Title: Forgotten Lives – Warrior, Princess, Priestess
Fandom: Birds of Prey
Ratings: PG15 (for violence, to be safe. This is an adventure story – more adventure than sex, so you who look for hard core… look somewhere else)
Disclaimers: I don’t own Birds of Prey or any character created by WB or DC Comics used in this story. I’m making no profit on this and wouldn’t want to – as it’s ‘borrowed gods’.
More disclaimers: I don’t own the Angel-verse or any character created by Joss Whedon and Company. I’m making no profit on this…
Summary: This is a story relating a past/previous life of Barbara, Helena and Dinah. The story is based on the storyline and on the characters of my previous stories Alternate Lives and Past Lives. It may be read as a stand alone story, but some clues and loose ends are found in AL & PL. I’ve tried to be true to the characters of BoP, but as it is a previous/past life (and not a regular über-fan fiction) they can’t be exactly the same – some alterations may be found. Hope you enjoy the read :).
A Note on Names: Some names used in this story have specific meanings while others are just made up. Regarding the names with meanings I’ve been very liberal in the interpretation of some of them. As: Badr = full moon – I’ve made it into Badra. Cath = battle – I’ve changed the meaning into warrior. For anyone interested in the meanings of names, check at www.behindthename.com
More Names: Some names are based on my native language: snok = grass snake: orm = snake/serpent. And the name Nidae is based on a Latin name for one specific specie of bats: Vespertilio nidae.
Discrepancies: Some alterations from what Barbara, Helena and Dinah remember of their past life (in the story Past Lives) may be found, specifically when it comes to their ages. I had to make some adjustments to the story and hope it’s not too disturbing.
Special Thanks: This story is dedicated to Alex for creating the site Storyland for me. Thank you! :-D
Part One – First Meeting
On a swift horse it took seven days to cross the Divine Empire of Kellara from border to border. Kellara was a small and peaceful empire that held five major cities and a few minor ones, excluding the many villages spread across the land. Goddara, the capital and the largest city, was placed near the coast in the west: a grand city wedged in a valley by mountain sides and jungles on three sides and a rock desert that stretched far to the northeast. The rough, wild coast to the west was visible from the high ridge surrounding the city; spraying waves crushing against massive cliffs far below.
The Imperial Palace, where the Imperial Family lived and those of the nobility that didn’t govern other cities in the empire, was a massive complex in red and white stone, decorated with golden plates. It rose majestically on a hilltop at the center of Goddara; it included a private temple, barracks and training grounds for the Imperial Army, stables and quarters for the servants. The whole complex was surrounded by beautiful gardens and protected by high walls and iron wrought gates, with soldiers of the Imperial Army standing guard.
The city itself consisted of a mismatch of buildings spread around the hilltop at the center: large and beautiful houses belonging to the wealthier citizens and smaller, box like cottages in white clay for the poorer population. People living on the countryside brought their cattle and merchandice, like vegetables and fruits, to the various markets around the city every morning – crowding together with merchants selling religious artifacts, spices, fabric, jewelry and trinkets of various kinds.
The young girl climbing the mountainside on the southern end of the city usually enjoyed taking a daily walk around Goddara at dawn when the scent of baked bread, spices and incense mixed on the streets and at the squares, but this chilly morning she was preoccupied with other things.
Spread outside the city, in the jungle and on the mountainsides, different temples had been erected to honor the many deities of Goddara. The girl wasn’t interested in religion, but she knew the thirteen deities by name and when to call for which one of them. The most powerful was the one whose temple she was sneaking up to visit at that moment. There were many gods and goddesses across the whole of Kellara, but only one who could be called The Goddess, as in a Name: the Goddess of the Dark Moon. The bat goddess.
The stone stair the girl was climbing stretched across a large area of the mountainside, lined with statues of bats and naked women with wings. It took a great deal of time and effort to climb the stairs and very few people from the city ever came to the temple at the top of the steps, in the middle of the mountain. The Temple of the Dark Moon was not a place one entered lightly.
The entrance – leading into the mountain – was large and wide, made of black stone with ancient inscriptions. The carvings were made with inlaid precious stones and metal that blazed through the night during full moon, shining brightly in the dark. High colomns of polished black stone rose at each side of the entrance – also with inscriptions. A large bat crowned the entrance – its wingspan so wide an elephant would look small beneath it.
The girl, called Cat by her friends for lack of any other Name, stopped at the side of the entrance – hiding in the shadows behind a statue of a winged woman – and looked out across the city below. The view was spectacular. In the east the sun was rising, in the west the ocean was dark and brooding. In the city the golden plates of the palace gleamed when they reflected the first light of the sun and the ziggurat behind the palace rose like a dark giant, its black stones shining in the morning light.
Cat wasn’t sure what purpose the ziggurat had; she’d heard horror stories of the past when the pyramid was a place used to sacrifice to the gods – human sacrifice. But that was a long time ago, before the palace had been built and before the empire was even an empire. These days the pyramid was a part of the palace, constructed with corridors connecting the two buildings.
The girl took a deep breath and turned back to the temple behind her. It was time. With trembling heart she entered the temple, prepared to be struck dead at any given minute as soon as she set her feet on the ground beneath the dark bat above the entrance. When nothing happened she moved on into the dark.
She moved carefully down slippery steps and peeked around the corner before her. The moist corridor was empty, but she heard faint footsteps ahead. There was a heavy scent of incense floating in the air, dispersing nearer the entrance she had just left behind her. Hastily she glanced over her shoulder, at the square opening about ten feet away.
The morning sun was rising and she could see the glistening top of the ziggurat from where she was hiding. She swallowed, wondering what she was doing at this sacred place; wondering at the courage that finally – after so many weeks of cowardice – had claimed her and driven her to the temple. Her grandfather would lock her up for good if he ever found out where she had gone this morning.
Hesitating at the thought of the older man that had cared for her her whole life – she called him grandfather, although they weren’t related – she wondered at the wisdom of her actions, but then shrugged and made up her mind. She wasn’t known amongst the homeless children of Goddara to be especially wise. They knew her to be mischievous and fearless, a young girl always ready with her fists to defend the younger ones on the street.
They should see me now, she thought and was grateful they didn’t. She didn’t want them to know how her heart pounded behind its ribcage or how sweaty her palms were.
She slid down the corridor on bare feet, trying to ignore how dry her mouth was and the insistent pounding of her heart in her ears. Why am I here? The thought had chased her since she sneaked up the long, wide stair to the temple. What am I doing here?
She knew the answer to those questions, although anyone who knew her would think she had lost her mind – or that she just acted upon another of her stupid, reckless impulses, which always got her in trouble. They would have been right – if not for...
She had always feared this particular temple. Everyone did. This was the grandest temple – the oldest, where the true power had its seat. The place on the mountainside where the entrance lay was said to have been the birthplace of the Goddess. Thus the temple had been built at that spot.
The Goddess brought peace and prosperity to the Empire of Kellara, whose citizens worshipped her alongside several other gods and goddesses. She was the most important deity in many ways, because she represented the cycles of life and death – of birth and passing away.
Despite the respect the people of Goddara held for the Goddess it wasn’t her they feared so much that they wouldn’t visit her temple. There was another temple raised to worship her: the Temple of the Radiant Orb. It was placed nearer the city, at the base of a hilltop on the other side of the city walls, and people visited it all the time. That particular temple was governed by a kind and generous priest, who was much loved by the people and respected by the hailed emperor and the beautiful empress.
No, what made the temple in which the girl was sneaking around so frightening to the people was not the goddess Nidae – but her priestess.
The corridor split in three directions and the young girl hesitated before she continued straight ahead – following the still faint sound of footsteps. She knew she was in a place where she wasn’t supposed to be and she feared that if she was caught she would be executed without mercy. The thought would probably have made anyone else reconsider their actions and made them return to the city. She knew her grandfather would think her reckless if he found out, yelling at her that she was thoughtless and stupid, but how could she explain...?
Once her grandfather would have been right, the girl thought as she moved closer to the people walking ahead of her, a group of priestesses in brown robes. She could see them ahead of her: a slow moving procession of women carrying flickering candles and brass holders with incense. Their sandals made whispering sounds on the sandy stone floor and their low murmuring voices – mumbling psalms or prayers – drowned any noise she could possibly have made on her bare feet.
The girl had never feared anything in her life… except the Temple of the Dark Moon. She had always known she must visit it one day, to prove to herself that she could. But she had always thought that day would come when she was older, maybe in two, three years... She had always believed that she would act in response to a stupid challenge, proving her grandfather right: that she was reckless and without good sense. She had never thought she would enter the temple by following a dream.
Without warning the priestesses ahead of her stopped and she came to an abrupt halt, sliding into the shadows. She heard the echo of female voices around her – words spoken in a foreign language, strong and powerful – and she felt a strange tug at her heart. Suddenly she wasn’t afraid anymore. She listened intently to the chanting voices, whose pitch grew higher and higher around her – drumming against her ears, against her senses. Then, as if on cue, there was an abrupt silence and the women progressed ahead.
The girl slowly exhaled and silently resumed her stealthy stalking along the corridor.
Two weeks ago she had seen some of the women ahead of her, wandering in a different procession through the city, quietly singing and offering incense to the Goddess. It had been a special occasion: the fifth birthday of the youngest princess had coincided with a lunar eclipse. The preparations for the ceremonies taking place had according to her grandfather been prepared for years. She hadn’t bothered much with either ceremony – until she had, by accident, come by the person in charge of the whole thing: the High Priestess of the Temple of the Dark Moon.
Since that moment the girl hadn’t been able to forget the temple, dreaming strangely about it and about the young priestess she had seen standing late one night in streaming moonlight.
Cat hadn’t seen the priestess’ face – it had been hidden in shadows – but she had felt her power. The woman had red hair – like fire.
Now, hiding in the shadows of the temple, the young girl looked down at an arena below her. The procession of priestesses moved along a wide set of stairs, splitting up in two lines and meeting up again at the center of the arena. The hall was circular, lit with torches and magical orbs containing fire. At the center of the arena a lone figure stood with her back towards the room: a woman dressed in white – with red hair gleaming in the torchlight.
At the other end of the great hall there was a large opening: a vault reaching from the floor almost up to the high, domed ceiling. There were a few other entrances as well, but none as majestic as this one. Along the walls on both sides of the vault, tall statues of women warriors and women in long robes stood lined up. The stone warriors carried drawn swords in their hands and the rest carried crowns on their heads and staffs in their hands.
Near the large entrance there was a high fountain. The overflowing water was gathered in canals running in an intricate pattern across the entire floor and disappearing out of sight through a low, flat opening below the main stairs – atop of which Cat was hiding in the shadows of the much smaller entrance.
The channels left open areas on the stone for the priestesses to stand on, giving room for five priestesses a piece. They gathered in a long row before the stairs, with their backs to the steps. The girl watched as they silently formed a tight line, but then she happened to glance upwards and caught her breath. She hadn’t noticed it before, but the ceiling in the great hall was covered with carvings and paintings of – bats.
“Goddess of the night”, she whispered, suddenly overcame by a deep reverence. She swallowed, again wondering what she was doing there trespassing on holy ground. She shivered.
Bats were holy in the Empire of Kellara, said to belong to the goddess Nidae. Other animals were also revered as sacred: the snake, belonging to the god Mara; or the horse, belonging to the young goddess Ebony. The bat was the animal the goddess Nidae shape-shifted into when she wanted to travel anonymously through the empire. Other times she was said to travel like an old lady leaning on a staff, but her true form was, according to the legend, so glorious no one could gaze upon her without falling, struck blind, to the ground.
Cat didn’t know what to think about all the stories that circulated about the Goddess; she wasn’t a particularly devout child, but her grandfather had instilled the fear of the deities in her since her first baby steps. “If nothing else shall restrain you at least the fear of the divine may caution your steps”, he’d said and added, with a weary sigh: “Hopefully...”
There were so many gods and goddesses in their empire it was difficult to keep up with them all, but the Goddess of the Dark Moon had always held a special place in the girl’s heart. It was at the steps to the Temple of the Radiant Orb she’d been found. Her grandfather had been a priest at the temple and he’d taken her in and raised her. “You were a bloody mess, my child… Left at those stairs only heartbeats after your birth, drawing every wild beast to the temple with the smell of blood. I found you only moments before the god Fang’s striped tiger took you for a meal. The Goddess of the Moon must have guarded you well that night. You were born during New Moon, the Goddess’ own moon. A dark moon.”
Born beneath a dark moon. In all the tales Cat had heard people born beneath a dark moon were destined to become something great – or live a tragic life. She’d always wondered in which category she’d end up.
Looking at the bats on the ceiling the girl pulled herself together and sneaked into the hall with trembling heart. She kept in the shadows along the wall, where the lights from the torches didn’t reach, and carefully moved downwards behind the priestess’s backs. She had come too far to turn around and she knew she needed to be closer to… Cat swallowed, remembering the first sight she’d caught of the red haired High Priestess two weeks ago.
She’d been bored with the ceremonies during the day, moving around the city looking for fun and creating mischief; maybe stealing some wealthy person’s purse along the way… Although her grandfather had cared for her she’d lived most of her life on the streets. She wasn’t one of those perfectly behaved children she’d seen through the bars separating her from the the wealthier areas of the city; where everyone dressed up and walked in lines, only talking when spoken to and who always did what they were told to do. No, she liked having fun every now and again – mostly again; teasing little rich girls and mocking the wealthy, stealing to survive.
Her grandfather repeatedly told her she ought to be grateful for living in the Empire and not in one of the always-warring neighboring kingdoms, but she failed to see how she was privileged. Maybe they didn’t have a death penalty or corrupt law-enforcement, but poor people were still poor. Sick people were still sick. And wealthy people were still living off the poor – like leaches.
Her grandfather didn’t like listening to her when she tried pointing that out. “We’re lucky”, he said. “You don’t know how lucky we are…”
Maybe she didn’t know, but truthfully… She hadn’t lacked much in her young life. She mostly lived for the day, finding fun and food where she could – living life her way, on her terms. She did consider herself lucky, but not because she lived in the Empire of Kellara – but because she considered herself to be free: free to roam the streets when she wanted to; free to speak her mind and roll around in the mud; free to eat and sleep where she wanted to with no one – not even her grandfather – telling her any different.
Cat considered herself lucky, because she’d never lacked anything in her life – not even the parents whom had abandoned her. It was their loss, not hers.
She was free and independent – until the one night when she happened to come across a procession of priestesses and to gaze upon the woman who the whole of Kellara feared.
Cat had been on her way home, taking a shortcut through an area she wasn’t supposed to visit: the Oak Grove of the Imperial Garden. There was a hidden hole in the stone wall that surrounded the royal complex that she’d used many times to move in and out of the area. While sneaking through the gardens, soft singing and flickering lights had caught her attention and since she was a curious child she moved closer to find out what was going on.
It turned out she’d happened to come across a private ceremony of the goddess Nidae’s priestesses. There where six, standing in brown robes in a semicircle – facing a seventh priestess who lifted a staff above her head towards the great shape of a bat hovering over the grove. The bat had been so huge its wings covered the sky and darkened the lights from the stars above; only the full moon shone behind the High Priestess – whose strong voice had filled the grove. There had been thunder in that voice.
Rumors suggested that the present High Priestess of the goddess Nidae was the youngest since the birth of the Goddess and the most powerful. When Cat saw her in the holy Oak Grove she could believe it; she felt the power like a the crackle of lightning. Like the built up tension right before a storm it affected her physically, a pressure across her chest, making the hairs on her arm rise. She had never felt anything like it and although she had known she wasn’t allowed to witness the sacred ritual that was performed she hadn’t been able to tear her eyes off the woman in white, whose red hair was like a burning halo. It wasn’t until that same, powerful woman spoke the words: “All those who interfere with the ritual of Nidae and are not initiated in the sacred community will burn looking at the light of the Goddess”, that she realized her presence hadn’t gone undetected. With a soft gasp she rose to her feet and sprinted away, leaving the royal garden.
Every night since then Cat had dreamt about the High Priestess. Always the same dream: the woman in white stood in front of an altar with her back towards her. They were having a conversation, but she couldn’t make out the words – all she knew was that she was older than her current age and that she was agitated, angry and hurt at the same time. Then the High Priestess turned around… Although Cat hadn’t seen the older woman’s face before in real life it was fully revealed in her dream and every time she saw it she felt a catch in her chest, as if she couldn’t breathe. It was such a beautiful face.
In the dreams there were tears on the High Priestess’ cheeks, mingled with blood. The woman opened her mouth to speak, but Cat couldn’t hear her. Instead she heard another voice, deep within her, saying: “You must find her. She is your destiny… Go to the temple and tell her that I sent you.”
At that point she always woke up, left with a feeling as if she’d been drowning and saved in the nick of time. She was always shaking after waking up, feeling weak and afraid – as if something dreadful was going to happen. Every night she went to sleep dreading to wake up shaking again, but she always looked forward to seeing the High Priestess and after two weeks she could no longer deny the calling of her dream. Whoever the voice in her dream belonged to she knew she wouldn’t find peace unless she went to the temple on the hillside. She didn’t know what to find there.
Maybe her destiny.
The girl hesitated in the shadows when she was nearing the arena. The priestesses in brown stood with their back towards her and the High Priestess was also turned away from her, but from the stairs to the floor there were spots with no shadows and she would need to be careful… As the High Priestess momentarily turned her back towards the stairs the girl leaped. She flew across open space and landed silently on the other side of a narrow corridor beside the stairs. The corridor was leading to a closed wooden door behind her and was lit with two torches on either side. If anyone turned or even glanced in her direction they would notice her. With no further delay she sprinted across the illumined area and disappeared in the shadows behind one of the large statues.
Breathing heavily she paused behind the statue, not daring to glance around. She waited a few moments until her heartbeat had slowed and she realized that no one had noticed her, she slid along the shadows and moved nearer the fountain. She was still too far away to see the High Priestess’ face clearly and that – after all – was the true reason why she had come.
At the time when Cat’s dreams began there had been earthquakes going on for some time. The people of Kellara made sacrifices to the gods, calling for protection and trying to appease the ones they unwillingly had annoyed, but nothing helped. The High Priest of Mara the Cobra, the snake god, condemned the people of Goddara and called them sinners; accusing them of neglecting the deities. For almost two months the empire had lived in fear of the earthquakes that had taken many lives and ruined many homes. Then – on the day two weeks before, at the eclipse of the moon – the High Priest and Priestess of the goddess Nidae had stood up together and declared the Divine Empire of Kellara to be free from sin. They had promised no more earthquakes and that the gods and goddesses had been appeased.
Cat hadn’t witnessed the proclamation with her own eyes, but her grandfather had told her about it. Since seeing the High Priestess in the Oak Grove she’d asked a lot of questions about the woman and her grandfather had been more than pleased to answer them for her. Not that anyone knew much about the present High Priestess of Nidae, except that she’d been appointed at the same time as the youngest princess was born, five years ago. Since then people had learned to fear her for her power. No other High Priest or Priestess could do the things she did – it was said. Although no one said what it was that she did.
The young girl hiding in the shadows of the temple didn’t know if the rumors of the High Priestess were true, but she did know there hadn’t been an earthquake in two weeks. Before that they’d had at least five a week, smaller and a few major ones. The people of Goddara had been mindful to pay their respects to the Goddess, leaving gifts and offerings at the Temple of the Radiant Orb. Or so Cat’s grandfather had told her.
There were no guards in the arena, for which Cat was grateful. She’d heard that there used to be guards at the temple; before the current High Priestess assumed her position. Now not even the greediest grave robber dared to enter. The Temple of the Dark Moon was a sacred place, kept only for the priestesses of the goddess Nidae’s order. No one who wasn’t either a priestess or had special permission was allowed to enter – and no one in his or her right mind would want to.
The girl shivered, again wondering what she was doing in a place like that. She wondered what would happen to her if she were caught. She didn’t know why the High Priestess was so feared, she’d never heard that the woman had killed anyone, or harmed anyone in any way. But her grandfather had once said that there were worse things than death. “Power, my child… Some people have the power to take lives. Other’s to harm you. Some people have the power to make you poor, or bring you fame. Some people even have the power to grant you life – and that’s a powerful tool. But true power... True power doesn’t come with what you do, but with who you are.”
Cat wasn’t sure she fully understood what he meant, but sometimes on the streets she could feel power. She felt power when she could beat a bigger child in boxing or drive a gang away with her fists and her crudely made knife of bone and iron, but she felt the most powerful when people looked at her and backed away without her having to do anything. Because of her name. Because of her eyes.
Maybe that was what he meant, the girl thought as she slid along the outskirts of the great hall, crossing the channels and approaching the fountain and the woman she had come to see. Maybe power didn’t come from the actions of someone, but the actions were an extension of the inner power of the person… She frowned; the thoughts were too deep for her and she pushed them aside. She was close to her destination now, only a few feet away from the fountain…
She halted – crouching low in the shadows behind the statue of a warrior – when the High Priestess suddenly turned to face the fountain. The woman was dressed in a white robe with long sleeves and a silver belt around her slender waist. Her face… Her face was just like it had been in Cat’s dream. The girl gasped, almost falling backwards into the canal behind her. Oh, my Goddess! she thought, stunned. She hadn’t known what to expect once she’d reached this far, but to see that face from her dream so close in reality, so pure… It’s true, she thought astonished. She is my destiny!
If anyone had asked her what she felt in that moment she wouldn’t have been able to answer them. Seeing that face she experienced so much she had never felt before and therefore couldn’t put into words; it was too much for her. At the same time it was as if her whole life had been laid out before her, for her to see what path she must take… And she knew her life would never be the same again.
The High Priestess held a deep bowl in her hands. She filled it with water from the fountain and turned back to the row of priestesses in front of the stairs. “All who wish to pass this point must be cleansed by the water of life”, she said; her voice rose easily around the large hall. “Come – to drink from the Spring of Nidae.”
One by one the women moved forward towards the High Priestess, who offered them a drink from the bowl. Behind the statue the girl watched in silent fascination as the brown robed priestesses drank and moved out through the high entrance in the background. And then, finally, there was only the High Priestess left.
The woman turned to the fountain with the bowl in her hands; her face was blank, showing no emotions, but her eyes reflected the light from the torches in the background and glowed like emerald stones lighted by an inner fire. She was like a beautiful statue, crafted by the hands of a master – young and fair. The girl could hardly breathe as she looking at her. Cat had never seen anyone so beautiful in her life.
The red haired priestess placed the bowl at the rim of the fountain. A green stone shone on a finger on her left hand. She held on to the bowl for a moment, almost tenderly – as if it was a bird with a fractured wing – before she lifted her gaze and looked into the shadows beyond the fountain and the statues.
“I know you are there”, she said evenly. “Show yourself and you shall not be harmed.”
The girl swallowed, practically quivering as her first impulse was to flatten herself against the stone like a scared rabbit, but then she rose on trembling legs and hesitantly moved forward. The High Priestess looked straight at her and held her eyes as she moved across the floor on bare feet.
“You know you are not supposed to be here, right?” the woman asked, still without revealing anything of her thoughts or emotions.
The girl nodded and halted a few steps from the priestess. She finally understood what her grandfather had meant about power: looking into the green eyes of the woman in front of her she felt naked. The priestess seemed able to see right through her with that piercing stare that didn’t reveal anything of the woman herself. Cat didn’t understand power in itself – what it was or where it came from – but she knew only by looking at the woman in front of her that she possessed it.
“You were the one in the Oak Grove, weren’t you?” the High Priestess asked. The girl nodded again, not knowing what to say – not finding her voice. “Why are you here?”
Cat girl shook her head and the woman tilted her head slightly to one side, narrowing her eyes.
“What’s your name, child?”
She opened her mouth, but there was no sound. She took a deep breath and tried again, wishing her legs wouldn’t feel so wobbly. “I – I haven’t been Named yet, but they call me Cat.”
“Because of your eyes?” the priestess asked.
Cat nodded. “I was born that way”, she said, not knowing why. People always asked her about her eyes, looking strangely at her. She had been teased before, but not anymore. She had learned to defend herself.
“Of course you were”, the woman said softly under her breath. “You are old not to have been Named”, she added. “How old are you?”
“Ten”, the girl said and straightened her back. The priestess narrowed her eyes at her again, but didn’t say anything at first – she seemed distracted, as if she was thinking of something else.
“Don’t lie, girl”, the woman finally said, almost dismissive. Cat felt a strange tug at her heart when she believed she had disappointed the priestess. She lowered her eyes.
“Nine, almost ten”, she said shamefully. She was surprised she felt ashamed; she had never felt bad about lying before. And what she had told the red haired woman could hardly be counted as lying.
The High Priestess suddenly cupped a hand beneath Cat’s chin and raised her face towards the light. The touch was surprisingly tender for the woman, whose impenetrable face seemed to hide the will and heart of a warrior.
Cat had seen many soldiers in her day, all hard and powerful in shining armor or polished leather: women and men with sharp spears, longbows and shining swords. It was her dream to be one of those soldiers one day, a warrior winning fame and fortune.
The High Priestess looked her in the eye and Cat noticed golden specks in the green emerald of the woman’s gaze. She felt herself drifting, remembering her dream – the tears on this woman’s cheeks, mixed with blood...
“Why is it that your parents let you roam the outskirts of the city like this? Don’t they care about you, girl?”
“I have no parents... Your Highness”, Cat added, sure to remember to pay respect to the woman. Her grandfather would be most displeased with her otherwise. She wondered if it was the shadow of a smile she noticed in the priestess’ eyes, but realized she must have been mistaken.
“You’re a street urchin?”
“My...” She hesitated; she didn’t want to be caught lying again. “I live with a former priest and call him grandfather... your Highness.”
“Well...” The High Priestess finally let go of her chin, nodding. “Why are you here, girl? Did your friends usher a challenge your young, foolish heart couldn’t resist?”
Cat blushed furiously. She didn’t like the negative note in the woman’s voice. She could never stand being ridiculed and to be brushed off so easily by this powerful, beautiful woman as nothing more than a foolish child filled her with hurt and harm. “I was called”, she said, remembering her dream. “The Goddess herself called me in a dream, telling me to find you.”
“Did she now?” the High Priestess said, again with a hint of amusement Cat was sure she must have imagined.
She wasn’t sure what to think of the woman. If she had listened to the rumors she would have expected a giant with snakes in her hair, spitting fire; a demon from one of the many hells surrounding their world. But her beauty was so overwhelming Cat couldn’t understand that people feared her.
The girl was still too young to know the fears certain beauties instilled in the hearts of men and women. One day she would know and understand – and feel her heart tremble like a lonely leaf on a bare reed in the autumn wind when she looked into the eyes of the same woman.
“You do know that children who are not Named at their tenth birthday are given to the Goddess, don’t you?”
Cat nodded carefully. “Grandfather told me, your Highness.”
“Do you know what it means?”
She shook her head. “No... Your Highness.”
“Well, we’ll just have to wait and see. Hopefully some or another god or goddess claims you before that. I doubt you’d fit into a priestess’ robe. Come now with me.”
The High Priestess swiftly turned and Cat had to skip a few steps to catch up with her.
“Where to?” she asked breathlessly as she followed the beautiful woman across the hall.
“You’re a bold one, kitten”, the priestess said and this time there was no doubt it was amusement Cat heard in her voice. “Don’t you fear me?”
Cat swallowed and dried her sweaty palms on her brown, torn trousers. She wore a light brown tunic with short sleeves; it had belonged to one of her best friends, but he had outgrown it and she inherited it. “I was afraid coming here”, she admitted. “But you are too beautiful to fear, your Highness”, she added, after only a slight hesitation. It surprised her to hear the other woman chuckle.
“So”, the High Priestess said when they entered the narrow corridor Cat had crossed earlier and pushed open the wooden door. “Tell me about yourself.”
Cat hesitated as they entered another corridor, but decided that if the High Priestess had wanted her harmed, or dead, she would have done something towards that already – not chuckling at her statements. She relaxed a little and followed the woman through the lit corridor.
“I was born beneath a dark moon”, she said. She felt it was an important thing to share, especially with a priestess. Although a lot of people were actually born on the day of a dark moon, fewer were born exactly at night when the dark moon, the new moon, stood high in the sky.
“Go on”, the priestess urged and Cat moved on, talking more freely now and forgetting to show the respect she was supposed to. She talked about her life on the streets, how the kids had teased her for her mismatched eyes – especially Para, who’d been her worst enemy since she could remember and later became her best friend when she kicked his ass. She spoke about her grandfather, who did his best to keep her on track and to teach her to fear the deities. She talked about her many adventures in the city, keeping out only minor details that probably could get her into real trouble.
She was so engrossed in her tales she wasn’t paying attention to where the High Priestess was taking her. The woman seemed so interested in what she was saying she found she talked more than ever before. It wasn’t until she realized she was standing inside the gates to the royal area she silenced, looking around with wide eyes. They had walked down the mountainside, into the city and through the city without her noticing. She backed away a few steps from the woman at her side, looking up at her with a startled expression.
“Did you...? Did you put a spell on me?” she whispered in sudden fear. Why were they at the palace? Had the priestess brought her there to kill her?
“I didn’t have to”, the High Priestess said, holding her gaze. Cat couldn’t make out what she was thinking.
The girl looked around at the gates behind her, at the immobile guards at the sides of the massive entrance and at the winding road leading towards the palace on the top of the hill. She swallowed.
“Don’t worry, kitten”, the woman said softly. “I won’t harm you.”
Cat glanced at her and nodded, liking the way the priestess called her “kitten”.
“Tell me”, the High Priestess said as they resumed their walk. “You didn’t tell me about your dream…”
Cat felt a slight shiver down her spine, she was sure she hadn’t mentioned her dream to the priestess. “You… You already know, don’t you?” she whispered in awe.
