Sunday, January 3, 2010


Red Talon

Book 1 of the Red Talon Chronicles

By Roman J. Martel


Deep under the ground they combined arcane knowledge, desire for revenge and the molten fires of the earth itself to forge a great weapon. It was an axe, with a blade so sharp it could cut through any armor. It had a haft so sturdy that no other weapon could ever cleave it asunder. It had a grip that would mold itself to the hand of its wielder, and would not cut for any other.

It was meant to pierce the very heart of the oppressive kingdom that had conquered all. It would be used to defend the helpless and bring justice to those who needed it most. It was meant to unite all people of the continent against their most deadly foes. Its blade was shimmering crimson, as if it was already stained with the blood of the wicked.

They crafted it for a champion. They called it Red Talon.

Chapter 1: Battle Without Blood

            The sun continued its afternoon decent over the grounds of the Great Temple of Ashtyr. The flattened earth of the proving grounds reflected the heat of the day back up around the four groups of young women. They had been drilling and training for hours, and were now in the final minutes of sparring. Older priestesses watched the engagements offering advice and correcting form. The younger acolytes were cheering their favorite warrior, giving her praise and moaning if she was defeated.
            In the group closest to the great temple pyramid four girls looked with apprehension on their next challenge, the final one of the day. They knew at the start they would have to fight her, but none of them relished it. It was difficult to relish your imminent defeat.
            Sister Fenio’s voice was calm as she said, “Kayla, it is your turn. You defeated three the last time. What do you wish to do?”
            Kayla stood up grasping her wooden baton firmly. The sparring weapon was designed to mimic the grip and weight of a battle axe. Her deep brown eyes surveyed the seated girls looking up at her. There was admiration in those looks, fear too and a bit of jealousy. And why not, she was the best warrior of all the acolytes.
            Kayla stood six feet tall with her long straw blonde hair tied back in three places. She was wiry, except for her arms, which bulged with muscle. She had classically lovely face, with high cheekbones and full lips. She took two confident steps forward and said in a clear soprano voice, “I will fight four, Sister Fenio.”
            One of the girls, Millie let out a groan. Kayla fixed her with a stare, and Millie couldn’t meet her gaze for long, but yes the younger girl was jealous.
            “Very well,” Sister Fenio said. “Belhit, Millie, Illio, Hestis attack when ready.”
            The four younger acolytes rose, checked their batons and shields and got into ready stances. All the young women were dressed in green tunics and leather armor that consisted of breastplates, bracers, greaves and caps tied under the chin.
            Kayla smiled at them and slid into her ready stance. A soothing afternoon breeze blew her hair slightly around her, and she looked like the warrior form of Ashtyr herself.
            Millie, the jealous one attacked first. She let out a battle cry and hurtled at Kayla swinging her baton with all her strength. But the attack was high, so Kayla ducked under it and slammed her shield into the girl with a tremendous blow that knocked Millie off her feet.
            Hestis attacked at that moment, but Kayla parried with her baton and then pivoted on her foot to bring a sharp kick into Hestis’ side below the shield. Hestis grunted at the unexpected attack and lost focus just long enough for Kayla to slap her on top of the head with her baton.
            “Hestis is defeated,” Sister Fenio said.
            Kayla was already engaging with Belhit who hadn’t moved and was surprised at the older girls’ onslaught. She defended bravely with her shield but Kayla was ferocious in attack and broke through her defenses and struck her in the shoulder. A true axe would have passed through her torso.
            “Belhit is defeated.” Sister Fenio said.
            Millie attacked again, her eyes filled with rage. She swung at Kayla with wild strokes. Kayla blocked them, watching for an opening. Just in time she saw a shadow creeping up behind her. Without a word she tumbled low, avoiding Illio’s strike from behind. Kayla got to her feet and sent another sharp kick into Millie’s back. The girl went sprawling with an anguished cry and Kayla brought down her baton on the girl’s spine hard enough to leave a bruise. Millie cried out in pain and her tears fell into the dust.
