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 Seven – Death
Cat found it hard to concentrate on Bel’s words. She found it difficult to even be close to the other woman. The deities must have a good time with her – putting her in embarrassing situations together with the redheaded beauty. To wake up a second time half naked in front of the priestess – what were the odds? And the way the woman called her “kitten” – it wasn’t the same as in her dream, not as teasing. Instead there was unexpected tenderness in the priestess’ voice and in her eyes. Cat couldn’t stand it – her body reacted instinctively, probably still under the influence of the dream.
“I shouldn’t tell you these things”, the High Priestess said, looking reflectively at her. “But I guess you need to know – maybe you’ll listen to my orders the next time.”
“The next time?” Cat said, arching an eyebrow. Bloody Snakes – why must she be so beautiful? She tore her eyes from the other woman and looked out between the iron bars. “I was suspended, remember? For life.”
“We could probably make use of you somehow”, the High Priestess said lightly. “Now…” She silenced and Cat glanced at her against her will. “You know – you could’ve given me another reason why you came after me.”
“I could?” Cat asked.
“You could just have told me you wanted to repay me for saving your life.” There was a slight question in the priestess’ eyes. “Why didn’t you?”
“I…” Cat narrowed her eyes. “That wouldn’t have been true”, she said, shrugging.
“Oh, you’re brave and honest. I see why Katana values you. If you’d been a little more grown-up you would’ve taken her place as Captain by now. She has been expecting you to.”
Cat looked up, stunned to silence. “What did you…? No”, she shook her head, denying the implication behind Bel’s words. The thought had never crossed her mind. “I’m no… I can’t lead.”
“No, probably not”, the High Priestess said in a voice that made Cat blush in humiliation.
“Priestess”, she said, offended, and rose from the floor.
“My name is Badra Bellona”, the other woman said evenly. “My friends call me Bel and the deities call me Badra…”
“’Fighter of the Full Moon’”, Cat mumbled.
“That’s correct”, the priestess said, nodding. “Call me what you like. It seems you and I can’t get away from each other, so we might as well make the best of the situation. Sometimes our lives are in the hands of the Creator.”
Cat shook her head. “I’ll settle for ‘priestess’”, she said grumpily.
“It’s your choice”, the priestess said with a shrug. “The Naming ceremony is a good place to start explaining things”, she went on. “The deities claim us and Name us because they see what’s in our hearts. They see us, who we are and what we are destined to become… And sometimes those Names shape our lives.”
Cat nodded to show that she was listening, although her mind was drifting again. When Bel was gesticulating before the sleeves of her robe fell back and Cat had noticed something on her arms. It seemed to be dark spots of various sizes, tattoos, and Cat tried to figure out what they were meant to depict. But then – remembering her dream with a slight shiver – she knew: those tattoos were bats.
“People claimed by the Owl or the Horse are usually healers or teachers in some ways. People Named by the Tiger and the Cobra are usually warriors. But there are always people chosen to become priests or priestesses. If the person doesn’t know it herself it will be revealed at the Naming. If your Name had been Cath Chandra – Dark Moon, instead of Cath Ciardha, Dark Warrior – you’d have been a priestess.”
“And if Fang hadn’t claimed me I’d have been a priestess too”, Cat said, remembering. “All un-Named before the age of ten belong to the Bat and automatically become priests or priestesses.”
“I don’t understand why Fang claimed me”, Cat said frowning. “I’ve always felt I was closer to the Goddess than to Fang.”
“Yes”, Bel said softly, watching her with a curiously compassionate look. “I’ll get to that. I guess it’s time you know the truth.”
Cat felt a cold chill down her spine. “The truth?”
“Fang wouldn’t have chosen you if your nature had gone completely against his. You are in fact a panther, not a tiger, which made it possible for Fang to claim you. I’ll tell you about it, but first you need to understand a few things.”
She’s beautiful when she’s like this, Cat thought, watching the priestess. When she’s not heartless… She realized maybe Bel wasn’t heartless, she was just very – efficient. She was so brilliant that she probably forgot that everyone wasn’t as single minded as her. I need to show her there’s more to life than… whatever she’s living for.
“The deities have their power and it’s great, but they have weaknesses. In the past deities could rule like they pleased, either help mankind or completely destroy them. There was no end to their power. But because of the misuse of their power people began to experiment with how to stop them, or at least control them. Thus the Priesthood was created. People who learned how to bind a deity and to control them.”
“Like magic”, Cat said.
“Let’s call it magic for the simplicity. Yes – they developed magic. And it was a special magic, developed to control the deities. In our part of the world we’ve learned to live in peace with the deities, but in other parts of the world there are wars going on between deities and the Priesthood.”
“I never knew…” Cat frowned, thinking. “I mean, I know about the persecution of deities in kingdoms like Sum and Egara, but I didn’t know the Priesthood had such powers. That’s what happened to Deyna that other night, right?” She looked at the priestess. “Some from the Priesthood must have…” The thought struck her and she gasped. “Fang! Who would do such a thing? This means…” Treason! she thought.
“Yes – treason”, Bel said. “Deeper than prince Harkaitz’s. To have a Priest or a Priestess betray the empire, it’s…” She shook her head. “It’s more dangerous than you understand.”
“It’ll disrupt the order of the deities”, Cat whispered. “I understand.”
“No – see…” Bel hesitated. “There’s different ways for a deity to gain more power. One is for a fully Initiated deity to lay with someone of the opposite sex…”
“To have sex”, Cat said. “Deyna told me she’d lose her powers if she… But wait. You tell me if Fang sleeps with Deyna he’d win her powers?”
“That’s correct. If he slept with her before she was Initiated, which usually happens at the age of eighteen.”
“How does that work?”
“It has to do with energies. A fully initiated deity knows how to control – or master – her energies, while an uninitiated would mix her energies with the person she’s… having sex with. Deities know how to steel, or harvest, the energies of another. They also know how to protect themselves from being robbed of their energies.”
“So Mara harvested energies from Deyna’s sister? He became stronger because of it?”
“Oh, my. No wonder Fang likes his women. He must have stolen a lot of energies from a lot of… uninitiated.”
“Semi-deities. People like Deyna, not yet a deity but still with powers, are called semi-deities. What happens when a semi-deity like Deyna sleeps with someone is that their energies are transferred to the other person, even if it’s a human. A human who’s slept with a semi-deity might even experience an increase in power for a few days, but it usually goes away. And yes – Fang has grown in power over the years.”
“But he’s still not the most powerful deity. Right?” Cat glanced at the priestess, suddenly becoming very much aware of Bel’s presence again. She swore inwardly and moved away from the other woman, cursing her bodily reactions. She’d never felt so strongly for a woman before – not ever, except in her dreams. Snakes!
“The balance is held between the deities – they don’t really gain more power than any other by sleeping around like this. If they want to they could even transfer powers to humans – permanently. But they’d never risk that.”
Again the High Priestess was looking at Cat with a deep, disconcertingly tender look and Cat twitched a little, restlessly moving around the room.
“The Priesthood does more than control the deities – they can also support their deities, strengthen them with power. Sometimes the deities challenge each other, like warriors do. Either for fun, or for winning an argument or a favor. In such cases they can draw energy from their respective High Priest or Priestess.”
“And the deity with the more powerful priest wins”, Cat said, nodding. “I get it.”
“There’s more.” There was a grave tone in Bel’s voice that made Cat listen. “Ancient texts state that a particular ritual makes it possible to transfer the power from one deity to another by blood. A blood sacrifice. This would heavily increase the power of the deity performing the ritual. There are two different rituals to accomplish this – one simpler and one more complicated. The latter brings infinitely more power than the first.”
“What… would it mean?” Cat asked cautiously.
“It would mean that the deity performing the ritual would break the bonds of the Priesthood. He would become an Ancient Deity, one of those who were truly powerful and who not even the created Priesthood could control. It would be possible for him to rule the world with no one to oppose him.”
“Oh, Goddess of the Dark moon”, Cat whispered, paling. She suddenly realized what the High Priestess meant. “Fang”, she whispered. “That’s what they need Fang for.”
“Yes. And – the deity can’t perform the ritual on his own, he needs someone from the Priesthood to do it for him.”
“Who?” Cat looked at Bel and noticed the determined set of the other woman’s jaws. She felt a thrill of desire and power surge through her in a strange mix, distracting her for a moment. “Who is it?” she asked when she found her voice again.
“I have my suspicions, but I can’t tell yet.”
“Goddess”, Cat whispered. “This… We have to do something!” She looked at the High Priestess. “We can’t just… sit here”, she finished lamely, looking at the locked iron bared door. “Bloody mess”, she muttered.
“I wanted to find out who the High Priest was, but with you here it makes it a little risky”, Bel said dryly, eyeing her. “You ought to listen better to my orders the next time.”
“Well, if I had I wouldn’t have known these things”, Cat countered. “You wouldn’t have told me and I’d still be as ignorant like the rest of the populace. If you respect me enough to share things like that with me I’ll respect you enough to follow your orders… Maybe”, she added, crossing her arms before her.
“Really?” Bel asked, arching an eyebrow at her. “We’ll see about that. Come – it’s time we’re out of here.”
“What? And how would we do that – walk out the door?”
“Exactly”, the High Priestess said and turned to the iron door. “Some people believe the power of a High Priest lies in his staff – that the staff is charged with power from the deity and that the priest therefore is useless without it.”
Cat frowned. “Isn’t it so?”
“For some”, Bel said. “Not for me.”
In the next moment the whole iron door was ripped from the wall in a shower of stone splinters and thrown across the corridor on the opposite side.
Cat stared at the open vault as Bel stepped through the door and into the corridor.
“Are you coming? Or would you prefer to wait for the guards?”
“Huh…” Cat said, slowly following the priestess. “How… How did you…?” She gestured towards the iron door.
“Magic”, Bel said dryly. “Come on.”
Cat glanced over her shoulder at the ripped door as they went. If she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes she wouldn’t have believed it.
They walked along a narrow corridor, lit by torches on the walls. There were no guards and when they reached the end of the corridor Cat understood why: another iron bar door blocked their way. Cat glanced at the priestess at her side, but Bel didn’t even slow down: the door was torn from the wall just like the first one. On the other side a guard was knocked out when the flying door hit him. Another guard drew his sword and charged towards them.
“Do you mind?” Bel said, stepping aside.
“Not at all”, Cat said, feeling the blood pumping. She always looked forward to a fight and especially in that moment – to get release from the confusing physical attraction she felt for the woman at her side.
She stepped forward, wondering fleetingly why the priestess didn’t take care of the warrior herself if she could do a thing like that with the doors. Maybe she’s growing tired, she thought as the warrior rushed against her. She quickly stepped aside, concentrating on her opponents sword arm; he missed her by a fraction and she moved close enough to kick him across the abdomen. He flew across the hall and hit the wall beside Bel. Before he had time to recover Cat was at his side and knocked him unconscious, before she wrenched the sword from his hand.
“Not bad”, Bel said behind her. “You’re really good.”
Cat turned around with the sword in her hands. “How can you tell?” she asked wryly. “Because I won?” She suddenly got the feeling the priestess had stepped aside to let her fight the warrior just to see how good she was. Cat didn’t like being manipulated like that.
Bel smiled. “Katana has trained me a bit. I’m not as good as the members of Panthera, but I can hold my own. And I recognize talent when I see it.”
“Hum”, Cat said, warily looking around. There were no more guards ahead at the moment. “You said I deserved to know the truth about myself”, she said, remembering the moment in the cell. “You said you’d tell me…”
“I will, but we need to get out of this mess first. We’ll talk about it back at the temple.”
“If we return alive”, Cat grumbled. “Did you happen to see the assembled army outside? There are hundreds of those dead soldiers! Maybe even a thousand. There’s no way we can sneak past them…”
“We’re not going to”, Bel said with a chilling note in her voice. “Come”, she said and began walking. Cat followed with the sword in her hand.
“How are your wounds, by the way”, the High Priestess asked after a few moments. ”I don’t have Gebra’s healer hands, but I did what I could.”
Cat moved her shoulder. “Not too bad.”
“Hum. You know, if that arrow had been poisonous I couldn’t have saved you this time.”
“Fine, fine. I won’t come charging to save you the next time you get yourself abducted.”
“No?” Bel said and this time there was an amused hint in her voice. “I doubt you could stay away – I’m too beautiful. Right?”
When the High Priestess winked at her Cat’s heart stopped beating for a moment and she lost her breath.
“You…” She slowly inhaled, regaining her composure. “That was a joke”, she said slowly.
“Yes… Maybe I should give you a heads up before the next one.”
“Please…” Cat said, still stunned.
“Fine… Here’s one. If you come charging to save me I’ll just get the pleasure of undressing you again. I doubt any woman had the pleasure of doing that to you more than once.”
When Cat blushed the High Priestess laughed, confusing Cat even more.
“You are a wicked woman”, she said.
“So they say”, Bel agreed. “No one ever said I was nice.”
“No”, Cat said wryly, getting into the mood. “I haven’t made up my mind about that part yet.” She grinned. “But if you wink at me one more time I might be tempted to believe you’re flirting with me, priestess.”
She hadn’t really expected the priestess to respond to that, but she did: she laughed a second time, again causing Cat to reevaluate her opinion of her.
“That’d be the day”, Bel mused and Cat wondered at the fleetingly appreciative expression in the woman’s eyes as she watched Cat, before she turned away and resumed their walk. Cat followed in confused silence.
They were discovered by a small group of warriors further down the corridor, but Cat fought them off, taking great pleasure in seeing the appreciative expression in Bel’s look as she watched her fight.
Cat couldn’t say how long they moved in the narrow corridors, but she sensed they were moving closer to the surface. Finally they reached an opening letting in daylight. It turned out to be a ledge several hundred feet across the ground. A small footpath was leading upwards, towards the ridge where Cat had been taken captured, but otherwise the ledge ended abruptly in a dangerously steep slope before them. They had full view of the valley and of the assembled army below. The warriors filled the whole gorge; their armor and weapons glistened in the late afternoon sun.
“They’ve seen us”, Cat said, noticing a few warriors pointing up at them. She looked around, but couldn’t find the prince or any of his men in the army. “We need to get back in”, she added. “Priestess…” she said when the woman at her side didn’t move. “We need to…”
A noise behind her made her turn. Another group of warriors triumphantly grinned at her in the opening to the tunnel.
“There’s no place for you to run”, one of them said.
“Priestess”, Cat urgently said. “Step back from the…”
Just as she took a step forward to engage in combat a wall of fire sprang up before her, separating her from the warriors in the tunnel. She heard them scream in rage and pain behind the wall and wondered what was happening. The flames covered the whole opening and were so thick she couldn’t see through them.
Cat turned at the mention of her name, glancing at the priestess. Bel was standing close to the deep slope with her arms raised before her at the waist.
“Priestess?” Cat said carefully. There was a distant look in the other woman’s eyes – as if she transported from reality.
“Now you’ll see why people fear me”, Bel said in a noncommittal, detached voice. “Know the power of the High Priestess of Nidae!”
Cat would live a long life. She would travel the world in a lonely quest, searching for the one thing she’d lose because of a broken promise. She would see many strange things and meet many powerful people, but she would never forget the power of the woman she’d fallen in love with.
There it was, the Power. The truth Cat had been looking for – the answer to the question why the High Priestess of Nidae was so feared. Not because she was a woman serving a powerful goddess, but because she was powerful in herself. She served the goddess because of who she was – and Cat finally understood that part. It didn’t mean she could easily accept it.
In the valley below, great lines of fire suddenly shoot up from the ground: walls of fire, with flames licking the sky. Loud thunder was heard, mixed with the roaring from the fire. Gusts of winds swept amongst the lines of warriors and threw them high in the air, crushing them against the ground when they fell down again.
The whole Vale of the Dead was turned into a battlefield and Cat was swept back in time, to the memory of those battlefields where she’d fought and killed. She remembered the screaming, the noise of weapons, and the smell of blood. It was the same in that moment: she heard the soldiers scream and could sense their fear. She knew they weren’t alive, those soldiers below her – dead people raised to be used as warriors – but she felt for them anyway. They didn’t stand a chance against the raging fires, the thunder and the tearing wind.
“I’ve done this once before”, the High Priestess said beside Cat, as she gazed at the mayhem she was creating. “When I was sixteen the former leader of the White Tigers brought me to the boarders of Egara, where the emperor was losing a major battle against invading forces. This is what I did to protect my people – the people of the Goddess. I saved the Empire of Kellara.”
It was said without vanity; it was a simple statement of fact. Cat swallowed, realizing what danger their empire had been in if the woman beside her hadn’t decided to humble herself to serve the people – but instead wanted to conquer. She remembered something her grandfather had once said: “Great power must come with great love – otherwise it will corrupt everything in its way.”
Cat stared at the chaos before her, where hundreds of warriors were being conquered as she watched, and tried to comprehend the whole situation. As she looked out at the valley a movement above her caught her attention. She turned her head and noticed a group of warriors fighting atop of the ridge – and she recognized a few of them. Bats and Snakes! she thought surprised.
The fighting warriors consisted of two groups, one dressed in yellow and green – the colors of prince Harkaitz – and the others were Leaping Panthers. Cat recognized Serafine and Deyna amongst them. The princess was dressed like a Leaping Panther in black leather and fought skillfully side by side with the gray eyed woman.
Cat glanced at Bel. “I have to go”, she said urgently. “Please trust me”, she added before she rushed off, following the footpath to the crest. She reached the top of the ridge and threw herself into the fight, making her way towards the princess. Her fellow members of Panthera greeted her as they noticed her arrival.
“What are you doing here?” Cat called over the battle noise as she finally reached Serafine’s side. “Both of you?” she added as Serafine glanced at her.
“Fighting”, the princess called back. “What does it look like?”
“She’s gonna kill us all for this!” Cat said. “By the blood of the Bat – why…?”
“Could we discuss this later?” Serafine asked, dodging a blow from her opponent’s sword. “We’re not all as multi-skilled as you.”
“It’s her eyes”, Deyna amusedly said, grinning at the other woman. “Cat’s only part human.”
“Tell me about it”, Serafine said, faking a sigh.
“You’ve bonded”, Cat said dryly, narrowing her eyes at the princess for a brief second. “But you haven’t… you know. Have you?”
“No.” Deyna shook her head, swirling around to parry a blow from a warrior attacking her back. She disarmed him and knocked him unconscious with the hilt of her sword. “We decided to wait”, she added as she looked down at the fallen warrior; it was the last of them. She looked up, grinning at Cat. “Hi – aren’t you glad to see me?”
“Devastatingly”, Cat said, lowering her sword. She glared at Serafine and Deyna, before she glanced at the handful of Leaping Panthers that moved about amongst the fallen warriors. “Why are you here? Sera, you were supposed to protect her! That means keeping her out of trouble, not bringing her into it.”
“Actually…” Serafine said, but was interrupted.
“Don’t blame her. I ran off from the palace to find you and… and the High Priestess”, the princess said. “Serafine followed me with the rest of these…” Deyna gestured towards the female warriors.
“Ran off? You ‘ran off’? And where were you?” Cat pointed at Serafine. “How could you let her run away like that? You were supposed to…” She silenced and clenched her jaws. She had no right to accuse Serafine – especially not for something that was her own fault. “What happened?”
“We followed you here and then we were attacked by… these warriors.” Serafine looked down at the mass of bodies. “They…” She caught herself as she suddenly noticed what was going in the valley below: fire and smoke rose from the vale; people were still screaming and dying.
Dying anew, Cat thought wryly.
“Goddess!” Serafine whispered. “What’s…? By all deities! What is that?”
“An army of dead being consumed by the wrath of a High Priestess”, Cat said evenly, trying to sound casual about it. In reality she was nothing but. No wonder she thinks me a child, she thought distracted.
“Wow!” Serafine whistled. “That’s really awesome…” She turned to the princess. “Could you do that too?”
“My powers are a little different”, Deyna said. “But if I wanted to…” She shrugged. “Although the High Priestess says I should never use my powers for personal gain or for killing… if there’s no other way.”
Cat only listened with half an ear. She was watching Bel on the ledge further down; wind was playing in the priestess’ hair, lifting it from her face and pulling at her robe. Cat had found Bel beautiful to begin with – as always appreciating the beautiful shape of the woman – and then the dream had turned her fancy into something else, something she couldn’t control and wasn’t even sure she wanted to be a part of. It was one thing to be attracted to a woman, something else to be attracted to someone you didn’t even know – just because a stupid dream affected you. Now, in that moment as she watched the High Priestess, she realized there was more to Bel than what outer appearance suggested.
I need to get to know her, Cat thought. I must find out who she is.
“Cat?” Serafine said.
“Huh?” Cat said, looking away from the High Priestess. As she did so she became aware of a small troop of warriors galloping towards them. She squinted against the low sun and then, realizing what she was seeing, she threw herself in front of the princess. “No!”
“Cat!” Deyna called in desperation, also noticing what was going on.
Maybe there won’t be time to get to know her, Cat heard herself thinking. Well, at least I’m dying doing my duty.
She should have died. The troop galloping towards them were enemies and one of them aimed a longbow in their direction. If he was strictly meant to kill Deyna she was unsure, but he aimed at her and Cat… Cat did her duty and stepped before the flying arrow. Her thoughts were again of Bel and she wondered with an inward grin if the priestess would undress her a third time.
Then her thoughts were cut short and she screamed in agony as Serafine hurled herself before her. The arrow took the gray eyed woman straight in the chest. A second arrow followed closely, taking her in the side – probably piercing her lung.
“Sera…” Cat whispered, kneeling at her best friend’s side. Deyna fell on her knees close to her.
Cat looked up at the warriors racing towards them and found they had come to an abrupt halt: the group seemed to be frozen in time, unmovable – like riders on a painting Cat had once seen in the palace. Bel, she thought.
Another party with only a handful of riders was coming their way, but they were close enough for Cat to recognize Para among them and she relaxed, again looking down at Serafine before her.
“You…” the gray eyed woman whispered, touching Cat’s cheek. “You’ve saved me so many times, it was my turn now…”
“Sera…” She could hardly breathe for the pain. “Don’t leave me… What – what will I do without you?”
“You’ll live… You always do…” Serafine closed her eyes. “Cold, Cat… It’s so cold.”
Beside her the princess was crying silently; tears wetting her cheeks.
“We’ll – we’ll meet again, Cat…” the dying woman said, looking up again, trying to smile. “I’ll care for you, the way you’ve cared for me in this life… We’ll be sisters and friends again – one day.”
“Don’t talk, Sera… Please, don’t talk…” Cat stroked the woman’s hair, a desperate gesture to keep herself calm she realized.
“Deyna…” Serafine whispered. “Deyna… I’m so… sorry…”
Deyna took the warriors hands between hers. She didn’t say anything, she only sat quietly – crying in silence as the life went out of the woman before her.
Gray eyes glazed over, staring up at the sky.
“No. No, come back to me – come back…” Cat pushed the princess aside and shook Serafine’s lifeless body. “Don’t go! Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me…” She held the body close to her, crying against Serafine’s hair.
“Cat”, Deyna softly said, touching her shoulder.
It took a moment for Cat to realize they were no longer alone. She gently put down Serafine’s body and looked up at the riders before her. The Leaping Panthers that had come with Serafine and the princess stood behind Cat and Deyna, silently looking down at the dead warrior. They would grieve later and honor their dead friend.
“Cat…” Para said, stepping off his horse with a helpless look on his face. Cat reached out for him and he grabbed her arms, holding her for a moment and looking at her, sharing her pain. “Are you ok?”
Cat nodded with a deep breath. “I’m fine”, she said, drying the tears from her cheeks.
She looked up at the riders still on their horses. Cat recognized one as Zelena, High Priestess of the Tiger. Another was Derac, the High Priest of Nidae... Serafine’s brother.
“I’m so sorry”, Cat said, looking at him. He was watching his dead sister with a blank face, but behind the determined set of his jaws there was deep pain in his gray eyes. A pain that mirrored Cat’s own.
The High Priest nodded at Cat’s words, but he didn’t take his eyes from his sister.
“Derac”, a dark skinned woman at his side said and put a hand on his arm; Cat didn’t know who she was. “You are allowed to grieve…”
But Derac shook his head. “It was my fault. I was too late. I’m not… I’m no warrior – I should’ve…” He silenced and Cat noticed the guilt in his eyes.
“This wasn’t your fault”, she said. “They…” She gestured towards the frozen warriors farther away. “Those are to blame.”
“I’m no warrior”, the High Priest said again. “A warrior would have stopped them earlier…”
“You couldn’t have known”, the woman at his side said gently.
“I should’ve known… She… She gave her life for the fight. What did I ever do?” There was bitterness in his voice and Cat found it hard looking at his face.
“Don’t do this to yourself, Derac”, one of the other riders said, moving his horse forward. He was a heavy man, with wild hair and beard, dressed in furs. “There’s no use blaming ourselves for what others do…”
“Don’t tell me what to do!” the High Priest snapped. He turned around in the saddle and gestured towards the frozen warriors. Cat realized it was his magic that had stopped them and not Bel’s. Then she realized what he intended to do.
“No!” she called at the same time as Zelena spurred her white mare.
“No – hold, Derac!” the High Priestess called, riding against him, but it was too late.
“Let them burn – all of them…” His voice was even, noncommittal, and Cat watched in horror as the whole party of warriors were lifted through the air and thrown down into the valley. They came alive as soon as they were in the air and fell towards the fires below. Horses and men were screaming alike.
What did you do? Cat thought shocked. Derac… Derac was the nice priest, the one who’d never harmed a fly. The one people loved for his gentle ways and caring manners. Goddess…
“Look!” Deyna called, pointing down the gorge.
“Oh, Bel”, Zelena gasped. “Thank the Goddess…”
Cat watched as the whole party of warriors spinning in the air was caught by an invisible force and moved away from the fire. They were put down a safe distance from the chaos reigning in the valley, but were still held by invisible shackles. Only the horses were free to go.
“She had no right…” Cat heard Derac mutter. A sudden, chilly wind swept across the ridge and the blue sky turned abruptly dark – covered by heavy clouds. Thunder was heard.
“Derac! Control yourself!” Zelena shouted through the heavy wind.
The heavy man behind Derac didn’t bother with words – he simply lifted his staff and knocked the High Priest over the head with it. Derac fell forward over his horse – unconscious.
“That wasn’t necessary, Bjorn”, Zelena said, glaring at the man.
“No? Would you want to argue with Bel when she’s in a mood like that? Derac’s almost as strong – he just never uses his powers like this.”
“Pray Bel never feels that kind of pain or rage”, the dark skinned woman at Derac’s side said and supported the High Priest so he wouldn’t fall off the horse. Something in her voice made the others look at her.