“I do”, the priestess said after a moment. “The Goddess spoke to me and confirmed that she had sent you to me. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been so gentle with you, child.”
There was a warning in the woman’s voice and Cat suddenly felt a jolt of fear in her young heart. She had once trespassed on the god Fang’s territory south of the city and come across the feline god himself as he was preying on a deer. He had been in his animal shape – an enormous white tiger – but when he noticed her he’d changed into a man. He’d been glorious, she remembered; tall and lithe, with golden hair falling down his back. But when he grinned wickedly at her she had felt the same fear she felt in that moment, hearing the warning in the High Priestess’ voice. Her grandfather had been right: the deities and their servants were indeed to be feared. Years later she’d wish she’d remembered that.
The Priestess and the girl walked along a marble path, crossing brooks and flower gardens until they reached an area behind a red wall decorated with leaping, black cats. Behind the walls the top of a black building could be seen. They were now in the direct shadow of the ziggurat.
“Follow me”, the Priestess said as she moved through the open, unguarded gates and Cat hesitated only momentarily before following.
The open yard behind the walls was empty and the High Priestess crossed it without pause, reaching the wide stairs leading to the entrance of the dark building ahead of them. Cat knew where they must be: this was the headquarters of Panthera, the elite band of female warriors that protected the seventh princess. She swallowed again as she entered the building, looking about her in awe and trepidation. Every girl she knew on the streets talked about Panthera – their skills with weapons were legendary and there were no warriors more fierce or deadly.
Cat had seen the band perform once a few years back, when they presented an act to honor the wedding anniversary of the Emperor Barac Wei and the Empress Cara. It had left her stunned for days and she’d dreamed about becoming one of the revered members of Panthera ever since – a Leaping Panther. Her friends had laughed at her, telling her only those of noble blood could become a Leaping Panther, but Cat had heard differently – especially about the Captain who was leading them. Captain Katanya was said to have been an orphan just like Cat and she’d fought in the wars of her native kingdom Ling already from the young age of fourteen. Supposedly she’d saved the life of her Queen and been knighted, before she left Ling. She went to Kellara and settled in Goddara where she joined Panthera. She had recently been made Captain when she – according to tradition – defeated the previous leader in combat.
“You’ve heard of Panthera, haven’t you, child?” the High Priestess asked as they entered a large, circular hall. There were no windows, save the glass dome above them lighting the room. The floor was mosaic, with white and blue stones – and with the image of a large, leaping panther at the centre.
Cat nodded, afraid her voice wouldn’t carry if she opened her mouth to speak.
“Their role is slightly different from the rest of the Imperial Army – who are called the White Tigers, as you probably know…”
Cat nodded again, staring at the panther beneath their feet. The White Tigers was the army protecting the whole of the Empire, taking orders only from the Emperor as far as Cat knew.
“Panthera, like the Cobra Squad, have a long tradition of protecting individual members of the Imperial Family. When the youngest princess was born the sole purpose of Panthera was to protect her. And this…” the priestess added as a young, blonde woman entered the circular hall, “is their Captain.”
Cat almost stopped breathing as she noticed the woman approaching them. The woman didn’t seem older than the High Priestess, who was also young for her position. The young Captain was dressed in black leather armor, carrying a sword at her hip; she moved languidly, almost carelessly across the floor towards them. She, too, was very beautiful, with light blue eyes and thick, blonde hair pulled back in a braid. There were not many fair skinned, blue eyed, blonde people in Goddara and Cat had never stood eye to eye with one before.
The people of Kellara were mostly highland people; short and stocky built, dark haired and dark eyed who tanned easily. Few were as fair as Katanya, or even as the High Priestess with her flaming red hair and green eyes. Cat herself was a strange breed: she was neither as fair as the Captain nor as dark as most of the people of the city. She had dark, unruly hair, but one eye was blue – and the other was yellow, with a vertical slit as pupil. Just like a cat’s eye.
“Bel...” the Captain said as she halted in front of them, then silenced as she noticed the girl. She arched an eyebrow. “Well, well – what have we got here, now?”
The High Priestess put a soft hand on Cat’s shoulder; her fingers gently brushing the skin at the girl’s neck. Cat tore her eyes from the Captain and glanced at the woman at her side.
“Katana – this is Cat.”
“One of Fang’s, I surmise”, the blonde warrior said with only a hint of sarcasm.
“Actually, she hasn’t been Named yet”, the priestess said.
“No?” The Captain narrowed her eyes, looking at the girl. The woman had dark tattoos on her cheeks in the shape of leaping panthers – one on each cheek, facing each other. Cat felt a thrill seeing them, realizing she’d seen herself in a dream as a woman wearing the same tattoos. Why had the High Priestess brought her to the Captain?
“How old are you, little one?”
Cat straightened her back; she could still feel the High Priestess’ hand on her shoulder and it gave her courage. “I’m almost ten”, she said. “I’m ten in two months.”
Captain Katanya frowned at her. “She better be Named before then”, she said to the priestess. “Otherwise we have no use for her.”
“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t have brought her here if our Goddess hadn’t asked it of me. Take good care of her, Katana.”
The blonde woman nodded. “She must be Fang’s”, Cat heard her mutter.
“Don’t be so sure”, the High Priestess said. “Don’t forget – the Panther belongs to Nidae.”
Katanya raised her eyes and looked at the priestess in sudden surprise. “But that would mean... Bel – it can’t be... Can it?” The Captain looked at the girl again, with what Cat some years later would know as apprehension, when she was older and knew more about the world – and about relationships.
“I don’t know yet. We’ll just have to wait and see. It all depends on who claims her.”
The warrior nodded. “Fine. I’ll keep her with me until her birthday – and then we’ll see.”
“I’ll be a warrior?” Cat asked breathlessly. “I’ll be one of... you? A Leaping Panther?” She could hardly stand still for excitement.
“Stand guard, child!” the Captain called in a clipped, commanding voice and Cat jumped in fear. Then she caught herself and straightened her back, staring straight ahead. She quickly glanced at the Captain and noticed the amused look she exchanged with the High Priestess. “She’ll do”, Katanya said, placing her hand on Cat’s shoulder as the High Priestess removed hers. Cat felt sudden disappointment – akin to grief – as she realized the priestess would leave her. She looked up at the redheaded, young woman.
“Will I see you again?” she asked worriedly.
“Only time will tell, kitten”, the priestess said. “The Captain will arrange everything with your... grandfather. This is what you want, isn’t it?”
Cat nodded. Becoming a Leaping Panther was a dream come true, but she had gone to the temple to find the High Priestess – not to become a warrior. Suddenly her dream of becoming a member of Panthera didn’t seem so important anymore – not if she couldn’t be close to the young woman with hair like fire. Maybe she could say she wanted to become a priestess instead, then she could gaze upon that beautiful face every day. She opened her mouth, but at the same moment the High Priestess took her chin in her hand – the way she had before in the temple. Green eyes looked into hers and she swallowed.
“All will be well, kitten”, the High Priestess said softly, brushing some of Cat’s dark, unruly curls from her eyes with a tender caress. “The Goddess knows your heart’s will. She’ll make the choice for you. Go with Katana now – she’ll take good care of you. And maybe one day... we’ll meet again.”
Cat nodded, suddenly feeling tears in her eyes without knowing why. She seldom cried and only when she was angry or frustrated about something. Ashamed of herself she quickly dried the few tears trickling down her cheek and followed the Captain across the room, towards the dark vault. In the opening she turned around and glanced back at the High Priestess, who caught her gaze and nodded at her. Cat slowly exhaled and then followed her Captain to a new life, not knowing that it would be several years before she stood face to face with the High Priestess of the Bat again.
* * *
The religious aspects of Kellara were the same across the empire. They had temples constructed to the deities and priests or priestesses who served them. All priests and priestesses must pass the initiations to serve at a particular temple, which then granted them access to the innermost Holy Shrine of any Temple. Then there were witches and magicians, who had the right to bless, heal and perform miracles in the Names of the deities, but they held no power over the deities nor did they have the right to advise any higher official about the actions of a deity.
The Priesthood of the Higher Order, though, had the right to command military leaders, scribes, governors and in a few cases – if all of them were in agreement – even the Emperor. The Priesthood consisted of High Priests and High Priestesses who performed the initiations of the lesser priesthood. They had responsibilities towards Kellara: to keep the empire safe, to serve its people and to assist the Emperor in doing the same. Badra Bellona, High Priestess of Nidae, Goddess of the Dark Moon, was one of them.
She heard soft footsteps crossing the mosaic floor behind her as she stared ahead of her, but she didn’t turn around. The eyes of that girl still lingered in her memory, though it had been several minutes since Katana took the girl with her. Half cat, half human, she thought, immediately thinking of Fang again. She found it strange that the White Tiger hadn’t yet Named the girl, but he probably had his reasons. Maybe she’d been right in what she’d said to Katana: that the girl actually didn’t belong to Fang – but to the Goddess.
“Such a strange girl”, the High Priestess finally said, as the woman behind her reached her side. “I’ve never seen a more trusting child.”
“You’ve met the girl”, the black-haired, dark skinned woman at her side said in a low voice. It wasn’t a question. Nakkara Rim seldom asked questions – she was often the one giving the answers, telling the truth about things no human could possibly know.
“You know of her?” the High Priestess said, glancing at the newcomer.
“You mean… you didn’t scare her to death at first sight?” the woman said with amusement, not answering the question.
The priestess was used to her friend’s odd ways of communicating and didn’t take offence. She huffed a little at the sarcastic remark. “I don’t scare children”, she said.
“Tell that to the boy you had screaming for his mother only last week”, the other woman said.
“He was torturing that poor frog. If he’s old enough to be torturing, he’s old enough to take the consequences of his actions.”
“Sometimes you’re so…”
“Pragmatic, I was going to say.” Dark eyes narrowed. “You do scare children; you know that – don’t you?”
“Not that girl”, the priestess said softly.
“No, not that girl”, the other woman echoed.
“What girl is that, Nikka?” the High Priestess said, quietly, looking at the exit ahead of her.
“She is your destiny, Bel.”
Bel turned her head and looked at the woman. Dark eyes met hers, giving no answers. Nikka – Nakkara Rim, oracle of Kellara and of the Goddess – was the only one who could hide her thoughts from her. “You care to tell me what that means, Nikka?” she asked a little cynically.
Nikka turned her eyes towards the dark vault where the girl had disappeared with Katana. She didn’t answer immediately and her eyes seemed to glaze over, before she said: “One day you’ll be the Oracle. You’ll have many eyes and know many things. You’ll be a warrior and a queen, ruling people but not a kingdom... The girl will be there – another kind of warrior in that life.”
Bel frowned. “And?”
“And that’s all I can tell you at the moment, my friend. You know I walk in different times, in different worlds – but the times and the worlds rule me, I don’t control what I See. I find it… frustrating.”
“I know, Nikka”, the High Priestess said gently. They’d had that particular discussion before; Nikka always pointed out how frustrating it was to know the future without being able to See what she needed to See. Many oracles went mad due to their inability to accept that they could neither control their gift nor change the future. Nakkara Rim had lasted longer than anyone before.
“This girl… I saw her in a vision for the first time two weeks ago. She was hiding in the dark, seeing you perform a ritual…”
“It was so. I felt her presence in the Oak Grove during the ritual of Protection and Rebirth. I didn’t know it was her, obviously – but when I felt her presence again today in the temple I knew it was the same girl. What can you tell me about her?”
“You found her in the temple? And you didn’t punish her?”
“Nidae sent her, Nikka”, Bel said, looking at the oracle by her side.
“She did? Oh, that makes sense… In my vision the Goddess crowned her.”
The High Priestess stiffened for a second. “Is that so? Then it’s true… It is her. Nakkara?”
The oracle fidgeted beneath the gaze of the High Priestess: Nikka might not reveal her thoughts to the priestess, but Badra Bellona could make a god fidget with her stare.
“I believe so, High Priestess.”
“I know your prediction, that when the child of the Panther rises death will come to the Empire of Kellara... True?”
Nikka nodded. “True. But you know as well as I that predictions are... unstable. I See so many things at one time there’s always the possibility that I will make the wrong interpretation of what I see. I might not have the full understanding of things in that exact moment...”
“I know.” Bel nodded, she was well versed in the mysteries of the oracle and she had been trained in the sacred knowledge of the Goddess since she was very young.
“The future is always indecisive, Badra. It depends on so many things: the choices we make, the choices of other people... But too many things have happened recently that shift our destiny towards this particular end, not least that event with the High Priest of the Cobra. If Nidae claims the girl and Names her... that will be the worst scenario.”
Bel frowned. “Why? What would the child do?”
“I don’t know yet. I haven’t Seen so far…”
“But what you are trying to tell me, without so many words, is that this girl indeed is the missing descendant of Nidae? In that case the prophecy warning us about the destruction of Kellara is close to coming true...”
“Only if Nidae Names the child”, Nikka said. “And I’ve already warned her not to.”
“But if Fang doesn’t Name her...” Bel said softly.
“If the White Tiger doesn’t claim her it will be disastrous”, Nikka stated flatly. “Then Nidae must take her and she’ll be a priestess – which must not happen!”
“Why is that?” Bel murmured thoughtfully. Then her eyes widened. “She’ll betray us! Is that it, Nikka? She’ll betray the Goddess…”
Somehow the High Priestess refused to believe the young girl she had just left in Katana’s care, of such a horrible deed, but if Nikka confirmed her words she knew what she must do – whatever the cost.
The oracle’s eyes glazed over for a moment and she shook her head. “No, never. Bel – you may trust that girl with your life, in any lifetime. She will do anything for you. I can’t see… why, but I know it with certainty – that child will never betray your trust.”
The High Priestess exhaled in relief. “Good.” Then she remembered the devastating prophecy they were discussing. “Oh, by the Radiant Moon”, she whispered, realizing the gravity of their situation. She must remember to let Derac know about the girl. No one else must know yet and depending on who Named the child… Maybe they would be lucky and no one would ever know who Cat was. “Have you talked to Zelena about this?” she added as an afterthought, more sharply than she’d intended to.
Nikka nodded. “The High Priestess of the White Tiger is informed. She’ll do what she can to influence Fang, but you know what he’s like.” Nikka huffed. “Gods and their pride...”
“I’ll see if there’s anything I can do to help her”, Bel said. “Sometimes the deities are more easily persuaded if more than one priestess is at their tail. At least Zelena is to be trusted”, she added. “It’s more than one can say about most priests and priestesses these days.”
“You’re thinking of Mara’s High Priest”, Nikka said, nodding. “Agreed. After hearing about what he did, causing the earthquakes to make people bring more offerings to his temple... By the Goddess! Such... such – inhumanity! And in a High Priest, nonetheless. He killed so many, just to win favors and riches for his god.”
“He claimed he did it on orders from Mara”, Bel said, still feeling a metallic taste of bitterness in her mouth speaking about what had happened.
The frequent earthquakes had caused the priests and priestesses of the different gods and goddesses to come together to discuss the cause behind them. They had expected some deity to step forward, taking responsibility for the imbalance in the earth, but no priest or priestess knew anything about the earthquakes and didn’t know how to stop them. The only High Priest who didn’t seem interested in the happenings – or in the meetings – was the one that in fact should be interested: the High Priest of the Snake god Mara – Orm, who controlled Earth. He ought to know what was going on, but he didn’t and instead he went preaching to the people that they ought to change their ways, that some unknown god was displeased with them.
Finally Bel and Derac, High Priest of the Temple of the Radiant Orb, went looking for Orm to confront him and force him to take action. He was the one who could protect the people from the earthquakes, but instead he settled with preaching about sin and hiding in his temple – a deep cave on the mountainside. When Bel and Derac reached Orm’s temple they caught the priest in the act of creating an earthquake. After some persuasion he finally admitted he was the one who’d been behind the earthquakes from the beginning.
“Why would a god want to hurt his own people?” Nikka shook her head in answer to Bel’s statement. “Orm was a lying sleaze. I never liked him.”
“Still...” Bel frowned. “There’s something not right about this. Mara took the whole thing a little too... hard. He made a whole drama around the fact that his priest was the cause of so many dying. He seemed too... groveling.”
“He’s a snake, he’s supposed to be groveling. Let it go, Bel. He’s a god. Granted, he might not be the most likable god – again the snake-thing – but he’s still a god. He wouldn’t deliberately hurt someone.”
“A priest isn’t supposed to try to hurt someone”, Bel objected. “Nikka, sometimes... Sometimes you’re just too good.”
The oracle laughed. “And you’re too suspicious to be a priestess. Doesn’t it bother you?” she added with a slight frown, glancing curiously at the High Priestess.
“What?” Bel asked, somewhat distracted. She still hadn’t let go of the whole Mara-Orm business. She had the feeling they hadn’t seen the last of the exiled High Priest and it vexed her that the emperor hadn’t taken her and Derac seriously when they suggested that Orm be executed for his crimes. Even the empress had agreed, but her husband had refused to break his own laws.
The first thing Barac Wei had done being crowned emperor twenty years ago had been to forbid death-penalty and even when faced with a crime as severe as Orm’s he’d refused to go against his own beliefs. Instead the emperor had condemned Orm to life-long imprisonment as a slave, but the High Priest had managed to escape and no one had heard from him in the two weeks that had gone by since the discovery of his crimes.
The trial had been held in secret, with only the Priesthood and members of Panthera as witnesses. No one else knew the truth, to Bel’s dismay. If she’d had her will Orm’s crimes would have been made known to the people, but the rest of the Priesthood – along with the Imperial Couple – didn’t agree. They thought it best to protect the people from the truth. The only thing they protected was themselves, according to her. But she was too young still to be listened to, although she carried a certain respect – being the youngest High Priestess in history. And the most powerful.
“Doesn’t it bother you that so many fear you?”
Bel laughed. “Not at all! It only serves to give me peace and quiet. If I’d been as loved as Derac I’d never have time to serve my Goddess.”
“Some people mean it is to serve the deity by serving the people in kindness.”
Bel smiled a little. “Servitude comes in many different shapes”, she said. “Derac and I... we serve differently, on two different levels. That’s why we complement each other so well.” She hesitated. “To serve the Goddess is my life’s calling. I was born a priestess, Nikka.”
“You were”, Nikka said softly. “But don’t you – miss it? You know, having a normal life? Flirting, giggling with girlfriends about boys, kissing…? Putting flowers in your hair, singing and carousing? You’re still so young.”
The High Priestess shook her head. “I never missed it. I doubt I ever will. I know for sure I will never want to lay with a man – I belong to the Goddess. I’ve always known this.”
“Oh!” the oracle suddenly said, growing pale. “No”, she whispered, “you won’t…”
“Nikka? What is it? What did you See?”
But the oracle didn’t answer; her eyes were lost in a Sight and tears trickled down her cheeks. “Oh, my Goddess”, Bel heard her whisper.
The High Priestess knew better than to disturb Nikka when she was lost in a Sight and waited patiently at her side.
“I can’t tell you this, Bel”, the other woman finally said, drying tears off her cheeks with her fingers.
“It involves me?”
The oracle nodded and caught Bel’s gaze. “You know if I tell things that are too private in nature people might unwillingly do something to change what was meant to be…”
Bel nodded, frowning. She knew Nikka probably had her reasons not to share her Sight, but Bel was a woman with an obsession for knowledge. “No exceptions?”
Nikka shook her head. “Not even for you, Badra Bellona – Fighter of the Full Moon. But I must tell our Goddess immediately.”
“It has something to do with the prophecy we spoke of, doesn’t it?”
Nikka nodded. “She’ll tell you… One day.”
“Go then. Our Empire is larger than any of us and more important. So is the Goddess. Be blessed, Nakkara.”
“You too, High Priestess”, the oracle said softly, making a slight bow before she hurried out of the circular hall.
Bel looked down at the panther on the floor, remembering the first time she met Nakkara Rim. It was five years ago: Bel had been fourteen and was to be crowned High Priestess after the previous High Priestess had died of an unexplained fever. No one had expected the High Priestess to elect someone so young for the position, but Bel had known since she was a child that she would be the next in line of High Priestesses serving the Goddess of the Dark Moon. The goddess Nidae had talked to her since she was five years old, telling her secrets no one else knew. She had been a curious child, set apart because of her thirst for knowledge and her intellect. Her parents had been wealthy and wanted her to marry the emperor’s only son – they were the same age – which would have meant she’d rule the Empire as Empress when the current Imperial Couple resigned. The thought never appealed to her, not even as a young girl.
Bel’s parents could’ve forced her to forget her dreams of becoming a priestess, they could’ve forced her to marry the prince against her will. Except – she wasn’t Named. No god or goddess claimed her before her tenth birthday and according to tradition and the unspoken rules of the Empire all children who weren’t Named before their tenth birthday belonged to the Goddess of the Dark Moon. And so, therefore, her parents had to let her go.
At her fourteenth birthday Bel was chosen successor to the dying High Priestess and Crowned with the staff of the Goddess only a few days afterwards. It was then, only moments before she received the staff as a sign of her new position, that the oracle of Nidae came to her. Nakkara Rim had only recently been appointed to be the High Oracle of the Empire and although they’d never met before Bel had heard of her. The oracle had looked at her a long, long time, before she spoke. And her words forced Bel to make a choice.
“If you pick up the staff you will lose your life. I cannot say how at this time, but you will surely die in the end.”
“And if I don’t pick up the staff?” Bel had asked in return.
“If you don’t the Empire of Kellara will face a terrible end long before its time”, the oracle said, adding: “It might be lost still, but with you as High Priestess it will last longer. And you will save the lives of many.”
“Then there is not much of a choice, is there?”
Now, five years down the line, the High Priestess of Nidae realized that the High Oracle of Kellara finally had seen how Bel would meet her end. The knowledge that she would die didn’t faze her at that moment; she knew it would be at least ten years down the line. She’d had a Sight of her own, seeing the girl Cat’s strange eyes looking at her – not a child anymore, but a grown woman with tattoos on her cheeks.
Bel gasped softly and pulled herself out of her deep thoughts. She had things to do, beginning with a visit to Zelena.
The temple of the White Tiger was placed at the outskirts of the jungle, at the foot of the mountainside on which Bel’s own temple was built. The temple was one of the richer in the area, constructed of white stone and decorated with jewels and plates of pure gold.
Bel entered and passed the first two chambers, which were open for the public, before she reached a closed, wooden door decorated with two tigers in red gold. She opened the door and stepped inside a smaller chamber; it contained only a large stone altar in the middle of the room, with candelabras as high as a man on each side.
A white tiger was lying outstretched languidly on the altar. It lifted its big head and looked at her with greenish, sharp eyes as she closed the door behind her. Bel was a little surprised to notice the tiger in the room; she hadn’t expected to see the god so early in the morning. The tiger stretched out on the altar, flexing its claws and swinging its tail in a slow motion.
As Bel moved across the floor a slight disturbance took place in the air, a shimmering motion shifted the aura around the tiger and in the next instant a golden haired man was lying on the stone, leaning his head in the palm of one hand. Above and around him his True Form hovered: the grand shape of an enormous White Tiger. It was a translucent, phantom image that filled the room, glowing brightly in white and purple. Only another deity or a High Priest and Priestess could see the True Form, or True Shape, of a god or goddess.
“Priestess”, the god said in a sugary voice, rumbling low in his chest – much like a large cat purring.
“Fang”, Bel said coldly, not the least interested in his overtures. If one should believe the rumors he’d bedded every woman above sixteen in the whole Empire. She could hardly believe it – there couldn’t possibly be so many foolish women in Kellara.
“It’s a pleasure seeing you again”, Fang said, moving his legs into a sitting position. He was completely naked, showing off his magnificence with great pride. Bel eyed him from top to bottom with a tight smile. He was a beautiful male, but he didn’t stir the least attraction within her. He grinned, as if he knew what she was thinking. Maybe he did – he was a god, after all, and she wasn’t guarding her thoughts at the moment.
“It’s only been a day”, she said dryly.
“A day away from your splendid beauty is an eternity of agony”, he said, rising from the altar. His appearance shimmered again and in the next instant he was wearing a leather piece around his hips, covering his manhood.
“You needn’t get dressed for my sake”, she said with an amusedly arched eyebrow. “Or you’re getting prudent in your old age?”
He laughed. “I’m younger than your goddess”, he said, amused. “No, Zelena always tells me I shouldn’t embarrass myself jiggling my tail in public…” He grinned. “See? I sometimes listen to reason.”
She couldn’t help but smile; he was in possession of an indisputable charm, she had to agree.
“So? What brings you here, priestess?” He arched an eyebrow. “Maybe you’ve come to your senses and decided my bed could offer some comfort from the loneliness of your temple?”
“Don’t be foolish, Tiger – you know why I’ve come.”
The amused expression vanished from the man’s smooth face and he watched her with a green, intense stare. The vertical slits in his eyes narrowed, giving him a dangerous look.
“It’s about the girl”, he said, leaning on the altar with his arms crossed.
“You’ve talked to Zelena?”
“And?” she asked, masking her impatience. Dealing with gods and goddesses wasn’t an easy matter; most of them were sensitive and fickle. If they didn’t like the way they were treated they’d sulk and do the opposite to what they were asked – just to prove they could.
“And I don’t see why I need to claim someone who so obviously belongs to the Panther.” Fang shrugged. “The Goddess of the Dark Moon might be angry at me for Naming someone who belongs to her.”
“She won’t, not in this. You must know this if you’ve talked to…”
“Don’t waste your breath, Bel”, a woman’s voice said and Bel turned her head to look at a tall, blonde woman entering the chamber through a door to the right behind the altar. “He’s being his usual stubborn self.”
“Zelena”, Fang said, faking a wounded expression. “I’m your god, your sun and moon and stars – you should treat me with more respect.”
“I treat you with the respect you deserve, you scoundrel”, the woman said, glaring at the god. “You’re just being difficult because I forbade you to seduce the fourth princess…”
Bel blinked. “Are you out of your mind?” she accused in a steely voice, staring at the god. “She’s been promised to the prince of Ling! If you so much as look at that girl…”
“Enough!” Fang bared his teeth at them, growling lowly – a noise vibrating in the room. The color circling his True Shape darkened and sparkled, red stars could be seen shooting across the shape of the Tiger. “I haven’t! I was duly reproached by my own High Priestess, thank you very much!” he said, holding Bel’s gaze. “It’s not my fault you two are coldhearted bitches who don’t understand the needs of a hot blooded man… god.”
“Give over”, Bel said sarcastically. “Men of all ages have used that as an excuse for any mistake they ever make. It’s worn out. Besides, you are not a man – and you are not a child. One day you’ll have to grow up to take your responsibility, not dumping it on everyone else around you.” Fang glared at her and she sighed. “Fine, I’m not your High Priestess and I shouldn’t interfere with your private business, but…” she added. “The fate of Kellara is my business.”
“What do I get out of it?” he asked, narrowing his eyes and again crossing his arms.
“You’ll get a warrior who’ll win you glory and fame”, Zelena said.
“And you save the Empire”, Bel added. “Which ought to be enough for you.”
“Fine. I’ll talk to my sister and we’ll sort something out”, the god said. “Nidae sure owes me one after this.”
Zelena huffed. “Selfish, as usual. Why did I expect anything else from you?” She arched an eyebrow at him, but Fang just grinned.
“I know your secret”, he said, winking at her in a way that put a deep blush on the woman’s cheeks. “You’re not as cold-blooded as the one beside you.”
Bel looked in surprise at the High Priestess beside her. Zelena hastily glanced at her and then shook her head, mumbling an excuse and was out of the room before Bel had time to say anything. Bel frowned, looking questioningly at the god in front of her.
“You”, he said, rising from the altar and circling her. “You feel nothing at all for me. Is your heart truly of stone?”
“I belong to the Goddess – to your sister. You know that. Stop making a fool of yourself.”
Fang narrowed his eyes at her, nodding. “Zelena was the only woman I couldn’t seduce… except you, of course. That’s why I chose her to be my High Priestess. A god needs a High Priestess he can’t wind around his fingers too easily.”
“You could’ve chosen a man for the task. I doubt a High Priest would’ve fallen for your charms.”
That made him laugh. His True Shape rose on its hind legs, roaring behind him. “Really? What would be the fun in that, resting my eyes on a man? No, Zelena was the one I wanted. I wanted you, but you rejected me… It hurt my vulnerable feelings, you know.”
“I’m sure”, she said dryly. “You’re a spoiled baby, Fang.”
“Yes, yes – that might be so. But I know something about Zelena you don’t.” He laughed at her inquiringly expression. “You’re still young, High Priestess. One day… One day I’ll tell you.”
In the next instant the air shimmered and instead of a man there was a white tiger standing in front of her. The animal seemed to grin at her, with wickedly green eyes. She felt no fear, seeing it. Fang might be reckless, but he never hurt a human being.
“Run off with you, you beast”, she mumbled. The tiger growled, a thundering noise that shook the room – and in the next moment there was a blinding with light. When the light subsided and Bel could see normally again the tiger was gone.
Part Two – Second Meeting
“No, no, no… Deyna, not like that.” Cat sighed and reluctantly rose from the cushioned bench along the wall, where she’d been lying nurturing her hangover. She’d momentarily fooled herself that she could lean back for a catnap and let the youngest princess manage the art of throwing knives on her own, but… It had been a short lived fantasy.
They were in one of the training-rooms at the ziggurat. The pyramid contained different kind of chambers; some secret, some sacred, other private only for the imperial family… And some were training chambers for Panthera, the White Tigers or the Cobra Squad – the third faction of warriors at the Imperial Court. The White Tigers consisted of both men and women, while the Cobra Squad was an elite force with only men – just like Panthera only recruited women. The Cobra Squad served the nobility, but they were dedicated to Mara – in the same way Panthera served the youngest princess, but belonged to Nidae.
