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Chapter 1: The Priest’s Of The Aria
~ 865 RE ~
~ Southern Kingdom, Sacred Grounds Of The Aria ~
Belairus was as stiff as a fence post. Around the young neros girl, a circle of trees was illuminated by midnight fires. Her ears twitched as a slag-smothered smoke blew from a burning log. She could not help but hear strange stories of sacred spirits whispered in her mind. In the warm glow, she could see ancient carvings etched into the trees. A great arm curled around her back as she clung to her father and buries her face in his stomach, but that did little to ease her pounding heart.
Her eyes traced the stranger who brought her to the druids. He had shown up in her village and they traveled for days. A wanderer by the name of Fenrir. His tale was a wild one told in the Aria. The Hukoten people were moved by the story of their goddess come in the flesh, even though she did not understand it. According to her father, they were sworn to uphold a sacred duty. Fenrir and Belairus, along with her father, traveled the long distance to the high priests of Aria.
Her opinion of him was unfavorable. She seemed to be the object of his unhealthy fascination. He’s a dirty warung and shady at that. His robes are black, like the ash-strewn soil around him. While traveling, he had been referred to as a mystic by a few, and a witch by most.
Belairus peered up the head of an incline, past her father’s side. In the bonfire’s flare, vast shadows of people wearing red cloaks and drenched in gold trinkets watched, silent, reminding her of hanging stars. Her eyes dart from one side of the cliff to the other. She saw a pair of naked, white-furred beasts. Both were holding torches that conjured images of strange creatures spouting fire from their open mouths. The red hoods covering their faces added to the impression. There was something dreadful about them. Yet, what is worse are the enormous swords embedded deep in the earth. No one could swing such powerful weapons. Even her father, Lymric, was not strong enough to deal with blades of that size.
As she watched the fire, a snapping branch caught her attention. Her heart skipped a beat when she noticed a shadow in the flames. The impossible image became real when another branch was snapped. Despite the flames, her eyes did not lie; a shadow in the fire stirred through them. The girl grasped her father’s arm with both hands. “Someone’s in the fire! Father, do something!” she shouted. Lymric responded with a harsh hush.
An uninjured man emerges from the fire unharmed by the heat and fury of the blaze. “Maybe it is a ghost,” she speculated. Although she was tempted to flee, her father kept her anchored to the spot.
She tried desperately to look away, but found herself unable to do so. Her once thin irises are now large black spheres, as a mixture of fear and enchantment took over her. The man of flames held a massive iron stave half as tall as himself. When she was a child, she had heard stories about high priests and those large staves they carried. The priest’s robes extinguish, unburned as if the fire never touched them. That large stave must be hot, Belairus reasoned.
She whispered to her father, “I don’t like this place,” with the childish hope that he will take her home. Sadly, the familiar touch of Lymric’s hand on her head was her answer. As soon as she felt that gentle stroke, she understood. As her pointed ears turned sideways, her tail brushed against the ground, moving back and forth.
Her heart sinks as a rather dull and monotonous voice from behind the black and red wooden mask called “Belairus come forward.” Her tail bushed out much like a duster. Sheepishly she took a step, as if dipping her toe in cold water. Belairus looked back up at her father, who bent down to push her. With a deep breath, she walked across the warm ash-covered earth, painting her pale feet as black as the twilight skies.
The masked man motioned limply with his hand. “Come now, child.”
Her fear of upsetting the elder caused her to leap over the dust. In the firelight, the golden accents on the mask glittered. The priest towered over her; far taller than she expected. He may even be taller than her father. And that brutal heat; she could feel its intense kiss on her face as a chill ran down her spine. The man lowered his hand while exposing his cloth-wrapped palm. The long bony fingers of the high priest curled around Belairus’s sweet appendages as she raised her hands in greeting. Belairus wondered, “He is cold. But how? The heat. Is he really that cold?”
“Old friend, why are you here with this child?” the high priest inquired to Fenrir.
