(A Novel by Robert Arvay)


We’re being watched,” Miril whispered to her playmate.  Her tone had suddenly changed, from childhood merriment, to one of fear.
Veelos quickly looked up from where they were squatting in the sandy soil. The two girls had been playing with homemade dolls.  But now her gaze shifted alertly toward the edge of forest nearby, there to join with Miril’s in search of whatever lurked for them. 
“I feel it, too,” she breathed nervously, afraid to make any loud sound.  In all their lives, neither girl had ever sensed danger, not real danger, and certainly nothing as ominous as this.  Now they both felt a sense of dread, the kind that warns of impending doom.  It chilled their spines.
The girls were not just imagining their fears.  For, perilously nearby, concealed by the shadows of trees and brushy undergrowth, two sets of eyes narrowed with sinister intent.  Not one creature, but two, lay in ambush at the border of the forest, intently observing the girls.  Beneath furrowed brows, their serpent eyes glared with hunger and ferocity.  But although they were predators, it was not hunger for flesh which attracted these two creatures to the edge of the village.  Their craving was not of the earthly sort.  For these two beings devoured not bodies, but souls.  And to them, the utmost delicacy was the soul of an innocent.
“We’d better go tell,” Miril uttered.  “If it’s wolves, they’ll soon hurt someone.”
“You know very well that they’re not wolves,” Veelos replied, almost scolding the other.  “But let’s get away from here, before something awful happens to us.” 
With that, the two girls abruptly stood and fled toward the safety of the village.
“Look!” the creature named Luur grunted excitedly, “they’re escaping.  We’ve got to stop them.”
“We dare not,” retorted Mok.  “Restrain yourself.  Our instructions are only to survey them, to make sure that these are the ones.”
“Clearly they are,” Luur said.  Its fierce eyes remained focused on their fleeing quarry, and it only barely suppressed the urge to leap from concealment, and to lunge toward the helpless girls. 
Had its impulse become compulsion, the beast would have roared ferociously, and would have chased the girls down before they could make good their escape.  But the creature named Luur well knew the penalty for disobedience to the master, and so it restrained its murderous instinct.
“None among mortals have auras of such destiny,” Mok said almost in awe.  “None except these two.  So they are indeed the ones.  Very well, then, we have found them.  That’s all we came for, to confirm the master’s suspicions, that the prophecies are finally coming to pass.  At long last!  Our day cannot be far away anymore.  Let’s return to Thorgar and tell it what we’ve seen.”
But Luur still seemed anxious.  “Can’t you see?” it said.  “One of them must be the priestess of prophecy, the one we are warned about.  This is our chance to prevent her from ever wearing the silver ring, to forestall her from destroying us.  We must kill her, and now.”
“We must not,” Mok said. “We must not interfere with the anti-prophecy.  True, one of them is indeed to become the priestess of the orb, but we cannot know which one.  And remember also, that the other child is the foretold demonwitch.  It is she who will slay the priestess, not us.  No one can destroy the demonwitch except the priestess.  And none can slay the priestess, but the demonwitch herself.  Our work here is done.  Let’s go quickly.”
The two girls were running as fast as they could toward the center of the village, when Veelos suddenly grasped Miril’s arm.  “Stop.”
But at just the same time, Miril stopped also, of her own accord.  “They’re gone,” she said.
“What were they?”
“How should I know?  If I did know, then so would you, and already.”
Veelos was still catching her breath from their brief sprint, when she said, “We’ve just got to tell, Miril.  We must.  Whatever they were, they were evil, not just dangerous, but very, very---”
“We can’t tell,” Miril insisted.  “No one will believe us.  They’ll just say that two silly little girls wandered too close to the forest, and became frightened.  That’s all.”
Veelos reluctantly nodded in agreement.  “And besides, they’ll punish us for straying too far from home.  You’re right.”
Miril glanced back in the direction from which they had just fled, to reassure herself that, after all, nothing was pursuing them.  “They’ll be back, you know.  Either them, or their ilk.  Today was not their day.  But they’re not finished here, not yet.”
“And they’ll come back just--- for us,” Veelos said.  “They didn’t care about anyone else here, did they, but only us.”
