1. Soraya

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Soraya's bare feet padded against the rough sandstone pavilion of the Great Temple, her breath coming out in short gasps as she ran. The burning hot stone scorched the soles of her feet, but she ignored the pain, merely increasing her pace. She hadn't spared a thought for slipping on her sandals after the messenger had burst into her private chambers and breathlessly announced that the gods had granted the magi with a vision.

The same messenger hastened after Soraya as she ran through the temple grounds, the poor young man struggling to keep up. The sun blazed hot and blinding, the sky a cloudless blue. A dry, arid heat permeated the air, scratching the inside of Soraya's throat with every panting breath she took and causing sweat to drip down the back of her neck in seconds. The bulbous domes and gleaming white minarets of the temple's various shrines rushed by in her periphery. Ahead, the smaller and less impressive structure of the monastery quarters came into view. The squat, yellowing walls and unadorned façade marked it as a dwelling of mortals, rather than the grandiose and embellished house of a god. Soraya dashed inside quickly, rushing down the dim corridor and to the door at the end of the hall.

The mobedin, the high council of priests, were all already gathered inside when Soraya pushed through the door, standing on the threshold. She panted, catching her labored breath, and took in the scene before her. Despite the heat of the day, candles were lit around the room, giving off a sweet aroma of cardamom incense. The priests were arranged in a circle around the room. Each knelt on the ground, the haunting melody of a chant falling from their lips in tandem, magnifying their voices. They hardly even glanced up at the arrival of their empress- all eyes were fixed on Shapur and Farnaz, in the very center of the circle.

Shapur sat on the ground in the middle of the circle, his legs crossed and his gaze forward. It was a typical meditative position, Soraya knew, but this was no ordinary meditation. Shapur's eyes were wide open, and Soraya flinched back at the sight of them. The irises of his eyes, normally a dark brown, were bright as gold and glowed with an unnatural, shimmering light. Soraya was reminded of the sun shining down upon the temple outside, so brilliantly bright that it was blinding to look at. Shapur's strange, bright eyes continued to stare straight ahead, unseeing.

Farnaz belatedly glanced up at Soraya's entrance. The elder woman's eyes were lit up with excitement, her white hair coming loose from her bun and flying about her face.

"Your majesty," she said as Soraya took a few steps forward. When Soraya tried to take another step, Farnaz quickly raised her hand. "I'm sorry, your highness, but you are not permitted within the circle. Only a magi may enter.

Soraya froze in her steps. "I understand." She turned her gaze back to Shapur again, uneasiness causing her to shudder. "Is he-?"

"Receiving a vision from Mithra," Farnaz cut her off eagerly. Normally the woman would never dare to talk over Soraya, but now nothing else seemed to matter in her mind. She was entirely focused on this message from the gods, this sign that Mithra was not dead or gone- a piece of his spirit was still connected to his chosen magi.

The chanting of the encircled priests filled Soraya's ears, the dark, haunting melody uncomfortably foreboding. The words were in an ancient language Soraya couldn't comprehend, but she assumed they were singing praises and hymns to Mithra, as was customary during rites to the fire god.

"How many years has it been?" Soraya asked.

"Several," Farnaz replied. "And the time between visions only grows longer and longer as the years pass on. The gods are growing weaker. Perhaps that is why Mithra speaks now- to tell us what we must do to help them."

Soraya stayed silent, continuing to observe. Her gaze flinched away from Shapur's unseeing stare and glowing eyes, though Farnaz continued to look on anxiously. The gods weakening... It was an abstract thing to Soraya, that the power of the gods could fade. She had always believed they were immortal, all-powerful- they were the beings that created this mortal plane of theirs, the ones who had granted Soraya's ancestors victory in their war with the daevas. How could they ever weaken?

The candles around the room suddenly blazed to life all at once, the flames climbing unnaturally high for a single moment, before returning back to their original size. Shapur blinked, and the sight returned to his eyes, the glow disappearing. He gasped and nearly toppled over, but Farnaz held him firmly by the shoulders. The chanting of the priests cut off abruptly. Not caring to ask, Soraya stepped inside the circle and knelt beside Farnaz and Shapur, her brows furrowed in concern.

Shapur continued to take in gasping breaths. His eyes, now a normal brown color, darted about the room frantically, as if he was unsure of his surroundings.

Farnaz was too impatient to wait for him to get his bearings.

"What did you see?" She asked with insistence, shaking him by the shoulders. "What did Mithra tell you?" Soraya glanced from Farnaz's fervent stare to Shapur's fearful confusion. She stayed silent, listening and observing intently.

At last, Shapur seemed to recognize where he was and the people before him.

"The vision," he gasped out. "I saw- in the sands-there was-" He closed his eyes and shook his head, as if to shake away the memories. "It was a Turani village next to an oasis. The water suddenly dried up and these- monsters crawled up through the sand. Strange, ephemeral creatures with bodies made of fire and eyes like the night. The people of the village..." He trailed off, shuddering.

"It looked right at me. It pounced to attack me. Then the vision was over."

Soraya had watched Farnaz's expression sour with each word Shapur recounted to her of his vision. Her eyes dimmed, losing their previous anticipation. Her wrinkled forehead creased even further in consternation.

"That was it?" Farnaz demanded. "A filthy Turani caravan? No, there must have been more. What else did you see?"

Shapur shook his head. "Nothing else," he said. "That was all."

The priests around the circle already began to murmur amongst themselves, rumors spreading like wildfire among them. Farnaz's narrowed eyes darted to them quickly with a frown. Soraya scowled herself, irritated by the elder magi's reaction. She was letting her bias of the Turani people affect her judgement, and Soraya felt herself growing annoyed.

"Well, what does it mean?" Soraya asked, unable to reign in her thoughts any more. She looked back and forth between Shapur and Farnaz, waiting for wither of them to answer.

"Creatures of fire and blood," Shapur answered after a moment's silence. "The bastards of creation, the ancient enemies of gods and men."

Farnaz's look could have ignited kindling into flame. "It is rash to make such assumptions," she said forcefully. "Mithra's visions are often symbolic. It would be improper to-"

"Not this one," Shapur interrupted her. "This was true, an image of the present- I could feel it."

"You are still young and inexperienced, with much to learn about what being a magi entails." Farnaz straightened her back. "I am the senior magi of this temple. I am sure I am more versed in interpreting godly visions than you, boy."

Shapur appeared as if he were ready to argue, but he winced and swayed to the side. He was still disoriented from what he had just experienced. Arguments could wait.

"Enough," Soraya commanded. She stood to her feet, drawing herself up tall, and addressed all of the priests present. "The magi Shapur needs to recover himself from this. Only once he is well will we decide what to make of this message from Mithra."

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