continued from Forgotten Lives part 1
“Bottom up, princess!” Cat said with a laugh, lifting her own tin cup high above her head and tilting her head backwards. She was standing on a bench by a table in a private room at the Five-legged Tiger.
“Cat! Cat! Cat!” the group of female warriors around the table shouted, banging their fists on the table. All of them had tattoos of leaping panthers on their cheeks.
Cat opened her mouth and let the beer pour down her throat in an even flow. She didn’t spill a drop; she’d had several years of practice. “Done!” she said as she dried her mouth with the back of her hand and put down the cup on the wooden table. “Six. And you, princess?” She grinned at the teenage girl standing opposite her on the bench. The girl made a face; she was drenched in beer.
“Do you count the amount I actually managed to get into my mouth – or how many cups of beer I’ve just showered myself with?” Deyna asked sarcastically.
“Both”, Cat laughed. “Both, princess.”
“That’d be a half and six”, the princess said with a grin, earning applause from the women around the table.
The Five-legged Tiger was a brothel named in honor of Fang; the place was one of the god’s favorite spots to hang out. Members of Panthera had their own private room at the brothel, where they held private parties open only to members of their band – or for special guests. Like the princess Deianara.
The brothel was placed in the middle of the city, close to the royal area – it was even rumored there was a secret tunnel from the brothel to the palace, but no one seemed to know if it was actually true. Cat had been curious and tried to find out, but had never succeeded in finding anything. If anyone would know it would be Katana, but the Captain refused to tell.
“Six!” Cat called, waving towards one of the female servants waiting on them to get a refill on her beer. “Not bad for a virgin, Deyna.”
“Hey!” the young princess said, faking offence. “That was told in confidence!”
Cat laughed as the tall, dark haired servant filled their cups with more beer. When the woman looked up at her Cat winked at her, making her blush. The young waitress was new at the brothel and had yet to learn how to flirt properly with those female guests who preferred other women in bed. There weren’t many of them in Goddara, but Cat’s intensity had increased the number over the years.
“What’s your name, pretty?” Cat asked, smiling at the woman.
“Lady!” Deyna called incredulously. “She’s no lady! I’m a lady.”
“You’re certainly not behaving like one at the moment”, Cat said, grinning, and then added: “And you most certainly don’t look like one.”
Deyna looked down at her ruined outfit: once clothes of silver and blue, now only a sagging mess. “And whose fault is that?” she asked dryly. “When you invited me I didn’t expect to shower in beer.”
“It’s the initiation”, one short, dark skinned woman at the table said. “All girls in this room must go through it.”
“Hurray”, Deyna said sarcastically, squeezing the beer from her shirt. “Another initiation.”
Cat laughed, turning back towards the waitress. “I’m Cat, at your pleasure”, she said. Taking Uzra’s hand she raised it to her lips. She pressed a soft kiss on the back of the woman’s hand, again winking. The young woman blushed, but then laughed and curtseyed before she left the chamber.
The waitress left and another female warrior entered the room. She was dark and beautiful, with slanting eyes the color of gray marble – almost silver – and with leaping panthers tattooed on her cheeks. Cat laughed, seeing her, and waved. The woman grinned as she noticed Cat on the bench, but then she narrowed her eyes at the princess and quickly moved into the room.
“Cat”, she said in a low, almost purring voice, and tilted her head to look at Deyna. “Why is the princess here?”
“Oh”, Deyna said, glancing worriedly at Cat. “Didn’t you tell…?”
“She needed a break from Court life, Serafine”, Cat said carelessly, winking at the other woman. “Come, show her your new tattoo – she was thinking of getting one.”
“I was not!” the princess objected and blushed as the warriors gathered around her laughed. “I was not”, she mumbled, glancing at Serafine.
The gray eyed woman softly shook her head. “Cat”, she said in the same purring voice as before and in a swift motion she flew across the table, landing gracefully on the bench between Cat and Deyna, crouching. As she straightened up, there was an amused smile on her lips. “Why do you always get us into trouble, kit-cat?”
Cat grinned. “To keep you on your toes, of course. You’d be bored without me.”
“Most likely”, the woman said, turning to Deyna. “Hey, princess”, she said winking.
“Don’t flirt with her, Sera – she’ll lose her powers”, Cat said, grinning, as the princess’ blush deepened. Serafine laughed.
“Don’t worry, princess – you’re too young for me. I prefer… the graying kind.”
“Who’ve you been chasing lately, sister?” Cat asked, gesturing to Deyna to sit down as she did the same.
Deyna was used to the Leaping Panthers – she’d been raised with them following her around her whole life – but she’d never spent time with them in such a relaxing manner. They were warriors, trained to be constantly alert as they guarded her. There had never really been the time for them get more intimately acquainted with each other. A few hours before, when they arrived at the brothel, both Deyna and the group of Leaping Panthers that were with her had felt awkward and strange together. Then they’d taken residence in the private chamber, reserved for their band, and Cat began ordering drinks. Not before long the girl and the warriors had started getting along well.
The Five-legged Tiger was a place for those with a little more money and higher rank, but without belonging to the finer clubs. If one wanted real luxury one would visit Lady Goldfinger only a few streets away.
The building had two floors, several private bedrooms and several other chambers used for dinner parties or dances. The main room was placed on the first floor, right at the entrance. It was there the more inexperienced girls greeted the odd customers who only came once in a while or those who were only passing through the city. Guests who visited more frequently were brought to another lounge further in.
The chamber Panthera used for their private gatherings was placed on the second floor, adjacent to one of the larger parlors where well paying warriors usually spent their time carousing.
“I thought I’d try my luck at the emperor”, Serafine was saying, “but” – she shrugged – “we all know he’s faithful to his wife. I gave up that idea.”
“Thank you”, Deyna said dryly. “I wouldn’t want to hear about my father’s eventual affairs.”
Cat was surprised to actually notice Serafine blush.
“Hum, sorry, princess – slip of the tongue”, Serafine said. “I forgot who you were for a moment…”
“Yeah, guess it’s not easy to remember when I look like this.” Deyna sighed. “I’m never gonna get these clothes clean again.” She glowered at Cat. “And how did you think I was going to explain smelling like beer to my mother?”
Serafine laughed. “She probably didn’t think. Cat’s not famous for her thinking.”
“Hey!” Cat exclaimed.
“True”, Deyna said, laughing. “Fine, I forgive you your slip of the tongue.” Her eyes twinkled. “I want to know who you’ve got your oh so beautiful eyes set on.”
Serafine whistled, glancing at a surprised Cat. “Did you hear that, sister? Maybe I’ll reconsider my chase for more… mature preys and take a bite of the just ripened fruit.”
Cat expected Deyna to blush at that – or more likely, at the seductive look in the older woman’s eyes as she turned back to the girl – but the princess unexpectedly leaned forward on the table with her chin in the palm of her hand, smiling without breaking eye contact with Serafine.
“Really?” she said hoarsely. “And would you have a special… fruit in mind?”
Goddess! Cat thought, seeing the two of them. How much of that beer had the princess actually swallowed? “Fine – stop this right this minute. Sera – she’s a princess!”
Serafine turned her slanted eyes towards Cat, grinning. “So? It didn’t stop you, did it?”
“What?” Deyna sat straight up, staring wide eyed at Cat.
“Serafine!” Cat hissed, glowering at her friend.
“You seduced my sister?” Deyna asked. “By Fang’s white fur! Who? Which one of them?”
“Fine – you didn’t hear that”, Cat said, trying to avoid the topic. “You weren’t supposed to know…”
“Stop treating me like a stupid child!” Deyna stood up at the bench again, looking down at Cat with annoyance.
“Deyna”, Cat said, inhaling slowly.
“No! I’ve had enough. You’re just like her, treating me like…”
The rest of the princess words were drowned in a sudden cry from the adjacent room, followed by shouts from the corridor. Deyna silenced and abruptly turned around on the bench – too abruptly, apparently, as she lost her balance and stumbled backwards.
“Deyna!” Cat called, rushing to her feet.
“I’ve got her!” Serafine said, already standing and wrapping her arms around the princess. “Hey, pretty – careful with the beer. It’s strong if you’re not used to it.”
Cat hesitated as she noticed the princess relax in the warrior’s arms and waited to see what would happen. Deyna had been right: she hadn’t treated the girl with respect, but instead treated her like someone whose opinion didn’t matter.
“Are you good?” she heard Serafine ask in a low voice and Deyna nodded.
“Thank you. I didn’t behave very maturely right now, did I?”
Serafine chuckled. “We’re all entitled to lapses back into childhood every now and then. Believe me – Cat does it all the time.” Gray eyes met Cat’s mismatched ones and Serafine grinned. “Right, Cat?”
“All the time”, Cat said. “You know that, princess.”
Deyna huffed, but smiled too and said: “You sulk like a baby when you don’t get what you want.”
“Exactly.” Cat looked at the girl and the women standing close together, the one with her arms wrapped around the other. She considered telling them to step apart, but realized that it wasn’t any of her business. Serafine wouldn’t seduce the girl for all her seductive smiles and glances and Cat suspected Deyna wasn’t ready to be seduced. For one thing she’d have to wait until she’d become a full goddess. But a little groping and kissing wouldn’t hurt and if it was the first time for the princess – which Cat strongly suspected – then Serafine was a good teacher.
Serafine and Cat had never shared beds. From the first time they met they’d been best friends, almost like sisters, and there had never been a physical attraction between them despite the fact that both of them were very lucky with women. They had tried kissing once, just for the sake of it, but neither of them had felt anything and they settled with being close friends.
Now, as Cat noticed Serafine’s hands tighten the hold on Deyna she instead hid a smile; maybe the princess would get more than what she’d bargained for this night. Then the noise from the corridor drew her attention, when she realized there was a fight going on. Ordinarily there were a few fights each night at the brothel. It happened when you put too many warriors with too much alcohol and too many women in a room; it livened up the place a bit. The fights were usually cut short by the hired guards working there. A few times there had been serious injuries, but mostly the fights only involved fists, broken bottles and chairs, not other weapons.
“Something’s up”, Cat said cautiously as she heard the ringing of steel from the corridor. Again a loud, crashing noise was heard from the other room, then someone screamed and a moment later one of the female servants came rushing in; the tall, dark woman who’d served Cat and Deyna earlier.
“Cat!” she breathed, out of breath from running. “Cat – you must…!”
“What is it, Urza?”
The woman didn’t have time to answer before she was shoved out of the way by a heavily armed warrior, who was dressed in leather and steel, swinging a sword. The blade cut through Urza without difficulty, as if she’d been a blade of grass before the scythe.
Cat caught her breath, staring at the helpless expression on the woman’s face as she tumbled against the wall and slid down to the floor with glazing eyes. The next instant Cat was seeing red. She didn’t know who the warrior was or why he’d charged into their room, disturbing their private party – and she didn’t care. All she knew was that he was going to die. She drew her sword as she flew across the room, pulling one of her knives from the belt.
“Cat!” she heard the princess call behind her, but didn’t stop to consider what she was doing.
“Die!” she yelled, swinging her sword. The warrior blocked her attack, as expected – but he never saw the knife. With one swift motion she cut his throat. Blood sprayed her face, but she only felt the sweet power coming from surviving yet another fight to the death. Then she realized the warrior wasn’t alone. The corridor was full of fighting warriors. And now she heard the battle going on in the adjacent room.
Deyna! she thought, glancing over her shoulder. Serafine still held on to the girl, but now there was a terrified expression on the princess’ face. “Get her out of here!” she called to Serafine, waving with her knife. It was all she had time to do, before she was attacked by a group of foreign warriors.
Cat didn’t know how long she’d fought or how many she’d killed when she realized Deyna and Serafine were still in the room with her. The warriors kept coming from all directions. The whole brothel was involved in the fight; people were dying everywhere, warriors fought with blooded weapons and with blood smeared on their faces. It was full chaos around her.
Cat hadn’t seen anything like it since her time as a mercenary in Sum’s army, where she and some other members of her band – including Serafine – had served for a year. It was required of the warriors of Panthera to have been in war before becoming full members of the pack.
Cat had barely survived the wars she’d participated in, not because of any physical injuries but due to the toll it had taken on her psyche. To kill, and to see so many dying, had at one period made her doubt if she could ever use a sword again. The change – and the choice she’d had to make – had come when several of her friends, again including Serafine, were captured. Cat had been the only one who could save them. She braved desperate odds to do so and became a hero in the process, but her previously naïve idea about war as something glorious faded and died thoroughly as death on the last battlefield.
“Sera!” she called, making her way towards her friend, who fought back to back with Deyna. “Sera! You need to get her out of here!”
“I’m trying, Cat! They’re just too many!”
Cat quickly looked around the room: a couple of the band members lay dead beside her and she felt a cold stab at her heart seeing them. Behind Serafine the princess fought like a warrior with a knife in one hand and a sword taken from a fallen enemy in the other. She had a tear in the sleeve and was bleeding from a wound on the arm, but it looked like a superficial injury – for which Cat was grateful.
“Deyna!” she called, moving around a couple of dead bodies and killing an attacking warrior on her way to the princess. “You need to get out of here. Use your abilities…”
“I’ve tried, Cat! I’ve tried to use them in the fight, but I can’t! Something is blocking me.” Deyna ducked and swirled around, swinging her sword to ward off a woman warrior that came too close.
“Can you transform?” Cat asked a second later, when she managed to get a spare moment. Deyna stopped to look at her.
“I’m not leaving you!” she stated.
“You have to, Deyna. Someone needs to get help and these… whoever they are – they’re just too many! You have to go! For our sake!” At least to save your self, Cat thought, seeing the princess hesitate.
“But what about the rest of you?”
