Somewhere outside of Klate

Four years before the Festival of the Goddess

 Lanis’s fingers twitched on her knife, every nerve in her body on alert. Her target, a local merchant, stood some twenty yards away, talking with four men. The rush of the catch never failed to excite her. The forest around her was dense and a perfect spot for waiting. She inhaled as a cool breeze swept over her, bringing a smile to her lips. It was a welcome change to the excessive heat that always tagged along behind her.

She leaned into a tree. She was a mercenary for the Ramden Council in Trit, a small village on the outskirts of the Windark Forest. Chosen at a young age, she embraced the change while her parents balked at the idea, but no one said no to the Council. Refusing any requests, in essence, would be seen as a betrayal to their people. When she turned fourteen and she and the Council both realized the depth of her ability, everything changed. Her ability not only allowed her to blend with her surroundings, but to disappear into them completely. It set her apart from the other Ramdens who had the ability to blend, but not disappear. Once a proper blend occurred, she couldn’t be spotted. She understood the depth of her gift and took great care with the knowledge the gift itself brought.

She prided herself that each successful mission led to the continued safety of her people. Although she stood apart because of her ability, she never received any special treatment from the Council. All ten mercenaries working for the Council had different strengths and weaknesses. The ability to blend set them apart, but they were also trained fighters. Even though her ability tended to get her sent on the more challenging missions, she didn’t see herself any different from any of the other mercenaries. She stayed active, and kept her black hair cut neat above her shoulders. Many people told her that her best feature was her smile. She disagreed and thought her best feature was her eyes—they were her father’s blue.

Questioning the Council about her missions never entered her mind because they never gave her a reason to. She trusted them completely and would use any means necessary to complete every task they gave her. Sometimes weeks passed before she reached her target. This time, to her good fortune, she’d only followed the merchant for three days. As she watched, he shook the men’s hands, and then led his horse and cart down a small path. There were several marked camps along the way, making it easy to follow him. She pushed away from the tree, the wind rushing through her hair as she kept a discreet distance for several miles.

She crept along the tree line, watching from a distance as he set up camp. A short time later, he sat down on what looked to be a seat carved into a fallen tree. Settling in against the tree, she blended. When the sun started to set, she pulled up her hood and moved in closer. The shadows would keep her somewhat shielded, but there was still enough light to see. She took several deep breaths when he turned his face away from her, then entered camp, and blended with a tree.

He whipped back around, eyes darting back and forth. “Anyone there?” he called out, hand gripping his sword tightly. After a few tense minutes, he laid his sword across his lap, eyes still on alert. She didn’t blame him—bandits lined these forests. Most merchants hired a sorcerer to keep them safe. It was odd he hadn’t, especially in this part of the forest. Steadying her hand, she stepped away from the tree and hurled the knife deep into his chest. He grunted, eyes wide, and reached for the knife while falling off the log. Lanis walked to him and knelt on the ground next to his body. He gasped, blood leaking from the side of his mouth, and reached for her.

She grasped his hand and pushed her hood back, revealing her face. “The Ramden Council sent me. My name is Lanis and I am your executioner.” The surprise in his eyes only gave her pause for a moment. She held his hand until the life dulled from him. She reached over and closed his eyes then stood and retrieved her knife from his chest. The Council had gifted it to her and she would never part with it. She eyed the horse and cart. Normally she wouldn’t give a second thought about any given mission, but something felt off. Untying the horse, she patted its rear, sending it off into the forest. She watched until she lost sight of it. She reached for the ropes on the cart, her fingers fumbling as she untied all six pieces of rope holding the cover on top of it. She wiped her hands on her pants, grabbed the cover, and ripped it off. Her heart sank as she looked at the contents: blankets. There had to be more. She rummaged through the rest of the cart, but only found more blankets. This didn’t make any sense. She shook off her doubts that the Council would send her on a useless mission and settled her nerves. To question the Council was nearly unheard of, but she wouldn’t be the first. She grabbed a blanket, unfolded it, and laid it over the merchant’s body.

Not taking time to rest, she started walking toward home. In a few weeks’ time, she would turn twenty-seven. She loved her people, but a part of her wondered what it would be like to meet a woman and settle down, making a life together. Being a mercenary made that dream impossible at the moment. She hoped, in the future, that would change. She walked all night, pausing for a bite to eat when the sun emerged over the trees. She had a biscuit halfway to her mouth when a familiar sound caught her attention. Putting her things away, she stood when she heard it again.

