continued from Forgotten Lives part 2
The Eagles’ Tower had seven hundred steps leading up to it. It was the highest tower in the city, with a spectacular view of the area. Cat, with Serafine and Para, had sneaked up into it once when they were younger and full of mischief. The regular palace guard had found them and each of them had gotten a fitting punishment from their respective leaders. It was one of the few times Cat had seen Katana really, really mad.
The Tower was a sacred place, reserved for certain deities: the winged ones, like the Bat, the Owl and the Condor. There was no Eagle any longer: she’d been killed by a mad priestess a few hundred years ago. The Tower had been built to honor her memory.
When Cat arrived at the tower, having informing Katana about the High Priestess’ words, two members of Panthera were standing guard at the foot of the stairs. Serafine was one of them.
“Cat – what are you doing here?” she asked as she noticed her friend.
“How’s the princess?” Cat asked, glancing up the stair.
Serafine nodded. “She’s fine. I just brought her some soup. She asks for you. What…? Why are you here? You’re not allowed to see her.”
“Something’s happened. I don’t know what.”
Cat quickly told the other two about the High Priestess’ orders, shrugging when she finished. “Katana told me to hurry over here. I was told to tell you not to let anyone pass – not anyone who’s not a Leaping Panther.”
“Sure, Cat”, the other member said. “We’re off in a few minutes. We’ll inform our replacements.”
“There are more people guarding the tower, right?” Cat asked.
“There’s six of us”, Serafine confirmed.
Cat relaxed a little, but couldn’t get the High Priestess and the sense that she was in danger out of her mind. She nodded. “I was ordered to guard the princess, so I’ll wait around until Katana returns from the temple.”
“I’ll stay with you”, Serafine said.
When the replacements arrived only minutes later – six new members of the pack – Cat and Serafine made their way to the chamber at the top of the circular stairs.
“She’s locked up?” Cat asked when she noticed the looked door. A key hung on an iron hook on the wall beside the door.
“The High Priestess’ orders”, Serafine said as she unlocked the door. “Obviously she wants to punish the princess.”
“It’s all my fault”, Cat said, sighing as the door opened.
The chamber was larger than expected, round and with a high ceiling. The windows were massive and let in bright light. Deyna was sitting on a low stool, reading. A table stood by her with an empty ceramic bowl atop. The rest of the room was filled with books, thick carpets and silk pillows in a myriad of colors.
“Cat!” Deyna exclaimed, flying out of the chair as Cat entered the room.
“Ah, princess – good to see you again”, Cat said, hugging the younger woman.
“She saved you!” Deyna stepped back, looking at Cat as if she hadn’t seen her for ages. “I can’t believe it… She really saved you.”
Cat grinned. “And I’ve talked to her”, she said. “I’ve lived up to my end of our challenge.”
“You didn’t have much choice now, did you?” the princess said, arching an eyebrow at her. “Not if she saved your life. She must have been around when you woke up.” She made a face. “What did she do? Yell at you?”
“Actually – I yelled at her.” It was Cat’s turn to make a face. “Which didn’t help our relationship…”
“I told you – she doesn’t care about people.”
“Actually…” Cat hesitated, thinking of what the High Priestess had told her in regards to Deyna. “Um, I think, I think she cares… She just doesn’t care like the rest of us.”
“You’re talking about the High Priestess, right?” Serafine said, entering the room and the conversation. She sat down in the chair the princess had used. “I made a pass at her… once.”
Cat blinked. “Really? You never told me”, she said, feeling a strange tug at her heart. It took a moment for her to realize it was jealousy.
“Ah, nothing to tell”, the gray eyed woman said, waving off the remark with a lofty gesture. “She turned me down.”
“As would be expected”, Deyna said dryly, moving to sit down on some pillows close to the chair.
“She looked at me as if I was some strange insect”, Serafine went on. “Then she went on mentioning that I was Derac’s sister and it wouldn’t do for me to fool around with someone so close to him. She’s a strange woman.”
“Your telling me”, Cat mumbled, moving towards the windows to look out towards the mountainside – towards the temple of the Goddess. The High Priestess had been with her for so long, the image and the memory of a woman she’d wanted to get to know. And when she finally met her… The woman was nothing like what she’d expected or imagined. She didn’t seem nice at all – and still Cat couldn’t get her out of her mind.
It’s that bloody dream, she thought. The dream had always left her vulnerable, with the feeling that she lacked something important in her life – something she’d give up the world to gain – and the realization that the woman in her dream was the High Priestess made her confused. When thinking of the other woman now she kept remembering her dreams and not only the ones were she was heavily making out with a red haired woman, but also the new dream she’d had the same morning. The one with the ceremony she’d come to realize must’ve been a wedding.
“I’m glad I failed to seduce her”, Serafine said softly in the background and when Cat turned to look at her she noticed the tender caress the other warrior bestowed upon the princess’ hair. Cat bit her lip to stop herself saying the first thing that came to mind and then watched the surprised expression on Deyna’s face as the girl looked up.
“Really”, Serafine said gently, twining a lock of golden hair between her fingers.
“So… Yesterday wasn’t just a beer induced hallucination on my part?” Deyna asked with a slight blush on fair cheeks, making Serafine grin at her.
“That? That wasn’t even the beginning…”
“Should I leave the room, perhaps?” Cat asked dryly, arching an eyebrow at them. The princess blushed furiously, but Serafine only smiled.
“Perhaps you should.”
Cat frowned when she realized her friend was serious. “Sera”, she said.
“Don’t worry, Cat”, Deyna suddenly said, looking up at her. “She won’t do anything I don’t want to.”
Cat thought of the High Priestess again, abruptly realizing she was in the middle of a conflict of interests. “I can’t let you do this, princess”, she said softly.
“What? You don’t even know what I’m…”
“I do. Yesterday you didn’t want to give yourself to Fang. You wanted to become a goddess. Today… Today you’ve changed your mind and it has nothing to do with Serafine.” Cat knew it; she could see it in Deyna’s eyes. The princess had somehow given up her beliefs since the day before and Cat suspected it had something to do with the High Priestess’ treatment of her – locking her up in the tower. She shook her head. “Breaking the rules always comes with consequences”, she said. “I’m sorry, Deyna. I shouldn’t have gotten you into this. This is all my fault. But don’t throw away what you have because of…”
“What I have?” The princess flew up from the floor. “And what do I have, Cat?” she spat. “Restrictions, that’s what I have. I was never allowed to be a child. Because I’m special! As if being special is so great. I don’t want to become a goddess if it costs so much pain.”
“If it wasn’t hard anyone could do it”, Cat mumbled, but regretted her words as soon as they left her mouth when she noticed the stricken look on Deyna’s face.
“Don’t say that! You’re my only friend! You’re supposed to…” The princess silenced. Tears were wetting her cheeks. “You’re supposed to support me, not stab me in the back.”
“Deyna…” Cat took a step towards her. “All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t rush into any decisions based on how you’re feeling now. A warrior letting her anger and fear rule her will make bad choices… Her true instincts and common sense will be clouded.”
“Princess…” Serafine rose behind Deyna and put a hand on her shoulder; the princess turned to her. “Cat is right, unfortunately.” The gray eyed woman made a face. “It’s unlucky she should pick this moment to be so wise, but there it is…” Serafine dried the tears off Deyna’s cheek with a gentle caress of her thumb. “I like you, princess, but I don’t want to be something you rush into because you see no other way out. I’ll wait for you – even if it means I’ll have to wait a year, until you become the goddess you were born to be.”
Cat blinked; she’d never heard Serafine talk to anyone like that. Then, in the next moment, her longtime friend closed the space between her and the princess, softly kissing Deyna on the lips. At first it was a careful, light kiss on the mouth, but it grew more intense as Cat watched and she averted her eyes from the two women – one warrior and one princess. She looked out the windows again, noticing the reflection of the women in the glass: Deyna lift her arms to encircle Serafine’s neck and Serafine held the princess at the waist and pulled her closer. The kiss deepened…
Cat scanned the city and the hillside, trying to find the Temple of the White Tiger, but the jungle was too thick in that particular area. What she did see, though, was a procession of brown clad priestesses moving from the jungle and up the mountainside towards the temple of Nidae. The sight made her frown and she forgot the two women behind her. She quickly moved a few steps aside, to get a clearer view of that area, when something else caught her attention. A large group of warriors moved at high speed on horses away from the city on the east side. The east side was the only side consisting of lowland: flat, hard ground with rocks and red sand stretching out in the distance. They were too far away for Cat to get a proper look at them, but it seemed to her two people were lying on the horsebacks instead of sitting up. Her frown deepened as she watched the fleeing warriors; there weren’t more than a dozen of them.
Then, in a flash, Katana rode out from the thickets below the mountainside towards the city gates, followed by two members of Panthera. Something’s happened! Cat thought as she saw the way the Captain rode her black stallion. She swirled around, abruptly reminded of the other two people in the room when she noticed them still kissing.
“Something’s happened”, Cat said curtly, moving towards the door. “Princess”, she said, looking at Deyna who slowly let go of Serafine. “Think of your people and don’t throw away your gifts just yet. The Empire might need you.”
“Cat, what’s…?” Serafine moved a few steps away from the princess.
“Keep her safe, sister”, Cat said and was out the door.
Cat hurried down the many steps and through the palace, swearing as she went; the Eagles’ Tower was placed furthest from the city centre and it took her what felt like ages to reach the main entrance and the central gates of the palace. Katana had just entered the palace gates and jumped off her stallion as Cat rushed out to meet her at the yard.
“What are you doing here?” the Captain brusquely asked, moving towards the stairs at the entrance. “You’re supposed to be with the princess.”
“What’s happened, Katana?” Cat asked. “What’s going on? Tell me…”
Katana shook her head. “Not now. Get back to the princess.”
“No”, Cat objected. “Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
“Must you be so stubborn?” the Captain accused, but didn’t give another command.
They moved through the palace, half running. They passed corridors, servants and great halls decorated in gold and red fabric before they reached the private chambers of the Imperial Couple.
The first thing Katana had done earlier, when Cat brought her the command from the High Priestess, had been to send a messenger to Barac Wei to inform him of what was happening, so when the emperor, the empress, Afron the chancellor and Hades, the leader of the White Tigers, where waiting in a smaller room Cat wasn’t surprised.
“Captain”, the emperor said, rising from the armchair in which he was seated beside the blonde empress. They had high windows behind their backs and the afternoon soon was shining into the room.
“Emperor”, Katana said, hastily kneeling before the imperial couple; Cat did the same. “I bring bad news.”
“What is it, Captain?” Hades said, stepping forward.
“Fang the Tiger has been taken from his temple”, Katana said rising. “Several of his priestesses were slain…”
“Zelena?” the empress immediately asked.
“Zelena is fine”, Katana hurriedly said. She hesitated. “But… Others were slain too, visitors to the temple.”
“Who? Who would do such a thing?” the emperor asked, pacing angrily back and forward before his chair.
“Egara, my emperor”, old Afron said, glancing at the tall, dark haired man. “It must be.”
“I’m not so sure, your Highness”, Katana said.
“The raid yesterday was probably a distraction for today’s main event”, Afron said, looking at Katana.
“Why would they kidnap a god?” Hades asked, frowning.
“Fang’s popular amongst Kellara’s people”, the empress said. “Maybe our enemies believe our people will be weak without him.”
“This settles it”, the emperor said. “The ceremony and the festivities for this week must be cancelled.”
“You can’t cancel the festivities, your Highness”, Afron said a bit shocked. “The people have looked forward to it for ages.”
“It’s too dangerous to hold the competitions when we are being attacked. The Priesthood will still have their ceremonies, but they’ll have to keep them to their temples. If people will carouse on their own I can’t prevent it, but the soldiers are not to take part in the festivities. We need to increase the guards around the city… Is my daughter fine?”
“Deyna is safe”, Cat said, stepping forward. “I just came from the Tower.”
“Good. I’ll send her to the Temple of the Dark Moon. She’ll be safer with the High Priestess there…”
“My emperor”, Katana said and Cat looked at her, hearing her tone of voice. “As a matter of fact… Fang wasn’t the only one abducted.”
They all looked at the Captain and Cat suddenly felt a clenching, clawing cold in her chest eating at her heart. No, she thought as the realization slowly dawned on her. I’ve only just found her…
“What do you mean, Captain?” the emperor asked, frowning.
“Your Highness… The High Priestess was taken with Fang. She’s…” Katana hesitated and Cat could see her paling cheeks. “I found her staff…”
“Oh, Goddess!” The empress rose from her chair, holding a hand to her mouth. Her eyes were wide open, staring at Katana with genuine fear.
