The Season of Rebirth was spreading upon the land, releasing the eternal life-giving energies from the depth of the earth. The radiance of the sun was pushing seeds into life and crusts were cracking to unleash the green force of the plants. Caught by the sizzling of the new light, animals, birds and insects were getting into loving frenzy, singing, dancing, nest-building….The Citadel was buoying with life and its inhabitants were preparing for the annual celebration of this magical season. As the turn of the stars in the sky was marking the crossing of the line between winter and springtime, the Opal Gates of the Sanctuary were ready to open and mark another rebirth of the Silver Tree.
Outside the temple people were busy with all kind of activities. Some of them were building small temporary shops and stands for arts, crafts and goodies, others were crafting various forms out of wires and handed them to girls and women to decorate them with colorful flowers. The marble tiles of the large place around the Sanctuary were swept clean and benches were placed around for the viewers of the celebrations. In the showering sunlight the Sanctuary itself was wrapped in a golden haze and it looked like huge column of glow rising from the center of the place. A row of concentric stairs were leading to the gates from where the graceful Changers were expected to emerge and greet the opening season and the people of the Citadel. Everyone was happily working to add its own touch to the festival of love and light.
Well, maybe not everyone was looking forward this moment. Stern and aloof, a handsome young man was hiding in the shadows of a house in the square. His name was Asterius and he was the Chief Guardian of the Sanctuary. His mood was not exactly cheerful. Something was definitely bothering him and he wasn’t keen to show it . He was seemingly waiting for something or someone…
The busy crowd split for a moment to let a group of Changers pass towards the Sanctuary. They were men and women, boys and girls dressed in light, colorful clothes, with faces painted with intricate patterns and wearing complicated coiffures according to the role they would play in the ceremony. Leading them proudly was a slender young woman with feline features and agile moves. Her skin was deep gold with black stripes and her eyes were burning green fires. Her black hair was braided in one long tail reaching below her waistline. Tigra was chatting and laughing with her companions , oblivious of the pair of steel blue eyes following her from the shadow. The group reached the Sanctuary, climbed the stairs and disappeared inside the building.
It was cool and almost dark inside, only a faint bluish glow marking the presence of the Silver Tree. The little spring watering the roots was joyfully bubbling as its ice armor has melted under the warm sunlight. The tree was stretching its limbs, the thin sap murmuring in the arteries of the high trunk. Tigra stepped up and gently embraced the tree, her cheek touching the smooth, leathery crust.
“Hello my friend!-she whispered. I’ve missed you! “
The tree responded with a flute-like happy sound that only she was able to hear. As High Priestess of Rebirth, she shared a special connection with the Tree.
-Savy! Please check the branches and the buds! Take your team up there with you!-said Tigra, turning to a young man wearing a blue tunic with wing-like sleeves.
Savian nodded and with a swift somersault he changed into a large bird that flew upwards, followed by others. They’ve checked minutiously every branch and stick, every bud to see if the Tree has suffered any damage during its winter sleep. All looked fine and ready to reborn. They descended and joined the team that was busy creating protective mandalas all around the sanctuary floor. The final one was a long braided rope-like design leading from the Tree to the main entrance of the sanctuary. That particular one was done single handedly by Tigra as she was the One connected to the Tree, the One meant to release the new energies and channel them to fulfil the Rebirth. It was a great honor and an even bigger responsibility. The Silver Tree was the source of everyone’s well being inside the Citadel. Outside the white walls of this magical city the world was thought to be wild, dark and dangerous.
The team of Changers resumed their work and headed for the main entrance; Tigra made a final bow towards the Tree, strengthening the renewed connection between them. She was the last one to exit the Sanctuary and she sealed the door with her personal seal, worn on the necklace. She never separated from that magical piece of jewelry that was carved out from a piece of wood coming from the Tree itself. Outside the building it was already night and the streets were deserted. The people of the Citadel were sleeping in their homes, dreaming about the celebration next day.
A group of White Guardians patrolling the streets passed by and respectfully greeted them.
-Peace and good rest to you, Changers!
-Peace and quiet night to you, Guardians! -answered Tigra in the name of her team. As the patrol disappeared, the team split, each of them hurrying towards home to catch a bit of sleep before dawn. Left alone,Tigra looked around for a moment; there was a strange tension in the air, a sense of unease….but she couldn’t find a reason for it.
“Maybe I’m just tired and imagining things”-she murmured for herself hurried towards home with graceful, feline steps. From the cover of the darkness the steel-blue eyes were following her silhouette diminishing in the distance.
She woke up early, shivering. She had been chased in her dreams by a pair of steel-blue eyes and she knew well her stalker. It was Asterius. For years he was following her, trying to force himself on her. Behind his cool and balanced appearance lied a resentful and temperamental man who couldn’t take no for an answer. Tigra was the woman he wanted but she kept refusing him; his cold, selfish personality frightened her. With him around, she always felt naked and vulnerable.