A woman’s screams.

Getting involved in other people’s problems wasn’t on her agenda today, but when she heard the screams for a third time, she couldn’t ignore them. Pulling her hood up and slipping her bag over her head to rest on her hip, she headed in the direction of the sound. Spotting movement in the distance, she slowed her pace, and peeked around a large boulder.

A woman lay squirming on the ground. A giant of a man straddled her, his hands wrapped around her throat. The woman clawed at his arms, leaving angry red streaks. Lanis uncurled her whip from around her waist and let it slide down her leg. When he reached down to undo the front of his black pants, she stepped from the tree and flicked her wrist. The whip cut through the air and wrapped around his hand. She pulled, sending him sideways into the ground. The woman jerked her head toward her, eyes wide. Lanis twisted her hand, drew the whip to her, and curled it back around her waist.

The man stood, cradling his hand against his chest. “Fella, this doesn’t concern you. Turn back now and I’ll forget this ever happened.”

“I don’t think so.” He looked twice as big as she first suspected. There would be no turning back now.

“We’ll see about that,” he said, grabbing his sword from the ground, and quicker than the assassin expected, he advanced.

Lanis stepped back, pulling her knife.

He stepped to her right and swung out.

Barely missing the blade, she jumped back, her heel catching on a root, and she fell. Her hood slipped off as she landed on her back, the vile man landing on top of her, straddling her waist. Gasping, she cursed her bad luck as his stench made her stomach turn and she bit back the bile that rose in her throat.

“A woman,” he spat. Her knife fell from her grasp as he grabbed her arms and forced them over her head. “I’ve got a better fate for you. One worse than death.”

She wiggled, trying to gain leverage.

He picked up her knife and tapped her on the nose.

Her stomach dropped and her heart pounded.

“Such a pretty face. I bet many men and woman have been tested by your beauty. What will you do when I take that away from you?” He grinned down at her.

Lanis’s chest tightened as she struggled beneath him, screaming as the blade dug into the skin beside her left eye. She closed her eyes against the blood blurring her vision, crying out as the blade pierced the skin near her nose, down her cheek, and past her chin.

“Open your eyes!” he screamed. She opened them in time to see him throw her knife to her right. She bit her lip when he stood, anger building inside of her. He stood there, smiling and gloating, never imaging what she was capable of doing to him. The pain in her face vanished as her hatred for him took hold. She would enjoy killing him.

“That’s going to be a nice scar.” He snickered. “Who will want you now? Next time think before you interfere in other people’s business.”

“Honey,” the woman said. “Are you all right?”

Lanis took advantage of his lapse in judgment when he turned to address the woman. She lifted her legs and kicked out, sending him falling back. Jumping up, she grabbed her knife and ran. She needed to put distance between herself and them. After a few minutes of running, she stopped and blended with the nearest tree. The blend wouldn’t be easy because of the pain, but it would have to be enough. The element of surprise would be her only way out of this. It didn’t take long to hear his approaching footsteps. Only hearing one set, she kept her ears open for the woman. He walked past her, sword in hand, and stopped, turning in circles.

“Where did she go?” He turned toward where she stood.

She stepped away from the tree. “I’m right here.”

His eyes grew wide as he took several steps away from her. “How? You weren’t there a second ago,” he said, pointing to the tree behind her.

She smiled at the fear in his eyes and for every step he took back, she took one forward.

“Who are you?”

“Your executioner.” She would enjoy this.

“Please,” he begged, dropping to his knees. Letting his sword fall to the ground, he clasped his hands in front of him as he realized who and what she was – a Ramden Council assassin. “This has all been a misunderstanding. I didn’t know what you were.”

“And what am I?” Bending down, she picked up his sword.

“Please don’t kill me. I’ll do anything. Please.”

His fear disgusted her. She kept her gaze on him even when she heard the woman approaching. Leaning forward, she whispered in his ear. “You asked what I was.”

“Yes.” His voice trembled.

“I am your worst nightmare.”

His body shook. “Please. I don’t want to die.”

Lanis wiped at her face, cringing at the amount of blood on her arm. “Do you think I wanted this scar?” She turned the sword in her hand before plunging it into his chest. She pulled it out slowly and tossed it on the ground. The woman screamed, falling on the ground, and cradled his body in her arms.

“What have you done?”

“What have I done? I’ve saved both of our lives. From him.”

“You killed my husband.” She held him close. “If it’s the last thing I do, I will hunt you down and kill you.”

