around the city looking for fun and creating mischief; maybe stealing some wealthy person’s purse along the way… Although her grandfather had cared for her she’d lived most of her life on the streets. She wasn’t one of those perfectly behaved children she’d seen through the bars separating her from the the wealthier areas of the city; where everyone dressed up and walked in lines, only talking when spoken to and who always did what they were told to do. No, she liked having fun every now and again – mostly again; teasing little rich girls and mocking the wealthy, stealing to survive.

Her grandfather repeatedly told her she ought to be grateful for living in the Empire and not in one of the always-warring neighboring kingdoms, but she failed to see how she was privileged. Maybe they didn’t have a death penalty or corrupt law-enforcement, but poor people were still poor. Sick people were still sick. And wealthy people were still living off the poor – like leaches.

Her grandfather didn’t like listening to her when she tried pointing that out. “We’re lucky”, he said. “You don’t know how lucky we are…”

Maybe she didn’t know, but truthfully… She hadn’t lacked much in her young life. She mostly lived for the day, finding fun and food where she could – living life her way, on her terms. She did consider herself lucky, but not because she lived in the Empire of Kellara – but because she considered herself to be free: free to roam the streets when she wanted to; free to speak her mind and roll around in the mud; free to eat and sleep where she wanted to with no one – not even her grandfather – telling her any different.

Cat considered herself lucky, because she’d never lacked anything in her life – not even the parents whom had abandoned her. It was their loss, not hers.

She was free and independent – until the one night when she happened to come across a procession of priestesses and to gaze upon the woman who the whole of Kellara feared.

Cat had been on her way home, taking a shortcut through an area she wasn’t supposed to visit: the Oak Grove of the Imperial Garden. There was a hidden hole in the stone wall that surrounded the royal complex that she’d used many times to move in and out of the area. While sneaking through the gardens, soft singing and flickering lights had caught her attention and since she was a curious child she moved closer to find out what was going on.

It turned out she’d happened to come across a private ceremony of the goddess Nidae’s priestesses. There where six, standing in brown robes in a semicircle – facing a seventh priestess who lifted a staff above her head towards the great shape of a bat hovering over the grove. The bat had been so huge its wings covered the sky and darkened the lights from the stars above; only the full moon shone behind the High Priestess – whose strong voice had filled the grove. There had been thunder in that voice.

Rumors suggested that the present High Priestess of the goddess Nidae was the youngest since the birth of the Goddess and the most powerful. When Cat saw her in the holy Oak Grove she could believe it; she felt the power like a the crackle of lightning. Like the built up tension right before a storm it affected her physically, a pressure across her chest, making the hairs on her arm rise. She had never felt anything like it and although she had known she wasn’t allowed to witness the sacred ritual that was performed she hadn’t been able to tear her eyes off the woman in white, whose red hair was like a burning halo. It wasn’t until that same, powerful woman spoke the words: “All those who interfere with the ritual of Nidae and are not initiated in the sacred community will burn looking at the light of the Goddess”, that she realized her presence hadn’t gone undetected. With a soft gasp she rose to her feet and sprinted away, leaving the royal garden.

Every night since then Cat had dreamt about the High Priestess. Always the same dream: the woman in white stood in front of an altar with her back towards her. They were having a conversation, but she couldn’t make out the words – all she knew was that she was older than her current age and that she was agitated, angry and hurt at the same time. Then the High Priestess turned around… Although Cat hadn’t seen the older woman’s face before in real life it was fully revealed in her dream and every time she saw it she felt a catch in her chest, as if she couldn’t breathe. It was such a beautiful face.

In the dreams there were tears on the High Priestess’ cheeks, mingled with blood. The woman opened her mouth to speak, but Cat couldn’t hear her. Instead she heard another voice, deep within her, saying: “You must find her. She is your destiny… Go to the temple and tell her that I sent you.”

At that point she always woke up, left with a feeling as if she’d been drowning and saved in the nick of time. She was always shaking after waking up, feeling weak and afraid – as if something dreadful was going to happen. Every night she went to sleep dreading to wake up shaking again, but she always looked forward to seeing the High Priestess and after two weeks she could no longer deny the calling of her dream. Whoever the voice in her dream belonged to she knew she wouldn’t find peace unless she went to the temple on the hillside. She didn’t know what to find there.

Maybe her destiny.

The girl hesitated in the shadows when she was nearing the arena. The priestesses in brown stood with their back towards her and the High Priestess was also turned away from her, but from the stairs to the floor there were spots with no shadows and she would need to be careful… As the High Priestess momentarily turned her back towards the stairs the girl leaped. She flew across open space and landed silently on the other side of a narrow corridor beside the stairs. The corridor was leading to a closed wooden door behind her and was lit with two torches on either side. If anyone turned or even glanced in her direction they would notice her. With no further delay she sprinted across the illumined area and disappeared in the shadows behind one of the large statues.

Breathing heavily she paused behind the statue, not daring to glance around. She waited a few moments until her heartbeat had slowed and she realized that no one had noticed her, she slid along the shadows and moved nearer the fountain. She was still too far away to see the High Priestess’ face clearly and that – after all – was the true reason why she had come.

At the time when Cat’s dreams began there had been earthquakes going on for some time. The people of Kellara made sacrifices to the gods, calling for protection and trying to appease the ones they unwillingly had annoyed, but nothing helped. The High Priest of Mara the Cobra, the snake god, condemned the people of Goddara and called them sinners; accusing them of neglecting the deities. For almost two months the empire had lived in fear of the earthquakes that had taken many lives and ruined many homes. Then – on the day two weeks before, at the eclipse of the moon – the High Priest and Priestess of the goddess Nidae had stood up together and declared the Divine Empire of Kellara to be free from sin. They had promised no more earthquakes and that the gods and goddesses had been appeased.

Cat hadn’t witnessed the proclamation with her own eyes, but her grandfather had told her about it. Since seeing the High Priestess in the Oak Grove she’d asked a lot of questions about the woman and her grandfather had been more than pleased to answer them for her. Not that anyone knew much about the present High Priestess of Nidae, except that she’d been appointed at the same time as the youngest princess was born, five years ago. Since then people had learned to fear her for her power. No other High Priest or Priestess could do the things she did – it was said. Although no one said what it was that she did.

The young girl hiding in the shadows of the temple didn’t know if the rumors of the High Priestess were true, but she did know there hadn’t been an earthquake in two weeks. Before that they’d had at least five a week, smaller and a few major ones. The people of Goddara had been mindful to pay their respects to the Goddess, leaving gifts and offerings at the Temple of the Radiant Orb. Or so Cat’s grandfather had told her.

There were no guards in the arena, for which Cat was grateful. She’d heard that there used to be guards at the temple; before the current High Priestess assumed her position. Now not even the greediest grave robber dared to enter. The Temple of the Dark Moon was a sacred place, kept only for the priestesses of the goddess Nidae’s order. No one who wasn’t either a priestess or had special permission was allowed to enter – and no one in his or her right mind would want to.

The girl shivered, again wondering what she was doing in a place like that. She wondered what would happen to her if she were caught. She didn’t know why the High Priestess was so feared, she’d never heard that the woman had killed anyone, or harmed anyone in any way. But her grandfather had once said that there were worse things than death. “Power, my child… Some people have the power to take lives. Other’s to harm you. Some people have the power to make you poor, or bring you fame. Some people even have the power to grant you life – and that’s a powerful tool. But true power... True power doesn’t come with what you do, but with who you are.”

Cat wasn’t sure she fully understood what he meant, but sometimes on the streets she could feel power. She felt power when she could beat a bigger child in boxing or drive a gang away with her fists and her crudely made knife of bone and iron, but she felt the most powerful when people looked at her and backed away without her having to do anything. Because of her name. Because of her eyes.

Maybe that was what he meant, the girl thought as she slid along the outskirts of the great hall, crossing the channels and approaching the fountain and the woman she had come to see. Maybe power didn’t come from the actions of someone, but the actions were an extension of the inner power of the person… She frowned; the thoughts were too deep for her and she pushed them aside. She was close to her destination now, only a few feet away from the fountain…

She halted – crouching low in the shadows behind the statue of a warrior – when the High Priestess suddenly turned to face the fountain. The woman was dressed in a white robe with long sleeves and a silver belt around her slender waist. Her face… Her face was just like it had been in Cat’s dream. The girl gasped, almost falling backwards into the canal behind her. Oh, my Goddess! she thought, stunned. She hadn’t known what to expect once she’d reached this far, but to see that face from her dream so close in reality, so pure… It’s true, she thought astonished. She is my destiny!

If anyone had asked her what she felt in that moment she wouldn’t have been able to answer them. Seeing that face she experienced so much she had never felt before and therefore couldn’t put into words; it was too much for her. At the same time it was as if her whole life had been laid out before her, for her to see what path she must take… And she knew her life would never be the same again.

The High Priestess held a deep bowl in her hands. She filled it with water from the fountain and turned back to the row of priestesses in front of the stairs. “All who wish to pass this point must be cleansed by the water of life”, she said; her voice rose easily around the large hall. “Come – to drink from the Spring of Nidae.”

One by one the women moved forward towards the High Priestess, who offered them a drink from the bowl. Behind the statue the girl watched in silent fascination as the brown robed priestesses drank and moved out through the high entrance in the background. And then, finally, there was only the High Priestess left.

The woman turned to the fountain with the bowl in her hands; her face was blank, showing no emotions, but her eyes reflected the light from the torches in the background and glowed like emerald stones lighted by an inner fire. She was like a beautiful statue, crafted by the hands of a master – young and fair. The girl could hardly breathe as she looking at her. Cat had never seen anyone so beautiful in her life.

The red haired priestess placed the bowl at the rim of the fountain. A green stone shone on a finger on her left hand. She held on to the bowl for a moment, almost tenderly – as if it was a bird with a fractured wing – before she lifted her gaze and looked into the shadows beyond the fountain and the statues.

“I know you are there”, she said evenly. “Show yourself and you shall not be harmed.”

The girl swallowed, practically quivering as her first impulse was to flatten herself against the stone like a scared rabbit, but then she rose on trembling legs and hesitantly moved forward. The High Priestess looked straight at her and held her eyes as she moved across the floor on bare feet.

“You know you are not supposed to be here, right?” the woman asked, still without revealing anything of her thoughts or emotions.

The girl nodded and halted a few steps from the priestess. She finally understood what her grandfather had meant about power: looking into the green eyes of the woman in front of her she felt naked. The priestess seemed able to see right through her with that piercing stare that didn’t reveal anything of the woman herself. Cat didn’t understand power in itself – what it was or where it came from – but she knew only by looking at the woman in front of her that she possessed it.

“You were the one in the Oak Grove, weren’t you?” the High Priestess asked. The girl nodded again, not knowing what to say – not finding her voice. “Why are you here?”

Cat girl shook her head and the woman tilted her head slightly to one side, narrowing her eyes.

“What’s your name, child?”

She opened her mouth, but there was no sound. She took a deep breath and tried again, wishing her legs wouldn’t feel so wobbly. “I – I haven’t been Named yet, but they call me Cat.”

“Because of your eyes?” the priestess asked.

Cat nodded. “I was born that way”, she said, not knowing why. People always asked her about her eyes, looking strangely at her. She had been teased before, but not anymore. She had learned to defend herself.

“Of course you were”, the woman said softly under her breath. “You are old not to have been Named”, she added. “How old are you?”

“Ten”, the girl said and straightened her back. The priestess narrowed her eyes at her again, but didn’t say anything at first – she seemed distracted, as if she was thinking of something else.

“Don’t lie, girl”, the woman finally said, almost dismissive. Cat felt a strange tug at her heart when she believed she had disappointed the priestess. She lowered her eyes.

“Nine, almost ten”, she said shamefully. She was surprised she felt ashamed; she had never felt bad about lying before. And what she had told the red haired woman could hardly be counted as lying.

The High Priestess suddenly cupped a hand beneath Cat’s chin and raised her face towards the light. The touch was surprisingly tender for the woman, whose impenetrable face seemed to hide the will and heart of a warrior.

Cat had seen many soldiers in her day, all hard and powerful in shining armor or polished leather: women and men with sharp spears, longbows and shining swords. It was her dream to be one of those soldiers one day, a warrior winning fame and fortune.

The High Priestess looked her in the eye and Cat noticed golden specks in the green emerald of the woman’s gaze. She felt herself drifting, remembering her dream – the tears on this woman’s cheeks, mixed with blood...

“Why is it that your parents let you roam the outskirts of the city like this? Don’t they care about you, girl?”

“I have no parents... Your Highness”, Cat added, sure to remember to pay respect to the woman. Her grandfather would be most displeased with her otherwise. She wondered if it was the shadow of a smile she noticed in the priestess’ eyes, but realized she must have been mistaken.

“You’re a street urchin?”

“My...” She hesitated; she didn’t want to be caught lying again. “I live with a former priest and call him grandfather... your Highness.”

“Well...” The High Priestess finally let go of her chin, nodding. “Why are you here, girl? Did your friends usher a challenge your young, foolish heart couldn’t resist?”

Cat blushed furiously. She didn’t like the negative note in the woman’s voice. She could never stand being ridiculed and to be brushed off so easily by this powerful, beautiful woman as nothing more than a foolish child filled her with hurt and harm. “I was called”, she said, remembering her dream. “The Goddess herself called me in a dream, telling me to find you.”

“Did she now?” the High Priestess said, again with a hint of amusement Cat was sure she must have imagined.

She wasn’t sure what to think of the woman. If she had listened to the rumors she would have expected a giant with snakes in her hair, spitting fire; a demon from one of the many hells surrounding their world. But her beauty was so overwhelming Cat couldn’t understand that people feared her.

The girl was still too young to know the fears certain beauties instilled in the hearts of men and women. One day she would know and understand – and feel her heart tremble like a lonely leaf on a bare reed in the autumn wind when she looked into the eyes of the same woman.

“You do know that children who are not Named at their tenth birthday are given to the Goddess, don’t you?”

Cat nodded carefully. “Grandfather told me, your Highness.”

“Do you know what it means?”

She shook her head. “No... Your Highness.”

“Well, we’ll just have to wait and see. Hopefully some or another god or goddess claims you before that. I doubt you’d fit into a priestess’ robe. Come now with me.”

The High Priestess swiftly turned and Cat had to skip a few steps to catch up with her.

“Where to?” she asked breathlessly as she followed the beautiful woman across the hall.

“You’re a bold one, kitten”, the priestess said and this time there was no doubt it was amusement Cat heard in her voice. “Don’t you fear me?”

Cat swallowed and dried her sweaty palms on her brown, torn trousers. She wore a light brown tunic with short sleeves; it had belonged to one of her best friends, but he had outgrown it and she inherited it. “I was afraid coming here”, she admitted. “But you are too beautiful to fear, your Highness”, she added, after only a slight hesitation. It surprised her to hear the other woman chuckle.

“So”, the High Priestess said when they entered the narrow corridor Cat had crossed earlier and pushed open the wooden door. “Tell me about yourself.”

Cat hesitated as they entered another corridor, but decided that if the High Priestess had wanted her harmed, or dead, she would have done something towards that already – not chuckling at her statements. She relaxed a little and followed the woman through the lit corridor.

“I was born beneath a dark moon”, she said. She felt it was an important thing to share, especially with a priestess. Although a lot of people were actually born on the day of a dark moon, fewer were born exactly at night when the dark moon, the new moon, stood high in the sky.

“Go on”, the priestess urged and Cat moved on, talking more freely now and forgetting to show the respect she was supposed to. She talked about her life on the streets, how the kids had teased her for her mismatched eyes – especially Para, who’d been her worst enemy since she could remember and later became her best friend when she kicked his ass. She spoke about her grandfather, who did his best to keep her on track and to teach her to fear the deities. She talked about her many adventures in the city, keeping out only minor details that probably could get her into real trouble.

She was so engrossed in her tales she wasn’t paying attention to where the High Priestess was taking her. The woman seemed so interested in what she was saying she found she talked more than ever before. It wasn’t until she realized she was standing inside the gates to the royal area she silenced, looking around with wide eyes. They had walked down the mountainside, into the city and through the city without her noticing. She backed away a few steps from the woman at her side, looking up at her with a startled expression.

“Did you...? Did you put a spell on me?” she whispered in sudden fear. Why were they at the palace? Had the priestess brought her there to kill her?

“I didn’t have to”, the High Priestess said, holding her gaze. Cat couldn’t make out what she was thinking.

The girl looked around at the gates behind her, at the immobile guards at the sides of the massive entrance and at the winding road leading towards the palace on the top of the hill. She swallowed.

“Don’t worry, kitten”, the woman said softly. “I won’t harm you.”

Cat glanced at her and nodded, liking the way the priestess called her “kitten”.

“Tell me”, the High Priestess said as they resumed their walk. “You didn’t tell me about your dream…”

Cat felt a slight shiver down her spine, she was sure she hadn’t mentioned her dream to the priestess. “You… You already know, don’t you?” she whispered in awe.

“I do”, the priestess said after a moment. “The Goddess spoke to me and confirmed that she had sent you to me. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been so gentle with you, child.”

There was a warning in the woman’s voice and Cat suddenly felt a jolt of fear in her young heart. She had once trespassed on the god Fang’s territory south of the city and come across the feline god himself as he was preying on a deer. He had been in his animal shape – an enormous white tiger – but when he noticed her he’d changed into a man. He’d been glorious, she remembered; tall and lithe, with golden hair falling down his back. But when he grinned wickedly at her she had felt the same fear she felt in that moment, hearing the warning in the High Priestess’ voice. Her grandfather had been right: the deities and their servants were indeed to be feared. Years later she’d wish she’d remembered that.

The Priestess and the girl walked along a marble path, crossing brooks and flower gardens until they reached an area behind a red wall decorated with leaping, black cats. Behind the walls the top of a black building could be seen. They were now in the direct shadow of the ziggurat.

“Follow me”, the Priestess said as she moved through the open, unguarded gates and Cat hesitated only momentarily before following.

The open yard behind the walls was empty and the High Priestess crossed it without pause, reaching the wide stairs leading to the entrance of the dark building ahead of them. Cat knew where they must be: this was the headquarters of Panthera, the elite band of female warriors that protected the seventh princess. She swallowed again as she entered the building, looking about her in awe and trepidation. Every girl she knew on the streets talked about Panthera – their skills with weapons were legendary and there were no warriors more fierce or deadly.

Cat had seen the band perform once a few years back, when they presented an act to honor the wedding anniversary of the Emperor Barac Wei and the Empress Cara. It had left her stunned for days and she’d dreamed about becoming one of the revered members of Panthera ever since – a Leaping Panther. Her friends had laughed at her, telling her only those of noble blood could become a Leaping Panther, but Cat had heard differently – especially about the Captain who was leading them. Captain Katanya was said to have been an orphan just like Cat and she’d fought in the wars of her native kingdom Ling already from the young age of fourteen. Supposedly she’d saved the life of her Queen and been knighted, before she left Ling. She went to Kellara and settled in Goddara where she joined Panthera. She had recently been made Captain when she – according to tradition – defeated the previous leader in combat.

“You’ve heard of Panthera, haven’t you, child?” the High Priestess asked as they entered a large, circular hall. There were no windows, save the glass dome above them lighting the room. The floor was mosaic, with white and blue stones – and with the image of a large, leaping panther at the centre.

Cat nodded, afraid her voice wouldn’t carry if she opened her mouth to speak.

“Their role is slightly different from the rest of the Imperial Army – who are called the White Tigers, as you probably know…”

Cat nodded again, staring at the panther beneath their feet. The White Tigers was the army protecting the whole of the Empire, taking orders only from the Emperor as far as Cat knew.

“Panthera, like the Cobra Squad, have a long tradition of protecting individual members of the Imperial Family. When the youngest princess was born the sole purpose of Panthera was to protect her. And this…” the priestess added as a young, blonde woman entered the circular hall, “is their Captain.”

Cat almost stopped breathing as she noticed the woman approaching them. The woman didn’t seem older than the High Priestess, who was also young for her position. The young Captain was dressed in black leather armor, carrying a sword at her hip; she moved languidly, almost carelessly across the floor towards them. She, too, was very beautiful, with light blue eyes and thick, blonde hair pulled back in a braid. There were not many fair skinned, blue eyed, blonde people in Goddara and Cat had never stood eye to eye with one before.

The people of Kellara were mostly highland people; short and stocky built, dark haired and dark eyed who tanned easily. Few were as fair as Katanya, or even as the High Priestess with her flaming red hair and green eyes. Cat herself was a strange breed: she was neither as fair as the Captain nor as dark as most of the people of the city. She had dark, unruly hair, but one eye was blue – and the other was yellow, with a vertical slit as pupil. Just like a cat’s eye.

“Bel...” the Captain said as she halted in front of them, then silenced as she noticed the girl. She arched an eyebrow. “Well, well – what have we got here, now?”

The High Priestess put a soft hand on Cat’s shoulder; her fingers gently brushing the skin at the girl’s neck. Cat tore her eyes from the Captain and glanced at the woman at her side.

“Katana – this is Cat.”

“One of Fang’s, I surmise”, the blonde warrior said with only a hint of sarcasm.

“Actually, she hasn’t been Named yet”, the priestess said.

“No?” The Captain narrowed her eyes, looking at the girl. The woman had dark tattoos on her cheeks in the shape of leaping panthers – one on each cheek, facing each other. Cat felt a thrill seeing them, realizing she’d seen herself in a dream as a woman wearing the same tattoos. Why had the High Priestess brought her to the Captain?

“How old are you, little one?”

Cat straightened her back; she could still feel the High Priestess’ hand on her shoulder and it gave her courage. “I’m almost ten”, she said. “I’m ten in two months.”

Captain Katanya frowned at her. “She better be Named before then”, she said to the priestess. “Otherwise we have no use for her.”

“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t have brought her here if our Goddess hadn’t asked it of me. Take good care of her, Katana.”

The blonde woman nodded. “She must be Fang’s”, Cat heard her mutter.

“Don’t be so sure”, the High Priestess said. “Don’t forget – the Panther belongs to Nidae.”

Katanya raised her eyes and looked at the priestess in sudden surprise. “But that would mean... Bel – it can’t be... Can it?” The Captain looked at the girl again, with what Cat some years later would know as apprehension, when she was older and knew more about the world – and about relationships.

“I don’t know yet. We’ll just have to wait and see. It all depends on who claims her.”

The warrior nodded. “Fine. I’ll keep her with me until her birthday – and then we’ll see.”

“I’ll be a warrior?” Cat asked breathlessly. “I’ll be one of... you? A Leaping Panther?” She could hardly stand still for excitement.

“Stand guard, child!” the Captain called in a clipped, commanding voice and Cat jumped in fear. Then she caught herself and straightened her back, staring straight ahead. She quickly glanced at the Captain and noticed the amused look she exchanged with the High Priestess. “She’ll do”, Katanya said, placing her hand on Cat’s shoulder as the High Priestess removed hers. Cat felt sudden disappointment – akin to grief – as she realized the priestess would leave her. She looked up at the redheaded, young woman.

“Will I see you again?” she asked worriedly.

“Only time will tell, kitten”, the priestess said. “The Captain will arrange everything with your... grandfather. This is what you want, isn’t it?”

Cat nodded. Becoming a Leaping Panther was a dream come true, but she had gone to the temple to find the High Priestess – not to become a warrior. Suddenly her dream of becoming a member of Panthera didn’t seem so important anymore – not if she couldn’t be close to the young woman with hair like fire. Maybe she could say she wanted to become a priestess instead, then she could gaze upon that beautiful face every day. She opened her mouth, but at the same moment the High Priestess took her chin in her hand – the way she had before in the temple. Green eyes looked into hers and she swallowed.

“All will be well, kitten”, the High Priestess said softly, brushing some of Cat’s dark, unruly curls from her eyes with a tender caress. “The Goddess knows your heart’s will. She’ll make the choice for you. Go with Katana now – she’ll take good care of you. And maybe one day... we’ll meet again.”

Cat nodded, suddenly feeling tears in her eyes without knowing why. She seldom cried and only when she was angry or frustrated about something. Ashamed of herself she quickly dried the few tears trickling down her cheek and followed the Captain across the room, towards the dark vault. In the opening she turned around and glanced back at the High Priestess, who caught her gaze and nodded at her. Cat slowly exhaled and then followed her Captain to a new life, not knowing that it would be several years before she stood face to face with the High Priestess of the Bat again.

* * * * *

The religious aspects of Kellara were the same across the empire. They had temples constructed to the deities and priests or priestesses who served them. All priests and priestesses must pass the initiations to serve at a particular temple, which then granted them access to the innermost Holy Shrine of any Temple. Then there were witches and magicians, who had the right to bless, heal and perform miracles in the Names of the deities, but they held no power over the deities nor did they have the right to advise any higher official about the actions of a deity.

The Priesthood of the Higher Order, though, had the right to command military leaders, scribes, governors and in a few cases – if all of them were in agreement – even the Emperor. The Priesthood consisted of High Priests and High Priestesses who performed the initiations of the lesser priesthood. They had responsibilities towards Kellara: to keep the empire safe, to serve its people and to assist the Emperor in doing the same. Badra Bellona, High Priestess of Nidae, Goddess of the Dark Moon, was one of them.

She heard soft footsteps crossing the mosaic floor behind her as she stared ahead of her, but she didn’t turn around. The eyes of that girl still lingered in her memory, though it had been several minutes since Katana took the girl with her. Half cat, half human, she thought, immediately thinking of Fang again. She found it strange that the White Tiger hadn’t yet Named the girl, but he probably had his reasons. Maybe she’d been right in what she’d said to Katana: that the girl actually didn’t belong to Fang – but to the Goddess.


“Such a strange girl”, the High Priestess finally said, as the woman behind her reached her side. “I’ve never seen a more trusting child.”

“You’ve met the girl”, the black-haired, dark skinned woman at her side said in a low voice. It wasn’t a question. Nakkara Rim seldom asked questions – she was often the one giving the answers, telling the truth about things no human could possibly know.

“You know of her?” the High Priestess said, glancing at the newcomer.

“You mean… you didn’t scare her to death at first sight?” the woman said with amusement, not answering the question.

The priestess was used to her friend’s odd ways of communicating and didn’t take offence. She huffed a little at the sarcastic remark. “I don’t scare children”, she said.

“Tell that to the boy you had screaming for his mother only last week”, the other woman said.

“He was torturing that poor frog. If he’s old enough to be torturing, he’s old enough to take the consequences of his actions.”

“Sometimes you’re so…”


“Pragmatic, I was going to say.” Dark eyes narrowed. “You do scare children; you know that – don’t you?”

“Not that girl”, the priestess said softly.

“No, not that girl”, the other woman echoed.

“What girl is that, Nikka?” the High Priestess said, quietly, looking at the exit ahead of her.

“She is your destiny, Bel.”

Bel turned her head and looked at the woman. Dark eyes met hers, giving no answers. Nikka – Nakkara Rim, oracle of Kellara and of the Goddess – was the only one who could hide her thoughts from her. “You care to tell me what that means, Nikka?” she asked a little cynically.

Nikka turned her eyes towards the dark vault where the girl had disappeared with Katana. She didn’t answer immediately and her eyes seemed to glaze over, before she said: “One day you’ll be the Oracle. You’ll have many eyes and know many things. You’ll be a warrior and a queen, ruling people but not a kingdom... The girl will be there – another kind of warrior in that life.”

Bel frowned. “And?”

“And that’s all I can tell you at the moment, my friend. You know I walk in different times, in different worlds – but the times and the worlds rule me, I don’t control what I See. I find it… frustrating.”

“I know, Nikka”, the High Priestess said gently. They’d had that particular discussion before; Nikka always pointed out how frustrating it was to know the future without being able to See what she needed to See. Many oracles went mad due to their inability to accept that they could neither control their gift nor change the future. Nakkara Rim had lasted longer than anyone before.

“This girl… I saw her in a vision for the first time two weeks ago. She was hiding in the dark, seeing you perform a ritual…”

“It was so. I felt her presence in the Oak Grove during the ritual of Protection and Rebirth. I didn’t know it was her, obviously – but when I felt her presence again today in the temple I knew it was the same girl. What can you tell me about her?”

“You found her in the temple? And you didn’t punish her?”

“Nidae sent her, Nikka”, Bel said, looking at the oracle by her side.

“She did? Oh, that makes sense… In my vision the Goddess crowned her.”

The High Priestess stiffened for a second. “Is that so? Then it’s true… It is her. Nakkara?”

The oracle fidgeted beneath the gaze of the High Priestess: Nikka might not reveal her thoughts to the priestess, but Badra Bellona could make a god fidget with her stare.

“I believe so, High Priestess.”

“I know your prediction, that when the child of the Panther rises death will come to the Empire of Kellara... True?”

Nikka nodded. “True. But you know as well as I that predictions are... unstable. I See so many things at one time there’s always the possibility that I will make the wrong interpretation of what I see. I might not have the full understanding of things in that exact moment...”

“I know.” Bel nodded, she was well versed in the mysteries of the oracle and she had been trained in the sacred knowledge of the Goddess since she was very young.

“The future is always indecisive, Badra. It depends on so many things: the choices we make, the choices of other people... But too many things have happened recently that shift our destiny towards this particular end, not least that event with the High Priest of the Cobra. If Nidae claims the girl and Names her... that will be the worst scenario.”

Bel frowned. “Why? What would the child do?”

“I don’t know yet. I haven’t Seen so far…”

“But what you are trying to tell me, without so many words, is that this girl indeed is the missing descendant of Nidae? In that case the prophecy warning us about the destruction of Kellara is close to coming true...”

Only if Nidae Names the child”, Nikka said. “And I’ve already warned her not to.”

“But if Fang doesn’t Name her...” Bel said softly.

“If the White Tiger doesn’t claim her it will be disastrous”, Nikka stated flatly. “Then Nidae must take her and she’ll be a priestess – which must not happen!”

“Why is that?” Bel murmured thoughtfully. Then her eyes widened. “She’ll betray us! Is that it, Nikka? She’ll betray the Goddess…”

Somehow the High Priestess refused to believe the young girl she had just left in Katana’s care, of such a horrible deed, but if Nikka confirmed her words she knew what she must do – whatever the cost.

The oracle’s eyes glazed over for a moment and she shook her head. “No, never. Bel – you may trust that girl with your life, in any lifetime. She will do anything for you. I can’t see… why, but I know it with certainty – that child will never betray your trust.”

The High Priestess exhaled in relief. “Good.” Then she remembered the devastating prophecy they were discussing. “Oh, by the Radiant Moon”, she whispered, realizing the gravity of their situation. She must remember to let Derac know about the girl. No one else must know yet and depending on who Named the child… Maybe they would be lucky and no one would ever know who Cat was. “Have you talked to Zelena about this?” she added as an afterthought, more sharply than she’d intended to.

Nikka nodded. “The High Priestess of the White Tiger is informed. She’ll do what she can to influence Fang, but you know what he’s like.” Nikka huffed. “Gods and their pride...”

“I’ll see if there’s anything I can do to help her”, Bel said. “Sometimes the deities are more easily persuaded if more than one priestess is at their tail. At least Zelena is to be trusted”, she added. “It’s more than one can say about most priests and priestesses these days.”

“You’re thinking of Mara’s High Priest”, Nikka said, nodding. “Agreed. After hearing about what he did, causing the earthquakes to make people bring more offerings to his temple... By the Goddess! Such... such – inhumanity! And in a High Priest, nonetheless. He killed so many, just to win favors and riches for his god.”

“He claimed he did it on orders from Mara”, Bel said, still feeling a metallic taste of bitterness in her mouth speaking about what had happened.

The frequent earthquakes had caused the priests and priestesses of the different gods and goddesses to come together to discuss the cause behind them. They had expected some deity to step forward, taking responsibility for the imbalance in the earth, but no priest or priestess knew anything about the earthquakes and didn’t know how to stop them. The only High Priest who didn’t seem interested in the happenings – or in the meetings – was the one that in fact should be interested: the High Priest of the Snake god Mara – Orm, who controlled Earth. He ought to know what was going on, but he didn’t and instead he went preaching to the people that they ought to change their ways, that some unknown god was displeased with them.

Finally Bel and Derac, High Priest of the Temple of the Radiant Orb, went looking for Orm to confront him and force him to take action. He was the one who could protect the people from the earthquakes, but instead he settled with preaching about sin and hiding in his temple – a deep cave on the mountainside. When Bel and Derac reached Orm’s temple they caught the priest in the act of creating an earthquake. After some persuasion he finally admitted he was the one who’d been behind the earthquakes from the beginning.

“Why would a god want to hurt his own people?” Nikka shook her head in answer to Bel’s statement. “Orm was a lying sleaze. I never liked him.”

“Still...” Bel frowned. “There’s something not right about this. Mara took the whole thing a little too... hard. He made a whole drama around the fact that his priest was the cause of so many dying. He seemed too... groveling.”

“He’s a snake, he’s supposed to be groveling. Let it go, Bel. He’s a god. Granted, he might not be the most likable god – again the snake-thing – but he’s still a god. He wouldn’t deliberately hurt someone.”

“A priest isn’t supposed to try to hurt someone”, Bel objected. “Nikka, sometimes... Sometimes you’re just too good.

The oracle laughed. “And you’re too suspicious to be a priestess. Doesn’t it bother you?” she added with a slight frown, glancing curiously at the High Priestess.

“What?” Bel asked, somewhat distracted. She still hadn’t let go of the whole Mara-Orm business. She had the feeling they hadn’t seen the last of the exiled High Priest and it vexed her that the emperor hadn’t taken her and Derac seriously when they suggested that Orm be executed for his crimes. Even the empress had agreed, but her husband had refused to break his own laws.

The first thing Barac Wei had done being crowned emperor twenty years ago had been to forbid death-penalty and even when faced with a crime as severe as Orm’s he’d refused to go against his own beliefs. Instead the emperor had condemned Orm to life-long imprisonment as a slave, but the High Priest had managed to escape and no one had heard from him in the two weeks that had gone by since the discovery of his crimes.

The trial had been held in secret, with only the Priesthood and members of Panthera as witnesses. No one else knew the truth, to Bel’s dismay. If she’d had her will Orm’s crimes would have been made known to the people, but the rest of the Priesthood – along with the Imperial Couple – didn’t agree. They thought it best to protect the people from the truth. The only thing they protected was themselves, according to her. But she was too young still to be listened to, although she carried a certain respect – being the youngest High Priestess in history. And the most powerful.

“Doesn’t it bother you that so many fear you?”

Bel laughed. “Not at all! It only serves to give me peace and quiet. If I’d been as loved as Derac I’d never have time to serve my Goddess.”

“Some people mean it is to serve the deity by serving the people in kindness.”

Bel smiled a little. “Servitude comes in many different shapes”, she said. “Derac and I... we serve differently, on two different levels. That’s why we complement each other so well.” She hesitated. “To serve the Goddess is my life’s calling. I was born a priestess, Nikka.”

“You were”, Nikka said softly. “But don’t you – miss it? You know, having a normal life? Flirting, giggling with girlfriends about boys, kissing…? Putting flowers in your hair, singing and carousing? You’re still so young.”

The High Priestess shook her head. “I never missed it. I doubt I ever will. I know for sure I will never want to lay with a man – I belong to the Goddess. I’ve always known this.”

“Oh!” the oracle suddenly said, growing pale. “No”, she whispered, “you won’t…”

“Nikka? What is it? What did you See?”

But the oracle didn’t answer; her eyes were lost in a Sight and tears trickled down her cheeks. “Oh, my Goddess”, Bel heard her whisper.

The High Priestess knew better than to disturb Nikka when she was lost in a Sight and waited patiently at her side.

“I can’t tell you this, Bel”, the other woman finally said, drying tears off her cheeks with her fingers.

“It involves me?”

The oracle nodded and caught Bel’s gaze. “You know if I tell things that are too private in nature people might unwillingly do something to change what was meant to be…”

Bel nodded, frowning. She knew Nikka probably had her reasons not to share her Sight, but Bel was a woman with an obsession for knowledge. “No exceptions?”

Nikka shook her head. “Not even for you, Badra Bellona – Fighter of the Full Moon. But I must tell our Goddess immediately.”

“It has something to do with the prophecy we spoke of, doesn’t it?”

Nikka nodded. “She’ll tell you… One day.”

“Go then. Our Empire is larger than any of us and more important. So is the Goddess. Be blessed, Nakkara.”

“You too, High Priestess”, the oracle said softly, making a slight bow before she hurried out of the circular hall.

Bel looked down at the panther on the floor, remembering the first time she met Nakkara Rim. It was five years ago: Bel had been fourteen and was to be crowned High Priestess after the previous High Priestess had died of an unexplained fever. No one had expected the High Priestess to elect someone so young for the position, but Bel had known since she was a child that she would be the next in line of High Priestesses serving the Goddess of the Dark Moon. The goddess Nidae had talked to her since she was five years old, telling her secrets no one else knew. She had been a curious child, set apart because of her thirst for knowledge and her intellect. Her parents had been wealthy and wanted her to marry the emperor’s only son – they were the same age – which would have meant she’d rule the Empire as Empress when the current Imperial Couple resigned. The thought never appealed to her, not even as a young girl.

Bel’s parents could’ve forced her to forget her dreams of becoming a priestess, they could’ve forced her to marry the prince against her will. Except – she wasn’t Named. No god or goddess claimed her before her tenth birthday and according to tradition and the unspoken rules of the Empire all children who weren’t Named before their tenth birthday belonged to the Goddess of the Dark Moon. And so, therefore, her parents had to let her go.

At her fourteenth birthday Bel was chosen successor to the dying High Priestess and Crowned with the staff of the Goddess only a few days afterwards. It was then, only moments before she received the staff as a sign of her new position, that the oracle of Nidae came to her. Nakkara Rim had only recently been appointed to be the High Oracle of the Empire and although they’d never met before Bel had heard of her. The oracle had looked at her a long, long time, before she spoke. And her words forced Bel to make a choice.

“If you pick up the staff you will lose your life. I cannot say how at this time, but you will surely die in the end.”

“And if I don’t pick up the staff?” Bel had asked in return.

“If you don’t the Empire of Kellara will face a terrible end long before its time”, the oracle said, adding: “It might be lost still, but with you as High Priestess it will last longer. And you will save the lives of many.”

“Then there is not much of a choice, is there?”

Now, five years down the line, the High Priestess of Nidae realized that the High Oracle of Kellara finally had seen how Bel would meet her end. The knowledge that she would die didn’t faze her at that moment; she knew it would be at least ten years down the line. She’d had a Sight of her own, seeing the girl Cat’s strange eyes looking at her – not a child anymore, but a grown woman with tattoos on her cheeks.

Bel gasped softly and pulled herself out of her deep thoughts. She had things to do, beginning with a visit to Zelena.

The temple of the White Tiger was placed at the outskirts of the jungle, at the foot of the mountainside on which Bel’s own temple was built. The temple was one of the richer in the area, constructed of white stone and decorated with jewels and plates of pure gold.

Bel entered and passed the first two chambers, which were open for the public, before she reached a closed, wooden door decorated with two tigers in red gold. She opened the door and stepped inside a smaller chamber; it contained only a large stone altar in the middle of the room, with candelabras as high as a man on each side.

A white tiger was lying outstretched languidly on the altar. It lifted its big head and looked at her with greenish, sharp eyes as she closed the door behind her. Bel was a little surprised to notice the tiger in the room; she hadn’t expected to see the god so early in the morning. The tiger stretched out on the altar, flexing its claws and swinging its tail in a slow motion.

As Bel moved across the floor a slight disturbance took place in the air, a shimmering motion shifted the aura around the tiger and in the next instant a golden haired man was lying on the stone, leaning his head in the palm of one hand. Above and around him his True Form hovered: the grand shape of an enormous White Tiger. It was a translucent, phantom image that filled the room, glowing brightly in white and purple. Only another deity or a High Priest and Priestess could see the True Form, or True Shape, of a god or goddess.

“Priestess”, the god said in a sugary voice, rumbling low in his chest – much like a large cat purring.

“Fang”, Bel said coldly, not the least interested in his overtures. If one should believe the rumors he’d bedded every woman above sixteen in the whole Empire. She could hardly believe it – there couldn’t possibly be so many foolish women in Kellara.

“It’s a pleasure seeing you again”, Fang said, moving his legs into a sitting position. He was completely naked, showing off his magnificence with great pride. Bel eyed him from top to bottom with a tight smile. He was a beautiful male, but he didn’t stir the least attraction within her. He grinned, as if he knew what she was thinking. Maybe he did – he was a god, after all, and she wasn’t guarding her thoughts at the moment.

“It’s only been a day”, she said dryly.

“A day away from your splendid beauty is an eternity of agony”, he said, rising from the altar. His appearance shimmered again and in the next instant he was wearing a leather piece around his hips, covering his manhood.

“You needn’t get dressed for my sake”, she said with an amusedly arched eyebrow. “Or you’re getting prudent in your old age?”

He laughed. “I’m younger than your goddess”, he said, amused. “No, Zelena always tells me I shouldn’t embarrass myself jiggling my tail in public…” He grinned. “See? I sometimes listen to reason.”

She couldn’t help but smile; he was in possession of an indisputable charm, she had to agree.

“So? What brings you here, priestess?” He arched an eyebrow. “Maybe you’ve come to your senses and decided my bed could offer some comfort from the loneliness of your temple?”

“Don’t be foolish, Tiger – you know why I’ve come.”

The amused expression vanished from the man’s smooth face and he watched her with a green, intense stare. The vertical slits in his eyes narrowed, giving him a dangerous look.

“It’s about the girl”, he said, leaning on the altar with his arms crossed.

“You’ve talked to Zelena?”

“I have.”

“And?” she asked, masking her impatience. Dealing with gods and goddesses wasn’t an easy matter; most of them were sensitive and fickle. If they didn’t like the way they were treated they’d sulk and do the opposite to what they were asked – just to prove they could.

“And I don’t see why I need to claim someone who so obviously belongs to the Panther.” Fang shrugged. “The Goddess of the Dark Moon might be angry at me for Naming someone who belongs to her.”

“She won’t, not in this. You must know this if you’ve talked to…”

“Don’t waste your breath, Bel”, a woman’s voice said and Bel turned her head to look at a tall, blonde woman entering the chamber through a door to the right behind the altar. “He’s being his usual stubborn self.”

“Zelena”, Fang said, faking a wounded expression. “I’m your god, your sun and moon and stars – you should treat me with more respect.”

“I treat you with the respect you deserve, you scoundrel”, the woman said, glaring at the god. “You’re just being difficult because I forbade you to seduce the fourth princess…”

Bel blinked. “Are you out of your mind?” she accused in a steely voice, staring at the god. “She’s been promised to the prince of Ling! If you so much as look at that girl…”

“Enough!” Fang bared his teeth at them, growling lowly – a noise vibrating in the room. The color circling his True Shape darkened and sparkled, red stars could be seen shooting across the shape of the Tiger. “I haven’t! I was duly reproached by my own High Priestess, thank you very much!” he said, holding Bel’s gaze. “It’s not my fault you two are coldhearted bitches who don’t understand the needs of a hot blooded man… god.”

“Give over”, Bel said sarcastically. “Men of all ages have used that as an excuse for any mistake they ever make. It’s worn out. Besides, you are not a man – and you are not a child. One day you’ll have to grow up to take your responsibility, not dumping it on everyone else around you.” Fang glared at her and she sighed. “Fine, I’m not your High Priestess and I shouldn’t interfere with your private business, but…” she added. “The fate of Kellara is my business.”

“What do I get out of it?” he asked, narrowing his eyes and again crossing his arms.

“You’ll get a warrior who’ll win you glory and fame”, Zelena said.

“And you save the Empire”, Bel added. “Which ought to be enough for you.”

“Fine. I’ll talk to my sister and we’ll sort something out”, the god said. “Nidae sure owes me one after this.”

Zelena huffed. “Selfish, as usual. Why did I expect anything else from you?” She arched an eyebrow at him, but Fang just grinned.

“I know your secret”, he said, winking at her in a way that put a deep blush on the woman’s cheeks. “You’re not as cold-blooded as the one beside you.”

Bel looked in surprise at the High Priestess beside her. Zelena hastily glanced at her and then shook her head, mumbling an excuse and was out of the room before Bel had time to say anything. Bel frowned, looking questioningly at the god in front of her.

“You”, he said, rising from the altar and circling her. “You feel nothing at all for me. Is your heart truly of stone?”

“I belong to the Goddess – to your sister. You know that. Stop making a fool of yourself.”

Fang narrowed his eyes at her, nodding. “Zelena was the only woman I couldn’t seduce… except you, of course. That’s why I chose her to be my High Priestess. A god needs a High Priestess he can’t wind around his fingers too easily.”

“You could’ve chosen a man for the task. I doubt a High Priest would’ve fallen for your charms.”

That made him laugh. His True Shape rose on its hind legs, roaring behind him. “Really? What would be the fun in that, resting my eyes on a man? No, Zelena was the one I wanted. I wanted you, but you rejected me… It hurt my vulnerable feelings, you know.”

“I’m sure”, she said dryly. “You’re a spoiled baby, Fang.”

“Yes, yes – that might be so. But I know something about Zelena you don’t.” He laughed at her inquiringly expression. “You’re still young, High Priestess. One day… One day I’ll tell you.”

In the next instant the air shimmered and instead of a man there was a white tiger standing in front of her. The animal seemed to grin at her, with wickedly green eyes. She felt no fear, seeing it. Fang might be reckless, but he never hurt a human being.

“Run off with you, you beast”, she mumbled. The tiger growled, a thundering noise that shook the room – and in the next moment there was a blinding with light. When the light subsided and Bel could see normally again the tiger was gone.

Part Two

Second Meeting

“No, no, no… Deyna, not like that.” Cat sighed and reluctantly rose from the cushioned bench along the wall, where she’d been lying nurturing her hangover. She’d momentarily fooled herself that she could lean back for a catnap and let the youngest princess manage the art of throwing knives on her own, but… It had been a short lived fantasy.

They were in one of the training-rooms at the ziggurat. The pyramid contained different kind of chambers; some secret, some sacred, other private only for the imperial family… And some were training chambers for Panthera, the White Tigers or the Cobra Squad – the third faction of warriors at the Imperial Court. The White Tigers consisted of both men and women, while the Cobra Squad was an elite force with only men – just like Panthera only recruited women. The Cobra Squad served the nobility, but they were dedicated to Mara – in the same way Panthera served the youngest princess, but belonged to Nidae.

There was a friendly competition taking place between the three bands and in a few days there would be a great ceremony where they’d try their skills against one another. One of Cat’s friends was a warrior in the Cobra Squad: Para, who once had teased her about her mismatched eyes. She was looking forward to showing him who was the best fighter – still.

“It feels as if I’ve done this a hundred times”, the teenage princess complained. “Why can’t I get it right?”

Deianara – Deyna, to those who knew her – was a lanky girl at the age of seventeen. She had her mother’s fair complexion and was one of the few in Goddara with blonde hair and blue eyes – a heritage from her mother’s side of the family, who originated from the kingdom of Ling on the other side of the Sea of Whales.

“’Practice, practice and again… more practice’”, Cat quoted pulling the throwing knives from the board on the wall where the princess had placed them after her last throw – way off the mark in the centre.

“Let me guess – the venerable Captain Katanya’s words?” Deyna said, arching a fair eyebrow at Cat as the warrior joined her.

“Most definitely.” Cat scratched the back of her head, flinching a little when a loud “whoop” was heard from the opening to the adjacent chamber only fifteen feet away.

“Hard night, huh?” the girl asked sympathetically.

“Huh”, Cat said noncommittally, regaining her composure. “Look now”, she said, showing the princess the knives in her hands.

“You know, I don’t understand why I need this. I mean, I’ll be a goddess soon – I don’t need weapons to defend myself.”

“And this wasn’t my idea, either”, Cat said ironically, arching a pointed eyebrow at the girl. “Remember? You were the one who wanted to impress your family on the Day of the Divine. We’ve been practicing for this for five weeks – are you saying you want to give up? Just like that?”

Deyna blushed. “Um, no?”

Cat sighed. “I was asking you, princess.”

“Fine.” Deyna gave in with a sigh. “But I’m not doing this because I want to. She told me to.”

Cat was immediately alerted, forgetting her hangover. “She? You mean…?” She slowly inhaled, to calm her suddenly racing pulse.

“Yes”, the girl said annoyed, nodding. “The High Priestess of Nidae. I don’t get it – why must I practice with weapons?”

Cat didn’t answer right away – her thoughts were with the redhead High Priestess. It had been more than twelve years since the High Priestess brought her to the Captain of Panthera. In twelve years she hadn’t stood eye to eye with the priestess again, but she hadn’t forgotten about her. She had seen her sometimes, in the distance – red hair still like flaming fire… In those years her feelings about the other woman’s beauty had changed from childish adoration to something more… tangible. It had taken her years to realize that she wasn’t attracted to men, as was usual, but to women, and that her need to see the High Priestess probably had something to do with that.

Cat hadn’t talked to anyone about her need to look the High Priestess in the eyes again, but she desperately wanted to see the woman just to know… To know what? And what would she say? “I think I have a childish infatuation on the most forbidden woman in the empire…” Katana would laugh at her – and tell her to fight it off in the arena. It was madness, she knew. How could she long for a woman she’d only met for a few hours – twelve years ago?

“Why don’t you ask her about it?” Cat said, finding back to the present moment. Since she was Initiated to run with Panthera, when she was nineteen, she’d formed a close bond with the youngest princess. The Captain had chosen her to tutor the girl in the use of martial arts and weaponry. Cat had always believed it had been on the command of the Emperor himself, but with Deyna’s words in mind she wondered.

“Are you mad?” the girl said with a shiver. “No one just asks the High Priestess of Nidae something like that. We do what she says, no questions asked.”

“So I’ve heard”, Cat mumbled, still wondering about the woman she’d met so many years ago. She didn’t remember anything about her to be afraid of – except for the one warning glance.

“I’m to be Initiated to be a goddess when I’m eighteen. I don’t need weapons to defend myself, I could just use my powers”, the princess said, sulking.

“Fine – see it this way: I’m very good at using the sword, but if I lost it and didn’t know how to fight with my bare hands, or how to use the knives, I’d be dead in combat. It’s no good being too dependent on one thing. Maybe the High Priestess just wants to be sure you know how to defend yourself even if you lose your powers.”

The young princess grumbled. “I wish I could use my powers to throw those knives… but she won’t even allow that.”

Cat laughed. “That’d be to miss the whole point of practicing.” She shook her head. “Listen – I’ve had my period of training and initiations, princess. I know what it’s like. Believe me, once you’re fully Initiated it won’t seem so bad. Just be patient.”

You’re telling me to be patient?” the girl said, sarcastically arching an eyebrow at her. “There’s no one more impatient than you – except Fang.”

Cat laughed. “I know, I know – but believe me, it will be better once you’re a goddess. Then you don’t need the High Priestess to dictate your movements. Do you?” she asked curiously when she noticed the younger girl twitching.

“I’m afraid, Cat.”

“Of what?” Cat asked, although she had a feeling she knew. She’d been through a really rough time when the Captain trained her. Just because you trained with Panthera didn’t automatically mean that you’d be chosen to become one of the band. Cat had considered giving up her dreams many times before she finally got the tattoos on her cheeks that showed she’d been Initiated and chosen to run with the pack. She also remembered the pride and the sense of glory getting those tattoos – and the feeling that whatever rough times she’d been through had been worth it to become a Leaping Panther. But her initiations couldn’t even be compared to the things Deyna must face.

“Of the final Initiation”, the girl said. “She said that if I’m not ready when the time comes… then I’ll die.” The girl touched her own face, gently caressing the white scar on her right cheek: a burn mark in the shape of a crescent. “I got this before I could even walk. She gave it to me. I know it’s stupid to say I remember that first initiation because I wasn’t even six months old, but I do. And then, when I was five, there was the other test in the temple… And again when I was seven. It was then that she became my teacher, you know…”

“I know”, Cat said softly. She’d been in training herself then, knowing nothing of the princess – and caring even less.

“All those tests… Not once did she congratulate me, not once did she say I was doing well or that she’s…” Deyna swallowed. “Or that she’s proud of me. She treats me like I’m already grown up, already a goddess. But I don’t want to be like her, Cat. She’s so… hard. She’s so cold.”

“There must be something good about her”, Cat mumbled. She remembered a chuckle. She remembered soft fingers caressing her cheek. Could a woman change that much?

“No.” Deyna shook her head. “Even the deities fear her, did you know that?”

“No, I didn’t”, Cat said with a frown. “Are you supposed to tell me that?” she added.

“Fang told me”, Deyna went on as if she didn’t hear Cat’s question. “One of the reasons why people fear the deities is because the divine can read the minds of the common people.”

Cat nodded. “So?”

“The deities can’t read her mind. She knows how to block them out – and she can hear them.”

“I don’t follow you… Can she read the minds of the deities?”

“Not exactly, but she can hear them sometimes if they talk to each other, or if they think too intently on something when they are close to her.”

“Fang told you this?”

“Fang tells me everything”, Deyna said flatly. “He’s trying to get me into bed.”

Cat blinked. “Princess”, she said warningly and Deyna laughed aloud.

“You should see your face right now, Cat!”

Cat relaxed a little. “I just don’t want to get the blame for having a bad influence on you.”

Deyna grinned. “No one would blame you if I went to bed with Fang”, she said. “If I went to pretty Ravena, on the other hand…”


The girl laughed. “Got you!”

“Holy Tiger”, Cat mumbled good naturedly.

“I can’t be with a man until the final Initiation”, Deyna said. “Otherwise I’ll lose my powers.”

“Really?” Cat arched an eyebrow at her. “Well, well – do you think that applies to being with a woman as well?”

Deyna actually blushed at that. “I’m not taking a chance”, she mumbled.

“O-ho!” Cat grinned. Then she winked at the girl. “I’m sure the High Priestess only tells you this not to have you sleeping around, like Fang.”

“No, it’s actually true. It happened to my sister. The High Priestess was training her to be a goddess when Mara seduced her…”

“Mara?” Cat said surprised.

“He’s quite handsome”, Deyna said. “Not as active as Fang, but…” She shrugged. “You know. My sister lost her powers and her chance at being a goddess.”

“Maybe she didn’t want to be”, Cat mumbled, wondering if the High Priestess had seen it coming.

“But I do. I want it more than I want to share Fang’s bed.”

“I wonder how Fang managed to keep his virginity until he was Initiated as a God”, Cat said, frowning.