She married secretly and she gave birth recently to a little girl. Luckily for her, the powers of being a Changer helped to keep her little family safe and hidden from the eyes of this dangerous man. Asterius was respected and highly regarded by the people of the Citadel; the members of the Council of Elders were always consulting him. He was a shrewd man, clever and persuasive so with Tigra’s exception, no one had a hint of his true nature.
Tigra sighed and leaned over the cradle where her daughter was peacefully sleeping. Little Leanna was a beautiful, ordinary baby; she didn’t inherit her mother’s status. She wasn’t a Changer and that somehow came as a comfort for Tigra. Though only one in a hundred babies were born Changers and they were considered as bearers of a special gift, having that status was sometimes a burden. All Tigra wanted for her child was to be free and happy. She kissed the baby’s soft cheeks and tucked her well under the blanket. She then left the room to prepare for the chores of this special day.
The morning was gloriously beautiful: the air clear and fragrant, the sun showering the land below with benevolent light, people gathering in excited expectation. As the Elders of the Citadel declared the ceremonies open, music burst from all over and artists filled the square, dancing and singing to the mesmerized audience. Their various performances were followed by the long awaited scenery of the Changers. It was a long rehearsed play representing the cycle of Nature and throughout it, they were earth and wind, water and fire, animals, birds and magical creatures of old myths. As the images were changing, excitement was rising towards a peak represented by the opening of the Opal Gates and the revealing of the Silver Tree coming back to life. In this eternal play the final performance included the wall of the Guardians of the Sanctuary in their pristine white capes, aligned before the main gate, symbolizing the last challenge of winter.
Leading them was Asterius, standing in the center of the last step, with his back against the huge door and defiantly facing Tigra, the priestess of Rebirth. Turned into a graceful but ferocious feline, she approached him hissing and growling. The supple muscles were moving like snakes under the black striped golden skin. Her eyes were sparkling emeralds and her powerful aura sent a shiver down everyone’s spine. Asterius crouched and faced her, eyes like daggers of ice. The two powerful elements confronted each other with great determination but in the end, Asterius stepped aside with a grunt and Tigra regained her human shape. She stopped in front of the Opal Gates and touched the locking seal. She froze for a fraction of a moment; something was wrong but it was too late to find out what. The tension in the central square was at its height so she broke the seal and set in motion the huge doors.
Opening like the wings of a Phoenix, the gates let the sunlight inside the sanctuary….and disaster struck! Fire erupted from the colorful sand mandalas and in a blink of an eye they’ve reached the Tree. The most powerful flames were those of the braided line that was connecting the Silver Tree and Tigra. Flames were dancing on the surface of the spring washing the roots and both the Tree and the young woman cried out in pain and terror. She made a desperate effort to protect the Tree, attracting the flames upon her. The last image she saw was the pair of steel-blue eyes; it was coming through her inner connection with the Silver Tree….
Tigra never regained consciousness and days later she passed away, closely watched by the White Guardians. That tragic day, as havoc broke in the central square, Asterius ordered the arrest of Tigra’s team and the gathering of all Changers of the Citadel to stand before the Council of Elders. Young or elderly, adults and children were herded and held prisoners till the day of judgement. The Sanctuary was closed and Asterius took charge of the healing and protecting the damaged Silver Tree. Dazzled, shaken and frightened by the possible consequences of the tragedy, the people of the Citadel followed Asterius’ instructions without questioning them. They handed him powers no one ever had in the recent history. He promised them to restore peace and order, punish the culprits and most of all, he woved to heal and protect the Tree at all cost. He was a passionate speaker so his words easily reached the audience, strengthening the public support for his actions.
The judgement of the Changers was swift. From the height of the Elders’ Board, Asterius unleashed his accusation upon the whole assembly of Changers.He accused them of plotting to slowly poison the Silver Tree in order to gain power upon the people of the Citadel. He called them “abominations” as they were beholders of powers unknown to the other humans. He said that their simple presence inside the city walls was a danger to the healthy development and proper future of the Citadel Nation.
-You have no place among decent people!-he shouted-But since you were born inside these walls, we cannot throw you out into the wilderness. We are better than that! So the only way to separate ourselves from your sinful existence is to turn you invisible. From now on, you and every child born a Changer will be considered enemies and will be shunned from our community. The citizens of the Citadel will chase you from amidst us and you will no longer able to harm us!
A deep silence followed these words; though some of the people found this sentence excessively harsh, they didn’t dare to speak up. It wasn’t the moment then…..and it never would be later. Families were torn apart as the Changers were publicly made invisible. One by one , children, brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers, friends and neighbors were disappearing under the eyes of the bystanders. From legs to waist then the face to the pleading eyes, they vanished silently under the spell cast upon them….In the following years, the White Guardians kept chasing any new Changer, using the keen senses of special trained ferdogs.
Tigra’s baby grew up without knowing who her real mother had been. Many years later, Leanna was ducking on the dark streets of the Citadel, trying to save her child’s life.