Lily had been in the Stalacts Mountains for three weeks when she noticed an eagle overhead, its far-reaching gaze combing the land in search of prey. As its shadow rose up the mountainside, Lily gasped at the sight of a clandestine temple. Only the entrance protruded from the rock face; the surrounding peaks had watched over and kept it hidden for centuries.
With the breeze receding, Lily released her grip from the sides of her long skirt and made for the temple. A small set of steps ascended to a pair of weathered pillars that flanked the entrance. Burning torches were aglow on either side of the doorway, their smoke rising briefly before being stolen by the wind and carried far from this secluded place.
Lily climbed the first steps but hesitated as the stone door suddenly opened. Some archaic mechanism, grinding with an ear-piercing sound, challenged the whistling mountain breeze as it slowly opened the door and revealed the secrets of the temple to the outside world.
Lily approached the inviting doorway and immediately recoiled as she came face to face with a man. He appeared more ancient and worn than the harsh terrain, the distinct sparkle of his green eyes was transparent against his wrinkled visage, while his white hair was filthy and the ends irreparably split. His long brown robes, severely faded, betrayed the uncompromising passage of time.
‘Who are you?’ Lily asked, clutching the strap of her satchel and retreating a few steps.
‘My name is Loven,’ the man replied, his eyes squinting in the sunlight. He raised one hand to shield his face the other clutched a long, oak staff with a small dragon’s head at the tip. ‘I am the guardian of Amarstrea and I salute you for making it this far.’
‘I am not here for Amarstrea. I came to find my sister, Frances. Is she here? Did she make it this far? Please, I have to know. She was with two friends, Oliver and Terence. They are from Winterwood but left home last year to search for Amarstrea. Have you seen them?’
‘You’re not here for, Amarstrea?’ Loven frowned as he considered this paradox. His striking green eyes looked up and down Lily’s trembling form, searching for a hint of deceit but finding only the reassurance of sincerity. ‘You should come inside,’ he finally said, ‘I’m sure you’re in need of rest after such a long journey.’
‘I only need to know if my sister is here,’ Lily replied, shaking her head. ‘If you know where she is, then please tell me.’
‘You’re really not here for Amarstrea, are you? Then come inside and I will tell you everything.’
Loven turned, supporting himself awkwardly on his staff as he entered the temple and began descending a small stairway. Lily held back for only a moment, her hesitation brief in the face of the impending revelation about her sister’s fate. She took a deep breath and followed Loven.