“We are sworn to protect you, Deyna”, Cat said, letting Serafine cover her and the girl for a brief moment. “This is what we get paid for.”
“Don’t say that”, the princess said with tears in her eyes.
“This is not the time to argue!” Serafine called. “Deyna – do as she says! By Mara’s bloody teeth – get out of here!”
“Deyna”, Cat said, looking the girl in the eye. “Go, princess.”
It was all they had time for, before the room was stormed with another group of unknown warriors.
“Blood and bone and the Panther’s tail!” Serafine shouted. “Where are they coming from? Who are they? What do they want?”
“How should I know?” Cat yelled, scarcely avoiding getting her head chopped off. “Deyna!” she screamed, glancing over her shoulder. She noticed the stricken look on the princess’ face turn to determination as the girl nodded. “Cover her!” Cat shouted to the members of her band that were close enough to hear her – and close enough to make a difference. Six of them encircled Deyna as she let go of her weapons and raised her arms towards the ceiling.
Cat stood with her back towards the girl, fighting for her life in the most confusing and insane battle she could ever remember being involved in. The warriors only kept coming and there were no clue to who they were or what they wanted.
A lithe, blonde man slightly older than her made his way through the newly arrived group of warriors, killing as he went across the floor.
“Para!” Cat called. “By the gods – I’m glad to see you!”
“What is going on?” the young man asked. Then he noticed Deyna behind Cat’s back. “What is she doing here?”
“Don’t ask”, Cat said with resolution. “We just need to see that she gets out of here alive.” She glanced behind her and noticed the sweat dripping from Deyna’s forehead, wondering if whatever blocked Deyna’s powers also blocked her ability to shape-change. Then, in the same moment as she despaired to get the princess out of the mess she’d gotten her into alive, a flash of blue power swept through the room. A sphere of white and blue fire cascaded from the centre of the circle Cat and her friends created and in the next moment a gigantic hawk – silver white – shrieked as it flew through the room. It dove down on a warrior attacking Para and hacked out his eyes.
“Get out of here!” Cat shouted, throwing a knife to prevent a warrior from lifting his sword to aim at the bird. The knife took the warrior in his throat and he fell backwards. The hawk, still encircled by a sphere of blue fire, shrieked one more time and then dove out of the room through the door. The next moment it was gone and Cat could finally relax, letting go of her worry for the princess. There was nothing more she could do to protect Deyna – it was all in the hands of the deities now.
“Bats and Snakes!” she heard Serafine swear at her side and swirled around.
“Look out!” she called as she noticed a warrior with a crossbow in the doorway. “Sera!”
“Cat!” Para called. He had been separated from her when Deyna attacked the warrior assaulting him and was now trying to get back to her. His desperate shout was mingled with the sound of ringing steel and with battle cries from the corridor outside the chamber.
“Sera!” Cat shouted and threw herself in front of Serafine as the woman turned around. The arrow aimed at her friend took Cat in the shoulder. The impact threw her against Serafine and the two of them tumbled backwards; Cat heard Serafine’s soft gasp in her ear and felt the sting of the arrowhead in her shoulder.
“Cat…” Serafine whispered.
“I’m fine”, she quickly said, immediately coming to her feet. The arrow had gone straight to her shoulder without tearing any vital muscles; she would still be able to use her left arm, although it would hurt. “We need to…”
Whatever Cat intended to say was drowned in a sudden heavy gust of wind that swept through the room, accompanied by loud thunder. The two warriors Cat was struggling with were swept off their feet and thrown through the chamber. So precise was the wind that it swept one of the warriors – who was standing so close to Cat that her nose practically touched his – away without as much as ruffling Cat’s hair.
“Cat!” Serafine called through the thunder.
“What’s going on?” Cat asked, looking around with a bewildered feeling. Warriors were thrown through the room and pinned to the walls by an invisible force, but it was only the enemies that were affected.
“I think she is here”, Para said with a nervous glance over his shoulder. He lowered his sword and watched the door with a comprehensive look.
“I don’t know what’s going on”, Cat said. “But let’s...”
“Let’s not”, Katana said, suddenly standing in the doorway. She crossed her arms, nailing Cat with a blazing look. The Captain was dressed in her dress leather armor: the blue and black she only wore when leading her pack in procession at one or another ceremony. Her sword was in her belt, with the clasp locking it in its scabbard, and all of her knives were still in a row – untouched in her belt.
“Captain – she’s hurt”, Serafine said, stepping forward. Cat moved forward at the same time.
“Is she alright?” she asked worriedly, thinking of the princess.
“She is, but no thanks to you”, the Captain said, still with the same stern, unrelenting tone. At her side two warriors were pinned to the wall beside the door – their eyes were wide open and their mouths too, but they didn’t move or speak. They seemed held in a nightmare they couldn’t awake from. It was the same with the two warriors that had been swept away from Cat and the same with the others – some were held against the wall, others against the floor.
Katana’s eyes went to the arrow in Cat’s shoulder and she smirked.
“An arrow never stopped her before”, the Captain said in response to Serafine’s comment.
Cat shook her head. She didn’t care about her injury. “Who are those guys? What do they want? Holy Bats and burning Snakes! Why...?” She silenced abruptly as someone else entered the chamber behind the Captain.
“Cat – I’m sorry”, Deyna said pleadingly with tears in her eyes, but it wasn’t the princess Cat was staring at. She was staring at the red haired woman walking in front of the princess.
The High Priestess of Nidae looked around the chamber. She was wearing the blue robe Cat had seen her in before, carrying her staff in one hand. Her face was blank, showing no emotions at all – but her eyes... Cat swallowed.
“Get them out of here”, the High Priestess said, making a swift gesture with her free hand around the room. The warriors being pinned to the walls fell down, but didn’t land on the floor: they were held suspended in the air. The warriors on the floor were lifted up into the air – floating like reeds on a calm, mirror blank surface of water.
A group of priestesses in brown robes hurried into the room and flanked the floating warriors, who were now lined up in a row. There was a heavy silence in the room as the priestesses took the stiff suspended foreign warriors out of the chamber.
“Out”, the High Priestess said, indicating the band members of Panthera and those of the Cobra Squad who’d fought their way into the room together with Para. Para and Serafine stayed on each side of Cat. For moral support, she thought – as she had a feeling the High Priestess didn’t intend her to leave. For one thing Katana’s face told her not to move.
“Deyna”, the High Priestess said, without looking at the princess. She was looking at Cat now – and those green, blazing eyes burnt holes in Cat’s skull. “Go with Derac.”
Cat quickly glanced at the princess. She just wanted to see the princess’ reaction, she told herself; she was not looking away to avoid the priestess’ steely gaze.
Deyna had a stricken look on her face. There was blood on her cheeks, but she seemed unharmed.
“Go, Deyna”, Cat said gently and tried a reassuring smile. She wasn’t sure how it came out. “I’ll be fine. I’ll see you later.”
“No, you won’t”, the High Priestess said cuttingly. “You are not going near that girl again. Ever.”
Cat blinked and met the priestess’ gaze. Behind the woman Deyna turned away with a sob and hurriedly left the room.
“Are you aware you almost got her killed?” the High Priestess went on. The way she controlled the burning rage that was shown in her eyes scared Cat more than anything. She was used to people going berserk, or losing control when in the heat of the moment. Even Katana lost her temper and showed her anger in her movements and in her face, but this... This measured, strict mastery of such force Cat could see behind the eyes of the priestess was something new, something beyond her understanding. She knew now it was the High Priestess who’d pinned those warriors to the wall. The woman had done something the Leaping Panthers and part of the Cobra Squad hadn’t managed: defeated the warriors – on her own.
Cat had faced powerful people before, but she had always managed to find a weakness with them – they had held no power over her. It was different with this woman. Cat could feel the power brimming in the air around the High Priestess, but that wasn’t what frightened her. It frightened her that she had upset this beautiful woman.
Since when did I become such a weakling?
“I didn’t almost get her killed”, Cat said, holding the priestess’ gaze. “Those warriors did.”
She heard Serafine gasp softly behind her, but didn’t turn her head. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed Katana’s expression of pure fury. The Captain uncrossed her arms and took a step towards her, but was held back by the High Priestess. The woman hardly flicked a finger, but Katana came to an immediate halt.
“True”, the High Priestess said and Cat frowned uncertainly, hearing her agree with her, and wondered what game the priestess played. “That is most true, but if you hadn’t brought her here she wouldn’t have been in any danger. Do you agree with me?”
Cat paled. “Yes, and I’m sorry about that”, she said sincerely. “But…” she added, hesitating.
“No ‘buts’!” Katana exclaimed, obviously unable to hold her tongue any longer. “What were you thinking? By the Great Bat – you could’ve gotten her killed! You spoiled bastard, I should never have trusted you with such a responsibility. You’re a worse fool than I ever took you for!”
Cat blushed, being so humiliated in front of the High Priestess. She ignored the sudden queasiness that came over her and the immediate need to throw up. Ignoring the pain in her shoulder and her suddenly wobbly knees she stepped forward to answer the challenge. “Bats and bloody Snakes!” she said. “I was trying to help her!”
“Help? Help?” Katana moved forward and wasn’t stopped this time. “By bringing her here? And how would that help in any way?”
“Yes, tell me”, the High Priestess said, this time with bitterness and an icy chill in her voice. “How exactly does that help?”
Cat gasped, seeing the loathing in the beautiful woman’s eyes. “Because the princess is a prisoner in her palace!” she nearly shouted. “She’s worse off than a slave, behind all the luxury of her existence. This”, she said, pointing at the High Priestess, “is actually your fault, priestess!”
“Cat!” Katana warned in a low, controlled voice; Cat barely heard her.
“It’s your fault Deyna was here tonight”, she went on, holding the High Priestess’ gaze. “If you didn’t push her so hard, if you didn’t treat her like you do and scared her to death with your… whatever powers you have…”
“Cat! Enough!” Katana grabbed her arm, but Cat tore lose.
“What?” Cat said, glowering at her. “You know it’s true! What’s the matter? Are you afraid I’m embarrassing you in front of…”
“Cat!” she heard Serafine call out – and in the next moment she found herself on the floor with a split lip. She looked up at the Captain, tasting the blood in her mouth. She spat, drying her mouth with the back of her hand as Serafine crouched by her side.
“That is way out of line, soldier”, Katana said furiously, pointing down at her. Cat shook her head, feeling dizzy and disoriented – but also hurt. She’d earned several slaps from Katana over the years, but never since she’d become a full member of the pack. Katana was strict with her subordinates, but she seldom needed to discipline them – and she never did it in public.
“What?” Cat repeated, trying to get to her feet. Serafine supported her and Para reached to help her, but she waved him off. “You know it’s true. You know she… she…”
She suddenly felt the stabbing pain in her shoulder worse than before and flinched. Her knees gave way and she felt herself slipping into a slow darkness.
Serafine’s voice was far away.
“It’s the blood loss”, Para said; she could hardly hear him either.
“No, this is something else…” It was the High Priestess’ voice, clear and sharp.
Cat wanted to say she was sorry for Deyna, but she couldn’t find the words. She realized she was lying on her back, staring up at the ceiling, but she couldn’t see anything until the High Priestess’ face suddenly came into view.
“Poison”, she heard, far away, losing sight again.
I’m going to die, she realized. She gasped as she felt someone’s hand on her forehead, a gentle touch – cool against her fevered skin. Soft fingers brushed some dark curls out of her face. She opened her eyes, not realizing before then that she’d closed them, and looked into green, concerned eyes.
“Sshh”, the High Priestess said gently. “You’ll be fine.”
She wanted to shake her head, to tell the woman no one she knew of had survived the poison now coursing through her veins. “You…” she whispered, realizing there was something else she wanted to say – something more pressing.
She felt the soft touch of cool fingers on her lips and gasped anew in sudden, recognized desire, before the world went dark.
“The fool”, Katana was saying, looking down at the unconscious woman.
Derac’s sister – Serafine, Bel thought, correcting herself; she always thought of the woman as Derac’s sister – broke off the arrowhead and pulled out the arrow from the warrior’s shoulder, careful not to touch the sharp tip.
“I’m sorry she accused you”, the Captain said as Bel rose beside Serafine. “I never thought... She’s reckless and disrespectful, but I never thought she’d...” Katana silenced, glancing down at Derac’s sister, who was busy inspecting the arrowhead.
“She showed remorse, Katana”, Bel said thoughtfully.
“Remorse? She doesn’t know the word”, the Captain huffed.
“You were too busy being angry at her to notice. If she hadn’t shown remorse I wouldn’t bother with her now.”
Katana quickly glanced at her, trying to hide her surprise. “What do you mean?”
Bel looked down at the fallen warrior. “She needs to be taken care of immediately, otherwise she’ll die a horrible death”, she said, already knowing what poison had claimed the unconscious woman.
At the same time Serafine was looking up at them with pale cheeks; the tattoos dark against her skin. “It’s Tears of the Maiden, Captain”, she said in a trembling voice. “There’s no known cure for that.”
Bel heard Katana gasp beside her.
“Goddess – Cat...!” the Captain whispered in a choked voice Bel didn’t recognize.
“Move away, Sera”, she said, gesturing towards the woman on the floor. The male warrior who stood a few steps away, looking down at the two women on the floor, made a strained sound – it was strangely similar to a sob, Bel distractedly thought. She glanced at the man and noticed the pain in his eyes. Looking at him she found him oddly familiar, but she couldn’t remember ever meeting him before.
Derac’s sister rose, dropping the arrow on the floor beside her dying friend. Bel made use of her powers and wove strands of Air around the unconscious figure on the floor. As High Priestess she had certain powers – common people would call it magic, but to her it was simpler than that: it was the pure knowledge of how to make full use of the Creative Energy, of which every living thing consisted. Commonly called magic. Some needed to study to learn how to master the energy; others were born with the knowledge of how to use it, but did it only instinctively until they were trained to understand what they were doing.
