This is an ongoing series designed to eventually culminate in a novel. It would be best to start at the beginning. The first entry can be found here: PROLOGUE.
The legends say that the world was created by five goddesses. The elder twins—Ayja, Goddess of Life and Diotl, Goddess of Death—created the cycle of life. The junior twins—Gaena, Goddess of Earth, and Asona, Goddess of Sky—created the realm to hold life. The four eldest sisters were responsible for creation, and the fifth, and youngest, was responsible for weaving it together. She was Ione, Goddess of Law, and it was law that was the glue of creation, bringing together all of its aspects and binding them.
Most cities of the world host massive temples for the four major goddesses. They are worshiped every day, prayed to in times of plenty, and questioned in times of crisis. But not Ione. Since the dawn of civilization, man has taken law upon himself, for good or bad. The once grand temples of Ione now lay barren. Not that she is ignored, Kings and other officers who deal with law on a daily basis keep a small shrine for Ione close by, but out of custom more than faith.
Celestine Wolf stared in wonder at the massive arched entrance to the ancient temple. Nature had long ago started taking back the space; weeds and vines sprouted from the cracks between the sandstones. Most of the runes and images had long ago been washed away from the face of the temple by wind or storm. But still it remained, an imposing brown statue in a sea of green.
She was young, only recently reaching the age of adulthood. She had loose shoulder-length brown hair, light strands that billowed with every slight breeze. Under her neatly trimmed bangs were two deep-set green eyes. They were a radiant, emerald-like color. Her face was round, her cheeks plump and pink, and her wide chin jutted slightly forward. In all, she was attractive for a girl her age, and popular amongst the boys in her village. That was except for her boyish attire, brown leather pants and an old brigandine that rested over a light green shirt.
Celestine wanted to become a Hand of Justice, the priests of Ione. Her village was one of the few who still held to the ancient faith of the Goddess of Law, and trained her clerics. To become a Hand, one must first be proven in certain skills, such as problem-solving, diplomacy, and marital arts. If determined to be so skilled by a group of clerics, the person was given a test: to traverse the ancient temple and bring back water from the sacred pool at its heart. This was the supposed place where Ione first spoke to the people.
Her parents had not been keen on her daughter becoming a Hand. Their resistant had not been for the danger—Celestine’s father was a hunter and had trained her how to handle herself. Instead, they were reluctant to let her go. Ione’s clerics traveled the world, as arbiters of peace and justice.
Celestine placed a hand on the stone wall. It was cold and rough to the touch. She traced the ancient cracks with her finger. It was hard to believe the building was thousands of years old. She didn’t know why the temple had been abandoned, only that people had drifted away from service to Ione. It was too much for her small village to restore or maintain it, but they kept the temple in their rituals.
She moved through the archway, dodging vines that hung from the ceiling. She kept her hand on the dagger sheathed on her side. It had been a gift from her father, when she had told him of her plans. Celestine had never been to the temple or the forest that contained it. Her father had warned her of the dangers—wolves and coyotes, and rats as big as your leg. She wasn’t sure how much of it she believed, but she wasn’t going to take any chances.
The condition of the walls inside was not much better than at the front. They were less battered by wind, but more corrupted by greenery, and slime. There was a slime that stuck to the walls, a manifestation of the thick moisture in the air. Celestine avoided touching that.
Her ears picked up a scurrying sound from up ahead. Three large rats rounded a corner, headed straight for her. Celestine drew her knife and dropped into a crouch. The rats were black and bigger than any she had seen, but not quite a big a leg, perhaps the size of her booted foot. She did no tremble in fear at the approaching rodents like most girls, but she was rightly concerned. Rats in a large numbers could kill and man and consume his whole body before he could be found.
As the rats came closer, seeming to not notice her in the shadows of the ancient hall, Celestine rose to her feet and screamed. She tried to make herself as big and menacing as possible. She had used the technique successfully on a deer once. Again the attempt worked; the rats spun around in their places and bolted in the opposite direction, squealing. Celestine continued to move deeper into the temple.
She didn’t know exactly where she was headed, only that it was in. There were no maps of the old temple, and she was offered no hints by the clerics who gave her the test. This was for her to complete, and her alone.
She knew her destination was a pool of water. And she knew it had remained filled for all the centuries the clerics had been running this little test. That meant it needed a source, a stream or drainage that routinely filled it. She decided the best way was to listen for moving water.
She did not have to move much further before she heard it. It was certainly the sound of a stream, small but active. It drizzled, like the sound of milk being slowly poured from a jug. However, she could not find where it was. It seemed to run below her, under the stone floor.