“She wouldn’t have…” the emperor whispered. “She wouldn’t have let them take her if she was…” He didn’t finish the sentence. He paled and slowly sat down in his chair.
“I don’t believe she’s dead, your Highness”, Hades said, shaking his head. “They wouldn’t have taken her if she wasn’t alive.”
“But why would she let them take her?” Barac Wei asked. “She could easily have overcome them…”
“We don’t know that, your Highness”, Afron said. “Maybe she was taken by surprise. Maybe they simply were too many.”
Barac Wei shook his head. “You don’t know this woman, Afron”, Cat heard him say in a low voice.
“In any case we need to send out people to get her and Fang back”, Hades said.
“That’s what whoever took her wants us to do”, Katana objected. “That would leave the city open.”
“We won’t send out the whole army”, Hades pointed out.
“And we don’t know how many they are – if we send out too few we might lose a lot of lives for no gain”, Katana said, looking at the emperor. “Your Highness – think of the dead warriors I showed you. We don’t know how many of those are still around.”
“Can’t be that many”, Afron interjected. “No one could have raised more of those warriors since yesterday…”
“We need to send out a few scouts before we rush into something”, Katana said, ignoring the councilor’s comment.
“I’ll go”, Cat immediately said, already walking towards the doors. The more time they wasted discussing the matter the further away those warriors were taking her… were taking the High Priestess.
“Cat!” Katana called, but Cat didn’t stop; she passed the guards at the doors and left the meeting. The Captain followed her and caught up with her in the corridor. “Cat! Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m getting her back.”
“Her? Bel? What…? Stop!” Katana took Cat by the arm and held her back. Cat twisted loose, staring at her.
“I’m going, Katana. You can’t stop me. I’m getting her back.”
“She told you to guard the princess. That’s your job, soldier. There’s nothing else that matters except guarding the princess…”
“I’m off duty, remember?” Cat spat. “The princess is not my responsibility any…”
“Don’t be a fool!” the Captain snapped. “The High Priestess strictly ordered you to protect the princess. That’s what you need to do. Get back to the tower…”
“No!” Cat turned and began walking away.
“You don’t even like her!” Katana called after her.
Maybe I don’t… Maybe I do… Cat thought, still not sure which yet. She didn’t answer.
“Cat! If you walk away now…”
Cat kept on walking.
“Cat! Get your stubborn self back here! If you walk out on me don’t bother coming back!”
Cat stopped and looked around.
“I mean it, Cat”, Katana said, gesturing towards her with one hand. “Come back and guard the princess. If you leave I’ll have you permanently excluded from the pack.”
I can’t, Cat thought, thinking of the beautiful woman in her dream who put a wedding band of white gold on her finger. Thinking of the joy she’d felt in that moment. She said she’d find me wherever I go… But I know I have to find her first. I have to know, I have see – what kind of woman she is.
Cat slowly shook her head. “I’m sorry, Captain”, she said – and left.
Cat followed the trail of the warriors for five days without catching up with them. On the sixth morning she reached the Vale of the Dead. It was a large, deep valley surrounded by red rocks and sparse vegetation: the ancient burial ground for the higher nobility. There was a deep, long cave system stretching through the rocks that surrounded the valley and several dark holes were gaping from the rock walls.
Cat stopped at the ridge and looked down into the valley from the back of her horse. What she saw made her stop breathing.
No one ever came to the Vale of the Dead anymore. The burial ground had last been used three hundred years ago, when there was a reformation of the Priesthood. The higher nobility was no longer to be buried, but to be burned. Cat had never bothered with wondering why, except Para had once told her it was to save the nobility from being humiliated by grave robbers. Cat had doubted that was the true reason, although it sounded plausible in some ways.
Now, looking down at the valley – and at the large army assembled at the bottom – Cat suddenly wondered what the long dead nobility would think of having their entire graveyard desecrated in such a way. The assembled army filled the entire gorge; warriors in armors, armed to their teeth with weapons.
“Oops – you found us! Bu, huh…”
Cat turned around on her horse, looking at a man she recognized. He wasn’t alone, but sat on a red horse surrounded by dozens of warriors. “You”, she said, addressing the blonde man with the pale, but distinct scar across one eye: prince Harkaitz Qadir, the emperor’s brother. “What have you done? Where is she?”
“She?” The man arched a white eyebrow, paled by the burning from his childhood. “And here I believed you had come for the god. What do you want the priestess for?”
“What do you want with her?” Cat countered. “You have no use for a priestess.”
“No?” The prince tilted his head to one side. “I’ve heard of you – with the mismatched eyes. Yes…” Harkaitz nodded, ignoring Cat’s question. “They call you Cat, don’t they? My daughter talks a lot about you.” He smirked, eyeing her. “A pity you prefer women – otherwise you and I could have had a fun time. I believe I could teach you a few things.”
“Sure”, Cat said dryly. “Why don’t you pull that sword at your side and face me like a man?”
“No, no – so impatient. Don’t you know? The nicest wine is best savored slowly and with appreciation.”
“Wine?” she said, not getting his point.
“Ah, yes. Wine – the essence of our lives. Blood – the wine flowing through our veins. The sweetest wine is revenge – didn’t you know?” He chuckled. “You’re about to discover – revenge, like the best of wines, grows better with age. I’ve waited a long, long time for this and soon…” – he smiled wickedly, still chuckling – “my revenge is completed.”
“I doubt it”, Cat said, pulling her sword. “The White Tigers will soon be here…”
“Those Tigers are on their way to the boarders by now, courtesy of Egara’s king. He’s moving closer, knowing there are some… disturbances at the Court of Goddara.”
“You bastard! You’ve betrayed your country. Fight me, you coward.”
Cat spurred her horse and rode straight towards the emperor’s brother. She hadn’t even reached him before she was shot with an arrow in her shoulder. Not again! she remembered thinking before she was engaged in heavy combat with Harkaitz’s warriors.
She realized some of the warriors were members of the Cobra Squad and when she engaged in close combat with one of them she called out to him.
“What’s going on with you?” she snapped, parrying a sword-stroke and thrust at the warrior, faking an attack. When he lowered his sword to parry her blow she quickly changed the direction of her thrust and cut him in the arm. He swore and dropped the weapon. Cat quickly moved in, drawing her knife and holding it to his throat.
“Hold still”, she warned, one yellow eyes glinting at him. “Tell me now – what’s going on?”
The warrior looked disdainfully at her. “You Leaping Panthers, you’re such fools. You don’t see the bigger picture…”
“The bigger picture?” she asked, frowning, pulling away from the others while holding the man close to her. “What are you talking about?”
“We know who we serve – and it’s not a puppet string emperor who does everything for fear of a ruthless priestess…”
Bel! Cat thought. She felt a cold chill down her back. She’s in danger! “Tell me”, she snapped, tightening the hold on the warrior. “What is this? Is everyone in your squad in on this?” Para, she thought with a cold stab at her heart. The warrior smirked.
“Not everyone, but those who can’t be convinced to follow a more...” – he tilted his head to one side, smirking – “altruistic path, will die with the rest.”
“Shut up, you fool!” prince Harkaitz called behind him and stabbed the man in the back. The warrior gasped, eyes widening, before he fell limbless against Cat. Cat immediately let go of him and engaged in swordfight with two other Cobras.
“Stabbing your own people!” Cat shouted to the prince, glancing at the warriors she was fighting and trying to keep them away from her. They pushed her towards the edge of the ridge. “And you still follow him?” she called out to the Cobras.
“Save your breath and fight!” one of them called back. “We are loyal to our master.”
Fanatics, Cat thought. Para is so not one of them. At least she hoped he wasn’t. In the next moment she was too busy fighting to think about Para. She had to fight to stay alive; she needed to see Bel again.
Even though she fought for her life and killed several of the warriors in the end they were too many; she lost her weapons and they beat her until she lost consciousness. Her last thought was of the High Priestess’ fingers touching her lips.
Why is she here? Bel thought, looking down at the unconscious warrior in front of her. They were locked up in a small chamber inside the cave system; an iron door with bars secured their prison.
When prince Harkaitz dumped Cat in the chamber he’d told Bel that Cat had asked for her before she was taken prisoner. “Maybe she’ll make you talk”, he’d said with a smirk.
Bel had been given some water and clean rags by a soldier and she carefully tended to Cat’s wounds. She’d had to undress the other woman to do so and thoughts of that early morning a week ago when Cat woke up at the altar came back to her. She’d undressed her then too, but with more urgency and without reflecting on what she’d been doing. This time she was gentler; taking her time with the buttons, carefully removing the torn, dirty fabric.
Cat had a lot of scars from previous battles; Bel inspected them as she cleaned the wounds. The woman’s body truly was beautiful, she caught herself thinking. Like a sculpture, she thought, remembering her words to Nidae. She gently traced the skin with her fingers, feeling the softness of the skin. It felt… nice.
Bel sighed and shook her head. Nidae could think what she wanted. It took more than a naked body to get Bel physically attracted to someone. She’d never… Fine, not never, she thought, correcting herself as a faint memory of a warm summer’s day surfaced within her. She’d been wandering in the jungle, contemplating some texts she’d read the day before, when she suddenly came across a naked woman bathing. She had immediately recognized her as Zelena and her first thought had been to call out to the priestess, but then something stopped her… Zelena had been rising from the pond, leaning backwards and wringing the water from her hair. The sun had been shining and her wet skin had been glistening.
Bel had felt something then. She had found the sight immensely beautiful and it had taken her several moments before she could turn away. For weeks afterwards she’d avoided the other High Priestess, finding excuses not to see her. Although Zelena hardly talked to her anymore either – they saw very little of each other despite being two priestesses serving in temples placed so close to each other.
At the time Bel had never been gladder that she could block gods and goddesses from her mind. If Nidae – or Fang, for that matter – had read her mind and found what Bel had felt watching Zelena…
Now, watching the unconscious warrior on the floor, Bel was thinking of what she’d felt when she saw Cat grin at her that other day. It had felt strangely similar to the feeling she’d had seeing Zelena bathe.
If the two events were connected she just had to ignore it, as she had with Zelena. There was no other way. Besides, just because I like her smile doesn’t mean I’m jumping into bed with her, she thought wryly. The thought almost made her laugh; contrary to what a great many people believed she didn’t lack self awareness or self irony. And she did have a sense of humor. Even if it might manifest itself at odd times, as Cat had pointed out.
Bel rose from the floor and began pacing the room. To see Harkaitz as the leader of those dead warriors had not really been a surprise to her. She’d suspected him of treason for a long time, although she hadn’t been quite aware of the extent to which he was willing to go to get even with his brother.
Harkaitz Qadir was the older prince – the older of the twins. When he was twelve he was involved in an accident at the palace where a child died in fire and Harkaitz was scarred for life. Harkaitz maintained he was innocent of the death of the other child, while Barac Wei, his brother, blamed Harkaitz for the fire. The child who died had been one of Barac Wei’s best friends. Bel had been told this by the emperor; it was the beginnings of a rift between the twin brothers. That rift increased when Barac Wei was chosen successor to the imperial throne instead of the true heir: Harkaitz.
Bel had suspected it was prince Harkaitz and his wife, Jaquana Naga, who’d been behind the death of the previous emperor, who’d died of an unexplained fever. Harkaitz had expected to inherit the throne, but was fooled at the emperor’s deathbed.
Harkaitz wanted power and wealth. He wanted to rule the empire, but the only way he could claim the throne now was through force. He had his army of dead warriors, and warriors who were very much alive: Bel had seen several with the mark of the Cobra on their hands. What the prince needed was power to control the deities and the Priesthood and Bel was the only one with enough knowledge to grant him such power. Except – she refused.
Bel could’ve broken free anytime she wanted to, but there was something she was waiting for. Harkaitz Qadir might be the one seemingly in charge, but he wasn’t a High Priest. Someone must have broken the connection between Nidae and her six days ago and also restrained Fang. Only a very powerful High Priest or Priestess could do something like that and Bel wanted to find out who it was.
A low sound behind her made her turn around and kneel at the warrior’s side.
“Careful”, she said softly. “You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
“Where… where am I? I don’t… remember.”
Cat opened her mismatched eyes and looked up at Bel. She inhaled softly when she noticed the priestess.
“Sshh”, Bel said gently. “You’re safe… for the moment.”
“What…?” Cat sat up and Bel watched her as she realized that she was naked – again. The warrior gasped, then looked at Bel with wide eyes.
Bel shrugged. “I’ve tended to your wounds… again.”
The younger woman looked down at her exposed body. “Really?” she suddenly said, looking up with a wide grin. “And here I was thinking you just couldn’t wait to get me out of my clothes – again.”