Bel had been one of the latter. She’d heard the voice of the Goddess within her since she was very young – and the voice of other gods and goddesses later on – but she’d also controlled the winds and was able to create fires. Though it wasn’t until she became a priestess she learned she was using the elements of Air and Fire to do what she was doing. The High Priestess trained her and she had been a willing student, always thirsting for knowledge. Everyone could learn the things she’d learned, but it demanded hard studies and dedication. It could also be very dangerous if one didn’t understand what one was doing; people had been known to go insane or consume themselves in the element in their effort to master its power.
Bel was one of the few who made use of more than one element. It was more common to master one of the elements, as it demanded great strength – both physically and mentally – to manage even that. Derac also managed two elements: Air and Water. The two of them had been trained since they were children, to work together and to combine their elements to gain more power.
By using the elements the High Priest or Priestess was also able to strengthen the deity he or she served – or to bind the deity’s powers. There had been one High Priestess in the past who’d mastered the five known elements of Fire, Air, Water, Earth and Spirit. She’d been the most powerful priestess in their history, but she had turned wicked and wanted to rule the world. She disabled the deities and killed several of them, before she was finally stopped by a group of High Priests and Priestesses who combined their powers and managed to strip her of her knowledge – her magic. She was left a broken reed, wandering the wilderness like a babbling madwoman.
Bel had always enjoyed that story: it showed the dangers in being consumed by one’s own arrogance and one’s lust for fame and fortune. To be a priest or priestess meant to be a servant, not the ruler. A High Priestess was an instrument through which the power flowed and was used for the good of the people; she wasn’t the ultimate source of the power. The true power came from the force of the Creative Energy, which had given birth to all life – even the deities.
“Let me care for her”, Bel said as she lifted the wounded warrior into the air.
“Please, High Priestess”, Serafine said, with pale cheeks. “Let me come and be with her until she dies. The ending will be terrible and I don’t want her to go through it alone. She... She’s saved my life so many times. She’s the closest thing to a family I ever had, beside Derac.”
“I know, Leaping Feline”, Bel said, using Serafine’s true Name. “But your friend isn’t going to die. Her time has not yet come.”
“No one survives the Tears of the Maiden”, the male warrior said, a little harshly.
Bel looked at him. “Do you know the power of the Goddess?” she said, adding a little thunder to her voice by using Air to carry her words. The warrior paled.
“N-no, your Highness”, he said, backing a few steps.
“Good. You two, care for your friends. I’ll bring this warrior to the temple of High Priest Derac.” Bel tugged at Air and made the floating warrior follow her out the door. Katana quickly caught up with her.
“What did you mean?” she asked as they reached the stairs further down the corridor. Warriors in the color of the White Tigers – black and white – rushed back and forth, searching for wounded and carrying unconscious warriors from the brothel. Bel’s priestesses in brown collected the dead from the unknown army, taking them to the temple of the Goddess of the Dark Moon on her command. There was a particular reason for her to have them brought there: she’d seen what they were as soon as she arrived at the Five Legged Tiger. Soon everyone else would see what they were too – a fact that would create panic if her priestesses didn’t get the warriors out of the way in time.
“About Cat, I mean”, Katana said. “You said you wouldn’t bother with her if she hadn’t shown remorse. And can you really cure her?” she added worriedly.
“How long have you known me, Katanya?” Bel asked.
“Since I came here when we both were sixteen”, the Captain said. “No”, she added, when Bel only looked at her. “You’ve never lied to me, but this is Tears of the Maiden, Bel.”
Bel shook her head. “There are ways, Katana. Trust me. This particular poison is very nasty – especially because the agony seems to go on forever. People have been known to suffer for weeks.”
Bel silenced, but didn’t halt when she came to the stairs; she went down side by side with Katana – while the unconscious warrior floated behind them in the air. Members of the White Tigers stopped and parted to let them through and priestesses curtseyed hastily when Bel passed them, before rushing back to their assignment.
“If she hadn’t shown remorse I would either thought her a traitor to the crown or an irresponsible bastard – as you so nicely put it. In either case I couldn’t have cared less about her wellbeing. She put the princess’ life at risk – and in so doing also the safety of the Imperial Family. Irresponsibility is not a luxury we can afford at the moment.”
“Not even if she’s... you know who?” Katana said in a low voice, carefully. Bel only shook her head.
“Nidae is goddess of life and death, Katana. She knows we sometimes have to cut our losses to move on – bad seeds may not be allowed to steal the life force of the good crop. Blood, as in blood ties, can’t be made to matter in situations like this.”
Katana shook her head as they reached the foot of the stair. “Is life really that simple to you, my friend?”
“Everything in nature is about life and death, Captain. Why make it more difficult for ourselves, attaching meanings and values to it?”
Katana sighed. “One day, Bel... One day you’ll understand.”
Bel frowned. “Maybe, but at the moment this empire needs someone who can make the decisions others can’t because of being too attached to the people around them.”
“Thinking of Barac Wei again, are you?” Katana mumbled, referring to the meeting they’d both attended.
“He had the chance to do the right thing”, Bel said as they moved through another large lounge with dead warriors and some sobbing women; she watched people grieve for the dead as she passed.
The empress had taken Zelena’s stand on not sending all of the White Tigers to the boarders, but the emperor had chosen to listen to the majority. The White Tigers were to depart from Goddara in two weeks time, to march across the empire and to join the rest of the force at the boarders of Egara and Sum. The debate had been going on the whole afternoon, until late evening. It was while the emperor made the final decision that Nakkara Rim suddenly stepped forward, telling them the city was under attack. A moment later a wounded warrior arrived at the chamber, bringing news of the battle at the Five-legged Tiger.
“He puts the whole city in danger.”
“Maybe he’ll realize it after tonight”, Katana said dryly, looking around.
“I doubt it. Some of these warriors are dressed in the colors of Egara. We are meant to believe the invasion has already begun. Which would speed up the decision to send our troops away.”
Katana frowned. “You don’t believe they’re from Egara?”
“Have you noticed? All of them are dead? Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
The Captain looked around with a puzzled expression, seeing the dead warrior Bel’s priestesses collected. “Now that you mention it...”
“I don’t know who’s sent them yet, but I will soon enough. Come to the temple at noon and we’ll discuss it.”
Katana nodded as they finally reached the entrance. The place was sealed off by palace guards and the street was filled with warriors standing guard. Princess Deianara and Derac stood a little to the side, flanked by several female warriors with stern faces and with tattoos on their cheeks. The princess’ True Shape of a beautiful white Hawk flickered about the girl. As Deyna wasn’t a true goddess yet her True Form hadn’t fully blended together with her; the bird was surrounded by a bluish hue.
“Captain”, one small, dark woman said and stepped forward as she noticed Katana. Bel kept watching Deyna a few steps away; the girl was standing wrapped in a black cloak with Derac’s arm around her shoulders. The High Priest looked up as Bel stepped out of the brothel, but she wasn’t the first he looked at.
“Fathma. We’re bringing the princess back to the palace”, Katana said. The small woman nodded, then swallowed – glancing at the dark haired warrior floating in the air.
“Captain – is Cat...?”
“She’ll be fine”, Katana said. “Form formation, soldier.”
“Yes, Captain.” The woman straightened her back and signaled to the others to form a procession around Derac and the princess.
Bel noticed Katana’s eyes went quickly to Derac, before she averted her face. At the same moment the princess finally looked up and became aware of the unconscious warrior.
“Cat!” the girl gasped; she rushed forward and broke the formation of warriors surrounding her. “What have you done to her?” Deyna called, looking accusingly at Bel.
“She’s injured. I’m bringing her to the temple to heal her.” Bel watched the girl in front of her, wondering what she needed to do to make the princess realize how important it was that she mastered her divine talents. Not only for her own sake, but for the sake of the empire.
Deianara was the eighth child of the imperial couple, but the seventh princess. Seven was a holy number amongst them, since the Seven First Deities created the world thousands and thousands of years ago. There had been seven kings and seven queens ruling the world – seven continents, seven seas, seven kingdoms and seven races of people. In their beliefs there were seven Wheels of Life, seven Trees of Nature, seven Gates of Death and seven Fires of Heaven. There were seven major Initiations to each area of expertise one wanted to master, whether it was to become a deity, a High Priest or Priestess, a ruler, a member of an order or the leader of an order.
Deyna had the opportunity to become one of the most powerful deities in history, as great as Nidae even, but she didn’t practice enough. Or more accurately: she didn’t take her own abilities seriously enough. And with what had happened that night… The last thing Bel needed now was to deal with an arrogant warrior and a rebellious teenager. Maybe it had been a mistake to let Cat tutor the princess, but the oracle had said it would be good for both of them. And apparently it would form a close bond sometime in a future life.
“It was my fault”, Deyna said, giving the priestess a slightly defiant look. “I made her take me here.”
“Don’t lie to me, girl”, Bel said. “You would never have thought of this place yourself.” She gestured towards the sign outside the brothel. “Do you even know what that name implies?”
Deyna blushed beet red, by which Bel surmised she did. She glanced at the sign of the Five-legged Tiger, noting the picture of the tiger below the name. The fifth leg had nothing to do with being a leg.
“You’d never have come up with the idea if she hadn’t asked you…”
“That’s not true! We – we made a deal. It was a challenge. I would…” The princess silenced, blushing slightly. “It was not only her fault”, she said. “It was my choice to come. She could never have forced me.” Deyna set her jaws, looking challenging at Bel. “I chose to come because I’m tired of being locked up at the palace.”
“You wouldn’t have to be locked up if you learned how to master your gifts”, Bel pointed out. “You should have seen what those warriors were – you should have been able to defeat them. Instead you let yourself be trapped like a child.”
“I am a child!” Deyna burst out. “What you ask of me is too much – I can’t do it!”
“Of course you can. You have the power, you just don’t use it. And you’re not a child – you’re the seventh princess of Kellara, heiress to the power of the Seven Deities of old.” Bel gestured to Katana and the Leaping Panthers. “Take her back”, she commanded. “And see to it that she’s held isolated in the Tower of Eagles for a few days. For punishment, to let her think about her irresponsible actions. Guard her well.”
“Yes, your Highness”, one of the band members said.
“You can’t do this!” Deyna called out. “It’s not…”
Bel turned back to look at the princess, who immediately silenced. Good, she thought. At least she’s wise enough to know when she’s gone too far. “You were saying?”
“Nothing, Priestess”, Deyna mumbled, subdued. She quickly glanced at the warrior floating in the air beside Katana. “But she’ll be well?”
“Yes”, Bel said a little softer, sensing the worry in the princess. “Go now. I’ll talk to you in a few days.”
Bel watched as Katana and the Leaping Panthers took the princess away, before she turned to Derac. “I’ll need to borrow your altar.”
The priest nodded, thoughtfully studying the floating warriors face. “Shall I get Gebra Healerhands for you?”
“Thanks, but I believe I’ll manage this on my own. Your herb garden is fresh?”
“Good…” She hesitated. “Maybe you should get Gebra anyway – it couldn’t hurt.”
“How long before the pain sets in?” Derac asked, again looking at the bloodstained warrior.
“The fever is the only sign at the moment. If the poison runs its natural course she’ll wake up in agony in a few hours… If we’re lucky I’ll have cured her by then.”
Bel looked down at the woman lying on the altar before her. The dark hair was matted by blood and sweat, but Bel had cleaned her face with a moist rag – drying the blood from her cheeks and forehead. There had been a beautiful young woman behind the filth, a face she remembered from earlier in the day; tattoos on the cheeks. The thought of how the young woman had looked at her in the ziggurat made her smile. A lot of men and women had looked at her that way, but none of them had blushed so deeply or so shyly averted their eyes from her. She’d found it sweet.
Without thinking she pushed some of the matted hair from the warriors face, as she had done when she knelt by her side in the brothel.
The woman would live. Bel had stripped her of her leather armor and the shirt, cleaned the wound and then made use of ancient knowledge to burn the poison out of the blood. Tears of the Maiden was the most vicious poison, but the advantage from some other poisons was that it was slow to take effect. People could live with the effect for weeks before they died, which had given Bel time to deal with the poison. Had the poison been something else – like Fires of the Dragon – she might not have had that time. If poisoned with Fires of the Dragon one would die within minutes.
Bel thought of how the young woman had confronted her at the brothel and marveled at her courage. She couldn’t remember anyone challenging her like that before; everyone feared her too much.
“You’ve done great”, a voice said behind her and she glanced over her shoulder at the fair-skinned, wrinkled woman approaching.
“Gebra. You’re late…”
It was already dawn and the Healer was supposed to have come several hours before. She was a slight woman, dressed in brown and green, with white hair fastened in a loose braid falling over one shoulder.
Bel was standing in the Temple of the Radiant Orb – Derac’s temple. She knew he had been kneeling in prayers at the public altar in a different chamber together with the friends of the fallen warrior. Serafine and the member of the Cobra Squad had refused to leave the temple until they heard from Bel; they were now asleep in the adjacent chamber, still waiting.
The chamber in which Bel stood held only an altar and tall candelabras with burning candles. Above the altar was the shape of a full moon, flecked with carvings of bats. The temple was built of black and pink stones, rising similarly to the shape of a ziggurat but not as wide at the base and much smaller. The whole temple was decorated with full moons and bats – and even panthers in a few places.
Nidae was the only deity who could shape change into two animals. She was the strongest of the thirteen deities in Kellara – and the oldest. It was said she descended from the Older Deities, those who’d disappeared several hundred years ago. She was the thirteenth deity, representing life and death with the signs of the Full Moon and the new moon, the Dark Moon, as her symbols: indicating her powers as the Birthmother and the Reaper. Nidae was also the only deity to have two from the Priesthood serving her: a High Priest and the priests following him and the High Priestess and her priestesses.
