Prologue: Joining with Darkness
I jumped backward just missing the sharpened blade swinging past my midsection. My eyes were focused on the dark face and curly black hair of my opponent. I had seen that move coming years before she stuck. “You can’t just swing wildly when you get tired Carasa. Fighting is about hiding your moves and control. I could see your strike long before you struck, and it was a poorly carried out mix of a lunge a crazy wild swing of the sword. Haven’t you been training for years?” I kept my eyes on her as I parried a true lunge for my heart. I pushed her blade in a sweeping C shaped defensive move opening taking advantage of how much she had opened herself up with her lunge. Before she could blink my sword was sitting at her neck.
“We’ve been fighting for four hours Dy! Can’t we just take a break?” I stared at her, wondering why she was tired even though I was tired, but she was my third partner today. “Fencing isn’t my specialty Dy, and you know that. I am better with the bow and the broadsword.” And she was better with the broadsword. She was one of the strongest women I knew, but she was slow, and she wasn’t the greatest fencer. She could fight of a large group with her two-handed broadsword any day, so I knew she couldn’t be as tired as she claimed.
“I’m not tired yet and you are stronger than I am!”
“Dy, you are tired. You just aren’t noticing it because you are too worried. Look at your arm. It’s shaking! Take a break. You don’t want to faint during the ceremony tomorrow.” Dark Lady, why did she have to mention it? Here I was trying to think about something else and she had to go and mention the ceremony.
I didn’t want to be a host. I wanted nothing more than to be a regular fighter. Why had the Lady of Darkness chosen me? If I didn’t think about it I might forget that tomorrow I would cease to exist.
“Tomorrow you will only have a year left till the dark lady takes you, Carasa.” If she had the nerve to remind me, then I had the right to remind her. I was tired, but I wanted to be so tired that I would just sleep through the ceremony and it would never happen. Everyone else might consider it a privilege… but I knew better. They weren’t loosing themselves.
“I know Dy, I know. Let’s get our armor off and we can go eat.” It was sensible. I didn’t want to be senseible. I wanted to escape, to see the city one last time. I wanted to visit my family and see Darin one last time. But I was a prisoner. I simply nodded my head. My tongue was too heavy to create words.
I pulled off my black hair out of the bun it was in and wiped the sweat that was threatening my eyes off. I walked with Carasa toward the armory where practice weapons and armor was stored in silence. Both of us were lost in our own thoughts.
When we got there she turned toward me, “Dy, I’m scared. I don’t want to be the host.”
I looked down at her and nodded, “So am I. It’s tomorrow Carasa. I’m terrified. Nothing terrifies me, but this… this make me so scarred I feel like I can’t think.
She nodded and began to take off her own practice armor. I hung the rapier I was using up with the other rapiers, and then I began to take off my own highly dented and worn practice armor for the last time. Tomorrow I would have beautiful black armor that would fit perfectly, but I would not be around to appreciate it. Tomorrow I would be someone completely different. Tomorrow… I didn’t want to think about it. My stomach was queasy. I needed to lie down. “You go on to dinner; I’m not feeling so well. I’m just going to lie down I think.”
Carasa nodded and left me. My eyes felt heavy with tears. It wasn’t sadness, but frustration. The feeling of being trapped and unable to take any course except the one I was being forced into. I ran my hands over the armor I was putting away, and then ran out of the room running for my own room. I yanked the door open and threw myself down on the bed, and I let the frustration overtake me and the tears came until I fell asleep.
“You look beautiful Dyrana!” I turned to look at the speaker, my friend Kyra, feeling the uncomfortable weight of the ceremonial black dress swishing around my feet.
“So do you Kyra. You look absolutely stunning. Maybe I should say glowing,” And she was beautiful. Pale golden locks were curled and pinned artfully on her head. Designs painted in white marked her face in interesting twisting spirals. But the most beautiful thing was the white dress. The top was simple and clung closely to her, but the skirt was full and seemed to just flow away from her, and it was all so white. So white and pure I swear she was glowing.
