The blazing Summer Solstice sun cooked the air surrounding the Temple of Judgment where a long line of children were waiting impatiently to get in. Despite the uncomfortable heat and humidity no one dared to leave, lest they get eaten by an angry leprechaun. To the druids who ran the Temple, making people stand around in the heat was their way of reminding everyone the ways of the Old Religion still had to be respected.
One of those people, an eight-year-old girl with dark blond hair and hazel eyes named Ana Bradan, was running around throwing rocks at her ten-year-old sister Tara. Hitting Tara was easy; she was taller than the other kids and even a few of the parents waiting in line with their children.
“Ana!” their father, named Brenden, called out. “Tara! Come over here. Quit fooling around.”
They both ran over and stood next to him, Ana at his right and Tara at his left. “How long is this line?” Ana asked. “Why couldn’t we go someplace less boring?”
“Because this is the sacred Temple of Judgment,” Dad said. “This is where you must go for the druids to give you your blessings and predict your future.”
“I think they make it all up,” Tara said, “so people will give them money.”
“The druids are noble people, Tara,” Dad said. He had Tara’s brown hair, but his eyes were dark brown instead of amber like Tara’s. He also had a goatee while she had a few dimples. “They value more than money.”
“Then who builds all the enormous temples?” Tara asked. “I’m sure they aren’t free.”
Ana heard someone behind her spit in her direction and she felt a wet spot on the back of her head. She heard some little boy say “get lost, creepy” but didn’t look back because she knew what he was thinking. “Daddy,” she said, trying not to cry. “They did it again.”
He took Ana’s arm and moved her to the front. “Don’t look at them,” he ordered, “they won’t mess with an adult.” The line moved forward slowly and Ana felt the warmth of her father’s body create a living wall between her and yet another person who would probably say something nasty about her hair.
The line continued to move until they were near the entrance to the Temple of Judgment. Dad opened his wallet and took out three gold coins, three silver coins, and three bronze coins. The coins each had black triangles on one side, and the other side bore a different face of the members of the ruling Council of Aniar, depending on its color. “Tara, take the Forordas from my hand.”
Tara took the gold coins. “Ana, take the Aergans.” Ana took the silver coins. She stared at the faces of the old people on the money. It was one of the few times she had ever seen Aniar’s money since they had returned from their family vacation. Or that’s what Dad said they were doing. What little money they had, Mom and Dad took to buy food and keep them moving from house to house, which always had covered windows and very few, if any, visitors.
“And I will give these Umaedas to the druids when we’re inside,” Dad said.
Ana looked to the right and saw a boy about her age dressed in an ankle-length brown tunic, chasing another boy around a middle-aged woman. “I bet you can’t eat a jar of Fireworms in a minute,” the boy doing the chasing said to the other.
“I bet I can,” the boy who had spit said. “Want to see?”
“Stop it now or else no more Exploding Fireworks for either of you!” the woman said sharply. The boys started whining and Ana looked into the cloudless sky, unsure of whether remaining in the open or being shut in a scary-looking temple was worse.
“It’s our turn,” Dad finally said. “Enter carefully, and whatever you do, don’t look into the guard’s eyes.”
They approached a tall, double-wide black door. A druid wearing long scarlet robes stood in front of the door, his face partially covered with a dark cloak. He stepped aside to let them through and Ana, already forgetting Dad’s words, looked up at the druid and saw his eyes were blazing orange, as though they were melting. He had pointed, rotting teeth and a stinky breath Ana smelled as she passed him. “Yech,” she uttered, covering her nose until they were inside and the door behind them was closed.
They were in a long hallway lit by the glow of Everlasting Torches, iron torches carrying fire which druids cast a spell on to keep them burning literally forever. The walls were decorated with skeletons with gold chains around the necks, though Ana couldn’t tell if they were real. There were glass cases along the wall containing necklaces and earrings made out of aqua-green and yellow-green emeralds. Past the cases were portraits of some of the Divine, Aniar’s gods the druids were supposed to serve and the people were supposed to worship. The portraits and jewelry soon gave way to wall-length murals. Tall people with black goat heads and gigantic people with brown ox heads stared directly at Ana. She felt their lifeless eyes pierce her body as though they were going to break out of the mural at any moment and attack her.
“Um, dad?” she said.
“Those murals are scaring me.”
“Those are just drawings,” he said as he put a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry.”
“Are you just saying that to make me feel better?”
“Ana, shut up!” Tara exclaimed. Her voice echoed off the walls as they walked along.
A record, Ana thought. Twenty-two minutes without Tara yelling at me! The animal-headed people disappeared and were replaced by three pale white women, each with a black left eye, a dark red right eye, and open jaws who stared at them. Ana shuddered; the women looked even more frightening than the goat-people, even though they too were immobile. “There’s nothing scary about these stupid drawings,” Tara continued. “You overthink things. You always do.”