            “Millie is defeated.” Sister Fenio said.
            Kayla practically growled ant turned to face Illio. The girl was backing away, eyes wide with fear. “I’m s…sorry Kayla.” She stammered. But in this game there was no forgiveness or surrender. It was a fight to the death.
            Kayla continued forward baton ready to strike. Illio looked around at her fellow acolytes and Sister Fenio. But none of them moved. They knew the rules. Illio’s lip trembled and she dropped her baton and fell to her knees. “Make it quick.”
            Kayla grimaced, “Fight.” The younger girl didn’t move. “You’re supposed to fight to the death. What kind of acolyte of Ashtyr are you?”
            “Finish her, don’t’ lecture her,” Sister Fenio said.
            Kayla brought her baton down on Illio’s cap with a sharp rap. The girl started crying silently.
            Kayla turned away from the defeated girl and looked at Sister Fenio who said, “Illio is defeated. Four challenged, four conquered.”
            Kayla smiled and gave a little bow. A few of the girls who didn’t fight cheered. But when Kayla rose up she saw Fenio wasn’t smiling. She was also dressed like the sparring girls, but her tunic was crimson red, and she didn’t bother with a leather cap. Her hair was steel grey with tight curls that framed her broad features. Fenio’s eyes were like hard black onyx. Her skin was a deep brown and scars from many battles crisscrossed her legs and arms. Like Kayla she was in excellent shape, her muscles clearly visible as she slid into a ready position, her own baton and shield at the ready.
            “Four, but too easy for you Kayla,” Fenio said. “Time for a harder challenge then.”
            “If you wish Sister. I don’t want to hurt you,” Kayla said.
            “You just try little girl.”
            “Little? I’m a head taller than you.”
            “For all the good it will do you,” Fenio said, and she lunged forward with blazing speed.
            Kayla blocked the blow but was immediately put on guard. She got so used to fighting her peers she’d forgotten how fast and strong Fenio was. The teacher rarely sparred with any of the acolytes, unless she was testing them. Of course it came to this. It was nearly time.
            Fenio followed her first strike with a flurry of strong quick attacks. Kayla could hear Millie cheering loudly “Make her bleed Sister!”
            Fenio suddenly switched tactics and struck Kayla hard with her shield, forcing the taller woman stumbling back a step. Fenio swept in with her baton at Kayla’s legs, but the acolyte parried just in time and then sent a kick at her teacher.
            Fenio took the hit and let it propel her into a roll that knocked Kayla off balance. The two women righted themselves, and Kayla struck first. There was a gasp from the watchers, followed by the sound of wood hitting wood. Fenio parried.
            Now the older woman was smiling, “Nicely done. You’re adjusting quickly.”
            Kayla didn’t answer with words, but shifted her stance and brought her shield around to strike a distracting blow on her teacher. But the older woman saw that coming. She leaned back the shield whistling right in front of her. Kayla’s eyes bulged with surprise as she felt her balance shifting away from her.
            She felt three sharp strikes with the baton on her back.
            “Damn,” Kayla hissed.
            “Kayla is defeated.” Sister Fenio said.
            Some of the acolytes were cheering for Fenio, some for Kayla. The younger woman nodded to her teacher. “You know so much of war craft. I don’t think anyone can defeat you.”
            “Never think that,” Fenio said. “No matter how skilled or talented you are, there will always be someone better.”
            “Red Talon was never bettered,” Kayla said.
            Fenio chuckled, “You talk to Sister Dayn about that. I’m sure she can tell you many tales of Red Talon meeting her match.”
            One of the younger girls gasped, “Isn’t that blaspheme Sister Fenio?”
            The teacher smiled, “We should all aspire to the greatness of our heroes. Red Talon is one of the greatest to ever travel the Kingdom of Theos, perhaps the greatest hero in the whole continent of Reluria. But she was mortal. She died like all of us will some day. Great Ashtyr granted her strength, speed, a quick mind and beauty. The Great Goddess trusted her with her words and her teachings. To me, Red Talon is who we all aspire to be. But we must never forget, we are mortals. We are flawed. Know those flaws, understand them and you can triumph.” Here she looked at Kayla, “But be blinded to them and you will suffer.”