“Derac told me”, the old woman said, “but I was tired and forgot. I’m sorry, High Priestess – my memory isn’t what it was.”
“You never had a memory to be counted on”, Bel pointed out. “Derac should have escorted you here.”
“Oh, but he had to inform the Imperial Couple of what had happened.” The old woman grinned; a toothless smile. “I remember that, priestess.”
“You’d forget your head if it wasn’t fastened on you”, Bel said dryly.
“True, true – I’m gifted with blessedly bad memory…” the old woman said, coming nearer the table. She squinted at the young woman at the altar. “What was this about, again?”
“Tears of the Maiden”, Bel said. She would have been annoyed at the old woman’s bad memory had she not known her since she was a child. Everyone knew Gebra Healerhands could heal everything from a cold to the most vicious wound – except the poison Tears of the Maiden. She was formidable when she focused on her work, but otherwise she had the worst memory anyone could ever imagine. To say the least.
Gebra looked up at her in surprise. “So it’s true – there is the knowledge of how to cure it. Will you teach me?”
“Only a fully initiated High Priestess can perform the act, Gebra”, Bel said. “I’m sorry. I would’ve loved to teach you otherwise.”
The older woman sighed. “Of course you would’ve.” She stared at the young woman at the altar for a few moments, before she looked up at Bel. “Sorry, you were saying?”
“Could you give this woman some healing, Gebra?” Bel asked, not bothering to pick up the conversation again. “I don’t want her to be too tired when she wakes up.”
“Arrow in the shoulder?” the healer said, leaning forward and squinting at the bandage covering the warrior’s shoulder; the warrior was naked from her waist and up, except the bandage.
Gebra nodded and placed her hands a few inches above the bandage, closing her eyes. She slowly inhaled, moving her hands above the young warrior’s body as she mumbled soft, inaudible words, almost singing.
Bel watched as Gebra performed her healing, using Earth and Spirit to heal the wound beneath the bandage and to revive the body. Cat, Bel thought. I have to remember to use her name when she wakes up.
“That’s it”, the older woman finally said, pulling back. “She had some other cuts and bruises too, but I’ve healed them as well.”
“I’ll ask her to stop by and pay her respects to you”, Bel said.
Gebra nodded. “Cat is always respectful. She’s such a sweet child.”
“You know her?” Bel said, slightly surprised.
“Of course – I know her well. She’s one of the few I actually remember.” Gebra grimaced. “My memory is not what it used to be.”
“It never was”, Bel said, as she always did.
“True, true”, the woman nodded. “Fine – I’ll be going. I think…” She looked around the room with a puzzled expression. “I was on my way, true?”
“True. Return to your cottage.”
“I will. Maybe I’ll pay a visit to Fang along the way…” Gebra turned and walked away without looking back. If Bel hadn’t known the woman she’d be worried to let her out on her own, but Gebra had always been confused. Her memory was a puzzle in itself; she could forget herself in the middle of a conversation, forget where she was heading, even forget her own name on occasion, but she always – without fail – managed to turn up when she was needed and when she healed she was as sharp as a cutting blade. The owl goddess, Feathers, took care of her and usually saw to it that the old woman wasn’t harmed in anyway by her faulty memory.
The warrior on the altar moved and made a soft sound, drawing Bel’s attention. She moved closer to the altar and placed a hand on the woman’s healthy shoulder.
“Can you hear me?” she asked gently.
Eyelids fluttered and slowly opened. One blue eye and one disconcertingly yellow looked up at Bel. The pupils – both the circular and the vertical slit – dilated and the woman abruptly sat up, gasping.
“What…? Where am I?” she asked, quickly looking around. Bel stepped back.
“You are at the Temple of the Radiant Orb”, she said.
The warrior quickly glanced at her and then seemed to realize that she was naked from the waist up. She blushed and made a movement as if to cross her arms across her chest, but caught herself. Bel noticed with some interest that the woman’s blush reached her chest, coloring the tanned skin.
“Why am I here?” the warrior – Cat, Bel mentally corrected herself – asked.
“What is the last thing you remember?” Bel asked, tilting her head to one side, watching the warrior. Cat… Or Cath Ciardha, more correctly, but Katana had told her the young woman preferred her childhood pet name.
“I…” Again the woman blushed, looking away. This time she did cross her arms in front of her. “Me yelling at you”, she grumbled quietly.
“Really?” Bel couldn’t help saying, arching an eyebrow at the younger woman. “I would have thought you’d be wise enough to forget about that.”
Cat looked up with flashing eyes. “That wouldn’t have been wise, that’d be cowardly.”
Bel tilted her head to the side, watching the color fade away on Cat’s tattooed cheeks. The warrior held her eyes, again challenging her. “Are you aware you almost died?” she asked softly.
Cat gasped, suddenly shuddering. “I am, I…” she hesitated. “Did you save me?” she asked almost shyly, looking at her. Bel was surprised by the sudden change in her demeanor, but didn’t show it.
“I did”, she said, nodding. “But Gebra Healerhands was here too, it would be well if you paid her your respects.”
“I will”, Cat said, sincerely.
It was the sincerity of the younger woman that interested her, Bel realized, watching Cat. There was something genuine about the warrior that she hadn’t expected of the woman. She realized Cat was of a simple and straightforward nature, speaking her mind in most matters without playing the games Bel was used to from the Imperial Court. Refreshing, she thought.
“Why did you save me?” Cat asked in that moment. “And… how could you save me? I mean… It was Tears of the Maiden, wasn’t it? There’s no known cure…”
Bel made a swift gesture of her hand. “The important thing is that you’re alive, right? Forget about the rest. How are you feeling?”
“I’m… I feel surprisingly well, for an almost dead woman.” Cat made a face and Bel nodded.
“Good. Then I can inform you that I won’t have you near the princess again until she’s fully Initiated in her divinity.”
“What?” Cat gasped. “You can’t do that!”
“I can – and I will.” Bel narrowed her eyes at the woman. “Are you aware of what you could have done?”
“She…” Cat threw out her arms, gesticulating – then remembered she was still naked and crossed them again, blushing. “She’s a child. She needs to have some fun.”
“You took her to a brothel!” Bel said sharply. “Is that a place to take a child?”
Cat shook her head. “Could you get me my clothes?” she asked crisply. “I’m cold.”
Bel watched her for a moment. “I wouldn’t take you for a woman to be embarrassed by her nakedness. Not if what I’ve heard about you is true.” She let her eyes travel up and down Cat’s body, as the other woman had done to her the day before. If I were a man, she thought, would this be a body I’d find attractive?
Cat twitched uncomfortably on the stone altar, again blushing. Bel turned away, hiding a smile.
“I’ll get you your clothes”, she said.
Bel left the chamber to fetch a new shirt, and the leather armor she’d taken from Cat earlier, from the antechamber adjacent to the altar room. She also poured some water in a tin cup and carried everything before her – floating in the air.
As she returned Cat was standing beside the altar, inspecting the shape of the full moon hanging above the sacred altar.
“I’ve never been in this room before”, Cat said without turning when Bel arrived.
“There’s no reason you should’ve. This is a private chamber, only for priests and priestesses.”
“And injured warriors”, Cat said dryly, turning around to face the priestess – again with a grimace.
“That too”, Bel conceded. “Here you go.” She picked the tin cup from the air and gave it to Cat.
Cat looked at the cup, looking a little bewildered, before she reached out to take it.
“Water only”, Bel said. “It’ll cure your headache.”
“How did you…?” Cat looked up in surprise, then caught herself and nodded. “Of course”, she mumbled, before she took the cup and drank.
Bel watched the other woman’s body: smooth skin marred by faded scars. Without thinking she reached out and touched a long scar in Cat’s side with gentle fingers.
Cat’s reaction was immediate. She gasped and pulled away so quickly she poured the water from the cup all over the floor. “Holy Bat, what are you…? You can’t just…!” She stared at Bel with wide eyes.
“Your scar”, Bel said, indicating Cat’s side, wondering at the woman’s strong reaction. “What happened?”
“What… happened?” Cat was still staring at her, but finally seemed to come to her wits. She forcefully put down the cup at the altar and turned away. “My clothes. I’m getting out of here… Now!”
“You’re welcome”, Bel said dryly as she let the armor and the shirt fall to the floor. Cat stood with her back towards her, unmoving. Bel could see she was breathing deeply and erratically.
“You…” Cat said quietly. “You are…” She turned around, studying Bel’s face as if she was trying to find some answers she didn’t know the questions to. “So strange you are…”
Bel wasn’t sure what to make of that comment. She watched as Cat bent to pick up the brown shirt – it belonged to one of the priests, but Bel didn’t think Cat would mind. It was at least clean.
Some moments later Cat stood fully dressed in her leather armor with her sword at her side. She straightened, looking Bel in the eyes. The priestess realized the other woman felt more confident now and much less vulnerable.
“You can’t dictate the lives of other people like you do”, Cat said, picking up their previous conversation and in so doing confirming Bel’s thoughts. “You have no right…”
“The princess’ life is in my hands. As long as she’s trained to be a goddess she must do as I command her…”
“And what if she doesn’t want to be a goddess?” Cat asked, leaning forward. “Ever thought about that?”
Bel shrugged, unfazed. “There’s a simple solution to that and Deyna knows it. If she didn’t want to become a goddess she’d just sleep with Fang.”
Cat blinked, before she made a face. “That’s what you think? You know… Owls and maggots!” Cat threw out her hands in exasperation. “You don’t even know her. Of course she wants to become a goddess. Who wouldn’t? But you, you make it so hard for her. She’s a child, by the sacred Moon!”
“She isn’t a child. She’s so much more, more than you could understand…”
“Don’t talk to me like that, as if I don’t know anything of the world!” Cat spat, pointing at Bel. Her yellow eye gleamed dangerously. “I’ve been to war, I’ve seen more of the dangers of this world than you have hiding in your holy temple, behind the Name of the Goddess. I’ve seen great fighters break because of the pressures they must face. I think you…”
“Your job is to protect the princess, not to think”, Bel said coolly.
Cat gasped in surprise, but then her face contorted in anger. “You’re heartless, you are! Are you blind, or what?”
“I see more clearly than most people”, Bel said calmly. “And this is not a discussion I’m having with you. Especially not when you won’t listen to reason. You almost got the princess killed. Will you dispute that?”
“No, no I don’t. It was my fault, it was stupid and… and thoughtless…” Cat shook her head. “But the point is – “
“There is no point.”
“Why are you being like this?” Cat exclaimed in frustration. “You’re supposed to be… nice”, she finished lamely, looking almost lost at Bel.
“Am I?” Bel said, arching an eyebrow. “According to whom?”
Cat shook her head with a look of defeat on her face. “Forget it. Show me the way out and you’ll be rid of me.”
“There’s the door”, Bel said, gesturing towards the arch Gebra had used. It would lead to a corridor taking Cat to the public altar room.
Cat shrugged and walked towards the door. Watching her go Bel felt sudden compassion for her. Katana would be hard on Cat, she knew – not that she didn’t deserve it, but still – and she got the feeling Cat already berated herself for the risk she’d put Deyna in.
“Cat”, she called. The younger woman stiffened – then turned to look at her; there was a lost, sad expression in her eyes. “Sometimes we don’t see the whole picture, kitten. When we don’t it’s sometimes difficult to understand and to accept the way things seem to be. If the Grasshopper says he knows the world… he should listen to the Eagle. Go know”, she added gently. “Your friends are waiting to see you.”
The warrior seemed to hesitate and the lost look in her eyes changed to something Bel didn’t recognize. Cat watched her for a long time, before she turned away and left.
“You’re so beautiful.”
That’s what she’d wanted to say before she died, but she hadn’t gotten the words out and then she woke up half naked in front of the High Priestess. And of course she couldn’t keep her big mouth shut, but had to defend her stupid actions and to accuse the High Priestess a second time instead of thanking her for saving her life.
Cat had felt exposed, vulnerable and embarrassed in front of the other woman – feelings she wasn’t familiar with. The thought of how the High Priestess had eyed her still made her cringe as she walked through the short corridor. There hadn’t been any desire in the other woman’s eyes, only a casual interest – as if the woman was studying a painting someone had recommended and wanted to inspect it for herself.
Then the crazy woman had touched her! That touch… Even the memory of the touch made her giddy, making her blush with embarrassment in the corridor. She loathed herself for the blushing. She never blushed and now… That woman, she thought crossly as she reached the end of the corridor. That touch… There had been something familiar about the touch, as if the High Priestess had touched her before – a long time ago, leaving a faded memory. She’d felt instant arousal when the other woman’s hand caressed her, something she couldn’t remembering happening to her before – not counting the odd sensations she’d felt during the night, when the same woman’s fingers touched her lips. Cat might be frivolous and intimate with a lot of women, but it had never happened to her before, that a woman she didn’t know had that intense effect on her. Even for a beautiful or naturally sensuous woman it often took time before Cat’s physical need was stirred.
In any case she’d never wanted to bed a woman just because of a casual touch.
Cat stopped and looked around. She had reached the outer chamber were the public altar was placed. The room was long, with stone benches in rows on either side of an aisle leading to the altar. The stone altar was standing on a dais, with several candelabras on either side of it and surrounded by statues of bats in various sizes and shapes. On the steps leading up to the dais Serafine and Para were seated. Both of them flew up from the stone as they noticed her in the doorway. They were bloodstained and looked tired, as if they hadn’t slept in days.
Katana stood leaning on a bench in the front row with her arms crossed. She, too, rose as Cat moved into the chamber.