It was the second time Bel felt something lurch in her stomach as she met Cat’s smile. Luckily she was a woman used to hiding her feelings, so she kept a straight face as she answered: “Really?” At the same time arching an eyebrow at the warrior.
“Why not? I’m an attractive woman”, Cat said with a shrug and this time Bel struggled not to laugh.
“Uhum”, she said, pretending to hide a cough. She nodded towards the corner of the room. “Your clothing is there… There’s not much left of it, but I guess you’d prefer that to running around naked.”
“If I’d known you’d appreciate my form I surely would’ve”, Cat said and rose.
Bel mildly shook her head. “I’m not interested in your kind of games, kitten”, she said and Cat hastily looked at her before averting her eyes again. She went to get her clothes.
“I don’t know what you mean”, Bel heard her say as she dressed.
“I’ve heard about you. You conquer women as rulers conquer kingdoms. Well, I’m not interested. Especially not if you’re only looking for a challenge.”
Cat gasped and swirled around, looking at her. “Is that what you think?” she asked almost in a whisper.
“I don’t know what I think”, Bel said, realizing it was true. She didn’t know what Cat was doing with her; why she had followed her to the Vale of the Dead, or why she was looking at her like she did in that moment. “I don’t know you – there’s not much to think.” She hesitated. “You’re not supposed to be here, you know. You’re supposed to guard the princess. I asked you to…”
“I know, I know. Fine!” Cat threw up her hands. “I came to save you.” She looked around. “And a fine job I’m doing of it”, Bel heard her mutter.
“To save me? I ordered you to protect the princess. What was it that you didn’t understand?”
“I don’t follow orders very well”, Cat said, finally looking directly at her. “Look, the princess was fine and Katana and the emperor were only babbling about what was best to do… You could’ve died before…!” Cat caught herself.
“Before what?” Bel asked with a confused frown.
“Deyna is fine. I left her with Serafine, she’s…”
“That’s not the point”, Bel said sharply. “I left you in charge. I trusted you to care of her… If you can’t do your job…”
Cat seemed to clench her jaws. “Do you care at all that I risked my life for you?”
“Why would I care?” Bel asked, again confused. “I don’t know you. I didn’t ask you to come save me. As a matter of fact I wanted to be caught and you only made matters worse for me.” If he threatens to harm her how can I not give him what he wants? Bel thought. And how can I, knowing what the magic could do in his hands? “I can break free anytime I want to”, she added.
Cat blinked. “I don’t… believe that”, she said. “Why would you…?”
Bel sighed and shook her head. “Listen, kitten. I’m a priestess. It’s not what I am, but who I am. There’s nothing else that matters to me than to serve my goddess and the people of Goddara.”
“I don’t believe that”, Cat said again.
“Believe it. It’s true. I’ll die for my calling.” She knew that to be true; Nikka had told her so the first time they met. And somehow she sensed that the time was drawing near. “Kitten”, she said softly, moving towards Cat, suddenly feeling very protective of the younger woman. “You can’t change me.”
“But…” Cat whispered, lowering her eyes to Bel’s mouth as Bel stopped only a few inches from her. Bel noticed the look and felt a second, sudden lurching in her stomach – even stronger this time.
I do wonder what it would feel like, she thought distractedly as she watched Cat watching her mouth. If she kissed me… I wonder what that would be like…
Cat abruptly stepped back, looking up at her.
“No? So you like what you’ve become? Cold and indifferent to people…”
“That’s not who I am”, Bel said softly, slowly shaking her head. “You don’t know me well enough to say things like that.”
“But you’re allowed to lock Deyna up and accuse me of being irresponsible?” Cat spat, clenching her fists. Something in her eyes was at odds with her words and her angry manners, but Bel didn’t get it. She shook her head.
“I see there’s no use talking to you about this. Could you tell me if anyone is on their way to save… us?”
“I don’t know”, Cat said, shrugging. “And I don’t care. I have nothing to return to.”
Bel blinked. “What do you mean?”
Cat hesitated and seemed to regret she’d said anything. “I…”
“Oh, my!” Bel gasped, getting it before Cat had to explain. “You pushed Katana too far, didn’t you? Oh, kitten – why do you do things like that?” she asked softly.
“Stop doing that!” Cat said angrily.
“What now? Be nice to you? I thought you’d…”
“You’re not nice. You’re… You’re… Burning Bats and damn Snakes!” Cat threw out her arms, pacing restlessly around the small chamber.
“You got yourself kicked out of Panthera for my sake. Why? Was it worth it? No person is worth…”
“And what if I think you are? Huh?” Cat asked, coming to a halt before Bel. The warrior’s mismatched eyes burned with a strange fire. “You’re damned beautiful, do you know that?”
Bel blinked, not because of Cat’s statement – she’d heard that a hundred times before – but because for the first time in her life she felt something hearing it. “I know”, she said cautiously. “People have a tendency of reminding me about it. They want what they can’t have. Just like you”, she added, not knowing why.
“That’s not true”, the younger woman mumbled. “I…”
Bel tilted her head to one side. “What is it that you want, then?”
“I… don’t know”, Cat said lowly, but when she looked at Bel the priestess noticed an intensity in those strange eyes that she’d never seen in anyone’s eyes before. It was an intensity that seemed to eat at the other woman and Bel was not entirely unaffected by it.
“I’ve turned down more lovesick people than you can probably imagine”, Bel said slowly. “But I give you this, they usually leave me alone when they get to know me.”
Cat listened, focusing on her. “Get to know you?” she asked softly.
“Get to know what they think is me. I’m unfriendly towards them and they quickly lose interest.”
“I heard you laugh with Katana”, Cat said, almost as in an excuse.
“Ah, yes.” Bel nodded, smiling when she remembered what – or who – she and Katana had been discussing. “But you – you think I’m the most heartless person you know and you still come chasing after me. I grant you that, not many people would do it. I find it… sweet.”
“Sweet?” Cat made a face. “Sweets are for children.”
“And have you given me a reason to view you as something else?” Bel said, tilting her head to one side. “Carousing, breaking rules, seducing women with no care for their tender hearts…” She shook her head. “Irresponsible. These things are not the trademark of a mature woman.” Although, she thinks I’m beautiful, she thought distractedly, noticing how Cat again eyed her mouth. She felt a strange heat in her chest as she caught the next thought: I wish she’d smile again…
“Burn you, woman”, Cat muttered and turned away. She went to the iron bars and grabbed them until her knuckles turned white.
“That won’t do”, Bel said. “You’re not strong enough for that.”
“Where are we, anyway?” the warrior said, changing subject. She loosened her grip on the bars, but still held on to them without looking back.
“Inside the rocks, somewhere in the cave system.”
“Harkaitz Qadir put us here”, Cat said heatedly.
“Yes. He wants to rule the empire…”
“Fancy that”, Bel heard the other woman mutter. “And why are you here?” Cat suddenly turned around, looking angrily at her. “Why did he take you? What does he need you for? And what does he need Fang for?” She frowned, the anger lessening and giving way to confusion. “And how could he capture Fang? Fang’s a god, how come…”
“You don’t know much about the power of the Priesthood, do you?” Bel asked.
Cat shrugged. “I care little for the deities. I only learned to fear speaking ill of them”, she added. “My grandfather thought it would help me stay out of trouble.”
“Apparently it didn’t work”, Bel said dryly. “Fine”, she added when she noticed the look on Cat’s face. “If you calm down I’ll tell you.”
“I am calm!” the other woman exclaimed.
“Really?” Bel arched an eyebrow at her. “You can’t even stand still, trying to break those iron bars. No one has that kind of strength if they’re not a deity.”
“Fine.” Cat relinquishing and sat down with her back against the wall. “Tell me what’s going on.”
Cat found it hard to concentrate on Bel’s words. She found it difficult to even be close to the other woman. The deities must have a good time with her – putting her in embarrassing situations together with the redheaded beauty. To wake up a second time half naked in front of the priestess – what were the odds? And the way the woman called her “kitten” – it wasn’t the same as in her dream, not as teasing. Instead there was unexpected tenderness in the priestess’ voice and in her eyes. Cat couldn’t stand it – her body reacted instinctively, probably still under the influence of the dream.
“I shouldn’t tell you these things”, the High Priestess said, looking reflectively at her. “But I guess you need to know – maybe you’ll listen to my orders the next time.”
“The next time?” Cat said, arching an eyebrow. Bloody Snakes – why must she be so beautiful? She tore her eyes from the other woman and looked out between the iron bars. “I was suspended, remember? For life.”
“We could probably make use of you somehow”, the High Priestess said lightly. “Now…” She silenced and Cat glanced at her against her will. “You know – you could’ve given me another reason why you came after me.”
“I could?” Cat asked.
“You could just have told me you wanted to repay me for saving your life.” There was a slight question in the priestess’ eyes. “Why didn’t you?”
“I…” Cat narrowed her eyes. “That wouldn’t have been true”, she said, shrugging.
“Oh, you’re brave and honest. I see why Katana values you. If you’d been a little more grown-up you would’ve taken her place as Captain by now. She has been expecting you to.”
Cat looked up, stunned to silence. “What did you…? No”, she shook her head, denying the implication behind Bel’s words. The thought had never crossed her mind. “I’m no… I can’t lead.”
“No, probably not”, the High Priestess said in a voice that made Cat blush in humiliation.
“Priestess”, she said, offended, and rose from the floor.
“My name is Badra Bellona”, the other woman said evenly. “My friends call me Bel and the deities call me Badra…”
“’Fighter of the Full Moon’”, Cat mumbled.
“That’s correct”, the priestess said, nodding. “Call me what you like. It seems you and I can’t get away from each other, so we might as well make the best of the situation. Sometimes our lives are in the hands of the Creator.”
Cat shook her head. “I’ll settle for ‘priestess’”, she said grumpily.
“It’s your choice”, the priestess said with a shrug. “The Naming ceremony is a good place to start explaining things”, she went on. “The deities claim us and Name us because they see what’s in our hearts. They see us, who we are and what we are destined to become… And sometimes those Names shape our lives.”
Cat nodded to show that she was listening, although her mind was drifting again. When Bel was gesticulating before the sleeves of her robe fell back and Cat had noticed something on her arms. It seemed to be dark spots of various sizes, tattoos, and Cat tried to figure out what they were meant to depict. But then – remembering her dream with a slight shiver – she knew: those tattoos were bats.
“People claimed by the Owl or the Horse are usually healers or teachers in some ways. People Named by the Tiger and the Cobra are usually warriors. But there are always people chosen to become priests or priestesses. If the person doesn’t know it herself it will be revealed at the Naming. If your Name had been Cath Chandra – Dark Moon, instead of Cath Ciardha, Dark Warrior – you’d have been a priestess.”
“And if Fang hadn’t claimed me I’d have been a priestess too”, Cat said, remembering. “All un-Named before the age of ten belong to the Bat and automatically become priests or priestesses.”
“I don’t understand why Fang claimed me”, Cat said frowning. “I’ve always felt I was closer to the Goddess than to Fang.”
“Yes”, Bel said softly, watching her with a curiously compassionate look. “I’ll get to that. I guess it’s time you know the truth.”
Cat felt a cold chill down her spine. “The truth?”
“Fang wouldn’t have chosen you if your nature had gone completely against his. You are in fact a panther, not a tiger, which made it possible for Fang to claim you. I’ll tell you about it, but first you need to understand a few things.”
She’s beautiful when she’s like this, Cat thought, watching the priestess. When she’s not heartless… She realized maybe Bel wasn’t heartless, she was just very – efficient. She was so brilliant that she probably forgot that everyone wasn’t as single minded as her. I need to show her there’s more to life than… whatever she’s living for.
“The deities have their power and it’s great, but they have weaknesses. In the past deities could rule like they pleased, either help mankind or completely destroy them. There was no end to their power. But because of the misuse of their power people began to experiment with how to stop them, or at least control them. Thus the Priesthood was created. People who learned how to bind a deity and to control them.”
“Like magic”, Cat said.
“Let’s call it magic for the simplicity. Yes – they developed magic. And it was a special magic, developed to control the deities. In our part of the world we’ve learned to live in peace with the deities, but in other parts of the world there are wars going on between deities and the Priesthood.”
“I never knew…” Cat frowned, thinking. “I mean, I know about the persecution of deities in kingdoms like Sum and Egara, but I didn’t know the Priesthood had such powers. That’s what happened to Deyna that other night, right?” She looked at the priestess. “Some from the Priesthood must have…” The thought struck her and she gasped. “Fang! Who would do such a thing? This means…” Treason! she thought.