“Oh, don’t you know? He was raised completely out of sight from women. He lived with a priest in the deep jungle, never seeing another human being at all until he was eighteen.” Deyna grinned. “They say that’s why he chases the women so – because he never knew them before.”

Cat shook her head. “Gods and their business. Come on, I’ll show you how to throw these knives before we both turn old and grey.”

“You’d like to meet her, don’t you?” Deyna suddenly said, looking gently at her.

Cat looked up with a guarded expression. “What do you mean?”

“I noticed you yesterday. You stood at the balcony to your chambers and you saw her walk by in the yard. I saw your face… You think she’s beautiful.”

“Deyna”, she breathed.

“It’s fine. I won’t tell anyone, but…” The girl shivered. “She scares me, Cat.”

“I know”, Cat said softly. “I know.”

Cat spent the next few hours practicing with Deyna, pushing the Goddess’ High Priestess out of her mind.

Cat had risen quickly in the ranks of Panthera. Her grandfather had been proud to hear that the Captain had taken her in, although he had wondered about how it had come about. Cat hadn’t told him; she wasn’t sure if Katana had done it, or even the High Priestess, but he had never asked her about it since she went away. For years she was trained and initiated in the toughest martial arts, learning to swing a sword, string a bow and throw the knives like a master. The Captain had taken a special interest in her, training her herself – which had never happened before. There had always been a special bond between them, but also some kind of… Cat would name it rivalry when she grew older. In one way they were as close as sisters, in another they couldn’t bridge the invisible gap dividing them. Cat was not a person who easily made close friends, though she had a lot of casual friends all over the empire. Though she was close to the members of Panthera it was really only Serafine she’d call a friend – and Katana. Outside the band she had Para, of course. They’d kept in touch over the years, although they belonged to different factions and had been claimed by different deities. Para had been claimed by the snake god.

Cat’s Naming had taken place the day before her tenth birthday – at the temple of the White Tiger. Fang had finally claimed her as his – and Named her Cath Ciardha: the Dark Warrior. She preferred to be called Cat.

“Well done, Deyna”, she praised as the girl nailed three of the knives in a row at the centre. “It’s seems you finally got it.”

The princess grumbled. “Finally! When it’s only two days left…”

“Oh, it’s the technique that’s difficult to master – once that’s done the rest is just practice.”

“It took me five weeks, Cat!”

“So? You can’t be perfect at everything at once.” Cat grinned, really enjoying being the teacher for once; she remembered her own frustration as she struggled with the sword and the knives. To master the longbow had taken her ages. “You’ve done well, girl.”

When the girl only shook her head and turned away Cat frowned. Deyna had seemed a little down the few past weeks; usually she was cheerful and full of optimism – the one always teasing Cat about her girls, the late nights and the hangovers.

“Are you alright, girl?”

“No”, the girl answered with a sigh, sitting down on the bench where Cat had been resting a few hours before. “No, I’m not. I’m…” She threw out her arms with a desperate look on her face; there were tears in her eyes. “I have another test coming up next week and I’m… She’s pushing me so hard! I can’t… I don’t know if I’ll make it, Cat.” Deyna sighed, leaning her elbows on her thighs and shaking her head. “It’s too much for me. And then my parents… They’re so overprotective, I can’t ever do anything. Like now.” She straightened up and made a sweeping gesture with her arm around the room. “I’m not here alone. There’s six guards outside this chamber, waiting for me – guarding me, wherever I go. I’m never alone. Do you know what that’s like?”

Cat shook her head. “No”, she said softly, sitting down beside the girl. “I don’t.” She hesitated. “You never… You never complained before.”

“I’m not supposed to. Besides – what can I do? I’m not in charge of my life – everyone else is!”

“Maybe it’s about time we do something about it, then”, Cat said, rising with her hand on the hilt to her sword. She looked down at the younger girl with a resolute face. “Tonight – you’re going carousing with us!”

Deyna blinked. “What? I can’t do that! My parents would never…”

“They won’t know”, Cat interrupted. “What they don’t know won’t harm them.”

The princess frowned. “You really mean it.”

“Of course!”

“No. No, it’s tempting and I’d love to come, but…” Deyna shook her head. “No. She’d have my head if she ever found out.”

“And who would tell her? The band is sworn to protect you. So – we protect you by not telling.” Cat shrugged. “Makes sense to me.”

Deyna arched an eyebrow at her. “Go carousing with you? That makes sense to you?”

“Oh – burning Snakes!” Cat threw out her arms. “You’re seventeen, by the blood of the Bat! You’re not a child, girl. At your age I’d already bedded half of…”

“Fine! I don’t want to hear about that.” Deyna rose hastily, gesturing at Cat to shut up. “It’s not the same…”

“What’s not the same? Normal girls of Goddara know how to live life at the age of thirteen. They’re old and mature and usually married at your age.”

“Yeah – normal girls! I’m not normal, Cat. I’m…”

“Who said? Huh? Who said you aren’t normal?” Cat eyed the princess. “You look normal to me.”

“Well, I’m not and you know that”, Deyna said crisply. Her tone of voice made Cat blink, before she nodded.

“True”, she said. “That’s true, I shouldn’t pretend you are, but sometimes… What I mean is this, sometimes we need to do things that make us feel normal – even if we’re not. You need a break, princess. Otherwise you’ll break.”

“The Captain will know. She’ll tell.”

“She won’t be with us tonight. She’s having a boring meeting with the Priesthood and your parents. Something about the war in Egara and what they can do to prevent it from reaching us. Look…” Cat placed her hands on the princess’ shoulders and looked her in the eyes. “It’s up to you, but I’m telling you this: in life we sometimes need to take some risks. Otherwise we’ll never learn what life is really about. Or what we’re truly made of. Life is more than duty and responsibilities.”

Deyna hesitated. “I really would like to come”, she said, uncertainly.

“Fine. That settles it then”, Cat said, patting the girl on her shoulder. “Leave it to me and I’ll arrange for…” She silenced as she realized Deyna wasn’t listening to her anymore. There was a blank expression on the girls face and Cat turned her head to see what she was looking at.

“Priestess”, Deyna said and bowed her head.

Cat caught her breath as she noticed the red haired woman in the opening to the chamber.

“Princess Deianara”, the High Priestess of the goddess of the Dark Moon said, nodding slightly. “Are you making any progress?”

The voice was low and noncommittal, but Cat remembered it and was transported several years back in time – again being a child standing in front of the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen. Although, this time she viewed the priestess with very different eyes…

Before Cat could stop herself her eyes traveled up and down the body of the other woman, seizing her up.

The High Priestess of the goddess Nidae was dressed in a dark blue robe with long sleeves, tied with a brighter blue ribbon at her waist. The material seemed soft and clung to her body, showing off curves at her hips and the softer shape of her breasts. Bare skin was glowing at the throat and Cat let her eyes linger for a moment, before she looked up and realized that the other woman was aware of her scrutiny. Cat blushed heavily when she noticed the question in the High Priestess’ eyes and turned away.

“I…” she heard Deyna say beside her and then noticed the strange, surprised expression on the princess’ face as she looked at her.

“Yes?” the High Priestess said, still in the same even, noncommittal voice.

“I… believe I have”, Deyna hastily said.

“As expected. Carry on.”

Cat glanced over her shoulder, still flustered, and felt a stabbing disappointment when she realized the High Priestess was already gone.

’As expected’”, Deyna said with a grimace, imitating the priestess. “Count me in tonight, Cat – I’m so gonna show her. And”, she added, turning to Cat, “what in the world of deities happened to you? I’ve never, ever seen you blush like that. I didn’t believe you could.”

“Neither did I”, Cat mumbled. “Bat eyes and bloody Snakes!” she grumbled. “I didn’t show her the least respect, only turning my back on her. She must think I’m a complete ogre.”

“Yeah”, Deyna said dryly, “that’s what everyone thinks seeing you. You know, knowing her she probably didn’t even notice you were in the room.”

Cat looked up at the princess. “Is that supposed to help?” she asked.

Deyna narrowed her eyes at her and Cat twitched a little; she knew the princes’s training to become a goddess involved practicing reading people’s minds. Deyna probably knew what she was thinking in regards to the High Priestess. “You know, I don’t have to tell you she’s the last woman ever you should get involved with, do I? First she won’t even look at you as if you’re human, much less a woman… much less someone she’d be attracted to. She’s got a heart of stone, ask anyone. Prince’s have knelt before her, pleading that she should grant them even a hair from her head.”

“Really?” Cat said, trying to sound non-interested while she already knew all the rumors that surrounded the High Priestess. They’d grown in numbers over the years.

“Really. Fang always says she’s as dead as driftwood below the belt. I’d say she’s as dead all over… She doesn’t see people as people, but as… I don’t know, pieces on a board, perhaps. And, secondly, she is a priestess – and High Priestess no less. That means she’s married to her calling. And third…” Deyna shook her head. “You don’t need a third. But why, Cat – why her?”

“I don’t know!” Cat threw out her arms in exasperation. “I don’t even know her and from what you say…” She shook her head in defeat. “It doesn’t matter, does it? I’ve only seen her close once in these twelve years – today. With my luck I’ll be forty the next time…”

“Why is that? Why haven’t you looked for her? You could’ve asked to be blessed by her, or something.”

“I…” Cat hesitated, lowering her head. “I haven’t been ready. She’s this… icon for me, Deyna. I’ve lived with this image in my head for such a long time and I’m afraid it will shatter if I see her, if I… get to know her. You know?” she looked up.

“I don’t get this”, the girl said honestly. “Look at you – you’re… You’re a female Fang, seducing all women before they know what’s going on. You’re confident and strong – I’ve never seen you like this.”

“I’ve watched her in secret for many years”, Cat revealed. “Every chance I get. She’s… She’s the most perfect being I’ve ever seen. Like a goddess, Deyna.”

Deyna arched an eyebrow at her. “Sure – a goddess of Ice, if there was a deity like that. You should just get to know her and you’ll see she’s not this perfect woman you’ve made up. It’ll save you a lot of heartaches.”

Cat nodded. “You’re right. I will. I’ll seek her out, talk to her, get to know her…” She nodded again, as if to verify her decision. “I’ll do it”, she said.

“That’s a promise, then”, Deyna said and clasped Cat’s hand. “I’ll break all rules for tonight, save sleeping with Fang, and you’ll talk to her tomorrow.”

“Huh? What? Wait!”

The princess laughed, shaking Cat’s hand. “Too late! We’ve made a pact.”

“Bloody Bats and Tigers’ claws”, Cat mumbled.

* * * * *

Bel turned away from the training room with a slight frown on her face. Twelve years… Had it been that long since she caught the orphan girl dressed in rags in her temple?


“Oh, sorry Katana – I didn’t hear you.” Bel stopped and turned to the Captain catching up with her in the corridor.

“Everything fine?”

“Yes, thanks. I was just thinking… Remember that girl, the one with the mismatched eyes? I haven’t thought about her for a long time.”

“You forgot about her?” The blonde warrior arched an eyebrow at her. “Knowing you I find that hard to believe.”

Bel smiled a little, still distracted. “I didn’t forget, it’s just that in my mind she was still a girl and seeing her now… I didn’t realize she was all… grown up.”

Katana glanced over shoulder at the opening to the training room further down the hall. “Yeah, she’s quite the woman. She’s turning the heads on many young girls, I tell you that.”

“Girls?” Bel said surprised, halting in the corridor. “Oh”, she added, realizing something. “That’d explain it.”

“What?” Katana asked curiously as they moved forward along the hall again.

“I believe she was eyeing me out. I wondered about that…” Bel mumbled.

“What? Cat was eyeing you…” The Captain burst out laughing. “Oh, she’ll never hear the end of this one!”

“Be nice to her, Katana”, Bel said slightly amused. “I don’t want to embarrass her. Just don’t mention it to her.”

Katana snorted. “You don’t know that girl, Bel. It takes more than that to embarrass her. You know, she was never interested in a man and then suddenly, when she returned from the wars, she told me she’d slept with a woman.” The warrior shook her head in disbelief. “Before that day I swear there weren’t a handful of women who preferred other women in Goddara, but now… One smile from Cat and there’s a multitude ready to commit murder to sleep with her.”

“Ah, quite the charmer, is she?”

“I’m surprised she didn’t give you an offer…” Katana glanced at Bel, who had a hard time keeping a straight face seeing her friend so curious.

“She was actually blushing…”

“Blushing?” Katana stared at her with open mouth. “Blushing? Cat was… Wow!” She whistled and shook her head in disbelief. “I’d given anything to see that.”

“I’m sure you would”, Bel said dryly. “You seem to have an unhealthy interest in embarrassing your subordinates.”

“Quit sounding so… dull, priestess. People might get the wrong impression of you.”

Bel actually laughed at that. “And which impression would that be? That I’m a wicked witch with a heart of stone?”

“Something like that”, Katana said with an amused smile. “You know, it wouldn’t kill you to dispell that rumor…”

Bel made a swift gesture with her hand. “My friends know me, Captain Katanya. That’s enough. I don’t care about other people’s opinions.”

“Which is a good quality, but…”

“But what?” Bel arched an eyebrow at her. “You’re a woman in a high position, just as I. You know what’s demanded of us.”

“It’s not the same. Fine”, Katana added when she noticed Bel looking at her. “I won’t push you. I agree, you’ve had a lot on your plate the last few years. First the attempted assassination of the prince, then of the Emperor and then of the princess…”

“Don’t forget the one on Derac”, Bel added.

“I don’t”, Katana said more subdued. She shook her head. “I wouldn’t forget about that…”

Bel glanced at her and kept silent; she knew they were old wounds being pulled open. “The thing is, I… we need to stay alert. I can’t afford human emotions making me vulnerable.”

“Sometimes human emotions makes us stronger, more focused”, Katana objected, still in a low, slightly melancholy voice.

“Sure – and sometimes they don’t.” Bel sighed. “We deal differently with what is dealt to us. I’ve chosen my path and you… You’ve chosen yours.”

“And sometimes I regret it”, Katana said bitterly.

“And that’s something I can’t understand”, Bel said softly. Her friend looked up at her, nodding.

“I know you can’t and I’m still not sure if I envy you because of it – or pity you.”

They walked in silence for a while, each of them in deep thought.

“Still”, Bel finally said. “About the girl…”

“The oracle said the other day…” Katana said lowly. “The time is drawing nearer.”

“Yes.” Bel nodded. “We need to meet to discuss it, but not here and now. The walls… have ears.”

Katana nodded thoughtfully. “I never believed we’d come to this. To mistrusting each other. To suspecting spies amongst our inner ranks.”

“We’ve had peace and prosperity for more than thirty years. That’s far longer than any other of our neighboring kingdoms and empires had. Even disregarding the last twelve years… instability we’ve had peace for a long time.”

“Thanks to Barac Wei and the empress.”

“Also thanks to the gods and goddesses of this realm”, Bel pointed out. “No other kingdom accepts them and embraces them the way we do. The deities protect us as we serve them, it’s the perfect symbiosis.”

“In Ling they burned gods like Fang at the stake.”

“I’ve heard about that”, Bel said. “About goddesses being spiked on wooden crosses. Gods being torn to shreds by dogs pitched against them.”

Katana shook her head. “I remember. It was awful. They were called demons and persecuted.”

“Many of our deities have come as fugitives from other realms. They know how lucky they are to be treated with respect here in Kellara. They value their freedom and show humans respect. Others…” Bel hesitated.

“You’re thinking of Fang?”

“No – he has a good heart, even if he’s a little…” Bel made a face. “You know. No, I’m thinking of…” She silenced as they rounded a corner and stood face to face with a short, dark haired man of stocky physique. He was dressed in thick furs despite the warmth of the season, had long, thick hair falling around his face and down his back, a long beard covering half his face and he carried a staff in his left hand. He looked like a wild man from the mountain.

A second, younger and much cleaner man followed; he had clean shaven cheeks and nervous, green eyes.

“Bjorn”, Katana said, seeing the shorter man in furs before them.

“Hum”, the High Priest of Beorn the Bear muttered, noticing them. He arched an eyebrow at Bel and nodded in respect. She tilted her head to one side, watching him.

“You’ve been hiding in the thickets again, Bjorn”, she said, with only a hint of sarcasm. “Is Zelena still mad at you?”

The younger, slimmer and taller man swallowed nervously, bowing his head and lowering his eyes. “T-the H-high Priestess of F-fang has indeed sworn to turn him into a w-worm, y-y-your Highness”, he mumbled, only with a slight stutter.

“It serves you right for ruining her garden like that with your experimentations, Bjorn”, Katana said with a grin.

“How could I know those plants would turn out to be meat-eaters?” the priest grumbled.

“And that they wouldn’t stop growing”, Bel said. “She told me they ate several of her pigeons before she managed to kill them.”

The High Priest seemed to flinch at that and the priestess arched an eyebrow at him.

“You didn’t know?”

“No”, he rumbled. “I thought she was mad at me for ruining her flowerbed…”

“That too”, Katana said. She sounded serious enough, but one look at her told Bel she was trying hard not to burst into laughter.

“T-t-this is no l-laughing matter”, the younger man said. “Zelena was q-quite f-furious.”

Bel looked at the younger man, who was being trained to be the next High Priest of Beorn the Bear. His name was Cub and according to Zelena he was quite intelligent, but they both agreed there was something strange about him. Something not to be trusted. Bel had wondered why Bjorn would choose this young, nervous man to be his successor, but it was not her place to doubt the High Priest. Now, seeing how the young priest avoided looking at her, she wondered if he was nervous before her because of the rumors of her power or if he really had something to hide. Narrowing her eyes at him she decided it was time she found out.

“True, Cub”, she said. “It is better to stay out of Zelena’s way when she’s in a bad mood. But she won’t turn it against you on a day like this, when we are discussing serious matters. Your High Priest knows this.”

Cub glanced at Bjorn, who tapped his staff in the floor with a clicking sound. “Let’s move ahead”, the High Priest grumbled, taking the lead down the corridor. Cub hastily followed him.

“They’re an odd couple”, Katana quietly said as she watched them.

“It’s time to find out what Cub’s up to”, Bel said, just as soft.

“You don’t trust him?” The Captain glanced at her.

“No. He’s too… nervous. And he’s only been a priest for two years.”

“He doesn’t seem have the personality to serve the Bear”, Katana said thoughtfully. “His behavior is more similar to…”

“To Mara’s servants. That’s true…” Bel frowned. “Well, let’s move before we’re late.”

They hurried ahead, catching up with the High Priest and his whelp.

Not long after they’d met Bjorn in the corridor Bel and the Captain were seated at a large table in a grand hall. The ziggurat in which the meeting was held had been built several hundred years ago by an unknown people. It was said it had been constructed as a place of worship to those deities who’d existed before the current gods and goddesses. Bel had read about the deities in ancient, secret texts, but there wasn’t much said about them or the people that had worshiped them. Both the deities and the people had suddenly disappeared, as if overnight, and no one could tell what had happened to them. The texts stated they had simply returned to where they originated from – wherever that was.

The ziggurat had been used for different purposes since: as a tomb, a temple, a palace and finally – since Emperor Barac Wei was crowned – a cultural centre for training, studies and conferences. There were several secret chambers in the ziggurat, only known to the Initiated. The present chamber in which they held their meeting wasn’t one of those.

Bel looked around the room at the people gathered there. There were the twelve High Priests and Priestesses of the deities – thirteen with her: Zelena, High Priestess of the White Tiger; Bjorn, High Priest of the Bear; Snoek, successor of Orm, High Priest of the Cobra; Dun, High Priestess of the Owl; Mane, the High Priestess of Ebony, the horse goddess – and so on.

They were sitting at a table shaped like a horseshoe, with the Emperor and the Empress at the centre of the arch. To the left of the empress Cara, sat a man with short cropped, blonde hair, thin lips and with a pale scar from a burn wound across the right eye: the Emperor Barac Wei’s twin brother, Harkaitz Qadir. His wife, Jaquana Naga, was sitting on the right side of the emperor: a woman of fair skin, but with dark, long hair. She and Harkaitz had two children, the warrior Rhais and his sister Ravena, who was known for her beauty. Only one of them was present in the hall in that moment.

“We’ve been gathered here today to discuss events outside our peaceful Empire”, a voice from the middle of the chamber was saying, drawing Bel’s attention. A very thin, old man with white hair and gray beard was standing in the middle of the semicircle on the floor. He was dressed in red, the outfit of the chancellor – which was also the color of the Cobra – and held a scepter crowned with a yellow crystal in his hand. “As everyone is present I see no reason to delay the discussion. First, the Emperor wants to say a few words.”

“Afron looks a little pale today, I think”, the man sitting to the right of Bel was whispering to her. Derac Grayeyes, High Priest of the Goddess Nidae, was the twin brother of one of Katana’s foremost warriors: Serafine Grayeyes. Both of them were tall and lithe, with dark hair and skin – although Derac was fairer than his sister. Their names had been acquired due to the color of their eyes. Derac’s eyes were dark gray, like storm clouds or old silver. He had a gentle nature and very seldom raised his voice in anger or in impatience. His only weakness was his love for a woman he could never have, not only because he was a priest sworn to serve his goddess – but because the woman had made an oath to never sleep with a man. An oath she couldn’t break without forfeiting her life.

“He’s older than you and me together”, Bel mumbled. “And Barac Wei.”

“So I’ve heard”, Derac said amusedly. He was dressed in his usual long, dark cloak, which was decorated with embroideries of tiny, flying bats in silver on the collar. “He looked old even when we were children. Still” – the amused tone left his voice and his gray eyes were filled with concern. “Age must take its toll on him.”

“I’ll talk to Gebra Healerhands about it”, Bel said. “I’ll have her look after him.”

“He won’t like it”, Derac mumbled warningly, but then their attention turned to the emperor as Barac Wei rose from his seat.

Barac Wei had not yet turned twenty years old when he was crowned Emperor after his father’s death, but he had done wonders for their empire – creating peace and keeping it for thirty years. He was tall and enigmatic, with an even temper and a righteous mind. He and his wife Cara had eight children – seven of them were girls. And one of them had the potential to become as great as the goddess Nidae. If only she could learn to master her abilities, Bel thought distractedly.

Bel only listened to Barac Wei with half an ear. She knew why they were gathered: to discuss the army of Egara, which was moving towards their boarders. Egara and Sum were the two neighboring kingdoms in the east. They’d been busy making war on each other and on other kingdoms for years, but two years ago a new king was crowned in Egara and he wasn’t like the rest of them – he was a High Priest of Sharptooth, the Crocodile. With little effort he had conquered Sum and the kingdoms of the east and was now turning his attention towards the west.

Egara and the crocodile god wasn’t what worried Bel. She, one of few, knew they had much graver problems to deal with closer to home. Problems it wasn’t possible to share with the common people lest panic and maybe civil war would arise. The troubles had begun twelve years ago with the escape and exiling of Orm, the former High Priest of Mara. Since then almost all of Nakkara Rims visions had been destructive. They’d been forced to counteract those visions by trying to figure out when in time they’d take place and then to forestall the events to play out as Nikka had Seen them. This way they’d saved several lives over those twelve years, but it was always a race against time and unseen forces.

Bel and Derac were sure Orm was somehow responsible for the events – assassination attempts, strange deaths threatening to turn into plagues, extreme weather changes and so forth – but they had no proof. Likewise they were sure he had spies and saboteurs in the different factions of the Priesthood as well as in the Imperial Court. What worried Bel the most was if Orm still acted on orders from Mara the Cobra, the snake god. If the god was involved… If one god was busy wreaking havoc on the humans no one could tell what would happen if the rest of the deities interfered. It could create chaos – it would disturb the whole order and… And everything would be lost.

Bel shivered, trying not to think of the indecisive future ahead of them.

“And this is the situation…” Barac Wei said, before he sat down.

Afron the chancellor stepped forward again. “Now the Imperial Couple would like to hear the opinion of the Priests and Priestesses gathered here today. Varga, would you like to begin?” he reverently asked the High Priestess of Lupus the Wolf and pointed with his scepter at a sharp faced woman with slanted eyes. The woman rose from her seat beside blonde Zelena and nodded shortly.

Only High Priests and Priestesses were seated around the table, the others – priests or priestesses trained to be successors, like Cub, or warriors like Katana and Rhais – stood in rows in front of the semicircle, in front of the opening created by the horseshoe shaped table.

Bel noticed Nakkara Rim in one of the rows, between Cub and a young woman in a light blue dress. The oracle’s eyes were staring unseeing ahead of her and Bel knew she was dealing with the Sight. There was always a lot to be Seen when so many people gathered at one time, especially when dealing with matters that concerned life and death.

“Conclusively it’s the opinion of Lupus that we strengthen our boarders in the east, towards Sum, but more importantly towards Egara.”

The emperor nodded thoughtfully at Varga’s words and the woman sat down.

“Lupus’s High Priestess has spoken”, Afron said. “She has a valid point…”

Bel glanced at Katana, who was standing in one of the rows between a large, bald man and a more slender red-haired man. Both of them were warriors: the bald man was Named Meri Bahram, but preferred to be called Bor. He was Chief of the Cobra Squad. The other, the redhead with a short, neatly trimmed beard, was Hades – leader of the White Tigers, the elite force protecting the empire.

Katana was looking straight back at Bel. The Captain’s face was impassive, but the priestess knew what she was thinking. With Egara as a threat in the east the emperor would most likely be forced to send most of his White Tigers to the boarders. This would weaken the defenses in Goddara. No one could attack from the sea in the west, but the threat Bel feared wasn’t coming from the outside. It came from within.

“This is going to take ages”, Derac mumbled at her side. Politics was one of the few things that bored him and made him impatient. He didn’t believe politics and religion belonged together and believed politics had a negative impact on the souls of those who strove to be pure instruments of the deities. Bel didn’t always agree with him, but the two of them complemented each other in their work and both of them learned much from working with the other. She nodded at his side, but was then alerted when Zelena rose to speak.

“The reverend chancellor voiced the thought I believe most of us are considering”, the High Priestess of Fang was saying. “Although… I don’t agree.”

There was a soft mumble of voices and the faint rustle of clothes as people twitched in their chairs.

“Sending all of our best warriors to the boarders leaves us wide open to other dangers. My suggestion…”

“Excuse me, High Priestess”, a smooth voice said to the left of Bel and she turned her head to look at Snoek, High Priest of Mara. “What ‘other’ dangers are your referring to? Egara and Sum lie in the east. Our coast in the west is protected by sharp cliffs, nothing can pass. From where would this ‘other’ danger come? Prey tell, please, Zelena.”

Zelena turned her sharp, blue eyes at the thin, dark haired man. She opened her mouth to speak, but was forestalled by Afron.

“High Priest Snoek”, the chancellor reproachfully said, looking sternly at Snoek. “You know the rules – everyone is entitled to put forward his or her opinion before the actual debate. Take note as usual and bring forth any questions you have later on. Understood?”

“Yes, Chancellor”, the smooth talking man said with a quick, flashing smile at Zelena. “My apologies, High Priestess.”

Zelena narrowed her eyes at the man, but then turned back towards the emperor and resumed her speech.

“With Zelena and Bjorn we are four”, Derac whispered to Bel. “It won’t be enough. Not even if both the emperor and the empress take our side.”

Bel softly shook her head. “They won’t. They can’t. If they do it’s a signal to whoever is the traitor that they suspect something. It would mean another attempted assassination… No, this fight is entirely up to us, Derac. Barac Wei’s first duty is to protect the empire and the people. He must act accordingly. It’s our duty to protect his family.”

Derac made a face. “I’m a priest, not a warrior, Bel. I only want to water my plants and watch them grow. In peace.”

“I know, Derac”, she said with a sigh. “I know.”

“Danger comes in many shapes”, Zelena was saying. “Not the least in being naïve. We can’t do as the turtle and hide our head and limbs inside our shell and hope the danger goes away. We must face it. But first we must acknowledge it.” The blonde woman glanced at Snoek to her right. “A nectarine may at first sight seem perfect like a jewel, but sight might be deceitful and the perfect image may hide a rotten core.”

“Well spoken, Zelena”, Bel mumbled.

“Indeed”, Derac agreed with a slight nod.

Fang’s High Priestess looked towards the Imperial Couple at the centre and nodded before she sat down.

That will stir the pot”, Bel whispered and Derac nodded silently, but then sighed. Bel glanced at him. “What?”

“I just realized… It’ll only create more discussion – and hold me here even longer than I anticipated. Bats and Ebony’s tail!”

Part Three


“Bottom up, princess!” Cat said with a laugh, lifting her own tin cup high above her head and tilting her head backwards. She was standing on a bench by a table in a private room at the Five-legged Tiger.

“Cat! Cat! Cat!” the group of female warriors around the table shouted, banging their fists on the table. All of them had tattoos of leaping panthers on their cheeks.

Cat opened her mouth and let the beer pour down her throat in an even flow. She didn’t spill a drop; she’d had several years of practice. “Done!” she said as she dried her mouth with the back of her hand and put down the cup on the wooden table. “Six. And you, princess?” She grinned at the teenage girl standing opposite her on the bench. The girl made a face; she was drenched in beer.

“Do you count the amount I actually managed to get into my mouth – or how many cups of beer I’ve just showered myself with?” Deyna asked sarcastically.

“Both”, Cat laughed. “Both, princess.”

“That’d be a half and six”, the princess said with a grin, earning applause from the women around the table.

The Five-legged Tiger was a brothel named in honor of Fang; the place was one of the god’s favorite spots to hang out. Members of Panthera had their own private room at the brothel, where they held private parties open only to members of their band – or for special guests. Like the princess Deianara.

The brothel was placed in the middle of the city, close to the royal area – it was even rumored there was a secret tunnel from the brothel to the palace, but no one seemed to know if it was actually true. Cat had been curious and tried to find out, but had never succeeded in finding anything. If anyone would know it would be Katana, but the Captain refused to tell.

“Six!” Cat called, waving towards one of the female servants waiting on them to get a refill on her beer. “Not bad for a virgin, Deyna.”

“Hey!” the young princess said, faking offence. “That was told in confidence!”

Cat laughed as the tall, dark haired servant filled their cups with more beer. When the woman looked up at her Cat winked at her, making her blush. The young waitress was new at the brothel and had yet to learn how to flirt properly with those female guests who preferred other women in bed. There weren’t many of them in Goddara, but Cat’s intensity had increased the number over the years.

“What’s your name, pretty?” Cat asked, smiling at the woman.

“Urza, lady.”

“Lady!” Deyna called incredulously. “She’s no lady! I’m a lady.”

“You’re certainly not behaving like one at the moment”, Cat said, grinning, and then added: “And you most certainly don’t look like one.”

Deyna looked down at her ruined outfit: once clothes of silver and blue, now only a sagging mess. “And whose fault is that?” she asked dryly. “When you invited me I didn’t expect to shower in beer.”

“It’s the initiation”, one short, dark skinned woman at the table said. “All girls in this room must go through it.”

“Hurray”, Deyna said sarcastically, squeezing the beer from her shirt. “Another initiation.”

Cat laughed, turning back towards the waitress. “I’m Cat, at your pleasure”, she said. Taking Uzra’s hand she raised it to her lips. She pressed a soft kiss on the back of the woman’s hand, again winking. The young woman blushed, but then laughed and curtseyed before she left the chamber.

The waitress left and another female warrior entered the room. She was dark and beautiful, with slanting eyes the color of gray marble – almost silver – and with leaping panthers tattooed on her cheeks. Cat laughed, seeing her, and waved. The woman grinned as she noticed Cat on the bench, but then she narrowed her eyes at the princess and quickly moved into the room.

“Cat”, she said in a low, almost purring voice, and tilted her head to look at Deyna. “Why is the princess here?”

“Oh”, Deyna said, glancing worriedly at Cat. “Didn’t you tell…?”

“She needed a break from Court life, Serafine”, Cat said carelessly, winking at the other woman. “Come, show her your new tattoo – she was thinking of getting one.”

“I was not!” the princess objected and blushed as the warriors gathered around her laughed. “I was not”, she mumbled, glancing at Serafine.

The gray eyed woman softly shook her head. “Cat”, she said in the same purring voice as before and in a swift motion she flew across the table, landing gracefully on the bench between Cat and Deyna, crouching. As she straightened up, there was an amused smile on her lips. “Why do you always get us into trouble, kit-cat?”

Cat grinned. “To keep you on your toes, of course. You’d be bored without me.”

“Most likely”, the woman said, turning to Deyna. “Hey, princess”, she said winking.

Deyna blushed.

“Don’t flirt with her, Sera – she’ll lose her powers”, Cat said, grinning, as the princess’ blush deepened. Serafine laughed.

“Don’t worry, princess – you’re too young for me. I prefer… the graying kind.”

“Who’ve you been chasing lately, sister?” Cat asked, gesturing to Deyna to sit down as she did the same.

Deyna was used to the Leaping Panthers – she’d been raised with them following her around her whole life – but she’d never spent time with them in such a relaxing manner. They were warriors, trained to be constantly alert as they guarded her. There had never really been the time for them get more intimately acquainted with each other. A few hours before, when they arrived at the brothel, both Deyna and the group of Leaping Panthers that were with her had felt awkward and strange together. Then they’d taken residence in the private chamber, reserved for their band, and Cat began ordering drinks. Not before long the girl and the warriors had started getting along well.

The Five-legged Tiger was a place for those with a little more money and higher rank, but without belonging to the finer clubs. If one wanted real luxury one would visit Lady Goldfinger only a few streets away.

The building had two floors, several private bedrooms and several other chambers used for dinner parties or dances. The main room was placed on the first floor, right at the entrance. It was there the more inexperienced girls greeted the odd customers who only came once in a while or those who were only passing through the city. Guests who visited more frequently were brought to another lounge further in.

The chamber Panthera used for their private gatherings was placed on the second floor, adjacent to one of the larger parlors where well paying warriors usually spent their time carousing.

“I thought I’d try my luck at the emperor”, Serafine was saying, “but” – she shrugged – “we all know he’s faithful to his wife. I gave up that idea.”

“Thank you”, Deyna said dryly. “I wouldn’t want to hear about my father’s eventual affairs.”

Cat was surprised to actually notice Serafine blush.

“Hum, sorry, princess – slip of the tongue”, Serafine said. “I forgot who you were for a moment…”

“Yeah, guess it’s not easy to remember when I look like this.” Deyna sighed. “I’m never gonna get these clothes clean again.” She glowered at Cat. “And how did you think I was going to explain smelling like beer to my mother?”

Serafine laughed. “She probably didn’t think. Cat’s not famous for her thinking.”

“Hey!” Cat exclaimed.

“True”, Deyna said, laughing. “Fine, I forgive you your slip of the tongue.” Her eyes twinkled. “I want to know who you’ve got your oh so beautiful eyes set on.”

Serafine whistled, glancing at a surprised Cat. “Did you hear that, sister? Maybe I’ll reconsider my chase for more… mature preys and take a bite of the just ripened fruit.”

Cat expected Deyna to blush at that – or more likely, at the seductive look in the older woman’s eyes as she turned back to the girl – but the princess unexpectedly leaned forward on the table with her chin in the palm of her hand, smiling without breaking eye contact with Serafine.

“Really?” she said hoarsely. “And would you have a special… fruit in mind?”

Goddess! Cat thought, seeing the two of them. How much of that beer had the princess actually swallowed? “Fine – stop this right this minute. Sera – she’s a princess!”

Serafine turned her slanted eyes towards Cat, grinning. “So? It didn’t stop you, did it?”

“What?” Deyna sat straight up, staring wide eyed at Cat.

“Serafine!” Cat hissed, glowering at her friend.

“You seduced my sister?” Deyna asked. “By Fang’s white fur! Who? Which one of them?”

“Fine – you didn’t hear that”, Cat said, trying to avoid the topic. “You weren’t supposed to know…”

“Stop treating me like a stupid child!” Deyna stood up at the bench again, looking down at Cat with annoyance.

“Deyna”, Cat said, inhaling slowly.

“No! I’ve had enough. You’re just like her, treating me like…”

The rest of the princess words were drowned in a sudden cry from the adjacent room, followed by shouts from the corridor. Deyna silenced and abruptly turned around on the bench – too abruptly, apparently, as she lost her balance and stumbled backwards.

“Deyna!” Cat called, rushing to her feet.

“I’ve got her!” Serafine said, already standing and wrapping her arms around the princess. “Hey, pretty – careful with the beer. It’s strong if you’re not used to it.”

Cat hesitated as she noticed the princess relax in the warrior’s arms and waited to see what would happen. Deyna had been right: she hadn’t treated the girl with respect, but instead treated her like someone whose opinion didn’t matter.

“Are you good?” she heard Serafine ask in a low voice and Deyna nodded.

“Thank you. I didn’t behave very maturely right now, did I?”

Serafine chuckled. “We’re all entitled to lapses back into childhood every now and then. Believe me – Cat does it all the time.” Gray eyes met Cat’s mismatched ones and Serafine grinned. “Right, Cat?”

“All the time”, Cat said. “You know that, princess.”

Deyna huffed, but smiled too and said: “You sulk like a baby when you don’t get what you want.”

“Exactly.” Cat looked at the girl and the women standing close together, the one with her arms wrapped around the other. She considered telling them to step apart, but realized that it wasn’t any of her business. Serafine wouldn’t seduce the girl for all her seductive smiles and glances and Cat suspected Deyna wasn’t ready to be seduced. For one thing she’d have to wait until she’d become a full goddess. But a little groping and kissing wouldn’t hurt and if it was the first time for the princess – which Cat strongly suspected – then Serafine was a good teacher.

Serafine and Cat had never shared beds. From the first time they met they’d been best friends, almost like sisters, and there had never been a physical attraction between them despite the fact that both of them were very lucky with women. They had tried kissing once, just for the sake of it, but neither of them had felt anything and they settled with being close friends.

Now, as Cat noticed Serafine’s hands tighten the hold on Deyna she instead hid a smile; maybe the princess would get more than what she’d bargained for this night. Then the noise from the corridor drew her attention, when she realized there was a fight going on. Ordinarily there were a few fights each night at the brothel. It happened when you put too many warriors with too much alcohol and too many women in a room; it livened up the place a bit. The fights were usually cut short by the hired guards working there. A few times there had been serious injuries, but mostly the fights only involved fists, broken bottles and chairs, not other weapons.

“Something’s up”, Cat said cautiously as she heard the ringing of steel from the corridor. Again a loud, crashing noise was heard from the other room, then someone screamed and a moment later one of the female servants came rushing in; the tall, dark woman who’d served Cat and Deyna earlier.

“Cat!” she breathed, out of breath from running. “Cat – you must…!”

“What is it, Urza?”

The woman didn’t have time to answer before she was shoved out of the way by a heavily armed warrior, who was dressed in leather and steel, swinging a sword. The blade cut through Urza without difficulty, as if she’d been a blade of grass before the scythe.

Cat caught her breath, staring at the helpless expression on the woman’s face as she tumbled against the wall and slid down to the floor with glazing eyes. The next instant Cat was seeing red. She didn’t know who the warrior was or why he’d charged into their room, disturbing their private party – and she didn’t care. All she knew was that he was going to die. She drew her sword as she flew across the room, pulling one of her knives from the belt.

“Cat!” she heard the princess call behind her, but didn’t stop to consider what she was doing.

“Die!” she yelled, swinging her sword. The warrior blocked her attack, as expected – but he never saw the knife. With one swift motion she cut his throat. Blood sprayed her face, but she only felt the sweet power coming from surviving yet another fight to the death. Then she realized the warrior wasn’t alone. The corridor was full of fighting warriors. And now she heard the battle going on in the adjacent room.

Deyna! she thought, glancing over her shoulder. Serafine still held on to the girl, but now there was a terrified expression on the princess’ face. “Get her out of here!” she called to Serafine, waving with her knife. It was all she had time to do, before she was attacked by a group of foreign warriors.

Cat didn’t know how long she’d fought or how many she’d killed when she realized Deyna and Serafine were still in the room with her. The warriors kept coming from all directions. The whole brothel was involved in the fight; people were dying everywhere, warriors fought with blooded weapons and with blood smeared on their faces. It was full chaos around her.

Cat hadn’t seen anything like it since her time as a mercenary in Sum’s army, where she and some other members of her band – including Serafine – had served for a year. It was required of the warriors of Panthera to have been in war before becoming full members of the pack.

Cat had barely survived the wars she’d participated in, not because of any physical injuries but due to the toll it had taken on her psyche. To kill, and to see so many dying, had at one period made her doubt if she could ever use a sword again. The change – and the choice she’d had to make – had come when several of her friends, again including Serafine, were captured. Cat had been the only one who could save them. She braved desperate odds to do so and became a hero in the process, but her previously naïve idea about war as something glorious faded and died thoroughly as death on the last battlefield.

“Sera!” she called, making her way towards her friend, who fought back to back with Deyna. “Sera! You need to get her out of here!”

“I’m trying, Cat! They’re just too many!”

Cat quickly looked around the room: a couple of the band members lay dead beside her and she felt a cold stab at her heart seeing them. Behind Serafine the princess fought like a warrior with a knife in one hand and a sword taken from a fallen enemy in the other. She had a tear in the sleeve and was bleeding from a wound on the arm, but it looked like a superficial injury – for which Cat was grateful.

“Deyna!” she called, moving around a couple of dead bodies and killing an attacking warrior on her way to the princess. “You need to get out of here. Use your abilities…”

“I’ve tried, Cat! I’ve tried to use them in the fight, but I can’t! Something is blocking me.” Deyna ducked and swirled around, swinging her sword to ward off a woman warrior that came too close.

“Can you transform?” Cat asked a second later, when she managed to get a spare moment. Deyna stopped to look at her.

“I’m not leaving you!” she stated.

“You have to, Deyna. Someone needs to get help and these… whoever they are – they’re just too many! You have to go! For our sake!” At least to save your self, Cat thought, seeing the princess hesitate.

“But what about the rest of you?”

“We are sworn to protect you, Deyna”, Cat said, letting Serafine cover her and the girl for a brief moment. “This is what we get paid for.”

“Don’t say that”, the princess said with tears in her eyes.

“This is not the time to argue!” Serafine called. “Deyna – do as she says! By Mara’s bloody teeth – get out of here!

“Deyna”, Cat said, looking the girl in the eye. “Go, princess.”

It was all they had time for, before the room was stormed with another group of unknown warriors.

“Blood and bone and the Panther’s tail!” Serafine shouted. “Where are they coming from? Who are they? What do they want?”

“How should I know?” Cat yelled, scarcely avoiding getting her head chopped off. “Deyna!” she screamed, glancing over her shoulder. She noticed the stricken look on the princess’ face turn to determination as the girl nodded. “Cover her!” Cat shouted to the members of her band that were close enough to hear her – and close enough to make a difference. Six of them encircled Deyna as she let go of her weapons and raised her arms towards the ceiling.

Cat stood with her back towards the girl, fighting for her life in the most confusing and insane battle she could ever remember being involved in. The warriors only kept coming and there were no clue to who they were or what they wanted.


A lithe, blonde man slightly older than her made his way through the newly arrived group of warriors, killing as he went across the floor.

“Para!” Cat called. “By the gods – I’m glad to see you!”

“What is going on?” the young man asked. Then he noticed Deyna behind Cat’s back. “What is she doing here?”

“Don’t ask”, Cat said with resolution. “We just need to see that she gets out of here alive.” She glanced behind her and noticed the sweat dripping from Deyna’s forehead, wondering if whatever blocked Deyna’s powers also blocked her ability to shape-change. Then, in the same moment as she despaired to get the princess out of the mess she’d gotten her into alive, a flash of blue power swept through the room. A sphere of white and blue fire cascaded from the centre of the circle Cat and her friends created and in the next moment a gigantic hawk – silver white – shrieked as it flew through the room. It dove down on a warrior attacking Para and hacked out his eyes.

“Get out of here!” Cat shouted, throwing a knife to prevent a warrior from lifting his sword to aim at the bird. The knife took the warrior in his throat and he fell backwards. The hawk, still encircled by a sphere of blue fire, shrieked one more time and then dove out of the room through the door. The next moment it was gone and Cat could finally relax, letting go of her worry for the princess. There was nothing more she could do to protect Deyna – it was all in the hands of the deities now.

“Bats and Snakes!” she heard Serafine swear at her side and swirled around.

“Look out!” she called as she noticed a warrior with a crossbow in the doorway. “Sera!”

“Cat!” Para called. He had been separated from her when Deyna attacked the warrior assaulting him and was now trying to get back to her. His desperate shout was mingled with the sound of ringing steel and with battle cries from the corridor outside the chamber.

“Sera!” Cat shouted and threw herself in front of Serafine as the woman turned around. The arrow aimed at her friend took Cat in the shoulder. The impact threw her against Serafine and the two of them tumbled backwards; Cat heard Serafine’s soft gasp in her ear and felt the sting of the arrowhead in her shoulder.

“Cat…” Serafine whispered.

“I’m fine”, she quickly said, immediately coming to her feet. The arrow had gone straight to her shoulder without tearing any vital muscles; she would still be able to use her left arm, although it would hurt. “We need to…”

Whatever Cat intended to say was drowned in a sudden heavy gust of wind that swept through the room, accompanied by loud thunder. The two warriors Cat was struggling with were swept off their feet and thrown through the chamber. So precise was the wind that it swept one of the warriors – who was standing so close to Cat that her nose practically touched his – away without as much as ruffling Cat’s hair.

“Cat!” Serafine called through the thunder.

“What’s going on?” Cat asked, looking around with a bewildered feeling. Warriors were thrown through the room and pinned to the walls by an invisible force, but it was only the enemies that were affected.

“I think she is here”, Para said with a nervous glance over his shoulder. He lowered his sword and watched the door with a comprehensive look.

“I don’t know what’s going on”, Cat said. “But let’s...”

“Let’s not”, Katana said, suddenly standing in the doorway. She crossed her arms, nailing Cat with a blazing look. The Captain was dressed in her dress leather armor: the blue and black she only wore when leading her pack in procession at one or another ceremony. Her sword was in her belt, with the clasp locking it in its scabbard, and all of her knives were still in a row – untouched in her belt.

“Captain – she’s hurt”, Serafine said, stepping forward. Cat moved forward at the same time.

“Is she alright?” she asked worriedly, thinking of the princess.

“She is, but no thanks to you”, the Captain said, still with the same stern, unrelenting tone. At her side two warriors were pinned to the wall beside the door – their eyes were wide open and their mouths too, but they didn’t move or speak. They seemed held in a nightmare they couldn’t awake from. It was the same with the two warriors that had been swept away from Cat and the same with the others – some were held against the wall, others against the floor.

Katana’s eyes went to the arrow in Cat’s shoulder and she smirked.

“An arrow never stopped her before”, the Captain said in response to Serafine’s comment.

Cat shook her head. She didn’t care about her injury. “Who are those guys? What do they want? Holy Bats and burning Snakes! Why...?” She silenced abruptly as someone else entered the chamber behind the Captain.

“Cat – I’m sorry”, Deyna said pleadingly with tears in her eyes, but it wasn’t the princess Cat was staring at. She was staring at the red haired woman walking in front of the princess.

The High Priestess of Nidae looked around the chamber. She was wearing the blue robe Cat had seen her in before, carrying her staff in one hand. Her face was blank, showing no emotions at all – but her eyes... Cat swallowed.

“Get them out of here”, the High Priestess said, making a swift gesture with her free hand around the room. The warriors being pinned to the walls fell down, but didn’t land on the floor: they were held suspended in the air. The warriors on the floor were lifted up into the air – floating like reeds on a calm, mirror blank surface of water.

A group of priestesses in brown robes hurried into the room and flanked the floating warriors, who were now lined up in a row. There was a heavy silence in the room as the priestesses took the stiff suspended foreign warriors out of the chamber.

“Out”, the High Priestess said, indicating the band members of Panthera and those of the Cobra Squad who’d fought their way into the room together with Para. Para and Serafine stayed on each side of Cat. For moral support, she thought – as she had a feeling the High Priestess didn’t intend her to leave. For one thing Katana’s face told her not to move.

“Deyna”, the High Priestess said, without looking at the princess. She was looking at Cat now – and those green, blazing eyes burnt holes in Cat’s skull. “Go with Derac.”

Cat quickly glanced at the princess. She just wanted to see the princess’ reaction, she told herself; she was not looking away to avoid the priestess’ steely gaze.

Deyna had a stricken look on her face. There was blood on her cheeks, but she seemed unharmed.

“Go, Deyna”, Cat said gently and tried a reassuring smile. She wasn’t sure how it came out. “I’ll be fine. I’ll see you later.”

“No, you won’t”, the High Priestess said cuttingly. “You are not going near that girl again. Ever.”

Cat blinked and met the priestess’ gaze. Behind the woman Deyna turned away with a sob and hurriedly left the room.

“Are you aware you almost got her killed?” the High Priestess went on. The way she controlled the burning rage that was shown in her eyes scared Cat more than anything. She was used to people going berserk, or losing control when in the heat of the moment. Even Katana lost her temper and showed her anger in her movements and in her face, but this... This measured, strict mastery of such force Cat could see behind the eyes of the priestess was something new, something beyond her understanding. She knew now it was the High Priestess who’d pinned those warriors to the wall. The woman had done something the Leaping Panthers and part of the Cobra Squad hadn’t managed: defeated the warriors – on her own.

Cat had faced powerful people before, but she had always managed to find a weakness with them – they had held no power over her. It was different with this woman. Cat could feel the power brimming in the air around the High Priestess, but that wasn’t what frightened her. It frightened her that she had upset this beautiful woman.

Since when did I become such a weakling?

“I didn’t almost get her killed”, Cat said, holding the priestess’ gaze. “Those warriors did.”

She heard Serafine gasp softly behind her, but didn’t turn her head. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed Katana’s expression of pure fury. The Captain uncrossed her arms and took a step towards her, but was held back by the High Priestess. The woman hardly flicked a finger, but Katana came to an immediate halt.

“True”, the High Priestess said and Cat frowned uncertainly, hearing her agree with her, and wondered what game the priestess played. “That is most true, but if you hadn’t brought her here she wouldn’t have been in any danger. Do you agree with me?”

Cat paled. “Yes, and I’m sorry about that”, she said sincerely. “But…” she added, hesitating.

“No ‘buts’!” Katana exclaimed, obviously unable to hold her tongue any longer. “What were you thinking? By the Great Bat – you could’ve gotten her killed! You spoiled bastard, I should never have trusted you with such a responsibility. You’re a worse fool than I ever took you for!”

Cat blushed, being so humiliated in front of the High Priestess. She ignored the sudden queasiness that came over her and the immediate need to throw up. Ignoring the pain in her shoulder and her suddenly wobbly knees she stepped forward to answer the challenge. “Bats and bloody Snakes!” she said. “I was trying to help her!”

“Help? Help?” Katana moved forward and wasn’t stopped this time. “By bringing her here? And how would that help in any way?”

“Yes, tell me”, the High Priestess said, this time with bitterness and an icy chill in her voice. “How exactly does that help?”

Cat gasped, seeing the loathing in the beautiful woman’s eyes. “Because the princess is a prisoner in her palace!” she nearly shouted. “She’s worse off than a slave, behind all the luxury of her existence. This”, she said, pointing at the High Priestess, “is actually your fault, priestess!”

“Cat!” Katana warned in a low, controlled voice; Cat barely heard her.

“It’s your fault Deyna was here tonight”, she went on, holding the High Priestess’ gaze. “If you didn’t push her so hard, if you didn’t treat her like you do and scared her to death with your… whatever powers you have…”

“Cat! Enough!” Katana grabbed her arm, but Cat tore lose.

“What?” Cat said, glowering at her. “You know it’s true! What’s the matter? Are you afraid I’m embarrassing you in front of…”

“Cat!” she heard Serafine call out – and in the next moment she found herself on the floor with a split lip. She looked up at the Captain, tasting the blood in her mouth. She spat, drying her mouth with the back of her hand as Serafine crouched by her side.

“That is way out of line, soldier”, Katana said furiously, pointing down at her. Cat shook her head, feeling dizzy and disoriented – but also hurt. She’d earned several slaps from Katana over the years, but never since she’d become a full member of the pack. Katana was strict with her subordinates, but she seldom needed to discipline them – and she never did it in public.

“What?” Cat repeated, trying to get to her feet. Serafine supported her and Para reached to help her, but she waved him off. “You know it’s true. You know she… she…”

She suddenly felt the stabbing pain in her shoulder worse than before and flinched. Her knees gave way and she felt herself slipping into a slow darkness.


Serafine’s voice was far away.

“It’s the blood loss”, Para said; she could hardly hear him either.

“No, this is something else…” It was the High Priestess’ voice, clear and sharp.

Cat wanted to say she was sorry for Deyna, but she couldn’t find the words. She realized she was lying on her back, staring up at the ceiling, but she couldn’t see anything until the High Priestess’ face suddenly came into view.

“Poison”, she heard, far away, losing sight again.

I’m going to die, she realized. She gasped as she felt someone’s hand on her forehead, a gentle touch – cool against her fevered skin. Soft fingers brushed some dark curls out of her face. She opened her eyes, not realizing before then that she’d closed them, and looked into green, concerned eyes.

“Sshh”, the High Priestess said gently. “You’ll be fine.”

She wanted to shake her head, to tell the woman no one she knew of had survived the poison now coursing through her veins. “You…” she whispered, realizing there was something else she wanted to say – something more pressing.

“Don’t speak.”

She felt the soft touch of cool fingers on her lips and gasped anew in sudden, recognized desire, before the world went dark.

* * * * *

“The fool”, Katana was saying, looking down at the unconscious woman.

Derac’s sister – Serafine, Bel thought, correcting herself; she always thought of the woman as Derac’s sister – broke off the arrowhead and pulled out the arrow from the warrior’s shoulder, careful not to touch the sharp tip.

“I’m sorry she accused you”, the Captain said as Bel rose beside Serafine. “I never thought... She’s reckless and disrespectful, but I never thought she’d...” Katana silenced, glancing down at Derac’s sister, who was busy inspecting the arrowhead.

“She showed remorse, Katana”, Bel said thoughtfully.

“Remorse? She doesn’t know the word”, the Captain huffed.

“You were too busy being angry at her to notice. If she hadn’t shown remorse I wouldn’t bother with her now.”

Katana quickly glanced at her, trying to hide her surprise. “What do you mean?”

Bel looked down at the fallen warrior. “She needs to be taken care of immediately, otherwise she’ll die a horrible death”, she said, already knowing what poison had claimed the unconscious woman.

At the same time Serafine was looking up at them with pale cheeks; the tattoos dark against her skin. “It’s Tears of the Maiden, Captain”, she said in a trembling voice. “There’s no known cure for that.”

Bel heard Katana gasp beside her.

