Over the next few weeks, I will be posting the first ten chapters of my fantasy novel, Diffraction, here on WordPress and on WattPad. The goal is to have the book available on Amazon and CreateSpace by Christmas.
From daybreak ‘til the sun goes down, Devoted shall I be.
Celebration filled the central street of Northridge. A bonfire sprang to life, and cheers rang out under clouds streaked orange and red in the setting sun. The sweet aroma of smoked meats and sugary cakes filled the air. Men and women danced barefoot in circles on the packed earth to the trilling of a flute. Many sang. All smiled.
All but one.
A slim figure darted between clusters and pockets of revelers. Her gold-trimmed white hood concealed most of her features, though wisps of black hair slipped out with each hurried step. She dodged offers to join a dance and ducked under extended pints of ale.
Someone recognized her robe and called out with a grin, “Are you new-Marked this day, Devoted?” Two men beside him raised hands ready to praise her.
She glared at them, revealing a face white as her garment. The men blanched, and she continued on her way. Lyllithe, the Ghostskin. The Eldest’s so-called daughter. She could not make out their whispers, but she knew the words they spoke. Lyllithe had heard them all her life.
Laughter from the crowd echoed. Only the Markday festival, she reasoned. But a doubtful voice spoke in her mind. They laugh because they saw your face.
Past conversations replayed in her memory unbidden:
“Still no Mark on her? What a shame for the Eldest. His own daughter cannot pass the Test. Is this her fourth year trying?”
“Well she’s not really his daughter. She’s got elemental blood in her. So…”
“Of course, yes, that probably has something to do with it. Who knows what the Divine thinks about ghostskins and duns and such…”
“I know what I think of them.”
Lyllithe reached the end of the street, and she pushed away her fears. The Abbey tower rose high over her head. The tallest building in Northridge looked peach in the setting sun. The smaller moon twinkled and the larger shone full in the twilight sky.
She rushed up the steps and flung open the door. Two Devoted in white stood when Lyllithe entered.
“Am I too late?” she asked, half hoping the Testing had ended.
Mistress Nyalesee, the older of the two, smiled wide and beckoned. “No, dear, of course not. Light yet shines, so it is still Markday.” Cheeks brushed by auburn curls, she pulled back her hood, then gestured for Lyllithe to follow into the sanctuary.
Their footsteps echoed on the hardwood floor as they walked between simple benches to the dais at the center of the circular room. The last touches of sunlight peeked through the windows near the ceiling. A serving girl started lighting rows of candles for the Night Watch. Fragrant incense filled Lyllithe’s nose.
Lyllithe pulled back her hood and ran fingers through her hair. The collar-length black strands covered the pointed tips of her ears to hide the physical proof of her mixed blood. She caught herself hiding her features and stopped. It doesn’t matter. Everyone here knows what I am already.
Nyalesee took one of the two stools and turned to her companion, a stately woman with a perpetual scowl. “Harra, do you require Lyllithe to complete the interview, or will her demonstration suffice?”
Harra pursed her lips. “She does it correctly or she doesn’t Test at all.”
Nyalesee rolled her eyes. “We have the past four results on record. Exceptional marks, every year.”
“And yet she struggles to manifest the Light each time,” Harra replied. She cocked her head and smiled. “Complete failure, every year.”
“Sister, we waste time. Outside of Testing, she has potential we’ve not seen in decades.”
Harra shrugged. “Unreliable potential is useless in a crisis. Do you think the Eldest would have us show favoritism toward his adopted daughter or treat her any different than the normal supplicants? I think not.”
Lyllithe bristled and fought to maintain a serene expression. Do I think you phrased that just to comment on my heritage? Yes.
Nyalesee grimaced. “Marten would have us exercise sound judgment.”
“Marten’s not here to ask,” Harra countered. “So I say we do things right.”
Nyalesee gave in, and began reciting questions in a monotone voice.
“To what are you Devoted, supplicant?”
Lyllithe replied in the same bored tone. “To purity in the Light, which gives me the grace to heal. To the path of peace with all men, which keeps me pure. To the truth, which guards my steps on the path of peace.”