Miril shuddered slightly.  “Yes, only us.  But why?  Why should they single us out?”
Veelos hesitated, unsure of whether to voice her thought.  Then she said, “I know this may sound a bit odd, but Miril, maybe it was because--- do you think that maybe they were just a little bit like--- like us?”
“No. Not at all like us.  Not even close.”
“I don’t mean it that way.  We’re not evil.  They are.  Unspeakably.  But what I did mean was--- Miril, they, like we, can sense things that others cannot, just as you and I do.  Whatever they want from us, it has something to do with our special sense, the secret we no longer speak of to anyone.  Think about it”
Miril gave it a few moments of thought, then admitted, “Perhaps you’re right, Veelos.  They do have powers.  Strange powers.  But so do we.  We have powers too, Veelos.”  She paused, as if announcing the solution to a great mystery.  “And they knew that, didn’t they?  That’s why they didn’t pounce when they had the chance.  Could it be that they fear us--- as we feared them?  I think so, Veelos.  Then let’s not fear them at all.  Instead, if they come again, let’s find a way to fight back.”
Veelos scoffed.  “They have tooth and claw, and those are not their worst weapons.”
“True,” Miril said.  “But we have something more powerful than that.  We have each other.”
Veelos scoffed again.
But Miril persisted.  “They care only for themselves, and for no one else.  They cannot stand together for very long, certainly not long enough to lay down their lives, not one for the other.  That is our power, Veelos, the power  that you and I do have.  If you and I stand together against them, then they can never hurt us.  Not if we stand together, as we always have.”
Veelos felt strangely comforted by those words. “It’s true,” she said.  “We have always stood together, you and I. And,” she added, “we always will.  Always.”
It was the year of the wolf, and the two girls were six years old.  They had not yet become mortal enemies.
* * * * *
“What are you doing here at so late an hour?” Jen-Aga asked.  The temple library was darkened, with but a single candle to illumine the dusty, ancient scrolls of the innermost chamber.
“Searching,” replied the high priestess.  By her manner, she seemed hardly aware of the presence of the younger priestess.  An urgent task preoccupied her.
“Searching for what?”
Soniya was annoyed by the distraction. “The truth,” she replied.  “What else does one seek among the scriptures?”
With that answer, Jen-Aga decided that she had no further choice but to retreat.  The hint could not have been stronger.  “Very well.  I shall not disturb you more than I already have.  By your leave.”
“Wait,” Soniya said.  She had not meant to be so abrupt with the young priestess.  Her tone softened, almost in apology.  “This concerns you more than the others.  You need to know.”
Jen-Aga had begun to turn away, but now she stood facing Soniya, her hands clasping each other at her waist, a gesture of submission.  “To know what?”
Soniya sighed.  “Jen-Aga, you know some of it already.  Surely you must have thought about what it must mean.  Very well then, I’ll tell you.  All three of the high priests, myself included, are growing old.  That much is obvious.  But what does it mean?  Soon we will be unable to tend the orb.  We won’t be able to keep watch over the priesthood, nor to confer upon others the silver ring.  And all this is coming to pass just at a crucial time, a time when it will be more difficult than ever before to protect the priesthood.”
Jen-Aga showed confusion on her face.  “Protect?  From what?”
Soniya continued to fumble among the scrolls.  “That,” she said, “is just what I’m searching for.”  Then pausing, she said solemnly, “Jen-Aga, I was not going to say this tonight, or here.  But I suppose that this is the time and the place for it, after all.  So brace yourself for some shocking news.  For you, Priestess Jen-Aga, are one of the three, whom we have chosen, to replace us when we must give way to youth.”
Jen-Aga took a moment to absorb the impact of what the high priestess had just spoken.  Her astonishment was profound.  “Me?  Are you serious?  Me?  To become a--- but High Priestess!  You cannot mean that.  There are others older than I---”
“Yes,” Soniya said.  “Older, and more wise, and more strong, and more blah blah blah.  I know.  I said much the same when I was appointed over my seniors, many years ago.  Do you think that we would appoint someone who aspires to power, someone who seeks authority?  May God forbid.”