“Goddess – Cat...!” the Captain whispered in a choked voice Bel didn’t recognize.

“Move away, Sera”, she said, gesturing towards the woman on the floor. The male warrior who stood a few steps away, looking down at the two women on the floor, made a strained sound – it was strangely similar to a sob, Bel distractedly thought. She glanced at the man and noticed the pain in his eyes. Looking at him she found him oddly familiar, but she couldn’t remember ever meeting him before.

Derac’s sister rose, dropping the arrow on the floor beside her dying friend. Bel made use of her powers and wove strands of Air around the unconscious figure on the floor. As High Priestess she had certain powers – common people would call it magic, but to her it was simpler than that: it was the pure knowledge of how to make full use of the Creative Energy, of which every living thing consisted. Commonly called magic. Some needed to study to learn how to master the energy; others were born with the knowledge of how to use it, but did it only instinctively until they were trained to understand what they were doing.

Bel had been one of the latter. She’d heard the voice of the Goddess within her since she was very young – and the voice of other gods and goddesses later on – but she’d also controlled the winds and was able to create fires. Though it wasn’t until she became a priestess she learned she was using the elements of Air and Fire to do what she was doing. The High Priestess trained her and she had been a willing student, always thirsting for knowledge. Everyone could learn the things she’d learned, but it demanded hard studies and dedication. It could also be very dangerous if one didn’t understand what one was doing; people had been known to go insane or consume themselves in the element in their effort to master its power.

Bel was one of the few who made use of more than one element. It was more common to master one of the elements, as it demanded great strength – both physically and mentally – to manage even that. Derac also managed two elements: Air and Water. The two of them had been trained since they were children, to work together and to combine their elements to gain more power.

By using the elements the High Priest or Priestess was also able to strengthen the deity he or she served – or to bind the deity’s powers. There had been one High Priestess in the past who’d mastered the five known elements of Fire, Air, Water, Earth and Spirit. She’d been the most powerful priestess in their history, but she had turned wicked and wanted to rule the world. She disabled the deities and killed several of them, before she was finally stopped by a group of High Priests and Priestesses who combined their powers and managed to strip her of her knowledge – her magic. She was left a broken reed, wandering the wilderness like a babbling madwoman.

Bel had always enjoyed that story: it showed the dangers in being consumed by one’s own arrogance and one’s lust for fame and fortune. To be a priest or priestess meant to be a servant, not the ruler. A High Priestess was an instrument through which the power flowed and was used for the good of the people; she wasn’t the ultimate source of the power. The true power came from the force of the Creative Energy, which had given birth to all life – even the deities.

“Let me care for her”, Bel said as she lifted the wounded warrior into the air.

“Please, High Priestess”, Serafine said, with pale cheeks. “Let me come and be with her until she dies. The ending will be terrible and I don’t want her to go through it alone. She... She’s saved my life so many times. She’s the closest thing to a family I ever had, beside Derac.”

“I know, Leaping Feline”, Bel said, using Serafine’s true Name. “But your friend isn’t going to die. Her time has not yet come.”

“No one survives the Tears of the Maiden”, the male warrior said, a little harshly.

Bel looked at him. “Do you know the power of the Goddess?” she said, adding a little thunder to her voice by using Air to carry her words. The warrior paled.

“N-no, your Highness”, he said, backing a few steps.

“Good. You two, care for your friends. I’ll bring this warrior to the temple of High Priest Derac.” Bel tugged at Air and made the floating warrior follow her out the door. Katana quickly caught up with her.

“What did you mean?” she asked as they reached the stairs further down the corridor. Warriors in the color of the White Tigers – black and white – rushed back and forth, searching for wounded and carrying unconscious warriors from the brothel. Bel’s priestesses in brown collected the dead from the unknown army, taking them to the temple of the Goddess of the Dark Moon on her command. There was a particular reason for her to have them brought there: she’d seen what they were as soon as she arrived at the Five Legged Tiger. Soon everyone else would see what they were too – a fact that would create panic if her priestesses didn’t get the warriors out of the way in time.

“About Cat, I mean”, Katana said. “You said you wouldn’t bother with her if she hadn’t shown remorse. And can you really cure her?” she added worriedly.

“How long have you known me, Katanya?” Bel asked.

“Since I came here when we both were sixteen”, the Captain said. “No”, she added, when Bel only looked at her. “You’ve never lied to me, but this is Tears of the Maiden, Bel.”

Bel shook her head. “There are ways, Katana. Trust me. This particular poison is very nasty – especially because the agony seems to go on forever. People have been known to suffer for weeks.”

Bel silenced, but didn’t halt when she came to the stairs; she went down side by side with Katana – while the unconscious warrior floated behind them in the air. Members of the White Tigers stopped and parted to let them through and priestesses curtseyed hastily when Bel passed them, before rushing back to their assignment.

“If she hadn’t shown remorse I would either thought her a traitor to the crown or an irresponsible bastard – as you so nicely put it. In either case I couldn’t have cared less about her wellbeing. She put the princess’ life at risk – and in so doing also the safety of the Imperial Family. Irresponsibility is not a luxury we can afford at the moment.”

“Not even if she’s... you know who?” Katana said in a low voice, carefully. Bel only shook her head.

“Nidae is goddess of life and death, Katana. She knows we sometimes have to cut our losses to move on – bad seeds may not be allowed to steal the life force of the good crop. Blood, as in blood ties, can’t be made to matter in situations like this.”

Katana shook her head as they reached the foot of the stair. “Is life really that simple to you, my friend?”

“Everything in nature is about life and death, Captain. Why make it more difficult for ourselves, attaching meanings and values to it?”

Katana sighed. “One day, Bel... One day you’ll understand.”

Bel frowned. “Maybe, but at the moment this empire needs someone who can make the decisions others can’t because of being too attached to the people around them.”

“Thinking of Barac Wei again, are you?” Katana mumbled, referring to the meeting they’d both attended.

“He had the chance to do the right thing”, Bel said as they moved through another large lounge with dead warriors and some sobbing women; she watched people grieve for the dead as she passed.

The empress had taken Zelena’s stand on not sending all of the White Tigers to the boarders, but the emperor had chosen to listen to the majority. The White Tigers were to depart from Goddara in two weeks time, to march across the empire and to join the rest of the force at the boarders of Egara and Sum. The debate had been going on the whole afternoon, until late evening. It was while the emperor made the final decision that Nakkara Rim suddenly stepped forward, telling them the city was under attack. A moment later a wounded warrior arrived at the chamber, bringing news of the battle at the Five-legged Tiger.

“He puts the whole city in danger.”

“Maybe he’ll realize it after tonight”, Katana said dryly, looking around.

“I doubt it. Some of these warriors are dressed in the colors of Egara. We are meant to believe the invasion has already begun. Which would speed up the decision to send our troops away.”

Katana frowned. “You don’t believe they’re from Egara?”

“Have you noticed? All of them are dead? Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”

The Captain looked around with a puzzled expression, seeing the dead warrior Bel’s priestesses collected. “Now that you mention it...”

“I don’t know who’s sent them yet, but I will soon enough. Come to the temple at noon and we’ll discuss it.”

Katana nodded as they finally reached the entrance. The place was sealed off by palace guards and the street was filled with warriors standing guard. Princess Deianara and Derac stood a little to the side, flanked by several female warriors with stern faces and with tattoos on their cheeks. The princess’ True Shape of a beautiful white Hawk flickered about the girl. As Deyna wasn’t a true goddess yet her True Form hadn’t fully blended together with her; the bird was surrounded by a bluish hue.

“Captain”, one small, dark woman said and stepped forward as she noticed Katana. Bel kept watching Deyna a few steps away; the girl was standing wrapped in a black cloak with Derac’s arm around her shoulders. The High Priest looked up as Bel stepped out of the brothel, but she wasn’t the first he looked at.

“Fathma. We’re bringing the princess back to the palace”, Katana said. The small woman nodded, then swallowed – glancing at the dark haired warrior floating in the air.

“Captain – is Cat...?”

“She’ll be fine”, Katana said. “Form formation, soldier.”

“Yes, Captain.” The woman straightened her back and signaled to the others to form a procession around Derac and the princess.

Bel noticed Katana’s eyes went quickly to Derac, before she averted her face. At the same moment the princess finally looked up and became aware of the unconscious warrior.

“Cat!” the girl gasped; she rushed forward and broke the formation of warriors surrounding her. “What have you done to her?” Deyna called, looking accusingly at Bel.

“She’s injured. I’m bringing her to the temple to heal her.” Bel watched the girl in front of her, wondering what she needed to do to make the princess realize how important it was that she mastered her divine talents. Not only for her own sake, but for the sake of the empire.

Deianara was the eighth child of the imperial couple, but the seventh princess. Seven was a holy number amongst them, since the Seven First Deities created the world thousands and thousands of years ago. There had been seven kings and seven queens ruling the world – seven continents, seven seas, seven kingdoms and seven races of people. In their beliefs there were seven Wheels of Life, seven Trees of Nature, seven Gates of Death and seven Fires of Heaven. There were seven major Initiations to each area of expertise one wanted to master, whether it was to become a deity, a High Priest or Priestess, a ruler, a member of an order or the leader of an order.

Deyna had the opportunity to become one of the most powerful deities in history, as great as Nidae even, but she didn’t practice enough. Or more accurately: she didn’t take her own abilities seriously enough. And with what had happened that night… The last thing Bel needed now was to deal with an arrogant warrior and a rebellious teenager. Maybe it had been a mistake to let Cat tutor the princess, but the oracle had said it would be good for both of them. And apparently it would form a close bond sometime in a future life.

“It was my fault”, Deyna said, giving the priestess a slightly defiant look. “I made her take me here.”

“Don’t lie to me, girl”, Bel said. “You would never have thought of this place yourself.” She gestured towards the sign outside the brothel. “Do you even know what that name implies?”

Deyna blushed beet red, by which Bel surmised she did. She glanced at the sign of the Five-legged Tiger, noting the picture of the tiger below the name. The fifth leg had nothing to do with being a leg.

“You’d never have come up with the idea if she hadn’t asked you…”

“That’s not true! We – we made a deal. It was a challenge. I would…” The princess silenced, blushing slightly. “It was not only her fault”, she said. “It was my choice to come. She could never have forced me.” Deyna set her jaws, looking challenging at Bel. “I chose to come because I’m tired of being locked up at the palace.”

“You wouldn’t have to be locked up if you learned how to master your gifts”, Bel pointed out. “You should have seen what those warriors were – you should have been able to defeat them. Instead you let yourself be trapped like a child.”

“I am a child!” Deyna burst out. “What you ask of me is too much – I can’t do it!”

“Of course you can. You have the power, you just don’t use it. And you’re not a child – you’re the seventh princess of Kellara, heiress to the power of the Seven Deities of old.” Bel gestured to Katana and the Leaping Panthers. “Take her back”, she commanded. “And see to it that she’s held isolated in the Tower of Eagles for a few days. For punishment, to let her think about her irresponsible actions. Guard her well.”

“Yes, your Highness”, one of the band members said.

“You can’t do this!” Deyna called out. “It’s not…”

Bel turned back to look at the princess, who immediately silenced. Good, she thought. At least she’s wise enough to know when she’s gone too far. “You were saying?”

“Nothing, Priestess”, Deyna mumbled, subdued. She quickly glanced at the warrior floating in the air beside Katana. “But she’ll be well?”

“Yes”, Bel said a little softer, sensing the worry in the princess. “Go now. I’ll talk to you in a few days.”

Bel watched as Katana and the Leaping Panthers took the princess away, before she turned to Derac. “I’ll need to borrow your altar.”

The priest nodded, thoughtfully studying the floating warriors face. “Shall I get Gebra Healerhands for you?”

“Thanks, but I believe I’ll manage this on my own. Your herb garden is fresh?”

“Of course.”

“Good…” She hesitated. “Maybe you should get Gebra anyway – it couldn’t hurt.”

“How long before the pain sets in?” Derac asked, again looking at the bloodstained warrior.

“The fever is the only sign at the moment. If the poison runs its natural course she’ll wake up in agony in a few hours… If we’re lucky I’ll have cured her by then.”

Bel looked down at the woman lying on the altar before her. The dark hair was matted by blood and sweat, but Bel had cleaned her face with a moist rag – drying the blood from her cheeks and forehead. There had been a beautiful young woman behind the filth, a face she remembered from earlier in the day; tattoos on the cheeks. The thought of how the young woman had looked at her in the ziggurat made her smile. A lot of men and women had looked at her that way, but none of them had blushed so deeply or so shyly averted their eyes from her. She’d found it sweet.

Without thinking she pushed some of the matted hair from the warriors face, as she had done when she knelt by her side in the brothel.

The woman would live. Bel had stripped her of her leather armor and the shirt, cleaned the wound and then made use of ancient knowledge to burn the poison out of the blood. Tears of the Maiden was the most vicious poison, but the advantage from some other poisons was that it was slow to take effect. People could live with the effect for weeks before they died, which had given Bel time to deal with the poison. Had the poison been something else – like Fires of the Dragon – she might not have had that time. If poisoned with Fires of the Dragon one would die within minutes.

Bel thought of how the young woman had confronted her at the brothel and marveled at her courage. She couldn’t remember anyone challenging her like that before; everyone feared her too much.

“You’ve done great”, a voice said behind her and she glanced over her shoulder at the fair-skinned, wrinkled woman approaching.

“Gebra. You’re late…”

It was already dawn and the Healer was supposed to have come several hours before. She was a slight woman, dressed in brown and green, with white hair fastened in a loose braid falling over one shoulder.

Bel was standing in the Temple of the Radiant Orb – Derac’s temple. She knew he had been kneeling in prayers at the public altar in a different chamber together with the friends of the fallen warrior. Serafine and the member of the Cobra Squad had refused to leave the temple until they heard from Bel; they were now asleep in the adjacent chamber, still waiting.

The chamber in which Bel stood held only an altar and tall candelabras with burning candles. Above the altar was the shape of a full moon, flecked with carvings of bats. The temple was built of black and pink stones, rising similarly to the shape of a ziggurat but not as wide at the base and much smaller. The whole temple was decorated with full moons and bats – and even panthers in a few places.

Nidae was the only deity who could shape change into two animals. She was the strongest of the thirteen deities in Kellara – and the oldest. It was said she descended from the Older Deities, those who’d disappeared several hundred years ago. She was the thirteenth deity, representing life and death with the signs of the Full Moon and the new moon, the Dark Moon, as her symbols: indicating her powers as the Birthmother and the Reaper. Nidae was also the only deity to have two from the Priesthood serving her: a High Priest and the priests following him and the High Priestess and her priestesses.

“Derac told me”, the old woman said, “but I was tired and forgot. I’m sorry, High Priestess – my memory isn’t what it was.”

“You never had a memory to be counted on”, Bel pointed out. “Derac should have escorted you here.”

“Oh, but he had to inform the Imperial Couple of what had happened.” The old woman grinned; a toothless smile. “I remember that, priestess.”

“You’d forget your head if it wasn’t fastened on you”, Bel said dryly.

“True, true – I’m gifted with blessedly bad memory…” the old woman said, coming nearer the table. She squinted at the young woman at the altar. “What was this about, again?”

“Tears of the Maiden”, Bel said. She would have been annoyed at the old woman’s bad memory had she not known her since she was a child. Everyone knew Gebra Healerhands could heal everything from a cold to the most vicious wound – except the poison Tears of the Maiden. She was formidable when she focused on her work, but otherwise she had the worst memory anyone could ever imagine. To say the least.

Gebra looked up at her in surprise. “So it’s true – there is the knowledge of how to cure it. Will you teach me?”

“Only a fully initiated High Priestess can perform the act, Gebra”, Bel said. “I’m sorry. I would’ve loved to teach you otherwise.”

The older woman sighed. “Of course you would’ve.” She stared at the young woman at the altar for a few moments, before she looked up at Bel. “Sorry, you were saying?”

“Could you give this woman some healing, Gebra?” Bel asked, not bothering to pick up the conversation again. “I don’t want her to be too tired when she wakes up.”

“Arrow in the shoulder?” the healer said, leaning forward and squinting at the bandage covering the warrior’s shoulder; the warrior was naked from her waist and up, except the bandage.

“That’s correct.”

Gebra nodded and placed her hands a few inches above the bandage, closing her eyes. She slowly inhaled, moving her hands above the young warrior’s body as she mumbled soft, inaudible words, almost singing.

Bel watched as Gebra performed her healing, using Earth and Spirit to heal the wound beneath the bandage and to revive the body. Cat, Bel thought. I have to remember to use her name when she wakes up.

“That’s it”, the older woman finally said, pulling back. “She had some other cuts and bruises too, but I’ve healed them as well.”

“I’ll ask her to stop by and pay her respects to you”, Bel said.

Gebra nodded. “Cat is always respectful. She’s such a sweet child.”

“You know her?” Bel said, slightly surprised.

“Of course – I know her well. She’s one of the few I actually remember.” Gebra grimaced. “My memory is not what it used to be.”

“It never was”, Bel said, as she always did.

“True, true”, the woman nodded. “Fine – I’ll be going. I think…” She looked around the room with a puzzled expression. “I was on my way, true?”

“True. Return to your cottage.”

“I will. Maybe I’ll pay a visit to Fang along the way…” Gebra turned and walked away without looking back. If Bel hadn’t known the woman she’d be worried to let her out on her own, but Gebra had always been confused. Her memory was a puzzle in itself; she could forget herself in the middle of a conversation, forget where she was heading, even forget her own name on occasion, but she always – without fail – managed to turn up when she was needed and when she healed she was as sharp as a cutting blade. The owl goddess, Feathers, took care of her and usually saw to it that the old woman wasn’t harmed in anyway by her faulty memory.

The warrior on the altar moved and made a soft sound, drawing Bel’s attention. She moved closer to the altar and placed a hand on the woman’s healthy shoulder.

“Can you hear me?” she asked gently.

Eyelids fluttered and slowly opened. One blue eye and one disconcertingly yellow looked up at Bel. The pupils – both the circular and the vertical slit – dilated and the woman abruptly sat up, gasping.

“What…? Where am I?” she asked, quickly looking around. Bel stepped back.

“You are at the Temple of the Radiant Orb”, she said.

The warrior quickly glanced at her and then seemed to realize that she was naked from the waist up. She blushed and made a movement as if to cross her arms across her chest, but caught herself. Bel noticed with some interest that the woman’s blush reached her chest, coloring the tanned skin.

“Why am I here?” the warrior – Cat, Bel mentally corrected herself – asked.

“What is the last thing you remember?” Bel asked, tilting her head to one side, watching the warrior. Cat… Or Cath Ciardha, more correctly, but Katana had told her the young woman preferred her childhood pet name.

“I…” Again the woman blushed, looking away. This time she did cross her arms in front of her. “Me yelling at you”, she grumbled quietly.

“Really?” Bel couldn’t help saying, arching an eyebrow at the younger woman. “I would have thought you’d be wise enough to forget about that.”

Cat looked up with flashing eyes. “That wouldn’t have been wise, that’d be cowardly.”

Bel tilted her head to the side, watching the color fade away on Cat’s tattooed cheeks. The warrior held her eyes, again challenging her. “Are you aware you almost died?” she asked softly.

Cat gasped, suddenly shuddering. “I am, I…” she hesitated. “Did you save me?” she asked almost shyly, looking at her. Bel was surprised by the sudden change in her demeanor, but didn’t show it.

“I did”, she said, nodding. “But Gebra Healerhands was here too, it would be well if you paid her your respects.”

“I will”, Cat said, sincerely.

It was the sincerity of the younger woman that interested her, Bel realized, watching Cat. There was something genuine about the warrior that she hadn’t expected of the woman. She realized Cat was of a simple and straightforward nature, speaking her mind in most matters without playing the games Bel was used to from the Imperial Court. Refreshing, she thought.

“Why did you save me?” Cat asked in that moment. “And… how could you save me? I mean… It was Tears of the Maiden, wasn’t it? There’s no known cure…”

Bel made a swift gesture of her hand. “The important thing is that you’re alive, right? Forget about the rest. How are you feeling?”

“I’m… I feel surprisingly well, for an almost dead woman.” Cat made a face and Bel nodded.

“Good. Then I can inform you that I won’t have you near the princess again until she’s fully Initiated in her divinity.”

“What?” Cat gasped. “You can’t do that!”

“I can – and I will.” Bel narrowed her eyes at the woman. “Are you aware of what you could have done?”

“She…” Cat threw out her arms, gesticulating – then remembered she was still naked and crossed them again, blushing. “She’s a child. She needs to have some fun.”

“You took her to a brothel!” Bel said sharply. “Is that a place to take a child?”

Cat shook her head. “Could you get me my clothes?” she asked crisply. “I’m cold.”

Bel watched her for a moment. “I wouldn’t take you for a woman to be embarrassed by her nakedness. Not if what I’ve heard about you is true.” She let her eyes travel up and down Cat’s body, as the other woman had done to her the day before. If I were a man, she thought, would this be a body I’d find attractive?

Cat twitched uncomfortably on the stone altar, again blushing. Bel turned away, hiding a smile.

“I’ll get you your clothes”, she said.

Bel left the chamber to fetch a new shirt, and the leather armor she’d taken from Cat earlier, from the antechamber adjacent to the altar room. She also poured some water in a tin cup and carried everything before her – floating in the air.

As she returned Cat was standing beside the altar, inspecting the shape of the full moon hanging above the sacred altar.

“I’ve never been in this room before”, Cat said without turning when Bel arrived.

“There’s no reason you should’ve. This is a private chamber, only for priests and priestesses.”

“And injured warriors”, Cat said dryly, turning around to face the priestess – again with a grimace.

“That too”, Bel conceded. “Here you go.” She picked the tin cup from the air and gave it to Cat.

Cat looked at the cup, looking a little bewildered, before she reached out to take it.

“Water only”, Bel said. “It’ll cure your headache.”

“How did you…?” Cat looked up in surprise, then caught herself and nodded. “Of course”, she mumbled, before she took the cup and drank.

Bel watched the other woman’s body: smooth skin marred by faded scars. Without thinking she reached out and touched a long scar in Cat’s side with gentle fingers.

Cat’s reaction was immediate. She gasped and pulled away so quickly she poured the water from the cup all over the floor. “Holy Bat, what are you…? You can’t just…!” She stared at Bel with wide eyes.

“Your scar”, Bel said, indicating Cat’s side, wondering at the woman’s strong reaction. “What happened?”

“What… happened?” Cat was still staring at her, but finally seemed to come to her wits. She forcefully put down the cup at the altar and turned away. “My clothes. I’m getting out of here… Now!”

“You’re welcome”, Bel said dryly as she let the armor and the shirt fall to the floor. Cat stood with her back towards her, unmoving. Bel could see she was breathing deeply and erratically.

“You…” Cat said quietly. “You are…” She turned around, studying Bel’s face as if she was trying to find some answers she didn’t know the questions to. “So strange you are…”

Bel wasn’t sure what to make of that comment. She watched as Cat bent to pick up the brown shirt – it belonged to one of the priests, but Bel didn’t think Cat would mind. It was at least clean.

Some moments later Cat stood fully dressed in her leather armor with her sword at her side. She straightened, looking Bel in the eyes. The priestess realized the other woman felt more confident now and much less vulnerable.

“You can’t dictate the lives of other people like you do”, Cat said, picking up their previous conversation and in so doing confirming Bel’s thoughts. “You have no right…”

“The princess’ life is in my hands. As long as she’s trained to be a goddess she must do as I command her…”

“And what if she doesn’t want to be a goddess?” Cat asked, leaning forward. “Ever thought about that?”

Bel shrugged, unfazed. “There’s a simple solution to that and Deyna knows it. If she didn’t want to become a goddess she’d just sleep with Fang.”

Cat blinked, before she made a face. “That’s what you think? You know… Owls and maggots!” Cat threw out her hands in exasperation. “You don’t even know her. Of course she wants to become a goddess. Who wouldn’t? But you, you make it so hard for her. She’s a child, by the sacred Moon!”

“She isn’t a child. She’s so much more, more than you could understand…”

“Don’t talk to me like that, as if I don’t know anything of the world!” Cat spat, pointing at Bel. Her yellow eye gleamed dangerously. “I’ve been to war, I’ve seen more of the dangers of this world than you have hiding in your holy temple, behind the Name of the Goddess. I’ve seen great fighters break because of the pressures they must face. I think you…”

“Your job is to protect the princess, not to think”, Bel said coolly.

Cat gasped in surprise, but then her face contorted in anger. “You’re heartless, you are! Are you blind, or what?”

“I see more clearly than most people”, Bel said calmly. “And this is not a discussion I’m having with you. Especially not when you won’t listen to reason. You almost got the princess killed. Will you dispute that?”

“No, no I don’t. It was my fault, it was stupid and… and thoughtless…” Cat shook her head. “But the point is – “

“There is no point.”

“Why are you being like this?” Cat exclaimed in frustration. “You’re supposed to be… nice”, she finished lamely, looking almost lost at Bel.

“Am I?” Bel said, arching an eyebrow. “According to whom?”

Cat shook her head with a look of defeat on her face. “Forget it. Show me the way out and you’ll be rid of me.”

“There’s the door”, Bel said, gesturing towards the arch Gebra had used. It would lead to a corridor taking Cat to the public altar room.

Cat shrugged and walked towards the door. Watching her go Bel felt sudden compassion for her. Katana would be hard on Cat, she knew – not that she didn’t deserve it, but still – and she got the feeling Cat already berated herself for the risk she’d put Deyna in.

“Cat”, she called. The younger woman stiffened – then turned to look at her; there was a lost, sad expression in her eyes. “Sometimes we don’t see the whole picture, kitten. When we don’t it’s sometimes difficult to understand and to accept the way things seem to be. If the Grasshopper says he knows the world… he should listen to the Eagle. Go know”, she added gently. “Your friends are waiting to see you.”

The warrior seemed to hesitate and the lost look in her eyes changed to something Bel didn’t recognize. Cat watched her for a long time, before she turned away and left.

Part Four


“You’re so beautiful.”

That’s what she’d wanted to say before she died, but she hadn’t gotten the words out and then she woke up half naked in front of the High Priestess. And of course she couldn’t keep her big mouth shut, but had to defend her stupid actions and to accuse the High Priestess a second time instead of thanking her for saving her life.

Cat had felt exposed, vulnerable and embarrassed in front of the other woman – feelings she wasn’t familiar with. The thought of how the High Priestess had eyed her still made her cringe as she walked through the short corridor. There hadn’t been any desire in the other woman’s eyes, only a casual interest – as if the woman was studying a painting someone had recommended and wanted to inspect it for herself.

Then the crazy woman had touched her! That touch… Even the memory of the touch made her giddy, making her blush with embarrassment in the corridor. She loathed herself for the blushing. She never blushed and now… That woman, she thought crossly as she reached the end of the corridor. That touch… There had been something familiar about the touch, as if the High Priestess had touched her before – a long time ago, leaving a faded memory. She’d felt instant arousal when the other woman’s hand caressed her, something she couldn’t remembering happening to her before – not counting the odd sensations she’d felt during the night, when the same woman’s fingers touched her lips. Cat might be frivolous and intimate with a lot of women, but it had never happened to her before, that a woman she didn’t know had that intense effect on her. Even for a beautiful or naturally sensuous woman it often took time before Cat’s physical need was stirred.

In any case she’d never wanted to bed a woman just because of a casual touch.


Cat stopped and looked around. She had reached the outer chamber were the public altar was placed. The room was long, with stone benches in rows on either side of an aisle leading to the altar. The stone altar was standing on a dais, with several candelabras on either side of it and surrounded by statues of bats in various sizes and shapes. On the steps leading up to the dais Serafine and Para were seated. Both of them flew up from the stone as they noticed her in the doorway. They were bloodstained and looked tired, as if they hadn’t slept in days.

Katana stood leaning on a bench in the front row with her arms crossed. She, too, rose as Cat moved into the chamber.

“Cat!” Para embraced Cat and almost squeezed the air out of her lungs. “I’ve never been so glad to see your mismatched eyes”, he said, holding her tight.

“Give way, you boar!” Serafine said after a moment, slapping his shoulder. “Let me…”

As Para let go of her Serafine hugged Cat – hard and for a long time.

“I thought I’d lost you for good this time”, Serafine finally said, pulling away, and discretely dried a tear off her cheek.

“Not yet”, Cat said, slightly subdued. She was still confused by the High Priestess’ last comment and by the gentle look in her eyes, so at odds with her previous cold hearted efficiency. Cat didn’t know what to make of it. “I’m a little tougher to kill than that.”

“Honestly!” Serafine said, making a face at her. “You didn’t expect to survive, did you?”

Cat shook her head.

“I wonder why she saved your life”, Para said lowly, almost not audibly. Serafine turned towards him in surprise.

“What do you mean? Why shouldn’t she?”

“I just mean…” Para glanced at Katana a few steps away, before shrugging. “I’ve just… heard things about her.” He leaned forward a bit, lowering his voice. “That everything she does has an ulterior motive. Even something like this. They say… that she’s plotting to take over the throne.”

“Don’t be silly”, Serafine said, brushing off his comments with a sniff.

“Well, I don’t trust her”, he said slightly offended, straightening his back.

“She saved my life”, Cat said, stifling the beginnings of an argument. Para and Serafine had never really gotten along. Cat had never understood why, but she suspected it had something to do with her: they both saw her as their best friend and each other as a threat to that friendship. “I’m not about to…” She silenced as she noticed someone else approaching.

Katana was still standing aloof, waiting on her turn, but a fifth person had entered the chamber and her appearance made the others turn their heads towards her.

“Cat”, the beautiful Ravena said, slowly moving across the aisle towards the altar. She was very attractive and she knew how to make use of her beauty. This morning she was dressed in a long, tight dress in a soft red color, showing off her perfect form. A beautiful necklace in gold and red rubies gleamed around her throat. “I heard you…” The raven-haired beauty seemed to stumble on the words. “I heard you… almost died.”

Cat nodded, waiting for Ravena to reach them. She had always had a thing for the other woman, but they had never shared a bed. Ravena was… difficult. She could flirt casually with Cat or any other woman, but as soon as Cat made a move she pulled away and put on an indifferent attitude. If Cat ignored her, the woman would flirt heavier than before, but she would still not deliver anything more than vague promises. It was said she was still a virgin and lately rumors had it her parents wanted to wed her off to the present ruler of Egara. If that was even possible, as other rumors had it he was a High Priest.

“Cat – I’d have been… devastated had I lost you.”

Ravena put her arms around Cat and pressed her body against her in a not at all chaste manner and kissed her on the cheek, close to the lips. If it had been the day before Cat wouldn’t have been slow to take advantage of the situation, but now she was still thinking of the High Priestess in the adjacent chamber. Green eyes, soft touch… That touch, she thought distractedly. Why did I recognize her touch? Why did I react that way? And then: She’s so bloody beautiful…

Cat still very vividly remembered the High Priestess’ touch on her lips the evening before. The instant arousal had surprised her then, even in her state, and it surprised her still. She had indeed bedded many women, but none had managed to arouse her so quickly. Maybe it was plainly the beauty of the woman – or those dreams… Snakes and Panthers – those dreams!

Cat had had them for years: dreams in which she made love to a woman whose face she couldn’t see. Only red hair gleaming in candlelight… She’d always chased red haired women because of those dreams. Was that why the sight of the High Priestess affected her so?

“Ravena, nice to see you again”, she said, pulling away from the woman’s embrace. “I was just telling Serafine and Para how grateful I was to be alive. How’s your brother?”

Ravena looked a little taken aback by the stiff response, but nodded politely. “Rhais is fine. He’s been chosen by Bor to investigate what happened yesterday.” Ravena looked at Para, whose eyes always seemed to glaze over when Ravena was present; Cat usually teased him about it. “Bor wants to see you too. He’s been looking for you, but as soon as I heard about Cat I knew you’d be here.”

“You came to get me?” Para asked hopefully. Ravena tilted her head to one side with a laugh.

“I came to check on Cat… amongst other things.”

Para held Ravena’s eyes for a moment, then nodded and turned to Cat. “I need to…”

“Of course you do”, Cat said. “Thanks for staying.”

“Of course”, he said. He hesitated and glanced towards the opening behind them. “Be careful with… you know.”

She nodded noncommittally.

“I’ll go with you”, Ravena said to Para, following him towards the aisle. They passed Katana who followed them with narrowed eyes. Cat wondered what that was about, but forgot it as soon as the Captain turned her eyes towards her.

“A word with you, Cat.”

“Of course, Captain”, she said, moving towards the leader of Panthera.

“I’ll wait for you outside”, Serafine said, nodding to her.

A moment later Katana and Cat were alone before the altar.

“I want to apologize”, the Captain said, making Cat blink in surprise.

“Apologize? For… what?”

“For hitting you. I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that…”

Cat slowly inhaled. “Oh! I’m sorry too, Captain. I shouldn’t have said that about you.” She hesitated. “But that woman – she’s… She’s not human. She’s completely – irrational. Deyna was right, she’s not a nice person.”

Katana looked at her for a moment. “You know”, she finally said, a tad sharply. “You shouldn’t talk about things you don’t know anything about. You don’t know Bel. She’s my best friend and everything you say against her you say against me.”


“She has a name, she’s human.” Katana frowned at her. “You shouldn’t be so quick to judge people, Cat.”

“I’m not…!” Cat clenched her jaws. “No, Captain”, she muttered.

“I’m glad you’re alive”, Katana added in a friendlier voice. “I owe Bel one.”

“Me too”, Cat mumbled, mostly to herself. She looked up at the Captain. “I’m to be punished, am I not?”

“You’re suspended from duty for the time being.”

Cat clenched her jaws again, but didn’t say anything; she knew it would be futile to object.

“But you did save Serafine’s life and you’re a good soldier. I’ll try to reason with the High Priestess. She’s not completely without sense.”

The last was said with some irony and Cat quickly glanced at the Captain in surprise, realizing Katana was mocking the High Priestess in a friendly way and at the same time showing Cat that she was aware of her friends lesser qualities.

“Have patience, Cat”, Katana said in a comforting tone.

“Yes, Captain”, Cat said, nodding. She frowned. “Those warriors, Captain. I thought I saw some of them wearing Egara’s colors. Is Egara already attacking us?”

“We’re not sure yet, Cat”, Katana said. “I think… I would recommend you not talk to too many people about what happened last night. The less people know about it at the moment the better, I believe. Until we are sure what’s going on.”


“If something’s going down I’ll be sure to have you there. You’re my best fighter – and you know it.”

“I’m just a reckless bastard at times”, Cat mumbled under her breath, thinking of the Captain’s anger the night before.

Katana watched her for a moment. “You deserved that”, she said and Cat sighed.

“I did. But…” She looked up.

“No ‘buts’.” Katana held up a hand. “I’m still mad at you, even if I’m glad you’re alive. Go now. Serafine is waiting for you.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Serafine followed Cat to the city gates, but then she had to return to duty at the palace and they separated just inside the city walls. Cat, being suspended from duty, was free to spend the day as she pleased. She’d have visited Deyna if she’d been allowed, but she didn’t dare tempt the patience of either the Captain or the High Priestess again. The Goddess only knew what they’d do to her if they found out she’d broken their rules a second time. Besides, she didn’t even know where Deyna was. She hoped the girl was alright after the upsetting events the night before.

Feeling more alive and awake than she had a right to after almost getting killed, Cat decided to visit Gebra Healerhands before heading back to the palace for a bath and change of clothes. The old woman had a house close to the palace walls – a large cottage in white stone, surrounded by a large garden containing an orange grove, a rose garden and an herbal garden. When Cat arrived the woman was kneeling in the dirt at the back of the house. She was probably weeding the flower bed that flanked the path which was leading down to the herbal garden – although it looked as if she was talking to the flowers. Knowing Gebra the woman in all probability was talking to the flowers.

“Gebra?” Cat said, putting down the wooden statue of an owl in white oak that she’d picked up as a gift from the market on her way to the healer’s place.

The white haired woman glanced over her shoulder with a confused expression. Gebra’s whole life seemed to exist of puzzling experiences – all of them occurring at every moment of the day. Cat didn’t understand how the woman could cope with living like that: forgetting everything as soon as she’d processed it.

“Ah, the lovely panther. Haven’t seen you for awhile.” Gebra rose and brushed the soil of her knees and hands; she was dressed in a long, brown robe with wide sleeves.

“No?” Cat said with half a smile. According to the High Priestess the old woman had healed her, which meant she’d been at the temple and seen Cat only a few hours ago.

“Um, maybe I did…” Gebra frowned, then shrugged. “But I really don’t remember, do I now?” She grinned, which made her skin crinkle like a fine web covering her face. Blue eyes twinkled. “How are you, lovely panther?”

“I almost died this morning”, Cat said and indicated the wooden owl at her feet. “I brought this for you, to thank you.”

Gebra stared at the owl. “It’s… beautiful”, she whispered. “I know where I’ll keep it.” She looked at Cat, frowning. “You almost died? And I don’t remember?” She shook her head with a sigh. “I truly hate this sometimes, lovely. I hate not remembering things. For once in my life I wish I could remember… I wish I could remember it all – everything!” She threw out her arms in desperation.

Cat shook her head. “Be careful what you wish for”, she said. “You might get it.”

“Anything is better than this… this hole in my head.” Gebra tapped herself on the forehead with her knuckles. “What a blessing it would be, to never forget anything.” She looked at the owl again and Cat noticed the slight shift in her eyes that indicated that the old woman had forgotten what they were talking about again. Gebra turned back to her flower bed, looking little bewildered down at it.

“I’ll see you later, Gebra”, Cat said softly.

Gebra turned around to look at her, smiling. “Cat – the High Priestess was talking about you. I believe she saved your life.”

“She sure did”, Cat said, returning the smile.

“Good to see you again. Oh, look – what a beautiful owl!” The old woman stepped forward and took the wooden owl in her hands, lifting it up. “I know just the spot for this…” she said as she turned away and went into her house.

“She’ll have her share of memories one day”, a voice said close to Cat. Cat jumped and pulled her sword halfway from its scabbard before she realized the voice belonged to a woman seemingly older than Gebra.

“Who are you?” she asked sharply, letting her sword slide back into its scabbard. The old woman had taken her by complete surprise; she hadn’t heard her approach or seen her. She looked around. Where had the woman come from? There was no way she could have walked up to Gebra’s house without being noticed.

“She cares for you, you know”, the woman said. She was really old and hunched backed, with dark, wrinkled skin and black eyes. She was dressed in rags. Maybe a Wild Woman – one of Gebra’s friends, Cat thought. One of those healers moving around the empire, healing people for food and lodging. Gebra sustained a lot of them.

“Gebra?” Cat asked, frowning.

“Gebra too”, the woman said, but then shook her head. “But not who I mean. She lost someone once, someone close to her. She had a sister who died. She doesn’t remember. I do, of course.”

Cat frowned. “What… who are you talking about?”

“She needs you, although she doesn’t know it. If she never knows you, she’ll close her heart when those she loves are lost again… It’s better to die and to live again in another life, than to close your heart for an eternity.”

“Woman, by all bats – what are you talking about?”

The old woman smiled and shook her head. Her eyes gleamed with an inner light. “I’ll see you again”, she said and then simply turned around and walked away towards the herbal garden.

Cat stood by, watching her. She shook her head. Mad woman, she thought and shrugged, before she decided to return to the palace. It was high time to have a bath.

* * * * *

“Who would do something like this, Badra?” Nidae asked her in her mind. The goddess was lying stretched out on the stone altar in the High Priestess’ private praying chamber; she’d chosen the shape of the panther for once and let her tail casually sweep back and forth in the air, showing her annoyance.

Bel looked down at the five dead warriors before her, shaking her head. The five warriors were in various stages of decomposition: corpses long gone. There had been at least sixty of them, seventy with those who’d actually been alive when they attacked the brothel – she’d had all of them burned that same morning, only saving a handful to show the emperor.

“Raising the dead is no easy matter”, she said thoughtfully.

“Tell me about it.” The panther yawned and showed its sharp teeth. “Politics bores me, Badra.”

“So I see”, Bel said dryly. “And what would you rather talk about that’s more important than saving the empire?”

Bel heard the goddess chuckle within her.

“I leave the saving to you – you’re so good at it.”

The panther rose easily from the altar and jumped down to the stone floor. It made its way to Bel and twinned itself around her legs, purring. Bel put a hand on its head, thoughtfully studying the dead warriors.

“Where were you today?” she asked after a moment. “I called you earlier.”

“I was visiting a friend…”


The panther stopped its purring and moved slightly away from Bel. In a dark flash it then swiftly changed shape into a beautiful woman with skin as dark as night and eyes even darker. The phantom image of a very large bat was hovering above her in the room.

“Gebra won’t live much longer, Badra.”

“Oh, really? That’s… sad”, Bel said, feeling sad. “Did Nikka tell you?”

“I sensed it”, the woman said. “She’s dying. She’s old, Badra – let it go”, she added softly.

Bel nodded. “I know, it’s just…” She sighed. “I’ll miss her. She doesn’t believe in the Priesthood, but she’s always served the people her own way. She’s a good person.”

Nidae nodded.

”I’ve had many priestesses over the years – many, many. But you’re one of a kind, do you know that?” the goddess said after a moment, winking at Bel.

Bel waved her off. “This is important, Nidae. Focus on the Empire…”

“He wanted you, you know...”

“Who?” Bel frowned.

“The rascal...”

“Your brother?”

“My half-brother”, the goddess snorted.

Bel nodded thoughtfully. Fang was much younger than Nidae and they only shared the same father, who’d been a young god when Nidae was conceived. “Why would he want me as priestess?”

“You don’t get it, do you, Badra?” Nidae said with an exaggerated sigh. “So clever, but so ignorant of your own importance. Even Mara wanted you – I had to fight both of them to get you. Fang challenged me first...”

“Mara, too?” Bel frowned.

“He stabbed me in the back – challenging me right after I’d fought the Tiger. He’s a true snake, he is.” Nidae spat, walking restlessly across the floor.

Bel considered the goddess’ words. “Nidae...”

“What about the girl, priestess?” Nidae walked up to her with a grin. “You saw her, didn’t you?”

“The girl?”

“My son’s daughter-daughter-daughter, or some such... She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

“Perhaps”, Bel said, still distracted by the thought of Mara and Fang.

“Perhaps”, the goddess snorted. “You’re too dull, priestess. What did you feel, watching her?”

“Nidae, you know I’m not interested in people like that. A body is a body, there’s nothing more to it.”

“Did she look like me? She did, didn’t she?”

Bel studied the goddess’ naked body, suddenly realizing she’d recognized Cat’s nakedness without being aware of it. Now she nodded, recognizing Cat’s beauty in the goddess. It felt strange seeing Nidae’s body and immediately thinking of the warrior.

“Wasn’t she the least beautiful?” Nidae asked, teasingly.

“Like a sculpture crafted by a master’s hands”, Bel heard herself say, then shook her head. “You’re trying to distract me!” she accused, looking sternly at the goddess.

Nidae laughed and suddenly changed shape. This time she became a small bat, flapping around the room. It flew up to the ceiling and hooked itself there. As Bel watched the bat changed size, growing bigger until it was at least a foot long.

“You need to have some fun, priestess.”

The bat stretched its wings, but didn’t let go of the ceiling. Dark eyes were gleaming.

“I’m your priestess, Nidae – I live to serve you. Stop this business and tell me about Mara and Fang. Why would they want me as priestess?”

“Because...” The bat let go of the ceiling and flew through the chamber. “Because when two powers merge the outcome will be greater than the original power. You are my power, priestess. You and Derac. But mostly you, because of your ability to Read the deities.”

There was a slight shift in the air and again the dark-skinned woman was standing in front of Bel.

“Neither Fang nor Mara would have been able to extract as much power from you as you give me. There’s nothing more powerful than a being that does exactly what she’s meant to do. You were meant to be my priestess. Fang and Mara wanted you, each for their own particular motives – but they could never have controlled you. Nikka told me only a few years ago that if you had ended up with Fang you’d have squandered your powers and if you’d ended up with Mara...”

“What, Nidae?” Bel asked when the goddess hesitated.

“If you’d ended up with Mara you’d have killed him...”

“Oh, my!” Bel gasped softly.

“It would have brought disorder and disaster to our empire long before now.”

“Why would I...?” Bel frowned, again looking down at the dead, decaying warriors at the floor.

“Why do humans do anything?” Nidae threw out her arms. “I didn’t know about this at the time, but I’m glad I won those challenges. You’ve served me well.”

Bel nodded thoughtfully.

“But you need to loosen up, to relax...”

“Well, someone needs to keep a level head around here”, Bel said, arching an eyebrow at the goddess at her side.

“My, my – you’re disappointed at me. You think I ought to take this more seriously...” Nidae laughed. “I don’t have to. It’s the business of humans.”

“Not this!” Bel objected, indicating the dead before them. “This is the art of a highly knowledgeable High Priest or Priestess. That makes it your business. That makes it the business of the deities.”

Nidae hesitated, looking at the warriors. Suddenly she turned back into the panther, restlessly walking around the altar with swiftly swinging tail.

“I’ve lived for seven hundred years, Badra”, she said in Bel’s head. “I’m the oldest of the deities...”

“I know this. But you spent a long time in hibernation.”

“Learning. I was learning, priestess. My... mother taught me many things now forgotten amongst humans and deities. She knew secrets not even I know... Fang is only a child, two hundred years is not much for us. But Mara is cunning. My seven hundred years... It’s a long time to be serious in, Badra. You need to remember that for the princess. She needs to have some fun, before the serious time begins.”

“It is the serious time now, Nidae. It’s the wise who knows when to play and when to be serious...”

“Life is not that simple, Badra Bellona – and one day you’ll know it.” The panther jumped back onto the altar and laid down, watching Bel with gleaming eyes. Bel ignored the comment; people always had an opinion on how she was supposed to be. People – or deities.

“That’s why Fang was being so difficult when it came to Naming Cat, wasn’t it? He was annoyed he lost the challenge...”

“True. He refused to take her if I didn’t give him something in return. It took time before I could convince him otherwise...”

“You gave him something? What?”

“I didn’t”, the goddess snorted in Bel’s mind. “He owed me one. For Deyna’s sister.”

“What? But that was Mara…”

“Yes, but Fang was supposed to keep an eye on her. The fool.”

Bel thought of what Cat had said in regards to Deyna. “You know, the semi-deities I train might be tempted – but if they really want to be deities they wouldn’t give in to the likes of Fang and Mara.”

“Is that what you think? Is that what you think of Deyna?”

“Yes.” Bel nodded. “Deyna wants to be a goddess – she won’t give up herself to anyone.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because I know her. I know her potential and I know what she wants. She wants to be something else, something more than her sisters. She has ambition – “

Bel silenced as the goddess changed back to her human form, nakedly pacing the floor before her. Bel frowned. It wasn’t like Nidae to be so… skittish. She watched the energies swirling around the phantom bat around the woman and suddenly realized something. “Something’s happened”, she gasped softly.

Nidae came to a halt, looking up.

“And you are worried”, Bel said. “That’s why you’re changing subjects all the time…”

Nidae sighed and sat down at the altar. “The world is changing, Bel.” The goddess seemed to hesitate, before she looked at her priestess. “You know how we make our powers grow. But that’s not the only way – killing someone grants us even more power. There is a way…”

“I know”, Bel said softly. “I’ve studied it.”


There was a sudden suspicious expression in Nidae’s face and Bel made a grimace at her.

“Stop that, you’re being silly. I would never betray you. It’s me – Bel!”

“Fine. You’re right.” Nidae sighed again. “Sorry. It’s the times, the events and the sneaking tongues of… Making me distrust people. Of course you wouldn’t betray me. But then you know about the ritual. Deities don’t kill, but all of us are still trying to gain as much power we can, because…”

“Because you fear someone will go to the length of killing…? You fear someone might actually want to perform the old sacrificing rituals to become more powerful than the rest of you? More powerful than… you?”

“I fear it would disrupt the order. If one of us becomes stronger than the rest… There’s no telling what would happen.”

“Politics of the gods”, Bel mumbled. “Who do you believe would do this?” she asked, although she herself had her suspicions. She’d been waiting for this for years.

“I don’t know, Badra. I really don’t know.” Nidae sighed and then lifted her head, sniffing in the air. “Katana is coming.”

Bel turned to look towards the entrance. “Good, then we can discuss the matter of...” – she turned back to the goddess and realized Nidae was gone – “Egara”, she finished with a sigh.

Part Five


Cat knew she was dreaming.

After visiting Gebra she’d returned to the palace, being warmly greeted by her friends who’d heard of her recovery and wanted to see it with their own eyes. Katana had quickly dispersed the pack, sending them back to duty. Cat had worked out a bit, practicing with the sword, before taking a long bath and eating something. Then she went to rest for a bit, but instantly fell asleep. She should’ve predicted it – healing always made her tired, even if she felt revived by it at the same time.

In sleep the dream she hadn’t had for a long time returned and now it was more intense and vivid than ever.

The scenario was always the same and she had learned to recognize it over the years. It was always the same woman, the same hands, the same mouth and the same soft lips... The same voice whispering the same words in her ear. She never saw the face, but she knew the touch of this woman more intimately than she had ever known a real lover.

The first dream had come to her when she was sixteen: a naked woman caressing her naked skin, whispering soft words to her and kissing her with such melting gentleness... She awoke trembling with an unknown ache in her body and in her heart. At first she’d been too ashamed to think about it – not understanding what was happening to her. She’d been fairly naïve in some areas of her life when she was younger...

As Cat grew older the dreams made more sense, except it was always the same dream and the same woman. She used to believe it had something to do with her unconscious telling her that she wasn’t interested in men in a sexual way, but in women.

Cat had been with a man once, but it hadn’t given her any satisfaction. After that one time the dreams increased in frequency for awhile – until she kissed her first woman. Or was kissed by one, in fact. It had happened when she was in Sum, fighting for a warlord. One of his many concubines had kissed her one night after a feast. That event had opened a great many doors for her and she spent a lot of time with that woman, letting the concubine teach her various ways of seducing women. Cat became quite adept in the art; the woman said she had a natural talent for it.

But the dream never went away. It returned over the years, sometimes often, other times less. Cat feared the dream because she never knew when it would come upon her and she always felt sad and lonely when she woke up. And yet she looked forward to it at the same time, wanting the softness of the woman – wanting to make love to her.

The woman had red hair, so Cat went looking for red haired women to seduce – or at least to kiss – to see if she could find the woman in her dreams. But it never felt the same kissing them as it did kissing the woman of her dreams. It never felt the same kissing any woman.

Cat had never felt the fulfillment in making love with someone as she did when she made love with the woman in her dreams. Katana had once asked her what she was looking for in all those women she seduced, so Cat told her about the dream. The Captain had looked at her for awhile, before she shook her head, saying: “Happy is the one that overcomes her desires. Only she will find true peace.” Whatever that meant.

Cat knew she was dreaming, but she didn’t want to wake up. It had been awhile since last she felt the gentle caress of the red-haired woman. She’d missed it. More than she’d realized, she thought before she surrendered to the loving arms of her dream-lover.

The woman kissed her and she craved that kiss. She craved those soft, soft lips and the taste of the woman’s mouth. She put her arms around the woman and felt the softness of her nakedness. The softness of her breasts and her skin... She let her hands touch the other woman, making her moan against her. She let the woman kiss her – she couldn’t get enough of those kisses... Tongues tenderly touching, lips meeting and teasingly retracting. That was all they ever did: touched and kissed – and Cat would wake up just before the lovely ending.

“Don’t go yet”, she whispered. “Stay a little longer this time...”

That was something new, she’d never been able to change the dream before.

“Don’t worry. Our time will come... It’s not far off now.”

“I’ve looked so hard for you, everywhere... Where can I find you?”

“You have found me. I need to find you, now. And I will. But then...”

“Then what?” she whispered in fear, suddenly feeling a cold dread in her heart.

“Then you have to let me go, when I ask it of you.”

“No! I’d miss you too much!”


Soft lips kissed her, tender fingers caressed her cheeks, her hair – her lips. This time she noticed something she’d never seen before: the woman wore tattoos of bats on her arms. That is strange, she thought, seeing it.


“Ssshh, beautiful”, the woman whispered, gently putting a finger to Cat’s mouth.

Cat gasped, suddenly recognizing the touch. She opened her mouth to speak, but in the next moment the dream shifted...

“Are you sure you want to do this?” a woman asked, holding forth a white gold ring with some strange inscriptions. Cat looked up and gasped inwardly as she recognized Bel. It wasn’t strictly Bel, but she had red hair and green eyes and the look in those eyes… It was Bel. And she wore strange clothes, but beautiful: a flowing dress so light blue it was almost white.

“How dare you ask me that, here of all places?” Cat heard herself say jokingly, in a voice not fully her own. Her heart was full of joy and love – overflowing with it, in fact. “After all we’ve been through? You owe me this.”

“I surely do”, the other woman, who was Bel, said with soft laughter. She held Cat’s eyes.

There were strange buildings in the background, high against the sky. One tower stood out, reflecting the sun. Around them there were trees and grass and Cat realized they were standing in a park A crowd of people were gathered below the dais they were standing on. People wearing even stranger clothes.

“This is for forever, kitten”, Bel said, teasingly. Cat grinned.

“Forever is not long enough.” Then she added, softer. “I’m so glad you found me.”

“I’ll always find you, love. In any life, any time, in any world. My love for you transcends time.”

Cat reached out her fingers, not finding the words to describe what she felt. Bel put the ring on one of her fingers, raising her gaze towards her. There was so much love in the green eyes Cat’s knees grew weak.

“Now you’re mine”, the woman said, so low it shouldn’t even be possible for it to be audible – but Cat heard her; she supposed it was because it was a dream.

“I was always yours”, she heard herself say. “I’ve loved you since the first time I saw you.”

Cat sat up with a gasp, fully alert and awake. It’s her! It’s been her the entire time! she’d known it, of course – but seeing her face in the dream… Although, truthfully it wasn’t Bel’s face, but the woman in her dream had been Bel – in a weird way. It’s her… “Bats and holy Feathers!” she whispered. “Oh, dear Goddess – I wish I’d never dream again…”

But waking up like that – stunned, still trembling, her heart still full of overflowing joy –Cat knew she must see the High Priestess.

No wonder I was instantly affected by her touch, she later thought as she rushed through the crowded city towards the temple on the mountainside. She had instantly recognized the woman’s touch from her dreams: the High Priestess’s fingers on her lips, the touch when she caressed the scar on Cat’s side… The sudden thought of what it must be like to kiss the High Priestess, when she reacted the way she did to a mere touch, it made Cat weak. Goddess… she thought in despair, feeling desire shoot through her like a spear. This is absolute madness!