            “And what flaw am I blind to?” Kayla asked, trying not to sound annoyed.
            “Several, but you should understand how your height works as an advantage and disadvantage. I used it against you, got you off balance and struck.” Fenio turned to the group, “What do I always say?”
            “Strength and speed alone do not win the battle,” all the girls said.
            “That is right. Observe and understand your opponent,” Fenio said. “Kayla taunted me with her height. I knew she felt it was an advantage and would be blind to how it could be exploited.” She offered her hand to her student. “Lesson delivered.”
            “Lesson learned and remembered,” Kayla responded and clasped her teacher’s hand. She hoped her smile looked genuine.
            Fenio turned back to the girls, “Lesson’s over for today. Return to your dorms and prepare for evening prayers and meals. Be punctual, we have a special announcement tonight.”
            The girls picked up their equipment, removed their constrictive caps and started toward the dorms which were across the temple grounds. Kayla took her time, making sure that she met Millie’s eyes. The younger glared at her for a moment and scowled. She then went to Illio who looked like she was still crying and walked with her back to the dorms.
            Kayla shook her head. Jealousy she was used to. Many of the girls and even some of the priestesses envied her beauty and strength. But weakness, that was something she didn’t understand or could abide. Illio just giving up was offensive; not just to Kayla but to the Great Goddess herself. Ashtyr was courageous in the face of overwhelming odds. It is why she picked Red Talon to be her champion in the mortal realm. Red Talon feared nothing. By extension any woman who hoped to become a priestess to the Great Goddess had to be fearless. Illio’s timid nature should either be punished or she should be sent to another temple, maybe one outside the Jade Forest, along the pilgrim road. Here, fear was pointless and useless.
            But maybe Illio would grow out of it. Clio was very timid when she was younger. But Kayla befriended her and spent time grooming her into the fearless young woman she was today. Maybe Millie could help Illio on that way. Millie was brave, even if she was ugly.
            “Sister Kayla,” as soft voice said behind her.
            Kayla turned and smiled down and the young acolyte looking up at her. She’d seen this girl around the temple but couldn’t place her name. “I’m not a Sister yet. You can just call me Kayla.”
            “Yes. Of course,” the girl said. Her eyes shimmering with admiration. Ah yes, and something else: adoration. “You will surely be a Sister very soon.”
            “My time of Trials is at hand. I believe tonight is when High Priestess Teph will declare it officially,” Kayla said.
            “How exciting,” the girl said. Yes, this one was in love.
            “Did you wish to ask me a question little one?” Kayla asked.
            “I only wanted to say, I’ve never seen any of the other acolytes fight like you do. You are so brave and strong. It is like watching Red Talon herself.”
            Kayla shook her head, “And yet Sister Fenio defeated me. No, I am not worthy of that comparison until I can defeat my teacher.”
             “You will. I know you will. She just got lucky today,” the girl said and took a step closer to Kayla.
            “One day, I will defeat her. I’m certain of that. Who knows, maybe that will be part of the Trial,” Kayla said.
            “You are the most wonderful woman I know,” the girl said. “I… I wish I could be with you… on the Road of Trials. I am too young.”
            “You have much to learn,” Kayla said. “But I’m sure you’ll succeed. Study hard. Learn from all the girls. Follow the path of Ashtyr and you will become a Sister worthy of the Goddess. Who knows, one day you may even travel the world and do good, just like Red Talon.”
            The girl leaned close, “Many of us think you are Red Talon.”
            Kayla shook her head, “That is blaspheme. I am Kayla, acolyte of Ashtyr. Only if I pass the Trial, and lay my hand on the great axe, only then will Ashtyr grant me the name Red Talon.”