“Cat!” Para embraced Cat and almost squeezed the air out of her lungs. “I’ve never been so glad to see your mismatched eyes”, he said, holding her tight.
“Give way, you boar!” Serafine said after a moment, slapping his shoulder. “Let me…”
As Para let go of her Serafine hugged Cat – hard and for a long time.
“I thought I’d lost you for good this time”, Serafine finally said, pulling away, and discretely dried a tear off her cheek.
“Not yet”, Cat said, slightly subdued. She was still confused by the High Priestess’ last comment and by the gentle look in her eyes, so at odds with her previous cold hearted efficiency. Cat didn’t know what to make of it. “I’m a little tougher to kill than that.”
“Honestly!” Serafine said, making a face at her. “You didn’t expect to survive, did you?”
Cat shook her head.
“I wonder why she saved your life”, Para said lowly, almost not audibly. Serafine turned towards him in surprise.
“What do you mean? Why shouldn’t she?”
“I just mean…” Para glanced at Katana a few steps away, before shrugging. “I’ve just… heard things about her.” He leaned forward a bit, lowering his voice. “That everything she does has an ulterior motive. Even something like this. They say… that she’s plotting to take over the throne.”
“Don’t be silly”, Serafine said, brushing off his comments with a sniff.
“Well, I don’t trust her”, he said slightly offended, straightening his back.
“She saved my life”, Cat said, stifling the beginnings of an argument. Para and Serafine had never really gotten along. Cat had never understood why, but she suspected it had something to do with her: they both saw her as their best friend and each other as a threat to that friendship. “I’m not about to…” She silenced as she noticed someone else approaching.
Katana was still standing aloof, waiting on her turn, but a fifth person had entered the chamber and her appearance made the others turn their heads towards her.
“Cat”, the beautiful Ravena said, slowly moving across the aisle towards the altar. She was very attractive and she knew how to make use of her beauty. This morning she was dressed in a long, tight dress in a soft red color, showing off her perfect form. A beautiful necklace in gold and red rubies gleamed around her throat. “I heard you…” The raven-haired beauty seemed to stumble on the words. “I heard you… almost died.”
Cat nodded, waiting for Ravena to reach them. She had always had a thing for the other woman, but they had never shared a bed. Ravena was… difficult. She could flirt casually with Cat or any other woman, but as soon as Cat made a move she pulled away and put on an indifferent attitude. If Cat ignored her, the woman would flirt heavier than before, but she would still not deliver anything more than vague promises. It was said she was still a virgin and lately rumors had it her parents wanted to wed her off to the present ruler of Egara. If that was even possible, as other rumors had it he was a High Priest.
“Cat – I’d have been… devastated had I lost you.”
Ravena put her arms around Cat and pressed her body against her in a not at all chaste manner and kissed her on the cheek, close to the lips. If it had been the day before Cat wouldn’t have been slow to take advantage of the situation, but now she was still thinking of the High Priestess in the adjacent chamber. Green eyes, soft touch… That touch, she thought distractedly. Why did I recognize her touch? Why did I react that way? And then: She’s so bloody beautiful…
Cat still very vividly remembered the High Priestess’ touch on her lips the evening before. The instant arousal had surprised her then, even in her state, and it surprised her still. She had indeed bedded many women, but none had managed to arouse her so quickly. Maybe it was plainly the beauty of the woman – or those dreams… Snakes and Panthers – those dreams!
Cat had had them for years: dreams in which she made love to a woman whose face she couldn’t see. Only red hair gleaming in candlelight… She’d always chased red haired women because of those dreams. Was that why the sight of the High Priestess affected her so?
“Ravena, nice to see you again”, she said, pulling away from the woman’s embrace. “I was just telling Serafine and Para how grateful I was to be alive. How’s your brother?”
Ravena looked a little taken aback by the stiff response, but nodded politely. “Rhais is fine. He’s been chosen by Bor to investigate what happened yesterday.” Ravena looked at Para, whose eyes always seemed to glaze over when Ravena was present; Cat usually teased him about it. “Bor wants to see you too. He’s been looking for you, but as soon as I heard about Cat I knew you’d be here.”
“You came to get me?” Para asked hopefully. Ravena tilted her head to one side with a laugh.
“I came to check on Cat… amongst other things.”
Para held Ravena’s eyes for a moment, then nodded and turned to Cat. “I need to…”
“Of course you do”, Cat said. “Thanks for staying.”
“Of course”, he said. He hesitated and glanced towards the opening behind them. “Be careful with… you know.”
She nodded noncommittally.
“I’ll go with you”, Ravena said to Para, following him towards the aisle. They passed Katana who followed them with narrowed eyes. Cat wondered what that was about, but forgot it as soon as the Captain turned her eyes towards her.
“A word with you, Cat.”
“Of course, Captain”, she said, moving towards the leader of Panthera.
“I’ll wait for you outside”, Serafine said, nodding to her.
A moment later Katana and Cat were alone before the altar.
“I want to apologize”, the Captain said, making Cat blink in surprise.
“Apologize? For… what?”
“For hitting you. I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that…”
Cat slowly inhaled. “Oh! I’m sorry too, Captain. I shouldn’t have said that about you.” She hesitated. “But that woman – she’s… She’s not human. She’s completely – irrational. Deyna was right, she’s not a nice person.”
Katana looked at her for a moment. “You know”, she finally said, a tad sharply. “You shouldn’t talk about things you don’t know anything about. You don’t know Bel. She’s my best friend and everything you say against her you say against me.”
“She has a name, she’s human.” Katana frowned at her. “You shouldn’t be so quick to judge people, Cat.”
“I’m not…!” Cat clenched her jaws. “No, Captain”, she muttered.
“I’m glad you’re alive”, Katana added in a friendlier voice. “I owe Bel one.”
“Me too”, Cat mumbled, mostly to herself. She looked up at the Captain. “I’m to be punished, am I not?”
“You’re suspended from duty for the time being.”
Cat clenched her jaws again, but didn’t say anything; she knew it would be futile to object.
“But you did save Serafine’s life and you’re a good soldier. I’ll try to reason with the High Priestess. She’s not completely without sense.”
The last was said with some irony and Cat quickly glanced at the Captain in surprise, realizing Katana was mocking the High Priestess in a friendly way and at the same time showing Cat that she was aware of her friends lesser qualities.
“Have patience, Cat”, Katana said in a comforting tone.
“Yes, Captain”, Cat said, nodding. She frowned. “Those warriors, Captain. I thought I saw some of them wearing Egara’s colors. Is Egara already attacking us?”
“We’re not sure yet, Cat”, Katana said. “I think… I would recommend you not talk to too many people about what happened last night. The less people know about it at the moment the better, I believe. Until we are sure what’s going on.”
“If something’s going down I’ll be sure to have you there. You’re my best fighter – and you know it.”
“I’m just a reckless bastard at times”, Cat mumbled under her breath, thinking of the Captain’s anger the night before.
Katana watched her for a moment. “You deserved that”, she said and Cat sighed.
“I did. But…” She looked up.
“No ‘buts’.” Katana held up a hand. “I’m still mad at you, even if I’m glad you’re alive. Go now. Serafine is waiting for you.”
Serafine followed Cat to the city gates, but then she had to return to duty at the palace and they separated just inside the city walls. Cat, being suspended from duty, was free to spend the day as she pleased. She’d have visited Deyna if she’d been allowed, but she didn’t dare tempt the patience of either the Captain or the High Priestess again. The Goddess only knew what they’d do to her if they found out she’d broken their rules a second time. Besides, she didn’t even know where Deyna was. She hoped the girl was alright after the upsetting events the night before.
Feeling more alive and awake than she had a right to after almost getting killed, Cat decided to visit Gebra Healerhands before heading back to the palace for a bath and change of clothes. The old woman had a house close to the palace walls – a large cottage in white stone, surrounded by a large garden containing an orange grove, a rose garden and an herbal garden. When Cat arrived the woman was kneeling in the dirt at the back of the house. She was probably weeding the flower bed that flanked the path which was leading down to the herbal garden – although it looked as if she was talking to the flowers. Knowing Gebra the woman in all probability was talking to the flowers.
“Gebra?” Cat said, putting down the wooden statue of an owl in white oak that she’d picked up as a gift from the market on her way to the healer’s place.
The white haired woman glanced over her shoulder with a confused expression. Gebra’s whole life seemed to exist of puzzling experiences – all of them occurring at every moment of the day. Cat didn’t understand how the woman could cope with living like that: forgetting everything as soon as she’d processed it.
“Ah, the lovely panther. Haven’t seen you for awhile.” Gebra rose and brushed the soil of her knees and hands; she was dressed in a long, brown robe with wide sleeves.
“No?” Cat said with half a smile. According to the High Priestess the old woman had healed her, which meant she’d been at the temple and seen Cat only a few hours ago.
“Um, maybe I did…” Gebra frowned, then shrugged. “But I really don’t remember, do I now?” She grinned, which made her skin crinkle like a fine web covering her face. Blue eyes twinkled. “How are you, lovely panther?”
“I almost died this morning”, Cat said and indicated the wooden owl at her feet. “I brought this for you, to thank you.”
Gebra stared at the owl. “It’s… beautiful”, she whispered. “I know where I’ll keep it.” She looked at Cat, frowning. “You almost died? And I don’t remember?” She shook her head with a sigh. “I truly hate this sometimes, lovely. I hate not remembering things. For once in my life I wish I could remember… I wish I could remember it all – everything!” She threw out her arms in desperation.
Cat shook her head. “Be careful what you wish for”, she said. “You might get it.”
“Anything is better than this… this hole in my head.” Gebra tapped herself on the forehead with her knuckles. “What a blessing it would be, to never forget anything.” She looked at the owl again and Cat noticed the slight shift in her eyes that indicated that the old woman had forgotten what they were talking about again. Gebra turned back to her flower bed, looking little bewildered down at it.
“I’ll see you later, Gebra”, Cat said softly.
Gebra turned around to look at her, smiling. “Cat – the High Priestess was talking about you. I believe she saved your life.”
“She sure did”, Cat said, returning the smile.
“Good to see you again. Oh, look – what a beautiful owl!” The old woman stepped forward and took the wooden owl in her hands, lifting it up. “I know just the spot for this…” she said as she turned away and went into her house.
“She’ll have her share of memories one day”, a voice said close to Cat. Cat jumped and pulled her sword halfway from its scabbard before she realized the voice belonged to a woman seemingly older than Gebra.
“Who are you?” she asked sharply, letting her sword slide back into its scabbard. The old woman had taken her by complete surprise; she hadn’t heard her approach or seen her. She looked around. Where had the woman come from? There was no way she could have walked up to Gebra’s house without being noticed.
“She cares for you, you know”, the woman said. She was really old and hunched backed, with dark, wrinkled skin and black eyes. She was dressed in rags. Maybe a Wild Woman – one of Gebra’s friends, Cat thought. One of those healers moving around the empire, healing people for food and lodging. Gebra sustained a lot of them.
“Gebra?” Cat asked, frowning.
“Gebra too”, the woman said, but then shook her head. “But not who I mean. She lost someone once, someone close to her. She had a sister who died. She doesn’t remember. I do, of course.”
Cat frowned. “What… who are you talking about?”
“She needs you, although she doesn’t know it. If she never knows you, she’ll close her heart when those she loves are lost again… It’s better to die and to live again in another life, than to close your heart for an eternity.”
“Woman, by all bats – what are you talking about?”
The old woman smiled and shook her head. Her eyes gleamed with an inner light. “I’ll see you again”, she said and then simply turned around and walked away towards the herbal garden.
Cat stood by, watching her. She shook her head. Mad woman, she thought and shrugged, before she decided to return to the palace. It was high time to have a bath.
“Who would do something like this, Badra?” Nidae asked her in her mind. The goddess was lying stretched out on the stone altar in the High Priestess’ private praying chamber; she’d chosen the shape of the panther for once and let her tail casually sweep back and forth in the air, showing her annoyance.
Bel looked down at the five dead warriors before her, shaking her head. The five warriors were in various stages of decomposition: corpses long gone. There had been at least sixty of them, seventy with those who’d actually been alive when they attacked the brothel – she’d had all of them burned that same morning, only saving a handful to show the emperor.
“Raising the dead is no easy matter”, she said thoughtfully.
“Tell me about it.” The panther yawned and showed its sharp teeth. “Politics bores me, Badra.”
“So I see”, Bel said dryly. “And what would you rather talk about that’s more important than saving the empire?”
Bel heard the goddess chuckle within her.
“I leave the saving to you – you’re so good at it.”
The panther rose easily from the altar and jumped down to the stone floor. It made its way to Bel and twinned itself around her legs, purring. Bel put a hand on its head, thoughtfully studying the dead warriors.
“Where were you today?” she asked after a moment. “I called you earlier.”
“I was visiting a friend…”
The panther stopped its purring and moved slightly away from Bel. In a dark flash it then swiftly changed shape into a beautiful woman with skin as dark as night and eyes even darker. The phantom image of a very large bat was hovering above her in the room.
“Gebra won’t live much longer, Badra.”
“Oh, really? That’s… sad”, Bel said, feeling sad. “Did Nikka tell you?”
“I sensed it”, the woman said. “She’s dying. She’s old, Badra – let it go”, she added softly.
Bel nodded. “I know, it’s just…” She sighed. “I’ll miss her. She doesn’t believe in the Priesthood, but she’s always served the people her own way. She’s a good person.”
”I’ve had many priestesses over the years – many, many. But you’re one of a kind, do you know that?” the goddess said after a moment, winking at Bel.
Bel waved her off. “This is important, Nidae. Focus on the Empire…”
“He wanted you, you know...”
“Who?” Bel frowned.
“My half-brother”, the goddess snorted.