“I’m sorry, Tara that I’m not big and crazy like—”
“Stop it!” Dad exclaimed. “Both of you! Don’t misbehave in the Temple of Judgment!”
Ana could see Tara’s lower lip trembling, though whether she was really going to cry or just fake it was debatable; Tara sometimes pretended to cry to get out of trouble.
At the end of the passageway they came upon a round bronze door which was partially open. “This must be the Druid’s Circle Chamber,” Dad said.
“What do we do?” Ana asked.
“Whatever you’re told. In here, you’re always being watched. Don’t worry,” he added when he saw both Ana and Tara look uncomfortable. “This won’t be painful...I hope.”
The bronze doors led them to a chamber with yet more Everlasting Torches along the wall and on the ceiling, lighting the room. The room was a perfect circular shape, decorated with woode animal carvings—crows, ravens, cows, sheep, and goats made out of gold and silver and sitting on tables near the center of the room. A satin red and purple carpet decorated with golden spirals and zigzags led to a short flight of steps at the end of the room. At the top of the steps were two tall druids waiting next to a three-legged golden throne pressed against the back wall.
As the three Bradans approached, one of the druids lifted his hood and walked down the steps. He was bald and his face had dry cracks in the skin. On both his arms and wrists he wore a set of white bronze bracelets called Findruíne, supposedly the holy jewelry of the Divine. He had a thick golden ring called a Findruór, another piece of supposedly holy jewelry, on his right thumb.
“Brenden Bradan,” the man said. He smiled, and Ana scrunched her nose at seeing his skin open like an earthquake, revealing milky white patches beneath it. “It is good to see your family back in Aniar. It has been many years since that day when you took your family and fled to Eur—”
“Aye, it has,” Dad interjected. He cleared his throat. “I am presenting my two oldest children, Tara and Ana, to the noble druids of the Temple of Judgment to humbly receive their blessings. I offer you, Elder Druid, my girls.”
“Offer us?” Ana bit her lower lip. She began to worry about what might happen.
The man smiled. “We will see to you now,” he said to them. “Separately.”
“But—” Tara began.
“It’s fine,” Dad said. “Go ahead and give them their money.”
Ana and Tara gave the man their coins and followed the other druid through a door next to the throne that led to a corridor with three iron doors along the walls. The robed figure’s hood came off and lush black hair fell out as the druid turned around.
“Wow, you’re pretty,” Ana said to the woman whose face had turned towards them. She had sea-blue eyes and smiled gently. “What’s your name?”
“I am Eilee,” the woman said. “A druid of this temple who measures Seiter and offers blessings to the honorable.”
“Seiter?” Ana didn’t know what that was.
“Your internal energy, dummy,” Tara said. “You probably don’t have any.”
“Be kind to your younger sister,” Eilee said.
“How did you know I’m older?” Tara asked.
“You are much taller,” Eilee replied. Tara sighed as though she had expected Eilee to say that. “And when you walked into this temple, you insulted the drawings, calling them ‘stupid,’ pretending to be brave so your sister wouldn’t see how frightened you were.”
“How did you know that?” Tara asked, stunned.
“I know everything that goes on inside this temple. My Seiter is in tune with its walls. Oh, I am not a mind-reader,” Eilee added as Ana and Tara stared at her. “But using this inner energy, I can sense what happens inside this temple. As you age, your body’s energy will grow, allowing you to make vegetables grow faster or move dishes without touching them, or even use in battle if you want. The choice is entirely up to you. Only you can decide what to do with your Seiter.”
“Battles?” Tara asked. She looked eagerly at Eilee. “Sounds like fun.”
“Perhaps,” she said. “Emer! You may come in.”
The man with the dry skin opened the door leading back to the Druid’s Circle Chamber and stared at Tara and Ana for about ten seconds. “I will take Ana and you can take Tara,” he finally said. “Come, Ana.”
The two of them entered the middle iron door. Inside was a very small room, not much bigger than a walk-in closet, and empty except for wooden three-legged along the wall furthest from the door. A single window let in sunlight. “Sit down,” Emer said.
”Master Elder Druid?”
“How come the chair in this room is wooden but the one in the other room is gold?”
“Hmhmhm, you are observant,” Emer said. “Most young people are too eager to get out of here to notice something like that. Your Seiter is easier for me to read without metals interfering.”
“That’s weird,” Ana said as she sat down. “I don’t think I have any Seiter.”
“Everyone from Aniar does,” Emer said. “This includes you. Now sit still. Hold out your hands, palms up.”
