Your Online Cup of Tea
“I didn’t choose to be born here. I know no-one does. Choose. It seemed that here was the only place left in the world. Or so we had been led to believe. Beyond the walls of Sanctum, they told us, are nothing but monsters, waste and savages. But I can’t tell what’s worse, the monsters that run the place in here, or the ones we hear about out there.”
Amelia has just turned 15 and is about to be received into her society, Sanctum, as a fully fledged adult member. Being the last safe haven of Civilization in the world, her entire future rides on the success of her participation in the initiation by competing against 11 other girls in a series of challenging tasks. With no close friends, a missing brother and a family that seems to be falling apart, winning has become her only hope for better days. However, all is not as it seems as the peace and stability of Sanctum is threatened by a dark secret hidden in plain sight. And Amelia finds herself caught up in a war that has plagued her world since the beginning of time. ———————————————————————————————————————————— I’ve never left Sanctum. Beyond the walls that guard it, are nothing but monsters and savages. Things come into these walls, but nothing ever leaves. Once only have I seen it happen. Not that anyone would believe me. Nor do I much believe it myself. What I saw. And if I did, I wouldn’t tell anyone. Outside of my family, I don’t really talk to people. I’m not the outgoing type. Though friends would be nice. But being alone isn’t so bad. You tend to notice things a lot more. It’s become a past time of mine. When I see people in the markets, I can tell things about them. Things that aren’t obvious to most people. My sister calls me a mind reader. If only. Then I’d have thoughts other than my own to accompany me during the day. It wasn’t always lonely like this. When I was younger my brother used to bring me around and teach me little tricks. I’d learn to make a fire, use a slingshot and my favourite, fighting with sticks. Father worked as a City guard; so he would teach my brother, training him to one day join the ranks. Then my brother would show me sometimes. I guess he didn’t have many friends either. Come to think of it, he never brought anyone by the house. Now that he’s gone, there’s been a void in the house. No one really talks anymore. Not the way we used to. Supper, the only time when we could all be together, was also the quietest. With the only sound being the crackling firewood and the munching of four people avoiding conversation.
“Momma,” I started.
“Eat some more of the potatoes then you can be excused from the table.”
It’s sad that she would think this was the only reason I would address her.
“Actually, I had a question. It’s about…” this was never easy to bring up. And in the past it wasn’t well received.
“It’s about Garm.” Immediately Father put down his food, sighing deeply, like he was tired of hearing what I had to say. Mother continued as before, pretending she didn’t hear at all.
“I know when I was younger, you would tell me I was too young to understand. But tomorrow is my initiation!”
“Momma, I’m going to be and adult now and he’s my brother. I deserve to know what happened to him.”
“You think that you go through some ceremony and all of a sudden you’re mature and ready to take on the world.”
“I just want to-
“Enough Lia,” interrupted Father, raising his hand, “Your mother said no.” “But-“
“Lia, maybe you shouldn’t. There’s no need to upset anyone.”
“Listen to your sister. She’s three years younger but already behaves more mature. When the time is right, your mother and I will tell you.” Hannaroes wouldn’t look at me. She knew I would be furious at her. Why didn’t she want to know? He was her brother as well.
“Will there ever be a right time to know whether or not my brother is alive?” Nobody responded. They were tired of arguing. And I was tired of asking.
After that, it didn’t take long for everyone to clear the table. Better too, I couldn’t stand having them around for another second. Leaving the room I went out into the back garden and lay on the grass as was my habit. I loved staring up the sky. Garm would tell me the names of the stars. Sometimes I thought he was just making it up. They all seemed the same to me. So it was no use trying to guess them now on my own. The stars always seemed at rest, I liked to think that now he was one of them. That now he would see me every night when I came out here. That one night, the wind would just lift me up and carry me away to him. But that would mean that I thought Garm was dead. I couldn’t. I had to hope. That’s all I had left. Wasn’t it?
The next morning, I tried to forget. Forget last night. Forget about not having friends. Forget about my…
It was time. Initiation Day. This time each year, the girls that turned 15 would go through various tasks and then be accepted as full adult members of Sanctum. The 12 that were most impressive were chosen to take part in the final ceremony. After passing a final and secret test, one of them would be chosen as Primary. Being chosen would mean that the rest of my life would be far better. It meant getting invited to important events and being able to live in inner Sanctum were the wealthiest were. People would look up to me and I would have friends. Maybe even find someone who would have me.