There was a friendly competition taking place between the three bands and in a few days there would be a great ceremony where they’d try their skills against one another. One of Cat’s friends was a warrior in the Cobra Squad: Para, who once had teased her about her mismatched eyes. She was looking forward to showing him who was the best fighter – still.
“It feels as if I’ve done this a hundred times”, the teenage princess complained. “Why can’t I get it right?”
Deianara – Deyna, to those who knew her – was a lanky girl at the age of seventeen. She had her mother’s fair complexion and was one of the few in Goddara with blonde hair and blue eyes – a heritage from her mother’s side of the family, who originated from the kingdom of Ling on the other side of the Sea of Whales.
“’Practice, practice and again… more practice’”, Cat quoted pulling the throwing knives from the board on the wall where the princess had placed them after her last throw – way off the mark in the centre.
“Let me guess – the venerable Captain Katanya’s words?” Deyna said, arching a fair eyebrow at Cat as the warrior joined her.
“Most definitely.” Cat scratched the back of her head, flinching a little when a loud “whoop” was heard from the opening to the adjacent chamber only fifteen feet away.
“Hard night, huh?” the girl asked sympathetically.
“Huh”, Cat said noncommittally, regaining her composure. “Look now”, she said, showing the princess the knives in her hands.
“You know, I don’t understand why I need this. I mean, I’ll be a goddess soon – I don’t need weapons to defend myself.”
“And this wasn’t my idea, either”, Cat said ironically, arching a pointed eyebrow at the girl. “Remember? You were the one who wanted to impress your family on the Day of the Divine. We’ve been practicing for this for five weeks – are you saying you want to give up? Just like that?”
Deyna blushed. “Um, no?”
Cat sighed. “I was asking you, princess.”
“Fine.” Deyna gave in with a sigh. “But I’m not doing this because I want to. She told me to.”
Cat was immediately alerted, forgetting her hangover. “She? You mean…?” She slowly inhaled, to calm her suddenly racing pulse.
“Yes”, the girl said annoyed, nodding. “The High Priestess of Nidae. I don’t get it – why must I practice with weapons?”
Cat didn’t answer right away – her thoughts were with the redhead High Priestess. It had been more than twelve years since the High Priestess brought her to the Captain of Panthera. In twelve years she hadn’t stood eye to eye with the priestess again, but she hadn’t forgotten about her. She had seen her sometimes, in the distance – red hair still like flaming fire… In those years her feelings about the other woman’s beauty had changed from childish adoration to something more… tangible. It had taken her years to realize that she wasn’t attracted to men, as was usual, but to women, and that her need to see the High Priestess probably had something to do with that.
Cat hadn’t talked to anyone about her need to look the High Priestess in the eyes again, but she desperately wanted to see the woman just to know… To know what? And what would she say? “I think I have a childish infatuation on the most forbidden woman in the empire…” Katana would laugh at her – and tell her to fight it off in the arena. It was madness, she knew. How could she long for a woman she’d only met for a few hours – twelve years ago?
“Why don’t you ask her about it?” Cat said, finding back to the present moment. Since she was Initiated to run with Panthera, when she was nineteen, she’d formed a close bond with the youngest princess. The Captain had chosen her to tutor the girl in the use of martial arts and weaponry. Cat had always believed it had been on the command of the Emperor himself, but with Deyna’s words in mind she wondered.
“Are you mad?” the girl said with a shiver. “No one just asks the High Priestess of Nidae something like that. We do what she says, no questions asked.”
“So I’ve heard”, Cat mumbled, still wondering about the woman she’d met so many years ago. She didn’t remember anything about her to be afraid of – except for the one warning glance.
“I’m to be Initiated to be a goddess when I’m eighteen. I don’t need weapons to defend myself, I could just use my powers”, the princess said, sulking.
“Fine – see it this way: I’m very good at using the sword, but if I lost it and didn’t know how to fight with my bare hands, or how to use the knives, I’d be dead in combat. It’s no good being too dependent on one thing. Maybe the High Priestess just wants to be sure you know how to defend yourself even if you lose your powers.”
The young princess grumbled. “I wish I could use my powers to throw those knives… but she won’t even allow that.”
Cat laughed. “That’d be to miss the whole point of practicing.” She shook her head. “Listen – I’ve had my period of training and initiations, princess. I know what it’s like. Believe me, once you’re fully Initiated it won’t seem so bad. Just be patient.”
“You’re telling me to be patient?” the girl said, sarcastically arching an eyebrow at her. “There’s no one more impatient than you – except Fang.”
Cat laughed. “I know, I know – but believe me, it will be better once you’re a goddess. Then you don’t need the High Priestess to dictate your movements. Do you?” she asked curiously when she noticed the younger girl twitching.
“I’m afraid, Cat.”
“Of what?” Cat asked, although she had a feeling she knew. She’d been through a really rough time when the Captain trained her. Just because you trained with Panthera didn’t automatically mean that you’d be chosen to become one of the band. Cat had considered giving up her dreams many times before she finally got the tattoos on her cheeks that showed she’d been Initiated and chosen to run with the pack. She also remembered the pride and the sense of glory getting those tattoos – and the feeling that whatever rough times she’d been through had been worth it to become a Leaping Panther. But her initiations couldn’t even be compared to the things Deyna must face.
“Of the final Initiation”, the girl said. “She said that if I’m not ready when the time comes… then I’ll die.” The girl touched her own face, gently caressing the white scar on her right cheek: a burn mark in the shape of a crescent. “I got this before I could even walk. She gave it to me. I know it’s stupid to say I remember that first initiation because I wasn’t even six months old, but I do. And then, when I was five, there was the other test in the temple… And again when I was seven. It was then that she became my teacher, you know…”
“I know”, Cat said softly. She’d been in training herself then, knowing nothing of the princess – and caring even less.
“All those tests… Not once did she congratulate me, not once did she say I was doing well or that she’s…” Deyna swallowed. “Or that she’s proud of me. She treats me like I’m already grown up, already a goddess. But I don’t want to be like her, Cat. She’s so… hard. She’s so cold.”
“There must be something good about her”, Cat mumbled. She remembered a chuckle. She remembered soft fingers caressing her cheek. Could a woman change that much?
“No.” Deyna shook her head. “Even the deities fear her, did you know that?”
“No, I didn’t”, Cat said with a frown. “Are you supposed to tell me that?” she added.
“Fang told me”, Deyna went on as if she didn’t hear Cat’s question. “One of the reasons why people fear the deities is because the divine can read the minds of the common people.”
Cat nodded. “So?”
“The deities can’t read her mind. She knows how to block them out – and she can hear them.”
“I don’t follow you… Can she read the minds of the deities?”
“Not exactly, but she can hear them sometimes if they talk to each other, or if they think too intently on something when they are close to her.”
“Fang told you this?”
“Fang tells me everything”, Deyna said flatly. “He’s trying to get me into bed.”
Cat blinked. “Princess”, she said warningly and Deyna laughed aloud.
“You should see your face right now, Cat!”
Cat relaxed a little. “I just don’t want to get the blame for having a bad influence on you.”
Deyna grinned. “No one would blame you if I went to bed with Fang”, she said. “If I went to pretty Ravena, on the other hand…”
The girl laughed. “Got you!”
“Holy Tiger”, Cat mumbled good naturedly.
“I can’t be with a man until the final Initiation”, Deyna said. “Otherwise I’ll lose my powers.”
“Really?” Cat arched an eyebrow at her. “Well, well – do you think that applies to being with a woman as well?”
Deyna actually blushed at that. “I’m not taking a chance”, she mumbled.
“O-ho!” Cat grinned. Then she winked at the girl. “I’m sure the High Priestess only tells you this not to have you sleeping around, like Fang.”
“No, it’s actually true. It happened to my sister. The High Priestess was training her to be a goddess when Mara seduced her…”
“Mara?” Cat said surprised.
“He’s quite handsome”, Deyna said. “Not as active as Fang, but…” She shrugged. “You know. My sister lost her powers and her chance at being a goddess.”
“Maybe she didn’t want to be”, Cat mumbled, wondering if the High Priestess had seen it coming.
“But I do. I want it more than I want to share Fang’s bed.”
“I wonder how Fang managed to keep his virginity until he was Initiated as a God”, Cat said, frowning.
“Oh, don’t you know? He was raised completely out of sight from women. He lived with a priest in the deep jungle, never seeing another human being at all until he was eighteen.” Deyna grinned. “They say that’s why he chases the women so – because he never knew them before.”
Cat shook her head. “Gods and their business. Come on, I’ll show you how to throw these knives before we both turn old and grey.”
“You’d like to meet her, don’t you?” Deyna suddenly said, looking gently at her.
Cat looked up with a guarded expression. “What do you mean?”
“I noticed you yesterday. You stood at the balcony to your chambers and you saw her walk by in the yard. I saw your face… You think she’s beautiful.”
“Deyna”, she breathed.
“It’s fine. I won’t tell anyone, but…” The girl shivered. “She scares me, Cat.”
“I know”, Cat said softly. “I know.”
Cat spent the next few hours practicing with Deyna, pushing the Goddess’ High Priestess out of her mind.
Cat had risen quickly in the ranks of Panthera. Her grandfather had been proud to hear that the Captain had taken her in, although he had wondered about how it had come about. Cat hadn’t told him; she wasn’t sure if Katana had done it, or even the High Priestess, but he had never asked her about it since she went away. For years she was trained and initiated in the toughest martial arts, learning to swing a sword, string a bow and throw the knives like a master. The Captain had taken a special interest in her, training her herself – which had never happened before. There had always been a special bond between them, but also some kind of… Cat would name it rivalry when she grew older. In one way they were as close as sisters, in another they couldn’t bridge the invisible gap dividing them. Cat was not a person who easily made close friends, though she had a lot of casual friends all over the empire. Though she was close to the members of Panthera it was really only Serafine she’d call a friend – and Katana. Outside the band she had Para, of course. They’d kept in touch over the years, although they belonged to different factions and had been claimed by different deities. Para had been claimed by the snake god.
Cat’s Naming had taken place the day before her tenth birthday – at the temple of the White Tiger. Fang had finally claimed her as his – and Named her Cath Ciardha: the Dark Warrior. She preferred to be called Cat.
“Well done, Deyna”, she praised as the girl nailed three of the knives in a row at the centre. “It’s seems you finally got it.”
The princess grumbled. “Finally! When it’s only two days left…”
“Oh, it’s the technique that’s difficult to master – once that’s done the rest is just practice.”
“It took me five weeks, Cat!”
“So? You can’t be perfect at everything at once.” Cat grinned, really enjoying being the teacher for once; she remembered her own frustration as she struggled with the sword and the knives. To master the longbow had taken her ages. “You’ve done well, girl.”
When the girl only shook her head and turned away Cat frowned. Deyna had seemed a little down the few past weeks; usually she was cheerful and full of optimism – the one always teasing Cat about her girls, the late nights and the hangovers.
“Are you alright, girl?”
“No”, the girl answered with a sigh, sitting down on the bench where Cat had been resting a few hours before. “No, I’m not. I’m…” She threw out her arms with a desperate look on her face; there were tears in her eyes. “I have another test coming up next week and I’m… She’s pushing me so hard! I can’t… I don’t know if I’ll make it, Cat.” Deyna sighed, leaning her elbows on her thighs and shaking her head. “It’s too much for me. And then my parents… They’re so overprotective, I can’t ever do anything. Like now.” She straightened up and made a sweeping gesture with her arm around the room. “I’m not here alone. There’s six guards outside this chamber, waiting for me – guarding me, wherever I go. I’m never alone. Do you know what that’s like?”
Cat shook her head. “No”, she said softly, sitting down beside the girl. “I don’t.” She hesitated. “You never… You never complained before.”
“I’m not supposed to. Besides – what can I do? I’m not in charge of my life – everyone else is!”
“Maybe it’s about time we do something about it, then”, Cat said, rising with her hand on the hilt to her sword. She looked down at the younger girl with a resolute face. “Tonight – you’re going carousing with us!”
Deyna blinked. “What? I can’t do that! My parents would never…”
“They won’t know”, Cat interrupted. “What they don’t know won’t harm them.”
The princess frowned. “You really mean it.”
“No. No, it’s tempting and I’d love to come, but…” Deyna shook her head. “No. She’d have my head if she ever found out.”
“And who would tell her? The band is sworn to protect you. So – we protect you by not telling.” Cat shrugged. “Makes sense to me.”
Deyna arched an eyebrow at her. “Go carousing with you? That makes sense to you?”
“Oh – burning Snakes!” Cat threw out her arms. “You’re seventeen, by the blood of the Bat! You’re not a child, girl. At your age I’d already bedded half of…”
“Fine! I don’t want to hear about that.” Deyna rose hastily, gesturing at Cat to shut up. “It’s not the same…”
“What’s not the same? Normal girls of Goddara know how to live life at the age of thirteen. They’re old and mature and usually married at your age.”
“Yeah – normal girls! I’m not normal, Cat. I’m…”
“Who said? Huh? Who said you aren’t normal?” Cat eyed the princess. “You look normal to me.”
“Well, I’m not and you know that”, Deyna said crisply. Her tone of voice made Cat blink, before she nodded.
“True”, she said. “That’s true, I shouldn’t pretend you are, but sometimes… What I mean is this, sometimes we need to do things that make us feel normal – even if we’re not. You need a break, princess. Otherwise you’ll break.”
“The Captain will know. She’ll tell.”
“She won’t be with us tonight. She’s having a boring meeting with the Priesthood and your parents. Something about the war in Egara and what they can do to prevent it from reaching us. Look…” Cat placed her hands on the princess’ shoulders and looked her in the eyes. “It’s up to you, but I’m telling you this: in life we sometimes need to take some risks. Otherwise we’ll never learn what life is really about. Or what we’re truly made of. Life is more than duty and responsibilities.”
Deyna hesitated. “I really would like to come”, she said, uncertainly.
“Fine. That settles it then”, Cat said, patting the girl on her shoulder. “Leave it to me and I’ll arrange for…” She silenced as she realized Deyna wasn’t listening to her anymore. There was a blank expression on the girls face and Cat turned her head to see what she was looking at.
“Priestess”, Deyna said and bowed her head.
Cat caught her breath as she noticed the red haired woman in the opening to the chamber.
“Princess Deianara”, the High Priestess of the goddess of the Dark Moon said, nodding slightly. “Are you making any progress?”
The voice was low and noncommittal, but Cat remembered it and was transported several years back in time – again being a child standing in front of the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen. Although, this time she viewed the priestess with very different eyes…
Before Cat could stop herself her eyes traveled up and down the body of the other woman, seizing her up.
The High Priestess of the goddess Nidae was dressed in a dark blue robe with long sleeves, tied with a brighter blue ribbon at her waist. The material seemed soft and clung to her body, showing off curves at her hips and the softer shape of her breasts. Bare skin was glowing at the throat and Cat let her eyes linger for a moment, before she looked up and realized that the other woman was aware of her scrutiny. Cat blushed heavily when she noticed the question in the High Priestess’ eyes and turned away.
“I…” she heard Deyna say beside her and then noticed the strange, surprised expression on the princess’ face as she looked at her.
“Yes?” the High Priestess said, still in the same even, noncommittal voice.
“I… believe I have”, Deyna hastily said.
“As expected. Carry on.”
Cat glanced over her shoulder, still flustered, and felt a stabbing disappointment when she realized the High Priestess was already gone.
“’As expected’”, Deyna said with a grimace, imitating the priestess. “Count me in tonight, Cat – I’m so gonna show her. And”, she added, turning to Cat, “what in the world of deities happened to you? I’ve never, ever seen you blush like that. I didn’t believe you could.”
“Neither did I”, Cat mumbled. “Bat eyes and bloody Snakes!” she grumbled. “I didn’t show her the least respect, only turning my back on her. She must think I’m a complete ogre.”
“Yeah”, Deyna said dryly, “that’s what everyone thinks seeing you. You know, knowing her she probably didn’t even notice you were in the room.”
Cat looked up at the princess. “Is that supposed to help?” she asked.
Deyna narrowed her eyes at her and Cat twitched a little; she knew the princes’s training to become a goddess involved practicing reading people’s minds. Deyna probably knew what she was thinking in regards to the High Priestess. “You know, I don’t have to tell you she’s the last woman ever you should get involved with, do I? First she won’t even look at you as if you’re human, much less a woman… much less someone she’d be attracted to. She’s got a heart of stone, ask anyone. Prince’s have knelt before her, pleading that she should grant them even a hair from her head.”
“Really?” Cat said, trying to sound non-interested while she already knew all the rumors that surrounded the High Priestess. They’d grown in numbers over the years.
“Really. Fang always says she’s as dead as driftwood below the belt. I’d say she’s as dead all over… She doesn’t see people as people, but as… I don’t know, pieces on a board, perhaps. And, secondly, she is a priestess – and High Priestess no less. That means she’s married to her calling. And third…” Deyna shook her head. “You don’t need a third. But why, Cat – why her?”
“I don’t know!” Cat threw out her arms in exasperation. “I don’t even know her and from what you say…” She shook her head in defeat. “It doesn’t matter, does it? I’ve only seen her close once in these twelve years – today. With my luck I’ll be forty the next time…”
“Why is that? Why haven’t you looked for her? You could’ve asked to be blessed by her, or something.”
“I…” Cat hesitated, lowering her head. “I haven’t been ready. She’s this… icon for me, Deyna. I’ve lived with this image in my head for such a long time and I’m afraid it will shatter if I see her, if I… get to know her. You know?” she looked up.
“I don’t get this”, the girl said honestly. “Look at you – you’re… You’re a female Fang, seducing all women before they know what’s going on. You’re confident and strong – I’ve never seen you like this.”
“I’ve watched her in secret for many years”, Cat revealed. “Every chance I get. She’s… She’s the most perfect being I’ve ever seen. Like a goddess, Deyna.”
Deyna arched an eyebrow at her. “Sure – a goddess of Ice, if there was a deity like that. You should just get to know her and you’ll see she’s not this perfect woman you’ve made up. It’ll save you a lot of heartaches.”
Cat nodded. “You’re right. I will. I’ll seek her out, talk to her, get to know her…” She nodded again, as if to verify her decision. “I’ll do it”, she said.
“That’s a promise, then”, Deyna said and clasped Cat’s hand. “I’ll break all rules for tonight, save sleeping with Fang, and you’ll talk to her tomorrow.”
“Huh? What? Wait!”
The princess laughed, shaking Cat’s hand. “Too late! We’ve made a pact.”
“Bloody Bats and Tigers’ claws”, Cat mumbled.
* * *
Bel turned away from the training room with a slight frown on her face. Twelve years… Had it been that long since she caught the orphan girl dressed in rags in her temple?
“Oh, sorry Katana – I didn’t hear you.” Bel stopped and turned to the Captain catching up with her in the corridor.
“Yes, thanks. I was just thinking… Remember that girl, the one with the mismatched eyes? I haven’t thought about her for a long time.”
“You forgot about her?” The blonde warrior arched an eyebrow at her. “Knowing you I find that hard to believe.”
Bel smiled a little, still distracted. “I didn’t forget, it’s just that in my mind she was still a girl and seeing her now… I didn’t realize she was all… grown up.”
Katana glanced over shoulder at the opening to the training room further down the hall. “Yeah, she’s quite the woman. She’s turning the heads on many young girls, I tell you that.”
“Girls?” Bel said surprised, halting in the corridor. “Oh”, she added, realizing something. “That’d explain it.”
“What?” Katana asked curiously as they moved forward along the hall again.
“I believe she was eyeing me out. I wondered about that…” Bel mumbled.
“What? Cat was eyeing you…” The Captain burst out laughing. “Oh, she’ll never hear the end of this one!”
“Be nice to her, Katana”, Bel said slightly amused. “I don’t want to embarrass her. Just don’t mention it to her.”
Katana snorted. “You don’t know that girl, Bel. It takes more than that to embarrass her. You know, she was never interested in a man and then suddenly, when she returned from the wars, she told me she’d slept with a woman.” The warrior shook her head in disbelief. “Before that day I swear there weren’t a handful of women who preferred other women in Goddara, but now… One smile from Cat and there’s a multitude ready to commit murder to sleep with her.”
“Ah, quite the charmer, is she?”
“I’m surprised she didn’t give you an offer…” Katana glanced at Bel, who had a hard time keeping a straight face seeing her friend so curious.
“She was actually blushing…”
“Blushing?” Katana stared at her with open mouth. “Blushing? Cat was… Wow!” She whistled and shook her head in disbelief. “I’d given anything to see that.”
“I’m sure you would”, Bel said dryly. “You seem to have an unhealthy interest in embarrassing your subordinates.”
“Quit sounding so… dull, priestess. People might get the wrong impression of you.”
Bel actually laughed at that. “And which impression would that be? That I’m a wicked witch with a heart of stone?”
“Something like that”, Katana said with an amused smile. “You know, it wouldn’t kill you to dispell that rumor…”
Bel made a swift gesture with her hand. “My friends know me, Captain Katanya. That’s enough. I don’t care about other people’s opinions.”
“Which is a good quality, but…”
“But what?” Bel arched an eyebrow at her. “You’re a woman in a high position, just as I. You know what’s demanded of us.”
“It’s not the same. Fine”, Katana added when she noticed Bel looking at her. “I won’t push you. I agree, you’ve had a lot on your plate the last few years. First the attempted assassination of the prince, then of the Emperor and then of the princess…”
“Don’t forget the one on Derac”, Bel added.
“I don’t”, Katana said more subdued. She shook her head. “I wouldn’t forget about that…”
Bel glanced at her and kept silent; she knew they were old wounds being pulled open. “The thing is, I… we need to stay alert. I can’t afford human emotions making me vulnerable.”
“Sometimes human emotions makes us stronger, more focused”, Katana objected, still in a low, slightly melancholy voice.
“Sure – and sometimes they don’t.” Bel sighed. “We deal differently with what is dealt to us. I’ve chosen my path and you… You’ve chosen yours.”
“And sometimes I regret it”, Katana said bitterly.
“And that’s something I can’t understand”, Bel said softly. Her friend looked up at her, nodding.
“I know you can’t and I’m still not sure if I envy you because of it – or pity you.”
They walked in silence for awhile, each of them in deep thought.
“Still”, Bel finally said. “About the girl…”
“The oracle said the other day…” Katana said lowly. “The time is drawing nearer.”
“Yes.” Bel nodded. “We need to meet to discuss it, but not here and now. The walls… have ears.”
Katana nodded thoughtfully. “I never believed we’d come to this. To mistrusting each other. To suspecting spies amongst our inner ranks.”
“We’ve had peace and prosperity for more than thirty years. That’s far longer than any other of our neighboring kingdoms and empires had. Even disregarding the last twelve years… instability we’ve had peace for a long time.”
“Thanks to Barac Wei and the empress.”
“Also thanks to the gods and goddesses of this realm”, Bel pointed out. “No other kingdom accepts them and embraces them the way we do. The deities protect us as we serve them, it’s the perfect symbiosis.”
“In Ling they burned gods like Fang at the stake.”
“I’ve heard about that”, Bel said. “About goddesses being spiked on wooden crosses. Gods being torn to shreds by dogs pitched against them.”
Katana shook her head. “I remember. It was awful. They were called demons and persecuted.”
“Many of our deities have come as fugitives from other realms. They know how lucky they are to be treated with respect here in Kellara. They value their freedom and show humans respect. Others…” Bel hesitated.
“You’re thinking of Fang?”
“No – he has a good heart, even if he’s a little…” Bel made a face. “You know. No, I’m thinking of…” She silenced as they rounded a corner and stood face to face with a short, dark haired man of stocky physique. He was dressed in thick furs despite the warmth of the season, had long, thick hair falling around his face and down his back, a long beard covering half his face and he carried a staff in his left hand. He looked like a wild man from the mountain.
A second, younger and much cleaner man followed; he had clean shaven cheeks and nervous, green eyes.
“Bjorn”, Katana said, seeing the shorter man in furs before them.
“Hum”, the High Priest of Beorn the Bear muttered, noticing them. He arched an eyebrow at Bel and nodded in respect. She tilted her head to one side, watching him.
“You’ve been hiding in the thickets again, Bjorn”, she said, with only a hint of sarcasm. “Is Zelena still mad at you?”
The younger, slimmer and taller man swallowed nervously, bowing his head and lowering his eyes. “T-the H-high Priestess of F-fang has indeed sworn to turn him into a w-worm, y-y-your Highness”, he mumbled, only with a slight stutter.
“It serves you right for ruining her garden like that with your experimentations, Bjorn”, Katana said with a grin.
“How could I know those plants would turn out to be meat-eaters?” the priest grumbled.
“And that they wouldn’t stop growing”, Bel said. “She told me they ate several of her pigeons before she managed to kill them.”
The High Priest seemed to flinch at that and the priestess arched an eyebrow at him.
“You didn’t know?”
“No”, he rumbled. “I thought she was mad at me for ruining her flowerbed…”
“That too”, Katana said. She sounded serious enough, but one look at her told Bel she was trying hard not to burst into laughter.
“T-t-this is no l-laughing matter”, the younger man said. “Zelena was q-quite f-furious.”
Bel looked at the younger man, who was being trained to be the next High Priest of Beorn the Bear. His name was Cub and according to Zelena he was quite intelligent, but they both agreed there was something strange about him. Something not to be trusted. Bel had wondered why Bjorn would choose this young, nervous man to be his successor, but it was not her place to doubt the High Priest. Now, seeing how the young priest avoided looking at her, she wondered if he was nervous before her because of the rumors of her power or if he really had something to hide. Narrowing her eyes at him she decided it was time she found out.
“True, Cub”, she said. “It is better to stay out of Zelena’s way when she’s in a bad mood. But she won’t turn it against you on a day like this, when we are discussing serious matters. Your High Priest knows this.”
Cub glanced at Bjorn, who tapped his staff in the floor with a clicking sound. “Let’s move ahead”, the High Priest grumbled, taking the lead down the corridor. Cub hastily followed him.
“They’re an odd couple”, Katana quietly said as she watched them.
“It’s time to find out what Cub’s up to”, Bel said, just as soft.
“You don’t trust him?” The Captain glanced at her.
“No. He’s too… nervous. And he’s only been a priest for two years.”
“He doesn’t seem have the personality to serve the Bear”, Katana said thoughtfully. “His behavior is more similar to…”
“To Mara’s servants. That’s true…” Bel frowned. “Well, let’s move before we’re late.”
They hurried ahead, catching up with the High Priest and his whelp.
Not long after they’d met Bjorn in the corridor Bel and the Captain were seated at a large table in a grand hall. The ziggurat in which the meeting was held had been built several hundred years ago by an unknown people. It was said it had been constructed as a place of worship to those deities who’d existed before the current gods and goddesses. Bel had read about the deities in ancient, secret texts, but there wasn’t much said about them or the people that had worshiped them. Both the deities and the people had suddenly disappeared, as if overnight, and no one could tell what had happened to them. The texts stated they had simply returned to where they originated from – wherever that was.
The ziggurat had been used for different purposes since: as a tomb, a temple, a palace and finally – since Emperor Barac Wei was crowned – a cultural centre for training, studies and conferences. There were several secret chambers in the ziggurat, only known to the Initiated. The present chamber in which they held their meeting wasn’t one of those.
Bel looked around the room at the people gathered there. There were the twelve High Priests and Priestesses of the deities – thirteen with her: Zelena, High Priestess of the White Tiger; Bjorn, High Priest of the Bear; Snoek, successor of Orm, High Priest of the Cobra; Dun, High Priestess of the Owl; Mane, the High Priestess of Ebony, the horse goddess – and so on.
They were sitting at a table shaped like a horseshoe, with the Emperor and the Empress at the centre of the arch. To the left of the empress Cara, sat a man with short cropped, blonde hair, thin lips and with a pale scar from a burn wound across the right eye: the Emperor Barac Wei’s twin brother, Harkaitz Qadir. His wife, Jaquana Naga, was sitting on the right side of the emperor: a woman of fair skin, but with dark, long hair. She and Harkaitz had two children, the warrior Rhais and his sister Ravena, who was known for her beauty. Only one of them was present in the hall in that moment.
“We’ve been gathered here today to discuss events outside our peaceful Empire”, a voice from the middle of the chamber was saying, drawing Bel’s attention. A very thin, old man with white hair and gray beard was standing in the middle of the semicircle on the floor. He was dressed in red, the outfit of the chancellor – which was also the color of the Cobra – and held a scepter crowned with a yellow crystal in his hand. “As everyone is present I see no reason to delay the discussion. First, the Emperor wants to say a few words.”
“Afron looks a little pale today, I think”, the man sitting to the right of Bel was whispering to her. Derac Grayeyes, High Priest of the Goddess Nidae, was the twin brother of one of Katana’s foremost warriors: Serafine Grayeyes. Both of them were tall and lithe, with dark hair and skin – although Derac was fairer than his sister. Their names had been acquired due to the color of their eyes. Derac’s eyes were dark gray, like storm clouds or old silver. He had a gentle nature and very seldom raised his voice in anger or in impatience. His only weakness was his love for a woman he could never have, not only because he was a priest sworn to serve his goddess – but because the woman had made an oath to never sleep with a man. An oath she couldn’t break without forfeiting her life.
“He’s older than you and me together”, Bel mumbled. “And Barac Wei.”