“You’ve Seen?” Zelena asked lowly and Cat gasped as she finally understood who the unfamiliar woman was: Nakkara Rim, the oracle.
“I have”, Nakkara said, nodding. “It might still happen, depending on…” She hesitated and glanced briefly at Cat, before looking away down the valley. “Depending on other things.”
Zelena too looked down the valley.
“I’m so sorry about your friend”, the oracle said to Cat. “But you’ll see her again. You’ll be true family one day.”
Cat nodded, wanting to ask what the oracle had seen, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted to know.
“Princess”, Nakkara said, looking at Deyna.
“Your father has gone mad because of you, my dear”, the heavily furred man said. “It’s about time you return. The spell is broken and you can use your powers again… As soon as we find the rogue we’ll be heading back. This…” – he gestured towards the Vale of the Dead – “is the business of warriors and politicians.”
“The rogue?” Cat asked.
“Fang”, Zelena said dryly, turning back towards them. “Bjorn has something against my pretty god.”
“Humph”, the furry man said.
“What did you mean, the spell has been broken?” Cat asked with a frown. She glanced at the princess. “Is it the same as at the brothel?”
“We should not discuss this here”, the oracle said. “I believe Bel is done. Let’s wait for her.”
“The Cobra Squad is on its way”, Para told Cat. “And a large amount of the White Tigers. I was allowed to move ahead together with the High Priests… and the women.” Para glanced cautiously at Nakkara and Zelena. “Things have happened at the palace…”
“Serafine saved my life”, Deyna said, looking down at the dead woman before them. After a moment she kneeled and closed Serafine’s eyes.
“What do you mean? What happened?”
Deyna silently looked up and it was the oracle who answered.
“There was a traitor among the Priesthood”, she said, holding Cat’s gaze. “He was attacking the princess and Serafine killed him. He’ll…” The oracle hesitated and her eyes glazed over for a moment. When she looked back at Cat she said: “He’ll be her enemy one day, trying to kill her. He will fail, but then he’ll come for you. Beware he who changes his face as he changes clothes…”
And how will I remember that warning in another life? Cat thought, but nodded. “Who was he?”
“Sadly, he was my chosen successor”, the man called Bjorn said. “He was named Cub.”
“I knew him”, Para suddenly said and Cat noticed the sharp expression briefly shown in the eyes of the oracle as she looked at him. She frowned. “He was a good friend of mine, I can’t believe…”
“Believe it”, Deyna said sharply. “He put a magic spell on me and tried to stab me.”
“Maybe he was under a spell”, Para stubbornly maintained, glaring at the princess. “You couldn’t use your powers on the way over here, right? That must mean another priest somewhere was affecting you.” He glanced down the valley, adding lowly: “Or a priestess…”
“Enough”, Zelena said. “This is not the proper place to discuss this – or the proper people.”
Cat noticed a flash of anger in Para’s eyes, but when he turned back to the High Priestess and nodded in submission it was gone.
* * *
Bel let the fires die out. The Vale of the Dead was now truly devoid of vegetation: the whole interior of the gorge had been scorched with her fire, leaving only blackened ground. A few warriors were still alive – those who’d been alive from the beginning. There were only a few dozen of them, including the one’s Derac had attempted to murder by throwing them into the fire.
The sky had cleared again after the High Priests storming rage. Bel wasn’t sure what had happened to Derac; if he willingly had let go of his anger, or if someone had stopped him. She hoped for the first. She didn’t know what had happened to make him so angry either – she fervently hoped it had nothing to do with Deyna. Or Cat, she thought, thinking of the warrior with the mismatched eyes.
“Fang?” she asked in her mind, hearing the god’s voice. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. Thanks to you, my pretty… I have something for you.”
Bel left the ledge and went back into the rock. She felt the vibrations from Fang and knew how to find him now when the spell from the unknown enemy was broken.
There had been a battle of wills between her and the High Priest who’d captured Fang. The priest had put a magic web across the whole valley, trying to prevent Bel from using her powers and also binding Fang or any other deity coming close to the valley. To begin with Bel had only sneaked beneath her opponent’s magic web, using her powers of Air to rip open the iron doors to free herself and Cat, but when she reached the ledge she needed to challenge him in order to use her powers more fully. As she stood on the ledge she directed her mind against him – sensing his energy – and broke his hold on the valley and on Fang at the same time as she killed off the dead warriors below.
I know you now, she thought as she hurried through empty corridors. With the army gone the small amount of living soldiers would have found themselves some safety and the High Priest was probably on his way to Egara with prince Harkaitz.
It wasn’t until she reached Fang’s cell she realized she’d been wrong. Behind the open door to the small cell where the god had been kept prisoner two men were waiting – three with the god.
Fang stood proudly with his arms crossed – completely naked – and stared at the prince in the doorway to the cell. Behind the god, in the shadows, lay a motionless body.
“Zelena is on her way”, Fang said as soon as he noticed Bel. She nodded, staring at the dead body behind the god. Even though it was conventional for the Priesthood not to kill there were no such restrictions on the deities: they were free to do what ever they pleased with humans, although it wasn’t considered polite to kill them off – it had a tendency to decrease the number of followers.
Looking at the dead body of Snoek, Mara’s High Priest, Bel couldn’t blame Fang for killing him. The priest had probably put him through torture, planning to kill him. She had always thought Snoek reminded her of an insubstantial shadow, sneaking along the walls in his temple and in the palace. He looked even more like a shadow in that moment, dead and gray – melting into the background and into the shadows behind the victorious god.
Bel raised her eyes and looked at the prince beside her. Harkaitz Qadir – his Name meant powerful rock and she thought he looked like one in that moment – stood straight in front of Fang, looking straight ahead of him. His face didn’t show any emotions, but when he turned his face towards Bel his eyes shone with a burning rage.
“You! Always you!” he hissed. “I’ll get you for this”, he added in a seething voice. “I swear on my soul that one day I’ll steal away the very thing that means more to you than life itself. Then you’ll know pain.”
“Save it, prince”, she said coldly. “You’ll be a slave for life after this.” She nodded at Fang. “You’re binding him?”
The god nodded. “He’s not going anywhere. I wanted to kill him, like that pathetic scum…” He spat at the dead High Priest behind him. “But I thought better of it.” He grinned at her. “I knew you’d want him alive.”
“Thank you”, she said wryly.
“You think all of this is over, don’t you?” the prince said. “It’s not. It has only just begun. You don’t know what’s coming…”
“Who are you working for, Harkaitz?” Bel asked, but he spat before her.
“I’d never work for anyone”, he said and she knew it was true; he was too proud to work beneath someone.
“So Snoek worked for you?” she asked and noticed a slight flicker of uncertainty in Harkaitz’s eyes. It told her something important. “No, you believed he worked for you, didn’t you? You just found out he didn’t…”
“Snakes are double-crossers by nature”, the prince said. “I should’ve known.” He glared at Bel. “But what harms you and my brother is good for me, even if I’m dead and gone when it happens.”
“Your family is in on this?” Bel said, considering the beautiful Ravena and her brother. “You’re wife?” She doubted Ravena knew anything of what was going on, but the other two…
Harkaitz smiled wickedly. “What do you think, priestess? You can never prove anything. You can’t ever know.”
Bel turned around when she heard Zelena’s voice behind her. Before she knew it the other woman was hugging her.
“Thank the Goddess you’re alright! I was so worried.”
“Oh, thanks… I think”, Bel said a little confused. There was something in the High Priestess’ eyes as she looked at her… In her mind she heard Fang chuckle. “What?” she asked him. “What are you laughing at?”
“Don’t you know it yet?” the god answered as the room suddenly was filled with people; Bel had to move a few steps aside as she recognized Bjorn and Nikka entering. Harkaitz stood rooted to the floor, held by Fang’s powers. “Haven’t you figured it out, after all these years? The reason why she avoids you?”
“What are you talking about?” Bel asked impatiently as she at the same time felt relieved at seeing the oracle again.
“She has it hard for you, priestess. She’s been crushing on you for years…” Fang chuckled as he sensed her shock. “And you feel nothing. You’re heart is truly made of stone…”
“I belong to the Goddess”, she sent, struggling with the unexpected revelation. Zelena? she thought, incredulously. Again she heard the god chuckle within her.
“Bel?” Zelena asked worriedly.
“Zelena – what happened to Derac”, Bel asked, breaking the contact with the Tiger.
“Oh, he… His sister died.”
“Oh, no!” Bel gasped. “Serafine? But she… The princess!” She grabbed Zelena’s arm. “Where is Deyna?”
“Don’t worry, she’s safe”, Zelena said calmly. “She’s here, but she’s safe.”
“Maybe safer here now, than at the palace”, Bjorn said behind her. Bel looked at the High Priest.
“What’s happened?” she asked.
“We found the traitor”, he said and beside Bel prince Harkaitz huffed. Bel quickly glanced at him and then back at Bjorn.
“What do you mean?”
“The priest who blocked Deyna’s powers was Cub, my chosen successor”, Bjorn said softly. “I should’ve known…”
“Cub…” Bel whispered, thinking of the nervous young man with the stutter. “I knew there was something foul about him”, she said, “but I don’t believe he was the only one. Have you seen this?” She stepped aside and let them take a look at the dead High Priest. Zelena gasped when she saw him.
“Snoek! You killed him?” she accusingly asked Fang, who looked a little chastened.
“He was about to kill me. If Bel hadn’t broken his hold on me he would’ve succeeded. I have a right to defend myself”, Fang added sulkily.
“Come – let’s get out of here”, Bjorn said as Zelena kept staring at the god. “They’re waiting for us.”
“They?” Bel asked.
“Bor and his warriors and Hades and some of the Tigers. They’ve caught Harkaitz’s soldiers.”
Bel looked at Harkaitz and nodded.
“It’s over, isn’t it?” Fang said with a grin. “We saved the Empire. I’m a hero. Come, you scum – you’re coming with me.”
The god lifted Harkaitz over one shoulder and carried him away with him. Bjorn followed with Snoek’s dead body.
“’We’ saved the empire?” Zelena said in disgust. “That god’s ego is unbelievable …”
“It’s not over”, Bel mumbled as she followed Zelena out of the cell. Zelena glanced at her over her shoulder, but didn’t ask anything. Bel thought of Fang’s words and found it difficult to meet the other High Priestess’ gaze. Luckily Zelena averted her eyes first.
“Of course it’s not”, Nikka said at her side. The first thing she’d said since meeting Bel again. “That’d be too easy.”
“This is a mess, Nikka.”
“Yes, it is”, the oracle agreed. “And the worst is yet to come”, she added softly.
Bel walked thoughtfully beside the oracle as Zelena moved ahead to catch up with Bjorn.
“Nikka”, she said after a moment. “I think the deities need to move out of Goddara. They need to go into hiding with their High Priests and Priestesses. No one will ever believe this isn’t over, you know that. I might not even convince Barac Wei and Cara that worse things will come. Two priests and a prince that turn out to be traitors…” She shook her head. “No one will believe we are still in danger.”
“You might be right”, Nikka said.
“I know I am, I don’t need your gifts to see this. The deities are in danger as long as we don’t know who’s really behind all of this.”
“You know, don’t you?” the oracle glanced at her.
“I suspect, but that’s not the same. Harkaitz was right – I can’t prove anything, I can never really know. Which means I can’t take action. And with Egara on the move…”
“The emperor has already sent most of his soldiers to the boarders, yes... The time is drawing near”, Nakkara Rim said in her oracle voice and Bel felt a shiver down her spine. She knew what end her friend was talking about. She chose not to think about it.
“What about Derac, Nikka? What happened to him? I mean, sorrow is one thing, but to kill someone in cold blood…”
“Go easy on him, Bel. It could’ve been you.”
“Me? No – I’ve killed, but in defense. Not like that…”
“One day you’ll know. Someone…” Nikka silenced. “One day you’ll understand. In another life Harkaitz will take someone from you. You’ll…”
“And I’ll know pain”, Bel whispered, remembering the prince’s words. “Oh, Goddess! Will it go so far, Nikka?”
“I can’t tell. The future changes with our choices… Right now that’s what I see. Be gentle with Derac, one day the roles might be reversed.”
“I’ll try”, she said distractedly. “Why must there be so much death? Why can’t we break the chain?”
“It’s our choice, Bel. Always our choice. Sometimes we have to fight, and sometimes we have to let go… And most of the time it’s too difficult to know which choice is the right one.”
Bel sighed. “Fine. But we need to get the deities to safety. Let’s start there.”
Part Eight – Loose ends
Cat had thought the High Priestess would rebuke the princess as soon as she saw Deyna, but she didn’t. When Bel reached the ridge in company with the oracle she only passed them with a short nod and a distracted look.
“She didn’t even see me”, the princess complained, looking after the High Priestess and the dark woman at her side. “She doesn’t care a bit about me.”
Cat shook her head. “She does”, she said, following Bel with her eyes. She had learned something about the priestess that day. “She just... lives on a completely different plane of existence from us. She’s on another level...”
“Why are you defending her?” Deyna said, glaring at her.
The two of them were standing together with Para and a group of Leaping Panthers, away from the rest of the mass of people that had turned up after Zelena and Bjorn had decided to check out the caves. Fang had apparently called his High Priestess and asked her to come to him.
Hades and a large group of the White Tigers where there, followed by Bor and his Cobra Squad. Katana had, according to Para, stayed at the palace with the rest of the Leaping Panthers. There had been some disagreement between Bor and the Captain and Bor had lost, which meant he had to leave the protection of the Imperial Couple to Katana.
“Yeah, and what does it mean: ‘she’s on another level’?” Para asked annoyed. “It doesn’t give her the right to behave as if she’s better than the rest of us.”
“She doesn’t”, Cat said. “She just...”
Para looked at her as if she’d completely lost it. He’d been testy since he arrived and for some reason that Cat didn’t understand it had to do with the argument between Katana and Bor and the revelation that Harkaitz was a traitor.
“Look – it’s just her ways, alright. A warrior doesn’t stop to consider if it’s right using the sword in the middle of a battle, right? She’s the same and she fights a battle we don’t understand. Leave her to it.”
“You can’t mean that!” Para strongly objected. “You freak – don’t you get it? She wants to control us all...”
Cat blinked. Para hadn’t called her a freak in a long time – since she kicked his ass when they were children. They’d been friends since then. She frowned worriedly at him and noticed the wondering look Deyna was giving him.
“I’m sorry, Cat, I didn’t...” Para sighed, pulling his fingers through his hair. “I didn’t mean that... I’m really sorry. I’m just...”
“Para – what’s going on?” Cat asked concerned. “Is it... Sera?” It hurt asking – it hurt thinking about the woman who was still lying on the ground some hundred feet away, surrounded by guarding soldiers. It hurt mentioning the other woman’s name, but Serafine and Para had known each other too. Although they had never really been friends sudden death could still have an affect on people.
“No. No, it’s not... that. I...” Para shook his head, looking at Cat in defeat. “I asked Ravena to marry me.”
“Oh!” Deyna said, surprisingly enough. Para glanced at her for a brief moment, but then looked back at Cat. Cat felt a moment’s disorientation, caught by complete surprise. She involuntarily glanced over her shoulder at Bel. The High Priestess was in conversation with Bor and Hades and it seemed to be a heated discussion, but when Cat turned to look at her Bel suddenly silenced and glanced back towards her. Their eyes met and Cat felt a pang of something in her heart, something glowing and melting at the same time. Bel nodded towards her, but then returned to her discussion.
“What did she say?” Cat asked Para.
“She said she’d give me her answer when I returned. But now, with her father...” Para shook his head again. “I can’t believe it, Cat. Ravena can’t...”
“I don’t believe my cousin has anything to do with her father’s betrayal”, Deyna said assuredly. “Harkaitz has always envied my father, but Ravena is not like him. If she loves you it shouldn’t make a difference, either to you or to her.”
“I’m not so sure she loves me”, Para said, lowering his gaze.
Cat wasn’t either; Para had always fancied Ravena, like most men did, but he didn’t know her very well. Ravena didn’t know him very well either. Besides, he was a commoner – she was nobility. It wasn’t certain that they would even be allowed to marry.
“Why would you want to marry her then?” Deyna asked, confused.
“Have you never wanted something so much it didn’t matter in how you got it?” Para asked.
“Huh”, Cat said, involuntarily thinking of Bel. Deyna glanced at her, but Para nodded thinking she was agreeing with him.
“See! I don’t care if she doesn’t love me, I just want... her.”
“That’s not... right”, the princess said, frowning.
Cat thought of Bel and wondered if she’d be satisfied with an arrangement like that and realized she wouldn’t. She wanted Bel to feel about her the way she felt about... She blocked the thought. That would never happen. She realized that now and, besides, she was still not sure Bel was such a nice person.
“I don’t care”, Para was saying. “Her father gave me his permission, but now...”
“Yes – it does present a problem”, Cat said, glancing at the imprisoned prince between Zelena and the High Priest of Beorn. Harkaitz looked ready to commit murder, glaring at Bel.
A few feet from Zelena the oracle was tending to Derac, who sat on his horse cradling his head. Cat wasn’t sure he was hurting because of the head wound the other High Priest had left him, or because of the loss of his sister. Probably both.
“What are the High Priestess and Bor arguing about?” Deyna asked, frowning.
“I don’t know”, Cat said thoughtfully. As she watched Bel the High Priestess turned away from the Chief, shaking her head.
“I better get into line”, Para said, noticing the look the bald man directed at them. “I’ll talk you later.”
“Good luck with Ravena”, Cat said, still feeling strange about picturing Ravena and Para together. Not that she begrudged Para the happiness of marrying the woman, but she had always thought Ravena would end up with someone more... glamorous. Para was... nice, but that was all. He was a nobody, basically. No hero, no flashy warrior taking risks. He was just... plain. He was too insecure to make a name for himself, always following orders and not thinking for himself. Those were good qualities in a subordinate warrior – and he was skillful with the sword – but Cat didn’t think it would be enough for Ravena. She didn’t want to see him hurt down the line.
“Princess – warrior...”
Cat almost jumped when Bel suddenly was standing right beside her; Para had returned to his Squad.
“Priestess”, she said as Deyna was nodding and fidgeting a little with the hilt of her sword. Cat knew the girl enough to know she was nervous in Bel’s company; afraid she’d be getting yelled at, probably. Not enough attention, or the wrong kind of attention, Cat thought, considering Deyna’s relationship with the High Priestess.
“Deyna – you’ll stick with Fang and Zelena on the way home”, Bel said, looking at the girl. “I heard you’re parents are quite mad at you. They’ll deal with you when we get back.”
“I could fly home...” Deyna said.
“No!” Bel said immediately, sharper than she had a right to, Cat thought, watching her. “No, you ride with us.”
“Why? I could...”
“Deyna”, the High Priestess said warningly and the princess blushed, both in humiliation and frustration Cat realized.
“No, High Priestess”, the girl mumbled.
“Trust me, princess”, Bel said curtly. “This is for your own good.”
Deyna clenched her jaws and Cat thought she was going to protest, but then the girl nodded and moved away.
“Go with her”, the High Priestess said, addressing the members of Panthera. “Watch over her.”
They nodded and moved as one after the girl. Cat noticed the grimace on the princess’ face.
“Why?” she asked softly as Deyna was moving out of earshot. “Why don’t you let her fly home on her own? She could handle it. You’ve caught the traitor...”
“This isn’t over yet, Cat”, Bel said concerned, watching Deyna. “Her life is still in danger.”
“What... do you mean?” Cat asked. Bel looked at her, eyeing her closely as if to judge her worth.
“These people”, she said finally, “they were just bait. Remember I told you about two ways to increase a deity’s power?”
Cat nodded. “Yeah?”
“Those are rituals that need to be performed either during a dark moon or during full moon.”
“It’s full moon in thirteen days”, Cat said.
“Yes, but it doesn’t make sense…” The High Priestess shook her head. “Never mind. Just trust me, alright. I can’t prove anything, but it’s not over.” She glanced over her shoulder at Bor, who were busy instructing his warriors. “I noticed the tattoo on your friend’s hand. He’s a Cobra…”
“Yes”, Cat said. “How so?”
“Some of Harkaitz’s warriors were members of the Cobra Squad. Traitors…”
Cat gasped, realizing what the High Priestess and Bor had been arguing about. “Para would never…”
“I didn’t say he is a traitor”, Bel said, turning back to her. “I’m just telling you to be careful. Bor denies all association with those members who helped the prince – and they’re all conveniently dead, so we can’t question them about his involvement. He denies having anything to do with them – even going so far as to say he’d excluded some of them from his Squad the other week.”
“I believe that’s true”, Cat said with a light frown. “Para told me about it.”
“That may be as it is, but he hasn’t convinced me of his innocence.”
Cat shrugged; she had never had much contact with the Chief of the Cobra Squad. “My friend is not involved”, she said assuredly. “He may not be the biggest supporter of the Imperial Court, but he’s no traitor.”
The High Priestess nodded. “The matter of Bor’s innocence is a question for the emperor. I hope he’s wise enough to know what he’s doing. I’ll at least keep an eye on him.”
“Was it wise to confront the Chief like that?” Cat asked with a frown. “If he is guilty…”
“I don’t like games”, Bel said. “There’s too much of that going on at the palace. I’ve played the game for years – it’s like fencing. Sometimes the best way to get a proper understanding of a situation is to attack. Now he knows that I know – and that’ll make him nervous.” Bel looked at Cat, holding her eyes. “Remember that about me. I don’t like games. I like it when people are straightforward with me. If they are – then I’ll be straight with them.”
Cat nodded, wondering what that had to do with anything. “Uh, and you tell me this because…?”
“Because you play games with women. I’m not one of those women”, Bel said.
“Oh, that”, Cat said softly. “Right, I’ll remember that”, she mumbled, averting her eyes. She wanted to tell the High Priestess she wasn’t in it for the game. Granted – she had chased a lot of women in her day for the fun of it. This time wasn’t one of those times. If she had been able to forget about the High Priestess she gladly would have, but she couldn’t. Flaming Feathers and flapping Bats…! she thought, grumbling in her mind.
They stood in silence for a moment and Cat wondered if she was supposed to excuse herself and leave, but she found she enjoyed the other woman’s presence too much.
“I heard about your friend – Serafine”, Bel said softly after a moment. “I’m sorry…”
“I…” Cat swallowed, not prepared to deal with the grief in front of the other woman.
“I know”, the priestess said and reached out for her. “I know...”
Bel touched her arm and Cat silenced, suddenly lost in a dream. I know her, she thought. I know this woman as I’ve known no one else...
Every touch, every movement... She suddenly realized it wasn’t her imagination or her mind that played tricks on her. She truly knew the High Priestess – from her dream. She knew her as a long lost lover who’d returned to her. She knew Bel’s touch, her kisses, the way her body moved, her scent, the way her hair moved... Every detail from Cat’s dream was true and her body, her mind – even her soul, if that was possible – screamed for her to be with this woman again. To take her in her arms and relive those moments in her dream.
It was the familiarity that drew her to the other woman, but also something else: a desperate need to regain those moments from her dream. I’ve made love to this woman a hundred times, she thought. A hundred times – and it was like the first time every time, at the same time it was as if she’d never done anything else in her life than to make love with this woman.
No wonder her body reacted the way it did to the other woman’s touch. No wonder…
“You asked me to trust you”, Bel said, changing subject. “I’m glad I did. Trust you, that is. If you hadn’t asked me I wouldn’t have let you go, do you understand?”
Cat shook her head. “No...” she said, confused.
“I was going to tie you by my side with magic when you said you were going – up there on the ledge. But you asked me to trust you...”
“So you let me go...”
“And from what I understood that saved Deyna’s life. I’m glad...”
Cat wished the priestess would take a step back; she could hardly think straight, as it was with the woman so close.
”I’m truly sorry about Serafine, but…” Bel hesitated. “I’m glad it wasn’t you. I’d have missed you…” she added softly.
”Um, thanks”, Cat said. I guess, she thought, a little confused by the priestess’ sudden concern for her wellbeing. “Uh, I think I have to…” She looked around for a reason to leave the High Priestess; she couldn’t stand being so close to her anymore, “talk to Deyna. Yeah, that’s it… I have to talk to the princess. See you later.” She needed all her self control not to take the other woman in her arms and pull her close to her.
“Now? Aren’t you at least curious about…?”
“Later. Fine. Bye”, Cat said hastily, gesturing.
Cat rushed off without another word, leaving an unusually unruffled priestess confused behind her.
* * *
When they reached the palace gates in Goddara early in the morning Bel looked around for Cat. The warrior had been good company on the eight day ride and the two of them had finally managed to have some decent conversations. Cat turned out to be funny and intelligent beneath her rough exterior and despite her arrogant manners. She had even admitted that Bel might not be as wrong about some things as she’d first believed – although she didn’t say what those things were. She also seemed to listen when Bel tried to explain things to her, instead of jumping to quick conclusions.
If she just didn’t have the annoying habit of disappearing in the middle of a conversation, Bel distractedly thought, trying to find the warrior among the masses. There was something twisting within her as she thought of Cat, something that she didn’t want to admit. A sense of… liking. She liked the other woman and had come to look forward to their discussions.
When she first realized that Cat could’ve died that day on the ridge instead of Serafine something had clenched inside her – something pressing on her chest and twisting sharply in her heart. The realization had concerned her, because she hadn’t understood its meaning. Why would she care so much for a woman she didn’t know? There hadn’t been an easy answer to that question, so she’d decided she’d get to know the woman. Just to learn something new about herself.
As it turned out, after these eight, intense days she’d spent with Cat riding beside her she was no longer entirely sure she’d been honest with herself before. Again the thought of Zelena’s naked body had come to her and again the lurching emotion the sight had brought with it returned. It was similar to what she felt when Cat grinned at her.
Some parts of Bel warned her about spending too much time with Cat and almost implored her to avoid the woman instead, as she had done and still did with Zelena, but the small part that objected was so intense she couldn’t ignore it. She wanted Cat by her side, even if they didn’t talk – the presence of the other woman was enough to… to calm her mind.
The thought worried her. She never needed anything to calm her mind before. As a matter of fact it was Cat’s absence that distressed her.
Stop this foolishness, she sternly told her self.
Bel looked down from her red horse and noticed Katana at her side.
“Goddess – it’s good to see you again!” the Captain said. “Nidae found me and let me know what happened.”
Bel nodded; the Goddess had informed her of this. “Did she tell you?” she asked lowly. “It’s not over?”
“She told me”, Katana said with a grim face. “I didn’t think it was. Something’s up with Bor… I didn’t want to leave him with the Imperial Family.”
“You did the right thing”, Bel said, nodding. She looked around, but she and Katana stood alone while the rest of the company continued up towards the palace; only the oracle came up to them. Bel pretended to ignore a sudden flash of disappointment when she spotted Cat beside Deyna and the warrior didn’t even glance in Bel’s direction. Though that could have something to do with the presence of the Captain.