“Yes – treason”, Bel said. “Deeper than prince Harkaitz’s. To have a Priest or a Priestess betray the empire, it’s…” She shook her head. “It’s more dangerous than you understand.”
“It’ll disrupt the order of the deities”, Cat whispered. “I understand.”
“No – see…” Bel hesitated. “There’s different ways for a deity to gain more power. One is for a fully Initiated deity to lay with someone of the opposite sex…”
“To have sex”, Cat said. “Deyna told me she’d lose her powers if she… But wait. You tell me if Fang sleeps with Deyna he’d win her powers?”
“That’s correct. If he slept with her before she was Initiated, which usually happens at the age of eighteen.”
“How does that work?”
“It has to do with energies. A fully initiated deity knows how to control – or master – her energies, while an uninitiated would mix her energies with the person she’s… having sex with. Deities know how to steel, or harvest, the energies of another. They also know how to protect themselves from being robbed of their energies.”
“So Mara harvested energies from Deyna’s sister? He became stronger because of it?”
“Oh, my. No wonder Fang likes his women. He must have stolen a lot of energies from a lot of… uninitiated.”
“Semi-deities. People like Deyna, not yet a deity but still with powers, are called semi-deities. What happens when a semi-deity like Deyna sleeps with someone is that their energies are transferred to the other person, even if it’s a human. A human who’s slept with a semi-deity might even experience an increase in power for a few days, but it usually goes away. And yes – Fang has grown in power over the years.”
“But he’s still not the most powerful deity. Right?” Cat glanced at the priestess, suddenly becoming very much aware of Bel’s presence again. She swore inwardly and moved away from the other woman, cursing her bodily reactions. She’d never felt so strongly for a woman before – not ever, except in her dreams. Snakes!
“The balance is held between the deities – they don’t really gain more power than any other by sleeping around like this. If they want to they could even transfer powers to humans – permanently. But they’d never risk that.”
Again the High Priestess was looking at Cat with a deep, disconcertingly tender look and Cat twitched a little, restlessly moving around the room.
“The Priesthood does more than control the deities – they can also support their deities, strengthen them with power. Sometimes the deities challenge each other, like warriors do. Either for fun, or for winning an argument or a favor. In such cases they can draw energy from their respective High Priest or Priestess.”
“And the deity with the more powerful priest wins”, Cat said, nodding. “I get it.”
“There’s more.” There was a grave tone in Bel’s voice that made Cat listen. “Ancient texts state that a particular ritual makes it possible to transfer the power from one deity to another by blood. A blood sacrifice. This would heavily increase the power of the deity performing the ritual. There are two different rituals to accomplish this – one simpler and one more complicated. The latter brings infinitely more power than the first.”
“What… would it mean?” Cat asked cautiously.
“It would mean that the deity performing the ritual would break the bonds of the Priesthood. He would become an Ancient Deity, one of those who were truly powerful and who not even the created Priesthood could control. It would be possible for him to rule the world with no one to oppose him.”
“Oh, Goddess of the Dark moon”, Cat whispered, paling. She suddenly realized what the High Priestess meant. “Fang”, she whispered. “That’s what they need Fang for.”
“Yes. And – the deity can’t perform the ritual on his own, he needs someone from the Priesthood to do it for him.”
“Who?” Cat looked at Bel and noticed the determined set of the other woman’s jaws. She felt a thrill of desire and power surge through her in a strange mix, distracting her for a moment. “Who is it?” she asked when she found her voice again.
“I have my suspicions, but I can’t tell yet.”
“Goddess”, Cat whispered. “This… We have to do something!” She looked at the High Priestess. “We can’t just… sit here”, she finished lamely, looking at the locked iron bared door. “Bloody mess”, she muttered.
“I wanted to find out who the High Priest was, but with you here it makes it a little risky”, Bel said dryly, eyeing her. “You ought to listen better to my orders the next time.”
“Well, if I had I wouldn’t have known these things”, Cat countered. “You wouldn’t have told me and I’d still be as ignorant like the rest of the populace. If you respect me enough to share things like that with me I’ll respect you enough to follow your orders… Maybe”, she added, crossing her arms before her.
“Really?” Bel asked, arching an eyebrow at her. “We’ll see about that. Come – it’s time we’re out of here.”
“What? And how would we do that – walk out the door?”
“Exactly”, the High Priestess said and turned to the iron door. “Some people believe the power of a High Priest lies in his staff – that the staff is charged with power from the deity and that the priest therefore is useless without it.”
Cat frowned. “Isn’t it so?”
“For some”, Bel said. “Not for me.”
In the next moment the whole iron door was ripped from the wall in a shower of stone splinters and thrown across the corridor on the opposite side.
Cat stared at the open vault as Bel stepped through the door and into the corridor.
“Are you coming? Or would you prefer to wait for the guards?”
“Huh…” Cat said, slowly following the priestess. “How… How did you…?” She gestured towards the iron door.
“Magic”, Bel said dryly. “Come on.”
Cat glanced over her shoulder at the ripped door as they went. If she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes she wouldn’t have believed it.
They walked along a narrow corridor, lit by torches on the walls. There were no guards and when they reached the end of the corridor Cat understood why: another iron bar door blocked their way. Cat glanced at the priestess at her side, but Bel didn’t even slow down: the door was torn from the wall just like the first one. On the other side a guard was knocked out when the flying door hit him. Another guard drew his sword and charged towards them.
“Do you mind?” Bel said, stepping aside.
“Not at all”, Cat said, feeling the blood pumping. She always looked forward to a fight and especially in that moment – to get release from the confusing physical attraction she felt for the woman at her side.
She stepped forward, wondering fleetingly why the priestess didn’t take care of the warrior herself if she could do a thing like that with the doors. Maybe she’s growing tired, she thought as the warrior rushed against her. She quickly stepped aside, concentrating on her opponents sword arm; he missed her by a fraction and she moved close enough to kick him across the abdomen. He flew across the hall and hit the wall beside Bel. Before he had time to recover Cat was at his side and knocked him unconscious, before she wrenched the sword from his hand.
“Not bad”, Bel said behind her. “You’re really good.”
Cat turned around with the sword in her hands. “How can you tell?” she asked wryly. “Because I won?” She suddenly got the feeling the priestess had stepped aside to let her fight the warrior just to see how good she was. Cat didn’t like being manipulated like that.
Bel smiled. “Katana has trained me a bit. I’m not as good as the members of Panthera, but I can hold my own. And I recognize talent when I see it.”
“Hum”, Cat said, warily looking around. There were no more guards ahead at the moment. “You said I deserved to know the truth about myself”, she said, remembering the moment in the cell. “You said you’d tell me…”
“I will, but we need to get out of this mess first. We’ll talk about it back at the temple.”
“If we return alive”, Cat grumbled. “Did you happen to see the assembled army outside? There are hundreds of those dead soldiers! Maybe even a thousand. There’s no way we can sneak past them…”
“We’re not going to”, Bel said with a chilling note in her voice. “Come”, she said and began walking. Cat followed with the sword in her hand.
“How are your wounds, by the way”, the High Priestess asked after a few moments. ”I don’t have Gebra’s healer hands, but I did what I could.”
Cat moved her shoulder. “Not too bad.”
“Hum. You know, if that arrow had been poisonous I couldn’t have saved you this time.”
“Fine, fine. I won’t come charging to save you the next time you get yourself abducted.”
“No?” Bel said and this time there was an amused hint in her voice. “I doubt you could stay away – I’m too beautiful. Right?”
When the High Priestess winked at her Cat’s heart stopped beating for a moment and she lost her breath.
“You…” She slowly inhaled, regaining her composure. “That was a joke”, she said slowly.
“Yes… Maybe I should give you a heads up before the next one.”
“Please…” Cat said, still stunned.
“Fine… Here’s one. If you come charging to save me I’ll just get the pleasure of undressing you again. I doubt any woman had the pleasure of doing that to you more than once.”
When Cat blushed the High Priestess laughed, confusing Cat even more.
“You are a wicked woman”, she said.
“So they say”, Bel agreed. “No one ever said I was nice.”
“No”, Cat said wryly, getting into the mood. “I haven’t made up my mind about that part yet.” She grinned. “But if you wink at me one more time I might be tempted to believe you’re flirting with me, priestess.”
She hadn’t really expected the priestess to respond to that, but she did: she laughed a second time, again causing Cat to reevaluate her opinion of her.
“That’d be the day”, Bel mused and Cat wondered at the fleetingly appreciative expression in the woman’s eyes as she watched Cat, before she turned away and resumed their walk. Cat followed in confused silence.
They were discovered by a small group of warriors further down the corridor, but Cat fought them off, taking great pleasure in seeing the appreciative expression in Bel’s look as she watched her fight.
Cat couldn’t say how long they moved in the narrow corridors, but she sensed they were moving closer to the surface. Finally they reached an opening letting in daylight. It turned out to be a ledge several hundred feet across the ground. A small footpath was leading upwards, towards the ridge where Cat had been taken captured, but otherwise the ledge ended abruptly in a dangerously steep slope before them. They had full view of the valley and of the assembled army below. The warriors filled the whole gorge; their armor and weapons glistened in the late afternoon sun.
“They’ve seen us”, Cat said, noticing a few warriors pointing up at them. She looked around, but couldn’t find the prince or any of his men in the army. “We need to get back in”, she added. “Priestess…” she said when the woman at her side didn’t move. “We need to…”
A noise behind her made her turn. Another group of warriors triumphantly grinned at her in the opening to the tunnel.
“There’s no place for you to run”, one of them said.
“Priestess”, Cat urgently said. “Step back from the…”
Just as she took a step forward to engage in combat a wall of fire sprang up before her, separating her from the warriors in the tunnel. She heard them scream in rage and pain behind the wall and wondered what was happening. The flames covered the whole opening and were so thick she couldn’t see through them.
Cat turned at the mention of her name, glancing at the priestess. Bel was standing close to the deep slope with her arms raised before her at the waist.
“Priestess?” Cat said carefully. There was a distant look in the other woman’s eyes – as if she transported from reality.
“Now you’ll see why people fear me”, Bel said in a noncommittal, detached voice. “Know the power of the High Priestess of Nidae!”
Cat would live a long life. She would travel the world in a lonely quest, searching for the one thing she’d lose because of a broken promise. She would see many strange things and meet many powerful people, but she would never forget the power of the woman she’d fallen in love with.
There it was, the Power. The truth Cat had been looking for – the answer to the question why the High Priestess of Nidae was so feared. Not because she was a woman serving a powerful goddess, but because she was powerful in herself. She served the goddess because of who she was – and Cat finally understood that part. It didn’t mean she could easily accept it.
In the valley below, great lines of fire suddenly shoot up from the ground: walls of fire, with flames licking the sky. Loud thunder was heard, mixed with the roaring from the fire. Gusts of winds swept amongst the lines of warriors and threw them high in the air, crushing them against the ground when they fell down again.
The whole Vale of the Dead was turned into a battlefield and Cat was swept back in time, to the memory of those battlefields where she’d fought and killed. She remembered the screaming, the noise of weapons, and the smell of blood. It was the same in that moment: she heard the soldiers scream and could sense their fear. She knew they weren’t alive, those soldiers below her – dead people raised to be used as warriors – but she felt for them anyway. They didn’t stand a chance against the raging fires, the thunder and the tearing wind.
“I’ve done this once before”, the High Priestess said beside Cat, as she gazed at the mayhem she was creating. “When I was sixteen the former leader of the White Tigers brought me to the boarders of Egara, where the emperor was losing a major battle against invading forces. This is what I did to protect my people – the people of the Goddess. I saved the Empire of Kellara.”
It was said without vanity; it was a simple statement of fact. Cat swallowed, realizing what danger their empire had been in if the woman beside her hadn’t decided to humble herself to serve the people – but instead wanted to conquer. She remembered something her grandfather had once said: “Great power must come with great love – otherwise it will corrupt everything in its way.”
Cat stared at the chaos before her, where hundreds of warriors were being conquered as she watched, and tried to comprehend the whole situation. As she looked out at the valley a movement above her caught her attention. She turned her head and noticed a group of warriors fighting atop of the ridge – and she recognized a few of them. Bats and Snakes! she thought surprised.
The fighting warriors consisted of two groups, one dressed in yellow and green – the colors of prince Harkaitz – and the others were Leaping Panthers. Cat recognized Serafine and Deyna amongst them. The princess was dressed like a Leaping Panther in black leather and fought skillfully side by side with the gray eyed woman.