“So I’ve heard”, Derac said amusedly. He was dressed in his usual long, dark cloak, which was decorated with embroideries of tiny, flying bats in silver on the collar. “He looked old even when we were children. Still” – the amused tone left his voice and his gray eyes were filled with concern. “Age must take its toll on him.”
“I’ll talk to Gebra Healerhands about it”, Bel said. “I’ll have her look after him.”
“He won’t like it”, Derac mumbled warningly, but then their attention turned to the emperor as Barac Wei rose from his seat.
Barac Wei had not yet turned twenty years old when he was crowned Emperor after his father’s death, but he had done wonders for their empire – creating peace and keeping it for thirty years. He was tall and enigmatic, with an even temper and a righteous mind. He and his wife Cara had eight children – seven of them were girls. And one of them had the potential to become as great as the goddess Nidae. If only she could learn to master her abilities, Bel thought distractedly.
Bel only listened to Barac Wei with half an ear. She knew why they were gathered: to discuss the army of Egara, which was moving towards their boarders. Egara and Sum were the two neighboring kingdoms in the east. They’d been busy making war on each other and on other kingdoms for years, but two years ago a new king was crowned in Egara and he wasn’t like the rest of them – he was a High Priest of Sharptooth, the Crocodile. With little effort he had conquered Sum and the kingdoms of the east and was now turning his attention towards the west.
Egara and the crocodile god wasn’t what worried Bel. She, one of few, knew they had much graver problems to deal with closer to home. Problems it wasn’t possible to share with the common people lest panic and maybe civil war would arise. The troubles had begun twelve years ago with the escape and exiling of Orm, the former High Priest of Mara. Since then almost all of Nakkara Rims visions had been destructive. They’d been forced to counteract those visions by trying to figure out when in time they’d take place and then to forestall the events to play out as Nikka had Seen them. This way they’d saved several lives over those twelve years, but it was always a race against time and unseen forces.
Bel and Derac were sure Orm was somehow responsible for the events – assassination attempts, strange deaths threatening to turn into plagues, extreme weather changes and so forth – but they had no proof. Likewise they were sure he had spies and saboteurs in the different factions of the Priesthood as well as in the Imperial Court. What worried Bel the most was if Orm still acted on orders from Mara the Cobra, the snake god. If the god was involved… If one god was busy wreaking havoc on the humans no one could tell what would happen if the rest of the deities interfered. It could create chaos – it would disturb the whole order and… And everything would be lost.
Bel shivered, trying not to think of the indecisive future ahead of them.
“And this is the situation…” Barac Wei said, before he sat down.
Afron the chancellor stepped forward again. “Now the Imperial Couple would like to hear the opinion of the Priests and Priestesses gathered here today. Varga, would you like to begin?” he reverently asked the High Priestess of Lupus the Wolf and pointed with his scepter at a sharp faced woman with slanted eyes. The woman rose from her seat beside blonde Zelena and nodded shortly.
Only High Priests and Priestesses were seated around the table, the others – priests or priestesses trained to be successors, like Cub, or warriors like Katana and Rhais – stood in rows in front of the semicircle, in front of the opening created by the horseshoe shaped table.
Bel noticed Nakkara Rim in one of the rows, between Cub and a young woman in a light blue dress. The oracle’s eyes were staring unseeing ahead of her and Bel knew she was dealing with the Sight. There was always a lot to be Seen when so many people gathered at one time, especially when dealing with matters that concerned life and death.
“Conclusively it’s the opinion of Lupus that we strengthen our boarders in the east, towards Sum, but more importantly towards Egara.”
The emperor nodded thoughtfully at Varga’s words and the woman sat down.
“Lupus’s High Priestess has spoken”, Afron said. “She has a valid point…”
Bel glanced at Katana, who was standing in one of the rows between a large, bald man and a more slender red-haired man. Both of them were warriors: the bald man was Named Meri Bahram, but preferred to be called Bor. He was Chief of the Cobra Squad. The other, the redhead with a short, neatly trimmed beard, was Hades – leader of the White Tigers, the elite force protecting the empire.
Katana was looking straight back at Bel. The Captain’s face was impassive, but the priestess knew what she was thinking. With Egara as a threat in the east the emperor would most likely be forced to send most of his White Tigers to the boarders. This would weaken the defenses in Goddara. No one could attack from the sea in the west, but the threat Bel feared wasn’t coming from the outside. It came from within.
“This is going to take ages”, Derac mumbled at her side. Politics was one of the few things that bored him and made him impatient. He didn’t believe politics and religion belonged together and believed politics had a negative impact on the souls of those who strove to be pure instruments of the deities. Bel didn’t always agree with him, but the two of them complemented each other in their work and both of them learned much from working with the other. She nodded at his side, but was then alerted when Zelena rose to speak.
“The reverend chancellor voiced the thought I believe most of us are considering”, the High Priestess of Fang was saying. “Although… I don’t agree.”
There was a soft mumble of voices and the faint rustle of clothes as people twitched in their chairs.
“Sending all of our best warriors to the boarders leaves us wide open to other dangers. My suggestion…”
“Excuse me, High Priestess”, a smooth voice said to the left of Bel and she turned her head to look at Snoek, High Priest of Mara. “What ‘other’ dangers are your referring to? Egara and Sum lie in the east. Our coast in the west is protected by sharp cliffs nothing can pass. From where would this ‘other’ danger come? Prey tell, please, Zelena.”
Zelena turned her sharp, blue eyes at the thin, dark haired man. She opened her mouth to speak, but was forestalled by Afron.
“High Priest Snoek”, the chancellor reproachfully said, looking sternly at Snoek. “You know the rules – everyone is entitled to put forward his or her opinion before the actual debate. Take note as usual and bring forth any questions you have later on. Understood?”
“Yes, Chancellor”, the smooth talking man said with a quick, flashing smile at Zelena. “My apologies, High Priestess.”
Zelena narrowed her eyes at the man, but then turned back towards the emperor and resumed her speech.
“With Zelena and Bjorn we are four”, Derac whispered to Bel. “It won’t be enough. Not even if both the emperor and the empress take our side.”
Bel softly shook her head. “They won’t. They can’t. If they do it’s a signal to whoever is the traitor that they suspect something. It would mean another attempted assassination… No, this fight is entirely up to us, Derac. Barac Wei’s first duty is to protect the empire and the people. He must act accordingly. It’s our duty to protect his family.”
Derac made a face. “I’m a priest, not a warrior, Bel. I only want to water my plants and watch them grow. In peace.”
“I know, Derac”, she said with a sigh. “I know.”
“Danger comes in many shapes”, Zelena was saying. “Not the least in being naïve. We can’t do as the turtle and hide our head and limbs inside our shell and hope the danger goes away. We must face it. But first we must acknowledge it.” The blonde woman glanced at Snoek to her right. “A nectarine may at first sight seem perfect like a jewel, but sight might be deceitful and the perfect image may hide a rotten core.”
“Well spoken, Zelena”, Bel mumbled.
“Indeed”, Derac agreed with a slight nod.
Fang’s High Priestess looked towards the Imperial Couple at the centre and nodded before she sat down.
“That will stir the pot”, Bel whispered and Derac nodded silently, but then sighed. Bel glanced at him. “What?”
“I just realized… It’ll only create more discussion – and hold me here even longer than I anticipated. Bats and Ebony’s tail!”
Part Three – Dangers
“Bottom up, princess!” Cat said with a laugh, lifting her own tin cup high above her head and tilting her head backwards. She was standing on a bench by a table in a private room at the Five-legged Tiger.
“Cat! Cat! Cat!” the group of female warriors around the table shouted, banging their fists on the table. All of them had tattoos of leaping panthers on their cheeks.
Cat opened her mouth and let the beer pour down her throat in an even flow. She didn’t spill a drop; she’d had several years of practice. “Done!” she said as she dried her mouth with the back of her hand and put down the cup on the wooden table. “Six. And you, princess?” She grinned at the teenage girl standing opposite her on the bench. The girl made a face; she was drenched in beer.
“Do you count the amount I actually managed to get into my mouth – or how many cups of beer I’ve just showered myself with?” Deyna asked sarcastically.
“Both”, Cat laughed. “Both, princess.”
“That’d be a half and six”, the princess said with a grin, earning applause from the women around the table.
The Five-legged Tiger was a brothel named in honor of Fang; the place was one of the god’s favorite spots to hang out. Members of Panthera had their own private room at the brothel, where they held private parties open only to members of their band – or for special guests. Like the princess Deianara.
The brothel was placed in the middle of the city, close to the royal area – it was even rumored there was a secret tunnel from the brothel to the palace, but no one seemed to know if it was actually true. Cat had been curious and tried to find out, but had never succeeded in finding anything. If anyone would know it would be Katana, but the Captain refused to tell.
“Six!” Cat called, waving towards one of the female servants waiting on them to get a refill on her beer. “Not bad for a virgin, Deyna.”
“Hey!” the young princess said, faking offence. “That was told in confidence!”
Cat laughed as the tall, dark haired servant filled their cups with more beer. When the woman looked up at her Cat winked at her, making her blush. The young waitress was new at the brothel and had yet to learn how to flirt properly with those female guests who preferred other women in bed. There weren’t many of them in Goddara, but Cat’s intensity had increased the number over the years.
“What’s your name, pretty?” Cat asked, smiling at the woman.
“Lady!” Deyna called incredulously. “She’s no lady! I’m a lady.”
“You’re certainly not behaving like one at the moment”, Cat said, grinning, and then added: “And you most certainly don’t look like one.”
Deyna looked down at her ruined outfit: once clothes of silver and blue, now only a sagging mess. “And whose fault is that?” she asked dryly. “When you invited me I didn’t expect to shower in beer.”
“It’s the initiation”, one short, dark skinned woman at the table said. “All girls in this room must go through it.”
“Hurray”, Deyna said sarcastically, squeezing the beer from her shirt. “Another initiation.”
Cat laughed, turning back towards the waitress. “I’m Cat, at your pleasure”, she said. Taking Uzra’s hand she raised it to her lips. She pressed a soft kiss on the back of the woman’s hand, again winking. The young woman blushed, but then laughed and curtseyed before she left the chamber.
The waitress left and another female warrior entered the room. She was dark and beautiful, with slanting eyes the color of gray marble – almost silver – and with leaping panthers tattooed on her cheeks. Cat laughed, seeing her, and waved. The woman grinned as she noticed Cat on the bench, but then she narrowed her eyes at the princess and quickly moved into the room.
“Cat”, she said in a low, almost purring voice, and tilted her head to look at Deyna. “Why is the princess here?”
“Oh”, Deyna said, glancing worriedly at Cat. “Didn’t you tell…?”
“She needed a break from Court life, Serafine”, Cat said carelessly, winking at the other woman. “Come, show her your new tattoo – she was thinking of getting one.”
“I was not!” the princess objected and blushed as the warriors gathered around her laughed. “I was not”, she mumbled, glancing at Serafine.
The gray eyed woman softly shook her head. “Cat”, she said in the same purring voice as before and in a swift motion she flew across the table, landing gracefully on the bench between Cat and Deyna, crouching. As she straightened up, there was an amused smile on her lips. “Why do you always get us into trouble, kit-cat?”
Cat grinned. “To keep you on your toes, of course. You’d be bored without me.”
“Most likely”, the woman said, turning to Deyna. “Hey, princess”, she said winking.
“Don’t flirt with her, Sera – she’ll lose her powers”, Cat said, grinning as the princess’ blush deepened. Serafine laughed.
“Don’t worry, princess – you’re too young for me. I prefer… the graying kind.”
“Who’ve you been chasing lately, sister?” Cat asked, gesturing to Deyna to sit down as she did the same.
Deyna was used to the Leaping Panthers – she’d been raised with them following her around her whole life – but she’d never spent time with them in such a relaxing manner. They were warriors, trained to be constantly alert as they guarded her. There had never really been the time for them get more intimately acquainted with each other. A few hours before, when they arrived at the brothel, both Deyna and the group of Leaping Panthers that were with her had felt awkward and strange together. Then they’d taken residence in the private chamber, reserved for their band, and Cat began ordering drinks. Not before long the girl and the warriors had started getting along well.
The Five-legged Tiger was a place for those with a little more money and higher rank, but without belonging to the finer clubs. If one wanted real luxury one would visit Lady Goldfinger only a few streets away.
The building had two floors, several private bedrooms and several other chambers used for dinner parties or dances. The main room was placed on the first floor, right at the entrance. It was there the more inexperienced girls greeted the odd customers who only came once in a while or those who were only passing through the city. Guests who visited more frequently were brought to another lounge further in.
The chamber Panthera used for their private gatherings was placed on the second floor, adjacent to one of the larger parlors where well paying warriors usually spent their time carousing.
“I thought I’d try my luck at the emperor”, Serafine was saying, “but” – she shrugged – “we all know he’s faithful to his wife. I gave up that idea.”
“Thank you”, Deyna said dryly. “I wouldn’t want to hear about my father’s eventual affairs.”
Cat was surprised to actually notice Serafine blush.
“Hum, sorry, princess – slip of the tongue”, Serafine said. “I forgot who you were for a moment…”
“Yeah, guess it’s not easy to remember when I look like this.” Deyna sighed. “I’m never gonna get these clothes clean again.” She glowered at Cat. “And how did you think I was going to explain smelling like beer to my mother?”
Serafine laughed. “She probably didn’t think. Cat’s not famous for her thinking.”
“Hey!” Cat exclaimed.
“True”, Deyna said, laughing. “Fine, I forgive you your slip of the tongue.” Her eyes twinkled. “I want to know who you’ve got your oh so beautiful eyes set on.”
Serafine whistled, glancing at a surprised Cat. “Did you hear that, sister? Maybe I’ll reconsider my chase for more… mature preys and take a bite of the just ripened fruit.”
Cat expected Deyna to blush at that – or more likely, at the seductive look in the older woman’s eyes as she turned back to the girl – but the princess unexpectedly leaned forward on the table with her chin in the palm of her hand, smiling without breaking eye contact with Serafine.
“Really?” she said hoarsely. “And would you have a special… fruit in mind?”
Goddess! Cat thought, seeing the two of them. How much of that beer had the princess actually swallowed? “Fine – stop this right this minute. Sera – she’s a princess!”
Serafine turned her slanted eyes towards Cat, grinning. “So? It didn’t stop you, did it?”
“What?” Deyna sat straight up, staring wide eyed at Cat.
“Serafine!” Cat hissed, glowering at her friend.
“You seduced my sister?” Deyna asked. “By Fang’s white fur! Who? Which one of them?”
“Fine – you didn’t hear that”, Cat said, trying to avoid the topic. “You weren’t supposed to know…”
“Stop treating me like a stupid child!” Deyna stood up at the bench again, looking down at Cat with annoyance.
“Deyna”, Cat said, inhaling slowly.
“No! I’ve had enough. You’re just like her, treating me like…”
The rest of the princess words were drowned in a sudden cry from the adjacent room, followed by shouts from the corridor. Deyna silenced and abruptly turned around on the bench – too abruptly, apparently, as she lost her balance and stumbled backwards.
“Deyna!” Cat called, rushing to her feet.
“I’ve got her!” Serafine said, already standing and wrapping her arms around the princess. “Hey, pretty – careful with the beer. It’s strong if you’re not used to it.”
Cat hesitated as she noticed the princess relax in the warrior’s arms and waited to see what would happen. Deyna had been right: she hadn’t treated the girl with respect, but instead treated her like someone whose opinion didn’t matter.
“Are you good?” she heard Serafine ask in a low voice and Deyna nodded.
“Thank you. I didn’t behave very maturely right now, did I?”
Serafine chuckled. “We’re all entitled to lapses back into childhood every now and then. Believe me – Cat does it all the time.” Gray eyes met Cat’s mismatched ones and Serafine grinned. “Right, Cat?”
“All the time”, Cat said. “You know that, princess.”
Deyna huffed, but smiled too and said: “You sulk like a baby when you don’t get what you want.”
“Exactly.” Cat looked at the girl and the women standing close together, the one with her arms wrapped around the other. She considered telling them to step apart, but realized that it wasn’t any of her business. Serafine wouldn’t seduce the girl for all her seductive smiles and glances and Cat suspected Deyna wasn’t ready to be seduced. For one thing she’d have to wait until she’d become a full goddess. But a little groping and kissing wouldn’t hurt and if it was the first time for the princess – which Cat strongly suspected – then Serafine was a good teacher.
Serafine and Cat had never shared beds. From the first time they met they’d been best friends, almost like sisters, and there had never been a physical attraction between them despite the fact that both of them were very lucky with women. They had tried kissing once, just for the sake of it, but neither of them had felt anything and they settled with being close friends.
Now, as Cat noticed Serafine’s hands tighten the hold on Deyna she instead hid a smile; maybe the princess would get more than what she’d bargained for this night. Then the noise from the corridor drew her attention, when she realized there was a fight going on. Ordinarily there were a few fights each night at the brothel. It happened when you put too many warriors with too much alcohol and too many women in a room; it livened up the place a bit. The fights were usually cut short by the hired guards working there. A few times there had been serious injuries, but mostly the fights only involved fists, broken bottles and chairs, not other weapons.
“Something’s up”, Cat said cautiously as she heard the ringing of steel from the corridor. Again a loud, crashing noise was heard from the other room, then someone screamed and a moment later one of the female servants came rushing in; the tall, dark woman who’d served Cat and Deyna earlier.
“Cat!” she breathed, out of breath from running. “Cat – you must…!”
“What is it, Urza?”
The woman didn’t have time to answer before she was shoved out of the way by a heavily armed warrior, who was dressed in leather and steel, swinging a sword. The blade cut through Urza without difficulty, as if she’d been a blade of grass before the scythe.
Cat caught her breath, staring at the helpless expression on the woman’s face as she tumbled against the wall and slid down to the floor with glazing eyes. The next instant Cat was seeing red. She didn’t know who the warrior was or why he’d charged into their room, disturbing their private party – and she didn’t care. All she knew was that he was going to die. She drew her sword as she flew across the room, pulling one of her knives from the belt.
“Cat!” she heard the princess call behind her, but didn’t stop to consider what she was doing.
“Die!” she yelled, swinging her sword. The warrior blocked her attack, as expected – but he never saw the knife. With one swift motion she cut his throat. Blood sprayed her face, but she only felt the sweet power coming from surviving yet another fight to the death. Then she realized the warrior wasn’t alone. The corridor was full of fighting warriors. And now she heard the battle going on in the adjacent room.
Deyna! she thought, glancing over her shoulder. Serafine still held on to the girl, but now there was a terrified expression on the princess’ face. “Get her out of here!” she called to Serafine, waving with her knife. It was all she had time to do, before she was attacked by a group of foreign warriors.
Cat didn’t know how long she’d fought or how many she’d killed when she realized Deyna and Serafine were still in the room with her. The warriors kept coming from all directions. The whole brothel was involved in the fight; people were dying everywhere, warriors fought with blooded weapons and with blood smeared on their faces. It was full chaos around her.
Cat hadn’t seen anything like it since her time as a mercenary in Sum’s army, where she and some other members of her band – including Serafine – had served for a year. It was required of the warriors of Panthera to have been in war before becoming full members of the pack.
Cat had barely survived the wars she’d participated in, not because of any physical injuries but due to the toll it had taken on her psyche. To kill, and to see so many dying, had at one period made her doubt if she could ever use a sword again. The change – and the choice she’d had to make – had come when several of her friends, again including Serafine, were captured. Cat had been the only one who could save them. She braved desperate odds to do so and became a hero in the process, but her previously naïve idea about war as something glorious faded and died thoroughly as death on the last battlefield.
“Sera!” she called, making her way towards her friend, who fought back to back with Deyna. “Sera! You need to get her out of here!”
“I’m trying, Cat! They’re just too many!”
Cat quickly looked around the room: a couple of the band members lay dead beside her and she felt a cold stab at her heart seeing them. Behind Serafine the princess fought like a warrior with a knife in one hand and a sword taken from a fallen enemy in the other. She had a tear in the sleeve and was bleeding from a wound on the arm, but it looked like a superficial injury – for which Cat was grateful.
“Deyna!” she called, moving around a couple of dead bodies and killing an attacking warrior on her way to the princess. “You need to get out of here. Use your abilities…”
“I’ve tried, Cat! I’ve tried to use them in the fight, but I can’t! Something is blocking me.” Deyna ducked and swirled around, swinging her sword to ward off a woman warrior that came too close.
“Can you transform?” Cat asked a second later, when she managed to get a spare moment. Deyna stopped to look at her.
“I’m not leaving you!” she stated.
“You have to, Deyna. Someone needs to get help and these… whoever they are – they’re just too many! You have to go! For our sake!” At least to save your self, Cat thought, seeing the princess hesitate.
“But what about the rest of you?”
“We are sworn to protect you, Deyna”, Cat said, letting Serafine cover her and the girl for a brief moment. “This is what we get paid for.”
“Don’t say that”, the princess said with tears in her eyes.
“This is not the time to argue!” Serafine called. “Deyna – do as she says! By Mara’s bloody teeth – get out of here!”
“Deyna”, Cat said, looking the girl in the eye. “Go, princess.”
It was all they had time for, before the room was stormed with another group of unknown warriors.
“Blood and bone and the Panther’s tail!” Serafine shouted. “Where are they coming from? Who are they? What do they want?”
“How should I know?” Cat yelled, scarcely avoiding getting her head chopped off. “Deyna!” she screamed, glancing over her shoulder. She noticed the stricken look on the princess’ face turn to determination as the girl nodded. “Cover her!” Cat shouted to the members of her band that were close enough to hear her – and close enough to make a difference. Six of them encircled Deyna as she let go of her weapons and raised her arms towards the ceiling.
Cat stood with her back towards the girl, fighting for her life in the most confusing and insane battle she could ever remember being involved in. The warriors only kept coming and there were no clue to who they were or what they wanted.
A lithe, blonde man slightly older than her made his way through the newly arrived group of warriors, killing as he went across the floor.
“Para!” Cat called. “By the gods – I’m glad to see you!”
“What is going on?” the young man asked. Then he noticed Deyna behind Cat’s back. “What is she doing here?”
“Don’t ask”, Cat said with resolution. “We just need to see that she gets out of here alive.” She glanced behind her and noticed the sweat dripping from Deyna’s forehead, wondering if whatever blocked Deyna’s powers also blocked her ability to shape-change. Then, in the same moment as she despaired to get the princess out of the mess she’d gotten her into alive, a flash of blue power swept through the room. A sphere of white and blue fire cascaded from the centre of the circle Cat and her friends created and in the next moment a gigantic hawk – silver white – shrieked as it flew through the room. It dove down on a warrior attacking Para and hacked out his eyes.
“Get out of here!” Cat shouted, throwing a knife to prevent a warrior from lifting his sword to aim at the bird. The knife took the warrior in his throat and he fell backwards. The hawk, still encircled by a sphere of blue fire, shrieked one more time and then dove out of the room through the door. The next moment it was gone and Cat could finally relax, letting go of her worry for the princess. There was nothing more she could do to protect Deyna – it was all in the hands of the deities now.
“Bats and Snakes!” she heard Serafine swear at her side and swirled around.
“Look out!” she called as she noticed a warrior with a crossbow in the doorway. “Sera!”
“Cat!” Para called. He had been separated from her when Deyna attacked the warrior assaulting him and was now trying to get back to her. His desperate shout was mingled with the sound of ringing steel and with battle cries from the corridor outside the chamber.
“Sera!” Cat shouted and threw herself in front of Serafine as the woman turned around. The arrow aimed at her friend took Cat in the shoulder. The impact threw her against Serafine and the two of them tumbled backwards; Cat heard Serafine’s soft gasp in her ear and felt the sting of the arrowhead in her shoulder.
“Cat…” Serafine whispered.
“I’m fine”, she quickly said, immediately coming to her feet. The arrow had gone straight to her shoulder without tearing any vital muscles; she would still be able to use her left arm, although it would hurt. “We need to…”
Whatever Cat intended to say was drowned in a sudden heavy gust of wind that swept through the room, accompanied by loud thunder. The two warriors Cat was struggling with were swept off their feet and thrown through the chamber. So precise was the wind that it swept one of the warriors – who was standing so close to Cat that her nose practically touched his – away without as much as ruffling Cat’s hair.
“Cat!” Serafine called through the thunder.
“What’s going on?” Cat asked, looking around with a bewildered feeling. Warriors were thrown through the room and pinned to the walls by an invisible force, but it was only the enemies that were affected.
“I think she is here”, Para said with a nervous glance over his shoulder. He lowered his sword and watched the door with a comprehensive look.
“I don’t know what’s going on”, Cat said. “But let’s...”
“Let’s not”, Katana said, suddenly standing in the doorway. She crossed her arms, nailing Cat with a blazing look. The Captain was dressed in her dress leather armor: the blue and black she only wore when leading her pack in procession at one or another ceremony. Her sword was in her belt, with the clasp locking it in its scabbard, and all of her knives were still in a row – untouched in her belt.
“Captain – she’s hurt”, Serafine said, stepping forward. Cat moved forward at the same time.
“Is she alright?” she asked worriedly, thinking of the princess.
“She is, but no thanks to you”, the Captain said, still with the same stern, unrelenting tone. At her side two warriors were pinned to the wall beside the door – their eyes were wide open and their mouths too, but they didn’t move or speak. They seemed held in a nightmare they couldn’t awake from. It was the same with the two warriors that had been swept away from Cat and the same with the others – some were held against the wall, others against the floor.
Katana’s eyes went to the arrow in Cat’s shoulder and she smirked.
“An arrow never stopped her before”, the Captain said in response to Serafine’s comment.
Cat shook her head. She didn’t care about her injury. “Who are those guys? What do they want? Holy Bats and burning Snakes! Why...?” She silenced abruptly as someone else entered the chamber behind the Captain.
“Cat – I’m sorry”, Deyna said pleadingly with tears in her eyes, but it wasn’t the princess Cat was staring at. She was staring at the red haired woman walking in front of the princess.
The High Priestess of Nidae looked around the chamber. She was wearing the blue robe Cat had seen her in before, carrying her staff in one hand. Her face was blank, showing no emotions at all – but her eyes... Cat swallowed.
“Get them out of here”, the High Priestess said, making a swift gesture with her free hand around the room. The warriors being pinned to the walls fell down, but didn’t land on the floor: they were held suspended in the air. The warriors on the floor were lifted up into the air – floating like reeds on a calm, mirror blank surface of water.
A group of priestesses in brown robes hurried into the room and flanked the floating warriors, who were now lined up in a row. There was a heavy silence in the room as the priestesses took the stiff suspended foreign warriors out of the chamber.
“Out”, the High Priestess said, indicating the band members of Panthera and those of the Cobra Squad who’d fought their way into the room together with Para. Para and Serafine stayed on each side of Cat. For moral support, she thought – as she had a feeling the High Priestess didn’t intend her to leave. For one thing Katana’s face told her not to move.
“Deyna”, the High Priestess said, without looking at the princess. She was looking at Cat now – and those green, blazing eyes burnt holes in Cat’s skull. “Go with Derac.”
Cat quickly glanced at the princess. She just wanted to see the princess’ reaction, she told herself; she was not looking away to avoid the priestess’ steely gaze.
Deyna had a stricken look on her face. There was blood on her cheeks, but she seemed unharmed.
“Go, Deyna”, Cat said gently and tried a reassuring smile. She wasn’t sure how it came out. “I’ll be fine. I’ll see you later.”
“No, you won’t”, the High Priestess said cuttingly. “You are not going near that girl again. Ever.”
Cat blinked and met the priestess’ gaze. Behind the woman Deyna turned away with a sob and hurriedly left the room.
“Are you aware you almost got her killed?” the High Priestess went on. The way she controlled the burning rage that was shown in her eyes scared Cat more than anything. She was used to people going berserk, or losing control when in the heat of the moment. Even Katana lost her temper and showed her anger in her movements and in her face, but this... This measured, strict mastery of such force Cat could see behind the eyes of the priestess was something new, something beyond her understanding. She knew now it was the High Priestess who’d pinned those warriors to the wall. The woman had done something the Leaping Panthers and part of the Cobra Squad hadn’t managed: defeated the warriors – on her own.
Cat had faced powerful people before, but she had always managed to find a weakness with them – they had held no power over her. It was different with this woman. Cat could feel the power brimming in the air around the High Priestess, but that wasn’t what frightened her. It frightened her that she had upset this beautiful woman.
Since when did I become such a weakling?
“I didn’t almost get her killed”, Cat said, holding the priestess’ gaze. “Those warriors did.”
She heard Serafine gasp softly behind her, but didn’t turn her head. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed Katana’s expression of pure fury. The Captain uncrossed her arms and took a step towards her, but was held back by the High Priestess. The woman hardly flicked a finger, but Katana came to an immediate halt.
“True”, the High Priestess said and Cat frowned uncertainly, hearing her agree with her, and wondered what game the priestess played. “That is most true, but if you hadn’t brought her here she wouldn’t have been in any danger. Do you agree with me?”
Cat paled. “Yes, and I’m sorry about that”, she said sincerely. “But…” she added, hesitating.
“No ‘buts’!” Katana exclaimed, obviously unable to hold her tongue any longer. “What were you thinking? By the Great Bat – you could’ve gotten her killed! You spoiled bastard, I should never have trusted you with such a responsibility. You’re a worse fool than I ever took you for!”
Cat blushed, being so humiliated in front of the High Priestess. She ignored the sudden queasiness that came over her and the immediate need to throw up. Ignoring the pain in her shoulder and her suddenly wobbly knees she stepped forward to answer the challenge. “Bats and bloody Snakes!” she said. “I was trying to help her!”
“Help? Help?” Katana moved forward and wasn’t stopped this time. “By bringing her here? And how would that help in any way?”
