Sphene watched the flames from the fireplace dance and swore she could feel them kissing her skin. She shivered at the wind that ran through the room, but would not dare get closer. She preferred to keep her distance. Yet, she could not bring herself to look away.
A voice spoke from behind her but she could not make it out. She turned around to face the knight at the door. “Pardon?”
The knight took off her helmet, “They’re nice. The painting on your arm.”
Sphene nodded, “Thank you.”
“How long did it take?” The knight asked, “If you don’t mind me asking.”
Sphene ran her fingers through the bare spaces between the lines of ink. Each one connected to the next. They painted silhouettes of wolves and symbols only a few could wear and less could read. The paint stained her body like a second skin. It appeared she had been born with that intricate pattern on her arm. “I haven’t slept in a while, if that’s what you’re asking.” She replied, “And if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like a bit of quiet.”
She bowed her head and let her thick hair cover her face, “I apologize, your highness.” Sphene nodded once more and sat back on the chair. She closed her eyes for a moment. “I’m just a bit nervous.” The knight interjected.
Sphene opened her eyes and turned to her, “What do you have to be nervous for when all you are doing tonight is guarding my door? If anyone should be nervous here, it would be me.”
The knight looked down. She bit on her tongue and her fingers jittered. Sphene could tell she wasn’t sure whether to answer or not, but she would anyway. She didn’t seem one to be able to hold her tongue too long.
“My brother and I are orphans of the war.” The knight explained, “When our parents died, we didn’t exactly feel grief. But what happened was that we realized something. People talk about how the war has been due to start for so long but, for us, it already started. I guess we realized how present this feud was. And today you, my princess, are blessing these warriors and sending them off to end the war. It doesn’t feel real yet. This is soon going to be over and we’re finally going to be free of all of it.”
Sphene listened silently. She grabbed the stone on her necklace and pulled on it. “That’s a nice thought.” She murmured.
There was a knock on the door. The knight placed her helmet back on and stood up straight against the wall. “Come on in.” Sphene called.
Queen Lorra stepped in, her left arm covered in the same details as the one on her daughter’s arm. A practitioner followed her close behind.
“It’s time to go down, my dear.” Queen Lorra stated. She turned to the knight, “Reiver, you’re dismissed.” She replied something inaudible and bowed her head. “Come on, now.” Sphene took a look at the fire and shivered with the cold. Perhaps it was the start of the end.
The ceremony was quite small. At least it seemed so to Sphene. Only six rows of people had shown up. Most of them she recognized. The first few rows were filled with familiar faces general and ambassadors that had visited the palace at one point or another. After that, some knights and a few peasants. Sphene assumed that they were acquaintances of the champions. No family had shown up. It didn’t surprise Sphene; she was quite aware of their deaths.
When the doors of the temple opened, Sphene’s thoughts shushed. Petra’s hair was held back in a delicate braid. The brown gown hung over her body like a soft veil, a corset pinching on her waist. The paintings on her left arm were the same as Sphene’s. She looked so different from how Sphene remembered her cousin.
Then stepped in a woman Sphene recognized in an instant. The champion of the Kayler Realm. Her dark curls towered her head like a crown. A long, yellow dress fell upon her, leaving only the top of her chest exposed. On her dark exposed skin, red paint outlined the mane of a lion.
Behind her came a man, the champion of the Meiner Realm. A green and silver tunic covered his body. On his forehead, yellow paint created a tree with leaves falling onto his cheeks.
The three champions stepped down the aisle. The woman knelt first, then the man, and in the middle Petra. The practitioner stood behind the Queen. He opened a golden book and recited the text. It was a dialect older than time itself, but Sphene could understand every word as if she had heard them before.
“Son of Tancrya and Casentos, daughter of Amios and Fatia, daughter of Fieos and Virtia,” he ended, “it is now your turn to stop the war that our ancestors started.” He closed the book.
Queen Lorra drew a sword from her side. It was a delicate sword with detailed carvings of swirls and holy symbols on the handle. Sphene did the same and stayed close to her mother’s side. “Hetene Janel, daughter of the Gods, Mohet Sayl, son of the Gods,” The Queen started, “You are about to embark on a most dangerous quest, one that will bring peace to the kingdom after many years of war. The perils are many but you will bring honor and safety to people of Sycardia will be eternally grateful. Are you willing to accept this quest?”
