Midnight Rose - Emma Hamm Page 0,1

to stand with each other, pressed against the wall of the chamber where they could ready themselves for serving refreshments after the ceremony.

She was standing shoulder to shoulder with the priestesses.

The High Priestess would punish her for this. And she’d suffer much worse than for being late to a ceremony or not having her gown on correctly.

Rhea tried to shuffle to the side, back toward the other apprentices. But the other priestesses weren’t moving. They locked her in place and she’d have to endure her punishment later for the mistake.

Shoulders curved inward, she lowered her head and tried to make herself small. Please, she prayed. Let no one notice this time.

The High Priestess lowered her hands. The hallowed chamber was so quiet, Rhea thought even the slightest breath would echo.

“Friends.” The High Priestess looked toward the swelling mass of her students and smiled. “Family. Welcome to the Choosing ceremony. Once every ten years we are brought together in all our numbers to replenish the ranks who bring us magic. Some of you will become the most important priestesses, soon to be saints.”

A cheer lifted to the ceiling and blasted the flames away. For a brief moment, Rhea thought she could actually see the stone ceiling. Even though that couldn’t be possible. The alchemist’s magic was too strong for the wind of an ovation to blow it away.

Wasn’t it?

Again, the High Priestess lifted her hand, and all fell silent. “I understand some of you have been waiting a very long time for this opportunity. If we do not choose you, remember. Magic gives us immortality. This Choosing is not the only one you will live through. There will be many more.”

Rhea could only hope someday she joined the other priestesses in becoming one of the Chosen. If she ever passed her training.

The priestess to her left shuffled. Her slippered feet slid across the stone in a soft hush that sounded like a sigh. Then, she leaned close to Rhea and whispered in her ear, “I think I’ll be chosen this year.”

Rhea recognized the sound of her voice. Her name was Laurel. She always said such pretty words that rang with a bite. Her cruelty knew no bounds, but she was the most talented priestess among them.

“How do you know?” Rhea whispered.

“I can feel it. The High Priestess has been particular in how I dress lately. She’s been grooming me to be a Chosen.” Laurel straightened and stared expectantly at the stage.

Maybe she was right. Maybe she would be chosen and Rhea would be lucky enough to stand next to her while it happened.

Even being that close would be an honor. So Rhea hoped Laurel was Chosen as well.

Smoke billowed onto the outcropping of stone and swirled around the High Priestess and the leader of the alchemists. They both looked like pillars of strength and power. The High Priestess’s gilded mask shimmered with the reflection of the flames on the ceiling. Beautiful and deadly all at the same time.

She called out, “Prudence! Agatha! Hannah! Laurel! We have chosen you as priestesses to serve.”

A cheer followed her words. All who stood in the chamber stomped their feet against the stone floor. They cried out in pleasure at the new women who would be sacrificed to bring back magic to their esteemed ranks.

Laurel quivered beside Rhea. Rhea knew the other priestess was excited. Her entire body couldn’t contain her feelings. But for a moment, it seemed like Laurel was... scared.

She leaned closer and whispered, “Congratulations.”

But when the priestess met her gaze, Rhea realized it was fear in her eyes. Fear her training should have beaten out of her a long time ago. “Thank you, apprentice.”

As she strode away, Rhea replayed the names in her mind. She tried to remember the faces of the priestesses who had been called. Four priestesses this year. Four when there were usually five.

The High Priestess waited until all the Chosen joined her before she lifted a hand for silence once more. “This year, the Dread have requested we have a different ceremony. They wish to choose their own priestesses, and in return, we’ve offered to provide many options for them.”

Whatever murmurs remained fell silent again. The Dread didn’t choose their priestesses. They were given the correct match, carefully selected by the High Priestess and the leader of the alchemists. That was how it had always been. It couldn’t change now.

Could it?

A few of the priestesses nearby looked at each other. They whispered words of worry and concern. What would