Prologue

962 B.C.

Lady Ziba of the Temple of Tehran donned the sacrificial white robes with a heavy heart. The cold, stone walls around her burned through the many layers of silk she wore as she waited patiently for dawn to rise over the miles of desert sand laid out before her. Outside her cell’s window, sand blew in the warm breeze and kissed her lightly on the cheek, the only warmth of comfort she had felt in days. It didn’t linger, just like all the other fleeting joys in her life.

Her mass of alien blonde curls cascaded down her back, organized for the occasion with priceless gem pins and gold combs, despite the dank dungeon she had spent the last three days in.

She had prayed to her patron goddess, Kurshid of the sun, for the entirety of her stay in the prison, pleading desperately for help, but it never came. Now, the only option she still possessed was to wait.

They came to retrieve her when the faintest hint of pink began to paint the horizon. Fatigue had washed all color from Ziba’s alabaster skin and her blue eyes were rimmed with red but she held her head high as she strode toward the stairs between two of her sister’s priests. She felt the burn of the scratchy twine against the delicate flesh of her wrists, but she didn’t let them see any crack in her disciplined face. Nevertheless, it brought on a new flush of shame; in her life, she would never have imagined being in this position.

Her head fell of its own accord, her body having abruptly lost all the strength it had mustered to stand. This was the third morning now that she had gone without food while she fasted for the ceremony, per her sister’s demand.

“My lady,” a quiet voice murmured beside her, catching the remnants of her focus. Those words were so agonizingly familiar that it ached in her heart to realize that it was not in the context or the deep timber she so desperately desired. Her love and lordship had not come to see her. Her love and lordship would not come to see her. As she came to this comprehension, again, a hand, much smaller than the one she wanted to see, reached out to hold a bronze goblet before her face.

She took it obediently, studying the water through the dark for a split second before she put her lips to the shimmering cup. She was so thirsty. She drank the water under the scrutinizing gaze of the priests, but, in truth, her most recent revelation had made her sick to her stomach. Nausea roiled within her.

“Thank you, Lord Hosrael,” Ziba replied graciously, emptying the goblet and returning it to the priest. He nodded in answer and the group ascended the stairs, each priest grasping the tops of Ziba’s arms so she couldn’t run.

Their display of blatant distrust in her depressed Ziba, as she had been a priestess in the temple for eight years now, since her seventh birthday; everyone trusted her, and with good reason, as she was as guileless as the innocent child she appeared to be. She couldn’t exactly say, however, that she was surprised by this show of loyalty to her older sister. As the high priestess, Shireen was trusted above anyone else in the temple.

The girl abruptly collapsed into the arms of the priests, as they expected, on the way to the altar. The sedative they had slipped into her drink on the way to recover her was tasteless, and the darkness had shrouded the green powder floating in the water. Hosrael lifted the girl easily into his arms, his companion chasing at his heels, and strode toward the sanctuary. Ziba, asleep for the first time since her love’s untimely death, remained blissfully unaware of just how close to her impending doom she really was.

Lady Shireen swept through the marble temple toward the altar like the wrath of God, her blood red robes billowing out and around her. Her face was sallow from many sleepless nights, but it was still one of the most beautiful in all of Persia. Long, dark hair was piled around a shimmering, gold headdress atop her head, making her seem all the more tall and ominous than her less than intimidating, petite stature. The green of her eyes was cold, staring straight ahead and giving away no emotion, but all could tell how she felt. Anger radiated off her very skin.

She felt no guilt or regret, only the deepest disgust, and all patrons and priests within the temple hid from the burning rage, praying that it would never, one day, be directed at them.

Inwardly, though, Shireen’s mind was in turmoil. By Sraosa, the god of the afterlife, she’d taken solace in the knowledge that her sister would be protected, but, as anyone in her situation would feel, her faith had been shaken. All those to be brought back from the dead with the Book of Eternity had, so far, failed, and she feared her powers were too weak to preserve her sister’s soul. Regardless of the confidence she lacked, she didn’t have a choice.

Her dominant hand twitched with anticipation.

The room was large and completely silent; the various priests scattered across the marble didn’t even dare to breathe. Each man was bedecked in gold robes to stand behind Shireen for the ritual, but it was evident that they were reluctant. Use of the Book of Eternity for this purpose had angered the Gods before and they knew this sacrifice could, and would, bring the wrath of the God of Darkness and personification of evil itself, Angra Mainyu, down upon them. Lady Shireen had warned them all earlier that this was inevitable. Fortunately, the priests were devoted enough to her that they had agreed to help despite the risk.

At the far end of the room, a stone table was organized in the center of a plethora of offerings to the Gods, from flowers to the preserved organs of rams. The table was grey, but stained with the remnants of blood from past offerings, all of which was unseen beneath the long, white silk of Ziba’s robes. The younger girl’s hair, as fair as the glorious desert sunshine, cascaded over the edges of the table in long ringlets, brushing silently against the floor. Her chest rose and fell evenly with each of her breaths and her long eyelashes painted black half moons against her porcelain cheeks. Coal symbols marked her forehead and cheekbones for the ceremony.

The priests in gold advanced toward the altar ahead of the High Priestess, beginning to chant the spell in Old Persian, “Spenta Mainyu who breathes life, now releases you. May our holy sister, Ziba, be held in the safe, merciful arms of the Gods, and returned to the land of the living anew. Deliver her from the lust of Angra Mainyu. Protect her, your holiest servant. Spenta Mainyu who breathes life…”

Shireen picked up the chanting as she approached the altar and lifted the long dagger on the altar into her hand. She stared down at the petite form with an expression that could freeze the sea, and brought the dagger up into position over her sister’s body. Shireen’s free hand pushed passed page after page of the Book of Eternity beside Ziba’s body until she found the spell to bring a soul back from the dead.

As she flipped through the pages, the body on the stone began to stir and a light voice murmured, “Shireen?”

Ziba’s unusually blue eyes stared up at the High Priestess and filled with tears. Her sister bit the inside of her mouth to keep her own emotions behind closed doors and continued to read. With the words of the blessings on her lips, Shireen lifted the ceremonial dagger above her head while Ziba looked on. She was without any other option.

The other men and women standing around the altar inconspicuously closed their eyes and didn’t look again until the screaming had subsided.

It seemed to Lady Shireen that the stain of blood sprung forth from Ziba’s white robes before the damage had even been done. The dagger came down swiftly into Ziba’s chest, bringing forth an ear-splitting screech that would haunt Shireen until the day she died as she watched the life leave her sister’s hypnotic eyes.

But, she knew it was for the best.

Even as she waited, though, she never felt another sting of doubt over her powers until the last moment. She had hoped for a small sign or hint that the ceremony had been successful, but there was nothing. She had expected the white vapor of her sister’s spirit to float into the jar they had set forth for that exact purpose, but it never happened.

Instead, the cork tied to the bottle’s neck closed the opening on its own, closing off any sanctuary to Ziba’s soul. The entire building began to shake like an earthquake beneath their feet, and the sound of a man’s cry of pain reverberated through the tense air. All at once, they knew that Angra Mainyu, the immortal lover of the newly deceased Ziba, had found out what they had done to the young priestess.

All at once, they knew they would suffer for it.

 

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