She had nerve. “You can try, but you won’t like the outcome.” Lanis walked backward, never taking her eyes off the woman. When she was a good twenty feet away, she turned and ran for home. She ran until her legs started to tremble. Bent over, gasping for breath, she watched the blood drip from her face, making a puddle at her feet. Touching the wound, she winced at the depth. How would the Council react? She broke protocol and didn’t know how that would affect her future.

She should have never interfered.

How could she be a mercenary with such a distinctive mark on her face? The Ramden people employed healers, but none near powerful enough to make the cut disappear. She rose up and took several deep breaths, looking back the way she came. She should have killed the woman too.

 ***

 Adearian

Present Day

Inside the Windark Forest

Three Months before the Festival of the Goddess

 Lanis jolted awake, hitting her head on the side of the carriage. She rubbed it as she looked out the window. By the way the sun peeked through the trees, she saw midday approached. She didn’t relish the unknown, but that was exactly what she was getting ready to walk into. Although, at this point in her life, she was used to expecting the unexpected. She was a bit surprised three nights ago when Anya handed her a sealed letter embossed with the seal of Trit. Her first instinct was that something had happened to her parents, but she quickly dismissed that idea. The Council would never send a formal letter for such matters. The Council requested her presence as soon as possible. It was rare for a Protector to leave their charge, but Anya insisted that she go, explaining that in certain circumstances a Protector could leave and give their duties, temporarily, to another. After discussing matters late into the night, Lanis left the Central Temple and found a solider she knew to be reliable. He was humble and agreed to take over her Protector duties until she returned. Running her hand through her hair, she leaned back in the carriage seat. If her estimates were correct, she would soon be back in Trit and facing the people who dismissed her.

Four years ago, the Council, specifically Elder Helt, pulled her from missions, informing her the scar would hinder her success. Such a complete dismissal after everything she gave them hurt her deeply. She took a few months off, and then helped tend her parents’ farm. She valued their time together, but couldn’t shake the restlessness that settled inside her. One night while she walked the shores of the Tynuck Sea, a man approached her. She listened as he explained who he was and what he wanted. He was High Priestess Anya’s Protector and he wanted her to accept the Protector’s Mask and take his place. High Priestess Anya was the leader of Goddess Nia’s people in Malora.

She would have laughed if not for the look on his face. He didn’t give her a choice; he expected her to say yes, and she did. She loved her parents, but couldn’t pass up this opportunity. He told her that she need only remember two things: one, never leave the High Priestess’s side; and two, never reveal her face to anyone. She broke the second rule three years ago and the first one three days ago.

To receive the mask of a Protector was an honor and a privilege. There were only five masks in existence. The legend was that Kilin and Arut, the God and Goddess of the heavens, were fed up with their five children always bickering and fighting. Kilin sent all five of his children - Shara, Acker, Feine, Novak, and Nia - to Adearian, a small planet he created for this very purpose. Each child inhabited a different area of Adearian. Shara picked land high on cliffs and named it Hadmore. Novak settled in the mountainous region to the west of Hadmore, giving it the name Laramore. Nia picked a small piece of land far away from her siblings that bordered the water and named it Malora. Being the youngest and never getting along with his siblings, Feine chose a cluster of islands off of Hadmore’s border and named them Pona. Acker didn’t choose a specific area, but chose to roam the land.

Each child also held different abilities. Shara’s gifts were geared toward everything having to do with magic. Acker could manipulate weather patterns and summon the land to do his bidding. Feine was a master with animals. Novak’s gifts were strength and protection. Because Nia’s gift was so different from her siblings, they tended to laugh and ridicule her. She was the Goddess of health and well-being.

Kilin also created a race of people who he spread out all over Adearian so they could choose freely which child they wanted to serve. To a select few of their worshippers, the children gave their gifts. As the population grew, Arut worried someone would find a way to harm her children. Kilin agreed and crafted five masks from Nunik, a rare metal only found within the deepest parts of the earth. It was said only the Gods possessed the power to locate and excavate the metal. Each child gave the mask to someone worthy enough to wear it, as their Protector. Each mask was unique to the child and, once put on, completely transformed the wearer. The Protector was recognized as neither man nor woman. Each was given a long sword, with that particular God’s crest cut into the metal of the blade in order to protect their charge. The blade of the sword was also crafted from Nunik. The gifts of a Protector and what they were capable of wasn’t completely known. The only thing known was that the mask prolonged the Protector’s life and in some ways made them immortal. When the children returned to their parents, the Protector was put in charge of keeping the High Priest or Priestess of the five Gods safe at any cost.