Bel nodded thoughtfully. Fang was much younger than Nidae and they only shared the same father, who’d been a young god when Nidae was conceived. “Why would he want me as priestess?”
“You don’t get it, do you, Badra?” Nidae said with an exaggerated sigh. “So clever, but so ignorant of your own importance. Even Mara wanted you – I had to fight both of them to get you. Fang challenged me first...”
“Mara, too?” Bel frowned.
“He stabbed me in the back – challenging me right after I’d fought the Tiger. He’s a true snake, he is.” Nidae spat, walking restlessly across the floor.
Bel considered the goddess’ words. “Nidae...”
“What about the girl, priestess?” Nidae walked up to her with a grin. “You saw her, didn’t you?”
“My son’s daughter-daughter-daughter, or some such... She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Perhaps”, Bel said, still distracted by the thought of Mara and Fang.
“Perhaps”, the goddess snorted. “You’re too dull, priestess. What did you feel, watching her?”
“Nidae, you know I’m not interested in people like that. A body is a body, there’s nothing more to it.”
“Did she look like me? She did, didn’t she?”
Bel studied the goddess’ naked body, suddenly realizing she’d recognized Cat’s nakedness without being aware of it. Now she nodded, recognizing Cat’s beauty in the goddess. It felt strange seeing Nidae’s body and immediately thinking of the warrior.
“Wasn’t she the least beautiful?” Nidae asked, teasingly.
“Like a sculpture crafted by a master’s hands”, Bel heard herself say, then shook her head. “You’re trying to distract me!” she accused, looking sternly at the goddess.
Nidae laughed and suddenly changed shape. This time she became a small bat, flapping around the room. It flew up to the ceiling and hooked itself there. As Bel watched the bat changed size, growing bigger until it was at least a foot long.
“You need to have some fun, priestess.”
The bat stretched its wings, but didn’t let go of the ceiling. Dark eyes were gleaming.
“I’m your priestess, Nidae – I live to serve you. Stop this business and tell me about Mara and Fang. Why would they want me as priestess?”
“Because...” The bat let go of the ceiling and flew through the chamber. “Because when two powers merge the outcome will be greater than the original power. You are my power, priestess. You and Derac. But mostly you, because of your ability to Read the deities.”
There was a slight shift in the air and again the dark-skinned woman was standing in front of Bel.
“Neither Fang nor Mara would have been able to extract as much power from you as you give me. There’s nothing more powerful than a being that does exactly what she’s meant to do. You were meant to be my priestess. Fang and Mara wanted you, each for their own particular motives – but they could never have controlled you. Nikka told me only a few years ago that if you had ended up with Fang you’d have squandered your powers and if you’d ended up with Mara...”
“What, Nidae?” Bel asked when the goddess hesitated.
“If you’d ended up with Mara you’d have killed him...”
“Oh, my!” Bel gasped softly.
“It would have brought disorder and disaster to our empire long before now.”
“Why would I...?” Bel frowned, again looking down at the dead, decaying warriors at the floor.
“Why do humans do anything?” Nidae threw out her arms. “I didn’t know about this at the time, but I’m glad I won those challenges. You’ve served me well.”
Bel nodded thoughtfully.
“But you need to loosen up, to relax...”
“Well, someone needs to keep a level head around here”, Bel said, arching an eyebrow at the goddess at her side.
“My, my – you’re disappointed at me. You think I ought to take this more seriously...” Nidae laughed. “I don’t have to. It’s the business of humans.”
“Not this!” Bel objected, indicating the dead before them. “This is the art of a highly knowledgeable High Priest or Priestess. That makes it your business. That makes it the business of the deities.”
Nidae hesitated, looking at the warriors. Suddenly she turned back into the panther, restlessly walking around the altar with swiftly swinging tail.
“I’ve lived for seven hundred years, Badra”, she said in Bel’s head. “I’m the oldest of the deities...”
“I know this. But you spent a long time in hibernation.”
“Learning. I was learning, priestess. My... mother taught me many things now forgotten amongst humans and deities. She knew secrets not even I know... Fang is only a child, two hundred years is not much for us. But Mara is cunning. My seven hundred years... It’s a long time to be serious in, Badra. You need to remember that for the princess. She needs to have some fun, before the serious time begins.”
“It is the serious time now, Nidae. It’s the wise who knows when to play and when to be serious...”
“Life is not that simple, Badra Bellona – and one day you’ll know it.” The panther jumped back onto the altar and laid down, watching Bel with gleaming eyes. Bel ignored the comment; people always had an opinion on how she was supposed to be. People – or deities.
“That’s why Fang was being so difficult when it came to Naming Cat, wasn’t it? He was annoyed he lost the challenge...”
“True. He refused to take her if I didn’t give him something in return. It took time before I could convince him otherwise...”
“You gave him something? What?”
“I didn’t”, the goddess snorted in Bel’s mind. “He owed me one. For Deyna’s sister.”
“What? But that was Mara…”
“Yes, but Fang was supposed to keep an eye on her. The fool.”
Bel thought of what Cat had said in regards to Deyna. “You know, the semi-deities I train might be tempted – but if they really want to be deities they wouldn’t give in to the likes of Fang and Mara.”
“Is that what you think? Is that what you think of Deyna?”
“Yes.” Bel nodded. “Deyna wants to be a goddess – she won’t give up herself to anyone.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because I know her. I know her potential and I know what she wants. She wants to be something else, something more than her sisters. She has ambition – “
Bel silenced as the goddess changed back to her human form, nakedly pacing the floor before her. Bel frowned. It wasn’t like Nidae to be so… skittish. She watched the energies swirling around the phantom bat around the woman and suddenly realized something. “Something’s happened”, she gasped softly.
Nidae came to a halt, looking up.
“And you are worried”, Bel said. “That’s why you’re changing subjects all the time…”
Nidae sighed and sat down at the altar. “The world is changing, Bel.” The goddess seemed to hesitate, before she looked at her priestess. “You know how we make our powers grow. But that’s not the only way – killing someone grants us even more power. There is a way…”
“I know”, Bel said softly. “I’ve studied it.”
There was a sudden suspicious expression in Nidae’s face and Bel made a grimace at her.
“Stop that, you’re being silly. I would never betray you. It’s me – Bel!”
“Fine. You’re right.” Nidae sighed again. “Sorry. It’s the times, the events and the sneaking tongues of… Making me distrust people. Of course you wouldn’t betray me. But then you know about the ritual. Deities don’t kill, but all of us are still trying to gain as much power we can, because…”
“Because you fear someone will go to the length of killing…? You fear someone might actually want to perform the old sacrificing rituals to become more powerful than the rest of you? More powerful than… you?”
“I fear it would disrupt the order. If one of us becomes stronger than the rest… There’s no telling what would happen.”
“Politics of the gods”, Bel mumbled. “Who do you believe would do this?” she asked, although she herself had her suspicions. She’d been waiting for this for years.
“I don’t know, Badra. I really don’t know.” Nidae sighed and then lifted her head, sniffing in the air. “Katana is coming.”
Bel turned to look towards the entrance. “Good, then we can discuss the matter of...” – she turned back to the goddess and realized Nidae was gone – “Egara”, she finished with a sigh.
Cat knew she was dreaming.
After visiting Gebra she’d returned to the palace, being warmly greeted by her friends who’d heard of her recovery and wanted to see it with their own eyes. Katana had quickly dispersed the pack, sending them back to duty. Cat had worked out a bit, practicing with the sword, before taking a long bath and eating something. Then she went to rest for a bit, but instantly fell asleep. She should’ve predicted it – healing always made her tired, even if she felt revived by it at the same time.
In sleep the dream she hadn’t had for a long time returned and now it was more intense and vivid than ever.
The scenario was always the same and she had learned to recognize it over the years. It was always the same woman, the same hands, the same mouth and the same soft lips... The same voice whispering the same words in her ear. She never saw the face, but she knew the touch of this woman more intimately than she had ever known a real lover.
The first dream had come to her when she was sixteen: a naked woman caressing her naked skin, whispering soft words to her and kissing her with such melting gentleness... She awoke trembling with an unknown ache in her body and in her heart. At first she’d been too ashamed to think about it – not understanding what was happening to her. She’d been fairly naïve in some areas of her life when she was younger...
As Cat grew older the dreams made more sense, except it was always the same dream and the same woman. She used to believe it had something to do with her unconscious telling her that she wasn’t interested in men in a sexual way, but in women.
Cat had been with a man once, but it hadn’t given her any satisfaction. After that one time the dreams increased in frequency for awhile – until she kissed her first woman. Or was kissed by one, in fact. It had happened when she was in Sum, fighting for a warlord. One of his many concubines had kissed her one night after a feast. That event had opened a great many doors for her and she spent a lot of time with that woman, letting the concubine teach her various ways of seducing women. Cat became quite adept in the art; the woman said she had a natural talent for it.
But the dream never went away. It returned over the years, sometimes often, other times less. Cat feared the dream because she never knew when it would come upon her and she always felt sad and lonely when she woke up. And yet she looked forward to it at the same time, wanting the softness of the woman – wanting to make love to her.
The woman had red hair, so Cat went looking for red haired women to seduce – or at least to kiss – to see if she could find the woman in her dreams. But it never felt the same kissing them as it did kissing the woman of her dreams. It never felt the same kissing any woman.
Cat had never felt the fulfillment in making love with someone as she did when she made love with the woman in her dreams. Katana had once asked her what she was looking for in all those women she seduced, so Cat told her about the dream. The Captain had looked at her for awhile, before she shook her head, saying: “Happy is the one that overcomes her desires. Only she will find true peace.” Whatever that meant.
Cat knew she was dreaming, but she didn’t want to wake up. It had been awhile since last she felt the gentle caress of the red-haired woman. She’d missed it. More than she’d realized, she thought before she surrendered to the loving arms of her dream-lover.
The woman kissed her and she craved that kiss. She craved those soft, soft lips and the taste of the woman’s mouth. She put her arms around the woman and felt the softness of her nakedness. The softness of her breasts and her skin... She let her hands touch the other woman, making her moan against her. She let the woman kiss her – she couldn’t get enough of those kisses... Tongues tenderly touching, lips meeting and teasingly retracting. That was all they ever did: touched and kissed – and Cat would wake up just before the lovely ending.
“Don’t go yet”, she whispered. “Stay a little longer this time...”
That was something new, she’d never been able to change the dream before.
“Don’t worry. Our time will come... It’s not far off now.”
“I’ve looked so hard for you, everywhere... Where can I find you?”
“You have found me. I need to find you, now. And I will. But then...”
“Then what?” she whispered in fear, suddenly feeling a cold dread in her heart.
“Then you have to let me go, when I ask it of you.”
“No! I’d miss you too much!”
Soft lips kissed her, tender fingers caressed her cheeks, her hair – her lips. This time she noticed something she’d never seen before: the woman wore tattoos of bats on her arms. That is strange, she thought, seeing it.
“Ssshh, beautiful”, the woman whispered, gently putting a finger to Cat’s mouth.
Cat gasped, suddenly recognizing the touch. She opened her mouth to speak, but in the next moment the dream shifted...
“Are you sure you want to do this?” a woman asked, holding forth a white gold ring with some strange inscriptions. Cat looked up and gasped inwardly as she recognized Bel. It wasn’t strictly Bel, but she had red hair and green eyes and the look in those eyes… It was Bel. And she wore strange clothes, but beautiful: a flowing dress so light blue it was almost white.
“How dare you ask me that, here of all places?” Cat heard herself say jokingly, in a voice not fully her own. Her heart was full of joy and love – overflowing with it, in fact. “After all we’ve been through? You owe me this.”
“I surely do”, the other woman, who was Bel, said with soft laughter. She held Cat’s eyes.
There were strange buildings in the background, high against the sky. One tower stood out, reflecting the sun. Around them there were trees and grass and Cat realized they were standing in a park A crowd of people were gathered below the dais they were standing on. People wearing even stranger clothes.
“This is for forever, kitten”, Bel said, teasingly. Cat grinned.
“Forever is not long enough.” Then she added, softer. “I’m so glad you found me.”
“I’ll always find you, love. In any life, any time, in any world. My love for you transcends time.”
Cat reached out her fingers, not finding the words to describe what she felt. Bel put the ring on one of her fingers, raising her gaze towards her. There was so much love in the green eyes Cat’s knees grew weak.
“Now you’re mine”, the woman said, so low it shouldn’t even be possible for it to be audible – but Cat heard her; she supposed it was because it was a dream.
“I was always yours”, she heard herself say. “I’ve loved you since the first time I saw you.”
Cat sat up with a gasp, fully alert and awake. It’s her! It’s been her the entire time! she’d known it, of course – but seeing her face in the dream… Although, truthfully it wasn’t Bel’s face, but the woman in her dream had been Bel – in a weird way. It’s her… “Bats and holy Feathers!” she whispered. “Oh, dear Goddess – I wish I’d never dream again…”
But waking up like that – stunned, still trembling, her heart still full of overflowing joy –Cat knew she must see the High Priestess.
No wonder I was instantly affected by her touch, she later thought as she rushed through the crowded city towards the temple on the mountainside. She had instantly recognized the woman’s touch from her dreams: the High Priestess’s fingers on her lips, the touch when she caressed the scar on Cat’s side… The sudden thought of what it must be like to kiss the High Priestess, when she reacted the way she did to a mere touch, it made Cat weak. Goddess… she thought in despair, feeling desire shoot through her like a spear. This is absolute madness!
She stopped at a market and picked up a wooden sculpture of a small bat – no larger than the length of her hand, from fingers to wrist – and hurried to the temple with it in her pocket.
