The Temple of the Sacred Wardens was an immense, dominating structure of white marble and red tiles. Statues and carvings were scattered in the plaza in front of it, depicting the Wardens in all their might. The doors of the Temple were towering works of gilded bronze, shining like mirrors in the heat of the day. Inside, however, the gigantic domed hall was cool and dark, lit only by a few ghostlights and lamps. In the center of it there was a gurgling fountain, and to the sides were several shrines and more carvings. Multiple passages led out of the hall, and a few devotees and Priests were going through these.
Seraphina Eastlight was huddled in her threadbare gray robes by one of the statues, prayer book in hand, watching the royals. She knew the king, of course, and had seen the queen as well, but the new prince was something else. She regretted having missed his coronation the week past. He was quite handsome, she noted, with an extremely sharp jawline and well-built frame. His eyes were blue and his hair was dark brown, like the king’s. He was rather tall as well.
She blushed slightly, suddenly aware of how long her nose was, and looked away when he glanced at her, pretending to recite something from her book, but then looked up once more after a minute. He was listening to King Amon argue with the High Priest. What the heated discussion was about, she didn’t know, but eventually the High Priest noticed the attention they were getting from everyone and led the king away. She sighed, then turned back to prayer.
Eventually her mind began to wander again.
Tomorrow would make it her seventh year with the Sacrial.
Seven years ago, her parents had been wandering merchants, and they along with others had been attacked viciously by rogue mages. She had hidden herself under their wagon and listened as her family and friends were slaughtered. Blood had dripped through the bottom of the wagon and fallen on her back that day, she remembered it clearly. And then, when all seemed quiet, she had come out of her hiding place and looked at the wreckage. There were bodies strewn like broken dolls around the campsite, but her parents had been butchered in the most horrible way possible. She remembered being violently sick when she saw the remains of their corpses, then running away as fast as she could, blinded with tears, when she heard voices. Only to run right into a company of soldiers escorting the High Priest of the Sacrial himself. She could still see herself, timid girl that she was, trembling and drenched in blood as they looked at her in shock. Then He had dismounted his horse and strode to her, resplendent in white and gold, offering her the comfort of an embrace.
It’s all going to be fine.
He hadn’t asked her who she was or what she was running from. He had held her as she cried, and let her tell Him what had happened slowly. Then His eyes shone like golden fire, and He rode in the direction of the massacre, leaving her with a few guards.
A few days later, when they were safely in the Temple, He had told her that the mages had been caught and put to death. When asked if she would like to see their bodies, she had refused. She couldn’t bear blood then, and she couldn’t bear it now. A joke, considering that she had opted to train as a Healer.
She spun, startled out of her revelations, to see Mother Amber, a wood elf woman of small stature, approaching.
“There you are! Must you always curl up in such dark places? I’ve been looking for you for the past ten minutes. You’re wanted by His Holiness.”
High Priest Horus? What could he possibly want with her? She scrambled to her feet and hurried after Mother Amber as she led her through several winding passages and up a long flight of stairs. They were going to His office. Eventually, they reached a large golden door. Two guards in polished steel stood outside, and one of them knocked before letting Seraphina in. The door closed behind her, and she felt a slight shiver. The room was octagonal in shape, with cluttered desks near the walls and five huge glass windows lining the walls. It had a comfortable feel; a thick carpet covered the floor, and tapestries hung wherever a window was absent. It was colourful yet not bright; it soothed the eye to see. In the center of the room sat several people. Seraphina swallowed. She was in the presence of two of the most powerful people in the world.
“Sit,” said Horus, deferring to a simple chair beside him. She quickly walked over and did so, averting her eyes from those of the royal family. “This,” he continued, “is Seraphina. She is one of our most devout acolytes, and will become a Sister in a few days’ time. She has taken a deep interest in the theology of Kalazam, but is also an expert on its history, geography and demography. Her mind is very sharp, and she has trained as a healer.”
“I know of this girl,” the king said. “She’s the best healer in the Sacrial, isn’t she? Strongest magic and all that.”
She felt herself steadily redden from His speech and the King’s, and looked down.
“She is,” Horus agreed. “I daresay she will become the greatest one the continent has ever seen. Which is why she is best suited to the young prince.”
Shocked, Seraphina looked up. “What?”
His Holiness looked at her. “I have proposed that once you become a Sister, you will move to the palace and become the Prince’s personal tutor. You will be advise him and help mould him to the crown that he will wear.”
Seraphina was stunned. It was not uncommon for the Sacrial to send Mothers and Priests to various rulers for advice and anything else that may be required of them, but she was to be a Sister in a few days. To become a Mother, she would have to wait fifteen years or more, as she pointed out timidly to the High Priest.
“And the prince will remain prince for that long. If he ascends to power before, we can make an exception and let you become a Mother earlier than usual.”
The queen was looking at her interestedly, but the prince was not. She could see a faint pinkness around his ears. Then the king cleared his throat.
“Is it wise to send a young girl his age to tutor him?”
Horus smiled warmly. “It is not uncommon for royalty to marry into the Sacrial. With bonds like these, we can unite the continent.”
Seraphina took a second to realize what they were talking about, then promptly turned beet-red. “I-”
“It is, however, highly unlikely that anything will happen. Seraphina is determined to become one of the Mothers, and is pure in both body and soul.”