“Captain…” Nikka said as she reigned in her horse beside the warrior.
“I saw Fang”, Katana said. “What’s with him, anyway? He seemed gloomier than usual.”
“It probably has something to do with the fact that Zelena just told him he had to evacuate…” Nikka said.
“Evacuate?” Katana said with a frown.
“It’s still a secret, so don’t speak too loudly about it”, Bel said. “We need to get the deities out of Goddara. I believe their lives are in danger.”
“Goddess!” Katana whispered. “Are you serious? And I just thought it had to do with the imperial throne…”
“I believe it’s both”, Bel said thoughtfully. “Any way, Fang doesn’t want to leave his girls…”
“Foolish god! He’d risk his life for sex?” Katana shook her head. “Will he ever change?”
The question apparently brought a Sight to the oracle, because Bel noticed that Nikka’s eyes glazed over.
“He will, but…” The oracle’s voice was distant. “I See – his life in another time… He’ll be human then – carousing; spending his father’s money and shaming his father’s name. A woman will come and bring him immortality, make him… a dark god. A monster.” Nikka silenced, lost in the Sight for a moment. Then she said: “When he regains his soul he will need to atone for the terrible deeds he’s done.”
“Serves him right”, Katana said dryly.
“You’ll work with him then. Just remember – although he won’t be human when you meet you can still trust him.”
“Trust Fang? Trust this…” The Captain waved her hand, lacking words. “He’s unpredictable. There’s nothing to trust. He’s nothing more than an animal and I’m not dealing with him.” Katana determinedly shook her head.
“That remains to be seen”, Nikka said softly.
“We need to meet with the Imperial Couple immediately”, Bel said, changing subject. “There’s a lot to discuss.”
“And I’ve got my renegade warrior to take care of”, Katana said with a sigh. She looked at Bel. “Tell me she made a difference?”
“I believe she did”, Bel said. “Go easy on her.”
“That’s just it – I can’t. I have my rules, just like you do. I can’t retract my word.”
“I know. I let her know maybe I can offer her something if you don’t take her back.”
Katana nodded. “That’s good. She’s a good soldier, just…” She made a face. “She’s just so damn…” The rest of her words died away in a mumble as she turned away.
“Come”, Nikka said softly. “Let’s meet with the emperor.”
The first meeting concerned prince Harkaitz’s treason. The Imperial Couple were present and so was their son, heir to the throne; the three of them were seated on a dais below high glass windows in red and green.
The Priesthood were gathered and stood separated on each side of the dais: five in a line to the left and six with Bel on the right. All of them were dressed in red robes with their staffs in their hands, sternly waiting for the judgment of Harkaitz Qadir.
The large chamber was filled with guards: White Tigers lined up along the walls with swords at their sides or spears in their hands. Some members of the Cobra Squad were also present, together with their Chief; Bor was standing straight backed together with Katana, Nakkara Rim and Hades, leader of the White Tigers.
Harkaitz was standing before the dais, his hands tied before him; he was guarded by two White Tigers. A few steps behind him his wife and two children stood together. Ravena was dressed in red and her brother in red and black – the colors of the Cobra Squad; the first seemed worried, the second only angry and bitter, as if it was he who stood trial. Their mother was dressed in red and white; a dress with short sleeves showing the tattoos on her arms. The tattoos matched those of the empress Cara: three ravens in flight, the sign of the Covent of the Black Feather.
The members of the Covent were witches, initiated in Earth magic and sworn to heal and protect the people of Goddara. The Empress used her powers for the good of the people, bestowing blessings such as good crops, healthy cattle and healing the sick, but Bel had always suspected Jaquana Naga was using her powers to gain riches for herself and her husband, thwarting Cara’s intentions and perverting the powers of Earth by dabbling in black magic. Her Name meant Snake Soldier and Bel guessed the woman had closer contact with Mara than any of them let on.
”We’ve heard all parties and have been fully informed about the events of the past weeks”, the Emperor was saying. His face was stern and his eyes hard; signs that he was about to do something he didn’t want to. Bel knew Barac Wei well, but she didn’t have to be particularly insightful to know what it cost him to sentence his own brother.
”My brother’s treason has been duly proven and my hands are tied in this matter. There is no way for me to show mercy, even if I wanted to.”
Harkaitz snorted disdainfully, smirking at his brother, but remained silent.
”Herby I sentence Harkaitz Qadir, my beloved brother, to lifetime service in the silver mines. Let him be a slave.”
”’Beloved’?” Harkaitz spat. ”You never loved anything but your place on the throne.”
”No!” Jaquana exclaimed, trying to rush forward. She was held back by two guards. ”No, not the mines, your Highness…” she sobbed, kneeling pleadingly before the dais. Bel eyed her closely; there was pain showing in her face and tears on her cheeks, but her eyes were hard. Bel hoped Barac Wei wouldn’t be fooled by the tears of a woman, especially not a witch’s tears. She glanced at the emperor and noticed the determined set of his jaw.
To be sentenced as a slave in the silver mines was the harshest punishment one could receive: one hardly survived more than two years in the caves. It was a death sentence in itself – a very long and painful one.
”We have spoken”, the emperor said. ”Our decision is final.” He looked around and his eyes fell on Ravena and Rhais behind Jaquana. Bel noticed a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes before he clenched his jaw and went on: ”Further more – as there is no proof that my brother’s family were involved in this treason against me, and neither is there any evidence to the contrary, we will pass another command. Therefore, from the day before next full moon, Harkaitz’s family will be stripped of all their power and wealth – nothing will be left to them, not even the Name of the Imperial Family. As of that day my brother’s wife and his two children are nothing more than beggars, left only with a few valuables to prevent them from starving to death. They are to be exiled from this empire in five days.”
Bel tried hard not to show her surprise and she heard Varga, High Priestess of the Wolf, gasp in shock by her side. The punishment was fitting if Harkaitz’s family was involved in his treason – but very, very harsh if they were innocent.
”Nidae”, she thought, calling to the goddess. ”What made him make such a decision?”
”It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” the goddess retorted. ”You don’t believe they are innocent…”
”Still – Barac Wei… I didn’t believe he had it in him. The silver mines are harsh enough…”
”Cara influenced him a bit. She doesn’t trust Jaquana – and she fights for her children too.”
”Your Highness…” someone said and Bel noticed Cat’s friend, the warrior she called Para, step forward. He had a concerned and injured expression on his face.
”No!” Jaquana screamed, rushing up from the floor and drawing the attention from the young man. ”No – you can’t do this!” The woman’s face was contorted in rage, so much so that her eyes seemed to flame. Bel sensed a slight madness behind the woman’s outburst. Witchcraft could be dangerous and claim the soul of the practitioner if the person dabbled in things she didn’t understand. Bel had the feeling Harkaitz’s wife had searched too deep for power, now balancing on the verge of an abyss of insanity.
”No! You’ve stripped him of everything, stealing his life, his name, his power! Now you’re taking his life and ours!”
”Mother…” Ravena stepped forward, trying to calm her mother, but Jaquana slapped her across the face.
”Useless! You were always useless! Powers you have, but no will to use them.”
”Mother!” Ravena gasped, holding a hand to her cheek.
”Your brother… Your brother knows what side to take.” Jaquana turned back to the dais. There was something in her eyes making Bel prepare herself, tightening the hold on her staff.
”You!” Jaquana pointed at Barac Wei with burning eyes. A few feet away her husband glanced at Bel with a triumphant grin. She could see he was mouthing something to her.
”I’ll get you…”
Harkaitz distracted her for a moment, which was probably his intention. In the next instant Jaquana made a flowing gesture with her arms, directing a force of dark energy against Barac Wei. The energy flow was invisible to the untrained eye, but if it hit the emperor it would cause immediate death.
”No!” Zelena called, reaching forward and throwing her Fire to interrupt the negative flow, at the same time as Bel directed her Air around Barac Wei to protect him. Jaquana’s flow was broken and slid off the emperor without causing him any harm.
”No!” the witch seethed. ”You…”
”You are bound”, Derac said and stepped forward. His Air bound the witch’s power and her hands to her body. His face was stern; harder than Bel had ever seen him. ”Your powers are bound. And I believe you’ll be accompanying your husband to the silver mines…”
”No. I’ll get you”, Jaquana spat, glowering at the emperor. ”I’ll hunt you down in every life from now – I’ll never let you rest. For all eternities and in all worlds I’ll find you and make your life a living…”
”Enough!” Bel stepped forward and gagged the woman with Air, effectively silencing her. ”Take them away”, she said, gesturing towards the guards that had rushed forward to hold Jaquana. The woman’s eyes burned with hatred and madness.
”We’ll get you”, Harkaitz said, looking at Bel. ”We’ll get both of you… in the end.”
”And we’ll wait for you and thwart your evil ways”, Bel said, before silencing even him with Air.
As everyone was staring at the couple taken out of the room Bel had a nagging feeling that there was something she’d forgotten. Someone was missing, someone’s presence she hadn’t sensed since… The thought hit her and she swirled around.
”No!” she called, seeing Ravena’s brother standing at the foot of the dais. In the tumult caused by his mother’s actions he’d been forgotten. Everyone’s eyes had been on the prince and his wife as they were lead from the room and Rhais had taken the opportunity to sneak up behind the dais unseen.
A knife was flying through the air, straight at the chest of Barac Wei’s son and heir. Bel quickly called upon Air and Fire to capture the knife, but before she had the time the knife fell useless to the stone floor with a clinking sound.
“Don’t touch my son!” Cara called, rising from her stone chair. It was her witch powers that had interfered with the killing and prevented the knife from reaching its goal.
Rhais didn’t stop to exchange pleasantries with the rest of them as his mother had done, but rushed passed the dais and threw himself through the high glass windows before anyone had time to react.
“Rhais!” Ravena called, stunned and distressed at the same time. Her scream mingled with the noise of broken, falling glass. Red and green shards, reflecting the sun in beautiful sparks, fell through the air to the floor.
“Get him!” the emperor demanded, rushing up from his seat. “And get the two of them out of here!” He gestured towards Harkaitz and Jaquana, whose almost identically smirking faces were turned towards him from the entrance.
A few members of the White Tigers pulled at the traitorous prince and his wife, while a larger group rushed out of the guarded doors to catch Rhais. Some followed Rhais through the open windows, although the fall to the terrace below was quite high.
“They won’t get him”, Nikka said, coming up at Bel’s side. The High Priestess turned to her.
“No? Can you see where he’s going?”
“No.” The oracle shook her head. “I can only see that he’s escaping.”
“The Empress reacted quickly”, Katana said, joining them in company with Hades and Derac. Bor was talking to Cat’s friend Para, who was holding Ravena close to him in a protecting manner.
“He’ll kill her… one day”, Nikka said in answer to Katana’s statement. “Rhais. His soul won’t forget… or forgive.”
“Madness”, Bel said. “All this madness – so much hate and rage. I think Jaquana has lost it. Did you see her eyes?”
“Madness is no excuse for killing”, Hades said, vigilantly looking around the chamber. A group of his White Tigers had encircled the members of the Imperial Family, forming a tight formation around them. “They had all the opportunities in the world, all the wealth and the power…” Hades shook his head. “And look at them. Look at what they did. For what? Because of a title, because they felt slighted, cheated of a position they would have corrupted in any case? No, power is a privilege, not a right – and anyone in power ought to use if for the good of the people. To fight for what’s right and to protect the innocent, no matter the cost to themselves.”
“That easy, huh?” Zelena said behind him. “You were always a dreamer, Hades.”
“Maybe, but if I was to lose my mind over something it would be love – not power.”
“And a romantic too”, Katana mumbled good-naturedly.
“Hades Shamdar”, Nikka said softly. “The Unseen Sword – one day you’ll strike in the dark and lose the one you love…”
He looked intently at her with sharp, piercing eyes. Bel had always liked the man for his righteousness and faith in his own abilities. In some ways he reminded her of Cat. “Maybe”, he finally said. “But I’ll never kill innocents.”
“No”, Nikka said, still softly, shaking her head. “No, you won’t.”
Hades nodded at Bel. “I need to see to my men. I’ll catch up with you later.”
The group dispatched, but Nikka held Bel back, discreetly showing her Ravena and the member of the Cobra Squad that held her in his arms. Bor had left them and Para gently guided the beautiful woman out of the room.
“Bel – that man, he wants to marry her.”
“So?” Bel asked. “Do you think Barac Wei retracts his punishment for Ravena?”
“Maybe – if she marries. She’s innocent in this, but… She can’t marry that man.”
“Why not?” Bel frowned, seeing Para and Ravena disappearing out of the chamber together with the rest of the Cobra Squad, leaving only some White Tigers and the Priesthood in the room with the Imperial Couple.
“He’s her brother.”
“What?” Bel hissed and grabbed the oracle’s arm. “Nikka!”
“I’ve known for years, but I never thought…”
“Goddess!” Bel whispered, suddenly realizing she could see Harkaitz traits in the younger man. She remembered she’d found him familiar when she saw him the first time. “Oh, my…”
“They can’t marry, but you can’t tell either of them the truth.”
“Why not? Do you think they’ll listen otherwise?”
“Something bad will happen if you do. I don’t know what, but…” Nikka shook her head. “Don’t. You know, he’s as much heir to the throne as Rhais if Barac Wei’s son dies…”
“You really think…?” Bel whispered, thinking of Cat’s faith in her friend.
“I don’t know, Bel. I can’t… See, but he mustn’t know.”
“Fine.” Bel nodded. “I’ll see what I can do”, she said. “Why… How come he doesn’t know who he his?” she added thoughtfully.
“Later, Bel. We need to focus now.”
“Bel.” Nikka looked at her. “I mean it – you need to focus.”
“I’m focusing”, Bel said, frowning. “I’m always focused.”
The oracle watched her intently for a few moments before she nodded. “Keep it that way.”
Part Nine – Confrontations
Cat waited for Katana at the Captain’s private chambers at the ziggurat. She had left a message for the woman at the barracks that it was important they met. Cat hadn’t expected the Captain to turn up right away, but it was two hours before Katana found Cat in her private gym and before that Cat had even taken the time to eat and to get a bath.
“Cat”, Katana said as she strolled into the gym, resembling an annoyed feline in her movements. The Captain wasn’t raised in the ways of the deities in Kellara and thus not Named according to their traditions, but Cat had always been sure that if she had been, she too would have been claimed by Fang – or maybe by the Cougar.
Cat was standing before the Fighter’s Ring in the middle of the chamber – where Katana once had defeated the previous Captain and become the new leader of Panthera. The rest of the room was filled with weapons for practice and equipment for military exercises.
“Captain”, Cat said without moving.
“I heard you were looking for me. Waited long?”
There was a casualness to Katana’s way of moving and to her way of talking that immediately alerted Cat and she straightened her shoulders.
“Not too long.”
“We’ve been to trial. The prince has been sentenced. If you’re interested.”
She was, but she didn’t let it on. “Oh. Yeah…”
“His wife tried to kill Barac Wei and Rhais tried to kill Barac Wei’s son. Jaquana is in custody, but her son is still on the loose. If you happen to see him, do us all a favor and kill him.”
Cat blinked and didn’t know what to say. “Rhais? A traitor? I can’t… I can’t believe it”, she mumbled, but she had never liked Ravena’s brother to begin with. Ravena… “How’s Ravena?” she asked.
“I believe she’ll be fine. Barac Wei might reconsider lessening the punishment he put on her due to her parents actions, but…” Katana shrugged. “Otherwise your friend Para will be able to care for her. If that’s what she wants.”
Cat nodded thoughtfully, she didn’t understand what was happening – politics wasn’t her thing. Rhais – a traitor? Even though it was hard to believe she wasn’t really surprised. “And… the High Priestess? Is she fine?”
“Of course she is. Bel was never in any danger. She’s with the rest of the Priesthood right now, meeting with Barac Wei and Cara.” Katana stepped forward and came to a halt before Cat. “Why did you have to follow her, Cat?” she asked sincerely. “Why did you have to go against my orders? I can’t take back what I said.”
Cat straightened her back even more, holding the Captain’s gaze. She’d been thinking carefully of what she was about to say since Bel had said those things to her when they were locked up together in the Vale of the Dead. The High Priestess had talked about Katana’s expectations on Cat.
“I’m not asking you to take me back. I want to Challenge you.”
Katana didn’t seem surprised. “Really?” she said, eyeing Cat narrowly. “Are you sure about this, soldier?”
Cat nodded. “I am.”
“Fine. You’re gonna lose, Cat – just so you know it.”
Cat clenched her jaws. “We’ll see about that”, she said, barely hiding a growl.
“I see you’re still angry with me. Fine. Let’s enter the ring and have it over with. Swords?”
“Staffs”, Cat said, nodding towards the wall to the right of them, where a row of staffs were lined up. “I wouldn’t want to accidentally cut you up.”
The Captain smirked, but then nodded and loosened the belt with the sword from her waist. Then she went to the wall and picked two staffs. Cat released her own belt and let it and the sword slip to the floor, before she entered the ring.
“So, it has finally come to this”, Katana said as they stood facing each other a moment later. “Honestly – I believed you’d have challenged me long before now.”
“Honestly”, Cat said, weighing the staff in her hands, “the thought never occurred to me before now.”
“It was Bel who put you on this track, wasn’t it?” the Captain said, smiling. “I think she’s curious about who’s the best.”
Cat didn’t answer, but she stiffened a little at the thought of the High Priestess playing her like that.
“Any last words before we begin?” Katana asked.
“There’s nothing more to say”, Cat said. They’d known each other for a long time: Katana had been her tutor, turning into a leader, turning into a friend and now… A rival.
“You’re right – there isn’t.”
They attacked at the same time, swinging their staffs. Cat barely dodged the blow the blonde warrior directed at her as Katana swiftly jumped to avoid the blow Cat aimed at her knees. The Captain was quick in returning the blow, but Cat rapidly blocked the attack against her chest and regained her balance, which she had lost a moment before. She followed up the block with a swift swirl of her staff, forcing Katana to retreat a few steps.
“You ought to have chosen the sword”, the Captain said. “You were never that good with the staff…”
“I don’t see you winning”, Cat said, twirling the staff.
“Bel’s beaten me, you know. She’s a true fighter with the staff, did you know that?”
The news took Cat by surprise. Bel had said Katana had trained her, but she’d also said she wasn’t that good. Maybe she’d meant with the sword.
“No”, Cat said lowly. “I didn’t know that.”
“So – let’s see if you’re as good as she is.”
Katana attacked and forced Cat backwards for several feet. Before Cat regained her composure the Captain hit her on the upper arm. The blow struck a nerve and she dropped the staff. The next blow was aimed at her head. She quickly dodged it, cradling her arm close to her, inwardly swearing to herself. The staff went over her head and she heard the swishing noise it made; it would have cracked her scull had it hit her. Goddess! she thought, suddenly realizing what she’d gotten herself into. She rolled over, grabbing her staff as she went and came to her feet with it in her hands.
“Close”, Katana said.
“As close as you’re coming”, Cat said, feeling the battle pulse speed up. She grabbed the staff and steadied her stance. “Come again, Captain.”
“With pleasure”, Katana grimly said.
The fight went on. Cat couldn’t tell for how long, she lost sense of time as she parried, thrust and moved around in the ring. It had only happened a few times before that she’d met someone so well matched to her own skills and when she had she’d mostly survived because of luck – or some mistake that her enemy made. Somehow she didn’t believe the Captain was going to make a mistake.
As Leaping Panthers both of them had extraordinary speed and strength as warriors. All true members of the pack were Initiated by the Goddess – a process by which they were given extra physical powers. It was the same for the Cobra Squad, but not for the White Tigers. The Tigers were common warriors; there were too many of them to make them special in the way the special forces of the Snake and the Bat were.
Cat had often fought other members of Panthera – or even members of the Cobra Squad – in training sessions, but never in a serious fight. Not like the one she was in now. She finally understood what Katana was: a true warrior, born to fight. Like Bel it wasn’t something she did, it was something she was.
Me too, Cat thought determinedly. I’m a true warrior too. She’s trained me to be one.
But to be a leader wasn’t all about the fight or the power. It was about leading; guiding people, being in charge, making decisions others didn’t have to. It meant responsibilities. It meant she couldn’t rush off whenever she wanted to…
Cat dodged another blow against her knees. It was the third in a row, Katana must be tired. When Cat thought about it the Captain did seem a little slower in her movements. She decided to use it to her advantage and quickly attacked Katana in a blurry motion, moving so quickly it was difficult to see what she was doing. In the next moment she’d knocked the staff from the Captain’s hands and felled her flat out on the floor. Grinning down at the other woman, with sweat and blood dripping from her face, she pointed the end of the staff against Katana’s throat.
“Not yet – you must knock me unconscious…” the Captain said. She looked pale and she was bleeding from a cut on her cheek, blood blurring the tattoo, but her blue eyes were still as determined as before.
“No problem”, Cat said and swiftly lifted the staff to follow up on her words. In the next moment, so fast she didn’t see it coming, the Captain kicked her feet away from under her, grabbed the disregarded staff a few inches away and… The world went dark before Cat could even feel the pain.
When Cat woke up Katana was sitting a few feet away, crouching on her heels with the staff resting across her thighs.
“By all the deities…” Cat mumbled and touched her forehead with a painful grimace.
“Too impatient – as always”, the Captain said, rising from the floor. She threw away the staff, looking down at Cat with superiority. “I’ve always told you you’d make that mistake one day…”
“You tricked me”, Cat mumbled. Her head hurt badly and her fingers touched something sticky; they came away with blood on them.
“You’d better take care of that wound. Don’t want you to bleed to death.”
Cat looked up. “Do you even care?” she spat, angry and humiliated. “I’m the better fighter!”
“How dare you ask if I care?” Katana snapped. She took an angry step towards Cat and gestured towards her; a gesture of one hand that Cat had learned to recognize over the years. “You – you were the one that broke the rules! You refused to obey my orders! And you blame me for it?”
“You don’t understand”, Cat sneered, trying to get to her feet. Her head began throbbing and she sat back down.
“No? Try, tell me then. Tell me, so I can understand – because I’m really, really trying to understand why you’re acting like such an idiot! You may be stronger than me – and maybe even better with the sword… But I won, Cat. You lost – because you as usual let your feelings rule you. A leader can’t rush forward like that. It takes more to be a leader than to be a warrior – and you…” It was Katana’s turn to sneer. “You’re just not ready to be a leader.”
“I could’ve learned!” Cat exclaimed. “I would’ve learned!” She struggled to her feet.
“Yeah, if you’d waited a few years.” Katana sighed. “Why, Cat?” she asked again. “Why did you have to do it? I don’t want to exclude you, but you left me no choice. Why did you have to rush after her like that? She wasn’t even in any real danger.”
“And how was I supposed to know?” Cat grumbled, tenderly touching her head, and winced as she felt the pain shoot through her head.
“You could’ve listened to me!” the Captain cried out. “You could’ve listened for once!”
“I couldn’t!” Cat retorted. “I just couldn’t, ok?” She sighed. “You don’t understand, I…” She silenced, shaking her head.
“Oh, by the goddess!” Katana suddenly gasped, staring wide eyed at her. Cat noticed the understanding in her blue eyes. “You’re… You’re infatuated with her!” The Captain whispered. “Goddess – Cat…!”
“I can’t help it, alright! Bats and bloody Snakes!” Cat turned away, too ashamed to look Katana in the face. She hadn’t wanted the Captain to know… She didn’t want anyone to know. It was enough Deyna had guessed…
“Cat”, Katana whispered. “Oh, Cat…”
“Don’t sound like that!” Cat spat. “It’s not a fleeting infatuation. I’m… I’m…” I’m completely lost, she thought helplessly, staring at the Captain without finding words to describe what she felt.
“Do you know how many men and women have tried to seduce her, Cat?” Katana said softly, compassionately.
Cat shook her head, but not in answer to the Captain’s question. “I’ve tried so hard these past days not to like her, Katana”, she whispered. “This goes deeper than any infatuation I’ve ever had. I’ve dreamt about her for years. I mean, really… I just didn’t know it was her, you know. And now… I can’t get her out of my head. I don’t even like her.”
“You don’t?” Katana asked, again softly. “She’s a nice person, you know…”
“No.” Cat shook her head, slowly because of the pain. “Don’t say that. I can’t… If I admit I like her, if I admit she’s nice, even for a second then I’m…” Then I’m lost forever. Then it’s real and nothing dreamt anymore… Then I can’t go back and not deny it again.
“I understand”, Katana said slowly. ”But Cat – she is a very nice person… And you can’t have her. Ever. You must know that.”
“I do. I do, but I can’t… Katana – I don’t know what to do!” Cat said pleadingly. “It’s all so forbidden and… and…” She swore, breathing heavily.
The Captain regarded her in silence for a while, before she said: “I’ve never seen you like this. Of course I’ve seen you frustrated because of Ravena’s games, but not… quite like this.”
“It’s just not physical, Captain. You know?”
There was an odd, sad expression in Katana’s eyes as she nodded. “Yes. I do know”, she said softly, barely audible. “Go now, Cat. Get that wound tended to and then find Bel. Tell her the truth if you can – or make up your mind not to. But whatever you do – it has to end here. Do you understand? You need to focus on protecting the princess. Even if you’re not one of us anymore that is still your priority. The oath you swore is for life.”
Cat nodded. “She said she’ll find me something if you wouldn’t… If I couldn’t fight with you again.”
Katana nodded. “I’ll discuss it with her.” She sighed. “I’m so sorry, Cat. I wish you’d told me before. I’d have understood.”
Cat blinked in surprise. “You would have?”
“Yes. At least I wouldn’t have threatened to exclude you from the pack if I’d known you had a reason to act as you did. Now… I just thought you were being arrogant and pigheaded as usual.”
* * *
The large statue of the Bat seemed to loom above them behind the altar as they stood in Bel’s private chamber at the temple. It was late afternoon and the last meeting had taken several hours. It had been hard convincing the Priesthood that the deities must leave Goddara, preferably Kellara. Half of them had been in favor of the idea and half of them against it. In the end the decision had to be made by Barac Wei and the empress. Barac Wei had asked his oracle one question: what should he do?
Nakkara Rim had said two things: “If you send them away there will possibly be bloodshed. If you let them stay there certainly will.”
The emperor made his decision to exile the deities for their own good together with their respective High Priests and Priestesses. Mara was without a High Priest at the moment, so he was represented by one of the lower priests in the meeting, but no one paid much attention to him.
Mara had been strangely quiet since Bel came back. And so was the Priesthood in talking about Snoek. Bel remembered they had been the same when Orm turned out to be a traitor several years ago. If there was something she wanted to do it was to put the Cobra through some tests to prove his guilt – or his innocence. But she knew the rest of the Priesthood, with a few exceptions, would disapprove and left the thought for later. When they found whomever it was who was still plotting against them she’d press for a trial of Mara the Cobra.