Cat glanced at Bel. “I have to go”, she said urgently. “Please trust me”, she added before she rushed off, following the footpath to the crest. She reached the top of the ridge and threw herself into the fight, making her way towards the princess. Her fellow members of Panthera greeted her as they noticed her arrival.
“What are you doing here?” Cat called over the battle noise as she finally reached Serafine’s side. “Both of you?” she added as Serafine glanced at her.
“Fighting”, the princess called back. “What does it look like?”
“She’s gonna kill us all for this!” Cat said. “By the blood of the Bat – why…?”
“Could we discuss this later?” Serafine asked, dodging a blow from her opponent’s sword. “We’re not all as multi-skilled as you.”
“It’s her eyes”, Deyna amusedly said, grinning at the other woman. “Cat’s only part human.”
“Tell me about it”, Serafine said, faking a sigh.
“You’ve bonded”, Cat said dryly, narrowing her eyes at the princess for a brief second. “But you haven’t… you know. Have you?”
“No.” Deyna shook her head, swirling around to parry a blow from a warrior attacking her back. She disarmed him and knocked him unconscious with the hilt of her sword. “We decided to wait”, she added as she looked down at the fallen warrior; it was the last of them. She looked up, grinning at Cat. “Hi – aren’t you glad to see me?”
“Devastatingly”, Cat said, lowering her sword. She glared at Serafine and Deyna, before she glanced at the handful of Leaping Panthers that moved about amongst the fallen warriors. “Why are you here? Sera, you were supposed to protect her! That means keeping her out of trouble, not bringing her into it.”
“Actually…” Serafine said, but was interrupted.
“Don’t blame her. I ran off from the palace to find you and… and the High Priestess”, the princess said. “Serafine followed me with the rest of these…” Deyna gestured towards the female warriors.
“Ran off? You ‘ran off’? And where were you?” Cat pointed at Serafine. “How could you let her run away like that? You were supposed to…” She silenced and clenched her jaws. She had no right to accuse Serafine – especially not for something that was her own fault. “What happened?”
“We followed you here and then we were attacked by… these warriors.” Serafine looked down at the mass of bodies. “They…” She caught herself as she suddenly noticed what was going in the valley below: fire and smoke rose from the vale; people were still screaming and dying.
Dying anew, Cat thought wryly.
“Goddess!” Serafine whispered. “What’s…? By all deities! What is that?”
“An army of dead being consumed by the wrath of a High Priestess”, Cat said evenly, trying to sound casual about it. In reality she was nothing but. No wonder she thinks me a child, she thought distracted.
“Wow!” Serafine whistled. “That’s really awesome…” She turned to the princess. “Could you do that too?”
“My powers are a little different”, Deyna said. “But if I wanted to…” She shrugged. “Although the High Priestess says I should never use my powers for personal gain or for killing… if there’s no other way.”
Cat only listened with half an ear. She was watching Bel on the ledge further down; wind was playing in the priestess’ hair, lifting it from her face and pulling at her robe. Cat had found Bel beautiful to begin with – as always appreciating the beautiful shape of the woman – and then the dream had turned her fancy into something else, something she couldn’t control and wasn’t even sure she wanted to be a part of. It was one thing to be attracted to a woman, something else to be attracted to someone you didn’t even know – just because a stupid dream affected you. Now, in that moment as she watched the High Priestess, she realized there was more to Bel than what outer appearance suggested.
I need to get to know her, Cat thought. I must find out who she is.
“Cat?” Serafine said.
“Huh?” Cat said, looking away from the High Priestess. As she did so she became aware of a small troop of warriors galloping towards them. She squinted against the low sun and then, realizing what she was seeing, she threw herself in front of the princess. “No!”
“Cat!” Deyna called in desperation, also noticing what was going on.
Maybe there won’t be time to get to know her, Cat heard herself thinking. Well, at least I’m dying doing my duty.
She should have died. The troop galloping towards them were enemies and one of them aimed a longbow in their direction. If he was strictly meant to kill Deyna she was unsure, but he aimed at her and Cat… Cat did her duty and stepped before the flying arrow. Her thoughts were again of Bel and she wondered with an inward grin if the priestess would undress her a third time.
Then her thoughts were cut short and she screamed in agony as Serafine hurled herself before her. The arrow took the gray eyed woman straight in the chest. A second arrow followed closely, taking her in the side – probably piercing her lung.
“Sera…” Cat whispered, kneeling at her best friend’s side. Deyna fell on her knees close to her.
Cat looked up at the warriors racing towards them and found they had come to an abrupt halt: the group seemed to be frozen in time, unmovable – like riders on a painting Cat had once seen in the palace. Bel, she thought.
Another party with only a handful of riders was coming their way, but they were close enough for Cat to recognize Para among them and she relaxed, again looking down at Serafine before her.
“You…” the gray eyed woman whispered, touching Cat’s cheek. “You’ve saved me so many times, it was my turn now…”
“Sera…” She could hardly breathe for the pain. “Don’t leave me… What – what will I do without you?”
“You’ll live… You always do…” Serafine closed her eyes. “Cold, Cat… It’s so cold.”
Beside her the princess was crying silently; tears wetting her cheeks.
“We’ll – we’ll meet again, Cat…” the dying woman said, looking up again, trying to smile. “I’ll care for you, the way you’ve cared for me in this life… We’ll be sisters and friends again – one day.”
“Don’t talk, Sera… Please, don’t talk…” Cat stroked the woman’s hair, a desperate gesture to keep herself calm she realized.
“Deyna…” Serafine whispered. “Deyna… I’m so… sorry…”
Deyna took the warriors hands between hers. She didn’t say anything, she only sat quietly – crying in silence as the life went out of the woman before her.
Gray eyes glazed over, staring up at the sky.
“No. No, come back to me – come back…” Cat pushed the princess aside and shook Serafine’s lifeless body. “Don’t go! Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me…” She held the body close to her, crying against Serafine’s hair.
“Cat”, Deyna softly said, touching her shoulder.
It took a moment for Cat to realize they were no longer alone. She gently put down Serafine’s body and looked up at the riders before her. The Leaping Panthers that had come with Serafine and the princess stood behind Cat and Deyna, silently looking down at the dead warrior. They would grieve later and honor their dead friend.
“Cat…” Para said, stepping off his horse with a helpless look on his face. Cat reached out for him and he grabbed her arms, holding her for a moment and looking at her, sharing her pain. “Are you ok?”
Cat nodded with a deep breath. “I’m fine”, she said, drying the tears from her cheeks.
She looked up at the riders still on their horses. Cat recognized one as Zelena, High Priestess of the Tiger. Another was Derac, the High Priest of Nidae... Serafine’s brother.
“I’m so sorry”, Cat said, looking at him. He was watching his dead sister with a blank face, but behind the determined set of his jaws there was deep pain in his gray eyes. A pain that mirrored Cat’s own.
The High Priest nodded at Cat’s words, but he didn’t take his eyes from his sister.
“Derac”, a dark skinned woman at his side said and put a hand on his arm; Cat didn’t know who she was. “You are allowed to grieve…”
But Derac shook his head. “It was my fault. I was too late. I’m not… I’m no warrior – I should’ve…” He silenced and Cat noticed the guilt in his eyes.
“This wasn’t your fault”, she said. “They…” She gestured towards the frozen warriors farther away. “Those are to blame.”
“I’m no warrior”, the High Priest said again. “A warrior would have stopped them earlier…”
“You couldn’t have known”, the woman at his side said gently.
“I should’ve known… She… She gave her life for the fight. What did I ever do?” There was bitterness in his voice and Cat found it hard looking at his face.
“Don’t do this to yourself, Derac”, one of the other riders said, moving his horse forward. He was a heavy man, with wild hair and beard, dressed in furs. “There’s no use blaming ourselves for what others do…”
“Don’t tell me what to do!” the High Priest snapped. He turned around in the saddle and gestured towards the frozen warriors. Cat realized it was his magic that had stopped them and not Bel’s. Then she realized what he intended to do.
“No!” she called at the same time as Zelena spurred her white mare.
“No – hold, Derac!” the High Priestess called, riding against him, but it was too late.
“Let them burn – all of them…” His voice was even, noncommittal, and Cat watched in horror as the whole party of warriors were lifted through the air and thrown down into the valley. They came alive as soon as they were in the air and fell towards the fires below. Horses and men were screaming alike.
What did you do? Cat thought shocked. Derac… Derac was the nice priest, the one who’d never harmed a fly. The one people loved for his gentle ways and caring manners. Goddess…
“Look!” Deyna called, pointing down the gorge.
“Oh, Bel”, Zelena gasped. “Thank the Goddess…”
Cat watched as the whole party of warriors spinning in the air was caught by an invisible force and moved away from the fire. They were put down a safe distance from the chaos reigning in the valley, but were still held by invisible shackles. Only the horses were free to go.
“She had no right…” Cat heard Derac mutter. A sudden, chilly wind swept across the ridge and the blue sky turned abruptly dark – covered by heavy clouds. Thunder was heard.
“Derac! Control yourself!” Zelena shouted through the heavy wind.
The heavy man behind Derac didn’t bother with words – he simply lifted his staff and knocked the High Priest over the head with it. Derac fell forward over his horse – unconscious.
“That wasn’t necessary, Bjorn”, Zelena said, glaring at the man.
“No? Would you want to argue with Bel when she’s in a mood like that? Derac’s almost as strong – he just never uses his powers like this.”
“Pray Bel never feels that kind of pain or rage”, the dark skinned woman at Derac’s side said and supported the High Priest so he wouldn’t fall off the horse. Something in her voice made the others look at her.
“You’ve Seen?” Zelena asked lowly and Cat gasped as she finally understood who the unfamiliar woman was: Nakkara Rim, the oracle.
“I have”, Nakkara said, nodding. “It might still happen, depending on…” She hesitated and glanced briefly at Cat, before looking away down the valley. “Depending on other things.”
Zelena too looked down the valley.
“I’m so sorry about your friend”, the oracle said to Cat. “But you’ll see her again. You’ll be true family one day.”
Cat nodded, wanting to ask what the oracle had seen, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted to know.
“Princess”, Nakkara said, looking at Deyna.
“Your father has gone mad because of you, my dear”, the heavily furred man said. “It’s about time you return. The spell is broken and you can use your powers again… As soon as we find the rogue we’ll be heading back. This…” – he gestured towards the Vale of the Dead – “is the business of warriors and politicians.”
“The rogue?” Cat asked.
“Fang”, Zelena said dryly, turning back towards them. “Bjorn has something against my pretty god.”
“Humph”, the furry man said.
“What did you mean, the spell has been broken?” Cat asked with a frown. She glanced at the princess. “Is it the same as at the brothel?”
“We should not discuss this here”, the oracle said. “I believe Bel is done. Let’s wait for her.”
“The Cobra Squad is on its way”, Para told Cat. “And a large amount of the White Tigers. I was allowed to move ahead together with the High Priests… and the women.” Para glanced cautiously at Nakkara and Zelena. “Things have happened at the palace…”
“Serafine saved my life”, Deyna said, looking down at the dead woman before them. After a moment she kneeled and closed Serafine’s eyes.
“What do you mean? What happened?”
Deyna silently looked up and it was the oracle who answered.
“There was a traitor among the Priesthood”, she said, holding Cat’s gaze. “He was attacking the princess and Serafine killed him. He’ll…” The oracle hesitated and her eyes glazed over for a moment. When she looked back at Cat she said: “He’ll be her enemy one day, trying to kill her. He will fail, but then he’ll come for you. Beware he who changes his face as he changes clothes…”
And how will I remember that warning in another life? Cat thought, but nodded. “Who was he?”
“Sadly, he was my chosen successor”, the man called Bjorn said. “He was named Cub.”
“I knew him”, Para suddenly said and Cat noticed the sharp expression briefly shown in the eyes of the oracle as she looked at him. She frowned. “He was a good friend of mine, I can’t believe…”
“Believe it”, Deyna said sharply. “He put a magic spell on me and tried to stab me.”
“Maybe he was under a spell”, Para stubbornly maintained, glaring at the princess. “You couldn’t use your powers on the way over here, right? That must mean another priest somewhere was affecting you.” He glanced down the valley, adding lowly: “Or a priestess…”
“Enough”, Zelena said. “This is not the proper place to discuss this – or the proper people.”
Cat noticed a flash of anger in Para’s eyes, but when he turned back to the High Priestess and nodded in submission it was gone.
Bel let the fires die out. The Vale of the Dead was now truly devoid of vegetation: the whole interior of the gorge had been scorched with her fire, leaving only blackened ground. A few warriors were still alive – those who’d been alive from the beginning. There were only a few dozen of them, including the one’s Derac had attempted to murder by throwing them into the fire.
