Warrior, Princess, Priestess
FANDOM: Birds of Prey
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 www.behindthename.com
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 :).
ARCHIVING: Jinx's Storyland at www.geocities.com/jehandira.
FEEDBACK: as you like it, at...
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?”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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!”
continued in Forgotten Lives part 2