The Temple of Bel Auryn
1994 After Descent (AD)
Poking her head over a courtyard wall, Carita peered down at the advancing procession as it snaked its way through the streets below. She gripped the stones atop the wall with all her strength, desperate to avoid knocking the boxes beneath her feet out from under her.
This was a special day. A day among days.
The day Carita had spent her whole life preparing for.
The Moon Goddess, Ruby, was about to visit the temple. And like leaves lifted and spiraled about by a brisk west wind, rumors had begun to race through the corridors. This was the type of visit seen only once in a generation.
The Goddess had ascended from her palace beyond the clouds to walk, for a time, among her people. Tradition stated that if this proved true, Lady Ruby was likely in search of a Champion.
Throngs of people dressed in vibrant colored finery dotted the streets below. Shrill horns and the booming pulse of a drumbeat could be heard even here. But Carita had seen no sign of the Goddess yet.
She’d know the instant Lady Ruby arrived. All this excitement was infectious, but at present it amounted to much ado about nothing.
The weather shared her opinion, even if the city folk didn’t.
The sky remained clear, the noonday sun beating down like it wanted to drum its light into those gathered, just like the city folk’s drum was doing with its sound. There was no way a moon goddess would want any part in this golden skied gathering of gullible idiots.
No sooner had Carita thought this, than an inky streak of darkness shot across the heavens. It replaced the sunlit splendor of day with a velvet darkness which soon became all consuming.
A piercing beam of silver light shone down from above. Looking up, Carita saw the moon hovering above her. It was suspended against the blackening sky like a giant glistening pearl.
And there, silhouetted against its pale perfection, was a woman riding in a silver and lavender chariot. It was pulled by a white winged horse whose purple mane glistened as though it had been braided with strands of starlight.
Breathless with awe, Carita shifted her position to get a better look. She didn’t want to miss one second of the ethereal chariot’s descent. Nor one chance to steal a glimpse at its divine passenger.
The Lady Ruby, whom Carita had spent her entire life learning how to serve. The Great Goddess, to whom she would soon swear herself if things went according to plan.
“Carita!” An anxious voice cut through her musings.
Carita forced herself to look away. The Goddess was just about to touch the ground.
“Get down from there before you break your neck,” Echo said, arms crossed over her chest. “What in the Wind’s name are you doing? Lady Ruby could arrive at any moment. We have more important things to worry about than watching her procession.”
Carita nodded, climbing down from her perch.
“You ready?” she asked, following Echo across the courtyard.
The green, vined pattern of Echo’s tunic was a clear indication that she was the keeper of the temple gardens. The garment suited Echo’s appearance and drew attention to her sparkling emerald eyes.
Carita felt plain in comparison. Dressed in a similar tunic, though hers was sky blue with snowflakes, everything about Carita seemed pale and faded next to her friend.
Blue eyes, the colour of a winter’s sky. A tiny nose. Tiny everything, really. To look at Carita, one would never suspect that she was one of the most talented warriors in this temple; if not the whole of Zynedia.
Working her hair into a braid as she sat beside Echo on a wooden bench, Carita listened as her friend again went over their plan.
“And then you’ll bring your blade around and strike me here,” Echo finished, tapping a spot on Carita’s arm. “With the flat of the blade, of course. There’s no need for us to turn each other into diced meat.”
Carita shrugged her agreement. Now that she knew Lady Ruby was near, half of what Echo said was going in one ear and out the other.
“Ready to give this a final try?” Echo asked, standing up and drawing her blade. “Just talking about it won’t do us much good. I think we’ve got time for one more round.”
“Sure,” Carita said, following Echo into an open patch of grass. “You start.”
The metal of their blades glowed in the moonlight as they darted across the grass. Moving back and forth, they rehearsed each step of a battle plan so well-choreographed it was almost a dance.
When Echo did a graceful twirl, bringing her sword around to strike Carita’s side, Carita brought her own blade up to deflect the attack. A jolt ran up the blade, through the hilt and into her arm, making her muscles ache and spasm. She and Echo had already practiced this from sun-up until mid-morning. And now they were at it again.
As usual, training was wearing on Carita while Echo had yet to break a sweat.
“You’re improving,” Echo said, lowering her sword and sitting back down on the bench. “You blocked my attack this time.”