“Yes, tell me”, the High Priestess said, this time with bitterness and an icy chill in her voice. “How exactly does that help?”
Cat gasped, seeing the loathing in the beautiful woman’s eyes. “Because the princess is a prisoner in her palace!” she nearly shouted. “She’s worse off than a slave, behind all the luxury of her existence. This”, she said, pointing at the High Priestess, “is actually your fault, priestess!”
“Cat!” Katana warned in a low, controlled voice; Cat barely heard her.
“It’s your fault Deyna was here tonight”, she went on, holding the High Priestess’ gaze. “If you didn’t push her so hard, if you didn’t treat her like you do and scared her to death with your… whatever powers you have…”
“Cat! Enough!” Katana grabbed her arm, but Cat tore lose.
“What?” Cat said, glowering at her. “You know it’s true! What’s the matter? Are you afraid I’m embarrassing you in front of…”
“Cat!” she heard Serafine call out – and in the next moment she found herself on the floor with a split lip. She looked up at the Captain, tasting the blood in her mouth. She spat, drying her mouth with the back of her hand as Serafine crouched by her side.
“That is way out of line, soldier”, Katana said furiously, pointing down at her. Cat shook her head, feeling dizzy and disoriented – but also hurt. She’d earned several slaps from Katana over the years, but never since she’d become a full member of the pack. Katana was strict with her subordinates, but she seldom needed to discipline them – and she never did it in public.
“What?” Cat repeated, trying to get to her feet. Serafine supported her and Para reached to help her, but she waved him off. “You know it’s true. You know she… she…”
She suddenly felt the stabbing pain in her shoulder worse than before and flinched. Her knees gave way and she felt herself slipping into a slow darkness.
Serafine’s voice was far away.
“It’s the blood loss”, Para said; she could hardly hear him either.
“No, this is something else…” It was the High Priestess’ voice, clear and sharp.
Cat wanted to say she was sorry for Deyna, but she couldn’t find the words. She realized she was lying on her back, staring up at the ceiling, but she couldn’t see anything until the High Priestess’ face suddenly came into view.
“Poison”, she heard, far away, losing sight again.
I’m going to die, she realized. She gasped as she felt someone’s hand on her forehead, a gentle touch – cool against her fevered skin. Soft fingers brushed some dark curls out of her face. She opened her eyes, not realizing before then that she’d closed them, and looked into green, concerned eyes.
“Sshh”, the High Priestess said gently. “You’ll be fine.”
She wanted to shake her head, to tell the woman no one she knew of had survived the poison now coursing through her veins. “You…” she whispered, realizing there was something else she wanted to say – something more pressing.
She felt the soft touch of cool fingers on her lips and gasped anew in sudden, recognized desire, before the world went dark.
* * *
“The fool”, Katana was saying, looking down at the unconscious woman.
Derac’s sister – Serafine, Bel thought, correcting herself; she always thought of the woman as Derac’s sister – broke off the arrowhead and pulled out the arrow from the warrior’s shoulder, careful not to touch the sharp tip.
“I’m sorry she accused you”, the Captain said as Bel rose beside Serafine. “I never thought... She’s reckless and disrespectful, but I never thought she’d...” Katana silenced, glancing down at Derac’s sister, who was busy inspecting the arrowhead.
“She showed remorse, Katana”, Bel said thoughtfully.
“Remorse? She doesn’t know the word”, the Captain huffed.
“You were too busy being angry at her to notice. If she hadn’t shown remorse I wouldn’t bother with her now.”
Katana quickly glanced at her, trying to hide her surprise. “What do you mean?”
Bel looked down at the fallen warrior. “She needs to be taken care of immediately, otherwise she’ll die a horrible death”, she said, already knowing what poison had claimed the unconscious woman.
At the same time Serafine was looking up at them with pale cheeks; the tattoos dark against her skin. “It’s Tears of the Maiden, Captain”, she said in a trembling voice. “There’s no known cure for that.”
Bel heard Katana gasp beside her.
“Goddess – Cat...!” the Captain whispered in a choked voice Bel didn’t recognize.
“Move away, Sera”, she said, gesturing towards the woman on the floor. The male warrior who stood a few steps away, looking down at the two women on the floor, made a strained sound – it was strangely similar to a sob, Bel distractedly thought. She glanced at the man and noticed the pain in his eyes. Looking at him she found him oddly familiar, but she couldn’t remember ever meeting him before.
Derac’s sister rose, dropping the arrow on the floor beside her dying friend. Bel made use of her powers and wove strands of Air around the unconscious figure on the floor. As High Priestess she had certain powers – common people would call it magic, but to her it was simpler than that: it was the pure knowledge of how to make full use of the Creative Energy, of which every living thing consisted. Commonly called magic. Some needed to study to learn how to master the energy; others were born with the knowledge of how to use it, but did it only instinctively until they were trained to understand what they were doing.
Bel had been one of the latter. She’d heard the voice of the Goddess within her since she was very young – and the voice of other gods and goddesses later on – but she’d also controlled the winds and was able to create fires. Though it wasn’t until she became a priestess she learned she was using the elements of Air and Fire to do what she was doing. The High Priestess trained her and she had been a willing student, always thirsting for knowledge. Everyone could learn the things she’d learned, but it demanded hard studies and dedication. It could also be very dangerous if one didn’t understand what one was doing; people had been known to go insane or consume themselves in the element in their effort to master its power.
Bel was one of the few who made use of more than one element. It was more common to master one of the elements, as it demanded great strength – both physically and mentally – to manage even that. Derac also managed two elements: Air and Water. The two of them had been trained since they were children, to work together and to combine their elements to gain more power.
By using the elements the High Priest or Priestess was also able to strengthen the deity he or she served – or to bind the deity’s powers. There had been one High Priestess in the past who’d mastered the five known elements of Fire, Air, Water, Earth and Spirit. She’d been the most powerful priestess in their history, but she had turned wicked and wanted to rule the world. She disabled the deities and killed several of them, before she was finally stopped by a group of High Priests and Priestesses who combined their powers and managed to strip her of her knowledge – her magic. She was left a broken reed, wandering the wilderness like a babbling madwoman.
Bel had always enjoyed that story: it showed the dangers in being consumed by one’s own arrogance and one’s lust for fame and fortune. To be a priest or priestess meant to be a servant, not the ruler. A High Priestess was an instrument through which the power flowed and was used for the good of the people; she wasn’t the ultimate source of the power. The true power came from the force of the Creative Energy, which had given birth to all life – even the deities.
“Let me care for her”, Bel said as she lifted the wounded warrior into the air.
“Please, High Priestess”, Serafine said, with pale cheeks. “Let me come and be with her until she dies. The ending will be terrible and I don’t want her to go through it alone. She... She’s saved my life so many times. She’s the closest thing to a family I ever had, beside Derac.”
“I know, Leaping Feline”, Bel said, using Serafine’s true Name. “But your friend isn’t going to die. Her time has not yet come.”
“No one survives the Tears of the Maiden”, the male warrior said, a little harshly.
Bel looked at him. “Do you know the power of the Goddess?” she said, adding a little thunder to her voice by using Air to carry her words. The warrior paled.
“N-no, your Highness”, he said, backing a few steps.
“Good. You two, care for your friends. I’ll bring this warrior to the temple of High Priest Derac.” Bel tugged at Air and made the floating warrior follow her out the door. Katana quickly caught up with her.
“What did you mean?” she asked as they reached the stairs further down the corridor. Warriors in the color of the White Tigers – black and white – rushed back and forth, searching for wounded and carrying unconscious warriors from the brothel. Bel’s priestesses in brown collected the dead from the unknown army, taking them to the temple of the Goddess of the Dark Moon on her command. There was a particular reason for her to have them brought there: she’d seen what they were as soon as she arrived at the Five Legged Tiger. Soon everyone else would see what they were too – a fact that would create panic if her priestesses didn’t get the warriors out of the way in time.
“About Cat, I mean”, Katana said. “You said you wouldn’t bother with her if she hadn’t shown remorse. And can you really cure her?” she added worriedly.
“How long have you known me, Katanya?” Bel asked.
“Since I came here when we both were sixteen”, the Captain said. “No”, she added, when Bel only looked at her. “You’ve never lied to me, but this is Tears of the Maiden, Bel.”
Bel shook her head. “There are ways, Katana. Trust me. This particular poison is very nasty – especially because the agony seems to go on forever. People have been known to suffer for weeks.”
Bel silenced, but didn’t halt when she came to the stairs; she went down side by side with Katana – while the unconscious warrior floated behind them in the air. Members of the White Tigers stopped and parted to let them through and priestesses curtseyed hastily when Bel passed them, before rushing back to their assignment.
“If she hadn’t shown remorse I would either thought her a traitor to the crown or an irresponsible bastard – as you so nicely put it. In either case I couldn’t have cared less about her wellbeing. She put the princess’ life at risk – and in so doing also the safety of the Imperial Family. Irresponsibility is not a luxury we can afford at the moment.”
“Not even if she’s... you know who?” Katana said in a low voice, carefully. Bel only shook her head.
“Nidae is goddess of life and death, Katana. She knows we sometimes have to cut our losses to move on – bad seeds may not be allowed to steal the life force of the good crop. Blood, as in blood ties, can’t be made to matter in situations like this.”
Katana shook her head as they reached the foot of the stair. “Is life really that simple to you, my friend?”
“Everything in nature is about life and death, Captain. Why make it more difficult for ourselves, attaching meanings and values to it?”
Katana sighed. “One day, Bel... One day you’ll understand.”
Bel frowned. “Maybe, but at the moment this empire needs someone who can make the decisions others can’t because of being too attached to the people around them.”
“Thinking of Barac Wei again, are you?” Katana mumbled, referring to the meeting they’d both attended.
“He had the chance to do the right thing”, Bel said as they moved through another large lounge with dead warriors and some sobbing women; she watched people grieve for the dead as she passed.
The empress had taken Zelena’s stand on not sending all of the White Tigers to the boarders, but the emperor had chosen to listen to the majority. The White Tigers were to depart from Goddara in two weeks time, to march across the empire and to join the rest of the force at the boarders of Egara and Sum. The debate had been going on the whole afternoon, until late evening. It was while the emperor made the final decision that Nakkara Rim suddenly stepped forward, telling them the city was under attack. A moment later a wounded warrior arrived at the chamber, bringing news of the battle at the Five-legged Tiger.
“He puts the whole city in danger.”
“Maybe he’ll realize it after tonight”, Katana said dryly, looking around.
“I doubt it. Some of these warriors are dressed in the colors of Egara. We are meant to believe the invasion has already begun. Which would speed up the decision to send our troops away.”
Katana frowned. “You don’t believe they’re from Egara?”
“Have you noticed? All of them are dead? Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
The Captain looked around with a puzzled expression, seeing the dead warrior Bel’s priestesses collected. “Now that you mention it...”
“I don’t know who’s sent them yet, but I will soon enough. Come to the temple at noon and we’ll discuss it.”
Katana nodded as they finally reached the entrance. The place was sealed off by palace guards and the street was filled with warriors standing guard. Princess Deianara and Derac stood a little to the side, flanked by several female warriors with stern faces and with tattoos on their cheeks. The princess’ True Shape of a beautiful white Hawk flickered about the girl. As Deyna wasn’t a true goddess yet her True Form hadn’t fully blended together with her; the bird was surrounded by a bluish hue.
“Captain”, one small, dark woman said and stepped forward as she noticed Katana. Bel kept watching Deyna a few steps away; the girl was standing wrapped in a black cloak with Derac’s arm around her shoulders. The High Priest looked up as Bel stepped out of the brothel, but she wasn’t the first he looked at.
“Fathma. We’re bringing the princess back to the palace”, Katana said. The small woman nodded, then swallowed – glancing at the dark haired warrior floating in the air.
“Captain – is Cat...?”
“She’ll be fine”, Katana said. “Form formation, soldier.”
“Yes, Captain.” The woman straightened her back and signaled to the others to form a procession around Derac and the princess.
Bel noticed Katana’s eyes went quickly to Derac, before she averted her face. At the same moment the princess finally looked up and became aware of the unconscious warrior.
“Cat!” the girl gasped; she rushed forward and broke the formation of warriors surrounding her. “What have you done to her?” Deyna called, looking accusingly at Bel.
“She’s injured. I’m bringing her to the temple to heal her.” Bel watched the girl in front of her, wondering what she needed to do to make the princess realize how important it was that she mastered her divine talents. Not only for her own sake, but for the sake of the empire.
Deianara was the eighth child of the imperial couple, but the seventh princess. Seven was a holy number amongst them, since the Seven First Deities created the world thousands and thousands of years ago. There had been seven kings and seven queens ruling the world – seven continents, seven seas, seven kingdoms and seven races of people. In their beliefs there were seven Wheels of Life, seven Trees of Nature, seven Gates of Death and seven Fires of Heaven. There were seven major Initiations to each area of expertise one wanted to master, whether it was to become a deity, a High Priest or Priestess, a ruler, a member of an order or the leader of an order.
Deyna had the opportunity to become one of the most powerful deities in history, as great as Nidae even, but she didn’t practice enough. Or more accurately: she didn’t take her own abilities seriously enough. And with what had happened that night… The last thing Bel needed now was to deal with an arrogant warrior and a rebellious teenager. Maybe it had been a mistake to let Cat tutor the princess, but the oracle had said it would be good for both of them. And apparently it would form a close bond sometime in a future life.
“It was my fault”, Deyna said, giving the priestess a slightly defiant look. “I made her take me here.”
“Don’t lie to me, girl”, Bel said. “You would never have thought of this place yourself.” She gestured towards the sign outside the brothel. “Do you even know what that name implies?”
Deyna blushed beet red, by which Bel surmised she did. She glanced at the sign of the Five-legged Tiger, noting the picture of the tiger below the name. The fifth leg had nothing to do with being a leg.
“You’d never have come up with the idea if she hadn’t asked you…”
“That’s not true! We – we made a deal. It was a challenge. I would…” The princess silenced, blushing slightly. “It was not only her fault”, she said. “It was my choice to come. She could never have forced me.” Deyna set her jaws, looking challenging at Bel. “I chose to come because I’m tired of being locked up at the palace.”
“You wouldn’t have to be locked up if you learned how to master your gifts”, Bel pointed out. “You should have seen what those warriors were – you should have been able to defeat them. Instead you let yourself be trapped like a child.”
“I am a child!” Deyna burst out. “What you ask of me is too much – I can’t do it!”
“Of course you can. You have the power, you just don’t use it. And you’re not a child – you’re the seventh princess of Kellara, heiress to the power of the Seven Deities of old.” Bel gestured to Katana and the Leaping Panthers. “Take her back”, she commanded. “And see to it that she’s held isolated in the Tower of Eagles for a few days. For punishment, to let her think about her irresponsible actions. Guard her well.”
“Yes, your Highness”, one of the band members said.
“You can’t do this!” Deyna called out. “It’s not…”
Bel turned back to look at the princess, who immediately silenced. Good, she thought. At least she’s wise enough to know when she’s gone too far. “You were saying?”
“Nothing, Priestess”, Deyna mumbled, subdued. She quickly glanced at the warrior floating in the air beside Katana. “But she’ll be well?”
“Yes”, Bel said a little softer, sensing the worry in the princess. “Go now. I’ll talk to you in a few days.”
Bel watched as Katana and the Leaping Panthers took the princess away, before she turned to Derac. “I’ll need to borrow your altar.”
The priest nodded, thoughtfully studying the floating warriors face. “Shall I get Gebra Healerhands for you?”
“Thanks, but I believe I’ll manage this on my own. Your herb garden is fresh?”
“Good…” She hesitated. “Maybe you should get Gebra anyway – it couldn’t hurt.”
“How long before the pain sets in?” Derac asked, again looking at the bloodstained warrior.
“The fever is the only sign at the moment. If the poison runs its natural course she’ll wake up in agony in a few hours… If we’re lucky I’ll have cured her by then.”
Bel looked down at the woman lying on the altar before her. The dark hair was matted by blood and sweat, but Bel had cleaned her face with a moist rag – drying the blood from her cheeks and forehead. There had been a beautiful young woman behind the filth, a face she remembered from earlier in the day; tattoos on the cheeks. The thought of how the young woman had looked at her in the ziggurat made her smile. A lot of men and women had looked at her that way, but none of them had blushed so deeply or so shyly averted their eyes from her. She’d found it sweet.
Without thinking she pushed some of the matted hair from the warriors face, as she had done when she knelt by her side in the brothel.
The woman would live. Bel had stripped her of her leather armor and the shirt, cleaned the wound and then made use of ancient knowledge to burn the poison out of the blood. Tears of the Maiden was the most vicious poison, but the advantage from some other poisons was that it was slow to take effect. People could live with the effect for weeks before they died, which had given Bel time to deal with the poison. Had the poison been something else – like Fires of the Dragon – she might not have had that time. If poisoned with Fires of the Dragon one would die within minutes.
Bel thought of how the young woman had confronted her at the brothel and marveled at her courage. She couldn’t remember anyone challenging her like that before; everyone feared her too much.
“You’ve done great”, a voice said behind her and she glanced over her shoulder at the fair-skinned, wrinkled woman approaching.
“Gebra. You’re late…”
It was already dawn and the Healer was supposed to have come several hours before. She was a slight woman, dressed in brown and green, with white hair fastened in a loose braid falling over one shoulder.
Bel was standing in the Temple of the Radiant Orb – Derac’s temple. She knew he had been kneeling in prayers at the public altar in a different chamber together with the friends of the fallen warrior. Serafine and the member of the Cobra Squad had refused to leave the temple until they heard from Bel; they were now asleep in the adjacent chamber, still waiting.
The chamber in which Bel stood held only an altar and tall candelabras with burning candles. Above the altar was the shape of a full moon, flecked with carvings of bats. The temple was built of black and pink stones, rising similarly to the shape of a ziggurat but not as wide at the base and much smaller. The whole temple was decorated with full moons and bats – and even panthers in a few places.
Nidae was the only deity who could shape change into two animals. She was the strongest of the thirteen deities in Kellara – and the oldest. It was said she descended from the Older Deities, those who’d disappeared several hundred years ago. She was the thirteenth deity, representing life and death with the signs of the Full Moon and the new moon, the Dark Moon, as her symbols: indicating her powers as the Birthmother and the Reaper. Nidae was also the only deity to have two from the Priesthood serving her: a High Priest and the priests following him and the High Priestess and her priestesses.
“Derac told me”, the old woman said, “but I was tired and forgot. I’m sorry, High Priestess – my memory isn’t what it was.”
“You never had a memory to be counted on”, Bel pointed out. “Derac should have escorted you here.”
“Oh, but he had to inform the Imperial Couple of what had happened.” The old woman grinned; a toothless smile. “I remember that, priestess.”
“You’d forget your head if it wasn’t fastened on you”, Bel said dryly.
“True, true – I’m gifted with blessedly bad memory…” the old woman said, coming nearer the table. She squinted at the young woman at the altar. “What was this about, again?”
“Tears of the Maiden”, Bel said. She would have been annoyed at the old woman’s bad memory had she not known her since she was a child. Everyone knew Gebra Healerhands could heal everything from a cold to the most vicious wound – except the poison Tears of the Maiden. She was formidable when she focused on her work, but otherwise she had the worst memory anyone could ever imagine. To say the least.
Gebra looked up at her in surprise. “So it’s true – there is the knowledge of how to cure it. Will you teach me?”
“Only a fully initiated High Priestess can perform the act, Gebra”, Bel said. “I’m sorry. I would’ve loved to teach you otherwise.”
The older woman sighed. “Of course you would’ve.” She stared at the young woman at the altar for a few moments, before she looked up at Bel. “Sorry, you were saying?”
“Could you give this woman some healing, Gebra?” Bel asked, not bothering to pick up the conversation again. “I don’t want her to be too tired when she wakes up.”
“Arrow in the shoulder?” the healer said, leaning forward and squinting at the bandage covering the warrior’s shoulder; the warrior was naked from her waist and up, except the bandage.
Gebra nodded and placed her hands a few inches above the bandage, closing her eyes. She slowly inhaled, moving her hands above the young warrior’s body as she mumbled soft, inaudible words, almost singing.
Bel watched as Gebra performed her healing, using Earth and Spirit to heal the wound beneath the bandage and to revive the body. Cat, Bel thought. I have to remember to use her name when she wakes up.
“That’s it”, the older woman finally said, pulling back. “She had some other cuts and bruises too, but I’ve healed them as well.”
“I’ll ask her to stop by and pay her respects to you”, Bel said.
Gebra nodded. “Cat is always respectful. She’s such a sweet child.”
“You know her?” Bel said, slightly surprised.
“Of course – I know her well. She’s one of the few I actually remember.” Gebra grimaced. “My memory is not what it used to be.”
“It never was”, Bel said, as she always did.
“True, true”, the woman nodded. “Fine – I’ll be going. I think…” She looked around the room with a puzzled expression. “I was on my way, true?”
“True. Return to your cottage.”
“I will. Maybe I’ll pay a visit to Fang along the way…” Gebra turned and walked away without looking back. If Bel hadn’t known the woman she’d be worried to let her out on her own, but Gebra had always been confused. Her memory was a puzzle in itself; she could forget herself in the middle of a conversation, forget where she was heading, even forget her own name on occasion, but she always – without fail – managed to turn up when she was needed and when she healed she was as sharp as a cutting blade. The owl goddess, Feathers, took care of her and usually saw to it that the old woman wasn’t harmed in anyway by her faulty memory.
The warrior on the altar moved and made a soft sound, drawing Bel’s attention. She moved closer to the altar and placed a hand on the woman’s healthy shoulder.
“Can you hear me?” she asked gently.
Eyelids fluttered and slowly opened. One blue eye and one disconcertingly yellow looked up at Bel. The pupils – both the circular and the vertical slit – dilated and the woman abruptly sat up, gasping.
“What…? Where am I?” she asked, quickly looking around. Bel stepped back.
“You are at the Temple of the Radiant Orb”, she said.
The warrior quickly glanced at her and then seemed to realize that she was naked from the waist up. She blushed and made a movement as if to cross her arms across her chest, but caught herself. Bel noticed with some interest that the woman’s blush reached her chest, coloring the tanned skin.
“Why am I here?” the warrior – Cat, Bel mentally corrected herself – asked.
“What is the last thing you remember?” Bel asked, tilting her head to one side, watching the warrior. Cat… Or Cath Ciardha, more correctly, but Katana had told her the young woman preferred her childhood pet name.
“I…” Again the woman blushed, looking away. This time she did cross her arms in front of her. “Me yelling at you”, she grumbled quietly.
“Really?” Bel couldn’t help saying, arching an eyebrow at the younger woman. “I would have thought you’d be wise enough to forget about that.”
Cat looked up with flashing eyes. “That wouldn’t have been wise, that’d be cowardly.”
Bel tilted her head to the side, watching the color fade away on Cat’s tattooed cheeks. The warrior held her eyes, again challenging her. “Are you aware you almost died?” she asked softly.
Cat gasped, suddenly shuddering. “I am, I…” she hesitated. “Did you save me?” she asked almost shyly, looking at her. Bel was surprised by the sudden change in her demeanor, but didn’t show it.
“I did”, she said, nodding. “But Gebra Healerhands was here too, it would be well if you paid her your respects.”
“I will”, Cat said, sincerely.
It was the sincerity of the younger woman that interested her, Bel realized, watching Cat. There was something genuine about the warrior that she hadn’t expected of the woman. She realized Cat was of a simple and straightforward nature, speaking her mind in most matters without playing the games Bel was used to from the Imperial Court. Refreshing, she thought.
“Why did you save me?” Cat asked in that moment. “And… how could you save me? I mean… It was Tears of the Maiden, wasn’t it? There’s no known cure…”
Bel made a swift gesture of her hand. “The important thing is that you’re alive, right? Forget about the rest. How are you feeling?”
“I’m… I feel surprisingly well, for an almost dead woman.” Cat made a face and Bel nodded.
“Good. Then I can inform you that I won’t have you near the princess again until she’s fully Initiated in her divinity.”
“What?” Cat gasped. “You can’t do that!”
“I can – and I will.” Bel narrowed her eyes at the woman. “Are you aware of what you could have done?”
“She…” Cat threw out her arms, gesticulating – then remembered she was still naked and crossed them again, blushing. “She’s a child. She needs to have some fun.”
“You took her to a brothel!” Bel said sharply. “Is that a place to take a child?”
Cat shook her head. “Could you get me my clothes?” she asked crisply. “I’m cold.”
Bel watched her for a moment. “I wouldn’t take you for a woman to be embarrassed by her nakedness. Not if what I’ve heard about you is true.” She let her eyes travel up and down Cat’s body, as the other woman had done to her the day before. If I were a man, she thought, would this be a body I’d find attractive?
Cat twitched uncomfortably on the stone altar, again blushing. Bel turned away, hiding a smile.
“I’ll get you your clothes”, she said.
Bel left the chamber to fetch a new shirt, and the leather armor she’d taken from Cat earlier, from the antechamber adjacent to the altar room. She also poured some water in a tin cup and carried everything before her – floating in the air.
As she returned Cat was standing beside the altar, inspecting the shape of the full moon hanging above the sacred altar.
“I’ve never been in this room before”, Cat said without turning when Bel arrived.
“There’s no reason you should’ve. This is a private chamber, only for priests and priestesses.”
“And injured warriors”, Cat said dryly, turning around to face the priestess – again with a grimace.
“That too”, Bel conceded. “Here you go.” She picked the tin cup from the air and gave it to Cat.
Cat looked at the cup, looking a little bewildered, before she reached out to take it.
“Water only”, Bel said. “It’ll cure your headache.”
“How did you…?” Cat looked up in surprise, then caught herself and nodded. “Of course”, she mumbled, before she took the cup and drank.
Bel watched the other woman’s body: smooth skin marred by faded scars. Without thinking she reached out and touched a long scar in Cat’s side with gentle fingers.
Cat’s reaction was immediate. She gasped and pulled away so quickly she poured the water from the cup all over the floor. “Holy Bat, what are you…? You can’t just…!” She stared at Bel with wide eyes.
“Your scar”, Bel said, indicating Cat’s side, wondering at the woman’s strong reaction. “What happened?”
“What… happened?” Cat was still staring at her, but finally seemed to come to her wits. She forcefully put down the cup at the altar and turned away. “My clothes. I’m getting out of here… Now!”
“You’re welcome”, Bel said dryly as she let the armor and the shirt fall to the floor. Cat stood with her back towards her, unmoving. Bel could see she was breathing deeply and erratically.
“You…” Cat said quietly. “You are…” She turned around, studying Bel’s face as if she was trying to find some answers she didn’t know the questions to. “So strange you are…”
Bel wasn’t sure what to make of that comment. She watched as Cat bent to pick up the brown shirt – it belonged to one of the priests, but Bel didn’t think Cat would mind. It was at least clean.
Some moments later Cat stood fully dressed in her leather armor with her sword at her side. She straightened, looking Bel in the eyes. The priestess realized the other woman felt more confident now and much less vulnerable.
“You can’t dictate the lives of other people like you do”, Cat said, picking up their previous conversation and in so doing confirming Bel’s thoughts. “You have no right…”
“The princess’ life is in my hands. As long as she’s trained to be a goddess she must do as I command her…”
“And what if she doesn’t want to be a goddess?” Cat asked, leaning forward. “Ever thought about that?”
Bel shrugged, unfazed. “There’s a simple solution to that and Deyna knows it. If she didn’t want to become a goddess she’d just sleep with Fang.”
Cat blinked, before she made a face. “That’s what you think? You know… Owls and maggots!” Cat threw out her hands in exasperation. “You don’t even know her. Of course she wants to become a goddess. Who wouldn’t? But you, you make it so hard for her. She’s a child, by the sacred Moon!”
“She isn’t a child. She’s so much more, more than you could understand…”
“Don’t talk to me like that, as if I don’t know anything of the world!” Cat spat, pointing at Bel. Her yellow eye gleamed dangerously. “I’ve been to war, I’ve seen more of the dangers of this world than you have hiding in your holy temple, behind the Name of the Goddess. I’ve seen great fighters break because of the pressures they must face. I think you…”
“Your job is to protect the princess, not to think”, Bel said coolly.
Cat gasped in surprise, but then her face contorted in anger. “You’re heartless, you are! Are you blind, or what?”
“I see more clearly than most people”, Bel said calmly. “And this is not a discussion I’m having with you. Especially not when you won’t listen to reason. You almost got the princess killed. Will you dispute that?”
“No, no I don’t. It was my fault, it was stupid and… and thoughtless…” Cat shook her head. “But the point is – “
“There is no point.”
“Why are you being like this?” Cat exclaimed in frustration. “You’re supposed to be… nice”, she finished lamely, looking almost lost at Bel.
“Am I?” Bel said, arching an eyebrow. “According to whom?”
Cat shook her head with a look of defeat on her face. “Forget it. Show me the way out and you’ll be rid of me.”
“There’s the door”, Bel said, gesturing towards the arch Gebra had used. It would lead to a corridor taking Cat to the public altar room.
Cat shrugged and walked towards the door. Watching her go Bel felt sudden compassion for her. Katana would be hard on Cat, she knew – not that she didn’t deserve it, but still – and she got the feeling Cat already berated herself for the risk she’d put Deyna in.
“Cat”, she called. The younger woman stiffened – then turned to look at her; there was a lost, sad expression in her eyes. “Sometimes we don’t see the whole picture, kitten. When we don’t it’s sometimes difficult to understand and to accept the way things seem to be. If the Grasshopper says he knows the world… he should listen to the Eagle. Go know”, she added gently. “Your friends are waiting to see you.”