“But High Priestess, I am not merely less wise, I am not prepared for such---“
“Nonsense.  Your very denial of worthiness, the sincerity, the intensity, confirms that you should be a high priestess.  Jen-Aga, you embody the very essence of the priesthood:  to be an instrument of the divine will, not of our own will, but His.”
“But I could never wield the powers as---”
“Hush now.  You know full well that we never wield the powers.”
Jen-Aga lowered her gaze.  “I did not mean it that way.”
“I know you didn’t, but we must be careful when we speak. There are many who envy power, and there are even some who would seek to obtain the orb of power itself.  They simply don’t understand that its power is not like the power of a sword or a potion, to be mastered and wielded.  They cannot grasp the concept.  And when we tell them that we simply let the power flow through us, they disbelieve.  When we tell them that it is not our own will we seek to do, but rather God’s will, they dismiss us as secretive and conspiring.  A careless word could incite them to demand that we work miracles for them.”
“I know,” Jen-Aga said.  “But what I meant is that I am afraid, afraid to have such power at my fingertips.  And the responsibility of guarding the orb--- High Priestess, I am afraid.”
“Have no fear.  God Himself will guide you, as He has guided us three who now serve before the high altar.”
Jen-Aga trembled in as much fear as if a panther had suddenly appeared.  For Soniya had, obviously, with the other two high priests, already decided the matter beforehand.  She could refuse, of course.
But Soniya had already anticipated that possibility as well.  “And if you try to wiggle out of this, I’ll shadow your every move, until you accept the post just to be rid of me.”
Jen-Aga felt a slight smile hint upon her face, for she had never seen the normally stoic high priestess speak with such affectionate humor.
But then Soniya’s tone darkened.  “We need you, and the two priests whom we have selected.  We need you desperately.  For the times call for younger instruments, three new high priests, who will be able to confront the evil now invading the world of men.”
Jen-Aga felt her fear return.  “An invasion?”
“Of sorts.  Jen-Aga, have you ever heard the legend of the demonwitch?”
Demonwitch:  the very word unnerved Jen-Aga, almost as if Soniya had spoken a profanity.  Amid the purity of the temple, among its ancient scriptures, could such a word be uttered?  But then, after all, the answer to Soniya’s pointed question was in the affirmative.  “Yes.  I’ve heard the story.  The minstrels sing of it.  But it’s only a legend, is it not?”
Soniya replied, “It’s time to look into that legend, time to ask how much of it is mere fable, but also to ask, how much of it is true after all.  Tell me what you’ve heard from the minstrels.”
Jen-Aga hesitated for a moment, then spoke almost reluctantly.  “There was a woman.  She was a princess, who became a priestess.  But then she turned against God, and commanded a legion of--- of--- demons.  Her name was Kattaroon.  There was a warrior named Tarok, who was a barbarian, a savage, who loved her.  But when Kattaroon turned to witchcraft, Tarok sided with the angels whom God sent to oppose her.  His army defeated hers in battle.  And then, Tarok faced an agonizing choice.”
All the while, Soniya had continued her search for the ancient scroll, one in particular.  Then, even as Jen-Aga was still speaking, the high priestess finally found it.  Carefully, she extracted it from behind many others, where it had lain unopened for centuries.  Carefully, almost ceremonially, Soniya held the scroll across both hands and turned with it to face Jen-Aga.
“Here,” she said to the mortified young priestess.  “Take it, and read.”
“Obey me,” Soniya commanded.  “For you and two others will soon bear a great burden.  And we three shall not be at your beck and call to teach you, nor to instruct you.  You will be on your own, you three, with an overwhelming responsibility.  For the demons have not given up their yearning to seize God’s creation, and to turn it forever into corruption and evil.  Just as they themselves have transfixed their own souls into irreversible abomination, so also, they would do to our world.”
Nervously, Jen-Aga accepted the proffered scroll.  “But what are we to do?  Can we hope to stop them?”
“You can more than hope.”
“But how?  How does one stop a demon?”