She stopped at a market and picked up a wooden sculpture of a small bat – no larger than the length of her hand, from fingers to wrist – and hurried to the temple with it in her pocket.

Once Cat reached the large opening to the temple of the Goddess of the Dark Moon, though, she hesitated. She remembered the last time she’d entered, twelve years ago, but that had been on the command of a goddess. Now… She only had a dream that she couldn’t mention and a small sculpture to appease the High Priestess with. A priestess she’d insulted twice, nonetheless. What am I doing here? she thought, bewildered. But she knew she needed answers.

Cat shifted weight from one foot to the other, staring into the darkness beyond the entrance. How could she feel what she was feeling for a woman she didn’t know and had hardly met? How could she feel so strongly about the High Priestess, who was so… indifferent to others?

“You may not enter without permission”, someone said at her side.

Cat twitched, embarrassed that she’d been taken by surprise a second time the same day. She turned to look at the young priestess who was standing right beside her, dressed in brown. Dark eyes the color of gleaming coal twinkled at her.

“I brought a… a gift for the High Priestess”, Cat said, showing the small bat. “I wanted to thank her for saving my life.”

“Oh, how cute!” the young priestess said, positively delighted. “She has to love this…” Dark eyes watched Cat with a conspiring shine. “I’ll take you to her. Follow me.”

The priestess was remarkably dark skinned and Cat found her faintly familiar, but couldn’t place her.

“Are you sure about this?” she asked, following the younger woman. “I don’t want to get you into trouble.”

“She’s already disappointed in me – one more trespass into her private life won’t make a difference.”

Cat shook her head, not knowing what to say. She’d thought the priestesses of the temple lived in fear and awe of their High Priestess, but that was apparently not the case. The young priestess ahead of her glanced back at her with a smile showing off white teeth.

“I know who you are…”

“Oh?” Cat said, looking around at the corridors they passed. She smelt the scent of incense and candles.

“If you want to know too you’ll have to ask her. She might tell you…”

“Who?” Cat frowned, looking at the priestess. “What are you talking about?”

“Time will tell. Look – here we are…”

Cat stopped at the entrance to the great hall she remembered from her childhood. The fountain still sparkled with water filling the channels in the large room. The statues still stood as majestic as before, throwing their long shadows on the stone floor.

“You can’t enter the inner sanctuary if you haven’t drunk from the Water of Nidae.”

Cat nodded, remembering. “What must I do?”

“Oh, no – that’s only for the Initiated, or those blessed by the High Priestess or the Goddess herself. You might be, one day – but time will tell… It all depends on how it ends, I guess. Come, I’ll show you another way. The High Priestess is at her private altar, it’s not far from here.”

Cat followed the odd priestess through a few more corridors, until they reached an open arch.

“Go through there…” the young woman said and pointed ahead of her. “Oh, and you may always enter my temple.”

Cat looked towards the opening, hearing voices from inside. “What…?” she asked, turning back to the priestess, only to realise that she was gone. “Oh, bloody Snakes…”

Sudden laughter from the adjacent chamber caught Cat’s attention; she recognized it as Katana’s. The thought of meeting the Captain there brought some comfort and she moved forward, halting again nearer the vault when she heard a second woman laugh. It was a lovely, open hearted laughter that brought a swift blush to Cat’s cheeks. It’s her, she thought. And then, again, before she moved forward: Goddess – this is madness!

Cat stopped below the arched opening and took in the scene. There was a stone altar with a large, looming statue of a bat right behind it; candelabras stood at the floor and empty incense holders were placed at the altar. On a row close to the altar a handful of dead warriors were lying; Cat couldn’t see them clearly, but they looked like those who’d attacked the brothel last night.

Katana and the High Priestess were standing before the altar, talking and laughing. The High Priestess held a hand on the Captains arm and Katana looked at her with amusement.

“Really?” the blonde warrior said.

“Really”, the High Priestess confirmed, nodding. She was still smiling. “Don’t tell her, though… I still think its sweet.”

Cat took a step forward and the two women immediately turned to her. The Captain narrowed her eyes and the twinkle in the High Priestess’ eyes died instantly together with the smile on her lips. Cat felt like an intruder.

“I’m sorry, I…”

“How did you get in? Don’t you know this temple is sacred – you’re not allowed to be here?” The High Priestess turned sharp, forbidding eyes at her.

“I know, but the priestess let me in”, Cat hurriedly said, gesturing towards the hallway behind her.

“What priestess?” the red haired woman from her dream said, frowning. Cat swallowed as she remembered that dream. How could she physically want someone who wasn’t even… nice?

“Young, very dark. Really black eyes…” she said.

The High Priestess’ frown deepened. “Really?” Cat heard her mumble, mostly to herself, in an ironic tone.

“I’ll leave you two alone”, Katana said. “We’ll talk later, Bel”, she added, looking at the priestess.

The High Priestess nodded, still looking a little distracted.

“And you”, the Captain said as she passed Cat, arching a warning eyebrow at her. “Behave yourself.”

When Katana had left Cat and the High Priestess silently looked at each other. She really is beautiful, Cat thought, discretely watching the priestess. Her face, her eyes, her mouth… No, not looking at her mouth now!

“Why are you here?” the other woman said and Cat hastily stepped forward with her gift.

“I came to apologize”, she said, bringing forth the statuette of the bat. “And to thank you for saving my life. I brought this – the priestess who let me in seemed to like it.”

“I bet she did”, Cat heard the High Priestess mumble. The woman nodded as she received the gift. “It’s nice”, she added noncommittally. “Thank you.”

“I thought I’d bring you something. I wasn’t very nice to you this morning. You saved my life and I only yelled at you. I’m very grateful to you for what you did, although it maybe didn’t show…”

Cat noticed an amused hint in the green of the High Priestess’ eyes and blushed when she realized she was babbling. She never babbled.

“You’re welcome”, the other woman said.

They looked at each other. Cat was waiting for the High Priestess to say something, but she didn’t. Instead she watched Cat with an intensity and curiosity that distracted Cat. She was wondering at the fallen warriors laid out beside the altar, but couldn’t tear her eyes from the High Priestess to look at them. She slowly inhaled.

“So”, she said.

“So”, the High Priestess said. “Twice in your life you’ve braved the dangers of this temple and my wrath.” She tilted her head to one side. “Did the goddess send you a dream this time too, telling you to find me?”

Goddess, Cat thought distressed, remembering what the other woman had said in her dream about finding each other. This is plain madness!

“Um, no”, she said, only lying a little bit. She doubted it was the Goddess who’d sent the dream she’d been plagued with – or blessed with – over the years. That dream most certainly came from her own twisted self – a figment of her imagination. “I just thought… uh, that I should apologize.”

“And now you have. Anything else?”

The other woman’s attitude made Cat snap out of her silence. If the woman of her dreams was a true figment of her imagination then Cat’s attraction towards her was too. She was attracted to the woman because of a foolish dream – due to an image of a woman who didn’t exist. The woman in her dreams – she was made up of fantasies Cat had created about the High Priestess over the years. There were no truths in them. And if they weren’t true… Then her feelings were not real, as long as she was aware and remembered that everything was a lie.

“Will you tell me where Deyna is? Katana refuses to let me know”, Cat said, straightening her back. “I’m not going to seek her out. I just want to know she’s safe.”

The High Priestess didn’t answer immediately, but finally she said: “I don’t believe you’re entitled to know the whereabouts of the princess. Not as long as you’re suspended from duty. I can tell you she is safe, though.”

Cat clenched her jaws. “And what would you know? You don’t give a bird’s poop about that girl, only caring for the power she gives you. You want it all to yourself, don’t you? You… You revel in the fear you instill in people, when the power you have is not even your own. You use the Goddess to frighten people, misusing her Name!”

“Is that what you think, soldier?” The High Priestess shook her head. “I can’t believe someone who’s been to war can be so naïve and irresponsible. You’re a child, still. The wars obviously didn’t make a proper warrior out of you.”

Cat gasped and felt anger rising when she was confronted with things she’d rather not think about. “Don’t you think I’ve felt…? Don’t you think I…? Don’t you think…” She breathed deeply, trying to calm herself. “I’ve seen death”, she said, remembering.

“Really?” the other woman said loftily.

Cat felt hurt pierce her heart, again being dismissed by the beautiful priestess. “I fought and…!” She hesitated. “And I lost it”, she whispered, remembering still. Remembering the blood, the madness, the rain and the sky filled with black birds – so many birds the blue of the sky and the sun was shut out. Birds picking eyes out off the dead, even picking at wounded soldiers in the mud. Streams turning blood red by the death of warriors; pain, screams, so much death – everywhere… People dying, friends dying. Making new friends was too painful when she knew she’d lose them again. Death reached out with cold fingers and turned her heart and her blood ran cold as ice; death breathed at her and made her its champion. “I lost it”, she whispered, remembering. “I was like a demon… I lost myself in the fight, forgetting who I was and where I came from. I hurt people even when I didn’t have to. I was… lost. I know – life”, she said hoarsely. “I’ve been through hell and back.”

“Show it then! Make me feel it. Make me understand that you know what life is about! Don’t behave like a spoiled child who had her best toy snatched from her.”

“I can’t!” Cat heard herself exclaim, feeling the frustration she remembered from the battlefield rising within her. “It hurts too much!”

She silenced, staring at the woman before her.

“Cat”, the High Priestess said softly and placed her hands on Cat’s shoulders. Green eyes looked into hers and there was gentleness and understanding in them; things Cat remembered from her dream. She felt it as if she was falling into a deep, dark hole with no end – falling, falling, into eternity. “It’s supposed to hurt”, the woman said. “It’s supposed to be tough, otherwise anyone could do it. But you must make yourself feel it, know it – you have to make it a part of you. It will never go away if you pretend it’s not there. Life is more than love and joy and carousing in the tavern – it’s more than death and destruction. It’s both – and not until we’ve experienced both sides and made both sides a part of us can we be made whole. Why do you think I push Deyna so hard?”

“I…” Cat didn’t know and she needed to be away from the woman before her, whose presence prevented her from forming thoughts in her mind. She couldn’t think straight with the High Priestess so close. She backed away. “I… don’t know.”

“Deyna holds back. She’s afraid. I can’t trust her until she trusts herself and she won’t do that until she lets go of the control – of her fear.”

“Control?” Cat frowned.

“She holds back. She’ll be a powerful goddess one day, but if she doesn’t know herself I can’t let her go through with the final Initiation. I need to know she can handle it. Otherwise… Otherwise she’ll die.”

Cat gasped. The bad memories of her years on the battlefield were fading; the gentle touch and the caring look in the other woman’s eyes had somehow lessened the pain and the dark.

“I’m thinking of putting off the Initiation until she’s twenty one. I can’t…”

“You can’t do that! She’ll never make it…” Cat objected.

“You’re not to tell her this. Do you understand?” the High Priestess said sharply and looked at her with disconcerting intent.

Cat felt like a child again – like the time when she was caught in the chamber where the fountain was. She nodded.

“I can’t let Deyna be a goddess if she doesn’t know herself – if she can’t control herself”, the other woman went on. “If she loses it when a goddess… She could wreck havoc on the whole empire.”

“Oh, Goddess! Like me on the battlefield”, Cat gasped. She’d gone berserk sometimes, losing it completely. Imagining a deity with awesome powers losing control like that... The thought made her shudder.

“Exactly. Look – I’m not supposed to even tell you about this, but maybe you’re one of those people who need to have the whole picture clear before you obey orders. Maybe understanding will make you more responsible. Katana has high hopes for you, but she doesn’t trust you.”

“I know”, Cat whispered. “She says I’m too unpredictable.”

“Because you, like the princess, don’t know yourself”, the High Priestess said with a short nod.

If someone else had told Cat that she’d never have listened, but hearing it from the High Priestess she suddenly knew it to be true. There were things in her past she couldn’t face and so she spent her time carousing and seducing women to avoid thinking about them.

“There are more things you need to know”, the High Priestess said. It seemed to Cat the other woman had made a choice of some sort. “Look.”

Cat turned to where the High Priestess indicated and looked at the dead warriors for the first time. Something was strange about their faces. She couldn’t tell from where she stood beside the priestess, so she moved forward. “What, by all sacred…?” She silenced, staring down at the warriors. “What happened to them?”

The bodies of the five warriors were so decayed they barely looked human: molded skin in shades of gray and green, frayed from the bones in some places; eyes picked out or fallen out of their eye sockets and rotting flesh. Cat was surprised the whole chamber didn’t reek.

“Well, they all died – one way or another. At least half a year ago.” The priestess pointed at the least decayed warrior. “Except him – he might have died only a few weeks ago.”

Cat glanced at the woman by her side, not sure if the even voice was meant to be sarcastic or not. “But… They were alive yesterday and they sure as bloody Snake’s bite didn’t look like this!”

“No – and hence our problem.” The High Priestess sighed, shaking her head. “I’ve talked to Katana about this and she’s showed the Emperor. We thought it’d help with him deciding not to send so many warriors to the boarders – but it only seems he’s more determined than ever to do so. He thinks these are warriors of Egara who’s managed to get through our lines.”

Cat frowned. “And you don’t? And why shouldn’t we reinforce our boarders? And what by the holy Bat are those?” She indicated the dead warriors, then realizing she’d misused the Name of the Goddess in front of the High Priestess. “Um, my apologies for swearing”, she added.

“These are dead people brought back to life…” the priestess said.

Bel, Cat thought as she watched the woman. Katana called her Bel

“The whole squad of sixty or so soldiers you were fighting yesterday was made up of soldiers like these. Except a few.”

“But they all looked normal”, Cat said confused. “I mean, I sure would’ve noticed if they had maggots crawling out of their eyes. Are they Undead?”

“No”, the priestess said, shaking her head. “The undead are different – those suck blood and need to be pinned through the heart with a wooden stake. And these are not zombies either. Zombies are not as easily killed. These…” She made a gesture with her hand, indicating the dead bodies. “These are just dead people brought back to life to be used as warriors. Of course they are not human anymore – they lack a soul and a will of their own, only responding to the sole purpose that brought them back and maybe to some simple commands.” Bel paused for a moment. “They were disguised yesterday – an Illusion was cast upon them to hide their true faces, but I knew what they were as soon as I saw them. I had my priestesses bring them here, to burn them. I’ll ask you not to mention this to anyone, except Katana who’s aware of what’s going on.”

Cat nodded thoughtfully, wondering why the High Priestess told her these things. “What are we up against?” she asked quietly.

“It takes powerful magic to work with this – and especially with so many dead warriors. My guess, though, is that whoever did this has spent years waking the dead and only waiting for the right moment to use them…”

“So they can be held… in storage?” Cat asked with a frown. She thought she noticed a slight smile in the corner of the other woman’s mouth at her choice of words. Looking at the High Priestess’ mouth she was abruptly reminded of the reason why she’d come and hastily averted her eyes.

“For years. And they are cheap – they don’t demand anything, neither food nor clothing.”

“And simple to work with”, Cat mumbled. “No mouthing back.”

“No, they’re not as willful as others”, Bel agreed with a certain tone that made Cat glance quickly at her. “Yes, that was friendly sarcasm”, the woman said dryly, noticing Cat’s look. “You don’t think I know how to make a joke, spending all my time chopping off people’s heads to make them fear me?”

Cat blinked, still confused.

“That was another joke”, the priestess said and this time it was clearly humor Cat saw in the depths of those intensely green eyes.

“You have a strange sense of humor”, Cat said, grinning. The other woman was a challenge to understand, but Cat had never backed away from a challenge before. Maybe she’ll warm up to me, she thought, immediately blushing when the thought brought an unbidden image to her mind: a flashback from her dream, only much more vivid and evocative. She turned back to the dead warriors, trying to hide her discomfit. “Um… What about them?”

The High Priestess took her time answering, watching her with an odd expression Cat couldn’t make out.

“Huh?” Cat asked, looking back at the redhead at her side.

“They…” The High Priestess averted her eyes, shaking her head as if to clear it. “As I said, whoever brought these back from death is very powerful. It must be a High Priest or Priestess. He or she put a magical web over the brothel yesterday, preventing Deyna from using her powers.”

“I remember”, Cat mumbled, thinking of how hard it had been for the princess to change her form. “She couldn’t use her powers in the fight. Was it… her they were after?” she added softly, glancing at the woman at her side. Bel, she repeated in her mind. She wondered if she too could call the High Priestess that. Probably not, she thought dryly. Too friendly for a mere soldier like me… I’m not moving in her circles.

“I believe the attack was some sort of distraction. We don’t know yet and I don’t want to jump to conclusions. Deyna survived yesterday only due to her training and your defense of her…”

Cat blinked when the High Priestess looked at her. That sounded almost like praise, she thought, wondering at the woman who only moments before had accused her of being reckless. There was a slight smile on Bel’s lips when she noticed Cat’s reaction.

“Just because I find your actions taking the princess to a brothel reckless doesn’t mean I can’t recognize your worth. You’ve trained Deyna very well in the art of physical combat and I realize you care for her as a person, not as a princess. I recognize that’s important to her.”

“I…” Cat didn’t know what to say. She was suddenly very much aware of Bel’s presence close to her and twitched a little.

“Katana values you and she’s sure you learned a lesson yesterday. She wants me to give you a second chance.”

Cat held her tongue, nodding.

“But I can’t do that right away. What you did…” The priestess silenced. “You know what you did. You must face the consequences of those actions. I can’t let you get away with everything just because you have a pretty smile.”

Cat blinked in surprise, staring at the High Priestess completely taken aback by the last remark, but Bel turned back to the dead bodies with a blank face. Who is this woman? Cat thought bewildered. What is she? Cold and indifferent, or caring and… sweet?

Cat had wanted the priestess to be the former to save her from the growing attraction she felt, but the woman showed surprising depths, which was dangerous to Cat and her physical state.

“Deyna should have recognized the soldiers for what they were yesterday, but she did very well considering”, the priestess said. “With that web around the brothel she wasn’t even supposed to be able to shape-change.”

“No?” Cat said, wondering. She knew very little of and cared even less about the deities’ powers or the powers of the Priesthood. Then she thought of the princess and her fear of the High Priestess. “Have you told her this?” she asked, sharper than she’d intended. “Did you tell her she did great? She needs to hear it from you.”

“From me? Why ? My opinion shouldn’t matter. She needs to learn to trust herself.”

“’Why?’” Cat said with a grimace. “Are you truly so... ignorant? And you blame me for being naïve! She wants your approval, of course. You mean so much to her and you just...” She sighed, seeing the High Priestess’ inscrutable face. “Forget it. You really don’t get it. You’re just not human, you don’t know the first thing about relationships. I can’t believe I was actually...” She caught herself, blushing. “Forget it”, she mumbled, turning away. “I’m leaving now.”

Call me back, she thought as she walked towards the entrance, abruptly regretting leaving. The other woman confused her so much and Cat could hardly stand being in her presence if she wasn’t allowed to…She cut the thought. Call me back, talk to me, yell at me… Do something! But Bel didn’t do anything and Cat had to leave the room without looking back.

Although she couldn’t stand to be where the priestess was the thought of not being where she was suddenly felt like torture to her. Bloody Snakes and rotting corpses! she thought angrily. Those damn dreams!

* * * * *

Bel watched the warrior leave, feeling slightly confused at Cat’s last remark. Why is she walking away? she thought with a frown, wondering if she should call her back. She refrained from it, realizing they’d probably end up arguing again.

Bel turned back to look at the dead bodies and suddenly a flash of Cat’s grinning face was before her inner eye. That smile… It had affected her in a strange way; she’d felt something lurch behind her chest and her pulse had increased for a stunning moment. Just thinking of that smile made her feel strange. She wondered if she was coming down with something.

“You felt it, didn’t you?”

She suddenly heard the Goddess in her mind.

“What are you talking about?” she answered in her thoughts as Nidae was nowhere to be seen.

“You find her attractive!”

“I most certainly do not!” Bel defended herself and added: “You let her in!”

“Of course I did!” the goddess chuckled. “She brought me a lovely gift. And she’s my relative…”

“I wouldn’t talk too loud about that if I were you”, Bel admonished. “And what do you mean – I find her attractive?”

Nidae only chuckled and Bel sighed.

“I can see where she’s gotten her reputed teasing manners from”, she sent.

“You felt it! Don’t deny it…”

“The only thing I’m denying is your access to my mind. Get out or I’ll push you out!”

Bel was the only one who could deny the deities access to her thoughts: she could block them from her mind if she wanted to, an ability no High Priest or Priestess was remembered having before.

“Oh, you’re so…”

“If you say boring one more time, I swear I’ll…”

Bel silenced, suddenly feeling someone intruding on her mind. Someone calling for her attention.

“Badra… Help me…”

The voice was faint, almost inaudible, but it was indisputably Fang’s.

“Fang?” she asked, confused.

“Help me, Badra… They’re… Help me…”

There was pure desperation in the voice and Bel felt the fear and confusion of the god through the mind link.

“Nidae?”she asked. “What’s…?”

“Not this, Badra”, the Goddess said, retracting. There was fear even in her voice. “I can’t help you with this. You’re on your own.”

Bel frowned. “Fang? Fang – do you hear me?” There was no answer and Bel swore softly under her breath. “Nidae – contact Zelena; see what she can tell you.”

“Yes, my priestess.”

“Damn maggots”, Bel muttered. She got her staff, which stood leaning against the altar, and moved towards the entrance. “Nidae – any luck?”

“I can’t get to Zelena. I believe she’s unconscious.”

The news didn’t bode well. “Get Derac, tell him…”

“I talked to him. He’s with Nikka at the palace. She’s passed out, someone apparently attacked her with a psychic spell…”

“What? Is she…?”

“Derac says she’ll be fine, but she’s out at the moment. He’ll hurry to Fang’s temple…”

“Good. Nidae – do you know what this is?”

“Only power, Badra. Power enough to bind us. Be careful, it’s probably a trap for…”

“Nidae? Nidae! Can you hear me? Get the Priesthood together, warn the deities…”

“I’m trying, but someone’s interfering with the… with the connection…”

“Nidae? Nidae!”

There was only silence in her mind and Bel realized the connection had been lost. She hurried along the corridors, frantically thinking of possible answers to what was happening and to solutions for each scenario she could think of.

“Cath Ciardha!” she called in the temple corridors, using Air to carry her voice: it rang like thunder around her. If the warrior was still in the temple she’d hear her. “Stay, warrior!”

It didn’t take her long to come across the member of Panthera. She was waiting in the Fountain Chamber, looking angrily at Bel when she hurried towards her.

“I didn’t do anything!” Cat said, defensively.

“You must hurry to Katana”, Bel said, ignoring the remark. “Tell her to bring Panthera to the Temple of the White Tiger. Tell her to bring the Cobra Squad too. You check on Deyna and stay with her to protect her. She’s in the Tower of Eagles…”

“You put her in the Eagles’ Tower?” Cat exclaimed angrily. “Are you out of your…?”

“Now!” Bel commanded icily. She didn’t have time to deal with an obstinate child; if Cat didn’t prove her worth at this point…

“Of course”, Cat said seeming to get the seriousness of the situation, immediately straightening her back. “Any thing else I need to tell the Captain?”

“Just go. And hurry! And stay with the princess, Cat.”

Cat nodded crisply, turned around and sprinted across the chamber. Bel followed, but although she was in perfectly good health and more fit than most people she couldn’t keep up with the warrior.

“Nidae?” she tried again, but there was no answer. “Holy Bat”, she mumbled, sending a swift prayer to the Creative Energy that had created the world, as she hurried towards the entrance. She stopped quickly on the way to inform one of her priestesses that she needed them to gather at Fang’s temple as quickly as possible.

As she hurried down the mountainside towards Fang’s temple thoughts of Cat suddenly intruded. Cat’s reaction when she’d seen her by the Fountain irked her a little. The warriors first thought seemed to have been that Bel would yell at her for something. Is that what she thinks of me? she thought worriedly. That I’m nothing more than a barking bitch? The thought caught her and made her feel sad for some reason. She didn’t want Cat to think ill of her. And what does it matter what she thinks? She doesn’t know me… Do I want her to know me? Why, by all bats? What difference would it make…? And why am I thinking of this now? She pushed the thoughts of Cat out of her mind and hurried forward.

The temple of the White Tiger was placed close to Nidae’s, at the foot of the mountainside, so it didn’t take Bel that long to reach it. The jungle was too thick to see through from higher ground, so she didn’t know what to expect at the temple. She knew she had to be careful, but she also sensed it was urgent. With the staff in her hand she carefully moved forward in the thickets.

The temple looked deserted. It was a few hours past noon and usually some people would have been there to pay their respect and leave some offerings to the god, but there was no one to be seen. Bel moved quietly ahead, suddenly sensing that something was wrong. She immediately stopped.

Holding her breath for a few moments the High Priestess felt a tingling warning at the back of her neck and then two things happened: she noticed the slain bodies at the top of the stairs – four of them, one a priestess of the temple – and a group of warriors moved out from their hiding place in the thickets.

“High Priestess of the Bat”, a male voice said. “Put down your staff and none shall be harmed.”

One of the warriors, a muscular, blonde man in nondescript black leather clothing stepped out holding a woman to him and threatening her with a knife across her throat. The woman was unconscious, but held steadily with no effort by the man. Bel immediately recognized the woman as Zelena, Fang’s High Priestess.

“Where is the god?” she asked sternly, holding the man’s gaze; he stood close enough for her to see he had brown eyes. She also noticed something else: he had a tattoo on the back of his left hand. A small, black tattoo in the shape of a cobra rising to attack.

“The god is safe – for now.” The warrior pulled at Zelena to hold her upright. “Put down your staff”, he said.

“And you’ll kill me”, she said dryly. “I think not.”

“If we wanted you dead you’d be dead by now”, the man said, indicating another warrior who stood a few feet away aiming a longbow at her.

And if I wanted you dead… she thought, then made up her mind and put down her staff.

“Take her”, the warrior in charge said and nodded towards her. Three men moved forward and grabbed her, pulling at her. The warrior before her let go of Zelena, who limply fell to the ground.

“You’ll regret this”, Bel said, looking at the man as the others tied her hands behind her back.

“Sure I will”, the man said sarcastically, smirking. “And what will you do? Your power lies in the staff – without it you’re helpless. Just like your goddess. Where is she, by the way? Off hiding someplace?”

“Who are you working for?” she asked, looking sternly at him. Again he smirked. You fool, she thought. He didn’t know the first think about a High Priestess’ power. Whoever hired him was either as misinformed or as big a fool as this man – or they simply hadn’t bothered with telling him the truth.

“What makes you think I wasn’t the one planning all of this?”

“Then you wouldn’t mind telling me what you are planning to do with Fang, would you?” she asked scowling at him.

The question seemed to irk the man, who gestured at the men who held her.

“Hurry. There will be others here soon.”

“You’re only a minion”, Bel said disgusted.

“A minion holding your life in my hands, nonetheless”, the warrior said and grabbed her chin, holding her face close to his. “And you…” His eyes went to her mouth. “You’re in my grasp now.” He bent down and kissed her. When she tried to turn away his fingers dug into her chin and her cheeks, holding her still. He tasted raw, filthy, and when he pulled away with a grin she felt the need to throw up.

“You’ll surely regret that”, she said, seething with an ice cold rage, and looked at him with burning eyes. She noticed the smirk on his face fade and a turn fearful before he turned away.

“Bring her!” he commanded and in the next moment she received a hard blow to the head that knocked her unconscious.

Part Six

More dangers

The Eagles’ Tower had seven hundred steps leading up to it. It was the highest tower in the city, with a spectacular view of the area. Cat, with Serafine and Para, had sneaked up into it once when they were younger and full of mischief. The regular palace guard had found them and each of them had gotten a fitting punishment from their respective leaders. It was one of the few times Cat had seen Katana really, really mad.

The Tower was a sacred place, reserved for certain deities: the winged ones, like the Bat, the Owl and the Condor. There was no Eagle any longer: she’d been killed by a mad priestess a few hundred years ago. The Tower had been built to honor her memory.

When Cat arrived at the tower, having informing Katana about the High Priestess’ words, two members of Panthera were standing guard at the foot of the stairs. Serafine was one of them.

“Cat – what are you doing here?” she asked as she noticed her friend.

“How’s the princess?” Cat asked, glancing up the stair.

Serafine nodded. “She’s fine. I just brought her some soup. She asks for you. What…? Why are you here? You’re not allowed to see her.”

“Something’s happened. I don’t know what.”

Cat quickly told the other two about the High Priestess’ orders, shrugging when she finished. “Katana told me to hurry over here. I was told to tell you not to let anyone pass – not anyone who’s not a Leaping Panther.”

“Sure, Cat”, the other member said. “We’re off in a few minutes. We’ll inform our replacements.”

“There are more people guarding the tower, right?” Cat asked.

“There’s six of us”, Serafine confirmed.

Cat relaxed a little, but couldn’t get the High Priestess and the sense that she was in danger out of her mind. She nodded. “I was ordered to guard the princess, so I’ll wait around until Katana returns from the temple.”

“I’ll stay with you”, Serafine said.

When the replacements arrived only minutes later – six new members of the pack – Cat and Serafine made their way to the chamber at the top of the circular stairs.

“She’s locked up?” Cat asked when she noticed the looked door. A key hung on an iron hook on the wall beside the door.

“The High Priestess’ orders”, Serafine said as she unlocked the door. “Obviously she wants to punish the princess.”

“It’s all my fault”, Cat said, sighing as the door opened.

The chamber was larger than expected, round and with a high ceiling. The windows were massive and let in bright light. Deyna was sitting on a low stool, reading. A table stood by her with an empty ceramic bowl atop. The rest of the room was filled with books, thick carpets and silk pillows in a myriad of colors.

“Cat!” Deyna exclaimed, flying out of the chair as Cat entered the room.

“Ah, princess – good to see you again”, Cat said, hugging the younger woman.

“She saved you!” Deyna stepped back, looking at Cat as if she hadn’t seen her for ages. “I can’t believe it… She really saved you.”

Cat grinned. “And I’ve talked to her”, she said. “I’ve lived up to my end of our challenge.”

“You didn’t have much choice now, did you?” the princess said, arching an eyebrow at her. “Not if she saved your life. She must have been around when you woke up.” She made a face. “What did she do? Yell at you?”

“Actually – I yelled at her.” It was Cat’s turn to make a face. “Which didn’t help our relationship…”

“I told you – she doesn’t care about people.”

“Actually…” Cat hesitated, thinking of what the High Priestess had told her in regards to Deyna. “Um, I think, I think she cares… She just doesn’t care like the rest of us.”

“You’re talking about the High Priestess, right?” Serafine said, entering the room and the conversation. She sat down in the chair the princess had used. “I made a pass at her… once.”

Cat blinked. “Really? You never told me”, she said, feeling a strange tug at her heart. It took a moment for her to realize it was jealousy.

“Ah, nothing to tell”, the gray eyed woman said, waving off the remark with a lofty gesture. “She turned me down.”

“As would be expected”, Deyna said dryly, moving to sit down on some pillows close to the chair.

“She looked at me as if I was some strange insect”, Serafine went on. “Then she went on mentioning that I was Derac’s sister and it wouldn’t do for me to fool around with someone so close to him. She’s a strange woman.”

“Your telling me”, Cat mumbled, moving towards the windows to look out towards the mountainside – towards the temple of the Goddess. The High Priestess had been with her for so long, the image and the memory of a woman she’d wanted to get to know. And when she finally met her… The woman was nothing like what she’d expected or imagined. She didn’t seem nice at all – and still Cat couldn’t get her out of her mind.

It’s that bloody dream, she thought. The dream had always left her vulnerable, with the feeling that she lacked something important in her life – something she’d give up the world to gain – and the realization that the woman in her dream was the High Priestess made her confused. When thinking of the other woman now she kept remembering her dreams and not only the ones were she was heavily making out with a red haired woman, but also the new dream she’d had the same morning. The one with the ceremony she’d come to realize must’ve been a wedding.

“I’m glad I failed to seduce her”, Serafine said softly in the background and when Cat turned to look at her she noticed the tender caress the other warrior bestowed upon the princess’ hair. Cat bit her lip to stop herself saying the first thing that came to mind and then watched the surprised expression on Deyna’s face as the girl looked up.


“Really”, Serafine said gently, twining a lock of golden hair between her fingers.

“So… Yesterday wasn’t just a beer induced hallucination on my part?” Deyna asked with a slight blush on fair cheeks, making Serafine grin at her.

“That? That wasn’t even the beginning…”

“Should I leave the room, perhaps?” Cat asked dryly, arching an eyebrow at them. The princess blushed furiously, but Serafine only smiled.

“Perhaps you should.”

Cat frowned when she realized her friend was serious. “Sera”, she said.

“Don’t worry, Cat”, Deyna suddenly said, looking up at her. “She won’t do anything I don’t want to.”

Cat thought of the High Priestess again, abruptly realizing she was in the middle of a conflict of interests. “I can’t let you do this, princess”, she said softly.

“What? You don’t even know what I’m…”

“I do. Yesterday you didn’t want to give yourself to Fang. You wanted to become a goddess. Today… Today you’ve changed your mind and it has nothing to do with Serafine.” Cat knew it; she could see it in Deyna’s eyes. The princess had somehow given up her beliefs since the day before and Cat suspected it had something to do with the High Priestess’ treatment of her – locking her up in the tower. She shook her head. “Breaking the rules always comes with consequences”, she said. “I’m sorry, Deyna. I shouldn’t have gotten you into this. This is all my fault. But don’t throw away what you have because of…”

“What I have?” The princess flew up from the floor. “And what do I have, Cat?” she spat. “Restrictions, that’s what I have. I was never allowed to be a child. Because I’m special! As if being special is so great. I don’t want to become a goddess if it costs so much pain.”

“If it wasn’t hard anyone could do it”, Cat mumbled, but regretted her words as soon as they left her mouth when she noticed the stricken look on Deyna’s face.

“Don’t say that! You’re my only friend! You’re supposed to…” The princess silenced. Tears were wetting her cheeks. “You’re supposed to support me, not stab me in the back.”

“Deyna…” Cat took a step towards her. “All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t rush into any decisions based on how you’re feeling now. A warrior letting her anger and fear rule her will make bad choices… Her true instincts and common sense will be clouded.”

“Princess…” Serafine rose behind Deyna and put a hand on her shoulder; the princess turned to her. “Cat is right, unfortunately.” The gray eyed woman made a face. “It’s unlucky she should pick this moment to be so wise, but there it is…” Serafine dried the tears off Deyna’s cheek with a gentle caress of her thumb. “I like you, princess, but I don’t want to be something you rush into because you see no other way out. I’ll wait for you – even if it means I’ll have to wait a year, until you become the goddess you were born to be.”

Cat blinked; she’d never heard Serafine talk to anyone like that. Then, in the next moment, her longtime friend closed the space between her and the princess, softly kissing Deyna on the lips. At first it was a careful, light kiss on the mouth, but it grew more intense as Cat watched and she averted her eyes from the two women – one warrior and one princess. She looked out the windows again, noticing the reflection of the women in the glass: Deyna lift her arms to encircle Serafine’s neck and Serafine held the princess at the waist and pulled her closer. The kiss deepened…

Cat scanned the city and the hillside, trying to find the Temple of the White Tiger, but the jungle was too thick in that particular area. What she did see, though, was a procession of brown clad priestesses moving from the jungle and up the mountainside towards the temple of Nidae. The sight made her frown and she forgot the two women behind her. She quickly moved a few steps aside, to get a clearer view of that area, when something else caught her attention. A large group of warriors moved at high speed on horses away from the city on the east side. The east side was the only side consisting of lowland: flat, hard ground with rocks and red sand stretching out in the distance. They were too far away for Cat to get a proper look at them, but it seemed to her two people were lying on the horsebacks instead of sitting up. Her frown deepened as she watched the fleeing warriors; there weren’t more than a dozen of them.

Then, in a flash, Katana rode out from the thickets below the mountainside towards the city gates, followed by two members of Panthera. Something’s happened! Cat thought as she saw the way the Captain rode her black stallion. She swirled around, abruptly reminded of the other two people in the room when she noticed them still kissing.

“Something’s happened”, Cat said curtly, moving towards the door. “Princess”, she said, looking at Deyna who slowly let go of Serafine. “Think of your people and don’t throw away your gifts just yet. The Empire might need you.”

“Cat, what’s…?” Serafine moved a few steps away from the princess.

“Keep her safe, sister”, Cat said and was out the door.

Cat hurried down the many steps and through the palace, swearing as she went; the Eagles’ Tower was placed furthest from the city centre and it took her what felt like ages to reach the main entrance and the central gates of the palace. Katana had just entered the palace gates and jumped off her stallion as Cat rushed out to meet her at the yard.

“What are you doing here?” the Captain brusquely asked, moving towards the stairs at the entrance. “You’re supposed to be with the princess.”

“What’s happened, Katana?” Cat asked. “What’s going on? Tell me…”

Katana shook her head. “Not now. Get back to the princess.”

“No”, Cat objected. “Not until you tell me what’s going on.”

“Must you be so stubborn?” the Captain accused, but didn’t give another command.

They moved through the palace, half running. They passed corridors, servants and great halls decorated in gold and red fabric before they reached the private chambers of the Imperial Couple.

The first thing Katana had done earlier, when Cat brought her the command from the High Priestess, had been to send a messenger to Barac Wei to inform him of what was happening, so when the emperor, the empress, Afron the chancellor and Hades, the leader of the White Tigers, where waiting in a smaller room Cat wasn’t surprised.

“Captain”, the emperor said, rising from the armchair in which he was seated beside the blonde empress. They had high windows behind their backs and the afternoon soon was shining into the room.

“Emperor”, Katana said, hastily kneeling before the imperial couple; Cat did the same. “I bring bad news.”

“What is it, Captain?” Hades said, stepping forward.

“Fang the Tiger has been taken from his temple”, Katana said rising. “Several of his priestesses were slain…”

“Zelena?” the empress immediately asked.

“Zelena is fine”, Katana hurriedly said. She hesitated. “But… Others were slain too, visitors to the temple.”

“Who? Who would do such a thing?” the emperor asked, pacing angrily back and forward before his chair.

“Egara, my emperor”, old Afron said, glancing at the tall, dark haired man. “It must be.”

“I’m not so sure, your Highness”, Katana said.

“The raid yesterday was probably a distraction for today’s main event”, Afron said, looking at Katana.

“Why would they kidnap a god?” Hades asked, frowning.

“Fang’s popular amongst Kellara’s people”, the empress said. “Maybe our enemies believe our people will be weak without him.”

“This settles it”, the emperor said. “The ceremony and the festivities for this week must be cancelled.”

“You can’t cancel the festivities, your Highness”, Afron said a bit shocked. “The people have looked forward to it for ages.”

“It’s too dangerous to hold the competitions when we are being attacked. The Priesthood will still have their ceremonies, but they’ll have to keep them to their temples. If people will carouse on their own I can’t prevent it, but the soldiers are not to take part in the festivities. We need to increase the guards around the city… Is my daughter fine?”

“Deyna is safe”, Cat said, stepping forward. “I just came from the Tower.”

“Good. I’ll send her to the Temple of the Dark Moon. She’ll be safer with the High Priestess there…”

“My emperor”, Katana said and Cat looked at her, hearing her tone of voice. “As a matter of fact… Fang wasn’t the only one abducted.”

They all looked at the Captain and Cat suddenly felt a clenching, clawing cold in her chest eating at her heart. No, she thought as the realization slowly dawned on her. I’ve only just found her…

“What do you mean, Captain?” the emperor asked, frowning.

“Your Highness… The High Priestess was taken with Fang. She’s…” Katana hesitated and Cat could see her paling cheeks. “I found her staff…”

“Oh, Goddess!” The empress rose from her chair, holding a hand to her mouth. Her eyes were wide open, staring at Katana with genuine fear.

“She wouldn’t have…” the emperor whispered. “She wouldn’t have let them take her if she was…” He didn’t finish the sentence. He paled and slowly sat down in his chair.

“I don’t believe she’s dead, your Highness”, Hades said, shaking his head. “They wouldn’t have taken her if she wasn’t alive.”

“But why would she let them take her?” Barac Wei asked. “She could easily have overcome them…”

“We don’t know that, your Highness”, Afron said. “Maybe she was taken by surprise. Maybe they simply were too many.”

Barac Wei shook his head. “You don’t know this woman, Afron”, Cat heard him say in a low voice.

“In any case we need to send out people to get her and Fang back”, Hades said.

“That’s what whoever took her wants us to do”, Katana objected. “That would leave the city open.”

“We won’t send out the whole army”, Hades pointed out.

“And we don’t know how many they are – if we send out too few we might lose a lot of lives for no gain”, Katana said, looking at the emperor. “Your Highness – think of the dead warriors I showed you. We don’t know how many of those are still around.”

“Can’t be that many”, Afron interjected. “No one could have raised more of those warriors since yesterday…”

“We need to send out a few scouts before we rush into something”, Katana said, ignoring the councilor’s comment.

“I’ll go”, Cat immediately said, already walking towards the doors. The more time they wasted discussing the matter the further away those warriors were taking her… were taking the High Priestess.

“Cat!” Katana called, but Cat didn’t stop; she passed the guards at the doors and left the meeting. The Captain followed her and caught up with her in the corridor. “Cat! Where do you think you’re going?”

“I’m getting her back.”

“Her? Bel? What…? Stop!” Katana took Cat by the arm and held her back. Cat twisted loose, staring at her.

“I’m going, Katana. You can’t stop me. I’m getting her back.”

“She told you to guard the princess. That’s your job, soldier. There’s nothing else that matters except guarding the princess…”

“I’m off duty, remember?” Cat spat. “The princess is not my responsibility any…”

“Don’t be a fool!” the Captain snapped. “The High Priestess strictly ordered you to protect the princess. That’s what you need to do. Get back to the tower…”

“No!” Cat turned and began walking away.

“You don’t even like her!” Katana called after her.

Maybe I don’t… Maybe I do… Cat thought, still not sure which yet. She didn’t answer.

“Cat! If you walk away now…”

Cat kept on walking.

“Cat! Get your stubborn self back here! If you walk out on me don’t bother coming back!”

Cat stopped and looked around.

“I mean it, Cat”, Katana said, gesturing towards her with one hand. “Come back and guard the princess. If you leave I’ll have you permanently excluded from the pack.”

I can’t, Cat thought, thinking of the beautiful woman in her dream who put a wedding band of white gold on her finger. Thinking of the joy she’d felt in that moment. She said she’d find me wherever I go… But I know I have to find her first. I have to know, I have see – what kind of woman she is.

Cat slowly shook her head. “I’m sorry, Captain”, she said – and left.

Cat followed the trail of the warriors for five days without catching up with them. On the sixth morning she reached the Vale of the Dead. It was a large, deep valley surrounded by red rocks and sparse vegetation: the ancient burial ground for the higher nobility. There was a deep, long cave system stretching through the rocks that surrounded the valley and several dark holes were gaping from the rock walls.

Cat stopped at the ridge and looked down into the valley from the back of her horse. What she saw made her stop breathing.

No one ever came to the Vale of the Dead anymore. The burial ground had last been used three hundred years ago, when there was a reformation of the Priesthood. The higher nobility was no longer to be buried, but to be burned. Cat had never bothered with wondering why, except Para had once told her it was to save the nobility from being humiliated by grave robbers. Cat had doubted that was the true reason, although it sounded plausible in some ways.

Now, looking down at the valley – and at the large army assembled at the bottom – Cat suddenly wondered what the long dead nobility would think of having their entire graveyard desecrated in such a way. The assembled army filled the entire gorge; warriors in armors, armed to their teeth with weapons.

“Oops – you found us! Bu, huh…”

Cat turned around on her horse, looking at a man she recognized. He wasn’t alone, but sat on a red horse surrounded by dozens of warriors. “You”, she said, addressing the blonde man with the pale, but distinct scar across one eye: prince Harkaitz Qadir, the emperor’s brother. “What have you done? Where is she?”

“She?” The man arched a white eyebrow, paled by the burning from his childhood. “And here I believed you had come for the god. What do you want the priestess for?”

“What do you want with her?” Cat countered. “You have no use for a priestess.”

“No?” The prince tilted his head to one side. “I’ve heard of you – with the mismatched eyes. Yes…” Harkaitz nodded, ignoring Cat’s question. “They call you Cat, don’t they? My daughter talks a lot about you.” He smirked, eyeing her. “A pity you prefer women – otherwise you and I could have had a fun time. I believe I could teach you a few things.”

“Sure”, Cat said dryly. “Why don’t you pull that sword at your side and face me like a man?”

“No, no – so impatient. Don’t you know? The nicest wine is best savored slowly and with appreciation.”

“Wine?” she said, not getting his point.

“Ah, yes. Wine – the essence of our lives. Blood – the wine flowing through our veins. The sweetest wine is revenge – didn’t you know?” He chuckled. “You’re about to discover – revenge, like the best of wines, grows better with age. I’ve waited a long, long time for this and soon…” – he smiled wickedly, still chuckling – “my revenge is completed.”

“I doubt it”, Cat said, pulling her sword. “The White Tigers will soon be here…”

“Those Tigers are on their way to the boarders by now, courtesy of Egara’s king. He’s moving closer, knowing there are some… disturbances at the Court of Goddara.”

“You bastard! You’ve betrayed your country. Fight me, you coward.”

Cat spurred her horse and rode straight towards the emperor’s brother. She hadn’t even reached him before she was shot with an arrow in her shoulder. Not again! she remembered thinking before she was engaged in heavy combat with Harkaitz’s warriors.

She realized some of the warriors were members of the Cobra Squad and when she engaged in close combat with one of them she called out to him.

“What’s going on with you?” she snapped, parrying a sword-stroke and thrust at the warrior, faking an attack. When he lowered his sword to parry her blow she quickly changed the direction of her thrust and cut him in the arm. He swore and dropped the weapon. Cat quickly moved in, drawing her knife and holding it to his throat.

“Hold still”, she warned, one yellow eyes glinting at him. “Tell me now – what’s going on?”

The warrior looked disdainfully at her. “You Leaping Panthers, you’re such fools. You don’t see the bigger picture…”

“The bigger picture?” she asked, frowning, pulling away from the others while holding the man close to her. “What are you talking about?”

“We know who we serve – and it’s not a puppet string emperor who does everything for fear of a ruthless priestess…”

Bel! Cat thought. She felt a cold chill down her back. She’s in danger! “Tell me”, she snapped, tightening the hold on the warrior. “What is this? Is everyone in your squad in on this?” Para, she thought with a cold stab at her heart. The warrior smirked.

“Not everyone, but those who can’t be convinced to follow a more...” – he tilted his head to one side, smirking – “altruistic path, will die with the rest.”

“Shut up, you fool!” prince Harkaitz called behind him and stabbed the man in the back. The warrior gasped, eyes widening, before he fell limbless against Cat. Cat immediately let go of him and engaged in swordfight with two other Cobras.

“Stabbing your own people!” Cat shouted to the prince, glancing at the warriors she was fighting and trying to keep them away from her. They pushed her towards the edge of the ridge. “And you still follow him?” she called out to the Cobras.

“Save your breath and fight!” one of them called back. “We are loyal to our master.”

Fanatics, Cat thought. Para is so not one of them. At least she hoped he wasn’t. In the next moment she was too busy fighting to think about Para. She had to fight to stay alive; she needed to see Bel again.

Even though she fought for her life and killed several of the warriors in the end they were too many; she lost her weapons and they beat her until she lost consciousness. Her last thought was of the High Priestess’ fingers touching her lips.

* * * * *

Why is she here? Bel thought, looking down at the unconscious warrior in front of her. They were locked up in a small chamber inside the cave system; an iron door with bars secured their prison.

When prince Harkaitz dumped Cat in the chamber he’d told Bel that Cat had asked for her before she was taken prisoner. “Maybe she’ll make you talk”, he’d said with a smirk.

Bel had been given some water and clean rags by a soldier and she carefully tended to Cat’s wounds. She’d had to undress the other woman to do so and thoughts of that early morning a week ago when Cat woke up at the altar came back to her. She’d undressed her then too, but with more urgency and without reflecting on what she’d been doing. This time she was gentler; taking her time with the buttons, carefully removing the torn, dirty fabric.

Cat had a lot of scars from previous battles; Bel inspected them as she cleaned the wounds. The woman’s body truly was beautiful, she caught herself thinking. Like a sculpture, she thought, remembering her words to Nidae. She gently traced the skin with her fingers, feeling the softness of the skin. It felt… nice.

Bel sighed and shook her head. Nidae could think what she wanted. It took more than a naked body to get Bel physically attracted to someone. She’d never… Fine, not never, she thought, correcting herself as a faint memory of a warm summer’s day surfaced within her. She’d been wandering in the jungle, contemplating some texts she’d read the day before, when she suddenly came across a naked woman bathing. She had immediately recognized her as Zelena and her first thought had been to call out to the priestess, but then something stopped her… Zelena had been rising from the pond, leaning backwards and wringing the water from her hair. The sun had been shining and her wet skin had been glistening.

Bel had felt something then. She had found the sight immensely beautiful and it had taken her several moments before she could turn away. For weeks afterwards she’d avoided the other High Priestess, finding excuses not to see her. Although Zelena hardly talked to her anymore either – they saw very little of each other despite being two priestesses serving in temples placed so close to each other.

At the time Bel had never been gladder that she could block gods and goddesses from her mind. If Nidae – or Fang, for that matter – had read her mind and found what Bel had felt watching Zelena…

Now, watching the unconscious warrior on the floor, Bel was thinking of what she’d felt when she saw Cat grin at her that other day. It had felt strangely similar to the feeling she’d had seeing Zelena bathe.

If the two events were connected she just had to ignore it, as she had with Zelena. There was no other way. Besides, just because I like her smile doesn’t mean I’m jumping into bed with her, she thought wryly. The thought almost made her laugh; contrary to what a great many people believed she didn’t lack self awareness or self irony. And she did have a sense of humor. Even if it might manifest itself at odd times, as Cat had pointed out.

Bel rose from the floor and began pacing the room. To see Harkaitz as the leader of those dead warriors had not really been a surprise to her. She’d suspected him of treason for a long time, although she hadn’t been quite aware of the extent to which he was willing to go to get even with his brother.

Harkaitz Qadir was the older prince – the older of the twins. When he was twelve he was involved in an accident at the palace where a child died in fire and Harkaitz was scarred for life. Harkaitz maintained he was innocent of the death of the other child, while Barac Wei, his brother, blamed Harkaitz for the fire. The child who died had been one of Barac Wei’s best friends. Bel had been told this by the emperor; it was the beginnings of a rift between the twin brothers. That rift increased when Barac Wei was chosen successor to the imperial throne instead of the true heir: Harkaitz.

Bel had suspected it was prince Harkaitz and his wife, Jaquana Naga, who’d been behind the death of the previous emperor, who’d died of an unexplained fever. Harkaitz had expected to inherit the throne, but was fooled at the emperor’s deathbed.

Harkaitz wanted power and wealth. He wanted to rule the empire, but the only way he could claim the throne now was through force. He had his army of dead warriors, and warriors who were very much alive: Bel had seen several with the mark of the Cobra on their hands. What the prince needed was power to control the deities and the Priesthood and Bel was the only one with enough knowledge to grant him such power. Except – she refused.

Bel could’ve broken free anytime she wanted to, but there was something she was waiting for. Harkaitz Qadir might be the one seemingly in charge, but he wasn’t a High Priest. Someone must have broken the connection between Nidae and her six days ago and also restrained Fang. Only a very powerful High Priest or Priestess could do something like that and Bel wanted to find out who it was.

A low sound behind her made her turn around and kneel at the warrior’s side.

“Careful”, she said softly. “You’ve lost a lot of blood.”

“Where… where am I? I don’t… remember.”

Cat opened her mismatched eyes and looked up at Bel. She inhaled softly when she noticed the priestess.

“Sshh”, Bel said gently. “You’re safe… for the moment.”

“What…?” Cat sat up and Bel watched her as she realized that she was naked – again. The warrior gasped, then looked at Bel with wide eyes.

Bel shrugged. “I’ve tended to your wounds… again.”

The younger woman looked down at her exposed body. “Really?” she suddenly said, looking up with a wide grin. “And here I was thinking you just couldn’t wait to get me out of my clothes – again.”

It was the second time Bel felt something lurch in her stomach as she met Cat’s smile. Luckily she was a woman used to hiding her feelings, so she kept a straight face as she answered: “Really?” At the same time arching an eyebrow at the warrior.

“Why not? I’m an attractive woman”, Cat said with a shrug and this time Bel struggled not to laugh.

“Uhum”, she said, pretending to hide a cough. She nodded towards the corner of the room. “Your clothing is there… There’s not much left of it, but I guess you’d prefer that to running around naked.”

“If I’d known you’d appreciate my form I surely would’ve”, Cat said and rose.

Bel mildly shook her head. “I’m not interested in your kind of games, kitten”, she said and Cat hastily looked at her before averting her eyes again. She went to get her clothes.

“I don’t know what you mean”, Bel heard her say as she dressed.

“I’ve heard about you. You conquer women as rulers conquer kingdoms. Well, I’m not interested. Especially not if you’re only looking for a challenge.”

Cat gasped and swirled around, looking at her. “Is that what you think?” she asked almost in a whisper.

“I don’t know what I think”, Bel said, realizing it was true. She didn’t know what Cat was doing with her; why she had followed her to the Vale of the Dead, or why she was looking at her like she did in that moment. “I don’t know you – there’s not much to think.” She hesitated. “You’re not supposed to be here, you know. You’re supposed to guard the princess. I asked you to…”

“I know, I know. Fine!” Cat threw up her hands. “I came to save you.” She looked around. “And a fine job I’m doing of it”, Bel heard her mutter.

“To save me? I ordered you to protect the princess. What was it that you didn’t understand?”

“I don’t follow orders very well”, Cat said, finally looking directly at her. “Look, the princess was fine and Katana and the emperor were only babbling about what was best to do… You could’ve died before…!” Cat caught herself.

“Before what?” Bel asked with a confused frown.

“Deyna is fine. I left her with Serafine, she’s…”

“That’s not the point”, Bel said sharply. “I left you in charge. I trusted you to care of her… If you can’t do your job…”

Cat seemed to clench her jaws. “Do you care at all that I risked my life for you?”

“Why would I care?” Bel asked, again confused. “I don’t know you. I didn’t ask you to come save me. As a matter of fact I wanted to be caught and you only made matters worse for me.” If he threatens to harm her how can I not give him what he wants? Bel thought. And how can I, knowing what the magic could do in his hands? “I can break free anytime I want to”, she added.