Harra fumed at the seeming irreverence, but said nothing.
I don’t know what you expected, Sister. I’ve had this memorized since the first year, with three extra chances to practice it since.
“And will you remain faithful to that truth?”
“Until my light fades or the Final Dawn breaks.”
“Tell me, supplicant, of Aulis and His light.”
While questions and answers flowed without error, part of Lyllithe’s mind focused on the demonstration to follow. Her stomach fluttered and she felt queasy. The steps are clear, and I understand the doctrine. But every time I stand to be Tested, I fail to produce the Light of Life.
Memories of past attempts filled her with dread. What’s the point? This year will be like the rest. If I don’t pass, I can’t be a Devoted, can’t get my Gracemark.
She pictured her father and mother on the road returning from Aulivar. Couldn’t even stay here to support me, could you, Father? I’m such an embarrassment that you ran to the city on a “sudden errand” rather than see me fail again?
“The Gracemark is the visible reminder of the presence of a particular Aspect of the Divine,” Lyllithe recited. “It is a sign of power bestowed upon the believer.”
Nyalesee nodded and said, “By what two methods can one receive their Mark?”
“Most adherents receive from their order what is properly called a Gracebrand, after passing the Test. But an Aspect may also bless the faithful with a spontaneous Gracemark instead.”
And now we come to it. Lyllithe’s heart thumped in her chest like a hammer. Four attempts already. Four failures. Why should today be different?
“Correct,” Nyalesee said. She rose to her feet. “Now are you prepared to demonstrate your faith, and receive the Gracebrand of Aulis, the Aspect of Light?”
“As ready as ever,” Lyllithe muttered.
Harra raised an eyebrow.
Nyalesee rose, and her demeanor softened. She took Lyllithe’s hand and squeezed. “Five is the number of Grace, dear. This should give you hope.”
Harra chuckled and stood. “Show us, supplicant. Invoke the Light of life.”
Lyllithe closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. Breath is life. Life, fill me. She raised her hands to chest height, palms out. Light reveals truth. Truth guards my steps. My path and past are pure. Light shines on the pure.
She exhaled and pictured orbs of light cupped in her palms. Life and Light are in me. Let them flow forth. Her hands came together, combining the twin suns in her mind into one bright sphere.
Lyllithe’s eyes opened. Her empty fingers clasped together before her in the dim sanctuary. There was no Light.
Nyalesee’s hands covered her mouth and her brow furrowed, like a mother whose toddler falls while trying to walk.
In the silence, Lyllithe could hear the commotion of the Markday festival. Muffled trumpet blasts and soft shouts disturbed the calm of the Abbey. Each one jabbed Lyllithe with pangs of defeat.
Harra’s lips turned up at the edges. “Would you like to try again, child?” She chuckled. “There’s still time before sundown—if you’re certain it’s worth the attempt.”
Lyllithe’s shoulders sagged. She raised the hood over her face to conceal the tears forming. “No, Devoted,” she whispered. “I’ll waste no more of your time.” She turned toward the entrance of the sanctuary. Her feet weighed a hundred stone as she took the first steps.
Nyalesee breathed out a sympathetic sigh. The clamor outside grew more obvious, impossible to ignore.
How many Marks were given this day? Lyllithe’s emotions churned with the increasing noise. Scar the Markday and Gracemarks anyway!
She felt a wave of guilt at once, and whispered a repentant prayer.
The door to the sanctuary burst open. “Help! Aid, now!” A man in armor filled the doorframe, a bloody cloaked mass cradled in his hands. Camden, the town’s lone Soulforged protector eased his burden into the sanctuary.
He’s carrying a wounded woman. Lyllithe recognized the pattern and colors of the fabric. She sprinted to the door as Camden carried the body in. It can’t be.
The man rushed past Lyllithe to the two Devoted at the dais. Metal clinked with each step.
The emblem of Aulis woven into the cloak—now stained red—and the bloody brown hair could have belonged to several residents of Northridge.
But the Gracemarked hand that Lyllithe had clung to for years as a child could belong to no one else.
Lyllithe fell to her knees with a scream. “Mother!”