Nikka had followed her back to the temple and was present as Bel tried to convince Nidae to leave Goddara in company with Derac. The goddess stubbornly refused.
“You need me here, Bel”, Nidae said, standing before the altar in her human form.
“I need you? It’s your life that’s in danger. You couldn’t act when it came to the abduction of Fang. Not much use you were then.”
“Bel, listen now…”
“You’ve got to go away!” Bel snapped, pointing at the woman with her staff.
“Don’t do that”, Nidae said, shivering. “Don’t threaten me like that.”
Bel lowered the staff. “Sorry, Nidae”, she said with a sigh. “This whole thing’s just… Everyone is refusing to leave and I’m just trying to save their lives.”
“I know, priestess”, Nidae said softly. “But sometimes you can’t bend other people’s will to your own, even if you’re right. There’s always the choice of free will.”
“It’s a crappy notion”, Bel grumbled. “Look, Nidae…” – she threw out her arms. “Deyna’s refusing to leave and the only reason her parent manages to force her away is because she’s still not an adult. Otherwise she’d never leave.”
“Deyna must go”, Nikka said at her side. Bel glanced at her and nodded. The oracle had said the same thing before, when they were in discussion with Barac Wei and the empress Cara. Deyna had been present then, desperately pleading with her mother not to send her away. She’d even been crying and her powers had uncontrollably upset the whole room: disrupting the energy flow and toppling over statues, tearing down tapestries from the walls and flinging candles across the room. In the end Bel had to subdue her and bind her powers for a moment, until she’d calmed down. She was still crying, frantically pleading with her mother not to send her away. “Let me stay with Bel”, she said several times. “I’m safe with Bel. She’ll take care of me.”
The whole thing had surprised Bel so much she even considered letting the girl stay with her, but then Nikka had said the princess needed to get out of Goddara before the full moon.
“I’m staying, Bel. If it’s a High Priest behind all of this he’s doing this for his god or goddess. That means that you might be facing a deity.”
“I can bind a deity…” Bel began, but something in Nidae’s eyes silenced her. “What is it? What are you not telling me?”
“There are ways for deities to protect themselves from the Priesthood’s hold on them”, Nidae said softly, not looking away from Bel. “Only for a short time, but still. It’s ancient knowledge, old magic… The Priesthood knows nothing of it and only a few deities are aware of it.”
Bel frowned. “I know. It’s the ritual that Snoek was trying to pull on Fang…”
“It has nothing to do with blood sacrifices”, Nidae interrupted. “It’s simpler than that. It only involves a few herbs, a charm and some prayers. And if the deity we’re facing is aware of this, which I believe he is, then you’re in grave danger. Not even you could face a deity in its full glory, however powerful you are.”
“But…” Bel frowned again. “I’ve never heard of this.”
“It’s a well guarded secret”, Nidae said. “I’d make use of it if I found it necessary. If it comes down to a fight… If you must face the deity I’ll make use of the knowledge and protect myself from the High Priest or Priestess. I’ll give you what you need to perform the ritual for me.”
“You could’ve done that before”, Bel said in a low voice. “To save Fang.”
“I don’t want anyone to know about this. It’s dangerous knowledge. If the wrong deity got their hands on it…”
“But why hasn’t this deity made use of the knowledge before, if he has it?” Nikka asked.
“Because the effects are only temporary. Sooner or later it will wear off and he’ll be in the Priesthoods snare again. And even though the effect protects him from the Priesthood it doesn’t protect him from another deity.”
“But a ritual of Ma’ahel would”, Bel mumbled thoughtfully. “The ritual of the Ascension. The sacrifice of the seven.”
“Seven?” Nikka said. “I’ve never heard of… this.” She had a sudden worried look on her face, followed by comprehension. “Oh”, she softly. “I understand.”
“He would need to kill seven deities during the full moon to complete the ritual”, Bel said.
“Not necessarily”, Nikka said, slowly shaking her head. She was talking more to herself than to the others and Bel knew it was futile to ask her about it. Although, she noticed the look on Nidae’s face and suddenly realized the goddess knew what was on the oracle’s mind. She looked from one to the other.
“Yes”, the Goddess of the Dark Moon softly said. “We need to get Deyna out of the city before the full moon. And the rest of the deities”, she added, looking at Bel.
Bel nodded. She was about to say she’d send Cat to protect the princess together with the rest of the Leaping Panthers, but she couldn’t get the words out. I don’t want to send her away, she thought distractedly. I want her with me. The sudden revelation was a shock to her and she didn’t know what it meant. Or more precisely – she didn’t want to know what it meant. Bats and holy Feather! I can’t seriously…
“Huh?” she said, snapping back to reality.
She looked at Nikka, but it was neither the oracle nor the goddess who’d said her name. Zelena was suddenly standing beside her, looking strangely at her.
“Bel – are you ok?”
“Oh, yes. Sorry, didn’t see you.” Bel eyed her with concern. Zelena seemed a little down. “And you?”
“I’m leaving with Fang tonight…”
“Already?” Nikka asked and Zelena glanced at her.
“Yes – he’s sulking and I can’t stand him being like that for more days than I need to. To wait would only make him worse – and I wouldn’t know if he attempted to run away. He’s such a child”, she sighed.
“I’d never have managed to handle him as well as you do”, Bel admitted. “I’d have kept him on an eternal leash.”
“Believe me, the thought has occurred to me”, Zelena said dryly. Then her eyes flickered around the room in an uncharacteristically uncertain way before they settled on Bel. “I’ve only come to say goodbye”, she said.
“I’m sure we…” Bel began.
“And to do this…” Zelena quickly stepped forward and took Bel’s face between her hands; before Bel knew what was happening the High Priestess was kissing her.
Oh, my, Bel thought, strangely detached. I didn’t see that one… Oh, this is nice. She cut the thought, trying not to linger upon the softness of Zelena’s mouth and the way her tongue traced the outlines of her lips. Goddess – I never thought…! The sight of Zelena naked body came before her again and she almost blanched, but forced herself to keep her cool as the other woman pulled back. Zelena looked shyly at her, but Bel could only stare.
“I’m sorry, I just had to… know what it was like”, Zelena said. “Bye, Bel”, she added softly, before she turned around and swiftly left the chamber.
I wonder what it would be like to kiss Cat like that, Bel thought, still stunned. The thought of Cat’s grinning mouth came before her and she closed her eyes for a brief second. Behind her she could hear the goddess chuckle.
“You felt that, didn’t you?” Nidae asked in her mind, teasingly.
“Stop that!” Bel admonished with an inward annoyance. “Get out of my mind!”
Nidae chuckled. “I’ll see you later”, she said and Bel could feel the wind behind her when the goddess changed shape. A heartbeat later a tiny bat flapped through the room and disappeared in the shadows.
“She kissed me”, Bel said, still a bit shocked.
“Of course she did”, Nikka amusedly said.
“I can’t believe she did that…” I can’t believe I liked it. Cat… Her thoughts shied away from the warrior; she noticed she became warm all over her body when she thought of kissing Cat.
“You’ll love Zelena deeply in another life. She’ll be a man and he’ll be the love of your life, until… He’ll die and it’ll break your heart. Try to remember not to extract vengeance because of it…”
“I wish you’d stop telling me things that happen in my other lives and tell me about this one. What must I do to stop what’s coming? I’m feeling so… helpless and I hate that.”
“You’ll need to stay focused. That’s all that’s required of you.” Nikka glanced at her. “You still up for it?”
“I’m focusing”, Bel said, inwardly grinding her teeth. Why did that woman have to kiss me?
“The things I’ve been telling you lately have all been focused around the same particular life”, the seer went on. “Whatever time and place it is I’m Seeing we’re all returning then to sort out the… conflicts we’ve been having in this life. All of us will be there, one way or another. What will happen then depends on what we’re doing now. All those events I’ve been Seeing are connected. And we must succeed now, otherwise the world will be doomed at that point and I can’t be sure we can prevent the evil from rising at that time.”
Bel frowned. “Nidae was talking about ancient knowledge. I’ll keep to my books and scriptures and see if I can find anything worthwhile. Maybe some way to locate our enemy, or at least to identify him.”
Nikka looked at her. “We both know who it is, don’t we?” she said in a low voice.
“We can’t prove anything”, Bel said, shaking her head. “If Orm has returned and Mara is behind it…” She sighed. “All we can do is prepare for battle.”
“And stand united”, Nikka said with a nod. “I’ll see you later – I’ll see if I can provoke a Vision that’ll help us.” She hesitated. “Bel…” she added, somewhat reluctantly. “There are things…”
“I know, Nikka”, Bel said softly. She knew. She remembered. It had been years, but she had never forgotten. One didn’t forget a prediction about one’s own death. She’d had years to prepare.
It didn’t really make it easier.
The oracle swallowed, nodding. “If it comes to that… The life of our Goddess depends on it.” A pained expression flew across the pure, smooth face and dark eyes closed for a brief second. When Nikka looked up again she met Bel’s green gaze, whispering: “If bad comes to worse... I’m so sorry, Bel.”
Bel shook her head. “I’ve known since I first met you that my time would come.” She hesitated. “Will you tell me how?”
And this time the oracle did.
When her friend had left Bel stood in front of the altar for awhile, pondering what had happened – what she’d been told. Her thoughts soon drifted from Nikka’s words and the meaning of them; she understood what the oracle had told her, although Nikka might not. It was one thing to See things and another to understand the cause behind the scenario. Bel knew what Nikka’s words meant and since she’d already considered the same scenario herself they didn’t really tell her much. Except how she was going to die.
She pushed that particular thought from her mind. It wasn’t time yet. Nikka had asked her to focus. She focused much better if she didn’t let her emotions disturb her.
So her thoughts drifted. She didn’t consider the fact that Zelena and Fang were already leaving or the fact that their world seemed to be in serious peril and that no one else seemed to realize it, but the fact that Zelena had kissed her and that she’d felt a response within herself. Holy Bats and bloody Snakes! Now I have to send away Cat…
Just as the thought crossed her mind she became suddenly aware that she wasn’t alone. She turned around and noticed the warrior of her thoughts standing in the middle of the chamber. Bel’s heart lurched at the sight and her mind admonished her for it. Then she noticed that Cat was badly hurt, she was still bleeding from a deep cut at her temple.
“Cat”, she whispered and took an involuntarily step forward. She seemed to do a lot of things involuntarily when it came to Cat. She didn’t like that – she preferred to be in control, to control her emotions and not let them rule her. “What happened to you?”
“I…” Cat made a small gesture with her hand. “I came to see you.”
“Yes, but…” Bel stopped, but then ignored the warning her mind directed at her and hurried towards the warrior. She halted at Cat’s side and touched her face with gentle fingers; Cat silently sighed and closed her eyes. “You’re badly hurt”, Bel said.
“I challenged Katana…” Cat opened her eyes.
“Oh”, Bel said, feeling how soft Cat’s skin was beneath her fingers and was distracted by it. She lowered her hand. “How… What happened?”
“I lost.” Cat’s mismatched eyes followed Bel as she stepped back to put some distance between them.
“Of course you did”, Bel gently said. “You weren’t ready. It takes more than physical strength and speed to lead people… You need to want it too. And you…” She silenced. “You don’t want to lead.”
“No, I don’t”, Cat said, slowly shaking her head. “But I wanted to defeat Katana, to prove…” Cat silenced, biting her lower lip. Bel couldn’t prevent herself from glancing at those lips. She quickly looked away again and partly turned.
“I’ll get some warm water, herbs and clean rags to clean you up with”, she said, wondering what Cat was doing at the temple.
“I saw you”, Cat softly said, in such a low voice that Bel hardly heard her.
“What?” she asked, turning back to the warrior.
“I saw you”, Cat said in a broken and yet rebuking voice. She raised her face and defiantly looked at Bel with narrowing, mismatched eyes.
“I don’t understand”, Bel said, confused. Cat took a step towards her, eyes burning now.
“You kissed her!”
Bel gasped. “Cat…”
“I saw you. She kissed you and you… You felt it.” Cat’s last words were barely a whisper. “You would never let me kiss you like that…” she added brokenly.
Oh, Goddess – I would like to! Bel caught herself thinking, stalwartly refusing to lower her gaze to look at Cat’s mouth. Holy Feathers, what’s happening to me? “I’ll get you some…” She gestured towards Cat’s wounds. “Sit down at the altar and wait for me.”
“Bel…” Cat said in a strained voice, reaching for her.
The hoarseness of the other woman’s voice affected Bel in an odd way, causing a flow of warmth to course through her body. Her pulse beat irregularly and she had to control herself not to inhale in an audible gasp.
“Wait here”, she hurriedly said. “I’ll be back soon.” Slowly she loosened Cat’s grasp from her arm, feeling the warmth of the other woman as their fingers touched. Curse upon you, Zelena! she angrily thought as she rushed from the room. She blamed her affliction entirely on the other High Priestess; if Zelena hadn’t kissed her she wouldn’t have realized… She wouldn’t have wondered what it would be like to actually… Bloody Tigers and holy Hawk!
Bel kept swearing inwardly as she collected water in a bowl, warmed it with Fire and then got some herbs and clean cloths to use for Cat’s wounds. When she returned to the altar room the warrior was sitting below the altar, leaning her back against the stone with closed eyes. Bel stopped to watch her for a few moments. Dark hair fell over closed eyes, shadowing high cheeks. She’s quite beautiful, she thought, but then shook her head to clear it. She was being silly, behaving like… She didn’t know what she was behaving like, but she clearly wasn’t herself.
“Here”, she said resolutely, moving forward to kneel by Cat’s side. Cat looked up at her, showing no surprise to see her. Her eyes were deep and Bel had to suppress a shiver.
“You’re so beautiful”, Cat said intensely. “And I can’t even touch you. It’s a sin to blaspheme against the Priesthood, my grandfather taught me that. If I kissed you…”
“You wouldn’t live long enough to regret it”, Bel said briskly, ignoring the sudden, melting flame in her stomach as she thought of Cat kissing her.
“You let her kiss you…”
“She’s a High Priestess, it’s different. Here – this will hurt…” Bel held the wet fabric to the wound in Cat’s temple and Cat winced a little, making a small noise.
“I’d never regret it – even if you killed me…”
“Stop this nonsense now”, Bel said, scowling at the other woman. “You don’t even know me. It doesn’t mean anything that you think I’m beautiful – I’ve heard it thousands of times…”
“I know, you told me.”
“So, let this be. Sit still”, Bel added as Cat was about to rise. “Your wounds need tending to. You probably have a concussion, making you act all… irrational. Be still – and silent. I don’t want to hear more about this foolishness…”
Cat closed her eyes. “You don’t understand”, she whispered. Bel wanted to ask about that, but felt it was safer not to.
“You saw us”, she said carefully, thinking of Nikka’s words to her. “Did you… hear anything?”
Cat opened one eye, looking at her with the yellow gleam of her cat eye; it was a little disconcerting. “No. I’m not that impolite. I went away and waited in the hallway until the rest of them had left.”
Bel nodded. “Thank you”, she said softly.
“You’re welcome”, Cat said, only with a hint of sarcasm, and closed her eye again.
Bel tended to Cat’s wounds, using herbs and some magic to heal the worst of them. It didn’t take that long and when she was done she wished she wasn’t. It was with reluctance she put away the bowl and rose from the floor to step away from Cat. Her fingers remembered the feeling of Cat’s skin – soft and tender. She had wanted to caress her tattooed cheeks, to let her fingers slide down her mouth to know what it felt like to… Curse upon you, Zelena!
“I heard that, priestess”, Nidae chuckled in her head.
“Get out, Nidae!” Bel forcefully pushed the goddess from her mind and cursed herself for not being vigilant enough to keep the barrier up.
“Thank you”, Cat said, rising from the floor. She stretched a bit and Bel nodded, distractedly noticing bare skin rippling at the warrior’s midriff: flat stomach, taught muscles, smooth skin… She suddenly remembered Cat’s nakedness from times before with a burning intensity and looked away.
“It was nothing”, she said curtly. “Look, kitten”, she added in a more serious vein, looking straight at Cat. “What I’m about to tell you is very important and very secret, understood?”
Cat seemed surprised for a moment, but then nodded. The wound at her temple had faded to a pale scar after Bel’s healing session. “Sure. What’s going on?”
“The deities are leaving Goddara. In fact they’re leaving the empire…”
Cat gasped. “What do you mean? Are they abandoning us?”
Bel thought it was a funny comment from someone who wasn’t particularly interested in the deities. She shook her head. “I’m… The Emperor is sending them away on my command. Their lives are in danger.”
Bel briefly told Cat about her suspicions that their enemy – in all probability a High Priest – was planning to kill the deities to win more power for his own deity. “The ritual of the Ascension is very old and powerful. It’s called Ma’ahel. It means the priest must sacrifice seven of a kind to reach the desired effect. Seven deities must be sacrificed beneath a full moon and the one wanting to obtain the power must bathe in their blood.”
“So… He’d obtain the power of the seven deities?” Cat asked, not fully understanding.
“No, not quite. He’ll only obtain the power of the last sacrifice. The previous six are only preparation.”
“He?” Cat whispered, picking up on something in Bel’s voice. “You know who it is, don’t you?”
Bel hesitated before she nodded. “I have my suspicions, but I can’t prove anything.”
“So, by sending off the deities the one deity who is behind it all… He wouldn’t leave.”
“He would probably pretend to leave, not to attract attention. But no…” Bel shook her head. “No one except the Priesthood and the Imperial Couple knows that the deities are leaving. Well, and Katana and Nikka.”
“Nikka?” Cat asked, somewhat uncertain.
“The oracle”, Bel explained. “The deities won’t tell each other where they go and neither will anyone of the Priesthood. The traitor might be able to find one or two deities, but not seven.”
“And why are you telling me this?” Cat wondered.
“Because you need to go with Deyna. I’m sending her away.”
Cat gasped. “You’re sending me away…” she whispered and took an impulsive step towards Bel. “Don’t do this.”
“Don’t be ridiculous”, Bel said, struggling with the awareness that Cat’s presence so close to her affected her in strange ways. “This has nothing to do with you. Deyna’s safety comes first and you…” She smiled at Cat with genuine gentleness. “You’re her best defender.”
“I’m not. Katana…”
“Katana and her pack will be there. And so will you. You’ll stay here past full moon and then you’ll …”
“But… Please don’t do this to me”, Cat pleaded, interrupting Bel’s trail of thought. “I want to be where you are.”
“Stop this!” Bel demanded, looking at the young woman in front of her. “Your sworn duty lies with the princess, not…”
“You don’t understand!” Cat cried out. “I… You…”
Bel shook her head. “No, I don’t understand. And I don’t plan to. You mean nothing to me, do you understand?”
Cat tumbled backwards. “You can’t mean that…” she whispered and the look of horror on her face forced Bel to lessen her stern attitude.
“No”, she said, sighing. “No, I don’t. I believe we could’ve been good friends if given half a chance, but our lives… Our lives are too different. We want different things from life and we can’t blend it together.”
“But… you’re friends with Katana and that… that oracle? They…”
“They know and understand their roles. You don’t. You’re like… this wild card in the deck; no one really ever knows when you’re going to show up or what you’re going to do. Unpredictable and uncontrollable. One day you have to choose sides, take a stand and learn to take responsibility for your actions – not just swing a sword and think everything will be fine because you’re good at it. There’s more to life than that.”
“I don’t understand”, Cat said, shaking her head.
“Maybe one day you will. I hope you make the right choice and that we can be friends. Now…” Bel made a gesture with her staff.
“No”, Cat said, shaking her head more determined this time. Her mismatched eyes narrowed. “You’re not doing this to me. I’m no doll you can throw away when you like… Don’t turn away when I’m talking to you!”
Bel had shrugged and turned, not wanting to listen to Cat; she could never explain anyway. What should she say? “Well, yeah – I might feel something when you look at me and the thought of kissing you excites me, but…” She was a priestess – and a High Priestess at that. There was no way, not ever, that she could give in to the emotions Cat’s presence awakened within her. To give Cat the least indication that she might feel something would only give the young woman false hope. Besides, she’d been right in what she’d said: they were on different paths in life. Cat was unpredictable and wouldn’t be much use to the High Priestess if she couldn’t be trusted.
When Bel turned away from her Cat grabbed her arm; steely fingers dug into her flesh and caused pain. Bel reacted instinctively, due to her own frustration and repressed emotions. She’d hardly slept for over a week and the concern about Goddara’s future caught up with her.
“Enough!” she yelled as Cat grabbed her and swirled her around. There was thunder in her voice and a gust of wind responded to her irritation. Air swept the black clad warrior from the floor and hurled her through the air. “Now you listen to me!” Bel said angrily, making Air hold Cat pinned to the wall high above the floor. “Grow up, kitten. If you want to play with the adults you need to be one. You can’t have anything you point at with that toy sword at your side. You loath authorities with no respect for what some of us must sacrifice to do what we do. Learn about the costs of leadership before you rush off crusading against it. Grow up, girl. Make a choice.”
Cat gasped as Bel abruptly let go of her and the warrior fell to the floor. She landed smoothly on her feet, looking up at Bel with burning eyes. The one golden eye seemed to glow. Crouching on the floor she spat at Bel.
“Me? I’m arrogant?” Bel laughed cynically. “It takes one to know one, doesn’t it, kitten?” She shook her head and turned away. When the anger lessened she felt sorry that she’d reacted that way. She hadn’t lost her temper in… more years than she could remember. Cat’s presence affected her strongly. It confused her and distracted her.
Bel stopped, still with her back to Cat, wondering if she’d heard correctly. She turned around; the warrior had risen and stood before the main entrance to the chamber.
“I’m sorry”, Cat said again, moving a few steps forward. “You’re right – I’m arrogant and I’m used to getting my way, but you…” She paused. “You’re so damn difficult! One moment you’re all nice and shiny and the next… You’re all – priestessy.”
Bel hid a smile at the dark warrior’s indignation. “Yes?”
“I mean – I don’t get you. I want to… get you”, Cat said lamely. “I want to know if you’re…” She hesitated.
“What?” Bel asked after a moment.
“I want to know if you’re… nice. I want to know the woman in you.”
Bel was caught by the sincerity and honesty in the other woman for a moment, but then she softly said: “There is no woman in me, Cat. I’m a priestess – it’s who I am, it’s what I’ve always been.”
“No.” Cat shook her head. “I don’t believe that…”
“We’ve talked about this before. To be a priestess is not what I am, not something I became by putting on a robe when I was a child. It’s something I am. It’s what I was when I was born – even before I was born.”
“But you… You’re different sometimes. Sometimes when you forget you’re a priestess you laugh and…” Cat looked at her with a searching expression. “That’s the woman in you.”
“Listen”, Bel said gently. “I never forget I’m a priestess, Cat. Never. Those parts of me you see, those are the other side of the priestess in me. To balance a deity’s power means to balance the two sides of the deity one serves. Nidae is goddess of life and death – I as her High Priestess must know how to balance the two sides: I must know life and I must know death. Therefore I can laugh and I can use power to quench life… It’s not two different people you’ve seen – it’s the same person; two faces of one coin.”
“No, but you… What about your needs, your…”
“You don’t understand”, Bel said softly. “You never will until you learn there’s something more to this life than living only for the day. Until you learn there’s something higher than us and more important to live and die for.”
“Deities?” Cat said with a frown. Bel smiled a little.
“Life”, she said. “And to do what’s right for all life, in life.”
“I’d die for Deyna”, Cat said. “It’s a higher calling… I’d die for you.”
“You’d die for your friends”, Bel said. “Would you die for a stranger? And would you live a life of servitude? For some people it’s easy to die, Cat. It doesn’t cost them anything. It’s easy to make a grand gesture at the end of one’s life, but it’s the small gestures – those no one sees or knows about – that one performs day in and day out for a lifetime, that are harder and therefore sometimes more worthwhile.”
Cat shook her head. “I don’t want to get into a religious discussion with you, I just…”
“I’m a priestess, Cat”, Bel said again. “That’s what and who I am, every part of me. If I could be a set of different people I would. One who plays around and goes carousing in the night, one who’s the queen and rules a people, one who’s a priestess serving the people and one who’s…” – she caught herself, thinking – “only me, I guess. But I can’t, I can only be what I am. What?” she added sharply when she caught the look on Cat’s face. The warrior looked taken aback, almost as if she… No, Bel couldn’t make out what she was thinking.
“You are”, Cat whispered.
“I’m what?” Bel asked, frowning.
Cat gasped a little. “Nice…” she said softly. Then she blushed. “I’m sorry – I have to… go.” She turned around and hurried towards the exit.
“What? Wait! You can’t just go now...” Bel scowled at the back of the fleeing warrior; Cat always seemed to run away from her.
“No?” Cat stopped and glanced over her shoulder with a slight, teasing smile. “There’s no reason for me to be here. Unless you command me to stay?” she added with a certain look on her face that told Bel the woman was considering winking at her.
Cat’s remark took her aback for a moment and she wasn’t sure what to say. Then she shrugged. “Go”, she said, waving her hand, “if you find my company so… tedious.”
Almost immediately after Cat had left the altar room Bel regreted that she had let her leave; there were other things she needed to tell the warrior. Things concerning Cat’s past. She had meant to tell Cat those things before – it was high time the young woman knew about her past – but something always made Bel push the decision forward. It was a half conscious decision on her own part not to tell the truth, because as long as she didn’t she’d always have another reason to see Cat. Foolish me, she thought annoyed. I must tell her now.
Telling Cat also meant she wouldn’t have a reason to see the woman again, which in turn meant she couldn’t fool herself in seeking out the other woman just because she felt like it. She must tell Cat the truth as quickly as possible, so she could let go of the other woman and be rid of her own confusing emotions. It would prevent her from letting her emotions rule her, instead of the other way around.
Bel hurried through the corridors, trying to catch up with the warrior before she left the temple. She did reach Cat in time – in a sense.
When Bel reached the large entrance to the temple she noticed Cat on the steps further down. Bel’s first impulse was to call to her, but then she noticed that Cat wasn’t alone and silenced, withdrawing into the shadows behind her. Ravena stood very close to Cat on the large steps, resting a hand lightly on Cat’s arm. Then, as Bel watched, Ravena leaned closer and kissed Cat.
The sight of the two women kissing hit Bel like a punch in the chest. She gasped for air, feeling she couldn’t breathe, and had to lean against the wall at her side to prevent herself from falling..It blackened before her eyes and she felt a clenching pain in her stomach, something stabbing at her heart. Of course, some part of her noted in a detached manner. What did you expect from her? Bel shook her head, struggling to find her breath again. Why would I expect anything? she thought. She owes me nothing… “Nothing at all”, she whispered, tearing her eyes from Cat and Ravena, turning away from the twilight and the women kissing. She hastily returned to the safety of her temple.
