It had to be a trick of the wind. Thea couldn’t have heard what she thought she heard. She closed her eyes, pressing her fingers against the rock behind her, listening. The Godsmen’s visit was months away. No one else had come in two years. No one dared, not after the last two who ventured here ended up dead – one of them by her own hand, a horror that still lived inside her, rising and falling like the tide, often catching her unawares.
Whack. There was no mistaking it this time – faint, but different from the rhythm of the ocean – the unmistakable slap of oars against the water. She crawled to the edge of the small outcropping before peering twenty feet below to where the waves pounded against the cliff, showering her face with a cold, salty mist. Nothing. She raised her eyes, straining to see something amid the rise and fall of the sea, but fog hung over the water, hiding everything from view.
On a clear day, the distant shore stretched from north to south in an arc around the small island where she’d lived her entire eighteen years. On those days, Thea used to climb down the narrow path cut into the vertical rock and gaze across the waves at the three castles that dotted the landscape, imagining life on the mainland – the landscapes, the architecture, the people…her mother. But that was before. Now when she considered the castles, thoughts of childish fantasies were gone. She’d learned what people were capable of. What she was capable of.
She rubbed her hands over her face, keeping her eyes focused in what she thought was the direction of the sound, waiting. A few minutes later, a small boat cut through the mist, and her palms slipped, scraping against the loose gravel. She’d rarely seen people from the mainland before – a fact that made all of this even harder to believe. She closed her eyes in a silent prayer to the Gods and edged into the safety of the shadows before considering the four people below her.
The first man held the oars and was obviously a servant. Her gaze focused on the other occupants, a woman and two men. They all wore the vibrant, colorful clothing of the mainland, more tailored than her own white dress, which was designed for ease of movement and practicality rather than style. The woman sat erect, proud, her face staring straight ahead. But her hands were clasped, and when she glanced up at the looming cliff, her eyes widened in unmistakable fear. Beside the woman, a silver-haired man lounged as if he were bored, as if the prospect of the Island, and the Temple, didn’t give him a second thought.
Then there was the last man. He was much younger than the other two – closer to Thea’s own age. His elbows rested on his knees, and at first glance he looked relaxed. Until she saw his eyes. They darted back and forth, scanning the cliff face ahead of him. Not, she thought, out of fear, but caution. As if he didn’t want to be here.
She stared down at him, her emotions a confusing mixture of fascination and alarm. She understood the woman’s fear. The second man was either ignorant or stupid. But the young man was different. Of everyone, he was the one who could pose a threat, the one who could end up…like the others.
The boat approached the natural stone arch that was the only way on or off the Island. It extended from the cliff, once a part of it, now carved away by the sea until only a few feet thick. She leaned forward, watching the boat disappear into the cavern. Then she scrambled up the cliff side as fast as she could.
Once she reached the top, she ran. The soles of her feet burned as they slapped against the stone, but she ignored it, pushing herself even harder. She had to know why they were here, why anyone had dared come. She had to make sure nothing happened to anyone.
The Temple grew larger in the distance. Its gray stone, just like the land around it, made it appear as if the earth had spit it out whole. Only the single spire that cut through the sky looked unnatural. She glanced towards the path from the caves but couldn’t see the mainlanders and hoped they were still climbing the steep, winding trail that led to the surface. Her feet were numb, her hands scratched and bruised, but she still didn’t stop. She’d felt pain before.
A few minutes later, she burst through the kitchen door at a full run.
“Are they here?” No answer, only silent, surprised faces. “Are they here?” she demanded again, torn between impatience and frustration. “The mainlanders?”
“Lady Thea, what are you talking about?” Gaia, the temple cook, thrust a glass of water at her, the wrinkles around her eyes creased in confusion.
Thea drained the glass in one gulp before turning to the woman who’d practically raised her. “There’s a boat. Four mainlanders.”
Everyone stood open mouthed, frozen in shock, until someone dropped a pan. It clanged against the floor and the sound echoed, as if in warning.
Gaia managed her composure first, pulling herself up to her full five feet. “You must be mistaken. No one comes here. Not anymore.”
Her eyes locked with Gaia’s. “Apparently, they do now.”
“I’ll find the Patera.” Gaia’s voice only shook the slightest bit. “You go change.”
Thea glanced down to see her dress covered in dust and ripped at the hem. Then she did what she’d done a lot of that day. She ran.
A few minutes later, in a clean, white dress and with her hair freshly brushed, she spotted the Patera waiting silently outside the large double doors that led to the Temple’s reception room. His own white robes were freshly pressed, and his small black pendant of Dynami, God of Power, hung around his neck. He’d worn it ever since she could remember.
“Ah, Thea, my dear.” He held out his hands and smiled.
He must have been handsome in his youth, with his wide shoulders and fine, aristocratic features. He was still very distinguished, his white hair combed away from his face, his eyes as sharp as ever, and with wrinkles that instead of making him look old, told a story of kindness and dedication to the Gods. He was the Patera, Father of the Temple, but he was more to her – he’d taught her everything she knew.
“How can you smile?” she asked. “There are people here.” She spread her arms wide and motioned to the rock walls around them. “Here.”
He chuckled. “I know.
She grabbed his arm. “It can’t be like last time.” The tremor in her voice was nothing compared to the quaking inside. “I can’t— No one can die.”
“Don’t worry, my dear.” He placed a comforting hand on the side of her face. “The Gods aren’t angry.”
She frowned. “I’m not just worried about the mainlanders. What about you?”
“I have you to protect me.”
“I was lucky last time.” She nodded to his side. “You don’t have your sword.”
He laughed, a soft rolling sound that didn’t match her caution. “No, but may I point out that neither do you.”
She flushed. “I thought it might not make the right impression. But I have two knives strapped to my arms and another at my ankle.”
A hint of pride entered his eyes. “Don’t worry, Thea. They’re not going to hurt anyone. Not here.”
“You thought that last time.”
He pulled her into a hug, and she felt calm for the first time since she’d heard the boat. “This is different. In fact, I’ve been expecting it.”
“And you didn’t tell me?” She stepped away. “Who are they? What do they—”
“Thea.” His voice was barely more than a whisper, and there was something there, a hint of sadness or pride, that made her feel as cold as the stone beneath her. “It’s time.”
Her heart shuddered to a stop and then raced. Time. The time she’d trained for her entire life. All the lessons, all the practice. Her fingers unconsciously traced a scar on her palm. All the pain. Everything the Patera had prepared her for.
Sweat beaded on her hands and she rubbed them against her dress. What if she wasn’t ready? What if she disappointed the Gods?
What if she failed?
How much destruction would there be? How much death?
She felt the color drain from her face and leaned against the wall as life as she’d known it shifted.
“Patera?” One of the Adherents stepped into the hall. “They’re waiting.”
The Patera nodded and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Ready?”
All her training told her “yes.” But a part of her, perhaps larger than she would have liked, wasn’t as sure.