            The girl clasped her hand, “You will. I know you will. Who else could it be? No other girl here is so like the hero. Even some of the sisters believe it is you.”
            “We’ll see,” Kayla said. “I shall try my hardest to complete The Trial. But no one has touched the axe in hundreds of years. Some say it can’t be done.”
            “They are wrong. You will do it Sister Kayla. You will.” Her eyes looked down at her their hands touching. “Your hands are so big, so strong…”
            Time to stop this before it went further, “I’m sorry but I need to go. I promised my friend I would speak with her before dinner.”
            The girl looked startled, “Who? That annoying girl?”
            Kayla chuckled and pulled her hand from the younger girls grasp, “Clio is my best friend, as annoying as she is. I would appreciate it if you didn’t insult her.”
            “Of course,” The girl said. “It’s just that… I don’t understand what you see in her.”
            “Then I suggest you get to know Clio a little more. Once you understand why I like her, you come and tell me. Then… maybe… I can help you train. Show you how to use your body correctly.”
            The girl’s eyes grew larger, “Of course. Yes, indeed. “ She nodded. “I won’t keep you any longer. Tell Clio I said Hi.”
            Kayla nodded and waved. It never failed, there was always one or two that would fall in love every couple months. It was entertaining sometimes, but mostly it was just a hassle, especially now. She didn’t have time to waste on silly romances and whisperings.
            She looked around. She was one of the last girls on the proving ground. Not too far away she saw Lyn and Rhian talking to Sister Fenio. It would be best to leave before those two came over.
            Kayla left the proving grounds and made her way to the Road of Trials.

Chapter 2: A Moment of Calm

            The fading orange sun set the clouds ablaze with fire. As it touched the diadem on the head of the enormous statue of Ashtyr that surmounted the pyramid temple, Kayla felt a brief moment of fear. No, that was quite right. It was apprehension. Today was the last day she could think of herself as a child, and that day was ending. Kayla had never been prone to childish behavior but she felt the weight of responsibility all around her.
            I’m still an acolyte of Ashtyr, but in a matter of days I may be much more. Am I ready for such a role?
            Yes. She had trained for years, studied for years, been born and bred to this purpose. The Trail that would decide all was ahead. She would be the first in hundreds of years to pass it. Of that she was certain.
            But Kayla couldn’t help but feel the finality of it all. The setting sun touching the giant stone form of The Goddess upon the Great Temple put it all in perspective. It was something she hadn’t considered until this moment. So much time spent planning and training for the Trial left little time to play and be girl. Now she was something transforming, not quite a woman. She was potential. It was a strange feeling, off-putting to say the least.
            “Are you coming up or not?” Clio asked from above her.
            Kayla turned her brown eyes up to the large tree towering above her. The leaves rustled a bit, but she couldn’t see her friend up there. Clio was good at climbing and hiding.  Those leaves moved only because Clio wanted them to move. “The sunset caught my eye.”
            There was pause and another rustle of leaves, “My Goddess, that is a sight isn’t it?” Clio said.
            The forest that surrounded the temple took on different almost surreal look. The burning clouds turned the leaves deepest green or black, the grey stones of the temple were saturated in orange fire. Even the twinkle of the Jade River seemed to run like shimmering yellow topaz in the horizon.
            “She tells us to remember this moment,” Clio said.
            “Ashtyr knows that all must end in time. Our childhood ends this day,” Kayla replied.
            “It does,” Clio said. “It makes me sad. I enjoyed being a child.”
            Kayla smiled, “I think you will always be a child at heart.”
            “So you say now. But wait till we get to the Trial. I’m going to surprise all three of you.”
            “I hope so. I welcome any challenge,” Kayla said.
            “I already challenged you corn hair. Climb this tree,” Clio said and Kayle could imagine that mischievous smile.
            “Hardly a challenge at all,” Kayla said. She pulled her eyes away from the setting sun and looked up at the tree. Many the limbs were very high off the ground but there were a couple that could be reached with a good jump.
