The clouds drifted up above, barely visible against the night sky. Beneath it, the courtyard stood empty, save for a sole guard watching her from beneath an archway. Half the night had been spent on the soft grass, and now the first remnants of day were beginning to appear. A small whistling sounded to her right. Turning her head slightly, she saw the tree quiver in the wind. Afraid, Warning her away. Beyond it, the guard began to move.
Annaliese closed her eyes and breathed out gently. Beneath her gloved hands, her stomach rose and fell. A soft crunch informed her of the guard’s steady approach. It would soon be morning, when all the good, little Moon Folk should be tucked away in their beds. With another lingering glance up at the sky, she returned inside the stone structure that was the Temple Palace, the only safe haven for the Moon folk. The only place she could call home. There had been a different home once; that much she knew. On occasion, Annaliese thought she dreamt of it. A small cottage basking in sunlight, or a large town house glittering with gold flecks. It changed every day.
The Temple Palace, a large cathedral-like building, engulfed her as she passed back through the archways. It obscured the sky, forcing the growing light away from her eyes. What rose above her was not the half of it. She turned down a flight of stairs, descending deep beneath the surface. Magic was built into the building’s very walls, and it grew to accommodate everyone that resided within. At least, that was what Fayna had told them. Darkness loomed ahead, pushed back by candles that never seemed to burn out. It was not hard to get lost in the catacombs far below and occasionally someone took a wrong turning. They turned up weeks later, lost and confused. Most of them had very little memory of what had happened – the unrelenting darkness and lack of food sending them half-mad. Sometimes, they did not turn up at all.
Where she was walking now, the corridors were almost empty. Only a few people still lingered around the halls, their eyes bleary and stature slumped. New recruits, she presumed; their scars looked fresh. Checkmate must have had his turn with them.
She sighed, the day guards would be coming out in their masses soon, ready to hunt down anyone breaking the curfew inflicted upon them. A hand came to rest on her shoulder. Annaliese jumped, hardly daring to turn around. Barely a moment later, the empty corridor echoed with a soft laugh. “Really, Annaliese? And I thought I was the nervous one.”
“Emelia!” Annaliese turned to pull the small girl into a hug, “I thought you were a guard.”
Emelia laughed again, but with less conviction than before, her hazel eyes just visible through the silver mask she wore. “With my hand? It’s practically a mosquito compared to theirs. Come on, I have something to tell you.”
Annaliese found herself being taken by the hand and dragged along the corridors. Emelia walked with haste and the occasional glance around. They passed wooden door upon wooden door, each inscribed with a name, but still they continued further down into the maze of corridors. A few more twists and turns and they came to a halt in front of another door, much like all the others but with the name ‘Emelia’ written on it in a smooth, cursive hand.
The masked girl drew out a key that hung from a chain about her neck and, after a moment of fiddling, the door creaked open. She hurried inside, over to the quilted bed and sank down onto it, folding her legs beneath her as she did so. A rare grin stretched across her lips, just touching the edge of the mask that covered her eyes. Shutting the door behind her, Annaliese followed, and came to perch gently on the edge of the bed. Thousands of eyes stared down at the pair from the walls. She shivered.
“Well? What is this news you are so dying to tell me?” She positioned herself to face Emelia, trying to gauge her friend’s expression through the silver camouflage she was wearing.
Emelia leant forwards and slipped her hands into Annaliese’s, clasping more tightly than she had on the trip down to the room. “I did it. I managed to make myself visible again.” It came out in a voice that scarcely believed what it was saying.
“That, that’s amazing!” Annaliese found herself engulfing the red head in another tight hug. Both girls laughed in excitement as it finally sunk in. Even the masks that covered Emelia’s walls seemed to have expressions of joy on their unmoving faces. “So,” She pulled away, and looked her friend in the eye, continuing more cautiously, “can you control it now?”
The smile on the girl’s face faded slightly, and she looked down at her hands. “I’m not sure. I only managed to do it once. Completely on my own, fully focused. No distractions, and no Witches.” Her voice dropped considerably, almost to the point where Annaliese had to lean forwards to hear her, “I don’t think I’d be able to do it again. Not under stress. Not with them. Which is when I usually disappear.”
“Don’t worry. This is the first step, and what a step it is. Just keep practicing and soon you’ll be able to do it with no problem. And anyways, at least it means I’m still needed.” Annaliese cocked her head to one side. Before her, Emelia looked almost completely relaxed, but there was still a tension about her shoulders and her narrow fingers fiddled with the frills of her dress. “There is something else isn’t there? You’re hiding something. Are you going to tell me or do I have to guess?”
It took a couple of minutes of puzzlement before Emelia managed to figure out what Annaliese was talking about. When she did, she shrunk into herself, not daring to look Annaliese in the eye. “Yes, tomorrow. Siobhan asked me if we wanted to watch the, you know,” Her voice dropped to barely more that a whisper, accompanied by a considerably nervous glance at the door, “Sun Council Elections. She said it would be top secret. They can’t know.” Her eyes flicked towards the closed door again. Annaliese leant back against the wall, just missing an inconveniently placed cat mask. Worry replaced all the happiness she had felt at Emelia’s achievement.
“The elections? That’s impossible, there must be countless barriers in place preventing us from watching such a thing. And it would be risky.”
“That’s why Siobhan says it had to be top secret. She says she and Driskey could do it, connect us to the elections. I’m curious, Annaliese. Terrified, but curious.” Hazel eyes pleaded with Annaliese through metal peepholes, “and I know you want to watch them too.” She was right about that last part. Annaliese did want to see what was occurring in the world beyond the Temple Palace’s walls, the world that kept intruding on her thoughts. Perhaps it would be worth the risk. She would find an answer to questions she never knew she had asked.
“Tomorrow then. I’ll let Siobhan know we’re coming.”