“Look at yourself in the mirror Dy. Look what they did to you. They took the always dirty fighter and made you into a princess of death! If I glow, you suck the light into you like a void!” I turned and looked at myself in the mirror again. My black hair fell straight down my back to my hips. I was olive skinned which was light colored for one of the Dark Lady’s followers. My brown eyes were framed by heavy black kohl, and my face was covered in similar swirling designs to Kyra’s but black. Even my lips were painted black. My own dress was a heavy black dress in the same style as Kyra’s dress, but it was a dull dank color compared to the shimmer of all color and light that was Kyra’s dress.
I was to become the host for the Lady of the Absence of Light and Kyra was to host the Lady of Light. Our bodies would host their immortal souls for eleven months, and when we were released we would be different. Kyra at least was almost guaranteed to still be living at least. The white ladies were all the old hosts, the women who healed and had no memories of who they were before they were hosts.
I had no such prospect though. There were no dark ladies, no survivors. They all died within months. Most of them were insane, and all of them had somehow managed to kill themselves. It was said to be a side effect of having the Lady of Death and War inhabiting your body to train her earthly children.
I turned back to look at Kyra, to see her so full of life one last time before I walked out in front of the women waiting for the ritual. “I’m going to die Kyra. One way or another I am going to die.”
“We all die someday. I am not going to remember anything Dy. I will be a stranger in my own body drifting through the courtyards of the temples looking only to heal. In truth, I will be just as dead. We have to go out there and face our fate bravely as the partners in healing and war that we were named at birth.” Kyra was always the one to give heartening speeches. She could lead armies into battle, except she couldn’t even hurt a fly. She was so sweet, so sure that the thirteen goddesses of light and the thirteen goddesses of darkness knew best. She believed in the power of the spectrum of light. I believed, but I wasn’t sure that the goddesses were infallible.
“Priestess of light and priestess of dark,” a voice was calling from the door, and I turned toward it with dread. It was one of the priestesses of the twins. At the middle of the spectrum were a twin goddess of light and a twin goddess of darkness.
“Yes priestess of the twins?” I heard Kyra’s voice answering at the same time. We both knew the rituals by heart now. We trained for four years from the day we were picked to hosts the Ladies. Everything had to be perfect on the choosing day. The same day I became a host the Ladies would choose their new students and the pair of girls that would host them four years from being chosen.
“The time is now. Are you ready young hosts?” I felt as if I were in a dream, a horrible nightmare that wouldn’t end.
“We are ready priestess. We have purified our bodies and spoken the sacred prayers,” I said the words without needing to think. I’d practiced them every morning for four years. The priestess turned and walked back out the door. Kyra and I followed silently into the gray temple that the twins shared. Four goddesses had temples. The rest simply had small shrines. The Lady of Light, The Lady of Darkness, and the twins were the most important goddesses. The others were considered lesser, goddesses of craft and fortune.
The doors of the temple swung open, and I could hear the crowds of women cheering. “The hosts have come out!” At this point I couldn’t tell who was speaking. I was in a haze; the cries were becoming one in the painful blinding light reflecting off the white walls of the temples into the temple courtyard. The only thing I could really stand to look at was the black roof, but even that was unbearable in the brightly lit courtyard.
I followed quietly and meekly to my appointed place to stand. My spot of doom. The place where I was willingly sticking out my head for the ax. Maybe I wasn’t about to be executed, but I felt like it. It felt surreal. Was it the end of the world, or just the end of my world; just the end of the world as I knew it?
The crowds became silent, the other priestesses watched us, the sacrificial victims, with fascination that showed their delight at not being one of the two women chosen to stand on the raised dais in the middle of the courtyard. In front of us stood the crowds backed by the white walls and a large black gate. Behind us and to the left and right stood the white walled temples with their black roofs, but most of all, was the profound silence that even the noises of the city couldn’t penetrate today. Today was considered one of the most sacred days of the city, and we were at the center of it.
