The vision started like all the others.
Burning torches lined the worn stone walls of the temple's council chamber. The flames cast a flickering dance of shadow and light across the cavernous room. On the dais, the seven thrones of the sibyls stood empty. That was something I'd never seen in waking life.
An eerie feeling settled over me as I made my way over to the centremost throne. My footsteps rang out, echoing hollowly in the deserted chamber. When I reached the chair, I reached out a hand and trailed my fingertips over the purple velvet cushions. The material was ice cold.
"Hello?" I called uncertainly. My own voice bounced back at me a hundred times over. The echo faded, and everything was silent again. Creepily so. "Is anyone here?"
I waited. Five seconds. Ten seconds.
Giving up, I turned back towards the door. A strangled gasp lodged in my throat as I realised that I wasn't as alone as I'd thought. A woman stood two feet away from me, as silent as the shadows cast by the torchlight.
I knew immediately that she wasn't human. She was too tall, for one thing. Nearly eight feet – her raven-black hair scraped the chamber ceiling. Her eyes, too, were unnatural. They were an opalescent myriad of colours. As I studied her, her full red lips turned up into a smile that sent shivers down my spine.
"The time is over, Sage Leventis," she said. Her voice was the low hiss of a serpent.
"The time for what?" I asked shakily.
The woman's silky laugh made goosebumps erupt all over my skin. "You were too late to save them. They are no more."
She raised her hands, palms out. They began to glow, softly at first, until they shone a blinding emerald green. My eyes watered. Just as I could bear it no longer, she spoke again.
"They are all dead, little oracle. Your incompetence killed them all."
"Sage! Sage!" My sister's impatient voice snapped me out of my trance. Dazed, I blinked twice to clear my eyes of the residual blurriness left over from an oracle vision. I had been standing staring vacantly at a blank stretch of wall in the antechamber of the Temple of Apollo, and my distracted gawping had drawn a crowd of curious onlookers.
I turned to Grace, trying to rearrange my features into a semi-reassuring smile. The attempt wasn't all that successful, judging from her expression.
Grace's dark eyebrows furrowed. She looks very like me – we inherited the exact same colouring from our parents' collective gene pool. We both have our mother's long, straight dark hair, although Gracie wears hers loose while I wear mine in a braid over my left shoulder. Our eyes are the same shade of ice-blue as our dad's. I'm three inches taller than she is, but she's half a stone skinnier, so it balances out. We have the same heart-shaped face and narrow nose, the same full lips. Grace's were currently turned down at the corners in a suspicious scowl.
"Did you have a vision, just now?"
"No," I lied smoothly. "I was just… y'know… away with the fairies."
"Sure." She dragged the word out. With her hands propped on her hips and her mouth set in that mulish pout, she looked as though she was channelling our mother. "They're calling the Council to session now."
A note of excitement had crept into my sister's voice at that announcement. I stifled a sigh. At sixteen, Grace had only just been anointed as an adult member of the Council of Delphi. Her mark – the 'S' shaped serpent tattoo that all Delphic members have on their wrists – had barely even scabbed over. It was her very first Council meeting, and even I had to admit that it was an exciting one.
We were going to select the new Pythia of Delphi.
The crowd of waiting oracles suddenly surged forwards as the double doors to the main chamber swung inwards. A swell of chatter rose up among the chiton-wearing crowd as they all scrambled for seats. I stopped at the entrance, standing on tip-toe to get a look at the seven raised chairs that lined the far wall. As the Pythia was due to be named today, the middle chair sat empty. The other seven were filled, and on the far right sat my father, all done up in his ceremonial splendour.
The other five sibyls sat with him, watching the crowd with curiously blank expressions. I'd never understood how they did that. My mother always told me that my face was like an open book. I had the world's worst poker face.
Grace and I took our seats at the back of the room. She was practically vibrating with excitement next to me. I clamped one hand on her knee in order to stop her leg from jiggling up and down.