She followed the sound deeper into the depth of the temple, scaring off more rats as she traveled. What amazed her was that the halls never became completely dark. She had brought some torches and flint-stone with her, of course, be they were unnecessary. Light filtered in through well-designed holes that pierced through the entirety of the temple, out into the sky. Though nature had reclaimed the walls and floors, it seemed strangely adverse to blocking this light. Perhaps some things were not to be understood.
Following the sound of the stream, she rounded several corners until she finally came to the sacred pool. The room was wide, smelling of fresh leaves and spring water. Light beamed in from holes in the ceiling, reflecting off the glossy bottom of the pool and filling the room with a bluish-white glow. Nature hung itself on the curved surrounding walls, a brilliant tapestry of green and flowery colors, but refused the floor, which retained its sandy-brown hue entirely. The pool was more of a fountain-like reservoir which was watched over by a standing figure, a white stone statue of Ione, book in one hand and sword in the other.
This was obviously the place. Celestine’s task was to fill a flask with water and return to the clerics. They would somehow test the fluid to confirm it source. Feeling the resonance of the place, Celestine was moved to believe the water could even be magical.
And it looked so pure, more than any water she had ever seen. She decided that after such a long trip, she deserved a rest and a drink before getting to her task. She bent down and placed a hand in the blue water.
The room filled with brilliant light, forcing Celestine to bring her wet hand over her eyes. She lost her balance and fell backwards, hard onto her butt. When the light dimmed and she pulled her hand from her face, she could not believe was she saw. It was Ione.
Celestine scrambled to her knees and dropped her head to the ground in with an audible thud. Her body trembled.
“Rise my child,” an unworldly voice echo through the chamber. “Rise.”
Celestine lifted her head enough to see the goddess looking right at her. It made her more nervous than any chastising look from her father, or lusty gaze from a boy, had ever made her feel. The goddess was half-light and half earthy material, white robes flowing despite a lack of wind. She looked almost like the statue behind her, though her hands lacked her iconic tools. She floated in the air above the sacred pool and watched Celestine with a motherly smile.
“Do not be afraid, child.”
“I am not afraid,” Celestine replied weakly. “But I am not worthy.”
“I will judge who is worthy.”
“Why do you show yourself to me, great one?” Celestine asked. “Do you speak to all your Hands?”
“No, I have not spoken in a thousand years. Now I only speak to you.”
“For too long we have ignored the plight of man, of our children. My sisters are content with their act of creation and see no need to meddle in the affairs of men. But law is ever-flowing. It is a sacred truth that must be protected. I cannot simply rest. A darkness grows in the north, an unlawful and unjust threat that the world has never known. My sisters turn their eyes away from it, but I watch. I see its tendrils spilling out, corrupting that which is sacred, defiling my law. It must be stopped.”
“But what can I do?” Celestine asked, more to herself than to the all-knowing goddess.
“I have seen into your heart and I know it to be true. I have seen into your spirit and I know it to be fierce. You will be my scion, the heir to my blood, my power. You will be my emissary in this world and lead the fight to purge the corruption of my law.”
“I…I…cannot…” Celestine gasped. Her heart thundered in her chest. Part of her refused to believe what was happening.
“You can, and you will. Your people are the last of the faithful, it is on you that this burden must rest. Your heart trembles at this responsibility, but do not fear, I will guide you.”
“Of course, I am your servant, great Ione.”
“Give me your hand, child.”
Celestine did as the goddess commanded, reaching out her right hand. The deity grasped it in her own. It did not feel like a normal touch; the physical sensation was distant and fused with a sort of energy. The skin on her palm began to burn, a searing pain that shocked every last though from her brain. Celestine pulled her hand back with a cry.
“I have given you my mark,” Ione said. “Show this to any who claim to follow my light and they will follow you.”
Celestine looked at her hand. On her palm a moniker was branded, a circle with a sword cutting diagonally across it. It was the symbol of Ione. It glowed red, magically.
“Now return to your village and prepare for your journey. Gather your things and those few who will join you. You must head west, to the coastal fortress at Kaldern. There you will find more allies, though some might not appear as such.”
Ione placed a glowing hand on Celestine’s head, running it through her hair like a mother would.
“I am sorry to place these burdens on you, child.”
“No,” Celestine said. “I am happy to accept your burdens, and your mark, great Ione.”
The goddess smiled and drifted silently back through the air, colliding with the statue and being absorbed by it. Her light faded from the chamber. All that remained was the beams from the ceiling and the red pulse from Celestine’s hand.