"I am the Lady Azirageanlara, healer of the people, the pure mix of light." I saw my friend and partner, Kyra lift her white sleeved arms up to the sky, and light filtered down and filled her. Her long, curled, white blonde hair shot out around her head like a halo as the energy filled her. Peace and love filled Kyra's features, and once again I desperately wished I was not Dyrana, descendent of the absence of color. I wished I could move and run away instead of accepting my fate.
There were twenty-six letters of the alphabet, one for each goddess of the spectrum. They were the breakup of light as less and less light filtered through, until you reached the absence of light, the darkness, the black instinctual warrior hearts and their rationalizing death rather than the rational power of healing and the instinct of love in the pure mix of color that was white. We represented the two opposite sides, and we were partners.
The spectrum of light slowly filled, the two twin goddesses in the middle, the power sweeping through, and then it reached me. I raised my hands to the sky, my thick black dress pulling against me, and shouted out against the power filling me, "I am the Lady Zedigrivikonola! I am the warrior, the absence of Light!"
I felt her power fill me, and I screamed at the raw pain. The Dark Lady’s touch destroyed love. Her touch burned me; it hurt so much that I couldn’t hang onto my surroundings. I couldn’t stand the loss. My body screamed and rippled in the pain of her entering me, taking over me, and abruptly it shut off.
I could see, but she moved my eyes. I could feel, but she controlled my movements, and suddenly I understood why the black ladies went insane; I could feel her bleak and yet horrid feelings. I could feel her love of death, of shadows, and assassins. I could understand how she thought, I understood the tactics of the battle field, but lost all caring to the love of the battle rage, the insanity of instinctual killing.
I drew my mind back from her, walled myself off, and lost feeling and sight. I would be panting if I could, but I couldn't. I was captive in my own mind. "If you combine with me, your mind will stay sane." A voice whispered into me. It was a voice that carried the slipperiness of shadows, the monotonous tone of someone who killed too many people and didn’t care.
If I joined with her, I would lose myself to her killing soul, and if I stayed in my walled room, I would lose myself to the insanity of being held within oneself. Either way, I would end insane.
I remembered my mother fingering her sword and smiling up at my father. She was telling a story from her year of training with the black goddess. Her healing partner sat across the room with her husband and her daughter who was my age. Our families had a long history of partnering in light and dark. Of course, light and dark never interbred for fear of what would be produced. My father came from a mother who came from a long line of dark. Men did not mess with the mysteries of the light goddesses, but were instead brought up in the religion of the men. I did not know what it entailed, but when they came out of their own world, they chose a woman of their bloodline, and married her. Once married, a woman could tell of her year, but she could not divulge the mysteries at the center. A man never spoke of his year.
My mother told a story about the day she was chosen to train with the Dark Lady and become a fighter. She spoke of how the host of the black lady screamed, and then suddenly stopped. The entire line of goddesses stood between the two women, and the twins raised their hands. The black lady and the white both called out two different names at the same time. These two were partnered for life. My mother said she and her partner, Sakil, were the second pair called.
The memory swooped away, and I could remember asking my mother about life after the temple. All my mother would tell me was that she and Sakil stayed outside of the city of gods and goddesses for four years, and when they got back, they had husbands waiting to claim them. I remember asking my mother if love was a choice in the relationship, for my mother often spoke about loving my father. My mother looked at me, almost confused, and replied with words I would remember forever, "Love develops as the goddesses require, and we humans are not true enough to know love. Trust in the men's gods, and our goddesses, and you can never go wrong. Never allow your own feelings to get in the way of serving the goddesses. The twins will fill you with love once a man has put a claim to your soul."
It was through this that I learned that love was an emotion that grew from living with someone. People who were not married might lust after one another, but there was no love unless the gods and goddesses decreed it. To lust after someone was an evil sin, and if it was found out, you would be sentenced to ten years of hard labor for the city to drive out your sinful feelings. Therefore I never spoke to anyone about the neighbor boy, Darin.
My mind moved into anther memory. He had dark black hair and warm brown eyes. His family was descended through the Absence of Light bloodlines. I probably shouldn't have ever met him, but he came climbing into my favorite place to think and practice on the roof of my house. He jumped up so quick I didn’t scream out of shock. He stood staring at me, about my age, black curls framing a light brown face with warm brown eyes open wide in shock. He stopped, struggling to speak to say something.
