Darkest Before Dawn
Lesdassa had always thought that the Church was beautiful. The main part of it was made from pure white stone imported from the Tenzu Pass in Seera, and it was decorated with sea glass and gold from Iria’s ports. It was art worthy of the Goddess herself, and she felt blessed to be allowed to live within it. The Priestesses quarters were not made out of stone but instead out of a light wood taken from the forests lining Aren’s rivers. Still, they did nothing to take away from the grandeur of the Church or the purity of its brightness and light.
The brightness felt just a little harsher this morning than it normally did.
The well-kept leather in her hands hummed with magick as she secured it to her arm. It was a simple spell, though a useful one, and it could very well save her life today. Shield spells were very common to find, especially in the armor used by the Church. There were other tools that they could use that were enchanted with other spells - fire, light-weight, and healing, among others - but those usually required stronger magick than an ordinary person could use or maintain, so it was usually the First Priestesses or High Priestess who used those. As only a Third Priestess, Lesdassa got the standard armor, and any additional spells on it she would have to cast herself.
A knock on her door broke her from her thoughts, the sound slightly jarring in the still quiet before dawn. She looked over just as the door opened just far enough for her to see the fiery red hair of her friend Kaina, a Third Priestess like herself.
“Hi,” she said quietly, opening the door a little further. “Can I come in?” She looked uncertain, and Lesdassa figured that the look on her face must have been grimmer than she realized. Realizing that Kaina still needed a response, she nodded, and her friend came into the room while shutting the door behind her. She took a seat on the bed and stilled Lesdassa’s hands on the leather vambrace she was struggling to knot properly.
“Here, let me.” Kaina’s fingers were deft as she rapidly undid the lacing then redid it, much neater than Lesdassa’s own efforts and visibly more secure. Lesdassa sighed, feeling some of her tension drain at turning over the task to her friend.
“Thank you,” she said softly, the corners of her mouth quirked down slightly. “I never have been able to get the hang of these. The laces get so confusing all on their own, much less attempting them one-handed.”
“It’s funny how you can master magicks in weeks that it takes most months to learn, and yet you struggle when it comes to tying a proper knot.” Kaina released her arm and gestured for the other one, to which Lesdassa easily complied. “But, I suppose that’s why you have me.”
“I’m glad I do.” At her quiet but genuine comment, Kaina paused, glancing up. Lesdassa met her green eyes steadily, and after a moment, Kaina’s lips twitched into a brief smile as she returned to her task.
“Good. Now, I originally came here to help you with this, because in my all-knowing glory I knew you would need it,” she said, tone teasing as she ignored Lesdassa rolling her eyes, “but I could tell that there’s something else that’s wrong from the moment I walked in. Are you worried about the battle?”
There was a moment of silence before Lesdassa’s slow response came.
“In a sense,” she replied, before hesitating to gather her thoughts. “It’s not so much the battle itself. As you’ve probably heard from the rumors about the incident when I was a child, I’m not exactly a stranger to violence. It’s more the people we will be facing rather than what I will be expected to do.”
She flicked her eyes up from the blanket to see how Kaina had taken the news. To her surprise, the other girl had already finished with the second vambrace, and was now simply holding her hand as she quietly listened, watching her intently.
“Is it because they will primarily be teenagers and children that we will be fighting?” Kaina’s voice held no judgement, merely curiosity, but even still Lesdassa shook her head.
“No. Well, partially, but not really.” She sighed heavily, then made herself continue. She owed it to Kaina after everything to explain properly. “Back when I was a child, I befriended a boy and his sister. They were both Rats, from one of Aren’s border cities, Ura. They had been waiting in the food deliverance line, and their names were Rafa and Elyra.”
“What happened?” Kaina asked. Lesdassa wasn’t surprised that she had picked up the fact that something had gone wrong. The other girl was smart, and she had been speaking in the past tense about both the siblings and their friendship.
“One day Elyra got sick, and she just wasn’t getting better.” Even after all these years, just saying the girl’s name sent a pang through her chest, and her free hand clenched in the blanket on the bed. “Rafa took her to the Church, to get help from our healers, but . . .”
Her voice trailed off. The healers in the Church of the Sun were known all across Ryzin for their skill. Lesdassa had seen them work miracles, reattaching limbs, curing blindness, even saving stillborn babies. But, each time they did it was with the blessing of the Goddess. They had never tried to save someone who did not get Her approval, never lifted a finger.
“She didn’t get Leletha’s approval, did she?” Kaina asked quietly, her grip on Lesdassa’s hand tightening slightly in sympathy as Lesdassa shook her head.