Yes. This time.
Carita was afraid her arm would shatter if she had to do it again any time soon. But she couldn’t admit it. Echo hated it when Carita tried to compare them, giving herself the shorter end of the stick.
“I guess.” Carita shrugged, trying to remove a kink from her neck. “I’ll admit my technique is decent. Doesn’t mean you couldn’t put me in the ground if you wanted to.”
“Why would I want to do that?” Echo frowned at her. “I don’t want to become Champion. I love studying the rites and caring for the temple garden. You were made to go out there. You crave it.”
Echo had a point. Carita had set out to become the best warrior in all of Bel Auryn from the day she had been brought to the temple. She had done well enough; only Echo could outmatch her. But when hoping to serve a Goddess, especially one as legendary for her need of perfection as Lady Ruby, Carita knew second best wasn’t good enough.
“Good morning, my dears.”
Turning toward the sound of the voice, Carita’s heart leapt into her chest. Lady Ruby had arrived.
Her pale blonde hair shimmered like spun gold and her grey eyes seemed to pierce through the space before her. A jewelled tiara had been woven into her hair, adorned with a full moon that was flanked by half-moons which were waxing and waning. “I was told the two most likely candidates to become my new Champion could be found here. Yet from what I can gather, there is nothing to see.”
Carita leapt to her feet, with Echo following at a more leisurely pace.
Great. The Goddess was ready to watch them spar and Carita had used the last of her strength on a practice duel ten minutes ago. This was going to be a disaster.
Echo drew her blade, her movements slow and graceful. Carita paused for a moment before pulling hers free of its scabbard as well. Her mouth dry, she brought the sword up across her body.
“You may begin,” Ruby said.
What were they going to do? For years she and Echo had talked about this. Had tried to plan a way they could both get what they wanted if the Goddess came to claim one of them as her own. But now, all their dreaming and scheming was at its end.
This was the real test. The moment of truth. Would Echo stick to their established plan, or did she want the glory of serving Ruby just as much as Carita did?
They circled each other at first, Carita trying to figure out whether Echo wanted her to block or strike. The details of the plan they had spent months perfecting were scattered like seeds.
Their elaborate dance of cat and mouse persisted long enough that Carita noticed Lady Ruby yawning into her hand. That wouldn’t do. What if the Goddess chose neither of them?
Carita wasn’t sure she could win against Echo, but she knew she’d never have another chance to earn the Goddess’ favour. She had to do something. Now.
Her mind made up, Carita lunged forward, swiping for Echo’s chest with her blade. Echo wrinkled her brow, but then brought her own sword up, easily deflecting the attack. From then on, the battle became a dance of swings and parries. Of dodges and narrow misses.
There was something different in the way Echo fought now. Something almost feral. Carita had always known her friend was a wielder of Earth magic, not Wind. But she had never seen Echo fight like this. Acting as if her sword was a long, hooked claw that wanted to rip and tear at any flesh it could find.
As they moved into their next round of attacks, Echo came at Carita with the same spin and leap manoeuvre she had done during practice. Carita braced herself for impact. But when she brought her sword up to block the strike, it wasn’t the exhaustion in her arm that caused her downfall.
The blade Echo was using sliced through Carita’s sword like it was made of a roll of parchment. The shift in balance knocked Carita to the ground. Echo landed on top of her, the blade in her hand piercing the dirt inches from Carita’s ear.
“You ignored the plan.” Echo whispered, a note of panic creeping into her voice. “Why did you ignore the plan?”
Carita stared up at her, too breathless to speak.
“Splendid, my dears. You are both quite gifted.” Ruby rose from the bench, applauding. “Now go and change into proper clothes. I will have priests come and get you in an hour. Then the Choosing Ceremony can begin.”
“Which of us are you going to pick?” The moment the question left her mouth, Carita regretted asking it. How many times had she been told that a priestess was not to address the Goddess unless spoken to?
“A curious one, aren’t you?” Ruby smiled a strange smile. “Show up tonight and you’ll find out.”
How will Carita become Ruby's Champion now?
Why is Echo so panicked about winning?
Does Ruby know something Carita and Echo don't?
What happened to the ghost child?
And what is Lucian up to two thousand years later?
All shall be revealed when Sealer's Game launches on October 22nd!