Once Cat reached the large opening to the temple of the Goddess of the Dark Moon, though, she hesitated. She remembered the last time she’d entered, twelve years ago, but that had been on the command of a goddess. Now… She only had a dream that she couldn’t mention and a small sculpture to appease the High Priestess with. A priestess she’d insulted twice, nonetheless. What am I doing here? she thought, bewildered. But she knew she needed answers.
Cat shifted weight from one foot to the other, staring into the darkness beyond the entrance. How could she feel what she was feeling for a woman she didn’t know and had hardly met? How could she feel so strongly about the High Priestess, who was so… indifferent to others?
“You may not enter without permission”, someone said at her side.
Cat twitched, embarrassed that she’d been taken by surprise a second time the same day. She turned to look at the young priestess who was standing right beside her, dressed in brown. Dark eyes the color of gleaming coal twinkled at her.
“I brought a… a gift for the High Priestess”, Cat said, showing the small bat. “I wanted to thank her for saving my life.”
“Oh, how cute!” the young priestess said, positively delighted. “She has to love this…” Dark eyes watched Cat with a conspiring shine. “I’ll take you to her. Follow me.”
The priestess was remarkably dark skinned and Cat found her faintly familiar, but couldn’t place her.
“Are you sure about this?” she asked, following the younger woman. “I don’t want to get you into trouble.”
“She’s already disappointed in me – one more trespass into her private life won’t make a difference.”
Cat shook her head, not knowing what to say. She’d thought the priestesses of the temple lived in fear and awe of their High Priestess, but that was apparently not the case. The young priestess ahead of her glanced back at her with a smile showing off white teeth.
“I know who you are…”
“Oh?” Cat said, looking around at the corridors they passed. She smelt the scent of incense and candles.
“If you want to know too you’ll have to ask her. She might tell you…”
“Who?” Cat frowned, looking at the priestess. “What are you talking about?”
“Time will tell. Look – here we are…”
Cat stopped at the entrance to the great hall she remembered from her childhood. The fountain still sparkled with water filling the channels in the large room. The statues still stood as majestic as before, throwing their long shadows on the stone floor.
“You can’t enter the inner sanctuary if you haven’t drunk from the Water of Nidae.”
Cat nodded, remembering. “What must I do?”
“Oh, no – that’s only for the Initiated, or those blessed by the High Priestess or the Goddess herself. You might be, one day – but time will tell… It all depends on how it ends, I guess. Come, I’ll show you another way. The High Priestess is at her private altar, it’s not far from here.”
Cat followed the odd priestess through a few more corridors, until they reached an open arch.
“Go through there…” the young woman said and pointed ahead of her. “Oh, and you may always enter my temple.”
Cat looked towards the opening, hearing voices from inside. “What…?” she asked, turning back to the priestess, only to realise that she was gone. “Oh, bloody Snakes…”
Sudden laughter from the adjacent chamber caught Cat’s attention; she recognized it as Katana’s. The thought of meeting the Captain there brought some comfort and she moved forward, halting again nearer the vault when she heard a second woman laugh. It was a lovely, open hearted laughter that brought a swift blush to Cat’s cheeks. It’s her, she thought. And then, again, before she moved forward: Goddess – this is madness!
Cat stopped below the arched opening and took in the scene. There was a stone altar with a large, looming statue of a bat right behind it; candelabras stood at the floor and empty incense holders were placed at the altar. On a row close to the altar a handful of dead warriors were lying; Cat couldn’t see them clearly, but they looked like those who’d attacked the brothel last night.
Katana and the High Priestess were standing before the altar, talking and laughing. The High Priestess held a hand on the Captains arm and Katana looked at her with amusement.
“Really?” the blonde warrior said.
“Really”, the High Priestess confirmed, nodding. She was still smiling. “Don’t tell her, though… I still think its sweet.”
Cat took a step forward and the two women immediately turned to her. The Captain narrowed her eyes and the twinkle in the High Priestess’ eyes died instantly together with the smile on her lips. Cat felt like an intruder.
“I’m sorry, I…”
“How did you get in? Don’t you know this temple is sacred – you’re not allowed to be here?” The High Priestess turned sharp, forbidding eyes at her.
“I know, but the priestess let me in”, Cat hurriedly said, gesturing towards the hallway behind her.
“What priestess?” the red haired woman from her dream said, frowning. Cat swallowed as she remembered that dream. How could she physically want someone who wasn’t even… nice?
“Young, very dark. Really black eyes…” she said.
The High Priestess’ frown deepened. “Really?” Cat heard her mumble, mostly to herself, in an ironic tone.
“I’ll leave you two alone”, Katana said. “We’ll talk later, Bel”, she added, looking at the priestess.
The High Priestess nodded, still looking a little distracted.
“And you”, the Captain said as she passed Cat, arching a warning eyebrow at her. “Behave yourself.”
When Katana had left Cat and the High Priestess silently looked at each other. She really is beautiful, Cat thought, discretely watching the priestess. Her face, her eyes, her mouth… No, not looking at her mouth now!
“Why are you here?” the other woman said and Cat hastily stepped forward with her gift.
“I came to apologize”, she said, bringing forth the statuette of the bat. “And to thank you for saving my life. I brought this – the priestess who let me in seemed to like it.”
“I bet she did”, Cat heard the High Priestess mumble. The woman nodded as she received the gift. “It’s nice”, she added noncommittally. “Thank you.”
“I thought I’d bring you something. I wasn’t very nice to you this morning. You saved my life and I only yelled at you. I’m very grateful to you for what you did, although it maybe didn’t show…”
Cat noticed an amused hint in the green of the High Priestess’ eyes and blushed when she realized she was babbling. She never babbled.
“You’re welcome”, the other woman said.
They looked at each other. Cat was waiting for the High Priestess to say something, but she didn’t. Instead she watched Cat with an intensity and curiosity that distracted Cat. She was wondering at the fallen warriors laid out beside the altar, but couldn’t tear her eyes from the High Priestess to look at them. She slowly inhaled.
“So”, she said.
“So”, the High Priestess said. “Twice in your life you’ve braved the dangers of this temple and my wrath.” She tilted her head to one side. “Did the goddess send you a dream this time too, telling you to find me?”
Goddess, Cat thought distressed, remembering what the other woman had said in her dream about finding each other. This is plain madness!
“Um, no”, she said, only lying a little bit. She doubted it was the Goddess who’d sent the dream she’d been plagued with – or blessed with – over the years. That dream most certainly came from her own twisted self – a figment of her imagination. “I just thought… uh, that I should apologize.”
“And now you have. Anything else?”
The other woman’s attitude made Cat snap out of her silence. If the woman of her dreams was a true figment of her imagination then Cat’s attraction towards her was too. She was attracted to the woman because of a foolish dream – due to an image of a woman who didn’t exist. The woman in her dreams – she was made up of fantasies Cat had created about the High Priestess over the years. There were no truths in them. And if they weren’t true… Then her feelings were not real, as long as she was aware and remembered that everything was a lie.
“Will you tell me where Deyna is? Katana refuses to let me know”, Cat said, straightening her back. “I’m not going to seek her out. I just want to know she’s safe.”
The High Priestess didn’t answer immediately, but finally she said: “I don’t believe you’re entitled to know the whereabouts of the princess. Not as long as you’re suspended from duty. I can tell you she is safe, though.”
Cat clenched her jaws. “And what would you know? You don’t give a bird’s poop about that girl, only caring for the power she gives you. You want it all to yourself, don’t you? You… You revel in the fear you instill in people, when the power you have is not even your own. You use the Goddess to frighten people, misusing her Name!”
“Is that what you think, soldier?” The High Priestess shook her head. “I can’t believe someone who’s been to war can be so naïve and irresponsible. You’re a child, still. The wars obviously didn’t make a proper warrior out of you.”
Cat gasped and felt anger rising when she was confronted with things she’d rather not think about. “Don’t you think I’ve felt…? Don’t you think I…? Don’t you think…” She breathed deeply, trying to calm herself. “I’ve seen death”, she said, remembering.
“Really?” the other woman said loftily.
Cat felt hurt pierce her heart, again being dismissed by the beautiful priestess. “I fought and…!” She hesitated. “And I lost it”, she whispered, remembering still. Remembering the blood, the madness, the rain and the sky filled with black birds – so many birds the blue of the sky and the sun was shut out. Birds picking eyes out off the dead, even picking at wounded soldiers in the mud. Streams turning blood red by the death of warriors; pain, screams, so much death – everywhere… People dying, friends dying. Making new friends was too painful when she knew she’d lose them again. Death reached out with cold fingers and turned her heart and her blood ran cold as ice; death breathed at her and made her its champion. “I lost it”, she whispered, remembering. “I was like a demon… I lost myself in the fight, forgetting who I was and where I came from. I hurt people even when I didn’t have to. I was… lost. I know – life”, she said hoarsely. “I’ve been through hell and back.”
“Show it then! Make me feel it. Make me understand that you know what life is about! Don’t behave like a spoiled child who had her best toy snatched from her.”
“I can’t!” Cat heard herself exclaim, feeling the frustration she remembered from the battlefield rising within her. “It hurts too much!”
She silenced, staring at the woman before her.
“Cat”, the High Priestess said softly and placed her hands on Cat’s shoulders. Green eyes looked into hers and there was gentleness and understanding in them; things Cat remembered from her dream. She felt it as if she was falling into a deep, dark hole with no end – falling, falling, into eternity. “It’s supposed to hurt”, the woman said. “It’s supposed to be tough, otherwise anyone could do it. But you must make yourself feel it, know it – you have to make it a part of you. It will never go away if you pretend it’s not there. Life is more than love and joy and carousing in the tavern – it’s more than death and destruction. It’s both – and not until we’ve experienced both sides and made both sides a part of us can we be made whole. Why do you think I push Deyna so hard?”
“I…” Cat didn’t know and she needed to be away from the woman before her, whose presence prevented her from forming thoughts in her mind. She couldn’t think straight with the High Priestess so close. She backed away. “I… don’t know.”
“Deyna holds back. She’s afraid. I can’t trust her until she trusts herself and she won’t do that until she lets go of the control – of her fear.”
“Control?” Cat frowned.
“She holds back. She’ll be a powerful goddess one day, but if she doesn’t know herself I can’t let her go through with the final Initiation. I need to know she can handle it. Otherwise… Otherwise she’ll die.”
Cat gasped. The bad memories of her years on the battlefield were fading; the gentle touch and the caring look in the other woman’s eyes had somehow lessened the pain and the dark.
“I’m thinking of putting off the Initiation until she’s twenty one. I can’t…”
“You can’t do that! She’ll never make it…” Cat objected.
“You’re not to tell her this. Do you understand?” the High Priestess said sharply and looked at her with disconcerting intent.
Cat felt like a child again – like the time when she was caught in the chamber where the fountain was. She nodded.
“I can’t let Deyna be a goddess if she doesn’t know herself – if she can’t control herself”, the other woman went on. “If she loses it when a goddess… She could wreck havoc on the whole empire.”
“Oh, Goddess! Like me on the battlefield”, Cat gasped. She’d gone berserk sometimes, losing it completely. Imagining a deity with awesome powers losing control like that... The thought made her shudder.
“Exactly. Look – I’m not supposed to even tell you about this, but maybe you’re one of those people who need to have the whole picture clear before you obey orders. Maybe understanding will make you more responsible. Katana has high hopes for you, but she doesn’t trust you.”
“I know”, Cat whispered. “She says I’m too unpredictable.”
“Because you, like the princess, don’t know yourself”, the High Priestess said with a short nod.
If someone else had told Cat that she’d never have listened, but hearing it from the High Priestess she suddenly knew it to be true. There were things in her past she couldn’t face and so she spent her time carousing and seducing women to avoid thinking about them.
“There are more things you need to know”, the High Priestess said. It seemed to Cat the other woman had made a choice of some sort. “Look.”
Cat turned to where the High Priestess indicated and looked at the dead warriors for the first time. Something was strange about their faces. She couldn’t tell from where she stood beside the priestess, so she moved forward. “What, by all sacred…?” She silenced, staring down at the warriors. “What happened to them?”
The bodies of the five warriors were so decayed they barely looked human: molded skin in shades of gray and green, frayed from the bones in some places; eyes picked out or fallen out of their eye sockets and rotting flesh. Cat was surprised the whole chamber didn’t reek.
“Well, they all died – one way or another. At least half a year ago.” The priestess pointed at the least decayed warrior. “Except him – he might have died only a few weeks ago.”
Cat glanced at the woman by her side, not sure if the even voice was meant to be sarcastic or not. “But… They were alive yesterday and they sure as bloody Snake’s bite didn’t look like this!”
“No – and hence our problem.” The High Priestess sighed, shaking her head. “I’ve talked to Katana about this and she’s showed the Emperor. We thought it’d help with him deciding not to send so many warriors to the boarders – but it only seems he’s more determined than ever to do so. He thinks these are warriors of Egara who’s managed to get through our lines.”
Cat frowned. “And you don’t? And why shouldn’t we reinforce our boarders? And what by the holy Bat are those?” She indicated the dead warriors, then realizing she’d misused the Name of the Goddess in front of the High Priestess. “Um, my apologies for swearing”, she added.
“These are dead people brought back to life…” the priestess said.
Bel, Cat thought as she watched the woman. Katana called her Bel
“The whole squad of sixty or so soldiers you were fighting yesterday was made up of soldiers like these. Except a few.”
“But they all looked normal”, Cat said confused. “I mean, I sure would’ve noticed if they had maggots crawling out of their eyes. Are they Undead?”