Each time Lanis put on the mask, it took a part of her away. Every sense was heightened to an extreme level. The urge to protect her charge overcame everything else. She would willingly lay down her life for Anya, mask or no mask. The first time she laid eyes on her, for a split second, her heart stopped beating. Her beauty wasn’t all that left her breathless; she felt a connection to her. For the first time in her life, she found what she always wanted. It wasn’t love at first sight, but it was close. She also knew she could never act on her feelings. She was a Protector and Anya, a High Priestess. Three years ago, all that changed. After being Protector for one year, she made a crucial mistake.

 When Anya visited Nia’s temple, no one, including her Protector, was allowed inside. On this particular day, Lanis slipped off her mask to see the room through her own eyes, if only for a few seconds.

“I am pleasantly surprised,” Anya said from behind her.

Lanis spun around. Stupid! She hadn’t even heard the temple door open. Anya leaned against the door, staring at her. Her blond hair hung around her shoulders and her green eyes sparkled. The smile on her face lit up the entire hallway. Lanis took a step back and lifted the mask.

“No. Wait,” Anya said, hand outstretched.

She lowered the mask. “I’m sorry. I…”

Anya shook her head. The smile never left her face. “In all my years as High Priestess, I’ve never seen your face. I wasn’t expecting someone so young, someone near my own age.”

How would she get out of this? She could ignore her and put the mask on, but she didn’t want to do that. “You’re not supposed to see me and the mask is never to leave my face.” She swallowed hard, clutching the mask in her hands. In all her years as a mercenary, she had stood face-to-face with many different types of people, but standing in front of Anya left her flustered.

“Why take it off then?” Anya pushed away from the door and stopped a few feet from her.

“For a few minutes a day, I like to see the world through my own eyes. Even if it is only a stone wall,” she said, pointing to the walls that lined the hallway.

“Well, when we’re in this part of the temple or alone, please fill free to take it off. I won’t tell.” She winked.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” In fact, it was a terrible idea.

“Why? I can understand your reasons. There is nothing quite like seeing the world without blinders on, or in your case, a mask. Some people never realize what they are really seeing. Nature, and all she does, is a magical thing. Some nights when I’m looking out my window, it takes my breath away.”

“I know, I watch you.” She instantly regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth.

“Really?” Anya smirked.

“You know what I mean.” Could this get any more embarrassing?

Anya laughed. “I do. If I may ask, what’s it like wearing the mask?”

She didn’t see any harm in answering her questions. “It takes over all my senses. I see only what is important to the situation. When we’re alone, I look at all possibilities of how someone could gain entrance. I also feel the presence of magic. I don’t know how, but I know when things around you have changed. I like having the means to protect you.” She shrugged. “But I don’t like not being myself.”

Anya took a seat by the wall and patted the one next to her. “Why were you chosen?”

Lanis kept her distance. “I don’t know why I was chosen. I took the position because I needed a purpose. The Ramden Council released me of my mercenary duties because of my scar. I broke protocol, and in a way I was punished for it.” She rubbed her neck. “Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t trade the years I gave them for anything, and I loved being able to help my parents with their farm, but as time went on, I knew something was missing.”

Anya pointed around them. “And now you’ve found it.”

“And now I’ve found it.” Lanis nodded. They were both quiet, verging on an uncomfortable silence when Anya reached her hand out. Lanis grasped it.

“You can call me Anya.”

“I’m Lanis.”

 Their relationship started then and grew with each day that passed. Anya never ceased to amaze her with her zest for life. Lanis understood the toll being High Priestess took on her, but she also knew the woman that lay beyond the role. She found the one thing she always wanted, but didn’t dare ever to hope for—someone to share her life with, and in the most unlikely of places. Their relationship was confined to the temple, which made it difficult at times to be alone, but she wouldn’t change a thing about the way her life turned out. She would do anything if it meant keeping Anya safe. To lose the one person who loved her without boundaries was unthinkable. By showing Anya her face, she could have put both their lives in danger. Anya, however, waved off her concerns.