Ana sat motionless as Emer held her palms. She winced and tried not to think about his dry hands or the heavy rosy perfume he was wearing as he clasped her palms to his. He then let go of her left hand and touched her right knee.
“What’re you doing?” Ana asked.
“Dear child,” Emer said, “you know very little about your Seiter, don’t you?”
“I said already, I don’t get it.”
“This energy inside you is a gift from the Divine to our people. It has been this way for almost sixteen centuries, since the beginning of Aniar. You are eight years old, correct?”
“Normally, when one turns eight this energy, dormant inside you, begins to grow and come out of you. The only question is how much you have because that affects your potential in life.”
“Soo...” Ana kicked the chair with her heels. “How am I doing?”
Emer let go of Ana’s right hand and put his left hand on Ana’s right shoulder. He shuddered. “Hmhmhm...this is most unusual. Very, very unusual.”
“What’s wrong?” Ana tensed and prepared for bad news.
“I have been doing this ritual for thirty-seven years. Very, very few people have Seiter levels as high as you, my dear. You are unusually gifted, indeed.”
“Really?” Ana’s mouth fell open. “Are you sure? Because Tara always says—”
“I am never wrong about Seiter, my dear. I have too much experience to mistake such powerful energy. Perhaps the Divine have given you the soul of a great one. There is an enormous amount of energy inside you, waiting to burst.”
“BURST?!” Ana exclaimed. “I’m going to explode?”
“You will not explode, hmhmhm.” Emer put both his hands on Ana’s wavy-haired head. “Not literally. But your life will depend entirely on your ability to control such a massive amount of Seiter.”
“And how do I do that?”
“Hmhmhm, that is something only you can figure out. You appear to be more calm and relaxed, unlike your sister, whose attitude could be detected even before she walked into this chamber. This is an excellent trait that will help you master your Seiter. But I will say that your level of energy appears to be as high as the greatest of all Aniarites, including those who rule as members of the Council of Aniar. That’s the all-powerful council of nine who rules these lands.”
“Oohh, Councilmember? I saw them on the money.”
Emer chucked. “And who knows? Perhaps I am now a doddering old fool, but it appears to me as though you will be able to be whatever you want to be, as long as you can control your Seiter.” He took his hands off Ana and stepped back. “Now please stand, and I will give you your blessings and your prophecy.”
Ana obeyed, and Emer put his hands back on Ana’s head. He looked up at the black, polished stone ceiling and spoke in a loud, raspy, and over-dramatic voice. “In the name of the most holy Tuatha Dé, servants of the macha, servants of the great Dagda, please accept my blessings for Ana Bradan, daughter of Brenden Bradan, son of Breck Bradan.”
Why is this taking so long? Ana thought.
“I humbly ask you, as your servant, to please guide Ana on the path to righteousness, on her path to womanhood as a proud and noble Aniarite. Bless her with a life that will let her walk with the most holy of holies and let her one day bear children who will carry on the proud legacy of our people. May her left hand never deceive her right hand, nor her right her left, and may she live a long and natural life.”
Ana closed her eyes and wished for Emer to stop talking.
“And this is my warning: Ana Bradan has a gift which will shape the balance of the entire world. But this life will tear away at her soul if she strays from the natural path the Divine have laid before us to life a proper life. She will believe that which is not real, and disbelieve that which is real. She will see in the dark but be blind in the light. She will one day destroy her greatest love, and preserve her greatest hate. She will walk among the cursed and avoid the blessed. If she is careful, she can keep what she carries away from the wrong hands. If she is careless, she will give up the one value that can otherwise never be taken from her. I fear Ana, who suffers from low self-esteem, will be too easily tempted to trade away her best gift in return for saving that which she cannot.
“On the last day of her first life she will stand against the only person in this world who truly understands her and believes in her. It is at this moment she will decide whether this world lives or dies. At that moment, holiest of holies, I plead for you to help her choose good.”
Emer took his hands off Ana’s head. “Of this you must never speak,” he said quietly.
“Understood?” Ana nodded, even though Emer’s words frightened her.
Emer walked to the main door and opened it, allowing Ana to go first. Tara and Eilee were already waiting in the main chamber. “You two may go back to your father,” Eilee said. “Good luck in school this year.”
“We’re home-schooled,” Ana said.
“Home-schooled?” Emer said. He gave her a very wide smile. “Very interesting. But given your situation, that is no surprise. Hmhmhm.”
“You have a weird laugh,” Ana said. “Or was that a—”
“Ana, hush!” Tara said. “Show some respect.”
“I am sorry, Master Druid.” Ana bowed her head.
“There is no need to apologize,” Emer said. “Thank you both for following directions. I truly believe the best for both of you is yet to come. Always remember, however, to be on your best behavior. We are watching you, always.”