“Lia!” I almost fell in when she called. It was another one of my past times, to sit by the pond in our garden and stare. Now that I think of it, I must sound quite dull with all these odd past times. But looking into something so serene put me at ease. One thing I wouldn’t be, if mother caught me kneeling by it in this dress. I stood before she arrived.
“Lia, please don’t say you were by the pond in that white dress.”
“Fine, I won’t say.” She laughed for only a moment before her face looked like it was holding back something hard.
“Momma, today I’ll make you proud.” This was as close to an apology as I could muster. Communication wasn’t a strong point of this family but stubbornness was a powerful trait. Placing a reassuring hand on my shoulder, she gave a smile that didn’t match what her eyes were saying.
“Is something wrong?”
“You already make me proud, Amelia. You don’t have to prove anything to me.” I knew she was talking about today.
“Momma, I can do it. I could be Primary.”
“I know you could…” she came in and hugged me close. With her hand at the back of my head, before whispering “Maybe you shouldn’t.” What? Why was she trying to discourage me? Didn’t she believe in me? She couldn’t possibly be saying this. I took myself out of her hold, staring into her eyes, to see if this was a joke.
“Amelia, you I know I love you. I believe you can do this, but there is danger.”
“Please, trust me on this.”
“What? But you’re- you’re asking me to throw away everything I’ve worked for. Something I’ve always dreamed of.”
“If you win, you’ll throw away a lot more.”
“What is going on, why won’t you tell me?”
“Why won’t you listen to me for once?” I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Because apparently, I’m not old enough or mature enough to know things or listen.” Mother stood there quietly, looking more upset than she did yesterday. As I walked away, she tried to hold on to my arm, pulling me back. But I wasn’t going to stay. Nothing was going to stop me from getting what I needed today, with or without her support.
Hannaroes was waiting by the front. She had a huge Autumn Berry in her hand, that by the looks of it, she picked herself.
“I know it’s tradition before important events but do I really want a huge purple stain on my dress?”
“Only if you eat like a swine. The choice is yours really,” she joked. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t turn down food, especially an Autumn Berry. I hadn’t eaten one yet this year. But I wasn’t going to risk embarrassing myself by showing up to the ceremony dirty. Father was going to meet us there. Hannaroes asked about Momma, I lied saying she was with him. Hannaroes seemed to try a little more than usual to talk to me. I suppose this was her way of making up for yesterday. Walking over to inner Sanctum, it was a huge contrast to the rest of it. There the buildings were polished and clean, the roads clear and had a lot more noise than the rest. The first ring of Sanctum, closest to the outer wall was were most of the people lived. The middle ring was the green area with forests, lakes and fields for growing food. The inner ring was the capital where everything happened. The temple, the main markets and only a few people actually lived there. And even fewer were allowed into the second half of it. But today, I would be one of them. It was always special for me and Hannaroes to come here since it wouldn’t be very often. We would walk with our arms interlocked, afraid to lose each other in the mass.
“All maidens please approach to the front. All initiates to the front.” Just in time. I must have lost track while at the pond. We could even see Father was there at the front, looking around for us.
“Fate-be-well, Lia. I know you can do it.”
“Thank you Hannaroes, I’m glad someone supports me.” It was obvious by the confused look on her face that the idea of someone not supporting me in this was absurd. I agree. Why wouldn’t mother? The crowds seemed to show little concern for me, to focused on getting a good view. People didn’t have the courtesy to make way, forcing me to worm through them. Wasn’t the white dress obvious? On some level I couldn’t blame them. This was one of the few times that we got to see her: Araya.