Cat blinked. “I don’t… believe that”, she said. “Why would you…?”

Bel sighed and shook her head. “Listen, kitten. I’m a priestess. It’s not what I am, but who I am. There’s nothing else that matters to me than to serve my goddess and the people of Goddara.”

“I don’t believe that”, Cat said again.

“Believe it. It’s true. I’ll die for my calling.” She knew that to be true; Nikka had told her so the first time they met. And somehow she sensed that the time was drawing near. “Kitten”, she said softly, moving towards Cat, suddenly feeling very protective of the younger woman. “You can’t change me.”

“But…” Cat whispered, lowering her eyes to Bel’s mouth as Bel stopped only a few inches from her. Bel noticed the look and felt a second, sudden lurching in her stomach – even stronger this time.

I do wonder what it would feel like, she thought distractedly as she watched Cat watching her mouth. If she kissed me… I wonder what that would be like…

Cat abruptly stepped back, looking up at her.

“No? So you like what you’ve become? Cold and indifferent to people…”

“That’s not who I am”, Bel said softly, slowly shaking her head. “You don’t know me well enough to say things like that.”

“But you’re allowed to lock Deyna up and accuse me of being irresponsible?” Cat spat, clenching her fists. Something in her eyes was at odds with her words and her angry manners, but Bel didn’t get it. She shook her head.

“I see there’s no use talking to you about this. Could you tell me if anyone is on their way to save… us?”

“I don’t know”, Cat said, shrugging. “And I don’t care. I have nothing to return to.”

Bel blinked. “What do you mean?”

Cat hesitated and seemed to regret she’d said anything. “I…”

“Oh, my!” Bel gasped, getting it before Cat had to explain. “You pushed Katana too far, didn’t you? Oh, kitten – why do you do things like that?” she asked softly.

“Stop doing that!” Cat said angrily.

“What now? Be nice to you? I thought you’d…”

“You’re not nice. You’re… You’re… Burning Bats and damn Snakes!” Cat threw out her arms, pacing restlessly around the small chamber.

“You got yourself kicked out of Panthera for my sake. Why? Was it worth it? No person is worth…”

“And what if I think you are? Huh?” Cat asked, coming to a halt before Bel. The warrior’s mismatched eyes burned with a strange fire. “You’re damned beautiful, do you know that?”

Bel blinked, not because of Cat’s statement – she’d heard that a hundred times before – but because for the first time in her life she felt something hearing it. “I know”, she said cautiously. “People have a tendency of reminding me about it. They want what they can’t have. Just like you”, she added, not knowing why.

“That’s not true”, the younger woman mumbled. “I…”

Bel tilted her head to one side. “What is it that you want, then?”

“I… don’t know”, Cat said lowly, but when she looked at Bel the priestess noticed an intensity in those strange eyes that she’d never seen in anyone’s eyes before. It was an intensity that seemed to eat at the other woman and Bel was not entirely unaffected by it.

“I’ve turned down more lovesick people than you can probably imagine”, Bel said slowly. “But I give you this, they usually leave me alone when they get to know me.”

Cat listened, focusing on her. “Get to know you?” she asked softly.

“Get to know what they think is me. I’m unfriendly towards them and they quickly lose interest.”

“I heard you laugh with Katana”, Cat said, almost as in an excuse.

“Ah, yes.” Bel nodded, smiling when she remembered what – or who – she and Katana had been discussing. “But you – you think I’m the most heartless person you know and you still come chasing after me. I grant you that, not many people would do it. I find it… sweet.”

“Sweet?” Cat made a face. “Sweets are for children.”

“And have you given me a reason to view you as something else?” Bel said, tilting her head to one side. “Carousing, breaking rules, seducing women with no care for their tender hearts…” She shook her head. “Irresponsible. These things are not the trademark of a mature woman.” Although, she thinks I’m beautiful, she thought distractedly, noticing how Cat again eyed her mouth. She felt a strange heat in her chest as she caught the next thought: I wish she’d smile again…

“Burn you, woman”, Cat muttered and turned away. She went to the iron bars and grabbed them until her knuckles turned white.

“That won’t do”, Bel said. “You’re not strong enough for that.”

“Where are we, anyway?” the warrior said, changing subject. She loosened her grip on the bars, but still held on to them without looking back.

“Inside the rocks, somewhere in the cave system.”

“Harkaitz Qadir put us here”, Cat said heatedly.

“Yes. He wants to rule the empire…”

“Fancy that”, Bel heard the other woman mutter. “And why are you here?” Cat suddenly turned around, looking angrily at her. “Why did he take you? What does he need you for? And what does he need Fang for?” She frowned, the anger lessening and giving way to confusion. “And how could he capture Fang? Fang’s a god, how come…”

“You don’t know much about the power of the Priesthood, do you?” Bel asked.

Cat shrugged. “I care little for the deities. I only learned to fear speaking ill of them”, she added. “My grandfather thought it would help me stay out of trouble.”

“Apparently it didn’t work”, Bel said dryly. “Fine”, she added when she noticed the look on Cat’s face. “If you calm down I’ll tell you.”

“I am calm!” the other woman exclaimed.

“Really?” Bel arched an eyebrow at her. “You can’t even stand still, trying to break those iron bars. No one has that kind of strength if they’re not a deity.”

“Fine.” Cat relinquishing and sat down with her back against the wall. “Tell me what’s going on.”

Part Seven


Cat found it hard to concentrate on Bel’s words. She found it difficult to even be close to the other woman. The deities must have a good time with her – putting her in embarrassing situations together with the redheaded beauty. To wake up a second time half naked in front of the priestess – what were the odds? And the way the woman called her “kitten” – it wasn’t the same as in her dream, not as teasing. Instead there was unexpected tenderness in the priestess’ voice and in her eyes. Cat couldn’t stand it – her body reacted instinctively, probably still under the influence of the dream.

“I shouldn’t tell you these things”, the High Priestess said, looking reflectively at her. “But I guess you need to know – maybe you’ll listen to my orders the next time.”

“The next time?” Cat said, arching an eyebrow. Bloody Snakes – why must she be so beautiful? She tore her eyes from the other woman and looked out between the iron bars. “I was suspended, remember? For life.”

“We could probably make use of you somehow”, the High Priestess said lightly. “Now…” She silenced and Cat glanced at her against her will. “You know – you could’ve given me another reason why you came after me.”

“I could?” Cat asked.

“You could just have told me you wanted to repay me for saving your life.” There was a slight question in the priestess’ eyes. “Why didn’t you?”

“I…” Cat narrowed her eyes. “That wouldn’t have been true”, she said, shrugging.

“Oh, you’re brave and honest. I see why Katana values you. If you’d been a little more grown-up you would’ve taken her place as Captain by now. She has been expecting you to.”

Cat looked up, stunned to silence. “What did you…? No”, she shook her head, denying the implication behind Bel’s words. The thought had never crossed her mind. “I’m no… I can’t lead.”

“No, probably not”, the High Priestess said in a voice that made Cat blush in humiliation.

“Priestess”, she said, offended, and rose from the floor.

“My name is Badra Bellona”, the other woman said evenly. “My friends call me Bel and the deities call me Badra…”

’Fighter of the Full Moon’”, Cat mumbled.

“That’s correct”, the priestess said, nodding. “Call me what you like. It seems you and I can’t get away from each other, so we might as well make the best of the situation. Sometimes our lives are in the hands of the Creator.”

Cat shook her head. “I’ll settle for ‘priestess’”, she said grumpily.

“It’s your choice”, the priestess said with a shrug. “The Naming ceremony is a good place to start explaining things”, she went on. “The deities claim us and Name us because they see what’s in our hearts. They see us, who we are and what we are destined to become… And sometimes those Names shape our lives.”

Cat nodded to show that she was listening, although her mind was drifting again. When Bel was gesticulating before the sleeves of her robe fell back and Cat had noticed something on her arms. It seemed to be dark spots of various sizes, tattoos, and Cat tried to figure out what they were meant to depict. But then – remembering her dream with a slight shiver – she knew: those tattoos were bats.

“People claimed by the Owl or the Horse are usually healers or teachers in some ways. People Named by the Tiger and the Cobra are usually warriors. But there are always people chosen to become priests or priestesses. If the person doesn’t know it herself it will be revealed at the Naming. If your Name had been Cath Chandra – Dark Moon, instead of Cath Ciardha, Dark Warrior – you’d have been a priestess.”

“And if Fang hadn’t claimed me I’d have been a priestess too”, Cat said, remembering. “All un-Named before the age of ten belong to the Bat and automatically become priests or priestesses.”


“I don’t understand why Fang claimed me”, Cat said frowning. “I’ve always felt I was closer to the Goddess than to Fang.”

“Yes”, Bel said softly, watching her with a curiously compassionate look. “I’ll get to that. I guess it’s time you know the truth.”

Cat felt a cold chill down her spine. “The truth?”

“Fang wouldn’t have chosen you if your nature had gone completely against his. You are in fact a panther, not a tiger, which made it possible for Fang to claim you. I’ll tell you about it, but first you need to understand a few things.”

She’s beautiful when she’s like this, Cat thought, watching the priestess. When she’s not heartless… She realized maybe Bel wasn’t heartless, she was just very – efficient. She was so brilliant that she probably forgot that everyone wasn’t as single minded as her. I need to show her there’s more to life than… whatever she’s living for.

“The deities have their power and it’s great, but they have weaknesses. In the past deities could rule like they pleased, either help mankind or completely destroy them. There was no end to their power. But because of the misuse of their power people began to experiment with how to stop them, or at least control them. Thus the Priesthood was created. People who learned how to bind a deity and to control them.”

“Like magic”, Cat said.

“Let’s call it magic for the simplicity. Yes – they developed magic. And it was a special magic, developed to control the deities. In our part of the world we’ve learned to live in peace with the deities, but in other parts of the world there are wars going on between deities and the Priesthood.”

“I never knew…” Cat frowned, thinking. “I mean, I know about the persecution of deities in kingdoms like Sum and Egara, but I didn’t know the Priesthood had such powers. That’s what happened to Deyna that other night, right?” She looked at the priestess. “Some from the Priesthood must have…” The thought struck her and she gasped. “Fang! Who would do such a thing? This means…” Treason! she thought.

“Yes – treason”, Bel said. “Deeper than prince Harkaitz’s. To have a Priest or a Priestess betray the empire, it’s…” She shook her head. “It’s more dangerous than you understand.”

“It’ll disrupt the order of the deities”, Cat whispered. “I understand.”

“No – see…” Bel hesitated. “There’s different ways for a deity to gain more power. One is for a fully Initiated deity to lay with someone of the opposite sex…”

“To have sex”, Cat said. “Deyna told me she’d lose her powers if she… But wait. You tell me if Fang sleeps with Deyna he’d win her powers?”

“That’s correct. If he slept with her before she was Initiated, which usually happens at the age of eighteen.”

“How does that work?”

“It has to do with energies. A fully initiated deity knows how to control – or master – her energies, while an uninitiated would mix her energies with the person she’s… having sex with. Deities know how to steel, or harvest, the energies of another. They also know how to protect themselves from being robbed of their energies.”

“So Mara harvested energies from Deyna’s sister? He became stronger because of it?”


“Oh, my. No wonder Fang likes his women. He must have stolen a lot of energies from a lot of… uninitiated.”

“Semi-deities. People like Deyna, not yet a deity but still with powers, are called semi-deities. What happens when a semi-deity like Deyna sleeps with someone is that their energies are transferred to the other person, even if it’s a human. A human who’s slept with a semi-deity might even experience an increase in power for a few days, but it usually goes away. And yes – Fang has grown in power over the years.”

“But he’s still not the most powerful deity. Right?” Cat glanced at the priestess, suddenly becoming very much aware of Bel’s presence again. She swore inwardly and moved away from the other woman, cursing her bodily reactions. She’d never felt so strongly for a woman before – not ever, except in her dreams. Snakes!

“The balance is held between the deities – they don’t really gain more power than any other by sleeping around like this. If they want to they could even transfer powers to humans – permanently. But they’d never risk that.”

Again the High Priestess was looking at Cat with a deep, disconcertingly tender look and Cat twitched a little, restlessly moving around the room.

“The Priesthood does more than control the deities – they can also support their deities, strengthen them with power. Sometimes the deities challenge each other, like warriors do. Either for fun, or for winning an argument or a favor. In such cases they can draw energy from their respective High Priest or Priestess.”

“And the deity with the more powerful priest wins”, Cat said, nodding. “I get it.”

“There’s more.” There was a grave tone in Bel’s voice that made Cat listen. “Ancient texts state that a particular ritual makes it possible to transfer the power from one deity to another by blood. A blood sacrifice. This would heavily increase the power of the deity performing the ritual. There are two different rituals to accomplish this – one simpler and one more complicated. The latter brings infinitely more power than the first.”

“What… would it mean?” Cat asked cautiously.

“It would mean that the deity performing the ritual would break the bonds of the Priesthood. He would become an Ancient Deity, one of those who were truly powerful and who not even the created Priesthood could control. It would be possible for him to rule the world with no one to oppose him.”

“Oh, Goddess of the Dark moon”, Cat whispered, paling. She suddenly realized what the High Priestess meant. “Fang”, she whispered. “That’s what they need Fang for.”

“Yes. And – the deity can’t perform the ritual on his own, he needs someone from the Priesthood to do it for him.”

“Who?” Cat looked at Bel and noticed the determined set of the other woman’s jaws. She felt a thrill of desire and power surge through her in a strange mix, distracting her for a moment. “Who is it?” she asked when she found her voice again.

“I have my suspicions, but I can’t tell yet.”

“Goddess”, Cat whispered. “This… We have to do something!” She looked at the High Priestess. “We can’t just… sit here”, she finished lamely, looking at the locked iron bared door. “Bloody mess”, she muttered.

“I wanted to find out who the High Priest was, but with you here it makes it a little risky”, Bel said dryly, eyeing her. “You ought to listen better to my orders the next time.”

“Well, if I had I wouldn’t have known these things”, Cat countered. “You wouldn’t have told me and I’d still be as ignorant like the rest of the populace. If you respect me enough to share things like that with me I’ll respect you enough to follow your orders… Maybe”, she added, crossing her arms before her.

“Really?” Bel asked, arching an eyebrow at her. “We’ll see about that. Come – it’s time we’re out of here.”

“What? And how would we do that – walk out the door?”

“Exactly”, the High Priestess said and turned to the iron door. “Some people believe the power of a High Priest lies in his staff – that the staff is charged with power from the deity and that the priest therefore is useless without it.”

Cat frowned. “Isn’t it so?”

“For some”, Bel said. “Not for me.”

In the next moment the whole iron door was ripped from the wall in a shower of stone splinters and thrown across the corridor on the opposite side.

Cat stared at the open vault as Bel stepped through the door and into the corridor.

“Are you coming? Or would you prefer to wait for the guards?”

“Huh…” Cat said, slowly following the priestess. “How… How did you…?” She gestured towards the iron door.

“Magic”, Bel said dryly. “Come on.”

Cat glanced over her shoulder at the ripped door as they went. If she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes she wouldn’t have believed it.

They walked along a narrow corridor, lit by torches on the walls. There were no guards and when they reached the end of the corridor Cat understood why: another iron bar door blocked their way. Cat glanced at the priestess at her side, but Bel didn’t even slow down: the door was torn from the wall just like the first one. On the other side a guard was knocked out when the flying door hit him. Another guard drew his sword and charged towards them.

“Do you mind?” Bel said, stepping aside.

“Not at all”, Cat said, feeling the blood pumping. She always looked forward to a fight and especially in that moment – to get release from the confusing physical attraction she felt for the woman at her side.

She stepped forward, wondering fleetingly why the priestess didn’t take care of the warrior herself if she could do a thing like that with the doors. Maybe she’s growing tired, she thought as the warrior rushed against her. She quickly stepped aside, concentrating on her opponents sword arm; he missed her by a fraction and she moved close enough to kick him across the abdomen. He flew across the hall and hit the wall beside Bel. Before he had time to recover Cat was at his side and knocked him unconscious, before she wrenched the sword from his hand.

“Not bad”, Bel said behind her. “You’re really good.”

Cat turned around with the sword in her hands. “How can you tell?” she asked wryly. “Because I won?” She suddenly got the feeling the priestess had stepped aside to let her fight the warrior just to see how good she was. Cat didn’t like being manipulated like that.

Bel smiled. “Katana has trained me a bit. I’m not as good as the members of Panthera, but I can hold my own. And I recognize talent when I see it.”

“Hum”, Cat said, warily looking around. There were no more guards ahead at the moment. “You said I deserved to know the truth about myself”, she said, remembering the moment in the cell. “You said you’d tell me…”

“I will, but we need to get out of this mess first. We’ll talk about it back at the temple.”

“If we return alive”, Cat grumbled. “Did you happen to see the assembled army outside? There are hundreds of those dead soldiers! Maybe even a thousand. There’s no way we can sneak past them…”

“We’re not going to”, Bel said with a chilling note in her voice. “Come”, she said and began walking. Cat followed with the sword in her hand.

“How are your wounds, by the way”, the High Priestess asked after a few moments. ”I don’t have Gebra’s healer hands, but I did what I could.”

Cat moved her shoulder. “Not too bad.”

“Hum. You know, if that arrow had been poisonous I couldn’t have saved you this time.”

“Fine, fine. I won’t come charging to save you the next time you get yourself abducted.”

“No?” Bel said and this time there was an amused hint in her voice. “I doubt you could stay away – I’m too beautiful. Right?”

When the High Priestess winked at her Cat’s heart stopped beating for a moment and she lost her breath.

“You…” She slowly inhaled, regaining her composure. “That was a joke”, she said slowly.

“Yes… Maybe I should give you a heads up before the next one.”

“Please…” Cat said, still stunned.

“Fine… Here’s one. If you come charging to save me I’ll just get the pleasure of undressing you again. I doubt any woman had the pleasure of doing that to you more than once.”

When Cat blushed the High Priestess laughed, confusing Cat even more.

“You are a wicked woman”, she said.

“So they say”, Bel agreed. “No one ever said I was nice.”

“No”, Cat said wryly, getting into the mood. “I haven’t made up my mind about that part yet.” She grinned. “But if you wink at me one more time I might be tempted to believe you’re flirting with me, priestess.”

She hadn’t really expected the priestess to respond to that, but she did: she laughed a second time, again causing Cat to reevaluate her opinion of her.

“That’d be the day”, Bel mused and Cat wondered at the fleetingly appreciative expression in the woman’s eyes as she watched Cat, before she turned away and resumed their walk. Cat followed in confused silence.

They were discovered by a small group of warriors further down the corridor, but Cat fought them off, taking great pleasure in seeing the appreciative expression in Bel’s look as she watched her fight.

Cat couldn’t say how long they moved in the narrow corridors, but she sensed they were moving closer to the surface. Finally they reached an opening letting in daylight. It turned out to be a ledge several hundred feet across the ground. A small footpath was leading upwards, towards the ridge where Cat had been taken captured, but otherwise the ledge ended abruptly in a dangerously steep slope before them. They had full view of the valley and of the assembled army below. The warriors filled the whole gorge; their armor and weapons glistened in the late afternoon sun.

“They’ve seen us”, Cat said, noticing a few warriors pointing up at them. She looked around, but couldn’t find the prince or any of his men in the army. “We need to get back in”, she added. “Priestess…” she said when the woman at her side didn’t move. “We need to…”

A noise behind her made her turn. Another group of warriors triumphantly grinned at her in the opening to the tunnel.

“There’s no place for you to run”, one of them said.

“Priestess”, Cat urgently said. “Step back from the…”

Just as she took a step forward to engage in combat a wall of fire sprang up before her, separating her from the warriors in the tunnel. She heard them scream in rage and pain behind the wall and wondered what was happening. The flames covered the whole opening and were so thick she couldn’t see through them.


Cat turned at the mention of her name, glancing at the priestess. Bel was standing close to the deep slope with her arms raised before her at the waist.

“Priestess?” Cat said carefully. There was a distant look in the other woman’s eyes – as if she transported from reality.

“Now you’ll see why people fear me”, Bel said in a noncommittal, detached voice. “Know the power of the High Priestess of Nidae!”

Cat would live a long life. She would travel the world in a lonely quest, searching for the one thing she’d lose because of a broken promise. She would see many strange things and meet many powerful people, but she would never forget the power of the woman she’d fallen in love with.

There it was, the Power. The truth Cat had been looking for – the answer to the question why the High Priestess of Nidae was so feared. Not because she was a woman serving a powerful goddess, but because she was powerful in herself. She served the goddess because of who she was – and Cat finally understood that part. It didn’t mean she could easily accept it.

In the valley below, great lines of fire suddenly shoot up from the ground: walls of fire, with flames licking the sky. Loud thunder was heard, mixed with the roaring from the fire. Gusts of winds swept amongst the lines of warriors and threw them high in the air, crushing them against the ground when they fell down again.

The whole Vale of the Dead was turned into a battlefield and Cat was swept back in time, to the memory of those battlefields where she’d fought and killed. She remembered the screaming, the noise of weapons, and the smell of blood. It was the same in that moment: she heard the soldiers scream and could sense their fear. She knew they weren’t alive, those soldiers below her – dead people raised to be used as warriors – but she felt for them anyway. They didn’t stand a chance against the raging fires, the thunder and the tearing wind.

“I’ve done this once before”, the High Priestess said beside Cat, as she gazed at the mayhem she was creating. “When I was sixteen the former leader of the White Tigers brought me to the boarders of Egara, where the emperor was losing a major battle against invading forces. This is what I did to protect my people – the people of the Goddess. I saved the Empire of Kellara.”

It was said without vanity; it was a simple statement of fact. Cat swallowed, realizing what danger their empire had been in if the woman beside her hadn’t decided to humble herself to serve the people – but instead wanted to conquer. She remembered something her grandfather had once said: “Great power must come with great love – otherwise it will corrupt everything in its way.”

Cat stared at the chaos before her, where hundreds of warriors were being conquered as she watched, and tried to comprehend the whole situation. As she looked out at the valley a movement above her caught her attention. She turned her head and noticed a group of warriors fighting atop of the ridge – and she recognized a few of them. Bats and Snakes! she thought surprised.

The fighting warriors consisted of two groups, one dressed in yellow and green – the colors of prince Harkaitz – and the others were Leaping Panthers. Cat recognized Serafine and Deyna amongst them. The princess was dressed like a Leaping Panther in black leather and fought skillfully side by side with the gray eyed woman.

Cat glanced at Bel. “I have to go”, she said urgently. “Please trust me”, she added before she rushed off, following the footpath to the crest. She reached the top of the ridge and threw herself into the fight, making her way towards the princess. Her fellow members of Panthera greeted her as they noticed her arrival.

“What are you doing here?” Cat called over the battle noise as she finally reached Serafine’s side. “Both of you?” she added as Serafine glanced at her.

“Fighting”, the princess called back. “What does it look like?”

“She’s gonna kill us all for this!” Cat said. “By the blood of the Bat – why…?”

“Could we discuss this later?” Serafine asked, dodging a blow from her opponent’s sword. “We’re not all as multi-skilled as you.”

“It’s her eyes”, Deyna amusedly said, grinning at the other woman. “Cat’s only part human.”

“Tell me about it”, Serafine said, faking a sigh.

“You’ve bonded”, Cat said dryly, narrowing her eyes at the princess for a brief second. “But you haven’t… you know. Have you?”

“No.” Deyna shook her head, swirling around to parry a blow from a warrior attacking her back. She disarmed him and knocked him unconscious with the hilt of her sword. “We decided to wait”, she added as she looked down at the fallen warrior; it was the last of them. She looked up, grinning at Cat. “Hi – aren’t you glad to see me?”

“Devastatingly”, Cat said, lowering her sword. She glared at Serafine and Deyna, before she glanced at the handful of Leaping Panthers that moved about amongst the fallen warriors. “Why are you here? Sera, you were supposed to protect her! That means keeping her out of trouble, not bringing her into it.”

“Actually…” Serafine said, but was interrupted.

“Don’t blame her. I ran off from the palace to find you and… and the High Priestess”, the princess said. “Serafine followed me with the rest of these…” Deyna gestured towards the female warriors.

“Ran off? You ‘ran off’? And where were you?” Cat pointed at Serafine. “How could you let her run away like that? You were supposed to…” She silenced and clenched her jaws. She had no right to accuse Serafine – especially not for something that was her own fault. “What happened?”

“We followed you here and then we were attacked by… these warriors.” Serafine looked down at the mass of bodies. “They…” She caught herself as she suddenly noticed what was going in the valley below: fire and smoke rose from the vale; people were still screaming and dying.

Dying anew, Cat thought wryly.

“Goddess!” Serafine whispered. “What’s…? By all deities! What is that?”

“An army of dead being consumed by the wrath of a High Priestess”, Cat said evenly, trying to sound casual about it. In reality she was nothing but. No wonder she thinks me a child, she thought distracted.

“Wow!” Serafine whistled. “That’s really awesome…” She turned to the princess. “Could you do that too?”

“My powers are a little different”, Deyna said. “But if I wanted to…” She shrugged. “Although the High Priestess says I should never use my powers for personal gain or for killing… if there’s no other way.”

Cat only listened with half an ear. She was watching Bel on the ledge further down; wind was playing in the priestess’ hair, lifting it from her face and pulling at her robe. Cat had found Bel beautiful to begin with – as always appreciating the beautiful shape of the woman – and then the dream had turned her fancy into something else, something she couldn’t control and wasn’t even sure she wanted to be a part of. It was one thing to be attracted to a woman, something else to be attracted to someone you didn’t even know – just because a stupid dream affected you. Now, in that moment as she watched the High Priestess, she realized there was more to Bel than what outer appearance suggested.

I need to get to know her, Cat thought. I must find out who she is.

“Cat?” Serafine said.

“Huh?” Cat said, looking away from the High Priestess. As she did so she became aware of a small troop of warriors galloping towards them. She squinted against the low sun and then, realizing what she was seeing, she threw herself in front of the princess. “No!”

“Cat!” Deyna called in desperation, also noticing what was going on.

Maybe there won’t be time to get to know her, Cat heard herself thinking. Well, at least I’m dying doing my duty.

She should have died. The troop galloping towards them were enemies and one of them aimed a longbow in their direction. If he was strictly meant to kill Deyna she was unsure, but he aimed at her and Cat… Cat did her duty and stepped before the flying arrow. Her thoughts were again of Bel and she wondered with an inward grin if the priestess would undress her a third time.

Then her thoughts were cut short and she screamed in agony as Serafine hurled herself before her. The arrow took the gray eyed woman straight in the chest. A second arrow followed closely, taking her in the side – probably piercing her lung.

“Sera…” Cat whispered, kneeling at her best friend’s side. Deyna fell on her knees close to her.

Cat looked up at the warriors racing towards them and found they had come to an abrupt halt: the group seemed to be frozen in time, unmovable – like riders on a painting Cat had once seen in the palace. Bel, she thought.

Another party with only a handful of riders was coming their way, but they were close enough for Cat to recognize Para among them and she relaxed, again looking down at Serafine before her.

“You…” the gray eyed woman whispered, touching Cat’s cheek. “You’ve saved me so many times, it was my turn now…”

“Sera…” She could hardly breathe for the pain. “Don’t leave me… What – what will I do without you?”

“You’ll live… You always do…” Serafine closed her eyes. “Cold, Cat… It’s so cold.”

Beside her the princess was crying silently; tears wetting her cheeks.

“We’ll – we’ll meet again, Cat…” the dying woman said, looking up again, trying to smile. “I’ll care for you, the way you’ve cared for me in this life… We’ll be sisters and friends again – one day.”

“Don’t talk, Sera… Please, don’t talk…” Cat stroked the woman’s hair, a desperate gesture to keep herself calm she realized.

“Deyna…” Serafine whispered. “Deyna… I’m so… sorry…”

Deyna took the warriors hands between hers. She didn’t say anything, she only sat quietly – crying in silence as the life went out of the woman before her.

Gray eyes glazed over, staring up at the sky.

“No. No, come back to me – come back…” Cat pushed the princess aside and shook Serafine’s lifeless body. “Don’t go! Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me…” She held the body close to her, crying against Serafine’s hair.

“Cat”, Deyna softly said, touching her shoulder.

It took a moment for Cat to realize they were no longer alone. She gently put down Serafine’s body and looked up at the riders before her. The Leaping Panthers that had come with Serafine and the princess stood behind Cat and Deyna, silently looking down at the dead warrior. They would grieve later and honor their dead friend.

“Cat…” Para said, stepping off his horse with a helpless look on his face. Cat reached out for him and he grabbed her arms, holding her for a moment and looking at her, sharing her pain. “Are you ok?”

Cat nodded with a deep breath. “I’m fine”, she said, drying the tears from her cheeks.

She looked up at the riders still on their horses. Cat recognized one as Zelena, High Priestess of the Tiger. Another was Derac, the High Priest of Nidae... Serafine’s brother.

“I’m so sorry”, Cat said, looking at him. He was watching his dead sister with a blank face, but behind the determined set of his jaws there was deep pain in his gray eyes. A pain that mirrored Cat’s own.

The High Priest nodded at Cat’s words, but he didn’t take his eyes from his sister.

“Derac”, a dark skinned woman at his side said and put a hand on his arm; Cat didn’t know who she was. “You are allowed to grieve…”

But Derac shook his head. “It was my fault. I was too late. I’m not… I’m no warrior – I should’ve…” He silenced and Cat noticed the guilt in his eyes.

“This wasn’t your fault”, she said. “They…” She gestured towards the frozen warriors farther away. “Those are to blame.”

“I’m no warrior”, the High Priest said again. “A warrior would have stopped them earlier…”

“You couldn’t have known”, the woman at his side said gently.

“I should’ve known… She… She gave her life for the fight. What did I ever do?” There was bitterness in his voice and Cat found it hard looking at his face.

“Don’t do this to yourself, Derac”, one of the other riders said, moving his horse forward. He was a heavy man, with wild hair and beard, dressed in furs. “There’s no use blaming ourselves for what others do…”

“Don’t tell me what to do!” the High Priest snapped. He turned around in the saddle and gestured towards the frozen warriors. Cat realized it was his magic that had stopped them and not Bel’s. Then she realized what he intended to do.

“No!” she called at the same time as Zelena spurred her white mare.

“No – hold, Derac!” the High Priestess called, riding against him, but it was too late.

“Let them burn – all of them…” His voice was even, noncommittal, and Cat watched in horror as the whole party of warriors were lifted through the air and thrown down into the valley. They came alive as soon as they were in the air and fell towards the fires below. Horses and men were screaming alike.

What did you do? Cat thought shocked. Derac… Derac was the nice priest, the one who’d never harmed a fly. The one people loved for his gentle ways and caring manners. Goddess…

“Look!” Deyna called, pointing down the gorge.

“Oh, Bel”, Zelena gasped. “Thank the Goddess…”

Cat watched as the whole party of warriors spinning in the air was caught by an invisible force and moved away from the fire. They were put down a safe distance from the chaos reigning in the valley, but were still held by invisible shackles. Only the horses were free to go.

“She had no right…” Cat heard Derac mutter. A sudden, chilly wind swept across the ridge and the blue sky turned abruptly dark – covered by heavy clouds. Thunder was heard.

“Derac! Control yourself!” Zelena shouted through the heavy wind.

The heavy man behind Derac didn’t bother with words – he simply lifted his staff and knocked the High Priest over the head with it. Derac fell forward over his horse – unconscious.

“That wasn’t necessary, Bjorn”, Zelena said, glaring at the man.

“No? Would you want to argue with Bel when she’s in a mood like that? Derac’s almost as strong – he just never uses his powers like this.”

“Pray Bel never feels that kind of pain or rage”, the dark skinned woman at Derac’s side said and supported the High Priest so he wouldn’t fall off the horse. Something in her voice made the others look at her.

“You’ve Seen?” Zelena asked lowly and Cat gasped as she finally understood who the unfamiliar woman was: Nakkara Rim, the oracle.

“I have”, Nakkara said, nodding. “It might still happen, depending on…” She hesitated and glanced briefly at Cat, before looking away down the valley. “Depending on other things.”

Zelena too looked down the valley.

“I’m so sorry about your friend”, the oracle said to Cat. “But you’ll see her again. You’ll be true family one day.”

Cat nodded, wanting to ask what the oracle had seen, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted to know.

“Princess”, Nakkara said, looking at Deyna.

“Your father has gone mad because of you, my dear”, the heavily furred man said. “It’s about time you return. The spell is broken and you can use your powers again… As soon as we find the rogue we’ll be heading back. This…” – he gestured towards the Vale of the Dead – “is the business of warriors and politicians.”

“The rogue?” Cat asked.

“Fang”, Zelena said dryly, turning back towards them. “Bjorn has something against my pretty god.”

“Humph”, the furry man said.

“What did you mean, the spell has been broken?” Cat asked with a frown. She glanced at the princess. “Is it the same as at the brothel?”

“We should not discuss this here”, the oracle said. “I believe Bel is done. Let’s wait for her.”

“The Cobra Squad is on its way”, Para told Cat. “And a large amount of the White Tigers. I was allowed to move ahead together with the High Priests… and the women.” Para glanced cautiously at Nakkara and Zelena. “Things have happened at the palace…”

“Serafine saved my life”, Deyna said, looking down at the dead woman before them. After a moment she kneeled and closed Serafine’s eyes.

“What do you mean? What happened?”

Deyna silently looked up and it was the oracle who answered.

“There was a traitor among the Priesthood”, she said, holding Cat’s gaze. “He was attacking the princess and Serafine killed him. He’ll…” The oracle hesitated and her eyes glazed over for a moment. When she looked back at Cat she said: “He’ll be her enemy one day, trying to kill her. He will fail, but then he’ll come for you. Beware he who changes his face as he changes clothes…”

And how will I remember that warning in another life? Cat thought, but nodded. “Who was he?”

“Sadly, he was my chosen successor”, the man called Bjorn said. “He was named Cub.”

“I knew him”, Para suddenly said and Cat noticed the sharp expression briefly shown in the eyes of the oracle as she looked at him. She frowned. “He was a good friend of mine, I can’t believe…”

“Believe it”, Deyna said sharply. “He put a magic spell on me and tried to stab me.”

“Maybe he was under a spell”, Para stubbornly maintained, glaring at the princess. “You couldn’t use your powers on the way over here, right? That must mean another priest somewhere was affecting you.” He glanced down the valley, adding lowly: “Or a priestess…”

“Enough”, Zelena said. “This is not the proper place to discuss this – or the proper people.”

Cat noticed a flash of anger in Para’s eyes, but when he turned back to the High Priestess and nodded in submission it was gone.

* * * * *

Bel let the fires die out. The Vale of the Dead was now truly devoid of vegetation: the whole interior of the gorge had been scorched with her fire, leaving only blackened ground. A few warriors were still alive – those who’d been alive from the beginning. There were only a few dozen of them, including the one’s Derac had attempted to murder by throwing them into the fire.

The sky had cleared again after the High Priests storming rage. Bel wasn’t sure what had happened to Derac; if he willingly had let go of his anger, or if someone had stopped him. She hoped for the first. She didn’t know what had happened to make him so angry either – she fervently hoped it had nothing to do with Deyna. Or Cat, she thought, thinking of the warrior with the mismatched eyes.


“Fang?” she asked in her mind, hearing the god’s voice. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine. Thanks to you, my pretty… I have something for you.”

“I’m coming…”

Bel left the ledge and went back into the rock. She felt the vibrations from Fang and knew how to find him now when the spell from the unknown enemy was broken.

There had been a battle of wills between her and the High Priest who’d captured Fang. The priest had put a magic web across the whole valley, trying to prevent Bel from using her powers and also binding Fang or any other deity coming close to the valley. To begin with Bel had only sneaked beneath her opponent’s magic web, using her powers of Air to rip open the iron doors to free herself and Cat, but when she reached the ledge she needed to challenge him in order to use her powers more fully. As she stood on the ledge she directed her mind against him – sensing his energy – and broke his hold on the valley and on Fang at the same time as she killed off the dead warriors below.

I know you now, she thought as she hurried through empty corridors. With the army gone the small amount of living soldiers would have found themselves some safety and the High Priest was probably on his way to Egara with prince Harkaitz.

It wasn’t until she reached Fang’s cell she realized she’d been wrong. Behind the open door to the small cell where the god had been kept prisoner two men were waiting – three with the god.

Fang stood proudly with his arms crossed – completely naked – and stared at the prince in the doorway to the cell. Behind the god, in the shadows, lay a motionless body.

“Zelena is on her way”, Fang said as soon as he noticed Bel. She nodded, staring at the dead body behind the god. Even though it was conventional for the Priesthood not to kill there were no such restrictions on the deities: they were free to do what ever they pleased with humans, although it wasn’t considered polite to kill them off – it had a tendency to decrease the number of followers.

Looking at the dead body of Snoek, Mara’s High Priest, Bel couldn’t blame Fang for killing him. The priest had probably put him through torture, planning to kill him. She had always thought Snoek reminded her of an insubstantial shadow, sneaking along the walls in his temple and in the palace. He looked even more like a shadow in that moment, dead and gray – melting into the background and into the shadows behind the victorious god.

Bel raised her eyes and looked at the prince beside her. Harkaitz Qadir – his Name meant powerful rock and she thought he looked like one in that moment – stood straight in front of Fang, looking straight ahead of him. His face didn’t show any emotions, but when he turned his face towards Bel his eyes shone with a burning rage.

“You! Always you!” he hissed. “I’ll get you for this”, he added in a seething voice. “I swear on my soul that one day I’ll steal away the very thing that means more to you than life itself. Then you’ll know pain.”

“Save it, prince”, she said coldly. “You’ll be a slave for life after this.” She nodded at Fang. “You’re binding him?”

The god nodded. “He’s not going anywhere. I wanted to kill him, like that pathetic scum…” He spat at the dead High Priest behind him. “But I thought better of it.” He grinned at her. “I knew you’d want him alive.”

“Thank you”, she said wryly.

“You think all of this is over, don’t you?” the prince said. “It’s not. It has only just begun. You don’t know what’s coming…”

“Who are you working for, Harkaitz?” Bel asked, but he spat before her.

“I’d never work for anyone”, he said and she knew it was true; he was too proud to work beneath someone.

“So Snoek worked for you?” she asked and noticed a slight flicker of uncertainty in Harkaitz’s eyes. It told her something important. “No, you believed he worked for you, didn’t you? You just found out he didn’t…”

“Snakes are double-crossers by nature”, the prince said. “I should’ve known.” He glared at Bel. “But what harms you and my brother is good for me, even if I’m dead and gone when it happens.”

“Your family is in on this?” Bel said, considering the beautiful Ravena and her brother. “Your wife?” She doubted Ravena knew anything of what was going on, but the other two…

Harkaitz smiled wickedly. “What do you think, priestess? You can never prove anything. You can’t ever know.”


Bel turned around when she heard Zelena’s voice behind her. Before she knew it the other woman was hugging her.

“Thank the Goddess you’re alright! I was so worried.”

“Oh, thanks… I think”, Bel said a little confused. There was something in the High Priestess’ eyes as she looked at her… In her mind she heard Fang chuckle. “What?” she asked him. “What are you laughing at?”

“Don’t you know it yet?” the god answered as the room suddenly was filled with people; Bel had to move a few steps aside as she recognized Bjorn and Nikka entering. Harkaitz stood rooted to the floor, held by Fang’s powers. “Haven’t you figured it out, after all these years? The reason why she avoids you?”

“What are you talking about?” Bel asked impatiently as she at the same time felt relieved at seeing the oracle again.

“She has it hard for you, priestess. She’s been crushing on you for years…” Fang chuckled as he sensed her shock. “And you feel nothing. You’re heart is truly made of stone…”

“I belong to the Goddess”, she sent, struggling with the unexpected revelation. Zelena? she thought, incredulously. Again she heard the god chuckle within her.

“Bel?” Zelena asked worriedly.

“Zelena – what happened to Derac”, Bel asked, breaking the contact with the Tiger.

“Oh, he… His sister died.”

“Oh, no!” Bel gasped. “Serafine? But she… The princess!” She grabbed Zelena’s arm. “Where is Deyna?”

“Don’t worry, she’s safe”, Zelena said calmly. “She’s here, but she’s safe.”

“Maybe safer here now, than at the palace”, Bjorn said behind her. Bel looked at the High Priest.

“What’s happened?” she asked.

“We found the traitor”, he said and beside Bel prince Harkaitz huffed. Bel quickly glanced at him and then back at Bjorn.

“What do you mean?”

“The priest who blocked Deyna’s powers was Cub, my chosen successor”, Bjorn said softly. “I should’ve known…”

“Cub…” Bel whispered, thinking of the nervous young man with the stutter. “I knew there was something foul about him”, she said, “but I don’t believe he was the only one. Have you seen this?” She stepped aside and let them take a look at the dead High Priest. Zelena gasped when she saw him.

“Snoek! You killed him?” she accusingly asked Fang, who looked a little chastened.

“He was about to kill me. If Bel hadn’t broken his hold on me he would’ve succeeded. I have a right to defend myself”, Fang added sulkily.

“Come – let’s get out of here”, Bjorn said as Zelena kept staring at the god. “They’re waiting for us.”

“They?” Bel asked.

“Bor and his warriors and Hades and some of the Tigers. They’ve caught Harkaitz’s soldiers.”

Bel looked at Harkaitz and nodded.

“It’s over, isn’t it?” Fang said with a grin. “We saved the Empire. I’m a hero. Come, you scum – you’re coming with me.”

The god lifted Harkaitz over one shoulder and carried him away with him. Bjorn followed with Snoek’s dead body.

“’We’ saved the empire?” Zelena said in disgust. “That god’s ego is unbelievable …”

“It’s not over”, Bel mumbled as she followed Zelena out of the cell. Zelena glanced at her over her shoulder, but didn’t ask anything. Bel thought of Fang’s words and found it difficult to meet the other High Priestess’ gaze. Luckily Zelena averted her eyes first.

“Of course it’s not”, Nikka said at her side. The first thing she’d said since meeting Bel again. “That’d be too easy.”

“This is a mess, Nikka.”

“Yes, it is”, the oracle agreed. “And the worst is yet to come”, she added softly.

Bel walked thoughtfully beside the oracle as Zelena moved ahead to catch up with Bjorn.

“Nikka”, she said after a moment. “I think the deities need to move out of Goddara. They need to go into hiding with their High Priests and Priestesses. No one will ever believe this isn’t over, you know that. I might not even convince Barac Wei and Cara that worse things will come. Two priests and a prince that turn out to be traitors…” She shook her head. “No one will believe we are still in danger.”

“You might be right”, Nikka said.

“I know I am, I don’t need your gifts to see this. The deities are in danger as long as we don’t know who’s really behind all of this.”

“You know, don’t you?” the oracle glanced at her.

“I suspect, but that’s not the same. Harkaitz was right – I can’t prove anything, I can never really know. Which means I can’t take action. And with Egara on the move…”

“The emperor has already sent most of his soldiers to the boarders, yes... The time is drawing near”, Nakkara Rim said in her oracle voice and Bel felt a shiver down her spine. She knew what end her friend was talking about. She chose not to think about it.

“What about Derac, Nikka? What happened to him? I mean, sorrow is one thing, but to kill someone in cold blood…”

“Go easy on him, Bel. It could’ve been you.”

“Me? No – I’ve killed, but in defense. Not like that…”

“One day you’ll know. Someone…” Nikka silenced. “One day you’ll understand. In another life Harkaitz will take someone from you. You’ll…”

“And I’ll know pain”, Bel whispered, remembering the prince’s words. “Oh, Goddess! Will it go so far, Nikka?”

“I can’t tell. The future changes with our choices… Right now that’s what I see. Be gentle with Derac, one day the roles might be reversed.”

“I’ll try”, she said distractedly. “Why must there be so much death? Why can’t we break the chain?”

“It’s our choice, Bel. Always our choice. Sometimes we have to fight, and sometimes we have to let go… And most of the time it’s too difficult to know which choice is the right one.”

Bel sighed. “Fine. But we need to get the deities to safety. Let’s start there.”

Part Eight

Loose ends

Cat had thought the High Priestess would rebuke the princess as soon as she saw Deyna, but she didn’t. When Bel reached the ridge in company with the oracle she only passed them with a short nod and a distracted look.

“She didn’t even see me”, the princess complained, looking after the High Priestess and the dark woman at her side. “She doesn’t care a bit about me.”

Cat shook her head. “She does”, she said, following Bel with her eyes. She had learned something about the priestess that day. “She just... lives on a completely different plane of existence from us. She’s on another level...”

“Why are you defending her?” Deyna said, glaring at her.

The two of them were standing together with Para and a group of Leaping Panthers, away from the rest of the mass of people that had turned up after Zelena and Bjorn had decided to check out the caves. Fang had apparently called his High Priestess and asked her to come to him.

Hades and a large group of the White Tigers where there, followed by Bor and his Cobra Squad. Katana had, according to Para, stayed at the palace with the rest of the Leaping Panthers. There had been some disagreement between Bor and the Captain and Bor had lost, which meant he had to leave the protection of the Imperial Couple to Katana.

“Yeah, and what does it mean: ‘she’s on another level’?” Para asked annoyed. “It doesn’t give her the right to behave as if she’s better than the rest of us.”

“She doesn’t”, Cat said. “She just...”

Para looked at her as if she’d completely lost it. He’d been testy since he arrived and for some reason that Cat didn’t understand it had to do with the argument between Katana and Bor and the revelation that Harkaitz was a traitor.

“Look – it’s just her ways, alright. A warrior doesn’t stop to consider if it’s right using the sword in the middle of a battle, right? She’s the same and she fights a battle we don’t understand. Leave her to it.”

“You can’t mean that!” Para strongly objected. “You freak – don’t you get it? She wants to control us all...”

Cat blinked. Para hadn’t called her a freak in a long time – since she kicked his ass when they were children. They’d been friends since then. She frowned worriedly at him and noticed the wondering look Deyna was giving him.

“I’m sorry, Cat, I didn’t...” Para sighed, pulling his fingers through his hair. “I didn’t mean that... I’m really sorry. I’m just...”

“Para – what’s going on?” Cat asked concerned. “Is it… Sera?” It hurt asking – it hurt thinking about the woman who was still lying on the ground some hundred feet away, surrounded by guarding soldiers. It hurt mentioning the other woman’s name, but Serafine and Para had known each other too. Although they had never really been friends sudden death could still have an affect on people.

“No. No, it’s not... that. I...” Para shook his head, looking at Cat in defeat. “I asked Ravena to marry me.”

“Oh!” Deyna said, surprisingly enough. Para glanced at her for a brief moment, but then looked back at Cat. Cat felt a moment’s disorientation, caught by complete surprise. She involuntarily glanced over her shoulder at Bel. The High Priestess was in conversation with Bor and Hades and it seemed to be a heated discussion, but when Cat turned to look at her Bel suddenly silenced and glanced back towards her. Their eyes met and Cat felt a pang of something in her heart, something glowing and melting at the same time. Bel nodded towards her, but then returned to her discussion.

“What did she say?” Cat asked Para.

“She said she’d give me her answer when I returned. But now, with her father...” Para shook his head again. “I can’t believe it, Cat. Ravena can’t...”

“I don’t believe my cousin has anything to do with her father’s betrayal”, Deyna said assuredly. “Harkaitz has always envied my father, but Ravena is not like him. If she loves you it shouldn’t make a difference, either to you or to her.”

“I’m not so sure she loves me”, Para said, lowering his gaze.

Cat wasn’t either; Para had always fancied Ravena, like most men did, but he didn’t know her very well. Ravena didn’t know him very well either. Besides, he was a commoner – she was nobility. It wasn’t certain that they would even be allowed to marry.

“Why would you want to marry her then?” Deyna asked, confused.

“Have you never wanted something so much it didn’t matter in how you got it?” Para asked.

“Huh”, Cat said, involuntarily thinking of Bel. Deyna glanced at her, but Para nodded thinking she was agreeing with him.

“See! I don’t care if she doesn’t love me, I just want... her.”

“That’s not... right”, the princess said, frowning.

Cat thought of Bel and wondered if she’d be satisfied with an arrangement like that and realized she wouldn’t. She wanted Bel to feel about her the way she felt about... She blocked the thought. That would never happen. She realized that now and, besides, she was still not sure Bel was such a nice person.

“I don’t care”, Para was saying. “Her father gave me his permission, but now...”

“Yes – it does present a problem”, Cat said, glancing at the imprisoned prince between Zelena and the High Priest of Beorn. Harkaitz looked ready to commit murder, glaring at Bel.

A few feet from Zelena the oracle was tending to Derac, who sat on his horse cradling his head. Cat wasn’t sure he was hurting because of the head wound the other High Priest had left him, or because of the loss of his sister. Probably both.

“What are the High Priestess and Bor arguing about?” Deyna asked, frowning.

“I don’t know”, Cat said thoughtfully. As she watched Bel the High Priestess turned away from the Chief, shaking her head.

“I better get into line”, Para said, noticing the look the bald man directed at them. “I’ll talk you later.”

“Good luck with Ravena”, Cat said, still feeling strange about picturing Ravena and Para together. Not that she begrudged Para the happiness of marrying the woman, but she had always thought Ravena would end up with someone more... glamorous. Para was... nice, but that was all. He was a nobody, basically. No hero, no flashy warrior taking risks. He was just... plain. He was too insecure to make a name for himself, always following orders and not thinking for himself. Those were good qualities in a subordinate warrior – and he was skillful with the sword – but Cat didn’t think it would be enough for Ravena. She didn’t want to see him hurt down the line.

“Princess – warrior...”

Cat almost jumped when Bel suddenly was standing right beside her; Para had returned to his Squad.

“Priestess”, she said as Deyna was nodding and fidgeting a little with the hilt of her sword. Cat knew the girl enough to know she was nervous in Bel’s company; afraid she’d be getting yelled at, probably. Not enough attention, or the wrong kind of attention, Cat thought, considering Deyna’s relationship with the High Priestess.

“Deyna – you’ll stick with Fang and Zelena on the way home”, Bel said, looking at the girl. “I heard your parents are quite mad at you. They’ll deal with you when we get back.”

“I could fly home...” Deyna said.

“No!” Bel said immediately, sharper than she had a right to, Cat thought, watching her. “No, you ride with us.”

“Why? I could...”

“Deyna”, the High Priestess said warningly and the princess blushed, both in humiliation and frustration Cat realized.

“No, High Priestess”, the girl mumbled.

“Trust me, princess”, Bel said curtly. “This is for your own good.”

Deyna clenched her jaws and Cat thought she was going to protest, but then the girl nodded and moved away.

“Go with her”, the High Priestess said, addressing the members of Panthera. “Watch over her.”

They nodded and moved as one after the girl. Cat noticed the grimace on the princess’ face.

“Why?” she asked softly as Deyna was moving out of earshot. “Why don’t you let her fly home on her own? She could handle it. You’ve caught the traitor...”

“This isn’t over yet, Cat”, Bel said concerned, watching Deyna. “Her life is still in danger.”

“What... do you mean?” Cat asked. Bel looked at her, eyeing her closely as if to judge her worth.

“These people”, she said finally, “they were just bait. Remember I told you about two ways to increase a deity’s power?”

Cat nodded. “Yeah?”

“Those are rituals that need to be performed either during a dark moon or during full moon.”

“It’s full moon in thirteen days”, Cat said.

“Yes, but it doesn’t make sense…” The High Priestess shook her head. “Never mind. Just trust me, alright. I can’t prove anything, but it’s not over.” She glanced over her shoulder at Bor, who were busy instructing his warriors. “I noticed the tattoo on your friend’s hand. He’s a Cobra…”

“Yes”, Cat said. “How so?”

“Some of Harkaitz’s warriors were members of the Cobra Squad. Traitors…”

Cat gasped, realizing what the High Priestess and Bor had been arguing about. “Para would never…”

“I didn’t say he is a traitor”, Bel said, turning back to her. “I’m just telling you to be careful. Bor denies all association with those members who helped the prince – and they’re all conveniently dead, so we can’t question them about his involvement. He denies having anything to do with them – even going so far as to say he’d excluded some of them from his Squad the other week.”

“I believe that’s true”, Cat said with a light frown. “Para told me about it.”

“That may be as it is, but he hasn’t convinced me of his innocence.”

Cat shrugged; she had never had much contact with the Chief of the Cobra Squad. “My friend is not involved”, she said assuredly. “He may not be the biggest supporter of the Imperial Court, but he’s no traitor.”

The High Priestess nodded. “The matter of Bor’s innocence is a question for the emperor. I hope he’s wise enough to know what he’s doing. I’ll at least keep an eye on him.”

“Was it wise to confront the Chief like that?” Cat asked with a frown. “If he is guilty…”

“I don’t like games”, Bel said. “There’s too much of that going on at the palace. I’ve played the game for years – it’s like fencing. Sometimes the best way to get a proper understanding of a situation is to attack. Now he knows that I know – and that’ll make him nervous.” Bel looked at Cat, holding her eyes. “Remember that about me. I don’t like games. I like it when people are straightforward with me. If they are – then I’ll be straight with them.”

Cat nodded, wondering what that had to do with anything. “Uh, and you tell me this because…?”

“Because you play games with women. I’m not one of those women”, Bel said.

“Oh, that”, Cat said softly. “Right, I’ll remember that”, she mumbled, averting her eyes. She wanted to tell the High Priestess she wasn’t in it for the game. Granted – she had chased a lot of women in her day for the fun of it. This time wasn’t one of those times. If she had been able to forget about the High Priestess she gladly would have, but she couldn’t. Flaming Feathers and flapping Bats…! she thought, grumbling in her mind.

They stood in silence for a moment and Cat wondered if she was supposed to excuse herself and leave, but she found she enjoyed the other woman’s presence too much.

“I heard about your friend – Serafine”, Bel said softly after a moment. “I’m sorry…”

“I…” Cat swallowed, not prepared to deal with the grief in front of the other woman.

“I know”, the priestess said and reached out for her. “I know...”

Bel touched her arm and Cat silenced, suddenly lost in a dream. I know her, she thought. I know this woman as I’ve known no one else...

Every touch, every movement... She suddenly realized it wasn’t her imagination or her mind that played tricks on her. She truly knew the High Priestess – from her dream. She knew her as a long lost lover who’d returned to her. She knew Bel’s touch, her kisses, the way her body moved, her scent, the way her hair moved... Every detail from Cat’s dream was true and her body, her mind – even her soul, if that was possible – screamed for her to be with this woman again. To take her in her arms and relive those moments in her dream.