Fenrir stepped forward with his chest outwardly prideful as always. “The pride land had rumors of a sacred child being born. When I followed these stories, I found Belairus. In my opinion, she is the perfect avatar. I have tested her and found that she does indeed possess the spirit of Lumaria. Her image alone can unify the tribes. I have come to pose that we should prepare her to become the avatar and be trained as a high priestess for all the tribes to follow.” Belairus always found Fenrir’s style of words to be one full of arrogance. She assumed it was because he looked down at her people. Now she sees that he was just conceded in himself.
The high priest straightens up without saying a word. The palm of his hand grips her lower cheek. His fingers forced her face to the side grabbing her jowl. He examined her left cheek, then her right, as if searching for a hidden inscription beyond the sight of other folks. Gazing into her royal blue eyes, he discovered he was smiling even as he examined her, though no one could see it behind the mask.
As the ambiance of fire drew out, Belairus could hear only the beating of her own heart. “Child,” a voice called out to Belairus. The voice is near, too close. It feels violating. As she realized the voice came from inside her own head, her irises became slits. “I see you’re listening. You speak as we do. Very interesting. That was not what I expected.” Another voice spoke in her head.
From behind the mask, the High Priest spoke, “Belairus?” In her head, another voice asked, “Have you learned how to speak like this?”
Belairus muttered inwardly to herself, “No.”
A small chuckle erupted from underneath the high priest’s mask. “That’ll do,” he said out loud. “Do you understand what Fenrir intends to accomplish with you, Belairus?” the high priest asked in a soft voice.
“He tells me I am the avatar. I will learn from you the ways of the Aria priests. At least that is what, he, says.” Belairus grew to believe this priest possessed some magic power that could see into her mind. Maybe he could even see how much she despised him.
Fenrir caught the high priest’s attention as he glanced at him. He asked, “Do you understand what being the avatar of the sacred Lumaria means?” His gaze never left Fenrir as he spoke.
She simply stated, “No.”
“Are you willing to give yourself up for another? To a stranger, you don’t know. Are you prepared to let someone else control and speak for you within your body?”
“No. That sounds scary,”
“Indeed, it is.”
“I will do what I must to make my family proud.”
After a low mumble, he said, “I’ve decided. It’s true what they say. I can see why they would call her the goddess. Though it is only silly superstition among the neros tribes. Paleness alone proves nothing. She is a girl. You should not lead a young lady like this astray, Fenrir. Belairus, tell us of higher things? Where are we from?”
She did not know what higher things were, she did not even learn what they were. Trees? That can’t be right. Probably he means the birds, since he wears a mask like that, though she knew nothing about birds. She considered the sky. She knew nothing about it, either. She shrinks back before stating, “I do not know about higher things. I only know we come from Lumaria, the goddess, and she is our homeland.” Her ears droop as shame seeped into her mind.
The high priest petted her head with those long fingers. “If you speak as we do, you have probably encountered many spirits. What do the spirits say to you?”
Belairus glanced at her father, who was now raising an eyebrow at her. “Stay away from their domains.”
“Domains?” He asked now sounding interested.
“The sacred places in the woods,” Belairus replied.
The high priest said, “See Fenrir,” with a warm voice. He goes on, “She’s a girl. Let a child be a child.”
Fenrir barked in a snappy tone, “You wouldn’t know the spirits of the Lumaria if they were incarnate in front of you.”
“Is it your suggestion that I would let an opportunity slip by?” remarked the high priest. His rod is aimed at Fenrir, rattling as the rings. The wind blew, causing the fire behind him to flare up into a blazing rage. Belairus clung to the high priest, burying her face in his robes as the fires swirl and dive around the high priest. “Here Fenrir, we don’t bow to the Tempest. Nor will we enter the Maelstrom like heretics. A hand pats Belairus’s back as the priest said, “You are safe, young child.”
“You’ve become a fool. Do you think our queen should be denied her right?” Fenrir asked in a low voice.
The high priest shook his head. “I will cast you into the fires if you don’t watch your tongue.” Fenrir swallows. Belairus assumes that Fenrir knew he went too far and has now angered the priest. A grimace appears on Lymric’s face as he glances over at Fenrir. “Your little scheme is not welcome here.” Fenrir remained silent.