King Amon still looked displeased, but sighed and leaned back in his chair. “Fine. Have it your way, High Priest.” Something about the way he said the title made it sound demeaning, but Horus dipped His head and graciously muttered his thanks.
“Once Seraphina has become a Sister, she will join the prince.”
The king rose stiffly. “If you mean to turn him into one of your puppet rulers, think again, Lord Horus. I will not stand by and watch as you seize the throne, even if I have permitted this.”
As the royal family left, Seraphina noted the pain in the High Priest’s eyes. He sighed slowly through His nose, then got to His feet and poured two glasses of fine wine from His table. “Rulers. All of them are the same. They see plots and deceptions wherever they go, and ignore the help that we offer to them. I have spent far too long trying to convince King Amon that the Sacrial means to aid them in the struggles they know nothing of. But I think I have convinced him to take you.”
Seraphina took the wine He offered her and clutched the glass weakly. “But...why me? And why now? Alhallon has tolerated worship of the Sacred Wardens. More than tolerated it; it is the reigning faith in the kingdom.”
The High Priest of the Sacrial stared out a glass-paned window. His expression was, once more, pained. With a deep breath, He turned back to her. “We have received word. Our enemies may have begun to move at long last.”
“Our enemies?” She blinked. “Hamadryad?”
“No. The Razshars have opposed the Sacrial for aeons, but even with their exceptional powers cannot hope to best all the kingdoms that will rally against them. I speak of the Betrayer’s other followers.”
Her blood ran cold. “Few, if any.”
“There are more, Seraphina. He was not the only one to defy the Sacred Wardens; some joined his darkness. And now, we are forced into action. But first...” He walked over to her and sat down. “It is time I spoke to you about why your family was killed. And why you hold such power in your veins.”
Seraphina Eastlight swallowed. My parents were killed by bandits. Weren’t they?
The days passed quickly, and Seraphina was kneeling in the holy spring in the center of the Temple, clad in nothing but her skin. The Mothers chanted slowly as they poured water over her head, drenching her and cleansing her.
Gods above, let me live that I may fulfil your wishes. Let me live for the hope of all mortals. Let me sing your names as I cure the lands of the evil gripping them.
After High Priest Horus had told her everything, her resolution was strong as steel. She would not waver. She would do what was expected of her.
She would save them all.
The chanting became louder and louder as the Mothers invoked the Sacred Wardens to bless her and guide her through her tasks, and then the unexpected happened; the water glowed. A feverish excitement broke out on the faces of all those surrounding her, and the High Priest looked at her with a knowing smile. The Wardens had never, ever responded so strongly to the ritual of Sisterhood. Seraphina closed her eyes, savouring the sudden warmth in the water and the light. So the gods knew. They knew and had chosen her, just as the High Priest had said.
The Mothers swayed, increasing their pitch, and then all of a sudden the words slowed and stopped, as did the flow of water. The light faded away into the morning, and she opened her eyes. There was awe and respect on all their faces, and Horus stepped into the water to offer her his hand. “You knelt an acolyte; rise as Sister Seraphina Eastlight, blessed in the eyes of gods and men.” She took his proffered hand and stood, unashamed of her naked self. Her soul was bare to the gods now; what did skin matter?
Mother Amber draped her in loose, warm robes, smiling. “We are fortunate to have you among us, Sister.”
All the Mothers seemed to reflect her words as they offered her their congratulations and best wishes. It was not until Horus cleared his throat that they finally allowed her to leave.
A few hours later, she was standing in front of a mirror, admiring the plain white robe that she wore. It was soft, warm and looked beautiful with her fair skin and golden hair, a welcome change from the acolyte’s robes she had had to wear all these years.
Then there was a knock on her door, and she turned.
Horus entered, face breaking into a fatherly smile. “You look wonderful.”
She blushed and dipped her head. “Thank you, High Priest.”
“Here.” He held out his fist, and dropped a beautiful emerald teardrop on a thin gold chain into her palm. “I thought it would bring out the colour of your eyes. Let the world know you for who you are, Seraphina. There will be no more hiding.”
She murmured her thanks, admiring the jewel before wearing it. There was a moment of silence, then He sighed. “I will miss seeing you around the Temple.”
“I’m still in the same city,” she said softly. “I will visit.”
“Bring the prince as well, if you can. And, Seraphina...” He stepped closer to her. “Teach him about everything. What you may take for granted, he will not know. He has received an education that will suffice for an ordinary king, but not someone who will determine our fate in time. He must know everything.”
Seraphina looked at Him then, really looked at Him. The handsome features, the muscular frame, the golden eyes, silver hair tied in a ponytail, and His height she knew, but there was an expression of urgency on His face. She bowed before Him. “He will. Give me time, but he shall see our peril. Have faith in me.”
“I have never doubted you, Seraphina,” He said firmly. “I saw the emerald fire in your eyes when we first met, and I see it now. Tha flame will not be quenched, and neither will we. You will be the first to turn the wheels of our world.”
Her eyes met His, and she nodded. “Is it time?”
“It is. You will find a carriage outside the Temple, and then your journey shall begin. Gods preserve you.”
“Gods preserve us all,” she whispered, turning to look out the window at the fiery sunset.