“What are you doing on my roof?” It came out almost as a shriek, but a quiet shriek. I didn’t want anyone finding me on the roof. Anyways, I was a warrior and I could deal with this invader myself.
“Umm, your roof? Uhh, sorry. Can I stay a little while? I… umm, well I kind of played a small prank on my partner… I might have put a frog in his bed, and he might have squished it.” He rubbed his foot into the dirt on the roof and his face looked so guilty for such a small crime; I couldn’t help but laugh.
I managed to control my laugh at his glare, “and you think your partner would come hunting you?”
“No… My partner is too nice. No, my parents are mad at me for taking advantage of his good nature. I want to just give them a little time for their tempers to cool off.” He was still glaring at me, daring me to laugh again.
If I knew anything about warrior parents they just got angrier the longer you hid, “Are you not a warrior? Stand up proud and take your punishment like one. Your parents will only getter madder.”
“What do you know about punishments?” His pride showed clearly as he stood straighter, as if he was older than me.
“I know I am always doing something wrong, but when my parents catch me I take the punishment then rather than later when they have time to stew on it and think up a better punishment. The quicker you are the quicker they have to think up the punishment and it’s normally something like a simple spanking or sitting in a corner. And we are warriors. We never run from anything. Running and hiding is cowardice.” I would never hide. I just liked some alone time sometimes.
“I’m not a coward! You take that back you… you… you crafter.”
“I’m not a crafter! I’m going to be a warrior, one of the best!”
“Well I’m not a coward!”
He stopped short of saying something, unable to think of a response before finally, “Fine! I’ll prove it; I’ll go face my father’s sword! Is that what you want?”
“You can come back here after you’ve proven you’re not a coward. This roof is only for brave warriors.” I wasn’t sure why I said that. Warriors weren’t friendly with people who weren’t their partners. We played with the other warrior children, but only games of war.
But he did come back. He came back with bruises from a belt, but nothing worse. On that roof we played games of fighting and we talked.
I enjoyed having a friend other than Kyra, so I never told anyone about my secret friend, especially after my mother explained lust and love. I didn't know if he was a friend, or if I lusted after him and I would be sentenced to labor if they found me out. I know that I started to feel more before I turned thirteen and was sent to the ceremony of the year for the first time.
I could remember how anxious and giddy Kyra and I were. It was our first choosing ceremony, and we prayed we would be chosen our first year. We both jumped when the first Lady's name was called, and watched in awe as the black nothingness came out of the sky and filled the last Lady. We waited with our hands interlocked in fear and excitement. The crowd dwindled, and then we were called. I heard my name called by the black lady interlocked with the white lady calling Kyra. At first I was overjoyed as I released Kyra's hand and walk toward the black lady, but then I realized with growing horror that we were the last ones called. The black lady and white lady turned and broke the line dismissing the rest of the ladies. Four years from that day, we would be called upon to be hosts of the ladies.
The first year we were treated like normal chosen, except we were not allowed to see our family, and we had to repeat the ritual words of the choosing ceremony every morning. I would not see Darin, and I would not get to see my little sister and little brother grow up. I remember hearing that my mother was hysterical when she learned we were chosen as hosts. She demanded to see me, but she was denied because the priestesses were always afraid of relatives trying to steal chosen hosts away. Priestesses were women never chosen by a husband. Kyra and I were trained in the secrets of the Priestesses, because the hosts were the only Priestesses of the two extremes, mix of all light, and absence of light.
Not much that first year went into the Priestess training; that came with the second year. Throughout all the years we had to stay in shape for the goddesses that would one day inhabit us and leave us broken husks. Starting in the second year we had to learn to say the ladies names. Every day we would go to our respective shrine, and chant the Lady's name three times, promising ourselves every morning to the Lady that would one day inhabit us.
I wanted to go out and become a renowned mercenary, but instead I was stuck in the Priestesses compound for four years. And after those four years, my mind would shy away from what was to come, but it was here. One year of no control, and then I would be left a wreck in the compound for the rest of my life.
