The Beginning

4750, The First Age

Midnight darkened the corridors of the Temple. The few remaining lights let out a gentle hum; most flickered, deteriorating with age. Hidden in shadows, Estela stood in an alcove, waiting for the Watch to walk by, to pass her unnoticed. She hoped.

Soon her wish came to pass―a priestess, already Dedicated, passed her, in robes black as night. They were all black as night. This priestess must not be in direct contact with the Deity, or she would have noticed Estela where she hid.

The woman gone, Estela darted out from her alcove, headed for her destination, the centre of the Temple. The holiest of holies, where only those ready for Dedication to Umbra could go. Never mind if they’d been Called or not.

The holy centre of the Temple was empty. Here were no artificial lights; the flames of candles and torches flickered, reflections dancing on the black stone. She’d read in a history book the stone used to be multicoloured, millennia ago. Worship of Umbra had darkened it.

Her heart pounding, Estela approached the altar. It had been dedicated to the worship of Umbra as long as she had lived. Truly, it was not suitable for anything else, and she knew this. Umbra was the only Goddess honoured in Athering. She knew this as well.

One cannot control her dreams, she thought, finding the sacrificial knife. And I have been Called to Another’s service.

The flames cast enough light for her to see her reflection in the knife’s blade. She looked young and terrified.

She was. She knew what would happen if they caught her. But when the Goddesses Called, one answered.

She held her hand over the altar and slit her palm with the knife. Blood flowed over the smooth stone.

“Great Kore, Goddess of Light and Prophecy, You have Called me and I answer,” she said, her voice shaking. “I Dedicate my life, my soul, and my blood to You. I pray that I am found worthy.”

A low laugh echoed through the room, from behind her. Estela whipped around. At the entrance stood the Mother Superior, Maga Domina, and several High Priestesses. They were all full servants of Umbra. She swallowed nervously. This was it, then. It was over. She hoped Kore had accepted her offering, or it would be a horrible afterlife indeed.

The Mother Superior stepped forward slowly, a terrible smile on her face. “Hm. Estela,” she spoke slowly, savouring the girl’s name as if it were a tasty morsel. “Somehow I always knew you would be one to betray the Order.”

Estela found her voice, buried in her chest, cowering in fear. “You’ve no right to be the Order anymore, Beralyn. We turned away from Aradia long ago.” If I am to die anyway, I’d rather go out with a show of courage.

Beralyn laughed again, coming inexorably closer to where Estela stood. “And you think you’ll suddenly change everything by Dedicating to a long-dead Goddess?”

“Kore’s not dead,” Estela said, holding her head high.

Beralyn scoffed, but Estela thought she saw a flash of uncertainty in the older woman’s eyes. “You think She lives on in your stupid little books? Oh, I know,” she added at the surprise Estela could not keep from her face. “I know about your trips to the forbidden section, deep within the castle library. I know about your fascination with a time that’s long forgotten―as well it should be.” She made a signal with her hand then, and the high priestesses came forward. They grabbed Estela by the arms and pushed her brutally to her knees. “You’ll be forgotten, too, little girl,” she said with cold menace.

“No,” Estela whispered. “I won’t. Not by you.” A bright light had begun to shine in Estela’s chest; now it grew until it occluded all else. She felt absolutely at peace, and knew in her heart that Kore had answered her. When she spoke again, she knew the words came from some place other than her mind. “When the Dark One rules, all falls to ruin in this world and the other. Her Chosen takes the Sceptre, and compassion is forgotten. But another shall arise―a Chosen of Kore, of the Line of Aradia―a child of Light to balance the Dark. And thus shall the Dark One’s rule fall, and thus shall compassion take the Sceptre again.”

Beralyn continued to smile, but it was tinged with doubt. “Well, I hope you weren’t referring to the Queen’s firstborn. That girl’s already been sacrificed, just this morn.”

At any other time Estela would have felt sick to her stomach, but she only smiled in return. “The time is coming,” she said, and knew the words to be her last.

Beralyn snapped her fingers; the Maga Domina brought forth an axe, and then Estela’s head was bent forward, her hair moved to the side.

A sharp pain, the beating rush of air, the feathery presence of wings, the warm embrace of darkness. Estela was no more.

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