He bends down to Belairus’s level and lifted his mask to reveal the warung’s wolfish face. “Belairus, you have great potential. I don’t want you to think wrong of me. If there is a queenship to be had, I am not going to deny you. But you aren’t the avatar. I believe you will play an important role. But not one that serves the Aria.”
Watching her father stare off with a wide-eyed expression and his mouth agape, Belairus turns her head. Gazing over at Fenrir, he then turns to face the high priest. Incredulous, Belairus thought, “How can this be happening?”
“Please,” her father said, causing the High Priest to lower his mask and turn to face Lymric. “Reconsider. Let her train with you at least,” the high priest stood to his full height. As he stood ajar in Lymric’s orientation, there was a moment of silence. “Educate her in the ways of being a high priest like yourself. I implore you.”
His tone of voice was indifferent when he said, “There is nothing I can do.”. Belairus raised a finger to her mouth and nibbled on the tip of her claw. Lymric opens his mouth to speak again, but the priest barks at him. “Nothing!” he demands. “I don’t think the priests should be teaching Belairus mystic ways. Have Fenrir train her; he believes himself to be higher than us as it is. Although, I believe that teaching her in such a manner would be a grave error. She would be better off training as a warrior. Not in the ways of priestly duties. The Hukoten have a proud history of being the noble warriors of the tribes.” Looking down at Belairus’s overwhelmed expression, he placed his finger on her cheek and a ticklish sensation overtook her as she couldn’t help but smile. “The responsibility for preparing her lies with you. I have seen monumental struggles in her life. Prepare her for it, or the stream of time for her will run dry. Now go…” said the high priest.
He pressed his bony hand against Belairus’s back. The young lady runs back over to her father. There is a look of disappointment on his face. It appeared that she had done something wrong and disrespected her father. Her face was filled with shock and shame. Lymric kneels down and embraced her. Holding her hand, he led her through the forest to a dark path.
As Fenrir turned to walk with the two, the high priest called out, “Fenrir you stay.” The three-stop and turn to look at the priest. Standing with his arm extended, he pointed a long claw at Fenrir. A small growl comes from Fenrir as he scowled at the high priest displaying his teeth. “I have meant to find you, and I am not through Fenrir. There is another matter I need to discuss with you.” The high priest then gestured to Lymric and Belairus with his waving fingers, telling both of them to go.
“What could that possibly be?” snarled old Fenrir. With his hand resting on Belairus’s back, Lymric urged her to continue down the path. She glanced at the mystics one more time. Their voices trailed through the woods quite a distance, speaking in strange tongues that she didn’t recognize.
In the shadows, Fenrir’s form was visible to the red druids. The fires snapped. “I have noticed your comings and goings recently. My curiosity is piqued. What are you doing these days? Why did you bring this child to me? Both of us know she is too young for such a responsibility. Whether or not she’s an avatar, why would you tell her now?” he asked.
Fenrir said under his breath, walking back towards the fire, “Oh, you’ve been watching me.” A small black plume of ash flew up with every step he took. Fenrir gritted his teeth in a measured snicker. “You would not let a man see his privileges. If you had any sense, you would have trained her. I was impressed when I first saw her in the Hukoten’s village. It is indisputable that her image alone is enough to convince others that she is a true avatar. In any case, she can be used to rally the armies whether or not she is. The smooth skins movement needs to be taken into consideration. Every year, Golden Kingdom folk expand eastward. We will be at war, and we must come together as tribes if we are to survive. She will be trained by me, and when she sits upon the restored throne of the Aria, you will be expelled from the temple.”
A chuckle erupts from the high priest. “Bitter words, my friend; angry words. We’ve had a tense relationship in the past. I appreciate this. You were not accepted by us when you were a lad, and now you spin tales with the surrounding tribes. Fenrir, you may convince them you’re an ancient seer, but you’re far from it. It has been many years since we were just children. By refusing you, Fenrir, I chose the right path. No, you chose a darker path, and it is a path you shouldn’t trust. You’ve aligned yourself with foul spirits. It’s been interesting to watch you wander about. Although you are searching within our lands, I am no fool. Do you intend to campaign?”