The sibyl on the immediate right of the empty chair, Enzo, stood up. Silence fell almost immediately. His clever dark eyes swept across the room, seeming to rest on every face in turn.
"This meeting of the Council of Delphi is now called to order," Enzo called. His voice boomed out across the chamber as mine had in my vision, filling every empty crevasse and echoing back to him. "Item the first – our Pythia, Eleni, has sadly passed away. We gave her funeral rites exactly one moon ago. This now means that the time has come to select a new Pythia to lead us in our foresight and knowledge."
A palpable tension settled over the crowd. I ducked my head, worried that someone else would be able to read the fear in my expression. This was my second Pythia selection meeting since I turned sixteen thirty months previously. While being Pythia, and therefore leader of the Delphic Oracles, Most Blessed by Apollo, was an honour, there was also a huge catch involved.
Being chosen as Pythia was a death sentence.
Nobody knew why, exactly, but Pythia visions were ten times stronger than those of a normal oracle. And twice as frequent. The strain it put on the body… well, it was a wonder that Eleni, who had been in her sixties, had managed to survive for two years. Most Pythia last for less than that.
The official cause of death for every Pythia has been a brain haemorrhage, but that's not the whole of it. It's the visions that kill them, really.
I didn't know why everyone still treated it like a privilege. Like it was something that should be celebrated, rather than commiserated. Where was the honour and privilege in early death? I remembered Eleni from my childhood. She'd been healthy. Strong. Vital. It wasn't until she was selected that she went downhill.
"Who do you think it will be?" Grace leaned over to whisper in my ear.
"I don't know," I replied. Whoever it was, it was likely to be one of the older members, those more experienced with visions. The elder oracles all sat up front, filling up the first two benches in the chamber, and every one of them had their eyes trained on Enzo as they listened to his speech with rapt attention.
Whoever it is, I thought, I feel sorry for them. Of course, I would never say that to Grace. She wouldn't understand. The honour outweighed the cost to her, as it did for most of us. I was one of the disenchanted few.
Enzo had brought forward an object from the altar of Apollo now. Ostensibly, it was a crystal ball, albeit one roughly the size of a soccer ball. It was lit from within by a pulsing blue glow. The spirit of Delphi, the essence of oracles. The orb's light blazed brighter as Enzo held it aloft for the crowd to see.
A hush fell over the crowd as they all stared.
"Phoebus Apollo," Enzo called clearly, "Patron of oracles, we call on you now to make your divine selection. As is your will, we ask that you name for us a new Pythia, a new high priestess to serve in your honour."
"He said 'priestess'," Grace whispered. "So it can't ever be a guy?"
I turned to shoot her an incredulous look. I couldn't believe she'd made it past initiation without knowing such remedial information about her own people. "Of course not. Oracles are a matriarchal race. It's always a woman."
My sister's cheeks reddened. "Oh. Yeah. Of course."
I returned my attention to the orb just as it blazed up like a bluish supernova. A wave of intense heat, then intense cold, washed over me. My whole body suddenly felt strange, like I'd just missed a step walking downstairs. Shielding my eyes, I tried to squint past the blinding light to see which unlucky soul had just been shrouded in a bright blue aura.
None of them. They all looked completely normal.
Then Grace gasped beside me. "Oh, gods in Olympus!"
I turned to shoot her a quizzical look, and my heart nearly failed then and there. Her skin had a blue sheen to it. "Oh, no, Gracie…"
I broke off. When I looked hard at her, I realised that the glow I could see wasn't right. It wasn't what a divine aura usually looked like. It was more like… a reflection.
A feeling of cold dread settled in the pit of my stomach. I took a deep, steeling breath, and then glanced down. My hands were trembling in my lap. They were also lit up a vibrant, celestial blue.
It wasn't Grace at all. It was me.
I was the new Pythia.
My head jerked back up, and my eyes locked with my father's from across the room. He looked as though someone had just punched him in the gut. His blue-grey eyes were screaming a wordless protest.