“I can’t believe I fell for it”, Bel mumbled, rushing along the corridors towards her private altar room; priestesses moving in the passages moved aside as they noticed her. “I can’t believe I was so foolish, so… naïve!”
“Bel?” Nidae suddenly said, walking behind her.
Bel halted and turned, aggressively throwing out her arms towards the bat goddess. “Can you believe the… the…! Rotting corpses! I even lack words for it.” She narrowed her eyes at the Goddess, who stood before her dressed in a dark cape. “Are you going out?”
“As a matter of fact…” Nidae silenced. “What are you talking about? And why are you all… flustered?” It was Nidae’s turn to frown at her. “What happened?”
“What happened?” Bel shook her head, fighting the clawing agony in her chest. She continued her walk. Pain… she thought. Why am I feeling so… so hurt? She doesn’t mean anything to me! Or she shouldn’t… at least. “Can you believe it? She made me like her!” she cried out.
“And that’s a bad thing, because…?” the goddess asked, with a twinkle in her incredibly dark eyes.
“Because she was playing with me the whole time!” Bel said, calming down. It was a good thing she had seen it with her own eyes, now she could move on. She could forget about the annoying woman, get her out of her mind and move on – to focus on things she needed to focus on. On saving the empire… She nodded to herself. “I’ve seen her true face now and I spit her out.”
“Bel…” the Goddess said with concern, stopping in the opening to the altar room. “I don’t think…”
“Give way, Nidae”, Bel said coldly. Where there was ice there was no pain. She could deal with that.
Nidae still looked concerned. “This is not good”, Bel heard her mumble.
“What? Because I was right to begin with?” Bel said, moving into the room, towards the altar and the great bat. “You should just stay out of my private life and not try to force me to have fun. See how much fun I’m having right now.”
“You’re hurt”, Nidae said softly. “Bel, I’m sorry, I didn’t… I’ll make it right.”
“Right?” Bel nearly snarled. “How can you make things right? You don’t have to make things right. It’s better this way…”
“Pain is never better”, the Goddess said, shaking her head. “I’m sure that whatever Cat did…”
“I don’t care what she’s doing. If you see her – get her to stay away from me. I might harm her.”
“You still need to talk to her”, Nidae said carefully. “She has a right to know about her past… And you need to tell her of your plans for the princess.”
Bel slowly inhaled. She had forgot about that. “By Ebony’s tail”, she mumbled. “I’d forgotten… She…” She sighed. “She made me mad.”
“I can see”, Nidae said dryly.
“Please leave, Nidae”, Bel asked quietly. “I’ll deal with her later. Another day. I can’t… I can’t deal with this today.”
The Goddess waited a few more moments, but then nodded. “Fine. As you wish, priestess.”
Fool, Bel thought when Nidae had gone. She rested her hands on the altar and noticed that they trembled. Fool. How could you let it go so far? You know what it is you’re feeling, don’t you? She knew. Although she hadn’t felt the feeling before she had heard of it. She had read of it. How could I be so stupid? So foolish as to believe that she… that she actually cared for me that way? And how can I be so foolish as to let it mean something to me? I’m a High Priestess. This…
She raised her arms and let the sleeves of her robe fall back so that she could look at the tattooed bats on her arms. She’d had them made on her tenth birthday, when she was sure nothing would prevent her from being a priestess: black bats in various sizes, covering her arms; silently flapping their wings in endless stillness. Those bats had been a reminder to herself and to everyone around her of what she was – of what she was destined to become. Looking at them she’d always felt comfort. They had assured her of her own strength and of her abilities to overcome obstacles in her path. They were a part of her and she was as much a bat as the Goddess herself.
And yet… I have never been jealous. It’s… It’s such a human emotion. I don’t think I ever want to feel this way again. She felt rage, but most of all she felt hurt. She thought me beautiful… But it was all words. And I believed her. How could I? How could I let her words mean so much to me?
Bel shook her head, covering her arms again. It didn’t matter. It was over.
Part Ten – Revelations
Of course, Cat thought annoyed as she left the altar room and the High Priestess behind her, scowling as she moved along the corridor. Of course she had to have the last word.
There hadn’t been anything she could’ve said or done to save face when Bel said what she’d said, except leave the room. Leaving was the last thing she actually wanted to do, but to see that look in Bel’s eyes, to hear her speak like that… That was her, she thought. That was really her.
Hearing Bel talking about her calling as priestess with such passion had finally made Cat admit the truth: she was more than infatuated with the woman, she was completely lost in her. To see Fang’s High Priestess kiss Bel had been a shock, but then the thought of doing the same had played itself over and over in her mind until Cat had thought she’d go insane. The only thing that prevented her from actually acting on the thought was the fact that to lay a hand on anyone in the Priesthood against their will could pay dearly. She doubted Bel would kill her, despite what she’d said, but maybe exile her… or something.
She lifted me into the burning air! Cat thought, still awestruck and annoyed at the ease with which Bel had manhandled her. She’d always liked women who could hold their own, but that… That was damn annoying. At the same time the memory made her smile a little; Bel had displayed true feelings for once, showing that she was human after all. She still exiled me, she thought bitterly. The thought of not seeing the High Priestess was as bad as seeing her without getting to touch her – in either case she felt torn, tortured. Actually, she realized, to see Bel without getting to touch her or kiss her was another kind of exile.
Cursed be all deities who’re putting me through this! she angrily thought as she reached the entrance. And curse upon the one who sent me those dreams for years. Without them my life wouldn’t have been like this…
She was so engrossed in her thoughts she didn’t notice Ravena sitting on the steps outside the temple. It took her ten steps down the mountainside before the beautiful woman’s voice reached her.
“Cat? Cat – wait!”
Cat turned around and finally became aware of the other woman. “Ravena?” she said, a little startled. “What… what are you doing here? Are you alright?” she added worriedly when she noticed the tears on the other woman’s face.
“No…” Ravena shook her head, drying the tears on her cheeks. “No, I’m not alright. Oh, Cat…”
“Tell me”, Cat said calmly. “I heard your father was sentenced. I’m sorry about…”
“Both my parents… and my brother.” Ravena looked at her with pleading eyes. “I’m all alone, Cat. I have nothing now. I can’t… I can’t even marry.”
Cat frowned, trying to understand the situation. “Won’t Para marry you because of what your father…?”
“Not that, no.” Again Ravena shook her head. “The emperor won’t…” She sighed. “Never mind, I never wanted to marry Para anyway.”
“I thought as much”, Cat lowly said and Ravena curiously looked up at her.
“You did?” She moved a step forward and placed a hand on Cat’s arm. Her eyes were searching. “You know, you…”
“What?” Cat asked softly.
“It’s my fault, isn’t it?” Ravena said. “I always played with you, with everyone. I’ve learned my lesson. I should’ve been honest from the beginning, but…Do you mind if I am now?”
And with those words Ravena reached up and kissed Cat on the mouth. Cat was taken completely by surprise and didn’t react to begin with. Then Ravena’s lips pressed against hers and urged her to… and before she knew it she’d responded. It was a pure bodily reaction; she’d kissed so many women her responses came automatically when things like this happened.
It was a nice kiss, but it didn’t move her – not in the way the kisses of the woman of her dreams did. Once she’d thought maybe it was Ravena she was dreaming about – despite the red hair – and she’d hoped for a kiss to find out, but the other woman had always teased her without tongue kissing her.
“Ravena…” Cat said. Grabbing the woman’s arms she slowly pulled away. “I can’t, I’m…”
A movement behind her at the steps below distracted her and she turned to see who was coming.
“No!” Ravena called, but before Cat had time to react she was hit in the face with full force and thrown down a few steps.
“You!” she heard an angry, male voice say and when she looked up – with one hand to her jaw – she saw Para stand beside Ravena, holding her arm with one hand and pointing at Cat with the other.
“Para…” Cat got to her feet to face her enraged friend.
“You! You and that friend of yours – the priestess… You’re behind this!”
“Behind what? Para, what you saw…”
“Save it. I know what I saw.”
“It wasn’t…” Ravena said. “Please, listen to her, Para.”
“Why should I?” he spat, glowering at Cat. “Always her. Always taking everything from me. Thinks she’s all special with those eyes, just because she was born with them. Well, if I was born with such eyes I’d be special and you’d suck up to me, like everybody else!”
“This has nothing to…”
“You had to be selected to Panthera, you had to be a hero in the wars, you… Always you. And now you had to take my woman.”
“By the Snake!” Cat called out. “I’m not taking your… I’m not taking Ravena. She said she didn’t love you.”
“Because of you! Because you made the Emperor forbid us to marry. Because you got your high and powerful witch friend in there to stop our wedding.”
“I don’t… “ Cat looked confused at Ravena.
“The Emperor wouldn’t let us marry”, Ravena said with downcast eyes. “I… he…”
“He didn’t even give a reason. How’s that for a tyrant?” Para spat.
“Don’t…” Ravena whispered. She looked up for a moment and Cat noticed new tears on her cheeks. “Cat, I’m sorry. I thought… I thought you and I…” She gasped softly and twisted loose before she ran down the stairs.
“Ravena!” Para called after her. “Ravena!” There was such agony in his voice that Cat had never heard before.
“Let her go, Para. You can’t force someone to…”
“What do you know?” he fumed. “You’ve taken her from me. She was the only thing that meant anything to me. She… You wait. I’ll take something from you too…”
“Para!” she called as he followed after Ravena. Even with his speed Cat wasn’t sure he’d catch up with the fleeing woman; Ravena was quick.
“Such pain”, someone said beside Cat and she gasped as she turned, realizing she wasn’t alone. “Oh, sorry – I didn’t mean to scare you”, the dark skinned woman at her side said with a wry smile.
Cat recognized the woman and her dark, dark eyes. It was the same woman, the priestess, who’d shown her the way into the temple almost two weeks ago. But that woman had been much younger, younger than Cat. The woman beside her seemed to be Bel’s age. Still, Cat was sure it was the same woman. She’d seen her with Bel and Zelena before too, but then she’d been gone when Cat closed her eyes for a moment, fighting the burning jealousy she’d felt seeing the two High Priestesses kiss.
“You!” she whispered, when she remembered the old woman she’d met in Gebra Healerhand’s garden. “You’re…” She gasped as the realization hit her and she was about to kneel before the Goddess.
“Oh, no – never mind that”, the Goddess said, waving a hand at her. “I’m not that important…”
“But you’re… Aren’t you?”
The woman at her side nodded with a soft smile on her lips. “I am.”
Cat stared at the Goddess and didn’t know what to say. “Huh”, she said.
“Huh?” the woman said, arching an amused eyebrow.
“I thought you’d be… you know, taller. And have wings…”
The Goddess laughed. “I do – you just don’t see them. I carry the Bat with me at all times. As every other deity carries their True Shape with them. Only very powerful High Priests and Priestesses can see it.”
“Bel”, Cat said immediately and the woman at her side nodded, again with a soft smile.
“Yes – Badra.”
Cat happened to look down the mountainside and noticed that Para had given up his chase after Ravena; he stood with dejectedly sloping shoulders, looking after the woman of his dreams as she fled out of his life.
“Poor Para”, Cat said. “I don’t think he deserved that.”
“We never know the burden of another”, the Goddess said in a low, sad voice. “Or the cause behind it.”
“Still… Did the Emperor really forbid them to marry?”
“Yes. And he did it on Badra’s orders – but there is a valid reason.”
“What?” Cat said, angrily thinking of Bel’s ways of manipulation everyone around her. “Why does she disrupt Para’s happiness in such a way?”
The Goddess turned her dark, glowing eyes towards Cat. “You ought to learn to trust my High Priestess, you know”, she said, slightly disapprovingly. “She might be a nuisance to a lot of people, but she is also very often right. And the times when she’s wrong – it concerns only her own private matters, not the lives of others.”
Cat blushed, feeling a bit chastened. “Sorry”, she mumbled.
“You’re forgiven”, the Goddess said, with an amused twinkle in her eyes. “Don’t forget – I can read your heart like an open book.”
Cat blushed again; this time for different reasons.
“When it concerns your friends…” The Goddess looked out over the city. “They can’t marry because… they’re siblings.”
Cat blinked, not expecting that answer. “Sorry, what…?”
The goddess Nidae looked at her. “How much do you know about Para’s past?”
“He… He was orphaned like me. He grew up on the streets, but was provided for by Mara’s priests. When he was twelve they sent him to be trained by and initiated into the Cobra Squad. That’s it”, Cat said with a shrug.
“There are a lot of magical ways for humans and deities to win power, Cath Ciardha. Most of those ways require blood sacrifices. Para was – is – Ravena’s twin brother, sacrificed as an infant by his parents so they would win power.”
“Oh, no!” Cat whispered. “That’s… You can’t…” She silenced. “No”, she said and shook her head. “That’s inhuman. I can’t believe they did that.”
“Something went wrong”, the Goddess said. “They left Para to be sacrificed to Mara, the Cobra. The snake god.”
“What happened?” Cat asked in a whisper.
“Well, someone found the child and took him home. It was an old Shepard who lived secluded outside Goddara. He only rarely turned up close to the city, but he had the gift of Sight and came to collect the boy to prevent the emperor’s brother from gaining so much power he could claim the throne. He kept the child hidden and when he died…”
“Para found his way to the city”, Cat said. “He was six at the time…”
“No one knows who he is.”
“Who told you?” Cat asked, forgetting she was talking to a goddess.
“My Oracle told Bel, who told me.”
“And we are not telling Para this because…?” Cat asked. “It would save him pain and make him understand…”
The Goddess didn’t answer immediately. She looked out across the city below. Darkness was falling around them; the night setting in. “My Oracle Saw bad things happening. I believe a lot of things have been eating at your friend’s heart over the years. The truth – would only make matters worse.”
“Madness”, Cat mumbled. “But… what can I do, then?”
“Not much. This isn’t for you to deal with. Leave it now, or you’ll make matters worse. You’ll have to deal with the princess and my High Priestess.”
“Bel?” Cat looked up. “You know what I… She sent me away.”
“I’m fairly sure it was you who left”, the Goddess said with a teasing grin.
“Um”, Cat said with slightly blushing cheeks. “I meant, she’s sending me away.”
“As she should. You must guard the princess. There are strong forces working against the well-being of the Empire and we must stand strong before them.”
“Awake?” Cat asked, confused.
“Awake, alert, be aware – know what’s going on around you. Stay awake and don’t let your fear put you to sleep. You must guard.”
“Oh, fine…” Cat said, still confused.
“Now, go and see her. She has something to tell you.”
“Go. Just go and see her. And remember – try doing as she tells you to. Someone’s life might depend on it.”
When Cat returned to the altar room the High Priestess was standing in front of her altar, looking up at the great bat before her.
“What do you want?” Bel said, not turning around. At first Cat wasn’t even sure the priestess was speaking to her, until Bel added: “Well?” in a clearly unfriendly manner. There was an icy note to her voice that Cat hadn’t heard before and she wondered what could’ve happened in the short time she’d been gone.
“The Goddess spoke to me. Told me to come see you…”
“Really?” Bel said, still not turning.
“Yeah…” Cat shrugged. “She said you’ve something to tell me.”
It took a moment, but then Bel turned to face her. The High Priestess’ face was hard and in her eyes there was an icy stare that made cold shivers crawl along Cat’s spine. She’d seen Bel angry before, or at least annoyed, but not like this. Indifferent, arrogant and in battle mood – yes, but not all icy like that. Cat really didn’t like it. If Bel had been evil, she thought. Poor people…
“Yes.” Bel didn’t move from the altar, but her voice carried as always without effort across large spaces. Cat walked towards her, though, to avoid having to keep yelling across the chamber. “You asked about your past”, the High Priestess said when Cat had gotten closer. “It’s time you know.”
“Know what?” Cat asked, sensing a dreadful feeling creep up on her as she remembered what the Goddess had told her about Para’s past.
“Who you are, where you come from…”
Cat wanted to skip that part and ask Bel what she’d done to have her stare at her with such coldness, but she only nodded. She realized she didn’t have much choice.
“You know about the deities’ True Form”, the High Priestess said without much prelude. She didn’t wait for Cat to confirm her words, but went on: “Nidae, the goddess I serve, is the only deity with two forms…”
“The Bat and the Panther”, Cat said, but Bel didn’t even seem to be aware that she’d spoken.
“Nidae’s true shapes are the Bat and the Panther. Although she prefers the Bat she chose the shape of the Panther when she seduced the semi-god Lynxar…”
“To get his powers”, Cat whispered, remembering what the High Priestess had told her in their shared captivity. This time Bel nodded.
“Lynxar wasn’t a very nice man and had he been Initiated into his powers he would have been a dreadful deity. Although his son Lo was a much nicer man…”
“His son?” Cat interrupted. “Nidae’s son?”
“That’s correct. She conceived and gave birth to a son – Lo.”
“What happened to him? Did he become a deity?” Cat didn’t find it likely; she’d never heard of him.
“He did”, Bel said, nodding, but still speaking in the same crisp tone as before. “Lo – the Lynx. You have to understand, this took place some hundred years ago, when Nidae was still young.”
“Lo was of a very private nature…”
“Sorry to interrupt…” Cat almost cringed as Bel directed a particularly icy look at her, but went on: “Is it common for a deity to have children?”
“No, not very. After Initiation the deities usually lose their ability to procreate for some reason. Nidae’s one of few exceptions. It seemed to be inheritable, because what happened was that Lo got a woman pregnant. As I said Lo had a private nature, but by all accounts he was one of the kindest deities and it’s widely believed he really loved the woman. But he didn’t know she was pregnant and her family shun her when they found out, refusing to listen to anything she had to say…”
“Bigots”, Cat mumbled.
“They went to the boarders of Egara where they sold her as a slave.”
“Bloody Snakes!” Cat said. “What… Why do people have to be such…?”
“When Lo heard about it he went after her.”
“Way to go.”
“And he got himself killed – burned at the stake in Egara’s capital”, Bel said dryly.
“Oh, no!” Cat whispered. “What happened?”
“To make a very long story short, it ends back here in Goddara. After a few hundred years the descendant of Nidae returned here. Again a pregnant woman, as if to close the circle, she was fleeing from some priests in Egara who accused her of witchcraft. She came to this very temple for help and told her story and the story of her ancestors to the High Priestess at the time. My predecessor. From the story she was told the High Priestess suspected she knew who the woman was, but she wasn’t completely sure and had to check up on some things. A crucial part of the story is that the High Priestess wasn’t alone in hearing the news – her successor was with her. That wasn’t me at that time but a priestess that had been trained for years to take the role as the next High Priestess…”
Cat wondered about that, but didn’t ask. She nodded, wondering were Bel was going with the story.
“This particular priestess craved more power than she had a right to. When the High Priestess went out to find more information about the fleeing woman the priestess lured the woman into the jungle to kill her.”
Cat frowned. “Why?”
“Because there was a prophecy…”
“There are always prophecies”, Bel said, indifferently waving a hand as if to brush of the importance of the word. “There’s a dozen a day – you can’t take them all seriously, the outcome changes as soon as the key people make a decision. The only prophecies worthwhile are those that keep returning. Maybe they’ll change in some ways, but the outcome is still the same. Those are prophecies we pay attention to.”
“And this prophecy was such?”
“Exactly. It was first predicted when Lo was killed that when his descendant returned to Goddara it would be the end of the whole empire.”
“Oh!” Cat said. “That’s it? An evil descendant of a deity? Is that what we’re up against?”
“It doesn’t mean the person needs to be evil, only that evil will happen when the person returns to Goddara. So, the Priesthood decided to keep watch. Over the years more prophecies have occurred, retelling the same thing in various ways. Then new predictions were told, that the child of the returning descendant would herald the end. Some even told that the child would become a powerful deity, so strong it would overthrow the other deities, or that its power would break the hold the Priesthood had on the deities. One prediction kept recurring, telling that the child would herald the return of the Old Order…”
“Which is?” Cat dared ask.
“The way it was before the Priesthood gained power over the deities. When the divine ruled mankind like humans rule cattle.”
“Oh, not so good then.”
“Depending on your point of view”, Bel said noncommittally. “It would’ve been very bad for the Priesthood, as they’d lose power. Good for the deities, though – if it hadn’t been for the other prediction, which predicts that the child would grow up to become a powerful war leader declaring war on all deities to avenger her mother’s death…”
“Also bad scenario”, Cat said, making a face. “No good ones in there?”
“Good predictions usually aren’t needed. You don’t need a warning to look out for happiness…”
“Only a reminder to grab it by its balls and hang on”, Cat mumbled.
“What was that?” Bel asked, still with her hard face and cold stare.
“Nothing”, Cat hurriedly said. “So, what happened?”
“We have the pregnant woman – who’s the descendant of Nidae; we have the High Priestess, who’s out of the temple, and we have the successor… who’s very ambitious. And then – we have the unborn child.”
“Poor thing”, Cat said. “Causing so much dread even before its birth. Doesn’t make for a happy life.”
“You tell me”, Bel said, looking straight at her. “Have you had a happy life so far?”
Cat blinked. “What? Me? What’s that got to do with…?” She silenced, realizing Bel’s cold stare held more than frost – there was also a sharp, almost lethal intensity tearing into her soul. Oh, my Goddess – no! No, not… What? What is this? “By the Goddess”, she whispered, feeling the color drain from her face. “What is this, Bel? Please, tell me… What? I’m I’m… destined to destroy the Empire? I can’t… I wouldn’t…”
“No, kitten”, Bel said, suddenly softening her voice. The harshness of her face gave way to compassion. “It has nothing to do with you, not anymore.”
“Burning deities…” Cat whispered. “I have to… I must sit down.” There were no chairs, so she sat down directly on the floor. She doubted she’d have managed to move her legs towards a chair anyway.
“You weren’t destined to do anything. Your pure presence in Goddara heralded the changes that were about to come upon us. If your birth had turned out differently maybe you’d have been a powerful goddess…”
“Me? A goddess?”
“You”, Bel said with a gentle look in her eyes. Cat swallowed seeing it, but concentrated on the other woman’s words. “Didn’t you feel the changes in you when you were younger? Before you slept with Fang?”
“I… How did you…?” Cat silenced. It was a stupid question; Fang had probably been bragging about having slept with her. Or maybe not – since she’d realized after being with him that men wasn’t her thing. Even if the man was a god.
“I walk with gods, kitten”, Bel said quietly. “I know things like that.”
“Fine, I…” Cat silenced. She remembered something. Before she turned sixteen she’d felt something shift within her; she’d felt more powerful, faster… As if she could’ve run to the moon and back. Sights, smells, sounds – everything had seemed brighter, sharper, louder. She’d had strange dreams about moving about in the jungle like some wild predator, hunting for prey. Dreams that mingled with those she’d had about the woman before her.
Thinking of the dreams about Bel didn’t make matters easier. Not when the High Priestess looked at her with such tenderness.
“Your life could’ve been so different”, Bel was saying. “But as it happened… You were lost to us. It wasn’t until you came to me that night in the temple that we suspected who you were. And then… We thought it best to let you live your life as normal as possible. It all depended on which deity would choose you. If you’d come to serve in a temple you probably would’ve been brought up like Deyna – trained and initiated to become a goddess.”
“I don’t…” Cat shook her head, still stunned.
“This is who you are now and you won’t destroy this empire. Your birth was just a warning we must heed. You won’t be a goddess destined to tear the Order apart, or a war leader destroying the deities.”
“But… My mother. What happened?”
“She was murdered by the priestess I told you about. The priestess planned to kill you too, to prevent the prophecy of you freeing the deities from the Priesthood from coming true. Your mother had just given birth to you when the priestess used hypnotism to lure her into the jungle, where she killed her. She was interrupted by wild animals, who… Well, she left you to be eaten, although you weren’t. It was actually Fang who saved you.”
“He did? And brought me to the temple…” Cat shook her head. “He saved my life… And then he stole my powers!” she added indignantly. “I can’t believe he did that!”
“He didn’t know who you were”, Bel said. “And I doubt it would’ve mattered to him at the time, he wanted your powers.”
“Fine way to greet a relative”, Cat grumbled.
“No one knew who you were until you sneaked upon me and my priestesses in the grove. Remember? When you were a child… Nidae caught a look at you then and when she saw you… She knew you.”
“I can’t believe this…” Cat mumbled, still dazed. “And the priestess? What happened to her?”
“We didn’t find out what she’d done until some years later. She poisoned the High Priestess to get to her position – although I was chosen instead.”
“Must have bugged her”, Cat said and struggled to her feet. Bel backed up a step when she rose.
“It did – she tried to kill me not long after. That’s when we found out what she’d done.”
“What… Where is she now?”
“Barac Wei sent her off as a slave somewhere. If she’s still alive she’s serving in a dirty hole someplace. Forget about her, she’s gotten what she deserves.”
“A priestess…” Cat sighed, shaking her head. “I mean, the Priesthood is about caring for people, serving them. To have a priestess do something like that...”
“It happens all the time”, Bel said. “You should know how ambitious and manipulating some High Priests and Priestesses are…”
Cat looked at her and Bel seemed to get the point.
“Fine – I’m manipulating, but I’m not ruthless and I’m never cruel. I wouldn’t kill to gain power.”
“Because you have enough of it”, Cat said without thinking. Bel looked silently at her and Cat twitched. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way…”
“You may mean it whatever way you want”, Bel said and again there was the icy steel in her eyes. “I don’t care.”
Cat couldn’t stand Bel looking at her that way. She took a step forward. “What did I do?” she asked. “Did I do something to annoy you? Let me know, I…”
“I believe we’re done here”, Bel said. Her staff was lying on the altar, but Cat knew she didn’t need it use her powers. She hesitated. She didn’t want to push her luck and be thrown through the air again.
“What’s this about?” she asked nonetheless. “What did I do? Is it because I left you before? Because I…”
“I’ve seen enough of you”, the High Priestess said icily. “Leave my temple.”
“No”, Cat whispered, devastated at the look in Bel’s eyes. “Don’t… don’t do this. Please?”
“Begging won’t help. I’ve seen through you. I’ve seen through your little… charade.”
“Oh, beware when she’s in a mood like this”, Cat suddenly heard the Goddess’ voice in her head. “Tread carefully…”
“What?” Cat said out loud, taken by surprise by the voice in her head.
“’What’?” Bel said, narrowing her eyes; there was a hint of steel in her voice. “You’re the worst kind of woman…”
“Be careful – or you’ll lose her…” the Goddess told Cat.
As if she’s not already lost to me, Cat thought and then realized there was only one thing left to do. If Bel never wanted to see her again, for whatever reason, Cat needed to know – what it was like to kiss her.
