Midnight Rose - Emma Hamm

Chapter 1

Rhea held her breath as the other priestesses strode past. Their long ceremonial gowns trailed on the floor like pools of blood running through the halls. Beads of rubies were sown onto their bodices and glimmered in droplets of dark red. The pale white masks on their faces were all perfectly turned forward, never moving and expressionless. Every step they took echoed like the crack of bone striking stone.

The dim light of the hall flickered with their shadows. The dark wood floors made them appear to walk upon the darkness. Torches on the blank stone walls hung in golden sconces, but that was the only decoration in this bleak place. Deep underneath the castle of the alchemists was the only place they allowed the priestesses to be.

One of the other women glanced over her shoulder. The impassive mask was carved to look apathetic. No emotion could ever show on the priestess’s faces.

But this one still looked disapproving. Rhea was supposed to be in the line with the others. She was supposed to be ready for this grand ceremony that would give them all their next assignments.

Well. Everyone would get their next positions except Rhea.

She wasn’t a full fledged priestess yet. So much went into their training, and she hadn’t finished yet. Mostly they learned how to use magic and minor spells. She just hadn’t been very good at any of the spells.

The High Priestess said she needed more time to learn. Rhea could still grow into a successful priestess if she would only stop and take direction.

If only she listened to other people. That’s what everyone always said about Rhea. She’s a sweet child with so much promise. But her mind wandered too much. Pay attention. Maybe that would make her more of a priestess rather than just an apprentice.

She smoothed a hand down her own ceremonial gown. It wasn’t as fancy as the others—she wasn’t allowed to touch those gowns just yet—but it was pretty enough.

Still red as blood, it was plastered to her like a second skin. The dramatic plunge between her breasts revealed the first scar magic had ever given her. Ragged and raw, the mark looked like someone had laid a hot poker against her chest and held it there for too long. The skin was overly puckered and the deep hole always made her worry it looked like someone had tried to take out her heart.

Yet again, another thought that set her apart from the other priestesses. Underneath those masks and those beautiful gowns, they were all ugly. Marked by magic and turned into creatures who had to remain in the shadows. No other priestess cared what they looked like. Magic would hide whatever they wanted.

Rhea cared. She didn’t want to look like a monster.

She didn’t want to look like them.

Thoughts like that would get her wrists lacerated by the High Priestess. Just to prove a point. So she dashed the worries from her mind and stepped into the hall behind the other priestesses.

Apprentices entered the hallowed chamber last. They were considered the least important, and for that, Rhea was grateful. She didn’t want to be noticed. The other priestesses wore masks. She didn’t. So she had to stand in the back with her sunken cheeks and dark circles around her eyes. Silent, fragile, but always watching them while hoping no one saw her.

The doors to the chamber opened with a great squeal. The high pitched sound burned her ears, but she somehow kept her hands from blocking out the sound.

Beyond, the hallowed chamber glowed with red magic. The alchemists had spread their power throughout the ceiling until it looked like the entire roof was on fire.

The alchemists were already standing against a wall at the end of the chamber. They’d remain there, staring at the priestesses and observing the women who brought magic back to their esteemed numbers. That’s what the priestesses were for. They were conduits.

All her dearest friends stood in long lines before the red-robed figures. Spines straight, shoulders broad, strength radiating from their stances. They were a force to be reckoned with, and the alchemists worshiped them for it.

A rise of stone in the back of the chamber served as a stage for the leader of the alchemists and the High Priestess. They both walked out in front of the crowd, but it was the High Priestess who lifted her hands for silence.

Oh no. Rhea looked left and right, then realized she was standing in the wrong spot. Apprentices were supposed