The warrior seemed to hesitate and the lost look in her eyes changed to something Bel didn’t recognize. Cat watched her for a long time, before she turned away and left.
Part Four – Questions
“You’re so beautiful.”
That’s what she’d wanted to say before she died, but she hadn’t gotten the words out and then she woke up half naked in front of the High Priestess. And of course she couldn’t keep her big mouth shut, but had to defend her stupid actions and to accuse the High Priestess a second time instead of thanking her for saving her life.
Cat had felt exposed, vulnerable and embarrassed in front of the other woman – feelings she wasn’t familiar with. The thought of how the High Priestess had eyed her still made her cringe as she walked through the short corridor. There hadn’t been any desire in the other woman’s eyes, only a casual interest – as if the woman was studying a painting someone had recommended and wanted to inspect it for herself.
Then the crazy woman had touched her! That touch… Even the memory of the touch made her giddy, making her blush with embarrassment in the corridor. She loathed herself for the blushing. She never blushed and now… That woman, she thought crossly as she reached the end of the corridor. That touch… There had been something familiar about the touch, as if the High Priestess had touched her before – a long time ago, leaving a faded memory. She’d felt instant arousal when the other woman’s hand caressed her, something she couldn’t remembering happening to her before – not counting the odd sensations she’d felt during the night, when the same woman’s fingers touched her lips. Cat might be frivolous and intimate with a lot of women, but it had never happened to her before, that a woman she didn’t know had that intense effect on her. Even for a beautiful or naturally sensuous woman it often took time before Cat’s physical need was stirred.
In any case she’d never wanted to bed a woman just because of a casual touch.
Cat stopped and looked around. She had reached the outer chamber were the public altar was placed. The room was long, with stone benches in rows on either side of an aisle leading to the altar. The stone altar was standing on a dais, with several candelabras on either side of it and surrounded by statues of bats in various sizes and shapes. On the steps leading up to the dais Serafine and Para were seated. Both of them flew up from the stone as they noticed her in the doorway. They were bloodstained and looked tired, as if they hadn’t slept in days.
Katana stood leaning on a bench in the front row with her arms crossed. She, too, rose as Cat moved into the chamber.
“Cat!” Para embraced Cat and almost squeezed the air out of her lungs. “I’ve never been so glad to see your mismatched eyes”, he said, holding her tight.
“Give way, you boar!” Serafine said after a moment, slapping his shoulder. “Let me…”
As Para let go of her Serafine hugged Cat – hard and for a long time.
“I thought I’d lost you for good this time”, Serafine finally said, pulling away, and discretely dried a tear off her cheek.
“Not yet”, Cat said, slightly subdued. She was still confused by the High Priestess’ last comment and by the gentle look in her eyes, so at odds with her previous cold hearted efficiency. Cat didn’t know what to make of it. “I’m a little tougher to kill than that.”
“Honestly!” Serafine said, making a face at her. “You didn’t expect to survive, did you?”
Cat shook her head.
“I wonder why she saved your life”, Para said lowly, almost not audibly. Serafine turned towards him in surprise.
“What do you mean? Why shouldn’t she?”
“I just mean…” Para glanced at Katana a few steps away, before shrugging. “I’ve just… heard things about her.” He leaned forward a bit, lowering his voice. “That everything she does has an ulterior motive. Even something like this. They say… that she’s plotting to take over the throne.”
“Don’t be silly”, Serafine said, brushing off his comments with a sniff.
“Well, I don’t trust her”, he said slightly offended, straightening his back.
“She saved my life”, Cat said, stifling the beginnings of an argument. Para and Serafine had never really gotten along. Cat had never understood why, but she suspected it had something to do with her: they both saw her as their best friend and each other as a threat to that friendship. “I’m not about to…” She silenced as she noticed someone else approaching.
Katana was still standing aloof, waiting on her turn, but a fifth person had entered the chamber and her appearance made the others turn their heads towards her.
“Cat”, the beautiful Ravena said, slowly moving across the aisle towards the altar. She was very attractive and she knew how to make use of her beauty. This morning she was dressed in a long, tight dress in a soft red color, showing off her perfect form. A beautiful necklace in gold and red rubies gleamed around her throat. “I heard you…” The raven-haired beauty seemed to stumble on the words. “I heard you… almost died.”
Cat nodded, waiting for Ravena to reach them. She had always had a thing for the other woman, but they had never shared a bed. Ravena was… difficult. She could flirt casually with Cat or any other woman, but as soon as Cat made a move she pulled away and put on an indifferent attitude. If Cat ignored her the woman would flirt heavier than before, but she would still not deliver anything more than vague promises. It was said she was still a virgin and lately rumors had it her parents wanted to wed her off to the present ruler of Egara. If that was even possible, as other rumors had it he was a High Priest.
“Cat – I’d have been… devastated had I lost you.”
Ravena put her arms around Cat and pressed her body against her in a not at all chaste manner and kissed her on the cheek, close to the lips. If it had been the day before Cat wouldn’t have been slow to take advantage of the situation, but now she was still thinking of the High Priestess in the adjacent chamber. Green eyes, soft touch… That touch, she thought distractedly. Why did I recognize her touch? Why did I react that way? And then: She’s so bloody beautiful…
Cat still very vividly remembered the High Priestess’ touch on her lips the evening before. The instant arousal had surprised her then, even in her state, and it surprised her still. She had indeed bedded many women, but none had managed to arouse her so quickly. Maybe it was plainly the beauty of the woman – or those dreams… Snakes and Panthers – those dreams!
Cat had had them for years: dreams in which she made love to a woman whose face she couldn’t see. Only red hair gleaming in candlelight… She’d always chased red haired women because of those dreams. Was that why the sight of the High Priestess affected her so?
“Ravena, nice to see you again”, she said, pulling away from the woman’s embrace. “I was just telling Serafine and Para how grateful I was to be alive. How’s your brother?”
Ravena looked a little taken aback by the stiff response, but nodded politely. “Rhais is fine. He’s been chosen by Bor to investigate what happened yesterday.” Ravena looked at Para, whose eyes always seemed to glaze over when Ravena was present; Cat usually teased him about it. “Bor wants to see you too. He’s been looking for you, but as soon as I heard about Cat I knew you’d be here.”
“You came to get me?” Para asked hopefully. Ravena tilted her head to one side with a laugh.
“I came to check on Cat… amongst other things.”
Para held Ravena’s eyes for a moment, then nodded and turned to Cat. “I need to…”
“Of course you do”, Cat said. “Thanks for staying.”
“Of course”, he said. He hesitated and glanced towards the opening behind them. “Be careful with… you know.”
She nodded noncommittally.
“I’ll go with you”, Ravena said to Para, following him towards the aisle. They passed Katana who followed them with narrowed eyes. Cat wondered what that was about, but forgot it as soon as the Captain turned her eyes towards her.
“A word with you, Cat.”
“Of course, Captain”, she said, moving towards the leader of Panthera.
“I’ll wait for you outside”, Serafine said, nodding to her.
A moment later Katana and Cat were alone before the altar.
“I want to apologize”, the Captain said, making Cat blink in surprise.
“Apologize? For… what?”
“For hitting you. I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that…”
Cat slowly inhaled. “Oh! I’m sorry too, Captain. I shouldn’t have said that about you.” She hesitated. “But that woman – she’s… She’s not human. She’s completely – irrational. Deyna was right, she’s not a nice person.”
Katana looked at her for a moment. “You know”, she finally said, a tad sharply. “You shouldn’t talk about things you don’t know anything about. You don’t know Bel. She’s my best friend and everything you say against her you say against me.”
“She has a name, she’s human.” Katana frowned at her. “You shouldn’t be so quick to judge people, Cat.”
“I’m not…!” Cat clenched her jaws. “No, Captain”, she muttered.
“I’m glad you’re alive”, Katana added in a friendlier voice. “I owe Bel one.”
“Me too”, Cat mumbled, mostly to herself. She looked up at the Captain. “I’m to be punished, am I not?”
“You’re suspended from duty for the time being.”
Cat clenched her jaws again, but didn’t say anything; she knew it would be futile to object.
“But you did save Serafine’s life and you’re a good soldier. I’ll try to reason with the High Priestess. She’s not completely without sense.”
The last was said with some irony and Cat quickly glanced at the Captain in surprise, realizing Katana was mocking the High Priestess in a friendly way and at the same time showing Cat that she was aware of her friends lesser qualities.
“Have patience, Cat”, Katana said in a comforting tone.
“Yes, Captain”, Cat said, nodding. She frowned. “Those warriors, Captain. I thought I saw some of them wearing Egara’s colors. Is Egara already attacking us?”
“We’re not sure yet, Cat”, Katana said. “I think… I would recommend you not talk to too many people about what happened last night. The less people know about it at the moment the better, I believe. Until we are sure what’s going on.”
“If something’s going down I’ll be sure to have you there. You’re my best fighter – and you know it.”
“I’m just a reckless bastard at times”, Cat mumbled under her breath, thinking of the Captain’s anger the night before.
Katana watched her for a moment. “You deserved that”, she said and Cat sighed.
“I did. But…” She looked up.
“No ‘buts’.” Katana held up a hand. “I’m still mad at you, even if I’m glad you’re alive. Go now. Serafine is waiting for you.”
Serafine followed Cat to the city gates, but then she had to return to duty at the palace and they separated just inside the city walls. Cat, being suspended from duty, was free to spend the day as she pleased. She’d have visited Deyna if she’d been allowed, but she didn’t dare tempt the patience of either the Captain or the High Priestess again. The Goddess only knew what they’d do to her if they found out she’d broken their rules a second time. Besides, she didn’t even know where Deyna was. She hoped the girl was alright after the upsetting events the night before.
Feeling more alive and awake than she had a right to after almost getting killed, Cat decided to visit Gebra Healerhands before heading back to the palace for a bath and change of clothes. The old woman had a house close to the palace walls – a large cottage in white stone, surrounded by a large garden containing an orange grove, a rose garden and an herbal garden. When Cat arrived the woman was kneeling in the dirt at the back of the house. She was probably weeding the flower bed that flanked the path which was leading down to the herbal garden – although it looked as if she was talking to the flowers. Knowing Gebra the woman in all probability was talking to the flowers.
“Gebra?” Cat said, putting down the wooden statue of an owl in white oak that she’d picked up as a gift from the market on her way to the healer’s place.
The white haired woman glanced over her shoulder with a confused expression. Gebra’s whole life seemed to exist of puzzling experiences – all of them occurring at every moment of the day. Cat didn’t understand how the woman could cope with living like that: forgetting everything as soon as she’d processed it.
“Ah, the lovely panther. Haven’t seen you for awhile.” Gebra rose and brushed the soil of her knees and hands; she was dressed in a long, brown robe with wide sleeves.
“No?” Cat said with half a smile. According to the High Priestess the old woman had healed her, which meant she’d been at the temple and seen Cat only a few hours ago.
“Um, maybe I did…” Gebra frowned, then shrugged. “But I really don’t remember, do I now?” She grinned, which made her skin crinkle like a fine web covering her face. Blue eyes twinkled. “How are you, lovely panther?”
“I almost died this morning”, Cat said and indicated the wooden owl at her feet. “I brought this for you, to thank you.”
Gebra stared at the owl. “It’s… beautiful”, she whispered. “I know where I’ll keep it.” She looked at Cat, frowning. “You almost died? And I don’t remember?” She shook her head with a sigh. “I truly hate this sometimes, lovely. I hate not remembering things. For once in my life I wish I could remember… I wish I could remember it all – everything!” She threw out her arms in desperation.
Cat shook her head. “Be careful what you wish for”, she said. “You might get it.”
“Anything is better than this… this hole in my head.” Gebra tapped herself on the forehead with her knuckles. “What a blessing it would be, to never forget anything.” She looked at the owl again and Cat noticed the slight shift in her eyes that indicated that the old woman had forgotten what they were talking about again. Gebra turned back to her flower bed, looking little bewildered down at it.
“I’ll see you later, Gebra”, Cat said softly.
Gebra turned around to look at her, smiling. “Cat – the High Priestess was talking about you. I believe she saved your life.”
“She sure did”, Cat said, returning the smile.
“Good to see you again. Oh, look – what a beautiful owl!” The old woman stepped forward and took the wooden owl in her hands, lifting it up. “I know just the spot for this…” she said as she turned away and went into her house.
“She’ll have her share of memories one day”, a voice said close to Cat. Cat jumped and pulled her sword halfway from its scabbard before she realized the voice belonged to a woman seemingly older than Gebra.
“Who are you?” she asked sharply, letting her sword slide back into its scabbard. The old woman had taken her by complete surprise; she hadn’t heard her approach or seen her. She looked around. Where had the woman come from? There was no way she could have walked up to Gebra’s house without being noticed.
“She cares for you, you know”, the woman said. She was really old and hunched backed, with dark, wrinkled skin and black eyes. She was dressed in rags. Maybe a Wild Woman – one of Gebra’s friends, Cat thought. One of those healers moving around the empire, healing people for food and lodging. Gebra sustained a lot of them.
“Gebra?” Cat asked, frowning.
“Gebra too”, the woman said, but then shook her head. “But not who I mean. She lost someone once, someone close to her. She had a sister who died. She doesn’t remember. I do, of course.”
Cat frowned. “What… who are you talking about?”
“She needs you, although she doesn’t know it. If she never knows you she’ll close her heart when those she loves are lost again… It’s better to die and to live again in another life, than to close your heart for an eternity.”
“Woman, by all bats – what are you talking about?”
The old woman smiled and shook her head. Her eyes gleamed with an inner light. “I’ll see you again”, she said and then simply turned around and walked away towards the herbal garden.
Cat stood by, watching her. She shook her head. Mad woman, she thought and shrugged, before she decided to return to the palace. It was high time to have a bath.
* * *
“Who would do something like this, Badra?” Nidae asked her in her mind. The goddess was lying stretched out on the stone altar in the High Priestess’ private praying chamber; she’d chosen the shape of the panther for once and let her tail casually sweep back and forth in the air, showing her annoyance.
Bel looked down at the five dead warriors before her, shaking her head. The five warriors were in various stages of decomposition: corpses long gone. There had been at least sixty of them, seventy with those who’d actually been alive when they attacked the brothel – she’d had all of them burned that same morning, only saving a handful to show the emperor.
“Raising the dead is no easy matter”, she said thoughtfully.
“Tell me about it.” The panther yawned and showed its sharp teeth. “Politics bores me, Badra.”
“So I see”, Bel said dryly. “And what would you rather talk about that’s more important than saving the empire?”
Bel heard the goddess chuckle within her.
“I leave the saving to you – you’re so good at it.”
The panther rose easily from the altar and jumped down to the stone floor. It made its way to Bel and twinned itself around her legs, purring. Bel put a hand on its head, thoughtfully studying the dead warriors.
“Where were you today?” she asked after a moment. “I called you earlier.”
“I was visiting a friend…”
The panther stopped its purring and moved slightly away from Bel. In a dark flash it then swiftly changed shape into a beautiful woman with skin as dark as night and eyes even darker. The phantom image of a very large bat was hovering above her in the room.
“Gebra won’t live much longer, Badra.”
“Oh, really? That’s… sad”, Bel said, feeling sad. “Did Nikka tell you?”
“I sensed it”, the woman said. “She’s dying. She’s old, Badra – let it go”, she added softly.
Bel nodded. “I know, it’s just…” She sighed. “I’ll miss her. She doesn’t believe in the Priesthood, but she’s always served the people her own way. She’s a good person.”
”I’ve had many priestesses over the years – many, many. But you’re one of a kind, do you know that?” the goddess said after a moment, winking at Bel.
Bel waved her off. “This is important, Nidae. Focus on the Empire…”
“He wanted you, you know...”
“Who?” Bel frowned.
“My half-brother”, the goddess snorted.
Bel nodded thoughtfully. Fang was much younger than Nidae and they only shared the same father, who’d been a young god when Nidae was conceived. “Why would he want me as priestess?”
“You don’t get it, do you, Badra?” Nidae said with an exaggerated sigh. “So clever, but so ignorant of your own importance. Even Mara wanted you – I had to fight both of them to get you. Fang challenged me first...”
“Mara, too?” Bel frowned.
“He stabbed me in the back – challenging me right after I’d fought the Tiger. He’s a true snake, he is.” Nidae spat, walking restlessly across the floor.
Bel considered the goddess’ words. “Nidae...”
“What about the girl, priestess?” Nidae walked up to her with a grin. “You saw her, didn’t you?”
“My son’s daughter-daughter-daughter, or some such... She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Perhaps”, Bel said, still distracted by the thought of Mara and Fang.
“Perhaps”, the goddess snorted. “You’re too dull, priestess. What did you feel, watching her?”
“Nidae, you know I’m not interested in people like that. A body is a body, there’s nothing more to it.”
“Did she look like me? She did, didn’t she?”
Bel studied the goddess’ naked body, suddenly realizing she’d recognized Cat’s nakedness without being aware of it. Now she nodded, recognizing Cat’s beauty in the goddess. It felt strange seeing Nidae’s body and immediately thinking of the warrior.
“Wasn’t she the least beautiful?” Nidae asked, teasingly.
“Like a sculpture crafted by a master’s hands”, Bel heard herself say, then shook her head. “You’re trying to distract me!” she accused, looking sternly at the goddess.
Nidae laughed and suddenly changed shape. This time she became a small bat, flapping around the room. It flew up to the ceiling and hooked itself there. As Bel watched the bat changed size, growing bigger until it was at least a foot long.
“You need to have some fun, priestess.”
The bat stretched its wings, but didn’t let go of the ceiling. Dark eyes were gleaming.
“I’m your priestess, Nidae – I live to serve you. Stop this business and tell me about Mara and Fang. Why would they want me as priestess?”
“Because...” The bat let go of the ceiling and flew through the chamber. “Because when two powers merge the outcome will be greater than the original power. You are my power, priestess. You and Derac. But mostly you, because of your ability to Read the deities.”
There was a slight shift in the air and again the dark-skinned woman was standing in front of Bel.
“Neither Fang nor Mara would have been able to extract as much power from you as you give me. There’s nothing more powerful than a being that does exactly what she’s meant to do. You were meant to be my priestess. Fang and Mara wanted you, each for their own particular motives – but they could never have controlled you. Nikka told me only a few years ago that if you had ended up with Fang you’d have squandered your powers and if you’d ended up with Mara...”
“What, Nidae?” Bel asked when the goddess hesitated.
“If you’d ended up with Mara you’d have killed him...”
“Oh, my!” Bel gasped softly.
“It would have brought disorder and disaster to our empire long before now.”
“Why would I...?” Bel frowned, again looking down at the dead, decaying warriors at the floor.
“Why do humans do anything?” Nidae threw out her arms. “I didn’t know about this at the time, but I’m glad I won those challenges. You’ve served me well.”
Bel nodded thoughtfully.
“But you need to loosen up, to relax...”
“Well, someone needs to keep a level head around here”, Bel said, arching an eyebrow at the goddess at her side.
“My, my – you’re disappointed at me. You think I ought to take this more seriously...” Nidae laughed. “I don’t have to. It’s the business of humans.”
“Not this!” Bel objected, indicating the dead before them. “This is the art of a highly knowledgeable High Priest or Priestess. That makes it your business. That makes it the business of the deities.”
Nidae hesitated, looking at the warriors. Suddenly she turned back into the panther, restlessly walking around the altar with swiftly swinging tail.
“I’ve lived for seven hundred years, Badra”, she said in Bel’s head. “I’m the oldest of the deities...”
“I know this. But you spent a long time in hibernation.”
“Learning. I was learning, priestess. My... mother taught me many things now forgotten amongst humans and deities. She knew secrets not even I know... Fang is only a child, two hundred years is not much for us. But Mara is cunning. My seven hundred years... It’s a long time to be serious in, Badra. You need to remember that for the princess. She needs to have some fun, before the serious time begins.”
“It is the serious time now, Nidae. It’s the wise who knows when to play and when to be serious...”
“Life is not that simple, Badra Bellona – and one day you’ll know it.” The panther jumped back onto the altar and laid down, watching Bel with gleaming eyes. Bel ignored the comment; people always had an opinion on how she was supposed to be. People – or deities.
“That’s why Fang was being so difficult when it came to Naming Cat, wasn’t it? He was annoyed he lost the challenge...”
“True. He refused to take her if I didn’t give him something in return. It took time before I could convince him otherwise...”
“You gave him something? What?”
“I didn’t”, the goddess snorted in Bel’s mind. “He owed me one. For Deyna’s sister.”
“What? But that was Mara…”
“Yes, but Fang was supposed to keep an eye on her. The fool.”
Bel thought of what Cat had said in regards to Deyna. “You know, the semi-deities I train might be tempted – but if they really want to be deities they wouldn’t give in to the likes of Fang and Mara.”
“Is that what you think? Is that what you think of Deyna?”
“Yes.” Bel nodded. “Deyna wants to be a goddess – she won’t give up herself to anyone.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because I know her. I know her potential and I know what she wants. She wants to be something else, something more than her sisters. She has ambition – “
Bel silenced as the goddess changed back to her human form, nakedly pacing the floor before her. Bel frowned. It wasn’t like Nidae to be so… skittish. She watched the energies swirling around the phantom bat around the woman and suddenly realized something. “Something’s happened”, she gasped softly.
Nidae came to a halt, looking up.
“And you are worried”, Bel said. “That’s why you’re changing subjects all the time…”
Nidae sighed and sat down at the altar. “The world is changing, Bel.” The goddess seemed to hesitate, before she looked at her priestess. “You know how we make our powers grow. But that’s not the only way – killing someone grants us even more power. There is a way…”
“I know”, Bel said softly. “I’ve studied it.”
There was a sudden suspicious expression in Nidae’s face and Bel made a grimace at her.
“Stop that, you’re being silly. I would never betray you. It’s me – Bel!”
“Fine. You’re right.” Nidae sighed again. “Sorry. It’s the times, the events and the sneaking tongues of… Making me distrust people. Of course you wouldn’t betray me. But then you know about the ritual. Deities don’t kill, but all of us are still trying to gain as much power we can, because…”
“Because you fear someone will go to the length of killing…? You fear someone might actually want to perform the old sacrificing rituals to become more powerful than the rest of you? More powerful than… you?”
“I fear it would disrupt the order. If one of us becomes stronger than the rest… There’s no telling what would happen.”
“Politics of the gods”, Bel mumbled. “Who do you believe would do this?” she asked, although she herself had her suspicions. She’d been waiting for this for years.
“I don’t know, Badra. I really don’t know.” Nidae sighed and then lifted her head, sniffing in the air. “Katana is coming.”
Bel turned to look towards the entrance. “Good, then we can discuss the matter of...” – she turned back to the goddess and realized Nidae was gone – “Egara”, she finished with a sigh.
Part Five – Insights
Cat knew she was dreaming.
After visiting Gebra she’d returned to the palace, being warmly greeted by her friends who’d heard of her recovery and wanted to see it with their own eyes. Katana had quickly dispersed the pack, sending them back to duty. Cat had worked out a bit, practicing with the sword, before taking a long bath and eating something. Then she went to rest for a bit, but instantly fell asleep. She should’ve predicted it – healing always made her tired, even if she felt revived by it at the same time.
In sleep the dream she hadn’t had for a long time returned and now it was more intense and vivid than ever.
The scenario was always the same and she had learned to recognize it over the years. It was always the same woman, the same hands, the same mouth and the same soft lips... The same voice whispering the same words in her ear. She never saw the face, but she knew the touch of this woman more intimately than she had ever known a real lover.
The first dream had come to her when she was sixteen: a naked woman caressing her naked skin, whispering soft words to her and kissing her with such melting gentleness... She awoke trembling with an unknown ache in her body and in her heart. At first she’d been too ashamed to think about it – not understanding what was happening to her. She’d been fairly naïve in some areas of her life when she was younger...
As Cat grew older the dreams made more sense, except it was always the same dream and the same woman. She used to believe it had something to do with her unconscious telling her that she wasn’t interested in men in a sexual way, but in women.
Cat had been with a man once, but it hadn’t given her any satisfaction. After that one time the dreams increased in frequency for awhile – until she kissed her first woman. Or was kissed by one, in fact. It had happened when she was in Sum, fighting for a warlord. One of his many concubines had kissed her one night after a feast. That event had opened a great many doors for her and she spent a lot of time with that woman, letting the concubine teach her various ways of seducing women. Cat became quite adept in the art; the woman said she had a natural talent for it.
But the dream never went away. It returned over the years, sometimes often, other times less. Cat feared the dream because she never knew when it would come upon her and she always felt sad and lonely when she woke up. And yet she looked forward to it at the same time, wanting the softness of the woman – wanting to make love to her.
The woman had red hair, so Cat went looking for red haired women to seduce – or at least to kiss – to see if she could find the woman in her dreams. But it never felt the same kissing them as it did kissing the woman of her dreams. It never felt the same kissing any woman.
Cat had never felt the fulfillment in making love with someone as she did when she made love with the woman in her dreams. Katana had once asked her what she was looking for in all those women she seduced, so Cat told her about the dream. The Captain had looked at her for awhile, before she shook her head, saying: “Happy is the one that overcomes her desires. Only she will find true peace.” Whatever that meant.
Cat knew she was dreaming, but she didn’t want to wake up. It had been awhile since last she felt the gentle caress of the red-haired woman. She’d missed it. More than she’d realized, she thought before she surrendered to the loving arms of her dream-lover.
The woman kissed her and she craved that kiss. She craved those soft, soft lips and the taste of the woman’s mouth. She put her arms around the woman and felt the softness of her nakedness. The softness of her breasts and her skin... She let her hands touch the other woman, making her moan against her. She let the woman kiss her – she couldn’t get enough of those kisses... Tongues tenderly touching, lips meeting and teasingly retracting. That was all they ever did: touched and kissed – and Cat would wake up just before the lovely ending.
“Don’t go yet”, she whispered. “Stay a little longer this time...”
That was something new, she’d never been able to change the dream before.
“Don’t worry. Our time will come... It’s not far off now.”
“I’ve looked so hard for you, everywhere... Where can I find you?”
“You have found me. I need to find you, now. And I will. But then...”
“Then what?” she whispered in fear, suddenly feeling a cold dread in her heart.
“Then you have to let me go, when I ask it of you.”
“No! I’d miss you too much!”
Soft lips kissed her, tender fingers caressed her cheeks, her hair – her lips. This time she noticed something she’d never seen before: the woman wore tattoos of bats on her arms. That is strange, she thought, seeing it.
“Ssshh, beautiful”, the woman whispered, gently putting a finger to Cat’s mouth.
Cat gasped, suddenly recognizing the touch. She opened her mouth to speak, but in the next moment the dream shifted...
“Are you sure you want to do this?” a woman asked, holding forth a white gold ring with some strange inscriptions. Cat looked up and gasped inwardly as she recognized Bel. It wasn’t strictly Bel, but she had red hair and green eyes and the look in those eyes… It was Bel. And she wore strange clothes, but beautiful: a flowing dress so light blue it was almost white.
“How dare you ask me that, here of all places?” Cat heard herself say jokingly, in a voice not fully her own. Her heart was full of joy and love – overflowing with it, in fact. “After all we’ve been through? You owe me this.”
“I surely do”, the other woman, who was Bel, said with soft laughter. She held Cat’s eyes.
There were strange buildings in the background, high against the sky. One tower stood out, reflecting the sun. Around them there were trees and grass and Cat realized they were standing in a park A crowd of people were gathered below the dais they were standing on. People wearing even stranger clothes.
“This is for forever, kitten”, Bel said, teasingly. Cat grinned.
“Forever is not long enough.” Then she added, softer. “I’m so glad you found me.”
“I’ll always find you, love. In any life, any time, in any world. My love for you transcends time.”
Cat reached out her fingers, not finding the words to describe what she felt. Bel put the ring on one of her fingers, raising her gaze towards her. There was so much love in the green eyes Cat’s knees grew weak.
“Now you’re mine”, the woman said, so low it shouldn’t even be possible for it to be audible – but Cat heard her; she supposed it was because it was a dream.
“I was always yours”, she heard herself say. “I’ve loved you since the first time I saw you.”
Cat sat up with a gasp, fully alert and awake. It’s her! It’s been her the entire time! She’d known it, of course – but seeing her face in the dream… Although, truthfully it wasn’t Bel’s face, but the woman in her dream had been Bel – in a weird way. It’s her… “Bats and holy Feathers!” she whispered. “Oh, dear Goddess – I wish I’d never dream again…”
But waking up like that – stunned, still trembling, her heart still full of overflowing joy –Cat knew she must see the High Priestess.
No wonder I was instantly affected by her touch, she later thought as she rushed through the crowded city towards the temple on the mountainside. She had instantly recognized the woman’s touch from her dreams: the High Priestess’s fingers on her lips, the touch when she caressed the scar on Cat’s side… The sudden thought of what it must be like to kiss the High Priestess, when she reacted the way she did to a mere touch, it made Cat weak. Goddess… she thought in despair, feeling desire shoot through her like a spear. This is absolute madness!
She stopped at a market and picked up a wooden sculpture of a small bat – no larger than the length of her hand, from fingers to wrist – and hurried to the temple with it in her pocket.
Once Cat reached the large opening to the temple of the Goddess of the Dark Moon, though, she hesitated. She remembered the last time she’d entered, twelve years ago, but that had been on the command of a goddess. Now… She only had a dream that she couldn’t mention and a small sculpture to appease the High Priestess with. A priestess she’d insulted twice, nonetheless. What am I doing here? she thought, bewildered. But she knew she needed answers.