            She maneuvered to a better position, and then only bending her knees slightly she leapt from the ground grabbed hold of the low branch and pulled herself up easily. Once she steadied herself on the branch, Kayla worked her way up to where Clio was waiting with exactly the smile she imagined on her little face.
            Clio was one of the few beast folk that lived at the temple. She was a combination of feline and human in appearance. Her body much like that of a small boned girl just under five feet tall. Her body was covered in grey fur with charcoal stripes running horizontally across her body, except for a black hood that covered her ears and part of her head. Her hand were human-like, but with white fur, pads and claws. Her legs resembled a human’s until you got to the feet, which seemed more delicate and paw-like. She had a long black tail that peekd out from her tunic. She was dressed in the same training armor as Kayla. Clio’s eyes were yellow and shimmered in setting sun.
            “That was an impressive leap. I wasn’t sure you could do it,” Clio said.
            “Doubting my skill is a dangerous thing,” Kayla said easing back against the tree and trying took as comfortable as Clio appeared.
            “You keep saying that, but I wonder what will happen when The Trail begins. Will you be so confident?”
            Kayla smirked, “Of course I will. I’m the best of us four. You all know it.”
            “Uh, well I admit you certainly look the part. But I don’t know. Rhian keeps saying that we are going to encounter tests that we can even conceive of. “
            “Rhian says a lot of things. But I think she just spits out whatever she is reading to sound smarter than she is,” Kayla said. She turned to look through the leaves toward the Road of Trials, but she couldn’t see much.
            “Rhian is smart. She doesn’t need to act smart,” Clio said.
            “She knows what she reads in scrolls and what the priestesses tell her. What does she really know about The Trial? Just as much as the rest of us. She is grasping at anything that could make her feel like she has a chance.”
            Clio shrugged, “I think you write her… and me off too easily.”
            “It will be up to you to prove me wrong.”
            “I will.”
            “I look forward to it.”
            They sat in silence for a while and then Clio asked, “You know what you will do if you don’t pass The Trial?”
            “I will pass The Trial,” Kayla said.
            “Well, you can say that all you want, but I’m guessing you have an idea of what you’d do if you don’t pass.”
            “Why should I think about failing? What does that get me?’
            “I just think it is a good idea to have a plan, something else to aim for. I’d like to become a protector on the pilgrim road. I think that would be fun. You’d get to meet all the pilgrims and protect them from dangers. Maybe even seen a real Riftspawn.”
            “You believe in those tales?” Kayla asked with a laugh.
            “I do. The pilgrims believe. And that old woman,… you were sick and didn’t get to hear her. The story she told was very frightening and exciting. I hope I’d be brave enough if I met a Riftspawn, but I don’t know…”
            “I wasn’t sick.”
            Clio cocked her head to the side, “Yes you were. I remember that. You hardly ever get sick, but you were throwing up all over the place.”
            “It was spoiled fish. Something I ate. I wasn’t sick.”
            “Well I think if you are vomiting, then you’re sick. End of story.”
            “I don’t get sick,” Kayla said. After a pause she said, “She didn’t get sick either.”
            Clio laughed, a strange chuffing sound, “Oh I bet she did. But how would you put that in a story." Clio took on a sonorous important voice, "On this day Red Talon vomited for three hours because she ate a spoiled fish and laid around in bed and kept telling everyone she was going die.”
            “I never said that!” Kayla hissed.
            “Oh yes you did. You said, ‘I’m dying. Tell Sister Teph I’m dying.’”
            “Shut your mouth you furball. I never said that.”
            Clio smirked. “You’ll have to shut my mouth for me. If you can catch me, corn hair.”
            Kayla shifted into a crouch, “Don’t test me little girl. You know I’m stronger and faster than you.”
            “Stronger, yes. But I’m the fastest one in the temple. And the trees are my domain.”
            Kayla was about to reply when she heard voices. Someone was approaching the tree. Clio’s ears shifted toward the sound and then she smiled, “Rhian. Let’s give her a scare.”