It was the familiarity that drew her to the other woman, but also something else: a desperate need to regain those moments from her dream. I’ve made love to this woman a hundred times, she thought. A hundred times – and it was like the first time every time, at the same time it was as if she’d never done anything else in her life than to make love with this woman.

No wonder her body reacted the way it did to the other woman’s touch. No wonder…

“You asked me to trust you”, Bel said, changing subject. “I’m glad I did. Trust you, that is. If you hadn’t asked me I wouldn’t have let you go, do you understand?”

Cat shook her head. “No...” she said, confused.

“I was going to tie you by my side with magic when you said you were going – up there on the ledge. But you asked me to trust you...”

“So you let me go...”

“And from what I understood that saved Deyna’s life. I’m glad...”

Cat wished the priestess would take a step back; she could hardly think straight, as it was with the woman so close.

”I’m truly sorry about Serafine, but…” Bel hesitated. “I’m glad it wasn’t you. I’d have missed you…” she added softly.

”Um, thanks”, Cat said. I guess, she thought, a little confused by the priestess’ sudden concern for her wellbeing. “Uh, I think I have to…” She looked around for a reason to leave the High Priestess; she couldn’t stand being so close to her anymore, “talk to Deyna. Yeah, that’s it… I have to talk to the princess. See you later.” She needed all her self control not to take the other woman in her arms and pull her close to her.

“Now? Aren’t you at least curious about…?”

“Later. Fine. Bye”, Cat said hastily, gesturing.


Cat rushed off without another word, leaving an unusually unruffled priestess confused behind her.

* * * * *

When they reached the palace gates in Goddara early in the morning Bel looked around for Cat. The warrior had been good company on the eight day ride and the two of them had finally managed to have some decent conversations. Cat turned out to be funny and intelligent beneath her rough exterior and despite her arrogant manners. She had even admitted that Bel might not be as wrong about some things as she’d first believed – although she didn’t say what those things were. She also seemed to listen when Bel tried to explain things to her, instead of jumping to quick conclusions.

If she just didn’t have the annoying habit of disappearing in the middle of a conversation, Bel distractedly thought, trying to find the warrior among the masses. There was something twisting within her as she thought of Cat, something that she didn’t want to admit. A sense of… liking. She liked the other woman and had come to look forward to their discussions.

When she first realized that Cat could’ve died that day on the ridge instead of Serafine something had clenched inside her – something pressing on her chest and twisting sharply in her heart. The realization had concerned her, because she hadn’t understood its meaning. Why would she care so much for a woman she didn’t know? There hadn’t been an easy answer to that question, so she’d decided she’d get to know the woman. Just to learn something new about herself.

As it turned out, after these eight, intense days she’d spent with Cat riding beside her she was no longer entirely sure she’d been honest with herself before. Again the thought of Zelena’s naked body had come to her and again the lurching emotion the sight had brought with it returned. It was similar to what she felt when Cat grinned at her.

Some parts of Bel warned her about spending too much time with Cat and almost implored her to avoid the woman instead, as she had done and still did with Zelena, but the small part that objected was so intense she couldn’t ignore it. She wanted Cat by her side, even if they didn’t talk – the presence of the other woman was enough to… to calm her mind.

The thought worried her. She never needed anything to calm her mind before. As a matter of fact it was Cat’s absence that distressed her.

Stop this foolishness,she sternly told her self.


Bel looked down from her red horse and noticed Katana at her side.

“Goddess – it’s good to see you again!” the Captain said. “Nidae found me and let me know what happened.”

Bel nodded; the Goddess had informed her of this. “Did she tell you?” she asked lowly. “It’s not over?”

“She told me”, Katana said with a grim face. “I didn’t think it was. Something’s up with Bor… I didn’t want to leave him with the Imperial Family.”

“You did the right thing”, Bel said, nodding. She looked around, but she and Katana stood alone while the rest of the company continued up towards the palace; only the oracle came up to them. Bel pretended to ignore a sudden flash of disappointment when she spotted Cat beside Deyna and the warrior didn’t even glance in Bel’s direction. Though that could have something to do with the presence of the Captain.

“Captain…” Nikka said as she reigned in her horse beside the warrior.

“I saw Fang”, Katana said. “What’s with him, anyway? He seemed gloomier than usual.”

“It probably has something to do with the fact that Zelena just told him he had to evacuate…” Nikka said.

“Evacuate?” Katana said with a frown.

“It’s still a secret, so don’t speak too loudly about it”, Bel said. “We need to get the deities out of Goddara. I believe their lives are in danger.”

“Goddess!” Katana whispered. “Are you serious? And I just thought it had to do with the imperial throne…”

“I believe it’s both”, Bel said thoughtfully. “Any way, Fang doesn’t want to leave his girls…”

“Foolish god! He’d risk his life for sex?” Katana shook her head. “Will he ever change?”

The question apparently brought a Sight to the oracle, because Bel noticed that Nikka’s eyes glazed over.

“He will, but…” The oracle’s voice was distant. “I See – his life in another time… He’ll be human then – carousing; spending his father’s money and shaming his father’s name. A woman will come and bring him immortality, make him… a dark god. A monster.” Nikka silenced, lost in the Sight for a moment. Then she said: “When he regains his soul he will need to atone for the terrible deeds he’s done.”

“Serves him right”, Katana said dryly.

“You’ll work with him then. Just remember – although he won’t be human when you meet you can still trust him.”

“Trust Fang? Trust this…” The Captain waved her hand, lacking words. “He’s unpredictable. There’s nothing to trust. He’s nothing more than an animal and I’m not dealing with him.” Katana determinedly shook her head.

“That remains to be seen”, Nikka said softly.

“We need to meet with the Imperial Couple immediately”, Bel said, changing subject. “There’s a lot to discuss.”

“And I’ve got my renegade warrior to take care of”, Katana said with a sigh. She looked at Bel. “Tell me she made a difference?”

“I believe she did”, Bel said. “Go easy on her.”

“That’s just it – I can’t. I have my rules, just like you do. I can’t retract my word.”

“I know. I let her know maybe I can offer her something if you don’t take her back.”

Katana nodded. “That’s good. She’s a good soldier, just…” She made a face. “She’s just so damn…” The rest of her words died away in a mumble as she turned away.

“Come”, Nikka said softly. “Let’s meet with the emperor.”

The first meeting concerned prince Harkaitz’s treason. The Imperial Couple were present and so was their son, heir to the throne; the three of them were seated on a dais below high glass windows in red and green.

The Priesthood were gathered and stood separated on each side of the dais: five in a line to the left and six with Bel on the right. All of them were dressed in red robes with their staffs in their hands, sternly waiting for the judgment of Harkaitz Qadir.

The large chamber was filled with guards: White Tigers lined up along the walls with swords at their sides or spears in their hands. Some members of the Cobra Squad were also present, together with their Chief; Bor was standing straight backed together with Katana, Nakkara Rim and Hades, leader of the White Tigers.

Harkaitz was standing before the dais, his hands tied before him; he was guarded by two White Tigers. A few steps behind him his wife and two children stood together. Ravena was dressed in red and her brother in red and black – the colors of the Cobra Squad; the first seemed worried, the second only angry and bitter, as if it was he who stood trial. Their mother was dressed in red and white; a dress with short sleeves showing the tattoos on her arms. The tattoos matched those of the empress Cara: three ravens in flight, the sign of the Covent of the Black Feather.

The members of the Covent were witches, initiated in Earth magic and sworn to heal and protect the people of Goddara. The Empress used her powers for the good of the people, bestowing blessings such as good crops, healthy cattle and healing the sick, but Bel had always suspected Jaquana Naga was using her powers to gain riches for herself and her husband, thwarting Cara’s intentions and perverting the powers of Earth by dabbling in black magic. Her Name meant Snake Soldier and Bel guessed the woman had closer contact with Mara than any of them let on.

”We’ve heard all parties and have been fully informed about the events of the past weeks”, the Emperor was saying. His face was stern and his eyes hard; signs that he was about to do something he didn’t want to. Bel knew Barac Wei well, but she didn’t have to be particularly insightful to know what it cost him to sentence his own brother.

”My brother’s treason has been duly proven and my hands are tied in this matter. There is no way for me to show mercy, even if I wanted to.”

Harkaitz snorted disdainfully, smirking at his brother, but remained silent.

”Herby I sentence Harkaitz Qadir, my beloved brother, to lifetime service in the silver mines. Let him be a slave.”

”’Beloved’?” Harkaitz spat. ”You never loved anything but your place on the throne.”

”No!” Jaquana exclaimed, trying to rush forward. She was held back by two guards. ”No, not the mines, your Highness…” she sobbed, kneeling pleadingly before the dais. Bel eyed her closely; there was pain showing in her face and tears on her cheeks, but her eyes were hard. Bel hoped Barac Wei wouldn’t be fooled by the tears of a woman, especially not a witch’s tears. She glanced at the emperor and noticed the determined set of his jaw.

To be sentenced as a slave in the silver mines was the harshest punishment one could receive: one hardly survived more than two years in the caves. It was a death sentence in itself – a very long and painful one.

”We have spoken”, the emperor said. ”Our decision is final.” He looked around and his eyes fell on Ravena and Rhais behind Jaquana. Bel noticed a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes before he clenched his jaw and went on: ”Further more – as there is no proof that my brother’s family were involved in this treason against me, and neither is there any evidence to the contrary, we will pass another command. Therefore, from the day before next full moon, Harkaitz’s family will be stripped of all their power and wealth – nothing will be left to them, not even the Name of the Imperial Family. As of that day my brother’s wife and his two children are nothing more than beggars, left only with a few valuables to prevent them from starving to death. They are to be exiled from this empire in five days.”

Bel tried hard not to show her surprise and she heard Varga, High Priestess of the Wolf, gasp in shock by her side. The punishment was fitting if Harkaitz’s family was involved in his treason – but very, very harsh if they were innocent.

”Nidae”, she thought, calling to the goddess. ”What made him make such a decision?”

”It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” the goddess retorted. ”You don’t believe they are innocent…”

”Still – Barac Wei… I didn’t believe he had it in him. The silver mines are harsh enough…”

”Cara influenced him a bit. She doesn’t trust Jaquana – and she fights for her children too.”

”Your Highness…” someone said and Bel noticed Cat’s friend, the warrior she called Para, step forward. He had a concerned and injured expression on his face.

”No!” Jaquana screamed, rushing up from the floor and drawing the attention from the young man. ”No – you can’t do this!” The woman’s face was contorted in rage, so much so that her eyes seemed to flame. Bel sensed a slight madness behind the woman’s outburst. Witchcraft could be dangerous and claim the soul of the practitioner if the person dabbled in things she didn’t understand. Bel had the feeling Harkaitz’s wife had searched too deep for power, now balancing on the verge of an abyss of insanity.

”No! You’ve stripped him of everything, stealing his life, his name, his power! Now you’re taking his life and ours!”

”Mother…” Ravena stepped forward, trying to calm her mother, but Jaquana slapped her across the face.

”Useless! You were always useless! Powers you have, but no will to use them.”

”Mother!” Ravena gasped, holding a hand to her cheek.

”Your brother… Your brother knows what side to take.” Jaquana turned back to the dais. There was something in her eyes making Bel prepare herself, tightening the hold on her staff.

”You!” Jaquana pointed at Barac Wei with burning eyes. A few feet away her husband glanced at Bel with a triumphant grin. She could see he was mouthing something to her.

”I’ll get you…”

Harkaitz distracted her for a moment, which was probably his intention. In the next instant Jaquana made a flowing gesture with her arms, directing a force of dark energy against Barac Wei. The energy flow was invisible to the untrained eye, but if it hit the emperor it would cause immediate death.

”No!” Zelena called, reaching forward and throwing her Fire to interrupt the negative flow, at the same time as Bel directed her Air around Barac Wei to protect him. Jaquana’s flow was broken and slid off the emperor without causing him any harm.

”No!” the witch seethed. ”You…”

”You are bound”, Derac said and stepped forward. His Air bound the witch’s power and her hands to her body. His face was stern; harder than Bel had ever seen him. ”Your powers are bound. And I believe you’ll be accompanying your husband to the silver mines…”

”No. I’ll get you”, Jaquana spat, glowering at the emperor. ”I’ll hunt you down in every life from now – I’ll never let you rest. For all eternities and in all worlds I’ll find you and make your life a living…”

”Enough!” Bel stepped forward and gagged the woman with Air, effectively silencing her. ”Take them away”, she said, gesturing towards the guards that had rushed forward to hold Jaquana. The woman’s eyes burned with hatred and madness.

”We’ll get you”, Harkaitz said, looking at Bel. ”We’ll get both of you… in the end.”

”And we’ll wait for you and thwart your evil ways”, Bel said, before silencing even him with Air.

As everyone was staring at the couple taken out of the room Bel had a nagging feeling that there was something she’d forgotten. Someone was missing, someone’s presence she hadn’t sensed since… The thought hit her and she swirled around.

”No!” she called, seeing Ravena’s brother standing at the foot of the dais. In the tumult caused by his mother’s actions he’d been forgotten. Everyone’s eyes had been on the prince and his wife as they were lead from the room and Rhais had taken the opportunity to sneak up behind the dais unseen.

A knife was flying through the air, straight at the chest of Barac Wei’s son and heir. Bel quickly called upon Air and Fire to capture the knife, but before she had the time the knife fell useless to the stone floor with a clinking sound.

“Don’t touch my son!” Cara called, rising from her stone chair. It was her witch powers that had interfered with the killing and prevented the knife from reaching its goal.

Rhais didn’t stop to exchange pleasantries with the rest of them as his mother had done, but rushed passed the dais and threw himself through the high glass windows before anyone had time to react.

“Rhais!” Ravena called, stunned and distressed at the same time. Her scream mingled with the noise of broken, falling glass. Red and green shards, reflecting the sun in beautiful sparks, fell through the air to the floor.

“Get him!” the emperor demanded, rushing up from his seat. “And get the two of them out of here!” He gestured towards Harkaitz and Jaquana, whose almost identically smirking faces were turned towards him from the entrance.

A few members of the White Tigers pulled at the traitorous prince and his wife, while a larger group rushed out of the guarded doors to catch Rhais. Some followed Rhais through the open windows, although the fall to the terrace below was quite high.

“They won’t get him”, Nikka said, coming up at Bel’s side. The High Priestess turned to her.

“No? Can you see where he’s going?”

“No.” The oracle shook her head. “I can only see that he’s escaping.”

“The Empress reacted quickly”, Katana said, joining them in company with Hades and Derac. Bor was talking to Cat’s friend Para, who was holding Ravena close to him in a protecting manner.

“He’ll kill her… one day”, Nikka said in answer to Katana’s statement. “Rhais. His soul won’t forget… or forgive.”

“Madness”, Bel said. “All this madness – so much hate and rage. I think Jaquana has lost it. Did you see her eyes?”

“Madness is no excuse for killing”, Hades said, vigilantly looking around the chamber. A group of his White Tigers had encircled the members of the Imperial Family, forming a tight formation around them. “They had all the opportunities in the world, all the wealth and the power…” Hades shook his head. “And look at them. Look at what they did. For what? Because of a title, because they felt slighted, cheated of a position they would have corrupted in any case? No, power is a privilege, not a right – and anyone in power ought to use if for the good of the people. To fight for what’s right and to protect the innocent, no matter the cost to themselves.”

“That easy, huh?” Zelena said behind him. “You were always a dreamer, Hades.”

“Maybe, but if I was to lose my mind over something it would be love – not power.”

“And a romantic too”, Katana mumbled good-naturedly.

“Hades Shamdar”, Nikka said softly. “The Unseen Sword – one day you’ll strike in the dark and lose the one you love…”

He looked intently at her with sharp, piercing eyes. Bel had always liked the man for his righteousness and faith in his own abilities. In some ways he reminded her of Cat. “Maybe”, he finally said. “But I’ll never kill innocents.”

“No”, Nikka said, still softly, shaking her head. “No, you won’t.”

Hades nodded at Bel. “I need to see to my men. I’ll catch up with you later.”

The group dispatched, but Nikka held Bel back, discreetly showing her Ravena and the member of the Cobra Squad that held her in his arms. Bor had left them and Para gently guided the beautiful woman out of the room.

“Bel – that man, he wants to marry her.”

“So?” Bel asked. “Do you think Barac Wei retracts his punishment for Ravena?”

“Maybe – if she marries. She’s innocent in this, but… She can’t marry that man.”

“Why not?” Bel frowned, seeing Para and Ravena disappearing out of the chamber together with the rest of the Cobra Squad, leaving only some White Tigers and the Priesthood in the room with the Imperial Couple.

“He’s her brother.”

“What?” Bel hissed and grabbed the oracle’s arm. “Nikka!”

“I’ve known for years, but I never thought…”

“Goddess!” Bel whispered, suddenly realizing she could see Harkaitz traits in the younger man. She remembered she’d found him familiar when she saw him the first time. “Oh, my…”

“They can’t marry, but you can’t tell either of them the truth.”

“Why not? Do you think they’ll listen otherwise?”

“Something bad will happen if you do. I don’t know what, but…” Nikka shook her head. “Don’t. You know, he’s as much heir to the throne as Rhais if Barac Wei’s son dies…”

“You really think…?” Bel whispered, thinking of Cat’s faith in her friend.

“I don’t know, Bel. I can’t… See, but he mustn’t know.”

“Fine.” Bel nodded. “I’ll see what I can do”, she said. “Why… How come he doesn’t know who he his?” she added thoughtfully.

“Later, Bel. We need to focus now.”


“Bel.” Nikka looked at her. “I mean it – you need to focus.”

“I’m focusing”, Bel said, frowning. “I’m always focused.”

The oracle watched her intently for a few moments before she nodded. “Keep it that way.”

Part Nine


Cat waited for Katana at the Captain’s private chambers at the ziggurat. She had left a message for the woman at the barracks that it was important they met. Cat hadn’t expected the Captain to turn up right away, but it was two hours before Katana found Cat in her private gym and before that Cat had even taken the time to eat and to get a bath.

“Cat”, Katana said as she strolled into the gym, resembling an annoyed feline in her movements. The Captain wasn’t raised in the ways of the deities in Kellara and thus not Named according to their traditions, but Cat had always been sure that if she had been, she too would have been claimed by Fang – or maybe by the Cougar.

Cat was standing before the Fighter’s Ring in the middle of the chamber – where Katana once had defeated the previous Captain and become the new leader of Panthera. The rest of the room was filled with weapons for practice and equipment for military exercises.

“Captain”, Cat said without moving.

“I heard you were looking for me. Waited long?”

There was a casualness to Katana’s way of moving and to her way of talking that immediately alerted Cat and she straightened her shoulders.

“Not too long.”

“We’ve been to trial. The prince has been sentenced. If you’re interested.”

She was, but she didn’t let it on. “Oh. Yeah…”

“His wife tried to kill Barac Wei and Rhais tried to kill Barac Wei’s son. Jaquana is in custody, but her son is still on the loose. If you happen to see him, do us all a favor and kill him.”

Cat blinked and didn’t know what to say. “Rhais? A traitor? I can’t… I can’t believe it”, she mumbled, but she had never liked Ravena’s brother to begin with. Ravena… “How’s Ravena?” she asked.

“I believe she’ll be fine. Barac Wei might reconsider lessening the punishment he put on her due to her parents actions, but…” Katana shrugged. “Otherwise your friend Para will be able to care for her. If that’s what she wants.”

Cat nodded thoughtfully, she didn’t understand what was happening – politics wasn’t her thing. Rhais – a traitor? Even though it was hard to believe she wasn’t really surprised. “And… the High Priestess? Is she fine?”

“Of course she is. Bel was never in any danger. She’s with the rest of the Priesthood right now, meeting with Barac Wei and Cara.” Katana stepped forward and came to a halt before Cat. “Why did you have to follow her, Cat?” she asked sincerely. “Why did you have to go against my orders? I can’t take back what I said.”

Cat straightened her back even more, holding the Captain’s gaze. She’d been thinking carefully of what she was about to say since Bel had said those things to her when they were locked up together in the Vale of the Dead. The High Priestess had talked about Katana’s expectations on Cat.

“I’m not asking you to take me back. I want to Challenge you.”

Katana didn’t seem surprised. “Really?” she said, eyeing Cat narrowly. “Are you sure about this, soldier?”

Cat nodded. “I am.”

“Fine. You’re gonna lose, Cat – just so you know it.”

Cat clenched her jaws. “We’ll see about that”, she said, barely hiding a growl.

“I see you’re still angry with me. Fine. Let’s enter the ring and have it over with. Swords?”

“Staffs”, Cat said, nodding towards the wall to the right of them, where a row of staffs were lined up. “I wouldn’t want to accidentally cut you up.”

The Captain smirked, but then nodded and loosened the belt with the sword from her waist. Then she went to the wall and picked two staffs. Cat released her own belt and let it and the sword slip to the floor, before she entered the ring.

“So, it has finally come to this”, Katana said as they stood facing each other a moment later. “Honestly – I believed you’d have challenged me long before now.”

“Honestly”, Cat said, weighing the staff in her hands, “the thought never occurred to me before now.”

“It was Bel who put you on this track, wasn’t it?” the Captain said, smiling. “I think she’s curious about who’s the best.”

Cat didn’t answer, but she stiffened a little at the thought of the High Priestess playing her like that.

“Any last words before we begin?” Katana asked.

“There’s nothing more to say”, Cat said. They’d known each other for a long time: Katana had been her tutor, turning into a leader, turning into a friend and now… A rival.

“You’re right – there isn’t.”

They attacked at the same time, swinging their staffs. Cat barely dodged the blow the blonde warrior directed at her as Katana swiftly jumped to avoid the blow Cat aimed at her knees. The Captain was quick in returning the blow, but Cat rapidly blocked the attack against her chest and regained her balance, which she had lost a moment before. She followed up the block with a swift swirl of her staff, forcing Katana to retreat a few steps.

“You ought to have chosen the sword”, the Captain said. “You were never that good with the staff…”

“I don’t see you winning”, Cat said, twirling the staff.

“Bel’s beaten me, you know. She’s a true fighter with the staff, did you know that?”

The news took Cat by surprise. Bel had said Katana had trained her, but she’d also said she wasn’t that good. Maybe she’d meant with the sword.

“No”, Cat said lowly. “I didn’t know that.”

“So – let’s see if you’re as good as she is.”

Katana attacked and forced Cat backwards for several feet. Before Cat regained her composure the Captain hit her on the upper arm. The blow struck a nerve and she dropped the staff. The next blow was aimed at her head. She quickly dodged it, cradling her arm close to her, inwardly swearing to herself. The staff went over her head and she heard the swishing noise it made; it would have cracked her scull had it hit her. Goddess! she thought, suddenly realizing what she’d gotten herself into. She rolled over, grabbing her staff as she went and came to her feet with it in her hands.

“Close”, Katana said.

“As close as you’re coming”, Cat said, feeling the battle pulse speed up. She grabbed the staff and steadied her stance. “Come again, Captain.”

“With pleasure”, Katana grimly said.

The fight went on. Cat couldn’t tell for how long, she lost sense of time as she parried, thrust and moved around in the ring. It had only happened a few times before that she’d met someone so well matched to her own skills and when she had she’d mostly survived because of luck – or some mistake that her enemy made. Somehow she didn’t believe the Captain was going to make a mistake.

As Leaping Panthers both of them had extraordinary speed and strength as warriors. All true members of the pack were Initiated by the Goddess – a process by which they were given extra physical powers. It was the same for the Cobra Squad, but not for the White Tigers. The Tigers were common warriors; there were too many of them to make them special in the way the special forces of the Snake and the Bat were.

Cat had often fought other members of Panthera – or even members of the Cobra Squad – in training sessions, but never in a serious fight. Not like the one she was in now. She finally understood what Katana was: a true warrior, born to fight. Like Bel it wasn’t something she did, it was something she was.

Me too, Cat thought determinedly. I’m a true warrior too. She’s trained me to be one

But to be a leader wasn’t all about the fight or the power. It was about leading; guiding people, being in charge, making decisions others didn’t have to. It meant responsibilities. It meant she couldn’t rush off whenever she wanted to…

Cat dodged another blow against her knees. It was the third in a row, Katana must be tired. When Cat thought about it the Captain did seem a little slower in her movements. She decided to use it to her advantage and quickly attacked Katana in a blurry motion, moving so quickly it was difficult to see what she was doing. In the next moment she’d knocked the staff from the Captain’s hands and felled her flat out on the floor. Grinning down at the other woman, with sweat and blood dripping from her face, she pointed the end of the staff against Katana’s throat.

“I win.”

“Not yet – you must knock me unconscious…” the Captain said. She looked pale and she was bleeding from a cut on her cheek, blood blurring the tattoo, but her blue eyes were still as determined as before.

“No problem”, Cat said and swiftly lifted the staff to follow up on her words. In the next moment, so fast she didn’t see it coming, the Captain kicked her feet away from under her, grabbed the disregarded staff a few inches away and… The world went dark before Cat could even feel the pain.

When Cat woke up Katana was sitting a few feet away, crouching on her heels with the staff resting across her thighs.

“By all the deities…” Cat mumbled and touched her forehead with a painful grimace.

“Too impatient – as always”, the Captain said, rising from the floor. She threw away the staff, looking down at Cat with superiority. “I’ve always told you you’d make that mistake one day…”

“You tricked me”, Cat mumbled. Her head hurt badly and her fingers touched something sticky; they came away with blood on them.

“You’d better take care of that wound. Don’t want you to bleed to death.”

Cat looked up. “Do you even care?” she spat, angry and humiliated. “I’m the better fighter!”

“How dare you ask if I care?” Katana snapped. She took an angry step towards Cat and gestured towards her; a gesture of one hand that Cat had learned to recognize over the years. “You – you were the one that broke the rules! You refused to obey my orders! And you blame me for it?”

“You don’t understand”, Cat sneered, trying to get to her feet. Her head began throbbing and she sat back down.

“No? Try, tell me then. Tell me, so I can understand – because I’m really, really trying to understand why you’re acting like such an idiot! You may be stronger than me – and maybe even better with the sword… But I won, Cat. You lost – because you as usual let your feelings rule you. A leader can’t rush forward like that. It takes more to be a leader than to be a warrior – and you…” It was Katana’s turn to sneer. “You’re just not ready to be a leader.”

“I could’ve learned!” Cat exclaimed. “I would’ve learned!” She struggled to her feet.

“Yeah, if you’d waited a few years.” Katana sighed. “Why, Cat?” she asked again. “Why did you have to do it? I don’t want to exclude you, but you left me no choice. Why did you have to rush after her like that? She wasn’t even in any real danger.”

“And how was I supposed to know?” Cat grumbled, tenderly touching her head, and winced as she felt the pain shoot through her head.

“You could’ve listened to me!” the Captain cried out. “You could’ve listened for once!”

“I couldn’t!” Cat retorted. “I just couldn’t, ok?” She sighed. “You don’t understand, I…” She silenced, shaking her head.

“Oh, by the goddess!” Katana suddenly gasped, staring wide eyed at her. Cat noticed the understanding in her blue eyes. “You’re… You’re infatuated with her!” The Captain whispered. “Goddess – Cat…!”

“I can’t help it, alright! Bats and bloody Snakes!” Cat turned away, too ashamed to look Katana in the face. She hadn’t wanted the Captain to know… She didn’t want anyone to know. It was enough Deyna had guessed…

“Cat”, Katana whispered. “Oh, Cat…”

“Don’t sound like that!” Cat spat. “It’s not a fleeting infatuation. I’m… I’m…” I’m completely lost, she thought helplessly, staring at the Captain without finding words to describe what she felt.

“Do you know how many men and women have tried to seduce her, Cat?” Katana said softly, compassionately.

Cat shook her head, but not in answer to the Captain’s question. “I’ve tried so hard these past days not to like her, Katana”, she whispered. “This goes deeper than any infatuation I’ve ever had. I’ve dreamt about her for years. I mean, really… I just didn’t know it was her, you know. And now… I can’t get her out of my head. I don’t even like her.”

“You don’t?” Katana asked, again softly. “She’s a nice person, you know…”

“No.” Cat shook her head, slowly because of the pain. “Don’t say that. I can’t… If I admit I like her, if I admit she’s nice, even for a second then I’m…” Then I’m lost forever. Then it’s real and nothing dreamt anymore… Then I can’t go back and not deny it again.

“I understand”, Katana said slowly. ”But Cat – she is a very nice person… And you can’t have her. Ever. You must know that.”

“I do. I do, but I can’t… Katana – I don’t know what to do!” Cat said pleadingly. “It’s all so forbidden and… and…” She swore, breathing heavily.

The Captain regarded her in silence for a while, before she said: “I’ve never seen you like this. Of course I’ve seen you frustrated because of Ravena’s games, but not… quite like this.”

“It’s just not physical, Captain. You know?”

There was an odd, sad expression in Katana’s eyes as she nodded. “Yes. I do know”, she said softly, barely audible. “Go now, Cat. Get that wound tended to and then find Bel. Tell her the truth if you can – or make up your mind not to. But whatever you do – it has to end here. Do you understand? You need to focus on protecting the princess. Even if you’re not one of us anymore that is still your priority. The oath you swore is for life.”

Cat nodded. “She said she’ll find me something if you wouldn’t… If I couldn’t fight with you again.”

Katana nodded. “I’ll discuss it with her.” She sighed. “I’m so sorry, Cat. I wish you’d told me before. I’d have understood.”

Cat blinked in surprise. “You would have?”

“Yes. At least I wouldn’t have threatened to exclude you from the pack if I’d known you had a reason to act as you did. Now… I just thought you were being arrogant and pigheaded as usual.”

* * * * *

The large statue of the Bat seemed to loom above them behind the altar as they stood in Bel’s private chamber at the temple. It was late afternoon and the last meeting had taken several hours. It had been hard convincing the Priesthood that the deities must leave Goddara, preferably Kellara. Half of them had been in favor of the idea and half of them against it. In the end the decision had to be made by Barac Wei and the empress. Barac Wei had asked his oracle one question: what should he do?

Nakkara Rim had said two things: “If you send them away there will possibly be bloodshed. If you let them stay there certainly will.”

The emperor made his decision to exile the deities for their own good together with their respective High Priests and Priestesses. Mara was without a High Priest at the moment, so he was represented by one of the lower priests in the meeting, but no one paid much attention to him.

Mara had been strangely quiet since Bel came back. And so was the Priesthood in talking about Snoek. Bel remembered they had been the same when Orm turned out to be a traitor several years ago. If there was something she wanted to do it was to put the Cobra through some tests to prove his guilt – or his innocence. But she knew the rest of the Priesthood, with a few exceptions, would disapprove and left the thought for later. When they found whomever it was who was still plotting against them she’d press for a trial of Mara the Cobra.

Nikka had followed her back to the temple and was present as Bel tried to convince Nidae to leave Goddara in company with Derac. The goddess stubbornly refused.

“You need me here, Bel”, Nidae said, standing before the altar in her human form.

“I need you? It’s your life that’s in danger. You couldn’t act when it came to the abduction of Fang. Not much use you were then.”

“Bel, listen now…”

“You’ve got to go away!” Bel snapped, pointing at the woman with her staff.

“Don’t do that”, Nidae said, shivering. “Don’t threaten me like that.”

Bel lowered the staff. “Sorry, Nidae”, she said with a sigh. “This whole thing’s just… Everyone is refusing to leave and I’m just trying to save their lives.”

“I know, priestess”, Nidae said softly. “But sometimes you can’t bend other people’s will to your own, even if you’re right. There’s always the choice of free will.”

“It’s a crappy notion”, Bel grumbled. “Look, Nidae…” – she threw out her arms. “Deyna’s refusing to leave and the only reason her parent manages to force her away is because she’s still not an adult. Otherwise she’d never leave.”

“Deyna must go”, Nikka said at her side. Bel glanced at her and nodded. The oracle had said the same thing before, when they were in discussion with Barac Wei and the empress Cara. Deyna had been present then, desperately pleading with her mother not to send her away. She’d even been crying and her powers had uncontrollably upset the whole room: disrupting the energy flow and toppling over statues, tearing down tapestries from the walls and flinging candles across the room. In the end Bel had to subdue her and bind her powers for a moment, until she’d calmed down. She was still crying, frantically pleading with her mother not to send her away. “Let me stay with Bel”, she said several times. “I’m safe with Bel. She’ll take care of me.”

The whole thing had surprised Bel so much she even considered letting the girl stay with her, but then Nikka had said the princess needed to get out of Goddara before the full moon.

“I’m staying, Bel. If it’s a High Priest behind all of this he’s doing this for his god or goddess. That means that you might be facing a deity.”

“I can bind a deity…” Bel began, but something in Nidae’s eyes silenced her. “What is it? What are you not telling me?”

“There are ways for deities to protect themselves from the Priesthood’s hold on them”, Nidae said softly, not looking away from Bel. “Only for a short time, but still. It’s ancient knowledge, old magic… The Priesthood knows nothing of it and only a few deities are aware of it.”

Bel frowned. “I know. It’s the ritual that Snoek was trying to pull on Fang…”

“It has nothing to do with blood sacrifices”, Nidae interrupted. “It’s simpler than that. It only involves a few herbs, a charm and some prayers. And if the deity we’re facing is aware of this, which I believe he is, then you’re in grave danger. Not even you could face a deity in its full glory, however powerful you are.”

“But…” Bel frowned again. “I’ve never heard of this.”

“It’s a well guarded secret”, Nidae said. “I’d make use of it if I found it necessary. If it comes down to a fight… If you must face the deity I’ll make use of the knowledge and protect myself from the High Priest or Priestess. I’ll give you what you need to perform the ritual for me.”

“You could’ve done that before”, Bel said in a low voice. “To save Fang.”

“I don’t want anyone to know about this. It’s dangerous knowledge. If the wrong deity got their hands on it…”

“But why hasn’t this deity made use of the knowledge before, if he has it?” Nikka asked.

“Because the effects are only temporary. Sooner or later it will wear off and he’ll be in the Priesthoods snare again. And even though the effect protects him from the Priesthood it doesn’t protect him from another deity.”

“But a ritual of Ma’ahel would”, Bel mumbled thoughtfully. “The ritual of the Ascension. The sacrifice of the seven.”

“Seven?” Nikka said. “I’ve never heard of… this.” She had a sudden worried look on her face, followed by comprehension. “Oh”, she softly. “I understand.”

“He would need to kill seven deities during the full moon to complete the ritual”, Bel said.

“Not necessarily”, Nikka said, slowly shaking her head. She was talking more to herself than to the others and Bel knew it was futile to ask her about it. Although, she noticed the look on Nidae’s face and suddenly realized the goddess knew what was on the oracle’s mind. She looked from one to the other.

“Yes”, the Goddess of the Dark Moon softly said. “We need to get Deyna out of the city before the full moon. And the rest of the deities”, she added, looking at Bel.

Bel nodded. She was about to say she’d send Cat to protect the princess together with the rest of the Leaping Panthers, but she couldn’t get the words out. I don’t want to send her away, she thought distractedly. I want her with me. The sudden revelation was a shock to her and she didn’t know what it meant. Or more precisely – she didn’t want to know what it meant. Bats and holy Feather! I can’t seriously…


“Huh?” she said, snapping back to reality.

She looked at Nikka, but it was neither the oracle nor the goddess who’d said her name. Zelena was suddenly standing beside her, looking strangely at her.

“Bel – are you ok?”

“Oh, yes. Sorry, didn’t see you.” Bel eyed her with concern. Zelena seemed a little down. “And you?”

“I’m leaving with Fang tonight…”

“Already?” Nikka asked and Zelena glanced at her.

“Yes – he’s sulking and I can’t stand him being like that for more days than I need to. To wait would only make him worse – and I wouldn’t know if he attempted to run away. He’s such a child”, she sighed.

“I’d never have managed to handle him as well as you do”, Bel admitted. “I’d have kept him on an eternal leash.”

“Believe me, the thought has occurred to me”, Zelena said dryly. Then her eyes flickered around the room in an uncharacteristically uncertain way before they settled on Bel. “I’ve only come to say goodbye”, she said.

“I’m sure we…” Bel began.

“And to do this…” Zelena quickly stepped forward and took Bel’s face between her hands; before Bel knew what was happening the High Priestess was kissing her.

Oh, my, Bel thought, strangely detached. I didn’t see that one… Oh, this is nice. She cut the thought, trying not to linger upon the softness of Zelena’s mouth and the way her tongue traced the outlines of her lips. Goddess – I never thought…! The sight of Zelena naked body came before her again and she almost blanched, but forced herself to keep her cool as the other woman pulled back. Zelena looked shyly at her, but Bel could only stare.

“I’m sorry, I just had to… know what it was like”, Zelena said. “Bye, Bel”, she added softly, before she turned around and swiftly left the chamber.

I wonder what it would be like to kiss Cat like that, Bel thought, still stunned. The thought of Cat’s grinning mouth came before her and she closed her eyes for a brief second. Behind her she could hear the goddess chuckle.

“You felt that, didn’t you?” Nidae asked in her mind, teasingly.

“Stop that!” Bel admonished with an inward annoyance. “Get out of my mind!”

Nidae chuckled. “I’ll see you later”, she said and Bel could feel the wind behind her when the goddess changed shape. A heartbeat later a tiny bat flapped through the room and disappeared in the shadows.

“She kissed me”, Bel said, still a bit shocked.

“Of course she did”, Nikka amusedly said.

“I can’t believe she did that…” I can’t believe I liked it. Cat… Her thoughts shied away from the warrior; she noticed she became warm all over her body when she thought of kissing Cat.

“You’ll love Zelena deeply in another life. She’ll be a man and he’ll be the love of your life, until… He’ll die and it’ll break your heart. Try to remember not to extract vengeance because of it…”

“I wish you’d stop telling me things that happen in my other lives and tell me about this one. What must I do to stop what’s coming? I’m feeling so… helpless and I hate that.”

“You’ll need to stay focused. That’s all that’s required of you.” Nikka glanced at her. “You still up for it?”

“I’m focusing”, Bel said, inwardly grinding her teeth. Why did that woman have to kiss me?

“The things I’ve been telling you lately have all been focused around the same particular life”, the seer went on. “Whatever time and place it is I’m Seeing we’re all returning then to sort out the… conflicts we’ve been having in this life. All of us will be there, one way or another. What will happen then depends on what we’re doing now. All those events I’ve been Seeing are connected. And we must succeed now, otherwise the world will be doomed at that point and I can’t be sure we can prevent the evil from rising at that time.”

Bel frowned. “Nidae was talking about ancient knowledge. I’ll keep to my books and scriptures and see if I can find anything worthwhile. Maybe some way to locate our enemy, or at least to identify him.”

Nikka looked at her. “We both know who it is, don’t we?” she said in a low voice.

“We can’t prove anything”, Bel said, shaking her head. “If Orm has returned and Mara is behind it…” She sighed. “All we can do is prepare for battle.”

“And stand united”, Nikka said with a nod. “I’ll see you later – I’ll see if I can provoke a Vision that’ll help us.” She hesitated. “Bel…” she added, somewhat reluctantly. “There are things…”

“I know, Nikka”, Bel said softly. She knew. She remembered. It had been years, but she had never forgotten. One didn’t forget a prediction about one’s own death. She’d had years to prepare.

It didn’t really make it easier.

The oracle swallowed, nodding. “If it comes to that… The life of our Goddess depends on it.” A pained expression flew across the pure, smooth face and dark eyes closed for a brief second. When Nikka looked up again she met Bel’s green gaze, whispering: “If bad comes to worse... I’m so sorry, Bel.”

Bel shook her head. “I’ve known since I first met you that my time would come.” She hesitated. “Will you tell me how?”

And this time the oracle did.

When her friend had left Bel stood in front of the altar for awhile, pondering what had happened – what she’d been told. Her thoughts soon drifted from Nikka’s words and the meaning of them; she understood what the oracle had told her, although Nikka might not. It was one thing to See things and another to understand the cause behind the scenario. Bel knew what Nikka’s words meant and since she’d already considered the same scenario herself they didn’t really tell her much. Except how she was going to die.

She pushed that particular thought from her mind. It wasn’t time yet. Nikka had asked her to focus. She focused much better if she didn’t let her emotions disturb her.

So her thoughts drifted. She didn’t consider the fact that Zelena and Fang were already leaving or the fact that their world seemed to be in serious peril and that no one else seemed to realize it, but the fact that Zelena had kissed her and that she’d felt a response within herself. Holy Bats and bloody Snakes! Now I have to send away Cat…

Just as the thought crossed her mind she became suddenly aware that she wasn’t alone. She turned around and noticed the warrior of her thoughts standing in the middle of the chamber. Bel’s heart lurched at the sight and her mind admonished her for it. Then she noticed that Cat was badly hurt, she was still bleeding from a deep cut at her temple.

“Cat”, she whispered and took an involuntarily step forward. She seemed to do a lot of things involuntarily when it came to Cat. She didn’t like that – she preferred to be in control, to control her emotions and not let them rule her. “What happened to you?”

“I…” Cat made a small gesture with her hand. “I came to see you.”

“Yes, but…” Bel stopped, but then ignored the warning her mind directed at her and hurried towards the warrior. She halted at Cat’s side and touched her face with gentle fingers; Cat silently sighed and closed her eyes. “You’re badly hurt”, Bel said.

“I challenged Katana…” Cat opened her eyes.

“Oh”, Bel said, feeling how soft Cat’s skin was beneath her fingers and was distracted by it. She lowered her hand. “How… What happened?”

“I lost.” Cat’s mismatched eyes followed Bel as she stepped back to put some distance between them.

“Of course you did”, Bel gently said. “You weren’t ready. It takes more than physical strength and speed to lead people… You need to want it too. And you…” She silenced. “You don’t want to lead.”

“No, I don’t”, Cat said, slowly shaking her head. “But I wanted to defeat Katana, to prove…” Cat silenced, biting her lower lip. Bel couldn’t prevent herself from glancing at those lips. She quickly looked away again and partly turned.

“I’ll get some warm water, herbs and clean rags to clean you up with”, she said, wondering what Cat was doing at the temple.

“I saw you”, Cat softly said, in such a low voice that Bel hardly heard her.

“What?” she asked, turning back to the warrior.

“I saw you”, Cat said in a broken and yet rebuking voice. She raised her face and defiantly looked at Bel with narrowing, mismatched eyes.

“I don’t understand”, Bel said, confused. Cat took a step towards her, eyes burning now.

“You kissed her!”

Bel gasped. “Cat…”

“I saw you. She kissed you and you… You felt it.” Cat’s last words were barely a whisper. “You would never let me kiss you like that…” she added brokenly.

Oh, Goddess – I would like to! Bel caught herself thinking, stalwartly refusing to lower her gaze to look at Cat’s mouth. Holy Feathers, what’s happening to me? “I’ll get you some…” She gestured towards Cat’s wounds. “Sit down at the altar and wait for me.”

“Bel…” Cat said in a strained voice, reaching for her.

The hoarseness of the other woman’s voice affected Bel in an odd way, causing a flow of warmth to course through her body. Her pulse beat irregularly and she had to control herself not to inhale in an audible gasp.

“Wait here”, she hurriedly said. “I’ll be back soon.” Slowly she loosened Cat’s grasp from her arm, feeling the warmth of the other woman as their fingers touched. Curse upon you, Zelena! she angrily thought as she rushed from the room. She blamed her affliction entirely on the other High Priestess; if Zelena hadn’t kissed her she wouldn’t have realized… She wouldn’t have wondered what it would be like to actually… Bloody Tigers and holy Hawk!

Bel kept swearing inwardly as she collected water in a bowl, warmed it with Fire and then got some herbs and clean cloths to use for Cat’s wounds. When she returned to the altar room the warrior was sitting below the altar, leaning her back against the stone with closed eyes. Bel stopped to watch her for a few moments. Dark hair fell over closed eyes, shadowing high cheeks. She’s quite beautiful, she thought, but then shook her head to clear it. She was being silly, behaving like… She didn’t know what she was behaving like, but she clearly wasn’t herself.

“Here”, she said resolutely, moving forward to kneel by Cat’s side. Cat looked up at her, showing no surprise to see her. Her eyes were deep and Bel had to suppress a shiver.

“You’re so beautiful”, Cat said intensely. “And I can’t even touch you. It’s a sin to blaspheme against the Priesthood, my grandfather taught me that. If I kissed you…”

“You wouldn’t live long enough to regret it”, Bel said briskly, ignoring the sudden, melting flame in her stomach as she thought of Cat kissing her.

“You let her kiss you…”

“She’s a High Priestess, it’s different. Here – this will hurt…” Bel held the wet fabric to the wound in Cat’s temple and Cat winced a little, making a small noise.

“I’d never regret it – even if you killed me…”

“Stop this nonsense now”, Bel said, scowling at the other woman. “You don’t even know me. It doesn’t mean anything that you think I’m beautiful – I’ve heard it thousands of times…”

“I know, you told me.”

“So, let this be. Sit still”, Bel added as Cat was about to rise. “Your wounds need tending to. You probably have a concussion, making you act all… irrational. Be still – and silent. I don’t want to hear more about this foolishness…”

Cat closed her eyes. “You don’t understand”, she whispered. Bel wanted to ask about that, but felt it was safer not to.

“You saw us”, she said carefully, thinking of Nikka’s words to her. “Did you… hear anything?”

Cat opened one eye, looking at her with the yellow gleam of her cat eye; it was a little disconcerting. “No. I’m not that impolite. I went away and waited in the hallway until the rest of them had left.”

Bel nodded. “Thank you”, she said softly.

“You’re welcome”, Cat said, only with a hint of sarcasm, and closed her eye again.

Bel tended to Cat’s wounds, using herbs and some magic to heal the worst of them. It didn’t take that long and when she was done she wished she wasn’t. It was with reluctance she put away the bowl and rose from the floor to step away from Cat. Her fingers remembered the feeling of Cat’s skin – soft and tender. She had wanted to caress her tattooed cheeks, to let her fingers slide down her mouth to know what it felt like to… Curse upon you, Zelena!

“I heard that, priestess”, Nidae chuckled in her head.

“Get out, Nidae!” Bel forcefully pushed the goddess from her mind and cursed herself for not being vigilant enough to keep the barrier up.

“Thank you”, Cat said, rising from the floor. She stretched a bit and Bel nodded, distractedly noticing bare skin rippling at the warrior’s midriff: flat stomach, taught muscles, smooth skin… She suddenly remembered Cat’s nakedness from times before with a burning intensity and looked away.

“It was nothing”, she said curtly. “Look, kitten”, she added in a more serious vein, looking straight at Cat. “What I’m about to tell you is very important and very secret, understood?”

Cat seemed surprised for a moment, but then nodded. The wound at her temple had faded to a pale scar after Bel’s healing session. “Sure. What’s going on?”

“The deities are leaving Goddara. In fact they’re leaving the empire…”

Cat gasped. “What do you mean? Are they abandoning us?”

Bel thought it was a funny comment from someone who wasn’t particularly interested in the deities. She shook her head. “I’m… The Emperor is sending them away on my command. Their lives are in danger.”

Bel briefly told Cat about her suspicions that their enemy – in all probability a High Priest – was planning to kill the deities to win more power for his own deity. “The ritual of the Ascension is very old and powerful. It’s called Ma’ahel. It means the priest must sacrifice seven of a kind to reach the desired effect. Seven deities must be sacrificed beneath a full moon and the one wanting to obtain the power must bathe in their blood.”

“So… He’d obtain the power of the seven deities?” Cat asked, not fully understanding.

“No, not quite. He’ll only obtain the power of the last sacrifice. The previous six are only preparation.”

“He?” Cat whispered, picking up on something in Bel’s voice. “You know who it is, don’t you?”

Bel hesitated before she nodded. “I have my suspicions, but I can’t prove anything.”

“So, by sending off the deities the one deity who is behind it all… He wouldn’t leave.”

“He would probably pretend to leave, not to attract attention. But no…” Bel shook her head. “No one except the Priesthood and the Imperial Couple knows that the deities are leaving. Well, and Katana and Nikka.”

“Nikka?” Cat asked, somewhat uncertain.

“The oracle”, Bel explained. “The deities won’t tell each other where they go and neither will anyone of the Priesthood. The traitor might be able to find one or two deities, but not seven.”

“And why are you telling me this?” Cat wondered.

“Because you need to go with Deyna. I’m sending her away.”

Cat gasped. “You’re sending me away…” she whispered and took an impulsive step towards Bel. “Don’t do this.”

“Don’t be ridiculous”, Bel said, struggling with the awareness that Cat’s presence so close to her affected her in strange ways. “This has nothing to do with you. Deyna’s safety comes first and you…” She smiled at Cat with genuine gentleness. “You’re her best defender.”

“I’m not. Katana…”

“Katana and her pack will be there. And so will you. You’ll stay here past full moon and then you’ll …”

“But… Please don’t do this to me”, Cat pleaded, interrupting Bel’s trail of thought. “I want to be where you are.”

“Stop this!” Bel demanded, looking at the young woman in front of her. “Your sworn duty lies with the princess, not…”

“You don’t understand!” Cat cried out. “I… You…”

Bel shook her head. “No, I don’t understand. And I don’t plan to. You mean nothing to me, do you understand?”

Cat tumbled backwards. “You can’t mean that…” she whispered and the look of horror on her face forced Bel to lessen her stern attitude.

“No”, she said, sighing. “No, I don’t. I believe we could’ve been good friends if given half a chance, but our lives… Our lives are too different. We want different things from life and we can’t blend it together.”

“But… you’re friends with Katana and that… that oracle? They…”

“They know and understand their roles. You don’t. You’re like… this wild card in the deck; no one really ever knows when you’re going to show up or what you’re going to do. Unpredictable and uncontrollable. One day you have to choose sides, take a stand and learn to take responsibility for your actions – not just swing a sword and think everything will be fine because you’re good at it. There’s more to life than that.”

“I don’t understand”, Cat said, shaking her head.

“Maybe one day you will. I hope you make the right choice and that we can be friends. Now…” Bel made a gesture with her staff.

“No”, Cat said, shaking her head more determined this time. Her mismatched eyes narrowed. “You’re not doing this to me. I’m no doll you can throw away when you like… Don’t turn away when I’m talking to you!”

Bel had shrugged and turned, not wanting to listen to Cat; she could never explain anyway. What should she say? “Well, yeah – I might feel something when you look at me and the thought of kissing you excites me, but…” She was a priestess – and a High Priestess at that. There was no way, not ever, that she could give in to the emotions Cat’s presence awakened within her. To give Cat the least indication that she might feel something would only give the young woman false hope. Besides, she’d been right in what she’d said: they were on different paths in life. Cat was unpredictable and wouldn’t be much use to the High Priestess if she couldn’t be trusted.

When Bel turned away from her Cat grabbed her arm; steely fingers dug into her flesh and caused pain. Bel reacted instinctively, due to her own frustration and repressed emotions. She’d hardly slept for over a week and the concern about Goddara’s future caught up with her.

“Enough!” she yelled as Cat grabbed her and swirled her around. There was thunder in her voice and a gust of wind responded to her irritation. Air swept the black clad warrior from the floor and hurled her through the air. “Now you listen to me!” Bel said angrily, making Air hold Cat pinned to the wall high above the floor. “Grow up, kitten. If you want to play with the adults you need to be one. You can’t have anything you point at with that toy sword at your side. You loath authorities with no respect for what some of us must sacrifice to do what we do. Learn about the costs of leadership before you rush off crusading against it. Grow up, girl. Make a choice.”

Cat gasped as Bel abruptly let go of her and the warrior fell to the floor. She landed smoothly on her feet, looking up at Bel with burning eyes. The one golden eye seemed to glow. Crouching on the floor she spat at Bel.

“You arrogant…!”

“Me? I’m arrogant?” Bel laughed cynically. “It takes one to know one, doesn’t it, kitten?” She shook her head and turned away. When the anger lessened she felt sorry that she’d reacted that way. She hadn’t lost her temper in… more years than she could remember. Cat’s presence affected her strongly. It confused her and distracted her.

“I’m sorry.”

Bel stopped, still with her back to Cat, wondering if she’d heard correctly. She turned around; the warrior had risen and stood before the main entrance to the chamber.

“I’m sorry”, Cat said again, moving a few steps forward. “You’re right – I’m arrogant and I’m used to getting my way, but you…” She paused. “You’re so damn difficult! One moment you’re all nice and shiny and the next… You’re all – priestessy.”

Bel hid a smile at the dark warrior’s indignation. “Yes?”

“I mean – I don’t get you. I want to… get you”, Cat said lamely. “I want to know if you’re…” She hesitated.

“What?” Bel asked after a moment.

“I want to know if you’re… nice. I want to know the woman in you.”

Bel was caught by the sincerity and honesty in the other woman for a moment, but then she softly said: “There is no woman in me, Cat. I’m a priestess – it’s who I am, it’s what I’ve always been.”

“No.” Cat shook her head. “I don’t believe that…”

“We’ve talked about this before. To be a priestess is not what I am, not something I became by putting on a robe when I was a child. It’s something I am. It’s what I was when I was born – even before I was born.”

“But you… You’re different sometimes. Sometimes when you forget you’re a priestess you laugh and…” Cat looked at her with a searching expression. “That’s the woman in you.”

“Listen”, Bel said gently. “I never forget I’m a priestess, Cat. Never. Those parts of me you see, those are the other side of the priestess in me. To balance a deity’s power means to balance the two sides of the deity one serves. Nidae is goddess of life and death – I as her High Priestess must know how to balance the two sides: I must know life and I must know death. Therefore I can laugh and I can use power to quench life… It’s not two different people you’ve seen – it’s the same person; two faces of one coin.”

“No, but you… What about your needs, your…”

“You don’t understand”, Bel said softly. “You never will until you learn there’s something more to this life than living only for the day. Until you learn there’s something higher than us and more important to live and die for.”

“Deities?” Cat said with a frown. Bel smiled a little.

“Life”, she said. “And to do what’s right for all life, in life.”

“I’d die for Deyna”, Cat said. “It’s a higher calling… I’d die for you.”

“You’d die for your friends”, Bel said. “Would you die for a stranger? And would you live a life of servitude? For some people it’s easy to die, Cat. It doesn’t cost them anything. It’s easy to make a grand gesture at the end of one’s life, but it’s the small gestures – those no one sees or knows about – that one performs day in and day out for a lifetime, that are harder and therefore sometimes more worthwhile.”