She only hoped that whatever happened in Trit wouldn’t pull her away from her Protector duties. Her commitment was to Anya and keeping her safe. She glanced out the window when the carriage veered to the right, taking the familiar road to Trit. After what seemed like a lifetime, she spied the large cluster of rocks indicating the entrance to the village. It was too late to turn back now. Heart pounding, she said a silent prayer as the carriage rolled to a stop. She climbed out and stared at the entrance to the Council house. The building was nothing special— four plain walls and a thatched roof. What lay beyond the walls held the potential to tear her life apart. Entering through the doors used to bring a sense of honor, but now it would only bring dread. She wiped her hands on her pants and, taking her time, walked up the four steps. She stopped at the doors and inhaled; the familiar scent of dirt and the wildflowers that lined the road put her at ease. She gripped the handle and opened the door.

 ***

 It never dawned on High Priestess Anya how miserable sleeping alone would be until she actually had to. Lanis should be back tomorrow, or at the latest, the next day. Her life changed for the better the day she saw Lanis without her mask on. Seeing the person behind the mask was a shock and a surprise, and her heart literally skipped a beat. A part of her shifted that day. It wasn’t unwelcome, but it was unexpected. Denying the pull toward Lanis would have been like denying the air she breathed. In her position, she couldn’t, and wouldn’t, doubt her decisions. Nia was her first priority, and to the best of her knowledge, Lanis had accepted that. At least, she hoped she had. When Lanis was called to Trit, the Oracle had been specific in her instructions and what would be expected of Lanis. Even loving Lanis as much as she did, given the choice, she would do everything the exact same way.

The Oracle came to be five hundred years ago after Danath’s betrayal. High Priest Wiltor did away with the position of Prophesier after Danath, Prophesier of Nia, allowed his brother Damrek, the creator of the Ramden people, to copy a prophecy he received. To allow another to read or even see a sacred prophecy was blasphemy and punishable by death. To ensure such a betrayal never happened again, High Priest Wiltor chose one from among the Prophesiers and gave him the title Oracle. From that day, the Oracle was confined to the Central Temple.

The Central Temple stood the tallest of the five temples built into one side of the Tynuck Mountains. Made entirely of glass, it was often referred to as the Hall of Windows. Danath’s fate had been sealed beyond those panes of glass. The Central Temple was also where the High Priestess and her four personal advisers lived and conducted temple business. On some days, like today, Anya wished High Priest Wiltor had also done away with the position of personal adviser. Her mind and focus weren’t in the morning meeting. The faint sounds of someone talking briefly registered, but she tuned them out. After talking with the Oracle about what needed to occur with Lanis, she set a plan in motion with the Ramden Council. If her actions ruined their relationship, it would devastate her. Living without Lanis wasn’t an option. She bit her cheek while watching the birds fluttering outside the window. On top of dealing with Lanis, she recently came into the knowledge that one of her four personal advisers had betrayed her, and ultimately Nia. She couldn’t pinpoint which one or the depth of the betrayal, but she would.

“High Priestess Anya.”

Keeping her face void of any emotion, she slowly turned from the window and faced her advisers. Surely she hadn’t missed something important and considering Merek had been talking, she most likely hadn’t. He tended to speak if only for the sake of talking. Sweeping her gaze around the table, the depth of the betrayal hit her full force. She should be able to trust them. She didn’t, not fully, and not with her life. “Yes.” She wiped the hair back from her eyes.

Merek frowned. “I am finished.”

“Very good.” She straightened in her seat, giving them her full attention. “As everyone is well aware, the reading of the last prophecy ever written by Danath is coming up shortly.”

“How could we forget?” Hensley muttered, straightening the papers in front of him.

Anya ignored his remarks. His frustration was evident, as was everyone else’s. Getting everything in order for the reading took a lot of time and effort. “As I was saying. Everyone is well aware tradition dictates the reigning High Priest or Priestess is to read the Prophecy from the balcony of the Central Temple. When Danath wrote the Prophecy, he stated it was to be read in Hadmore, or more importantly for us today, their capital, Manight. Tradition is tradition, though we have never shied away from change. I would like your views on the matter. Miriam, we will start with you.” All of her advisers knew she didn’t need their approval, though it went a long way in improving relations. Politics were everywhere. She didn’t like the game; she just knew how to play it. From the start, Miriam had supported her. Not because she believed in or even liked her, but because of her faith in Nia. Miriam felt her position held her to a higher standard than Nia’s followers.

“High Priestess.” Miriam nodded. “I fear no answer will be the right one. Everyone here knows my views on temple matters.” She fidgeted in her seat. “We are in uncharted waters. I agree someone from the temple should go. I’m not sure it should be you, though. Five hundred years is a long time for a Prophecy to gather dust. Never in the history of Malora has a High Priest or Priestess traveled to read a Prophecy. No.” She shook her head. “You should not be the one to go. The stakes are too high. No one ever mentions it, but the Holders members have grown considerably in the last few years. We know what they are capable of doing. Your life is too precious and invaluable to all of Nia’s followers. Others would willingly take your place.”