The sky had cleared again after the High Priests storming rage. Bel wasn’t sure what had happened to Derac; if he willingly had let go of his anger, or if someone had stopped him. She hoped for the first. She didn’t know what had happened to make him so angry either – she fervently hoped it had nothing to do with Deyna. Or Cat, she thought, thinking of the warrior with the mismatched eyes.
“Fang?” she asked in her mind, hearing the god’s voice. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. Thanks to you, my pretty… I have something for you.”
Bel left the ledge and went back into the rock. She felt the vibrations from Fang and knew how to find him now when the spell from the unknown enemy was broken.
There had been a battle of wills between her and the High Priest who’d captured Fang. The priest had put a magic web across the whole valley, trying to prevent Bel from using her powers and also binding Fang or any other deity coming close to the valley. To begin with Bel had only sneaked beneath her opponent’s magic web, using her powers of Air to rip open the iron doors to free herself and Cat, but when she reached the ledge she needed to challenge him in order to use her powers more fully. As she stood on the ledge she directed her mind against him – sensing his energy – and broke his hold on the valley and on Fang at the same time as she killed off the dead warriors below.
I know you now, she thought as she hurried through empty corridors. With the army gone the small amount of living soldiers would have found themselves some safety and the High Priest was probably on his way to Egara with prince Harkaitz.
It wasn’t until she reached Fang’s cell she realized she’d been wrong. Behind the open door to the small cell where the god had been kept prisoner two men were waiting – three with the god.
Fang stood proudly with his arms crossed – completely naked – and stared at the prince in the doorway to the cell. Behind the god, in the shadows, lay a motionless body.
“Zelena is on her way”, Fang said as soon as he noticed Bel. She nodded, staring at the dead body behind the god. Even though it was conventional for the Priesthood not to kill there were no such restrictions on the deities: they were free to do what ever they pleased with humans, although it wasn’t considered polite to kill them off – it had a tendency to decrease the number of followers.
Looking at the dead body of Snoek, Mara’s High Priest, Bel couldn’t blame Fang for killing him. The priest had probably put him through torture, planning to kill him. She had always thought Snoek reminded her of an insubstantial shadow, sneaking along the walls in his temple and in the palace. He looked even more like a shadow in that moment, dead and gray – melting into the background and into the shadows behind the victorious god.
Bel raised her eyes and looked at the prince beside her. Harkaitz Qadir – his Name meant powerful rock and she thought he looked like one in that moment – stood straight in front of Fang, looking straight ahead of him. His face didn’t show any emotions, but when he turned his face towards Bel his eyes shone with a burning rage.
“You! Always you!” he hissed. “I’ll get you for this”, he added in a seething voice. “I swear on my soul that one day I’ll steal away the very thing that means more to you than life itself. Then you’ll know pain.”
“Save it, prince”, she said coldly. “You’ll be a slave for life after this.” She nodded at Fang. “You’re binding him?”
The god nodded. “He’s not going anywhere. I wanted to kill him, like that pathetic scum…” He spat at the dead High Priest behind him. “But I thought better of it.” He grinned at her. “I knew you’d want him alive.”
“Thank you”, she said wryly.
“You think all of this is over, don’t you?” the prince said. “It’s not. It has only just begun. You don’t know what’s coming…”
“Who are you working for, Harkaitz?” Bel asked, but he spat before her.
“I’d never work for anyone”, he said and she knew it was true; he was too proud to work beneath someone.
“So Snoek worked for you?” she asked and noticed a slight flicker of uncertainty in Harkaitz’s eyes. It told her something important. “No, you believed he worked for you, didn’t you? You just found out he didn’t…”
“Snakes are double-crossers by nature”, the prince said. “I should’ve known.” He glared at Bel. “But what harms you and my brother is good for me, even if I’m dead and gone when it happens.”
“Your family is in on this?” Bel said, considering the beautiful Ravena and her brother. “Your wife?” She doubted Ravena knew anything of what was going on, but the other two…
Harkaitz smiled wickedly. “What do you think, priestess? You can never prove anything. You can’t ever know.”
Bel turned around when she heard Zelena’s voice behind her. Before she knew it the other woman was hugging her.
“Thank the Goddess you’re alright! I was so worried.”
“Oh, thanks… I think”, Bel said a little confused. There was something in the High Priestess’ eyes as she looked at her… In her mind she heard Fang chuckle. “What?” she asked him. “What are you laughing at?”
“Don’t you know it yet?” the god answered as the room suddenly was filled with people; Bel had to move a few steps aside as she recognized Bjorn and Nikka entering. Harkaitz stood rooted to the floor, held by Fang’s powers. “Haven’t you figured it out, after all these years? The reason why she avoids you?”
“What are you talking about?” Bel asked impatiently as she at the same time felt relieved at seeing the oracle again.
“She has it hard for you, priestess. She’s been crushing on you for years…” Fang chuckled as he sensed her shock. “And you feel nothing. You’re heart is truly made of stone…”
“I belong to the Goddess”, she sent, struggling with the unexpected revelation. Zelena? she thought, incredulously. Again she heard the god chuckle within her.
“Bel?” Zelena asked worriedly.
“Zelena – what happened to Derac”, Bel asked, breaking the contact with the Tiger.
“Oh, he… His sister died.”
“Oh, no!” Bel gasped. “Serafine? But she… The princess!” She grabbed Zelena’s arm. “Where is Deyna?”
“Don’t worry, she’s safe”, Zelena said calmly. “She’s here, but she’s safe.”
“Maybe safer here now, than at the palace”, Bjorn said behind her. Bel looked at the High Priest.
“What’s happened?” she asked.
“We found the traitor”, he said and beside Bel prince Harkaitz huffed. Bel quickly glanced at him and then back at Bjorn.
“What do you mean?”
“The priest who blocked Deyna’s powers was Cub, my chosen successor”, Bjorn said softly. “I should’ve known…”
“Cub…” Bel whispered, thinking of the nervous young man with the stutter. “I knew there was something foul about him”, she said, “but I don’t believe he was the only one. Have you seen this?” She stepped aside and let them take a look at the dead High Priest. Zelena gasped when she saw him.
“Snoek! You killed him?” she accusingly asked Fang, who looked a little chastened.
“He was about to kill me. If Bel hadn’t broken his hold on me he would’ve succeeded. I have a right to defend myself”, Fang added sulkily.
“Come – let’s get out of here”, Bjorn said as Zelena kept staring at the god. “They’re waiting for us.”
“They?” Bel asked.
“Bor and his warriors and Hades and some of the Tigers. They’ve caught Harkaitz’s soldiers.”
Bel looked at Harkaitz and nodded.
“It’s over, isn’t it?” Fang said with a grin. “We saved the Empire. I’m a hero. Come, you scum – you’re coming with me.”
The god lifted Harkaitz over one shoulder and carried him away with him. Bjorn followed with Snoek’s dead body.
“’We’ saved the empire?” Zelena said in disgust. “That god’s ego is unbelievable …”
“It’s not over”, Bel mumbled as she followed Zelena out of the cell. Zelena glanced at her over her shoulder, but didn’t ask anything. Bel thought of Fang’s words and found it difficult to meet the other High Priestess’ gaze. Luckily Zelena averted her eyes first.
“Of course it’s not”, Nikka said at her side. The first thing she’d said since meeting Bel again. “That’d be too easy.”
“This is a mess, Nikka.”
“Yes, it is”, the oracle agreed. “And the worst is yet to come”, she added softly.
Bel walked thoughtfully beside the oracle as Zelena moved ahead to catch up with Bjorn.
“Nikka”, she said after a moment. “I think the deities need to move out of Goddara. They need to go into hiding with their High Priests and Priestesses. No one will ever believe this isn’t over, you know that. I might not even convince Barac Wei and Cara that worse things will come. Two priests and a prince that turn out to be traitors…” She shook her head. “No one will believe we are still in danger.”
“You might be right”, Nikka said.
“I know I am, I don’t need your gifts to see this. The deities are in danger as long as we don’t know who’s really behind all of this.”
“You know, don’t you?” the oracle glanced at her.
“I suspect, but that’s not the same. Harkaitz was right – I can’t prove anything, I can never really know. Which means I can’t take action. And with Egara on the move…”
“The emperor has already sent most of his soldiers to the boarders, yes... The time is drawing near”, Nakkara Rim said in her oracle voice and Bel felt a shiver down her spine. She knew what end her friend was talking about. She chose not to think about it.
“What about Derac, Nikka? What happened to him? I mean, sorrow is one thing, but to kill someone in cold blood…”
“Go easy on him, Bel. It could’ve been you.”
“Me? No – I’ve killed, but in defense. Not like that…”
“One day you’ll know. Someone…” Nikka silenced. “One day you’ll understand. In another life Harkaitz will take someone from you. You’ll…”
“And I’ll know pain”, Bel whispered, remembering the prince’s words. “Oh, Goddess! Will it go so far, Nikka?”
“I can’t tell. The future changes with our choices… Right now that’s what I see. Be gentle with Derac, one day the roles might be reversed.”
“I’ll try”, she said distractedly. “Why must there be so much death? Why can’t we break the chain?”
“It’s our choice, Bel. Always our choice. Sometimes we have to fight, and sometimes we have to let go… And most of the time it’s too difficult to know which choice is the right one.”
Bel sighed. “Fine. But we need to get the deities to safety. Let’s start there.”
Cat had thought the High Priestess would rebuke the princess as soon as she saw Deyna, but she didn’t. When Bel reached the ridge in company with the oracle she only passed them with a short nod and a distracted look.
“She didn’t even see me”, the princess complained, looking after the High Priestess and the dark woman at her side. “She doesn’t care a bit about me.”
Cat shook her head. “She does”, she said, following Bel with her eyes. She had learned something about the priestess that day. “She just... lives on a completely different plane of existence from us. She’s on another level...”
“Why are you defending her?” Deyna said, glaring at her.
The two of them were standing together with Para and a group of Leaping Panthers, away from the rest of the mass of people that had turned up after Zelena and Bjorn had decided to check out the caves. Fang had apparently called his High Priestess and asked her to come to him.
Hades and a large group of the White Tigers where there, followed by Bor and his Cobra Squad. Katana had, according to Para, stayed at the palace with the rest of the Leaping Panthers. There had been some disagreement between Bor and the Captain and Bor had lost, which meant he had to leave the protection of the Imperial Couple to Katana.
“Yeah, and what does it mean: ‘she’s on another level’?” Para asked annoyed. “It doesn’t give her the right to behave as if she’s better than the rest of us.”
“She doesn’t”, Cat said. “She just...”
Para looked at her as if she’d completely lost it. He’d been testy since he arrived and for some reason that Cat didn’t understand it had to do with the argument between Katana and Bor and the revelation that Harkaitz was a traitor.
“Look – it’s just her ways, alright. A warrior doesn’t stop to consider if it’s right using the sword in the middle of a battle, right? She’s the same and she fights a battle we don’t understand. Leave her to it.”
“You can’t mean that!” Para strongly objected. “You freak – don’t you get it? She wants to control us all...”
Cat blinked. Para hadn’t called her a freak in a long time – since she kicked his ass when they were children. They’d been friends since then. She frowned worriedly at him and noticed the wondering look Deyna was giving him.
“I’m sorry, Cat, I didn’t...” Para sighed, pulling his fingers through his hair. “I didn’t mean that... I’m really sorry. I’m just...”
“Para – what’s going on?” Cat asked concerned. “Is it… Sera?” It hurt asking – it hurt thinking about the woman who was still lying on the ground some hundred feet away, surrounded by guarding soldiers. It hurt mentioning the other woman’s name, but Serafine and Para had known each other too. Although they had never really been friends sudden death could still have an affect on people.
“No. No, it’s not... that. I...” Para shook his head, looking at Cat in defeat. “I asked Ravena to marry me.”
“Oh!” Deyna said, surprisingly enough. Para glanced at her for a brief moment, but then looked back at Cat. Cat felt a moment’s disorientation, caught by complete surprise. She involuntarily glanced over her shoulder at Bel. The High Priestess was in conversation with Bor and Hades and it seemed to be a heated discussion, but when Cat turned to look at her Bel suddenly silenced and glanced back towards her. Their eyes met and Cat felt a pang of something in her heart, something glowing and melting at the same time. Bel nodded towards her, but then returned to her discussion.
“What did she say?” Cat asked Para.
“She said she’d give me her answer when I returned. But now, with her father...” Para shook his head again. “I can’t believe it, Cat. Ravena can’t...”
“I don’t believe my cousin has anything to do with her father’s betrayal”, Deyna said assuredly. “Harkaitz has always envied my father, but Ravena is not like him. If she loves you it shouldn’t make a difference, either to you or to her.”