“No”, the priestess said, shaking her head. “The undead are different – those suck blood and need to be pinned through the heart with a wooden stake. And these are not zombies either. Zombies are not as easily killed. These…” She made a gesture with her hand, indicating the dead bodies. “These are just dead people brought back to life to be used as warriors. Of course they are not human anymore – they lack a soul and a will of their own, only responding to the sole purpose that brought them back and maybe to some simple commands.” Bel paused for a moment. “They were disguised yesterday – an Illusion was cast upon them to hide their true faces, but I knew what they were as soon as I saw them. I had my priestesses bring them here, to burn them. I’ll ask you not to mention this to anyone, except Katana who’s aware of what’s going on.”
Cat nodded thoughtfully, wondering why the High Priestess told her these things. “What are we up against?” she asked quietly.
“It takes powerful magic to work with this – and especially with so many dead warriors. My guess, though, is that whoever did this has spent years waking the dead and only waiting for the right moment to use them…”
“So they can be held… in storage?” Cat asked with a frown. She thought she noticed a slight smile in the corner of the other woman’s mouth at her choice of words. Looking at the High Priestess’ mouth she was abruptly reminded of the reason why she’d come and hastily averted her eyes.
“For years. And they are cheap – they don’t demand anything, neither food nor clothing.”
“And simple to work with”, Cat mumbled. “No mouthing back.”
“No, they’re not as willful as others”, Bel agreed with a certain tone that made Cat glance quickly at her. “Yes, that was friendly sarcasm”, the woman said dryly, noticing Cat’s look. “You don’t think I know how to make a joke, spending all my time chopping off people’s heads to make them fear me?”
Cat blinked, still confused.
“That was another joke”, the priestess said and this time it was clearly humor Cat saw in the depths of those intensely green eyes.
“You have a strange sense of humor”, Cat said, grinning. The other woman was a challenge to understand, but Cat had never backed away from a challenge before. Maybe she’ll warm up to me, she thought, immediately blushing when the thought brought an unbidden image to her mind: a flashback from her dream, only much more vivid and evocative. She turned back to the dead warriors, trying to hide her discomfit. “Um… What about them?”
The High Priestess took her time answering, watching her with an odd expression Cat couldn’t make out.
“Huh?” Cat asked, looking back at the redhead at her side.
“They…” The High Priestess averted her eyes, shaking her head as if to clear it. “As I said, whoever brought these back from death is very powerful. It must be a High Priest or Priestess. He or she put a magical web over the brothel yesterday, preventing Deyna from using her powers.”
“I remember”, Cat mumbled, thinking of how hard it had been for the princess to change her form. “She couldn’t use her powers in the fight. Was it… her they were after?” she added softly, glancing at the woman at her side. Bel, she repeated in her mind. She wondered if she too could call the High Priestess that. Probably not, she thought dryly. Too friendly for a mere soldier like me… I’m not moving in her circles.
“I believe the attack was some sort of distraction. We don’t know yet and I don’t want to jump to conclusions. Deyna survived yesterday only due to her training and your defense of her…”
Cat blinked when the High Priestess looked at her. That sounded almost like praise, she thought, wondering at the woman who only moments before had accused her of being reckless. There was a slight smile on Bel’s lips when she noticed Cat’s reaction.
“Just because I find your actions taking the princess to a brothel reckless doesn’t mean I can’t recognize your worth. You’ve trained Deyna very well in the art of physical combat and I realize you care for her as a person, not as a princess. I recognize that’s important to her.”
“I…” Cat didn’t know what to say. She was suddenly very much aware of Bel’s presence close to her and twitched a little.
“Katana values you and she’s sure you learned a lesson yesterday. She wants me to give you a second chance.”
Cat held her tongue, nodding.
“But I can’t do that right away. What you did…” The priestess silenced. “You know what you did. You must face the consequences of those actions. I can’t let you get away with everything just because you have a pretty smile.”
Cat blinked in surprise, staring at the High Priestess completely taken aback by the last remark, but Bel turned back to the dead bodies with a blank face. Who is this woman? Cat thought bewildered. What is she? Cold and indifferent, or caring and… sweet?
Cat had wanted the priestess to be the former to save her from the growing attraction she felt, but the woman showed surprising depths, which was dangerous to Cat and her physical state.
“Deyna should have recognized the soldiers for what they were yesterday, but she did very well considering”, the priestess said. “With that web around the brothel she wasn’t even supposed to be able to shape-change.”
“No?” Cat said, wondering. She knew very little of and cared even less about the deities’ powers or the powers of the Priesthood. Then she thought of the princess and her fear of the High Priestess. “Have you told her this?” she asked, sharper than she’d intended. “Did you tell her she did great? She needs to hear it from you.”
“From me? Why ? My opinion shouldn’t matter. She needs to learn to trust herself.”
“’Why?’” Cat said with a grimace. “Are you truly so... ignorant? And you blame me for being naïve! She wants your approval, of course. You mean so much to her and you just...” She sighed, seeing the High Priestess’ inscrutable face. “Forget it. You really don’t get it. You’re just not human, you don’t know the first thing about relationships. I can’t believe I was actually...” She caught herself, blushing. “Forget it”, she mumbled, turning away. “I’m leaving now.”
Call me back, she thought as she walked towards the entrance, abruptly regretting leaving. The other woman confused her so much and Cat could hardly stand being in her presence if she wasn’t allowed to…She cut the thought. Call me back, talk to me, yell at me… Do something! But Bel didn’t do anything and Cat had to leave the room without looking back.
Although she couldn’t stand to be where the priestess was the thought of not being where she was suddenly felt like torture to her. Bloody Snakes and rotting corpses! she thought angrily. Those damn dreams!
Bel watched the warrior leave, feeling slightly confused at Cat’s last remark. Why is she walking away? she thought with a frown, wondering if she should call her back. She refrained from it, realizing they’d probably end up arguing again.
Bel turned back to look at the dead bodies and suddenly a flash of Cat’s grinning face was before her inner eye. That smile… It had affected her in a strange way; she’d felt something lurch behind her chest and her pulse had increased for a stunning moment. Just thinking of that smile made her feel strange. She wondered if she was coming down with something.
“You felt it, didn’t you?”
She suddenly heard the Goddess in her mind.
“What are you talking about?” she answered in her thoughts as Nidae was nowhere to be seen.
“You find her attractive!”
“I most certainly do not!” Bel defended herself and added: “You let her in!”
“Of course I did!” the goddess chuckled. “She brought me a lovely gift. And she’s my relative…”
“I wouldn’t talk too loud about that if I were you”, Bel admonished. “And what do you mean – I find her attractive?”
Nidae only chuckled and Bel sighed.
“I can see where she’s gotten her reputed teasing manners from”, she sent.
“You felt it! Don’t deny it…”
“The only thing I’m denying is your access to my mind. Get out or I’ll push you out!”
Bel was the only one who could deny the deities access to her thoughts: she could block them from her mind if she wanted to, an ability no High Priest or Priestess was remembered having before.
“Oh, you’re so…”
“If you say boring one more time, I swear I’ll…”
Bel silenced, suddenly feeling someone intruding on her mind. Someone calling for her attention.
“Badra… Help me…”
The voice was faint, almost inaudible, but it was indisputably Fang’s.
“Fang?” she asked, confused.
“Help me, Badra… They’re… Help me…”
There was pure desperation in the voice and Bel felt the fear and confusion of the god through the mind link.
“Nidae?”she asked. “What’s…?”
“Not this, Badra”, the Goddess said, retracting. There was fear even in her voice. “I can’t help you with this. You’re on your own.”
Bel frowned. “Fang? Fang – do you hear me?” There was no answer and Bel swore softly under her breath. “Nidae – contact Zelena; see what she can tell you.”
“Yes, my priestess.”
“Damn maggots”, Bel muttered. She got her staff, which stood leaning against the altar, and moved towards the entrance. “Nidae – any luck?”
“I can’t get to Zelena. I believe she’s unconscious.”
The news didn’t bode well. “Get Derac, tell him…”
“I talked to him. He’s with Nikka at the palace. She’s passed out, someone apparently attacked her with a psychic spell…”
“What? Is she…?”
“Derac says she’ll be fine, but she’s out at the moment. He’ll hurry to Fang’s temple…”
“Good. Nidae – do you know what this is?”
“Only power, Badra. Power enough to bind us. Be careful, it’s probably a trap for…”
“Nidae? Nidae! Can you hear me? Get the Priesthood together, warn the deities…”
“I’m trying, but someone’s interfering with the… with the connection…”
There was only silence in her mind and Bel realized the connection had been lost. She hurried along the corridors, frantically thinking of possible answers to what was happening and to solutions for each scenario she could think of.
“Cath Ciardha!” she called in the temple corridors, using Air to carry her voice: it rang like thunder around her. If the warrior was still in the temple she’d hear her. “Stay, warrior!”
It didn’t take her long to come across the member of Panthera. She was waiting in the Fountain Chamber, looking angrily at Bel when she hurried towards her.
“I didn’t do anything!” Cat said, defensively.
“You must hurry to Katana”, Bel said, ignoring the remark. “Tell her to bring Panthera to the Temple of the White Tiger. Tell her to bring the Cobra Squad too. You check on Deyna and stay with her to protect her. She’s in the Tower of Eagles…”
“You put her in the Eagles’ Tower?” Cat exclaimed angrily. “Are you out of your…?”
“Now!” Bel commanded icily. She didn’t have time to deal with an obstinate child; if Cat didn’t prove her worth at this point…
“Of course”, Cat said seeming to get the seriousness of the situation, immediately straightening her back. “Any thing else I need to tell the Captain?”
“Just go. And hurry! And stay with the princess, Cat.”
Cat nodded crisply, turned around and sprinted across the chamber. Bel followed, but although she was in perfectly good health and more fit than most people she couldn’t keep up with the warrior.
“Nidae?” she tried again, but there was no answer. “Holy Bat”, she mumbled, sending a swift prayer to the Creative Energy that had created the world, as she hurried towards the entrance. She stopped quickly on the way to inform one of her priestesses that she needed them to gather at Fang’s temple as quickly as possible.
As she hurried down the mountainside towards Fang’s temple thoughts of Cat suddenly intruded. Cat’s reaction when she’d seen her by the Fountain irked her a little. The warriors first thought seemed to have been that Bel would yell at her for something. Is that what she thinks of me? she thought worriedly. That I’m nothing more than a barking bitch? The thought caught her and made her feel sad for some reason. She didn’t want Cat to think ill of her. And what does it matter what she thinks? She doesn’t know me… Do I want her to know me? Why, by all bats? What difference would it make…? And why am I thinking of this now? She pushed the thoughts of Cat out of her mind and hurried forward.
The temple of the White Tiger was placed close to Nidae’s, at the foot of the mountainside, so it didn’t take Bel that long to reach it. The jungle was too thick to see through from higher ground, so she didn’t know what to expect at the temple. She knew she had to be careful, but she also sensed it was urgent. With the staff in her hand she carefully moved forward in the thickets.
The temple looked deserted. It was a few hours past noon and usually some people would have been there to pay their respect and leave some offerings to the god, but there was no one to be seen. Bel moved quietly ahead, suddenly sensing that something was wrong. She immediately stopped.
Holding her breath for a few moments the High Priestess felt a tingling warning at the back of her neck and then two things happened: she noticed the slain bodies at the top of the stairs – four of them, one a priestess of the temple – and a group of warriors moved out from their hiding place in the thickets.
“High Priestess of the Bat”, a male voice said. “Put down your staff and none shall be harmed.”
One of the warriors, a muscular, blonde man in nondescript black leather clothing stepped out holding a woman to him and threatening her with a knife across her throat. The woman was unconscious, but held steadily with no effort by the man. Bel immediately recognized the woman as Zelena, Fang’s High Priestess.
“Where is the god?” she asked sternly, holding the man’s gaze; he stood close enough for her to see he had brown eyes. She also noticed something else: he had a tattoo on the back of his left hand. A small, black tattoo in the shape of a cobra rising to attack.
“The god is safe – for now.” The warrior pulled at Zelena to hold her upright. “Put down your staff”, he said.
“And you’ll kill me”, she said dryly. “I think not.”
“If we wanted you dead you’d be dead by now”, the man said, indicating another warrior who stood a few feet away aiming a longbow at her.
And if I wanted you dead… she thought, then made up her mind and put down her staff.
“Take her”, the warrior in charge said and nodded towards her. Three men moved forward and grabbed her, pulling at her. The warrior before her let go of Zelena, who limply fell to the ground.
“You’ll regret this”, Bel said, looking at the man as the others tied her hands behind her back.
“Sure I will”, the man said sarcastically, smirking. “And what will you do? Your power lies in the staff – without it you’re helpless. Just like your goddess. Where is she, by the way? Off hiding someplace?”
“Who are you working for?” she asked, looking sternly at him. Again he smirked. You fool, she thought. He didn’t know the first think about a High Priestess’ power. Whoever hired him was either as misinformed or as big a fool as this man – or they simply hadn’t bothered with telling him the truth.
“What makes you think I wasn’t the one planning all of this?”
“Then you wouldn’t mind telling me what you are planning to do with Fang, would you?” she asked scowling at him.
The question seemed to irk the man, who gestured at the men who held her.
“Hurry. There will be others here soon.”
“You’re only a minion”, Bel said disgusted.
“A minion holding your life in my hands, nonetheless”, the warrior said and grabbed her chin, holding her face close to his. “And you…” His eyes went to her mouth. “You’re in my grasp now.” He bent down and kissed her. When she tried to turn away his fingers dug into her chin and her cheeks, holding her still. He tasted raw, filthy, and when he pulled away with a grin she felt the need to throw up.
“You’ll surely regret that”, she said, seething with an ice cold rage, and looked at him with burning eyes. She noticed the smirk on his face fade and a turn fearful before he turned away.
“Bring her!” he commanded and in the next moment she received a hard blow to the head that knocked her unconscious.
continued in Forgotten Lives part 3