"Sage Leventis." Enzo's voice called. He sounded distant and echo-y, like I was hearing him from the other end of a long tunnel. "Step up to the dais, please."
I wasn't even sure that my legs could work properly. Grace put one hand under my elbow, gently guiding me to my feet. Her expression was one of stunned admiration. Her lips moved, like she was saying something to me, but I couldn't hear her soft words past the sound of rushing blood in my ears. Knees knocking, I tripped forwards down the aisle towards the front of the room. Every eye turned towards me, following my progress.
"Sage has been honoured by Apollo himself. He has hailed her as his new priestess." Enzo laid one hand on my shoulder as I reached him. "You have been blessed and anointed, Sage Leventis, as the Pythia of Delphi."
I noticed that nobody in the crowd looked particularly at ease with that announcement. Most looked uncomfortable. A couple looked sick. I didn't feel much better than they looked, to be honest. My vision was blurring at the edges, and I'm pretty sure my teeth were chattering.
Enzo reached behind him and plucked something from the cushion of the middlemost throne. He offered it to me, and I took it with trembling fingers. It was a robe of deep crimson. The shroud of the High Priestess of Delphi. The material was soft, and it smelled like fresh morning sunlight, but it felt like a curse in my hands. I fumbled with the clasps. When Enzo saw how much I was struggling, he gently wrested the cloak from me and helped me into it. It weighed heavily down on my shoulders, much more heavily than it should have. I suddenly felt like Atlas being crushed under his burden of the sky.
I remained in a daze while Enzo guided me to my new throne and continued his speech. Could an oracle go into shock? It certainly felt that way. My extremities were numb. My head was reeling. My overwhelming thought was simple – why me?
It could have been two minutes or two hours later that Enzo wrapped up his speech. Time had ceased to have any meaning to me. Ironic, considering that I now had a lot less of it than I ought to have had. Eventually, the interim head of the seven sibyls took his seat. The chamber swelled with chatter again, but I barely noticed. I couldn't focus on any words long enough to make sense of them.
I sat like a statue, my face blank and impassive for the first time in my life, as the oracles began to file out of the chamber. Many of them swept me grandiose bows as they passed. I couldn't even bring myself to acknowledge them. It felt like hours later that the chamber completely emptied of all but the sibyls seated alongside me.
One other person stood by the door, beaming proudly. My little sister. She caught my eye and gave me a thumbs up. I tried to smile back, but it ended up coming out as more of a pained grimace.
Then someone was standing in front of my chair, cutting off my view of Grace entirely. He bent down, and I saw the toasty blond curls and serious eyes of my father. His expression was grim, the sort of expression you'd see on a soldier when he'd been ordered to head up the frontline of an attack.
"Sage," he murmured. "Sweetheart, are you okay?"
I nodded. "I… I think so. Yeah."
He dropped his voice even lower. "I'm so sorry, darling. I'm so sorry that this has happened to you."
"It's okay, Dad." My mouth was drier than sandpaper. "I'm alright."
I was about as far from alright as it was possible to be, and he knew that, but neither of us corrected my assessment. He reached forward to cup my cheek in his rough palm. Anguish filled his gaze. Even if Grace was deluded and proud, Dad wasn't. He knew what my job entailed.
Horrible visions. Descent into insanity. Painful, premature death.
My head swam so violently that I had to clutch the arms of my throne to stop myself from passing out. Mortality was never something I'd had to dwell too much on before right now. But my heart was suddenly beating harder in my chest, as though it knew it only had a limited number of beats until its last.
Holy Hephaestus, I thought, I'm going to die. I'm dying.
The ringing in my ears got louder. The pounding of my heart got even more insistent.
Around me, the other sibyls began to talk. My father stayed in his position, crouched in front of me, with both of my hands clasped in his. I couldn't feel the pressure of his fingers.
Snippets of the conversation drifted to my ears.