“No!” Nidae called within her. “Ciardha – not yet! You’ll get everything you want if you just wait for…”
Cat stepped forward, ignoring the voice of the Goddess.
“You sure swing sides quickly, don’t you?” Bel said and this time Cat noticed the hurt beneath the icy surface.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about”, she said, wondering what she’d done to hurt the High Priestess in such a way. She hoped she’d get a chance to make it up to her.
“All sweet talk and promises. Get out or I’ll…”
Cat didn’t wait for the rest of that sentence. She grabbed Bel by the arms and pulled her close, pressing her mouth against the priestess’.
The instant their lips met Cat was lost. Years of frustration, of longing to find those lips that matched her dream woman, of wishing for, hoping for and dreaming about that same floating sensation, the melting warmth and the engulfing softness… It all welled up inside her. She lost touch with reality, with time and space – flung through the universe like a bolt of fire, falling into an abyss and rising like a sun at the same time. Only this, she heard herself thinking in the background, far, far from where she was. Only this, she thought, with no actual understanding of what that meant. And then: I was right. I was right… It is her.
There was no tongue involved – only the pressure of lips on lips. Cat couldn’t even begin to describe what she felt as she kissed the other woman: it was too much for her, in an overwhelming, glorious and almost spiritual way. She gasped for air as she pulled away and stared into green, shocked eyes. She still held Bel’s arms in a firm grasp. She’d expected the other woman to pull away, to push her aside or to in any other way object to what was happening, but Bel hadn’t moved at all. In that moment the High Priestess’ face displayed a show of emotions, ranging from shock, disbelief, hurt and – to Cat’s surprise and delight – desire.
“You… don’t… get to do that”, Bel said, hurtful, in a slow whisper. “I won’t be toyed with.”
“I’m not… I’m sorry – no, I’m not… I just mean…” Cat slowly inhaled, trying to find words. She was still holding the other woman. “Please, listen, before you… I’m not toying with you.”
“Oh, no?” Bel said acidly, arching an eyebrow.
Cat noticed the harshness returning to Bel’s eyes and hurriedly said: “Listen. I’ve dreamt about you, about this…”
That was apparently not the right thing to say. There was loathing in the High Priestess’ eyes as she twisted loose and backed away.
“I’m sure you have…”
“No! Not like… that.” Or, that too, Cat thought as she stepped forward, but not in that way… “Please, listen.” She realized she must talk quickly to make the other woman listen before Bel lifted her in the air again – or even threw her out of the temple. “I’ve been dreaming about a woman I don’t know for years. I never saw her face, but she… I’ve been looking for her, everywhere. She’s like… She’s…” She silenced, helplessly staring at Bel. “She’s you”, she whispered.
There was a flicker of uncertainty in Bel’s eyes, but then she determinedly shook her head. “No, I’ve listened enough to your lies. I was stupid to believe I could… That you would…”
Cat didn’t understand, but she desperately wanted the other woman to know she was serious. She took another step forward and pressed Bel against the statue behind her. “Try this, then”, she mumbled hoarsely and kissed the priestess a second time.
This time she wasn’t settling with pressure, but softly caressed Bel’s mouth with her lips; carefully, tenderly asking Bel to trust her, to let her in. Please, she thought. Oh, please… And then, distracted: Goddess, her lips are soft!
* * *
I can’t do this! Bel heard herself thinking, but the thought seemed far away and although she knew it was important that she listened to it she didn’t. I’m not supposed to… Holy Bat – this is… Goddess, her mouth is soft!
Bel wasn’t really clear on what was going on. There seemed to be a thick fog clouding her mind, preventing her from clear thoughts and decision making. She was on her way to pull away from Cat when she realized that she instead had moved closer, pulling Cat towards her by grabbing her waist and then parting her lips. When Cat’s tongue touched hers her body seemed to ignite and she heard herself moan in pleasure.
This is not happening, she thought. This can’t be happening. What is it, exactly, that is happening to me? Sweet deities, her mouth is… fire – heavenly…! Is this dying? I wouldn’t mind dying right now...
Those were her last clear thoughts before she was lost in physical sensations she’d never known before. Her body literally took control over her and she was lost in the other woman’s touch, in her lips – in her melting kisses. Cat pressed her against the statue and held her there, pinned her to the stone, as they were kissing and Bel’s hands pulled and clutched at the other woman – held her so tight as if she never wanted to let go. Afterwards she would remember that and think that she hadn’t wanted to let go of Cat – not ever.
Everything seemed to feel so… tangible, so real – more intense than everything else in her life in that moment, except the powers within her: her magic of Air and Fire. It seemed to blend together and create a physical vortex of bodily feelings she couldn’t master. It was the first time – ever – in her life that she lost complete control over herself. It scared her to death.
It was the most exhilarating and delightful feeling ever.
Tongues, lips, hands… Softness, fire, deep, deep currents within her soul… She was lost and never wanted to be found unless it was by Cat’s mouth again. Cat’s lips were so soft she melted right into them – she was transformed into something else. Another being.
I want her, she heard herself think, this time clear as crystal. I want her badly… And I can’t.
“Goddess – I can’t!”
Bel gasped and twisted loose, staring at Cat with wide, desperate eyes. Cat stared back at her; eyes moist and hazy with desire. Bel felt the response in her own body as she met that look. Be still, my heart… she thought.
“Bel?” Cat asked. It was a whisper in a hoarse, thick voice. There was confusion mixed with the need in her eyes; confusion and fear.
“I can’t”, Bel said, forcing herself to speak. “I can’t do this, Cat. I’m so sorry. Even if I wanted… Even if I want, I can’t. I’m sworn to the Goddess – I can never…”
“No”, Cat whispered in a broken voice. “Don’t do this, please…”
“I must. I’m so sorry, kitten.” Bel reached out and touched Cat’s tattooed cheek with a tender caress. “You better go now.”
Cat closed her eyes for a moment. “I can’t”, she whispered.
Bel nodded, understanding – for the first time in her life knowing what wanting another person could do to you – what Cat meant. “I’m sworn to Nidae”, she said, explaining, although her heart and soul were tearing into pieces. “It’s like marriage. If I…” She swallowed, whispering: “If I lay with you I’ll lose everything of what I am. I’ll no longer be a priestess – not ever.”
“But you…” Cat opened her eyes; there were tears in them. “But you… felt…?”
Bel nodded. “I saw you kiss Ravena”, she said softly. “I thought…”
“Oh”, Cat said. “That wasn’t…”
“I know, I understand now.” She did, although she wasn’t sure Cat did. There was no way she could explain. She was, first of all, High Priestess of the Goddess of the Dark Moon. Secondly she was a woman. Always secondly. “I can’t see you again, Cat. Not for a long time. Please, do your best to protect the princess in meanwhile.”
I felt her soul, Bel thought as she turned around and left the chamber. As soon as she turned her back on Cat the tears she’d held back overflowed and streamed down her cheeks. I’m still feeling it… She knew without a doubt that wherever she or Cat went in the world she’d always be able to find the other woman. That kiss had created a bond that Bel as High Priestess could feel connected to her heart. Cat might not be aware of it, but Bel was. She felt it like a cord binding them together as sure as if they’d been tied with chains to each other. I’ll always be able to find her – wherever she goes, wherever she is. That was a comfort – of some sorts.
“Bel?” she heard Cat call behind her. There was such pain in that one, lonely word that Bel’s heart seemed to break. “Bel!”
Part Eleven – Yearnings
It was late, but the temple was always open. Cat went in through the high, golden doors – decorated with bats. It was there, she reflected that she’d been found so many years ago – on the doorstep to the temple of the Radiant Orb. An ambitious priestess had killed her mother and she didn’t know – and would never know – who her father was.
The temple was deserted, but the corridors and the main altar room was lit with torches and candles in shining candelabras. Cat halted in front of the altar and looked up at the shape of the full moon above her head. There were tears on her cheeks; she hadn’t stopped crying since she left the other temple. The temple where her heart lay shattered.
She didn’t understand. Bel had returned her kiss. There had been so much passion, so much… Love? she thought, confused, hurt. It had all been there, in that kiss. And then Bel had walked away.
Cat didn’t know what the High Priestess felt, but facts remained: Bel had returned her kiss. But she can’t love me. She’s not allowed to. She belongs to someone else…
Forbidden love. Cat had always laughed at such stories where the lovers were torn between their love and their destinies. She’d never understood the agony of it. If you were in love you made it your priority to choose love – or you were a fool and had yourself to blame for the pain.
She’d been so young. She understood now. Whatever Bel felt wasn’t going to make a difference to Cat. Bel would never choose her. She was the High Priestess incarnated – the whole Empire needed her, not some stand-in. Besides, Bel loved being a priestess – there was such passion in her for her calling. It was what she’d been born to be. Who was Cat to force her to make such a choice?
She might not have told me that she loves me… In fact Bel hadn’t been clear on anything at all, more than that she’d responded to the kiss. But she didn’t say she didn’t either.
Cat had come to Derac’s temple for a reason. If she can do it, so can I, she thought as she looked at the altar.
“Goddess”, she said, feeling pain and hurt that clawed its way through her chest to eat at her heart. “I’ve been looking for her for as long as I can remember. She’s been in my dreams, in my heart. She speaks to my soul… All the women I’ve been with… I was searching for her. And now… I can’t have her. It’s forbidden. I know I won’t love another, so… I’ll make you a promise.”
She pulled her knife and cut a quick, surface wound in the fleshy part of the palm of her hand. Holding her hand above the altar she let blood stain the surface of the dark stone.
“I will never lay with a woman again. This I swea…”
“Don’t!” came a commanding voice from behind her. She recognized it as Katana’s and glanced over her shoulder at the Captain.
“What are you doing here?” Cat asked. She’d never seen the Captain in this particular temple before.
“I came to say good bye”, Katana said and stopped at her side. She looked down at the blood staining the stone and bent to wipe it up with her sleeve. “Don’t do this”, she said softly. “You may regret it…”
“I’d never…” Cat spat. “You don’t understand!”
“I understand better than you think”, Katana said, looking around the room. “It was here I made my pledge”, she said, mostly in a whisper and mostly to her self. Then she looked back at Cat. “I didn’t mean I came to say good bye to you”, she added.
“What do you mean?” Cat dried the knife’s blade on her trousers and put it back in its sheath.
Katana leaned on the altar and crossed her arms before her. “When I first came here, to Goddara, I was young. I made a friend in a priest who lived here, we spent a lot of time together and I… I fell in love with him.”
“Oh”, Cat said, surprised.
“It turned out he returned my feelings, but he was sworn to the Goddess. We struggled with our feelings for a long time, then I finally made the decision to swear an oath – much like you right now. I made a vow that I’d never sleep with a man again in this life. Never. It’s an oath made on my life – I can’t break it, or I’ll die.”
“Goddess…” Cat whispered and Katana shrugged.
“I thought it a valid prize. I didn’t want to be happy without the man I… In any case – a few days after my vow he came to me and explained the Goddess had given him a gift.”
“Nidae… The deities aren’t that rigid as can be expected. Nidae saw our struggle and granted us one night together…”
“Burning bridges!” Cat said. “What…?” She swallowed. She wanted to ask what Katana had done, but now she understood the Captain’s self control when it came to carousing at taverns.
“There wasn’t much that could be done. I’d have given my life to be with him, if only for a night, but of course…”
“He wouldn’t allow it”, Cat whispered, understanding. The thought of Bel made her shiver – if that’d ever happened to them… “And now? The priest is still here?”
“It’s Derac, Cat”, Katana softly said. “I came to say good bye. I’m not sure we’ll ever meet again. Hopefully the Goddess will grant us a happier ending in another life.”
Cat didn’t know what to say. Me and Bel? Would I be strong enough if I knew she loved me to live my life at her side, without being able to share that love? Goddess… She didn’t understand how Katana had made it; it took more strength than Cat could imagine. So she made Panthera her life instead… Just like he lived for the people. When she thought about it she realized it was seldom she’d seen Katana and Derac together; she’d always assumed they didn’t get along. She understood better now.
“He’s not here at the moment, but I’ll wait for him”, Katana said. “Go now. Don’t make an oath like that until you’re sure your deepest wish may never, ever be granted.”
“How can it?” Cat whispered. “She doesn’t… I don’t know what she…” She sighed and looked at the cut in her palm before she nodded. “Maybe it was a rash decision. I’ll wait.”
Katana nodded. “I’ll see you later. We need to discuss the plan for the princess. Did Bel tell you?”
Cat shook her head. “No. What about?”
“Oh! She didn’t?” Katana frowned. “Fine. Did you tell anyone you were excluded from the pack?”
Cat shook her head; Serafine had died, she hadn’t been in the mood to talk to anyone. Her friend was still lying in wait for the ritual of Transition that would take place in a few days, when her body would be burned.
“Good. Bel asked me not to tell anyone either. So far only the three of us knows then. Right?”
Cat nodded, failing to see what this had to do with anything.
“The plan is to get Deyna out of Goddara without anyone knowing it”, the Captain said. “She’ll be escorted by the whole pack of Leaping Panthers. Except you.”
“Because I’m suspended for life from the pack”, Cat said dryly. Then she frowned. “It doesn’t make sense”, she added. “Bel said I was going with you. She sent me away.”
“Yes, listen. We’ll spread the word that the princess is locked up in the Eagle’s Tower for a good two weeks, doing penance because she ran away with Serafine. The Tower is protected with magic, so not even a High Priest or Priestess can look past the barriers to tell if she’s there or not. There’ll be guards posted at the stairs and someone who brings food. Bel will have one of her priestesses stay in the tower, just to make it realistic.”
“And she’ll happily oblige to stay isolated for two weeks just because the High Priestess says so?” Cat asked wryly. The Captain only looked at her and she nodded. “Fine. What’s my place in the scheme of things?”
“You’ll be here to spread the rumors that the Leaping Panthers take the time for secret recreation while the princess is locked up. You’re excluded because you disobeyed direct orders and I saw it fit to punish you this way.”
Cat frowned. “But why am I staying in the city?” Bel hadn’t said anything about that. On the other hand, Cat thought cynically, other things had come between.
“Bel is worried something might happen at the full moon”, Katana said. “Or, more precisely, during the three nights of the full moon. She wants you here if something’s going down, she told me so earlier today. She wanted to discuss the plan in depths with you, but I guess she didn’t have the time. We better be prepared for any eventualities and you are the best warrior – except for me.”
“Sure”, Cat said dryly; she didn’t want to think of the Challenge she’d lost. Katana had a few scratches, but nothing serious and Cat surmised that the Captain had been patched up by Gebra.
“You’ll only stay in Goddara past full moon and then you’ll catch up with the rest of us. Making sure no one is following you, of course.”
“Of course.” Cat made a face. “Fine, then. I guess I don’t want to be around the High Priestess more than necessary anyway.” She couldn’t, not if she didn’t want to trespass and break more rules by kissing Bel again. Maybe Nidae wasn’t going to be so tolerant the next time. Or even Bel, for that matter. “When this whole thing is over I’ll just leave Goddara.”
To live with Bel – or without her. What was worse?
Katana nodded. “Maybe that’ll be for the best”, she said softly. “If I’d been faced with that choice today… I probably would’ve left too.”
That’s comforting, Cat thought. She nodded. “I’ll see you later, then.” She looked around the room. “And… good luck”, she added, thinking of Derac.
“You too”, the Captain said. “And try to concentrate on the mission and forget… her, for a few days.”
I can’t, Cat thought. How can I? And how could she not, if she didn’t want to go insane?
* * *
She kneeled before the altar as she had for days now, trying to pray – but all she could do was think of Cat.
It’d been four days since the kiss. Bel had locked herself in the altar room and her private chambers since then – seeing only a priestess that brought her food. Although, she hardly ate and she refused to see anyone. She didn’t even see Katana or Nikka who both had come looking for her. Katana had left by now with the rest of the members of Panthera. Except the one Bel needed to be gone from Goddara.
This is madness, she thought. Utter madness. After all these years, after everyone who’s come after me, tried to win me… And this? For someone I hardly know? Goddess – is life supposed to be like this?
Nidae didn’t answer her, of course. Nidae hadn’t talked to her for days either – not since Bel neglected to heed the goddess’ warning just before Cat kissed her the second time. And how could she have listened to the voice of reason when her entire body had been aflame?
“I will never know the touch of a lover, nor the kiss of a man”, she fervently whispered before the altar. It wasn’t a prayer, but a way to remind herself of what she was, who she was. And why she couldn’t think of Cat. “I will never know the loving embrace of one I love, or the tender caress of his hands. I will not know love the way it is made between woman and man…” Why not? she thought. “Why not?” she whispered, looking pleadingly at the looming bat above her.
Life wasn’t the same anymore. Not since Cat kissed her. Outside the temple life went on – war, strife, death, love… People didn’t know how life could change in an instant.
Bel had sealed herself off for days now and tonight… Tonight was the first night of the full moon. She had to step out in the world again. She had to face her responsibilities, her duties. She couldn’t let the empire down.
“Because I belong to another”, she whispered, answering her own question. “I belong to something higher than both woman and man. I belong to the Goddess – I am hers with my body and soul, and no other will ever have the right to lay claim to me… Nor would I have the right or the wish to follow them if they asked...” That wasn’t true anymore, though. At least not the part where she didn’t wish to follow. “Once I didn’t care. Once I never looked at another and I knew in my heart the right path for me to follow was one of servitude. I looked at those men wooing me and wanted them not – my heart was set on another path. I became a priestess.”
That was me, she thought, remembering the young girl she’d been. Remembering the woman she’d become.
“Today…” she said. “Woe is me, woe is me – I have fallen. Because I look not at a man, but at a woman – and my body burns for her. My skin tingles when she is near, my heart lurches in its cage and my knees grow so weak as if I was filled with the power of the Goddess – although I am not, but only with desire for another woman. I close my eyes and there she is – wild and beautiful and daring. And her eyes burn and her lips… Those lips. I cannot sleep, I cannot think, I cannot even pray – for my heart is full of longing and she is all I want.”
Bel shook her head and bent her neck; she leaned her forehead against the cool stone with a deep sigh.
“Thus have I fallen and so is my life shattered… I see only death ahead of us.”
“Bel…” the voice of the Goddess said within her. “Bel… Rise, priestess. Don’t kneel before me like that.”
Bel looked up, but couldn’t see the Goddess anywhere. “Nidae?” she whispered. “I’m sorry. I’ve failed you.”
“No, you haven’t. This was my fault – I shouldn’t have let her come to you directly that day. I should’ve waited to send her to you. I just didn’t want you to be so hurt…”
Bel frowned. “I don’t understand”, she said out loud.
“One day you will. Just remember, what happens from now on is not your fault. It is mine, for sending her to you too soon. I should’ve seen it coming. But your heart... I could never read you so well.”
“Nidae…” Bel whispered.
“It is too late now, anyway, so it doesn’t matter that much anymore. Whatever happens from now on is meant to be, remember that. You’ve served me well, Badra Bellona – Fighter of the Full Moon. Hopefully you’ll honor your Name tomorrow.”
“Nidae?” Bel asked inwardly, trying to locate the goddess. “Nidae – are you there?” She rose from the floor and took her staff. What was going on? “Nidae!” she called.
“Pray, priestess. Pray tonight – for strength to us all and for Goddara’s people. It is needed.”
“Goddess?” Bel asked, but she knew Nidae was gone for the moment. She looked down at the altar and again kneeled before it. This time she did something she should’ve done days ago: she prayed. She prayed for her own soul and for those souls who were in her care: the people of Goddara foremost, but also of the whole Empire. It was her duty to keep the balance, to infuse the Goddess with enough energy so she could help the people.
She prayed for hours, feeling the night fall upon the world outside the temple; feeling the full moon rising.
“I give you one night…”
Nidae’s voice was clear and direct in Bel’s mind, but the message was lost on the High Priestess.
“Nidae?” she asked, but the goddess was gone again. Bel rose from the floor and stretched, trying to make sense of Nidae’s words. “One night?” she mumbled. “One night for what?”
In that same moment she heard careful footsteps behind her and turned.
When she saw Cat below the arch she lost her breath for a moment – she could only stare.
“I’m sorry…” Cat said quietly. “The Goddess called me a few hours ago… Said you needed to see me. She led me here… again.”
Bel could still only stare, suddenly realizing what Nidae had meant with her last statement. She slowly exhaled, not able to deny the overwhelming joy that overflowed her heart. This was truly the greatest gift the goddess could ever have given her. In that moment Bel knew the true meaning of the word peace. She stepped forward.
“Cat”, she said.
“You look…” – Cat seemed to search for words – “terrible.”
“You don’t look that good yourself, kitten”, Bel softly said, eyeing the warrior. Cat looked pale and thin, as if she hadn’t slept or eaten for days. Bel surmised she didn’t look much better.
Despite the other woman’s condition Bel had never seen anyone more beautiful. She wondered if Cat thought the same of her.
“I’m glad you’re here”, she said gently, moving towards Cat. She remembered that Nidae had given Derac the same opportunity to be with Katana so many years ago, but then it had been too late. She hoped… What if she…? No, she wouldn’t do that, would she? Do I mean so much to her? And what if one night is not enough? What if I… What if I want her so much I can’t give her up afterwards?
Thinking that she realized that was Nidae’s reason for giving her this opportunity. The goddess wanted Bel – and Derac before her – to have the chance to make a proper choice, based on knowledge and experience.
“Would you…” Cat swallowed, looking uncertain. “Would you mind telling me what, exactly, I’m doing here?”
Bel nodded and took Cat’s hand in hers. “You’re coming with me”, she said hoarsely, showing the way to her private chambers and her bedroom in the back.
“I don’t understand”, Cat whispered, standing before Bel’s bed in the circular room. She looked around while Bel lit candles and incense. There was a fireplace in the room, a deep armchair and some mantelpieces with tiny figurines, but not much else. The bed was large and covered with a thick, colorful quilt in red, blue and green.
“You don’t have to understand – just accept.”
Bel lit the fire in the fireplace by a mere thought and turned to the warrior. “You’d rather be someplace else?” she asked quietly. She remembered the burning, all consuming jealousy she’d felt when she saw Cat kiss Ravena – or if it had been the other way around: Ravena kissing Cat – and felt a stab of it in her heart in that moment.
Cat shook her head. “I’d rather be dead than be anywhere else”, she said hoarsely. “I just…”
“Sshh”, Bel said and placed two fingers across Cat’s lips. “Don’t speak. No words tonight…”
And then she kissed her.
Bel had been kissed exactly twice in her life and she’d never taken the initiative before, but in that moment she knew precisely what to do. Her mind questioned the naturalness of the act, but her emotions quieted her thoughts. No thinking either, she thought as she traced Cat’s mouth with lips and fingers. Cat’s lips were so soft, she didn’t want to let go of them. I could kiss her forever… That was her last conscious, analytical thought before Cat responded to her kiss.
Cat apparently took her word for the “no understanding and fully accepting”-part and as soon as she seemed to understand that Bel wasn’t going to pull away or that it wasn’t a dream – Bel was sure Cat had told her about dreaming before – she grabbed Bel and held her tightly to her as they deepened the kiss.
During the days when Bel had been isolating herself she had spent most of her waking time thinking about that first kiss she and Cat had shared. In the end she’d convinced herself it hadn’t been as perfect as she remembered it, but in that moment – kissing Cat again; and again, and again – she realized it had. Kissing Cat was her definition of something divine – of life after death. It filled her the way magic filled her, only in a more direct way – more physical. Her body turned to water and flames in Cat’s hands.
“May I… feel you?” Cat whispered.
“Yes… oh, yes”, Bel mumbled; her hands caressed Cat’s body as her mind recalled the two times she’d seen Cat half naked. “This’ll be the third time”, she whispered.
“What?” Cat asked, untying the cord to Bel’s rope.
“Me undressing you”, Bel mumbled, unbuttoning the black shirt Cat was wearing.
“’Thirds the charm’”, Cat apprehensively said. Bel could sense the tension in her, but wasn’t sure if it came from the unexpected situation or from fighting the desire Bel could see in her eyes.
“Don’t hold back”, she said, caressing Cat’s cheek.
“What?” Cat’s mismatched eyes widened.
“Don’t hold back. You won’t hurt me.”
Cat gasped, looking bewildered and lost for a moment. “I’m so… I think I…” She swallowed. “I need you so much”, she whispered.
“It’s fine”, Bel said and stepped back, kicking off her sandals. She loosened her robe and let it fall to her feet. She wore a thin cotton dress with short sleeves beneath it and as Cat watched, eyes wide, she unbuttoned it and let it too fall to the floor.
“Goddess”, she heard Cat whisper as she stood naked before her. “Oh, my sweet Goddess…”
“Let me”, Bel said, stepping forward. She began undressing Cat, who trembled beneath her fingers.
“I know this”, Cat whispered, closing her eyes. “You’ve done this before, so many times… Every touch, every… It’s you. It was always you.”
Bel wasn’t sure what Cat meant, but seeing the other woman’s need – hearing it in her voice – made her heart quiver. She leaned in and kissed Cat on the lips, again losing herself in the melting softness of the other woman’s kiss. Cat was completely naked now; all silky skin and taught muscles.
Cat’s arms encircled her waist and Bel felt her warm hands caressing her back, her hips, gently squeezing at her thighs… She moaned as she felt Cat’s naked body against her naked skin.
“Goddess, Bel – I can’t… I need you.”
There was genuine need in Cat’s voice, emphasized by the trembling of her hands, and of her body. Bel moved backwards towards the bed and pulled Cat with her as she lay down. As she felt Cat’s weight on her and the other woman’s naked leg between her thighs she gasped, unprepared for the sudden rush of blood to her lower regions.
“Goddess!” she breathed. “Goddess, Cat…”
Cat’s hands and tongue played over her body, making her lose all sense of direction – all sense of what was real and what wasn’t. She heard herself calling Cat’s name – part of her real Name; Ciardha – as the warrior sucked at her nipples, making her body squirm beneath the touch.
Then Cat’s fingers were inside her and she gasped for air, rising up as she felt heat and blood rushing through her, blinding her, making her head spin and her hands grip at Cat’s shoulders until she’d leave dark bruises on the soft skin. She felt Cat move rhythmically against her thigh and heard her call her name, but she was too lost to be aware of anything else. Then the heat burst and filled her with light and sparkling, dancing flames – all coursing through her body in an explosion of pleasure.
“I’m sorry”, Cat whispered in her ear some silent moments later.
“For what?” Bel said, catching her breath. For making me understand what Nidae’s been trying to tell me for years?
“I heard that”, the Goddess suddenly said in her mind. There was the teasing note in Nidae’s voice again. “Having a nice time, are we?”
“Very”, Bel said, laughing in her mind. “Thank you, Nidae”, she added softly.
