Dawn brushed its fingers tenderly across the shadowy peaks of the Ananuk Ranges, caressing each valley and ridge with deep violet until they glowed in the rising light. It coaxed the sparrow and the lark and the robin and the swallow from slumber with gentle flushes of pastel pink and painted the boughs of every tree in faint outlines of gold and grey until the hushed darkness of the night finally relinquished its grasp on the land. Perched atop a rapidly illuminating outcrop, the fortress city of Anukthar broke its fast with flatbread and juiced cherries. The Acolytes in their temple bade good morrow to their sweet goddess of death and poured libations of blood in her name as she bedded down in the depths of theVoid for the day, leaving her faceless consorts to guard her dreaming.
Among all her earthly servants, Cassia was her favourite. Though not yet in her twenty-first year, the young woman had promise. Yes, the death goddess dreamed. Cassia was a far finer attendant than most. She would ensure the young woman lived long enough to achieve the greatness she deserved, then cut her down with a glorious death and welcome her back into the Void.
Cassia knew nothing of her favour. She went about her duties in the early morning light, the sun’s first rays engulfing her dark ebony skin in a warm glow and picking out the cooler tones in her long black hair. She was tasked that morning with ensuring the blood ran smoothly from beast to bowl along the long thin corridor that connected the bowels of the Temple of Erwen to the Mouth of Resurrection. The path the blood took was deeply etched in long straight grooves in the floor. Seen from above, it was a dizzying array of ancient scriptures arranged in glorious divine art.
Cassia’s keen brown eyes followed the river of crimson life as it ran along the stained carved patterns in the floor. She let a radiant smile spread across her face as each joint and passage filled with blood, then glided silently along the corridor to follow each rivulet’s progress towards the deep brass basin that fed directly into the goddess’ life force.
Some doubted that the goddess even drank of the offerings anymore, but Cassia didn’t care. Even if the gods heard no prayers and accepted no petitions, there was a quiet divinity in the ritual that soothed her soul.
As the deep red tributaries finally joined to become one thick, smooth body of fluid, she sighed and smiled. The goddess would not hunger this day, nor would she rise to claim her pound of flesh from the living. She said the customary prayers over the bowl, then followed the well-worn path back towards the temple atrium.
Sleepy attendants yawned and stood ready to cleanse and bless those who had risen earlier and performed the sacred rites to Erwen. Cassia stepped forward and closed her eyes as they flicked her with scented water from the fresh-cut branches of a birch tree, then walked through the spiralling clouds of incense. The attendants wafted the fragrant smoke at her from all directions with fans large enough to cover their bodies, and when she reached the other side Cassia felt invigorated and refreshed.
She caught sight of her friend Saffron loitering by the temple’s ornate threshold. Her rosy skin glistened with droplets of the cleansing water, silky black hair coiled in a neat knot to avoid getting caught should the sacrifice put up a fight. Cassia could see thick red stains on her sleeves and trouser legs. Their dark eyes met at the same time, and Cassia changed course to join her.
“Morning,” Saffron greeted her, incense from her own purification still trailing off her in wisps and clouds. “Was She Of The Eternal Night pleased with her offering today?”
“Yes,” Cassia replied. “Did it go quietly?”
“Walked up to the altar almost of its own accord,” Saffron confirmed. The pair linked arms and fell in step as they made their way towards the hall, where fresh flatbread and seasonal fruit waited to quell the gnaw of hunger that followed the early morning rituals.
“Have you heard?” Saffron asked in between mouthfuls once they’d found a quiet table and filled their bowls. “The Apprentices have been chosen.”
“Oh?” Cassia paused before formulating a proper reply. “It was a quick divination this time, then. Who has Our Lady Of Insurmountable Darkness chosen?”
“You.” Saffron grinned as Cassia struggled to maintain her composure. “And me. And almost twenty others. But we are paired. We leave for Argorien at our earliest convenience.”
Cassia’s heart sank. Argorien was a war zone, run by bloodthirsty foreign colonisers sent to eradicate all those who refused to conform. Hardly a destination for those eager to keep their lives and sanity. But Cassia’s reasons for disappointment were different than most. It had been nearly fourteen years, but she had never given up hope. He was out there, somewhere, she knew it. But what would happen if he returned the the Labyrinthine City and she wasn’t there? Where would he go? What if she returned to be blooded and found only a missive from him that he had waited, but she had not returned?
As if sensing her friend’s conflict, Saffron reached across the table and clasped her hand. Cassia squeezed back, glad of the comfort, however small.
“If Cuinn was to return, he would have done by now,” Cassia murmured, as much to bolster herself as to continue the conversation.
“And if he returns while we are absent, my family will send word,” Saffron added. “You can be sure of it. They know how important he is to you.”
Cassia did her best to smile, though inside she knew without question that the chapter of her life spent waiting for Cuinn was at an end. Even as the door closed on all that she had known, she knew her brother was lost forever.
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