“Quick!” Father beckoned me, “It’s about to start. Fate-be-well Lia! I’m proud of you.” More support. He asked Hannaroes where Mother was, so I increased the pace to avoid giving an explanation. Standing there by the other girls, facing the temple gate, I was increasingly aware of the fact that all eyes were on us. How had this part alluded my thinking so far? I wasn’t used to this kind of attention and I didn’t like it. My breathing was starting to get heavy and slowly, the feeling of throwing up was getting stronger. It made me grateful that I had been too mad to eat anything this morning. At least I wasn’t looking at them. The mass crowd began to hush at the loud sound of the gongs. Forming a line on both sides of me, the other girls bowed standing up, with their arm stretched forward and their hands flat. Lost in the moment of it all, I almost forgot, being the last of them to follow suit. Hopefully no one noticed. From the corner of my eye, I could see Hannaroes and Father, whom like everyone else was looking ahead with much anticipation. But Mother was not one of them. The colossal gates slowly opened, sliding into the high walls. However, it didn’t give a glimpse into the Temple or the other half of the city. Rather this was a small circular enclosure with high walls all around it, blocking the view. The sunlight illumined the area which had various precious stones placed on the inside of the wall, as well as gold-plated carvings of various beasts and symbols. At the center of the enclosure was an altar, where she stood facing us, smiling with her eyes closed: Araya.
She had a purple cloak over her long green robe, covering down to her waist, leaving only her hand showing. And likewise her robe covered all except some of her left leg, showing that she was barefoot, never wearing sandals. Her bald priests and priestesses stood on ground facing us, a few feet away from the steps of the alter, three on each side of her, chanting in low voices. She stood in stark contrast to their simple grey robes, bald heads and ghostly appearance. She on the other had looked animated. Her light brown tone didn’t seem to increase in the light or decrease from the lack of it in winter. Her shoulder length silver hair and the golden seams of her vestments along with the lavish surroundings glistened in the sun’s light, giving her an almost otherworldly presence. This was our Araya: the Ageless One.
“My Children,” she said affectionately raising her hands towards us. Her eyes opening, unveiling the rich green sea behind them. I didn’t know how it was that we all heard hear, as if she were beside us. But no one ever had any trouble. It was another one of her signs.
“In ages long gone, I was brought forth from the ocean by the two great crowns, my mother the Earth and my father the Sun. With me, came out of the waters my inheritance, the Moon, where my Celestial Reign now is, and the souls of those long gone, find their rest.” Garm.
“But, in their inscrutable wisdom, my mother and father did not grant me crownship straight away. I too was like you all are now. When blood ran through my veins. Then by various trials and testing, I was deemed worthy and given immortality and power. And today, here I stand.”
Everyone erupted in loud cheers and shouts of joy. It was hard to believe that while few ever got to see her up close, Araya would be speaking to me.
“Today,” she continued, “these girls, at the same age that I was when power was given me, will be received into our community as they symbolize my rise to victory. So too, they rise from here mere children, to be women of Araya.”
“However, there is also something special that I wish to give as a gift. For the girl who wins today will become more than a Primary. She… will become a star in the heavens. Immortal.” Could it be? Did my ears deceive me? The sounds of amazement and gasping reassured me that something big had just been said. The thoughts of such glory being conferred to me. Everyone one would love me. I wouldn’t be lonely. Maybe I would… I would see Garm again, in the heavens. It was hard to constrain myself, waiting here to begin the tasks. I needed to win it and I needed to win it now.
Araya turned towards the altar and held up high a silver bowl. Taking a few steps down, her bare feet lit up in quick bursts of light as they touched the earth. She made her way to the end on my left and stood in front of the first girl, leaning in and whispering into her ear. The girl, rose from her bow and in a low trembling voice, spoke a few words before closing her eyes and having Araya reach into the bowl and sprinkling her with a grew powder. This process was repeated with each girl. And every time it happened, it got harder to stay calm. At any moment, she would be here before me.
“Amelia DugenVard.” Her voice. It came with such familiarity and ease. The whisper so close and soothing, I almost lost balance. “Do you accept me as your queen and this land to be your home? With your loyalty and blood to me above all else? If so, arise O child and confess your truth.”
The pain I felt in my back from standing upright again, paled in comparison to being face to face with Araya. Her presence was far more enchanting up close, enriched by a sweet aroma that I’ve never come across before. I was too ashamed to look her in the eye, but it was hard not to be drawn to them.
“I’ll never let you down my Queen. My loyalty and blood are to you and this land truly is my home. If you’ll only let me be with you always.” I was embarrassed by that last line. It was wasn’t meant to be said out loud. But it couldn’t be helped. Why was I being so clumsy today? Much to my surprise, Araya placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder and smiled. Unable to believe what was happening, I stood quietly, eyes wide open, stiff as a rock.