“Next time love’s looking for you, Badra… Don’t be so stubborn.”
Bel grinned inwardly. “Don’t worry, Goddess. I’ve learned my lesson. Whenever there’s a next time… I won’t be saying no to love.” She heard the goddess chuckle and almost missed Cat’s next words.
“For… this. For being… too quick”, the warrior said a little nervously.
Bel smiled, regaining her breathing again. She slid some fingers down Cat’s back. The warrior’s body glistened in the candlelight and Bel saw – and felt – with satisfaction the ripples that ran through Cat as her fingers softly played along the skin. “It was nice. And don’t worry. We’ve got the whole night ahead of us.” She smiled widely, sliding downwards across Cat’s body. “And it’s my turn to play now…”
Part Twelve – End of Dreams
She had tattoos on her arms. Bats in all different sizes and shapes: black with red or green eyes. Beautifully made. Cat spent a long time kissing all of them. Bel laughed softly at her, but didn’t prevent her from doing it.
I want it to last for an eternity, Cat thought for every bat she kissed. It was like praying.
Making love to Bel was different from all other women Cat had spent her nights with. It was like making love to someone for the first time – except she knew the other woman’s body intimately. She knew how to touch Bel to make her tremble in need, in desire. She knew how to kiss her to make Bel moan with pleasure. She’d done it so many times before. And yet…
It wasn’t the same. Those dreams… It couldn’t be compared. Reality was sweeter than anything ever before. Cat was completely lost in the other woman, finding so many new things with Bel: passion, tenderness…
Hours went by. They spent time softly kissing, tenderly caressing – or making love with a fiery passion Cat really hadn’t expected of the other woman. They barely spoke, but their hands touched, their eyes met and locked in the process of bringing each other pleasure. Cat had never looked a woman in the eyes that way before during lovemaking; it meant giving too much of herself. But with Bel… Cat wasn’t afraid. She gave willingly and she received. I know this woman, she thought at one moment. I will always know her.
“Tired?” Bel whispered in her ear.
“Exhausted”, Cat mumbled with a smile, caressing Bel’s hair.
“Where’s your stamina?” the High Priestess asked dryly and Cat laughed.
“I must admit, I never met anyone who could last as long as me before”, she said.
“Takes a priestess to do it, huh?” Bel said, kissing Cat’s neck. Cat closed her eyes, instantly feeling her body react to the touch.
“Uhu…” Cat said and grabbed the priestess, swirling around so that Bel ended up beneath her on the bed; naked skin glistening in the candlelight. “On the other hand…” she added, looking down at the woman’s mouth. “I’ve never felt quite so alive before.”
“Me neither”, Bel mumbled and encircled Cat’s neck, pulling her head down.
They kissed. They kissed for a long time and then Cat went for another exploration of the High Priestess’ body: kissing, touching, nibbling…
“Suddenly I understand Fang so much better”, Bel breathed and Cat grinned.
“There’s a first for everything”, she said.
“I’ll be sure to remember that”, the other woman softly said. She sat up and looked at Cat with tenderness, caressing her cheek and pushing some curls from her eyes. “And sometimes”, she said gently, “that’s all there is.”
Cat wanted to ask what she meant, feeling a cold tug at her heart, but then Bel carefully took her face between her hands and kissed her with such gentleness that Cat was utterly lost – deeper than before. The softness was incredible. This is perfection… was her last thought, before she drifted off, lost in the arms of the woman she loved.
Cat knelt before the altar, looking up at the looming bat above her. She couldn’t help grinning, thinking of what had gone before. Thinking of the night she’d spent with Bel.
“Thank you, Goddess”, she said, putting all her gratitude in those words. She’d left the priestess still sleeping, to come and say her prayers – kneeling before an altar for the first time in her life.
The night had been perfect. Want, need – passions… It’d been endless. Better than any dream Cat ever had, more real, more lovely. Perfect in every sense – except it was now over.
“And what do you think you’re doing?”
Cat swirled around with her hand on the sword hilt, startled rising from the floor in one fluid motion. She hadn’t heard anyone approach. When she recognized Derac she relaxed.
“Save it”, the High Priest said in a cold, harsh voice that she recognized from Bel only days before. She carefully stepped back when he moved towards her. There was something gleaming in his eyes she didn’t recognize, something that made her skin crawl.
“Not a word!” he snapped and lifted his staff. A cold wind swept through the altar room. “What did you do to her? You have no right to be here…”
“I… She invited me, I was…”
“You’ve slept with her!” he whispered. The revelation came abruptly to him and he stared at her with wide, disbelieving eyes.
Cat straightened her shoulders, looking the priest in the eyes. “Yes. Yes, I did”, she said.
“You…” He seemed to choke on the words, staring at her. All color drained from his face. In the next moment he moved quickly towards her – quicker than she’d expected from him – and before she knew it he slapped her across the face. It was more than a slap – rather a backhand with full force that might have split her lip had she not reacted instinctively and moved away. Instead of a full beating she just got a brush from his hand, but it wasn’t the stroke that made her gasp – it was the act itself. She’d never known Derac to be a violent man and to see him like this…
“You hit me!” she gasped in surprise, before the realization hit in. “You hit me”, she snapped. “You had not right…” she began angrily, taking a step towards him.
“You can’t have her!” he spat. “She’s not yours! Be gone – ere the deities will condemn you both!”
She refused, because Bel hadn’t seemed to object during the night – and because no man, not even a priest, was allowed to strike her like that without paying for it. She’d kissed a High Priestess; if she knocked down a High Priest it couldn’t make much of a difference. “You’re just jealous!” she spat, moving closer. “You want her all to yourself, thinking she’ll…”
“Ignorant child!” he shouted, interrupting her, and the walls trembled with his power. He raised his staff and the storm that blew against the altar forced her to her knees. She tried to fight the wind, but it was too strong.
What’s he doing here, anyway? she thought. This temple wasn’t his place; he wasn’t supposed to be there. And what’s happened to him? Was it Serafine’s death that had driven him to this? Derac was a peaceful, nonjudgmental priest who didn’t jump to conclusions. At least he had been, before Serafine died. She remembered how he had blamed himself for his sister’s death and wondered if that was still what bugged him. He wasn’t a warrior – maybe he wanted to change that and just didn’t know how.
Then she remembered Katana and realized maybe Derac’s behavior had more than one cause.
“How dare you speak of things of which you know nothing?” he went on with a strange glow in his eyes. “The Goddess is her destiny! This cannot change – she was born to be who she is and no man nor deity has the power to oppose those ancient laws. And especially not some lovesick youngster…”
She loves me too, she thought. You should know that, you ambitious… She caught herself – to blaspheme against a priest even in thought could cost one dearly.
Then another thought caught her and made her heart cramp. What if Bel didn’t love her? The priestess hadn’t said anything at all about love. But she was the High Priestess – she wouldn’t just take someone to her bed like that if she didn’t love them. Would she?
Cat struggled to her feet and leant against the altar; her sword made a ringing sound in the hard wind as it hit the stone. She wished it had been loud enough to block the fear from her mind.
“LEAVE!” the High Priest shouted through the storm, but she stubbornly shook her head. She wasn’t going anywhere until she’d talked to Bel. “You fool!” he yelled. “How dare you oppose the deities and the ancient code? She cannot be yours. She belongs to the Goddess!”
Without warning the raging wind threw Cat through the air – straight up into the ceiling. She hit her head on the stone and that was the last thing she remembered before darkness claimed her.
She’d wake up to find a world on fire.
* * *
Angry voices and thunder awakened Bel. She recognized Derac’s use of power and hurried to wash off and get dressed, taking the time to pull a comb through her hair before rushing towards the altar room with the staff in her hand.
“What have you done?” she gasped as she found Cat lying unconscious on the floor behind the altar. “Derac!” She rushed forward to kneel by Cat’s side, but Derac’s wind stopped her.
“Badra!” his voice echoed around her.
“Stop this!” she cried, countering Derac’s powers with her own, fending off his wind and breaking his hold on her. This was her temple, after all, and she was the stronger of them. “What are you doing?”
“You’ve lain with her!” he shouted. His face was contorted in rage and pain and she didn’t recognize him; she’d never seen him like that before. “You lay with her!”
“Yes, I did”, she said calmly, straightening her shoulders. “I was allowed to.”
“No”, he seethed, pointing at her with his staff. “You’ve broken this empire. You’ve been so absorbed with her you’ve neglected your duties. Don’t you know? Don’t you know what you’ve done, you whore?”
She gasped, completely taken off guard by his words and the seething resentment in his eyes. “Derac?” she whispered. She knew he hadn’t been himself since his sister died, but this… The grief must’ve taken a much deeper toll on him than she’d known. She took a step towards him. “Is this about Serafine? Let me help…”
He snorted. “Help me? You never helped anyone but yourself. Always you and your righteousness. Until now…” He laughed bitterly. “You don’t have a clue, do you? What’s happening outside these walls?”
Bel caught herself. “Nidae?” she called inwardly. There was no answer. “Derac, what is it? What’s happened?”
“You…” Derac looked at the unconscious Cat on the cold stone. “This is her fault. She tricked you, tempted you…”
“No”, Bel said hastily. “I wanted this…”
“Filthy whore”, he snapped at her; eyes blazing with madness. This time Bel sensed something else beneath the rage: fear. Something had happened that’d made him lose himself. Serafine’s death had been the trigger, he hadn’t fully recovered from the grief and now…
“Tell me what’s happened”, she asked, holding his gaze. She understood the pain in him, caused by memories of Katana – the woman he loved as much as life itself. The woman he could never touch, because his touch would be her death.
Bel remembered the years gone by – the nights during which she’d listened to Derac’s agonizing, incoherent talk about the fire consuming him. And days when she’d listened to Katana talk about him. She’d listened, but she’d never fully understood what they’d been going through. Now she knew and she couldn’t blame Derac for his rage and frustration: she’d be jealous too.
But the fear she sensed beneath Derac’s frustration had nothing to do with her or Cat. She could feel it now when her need for Cat had been satiated. She – like all high officials in the Priesthood – was connected to the empire through an inner bond. They knew when something was amiss with the holy order of Kellara. Or, she thought with self-loathing, they ought to. She’d been so consumed by her personal problems the past few days she’d completely lost track of the needs of the empire and of the people. If something truly had happened – as indicated by Derac and also by her inner, growing sense of danger – it was her fault.
“They’re all dead”, Derac whispered. “They’re all dead – and it’s your fault.”
Bel held on to her staff, hesitating for a moment before she took a deep breath and closed her eyes. The images came flooding against her right away. Images of death and destruction.
“Oh, my Goddess!” she whispered, feeling the pain and the agony, the fear of the people – of the land. War wasn’t coming anymore – it was already there. She now understood Derac’s inner turmoil, the sense of madness in his eyes. He must’ve been struck by the cheer force of the bloodshed unprepared and had taken it all in – mingled it with his own sense of fear, dejection and feelings of injustice.
Bel went down on one knee, fighting to regain control and remain sane in the midst of the chaos that was thrown against her mind. Blood… There was so much blood; it was everywhere. What did they do? she thought in the back of her mind and in an instant she was shown the palace.
“It is you!” Derac called. “This is your fault!”
It’s both our faults, Bel numbly thought as her inner eye watched what had happened at the palace. The Imperial Family… They were all dead; slaughtered like calves as sacrifices to the deities. It’s our fault… Hers for not listening to Nidae, who’d told her to wait and not let Cat kiss her that first time – if she hadn’t she’d never been so consumed by longing for a next time; Derac’s for being too angry and absorbed by Serafine’s death and Katana’s goodbye.
“It’s the Ma’ahel”, she whispered, clearly seeing the signs of the ritual all over the scene: Deyna’s six sisters had been killed in the most vicious manner – emptied of blood. Bel saw the stair to the Eagle’s Tower stained with blood; guards had been killed and the priestess… The priestess Bel had left in the tower to play the princess had been killed too – she’d been stabbed in the chest. “They wanted to conduct the Ma’ahel by taking Deyna’s powers…”
“Yes, of course – you were right”, Derac said bitterly.
“I was”, she said numbly. It didn’t mean anything anymore. The whole Imperial Family had been killed and in that moment Kellara’s boarders were invaded by hordes of bloodthirsty warriors. They were still several days away from Goddara and the White Tigers fought valiantly, but without the Emperor… And war was being wagged even in the city. White Tigers fought against traitorous warriors of the Cobra Squad. Blood was flowing.
Bel rose from the floor. “They didn’t get Deyna…”
“Is that all you can think…?” Derac abruptly silenced and Bel felt it too: they were no longer alone. Both of them turned their heads, as on cue, to look at the woman standing in the main entrance.
“Bel…” Katana said, her voice hardly audible. “High Priest…”
The Captain of Panthera moved into the chamber. She walked with difficulty, bleeding from several wounds.
“Holy Bats”, Derac whispered and all anger seemed to leave him, leaving only deep concern in his gray eyes.
“We lost her”, Katana said as she stopped in the middle of the room. “I lost her.”
“Katana…” Bel whispered, feeling a cold dread choking her.
“They found us this morning. It was… It was Mara, as you suspected.”
“The Snake”, Bel snapped, growing cold and angry. “Katana…”
“I’m the only one left”, the Captain said. “They… They’re all dead”, she whispered. “There are no more Leaping Panthers…”
“Go”, Bel commanded, feeling her mind snapping into place, taking control over her emotions. She had things to do. “Go and get healing from Gebra. We’ll fight this. He won’t get away with this, the…”
“Gebra’s dead”, Derac said evenly. He was looking at Katana, but then turned to Bel. “She died of natural causes two days ago. I performed the rites for her.” He held Bel’s eyes. “You should’ve known that if you hadn’t been…”
“I know now”, Bel cut in. There was no time for self-blame. Blaming herself she would do later – if she was still alive. “Nidae – where are you?” But again there was no answer.
“Is Deyna…?” Katana asked.
“Not yet”, Bel said, shaking her head. “Mara still has time to perform the Ma’ahel, but it can only be done beneath the full moon. The last sacrifice must be prepared in a special way and offered at an altar. They’ll probably keep her hidden until nightfall and then bring her to Mara’s temple… We have until then to prepare for battle.”
“What must I do?” Katana asked, straightening.
“Get one of my priestesses to heal your wounds – then eat and get some rest. I need you and Cat for tonight.”
“Cat?” the Captain asked.
Bel nodded. “I’ll send her to you.” She lifted her staff and pointed at Katana with it. She wore a sleeveless dress and the bats on her arms were clearly visible, seeming to come to life in the glow from the torches on the walls. “Go now. I charge you to protect the princess at all costs. Even with your very life.”
Katana bowed. “Yes, High Priestess.” She straightened and glanced at Derac before she turned and hurriedly left the room.
“There’s a war going on outside these walls”, Derac said. “How do you propose we deal with it?”
There was still an edge to his voice, but the mad rage from before had lessened.
“Our priority is Deyna’s life”, Bel said. “If Mara succeeds in completing the Ma’ahel this world is doomed.”
“He can’t do this on his own. He must have a High Priest…”
“It’s Orm, I’m sure of it”, Bel said, glancing down at the still unconscious Cat on the floor.
Orm was the High Priest that once had terrorized Goddara with earthquakes, demanding riches and sacrifices in return to appease the deity who was responsible. Although – it hadn’t been a deity behind it, but Orm himself. Bel and Derac had always been sure Orm acted on orders from Mara, the Cobra god. They had never been able to prove that Mara was in some ways working against the good of the empire, but they’d never stopped suspecting him.
“He’s probably the one behind the rise of the new king in Egara – the supposedly ‘High Priest of the Crocodile’”, Bel resumed. “He’s been plotting for years to overthrow Barac Wei and Cara and he probably was in league with Harkaitz and his wife.”
“And now he’s back”, Derac said in a dark voice. “We should’ve killed him when we had the chance.”
“Might not have changed anything”, Bel said. “Remember – the prophecies are quite clear on one thing: that an end was coming either way.”
“Because of her”, Derac snapped, looking at Cat.
“Not because of her”, Bel said irritably. “Stop looking for scapegoats, Derac. This is what we have to deal with now. You and I, we have to…”
Derac shook his head. “I’ll come along, but you and I are done.”
“No”, he said firmly. “I can’t work with you. You’ve… destroyed everything. I’m sorry, Bel”, he added sadly. “I’ll go and see if there’s anything I can do for the people. Keep them safe… You do – whatever you have to.”
Bel watched him leave without calling him back. She’d talk to him again later, but first… She knew what she had to do: if Orm was back she needed to perform the ritual that would protect Nidae from his powers. It would take some time. When she was done she needed to see if there was anything she could do to stop the war apparently raging outside the temple. And she needed to see to Cat.
Bel glanced down at the woman on the floor, smiling gently when she thought about the passed night.
“Nidae”, Bel said, turning to face the Goddess who’d appeared seemingly out of nowhere. The Goddess was safe in her temple; no High Priest or Priestess could reach her there.
“We have to fight now, Bel.”
“I know, my Goddess”, Bel softly said.
“You must convince Derac to join forces with you. Without him…”
“I’ll try, Nidae, but did you hear him? He…” Bel shook her head. “He’s so lost.”
“I heard him”, the Goddess said quietly. “I even tried to talk to him, but we never had the same bond as you and I. He… didn’t listen. He’s so torn and everything he’s been through recently… This is the worst time for him questioning his allegiances and doubting his calling.” Nidae looked closely at Bel. “I hope you don’t doubt?”
Bel shook her head. “I know my duties. I haven’t really had a chance to talk to Cat, but… I’m sorry I wasn’t more alert. All this is my fault…”
“There’ll be time for blame later, my priestess”, Nidae said.
“Yes, my Goddess.” Bel nodded. “As said, I know my calling. I’ve never doubted, not even…” She silenced, glancing at Cat.
“Tonight will be tough, Bel”, the woman before her said. “A choice might have to be made.”
Bel frowned. “What kind of choice?”
“You’ll know when it’s time. Just remember, if it comes – a whole world might depend on which path you take. Which choice you make. Not only now – but also in the future.”
Bel swallowed. “You put too much trust in me, Nidae.”
Nidae suddenly grinned. “It’s because you’ve never failed me. I know you won’t this time. You always do what’s right. See you later, priestess.”
And without a moments notice the Goddess lifted into the air without transforming into a bat. She hovered over the floor and rose steadily as she looked down at Bel. Bel had seen her fly like that a few times – Nidae was the only deity that could actually levitate without changing shape, an ability many deities envied. Bel had always wondered what it must be like, floating like that in the air. She wondered fleetingly if it was a talent difficult to master and if Nidae ever miscalculated the distance between things in her environment and crashed into them.
“You’re the most loyal priestess I ever had, Badra Bellona”, the goddess said. “And the one who’s come closest to being my best friend. It’s a lonely life, being a deity.”
“Thank you, Nidae”, Bel said. “Will you let go of the hold you have on Cat and wake her up now, please? I need to talk to her.”
“Of course”, Nidae said with the hint of a teasing smile before she flew out the arched entrance with the grace of a white dove.
When the Goddess had left Bel knelt at Cat’s side. The warrior moaned softly, opening her eyes. Bel remembered the previous times when she’d seen Cat wake up just like that. At least this time she’s dressed, she thought wryly.
“I’m here, kitten”, she said and helped Cat to sit up.
“Oh, my head.” Cat cradled her head in her arms.
“Sorry about that. Derac was a little rough…”
“A little?” Cat looked up. “A lot. My head feels like it’s going to explode.”
There must’ve been something in her voice that made the woman listen, because Cat looked at her with alarm.
“We… have a problem.”
Part Thirteen – Fire
Cat stood at the top of the stairs before the entrance to Bel’s temple and looked upon the city where she’d grown up. It was on fire.
“I can’t believe it’s come to this”, she mumbled to the women on either side of her. It was twilight and the sun was setting, turning the sky the color of blood – reflecting the scenario below. The palace was on fire, the city walls were crumbling. People fled in panic, screaming.
Cat had seen a lot destruction and death in her days as a warrior in kingdoms beyond Kellara, but this… She’d never felt such agony witnessing mayhem before. Watching Goddara fall tore her heart to pieces. She’d never known she loved her birth city so much.
“It was only a matter of time”, Nakkara Rim said. “As soon as Barac Wei was crowned Emperor of Kellara I knew…” She silenced.
“You knew what?” Katana quietly asked on Cat’s other side. The three of them watched the city below; no one moved. They each wanted to rush forward and help the fleeing people, to stop the fires, draw a sword and swing it in battle – or heal the wounded. They didn’t – because one woman had forbidden them to leave the temple until she told them so.
Bel hadn’t been in a friendly mood and not even Katana or the oracle had tried to argue with her.
“I knew Kellara would fall”, Nakkara said. Nikka, Cat thought, remembering what Bel had called the oracle. “I Saw the end in twelve different versions, all of them taking place at different times…”
“Goddess”, Cat whispered. “So we were doomed from the beginning…”
“We lasted longer than I thought possible”, the oracle said.
“Because you and Bel worked to make it so”, Katana said, as quietly as before.
“We had help”, Nikka simply said.
“Barac Wei was a good man”, the Captain said and the oracle nodded.
“The best of them. He carried this city on his shoulders, balancing the forces wanting to tear us all apart.”
“Harkaitz”, Cat said bitterly, watching two White Tigers fight against a handful of Cobras outside the city walls. Against the odds the Tigers won, defending a young mother and her child. One of them directed the woman towards the temple where Cat and the other two were standing. People came from everywhere to hide in the temple; priestesses in brown robes greeted them at the entrance and took care of them, leading them forward into the sanctuary. Cat had long since closed her eyes and ears to the agony of the fugitives.
There was death everywhere she looked. She had wanted to go down and fight, but Bel had forbidden her to leave the temple. “I’ll need you and Katana alive for later. You must protect the princess”, Bel had said. Cat didn’t want to think of Deyna in the hands of those traitorous Cobras. Thinking of the Cobra Squad also made her remember Para. And Ravena.
“Amongst others”, Katana said.
“Bor’s been plotting this for years too”, the oracle said, glancing at a new group of people seeking sanctuary in the temple; they were helped by two priestesses. “Getting those amulets and spells protecting him and his warriors from Derac’s and Bel’s magic isn’t easily done.”
Katana nodded, but remained silent.
Cat thought of Bor – Meri Bahram, which was his true Name: Renowned Conqueror – who’d broken all the rules and oaths to accomplish a bloodbath. What did he want? Power? To make a name for himself? Maybe become Emperor now when the entire Imperial Family was gone.
When Cat first heard what had happened she’d refused to believe it; it had only been the expression on Bel’s face and the deep despair in the priestess’ eyes that had prevented her from objecting. Bel had told her the whole Cobra Squad had turned against the empire and was trying to overthrow the Imperial Family, with some help from outlawed and hired mercenaries. Then she said Deyna now was the only heir to the throne left. And that her life was in danger.
Except Cat had known that Deyna wasn’t the only living heir left. Para was somewhere out there too. It wasn’t until later she learned that he had left Goddara.
There hadn’t been much time for Cat and Bel to talk about what had happened during the night. Faced with the terrible news Cat knew Bel wouldn’t have much choice but to concentrate on saving what was left of the crumbling Empire before they spent time sweet talking about the incredible time they’d had together. If Bel thought it had been as incredible as Cat did.
The thought made her twitch irritably at the top of the stairs. She knew it was a bad time being so selfish, as to want confirmation about what had happened, but… What had Bel felt? Why did she make love to her like that? Because she was curious after all these years, wanting to know what it could be like? Because…? Stop that, she told her self. Later, there’ll be time later to discuss things like that. To fret about things like that, you fool. The thing was – she wasn’t so sure there would be any time later. Her last dream of Bel kept popping up in her mind – the dream about the wedding; the dream where she’d seen Bel’s face for the first time. She hadn’t dreamt about the woman since then – at least not while sleeping.
Bel had asked something of her in that dream. She remembered it well, because she’d often thought about it and wondered…
“You have found me. I need to find you, now. And I will. But then...”
“Then what?” she whispered in fear, suddenly feeling a cold dread in her heart.
“Then you have to let me go, when I ask it of you…”
Cat couldn’t stop wondering in what way Bel would leave. She shuddered.
“Derac’s doing his best to put out the fire”, Katana said at Cat’s side.
“Someone’s working against him. I believe it’s Orm; he’s powerful”, Nakkara Rim said. “If only Derac would work with Bel, join forces with her…”
“It’s my fault”, Cat quietly said, but the oracle shook her head.
“We’re all humans. We make mistakes. This is his choice, it has nothing to do with you. Oh, and don’t worry”, the oracle added, almost as an after-thought – there was this strange look in her eyes that Cat had learned to recognize as a sign that the seer was Seeing something. “You’ll get payback for that slap he gave you.”
“It’s small comfort”, Cat mumbled. “What happened to Ravena?” she asked after a moment, again remembering the beautiful woman. If Bel hadn’t been told about Ravena and Rhais by someone she still didn’t know what had taken place only the day before. Cat hadn’t seen Para since he left her outside the temple five days ago and the same morning she’d heard from Hades that he’d left Goddara. Apparently Para had asked Ravena to come with him, but she’d declined. And then… Then Rhais had been found in his sister’s quarters as Hades was following up on a magical lead from Empress Cara.
According to Nikka, when Hades asked Ravena why she’d hidden and protected her brother she’d answered: “He’s my brother, what would you have me do?”
Ravena’s action when Rhais was discovered – obstructing the White Tigers from catching him – had made it possible for Rhais to escape a second time. He’d been found a few hours later and killed in combat.
“Blood’s thicker than water”, the oracle said. “At least in this life”, she added, again with a distant voice. “Ravena didn’t see another option than to try and save him, but one day…”
“What do you mean?” Cat asked curiously.
“They’ll be father and son, one day. The man Ravena is then will do what’s right in the eyes of the law.”
Cat didn’t really get the whole past and future lives thing, but she considered what Nikka had told her. “But where is she now? What happened to her?”
“Barac Wei exiled her with immediate effect. She was escorted out of Goddara yesterday by a White Tiger.”
“It probably saved her life”, Katana said thoughtfully.
“I’m not sure she’ll be too grateful about that”, Cat said wryly. “Her whole family’s turned out to be criminals… Her brother’s dead and the man she was supposed to be marrying…” She silenced.
“Yeah”, Katana agreed. “Tough luck.”
“She knows about Para”, Nakkara said. “I had to tell her before she left, incase… Incase she’d chosen to return to him when she was exiled from Goddara.”
“Oh, Goddess”, Cat whispered.
“It’s better to be alive, however miserable it is”, the oracle said. “It gives you the opportunity to balance your deeds…”
“I don’t agree”, Cat said. “Some lives are worse than death.”