Cat shook her head. “I don’t want to get into a religious discussion with you, I just…”

“I’m a priestess, Cat”, Bel said again. “That’s what and who I am, every part of me. If I could be a set of different people I would. One who plays around and goes carousing in the night, one who’s the queen and rules a people, one who’s a priestess serving the people and one who’s…” – she caught herself, thinking – “only me, I guess. But I can’t, I can only be what I am. What?” she added sharply when she caught the look on Cat’s face. The warrior looked taken aback, almost as if she… No, Bel couldn’t make out what she was thinking.

“You are”, Cat whispered.

“I’m what?” Bel asked, frowning.

Cat gasped a little. “Nice…” she said softly. Then she blushed. “I’m sorry – I have to… go.” She turned around and hurried towards the exit.

“What? Wait! You can’t just go now...” Bel scowled at the back of the fleeing warrior; Cat always seemed to run away from her.

“No?” Cat stopped and glanced over her shoulder with a slight, teasing smile. “There’s no reason for me to be here. Unless you command me to stay?” she added with a certain look on her face that told Bel the woman was considering winking at her.

Cat’s remark took her aback for a moment and she wasn’t sure what to say. Then she shrugged. “Go”, she said, waving her hand, “if you find my company so… tedious.”

Almost immediately after Cat had left the altar room Bel regreted that she had let her leave; there were other things she needed to tell the warrior. Things concerning Cat’s past. She had meant to tell Cat those things before – it was high time the young woman knew about her past – but something always made Bel push the decision forward. It was a half conscious decision on her own part not to tell the truth, because as long as she didn’t she’d always have another reason to see Cat. Foolish me, she thought annoyed. I must tell her now.

Telling Cat also meant she wouldn’t have a reason to see the woman again, which in turn meant she couldn’t fool herself in seeking out the other woman just because she felt like it. She must tell Cat the truth as quickly as possible, so she could let go of the other woman and be rid of her own confusing emotions. It would prevent her from letting her emotions rule her, instead of the other way around.

Bel hurried through the corridors, trying to catch up with the warrior before she left the temple. She did reach Cat in time – in a sense.

When Bel reached the large entrance to the temple she noticed Cat on the steps further down. Bel’s first impulse was to call to her, but then she noticed that Cat wasn’t alone and silenced, withdrawing into the shadows behind her. Ravena stood very close to Cat on the large steps, resting a hand lightly on Cat’s arm. Then, as Bel watched, Ravena leaned closer and kissed Cat.

The sight of the two women kissing hit Bel like a punch in the chest. She gasped for air, feeling she couldn’t breathe, and had to lean against the wall at her side to prevent herself from falling..It blackened before her eyes and she felt a clenching pain in her stomach, something stabbing at her heart. Of course, some part of her noted in a detached manner. What did you expect from her? Bel shook her head, struggling to find her breath again. Why would I expect anything? she thought. She owes me nothing… “Nothing at all”, she whispered, tearing her eyes from Cat and Ravena, turning away from the twilight and the women kissing. She hastily returned to the safety of her temple.

“I can’t believe I fell for it”, Bel mumbled, rushing along the corridors towards her private altar room; priestesses moving in the passages moved aside as they noticed her. “I can’t believe I was so foolish, so… naïve!”

“Bel?” Nidae suddenly said, walking behind her.

Bel halted and turned, aggressively throwing out her arms towards the bat goddess. “Can you believe the… the…! Rotting corpses! I even lack words for it.” She narrowed her eyes at the Goddess, who stood before her dressed in a dark cape. “Are you going out?”

“As a matter of fact…” Nidae silenced. “What are you talking about? And why are you all… flustered?” It was Nidae’s turn to frown at her. “What happened?”

“What happened?” Bel shook her head, fighting the clawing agony in her chest. She continued her walk. Pain… she thought. Why am I feeling so… so hurt? She doesn’t mean anything to me! Or she shouldn’t… at least. “Can you believe it? She made me like her!” she cried out.

“And that’s a bad thing, because…?” the goddess asked, with a twinkle in her incredibly dark eyes.

“Because she was playing with me the whole time!” Bel said, calming down. It was a good thing she had seen it with her own eyes, now she could move on. She could forget about the annoying woman, get her out of her mind and move on – to focus on things she needed to focus on. On saving the empire… She nodded to herself. “I’ve seen her true face now and I spit her out.”

“Bel…” the Goddess said with concern, stopping in the opening to the altar room. “I don’t think…”

“Give way, Nidae”, Bel said coldly. Where there was ice there was no pain. She could deal with that.

Nidae still looked concerned. “This is not good”, Bel heard her mumble.

“What? Because I was right to begin with?” Bel said, moving into the room, towards the altar and the great bat. “You should just stay out of my private life and not try to force me to have fun. See how much fun I’m having right now.”

“You’re hurt”, Nidae said softly. “Bel, I’m sorry, I didn’t… I’ll make it right.”

“Right?” Bel nearly snarled. “How can you make things right? You don’t have to make things right. It’s better this way…”

“Pain is never better”, the Goddess said, shaking her head. “I’m sure that whatever Cat did…”

“I don’t care what she’s doing. If you see her – get her to stay away from me. I might harm her.”

“You still need to talk to her”, Nidae said carefully. “She has a right to know about her past… And you need to tell her of your plans for the princess.”

Bel slowly inhaled. She had forgot about that. “By Ebony’s tail”, she mumbled. “I’d forgotten… She…” She sighed. “She made me mad.”

“I can see”, Nidae said dryly.

“Please leave, Nidae”, Bel asked quietly. “I’ll deal with her later. Another day. I can’t… I can’t deal with this today.”

The Goddess waited a few more moments, but then nodded. “Fine. As you wish, priestess.”

Fool, Bel thought when Nidae had gone. She rested her hands on the altar and noticed that they trembled. Fool. How could you let it go so far? You know what it is you’re feeling, don’t you? She knew. Although she hadn’t felt the feeling before she had heard of it. She had read of it. How could I be so stupid? So foolish as to believe that she… that she actually cared for me that way? And how can I be so foolish as to let it mean something to me? I’m a High Priestess. This…

She raised her arms and let the sleeves of her robe fall back so that she could look at the tattooed bats on her arms. She’d had them made on her tenth birthday, when she was sure nothing would prevent her from being a priestess: black bats in various sizes, covering her arms; silently flapping their wings in endless stillness. Those bats had been a reminder to herself and to everyone around her of what she was – of what she was destined to become. Looking at them she’d always felt comfort. They had assured her of her own strength and of her abilities to overcome obstacles in her path. They were a part of her and she was as much a bat as the Goddess herself.

And yet… I have never been jealous. It’s… It’s such a human emotion. I don’t think I ever want to feel this way again. She felt rage, but most of all she felt hurt. She thought me beautiful… But it was all words. And I believed her. How could I? How could I let her words mean so much to me?

Bel shook her head, covering her arms again. It didn’t matter. It was over.

Part Ten


Of course, Cat thought annoyed as she left the altar room and the High Priestess behind her, scowling as she moved along the corridor. Of course she had to have the last word.

There hadn’t been anything she could’ve said or done to save face when Bel said what she’d said, except leave the room. Leaving was the last thing she actually wanted to do, but to see that look in Bel’s eyes, to hear her speak like that… That was her, she thought. That was really her.

Hearing Bel talking about her calling as priestess with such passion had finally made Cat admit the truth: she was more than infatuated with the woman, she was completely lost in her. To see Fang’s High Priestess kiss Bel had been a shock, but then the thought of doing the same had played itself over and over in her mind until Cat had thought she’d go insane. The only thing that prevented her from actually acting on the thought was the fact that to lay a hand on anyone in the Priesthood against their will could pay dearly. She doubted Bel would kill her, despite what she’d said, but maybe exile her… or something.

She lifted me into the burning air! Cat thought, still awestruck and annoyed at the ease with which Bel had manhandled her. She’d always liked women who could hold their own, but that… That was damn annoying. At the same time the memory made her smile a little; Bel had displayed true feelings for once, showing that she was human after all. She still exiled me, she thought bitterly. The thought of not seeing the High Priestess was as bad as seeing her without getting to touch her – in either case she felt torn, tortured. Actually, she realized, to see Bel without getting to touch her or kiss her was another kind of exile.

Cursed be all deities who’re putting me through this! she angrily thought as she reached the entrance. And curse upon the one who sent me those dreams for years. Without them my life wouldn’t have been like this…

She was so engrossed in her thoughts she didn’t notice Ravena sitting on the steps outside the temple. It took her ten steps down the mountainside before the beautiful woman’s voice reached her.

“Cat? Cat – wait!”

Cat turned around and finally became aware of the other woman. “Ravena?” she said, a little startled. “What… what are you doing here? Are you alright?” she added worriedly when she noticed the tears on the other woman’s face.

“No…” Ravena shook her head, drying the tears on her cheeks. “No, I’m not alright. Oh, Cat…”

“Tell me”, Cat said calmly. “I heard your father was sentenced. I’m sorry about…”

“Both my parents… and my brother.” Ravena looked at her with pleading eyes. “I’m all alone, Cat. I have nothing now. I can’t… I can’t even marry.”

Cat frowned, trying to understand the situation. “Won’t Para marry you because of what your father…?”

“Not that, no.” Again Ravena shook her head. “The emperor won’t…” She sighed. “Never mind, I never wanted to marry Para anyway.”

“I thought as much”, Cat lowly said and Ravena curiously looked up at her.

“You did?” She moved a step forward and placed a hand on Cat’s arm. Her eyes were searching. “You know, you…”

“What?” Cat asked softly.

“It’s my fault, isn’t it?” Ravena said. “I always played with you, with everyone. I’ve learned my lesson. I should’ve been honest from the beginning, but… Do you mind if I am now?”

And with those words Ravena reached up and kissed Cat on the mouth. Cat was taken completely by surprise and didn’t react to begin with. Then Ravena’s lips pressed against hers and urged her to… and before she knew it she’d responded. It was a pure bodily reaction; she’d kissed so many women her responses came automatically when things like this happened.

It was a nice kiss, but it didn’t move her – not in the way the kisses of the woman of her dreams did. Once she’d thought maybe it was Ravena she was dreaming about – despite the red hair – and she’d hoped for a kiss to find out, but the other woman had always teased her without tongue kissing her.

“Ravena…” Cat said. Grabbing the woman’s arms she slowly pulled away. “I can’t, I’m…”

A movement behind her at the steps below distracted her and she turned to see who was coming.

“No!” Ravena called, but before Cat had time to react she was hit in the face with full force and thrown down a few steps.

“You!” she heard an angry, male voice say and when she looked up – with one hand to her jaw – she saw Para stand beside Ravena, holding her arm with one hand and pointing at Cat with the other.

“Para…” Cat got to her feet to face her enraged friend.

“You! You and that friend of yours – the priestess… You’re behind this!”

“Behind what? Para, what you saw…”

“Save it. I know what I saw.”

“It wasn’t…” Ravena said. “Please, listen to her, Para.”

“Why should I?” he spat, glowering at Cat. “Always her. Always taking everything from me. Thinks she’s all special with those eyes, just because she was born with them. Well, if I was born with such eyes I’d be special and you’d suck up to me, like everybody else!”

“This has nothing to…”

You had to be selected to Panthera, you had to be a hero in the wars, you… Always you. And now you had to take my woman.”

“By the Snake!” Cat called out. “I’m not taking your… I’m not taking Ravena. She said she didn’t love you.”

“Because of you! Because you made the Emperor forbid us to marry. Because you got your high and powerful witch friend in there to stop our wedding.”

“I don’t… “ Cat looked confused at Ravena.

“The Emperor wouldn’t let us marry”, Ravena said with downcast eyes. “I… he…”

“He didn’t even give a reason. How’s that for a tyrant?” Para spat.

“Don’t…” Ravena whispered. She looked up for a moment and Cat noticed new tears on her cheeks. “Cat, I’m sorry. I thought… I thought you and I…” She gasped softly and twisted loose before she ran down the stairs.

“Ravena!” Para called after her. “Ravena!” There was such agony in his voice that Cat had never heard before.

“Let her go, Para. You can’t force someone to…”

“What do you know?” he fumed. “You’ve taken her from me. She was the only thing that meant anything to me. She… You wait. I’ll take something from you too…”

“Para!” she called as he followed after Ravena. Even with his speed Cat wasn’t sure he’d catch up with the fleeing woman; Ravena was quick.

“Such pain”, someone said beside Cat and she gasped as she turned, realizing she wasn’t alone. “Oh, sorry – I didn’t mean to scare you”, the dark skinned woman at her side said with a wry smile.

Cat recognized the woman and her dark, dark eyes. It was the same woman, the priestess, who’d shown her the way into the temple almost two weeks ago. But that woman had been much younger, younger than Cat. The woman beside her seemed to be Bel’s age. Still, Cat was sure it was the same woman. She’d seen her with Bel and Zelena before too, but then she’d been gone when Cat closed her eyes for a moment, fighting the burning jealousy she’d felt seeing the two High Priestesses kiss.

“You!” she whispered, when she remembered the old woman she’d met in Gebra Healerhand’s garden. “You’re…” She gasped as the realization hit her and she was about to kneel before the Goddess.

“Oh, no – never mind that”, the Goddess said, waving a hand at her. “I’m not that important…”

“But you’re… Aren’t you?”

The woman at her side nodded with a soft smile on her lips. “I am.”

Cat stared at the Goddess and didn’t know what to say. “Huh”, she said.

“Huh?” the woman said, arching an amused eyebrow.

“I thought you’d be… you know, taller. And have wings…”

The Goddess laughed. “I do – you just don’t see them. I carry the Bat with me at all times. As every other deity carries their True Shape with them. Only very powerful High Priests and Priestesses can see it.”

“Bel”, Cat said immediately and the woman at her side nodded, again with a soft smile.

“Yes – Badra.”

Cat happened to look down the mountainside and noticed that Para had given up his chase after Ravena; he stood with dejectedly sloping shoulders, looking after the woman of his dreams as she fled out of his life.

“Poor Para”, Cat said. “I don’t think he deserved that.”

“We never know the burden of another”, the Goddess said in a low, sad voice. “Or the cause behind it.”

“Still… Did the Emperor really forbid them to marry?”

“Yes. And he did it on Badra’s orders – but there is a valid reason.”

“What?” Cat said, angrily thinking of Bel’s ways of manipulation everyone around her. “Why does she disrupt Para’s happiness in such a way?”

The Goddess turned her dark, glowing eyes towards Cat. “You ought to learn to trust my High Priestess, you know”, she said, slightly disapprovingly. “She might be a nuisance to a lot of people, but she is also very often right. And the times when she’s wrong – it concerns only her own private matters, not the lives of others.”

Cat blushed, feeling a bit chastened. “Sorry”, she mumbled.

“You’re forgiven”, the Goddess said, with an amused twinkle in her eyes. “Don’t forget – I can read your heart like an open book.”

Cat blushed again; this time for different reasons.

“When it concerns your friends…” The Goddess looked out over the city. “They can’t marry because… they’re siblings.”

Cat blinked, not expecting that answer. “Sorry, what…?”

The goddess Nidae looked at her. “How much do you know about Para’s past?”

“He… He was orphaned like me. He grew up on the streets, but was provided for by Mara’s priests. When he was twelve they sent him to be trained by and initiated into the Cobra Squad. That’s it”, Cat said with a shrug.

“There are a lot of magical ways for humans and deities to win power, Cath Ciardha. Most of those ways require blood sacrifices. Para was – is – Ravena’s twin brother, sacrificed as an infant by his parents so they would win power.”

“Oh, no!” Cat whispered. “That’s… You can’t…” She silenced. “No”, she said and shook her head. “That’s inhuman. I can’t believe they did that.”

“Something went wrong”, the Goddess said. “They left Para to be sacrificed to Mara, the Cobra. The snake god.”

“What happened?” Cat asked in a whisper.

“Well, someone found the child and took him home. It was an old Shepard who lived secluded outside Goddara. He only rarely turned up close to the city, but he had the gift of Sight and came to collect the boy to prevent the emperor’s brother from gaining so much power he could claim the throne. He kept the child hidden and when he died…”

“Para found his way to the city”, Cat said. “He was six at the time…”

“No one knows who he is.”

“Who told you?” Cat asked, forgetting she was talking to a goddess.

“My Oracle told Bel, who told me.”

“And we are not telling Para this because…?” Cat asked. “It would save him pain and make him understand…”

The Goddess didn’t answer immediately. She looked out across the city below. Darkness was falling around them; the night setting in. “My Oracle Saw bad things happening. I believe a lot of things have been eating at your friend’s heart over the years. The truth – would only make matters worse.”

“Madness”, Cat mumbled. “But… what can I do, then?”

“Not much. This isn’t for you to deal with. Leave it now, or you’ll make matters worse. You’ll have to deal with the princess and my High Priestess.”

“Bel?” Cat looked up. “You know what I… She sent me away.”

“I’m fairly sure it was you who left”, the Goddess said with a teasing grin.

“Um”, Cat said with slightly blushing cheeks. “I meant, she’s sending me away.”

“As she should. You must guard the princess. There are strong forces working against the well-being of the Empire and we must stand strong before them.”

“But I…”

“Stay awake.”

“Awake?” Cat asked, confused.

“Awake, alert, be aware – know what’s going on around you. Stay awake and don’t let your fear put you to sleep. You must guard.”

“Oh, fine…” Cat said, still confused.

“Now, go and see her. She has something to tell you.”

“Bel? What?”

“Go. Just go and see her. And remember – try doing as she tells you to. Someone’s life might depend on it.”

When Cat returned to the altar room the High Priestess was standing in front of her altar, looking up at the great bat before her.

“What do you want?” Bel said, not turning around. At first Cat wasn’t even sure the priestess was speaking to her, until Bel added: “Well?” in a clearly unfriendly manner. There was an icy note to her voice that Cat hadn’t heard before and she wondered what could’ve happened in the short time she’d been gone.

“The Goddess spoke to me. Told me to come see you…”

“Really?” Bel said, still not turning.

“Yeah…” Cat shrugged. “She said you’ve something to tell me.”

It took a moment, but then Bel turned to face her. The High Priestess’ face was hard and in her eyes there was an icy stare that made cold shivers crawl along Cat’s spine. She’d seen Bel angry before, or at least annoyed, but not like this. Indifferent, arrogant and in battle mood – yes, but not all icy like that. Cat really didn’t like it. If Bel had been evil, she thought. Poor people…

“Yes.” Bel didn’t move from the altar, but her voice carried as always without effort across large spaces. Cat walked towards her, though, to avoid having to keep yelling across the chamber. “You asked about your past”, the High Priestess said when Cat had gotten closer. “It’s time you know.”

“Know what?” Cat asked, sensing a dreadful feeling creep up on her as she remembered what the Goddess had told her about Para’s past.

“Who you are, where you come from…”

Cat wanted to skip that part and ask Bel what she’d done to have her stare at her with such coldness, but she only nodded. She realized she didn’t have much choice.

“You know about the deities’ True Form”, the High Priestess said without much prelude. She didn’t wait for Cat to confirm her words, but went on: “Nidae, the goddess I serve, is the only deity with two forms…”

“The Bat and the Panther”, Cat said, but Bel didn’t even seem to be aware that she’d spoken.

“Nidae’s true shapes are the Bat and the Panther. Although she prefers the Bat she chose the shape of the Panther when she seduced the semi-god Lynxar…”

“To get his powers”, Cat whispered, remembering what the High Priestess had told her in their shared captivity. This time Bel nodded.

“Lynxar wasn’t a very nice man and had he been Initiated into his powers he would have been a dreadful deity. Although his son Lo was a much nicer man…”

“His son?” Cat interrupted. “Nidae’s son?”

“That’s correct. She conceived and gave birth to a son – Lo.”

“What happened to him? Did he become a deity?” Cat didn’t find it likely; she’d never heard of him.

“He did”, Bel said, nodding, but still speaking in the same crisp tone as before. “Lo – the Lynx. You have to understand, this took place some hundred years ago, when Nidae was still young.”


“Lo was of a very private nature…”

“Sorry to interrupt…” Cat almost cringed as Bel directed a particularly icy look at her, but went on: “Is it common for a deity to have children?”

“No, not very. After Initiation the deities usually lose their ability to procreate for some reason. Nidae’s one of few exceptions. It seemed to be inheritable, because what happened was that Lo got a woman pregnant. As I said Lo had a private nature, but by all accounts he was one of the kindest deities and it’s widely believed he really loved the woman. But he didn’t know she was pregnant and her family shun her when they found out, refusing to listen to anything she had to say…”

“Bigots”, Cat mumbled.

“They went to the boarders of Egara where they sold her as a slave.”

“Bloody Snakes!” Cat said. “What… Why do people have to be such…?”

“When Lo heard about it he went after her.”

“Way to go.”

“And he got himself killed – burned at the stake in Egara’s capital”, Bel said dryly.

“Oh, no!” Cat whispered. “What happened?”

“To make a very long story short, it ends back here in Goddara. After a few hundred years the descendant of Nidae returned here. Again a pregnant woman, as if to close the circle, she was fleeing from some priests in Egara who accused her of witchcraft. She came to this very temple for help and told her story and the story of her ancestors to the High Priestess at the time. My predecessor. From the story she was told the High Priestess suspected she knew who the woman was, but she wasn’t completely sure and had to check up on some things. A crucial part of the story is that the High Priestess wasn’t alone in hearing the news – her successor was with her. That wasn’t me at that time but a priestess that had been trained for years to take the role as the next High Priestess…”

Cat wondered about that, but didn’t ask. She nodded, wondering were Bel was going with the story.

“This particular priestess craved more power than she had a right to. When the High Priestess went out to find more information about the fleeing woman the priestess lured the woman into the jungle to kill her.”

Cat frowned. “Why?”

“Because there was a prophecy…”

“A prophecy?”

“There are always prophecies”, Bel said, indifferently waving a hand as if to brush of the importance of the word. “There’s a dozen a day – you can’t take them all seriously, the outcome changes as soon as the key people make a decision. The only prophecies worthwhile are those that keep returning. Maybe they’ll change in some ways, but the outcome is still the same. Those are prophecies we pay attention to.”

“And this prophecy was such?”

“Exactly. It was first predicted when Lo was killed that when his descendant returned to Goddara it would be the end of the whole empire.”

“Oh!” Cat said. “That’s it? An evil descendant of a deity? Is that what we’re up against?”

“It doesn’t mean the person needs to be evil, only that evil will happen when the person returns to Goddara. So, the Priesthood decided to keep watch. Over the years more prophecies have occurred, retelling the same thing in various ways. Then new predictions were told, that the child of the returning descendant would herald the end. Some even told that the child would become a powerful deity, so strong it would overthrow the other deities, or that its power would break the hold the Priesthood had on the deities. One prediction kept recurring, telling that the child would herald the return of the Old Order…”

“Which is?” Cat dared ask.

“The way it was before the Priesthood gained power over the deities. When the divine ruled mankind like humans rule cattle.”

“Oh, not so good then.”

“Depending on your point of view”, Bel said noncommittally. “It would’ve been very bad for the Priesthood, as they’d lose power. Good for the deities, though – if it hadn’t been for the other prediction, which predicts that the child would grow up to become a powerful war leader declaring war on all deities to avenger her mother’s death…”

“Also bad scenario”, Cat said, making a face. “No good ones in there?”

“Good predictions usually aren’t needed. You don’t need a warning to look out for happiness…”

“Only a reminder to grab it by its balls and hang on”, Cat mumbled.

“What was that?” Bel asked, still with her hard face and cold stare.

“Nothing”, Cat hurriedly said. “So, what happened?”

“We have the pregnant woman – who’s the descendant of Nidae; we have the High Priestess, who’s out of the temple, and we have the successor… who’s very ambitious. And then – we have the unborn child.”

“Poor thing”, Cat said. “Causing so much dread even before its birth. Doesn’t make for a happy life.”

“You tell me”, Bel said, looking straight at her. “Have you had a happy life so far?”

Cat blinked. “What? Me? What’s that got to do with…?” She silenced, realizing Bel’s cold stare held more than frost – there was also a sharp, almost lethal intensity tearing into her soul. Oh, my Goddess – no! No, not… What? What is this? “By the Goddess”, she whispered, feeling the color drain from her face. “What is this, Bel? Please, tell me… What? I’m I’m… destined to destroy the Empire? I can’t… I wouldn’t…”

“No, kitten”, Bel said, suddenly softening her voice. The harshness of her face gave way to compassion. “It has nothing to do with you, not anymore.”

“Burning deities…” Cat whispered. “I have to… I must sit down.” There were no chairs, so she sat down directly on the floor. She doubted she’d have managed to move her legs towards a chair anyway.

“You weren’t destined to do anything. Your pure presence in Goddara heralded the changes that were about to come upon us. If your birth had turned out differently maybe you’d have been a powerful goddess…”

“Me? A goddess?”

“You”, Bel said with a gentle look in her eyes. Cat swallowed seeing it, but concentrated on the other woman’s words. “Didn’t you feel the changes in you when you were younger? Before you slept with Fang?”

“I… How did you…?” Cat silenced. It was a stupid question; Fang had probably been bragging about having slept with her. Or maybe not – since she’d realized after being with him that men wasn’t her thing. Even if the man was a god.

“I walk with gods, kitten”, Bel said quietly. “I know things like that.”

“Fine, I…” Cat silenced. She remembered something. Before she turned sixteen she’d felt something shift within her; she’d felt more powerful, faster… As if she could’ve run to the moon and back. Sights, smells, sounds – everything had seemed brighter, sharper, louder. She’d had strange dreams about moving about in the jungle like some wild predator, hunting for prey. Dreams that mingled with those she’d had about the woman before her.

Thinking of the dreams about Bel didn’t make matters easier. Not when the High Priestess looked at her with such tenderness.

“Your life could’ve been so different”, Bel was saying. “But as it happened… You were lost to us. It wasn’t until you came to me that night in the temple that we suspected who you were. And then… We thought it best to let you live your life as normal as possible. It all depended on which deity would choose you. If you’d come to serve in a temple you probably would’ve been brought up like Deyna – trained and initiated to become a goddess.”

“I don’t…” Cat shook her head, still stunned.

“This is who you are now and you won’t destroy this empire. Your birth was just a warning we must heed. You won’t be a goddess destined to tear the Order apart, or a war leader destroying the deities.”

“But… My mother. What happened?”

“She was murdered by the priestess I told you about. The priestess planned to kill you too, to prevent the prophecy of you freeing the deities from the Priesthood from coming true. Your mother had just given birth to you when the priestess used hypnotism to lure her into the jungle, where she killed her. She was interrupted by wild animals, who… Well, she left you to be eaten, although you weren’t. It was actually Fang who saved you.”

“He did? And brought me to the temple…” Cat shook her head. “He saved my life… And then he stole my powers!” she added indignantly. “I can’t believe he did that!”

“He didn’t know who you were”, Bel said. “And I doubt it would’ve mattered to him at the time, he wanted your powers.”

“Fine way to greet a relative”, Cat grumbled.

“No one knew who you were until you sneaked upon me and my priestesses in the grove. Remember? When you were a child… Nidae caught a look at you then and when she saw you… She knew you.”

“I can’t believe this…” Cat mumbled, still dazed. “And the priestess? What happened to her?”

“We didn’t find out what she’d done until some years later. She poisoned the High Priestess to get to her position – although I was chosen instead.”

“Must have bugged her”, Cat said and struggled to her feet. Bel backed up a step when she rose.

“It did – she tried to kill me not long after. That’s when we found out what she’d done.”

“What… Where is she now?”

“Barac Wei sent her off as a slave somewhere. If she’s still alive she’s serving in a dirty hole someplace. Forget about her, she’s gotten what she deserves.”

“A priestess…” Cat sighed, shaking her head. “I mean, the Priesthood is about caring for people, serving them. To have a priestess do something like that...”

“It happens all the time”, Bel said. “You should know how ambitious and manipulating some High Priests and Priestesses are…”

Cat looked at her and Bel seemed to get the point.

“Fine – I’m manipulating, but I’m not ruthless and I’m never cruel. I wouldn’t kill to gain power.”

“Because you have enough of it”, Cat said without thinking. Bel looked silently at her and Cat twitched. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way…”

“You may mean it whatever way you want”, Bel said and again there was the icy steel in her eyes. “I don’t care.”

Cat couldn’t stand Bel looking at her that way. She took a step forward. “What did I do?” she asked. “Did I do something to annoy you? Let me know, I…”

“I believe we’re done here”, Bel said. Her staff was lying on the altar, but Cat knew she didn’t need it use her powers. She hesitated. She didn’t want to push her luck and be thrown through the air again.

“What’s this about?” she asked nonetheless. “What did I do? Is it because I left you before? Because I…”

“I’ve seen enough of you”, the High Priestess said icily. “Leave my temple.”

“No”, Cat whispered, devastated at the look in Bel’s eyes. “Don’t… don’t do this. Please?”

“Begging won’t help. I’ve seen through you. I’ve seen through your little… charade.”

“Oh, beware when she’s in a mood like this”, Cat suddenly heard the Goddess’ voice in her head. “Tread carefully…”

“What?” Cat said out loud, taken by surprise by the voice in her head.

“’What’?” Bel said, narrowing her eyes; there was a hint of steel in her voice. “You’re the worst kind of woman…”

“Be careful – or you’ll lose her…” the Goddess told Cat.

As if she’s not already lost to me, Cat thought and then realized there was only one thing left to do. If Bel never wanted to see her again, for whatever reason, Cat needed to know – what it was like to kiss her.

“No!” Nidae called within her. “Ciardha – not yet! You’ll get everything you want if you just wait for…”

Cat stepped forward, ignoring the voice of the Goddess.

“You sure swing sides quickly, don’t you?” Bel said and this time Cat noticed the hurt beneath the icy surface.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about”, she said, wondering what she’d done to hurt the High Priestess in such a way. She hoped she’d get a chance to make it up to her.

“All sweet talk and promises. Get out or I’ll…”

Cat didn’t wait for the rest of that sentence. She grabbed Bel by the arms and pulled her close, pressing her mouth against the priestess’.

The instant their lips met Cat was lost. Years of frustration, of longing to find those lips that matched her dream woman, of wishing for, hoping for and dreaming about that same floating sensation, the melting warmth and the engulfing softness… It all welled up inside her. She lost touch with reality, with time and space – flung through the universe like a bolt of fire, falling into an abyss and rising like a sun at the same time. Only this, she heard herself thinking in the background, far, far from where she was. Only this, she thought, with no actual understanding of what that meant. And then: I was right. I was right… It is her.

There was no tongue involved – only the pressure of lips on lips. Cat couldn’t even begin to describe what she felt as she kissed the other woman: it was too much for her, in an overwhelming, glorious and almost spiritual way. She gasped for air as she pulled away and stared into green, shocked eyes. She still held Bel’s arms in a firm grasp. She’d expected the other woman to pull away, to push her aside or to in any other way object to what was happening, but Bel hadn’t moved at all. In that moment the High Priestess’ face displayed a show of emotions, ranging from shock, disbelief, hurt and – to Cat’s surprise and delight – desire.

“You… don’t… get to do that”, Bel said, hurtful, in a slow whisper. “I won’t be toyed with.”

“I’m not… I’m sorry – no, I’m not… I just mean…” Cat slowly inhaled, trying to find words. She was still holding the other woman. “Please, listen, before you… I’m not toying with you.”

“Oh, no?” Bel said acidly, arching an eyebrow.

Cat noticed the harshness returning to Bel’s eyes and hurriedly said: “Listen. I’ve dreamt about you, about this…”

That was apparently not the right thing to say. There was loathing in the High Priestess’ eyes as she twisted loose and backed away.

“I’m sure you have…”

“No! Not like… that.” Or, that too, Cat thought as she stepped forward, but not in that way… “Please, listen.” She realized she must talk quickly to make the other woman listen before Bel lifted her in the air again – or even threw her out of the temple. “I’ve been dreaming about a woman I don’t know for years. I never saw her face, but she… I’ve been looking for her, everywhere. She’s like… She’s…” She silenced, helplessly staring at Bel. “She’s you”, she whispered.

There was a flicker of uncertainty in Bel’s eyes, but then she determinedly shook her head. “No, I’ve listened enough to your lies. I was stupid to believe I could… That you would…”

Cat didn’t understand, but she desperately wanted the other woman to know she was serious. She took another step forward and pressed Bel against the statue behind her. “Try this, then”, she mumbled hoarsely and kissed the priestess a second time.

This time she wasn’t settling with pressure, but softly caressed Bel’s mouth with her lips; carefully, tenderly asking Bel to trust her, to let her in. Please, she thought. Oh, please… And then, distracted: Goddess, her lips are soft!

* * * * *

I can’t do this! Bel heard herself thinking, but the thought seemed far away and although she knew it was important that she listened to it she didn’t. I’m not supposed to… Holy Bat – this is… Goddess, her mouth is soft!

Bel wasn’t really clear on what was going on. There seemed to be a thick fog clouding her mind, preventing her from clear thoughts and decision making. She was on her way to pull away from Cat when she realized that she instead had moved closer, pulling Cat towards her by grabbing her waist and then parting her lips. When Cat’s tongue touched hers her body seemed to ignite and she heard herself moan in pleasure.

This is not happening, she thought. This can’t be happening. What is it, exactly, that is happening to me? Sweet deities, her mouth is… fire – heavenly…! Is this dying? I wouldn’t mind dying right now...

Those were her last clear thoughts before she was lost in physical sensations she’d never known before. Her body literally took control over her and she was lost in the other woman’s touch, in her lips – in her melting kisses. Cat pressed her against the statue and held her there, pinned her to the stone, as they were kissing and Bel’s hands pulled and clutched at the other woman – held her so tight as if she never wanted to let go. Afterwards she would remember that and think that she hadn’t wanted to let go of Cat – not ever.

Everything seemed to feel so… tangible, so real – more intense than everything else in her life in that moment, except the powers within her: her magic of Air and Fire. It seemed to blend together and create a physical vortex of bodily feelings she couldn’t master. It was the first time – ever – in her life that she lost complete control over herself. It scared her to death.

It was the most exhilarating and delightful feeling ever.

Tongues, lips, hands… Softness, fire, deep, deep currents within her soul… She was lost and never wanted to be found unless it was by Cat’s mouth again. Cat’s lips were so soft she melted right into them – she was transformed into something else. Another being.

I want her, she heard herself think, this time clear as crystal. I want her badly… And I can’t.

“Goddess – I can’t!”

Bel gasped and twisted loose, staring at Cat with wide, desperate eyes. Cat stared back at her; eyes moist and hazy with desire. Bel felt the response in her own body as she met that look. Be still, my heart…she thought.

“Bel?” Cat asked. It was a whisper in a hoarse, thick voice. There was confusion mixed with the need in her eyes; confusion and fear.

“I can’t”, Bel said, forcing herself to speak. “I can’t do this, Cat. I’m so sorry. Even if I wanted… Even if I want, I can’t. I’m sworn to the Goddess – I can never…”

“No”, Cat whispered in a broken voice. “Don’t do this, please…”

“I must. I’m so sorry, kitten.” Bel reached out and touched Cat’s tattooed cheek with a tender caress. “You better go now.”

Cat closed her eyes for a moment. “I can’t”, she whispered.

Bel nodded, understanding – for the first time in her life knowing what wanting another person could do to you – what Cat meant. “I’m sworn to Nidae”, she said, explaining, although her heart and soul were tearing into pieces. “It’s like marriage. If I…” She swallowed, whispering: “If I lay with you I’ll lose everything of what I am. I’ll no longer be a priestess – not ever.”

“But you…” Cat opened her eyes; there were tears in them. “But you… felt…?”

Bel nodded. “I saw you kiss Ravena”, she said softly. “I thought…”

“Oh”, Cat said. “That wasn’t…”

“I know, I understand now.” She did, although she wasn’t sure Cat did. There was no way she could explain. She was, first of all, High Priestess of the Goddess of the Dark Moon. Secondly she was a woman. Always secondly. “I can’t see you again, Cat. Not for a long time. Please, do your best to protect the princess in meanwhile.”

I felt her soul, Bel thought as she turned around and left the chamber. As soon as she turned her back on Cat the tears she’d held back overflowed and streamed down her cheeks. I’m still feeling it… She knew without a doubt that wherever she or Cat went in the world she’d always be able to find the other woman. That kiss had created a bond that Bel as High Priestess could feel connected to her heart. Cat might not be aware of it, but Bel was. She felt it like a cord binding them together as sure as if they’d been tied with chains to each other. I’ll always be able to find her – wherever she goes, wherever she is. That was a comfort – of some sorts.

“Bel?” she heard Cat call behind her. There was such pain in that one, lonely word that Bel’s heart seemed to break. “Bel!”

Part Eleven


It was late, but the temple was always open. Cat went in through the high, golden doors – decorated with bats. It was there, she reflected that she’d been found so many years ago – on the doorstep to the temple of the Radiant Orb. An ambitious priestess had killed her mother and she didn’t know – and would never know – who her father was.

The temple was deserted, but the corridors and the main altar room was lit with torches and candles in shining candelabras. Cat halted in front of the altar and looked up at the shape of the full moon above her head. There were tears on her cheeks; she hadn’t stopped crying since she left the other temple. The temple where her heart lay shattered.

She didn’t understand. Bel had returned her kiss. There had been so much passion, so much… Love? she thought, confused, hurt. It had all been there, in that kiss. And then Bel had walked away.

Cat didn’t know what the High Priestess felt, but facts remained: Bel had returned her kiss. But she can’t love me. She’s not allowed to. She belongs to someone else…

Forbidden love. Cat had always laughed at such stories where the lovers were torn between their love and their destinies. She’d never understood the agony of it. If you were in love you made it your priority to choose love – or you were a fool and had yourself to blame for the pain.

She’d been so young. She understood now. Whatever Bel felt wasn’t going to make a difference to Cat. Bel would never choose her. She was the High Priestess incarnated – the whole Empire needed her, not some stand-in. Besides, Bel loved being a priestess – there was such passion in her for her calling. It was what she’d been born to be. Who was Cat to force her to make such a choice?

She might not have told me that she loves me… In fact Bel hadn’t been clear on anything at all, more than that she’d responded to the kiss. But she didn’t say she didn’t either.

Cat had come to Derac’s temple for a reason. If she can do it, so can I, she thought as she looked at the altar.

“Goddess”, she said, feeling pain and hurt that clawed its way through her chest to eat at her heart. “I’ve been looking for her for as long as I can remember. She’s been in my dreams, in my heart. She speaks to my soul… All the women I’ve been with… I was searching for her. And now… I can’t have her. It’s forbidden. I know I won’t love another, so… I’ll make you a promise.”

She pulled her knife and cut a quick, surface wound in the fleshy part of the palm of her hand. Holding her hand above the altar she let blood stain the surface of the dark stone.

“I will never lay with a woman again. This I swea…”

“Don’t!” came a commanding voice from behind her. She recognized it as Katana’s and glanced over her shoulder at the Captain.

“What are you doing here?” Cat asked. She’d never seen the Captain in this particular temple before.

“I came to say good bye”, Katana said and stopped at her side. She looked down at the blood staining the stone and bent to wipe it up with her sleeve. “Don’t do this”, she said softly. “You may regret it…”

“I’d never…” Cat spat. “You don’t understand!”

“I understand better than you think”, Katana said, looking around the room. “It was here I made my pledge”, she said, mostly in a whisper and mostly to her self. Then she looked back at Cat. “I didn’t mean I came to say good bye to you”, she added.

“What do you mean?” Cat dried the knife’s blade on her trousers and put it back in its sheath.

Katana leaned on the altar and crossed her arms before her. “When I first came here, to Goddara, I was young. I made a friend in a priest who lived here, we spent a lot of time together and I… I fell in love with him.”

“Oh”, Cat said, surprised.

“It turned out he returned my feelings, but he was sworn to the Goddess. We struggled with our feelings for a long time, then I finally made the decision to swear an oath – much like you right now. I made a vow that I’d never sleep with a man again in this life. Never. It’s an oath made on my life – I can’t break it, or I’ll die.”

“Goddess…” Cat whispered and Katana shrugged.

“I thought it a valid prize. I didn’t want to be happy without the man I… In any case – a few days after my vow he came to me and explained the Goddess had given him a gift.”

“A gift?”

“Nidae… The deities aren’t that rigid as can be expected. Nidae saw our struggle and granted us one night together…”

“Burning bridges!” Cat said. “What…?” She swallowed. She wanted to ask what Katana had done, but now she understood the Captain’s self control when it came to carousing at taverns.

“There wasn’t much that could be done. I’d have given my life to be with him, if only for a night, but of course…”

“He wouldn’t allow it”, Cat whispered, understanding. The thought of Bel made her shiver – if that’d ever happened to them… “And now? The priest is still here?”

“It’s Derac, Cat”, Katana softly said. “I came to say good bye. I’m not sure we’ll ever meet again. Hopefully the Goddess will grant us a happier ending in another life.”

Cat didn’t know what to say. Me and Bel? Would I be strong enough if I knew she loved me to live my life at her side, without being able to share that love? Goddess… She didn’t understand how Katana had made it; it took more strength than Cat could imagine. So she made Panthera her life instead… Just like he lived for the people. When she thought about it she realized it was seldom she’d seen Katana and Derac together; she’d always assumed they didn’t get along. She understood better now.

“He’s not here at the moment, but I’ll wait for him”, Katana said. “Go now. Don’t make an oath like that until you’re sure your deepest wish may never, ever be granted.”

“How can it?” Cat whispered. “She doesn’t… I don’t know what she…” She sighed and looked at the cut in her palm before she nodded. “Maybe it was a rash decision. I’ll wait.”

Katana nodded. “I’ll see you later. We need to discuss the plan for the princess. Did Bel tell you?”

Cat shook her head. “No. What about?”

“Oh! She didn’t?” Katana frowned. “Fine. Did you tell anyone you were excluded from the pack?”

Cat shook her head; Serafine had died, she hadn’t been in the mood to talk to anyone. Her friend was still lying in wait for the ritual of Transition that would take place in a few days, when her body would be burned.

“Good. Bel asked me not to tell anyone either. So far only the three of us knows then. Right?”

Cat nodded, failing to see what this had to do with anything.

“The plan is to get Deyna out of Goddara without anyone knowing it”, the Captain said. “She’ll be escorted by the whole pack of Leaping Panthers. Except you.”

“Because I’m suspended for life from the pack”, Cat said dryly. Then she frowned. “It doesn’t make sense”, she added. “Bel said I was going with you. She sent me away.”

“Yes, listen. We’ll spread the word that the princess is locked up in the Eagle’s Tower for a good two weeks, doing penance because she ran away with Serafine. The Tower is protected with magic, so not even a High Priest or Priestess can look past the barriers to tell if she’s there or not. There’ll be guards posted at the stairs and someone who brings food. Bel will have one of her priestesses stay in the tower, just to make it realistic.”

“And she’ll happily oblige to stay isolated for two weeks just because the High Priestess says so?” Cat asked wryly. The Captain only looked at her and she nodded. “Fine. What’s my place in the scheme of things?”

“You’ll be here to spread the rumors that the Leaping Panthers take the time for secret recreation while the princess is locked up. You’re excluded because you disobeyed direct orders and I saw it fit to punish you this way.”

Cat frowned. “But why am I staying in the city?” Bel hadn’t said anything about that. On the other hand, Cat thought cynically, other things had come between.

“Bel is worried something might happen at the full moon”, Katana said. “Or, more precisely, during the three nights of the full moon. She wants you here if something’s going down, she told me so earlier today. She wanted to discuss the plan in depths with you, but I guess she didn’t have the time. We better be prepared for any eventualities and you are the best warrior – except for me.”

“Sure”, Cat said dryly; she didn’t want to think of the Challenge she’d lost. Katana had a few scratches, but nothing serious and Cat surmised that the Captain had been patched up by Gebra.

“You’ll only stay in Goddara past full moon and then you’ll catch up with the rest of us. Making sure no one is following you, of course.”

“Of course.” Cat made a face. “Fine, then. I guess I don’t want to be around the High Priestess more than necessary anyway.” She couldn’t, not if she didn’t want to trespass and break more rules by kissing Bel again. Maybe Nidae wasn’t going to be so tolerant the next time. Or even Bel, for that matter. “When this whole thing is over I’ll just leave Goddara.”

To live with Bel – or without her. What was worse?

Katana nodded. “Maybe that’ll be for the best”, she said softly. “If I’d been faced with that choice today… I probably would’ve left too.”

That’s comforting, Cat thought. She nodded. “I’ll see you later, then.” She looked around the room. “And… good luck”, she added, thinking of Derac.

“You too”, the Captain said. “And try to concentrate on the mission and forget… her, for a few days.”

I can’t, Cat thought. How can I? And how could she not, if she didn’t want to go insane?

* * * * *

She kneeled before the altar as she had for days now, trying to pray – but all she could do was think of Cat.

It’d been four days since the kiss. Bel had locked herself in the altar room and her private chambers since then – seeing only a priestess that brought her food. Although, she hardly ate and she refused to see anyone. She didn’t even see Katana or Nikka who both had come looking for her. Katana had left by now with the rest of the members of Panthera. Except the one Bel needed to be gone from Goddara.

This is madness, she thought. Utter madness. After all these years, after everyone who’s come after me, tried to win me… And this? For someone I hardly know? Goddess – is life supposed to be like this?

Nidae didn’t answer her, of course. Nidae hadn’t talked to her for days either – not since Bel neglected to heed the goddess’ warning just before Cat kissed her the second time. And how could she have listened to the voice of reason when her entire body had been aflame?

“I will never know the touch of a lover, nor the kiss of a man”, she fervently whispered before the altar. It wasn’t a prayer, but a way to remind herself of what she was, who she was. And why she couldn’t think of Cat. “I will never know the loving embrace of one I love, or the tender caress of his hands. I will not know love the way it is made between woman and man…” Why not? she thought. “Why not?” she whispered, looking pleadingly at the looming bat above her.

Life wasn’t the same anymore. Not since Cat kissed her. Outside the temple life went on – war, strife, death, love… People didn’t know how life could change in an instant.

Bel had sealed herself off for days now and tonight… Tonight was the first night of the full moon. She had to step out in the world again. She had to face her responsibilities, her duties. She couldn’t let the empire down.

“Because I belong to another”, she whispered, answering her own question. “I belong to something higher than both woman and man. I belong to the Goddess – I am hers with my body and soul, and no other will ever have the right to lay claim to me… Nor would I have the right or the wish to follow them if they asked...” That wasn’t true anymore, though. At least not the part where she didn’t wish to follow. “Once I didn’t care. Once I never looked at another and I knew in my heart the right path for me to follow was one of servitude. I looked at those men wooing me and wanted them not – my heart was set on another path. I became a priestess.”

That was me, she thought, remembering the young girl she’d been. Remembering the woman she’d become.

“Today…” she said. “Woe is me, woe is me – I have fallen. Because I look not at a man, but at a woman – and my body burns for her. My skin tingles when she is near, my heart lurches in its cage and my knees grow so weak as if I was filled with the power of the Goddess – although I am not, but only with desire for another woman. I close my eyes and there she is – wild and beautiful and daring. And her eyes burn and her lips… Those lips. I cannot sleep, I cannot think, I cannot even pray – for my heart is full of longing and she is all I want.”

Bel shook her head and bent her neck; she leaned her forehead against the cool stone with a deep sigh.

“Thus have I fallen and so is my life shattered… I see only death ahead of us.”

“Bel…” the voice of the Goddess said within her. “Bel… Rise, priestess. Don’t kneel before me like that.”

Bel looked up, but couldn’t see the Goddess anywhere. “Nidae?” she whispered. “I’m sorry. I’ve failed you.”

“No, you haven’t. This was my fault – I shouldn’t have let her come to you directly that day. I should’ve waited to send her to you. I just didn’t want you to be so hurt…”

Bel frowned. “I don’t understand”, she said out loud.

“One day you will. Just remember, what happens from now on is not your fault. It is mine, for sending her to you too soon. I should’ve seen it coming. But your heart... I could never read you so well.”

“Nidae…” Bel whispered.

“It is too late now, anyway, so it doesn’t matter that much anymore. Whatever happens from now on is meant to be, remember that. You’ve served me well, Badra Bellona – Fighter of the Full Moon. Hopefully you’ll honor your Name tomorrow.”

“Nidae?” Bel asked inwardly, trying to locate the goddess. “Nidae – are you there?” She rose from the floor and took her staff. What was going on? “Nidae!” she called.

“Pray, priestess. Pray tonight – for strength to us all and for Goddara’s people. It is needed.”

“Goddess?” Bel asked, but she knew Nidae was gone for the moment. She looked down at the altar and again kneeled before it. This time she did something she should’ve done days ago: she prayed. She prayed for her own soul and for those souls who were in her care: the people of Goddara foremost, but also of the whole Empire. It was her duty to keep the balance, to infuse the Goddess with enough energy so she could help the people.

She prayed for hours, feeling the night fall upon the world outside the temple; feeling the full moon rising.

“I give you one night…”

Nidae’s voice was clear and direct in Bel’s mind, but the message was lost on the High Priestess.

“Nidae?” she asked, but the goddess was gone again. Bel rose from the floor and stretched, trying to make sense of Nidae’s words. “One night?” she mumbled. “One night for what?”

In that same moment she heard careful footsteps behind her and turned.

When she saw Cat below the arch she lost her breath for a moment – she could only stare.

“I’m sorry…” Cat said quietly. “The Goddess called me a few hours ago… Said you needed to see me. She led me here… again.”

Bel could still only stare, suddenly realizing what Nidae had meant with her last statement. She slowly exhaled, not able to deny the overwhelming joy that overflowed her heart. This was truly the greatest gift the goddess could ever have given her. In that moment Bel knew the true meaning of the word peace. She stepped forward.

“Cat”, she said.

“You look…” – Cat seemed to search for words – “terrible.”

“You don’t look that good yourself, kitten”, Bel softly said, eyeing the warrior. Cat looked pale and thin, as if she hadn’t slept or eaten for days. Bel surmised she didn’t look much better.

Despite the other woman’s condition Bel had never seen anyone more beautiful. She wondered if Cat thought the same of her.

“I’m glad you’re here”, she said gently, moving towards Cat. She remembered that Nidae had given Derac the same opportunity to be with Katana so many years ago, but then it had been too late. She hoped… What if she…? No, she wouldn’t do that, would she? Do I mean so much to her? And what if one night is not enough? What if I… What if I want her so much I can’t give her up afterwards?

Thinking that she realized that was Nidae’s reason for giving her this opportunity. The goddess wanted Bel – and Derac before her – to have the chance to make a proper choice, based on knowledge and experience.

“Would you…” Cat swallowed, looking uncertain. “Would you mind telling me what, exactly, I’m doing here?”

Bel nodded and took Cat’s hand in hers. “You’re coming with me”, she said hoarsely, showing the way to her private chambers and her bedroom in the back.

“I don’t understand”, Cat whispered, standing before Bel’s bed in the circular room. She looked around while Bel lit candles and incense. There was a fireplace in the room, a deep armchair and some mantelpieces with tiny figurines, but not much else. The bed was large and covered with a thick, colorful quilt in red, blue and green.

“You don’t have to understand – just accept.”

Bel lit the fire in the fireplace by a mere thought and turned to the warrior. “You’d rather be someplace else?” she asked quietly. She remembered the burning, all consuming jealousy she’d felt when she saw Cat kiss Ravena – or if it had been the other way around: Ravena kissing Cat – and felt a stab of it in her heart in that moment.

Cat shook her head. “I’d rather be dead than be anywhere else”, she said hoarsely. “I just…”

“Sshh”, Bel said and placed two fingers across Cat’s lips. “Don’t speak. No words tonight…”

And then she kissed her.

Bel had been kissed exactly twice in her life and she’d never taken the initiative before, but in that moment she knew precisely what to do. Her mind questioned the naturalness of the act, but her emotions quieted her thoughts. No thinking either, she thought as she traced Cat’s mouth with lips and fingers. Cat’s lips were so soft, she didn’t want to let go of them. I could kiss her forever… That was her last conscious, analytical thought before Cat responded to her kiss.

Cat apparently took her word for the “no understanding and fully accepting”-part and as soon as she seemed to understand that Bel wasn’t going to pull away or that it wasn’t a dream – Bel was sure Cat had told her about dreaming before – she grabbed Bel and held her tightly to her as they deepened the kiss.

During the days when Bel had been isolating herself she had spent most of her waking time thinking about that first kiss she and Cat had shared. In the end she’d convinced herself it hadn’t been as perfect as she remembered it, but in that moment – kissing Cat again; and again, and again – she realized it had. Kissing Cat was her definition of something divine – of life after death. It filled her the way magic filled her, only in a more direct way – more physical. Her body turned to water and flames in Cat’s hands.

“May I… feel you?” Cat whispered.

“Yes… oh, yes”, Bel mumbled; her hands caressed Cat’s body as her mind recalled the two times she’d seen Cat half naked. “This’ll be the third time”, she whispered.

“What?” Cat asked, untying the cord to Bel’s rope.

“Me undressing you”, Bel mumbled, unbuttoning the black shirt Cat was wearing.

“’Thirds the charm’”, Cat apprehensively said. Bel could sense the tension in her, but wasn’t sure if it came from the unexpected situation or from fighting the desire Bel could see in her eyes.

“Don’t hold back”, she said, caressing Cat’s cheek.

“What?” Cat’s mismatched eyes widened.

“Don’t hold back. You won’t hurt me.”

Cat gasped, looking bewildered and lost for a moment. “I’m so… I think I…” She swallowed. “I need you so much”, she whispered.

“It’s fine”, Bel said and stepped back, kicking off her sandals. She loosened her robe and let it fall to her feet. She wore a thin cotton dress with short sleeves beneath it and as Cat watched, eyes wide, she unbuttoned it and let it too fall to the floor.

“Goddess”, she heard Cat whisper as she stood naked before her. “Oh, my sweet Goddess…”

“Let me”, Bel said, stepping forward. She began undressing Cat, who trembled beneath her fingers.

“I know this”, Cat whispered, closing her eyes. “You’ve done this before, so many times… Every touch, every… It’s you. It was always you.”

Bel wasn’t sure what Cat meant, but seeing the other woman’s need – hearing it in her voice – made her heart quiver. She leaned in and kissed Cat on the lips, again losing herself in the melting softness of the other woman’s kiss. Cat was completely naked now; all silky skin and taught muscles.

Cat’s arms encircled her waist and Bel felt her warm hands caressing her back, her hips, gently squeezing at her thighs… She moaned as she felt Cat’s naked body against her naked skin.

“Goddess, Bel – I can’t… I need you.”