            Kayla smiled back. Rhian was a know-it-all and deserved a good scare or two.
            The two young women moved a little lower in the tree, and very quietly. Kayla was nearly as quiet as Clio, which impressed the non-human very much. As they waited they could hear Rhian’s soft soprano voice.
            “… but that text was damaged. So we don’t really know what happened after that. Sister Dayn thinks that it leads into the tale of the underworld, but I’m not so sure. It feels like it goes into something else, a new tale we’ve not yet discovered.”
            There was a pause and then another woman spoke, her voice was deeper and a little husky sounding, “I’m still confused by those stories. They don’t seem to match up with Ashtyr’s teachings.”
Clio glanced up to Kayla who mouthed silently “Lyn of course.”
“It is something all the priestesses struggle with,” Rhian said. “But I believe that there are missing tales that reveal more about Red Talon’s motives during that time. I don’t think we have the complete story, so her actions seem incongruous with the teachings.”
“Incon…”Lyn replied.
“Like you said. They don’t match the teachings as we know them.”
“Oh. I don’t think I’ve heard that word before. Say it again.”
“Incongruous,” Rhian said. Kayla rolled her eyes. Rhian always did that, used big words that no one else would ever use. Trying to sound like a teacher. Trying to sound so clever.
“Clio likes those stories of Red Talon on the ship the best,” Lyn said. “She always wants me to tell her those.”
“Yes, well Clio is silly. Those stories are the bloodiest and scariest, but they have little in them that we can use in our journey to complete The Trial.”
“Perhaps. But if the tale brings joy to the listener, then there is no harm in telling it again,” Lyn said. “At least I don’t think there is.”
“These are more than tales Lyn. You know that. These are sacred texts.”
“Of course,” Lyn said. Kayla could see the big girl blushing in her minds eye. “I just meant that the stories are entertaining, on the surface. Some of the other stories make you think. Would I have the strength to do that in her stead? I don’t know. It is hard to say what I’d do in some of those situations.”
“That is why we must endure The Trial. We must prove our strength, our piety, our compassion. We must be worthy of all Ashtyr has shown us.”
“It is a lot to ask,” Lyn said. Kayla shook her head. Lyn said strange things like that all the time. That lack of confidence was her weakness.
“I don’t see them,” Rhian said.
“I heard Clio say she was going to the Tree. Kayla must have gone with her,” Lyn said.
“They are good friends,” Rhian said, and Kayla heard a condescending note in her voice.
“Yes they are. Just like we are good friends,” Lyn said.
Clio’s eyes met Kayla’s. It was almost time to attack.
“Do you think they went down the Road of Trials? That would be breaking the rules,” Rhian said.
“No. Kayla wouldn’t do that,” Lyn said. And she was right enough. Kayla would win fairly. To cheat to win is no victory at all. Ashtyr never cheated.
“But Clio would,” Rhian said. Clio gave Kayla an offended look and prepared to pounce.
“I don’t think so. Kayla wouldn’t let her in any case,” Lyn said.
“I bet you they’re back at the dorms laughing at us. Clio probably said that on purpose to get us walking out here,” Rhian said. “She loves playing jokes on me.”
“Maybe.” Lyn said, but Kayla could tell she didn’t believe it. In fact Lyn’s voice sounded clearer, as if she was looking up into the tree as she said it.
Clio felt it too and nodded. She held up three fingers and then counted. One.
“You know-” Lyn started.
“They could-“
“Be in the-“
She didn’t complete her words because Clio and Kayla exploded from the tree and landed in front of the two acolytes. Clio landed in front of Rhian who let out a yelp, stumbled back a step and fell on her rear. Rhian was about five foot eight inches tall, with dark brown skin, a large sharp nose and pale blue eyes. Her hair was black, curly and hung down just past her neck. She was been at combat practice too, so it was pulled back in a pony tail. Like Kayla and Clio she was dressed in her leather armor and tunic. She wasn’t as obviously muscular as Kayla, but was in good shape. Her mouth was open in surprise and Clio burst out laughing, but leaned over to help her up.