"Well, of course we'll have to make arrangements…"
"Naturally more dangerous…"
"Youngest we've ever had…"
"There are going to be plenty of monsters on her tail once this…"
"And we're going to have to relocate her to the temple permanently, obviously."
The last sentence, spoken by Althea, brought me up short. I snapped out of my daze and turned my gaze onto the knot of high Council members. Clearing my throat, I spoke out. "No."
The word echoed through the chamber as Enzo's voice had, firm and authoritative. It took me completely by surprise. I'd had no idea I was even capable of sounding so commanding. They all froze, turning to face me.
"Sorry?" Althea said.
"I said, no. I'm not moving to the temple permanently. It's not happening."
Every jaw in the room dropped. "But…" Demetrius spluttered. "But you have to. It's not… safe out there!"
Pulling strength from nowhere, I pushed myself to my feet. I'd never been particularly tall or intimidating, but in my new robe, with my new status, I must have cut quite an impressive figure as I strode towards them. "I would rather take my chances, if it's all the same to you. I'm not an idiot. I know the world is a dangerous place for an oracle, and twenty times as dangerous for the Pythia. But my days are numbered, now. I won't wait them out in a labyrinth of underground chambers with only the voices in my head for constant company. No way."
A stunned silence followed my words. I chanced a glance at my dad, and was surprised to see the slight smile on his face. I realised; with a rush of warmth that chased away the remaining numbness in my body; that my father was proud of the way I was standing up to people who, until an hour ago, had outranked me.
"It's impossible," Cyril tutted. "It cannot be allowed."
"All due respect, Cyril," I replied. "I'm the Pythia. I'm the chosen high priestess of Apollo. You guys are oracles, but as of this moment, I am the oracle. And I'm pulling rank. I'm not going to live in this temple, and you're not going to fight with me about it. End of story."
"Don't be a child," Rea said solemnly. "You wouldn't last a week in the world without protection."
"So, find me protection." I took a deep breath. "There's got to be someone who can protect me, right?"
Enzo tapped his chin, looking thoughtful. "A Son of Heracles warrior, perhaps. He would be on twenty-four hour guard, of course, so you would never be allowed time alone…"
"I'd rather that than be locked away down here," I said quickly, gratefully jumping on the boon he'd offered. I was scared of Pythia visions, and I was scared of my impending date with Charon the ferryman, but I was more terrified by the idea of never seeing another sunset.
Living in the temple, I would feel as though I were already in a coffin. Anything was preferable to that.
"I can make arrangements," Enzo mused. "I will call Atticus Savas personally and see if we can work something out."
I knew little about Atticus Savas, but I knew that he was the leader of the Sons of Heracles. I knew that he was a fearsome warrior in his day. Anyone that came at his recommendation would probably be a good enough guardian to keep me alive for the next couple of years until my body gave up on itself.
"Good. Then it's settled." I sucked in a breath, hoping that I could still maintain my haughty, imperious facade for at least the next few minutes. "Now, I expect you'll want me to stay here for tonight. I'll go to the sleeping quarters, now. If it's okay with you, I want my sister to accompany me."
"That shouldn't be a problem," Rea agreed.
"Thanks." I turned my back on them all. My dad offered me his arm for support as I drew close to him, and I clutched it like a lifeline. He was all that kept me on my feet as we made our way towards the chamber's double doors. When I was a footstep away from escaping, a voice stopped me.
It was Enzo. "Hail, Sage Leventis. Pythia of Delphi, beloved priestess of Phoebus Apollo. May the gods in Olympus watch over you, and may they be merciful."
I glanced over my shoulder. He ran one hand through his dark curls, before sweeping me yet another bow. This one was less over the top, and when he rose from it, I could see an impressed grin forming on his face.
"Gods be with you all," I said, nodding once.
Then, with one arm linked through my father's, the other linked through my sister's, I, Sage Leventis, Pythia of Delphi, got the hell out of there.