Fenrir jerks his head back and glared at the priest with his mouth agape. “You’re suggesting I’m a traitor, aren’t you?” Fenrir howls.
The high priest bowed his head. He said, “That remains to be seen…”
In Lymric’s arms, Belairus felt safe. A small fire pit in the middle of the leather tent heated the soft wolf’s pelt beneath her. Despite the mask of happiness covering her face as the two snuggled together, she could tell her father saw right through the smile. “What’s on your mind, Belair?” He asked.
Initially, Belairus shook her head. With Lymric’s stern gaze, she knew that the ruse was over. Her ears dropped to the sides. “Did I do something wrong, Father?” Her face was etched with disappointment, shame, pain, fear. Unlike her usual perky self, she slumped the entire way to the camp. So much so that her tail dragged.
He held her close to him and played with her hair as she smiled. “I am so proud of you. There is nothing wrong with you. Rather than believing you’re an avatar, they believe you’re destined to be a great warrior. The fact alone is something to be proud of.” Lymric chuckled, tears forming in his eyes.
There is one question on her mind that is tugging at her, and the meeting with the mystic just added weight to it. “What is an avatar?” Belairus asked.
“A sign to our people. Avatars will manifest as the goddess among us.” explains Lymric.
“How can I be that?” Her head hurts as she considers the impossibility of being a god. “Wouldn’t I recognize myself if I were the avatar?”
“Yes, I suppose you would.” Lymric paused, rubbing Belairus’ pointed ear. “Fenrir might have been mistaken. The man is driven to restore the Aria. To his own fault, he must have been blinded by his own ambition.”
As Belairus peered into the fires, she asked, “Is that so?” Her rosy lips were tinged with a slight smile, her fangs peeking out just beneath them.
Lymric clenches his jaw. “The elder believes you are capable of becoming a fine warrior. However, you must make your own decision. I will let you train with Fenrir if he allows it. Although he is not a priest of the Aria, he is a talented mystic. You can learn more from him than anyone else in the tribe about such things. Alternatively, I can let you train under your uncle with that spear of yours, learning the ways of the hunt and the spirit of the warrior.”
“That priest, he commanded the bonfire, and he was able to communicate with spirits. Maybe Fenrir also knows such things. But if I train under Fenrir, I would need protection from the tribe.” Belairus said, staring into his chili yellow eyes. “If I trained with Uncle, I could protect our kin and feed them when they were hungry.”
“Thinking about replacing me already.” Lymric smiled.
Belairus raised her hands in the air. “No father! I didn’t mean it that way.”
“I know that, little one.” After her outburst, she calmed herself.
“Why is uncle Asgar training me rather than you, father?” Belairus asked curiously.
A long, heavy sigh escaped Lymric’s lips. He said, “I don’t have the courage to train you, Belairus. I would never allow you to fail,” he said. Occasionally, the fires snap. Belairus finds this comforting, unlike the blaze at the tribal council.
Belairus pokes a stick into the burning embers at the edge of the rock circle. Small flames come to life and dance. She breathes gently so that the fires sway back and forth. Her smile grows brighter. “And uncle would?”
The twigs in Belairus’s hair tangle under Lymric’s thick fingers. Belairus bats at Lymric’s hand in an attempt to brush it away. “He wants to make sure you are the right chieftain to rule. You must be strong and powerful. You will have to fight to keep your hold on the tribe even now. Anyone can steal such a title away from you.”
It never occurred to her that she would succeed her father as chieftain. She would be the greatest leader her tribe has ever seen if she became ruler one day. She’d be clever as a fox and wise as a serpent. Despite the foul taste Fenrir left in her mouth, she must learn from it for her people. “Can I learn from both?”
Lymric nods without a moment’s hesitation. “That would be quite the undertaking. You won’t be able to play with your friends very often if you train under both.”
“Then, if Fenrir is as wise as everyone says… why hasn’t he learned to hold his tongue?” she asked bluntly.