Anya’s breath caught, the passion in Miriam’s voice surprising her. The pleading didn’t sound like her at all and to mention the Holders was odd as well. From the startled looks on the other three advisers’ faces, they couldn’t believe she had mentioned them either. Five hundred years ago, after Danath confessed his betrayal to High Priest Wiltor, Damrek unleashed his magic upon Adearian. Cities and villages were leveled and thousands were killed. After the blast, High Priest Wiltor sent seven of his finest guards to investigate the blast and to find Damrek. Instead of Damrek, the men found a cave and inside, on a table set against the wall, seven small books. Nestled in the front of each book was a sphere. The first page of each book instructed each man where to go and what to do. Six of the men heeded the instructions and gave themselves the name Holders of the Spheres. The seventh man went straight to High Priest Wiltor and told him everything they found. Not long after his confession, the seventh man disappeared. High Priest Wiltor secured the book in Nia’s temple, but the sphere was lost to time.

Anya leaned forward, clasping her hands together on top of the table. Lately, the Holders’ numbers had grown two-fold. She understood their need to believe in something, even if their truths were lies. The majority were harmless, but in recent years, a small number had banded together and formed a more radical group. Through a number of sources, she confirmed that a high-ranking member of the group had found five of the seven spheres. A remarkable feat, considering the spheres were spread all over Adearian. Miriam’s concerns were relevant; however, she didn’t agree with them. “Thank you, Miriam.” Kerrison, the complete opposite of Miriam, was also the most vocal about her not becoming High Priestess. In the end, she backed down, but Anya never knew why. Looking at Kerrison now confirmed they had both came a long way together. “Kerrison.”

Kerrison bowed her head. “High Priestess. I don’t know why anyone has to travel to Manight. What’s stopping Queen Abigail from coming to us?” She waved her hands in front of her. “It’s…”

Hensley slammed his fist on the table. “The Prophecy is to be read in Manight as stated in the scrolls. Some of us don’t so easily push aside doctrine,” he said, glaring at her.

Anya stiffened. Her advisers, in recent meetings, seemed to be getting more volatile. “Hensley.”

He sighed. “Yes, High Priestess.”

“Do not sigh at me and do not interrupt my meeting. I will not put up with your insolence. Do I make myself clear?”

He bowed his head, locking eyes with her. “My apologies, High Priestess.”

She nodded, acknowledging his words. On countless occasions, her other three advisers reflected their opinions as to why he shouldn’t have been chosen, and in the same breath, questioning both her and Hensley’s competence. As the youngest of her advisers, he still had a lot to learn. He kept his dark hair cut short and his green eyes always held a hint of mischief. His heart was always humble in dealing with the people of Malora and his clothes and attitude reflected that. Everyone was a work in progress, though some felt they’d already arrived. “Kerrison, continue.”

“All I meant,” she said, glaring at Hensley, “is that times are different now. Over the years, things have changed considerably. High Priest Wiltor understood. He blocked the city from outsiders after Damrek’s incident. Hadmore sealed its borders with shields to keep magic out. Things started changing that day and have continued to change. We are not the same Malora as five hundred years ago. The roads are more dangerous now. None of you can tell me any differently.” She pointed to her chest. “I am the only one of us who travels regularly outside the city. I have seen firsthand the depravity of so many. While I’m sure, High Priestess,” she said, looking behind Anya, “your Protector is up to the task of protecting you, what of the people who travel with you or those caught in the middle? There are some who would like nothing more than to see you dead.” She glanced at Miriam. “Just like Miriam, I hear things. You are the most beloved of any High Priest or Priestess to lead Nia’s people. You have a great responsibility to her followers and with that comes great power. Some people believe you carry a sphere with you. It is rumor, but it is enough of one that certain people would stop at nothing to retrieve it. Queen Abigail should come to us for the reading. I see no reason to make a spectacle out of it, and that’s what the festival will do. The stakes are too high.”

Anya agreed with a lot of her points, but the fact remained the Prophecy was never meant to be read in Malora. “Kerrison, I appreciate your concern, but Hensley is right. The Prophecy must be read in Hadmore, or more specifically for us, Manight.”

“Why Manight?” Kerrison asked.

“What?” Miriam said.