“It’s a matter of opinion”, Katana said, looking out at the burning city. She shrugged. “I don’t really have one. Life or death… What matters is what you make of your life – and how you decide to face your death.”
“What about prince Harkaitz and his wife?” Cat asked with a slight frown. “Bel told me Deyna is the only living heir left, except Para, but…”
“Bor killed them too”, Nikka said. “He didn’t want any with imperial blood to survive.”
“Fancy that”, Katana mumbled. Cat glanced at her.
“I wonder if he’d kill Para if he knew about him”, she said softly.
“Look at that”, the oracle said and pointed down at the chaos before them. The burning palace suddenly exploded in a burst of white fire – and then the flames were put out. They stared at the blackened, scorched ruin that was left of the once magnificent building.
“That must’ve been Bel, doing that”, Katana said.
On Cat’s other side the oracle nodded, but didn’t say anything.
After talking to Cat earlier in the morning Bel had isolated herself to prepare for the evening. Several hours later she’d come out and gone down into the city to help with whatever she could. She’d said she’d return when the sun set. The sun was now half a disk disappearing on the horizon and Cat felt weary watching it.
“Did you get any sleep at all today?” she asked Katana.
The Captain shrugged. “Some. I slept a few hours. Bad dreams, though…”
“I wish I could’ve slept”, Cat said. “I didn’t get much sleep.”
The other two looked pointedly at her and she blushed. “Uh”, she said. “I mean…” She silenced as a bat the size of the palm of her hand suddenly flapped before her. As she looked at it, feeling queasy, it burst into a white light and turned into a woman they all knew.
“She’s waiting for us”, Nidae – Goddess of the Dark Moon – said. “She says it is time.”
* * *
When Bel entered the Temple of the Burning Coil – Mara’s temple – she felt power vibrating in the air. Orm, Mara’s former High Priest, had already begun the ritual of Ma’ahel.
The temple was situated on the opposite side of the city from the Temple of the Dark Moon: a cavern like construction much like Bel’s temple, but the entrance lay closer to the ground. Only a few steps were leading to the large, dark entrance. The entrance turned into a dark tunnel with several smaller tunnels leading to and fro on the sides. There were no guards, which told Bel Orm was either a fool or he wanted to lead them into a trap.
She had barely considered the thought when a bright, blinding light was exploding around them.
“Back!” she called, throwing up her arms in front of her, lifting her staff. Behind her Derac ushered the rest of the company back to the entrance. Katana was there, alongside Cat and Nakkara Rim; they were escorted by two dozens of Hades’ White Tigers. Hades himself was fighting to secure the city and Bel hadn’t wanted to take too many soldiers from him, they were few as they were since the emperor had sent the majority of the army to the boarders. The showdown in Mara’s temple would mostly be fought by magic, between priest and priestess, and the soldiers would only secure the safety of the princess once they found her.
The blinding light was a magical barrier. If anyone not initiated into the higher order of the Priesthood had touched it that person would’ve turned to ashes. Bel had been putting out fires all over the city for several hours, before the sun set, and created shields to protect the people. She and Derac were both tired and drained of power. Orm was counting on that, using magical barriers such as this one to weaken them even further.
“This will take some time”, she said, glancing back at the others.
She had to use her knowledge of ancient magic to counteract Orm’s barrier. It cost them time, but without her stubborn, dedicated striving to gain more knowledge despite her friends demands that she should spend more time living and less time studying she wouldn’t have known how to counteract the barrier at all. I knew all the time I spent reading wasn’t a waste, she thought.
“Fine”, she heard Nidae in her mind. “Could you brag later?” It was lightly said, but there was also an uncharacteristic urgency in the goddess’ voice.
“There we go”, Bel said, breaking the barrier. “Let’s move.”
They moved through the tunnels; Bel alert to any trap set by the fallen High Priest and careful not to let anyone else move before her. There were a few more magical barriers along the way, but Bel had no problems in counteracting them and finally they reached the underground, private altar room of Orm.
It was a large space, seemingly cut out of the stone with crude tools, creating rough walls. They weren’t as smooth as the walls in Bel’s temple, where you could mirror yourself if you polished the stone.
Torches lighted the cavern and a few dozen members of the Cobra Squad stood guard along the walls. The altar was placed in the middle of the room: a triangular, black stone slab large enough to lay a full grown man upon it. In that moment a blonde, teenage girl was tied on it with a gag in her mouth. A knife lay glistening above her head.
“Deyna”, Cat breathed at Bel’s side.
“Remember your mission”, Bel told her and Katana. “Whatever happens, the two of you must get Deyna out of here. This is not only about her safety or her life – it’s about the safety of our entire world. If Mara succeeds in this there won’t be anyone able to stop him.”
“I understand”, Katana said, grimly nodding.
“Cat?” Bel asked insistently.
Cat looked at her with a mix of emotions Bel couldn’t deal with or handle in that moment. Cat had given her an unforgettable memory the past night, but as a priestess Bel didn’t have the time to analyze what it all had meant to her. She knew that she would never have the time. Not after this night. This night was the reason why she’d been born, the reason why she’d become High Priestess of the Goddess of the Dark Moon. It was her destiny.
Nikka had told her so the first time they met. Badra Bellona, High Priestess of Nidae, was entering Mara’s temple to die. And she knew it.
“I…” Cat said.
“You have to”, Bel said imploringly, holding Cat’s eyes. “Do you understand? You have to let me go, Cat. The fate of the world is more important than us.”
Cat swallowed. “I promise”, she whispered. “But you…” Her voice was hoarse, but not in the same way as it had been during the night. “Why did you… let me stay?” she whispered.
Why? Bel thought incredulously. She wanted to ask Cat by all burning bats what kind of question that was – to tell her that she’d never lay with anyone except for the reason the world was created: for love – but there was no time. Before them the High Priest Orm turned from the altar and from the incantations to look at them where they stood in the opening to the cavern. He was dressed in red, holding a staff in his hand. Long, black hair was twisted into a braid, falling down his back. The face was sharp and his mouth was thin, twisting into an evil smirk.
“Welcome to this humble abode”, he said, gesturing towards the guards along the walls. The guards moved into the room, towards the entrance. There was only the one entrance to the room.
“I believe we were expected”, Bel said moving forward. She didn’t waste energy on attacking the guards, the White Tigers would deal with them. Behind her Nidae moved forward.
“I had hoped you’d be detained and killed by my spells by now”, Orm said, quirking his lips.
“We’re not sorry to disappoint you”, Derac said dryly. “Let her go”, he added. “You won’t stand a chance against us.”
Orm laughed. “Really?” He glanced down at the girl with a serious expression on his face. “I beg to differ.” Without looking he flicked his fingers towards the guards, who’d stopped as he was talking to Bel and Derac. “Kill them”, he said offhandedly.
Bel stepped aside as the Cobras rushed forward; Derac, Nikka, Katana and Cat followed her into the chamber. Behind them White Tigers rushed forward to meet the enemies. Nidae hovered in the air above them, looking down at the altar.
“I’m getting her”, the goddess told Bel.
“Be careful”, Bel admonished.
“Your spells will protect me from his powers…”
“I meant Mara”, Bel said. She avoided a Cobra attacking her with a sword and smashed his head in with her staff. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed Nidae make a diving rush for the altar.
“What’s she…?” Cat whispered.
“Now!” Bel called and rushed forward. Ahead of her an invisible force threw Orm through the chamber and invisible hands untied the princess’ hands from the altar. “Get her!” Bel shouted through the loud noise of clanging weapons and barking warriors. “Before…”
The voice echoed in the chamber, within them and around them. Behind the altar the form of a man took shape. He was tall and dark, with eyes burning red. Behind him the shape of his True Form loomed in the shape of the Cobra: it was gigantic, filling the whole room – competing for place with Nidae’s ever present Bat.
Bel knew she, Derac and Nikka – and Deyna and Orm, of course – were the only ones seeing the True Form of the two deities, but it didn’t mean Nidae and Mara weren’t terrifying to watch for the others. The power in the room was tangible, anyone could feel it. Nidae’s full power was like glistening waters in the night, dark and flecked with silver stars. It could be felt now, as she no longer was bound by the Priesthood’s magic; Bel’s spells had made sure of that. Mara’s power was black and whirling, sucking all life from his near environment.
“Traitor!” Nidae called, her voice as trembling and powerful as Mara’s around and within them. In the next instant she attacked the other deity with a powerful sphere of energy. It took Mara in the chest and hurled him across the chamber.
“Forward!” Bel hadn’t stopped at the appearance of Mara, but the others had. Even Derac stood frozen behind her. Then Cat rushed forward and was at Bel’s side in the blink of an eye. “Get Deyna!” Bel called into the roaring wind that swirled about them, caused by Mara and Nidae’s combat. Mara was still on his feet, returning the attack.
“What’s happening?” Cat asked, looking from the one deity to the other.
“They’re fighting”, Bel explained. “You can’t see it – it happens on another level of… Never mind. They’re fighting.”
They reached the altar and the girl upon it. Deyna was barely conscious.
“Deyna?” Bel asked, pulling at Deyna’s arm.
“I’ll get her”, Cat said and threw Deyna across one shoulder.
“No, you don’t!” Orm called, suddenly by their side.
In the next moment a deep, seemingly bottomless hole opened beneath Cat’s feet and she and Deyna fell into it. Bel had just time to counter the attack and prevent them from disappearing in the hole. She caught them using Air and pulled them up just in time before the hole was closed again. Her intention was to put them down near the entrance, but Orm attacked her and broke her spell. Cat and Deyna fell down before Derac and Katana.
“Bel!” Bel heard inwardly; Nidae’s desperate voice. “He’s too strong! He’s been feeding on the blood of the princesses. You and Derac need to support me!”
“Derac!” Bel called. “Join forces with me!”
“No time!” the High Priest called. “We need to get out of here – the whole temple is caving in.”
Bel felt it too, the rumble beneath the cavern caused by Orm’s magic. Mara’s High Priest smirked at her.
“See how you and your sweet goddess will survive this.”
“Derac – now!”
But Derac was helping Deyna to her feet and supported her, either ignoring or not hearing Bel’s call.
“When the spells wear off”, Nidae told her, still fighting Mara. “When the spells wear off, binding him and me to the Priesthood again – then it must be done. You must kill him then.”
Bel could see them: lightning flashing, power whirling around the chamber. Nidae and Mara actually never moved from their places, not since the first encounter; they used mind and will to battle.
Bel tried to counter Orm’s magic, but it took too long to find a weakness in his defenses; she just didn’t have the time. Finally she settled on a less elaborate way of dealing with him: she simply knocked him on the head with her staff. It took him by complete surprise and she noticed the startled expression on his face before he fell unconscious to the ground. She didn’t stop to finish him off, but ran towards Derac and the others. The cavern stopped trembling for a moment.
“Derac – listen to me. There is only one way – you and I have to join forces to support Nidae”, she hurriedly said.
“He’s too strong”, Derac said. “And I’m no fighter…” He looked at Nidae suspended in the air. “I wish I was a better fighter.” He snapped back to Bel. “It’s your fault, you know”, he seethed. “If it hadn’t been for…”
“Stop this!” Katana yelled at him. “Bel had nothing to do with this. Help her, Derac.”
He stared at her as if he’d never seen her before, then he shook his head with a defeated look on his face. “I can’t”, he whispered. “I’m broke. My powers… I’m too tired. I spent it all to save the people in the city.”
And watching him Bel knew it was true. “You squandered it!” she yelled at him. “I told you not to use too much! You knew what we were up against and you…”
Sudden rage flared in Derac’s eyes. “You! You knew what we were up against and you forgot…”
“Not helping!” Cat shouted, interrupting them both. “Whoever is doing what do it now, or we’ll be…”
“Out!” Bel called, pointing at the entrance with her staff. Their escape rout was blocked with fighting warriors, but they needed to get Deyna out. She glanced at the princess; Deyna seemed to have come to enough to stand on her own feet. The image of the Hawk was still glowing around her, but it was flecked with dark spots.
“Bel?” Deyna whispered with pale cheeks; the scar on her right cheek was glowing in the light from the torches in the background. Bel remembered when the girl had gotten that; how scared she’d been and how she’d feared the High Priestess ever since.
Bel had never allowed herself to get too close to the girl. It wasn’t proper – she hadn’t wanted Deyna to be too dependant on her. Or, more honestly, she’d never realized the princess needed more from her.
“You’ll be fine”, she said gently. “Go with the Captain and Cat.”
Deyna nodded, leaning on Katana.
Bel looked at Nikka on the princess’ other side. “Thanks, Nikka”, she said softly. The oracle held her gaze and nodded.
“Goddara will rise again”, the seer said. “In a different time, in a different place, in a different world. Barac Wei will carry the weight of Goddara once more – and you’ll stand by his side.”
Bel nodded. “Go now”, she said. “No goodbyes.”
“I’ll see you again”, Nakkara Rim said.
“Aren’t you coming?” Cat asked with a desperate look as the oracle and Katana helped Deyna towards the entrance.
“Nidae needs me”, Bel said. “And I have to fight Orm. You must protect Deyna…”
“I’m not leaving without you!” Cat urged and moved towards her.
“Cat!” Katana called and Bel glanced towards the Captain. Five Cobras were surrounding the princess, with Katana fighting to keep them away.
“Go!” Derac demanded, pulling at Cat’s arm, but the warrior tore loose.
“I’m not leaving Bel”, she snapped at him, pushing him off her.
“You fool!” he hissed. “You want the whole world to…”
“Cat!” the Captain urgently called again and this time there was a flicker of uncertainty in Cat’s eyes as she glanced towards her.
Derac didn’t try to convince Cat another time; he left to throw himself into the fight – although he wasn’t a warrior.
“You must let me go, kitten”, Bel said, gently touching Cat’s arm. “It is time.”
“I’m not leaving you”, Cat determinedly said.
“I don’t have time to…” Bel glanced behind her and noticed that Orm was getting onto his feet again. She gasped, swirling around. “Go!” she called to Cat over her shoulder. “You must protect Deyna! You can’t fail!”
Bel threw herself at Orm and both of them tumbled across the altar; Orm on his back and Bel on top of him. The knife left at the altar to be used on Deyna before was still lying on the black stone and as the two of them struggled Orm grabbed its hilt and thrust it against her.
“No!” she heard Cat scream behind her.
“That won’t work, you snake”, Bel hissed and blocked the thrust with Air. She hit the man in his face with her fist and twisted the knife from his hand. He punched her in the chest and pushed her off him. Bel rolled down from the altar and rose as Orm came to his feet, standing on the altar.
“Kill her!” the High Priest of Mara shouted and pointed at Deyna. “Everyone – kill her!”
It was only the blood that was missing, Bel realized. The blood of the seventh sacrifice: Deyna. If Deyna died and Mara somehow managed to bathe in her blood everything would be lost. She whirled about, calling out to Deyna.
“Deyna! Use your powers! He can’t bind you!”
Orm couldn’t bind the princess with his priestly powers as long as he was engaged in fight with Bel, who was blocking those powers.
“Use your powers, princess!” she shouted. “Fight!”
“I can’t!” Deyna called back across the room; tears streaming down her face. “I’ve been trying… I’m trying! I can’t!”
Bel noticed why in the same moment. Deyna’s True Form, the White Hawk rising above her, seemed trapped. Its wings were folded, seemingly tied together. Her powers, not yet a true deity’s but still strong, were blocked; Bel could see the streaming blue-white energies whirling about Deyna’s human form in erratic, inharmonic waves. The energy turned inward, strangling the princess, tying her with her own powers. It wasn’t something from the outside working against her, but something from within. Deyna was panicking and didn’t know what to do: she blocked her own powers.
“Goddess”, Bel whispered, realizing what was happening. They were right. Nidae – and Cat, in her way – had been right about Bel’s treatment of the princess. I pushed her too hard, too long, too far... She’s shut down. Oh, Goddess – forgive me! If I ever… If I ever get a chance to make this undone, let me. “Fight!” she called and used Air to throw her staff across the chamber, above the heads of the fighting warriors. “Use this!”
Deyna caught the staff in one hand, looking pleadingly at Bel.
“Fight, princess! Make me proud!”
Deyna clenched her jaws and nodded, determinedly tightening her hold on the staff. She might not be able to use her magic, but she knew how to fight. With a sweep of the staff she knocked three warriors on their heads and in the next moment she was heavily engaged in combat.
Live well, princess, Bel thought fondly. Hopefully we’ll meet again, some day… I promise, I won’t be so hard on you then.
“Bel!” she heard in her mind. “It is time…”
Bel nodded, looking around the room. Nidae and Mara stood rooted to the floor some feet beyond the altar. Orm was engaged in a fight with Cat, using both weapons and magic; Cat seemed to hold her own. The rest... The rest of the cavern was chaos: warriors fighting and dying. Katana was fighting back to back with Derac; Nikka with the princess.
This is it, Bel thought. The time has come. The reason why I became High Priestess. That morning, when Katana brought her the news of Deyna’s abduction, she had known there might be only one way to save the princess. Then Nidae had talked about a choice that had to be made… And with Nikka’s words from long ago she’d suspected it was time. Time for her to go. The other day Nikka had told her she might die in a fire and that was how she knew…
She stepped forward, towards Nidae and the dark god. “It is time”, she said. The spells were wearing off; in a few moments both deities would be susceptible to the Priesthoods powers again. She would only have a moment to do what she needed to do. Fire, she thought. It would all have to end in fire.
There was an old ritual only passed on to the successor of a High Priest or Priestess. It involved giving once life’s blood and Bel knew that was the choice Nidae had told her about; it was what Nikka had Seen the first time they met. It was time to embrace her destiny.
Mara needed to die, but neither Nidae or Bel were strong enough on their own to take his life – they had to do it by combining their efforts and it could only happen in the exact same moment as the spells protecting the deities from the Priesthood wore off. As Mara could be bound by Bel, Nidae could be bound by Orm, but if Bel tried killing Orm and failed… If she died nothing would stand between Mara and his goal of ruling the world. She only had the one moment, when the power shifted.
Bel gathered the last of her strength, all of her powers, to put it into the makings of a holy fire. Flames blew up in front of her, encircling Nidae and Mara.
“No!” Orm called, breaking free from Cat and hurling her several feet away.
Bel made the flames rise higher, licking the dark stone of the ceiling.
“Soon…” Nidae said.
Bel turned around and found Cat with her eyes. Beautiful woman, beautiful warrior… she thought, again achingly grateful for the night she’d been given. Without it… I’ll find her again. One day…
Cat had come to her feet, but came to a halt when she noticed Bel looking at her. “Bel?” the warrior called with a bewildered expression on her face. She was bleeding from a gush on her left arm, but seemed otherwise unharmed.
I should have told her what I felt, Bel realized. I never let her know what the night meant to me. I must remember to be more honest with her... “I love you”, she whispered. It was too far between them for Cat to hear, but the warrior must have read her lips. Cat’s face changed: fear turned to sudden delight that turned to instant pain.
“No-o!” Cat’s scream echoed in the cavern, loud enough to be heard even above the din of the fighting warriors and the vibrating power from the deities.
“Now!” Nidae’s voice urged within Bel, but the High Priestess had already stepped forward. She stepped into the flames now engulfing the god and the goddess – sacrificing her life so that the Goddess of the Dark Moon would be able to slumber through the ages, until one day she’d be called back to life.
And thus ended the life of Badra Bellona, Fighter of the Full Moon.
Part Fourteen – “I’ll be waiting”
Her scream echoed within her, around her, through her… And with it came only darkness. Life seemed to end when Bel stepped into the flames, followed by the High Priest of Mara. There was pain and darkness and blissful emptiness…
When Cat woke up the cavern was an empty place. Dead warriors lay scattered everywhere around her; she smelt blood – death. She heard someone crying nearby and then realized it was herself.
“No!” she screamed when realization dawned on her. “No! Bel!”
A shadow moved beside her and she swirled around, coming to her feet with a knife in her hand. Deyna reached out towards her with tears and blood smearing her face.
“I failed”, the princess whispered. “I failed her…”
Cat stared at the blood – at all the blood covering the princess – and wondered how Deyna could still be alive if all that blood belonged to her. The thought didn’t register, though. She could see it, she could think it… but she didn’t feel it; she was numb, dead inside. She looked around, seeing only a dark crater where the fire had been. Where two deities had fought for power and a High Priestess had died. Why? Cat thought. Why did she do it? Stupid question, of course. Bel did what was right, no matter the cost.
“I failed…” she heard Deyna say.
“No”, Nakkara Rim said, entering somewhere from the shadows; only a few torches were still burning. The chamber was like a grave. It was a grave. “We saved the world, princess.”
“She saved it”, Deyna said, still with the quiet, strange voice Cat didn’t recognize. “I… froze. I couldn’t use my powers…”
“One day”, the oracle said, gently taking the girl beneath the arm. “One day the fate of a city will rest in your very hands. You’ll save it. All you need to do is trust yourself and your own power. And when the time comes you will. She’ll let you be more of a child… then.”
Deyna cried silently, looking down at her hands.
“Come”, the woman softly said and led her away, towards the entrance. “The fight is done.”
Cat still heard sobbing and when she turned she noticed Derac with Katana’s lifeless body in his arms. He was crying heavily, holding the dead Captain close to him. They were both soaked in blood and Cat finally realized where the blood on the princess came from: Katana had almost been split in half, cut horizontally across her midriff.
“Oh, Goddess”, she gasped. “Katana…”
Derac seemed to have heard her; he looked up at her with blazing eyes. “You don’t get to say her name”, he said. “This is your fault! You ran away!”
“I didn’t run”, Cat whispered. “I was here all the time…”
“She took the blow for the princess”, she heard Derac say. “She took the blow and I couldn’t save her… because I’m no fighter.”
My fault, Cat thought devastatingly. I failed her and Deyna. I abandoned Deyna. I broke my promise to Bel… Bel! Cat closed her eyes. Bel’s last words to her filled her with pain. She stood silently in the dark a long time, with Derac crying wordlessly at her side.
Finally the High Priest’s sobbing ended and Cat heard him rise beside her. She didn’t open her eyes. Derac mumbled a few prayers over Katana’s body.
“I swear to you I’ll pledge my whole life to protecting Deyna”, Cat said, still with closed eyes, when he silenced.
“No… you won’t”, Derac said. “You are no longer worthy.”
Cat gasped and was just about to snap open her eyes when the world went dark a third time in a days cycle.
He hit me, she thought, slowly waking up. The world was fuzzy and spinning and she wasn’t even sure who “he” was. He hit me… What for? Deyna!
Cat gasped and sat bolt upright. She looked around, realizing she wasn’t in Mara’s dark temple anymore.
“How you feeling?”
Cat’s head snapped around and she stared at Zelena, Fang’s High Priestess. They were both sitting on a high ridge with wild nature around them: trees, bushes, birds chirping. Behind them the world was still dark, showing deep blue sky and a few stars above the dark ocean – before them the sun was rising, tainting the horizon pink and softly golden. In the valley below – they had a perfect view ahead of them – the city of Goddara lay in ruins.
“Why…? You…?” Cat asked incomprehensible, not sure what she wanted to say. Zelena seemed to know, though. She shrugged.
“We never went that far, Fang and I. Neither of us wanted to leave Goddara…”
“He’s fine. So far…”
There was a dark note in the High Priestess’ voice that got Cat’s attention.
“So far?” she asked.
“Our boarders are crushed. Nikka told me, before she left…”
“Left?” Cat cut in. “The oracle left?”
“I’m getting to that”, the priestess said. “Egara has invaded us fully and their priesthood… Not the same as ours, not even with the new priestly king on the throne. According to him there can only be one god – and that’s Sharptooth the Crocodile. Their priesthood has the power and the will to wipe out all deities.”
“I know”, Cat whispered.
“Fang and the others… They’ll be hunted down like animals. As long as we, the Priesthood of Kellara, is alive we can protect them, but we too will be pursued and probably killed unless we convert to their ways.”
“You would never…” Cat said quietly.
“No – we would rather die. Fang may be arrogant and unpredictable, but he doesn’t deserve to die because he happens to be different. I’m not fighting for his life only, but for our right to be who and what we are. I’ll defend that right to the end and I’ll advocate it to my death.”
Cat nodded, wondering if Nakkara Rim had foretold Zelena’s death and if the High Priestess knew how it would come. What was it Katana had said? It matters only how we choose to face our death… Or something like that.
“Nikka told me it’s only a matter of time, though, before the old order dies away”, Zelena went on. ”Even Sharptooth’s reign will end and be replaced by something else. New times are rising. New people are intruding. And even without Egara’s invasion we have Bor’s army to deal with. He and Egara’s king will struggle for power for years.”
Cat nodded, thinking of Bel. “Where is the princess?” she asked. “I must stay with her, protect her… I – I promised…”
Zelena didn’t answer her right away. “She’s gone, Ciardha”, she finally said. “Derac took her away.”
“What?” Cat stared at her. “What do you mean?” Not worthy… The words rang in her head.
“Nikka followed them…”
“No”, Cat whispered. “No, he wouldn’t…”
“They are gone. I’m sorry.”
“I must find them!” Cat rushed to her feet. The High Priestess looked up at her with compassion.
“Nikka asked me to tell you this: if you decide to find Deyna you will – but it will be a very long, very hard journey. Several years… But in the end, you’ll find her. If you stay, on the other hand…”
“There is no choice”, Cat said determinedly, not listening to the rest. “It’s what I have to do. I promised. I won’t rest until I find her again, until I know she’s safe.”
Zelena nodded. “I understand”, she said gently.
Cat looked at the morning sun, seeing the sky turn softly blue and brighter yellow beneath the purple shade. “What happened… in there?” she asked. “Is Nidae really dead? And Mara? But they are deities – how could they…?”
“They rest”, Zelena said, rising too. “They slumber in time between the worlds. One day they’ll find their way back to us, when the possibility presents itself for them to dress themselves in their true shapes again.”
“Between worlds… Bel took them away”, Cat mumbled and then sighed. “I failed, priestess. I failed them both…”
Zelena seemed to hesitate. “Death is not the end, Ciardha”, she finally said, looking at Cat. “Nikka told me to tell you… She’ll find you again, one day. You’ll meet them both.”
“Bel?” Cat whispered. “Bel and… Deyna?”
Zelena nodded. “Yes”, she said quietly.
“You loved her too, didn’t you?” Cat whispered, seeing the pain in the priestess’ eyes.
“I did”, Zelena said gently. “And I believe she loved us both, in her own way…”
Cat dried a stray tear from her cheek. “Yes, I guess she did.”
“Nikka told me… Bel will love us both – again.”
“I’ll be waiting, then”, Cat said, looking out across the world. “Until she finds me.”
“Me too”, the High Priestess said, following Cat’s gaze.
And they stood shoulder to shoulder, watching the birth of a new day.