Kayla landed in front of Lyn, but her reaction was completely different from Rhian’s. She was in a fighting stance legs apart, hands up and eyes locked on Kayla. A slight smile touched her lips. For a moment Kayla fought the urge to spar with Lyn, take her down a peg. But no, it would be better to save her strength for the real test.
Lyn was Kayla’s only real competition. Physically Lyn was pure strength. She towered at six foot four inches tall, her body was broad and powerfully muscled. Her legs were her most impressive physical attribute. They were long, thick and solid. Lyn was the best jumper (except for Clio) and the fastest sprinter of all the acolytes. When she came charging at you during combat practice it was one of the most intimidating things any of the girls ever faced.
Her hair was brown with a slight wave to it, but she usually kept it pulled back out of her face in a ponytail. But Lyn’s eyes were her most arresting feature. They were like deep green emeralds filled with focus. Those eyes plagued Kayla. She felt them on her during practice, studying her moves and her skills. Lyn was a very good fighter, and she used her height and strength well. But she wasn’t fast. Time and again Kayla defeated her by thinking and moving quickly.
The two young women remained motionless for a moment. Kayla could feel something building between them – the power of rivalry. Kayla relished it. She wanted challenge and Lyn was it. If Lyn made the first move, Kayla would attack, just to relieve this tension.
But Lyn’s eyes shifted to Clio and Rhian who were now watching both of them. The taller girl slid into a casual stance and said, “You startled me. Good one.”
“You knew we were there,” Kayla replied, but she relaxed too. No, it was better to save this feeling for The Trial.
“Maybe,” Lyn said.
“You did,” Kayla insisted.
“I thought you might be. Made sense. Clio likes to climb,” Lyn said. “You alright Rhian?”
“Yes,” Rhian said dusting off her tunic and giving Kayla an annoyed look. “Very funny.”
“I think it is,” Clio said. “Got to keep your wits about you in the forest, girls.”
“True enough,” Kayla said. All four of the girls turned to look along the Road of Trials in the light of the setting sun. The path looked pale red closest to them but as it entered the dense Jade Forest it became darker and darker, until it was the color of crimson blood.
“I’ve heard one of the sisters say that a couple of acolytes have died during the Trials,” Clio said.
“I doubt that,” Kayla said. “They are trying to scare us.”
“Or make sure we realize how important these Trials really are,” Rhian said.
“They’ve told us over and over how important they are,” Clio replied. “Why mention girls getting killed?”
“Because its true?” Lyn said.
“It isn’t true,” Kayla retorted. “It’s part of the game. This is a game to some of them.”
“Not to Sister Fenio,” Lyn said. “She’s deadly serious about it.”
“Sister Fenio is deadly serious about everything,” Clio said.
Lyn chuckled, “I can’t argue that.”
“The woman can’t take a joke,” Clio said, and rubbed the top of her head with the memory.
“I told you it was a bad idea,” Kayla said chuckling. Lyn and Rhian were smiling too.
“Well, she said my tail was a liability. I’m not tying my tail against my body. It helps me balance,” Clio grumbled.
“You’re just lucky all she did was bop you on the head after that little stunt,” Kayla said.
“I don’t know how she heard me. The rest of you are easy to sneak up on,” Clio said.
“Because you get clumsy when you’re nervous,” Kayla said.
Clio stuck her tongue out at Kayla.
“They said it might take a few days to reach the Temple of Trials,” Lyn said. “We’ll have to camp out in the forest.”
“You scared?” Kayla asked.
“A little. The animals have the advantage out there,” Lyn said.
“I’ll be with you. I’ve got sharp ears,” Clio said.
“That is one part I don’t understand,” Rhian said. “They told us the Trials are a competition. But they also said we need to work together. How can it be both?”
“In the end, only one of us can be Red Talon,” Kayla said.
“If any of us even make it to the end,” Lyn added.