“I’m not so sure she loves me”, Para said, lowering his gaze.
Cat wasn’t either; Para had always fancied Ravena, like most men did, but he didn’t know her very well. Ravena didn’t know him very well either. Besides, he was a commoner – she was nobility. It wasn’t certain that they would even be allowed to marry.
“Why would you want to marry her then?” Deyna asked, confused.
“Have you never wanted something so much it didn’t matter in how you got it?” Para asked.
“Huh”, Cat said, involuntarily thinking of Bel. Deyna glanced at her, but Para nodded thinking she was agreeing with him.
“See! I don’t care if she doesn’t love me, I just want... her.”
“That’s not... right”, the princess said, frowning.
Cat thought of Bel and wondered if she’d be satisfied with an arrangement like that and realized she wouldn’t. She wanted Bel to feel about her the way she felt about... She blocked the thought. That would never happen. She realized that now and, besides, she was still not sure Bel was such a nice person.
“I don’t care”, Para was saying. “Her father gave me his permission, but now...”
“Yes – it does present a problem”, Cat said, glancing at the imprisoned prince between Zelena and the High Priest of Beorn. Harkaitz looked ready to commit murder, glaring at Bel.
A few feet from Zelena the oracle was tending to Derac, who sat on his horse cradling his head. Cat wasn’t sure he was hurting because of the head wound the other High Priest had left him, or because of the loss of his sister. Probably both.
“What are the High Priestess and Bor arguing about?” Deyna asked, frowning.
“I don’t know”, Cat said thoughtfully. As she watched Bel the High Priestess turned away from the Chief, shaking her head.
“I better get into line”, Para said, noticing the look the bald man directed at them. “I’ll talk you later.”
“Good luck with Ravena”, Cat said, still feeling strange about picturing Ravena and Para together. Not that she begrudged Para the happiness of marrying the woman, but she had always thought Ravena would end up with someone more... glamorous. Para was... nice, but that was all. He was a nobody, basically. No hero, no flashy warrior taking risks. He was just... plain. He was too insecure to make a name for himself, always following orders and not thinking for himself. Those were good qualities in a subordinate warrior – and he was skillful with the sword – but Cat didn’t think it would be enough for Ravena. She didn’t want to see him hurt down the line.
“Princess – warrior...”
Cat almost jumped when Bel suddenly was standing right beside her; Para had returned to his Squad.
“Priestess”, she said as Deyna was nodding and fidgeting a little with the hilt of her sword. Cat knew the girl enough to know she was nervous in Bel’s company; afraid she’d be getting yelled at, probably. Not enough attention, or the wrong kind of attention, Cat thought, considering Deyna’s relationship with the High Priestess.
“Deyna – you’ll stick with Fang and Zelena on the way home”, Bel said, looking at the girl. “I heard your parents are quite mad at you. They’ll deal with you when we get back.”
“I could fly home...” Deyna said.
“No!” Bel said immediately, sharper than she had a right to, Cat thought, watching her. “No, you ride with us.”
“Why? I could...”
“Deyna”, the High Priestess said warningly and the princess blushed, both in humiliation and frustration Cat realized.
“No, High Priestess”, the girl mumbled.
“Trust me, princess”, Bel said curtly. “This is for your own good.”
Deyna clenched her jaws and Cat thought she was going to protest, but then the girl nodded and moved away.
“Go with her”, the High Priestess said, addressing the members of Panthera. “Watch over her.”
They nodded and moved as one after the girl. Cat noticed the grimace on the princess’ face.
“Why?” she asked softly as Deyna was moving out of earshot. “Why don’t you let her fly home on her own? She could handle it. You’ve caught the traitor...”
“This isn’t over yet, Cat”, Bel said concerned, watching Deyna. “Her life is still in danger.”
“What... do you mean?” Cat asked. Bel looked at her, eyeing her closely as if to judge her worth.
“These people”, she said finally, “they were just bait. Remember I told you about two ways to increase a deity’s power?”
Cat nodded. “Yeah?”
“Those are rituals that need to be performed either during a dark moon or during full moon.”
“It’s full moon in thirteen days”, Cat said.
“Yes, but it doesn’t make sense…” The High Priestess shook her head. “Never mind. Just trust me, alright. I can’t prove anything, but it’s not over.” She glanced over her shoulder at Bor, who were busy instructing his warriors. “I noticed the tattoo on your friend’s hand. He’s a Cobra…”
“Yes”, Cat said. “How so?”
“Some of Harkaitz’s warriors were members of the Cobra Squad. Traitors…”
Cat gasped, realizing what the High Priestess and Bor had been arguing about. “Para would never…”
“I didn’t say he is a traitor”, Bel said, turning back to her. “I’m just telling you to be careful. Bor denies all association with those members who helped the prince – and they’re all conveniently dead, so we can’t question them about his involvement. He denies having anything to do with them – even going so far as to say he’d excluded some of them from his Squad the other week.”
“I believe that’s true”, Cat said with a light frown. “Para told me about it.”
“That may be as it is, but he hasn’t convinced me of his innocence.”
Cat shrugged; she had never had much contact with the Chief of the Cobra Squad. “My friend is not involved”, she said assuredly. “He may not be the biggest supporter of the Imperial Court, but he’s no traitor.”
The High Priestess nodded. “The matter of Bor’s innocence is a question for the emperor. I hope he’s wise enough to know what he’s doing. I’ll at least keep an eye on him.”
“Was it wise to confront the Chief like that?” Cat asked with a frown. “If he is guilty…”
“I don’t like games”, Bel said. “There’s too much of that going on at the palace. I’ve played the game for years – it’s like fencing. Sometimes the best way to get a proper understanding of a situation is to attack. Now he knows that I know – and that’ll make him nervous.” Bel looked at Cat, holding her eyes. “Remember that about me. I don’t like games. I like it when people are straightforward with me. If they are – then I’ll be straight with them.”
Cat nodded, wondering what that had to do with anything. “Uh, and you tell me this because…?”
“Because you play games with women. I’m not one of those women”, Bel said.
“Oh, that”, Cat said softly. “Right, I’ll remember that”, she mumbled, averting her eyes. She wanted to tell the High Priestess she wasn’t in it for the game. Granted – she had chased a lot of women in her day for the fun of it. This time wasn’t one of those times. If she had been able to forget about the High Priestess she gladly would have, but she couldn’t. Flaming Feathers and flapping Bats…! she thought, grumbling in her mind.
They stood in silence for a moment and Cat wondered if she was supposed to excuse herself and leave, but she found she enjoyed the other woman’s presence too much.
“I heard about your friend – Serafine”, Bel said softly after a moment. “I’m sorry…”
“I…” Cat swallowed, not prepared to deal with the grief in front of the other woman.
“I know”, the priestess said and reached out for her. “I know...”
Bel touched her arm and Cat silenced, suddenly lost in a dream. I know her, she thought. I know this woman as I’ve known no one else...
Every touch, every movement... She suddenly realized it wasn’t her imagination or her mind that played tricks on her. She truly knew the High Priestess – from her dream. She knew her as a long lost lover who’d returned to her. She knew Bel’s touch, her kisses, the way her body moved, her scent, the way her hair moved... Every detail from Cat’s dream was true and her body, her mind – even her soul, if that was possible – screamed for her to be with this woman again. To take her in her arms and relive those moments in her dream.
It was the familiarity that drew her to the other woman, but also something else: a desperate need to regain those moments from her dream. I’ve made love to this woman a hundred times, she thought. A hundred times – and it was like the first time every time, at the same time it was as if she’d never done anything else in her life than to make love with this woman.
No wonder her body reacted the way it did to the other woman’s touch. No wonder…
“You asked me to trust you”, Bel said, changing subject. “I’m glad I did. Trust you, that is. If you hadn’t asked me I wouldn’t have let you go, do you understand?”
Cat shook her head. “No...” she said, confused.
“I was going to tie you by my side with magic when you said you were going – up there on the ledge. But you asked me to trust you...”
“So you let me go...”
“And from what I understood that saved Deyna’s life. I’m glad...”
Cat wished the priestess would take a step back; she could hardly think straight, as it was with the woman so close.
”I’m truly sorry about Serafine, but…” Bel hesitated. “I’m glad it wasn’t you. I’d have missed you…” she added softly.
”Um, thanks”, Cat said. I guess, she thought, a little confused by the priestess’ sudden concern for her wellbeing. “Uh, I think I have to…” She looked around for a reason to leave the High Priestess; she couldn’t stand being so close to her anymore, “talk to Deyna. Yeah, that’s it… I have to talk to the princess. See you later.” She needed all her self control not to take the other woman in her arms and pull her close to her.
“Now? Aren’t you at least curious about…?”
“Later. Fine. Bye”, Cat said hastily, gesturing.
Cat rushed off without another word, leaving an unusually unruffled priestess confused behind her.
When they reached the palace gates in Goddara early in the morning Bel looked around for Cat. The warrior had been good company on the eight day ride and the two of them had finally managed to have some decent conversations. Cat turned out to be funny and intelligent beneath her rough exterior and despite her arrogant manners. She had even admitted that Bel might not be as wrong about some things as she’d first believed – although she didn’t say what those things were. She also seemed to listen when Bel tried to explain things to her, instead of jumping to quick conclusions.
If she just didn’t have the annoying habit of disappearing in the middle of a conversation, Bel distractedly thought, trying to find the warrior among the masses. There was something twisting within her as she thought of Cat, something that she didn’t want to admit. A sense of… liking. She liked the other woman and had come to look forward to their discussions.
When she first realized that Cat could’ve died that day on the ridge instead of Serafine something had clenched inside her – something pressing on her chest and twisting sharply in her heart. The realization had concerned her, because she hadn’t understood its meaning. Why would she care so much for a woman she didn’t know? There hadn’t been an easy answer to that question, so she’d decided she’d get to know the woman. Just to learn something new about herself.
As it turned out, after these eight, intense days she’d spent with Cat riding beside her she was no longer entirely sure she’d been honest with herself before. Again the thought of Zelena’s naked body had come to her and again the lurching emotion the sight had brought with it returned. It was similar to what she felt when Cat grinned at her.
Some parts of Bel warned her about spending too much time with Cat and almost implored her to avoid the woman instead, as she had done and still did with Zelena, but the small part that objected was so intense she couldn’t ignore it. She wanted Cat by her side, even if they didn’t talk – the presence of the other woman was enough to… to calm her mind.
The thought worried her. She never needed anything to calm her mind before. As a matter of fact it was Cat’s absence that distressed her.
Stop this foolishness,she sternly told her self.
Bel looked down from her red horse and noticed Katana at her side.
“Goddess – it’s good to see you again!” the Captain said. “Nidae found me and let me know what happened.”
Bel nodded; the Goddess had informed her of this. “Did she tell you?” she asked lowly. “It’s not over?”
“She told me”, Katana said with a grim face. “I didn’t think it was. Something’s up with Bor… I didn’t want to leave him with the Imperial Family.”
“You did the right thing”, Bel said, nodding. She looked around, but she and Katana stood alone while the rest of the company continued up towards the palace; only the oracle came up to them. Bel pretended to ignore a sudden flash of disappointment when she spotted Cat beside Deyna and the warrior didn’t even glance in Bel’s direction. Though that could have something to do with the presence of the Captain.
“Captain…” Nikka said as she reigned in her horse beside the warrior.
“I saw Fang”, Katana said. “What’s with him, anyway? He seemed gloomier than usual.”
“It probably has something to do with the fact that Zelena just told him he had to evacuate…” Nikka said.
“Evacuate?” Katana said with a frown.
“It’s still a secret, so don’t speak too loudly about it”, Bel said. “We need to get the deities out of Goddara. I believe their lives are in danger.”
“Goddess!” Katana whispered. “Are you serious? And I just thought it had to do with the imperial throne…”
“I believe it’s both”, Bel said thoughtfully. “Any way, Fang doesn’t want to leave his girls…”
“Foolish god! He’d risk his life for sex?” Katana shook her head. “Will he ever change?”
The question apparently brought a Sight to the oracle, because Bel noticed that Nikka’s eyes glazed over.
“He will, but…” The oracle’s voice was distant. “I See – his life in another time… He’ll be human then – carousing; spending his father’s money and shaming his father’s name. A woman will come and bring him immortality, make him… a dark god. A monster.” Nikka silenced, lost in the Sight for a moment. Then she said: “When he regains his soul he will need to atone for the terrible deeds he’s done.”
“Serves him right”, Katana said dryly.
“You’ll work with him then. Just remember – although he won’t be human when you meet you can still trust him.”