Lymric roared at Belairus’s short words. “That’s a mighty good question. Speaking of which, it’s late, so it’s probably time for you to go to bed.”
“But I don’t want to go to bed.” Belairus frowns with a kind of exaggerated disappointment that almost seems comical.
Lymric grinned, patting her head. “Silly. Before we go to sleep, I’ll see Fenrir. Now go to sleep. I don’t want you to get lost.”
“We are in Aria!” Belairus smiled smugly as she stated, “I am safe from harm.”
Lymric stood up when he uncurled his arms. “No, stay here. There is something to discuss. It will be a long walk back home tomorrow. You don’t want to be sleepy.”
Still arguing, Belairus moaned, “It takes seven days to walk back from here.”
“Seven days, but if you don’t get your sleep, it may take eight or even nine.” Lymric replied smugly.
“Fine… I will sleep. However, if I wake up early, I want you to wake up with me so I won’t be bored.” Belairus chirpped with a toothy grin.
In response, Lymric nodded his head. “Of course, my queen.” Belairus cast a bashful look at his comment.
The morning came quickly for Belairus. Her eyes opened abruptly as she peered over the tent and saw the blankets her father had slept in already rolled up and packed. Her father’s fire had warmed her during the night, but it had gone out. From the open doorway of the tepee, light enters the room through a small hole at the top. While looking outside, she notices that her father is nowhere to be found.
Fenrir, however, is seated on a log in front of the lifeless outer campfire. Belairus slowly gets up. With ash-covered hands, she rubs her messy hair and face. Her makeup smeared, and the crescent moon was no longer visible. Only a black mark remained.
As she sat up inside her tent, she said, “Morning, mystic.” in a groggy voice.
With his hood down, Fenrir looks over. A toothy grin appears on his muzzle. “You’re awake now, child,” he said. “I’m glad. Your father is out hunting.”
“Why are you hunting?” Belairus was puzzled by Fenrir’s idleness.
A chuckle escaped Fenrir. “Your father is better suited to such a task. Get up, child. It’s my job to teach you. It’s time for your first lesson.”
Slowly, Belairus crawled out from beneath the tent and over to Fenrir’s log. “O all right. I’m still waking up. I hope i’ll understand.”
“This is a perfect time, child. Look and tell me what you see.” Fenrir points into the cinders.
Belairus thought to herself as she looked at the empty campfire. Was there anything she was missing? With a downcast expression, she thought the question became absurd. “What kind of game is this?” she wondered, not knowing, but it was not one she liked. “A burnt out fire.” Glancing up at Fenrir, she sees him smile.
He snapped at her, “Keep looking.”
However, the fire had been completely extinguished. Still, “It’s a fire pit.”
A snort escapes Fenrir. “Look past it.” he said.
The stone circle’s center turns dark like ink as Belairus watched it. Ash covered the ground until it was a black circle. Rotted things stared at her. They frighten her. “The dead!” she cried. “I see the dead!”
“These are old ones. Listen to those who have lived a long time Belairus. Their guidance is most sacred.” Fenrir commented.
A deep voice speaks out of the darkness, “The child has seen.”
Another whisper follows, “The child has seen.”
“The child has witnessed.”
There are more voices in the darkness. “The child is the witness.”
Belairus closed her eyes and shrieked. “I don’t want to hear them any longer!” she cried. “I don’t want to see them,” she yelled. As Fenrir strikes the ashes with his rod, a plume of dust flew into the air. Belairus opened her eyes to find the burned-out campfire. “I didn’t like that.”
Fenrir smirked. “When I saw the old ones for the first time, I was frightened. They are attracted to fires. They can’t show themselves without a source of power. Fire permits them to live among us.”
“But they have already died. The dead should stay with the dead,” she said as her chest rose and fell with every breath.
“It is sometimes necessary to bring the dead back to life in order to gain knowledge. Keep that in mind, Belairus. We get guidance from our ancestors in this way.” Fenrir stood up. “Lymric, what have you brought for us.” Belairus glanced at her father as he walked down the path, several water otters dangling from a stick attached to his shoulder.
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