Cat shifted weight from one foot to the other, staring into the darkness beyond the entrance. How could she feel what she was feeling for a woman she didn’t know and had hardly met? How could she feel so strongly about the High Priestess, who was so… indifferent to others?
“You may not enter without permission”, someone said at her side.
Cat twitched, embarrassed that she’d been taken by surprise a second time the same day. She turned to look at the young priestess who was standing right beside her, dressed in brown. Dark eyes the color of gleaming coal twinkled at her.
“I brought a… a gift for the High Priestess”, Cat said, showing the small bat. “I wanted to thank her for saving my life.”
“Oh, how cute!” the young priestess said, positively delighted. “She has to love this…” Dark eyes watched Cat with a conspiring shine. “I’ll take you to her. Follow me.”
The priestess was remarkably dark skinned and Cat found her faintly familiar, but couldn’t place her.
“Are you sure about this?” she asked, following the younger woman. “I don’t want to get you into trouble.”
“She’s already disappointed in me – one more trespass into her private life won’t make a difference.”
Cat shook her head, not knowing what to say. She’d thought the priestesses of the temple lived in fear and awe of their High Priestess, but that was apparently not the case. The young priestess ahead of her glanced back at her with a smile showing off white teeth.
“I know who you are…”
“Oh?” Cat said, looking around at the corridors they passed. She smelt the scent of incense and candles.
“If you want to know too you’ll have to ask her. She might tell you…”
“Who?” Cat frowned, looking at the priestess. “What are you talking about?”
“Time will tell. Look – here we are…”
Cat stopped at the entrance to the great hall she remembered from her childhood. The fountain still sparkled with water filling the channels in the large room. The statues still stood as majestic as before, throwing their long shadows on the stone floor.
“You can’t enter the inner sanctuary if you haven’t drunk from the Water of Nidae.”
Cat nodded, remembering. “What must I do?”
“Oh, no – that’s only for the Initiated, or those blessed by the High Priestess or the Goddess herself. You might be, one day – but time will tell… It all depends on how it ends, I guess. Come, I’ll show you another way. The High Priestess is at her private altar, it’s not far from here.”
Cat followed the odd priestess through a few more corridors, until they reached an open arch.
“Go through there…” the young woman said and pointed ahead of her. “Oh, and you may always enter my temple.”
Cat looked towards the opening, hearing voices from inside. “What…?” she asked, turning back to the priestess, only to realise that she was gone. “Oh, bloody Snakes…”
Sudden laughter from the adjacent chamber caught Cat’s attention; she recognized it as Katana’s. The thought of meeting the Captain there brought some comfort and she moved forward, halting again nearer the vault when she heard a second woman laugh. It was a lovely, open hearted laughter that brought a swift blush to Cat’s cheeks. It’s her, she thought. And then, again, before she moved forward: Goddess – this is madness!
Cat stopped below the arched opening and took in the scene. There was a stone altar with a large, looming statue of a bat right behind it; candelabras stood at the floor and empty incense holders were placed at the altar. On a row close to the altar a handful of dead warriors were lying; Cat couldn’t see them clearly, but they looked like those who’d attacked the brothel last night.
Katana and the High Priestess were standing before the altar, talking and laughing. The High Priestess held a hand on the Captains arm and Katana looked at her with amusement.
“Really?” the blonde warrior said.
“Really”, the High Priestess confirmed, nodding. She was still smiling. “Don’t tell her, though… I still think its sweet.”
Cat took a step forward and the two women immediately turned to her. The Captain narrowed her eyes and the twinkle in the High Priestess’ eyes died instantly together with the smile on her lips. Cat felt like an intruder.
“I’m sorry, I…”
“How did you get in? Don’t you know this temple is sacred – you’re not allowed to be here?” The High Priestess turned sharp, forbidding eyes at her.
“I know, but the priestess let me in”, Cat hurriedly said, gesturing towards the hallway behind her.
“What priestess?” the red haired woman from her dream said, frowning. Cat swallowed as she remembered that dream. How could she physically want someone who wasn’t even… nice?
“Young, very dark. Really black eyes…” she said.
The High Priestess’ frown deepened. “Really?” Cat heard her mumble, mostly to herself, in an ironic tone.
“I’ll leave you two alone”, Katana said. “We’ll talk later, Bel”, she added, looking at the priestess.
The High Priestess nodded, still looking a little distracted.
“And you”, the Captain said as she passed Cat, arching a warning eyebrow at her. “Behave yourself.”
When Katana had left Cat and the High Priestess silently looked at each other. She really is beautiful, Cat thought, discretely watching the priestess. Her face, her eyes, her mouth… No, not looking at her mouth now!
“Why are you here?” the other woman said and Cat hastily stepped forward with her gift.
“I came to apologize”, she said, bringing forth the statuette of the bat. “And to thank you for saving my life. I brought this – the priestess who let me in seemed to like it.”
“I bet she did”, Cat heard the High Priestess mumble. The woman nodded as she received the gift. “It’s nice”, she added noncommittally. “Thank you.”
“I thought I’d bring you something. I wasn’t very nice to you this morning. You saved my life and I only yelled at you. I’m very grateful to you for what you did, although it maybe didn’t show…”
Cat noticed an amused hint in the green of the High Priestess’ eyes and blushed when she realized she was babbling. She never babbled.
“You’re welcome”, the other woman said.
They looked at each other. Cat was waiting for the High Priestess to say something, but she didn’t. Instead she watched Cat with an intensity and curiosity that distracted Cat. She was wondering at the fallen warriors laid out beside the altar, but couldn’t tear her eyes from the High Priestess to look at them. She slowly inhaled.
“So”, she said.
“So”, the High Priestess said. “Twice in your life you’ve braved the dangers of this temple and my wrath.” She tilted her head to one side. “Did the goddess send you a dream this time too, telling you to find me?”
Goddess, Cat thought distressed, remembering what the other woman had said in her dream about finding each other. This is plain madness!
“Um, no”, she said, only lying a little bit. She doubted it was the Goddess who’d sent the dream she’d been plagued with – or blessed with – over the years. That dream most certainly came from her own twisted self – a figment of her imagination. “I just thought… uh, that I should apologize.”
“And now you have. Anything else?”
The other woman’s attitude made Cat snap out of her silence. If the woman of her dreams was a true figment of her imagination then Cat’s attraction towards her was too. She was attracted to the woman because of a foolish dream – due to an image of a woman who didn’t exist. The woman in her dreams – she was made up of fantasies Cat had created about the High Priestess over the years. There were no truths in them. And if they weren’t true… Then her feelings were not real, as long as she was aware and remembered that everything was a lie.
“Will you tell me where Deyna is? Katana refuses to let me know”, Cat said, straightening her back. “I’m not going to seek her out. I just want to know she’s safe.”
The High Priestess didn’t answer immediately, but finally she said: “I don’t believe you’re entitled to know the whereabouts of the princess. Not as long as you’re suspended from duty. I can tell you she is safe, though.”
Cat clenched her jaws. “And what would you know? You don’t give a bird’s poop about that girl, only caring for the power she gives you. You want it all to yourself, don’t you? You… You revel in the fear you instill in people, when the power you have is not even your own. You use the Goddess to frighten people, misusing her Name!”
“Is that what you think, soldier?” The High Priestess shook her head. “I can’t believe someone who’s been to war can be so naïve and irresponsible. You’re a child, still. The wars obviously didn’t make a proper warrior out of you.”
Cat gasped and felt anger rising when she was confronted with things she’d rather not think about. “Don’t you think I’ve felt…? Don’t you think I…? Don’t you think…” She breathed deeply, trying to calm herself. “I’ve seen death”, she said, remembering.
“Really?” the other woman said loftily.
Cat felt hurt pierce her heart, again being dismissed by the beautiful priestess. “I fought and…!” She hesitated. “And I lost it”, she whispered, remembering still. Remembering the blood, the madness, the rain and the sky filled with black birds – so many birds the blue of the sky and the sun was shut out. Birds picking eyes out off the dead, even picking at wounded soldiers in the mud. Streams turning blood red by the death of warriors; pain, screams, so much death – everywhere… People dying, friends dying. Making new friends was too painful when she knew she’d lose them again. Death reached out with cold fingers and turned her heart and her blood ran cold as ice; death breathed at her and made her its champion. “I lost it”, she whispered, remembering. “I was like a demon… I lost myself in the fight, forgetting who I was and where I came from. I hurt people even when I didn’t have to. I was… lost. I know – life”, she said hoarsely. “I’ve been through hell and back.”
“Show it then! Make me feel it. Make me understand that you know what life is about! Don’t behave like a spoiled child who had her best toy snatched from her.”
“I can’t!” Cat heard herself exclaim, feeling the frustration she remembered from the battlefield rising within her. “It hurts too much!”
She silenced, staring at the woman before her.
“Cat”, the High Priestess said softly and placed her hands on Cat’s shoulders. Green eyes looked into hers and there was gentleness and understanding in them; things Cat remembered from her dream. She felt it as if she was falling into a deep, dark hole with no end – falling, falling, into eternity. “It’s supposed to hurt”, the woman said. “It’s supposed to be tough, otherwise anyone could do it. But you must make yourself feel it, know it – you have to make it a part of you. It will never go away if you pretend it’s not there. Life is more than love and joy and carousing in the tavern – it’s more than death and destruction. It’s both – and not until we’ve experienced both sides and made both sides a part of us can we be made whole. Why do you think I push Deyna so hard?”
“I…” Cat didn’t know and she needed to be away from the woman before her, whose presence prevented her from forming thoughts in her mind. She couldn’t think straight with the High Priestess so close. She backed away. “I… don’t know.”
“Deyna holds back. She’s afraid. I can’t trust her until she trusts herself and she won’t do that until she lets go of the control – of her fear.”
“Control?” Cat frowned.
“She holds back. She’ll be a powerful goddess one day, but if she doesn’t know herself I can’t let her go through with the final Initiation. I need to know she can handle it. Otherwise… Otherwise she’ll die.”
Cat gasped. The bad memories of her years on the battlefield were fading; the gentle touch and the caring look in the other woman’s eyes had somehow lessened the pain and the dark.
“I’m thinking of putting off the Initiation until she’s twenty one. I can’t…”
“You can’t do that! She’ll never make it…” Cat objected.
“You’re not to tell her this. Do you understand?” the High Priestess said sharply and looked at her with disconcerting intent.
Cat felt like a child again – like the time when she was caught in the chamber where the fountain was. She nodded.
“I can’t let Deyna be a goddess if she doesn’t know herself – if she can’t control herself”, the other woman went on. “If she loses it when a goddess… She could wreck havoc on the whole empire.”
“Oh, Goddess! Like me on the battlefield”, Cat gasped. She’d gone berserk sometimes, losing it completely. Imagining a deity with awesome powers losing control like that... The thought made her shudder.
“Exactly. Look – I’m not supposed to even tell you about this, but maybe you’re one of those people who need to have the whole picture clear before you obey orders. Maybe understanding will make you more responsible. Katana has high hopes for you, but she doesn’t trust you.”
“I know”, Cat whispered. “She says I’m too unpredictable.”
“Because you, like the princess, don’t know yourself”, the High Priestess said with a short nod.
If someone else had told Cat that she’d never have listened, but hearing it from the High Priestess she suddenly knew it to be true. There were things in her past she couldn’t face and so she spent her time carousing and seducing women to avoid thinking about them.
“There are more things you need to know”, the High Priestess said. It seemed to Cat the other woman had made a choice of some sort. “Look.”
Cat turned to where the High Priestess indicated and looked at the dead warriors for the first time. Something was strange about their faces. She couldn’t tell from where she stood beside the priestess, so she moved forward. “What, by all sacred…?” She silenced, staring down at the warriors. “What happened to them?”
The bodies of the five warriors were so decayed they barely looked human: molded skin in shades of gray and green, frayed from the bones in some places; eyes picked out or fallen out of their eye sockets and rotting flesh. Cat was surprised the whole chamber didn’t reek.
“Well, they all died – one way or another. At least half a year ago.” The priestess pointed at the least decayed warrior. “Except him – he might have died only a few weeks ago.”
Cat glanced at the woman by her side, not sure if the even voice was meant to be sarcastic or not. “But… They were alive yesterday and they sure as bloody Snake’s bite didn’t look like this!”
“No – and hence our problem.” The High Priestess sighed, shaking her head. “I’ve talked to Katana about this and she’s showed the Emperor. We thought it’d help with him deciding not to send so many warriors to the boarders – but it only seems he’s more determined than ever to do so. He thinks these are warriors of Egara who’s managed to get through our lines.”
Cat frowned. “And you don’t? And why shouldn’t we reinforce our boarders? And what by the holy Bat are those?” She indicated the dead warriors, then realizing she’d misused the Name of the Goddess in front of the High Priestess. “Um, my apologies for swearing”, she added.
“These are dead people brought back to life…” the priestess said.
Bel, Cat thought as she watched the woman. Katana called her Bel…
“The whole squad of sixty or so soldiers you were fighting yesterday was made up of soldiers like these. Except a few.”
“But they all looked normal”, Cat said confused. “I mean, I sure would’ve noticed if they had maggots crawling out of their eyes. Are they Undead?”
“No”, the priestess said, shaking her head. “The undead are different – those suck blood and need to be pinned through the heart with a wooden stake. And these are not zombies either. Zombies are not as easily killed. These…” She made a gesture with her hand, indicating the dead bodies. “These are just dead people brought back to life to be used as warriors. Of course they are not human anymore – they lack a soul and a will of their own, only responding to the sole purpose that brought them back and maybe to some simple commands.” Bel paused for a moment. “They were disguised yesterday – an Illusion was cast upon them to hide their true faces, but I knew what they were as soon as I saw them. I had my priestesses bring them here, to burn them. I’ll ask you not to mention this to anyone, except Katana who’s aware of what’s going on.”
Cat nodded thoughtfully, wondering why the High Priestess told her these things. “What are we up against?” she asked quietly.
“It takes powerful magic to work with this – and especially with so many dead warriors. My guess, though, is that whoever did this has spent years waking the dead and only waiting for the right moment to use them…”
“So they can be held… in storage?” Cat asked with a frown. She thought she noticed a slight smile in the corner of the other woman’s mouth at her choice of words. Looking at the High Priestess’ mouth she was abruptly reminded of the reason why she’d come and hastily averted her eyes.
“For years. And they are cheap – they don’t demand anything, neither food nor clothing.”
“And simple to work with”, Cat mumbled. “No mouthing back.”
“No, they’re not as willful as others”, Bel agreed with a certain tone that made Cat glance quickly at her. “Yes, that was friendly sarcasm”, the woman said dryly, noticing Cat’s look. “You don’t think I know how to make a joke, spending all my time chopping off people’s heads to make them fear me?”
Cat blinked, still confused.
“That was another joke”, the priestess said and this time it was clearly humor Cat saw in the depths of those intensely green eyes.
“You have a strange sense of humor”, Cat said, grinning. The other woman was a challenge to understand, but Cat had never backed away from a challenge before. Maybe she’ll warm up to me, she thought, immediately blushing when the thought brought an unbidden image to her mind: a flashback from her dream, only much more vivid and evocative. She turned back to the dead warriors, trying to hide her discomfit. “Um… What about them?”
The High Priestess took her time answering, watching her with an odd expression Cat couldn’t make out.
“Huh?” Cat asked, looking back at the redhead at her side.
“They…” The High Priestess averted her eyes, shaking her head as if to clear it. “As I said, whoever brought these back from death is very powerful. It must be a High Priest or Priestess. He or she put a magical web over the brothel yesterday, preventing Deyna from using her powers.”
“I remember”, Cat mumbled, thinking of how hard it had been for the princess to change her form. “She couldn’t use her powers in the fight. Was it… her they were after?” she added softly, glancing at the woman at her side. Bel, she repeated in her mind. She wondered if she too could call the High Priestess that. Probably not, she thought dryly. Too friendly for a mere soldier like me… I’m not moving in her circles.
“I believe the attack was some sort of distraction. We don’t know yet and I don’t want to jump to conclusions. Deyna survived yesterday only due to her training and your defense of her…”
Cat blinked when the High Priestess looked at her. That sounded almost like praise, she thought, wondering at the woman who only moments before had accused her of being reckless. There was a slight smile on Bel’s lips when she noticed Cat’s reaction.
“Just because I find your actions taking the princess to a brothel reckless doesn’t mean I can’t recognize your worth. You’ve trained Deyna very well in the art of physical combat and I realize you care for her as a person, not as a princess. I recognize that’s important to her.”
“I…” Cat didn’t know what to say. She was suddenly very much aware of Bel’s presence close to her and twitched a little.
“Katana values you and she’s sure you learned a lesson yesterday. She wants me to give you a second chance.”
Cat held her tongue, nodding.
“But I can’t do that right away. What you did…” The priestess silenced. “You know what you did. You must face the consequences of those actions. I can’t let you get away with everything just because you have a pretty smile.”
Cat blinked in surprise, staring at the High Priestess completely taken aback by the last remark, but Bel turned back to the dead bodies with a blank face. Who is this woman? Cat thought bewildered. What is she? Cold and indifferent, or caring and… sweet?
Cat had wanted the priestess to be the former to save her from the growing attraction she felt, but the woman showed surprising depths, which was dangerous to Cat and her physical state.
“Deyna should have recognized the soldiers for what they were yesterday, but she did very well considering”, the priestess said. “With that web around the brothel she wasn’t even supposed to be able to shape-change.”
“No?” Cat said, wondering. She knew very little of and cared even less about the deities’ powers or the powers of the Priesthood. Then she thought of the princess and her fear of the High Priestess. “Have you told her this?” she asked, sharper than she’d intended. “Did you tell her she did great? She needs to hear it from you.”
“From me? Why ? My opinion shouldn’t matter. She needs to learn to trust herself.”
“’Why?’” Cat said with a grimace. “Are you truly so... ignorant? And you blame me for being naïve! She wants your approval, of course. You mean so much to her and you just...” She sighed, seeing the High Priestess’ inscrutable face. “Forget it. You really don’t get it. You’re just not human, you don’t know the first thing about relationships. I can’t believe I was actually...” She caught herself, blushing. “Forget it”, she mumbled, turning away. “I’m leaving now.”
Call me back, she thought as she walked towards the entrance, abruptly regretting leaving. The other woman confused her so much and Cat could hardly stand being in her presence if she wasn’t allowed to…She cut the thought. Call me back, talk to me, yell at me… Do something! But Bel didn’t do anything and Cat had to leave the room without looking back.
Although she couldn’t stand to be where the priestess was the thought of not being where she was suddenly felt like torture to her. Bloody Snakes and rotting corpses! she thought angrily. Those damn dreams!
* * *
Bel watched the warrior leave, feeling slightly confused at Cat’s last remark. Why is she walking away? she thought with a frown, wondering if she should call her back. She refrained from it, realizing they’d probably end up arguing again.
Bel turned back to look at the dead bodies and suddenly a flash of Cat’s grinning face was before her inner eye. That smile… It had affected her in a strange way; she’d felt something lurch behind her chest and her pulse had increased for a stunning moment. Just thinking of that smile made her feel strange. She wondered if she was coming down with something.
“You felt it, didn’t you?”
She suddenly heard the Goddess in her mind.
“What are you talking about?” she answered in her thoughts as Nidae was nowhere to be seen.
“You find her attractive!”
“I most certainly do not!” Bel defended herself and added: “You let her in!”
“Of course I did!” the goddess chuckled. “She brought me a lovely gift. And she’s my relative…”
“I wouldn’t talk too loud about that if I were you”, Bel admonished. “And what do you mean – I find her attractive?”
Nidae only chuckled and Bel sighed.
“I can see where she’s gotten her reputed teasing manners from”, she sent.
“You felt it! Don’t deny it…”
“The only thing I’m denying is your access to my mind. Get out or I’ll push you out!”
Bel was the only one who could deny the deities access to her thoughts: she could block them from her mind if she wanted to, an ability no High Priest or Priestess was remembered having before.
“Oh, you’re so…”
“If you say boring one more time, I swear I’ll…”
Bel silenced, suddenly feeling someone intruding on her mind. Someone calling for her attention.
“Badra… Help me…”
The voice was faint, almost inaudible, but it was indisputably Fang’s.
“Fang?” she asked, confused.
“Help me, Badra… They’re… Help me…”
There was pure desperation in the voice and Bel felt the fear and confusion of the god through the mind link.
“Nidae?” she asked. “What’s…?”
“Not this, Badra”, the Goddess said, retracting. There was fear even in her voice. “I can’t help you with this. You’re on your own.”
Bel frowned. “Fang? Fang – do you hear me?” There was no answer and Bel swore softly under her breath. “Nidae – contact Zelena; see what she can tell you.”
“Yes, my priestess.”
“Damn maggots”, Bel muttered. She got her staff, which stood leaning against the altar, and moved towards the entrance. “Nidae – any luck?”
“I can’t get to Zelena. I believe she’s unconscious.”
The news didn’t bode well. “Get Derac, tell him…”
“I talked to him. He’s with Nikka at the palace. She’s passed out, someone apparently attacked her with a psychic spell…”
“What? Is she…?”
“Derac says she’ll be fine, but she’s out at the moment. He’ll hurry to Fang’s temple…”
“Good. Nidae – do you know what this is?”
“Only power, Badra. Power enough to bind us. Be careful, it’s probably a trap for…”
“Nidae? Nidae! Can you hear me? Get the Priesthood together, warn the deities…”
“I’m trying, but someone’s interfering with the… with the connection…”
There was only silence in her mind and Bel realized the connection had been lost. She hurried along the corridors, frantically thinking of possible answers to what was happening and to solutions for each scenario she could think of.
“Cath Ciardha!” she called in the temple corridors, using Air to carry her voice: it rang like thunder around her. If the warrior was still in the temple she’d hear her. “Stay, warrior!”
It didn’t take her long to come across the member of Panthera. She was waiting in the Fountain Chamber, looking angrily at Bel when she hurried towards her.
“I didn’t do anything!” Cat said, defensively.
“You must hurry to Katana”, Bel said, ignoring the remark. “Tell her to bring Panthera to the Temple of the White Tiger. Tell her to bring the Cobra Squad too. You check on Deyna and stay with her to protect her. She’s in the Tower of Eagles…”
“You put her in the Eagles’ Tower?” Cat exclaimed angrily. “Are you out of your…?”
“Now!” Bel commanded icily. She didn’t have time to deal with an obstinate child; if Cat didn’t prove her worth at this point…
“Of course”, Cat said seeming to get the seriousness of the situation, immediately straightening her back. “Any thing else I need to tell the Captain?”
“Just go. And hurry! And stay with the princess, Cat.”
Cat nodded crisply, turned around and sprinted across the chamber. Bel followed, but although she was in perfectly good health and more fit than most people she couldn’t keep up with the warrior.
“Nidae?” she tried again, but there was no answer. “Holy Bat”, she mumbled, sending a swift prayer to the Creative Energy that had created the world, as she hurried towards the entrance. She stopped quickly on the way to inform one of her priestesses that she needed them to gather at Fang’s temple as quickly as possible.
As she hurried down the mountainside towards Fang’s temple thoughts of Cat suddenly intruded. Cat’s reaction when she’d seen her by the Fountain irked her a little. The warriors first thought seemed to have been that Bel would yell at her for something. Is that what she thinks of me? she thought worriedly. That I’m nothing more than a barking bitch? The thought caught her and made her feel sad for some reason. She didn’t want Cat to think ill of her. And what does it matter what she thinks? She doesn’t know me… Do I want her to know me? Why, by all bats? What difference would it make…? And why am I thinking of this now? She pushed the thoughts of Cat out of her mind and hurried forward.
The temple of the White Tiger was placed close to Nidae’s, at the foot of the mountainside, so it didn’t take Bel that long to reach it. The jungle was too thick to see through from higher ground, so she didn’t know what to expect at the temple. She knew she had to be careful, but she also sensed it was urgent. With the staff in her hand she carefully moved forward in the thickets.
The temple looked deserted. It was a few hours past noon and usually some people would have been there to pay their respect and leave some offerings to the god, but there was no one to be seen. Bel moved quietly ahead, suddenly sensing that something was wrong. She immediately stopped.
Holding her breath for a few moments the High Priestess felt a tingling warning at the back of her neck and then two things happened: she noticed the slain bodies at the top of the stairs – four of them, one a priestess of the temple – and a group of warriors moved out from their hiding place in the thickets.
“High Priestess of the Bat”, a male voice said. “Put down your staff and none shall be harmed.”
One of the warriors, a muscular, blonde man in nondescript black leather clothing stepped out holding a woman to him and threatening her with a knife across her throat. The woman was unconscious, but held steadily with no effort by the man. Bel immediately recognized the woman as Zelena, Fang’s High Priestess.
“Where is the god?” she asked sternly, holding the man’s gaze; he stood close enough for her to see he had brown eyes. She also noticed something else: he had a tattoo on the back of his left hand. A small, black tattoo in the shape of a cobra rising to attack.
“The god is safe – for now.” The warrior pulled at Zelena to hold her upright. “Put down your staff”, he said.
“And you’ll kill me”, she said dryly. “I think not.”
“If we wanted you dead you’d be dead by now”, the man said, indicating another warrior who stood a few feet away aiming a longbow at her.
And if I wanted you dead… she thought, then made up her mind and put down her staff.
“Take her”, the warrior in charge said and nodded towards her. Three men moved forward and grabbed her, pulling at her. The warrior before her let go of Zelena, who limply fell to the ground.
“You’ll regret this”, Bel said, looking at the man as the others tied her hands behind her back.
“Sure I will”, the man said sarcastically, smirking. “And what will you do? Your power lies in the staff – without it you’re helpless. Just like your goddess. Where is she, by the way? Off hiding someplace?”
“Who are you working for?” she asked, looking sternly at him. Again he smirked. You fool, she thought. He didn’t know the first think about a High Priestess’ power. Whoever hired him was either as misinformed or as big a fool as this man – or they simply hadn’t bothered with telling him the truth.
“What makes you think I wasn’t the one planning all of this?”
“Then you wouldn’t mind telling me what you are planning to do with Fang, would you?” she asked scowling at him.
The question seemed to irk the man, who gestured at the men who held her.
“Hurry. There will be others here soon.”
“You’re only a minion”, Bel said disgusted.
“A minion holding your life in my hands, nonetheless”, the warrior said and grabbed her chin, holding her face close to his. “And you…” His eyes went to her mouth. “You’re in my grasp now.” He bent down and kissed her. When she tried to turn away his fingers dug into her chin and her cheeks, holding her still. He tasted raw, filthy, and when he pulled away with a grin she felt the need to throw up.
“You’ll surely regret that”, she said, seething with an ice cold rage, and looked at him with burning eyes. She noticed the smirk on his face fade and a turn fearful before he turned away.
“Bring her!” he commanded and in the next moment she received a hard blow to the head that knocked her unconscious.
Part Six – More dangers
The Eagles’ Tower had seven hundred steps leading up to it. It was the highest tower in the city, with a spectacular view of the area. Cat, with Serafine and Para, had sneaked up into it once when they were younger and full of mischief. The regular palace guard had found them and each of them had gotten a fitting punishment from their respective leaders. It was one of the few times Cat had seen Katana really, really mad.
The Tower was a sacred place, reserved for certain deities: the winged ones, like the Bat, the Owl and the Condor. There was no Eagle any longer: she’d been killed by a mad priestess a few hundred years ago. The Tower had been built to honor her memory.
When Cat arrived at the tower, having informing Katana about the High Priestess’ words, two members of Panthera were standing guard at the foot of the stairs. Serafine was one of them.
“Cat – what are you doing here?” she asked as she noticed her friend.
“How’s the princess?” Cat asked, glancing up the stair.
Serafine nodded. “She’s fine. I just brought her some soup. She asks for you. What…? Why are you here? You’re not allowed to see her.”
“Something’s happened. I don’t know what.”
Cat quickly told the other two about the High Priestess’ orders, shrugging when she finished. “Katana told me to hurry over here. I was told to tell you not to let anyone pass – not anyone who’s not a Leaping Panther.”
“Sure, Cat”, the other member said. “We’re off in a few minutes. We’ll inform our replacements.”
“There are more people guarding the tower, right?” Cat asked.
“There’s six of us”, Serafine confirmed.
Cat relaxed a little, but couldn’t get the High Priestess and the sense that she was in danger out of her mind. She nodded. “I was ordered to guard the princess, so I’ll wait around until Katana returns from the temple.”
“I’ll stay with you”, Serafine said.
When the replacements arrived only minutes later – six new members of the pack – Cat and Serafine made their way to the chamber at the top of the circular stairs.
“She’s locked up?” Cat asked when she noticed the looked door. A key hung on an iron hook on the wall beside the door.
“The High Priestess’ orders”, Serafine said as she unlocked the door. “Obviously she wants to punish the princess.”
“It’s all my fault”, Cat said, sighing as the door opened.
The chamber was larger than expected, round and with a high ceiling. The windows were massive and let in bright light. Deyna was sitting on a low stool, reading. A table stood by her with an empty ceramic bowl atop. The rest of the room was filled with books, thick carpets and silk pillows in a myriad of colors.
“Cat!” Deyna exclaimed, flying out of the chair as Cat entered the room.
“Ah, princess – good to see you again”, Cat said, hugging the younger woman.
“She saved you!” Deyna stepped back, looking at Cat as if she hadn’t seen her for ages. “I can’t believe it… She really saved you.”
Cat grinned. “And I’ve talked to her”, she said. “I’ve lived up to my end of our challenge.”
“You didn’t have much choice now, did you?” the princess said, arching an eyebrow at her. “Not if she saved your life. She must have been around when you woke up.” She made a face. “What did she do? Yell at you?”