“Trust Fang? Trust this…” The Captain waved her hand, lacking words. “He’s unpredictable. There’s nothing to trust. He’s nothing more than an animal and I’m not dealing with him.” Katana determinedly shook her head.
“That remains to be seen”, Nikka said softly.
“We need to meet with the Imperial Couple immediately”, Bel said, changing subject. “There’s a lot to discuss.”
“And I’ve got my renegade warrior to take care of”, Katana said with a sigh. She looked at Bel. “Tell me she made a difference?”
“I believe she did”, Bel said. “Go easy on her.”
“That’s just it – I can’t. I have my rules, just like you do. I can’t retract my word.”
“I know. I let her know maybe I can offer her something if you don’t take her back.”
Katana nodded. “That’s good. She’s a good soldier, just…” She made a face. “She’s just so damn…” The rest of her words died away in a mumble as she turned away.
“Come”, Nikka said softly. “Let’s meet with the emperor.”
The first meeting concerned prince Harkaitz’s treason. The Imperial Couple were present and so was their son, heir to the throne; the three of them were seated on a dais below high glass windows in red and green.
The Priesthood were gathered and stood separated on each side of the dais: five in a line to the left and six with Bel on the right. All of them were dressed in red robes with their staffs in their hands, sternly waiting for the judgment of Harkaitz Qadir.
The large chamber was filled with guards: White Tigers lined up along the walls with swords at their sides or spears in their hands. Some members of the Cobra Squad were also present, together with their Chief; Bor was standing straight backed together with Katana, Nakkara Rim and Hades, leader of the White Tigers.
Harkaitz was standing before the dais, his hands tied before him; he was guarded by two White Tigers. A few steps behind him his wife and two children stood together. Ravena was dressed in red and her brother in red and black – the colors of the Cobra Squad; the first seemed worried, the second only angry and bitter, as if it was he who stood trial. Their mother was dressed in red and white; a dress with short sleeves showing the tattoos on her arms. The tattoos matched those of the empress Cara: three ravens in flight, the sign of the Covent of the Black Feather.
The members of the Covent were witches, initiated in Earth magic and sworn to heal and protect the people of Goddara. The Empress used her powers for the good of the people, bestowing blessings such as good crops, healthy cattle and healing the sick, but Bel had always suspected Jaquana Naga was using her powers to gain riches for herself and her husband, thwarting Cara’s intentions and perverting the powers of Earth by dabbling in black magic. Her Name meant Snake Soldier and Bel guessed the woman had closer contact with Mara than any of them let on.
”We’ve heard all parties and have been fully informed about the events of the past weeks”, the Emperor was saying. His face was stern and his eyes hard; signs that he was about to do something he didn’t want to. Bel knew Barac Wei well, but she didn’t have to be particularly insightful to know what it cost him to sentence his own brother.
”My brother’s treason has been duly proven and my hands are tied in this matter. There is no way for me to show mercy, even if I wanted to.”
Harkaitz snorted disdainfully, smirking at his brother, but remained silent.
”Herby I sentence Harkaitz Qadir, my beloved brother, to lifetime service in the silver mines. Let him be a slave.”
”’Beloved’?” Harkaitz spat. ”You never loved anything but your place on the throne.”
”No!” Jaquana exclaimed, trying to rush forward. She was held back by two guards. ”No, not the mines, your Highness…” she sobbed, kneeling pleadingly before the dais. Bel eyed her closely; there was pain showing in her face and tears on her cheeks, but her eyes were hard. Bel hoped Barac Wei wouldn’t be fooled by the tears of a woman, especially not a witch’s tears. She glanced at the emperor and noticed the determined set of his jaw.
To be sentenced as a slave in the silver mines was the harshest punishment one could receive: one hardly survived more than two years in the caves. It was a death sentence in itself – a very long and painful one.
”We have spoken”, the emperor said. ”Our decision is final.” He looked around and his eyes fell on Ravena and Rhais behind Jaquana. Bel noticed a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes before he clenched his jaw and went on: ”Further more – as there is no proof that my brother’s family were involved in this treason against me, and neither is there any evidence to the contrary, we will pass another command. Therefore, from the day before next full moon, Harkaitz’s family will be stripped of all their power and wealth – nothing will be left to them, not even the Name of the Imperial Family. As of that day my brother’s wife and his two children are nothing more than beggars, left only with a few valuables to prevent them from starving to death. They are to be exiled from this empire in five days.”
Bel tried hard not to show her surprise and she heard Varga, High Priestess of the Wolf, gasp in shock by her side. The punishment was fitting if Harkaitz’s family was involved in his treason – but very, very harsh if they were innocent.
”Nidae”, she thought, calling to the goddess. ”What made him make such a decision?”
”It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” the goddess retorted. ”You don’t believe they are innocent…”
”Still – Barac Wei… I didn’t believe he had it in him. The silver mines are harsh enough…”
”Cara influenced him a bit. She doesn’t trust Jaquana – and she fights for her children too.”
”Your Highness…” someone said and Bel noticed Cat’s friend, the warrior she called Para, step forward. He had a concerned and injured expression on his face.
”No!” Jaquana screamed, rushing up from the floor and drawing the attention from the young man. ”No – you can’t do this!” The woman’s face was contorted in rage, so much so that her eyes seemed to flame. Bel sensed a slight madness behind the woman’s outburst. Witchcraft could be dangerous and claim the soul of the practitioner if the person dabbled in things she didn’t understand. Bel had the feeling Harkaitz’s wife had searched too deep for power, now balancing on the verge of an abyss of insanity.
”No! You’ve stripped him of everything, stealing his life, his name, his power! Now you’re taking his life and ours!”
”Mother…” Ravena stepped forward, trying to calm her mother, but Jaquana slapped her across the face.
”Useless! You were always useless! Powers you have, but no will to use them.”
”Mother!” Ravena gasped, holding a hand to her cheek.
”Your brother… Your brother knows what side to take.” Jaquana turned back to the dais. There was something in her eyes making Bel prepare herself, tightening the hold on her staff.
”You!” Jaquana pointed at Barac Wei with burning eyes. A few feet away her husband glanced at Bel with a triumphant grin. She could see he was mouthing something to her.
”I’ll get you…”
Harkaitz distracted her for a moment, which was probably his intention. In the next instant Jaquana made a flowing gesture with her arms, directing a force of dark energy against Barac Wei. The energy flow was invisible to the untrained eye, but if it hit the emperor it would cause immediate death.
”No!” Zelena called, reaching forward and throwing her Fire to interrupt the negative flow, at the same time as Bel directed her Air around Barac Wei to protect him. Jaquana’s flow was broken and slid off the emperor without causing him any harm.
”No!” the witch seethed. ”You…”
”You are bound”, Derac said and stepped forward. His Air bound the witch’s power and her hands to her body. His face was stern; harder than Bel had ever seen him. ”Your powers are bound. And I believe you’ll be accompanying your husband to the silver mines…”
”No. I’ll get you”, Jaquana spat, glowering at the emperor. ”I’ll hunt you down in every life from now – I’ll never let you rest. For all eternities and in all worlds I’ll find you and make your life a living…”
”Enough!” Bel stepped forward and gagged the woman with Air, effectively silencing her. ”Take them away”, she said, gesturing towards the guards that had rushed forward to hold Jaquana. The woman’s eyes burned with hatred and madness.
”We’ll get you”, Harkaitz said, looking at Bel. ”We’ll get both of you… in the end.”
”And we’ll wait for you and thwart your evil ways”, Bel said, before silencing even him with Air.
As everyone was staring at the couple taken out of the room Bel had a nagging feeling that there was something she’d forgotten. Someone was missing, someone’s presence she hadn’t sensed since… The thought hit her and she swirled around.
”No!” she called, seeing Ravena’s brother standing at the foot of the dais. In the tumult caused by his mother’s actions he’d been forgotten. Everyone’s eyes had been on the prince and his wife as they were lead from the room and Rhais had taken the opportunity to sneak up behind the dais unseen.
A knife was flying through the air, straight at the chest of Barac Wei’s son and heir. Bel quickly called upon Air and Fire to capture the knife, but before she had the time the knife fell useless to the stone floor with a clinking sound.
“Don’t touch my son!” Cara called, rising from her stone chair. It was her witch powers that had interfered with the killing and prevented the knife from reaching its goal.
Rhais didn’t stop to exchange pleasantries with the rest of them as his mother had done, but rushed passed the dais and threw himself through the high glass windows before anyone had time to react.
“Rhais!” Ravena called, stunned and distressed at the same time. Her scream mingled with the noise of broken, falling glass. Red and green shards, reflecting the sun in beautiful sparks, fell through the air to the floor.
“Get him!” the emperor demanded, rushing up from his seat. “And get the two of them out of here!” He gestured towards Harkaitz and Jaquana, whose almost identically smirking faces were turned towards him from the entrance.
A few members of the White Tigers pulled at the traitorous prince and his wife, while a larger group rushed out of the guarded doors to catch Rhais. Some followed Rhais through the open windows, although the fall to the terrace below was quite high.
“They won’t get him”, Nikka said, coming up at Bel’s side. The High Priestess turned to her.
“No? Can you see where he’s going?”
“No.” The oracle shook her head. “I can only see that he’s escaping.”
“The Empress reacted quickly”, Katana said, joining them in company with Hades and Derac. Bor was talking to Cat’s friend Para, who was holding Ravena close to him in a protecting manner.
“He’ll kill her… one day”, Nikka said in answer to Katana’s statement. “Rhais. His soul won’t forget… or forgive.”
“Madness”, Bel said. “All this madness – so much hate and rage. I think Jaquana has lost it. Did you see her eyes?”
“Madness is no excuse for killing”, Hades said, vigilantly looking around the chamber. A group of his White Tigers had encircled the members of the Imperial Family, forming a tight formation around them. “They had all the opportunities in the world, all the wealth and the power…” Hades shook his head. “And look at them. Look at what they did. For what? Because of a title, because they felt slighted, cheated of a position they would have corrupted in any case? No, power is a privilege, not a right – and anyone in power ought to use if for the good of the people. To fight for what’s right and to protect the innocent, no matter the cost to themselves.”
“That easy, huh?” Zelena said behind him. “You were always a dreamer, Hades.”
“Maybe, but if I was to lose my mind over something it would be love – not power.”
“And a romantic too”, Katana mumbled good-naturedly.
“Hades Shamdar”, Nikka said softly. “The Unseen Sword – one day you’ll strike in the dark and lose the one you love…”
He looked intently at her with sharp, piercing eyes. Bel had always liked the man for his righteousness and faith in his own abilities. In some ways he reminded her of Cat. “Maybe”, he finally said. “But I’ll never kill innocents.”
“No”, Nikka said, still softly, shaking her head. “No, you won’t.”
Hades nodded at Bel. “I need to see to my men. I’ll catch up with you later.”
The group dispatched, but Nikka held Bel back, discreetly showing her Ravena and the member of the Cobra Squad that held her in his arms. Bor had left them and Para gently guided the beautiful woman out of the room.
“Bel – that man, he wants to marry her.”
“So?” Bel asked. “Do you think Barac Wei retracts his punishment for Ravena?”
“Maybe – if she marries. She’s innocent in this, but… She can’t marry that man.”
“Why not?” Bel frowned, seeing Para and Ravena disappearing out of the chamber together with the rest of the Cobra Squad, leaving only some White Tigers and the Priesthood in the room with the Imperial Couple.
“He’s her brother.”
“What?” Bel hissed and grabbed the oracle’s arm. “Nikka!”
“I’ve known for years, but I never thought…”
“Goddess!” Bel whispered, suddenly realizing she could see Harkaitz traits in the younger man. She remembered she’d found him familiar when she saw him the first time. “Oh, my…”
“They can’t marry, but you can’t tell either of them the truth.”
“Why not? Do you think they’ll listen otherwise?”
“Something bad will happen if you do. I don’t know what, but…” Nikka shook her head. “Don’t. You know, he’s as much heir to the throne as Rhais if Barac Wei’s son dies…”
“You really think…?” Bel whispered, thinking of Cat’s faith in her friend.
“I don’t know, Bel. I can’t… See, but he mustn’t know.”
“Fine.” Bel nodded. “I’ll see what I can do”, she said. “Why… How come he doesn’t know who he his?” she added thoughtfully.
“Later, Bel. We need to focus now.”
“Bel.” Nikka looked at her. “I mean it – you need to focus.”
“I’m focusing”, Bel said, frowning. “I’m always focused.”
The oracle watched her intently for a few moments before she nodded. “Keep it that way.”
continued in Forgotten Lives part 4