Chapter 8

Kesar and three other handmaidens led me through the hallways towards the Main House. I was greeted by the same group of Brahmins afterward. This time they escorted me in silence.

I had no clue what they were going to do to me. I just hoped that it didn't involve human sacrifice. But even if it did, I might as well let them get it over with. There was no way I could escape from this bizarre realm even if I tried.

We reached the square, following the pebbled path that snaked towards the stairs. The Main House was located in the middle of the complex. It had a single spire tower with a carved gold-gilded face on top.

When we reached the hall of the pavilion, a dozen women appeared by the entrance. They brought bronze bowls filled with flowers. The women spread petals of lotus along the path as we walked past them. I felt like some sort of royalty. The other handmaidens bowed away, except Kesar, who stayed by my side the whole time. For some reason, I was grateful for that.

I stared around the place in awe. Almost every corner displayed meticulous wood art and gold-gilded patterns. The ceiling had colorful murals of epic battle scenes and tales. A burning hearth set in the middle of the hall.

We passed between two rows of huge wooden pillars. The golden fiery and floral designs glowed against the dancing fire. This must be what an ancient palace looked like.

Some maidens took turns feeding the fire in the hearth with some sweet-smelling tree barks and herbs. I thought it was probably to repel the insects at night, but the flame flickered in five different colors, red, yellow, purple, green, and blue.

Turning my gaze away from the hearth, I finally noticed a bunch of people my age for the first time. They sat waiting on a raised platform on both sides of me. Almost everyone wore strange gold headdresses and intricate jewelry. Their multi-layered silk costumes draped over their elegant figures like some ancient gods. They also looked quite different, beautiful and majestic in their own way. And when they raised their faces to me, my breath hitched. Under their piercing stares, my heart pounded and my palms began to sweat as the anxiety formed in my stomach again.

Some of these children frowned at me while others looked amused. The more I looked at them, the brighter their faces seemed ablaze as if they cast their own light. At that moment, I suspected that they were not ordinary people.

There were about four or five boys and three girls. The boys seemed quite intimidating. I was sure two of the boys were twins. The twins looked at me and smiled at each other mischievously.

One other boy almost growled when my eyes made contact with his. I recoiled back like he was a vicious rabid dog. The rest just shook their heads without a reason. The girls sat quietly. I noticed they didn't wear maiden's dresses like those I'd met. They had some silk attires similar to their male peers, only tailored to suit their more feminine forms.

One girl wore all red. Even her ember-colored eyes flickered like flames as she gazed at me. I could almost feel the heat from her stare as if she wanted to reduce me to ashes.

"Why doesn't she look like us? Is she one of us?" she muttered to the mean-looking boy next to her.

"Too skinny," he agreed.

"Too pale," the other added.

I started feeling self-conscious, and the heat on my face grew hotter.

The white-robed priests motioned for me to take a seat on a golden mat. As I settled down, I still felt the discomfort itching over my body. But at least, one of the girls smiled at me. She dressed in a dark green robe. Next to her was a young handsome boy, whose curly dark hair fell to his shoulders. He also smiled at me kindly. I felt somewhat comforted by this accepting gesture.

No one said anything, and I sat stiffly as they scrutinized me left and right like I was a freshly carved sculpture. A melodious orchestra started playing in the background. I pretended to listen to it while trying to ignore those curious eyes. The palace maids carried out plates of exotic fruit and delicacies then placed them on our separate tables. The rich smell of the feast made me wild with hunger.

It wasn't long before I lost my patience and dove right into the meal. I didn't care if they thought I was a savage. I was starving. After I was done, a dozen women appeared. They wore peacock tails in their hair. Others held golden and silver flowers in their hands. These women, I now recognized, dressed exactly like they just walked right off the temple walls.

"What are they doing?" I asked Kesar, who sat beside me.

"The Apsaras will dance in honor of your arrival, my lady," she said.

"I thought Apsaras were like celestial nymphs?"

Kesar muffled a giggle.

"They can be just mortal women," she said. "But once they start dancing, they're the bridge between heavens and earth. It is the most fitting and most beautiful way to cajole the gods."

I was deeply fascinated by everything I heard and saw in this place. We watched the Apsaras dance. Their whole bodies looked like they were enchanted by the celestial spirits. I was transfixed until we heard the horn blew again, along with several wailing sounds of animals from the outside.

Our faces turned to the entrance of the pavilion at the same time. There we saw the shadows of three enormous elephants coming towards the house.

"Rowrrrh!!!" the elephants trumpeted.

"The Hora has arrived!" the guard announced from the outside. A moment later, a group of men walked into the hall. A tall figure in a flowing black robe marched along. From under the hood of his cloak, the man seemed to wear an ugly green mask with white curved fangs poking out of the lower mouth and tiny red horns on the head. Even the eyes seemed to bug out from the sockets a little. He looked scary but no one seemed to mind his weird appearance. The priests stood and bowed at the person, who did the same in return. Then he took a seat as the priests started blowing their conchs again. I turned to Kesar.

"Who is that man?" I said, looking nervously at the black-robed mystery.

"He is the Bearer of Prophecy," she said. "A descendant of Pipaet."

"A descendant of Pipaet?"

"Pipaet was the master of all-seeing," she said. "When Pipaet foretold the destruction of Lanka Kingdom, Ravana, the demon king, who was also his brother, beat him with a shoe out of anger. Humiliated and hurt, Pipaet left Ravana and found refuge with Prince Rama, the seventh avatar of Lord Vishnu."

"I thought it was just an epic tale!" I cried in alarm. "And what is the Oracle going to do to me now?"

"Worry not, my lady, you shall see for yourself," she said. I sighed and turned to find one of the priests walking towards me.

"I humbly request your presence to meet the Hora right away," he said.

I reluctantly stood and followed the Brahmin. The masked Oracle also walked out from his seat. We came face to face at the center of the hall. I felt a little uneasy inside. What if they used me as a sacrifice for real? I gulped and looked up at the dark figure before me. Then my eyes went wide in terror. The Hora wasn't wearing a mask. It was his actual face! I let out a horrified scream and fell on my butt with a loud thud on the floor. A burst of laughter exploded around the Pavilion.

I sat there, confused and scared. But the Hora merely sat down behind a small table in front of the burning hearth. He hadn't said a word. The odd-looking man pulled out a wooden board the size of a chessboard and placed it before him.

He brought out a small cloth bag and reached his scrawny hand inside. His hand was undoubtedly green in color. He scooped a handful of powdery white sand from the bag, and I watched the sand flowed from the crack of his fingers onto the board. Tiny grains of sand rolled around, going into form and out of form as if they had a life of their own.

"Tell me your name and birth date," the Hora said in rusty old voice. I looked around the hall. Everyone kept staring at me curiously. Kesar put her hands to her chest with a concerned look. I gathered my courage to speak.

" name is Ni...Nikita..." I said, noticing how squeaky my voice sounded. "I was born in the year 1994."

As soon as I said that, a chorus of murmurs erupted around the hall.

"A child born in the future," the Oracle said. "A savior from the gate between worlds."

He waved his hand over the mound of white sand, which started twirling upward like a mini-whirlwind.

It danced around for a minute before collapsing back. The sand rolled about, forming weird symbols over the board.

"No pall of darkness has ever before enveloped this holy land," the Hora uttered the words slowly, leaning over the board as if he was reading those signs. "You shall go on otherworldly quests, enter a fire-lit realm where no living soul has ever gone. When ashes fall from the roaring sky, you shall lead the Naga race to the Great War. The fate of the living—and the dead—rest upon you, O the great destroyer."

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