“No,” she whispered, closing her eyes. “She didn’t. Rafa was furious, he tried everything to make the healers change their minds, but all they told him was that it was not the will of the Goddess so they could do nothing. When Elyra finally passed, Rafa declared he was turning his back on the Church, and that he was going to bring it down if it was the last thing he did.”
Kaina inhaled sharply at that. Turning your back on the Church was often enough to get a person banished from Eguzkia, if not from Aren. Openly declaring what was essentially war on the Church was nothing less than a death sentence.
“Is he crazy? Why would he do something like that?” Kaina’s tone was incredulous, her eyes wide as she tried to figure out what had possessed the boy to make such a bold declaration. Lesdassa shrugged slightly, not really having a response.
“I’m not sure why he decided to declare war on the Church, but I do know that he has since found a lot of support. He’s the one who is leading the Rebellion, Kaina,” she said, her voice becoming slightly desperate. “Just yesterday he asked to meet me. He looked different, his eyes . . . He said that from now on we’re enemies, so I shouldn’t expect him to hold back during the battle today.”
“Les . . .” Kaina used her hold on Lesdassa’s hand to pull her into a hug. Lesdassa clung to her, forcing her eyes to stay dry. It was more of a struggle than she had anticipated. Cutting ties with Rafa had hurt more than she had anticipated.
“I just don’t understand what went wrong,” she whispered, tightening her arms around her friend. “We used to be such good friends, and now we might have to fight to the death today. Why would he do this? What happened to Elyra is horrible, but why can’t he understand that healing her was not part of Leletha’s plan? Why go against the Church?”
“The Goddess is great and good,” Kaina began slowly, after a moment of silence. “However, many forget that as beautiful as the sun is, it can be monstrous as well. I hold no illusions that the Church is far from perfect, Lesdassa.” Lesdassa stiffened in response, and almost pulled away before Kaina continued, giving her pause.
“What is good for one person can be terrible for another. Because of that, I understand why they are rebelling, even if I do not agree with it.” Here, Kaina’s voice turned sad and a little too knowing. Lesdassa was abruptly reminded that Kaina hadn’t been born into the Church like herself, and for the first time wondered if there was more to this than mere sympathy. “The Rats have suffered worst of all in this city; they know fear and hunger better than anyone. They are also very familiar with death, living in constant fear of it and seeing it all around them daily.”
She pulled back, hands sliding down Lesdassa’s arms until she was holding her hands again. She looked older in that moment, more worn than Lesdassa had ever seen her before. Kaina heaved a sigh, turning to glance out the window where the sky was beginning to get the faintest hints of grey.
“I am not surprised that they chose to rebel,” she said solemnly, “it was really only a matter of time. However, no matter how much I sympathize with them, my loyalty is to the Church. I trust in Leletha, and in Her plan for us all. I will fight for it to the death if I have to. Will you?”
As Kaina turned back to look at her, Lesdassa heard all the questions contained within those two words. Will you be able to fight your friend? Will you give everything for the Church? Will you be okay? Will you be ready? She stayed silent for a moment, mulling over everything.
“Yes,” she finally said, voice soft before growing stronger. “Yes, I will.” At that, Kaina smiled, the weariness from before replaced with a spark that Lesdassa had only ever seen in training, and a thrum of anticipation began to grow in the back of her mind as she was suddenly reminded that the battle was nearly upon them.
“Good,” Kaina said simply. The sudden toll of a bell rang through the air, soon joined by another and another. The sound seemed almost too peaceful for what was about to take place, and yet it seemed oddly fitting. Kaina glanced out the window again, to where the sky was noticeably brighter. “There are the dawn bells. We’d better get going, it’s almost time.”
“Yes,” Lesdassa said, taking the hand that Kaina offered and standing beside her, not releasing her hand just yet as it was a grounding pressure. Kaina looked like she was about to start walking when she paused, turning back towards Lesdassa with a strangely hesitant look on her face. She seemed to take a deep breath, then locked eyes with Lesdassa and raised their clasped hands to her lips, pressing them against her skin.
“Just in case,” she whispered, looking some combination of defiant and afraid as she waited for Lesdassa’s response. Lesdassa could feel her cheeks heating up as she kept her eyes locked with Kaina’s. After a moment, she tightened her grip on Kaina’s hand, causing the other girl to blink in surprise.
“Just in case,” she agreed. Kaina’s eyes lit up, and there was a small smile on her face as she pulled Lesdassa out of the room towards the Church courtyard where the others would be waiting. Outside the window a sliver of sun had appeared over the horizon, spilling light over the world as the bells stopped ringing. It was time.