“I am,” The two echoed.
“Are you willing to give up your life fighting for your home, the Kingdom of Sycardia?”
“Will you fight with honor, integrity, bravery, loyalty, and strength?”
Queen Lorra tapped the edge of the sword on Hetene’s head. Sphene mimicked her mother and did the same with Mohet.
“Hetene Janel,” Queen Lorra laid her sword over her palms, “Do you accept becoming the Protector of Sycardia?”
Hetene looked at the sword and smiled, “I do.” She grabbed the sword and held the tip pressed against the ground.
Sphene placed the sword on her hands. “Mohet Sayl, do you you accept becoming the Protector of Sycardia?” Queen Lorra asked.
“I do.” He nodded, grabbed the sword, and pressed the tip onto the ground.
Queen Lorra drew a second sword from her side. “Petra Lupus, daughter of the Gods, descendant of Wiccan” she recited, “You are about to embark…” As Queen Lorra continued with the oath, Sphene looked down at Petra. Petra raised an eyebrow as she twitched her nose. Hetene seemed to do the same.
Queen Lorra’s words faded. She too stopped and stared into space as if the presence of a soul had caught her attention. Sphene was the last to notice the smell, the black scent of flames and ash. The sound began like a soft whisper in the wind. In a moment, it grew. The whispers became chants and the chants became screams. They were screams of terror.
Golden flames consumed the door of the temple. Knights in armors black like smoke raided into the building, the inscription of a dragon on their chest plates. Their swords were already drenched in blood.
“Get them out of here!” Mohet yelled as he charged for the black knights. Hetene and Petra followed him, swords drawn and sweat already running down their foreheads. Queen Lorra grasped Sphene’s hand and pulled her behind a bench. A black knight charged at Sphene and swung his sword at her. Sphene closed her eyes. The sound of metals clashing filled her ears.
“Go.” Reiver yelled as she pushed the blade back with his sword. Sphene clenched her mother’s hand. She could barely breathe. She could not stop shaking. Lorra pulled on her and forced her to walk. The smoke blinded them as they ran out of the building. “Lorra,” she heard Petra’s voice calling, “over here!” Queen Lorra followed the voice until daylight hit her eyes.
The sky was filled with smoke. Sphene wiped away the tears the grey smoke had forced onto her eyes. Golden flames flooded the blood stained streets. Each cry of terror sent a chill through Sphene’s skin that refused to stop. Black knights killed peasants by the dozen.
Petra appeared between the chaos, fighting off three knights at a time and moving on to the next trio. “Follow me.” Petra called. Queen Lorra tugged Sphene through the marketplace, running behind Petra. They rushed through the sea of desperate, scared peasants, clinging on to each other with all their strength.
Petra pointe her black sword at a small rock house. “Go in there,” she ordered, “it’s safe.” Queen Lorra sprinted toward the small house, Sphene trying to keep up. Sphene tumbled over her own feet, landing on the blood filled ground. Queen Lorra stopped for an instant at the lack of her daughter’s hand. “Keep going!” Petra yelled as she pulled Sphene back onto her feet. Queen Lorra obeyed and ran to the small house. She collapsed out of breath just as she reached the doorway.
Petra pushed Sphene through the crowd until they reached the small house. Inside, the stench of sweat was terrible. At least twenty people hid in the small space. The walls were covered in a dark mixture of blood and mud. Sphene stood paralyzed at the door. She could not force herself to move.
“What are you waiting for?” Petra yelled “Get insi-” Petra spat out blood. An arrow stabbed her neck, the bloodied tip peeking out of her skin from the other side. Blue blood covered the arrow. Petra collapsed onto the floor, eyes wide open.
Sphene stumbled back in shock. Her hand grasped the door and pulled it closed. In the darkness, Sphene could only hear sobs. She sat on the floor and covered her face with her hands, counting each moment that went by. Her body trembled. Not one of her experiences outside the palace walls had been pleasant. She had a hard time remembering one where there wasn’t death.