Soniya answered, “Read the scroll.  Perhaps it contains the secret.  Read between the lines, and perhaps you may unlock the answer to your question.  A thousand years have passed since the time of Tarok and Kattaroon.  And even though they are dead, yet there are lessons to be learned from their story.  Learn those lessons well, for you will need them against the new demonwitch who is soon to arise.”
“A new demonwitch?”  Jen-Aga shook her head, almost in tears.  “Soon to rise up?  I beg you, High Priestess.  Do not place this burden upon me.  I am nothing against the dark forces of a demonic witch.  Please!”
“You’ll not be alone,” Soniya assured her.  “For there will also soon arise one to stand against the demonwitch.  This time, however, it will not be a mighty man of the sword, not a male warrior, such as Tarok was, but instead, a woman, one who is called the Priestess of Prophecy.  Only she can slay the demonwitch.  Your duty is but to serve her.  But be careful, Jen-Aga.  For remember, the demonwitch Kattaroon was herself once a priestess.  And another name for the Priestess of Prophecy, as she is spoken of in the hidden scriptures, is the Unrecognized Priestess.  Yes, your highest powers of discernment will be needed, Jen-Aga.  And your utmost wisdom.  For you, and your two brother high priests, must be able to detect who is the priestess of prophecy, and who is the witch.”
Jen-Aga shook her head.  “But I can’t.  I’m just not up to this.”
Soniya smiled warmly.  “None of us is,” she said.  “But remember, God does not expect you to succeed.  Victory is His alone, and He will win it for you.  All you need do is to seek His will.  And remember that, with God, all things are possible.”

The Legend of Tarok and Kattaroon
According to the Hidden Scroll

“Where are they?” she demanded to know.  Her mere presence darkened the room, and her voice seemed to chill the air within its grey, stone walls.  “When I send for my advisors, I expect them to appear at once.  How dare they tarry at such a moment as this!”
The slave girl cowered in dread beneath Kattaroon’s seething rage.  And well she did, for no rage is as deadly as that of a demonwitch cornered in her lair, even if that demonwitch is temporarily reduced to mortality.  For, in such a one as this, even mere earthly evil undertakes its most dread and potent form.
But mercifully for the trembling slave girl, she did not have to speak in reply, did not have to be the bearer of the bad news which would surely enrage the already dangerous woman.  The guardsman answered the question instead.  “Your sorcerer, Kharakh, ascends the spire stairs even now, dark madam.  And the serpent Thilgol is not far behind him.  They will both arrive shortly.”
Kattaroon turned her attention from the terrified maiden, and faced the armored guard.  She glared in reply to his report, his most unsatisfactory report.  “Only two?” she raged.  “And what of the others? What delays them?”
“Death,” answered the guardsman.  “Death delays them.  For all your other advisors lie dead beneath the sword of Tarok.  Of all your commanders and conjurors and potionists, only these two remain alive, Kharakh and Thilgol.”
The guardsman’s tone was emotionless, with a fearlessness only the dead themselves could achieve.  For dead he was, bewitched by the curse of a witch who could trust no armed man within sword’s reach of her blackened heart.
But the witch herself was anything but emotionless.  Her smoldering impatience burst into the flame of outrage at this further, bitter news.  “Dead, are they? All of them burning in Hell, no doubt.  Not for their sins, but greater damnation yet, for their failure.”
The demonwitch had all but snarled as she whirled to face the window, toward the radiant sunlight which shone inward from it.  The window was the only vantage point afforded by the stone enclosure, the turret, atop the tall spire into which Tarok and his armies had forced her retreat.  Then, the witch spoke with a quiet fury, but quiet with the menace of a serpent. She uttered a curse that terrified her maiden into tremors.  “Damnation be upon that warrior--- and upon all who follow him.  Wretched souls they are, and wretched shall they be.”
As she spoke, Kattaroon stepped with angry cadence toward the windowsill, and reaching it, looked downward upon the military spectacle far beneath. 
Rows and columns of enemy soldiers surrounded the castle in formidable array.  The air bristled metallic with their spears and swords.  Colored banners fluttered in the breeze, seemingly as numerous as the blossoms of a meadow in full bloom.  Bright yellows and brilliant shades of red were punctuated by darker blues and regal purples.  But if each battle-flag were a flower, it concealed beneath its single bright petal, thorns of deadliest poison.  For each banner marked a separate regiment of swordsmen and archers.
