Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
The temple kitchens made bacon with breakfast the next morning, and Sera delighted in the greasy smell and the karmic satisfaction that came from Kyle sleeping in and missing the crispy, savory goodness. It was justice, she thought, punishment for consorting with the enemy. Kyle deserved to miss bacon.
The feeling did not last long.
Immediately after breakfast, the acolytes filed into the temple proper for morning meditation. This was the worst part of being an acolyte. Sera loved training. She loved smashing things. She appreciated Librata as her patron deity, and she believed in law and order and justice–she really did! But meditation sucked balls, and that would never change.
As religious buildings were wont to do, Librata’s temple reflected the tenets of her worship. The ceiling, as tall and grand as a redwood canopy, sat atop the shoulders of a hundred spindly, sectioned columns: citizens working in tandem to keep the building up. Triangular bracing, reminiscent of balanced scales, supported the outside edges, providing extra stability in the event of an earthquake or strong wind. The light of day floated in from sky-high clerestory windows, chasing away the shadowy volumes inside the temple. And in the center of it all, posing as one of the columns, stood a statue of the goddess herself.
Librata was larger than life. Her gavel could level a mountain, and her balanced scales carried entire cities. Unlike some deities, who put their weight on one leg to enhance their attitude and artistic poise, Librata stood with her feet shoulder-width apart, back straight, chin lifted so she looked to the horizon. She was perfectly balanced, always.
Sera dragged herself through the usual pre-meditation ritual. She paced diagonally between the four columns of her assigned bay to find its center and angled herself toward the goddess’s statue. She sat cross-legged and steadied her breath, counting the seconds on her inhales and exhales to make sure everything was even.
And then the vision hit.
It slammed into her like a cart barrelling through an empty street. Her breath clogged in her throat, and her stomach lifted into her chest, and suddenly she was standing, bent over and disoriented, in the woods.
Gone were the temple's stone columns. In their place stretched a vast, misty forest, with tree trunks as wide as townhouses and branches so high Sera had to crane her neck backward to see even the lowest. A carpet of damp conifer needles cushioned her bare feet, and ancient ferns sprouted up from every patch of dirt available. It was silent; if there were birds singing in the treetops, they were too high for Sera to hear.
Where was this? And why was Librata showing it to Sera, of all people?
The goddess's spirit tugged Sera's gaze to the left and pulled her chest forward, and she obeyed the call. She walked, stumbling over roots and tangling in ferns, the mist always too dense for her to find her footing. After a minute, the pull stopped, and Sera glanced about.
Something was maybe different? It was brighter, somehow. The mist still obscured most of the details in Sera’s surroundings, but she knew that something of import lay here where she stood. On instinct, she dropped to the ground for a closer look at the dirt. She brought her face to the earth, so close she could have stuck her tongue out to eat the pine needles off the forest floor, and only at that distance did the mist clear enough for her to see.
A thin wire of glowing green words, in a language Sera did not know, stretched over the ground, the handwriting curling like new vines, all swoops and curliques. Sera crawled along the line, nose to the ground, looking for something, anything, that might tell her what this was.
Then she found it. A break in the line, followed by a large, swoopy numeral, marked the beginning of a new section of text. It felt almost like the enumeration of contractual points, or the outline of a legal document. Narrowing her eyes, Sera brought one hand up to trace the letters. This magical line in the woods was a contract. It was probably a boundary, perhaps agreed upon in some long-ago war. Was someone going to break this contract? Had someone broken it already? She needed more information. She needed to know where this was, and who was involved.
She stumbled away from the line, squinting through the mist for something, anything, that would identify her location. But the longer she stayed, the denser the mist became, until it felt like Sera was trudging through a field of blinding white snow, piled as high as a glacial shelf. Then her toe caught on a step. Her balance faltered. And she found herself sprawled, gasping, face-down on the stone floor of Librata’s temple.
Other acolytes raced to Sera’s side, grabbing at her limbs, gently pulling her upright. The temple interior was dark compared to the mist of her vision, and she blinked furiously to adjust.
“Librata above!” someone whispered. “Sera had a vision!”
“Ugh,” Sera groaned.
“What did you see?” someone asked. “I’m so jealous! You’re so lucky!”
Sera did not feel lucky. She felt confused. She felt like too many things had happened too quickly. She managed to stagger away from the grabby hands and support herself on a column, but the relief lasted only a few seconds.
The whispers died like a blown-out flame, and the crowd of acolytes parted to reveal Head Cleric Angelo, who stared down at Sera with a stern, inquisitive frown.
“Seraphina,” he said, his voice too loud and too resonant, “it appears our glorious patron has seen fit to speak with you. Tell me, what did you see?”
He could have waited a minute; Sera thought she might topple if someone touched her wrong. She took a deep breath and tried to keep her legs from shaking. “Uhh,” she started, in the height of eloquence, “I saw glowing words in the woods somewhere?”
The whispers erupted again, and Head Cleric Angelo raised one eyebrow, his interest piqued. “Which woods?”
Which woods? Was Sera supposed to be an expert in geography now? “I don’t know!” she sputtered. “The trees were really big, and there were ferns. Does that narrow it down for you?”
Like a coward, Angelo opted not to answer. Instead, he gestured for one of the senior clerics to come forward and take Sera by the elbow. “You shall spend the rest of the morning doing research,” Angelo said, as the other cleric pulled Sera away from the column. “The rest of us shall return to our meditation.” Then, with a graceful sweep of his arms, he made his way back to Librata’s statue to start the meditation process over again.
Sera cussed at him–mentally, of course.
The senior cleric led Sera the way a stranger would guide an old woman across the street. They snaked their way out of the main temple, slow as snails, and then into the labyrinthine halls beyond. Eventually, Sera couldn’t take the patronizing pace. She wiggled out of the senior cleric’s grasp and gave a bow that was just a little too shallow.
“Well, thanks,” she said. “I’m all good now. I’ll just, you know, make my way to the library on my own. You can go back? If you want?”
The senior cleric smiled, in that okay-but-I-know-better-than-you way that smartasses tended to smile, and did not move.
“Right then,” Sera replied. She shuffled backwards a few steps, then turned tail and ran down the hall. Authority figures made everything so awkward.