"Become one with me, and you will not end up a wreck. This is my last offer." It was that horrid voice again. It was the Lady's voice.
Become one, did she mean I had to combine my mind with her? Did I have to give up myself to remain sane once she left me? "Yes, I will separate you back out once I leave, and you will still be sane, except you will also have the knowledge of my years, and an echo of the power that inhabited your body."
Did I want to give myself entirely to war, to being uncompassionate? I opened a peek hole from my mind so I could see, and I looked out just as the last pair was called. I saw the blood drain from the face of the girl in a black dress. The other girl was turned away from me, but I had feeling she had a similar reaction. In fact, I knew she did when she fainted right there, and a priestess of the twins rushed out to pick her up. The last glance I saw of the chosen girl in black was a hard determined look, and then the Lady turned away. I could join with the Lady and not know that I had no control. I would know her thoughts, and we would act as one.
'What must I do?' I tried to think loudly at her. I heard a slight laugh, and then, "I can hear you without you needing to think at me. Relax. Allow yourself to meld with me, and open yourself up. I will complete the combination."
It was a strange, almost peaceful feeling that came over me as the wall disappeared, and the wall that kept me separate from the new presence in my mind was shredded. I could see its destruction, but I felt as if this was right. I felt that this was the truth. The first thing I knew was that this was new. We had never tried this before, but we felt that we must repay the wrong done to the person that was chosen for host. Most years we chose children that would be priestesses anyway. Four human years ago we had no unclaimed ones to choose from, so we chose the pair with the best extremes, but we knew this girl had someone who was already chosen for her. This girl who was a part of us, who thought with us. We could feel her memories, and understood that she used to love, but would never love again. The memory of him was not gone, but the feelings were wiped away by the fact of our nature.
A thought came of the home we left to spend our time training the girls who served in our name. Our home was beautiful and shifted as we wanted. We could create whatever we wanted to entertain ourselves, and our light, which was none, followed us everywhere. We were not held to this disgusting way of thinking where one could only think one thing at once. Our thoughts could not envelope the world and at the same time build a place of fighting to entertain ourselves.
We also had a new perspective though, the half that was Dyrana. Her memories of only dealing with this form of thought were almost helpful. We turned and looked over our class. We had two naturally gifted. One was the girl we chose for host in four years. The other was the first girl we chose. The first girl would be ready when we left, but the others would have to struggle to be ready by then. They might go out unprepared. Some would fall selling themselves as mercenaries, and they would come to the realm that we ruled with the darker sisters. The twins would not serve on the side of dark or light. They sat in the middle and even had their own realm for their priestesses and those that truly followed the middle path.
We disliked the twins, though they were also our sisters. They thought they knew everything, and that they were above us. We hated their superior attitude, and we hated the way they tried to rule over us. We ruled our end of the spectrum, and how dare they try to interfere with our ways. We were the essence of fighting and the absence of love. They were not like us, and therefore they should not have tried to hold sway over us.
They thought that we should love the man that represented the absence of light, but we had an agreement of understanding. Neither of us could love, but we worked together to rule our end of the spectrum. We were never love though. From what we understood, he planned to take the man that loved us under his tutelage. He planned to make it so this man could live and understand what happened to us.
We forced our thoughts away from him, and the world we left to come here. It was time for us to begin instructing the girls. We called out to the girls, "Do not bother to eat. All will change into the clothing the sisters provide. We will begin strengthening your bodies today in the courtyard. If you cannot keep up, you are expected to practice in any spare second you have so that you will be ready. If you are not ready by the time We leave, you will be coming to the dark realm sooner than the rest of your year mates."
Every year we said the same thing as we watched the girls start to walk off. Every year we watched them run to change as soon as we announced that. For some reason they were all scared of coming to our realm. It seemed a human trait to fear death. It was a strange thing with these humans.
We made our way to the room where we stayed every year. The petty human priestesses scurried around bowing to us as we passed. At our room, we used our magic to change out of the ceremonial dress and into our armor, the clothing of the Goddess of the Absence of Light.