“Why Manight? The scrolls specially state Hadmore. Manight wasn’t in existence then. So why does it have to be read in Manight?”

“Where else would it be read?” Hensley said.

 “I think because Manight is the capital and the festival will be going on that the Prophecy should be read there,” Anya said. “That is the only reason. There isn’t anything stating that I couldn’t, say, read it in Biclin, one of the smaller towns on Manight’s border.” In her last meeting with the Oracle, she plainly stated that Anya couldn’t be in or around Malora for the reading of the Prophecy. She just didn’t tell her where she would be. “Hensley.”

He bowed his head. “High Priestess, the Prophecy should be read in Manight, and,” he said, running his hand through his hair, “I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I agree with both Miriam and Kerrison. You should not be the one to go. If something happened to Queen Abigail, her successor would be her daughter, Princess Jalen. But if something happened to you, it would not be so simple. We need you here; this is where you belong.”

Anya ran her finger along the tabletop. Hensley always thought about the overall picture. It comforted her knowing his concern lay with the people of Malora rather than with her. Stilling her finger, she turned her eyes to Merek. Even though Kerrison was the oldest, Merek held the position of personal adviser the longest. He wore his long white hair down and kept his face cleanly shaven. He never hesitated when he wanted something, and at times, his arrogance got the best of him. They disagreed often and the only reason she kept him around was because the previous High Priest thought so highly of him. He didn’t like her and that was fine with her—she didn’t care for him either. The thought of him being a traitor didn’t set well with her, but she couldn’t stomach the idea that any of them were. Although she knew what he would say, she asked anyway. “Merek?”

He grinned, spreading his hands on top of the table. “It is not for us to change tradition or the scrolls. We are merely caretakers of what came before us. The Prophecy must be read in Manight and you must be the one to read it. Time does not change what has already been written five hundred years ago. You have your Protector; what more protection do you need? No harm has ever come to a traveling leader of any of the Gods. Why would it start now, with you?” He smirked. “I know I speak for everyone when I say whoever you choose in your place will carry out all of your duties until your safe return.”

They had all been vying for the position for months. She didn’t know whom she would choose. At times, she wasn’t sure she could wait for the answer. For the first time since becoming High Priestess, she was ready for this entire episode to be over. “Thank you, Merek.”

“If I could, High Priestess,” Miriam said.

Anya nodded for her to continue.

“I know we’ve never had any real trouble with the other Gods’ followers. But has anyone taken into consideration the majority of Manight worships Shara? Which is odd considering she is the Goddess of magic and Manight is a non-magical society?” She frowned before continuing. “Will that have any repercussions on any of this? We know that in most parts of Adearian people frown on Nia. Not for who she is, but for which she stands for. She is seen as weak and naïve, because she is the Goddess of health and well-being. Although when anyone is hurt, the first person they turn to is a healer. Who’s to say a radical won’t take it upon themselves to avenge their God or Goddess by harming our High Priestess?”

Over the years, a few problems surfaced with the worshippers of other faiths, but were dealt with swiftly. Although, among the different Gods and worshippers, there stood an underlying acceptance. They were all vastly different in their beliefs though they held similar qualities. Since Nia and Novak were twins, their followers tended to gravitate toward each other. Feine’s followers only lived on the Pona islands. No one knew much about him or them because they rarely let outsiders onto their lands. The majority of Shara’s followers lived in Hadmore and Candor. God Acker tended to live off the land and his followers were scattered all over Adearian. She didn’t foresee any problems in traveling to Manight. Her relationship with Tothos, First Priest to Shara, was in good standing. “There are always those who feel it is within their power and duty to do the will of their God. I have been assured that no harm will come to me and the people who travel with me once I enter Hadmore. Queen Abigail cannot, nor would she, guarantee my safety outside the country. Although I have never met her, she seems, by all that I’ve heard, quite capable of keeping her word. I am sure my Protector and my guards will make sure I arrive safely. I trust that they can.”

“I agree,” Miriam said. “I am still not sure you should be the one to go but I don’t see any trouble once you reach Hadmore. I believe Queen Abigail would never allow any harm to come to you and that is something she can guarantee inside her borders. She is competent and has far more power than some give her credit for.”

Hensley leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table. “I would not want Queen Abigail as an enemy. If she says you are safe inside their borders, you will be. She is well known for keeping her people and her country from harm. Not unlike it is here. Some see her as a ruthless leader and others as a savior. But, I fear, if any sort of confrontation were to occur and she had to choose, she wouldn’t hesitate to save her people over any of us, including you, High Priestess. We have to be prepared for that. We should also take into account they have been fighting at the Brown Pass for the past one hundred and fifty years. Her first priority is, and will always be, her people. She is a people’s Queen.”