“Actually – I yelled at her.” It was Cat’s turn to make a face. “Which didn’t help our relationship…”
“I told you – she doesn’t care about people.”
“Actually…” Cat hesitated, thinking of what the High Priestess had told her in regards to Deyna. “Um, I think, I think she cares… She just doesn’t care like the rest of us.”
“You’re talking about the High Priestess, right?” Serafine said, entering the room and the conversation. She sat down in the chair the princess had used. “I made a pass at her… once.”
Cat blinked. “Really? You never told me”, she said, feeling a strange tug at her heart. It took a moment for her to realize it was jealousy.
“Ah, nothing to tell”, the gray eyed woman said, waving off the remark with a lofty gesture. “She turned me down.”
“As would be expected”, Deyna said dryly, moving to sit down on some pillows close to the chair.
“She looked at me as if I was some strange insect”, Serafine went on. “Then she went on mentioning that I was Derac’s sister and it wouldn’t do for me to fool around with someone so close to him. She’s a strange woman.”
“Your telling me”, Cat mumbled, moving towards the windows to look out towards the mountainside – towards the temple of the Goddess. The High Priestess had been with her for so long, the image and the memory of a woman she’d wanted to get to know. And when she finally met her… The woman was nothing like what she’d expected or imagined. She didn’t seem nice at all – and still Cat couldn’t get her out of her mind.
It’s that bloody dream, she thought. The dream had always left her vulnerable, with the feeling that she lacked something important in her life – something she’d give up the world to gain – and the realization that the woman in her dream was the High Priestess made her confused. When thinking of the other woman now she kept remembering her dreams and not only the ones were she was heavily making out with a red haired woman, but also the new dream she’d had the same morning. The one with the ceremony she’d come to realize must’ve been a wedding.
“I’m glad I failed to seduce her”, Serafine said softly in the background and when Cat turned to look at her she noticed the tender caress the other warrior bestowed upon the princess’ hair. Cat bit her lip to stop herself saying the first thing that came to mind and then watched the surprised expression on Deyna’s face as the girl looked up.
“Really”, Serafine said gently, twining a lock of golden hair between her fingers.
“So… Yesterday wasn’t just a beer induced hallucination on my part?” Deyna asked with a slight blush on fair cheeks, making Serafine grin at her.
“That? That wasn’t even the beginning…”
“Should I leave the room, perhaps?” Cat asked dryly, arching an eyebrow at them. The princess blushed furiously, but Serafine only smiled.
“Perhaps you should.”
Cat frowned when she realized her friend was serious. “Sera”, she said.
“Don’t worry, Cat”, Deyna suddenly said, looking up at her. “She won’t do anything I don’t want to.”
Cat thought of the High Priestess again, abruptly realizing she was in the middle of a conflict of interests. “I can’t let you do this, princess”, she said softly.
“What? You don’t even know what I’m…”
“I do. Yesterday you didn’t want to give yourself to Fang. You wanted to become a goddess. Today… Today you’ve changed your mind and it has nothing to do with Serafine.” Cat knew it; she could see it in Deyna’s eyes. The princess had somehow given up her beliefs since the day before and Cat suspected it had something to do with the High Priestess’ treatment of her – locking her up in the tower. She shook her head. “Breaking the rules always comes with consequences”, she said. “I’m sorry, Deyna. I shouldn’t have gotten you into this. This is all my fault. But don’t throw away what you have because of…”
“What I have?” The princess flew up from the floor. “And what do I have, Cat?” she spat. “Restrictions, that’s what I have. I was never allowed to be a child. Because I’m special! As if being special is so great. I don’t want to become a goddess if it costs so much pain.”
“If it wasn’t hard anyone could do it”, Cat mumbled, but regretted her words as soon as they left her mouth when she noticed the stricken look on Deyna’s face.
“Don’t say that! You’re my only friend! You’re supposed to…” The princess silenced. Tears were wetting her cheeks. “You’re supposed to support me, not stab me in the back.”
“Deyna…” Cat took a step towards her. “All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t rush into any decisions based on how you’re feeling now. A warrior letting her anger and fear rule her will make bad choices… Her true instincts and common sense will be clouded.”
“Princess…” Serafine rose behind Deyna and put a hand on her shoulder; the princess turned to her. “Cat is right, unfortunately.” The gray eyed woman made a face. “It’s unlucky she should pick this moment to be so wise, but there it is…” Serafine dried the tears off Deyna’s cheek with a gentle caress of her thumb. “I like you, princess, but I don’t want to be something you rush into because you see no other way out. I’ll wait for you – even if it means I’ll have to wait a year, until you become the goddess you were born to be.”
Cat blinked; she’d never heard Serafine talk to anyone like that. Then, in the next moment, her longtime friend closed the space between her and the princess, softly kissing Deyna on the lips. At first it was a careful, light kiss on the mouth, but it grew more intense as Cat watched and she averted her eyes from the two women – one warrior and one princess. She looked out the windows again, noticing the reflection of the women in the glass: Deyna lift her arms to encircle Serafine’s neck and Serafine held the princess at the waist and pulled her closer. The kiss deepened…
Cat scanned the city and the hillside, trying to find the Temple of the White Tiger, but the jungle was too thick in that particular area. What she did see, though, was a procession of brown clad priestesses moving from the jungle and up the mountainside towards the temple of Nidae. The sight made her frown and she forgot the two women behind her. She quickly moved a few steps aside, to get a clearer view of that area, when something else caught her attention. A large group of warriors moved at high speed on horses away from the city on the east side. The east side was the only side consisting of lowland: flat, hard ground with rocks and red sand stretching out in the distance. They were too far away for Cat to get a proper look at them, but it seemed to her two people were lying on the horsebacks instead of sitting up. Her frown deepened as she watched the fleeing warriors; there weren’t more than a dozen of them.
Then, in a flash, Katana rode out from the thickets below the mountainside towards the city gates, followed by two members of Panthera. Something’s happened! Cat thought as she saw the way the Captain rode her black stallion. She swirled around, abruptly reminded of the other two people in the room when she noticed them still kissing.
“Something’s happened”, Cat said curtly, moving towards the door. “Princess”, she said, looking at Deyna who slowly let go of Serafine. “Think of your people and don’t throw away your gifts just yet. The Empire might need you.”
“Cat, what’s…?” Serafine moved a few steps away from the princess.
“Keep her safe, sister”, Cat said and was out the door.
Cat hurried down the many steps and through the palace, swearing as she went; the Eagles’ Tower was placed furthest from the city centre and it took her what felt like ages to reach the main entrance and the central gates of the palace. Katana had just entered the palace gates and jumped off her stallion as Cat rushed out to meet her at the yard.
“What are you doing here?” the Captain brusquely asked, moving towards the stairs at the entrance. “You’re supposed to be with the princess.”
“What’s happened, Katana?” Cat asked. “What’s going on? Tell me…”
Katana shook her head. “Not now. Get back to the princess.”
“No”, Cat objected. “Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
“Must you be so stubborn?” the Captain accused, but didn’t give another command.
They moved through the palace, half running. They passed corridors, servants and great halls decorated in gold and red fabric before they reached the private chambers of the Imperial Couple.
The first thing Katana had done earlier, when Cat brought her the command from the High Priestess, had been to send a messenger to Barac Wei to inform him of what was happening, so when the emperor, the empress, Afron the chancellor and Hades, the leader of the White Tigers, where waiting in a smaller room Cat wasn’t surprised.
“Captain”, the emperor said, rising from the armchair in which he was seated beside the blonde empress. They had high windows behind their backs and the afternoon soon was shining into the room.
“Emperor”, Katana said, hastily kneeling before the imperial couple; Cat did the same. “I bring bad news.”
“What is it, Captain?” Hades said, stepping forward.
“Fang the Tiger has been taken from his temple”, Katana said rising. “Several of his priestesses were slain…”
“Zelena?” the empress immediately asked.
“Zelena is fine”, Katana hurriedly said. She hesitated. “But… Others were slain too, visitors to the temple.”
“Who? Who would do such a thing?” the emperor asked, pacing angrily back and forward before his chair.
“Egara, my emperor”, old Afron said, glancing at the tall, dark haired man. “It must be.”
“I’m not so sure, your Highness”, Katana said.
“The raid yesterday was probably a distraction for today’s main event”, Afron said, looking at Katana.
“Why would they kidnap a god?” Hades asked, frowning.
“Fang’s popular amongst Kellara’s people”, the empress said. “Maybe our enemies believe our people will be weak without him.”
“This settles it”, the emperor said. “The ceremony and the festivities for this week must be cancelled.”
“You can’t cancel the festivities, your Highness”, Afron said a bit shocked. “The people have looked forward to it for ages.”
“It’s too dangerous to hold the competitions when we are being attacked. The Priesthood will still have their ceremonies, but they’ll have to keep them to their temples. If people will carouse on their own I can’t prevent it, but the soldiers are not to take part in the festivities. We need to increase the guards around the city… Is my daughter fine?”
“Deyna is safe”, Cat said, stepping forward. “I just came from the Tower.”
“Good. I’ll send her to the Temple of the Dark Moon. She’ll be safer with the High Priestess there…”
“My emperor”, Katana said and Cat looked at her, hearing her tone of voice. “As a matter of fact… Fang wasn’t the only one abducted.”
They all looked at the Captain and Cat suddenly felt a clenching, clawing cold in her chest eating at her heart. No, she thought as the realization slowly dawned on her. I’ve only just found her…
“What do you mean, Captain?” the emperor asked, frowning.
“Your Highness… The High Priestess was taken with Fang. She’s…” Katana hesitated and Cat could see her paling cheeks. “I found her staff…”
“Oh, Goddess!” The empress rose from her chair, holding a hand to her mouth. Her eyes were wide open, staring at Katana with genuine fear.
“She wouldn’t have…” the emperor whispered. “She wouldn’t have let them take her if she was…” He didn’t finish the sentence. He paled and slowly sat down in his chair.
“I don’t believe she’s dead, your Highness”, Hades said, shaking his head. “They wouldn’t have taken her if she wasn’t alive.”
“But why would she let them take her?” Barac Wei asked. “She could easily have overcome them…”
“We don’t know that, your Highness”, Afron said. “Maybe she was taken by surprise. Maybe they simply were too many.”
Barac Wei shook his head. “You don’t know this woman, Afron”, Cat heard him say in a low voice.
“In any case we need to send out people to get her and Fang back”, Hades said.
“That’s what whoever took her wants us to do”, Katana objected. “That would leave the city open.”
“We won’t send out the whole army”, Hades pointed out.
“And we don’t know how many they are – if we send out too few we might lose a lot of lives for no gain”, Katana said, looking at the emperor. “Your Highness – think of the dead warriors I showed you. We don’t know how many of those are still around.”
“Can’t be that many”, Afron interjected. “No one could have raised more of those warriors since yesterday…”
“We need to send out a few scouts before we rush into something”, Katana said, ignoring the councilor’s comment.
“I’ll go”, Cat immediately said, already walking towards the doors. The more time they wasted discussing the matter the further away those warriors were taking her… were taking the High Priestess.
“Cat!” Katana called, but Cat didn’t stop; she passed the guards at the doors and left the meeting. The Captain followed her and caught up with her in the corridor. “Cat! Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m getting her back.”
“Her? Bel? What…? Stop!” Katana took Cat by the arm and held her back. Cat twisted loose, staring at her.
“I’m going, Katana. You can’t stop me. I’m getting her back.”
“She told you to guard the princess. That’s your job, soldier. There’s nothing else that matters except guarding the princess…”
“I’m off duty, remember?” Cat spat. “The princess is not my responsibility any…”
“Don’t be a fool!” the Captain snapped. “The High Priestess strictly ordered you to protect the princess. That’s what you need to do. Get back to the tower…”
“No!” Cat turned and began walking away.
“You don’t even like her!” Katana called after her.
Maybe I don’t… Maybe I do… Cat thought, still not sure which yet. She didn’t answer.
“Cat! If you walk away now…”
Cat kept on walking.
“Cat! Get your stubborn self back here! If you walk out on me don’t bother coming back!”
Cat stopped and looked around.
“I mean it, Cat”, Katana said, gesturing towards her with one hand. “Come back and guard the princess. If you leave I’ll have you permanently excluded from the pack.”
I can’t, Cat thought, thinking of the beautiful woman in her dream who put a wedding band of white gold on her finger. Thinking of the joy she’d felt in that moment. She said she’d find me wherever I go… But I know I have to find her first. I have to know, I have see – what kind of woman she is.
Cat slowly shook her head. “I’m sorry, Captain”, she said – and left.
Cat followed the trail of the warriors for five days without catching up with them. On the sixth morning she reached the Vale of the Dead. It was a large, deep valley surrounded by red rocks and sparse vegetation: the ancient burial ground for the higher nobility. There was a deep, long cave system stretching through the rocks that surrounded the valley and several dark holes were gaping from the rock walls.
Cat stopped at the ridge and looked down into the valley from the back of her horse. What she saw made her stop breathing.
No one ever came to the Vale of the Dead anymore. The burial ground had last been used three hundred years ago, when there was a reformation of the Priesthood. The higher nobility was no longer to be buried, but to be burned. Cat had never bothered with wondering why, except Para had once told her it was to save the nobility from being humiliated by grave robbers. Cat had doubted that was the true reason, although it sounded plausible in some ways.
Now, looking down at the valley – and at the large army assembled at the bottom – Cat suddenly wondered what the long dead nobility would think of having their entire graveyard desecrated in such a way. The assembled army filled the entire gorge; warriors in armors, armed to their teeth with weapons.
“Oops – you found us! Bu, huh…”
Cat turned around on her horse, looking at a man she recognized. He wasn’t alone, but sat on a red horse surrounded by dozens of warriors. “You”, she said, addressing the blonde man with the pale, but distinct scar across one eye: prince Harkaitz Qadir, the emperor’s brother. “What have you done? Where is she?”
“She?” The man arched a white eyebrow, paled by the burning from his childhood. “And here I believed you had come for the god. What do you want the priestess for?”
“What do you want with her?” Cat countered. “You have no use for a priestess.”
“No?” The prince tilted his head to one side. “I’ve heard of you – with the mismatched eyes. Yes…” Harkaitz nodded, ignoring Cat’s question. “They call you Cat, don’t they? My daughter talks a lot about you.” He smirked, eyeing her. “A pity you prefer women – otherwise you and I could have had a fun time. I believe I could teach you a few things.”
“Sure”, Cat said dryly. “Why don’t you pull that sword at your side and face me like a man?”
“No, no – so impatient. Don’t you know? The nicest wine is best savored slowly and with appreciation.”
“Wine?” she said, not getting his point.
“Ah, yes. Wine – the essence of our lives. Blood – the wine flowing through our veins. The sweetest wine is revenge – didn’t you know?” He chuckled. “You’re about to discover – revenge, like the best of wines, grows better with age. I’ve waited a long, long time for this and soon…” – he smiled wickedly, still chuckling – “my revenge is completed.”
“I doubt it”, Cat said, pulling her sword. “The White Tigers will soon be here…”
“Those Tigers are on their way to the boarders by now, courtesy of Egara’s king. He’s moving closer, knowing there are some… disturbances at the Court of Goddara.”
“You bastard! You’ve betrayed your country. Fight me, you coward.”
Cat spurred her horse and rode straight towards the emperor’s brother. She hadn’t even reached him before she was shot with an arrow in her shoulder. Not again! she remembered thinking before she was engaged in heavy combat with Harkaitz’s warriors.
She realized some of the warriors were members of the Cobra Squad and when she engaged in close combat with one of them she called out to him.
“What’s going on with you?” she snapped, parrying a sword-stroke and thrust at the warrior, faking an attack. When he lowered his sword to parry her blow she quickly changed the direction of her thrust and cut him in the arm. He swore and dropped the weapon. Cat quickly moved in, drawing her knife and holding it to his throat.
“Hold still”, she warned, one yellow eyes glinting at him. “Tell me now – what’s going on?”
The warrior looked disdainfully at her. “You Leaping Panthers, you’re such fools. You don’t see the bigger picture…”
“The bigger picture?” she asked, frowning, pulling away from the others while holding the man close to her. “What are you talking about?”
“We know who we serve – and it’s not a puppet string emperor who does everything for fear of a ruthless priestess…”
Bel! Cat thought. She felt a cold chill down her back. She’s in danger! “Tell me”, she snapped, tightening the hold on the warrior. “What is this? Is everyone in your squad in on this?” Para, she thought with a cold stab at her heart. The warrior smirked.
“Not everyone, but those who can’t be convinced to follow a more...” – he tilted his head to one side, smirking – “altruistic path, will die with the rest.”
“Shut up, you fool!” prince Harkaitz called behind him and stabbed the man in the back. The warrior gasped, eyes widening, before he fell limbless against Cat. Cat immediately let go of him and engaged in swordfight with two other Cobras.
“Stabbing your own people!” Cat shouted to the prince, glancing at the warriors she was fighting and trying to keep them away from her. They pushed her towards the edge of the ridge. “And you still follow him?” she called out to the Cobras.
“Save your breath and fight!” one of them called back. “We are loyal to our master.”
Fanatics, Cat thought. Para is so not one of them. At least she hoped he wasn’t. In the next moment she was too busy fighting to think about Para. She had to fight to stay alive; she needed to see Bel again.
Even though she fought for her life and killed several of the warriors in the end they were too many; she lost her weapons and they beat her until she lost consciousness. Her last thought was of the High Priestess’ fingers touching her lips.
* * *
Why is she here? Bel thought, looking down at the unconscious warrior in front of her. They were locked up in a small chamber inside the cave system; an iron door with bars secured their prison.
When prince Harkaitz dumped Cat in the chamber he’d told Bel that Cat had asked for her before she was taken prisoner. “Maybe she’ll make you talk”, he’d said with a smirk.
Bel had been given some water and clean rags by a soldier and she carefully tended to Cat’s wounds. She’d had to undress the other woman to do so and thoughts of that early morning a week ago when Cat woke up at the altar came back to her. She’d undressed her then too, but with more urgency and without reflecting on what she’d been doing. This time she was gentler; taking her time with the buttons, carefully removing the torn, dirty fabric.
Cat had a lot of scars from previous battles; Bel inspected them as she cleaned the wounds. The woman’s body truly was beautiful, she caught herself thinking. Like a sculpture, she thought, remembering her words to Nidae. She gently traced the skin with her fingers, feeling the softness of the skin. It felt… nice.
Bel sighed and shook her head. Nidae could think what she wanted. It took more than a naked body to get Bel physically attracted to someone. She’d never… Fine, not never, she thought, correcting herself as a faint memory of a warm summer’s day surfaced within her. She’d been wandering in the jungle, contemplating some texts she’d read the day before, when she suddenly came across a naked woman bathing. She had immediately recognized her as Zelena and her first thought had been to call out to the priestess, but then something stopped her… Zelena had been rising from the pond, leaning backwards and wringing the water from her hair. The sun had been shining and her wet skin had been glistening.
Bel had felt something then. She had found the sight immensely beautiful and it had taken her several moments before she could turn away. For weeks afterwards she’d avoided the other High Priestess, finding excuses not to see her. Although Zelena hardly talked to her anymore either – they saw very little of each other despite being two priestesses serving in temples placed so close to each other.
At the time Bel had never been gladder that she could block gods and goddesses from her mind. If Nidae – or Fang, for that matter – had read her mind and found what Bel had felt watching Zelena…
Now, watching the unconscious warrior on the floor, Bel was thinking of what she’d felt when she saw Cat grin at her that other day. It had felt strangely similar to the feeling she’d had seeing Zelena bathe.
If the two events were connected she just had to ignore it, as she had with Zelena. There was no other way. Besides, just because I like her smile doesn’t mean I’m jumping into bed with her, she thought wryly. The thought almost made her laugh; contrary to what a great many people believed she didn’t lack self awareness or self irony. And she did have a sense of humor. Even if it might manifest itself at odd times, as Cat had pointed out.
Bel rose from the floor and began pacing the room. To see Harkaitz as the leader of those dead warriors had not really been a surprise to her. She’d suspected him of treason for a long time, although she hadn’t been quite aware of the extent to which he was willing to go to get even with his brother.
Harkaitz Qadir was the older prince – the older of the twins. When he was twelve he was involved in an accident at the palace where a child died in fire and Harkaitz was scarred for life. Harkaitz maintained he was innocent of the death of the other child, while Barac Wei, his brother, blamed Harkaitz for the fire. The child who died had been one of Barac Wei’s best friends. Bel had been told this by the emperor; it was the beginnings of a rift between the twin brothers. That rift increased when Barac Wei was chosen successor to the imperial throne instead of the true heir: Harkaitz.
Bel had suspected it was prince Harkaitz and his wife, Jaquana Naga, who’d been behind the death of the previous emperor, who’d died of an unexplained fever. Harkaitz had expected to inherit the throne, but was fooled at the emperor’s deathbed.
Harkaitz wanted power and wealth. He wanted to rule the empire, but the only way he could claim the throne now was through force. He had his army of dead warriors, and warriors who were very much alive: Bel had seen several with the mark of the Cobra on their hands. What the prince needed was power to control the deities and the Priesthood and Bel was the only one with enough knowledge to grant him such power. Except – she refused.
Bel could’ve broken free anytime she wanted to, but there was something she was waiting for. Harkaitz Qadir might be the one seemingly in charge, but he wasn’t a High Priest. Someone must have broken the connection between Nidae and her six days ago and also restrained Fang. Only a very powerful High Priest or Priestess could do something like that and Bel wanted to find out who it was.
A low sound behind her made her turn around and kneel at the warrior’s side.
“Careful”, she said softly. “You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
“Where… where am I? I don’t… remember.”
Cat opened her mismatched eyes and looked up at Bel. She inhaled softly when she noticed the priestess.
“Sshh”, Bel said gently. “You’re safe… for the moment.”
“What…?” Cat sat up and Bel watched her as she realized that she was naked – again. The warrior gasped, then looked at Bel with wide eyes.
Bel shrugged. “I’ve tended to your wounds… again.”
The younger woman looked down at her exposed body. “Really?” she suddenly said, looking up with a wide grin. “And here I was thinking you just couldn’t wait to get me out of my clothes – again.”
It was the second time Bel felt something lurch in her stomach as she met Cat’s smile. Luckily she was a woman used to hiding her feelings, so she kept a straight face as she answered: “Really?” At the same time arching an eyebrow at the warrior.
“Why not? I’m an attractive woman”, Cat said with a shrug and this time Bel struggled not to laugh.
“Uhum”, she said, pretending to hide a cough. She nodded towards the corner of the room. “Your clothing is there… There’s not much left of it, but I guess you’d prefer that to running around naked.”
“If I’d known you’d appreciate my form I surely would’ve”, Cat said and rose.
Bel mildly shook her head. “I’m not interested in your kind of games, kitten”, she said and Cat hastily looked at her before averting her eyes again. She went to get her clothes.
“I don’t know what you mean”, Bel heard her say as she dressed.
“I’ve heard about you. You conquer women as rulers conquer kingdoms. Well, I’m not interested. Especially not if you’re only looking for a challenge.”
Cat gasped and swirled around, looking at her. “Is that what you think?” she asked almost in a whisper.
“I don’t know what I think”, Bel said, realizing it was true. She didn’t know what Cat was doing with her; why she had followed her to the Vale of the Dead, or why she was looking at her like she did in that moment. “I don’t know you – there’s not much to think.” She hesitated. “You’re not supposed to be here, you know. You’re supposed to guard the princess. I asked you to…”
“I know, I know. Fine!” Cat threw up her hands. “I came to save you.” She looked around. “And a fine job I’m doing of it”, Bel heard her mutter.
“To save me? I ordered you to protect the princess. What was it that you didn’t understand?”
“I don’t follow orders very well”, Cat said, finally looking directly at her. “Look, the princess was fine and Katana and the emperor were only babbling about what was best to do… You could’ve died before…!” Cat caught herself.
“Before what?” Bel asked with a confused frown.
“Deyna is fine. I left her with Serafine, she’s…”
“That’s not the point”, Bel said sharply. “I left you in charge. I trusted you to care of her… If you can’t do your job…”
Cat seemed to clench her jaws. “Do you care at all that I risked my life for you?”
“Why would I care?” Bel asked, again confused. “I don’t know you. I didn’t ask you to come save me. As a matter of fact I wanted to be caught and you only made matters worse for me.” If he threatens to harm her how can I not give him what he wants? Bel thought. And how can I, knowing what the magic could do in his hands? “I can break free anytime I want to”, she added.
Cat blinked. “I don’t… believe that”, she said. “Why would you…?”
Bel sighed and shook her head. “Listen, kitten. I’m a priestess. It’s not what I am, but who I am. There’s nothing else that matters to me than to serve my goddess and the people of Goddara.”
“I don’t believe that”, Cat said again.
“Believe it. It’s true. I’ll die for my calling.” She knew that to be true; Nikka had told her so the first time they met. And somehow she sensed that the time was drawing near. “Kitten”, she said softly, moving towards Cat, suddenly feeling very protective of the younger woman. “You can’t change me.”
“But…” Cat whispered, lowering her eyes to Bel’s mouth as Bel stopped only a few inches from her. Bel noticed the look and felt a second, sudden lurching in her stomach – even stronger this time.
I do wonder what it would feel like, she thought distractedly as she watched Cat watching her mouth. If she kissed me… I wonder what that would be like…
Cat abruptly stepped back, looking up at her.
“No? So you like what you’ve become? Cold and indifferent to people…”
“That’s not who I am”, Bel said softly, slowly shaking her head. “You don’t know me well enough to say things like that.”
“But you’re allowed to lock Deyna up and accuse me of being irresponsible?” Cat spat, clenching her fists. Something in her eyes was at odds with her words and her angry manners, but Bel didn’t get it. She shook her head.
“I see there’s no use talking to you about this. Could you tell me if anyone is on their way to save… us?”
“I don’t know”, Cat said, shrugging. “And I don’t care. I have nothing to return to.”
Bel blinked. “What do you mean?”
Cat hesitated and seemed to regret she’d said anything. “I…”
“Oh, my!” Bel gasped, getting it before Cat had to explain. “You pushed Katana too far, didn’t you? Oh, kitten – why do you do things like that?” she asked softly.
“Stop doing that!” Cat said angrily.
“What now? Be nice to you? I thought you’d…”
“You’re not nice. You’re… You’re… Burning Bats and damn Snakes!” Cat threw out her arms, pacing restlessly around the small chamber.
“You got yourself kicked out of Panthera for my sake. Why? Was it worth it? No person is worth…”
“And what if I think you are? Huh?” Cat asked, coming to a halt before Bel. The warrior’s mismatched eyes burned with a strange fire. “You’re damned beautiful, do you know that?”
Bel blinked, not because of Cat’s statement – she’d heard that a hundred times before – but because for the first time in her life she felt something hearing it. “I know”, she said cautiously. “People have a tendency of reminding me about it. They want what they can’t have. Just like you”, she added, not knowing why.
“That’s not true”, the younger woman mumbled. “I…”
Bel tilted her head to one side. “What is it that you want, then?”
“I… don’t know”, Cat said lowly, but when she looked at Bel the priestess noticed an intensity in those strange eyes that she’d never seen in anyone’s eyes before. It was an intensity that seemed to eat at the other woman and Bel was not entirely unaffected by it.
“I’ve turned down more lovesick people than you can probably imagine”, Bel said slowly. “But I give you this, they usually leave me alone when they get to know me.”
Cat listened, focusing on her. “Get to know you?” she asked softly.
“Get to know what they think is me. I’m unfriendly towards them and they quickly lose interest.”
“I heard you laugh with Katana”, Cat said, almost as in an excuse.
“Ah, yes.” Bel nodded, smiling when she remembered what – or who – she and Katana had been discussing. “But you – you think I’m the most heartless person you know and you still come chasing after me. I grant you that, not many people would do it. I find it… sweet.”
“Sweet?” Cat made a face. “Sweets are for children.”
“And have you given me a reason to view you as something else?” Bel said, tilting her head to one side. “Carousing, breaking rules, seducing women with no care for their tender hearts…” She shook her head. “Irresponsible. These things are not the trademark of a mature woman.” Although, she thinks I’m beautiful, she thought distractedly, noticing how Cat again eyed her mouth. She felt a strange heat in her chest as she caught the next thought: I wish she’d smile again…
“Burn you, woman”, Cat muttered and turned away. She went to the iron bars and grabbed them until her knuckles turned white.
“That won’t do”, Bel said. “You’re not strong enough for that.”
“Where are we, anyway?” the warrior said, changing subject. She loosened her grip on the bars, but still held on to them without looking back.
“Inside the rocks, somewhere in the cave system.”
“Harkaitz Qadir put us here”, Cat said heatedly.
“Yes. He wants to rule the empire…”
“Fancy that”, Bel heard the other woman mutter. “And why are you here?” Cat suddenly turned around, looking angrily at her. “Why did he take you? What does he need you for? And what does he need Fang for?” She frowned, the anger lessening and giving way to confusion. “And how could he capture Fang? Fang’s a god, how come…”
“You don’t know much about the power of the Priesthood, do you?” Bel asked.
Cat shrugged. “I care little for the deities. I only learned to fear speaking ill of them”, she added. “My grandfather thought it would help me stay out of trouble.”
“Apparently it didn’t work”, Bel said dryly. “Fine”, she added when she noticed the look on Cat’s face. “If you calm down I’ll tell you.”
“I am calm!” the other woman exclaimed.
“Really?” Bel arched an eyebrow at her. “You can’t even stand still, trying to break those iron bars. No one has that kind of strength if they’re not a deity.”
“Fine.” Cat relinquishing and sat down with her back against the wall. “Tell me what’s going on.”