There was genuine need in Cat’s voice, emphasized by the trembling of her hands, and of her body. Bel moved backwards towards the bed and pulled Cat with her as she lay down. As she felt Cat’s weight on her and the other woman’s naked leg between her thighs she gasped, unprepared for the sudden rush of blood to her lower regions.

“Goddess!” she breathed. “Goddess, Cat…”

Cat’s hands and tongue played over her body, making her lose all sense of direction – all sense of what was real and what wasn’t. She heard herself calling Cat’s name – part of her real Name; Ciardha – as the warrior sucked at her nipples, making her body squirm beneath the touch.

Then Cat’s fingers were inside her and she gasped for air, rising up as she felt heat and blood rushing through her, blinding her, making her head spin and her hands grip at Cat’s shoulders until she’d leave dark bruises on the soft skin. She felt Cat move rhythmically against her thigh and heard her call her name, but she was too lost to be aware of anything else. Then the heat burst and filled her with light and sparkling, dancing flames – all coursing through her body in an explosion of pleasure.

“I’m sorry”, Cat whispered in her ear some silent moments later.

“For what?” Bel said, catching her breath. For making me understand what Nidae’s been trying to tell me for years?

“I heard that”, the Goddess suddenly said in her mind. There was the teasing note in Nidae’s voice again. “Having a nice time, are we?”

“Very”, Bel said, laughing in her mind. “Thank you, Nidae”, she added softly.

“Next time love’s looking for you, Badra… Don’t be so stubborn.”

Bel grinned inwardly. “Don’t worry, Goddess. I’ve learned my lesson. Whenever there’s a next time… I won’t be saying no to love.” She heard the goddess chuckle and almost missed Cat’s next words.

“For… this. For being… too quick”, the warrior said a little nervously.

Bel smiled, regaining her breathing again. She slid some fingers down Cat’s back. The warrior’s body glistened in the candlelight and Bel saw – and felt – with satisfaction the ripples that ran through Cat as her fingers softly played along the skin. “It was nice. And don’t worry. We’ve got the whole night ahead of us.” She smiled widely, sliding downwards across Cat’s body. “And it’s my turn to play now…”

Part Twelve

End of Dreams

She had tattoos on her arms. Bats in all different sizes and shapes: black with red or green eyes. Beautifully made. Cat spent a long time kissing all of them. Bel laughed softly at her, but didn’t prevent her from doing it.

I want it to last for an eternity, Cat thought for every bat she kissed. It was like praying.

Making love to Bel was different from all other women Cat had spent her nights with. It was like making love to someone for the first time – except she knew the other woman’s body intimately. She knew how to touch Bel to make her tremble in need, in desire. She knew how to kiss her to make Bel moan with pleasure. She’d done it so many times before. And yet…

It wasn’t the same. Those dreams… It couldn’t be compared. Reality was sweeter than anything ever before. Cat was completely lost in the other woman, finding so many new things with Bel: passion, tenderness…

Hours went by. They spent time softly kissing, tenderly caressing – or making love with a fiery passion Cat really hadn’t expected of the other woman. They barely spoke, but their hands touched, their eyes met and locked in the process of bringing each other pleasure. Cat had never looked a woman in the eyes that way before during lovemaking; it meant giving too much of herself. But with Bel… Cat wasn’t afraid. She gave willingly and she received. I know this woman, she thought at one moment. I will always know her.

“Tired?” Bel whispered in her ear.

“Exhausted”, Cat mumbled with a smile, caressing Bel’s hair.

“Where’s your stamina?” the High Priestess asked dryly and Cat laughed.

“I must admit, I never met anyone who could last as long as me before”, she said.

“Takes a priestess to do it, huh?” Bel said, kissing Cat’s neck. Cat closed her eyes, instantly feeling her body react to the touch.

“Uhu…” Cat said and grabbed the priestess, swirling around so that Bel ended up beneath her on the bed; naked skin glistening in the candlelight. “On the other hand…” she added, looking down at the woman’s mouth. “I’ve never felt quite so alive before.”

“Me neither”, Bel mumbled and encircled Cat’s neck, pulling her head down.

They kissed. They kissed for a long time and then Cat went for another exploration of the High Priestess’ body: kissing, touching, nibbling…

“Suddenly I understand Fang so much better”, Bel breathed and Cat grinned.

“There’s a first for everything”, she said.

“I’ll be sure to remember that”, the other woman softly said. She sat up and looked at Cat with tenderness, caressing her cheek and pushing some curls from her eyes. “And sometimes”, she said gently, “that’s all there is.”

Cat wanted to ask what she meant, feeling a cold tug at her heart, but then Bel carefully took her face between her hands and kissed her with such gentleness that Cat was utterly lost – deeper than before. The softness was incredible. This is perfection… was her last thought, before she drifted off, lost in the arms of the woman she loved.

Cat knelt before the altar, looking up at the looming bat above her. She couldn’t help grinning, thinking of what had gone before. Thinking of the night she’d spent with Bel.

“Thank you, Goddess”, she said, putting all her gratitude in those words. She’d left the priestess still sleeping, to come and say her prayers – kneeling before an altar for the first time in her life.

The night had been perfect. Want, need – passions… It’d been endless. Better than any dream Cat ever had, more real, more lovely. Perfect in every sense – except it was now over.

“And what do you think you’re doing?”

Cat swirled around with her hand on the sword hilt, startled rising from the floor in one fluid motion. She hadn’t heard anyone approach. When she recognized Derac she relaxed.


“Save it”, the High Priest said in a cold, harsh voice that she recognized from Bel only days before. She carefully stepped back when he moved towards her. There was something gleaming in his eyes she didn’t recognize, something that made her skin crawl.


“Not a word!” he snapped and lifted his staff. A cold wind swept through the altar room. “What did you do to her? You have no right to be here…”

“I… She invited me, I was…”

“You’ve slept with her!” he whispered. The revelation came abruptly to him and he stared at her with wide, disbelieving eyes.

Cat straightened her shoulders, looking the priest in the eyes. “Yes. Yes, I did”, she said.

“You…” He seemed to choke on the words, staring at her. All color drained from his face. In the next moment he moved quickly towards her – quicker than she’d expected from him – and before she knew it he slapped her across the face. It was more than a slap – rather a backhand with full force that might have split her lip had she not reacted instinctively and moved away. Instead of a full beating she just got a brush from his hand, but it wasn’t the stroke that made her gasp – it was the act itself. She’d never known Derac to be a violent man and to see him like this…

“You hit me!” she gasped in surprise, before the realization hit in. “You hit me”, she snapped. “You had not right…” she began angrily, taking a step towards him.

“You can’t have her!” he spat. “She’s not yours! Be gone – ere the deities will condemn you both!”

She refused, because Bel hadn’t seemed to object during the night – and because no man, not even a priest, was allowed to strike her like that without paying for it. She’d kissed a High Priestess; if she knocked down a High Priest it couldn’t make much of a difference. “You’re just jealous!” she spat, moving closer. “You want her all to yourself, thinking she’ll…”

“Ignorant child!” he shouted, interrupting her, and the walls trembled with his power. He raised his staff and the storm that blew against the altar forced her to her knees. She tried to fight the wind, but it was too strong.

What’s he doing here, anyway? she thought. This temple wasn’t his place; he wasn’t supposed to be there. And what’s happened to him? Was it Serafine’s death that had driven him to this? Derac was a peaceful, nonjudgmental priest who didn’t jump to conclusions. At least he had been, before Serafine died. She remembered how he had blamed himself for his sister’s death and wondered if that was still what bugged him. He wasn’t a warrior – maybe he wanted to change that and just didn’t know how.

Then she remembered Katana and realized maybe Derac’s behavior had more than one cause.

“How dare you speak of things of which you know nothing?” he went on with a strange glow in his eyes. “The Goddess is her destiny! This cannot change – she was born to be who she is and no man nor deity has the power to oppose those ancient laws. And especially not some lovesick youngster…”

She loves me too, she thought. You should know that, you ambitious… She caught herself – to blaspheme against a priest even in thought could cost one dearly.

Then another thought caught her and made her heart cramp. What if Bel didn’t love her? The priestess hadn’t said anything at all about love. But she was the High Priestess – she wouldn’t just take someone to her bed like that if she didn’t love them. Would she?

Cat struggled to her feet and leant against the altar; her sword made a ringing sound in the hard wind as it hit the stone. She wished it had been loud enough to block the fear from her mind.

“LEAVE!” the High Priest shouted through the storm, but she stubbornly shook her head. She wasn’t going anywhere until she’d talked to Bel. “You fool!” he yelled. “How dare you oppose the deities and the ancient code? She cannot be yours. She belongs to the Goddess!”

Without warning the raging wind threw Cat through the air – straight up into the ceiling. She hit her head on the stone and that was the last thing she remembered before darkness claimed her.

She’d wake up to find a world on fire.

* * * * *

Angry voices and thunder awakened Bel. She recognized Derac’s use of power and hurried to wash off and get dressed, taking the time to pull a comb through her hair before rushing towards the altar room with the staff in her hand.

“What have you done?” she gasped as she found Cat lying unconscious on the floor behind the altar. “Derac!” She rushed forward to kneel by Cat’s side, but Derac’s wind stopped her.

“Badra!” his voice echoed around her.

“Stop this!” she cried, countering Derac’s powers with her own, fending off his wind and breaking his hold on her. This was her temple, after all, and she was the stronger of them. “What are you doing?”

“You’ve lain with her!” he shouted. His face was contorted in rage and pain and she didn’t recognize him; she’d never seen him like that before. “You lay with her!”

“Yes, I did”, she said calmly, straightening her shoulders. “I was allowed to.”

“No”, he seethed, pointing at her with his staff. “You’ve broken this empire. You’ve been so absorbed with her you’ve neglected your duties. Don’t you know? Don’t you know what you’ve done, you whore?”

She gasped, completely taken off guard by his words and the seething resentment in his eyes. “Derac?” she whispered. She knew he hadn’t been himself since his sister died, but this… The grief must’ve taken a much deeper toll on him than she’d known. She took a step towards him. “Is this about Serafine? Let me help…”

He snorted. “Help me? You never helped anyone but yourself. Always you and your righteousness. Until now…” He laughed bitterly. “You don’t have a clue, do you? What’s happening outside these walls?”

Bel caught herself. “Nidae?” she called inwardly. There was no answer. “Derac, what is it? What’s happened?”

“You…” Derac looked at the unconscious Cat on the cold stone. “This is her fault. She tricked you, tempted you…”

“No”, Bel said hastily. “I wanted this…”

“Filthy whore”, he snapped at her; eyes blazing with madness. This time Bel sensed something else beneath the rage: fear. Something had happened that’d made him lose himself. Serafine’s death had been the trigger, he hadn’t fully recovered from the grief and now…

“Tell me what’s happened”, she asked, holding his gaze. She understood the pain in him, caused by memories of Katana – the woman he loved as much as life itself. The woman he could never touch, because his touch would be her death.

Bel remembered the years gone by – the nights during which she’d listened to Derac’s agonizing, incoherent talk about the fire consuming him. And days when she’d listened to Katana talk about him. She’d listened, but she’d never fully understood what they’d been going through. Now she knew and she couldn’t blame Derac for his rage and frustration: she’d be jealous too.

But the fear she sensed beneath Derac’s frustration had nothing to do with her or Cat. She could feel it now when her need for Cat had been satiated. She – like all high officials in the Priesthood – was connected to the empire through an inner bond. They knew when something was amiss with the holy order of Kellara. Or, she thought with self-loathing, they ought to. She’d been so consumed by her personal problems the past few days she’d completely lost track of the needs of the empire and of the people. If something truly had happened – as indicated by Derac and also by her inner, growing sense of danger – it was her fault.

“They’re all dead”, Derac whispered. “They’re all dead – and it’s your fault.”

Bel held on to her staff, hesitating for a moment before she took a deep breath and closed her eyes. The images came flooding against her right away. Images of death and destruction.

“Oh, my Goddess!” she whispered, feeling the pain and the agony, the fear of the people – of the land. War wasn’t coming anymore – it was already there. She now understood Derac’s inner turmoil, the sense of madness in his eyes. He must’ve been struck by the cheer force of the bloodshed unprepared and had taken it all in – mingled it with his own sense of fear, dejection and feelings of injustice.

Bel went down on one knee, fighting to regain control and remain sane in the midst of the chaos that was thrown against her mind. Blood… There was so much blood; it was everywhere. What did they do? she thought in the back of her mind and in an instant she was shown the palace.

“It is you!” Derac called. “This is your fault!”

It’s both our faults, Bel numbly thought as her inner eye watched what had happened at the palace. The Imperial Family… They were all dead; slaughtered like calves as sacrifices to the deities. It’s our fault… Hers for not listening to Nidae, who’d told her to wait and not let Cat kiss her that first time – if she hadn’t she’d never been so consumed by longing for a next time; Derac’s for being too angry and absorbed by Serafine’s death and Katana’s goodbye.

“It’s the Ma’ahel”, she whispered, clearly seeing the signs of the ritual all over the scene: Deyna’s six sisters had been killed in the most vicious manner – emptied of blood. Bel saw the stair to the Eagle’s Tower stained with blood; guards had been killed and the priestess… The priestess Bel had left in the tower to play the princess had been killed too – she’d been stabbed in the chest. “They wanted to conduct the Ma’ahel by taking Deyna’s powers…”

“Yes, of course – you were right”, Derac said bitterly.

“I was”, she said numbly. It didn’t mean anything anymore. The whole Imperial Family had been killed and in that moment Kellara’s boarders were invaded by hordes of bloodthirsty warriors. They were still several days away from Goddara and the White Tigers fought valiantly, but without the Emperor… And war was being wagged even in the city. White Tigers fought against traitorous warriors of the Cobra Squad. Blood was flowing.

Bel rose from the floor. “They didn’t get Deyna…”

“Is that all you can think…?” Derac abruptly silenced and Bel felt it too: they were no longer alone. Both of them turned their heads, as on cue, to look at the woman standing in the main entrance.

“Bel…” Katana said, her voice hardly audible. “High Priest…”

The Captain of Panthera moved into the chamber. She walked with difficulty, bleeding from several wounds.

“Holy Bats”, Derac whispered and all anger seemed to leave him, leaving only deep concern in his gray eyes.

“We lost her”, Katana said as she stopped in the middle of the room. “I lost her.”

“Katana…” Bel whispered, feeling a cold dread choking her.

“They found us this morning. It was… It was Mara, as you suspected.”

“The Snake”, Bel snapped, growing cold and angry. “Katana…”

“I’m the only one left”, the Captain said. “They… They’re all dead”, she whispered. “There are no more Leaping Panthers…”

“Go”, Bel commanded, feeling her mind snapping into place, taking control over her emotions. She had things to do. “Go and get healing from Gebra. We’ll fight this. He won’t get away with this, the…”

“Gebra’s dead”, Derac said evenly. He was looking at Katana, but then turned to Bel. “She died of natural causes two days ago. I performed the rites for her.” He held Bel’s eyes. “You should’ve known that if you hadn’t been…”

“I know now”, Bel cut in. There was no time for self-blame. Blaming herself she would do later – if she was still alive. “Nidae – where are you?” But again there was no answer.

“Is Deyna…?” Katana asked.

“Not yet”, Bel said, shaking her head. “Mara still has time to perform the Ma’ahel, but it can only be done beneath the full moon. The last sacrifice must be prepared in a special way and offered at an altar. They’ll probably keep her hidden until nightfall and then bring her to Mara’s temple… We have until then to prepare for battle.”

“What must I do?” Katana asked, straightening.

“Get one of my priestesses to heal your wounds – then eat and get some rest. I need you and Cat for tonight.”

“Cat?” the Captain asked.

Bel nodded. “I’ll send her to you.” She lifted her staff and pointed at Katana with it. She wore a sleeveless dress and the bats on her arms were clearly visible, seeming to come to life in the glow from the torches on the walls. “Go now. I charge you to protect the princess at all costs. Even with your very life.”

Katana bowed. “Yes, High Priestess.” She straightened and glanced at Derac before she turned and hurriedly left the room.

“There’s a war going on outside these walls”, Derac said. “How do you propose we deal with it?”

There was still an edge to his voice, but the mad rage from before had lessened.

“Our priority is Deyna’s life”, Bel said. “If Mara succeeds in completing the Ma’ahel this world is doomed.”

“He can’t do this on his own. He must have a High Priest…”

“It’s Orm, I’m sure of it”, Bel said, glancing down at the still unconscious Cat on the floor.

Orm was the High Priest that once had terrorized Goddara with earthquakes, demanding riches and sacrifices in return to appease the deity who was responsible. Although – it hadn’t been a deity behind it, but Orm himself. Bel and Derac had always been sure Orm acted on orders from Mara, the Cobra god. They had never been able to prove that Mara was in some ways working against the good of the empire, but they’d never stopped suspecting him.

“He’s probably the one behind the rise of the new king in Egara – the supposedly ‘High Priest of the Crocodile’”, Bel resumed. “He’s been plotting for years to overthrow Barac Wei and Cara and he probably was in league with Harkaitz and his wife.”

“And now he’s back”, Derac said in a dark voice. “We should’ve killed him when we had the chance.”

“Might not have changed anything”, Bel said. “Remember – the prophecies are quite clear on one thing: that an end was coming either way.”

“Because of her”, Derac snapped, looking at Cat.

“Not because of her”, Bel said irritably. “Stop looking for scapegoats, Derac. This is what we have to deal with now. You and I, we have to…”

Derac shook his head. “I’ll come along, but you and I are done.”


“No”, he said firmly. “I can’t work with you. You’ve… destroyed everything. I’m sorry, Bel”, he added sadly. “I’ll go and see if there’s anything I can do for the people. Keep them safe… You do – whatever you have to.”

Bel watched him leave without calling him back. She’d talk to him again later, but first… She knew what she had to do: if Orm was back she needed to perform the ritual that would protect Nidae from his powers. It would take some time. When she was done she needed to see if there was anything she could do to stop the war apparently raging outside the temple. And she needed to see to Cat.

Bel glanced down at the woman on the floor, smiling gently when she thought about the passed night.


“Nidae”, Bel said, turning to face the Goddess who’d appeared seemingly out of nowhere. The Goddess was safe in her temple; no High Priest or Priestess could reach her there.

“We have to fight now, Bel.”

“I know, my Goddess”, Bel softly said.

“You must convince Derac to join forces with you. Without him…”

“I’ll try, Nidae, but did you hear him? He…” Bel shook her head. “He’s so lost.”

“I heard him”, the Goddess said quietly. “I even tried to talk to him, but we never had the same bond as you and I. He… didn’t listen. He’s so torn and everything he’s been through recently… This is the worst time for him questioning his allegiances and doubting his calling.” Nidae looked closely at Bel. “I hope you don’t doubt?”

Bel shook her head. “I know my duties. I haven’t really had a chance to talk to Cat, but… I’m sorry I wasn’t more alert. All this is my fault…”

“There’ll be time for blame later, my priestess”, Nidae said.

“Yes, my Goddess.” Bel nodded. “As said, I know my calling. I’ve never doubted, not even…” She silenced, glancing at Cat.

“Tonight will be tough, Bel”, the woman before her said. “A choice might have to be made.”

Bel frowned. “What kind of choice?”

“You’ll know when it’s time. Just remember, if it comes – a whole world might depend on which path you take. Which choice you make. Not only now – but also in the future.”

Bel swallowed. “You put too much trust in me, Nidae.”

Nidae suddenly grinned. “It’s because you’ve never failed me. I know you won’t this time. You always do what’s right. See you later, priestess.”

And without a moments notice the Goddess lifted into the air without transforming into a bat. She hovered over the floor and rose steadily as she looked down at Bel. Bel had seen her fly like that a few times – Nidae was the only deity that could actually levitate without changing shape, an ability many deities envied. Bel had always wondered what it must be like, floating like that in the air. She wondered fleetingly if it was a talent difficult to master and if Nidae ever miscalculated the distance between things in her environment and crashed into them.

“You’re the most loyal priestess I ever had, Badra Bellona”, the goddess said. “And the one who’s come closest to being my best friend. It’s a lonely life, being a deity.”

“Thank you, Nidae”, Bel said. “Will you let go of the hold you have on Cat and wake her up now, please? I need to talk to her.”

“Of course”, Nidae said with the hint of a teasing smile before she flew out the arched entrance with the grace of a white dove.

When the Goddess had left Bel knelt at Cat’s side. The warrior moaned softly, opening her eyes. Bel remembered the previous times when she’d seen Cat wake up just like that. At least this time she’s dressed, she thought wryly.


“I’m here, kitten”, she said and helped Cat to sit up.

“Oh, my head.” Cat cradled her head in her arms.

“Sorry about that. Derac was a little rough…”

“A little?” Cat looked up. “A lot. My head feels like it’s going to explode.”


There must’ve been something in her voice that made the woman listen, because Cat looked at her with alarm.


“We… have a problem.”

Part Thirteen


Cat stood at the top of the stairs before the entrance to Bel’s temple and looked upon the city where she’d grown up. It was on fire.

“I can’t believe it’s come to this”, she mumbled to the women on either side of her. It was twilight and the sun was setting, turning the sky the color of blood – reflecting the scenario below. The palace was on fire, the city walls were crumbling. People fled in panic, screaming.

Cat had seen a lot destruction and death in her days as a warrior in kingdoms beyond Kellara, but this… She’d never felt such agony witnessing mayhem before. Watching Goddara fall tore her heart to pieces. She’d never known she loved her birth city so much.

“It was only a matter of time”, Nakkara Rim said. “As soon as Barac Wei was crowned Emperor of Kellara I knew…” She silenced.

“You knew what?” Katana quietly asked on Cat’s other side. The three of them watched the city below; no one moved. They each wanted to rush forward and help the fleeing people, to stop the fires, draw a sword and swing it in battle – or heal the wounded. They didn’t – because one woman had forbidden them to leave the temple until she told them so.

Bel hadn’t been in a friendly mood and not even Katana or the oracle had tried to argue with her.

“I knew Kellara would fall”, Nakkara said. Nikka, Cat thought, remembering what Bel had called the oracle. “I Saw the end in twelve different versions, all of them taking place at different times…”

“Goddess”, Cat whispered. “So we were doomed from the beginning…”

“We lasted longer than I thought possible”, the oracle said.

“Because you and Bel worked to make it so”, Katana said, as quietly as before.

“We had help”, Nikka simply said.

“Barac Wei was a good man”, the Captain said and the oracle nodded.

“The best of them. He carried this city on his shoulders, balancing the forces wanting to tear us all apart.”

“Harkaitz”, Cat said bitterly, watching two White Tigers fight against a handful of Cobras outside the city walls. Against the odds the Tigers won, defending a young mother and her child. One of them directed the woman towards the temple where Cat and the other two were standing. People came from everywhere to hide in the temple; priestesses in brown robes greeted them at the entrance and took care of them, leading them forward into the sanctuary. Cat had long since closed her eyes and ears to the agony of the fugitives.

There was death everywhere she looked. She had wanted to go down and fight, but Bel had forbidden her to leave the temple. “I’ll need you and Katana alive for later. You must protect the princess”, Bel had said. Cat didn’t want to think of Deyna in the hands of those traitorous Cobras. Thinking of the Cobra Squad also made her remember Para. And Ravena.

“Amongst others”, Katana said.

“Bor’s been plotting this for years too”, the oracle said, glancing at a new group of people seeking sanctuary in the temple; they were helped by two priestesses. “Getting those amulets and spells protecting him and his warriors from Derac’s and Bel’s magic isn’t easily done.”

Katana nodded, but remained silent.

Cat thought of Bor – Meri Bahram, which was his true Name: Renowned Conqueror – who’d broken all the rules and oaths to accomplish a bloodbath. What did he want? Power? To make a name for himself? Maybe become Emperor now when the entire Imperial Family was gone.

When Cat first heard what had happened she’d refused to believe it; it had only been the expression on Bel’s face and the deep despair in the priestess’ eyes that had prevented her from objecting. Bel had told her the whole Cobra Squad had turned against the empire and was trying to overthrow the Imperial Family, with some help from outlawed and hired mercenaries. Then she said Deyna now was the only heir to the throne left. And that her life was in danger.

Except Cat had known that Deyna wasn’t the only living heir left. Para was somewhere out there too. It wasn’t until later she learned that he had left Goddara.

There hadn’t been much time for Cat and Bel to talk about what had happened during the night. Faced with the terrible news Cat knew Bel wouldn’t have much choice but to concentrate on saving what was left of the crumbling Empire before they spent time sweet talking about the incredible time they’d had together. If Bel thought it had been as incredible as Cat did.

The thought made her twitch irritably at the top of the stairs. She knew it was a bad time being so selfish, as to want confirmation about what had happened, but… What had Bel felt? Why did she make love to her like that? Because she was curious after all these years, wanting to know what it could be like? Because…? Stop that, she told her self. Later, there’ll be time later to discuss things like that. To fret about things like that, you fool. The thing was – she wasn’t so sure there would be any time later. Her last dream of Bel kept popping up in her mind – the dream about the wedding; the dream where she’d seen Bel’s face for the first time. She hadn’t dreamt about the woman since then – at least not while sleeping.

Bel had asked something of her in that dream. She remembered it well, because she’d often thought about it and wondered…

“You have found me. I need to find you, now. And I will. But then...”

“Then what?” she whispered in fear, suddenly feeling a cold dread in her heart.

“Then you have to let me go, when I ask it of you…”

Cat couldn’t stop wondering in what way Bel would leave. She shuddered.

“Derac’s doing his best to put out the fire”, Katana said at Cat’s side.

“Someone’s working against him. I believe it’s Orm; he’s powerful”, Nakkara Rim said. “If only Derac would work with Bel, join forces with her…”

“It’s my fault”, Cat quietly said, but the oracle shook her head.

“We’re all humans. We make mistakes. This is his choice, it has nothing to do with you. Oh, and don’t worry”, the oracle added, almost as an after-thought – there was this strange look in her eyes that Cat had learned to recognize as a sign that the seer was Seeing something. “You’ll get payback for that slap he gave you.”

“It’s small comfort”, Cat mumbled. “What happened to Ravena?” she asked after a moment, again remembering the beautiful woman. If Bel hadn’t been told about Ravena and Rhais by someone she still didn’t know what had taken place only the day before. Cat hadn’t seen Para since he left her outside the temple five days ago and the same morning she’d heard from Hades that he’d left Goddara. Apparently Para had asked Ravena to come with him, but she’d declined. And then… Then Rhais had been found in his sister’s quarters as Hades was following up on a magical lead from Empress Cara.

According to Nikka, when Hades asked Ravena why she’d hidden and protected her brother she’d answered: “He’s my brother, what would you have me do?”

Ravena’s action when Rhais was discovered – obstructing the White Tigers from catching him – had made it possible for Rhais to escape a second time. He’d been found a few hours later and killed in combat.

“Blood’s thicker than water”, the oracle said. “At least in this life”, she added, again with a distant voice. “Ravena didn’t see another option than to try and save him, but one day…”

“What do you mean?” Cat asked curiously.

“They’ll be father and son, one day. The man Ravena is then will do what’s right in the eyes of the law.”

Cat didn’t really get the whole past and future lives thing, but she considered what Nikka had told her. “But where is she now? What happened to her?”

“Barac Wei exiled her with immediate effect. She was escorted out of Goddara yesterday by a White Tiger.”

“It probably saved her life”, Katana said thoughtfully.

“I’m not sure she’ll be too grateful about that”, Cat said wryly. “Her whole family’s turned out to be criminals… Her brother’s dead and the man she was supposed to be marrying…” She silenced.

“Yeah”, Katana agreed. “Tough luck.”

“She knows about Para”, Nakkara said. “I had to tell her before she left, incase… Incase she’d chosen to return to him when she was exiled from Goddara.”

“Oh, Goddess”, Cat whispered.

“It’s better to be alive, however miserable it is”, the oracle said. “It gives you the opportunity to balance your deeds…”

“I don’t agree”, Cat said. “Some lives are worse than death.”

“It’s a matter of opinion”, Katana said, looking out at the burning city. She shrugged. “I don’t really have one. Life or death… What matters is what you make of your life – and how you decide to face your death.”

“What about prince Harkaitz and his wife?” Cat asked with a slight frown. “Bel told me Deyna is the only living heir left, except Para, but…”

“Bor killed them too”, Nikka said. “He didn’t want any with imperial blood to survive.”

“Fancy that”, Katana mumbled. Cat glanced at her.

“I wonder if he’d kill Para if he knew about him”, she said softly.

“Look at that”, the oracle said and pointed down at the chaos before them. The burning palace suddenly exploded in a burst of white fire – and then the flames were put out. They stared at the blackened, scorched ruin that was left of the once magnificent building.

“That must’ve been Bel, doing that”, Katana said.

On Cat’s other side the oracle nodded, but didn’t say anything.

After talking to Cat earlier in the morning Bel had isolated herself to prepare for the evening. Several hours later she’d come out and gone down into the city to help with whatever she could. She’d said she’d return when the sun set. The sun was now half a disk disappearing on the horizon and Cat felt weary watching it.

“Did you get any sleep at all today?” she asked Katana.

The Captain shrugged. “Some. I slept a few hours. Bad dreams, though…”

“I wish I could’ve slept”, Cat said. “I didn’t get much sleep.”

The other two looked pointedly at her and she blushed. “Uh”, she said. “I mean…” She silenced as a bat the size of the palm of her hand suddenly flapped before her. As she looked at it, feeling queasy, it burst into a white light and turned into a woman they all knew.

“She’s waiting for us”, Nidae – Goddess of the Dark Moon – said. “She says it is time.”

* * * * *

When Bel entered the Temple of the Burning Coil – Mara’s temple – she felt power vibrating in the air. Orm, Mara’s former High Priest, had already begun the ritual of Ma’ahel.

The temple was situated on the opposite side of the city from the Temple of the Dark Moon: a cavern like construction much like Bel’s temple, but the entrance lay closer to the ground. Only a few steps were leading to the large, dark entrance. The entrance turned into a dark tunnel with several smaller tunnels leading to and fro on the sides. There were no guards, which told Bel Orm was either a fool or he wanted to lead them into a trap.

She had barely considered the thought when a bright, blinding light was exploding around them.

“Back!” she called, throwing up her arms in front of her, lifting her staff. Behind her Derac ushered the rest of the company back to the entrance. Katana was there, alongside Cat and Nakkara Rim; they were escorted by two dozens of Hades’ White Tigers. Hades himself was fighting to secure the city and Bel hadn’t wanted to take too many soldiers from him, they were few as they were since the emperor had sent the majority of the army to the boarders. The showdown in Mara’s temple would mostly be fought by magic, between priest and priestess, and the soldiers would only secure the safety of the princess once they found her.

The blinding light was a magical barrier. If anyone not initiated into the higher order of the Priesthood had touched it that person would’ve turned to ashes. Bel had been putting out fires all over the city for several hours, before the sun set, and created shields to protect the people. She and Derac were both tired and drained of power. Orm was counting on that, using magical barriers such as this one to weaken them even further.

“This will take some time”, she said, glancing back at the others.

She had to use her knowledge of ancient magic to counteract Orm’s barrier. It cost them time, but without her stubborn, dedicated striving to gain more knowledge despite her friends demands that she should spend more time living and less time studying she wouldn’t have known how to counteract the barrier at all. I knew all the time I spent reading wasn’t a waste, she thought.

“Fine”, she heard Nidae in her mind. “Could you brag later?” It was lightly said, but there was also an uncharacteristic urgency in the goddess’ voice.

“There we go”, Bel said, breaking the barrier. “Let’s move.”

They moved through the tunnels; Bel alert to any trap set by the fallen High Priest and careful not to let anyone else move before her. There were a few more magical barriers along the way, but Bel had no problems in counteracting them and finally they reached the underground, private altar room of Orm.

It was a large space, seemingly cut out of the stone with crude tools, creating rough walls. They weren’t as smooth as the walls in Bel’s temple, where you could mirror yourself if you polished the stone.

Torches lighted the cavern and a few dozen members of the Cobra Squad stood guard along the walls. The altar was placed in the middle of the room: a triangular, black stone slab large enough to lay a full grown man upon it. In that moment a blonde, teenage girl was tied on it with a gag in her mouth. A knife lay glistening above her head.

“Deyna”, Cat breathed at Bel’s side.

“Remember your mission”, Bel told her and Katana. “Whatever happens, the two of you must get Deyna out of here. This is not only about her safety or her life – it’s about the safety of our entire world. If Mara succeeds in this there won’t be anyone able to stop him.”

“I understand”, Katana said, grimly nodding.

“Cat?” Bel asked insistently.

Cat looked at her with a mix of emotions Bel couldn’t deal with or handle in that moment. Cat had given her an unforgettable memory the past night, but as a priestess Bel didn’t have the time to analyze what it all had meant to her. She knew that she would never have the time. Not after this night. This night was the reason why she’d been born, the reason why she’d become High Priestess of the Goddess of the Dark Moon. It was her destiny.

Nikka had told her so the first time they met. Badra Bellona, High Priestess of Nidae, was entering Mara’s temple to die. And she knew it.

“I…” Cat said.

“You have to”, Bel said imploringly, holding Cat’s eyes. “Do you understand? You have to let me go, Cat. The fate of the world is more important than us.”

Cat swallowed. “I promise”, she whispered. “But you…” Her voice was hoarse, but not in the same way as it had been during the night. “Why did you… let me stay?” she whispered.

Why? Bel thought incredulously. She wanted to ask Cat by all burning bats what kind of question that was – to tell her that she’d never lay with anyone except for the reason the world was created: for love – but there was no time. Before them the High Priest Orm turned from the altar and from the incantations to look at them where they stood in the opening to the cavern. He was dressed in red, holding a staff in his hand. Long, black hair was twisted into a braid, falling down his back. The face was sharp and his mouth was thin, twisting into an evil smirk.

“Welcome to this humble abode”, he said, gesturing towards the guards along the walls. The guards moved into the room, towards the entrance. There was only the one entrance to the room.

“I believe we were expected”, Bel said moving forward. She didn’t waste energy on attacking the guards, the White Tigers would deal with them. Behind her Nidae moved forward.

“I had hoped you’d be detained and killed by my spells by now”, Orm said, quirking his lips.

“We’re not sorry to disappoint you”, Derac said dryly. “Let her go”, he added. “You won’t stand a chance against us.”

Orm laughed. “Really?” He glanced down at the girl with a serious expression on his face. “I beg to differ.” Without looking he flicked his fingers towards the guards, who’d stopped as he was talking to Bel and Derac. “Kill them”, he said offhandedly.

Bel stepped aside as the Cobras rushed forward; Derac, Nikka, Katana and Cat followed her into the chamber. Behind them White Tigers rushed forward to meet the enemies. Nidae hovered in the air above them, looking down at the altar.

“I’m getting her”, the goddess told Bel.

“Be careful”, Bel admonished.

“Your spells will protect me from his powers…”

“I meant Mara”, Bel said. She avoided a Cobra attacking her with a sword and smashed his head in with her staff. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed Nidae make a diving rush for the altar.

“What’s she…?” Cat whispered.

“Now!” Bel called and rushed forward. Ahead of her an invisible force threw Orm through the chamber and invisible hands untied the princess’ hands from the altar. “Get her!” Bel shouted through the loud noise of clanging weapons and barking warriors. “Before…”

“Too late!”

The voice echoed in the chamber, within them and around them. Behind the altar the form of a man took shape. He was tall and dark, with eyes burning red. Behind him the shape of his True Form loomed in the shape of the Cobra: it was gigantic, filling the whole room – competing for place with Nidae’s ever present Bat.

Bel knew she, Derac and Nikka – and Deyna and Orm, of course – were the only ones seeing the True Form of the two deities, but it didn’t mean Nidae and Mara weren’t terrifying to watch for the others. The power in the room was tangible, anyone could feel it. Nidae’s full power was like glistening waters in the night, dark and flecked with silver stars. It could be felt now, as she no longer was bound by the Priesthood’s magic; Bel’s spells had made sure of that. Mara’s power was black and whirling, sucking all life from his near environment.

“Traitor!” Nidae called, her voice as trembling and powerful as Mara’s around and within them. In the next instant she attacked the other deity with a powerful sphere of energy. It took Mara in the chest and hurled him across the chamber.

“Forward!” Bel hadn’t stopped at the appearance of Mara, but the others had. Even Derac stood frozen behind her. Then Cat rushed forward and was at Bel’s side in the blink of an eye. “Get Deyna!” Bel called into the roaring wind that swirled about them, caused by Mara and Nidae’s combat. Mara was still on his feet, returning the attack.

“What’s happening?” Cat asked, looking from the one deity to the other.

“They’re fighting”, Bel explained. “You can’t see it – it happens on another level of… Never mind. They’re fighting.”

They reached the altar and the girl upon it. Deyna was barely conscious.

“Deyna?” Bel asked, pulling at Deyna’s arm.

“I’ll get her”, Cat said and threw Deyna across one shoulder.

“No, you don’t!” Orm called, suddenly by their side.

In the next moment a deep, seemingly bottomless hole opened beneath Cat’s feet and she and Deyna fell into it. Bel had just time to counter the attack and prevent them from disappearing in the hole. She caught them using Air and pulled them up just in time before the hole was closed again. Her intention was to put them down near the entrance, but Orm attacked her and broke her spell. Cat and Deyna fell down before Derac and Katana.

“Bel!” Bel heard inwardly; Nidae’s desperate voice. “He’s too strong! He’s been feeding on the blood of the princesses. You and Derac need to support me!"

“Derac!” Bel called. “Join forces with me!”

“No time!” the High Priest called. “We need to get out of here – the whole temple is caving in.”

Bel felt it too, the rumble beneath the cavern caused by Orm’s magic. Mara’s High Priest smirked at her.

“See how you and your sweet goddess will survive this.

“Derac – now!”

But Derac was helping Deyna to her feet and supported her, either ignoring or not hearing Bel’s call.

“When the spells wear off”, Nidae told her, still fighting Mara. “When the spells wear off, binding him and me to the Priesthood again – then it must be done. You must kill him then.”

Bel could see them: lightning flashing, power whirling around the chamber. Nidae and Mara actually never moved from their places, not since the first encounter; they used mind and will to battle.

Bel tried to counter Orm’s magic, but it took too long to find a weakness in his defenses; she just didn’t have the time. Finally she settled on a less elaborate way of dealing with him: she simply knocked him on the head with her staff. It took him by complete surprise and she noticed the startled expression on his face before he fell unconscious to the ground. She didn’t stop to finish him off, but ran towards Derac and the others. The cavern stopped trembling for a moment.

“Derac – listen to me. There is only one way – you and I have to join forces to support Nidae”, she hurriedly said.

“He’s too strong”, Derac said. “And I’m no fighter…” He looked at Nidae suspended in the air. “I wish I was a better fighter.” He snapped back to Bel. “It’s your fault, you know”, he seethed. “If it hadn’t been for…”

“Stop this!” Katana yelled at him. “Bel had nothing to do with this. Help her, Derac.”

He stared at her as if he’d never seen her before, then he shook his head with a defeated look on his face. “I can’t”, he whispered. “I’m broke. My powers… I’m too tired. I spent it all to save the people in the city.”

And watching him Bel knew it was true. “You squandered it!” she yelled at him. “I told you not to use too much! You knew what we were up against and you…”

Sudden rage flared in Derac’s eyes. “You! You knew what we were up against and you forgot…”

“Not helping!” Cat shouted, interrupting them both. “Whoever is doing what do it now, or we’ll be…”

“Out!” Bel called, pointing at the entrance with her staff. Their escape rout was blocked with fighting warriors, but they needed to get Deyna out. She glanced at the princess; Deyna seemed to have come to enough to stand on her own feet. The image of the Hawk was still glowing around her, but it was flecked with dark spots.

“Bel?” Deyna whispered with pale cheeks; the scar on her right cheek was glowing in the light from the torches in the background. Bel remembered when the girl had gotten that; how scared she’d been and how she’d feared the High Priestess ever since.

Bel had never allowed herself to get too close to the girl. It wasn’t proper – she hadn’t wanted Deyna to be too dependant on her. Or, more honestly, she’d never realized the princess needed more from her.

“You’ll be fine”, she said gently. “Go with the Captain and Cat.”

Deyna nodded, leaning on Katana.

Bel looked at Nikka on the princess’ other side. “Thanks, Nikka”, she said softly. The oracle held her gaze and nodded.

“Goddara will rise again”, the seer said. “In a different time, in a different place, in a different world. Barac Wei will carry the weight of Goddara once more – and you’ll stand by his side.”

Bel nodded. “Go now”, she said. “No goodbyes.”

“I’ll see you again”, Nakkara Rim said.

“Aren’t you coming?” Cat asked with a desperate look as the oracle and Katana helped Deyna towards the entrance.

“Nidae needs me”, Bel said. “And I have to fight Orm. You must protect Deyna…”

“I’m not leaving without you!” Cat urged and moved towards her.

“Cat!” Katana called and Bel glanced towards the Captain. Five Cobras were surrounding the princess, with Katana fighting to keep them away.

“Go!” Derac demanded, pulling at Cat’s arm, but the warrior tore loose.

“I’m not leaving Bel”, she snapped at him, pushing him off her.

“You fool!” he hissed. “You want the whole world to…”

“Cat!” the Captain urgently called again and this time there was a flicker of uncertainty in Cat’s eyes as she glanced towards her.

Derac didn’t try to convince Cat another time; he left to throw himself into the fight – although he wasn’t a warrior.

“You must let me go, kitten”, Bel said, gently touching Cat’s arm. “It is time.”

“I’m not leaving you”, Cat determinedly said.

“I don’t have time to…” Bel glanced behind her and noticed that Orm was getting onto his feet again. She gasped, swirling around. “Go!” she called to Cat over her shoulder. “You must protect Deyna! You can’t fail!”

Bel threw herself at Orm and both of them tumbled across the altar; Orm on his back and Bel on top of him. The knife left at the altar to be used on Deyna before was still lying on the black stone and as the two of them struggled Orm grabbed its hilt and thrust it against her.

“No!” she heard Cat scream behind her.

“That won’t work, you snake”, Bel hissed and blocked the thrust with Air. She hit the man in his face with her fist and twisted the knife from his hand. He punched her in the chest and pushed her off him. Bel rolled down from the altar and rose as Orm came to his feet, standing on the altar.

“Kill her!” the High Priest of Mara shouted and pointed at Deyna. “Everyone – kill her!”

It was only the blood that was missing, Bel realized. The blood of the seventh sacrifice: Deyna. If Deyna died and Mara somehow managed to bathe in her blood everything would be lost. She whirled about, calling out to Deyna.

“Deyna! Use your powers! He can’t bind you!”

Orm couldn’t bind the princess with his priestly powers as long as he was engaged in fight with Bel, who was blocking those powers.

“Use your powers, princess!” she shouted. “Fight!”

“I can’t!” Deyna called back across the room; tears streaming down her face. “I’ve been trying… I’m trying! I can’t!”

Bel noticed why in the same moment. Deyna’s True Form, the White Hawk rising above her, seemed trapped. Its wings were folded, seemingly tied together. Her powers, not yet a true deity’s but still strong, were blocked; Bel could see the streaming blue-white energies whirling about Deyna’s human form in erratic, inharmonic waves. The energy turned inward, strangling the princess, tying her with her own powers. It wasn’t something from the outside working against her, but something from within. Deyna was panicking and didn’t know what to do: she blocked her own powers.

“Goddess”, Bel whispered, realizing what was happening. They were right. Nidae – and Cat, in her way – had been right about Bel’s treatment of the princess. I pushed her too hard, too long, too far... She’s shut down. Oh, Goddess – forgive me! If I ever… If I ever get a chance to make this undone, let me. “Fight!” she called and used Air to throw her staff across the chamber, above the heads of the fighting warriors. “Use this!”

Deyna caught the staff in one hand, looking pleadingly at Bel.

“Fight, princess! Make me proud!”

Deyna clenched her jaws and nodded, determinedly tightening her hold on the staff. She might not be able to use her magic, but she knew how to fight. With a sweep of the staff she knocked three warriors on their heads and in the next moment she was heavily engaged in combat.

Live well, princess, Bel thought fondly. Hopefully we’ll meet again, some day… I promise, I won’t be so hard on you then.

“Bel!” she heard in her mind. “It is time…”

Bel nodded, looking around the room. Nidae and Mara stood rooted to the floor some feet beyond the altar. Orm was engaged in a fight with Cat, using both weapons and magic; Cat seemed to hold her own. The rest... The rest of the cavern was chaos: warriors fighting and dying. Katana was fighting back to back with Derac; Nikka with the princess.

This is it, Bel thought. The time has come. The reason why I became High Priestess. That morning, when Katana brought her the news of Deyna’s abduction, she had known there might be only one way to save the princess. Then Nidae had talked about a choice that had to be made… And with Nikka’s words from long ago she’d suspected it was time. Time for her to go. The other day Nikka had told her she might die in a fire and that was how she knew…

She stepped forward, towards Nidae and the dark god. “It is time”, she said. The spells were wearing off; in a few moments both deities would be susceptible to the Priesthoods powers again. She would only have a moment to do what she needed to do. Fire, she thought. It would all have to end in fire.

There was an old ritual only passed on to the successor of a High Priest or Priestess. It involved giving once life’s blood and Bel knew that was the choice Nidae had told her about; it was what Nikka had Seen the first time they met. It was time to embrace her destiny.

Mara needed to die, but neither Nidae or Bel were strong enough on their own to take his life – they had to do it by combining their efforts and it could only happen in the exact same moment as the spells protecting the deities from the Priesthood wore off. As Mara could be bound by Bel, Nidae could be bound by Orm, but if Bel tried killing Orm and failed… If she died nothing would stand between Mara and his goal of ruling the world. She only had the one moment, when the power shifted.

Bel gathered the last of her strength, all of her powers, to put it into the makings of a holy fire. Flames blew up in front of her, encircling Nidae and Mara.

“No!” Orm called, breaking free from Cat and hurling her several feet away.

Bel made the flames rise higher, licking the dark stone of the ceiling.

“Soon…” Nidae said.

Bel turned around and found Cat with her eyes. Beautiful woman, beautiful warrior… she thought, again achingly grateful for the night she’d been given. Without it… I’ll find her again. One day…

Cat had come to her feet, but came to a halt when she noticed Bel looking at her. “Bel?” the warrior called with a bewildered expression on her face. She was bleeding from a gush on her left arm, but seemed otherwise unharmed.

I should have told her what I felt, Bel realized. I never let her know what the night meant to me. I must remember to be more honest with her... “I love you”, she whispered. It was too far between them for Cat to hear, but the warrior must have read her lips. Cat’s face changed: fear turned to sudden delight that turned to instant pain.

“No-o!” Cat’s scream echoed in the cavern, loud enough to be heard even above the din of the fighting warriors and the vibrating power from the deities.

“Now!” Nidae’s voice urged within Bel, but the High Priestess had already stepped forward. She stepped into the flames now engulfing the god and the goddess – sacrificing her life so that the Goddess of the Dark Moon would be able to slumber through the ages, until one day she’d be called back to life.

And thus ended the life of Badra Bellona, Fighter of the Full Moon.

Part Fourteen

“I’ll be waiting”


Her scream echoed within her, around her, through her… And with it came only darkness. Life seemed to end when Bel stepped into the flames, followed by the High Priest of Mara. There was pain and darkness and blissful emptiness…

When Cat woke up the cavern was an empty place. Dead warriors lay scattered everywhere around her; she smelt blood – death. She heard someone crying nearby and then realized it was herself.

“No!” she screamed when realization dawned on her. “No! Bel!

A shadow moved beside her and she swirled around, coming to her feet with a knife in her hand. Deyna reached out towards her with tears and blood smearing her face.

“I failed”, the princess whispered. “I failed her…”

Cat stared at the blood – at all the blood covering the princess – and wondered how Deyna could still be alive if all that blood belonged to her. The thought didn’t register, though. She could see it, she could think it… but she didn’t feel it; she was numb, dead inside. She looked around, seeing only a dark crater where the fire had been. Where two deities had fought for power and a High Priestess had died. Why? Cat thought. Why did she do it? Stupid question, of course. Bel did what was right, no matter the cost.

“I failed…” she heard Deyna say.

“No”, Nakkara Rim said, entering somewhere from the shadows; only a few torches were still burning. The chamber was like a grave. It was a grave. “We saved the world, princess.”

She saved it”, Deyna said, still with the quiet, strange voice Cat didn’t recognize. “I… froze. I couldn’t use my powers…”

“One day”, the oracle said, gently taking the girl beneath the arm. “One day the fate of a city will rest in your very hands. You’ll save it. All you need to do is trust yourself and your own power. And when the time comes you will. She’ll let you be more of a child… then.”

Deyna cried silently, looking down at her hands.

“Come”, the woman softly said and led her away, towards the entrance. “The fight is done.”

Cat still heard sobbing and when she turned she noticed Derac with Katana’s lifeless body in his arms. He was crying heavily, holding the dead Captain close to him. They were both soaked in blood and Cat finally realized where the blood on the princess came from: Katana had almost been split in half, cut horizontally across her midriff.

“Oh, Goddess”, she gasped. “Katana…”

Derac seemed to have heard her; he looked up at her with blazing eyes. “You don’t get to say her name”, he said. “This is your fault! You ran away!”

“I didn’t run”, Cat whispered. “I was here all the time…”

“She took the blow for the princess”, she heard Derac say. “She took the blow and I couldn’t save her… because I’m no fighter.”

My fault, Cat thought devastatingly. I failed her and Deyna. I abandoned Deyna. I broke my promise to Bel… Bel! Cat closed her eyes. Bel’s last words to her filled her with pain. She stood silently in the dark a long time, with Derac crying wordlessly at her side.

Finally the High Priest’s sobbing ended and Cat heard him rise beside her. She didn’t open her eyes. Derac mumbled a few prayers over Katana’s body.

“I swear to you I’ll pledge my whole life to protecting Deyna”, Cat said, still with closed eyes, when he silenced.

“No… you won’t”, Derac said. “You are no longer worthy.”

Cat gasped and was just about to snap open her eyes when the world went dark a third time in a days cycle.

He hit me, she thought, slowly waking up. The world was fuzzy and spinning and she wasn’t even sure who “he” was. He hit me… What for? Deyna!

Cat gasped and sat bolt upright. She looked around, realizing she wasn’t in Mara’s dark temple anymore.

“How you feeling?”

Cat’s head snapped around and she stared at Zelena, Fang’s High Priestess. They were both sitting on a high ridge with wild nature around them: trees, bushes, birds chirping. Behind them the world was still dark, showing deep blue sky and a few stars above the dark ocean – before them the sun was rising, tainting the horizon pink and softly golden. In the valley below – they had a perfect view ahead of them – the city of Goddara lay in ruins.

“Why…? You…?” Cat asked incomprehensible, not sure what she wanted to say. Zelena seemed to know, though. She shrugged.

“We never went that far, Fang and I. Neither of us wanted to leave Goddara…”

“He’s… alright?”

“He’s fine. So far…”

There was a dark note in the High Priestess’ voice that got Cat’s attention.

“So far?” she asked.

“Our boarders are crushed. Nikka told me, before she left…”

“Left?” Cat cut in. “The oracle left?”

“I’m getting to that”, the priestess said. “Egara has invaded us fully and their priesthood… Not the same as ours, not even with the new priestly king on the throne. According to him there can only be one god – and that’s Sharptooth the Crocodile. Their priesthood has the power and the will to wipe out all deities.”

“I know”, Cat whispered.

“Fang and the others… They’ll be hunted down like animals. As long as we, the Priesthood of Kellara, is alive we can protect them, but we too will be pursued and probably killed unless we convert to their ways.”

“You would never…” Cat said quietly.

“No – we would rather die. Fang may be arrogant and unpredictable, but he doesn’t deserve to die because he happens to be different. I’m not fighting for his life only, but for our right to be who and what we are. I’ll defend that right to the end and I’ll advocate it to my death.”

Cat nodded, wondering if Nakkara Rim had foretold Zelena’s death and if the High Priestess knew how it would come. What was it Katana had said? It matters only how we choose to face our death… Or something like that.

“Nikka told me it’s only a matter of time, though, before the old order dies away”, Zelena went on. ”Even Sharptooth’s reign will end and be replaced by something else. New times are rising. New people are intruding. And even without Egara’s invasion we have Bor’s army to deal with. He and Egara’s king will struggle for power for years.”

Cat nodded, thinking of Bel. “Where is the princess?” she asked. “I must stay with her, protect her… I – I promised…”

Zelena didn’t answer her right away. “She’s gone, Ciardha”, she finally said. “Derac took her away.”

“What?” Cat stared at her. “What do you mean?” Not worthy… The words rang in her head.

“Nikka followed them…”

“No”, Cat whispered. “No, he wouldn’t…”

“They are gone. I’m sorry.”

“I must find them!” Cat rushed to her feet. The High Priestess looked up at her with compassion.

“Nikka asked me to tell you this: if you decide to find Deyna you will – but it will be a very long, very hard journey. Several years… But in the end, you’ll find her. If you stay, on the other hand…”

“There is no choice”, Cat said determinedly, not listening to the rest. “It’s what I have to do. I promised. I won’t rest until I find her again, until I know she’s safe.”

Zelena nodded. “I understand”, she said gently.

Cat looked at the morning sun, seeing the sky turn softly blue and brighter yellow beneath the purple shade. “What happened… in there?” she asked. “Is Nidae really dead? And Mara? But they are deities – how could they…?”

“They rest”, Zelena said, rising too. “They slumber in time between the worlds. One day they’ll find their way back to us, when the possibility presents itself for them to dress themselves in their true shapes again.”

“Between worlds… Bel took them away”, Cat mumbled and then sighed. “I failed, priestess. I failed them both…”

Zelena seemed to hesitate. “Death is not the end, Ciardha”, she finally said, looking at Cat. “Nikka told me to tell you… She’ll find you again, one day. You’ll meet them both.”

“Bel?” Cat whispered. “Bel and… Deyna?”

Zelena nodded. “Yes”, she said quietly.

“You loved her too, didn’t you?” Cat whispered, seeing the pain in the priestess’ eyes.

“I did”, Zelena said gently. “And I believe she loved us both, in her own way…”

Cat dried a stray tear from her cheek. “Yes, I guess she did.”

“Nikka told me… Bel will love us both – again.”

“I’ll be waiting, then”, Cat said, looking out across the world. “Until she finds me.”

“Me too”, the High Priestess said, following Cat’s gaze.

And they stood shoulder to shoulder, watching the birth of a new day.