“Hensley, I agree, but at the same time,” Kerrison chimed in, “Queen Abigail knows the Prophecy is to be read in Manight. She may not agree with it, but she would never hinder tradition. Since they are still fighting at the Brown Pass and the Berrocka would never allow anyone to cross through Vashta, travelers will have to go through Manight’s main port. I am certain that will cause quite a problem for her. The Festival of the Goddess is their annual tribute to Shara and for that to intertwine with the reading is going to bring in a lot of outsiders. This isn’t the best outcome for her, but she is accepting it. I believe she would take your life into account, High Priestess, along with her people.”

“Yes. That is why she was informed of the Prophecy a few years ago,” Anya said.

“I still don’t agree with that decision,” Miriam said.

“I know.” Anya sighed. “It couldn’t be avoided.” Their constant pettiness grated on her nerves. She only asked their opinion to keep them involved. She pushed up from her chair and stood. “That will be all for now. I will see everyone at the afternoon meeting. Dismissed.” She gathered her papers. Goddess willing, Lanis would be home tomorrow. Nodding at her Protector, she headed toward the door, whirling around when a hand reached toward her. “What?” She stepped back. Her Protector held Merek’s offending hand in a firm grip. Merek grimaced, trying unsuccessfully to pry his hand away. Hensley, Miriam, and Kerrison took a step away from them. She ignored the pounding in her head and spoke. “I hope you weren’t going to touch me.” No one was allowed to touch her without her permission. It went against all of Nia’s laws. Magic could transfer too many things. She clutched the papers in her hands. “Sometimes you forget your place.” The other three looked as stunned as she felt. “You may be my personal advisers, but I am your High Priestess. If any of you ever try something like this, I will replace all of you.” She took several deep breaths. “Merek, what do you have to say?”

“I…” He fell to his knees when the Protector squeezed his hand tighter.

“Weren’t you the one talking about not changing the scrolls? You know the laws. For your safety and mine.” She touched her Protector’s arm, never taking her eyes off Merek. “Let him go.” Merek stood after the Protector released him, rubbing his arm. He should have been grateful; if it had been Lanis, he would already be dead.

Merek bowed. “I am sorry, High Priestess. It will not happen again. I only wished for a word with you.”

To her ears, he didn’t sound the least bit sorry. “No, it won’t, because next time I won’t stop my Protector.” She pointed at the door. “You three can leave.”

“Thank you,” he said, when the others had left.

“Make this quick.”

He smiled. “May we sit?”

“I am not giving you that much time.”

“Of course.” He smiled. “It has come to my attention through certain sources that Councilman Ramus of Queen Abigail’s court is a member of the Holders of the Spheres.”

Tapping her foot, she glared at him. Accusing someone of being a member was a serious accusation. After the Prophecy reading, she would start the process to get rid of him. “And you didn’t think to share this information with the Council.”

“I didn’t feel it would serve any purpose to do so.”

She would have questioned how Queen Abigail didn’t know she had a traitor among her people, but she also had one. “If I am to believe you, I have to know how you discovered this information. I cannot take only your word for it, and the next time you have this type of information, it will be brought up in Council.” In order to deal with the Councilman appropriately, she would have to go through the proper channels.

“I have proof.” He pulled out a small piece of sealed parchment from within his robes and handed it to her Protector.

Anya accepted it from her Protector, heart pounding at the seal, and opened it. Keeping her expression neutral, she spoke. “You can leave.”

“Very well.” He smirked and left.

Walking across the room to a door set back in the corner, she addressed the guard on the other side. “Have someone bring Elson Bri to the downstairs meeting room.” He nodded and left. She sat down at her desk and opened the note. Only one line and a signature.

Councilman Ramus of Queen Abigail’s court is a member of the Holders of the Spheres.

High Priest Lantor

She folded the note and slid it into her pocket. Of all the leaders, she and Lantor got along the best. He served Novak, God of strength and protection. She trusted him as much as she trusted her Council, but she knew him to be a fair leader and she trusted his faith in his God. He stood against the Holders of the Spheres, as she did. She didn’t know how Merek acquired the information, but she knew the note to be authentic because of the seal. She now had one more thing to take care of before she left for Manight. She hoped Lanis’s day was going more smoothly than hers.

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