Such a sight would have struck fear into any ordinary mortal so besieged.  But Kattaroon knew no fear.  Proud and contemptuous, as cold and as hard as the castle itself, she fended off all spears of doubt.  The witch’s upper lip contorted into a sneer and her eyes darkened with vengeful malice.  “Enjoy your puny victory while you can,” she spoke with quiet defiance, knowing that none below could hear her even had she shouted.  “But soon your exultation will turn to terror, your battle-cries to lamentation, and your hopes to despair.  For here I make my final stand, a wounded lioness, defending her last redoubt.  By day your victory seems certain and ordained.  But be assured that, when nightfall comes, my powers, which were spent in killing your comrades, will return to me.  And then you will share their fiery fate.  All of you.”
At this time, the slave girl forced herself to speak, though her blood seemed as water and her bones as straw.  “Dark madam,” her voice wavered as she forced each word.  “Please, step back from the window, I beg you.  Surely they have archers, and even atop this tall spire, their arrows can reach with brutal force.  I fear for your safety.”
Of course Kattaroon knew that the slave girl had no fear at all for the safety of her evil mistress.  What the girl did fear, was not to feign concern.  For well the maiden knew that her unwilling duty was to tend a dangerous nightcat, one that devoured its servants at the very first and very slightest hint of their disloyalty. 
Even though the maiden’s pretense was transparent, it was necessary.  For, to remain silent would unmask the slave girl’s fond, desperate hope that the demonwitch would fall mortally wounded, releasing the spell of terror that bound the maiden more tightly than any chain ever could.  To remain silent was to evoke a deadly curse from the hand of the demonwitch, a clawed hand that had power and willingness to kill, even without sorcery.  So the maiden did obeisance and pretended to fear for Kattaroon’s safety. 
The witch knew it was a lie.  But for Kattaroon, lies were sweeter than truth.
Just then, an arrow did indeed clatter off the stone near where Kattaroon stood, cracking violently at the edge of the window.  The deadly missile would have surely been her death, except that the slightest breeze had wafted it astray in its failed quest for her evil heart.  The once hawk-like arrow, broken and frustrated in its mission, fell harmlessly like a wounded dove, to the ground far below.
Begrudgingly, the witch did step backward a pace, away from the daylight, into a safer, more familiar refuge, becoming a shadow among shadows once more. 
Ordinarily, no arrow, no spear or sword could have touched her.  But the earlier battle at Gur-Molkn had required her to exert all her powers, powers of darkest sorcery, in a futile attempt to defeat Tarok’s army.  There, treachery within the ranks of her own troops had proved fatal to her hopes, and with her forces decimated, retreating and scattered, Kattaroon had barely escaped alive into Castle Ki-Rori, where now she must make her last and final stand against mighty Tarok.  Here, this day, this night, one or the other of them must reign victorious.  For the loser, death awaited, death or worse, infinitely worse.
With a sound of wood scraping against stone, the oaken door, which sealed the turret from the spire stairway, yielded.  The man who stepped through the semi-oval opening seemed almost as lifeless as the armored guardsman who ushered him in.  Lifeless this new arrival was, but through no curse of any witch.  A sorceror curses himself first of all.  And no more powerful curse has any man, than that by which he curses himself.
“Kharakh!” the demonwitch uttered to him who entered.  “Do you dare tarry when we are encircled by the armies of our foe? I should---”
“Have patience with me!” the sorceror pleaded.  “You can see that I have suffered this day.  I am weakened, as you are.  Only Hell’s favor has spared me alive.  All my conjurors have met their doom, and I alone remain.”
Kattaroon spat in disgust.  “And what delays that serpent Thilgol? Does that lizard fancy itself immune to my reproach?”
The sorceror gave a slight shudder.  “Do not contend with Thilgol this day, my lady.  Rage has seized its heart.  And as you know, when Thilgol is enraged---”
The witch’s sudden display of her own rage silenced the sorceror.