“I will,” Kayla said.
None of the girls answered her. Clio rolled her eyes. Rhian looked away, but Lyn just met her gaze.
“At some point we will have to face each other,” Lyn whispered. “I don’t like that.”
“It’s a competition,” Kayla said. “You don’t mind races or sparring.”
Lyn shook her head, “Those are practice or for fun. This is something else. This is for our lives and the fate of so many people if one of us achieves the Axe.”
“The Goddess will guide and we must follow,” Rhian said.
“The best of us will win,” Kayla said. “The Goddess will only choose the best.”
“I won’t hurt any of you to get the Axe,” Lyn said.
“Then you’ve already lost,” Kayla replied.
Brown eyes met green ones and Kayla felt that spark of rivalry rise between them again. Kayla knew that Lyn felt it too; she saw a fierce energy leap up in those emeralds, focused and wanting to show what she could do.
“You may not have a choice,” Rhian said.
That distracted Lyn, “What do you mean?”
“The Trial is meant to push us to go beyond what we would normally do. In the depths of the forest you may not have a choice. You may have to face and defeat us,” Rhian said.
“I actually agree with her,” Kayla said. “It is the only thing that makes sense.”
“Then I won’t do it,” Lyn said. “I won’t harm my friends.”
“You might feel differently in the heat of competition,” Kayla said.
“I doubt that,” Lyn said.
“I’ve seen you sparring or racing. You don’t hold back. You shouldn’t have to,” Kayla said.
Lyn thought about it and than said with a smile, “For you, I’ll make an exception.”
“Don’t hold back because we are peers,” Kayla said.
“Oh, I meant, I’ll make sure not to hold back… just for you,” Lyn said.
“Good,” Kayla said.
“Oh my Goddess,” Clio sighed, “I can’t wait for The Trial to be over, so I won’t have to hear you two going on and on about facing each other. You two just go off into the woods wrestle and kiss for a while and get it out of your system.”
Rhian snorted with surprise and laughed.
“Lyn’s not my type,” Kayla said.
“Too strong?” Lyn asked.
“Not strong enough,” Kayla said and turned and walked away. Clio followed her and she could hear Lyn and Rhian talking behind them.
As the two walked back to the temple complex the red sun touched the very edge of the Jade Forrest. The first of the night calling birds cried out, saluting the coming of the stars. Soon the forest would be alive with predators and death. Few of the priestesses left the grounds at night. But the view of the grounds from the tree was spectacular. Kayla was glad she took the time to see it one last time as an acolyte. She was even happy to share the moment with the three other girls who would be her companions during the Trials. They were bonded already, even if Kayla wasn’t fond of all of them. It felt right that they were all there for that moment.
After a few moments of silence Clio said, “What you said to Lyn was a bit rude,” Clio whispered.
“She needs to stop being so pathetic,” Kayla said. “She’s strong and fearless, but she acts like this big soft hearted bear. I don’t have patience for that kind of behavior. She could be one of the greatest warriors here, but she doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or body. Even when she fights me, her blows are gentle.”
“Its just who she is. She’s got a gentle heart,” Clio said.
“It makes me angry. Why would the Goddess waste such great strength on such a weak heart?” Kayla asked.
“To annoy you,” Clio said and did that chuffing laugh of hers.
“It worked,” Kayla said. “I am willing to wager that Lyn will be the first to give up. She’ll have to do something that hurts you or Rhian and she won’t do it.”
“What if she has to fight you?” Clio asked.
“I’ll make her face me. She wants to. I can see it. And I won’t grasp Red Talon until Lyn is out of my way. She is my test, I know it. She knows it. I’m telling you now, Clio. Lyn is afraid that when she faces me, she’ll see the truth. I’m Ashtyr in the mortal flesh. I’m Red Talon.”
Clio gasped slightly and didn’t answer. It was blaspheme to say such a thing. But Kayla felt the truth of it. The Trial would confirm what she already knew. She was destined for greatness. The journey just had to begin.

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