“I bless you, my child with the dust of the moon. A taste of the land above.” I almost got lost in the moment again but caught myself. It was time to focus. Nothing would stop me from winning. And soon my dreams would all become reality. After the last the girl had been blessed, Araya made her way back to the altar, putting back the bowl. The gong sounded four times, accompanied by the harmony continuous of ram horns. At this point, the crowd had begun to cheer, giving us our queue to proceed.
“Turn my children and bid them farewell. For the girls that go in and the ones that come out are not the same.” With that, I took one last look at my family as the gates slowly began to shut. All I saw were smiling faces with everyone waving. Everyone except Mother, who was nowhere to be seen. The gates shut, leaving me and the other girls alone with Araya and her 6 escorts. Standing at the altar, facing away, she whispered words in a language I’d never heard before. After a few moments, she turned around and smiled at us.
“Now my children, you will follow the elders. Heed their instructions. And I ask that you say not a word of what you see here to anyone. Ever. Do I have your allegiance?”
“You have my allegiance,” we all said in unison. It began to dawn on me that I had no idea what exactly it was they wanted us to do. The elders blindfolded us and tied our hands to together on one rope. It didn’t feel too comforting and I’m sure as we began walking, that some of the girls tripped a few times. They had made us remove our sandals, which I wouldn’t minded were it not for the rocky area they brought us through. The sudden coolness accompanied by the sound of dripping water gave the impression that we were in a tunnel of some sort. The disgusting experience of blindly stepping on wet ground was the last thing I needed right now. Eventually, I could hear the outside world again and the wet grass met my feet. Behind, I heard the loud noise of door slamming shut. They didn’t bring us out… beyond the fortress did they? Where who knows what sort of creatures lie waiting.
A long while had passed in silence and still no one told us to remove our blindfolds and none came to loosen our binds. In fact, it was too quiet. I was afraid to check for myself, in case one of the elders saw me.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry to disturb, but what are we supposed to do now?” Nothing. They obviously heard, but didn’t think it a worthy of an answer. I don’t want to lose my chance. What’s going on? After another few moments had passed, I found it hard to stay as I was. My hands would make their way towards the blindfold, then fear would jerk it back. This struggle was getting too much. I had to something. Now! It was only meant to be a quick peak, but there were no elders there. The thought came to me to look behind me. I braved myself to meet disapproving faces. Maybe this was the first test. Slowly I turned and… no one. We were alone. Just a closed metal door on a towering wall. It had inscriptions on it that I recognized, but I couldn’t tell what it said. Looking around, we were in some sort of wide enclosure, with walls on each side, except for a long field ahead of us leading to a forest. The other girls still stood waiting with their hands tied and eyes covered.
“There’s no one here,” I said to myself.
“What?! Are you cheating?” To my left, taller than me by at least two feet, was a thin red-haired girl. The rawness of her hair served to make her more intimidating. Anyone who would come to this kind of ceremony, looking as unpolished as she did, was likely to be rough and to keen on pleasantries.
“The elders are gone now,” I added squirming. “Oh, are they? And how would you know without looking?”
“I-“ she pulled hard at the rope, jerking my hand as she brought it closer, removing the blindfolds to see. Her icy blue ices found me and narrowed with a look of disdain.
“Even worse than you sound.” I couldn’t keep her gaze. Fidgeting with the rope, getting away from her was the best thing I could do at the moment. By now, the other girls were following suit and removing their blindfolds.
“Where did she go?”
“What are you talking abo-
“The girl!” I don’t know why they attempted to whisper so miserably in a place this quiet. From what I could tell, there seems to have been a girl who was tied between them, who was now missing. I quick mental head count showed this was true. Having not paid much attention to the others earlier, the missing girl’s face wasn’t showing up in my mind.
“What are we supposed to do now?” One of them started tearing up. If she was this fragile, why was she participating? I suppose none of us knew what the ceremony would entail. At least it meant this likely to be one less girl to worry about.
“Of course, this is part of the test,” I said to myself. Everything else we had done to get this far was. And it’s all about Araya’s trial and journey.
“Do you know something we don’t!” Why hadn’t I moved away from her yet?
“Aye! I’m talking to you.” She came up closer to me, her fist pressed against my chin, with breath as unwashed as her hair. Would it fare any better for me to say anything than it would be to keep silent?
“I’m not good enough for you to answer me? Maiden All Honours? Just because you’ve done better than anyone in all the challenges so far and you come here polished with your washed mouth, you think you’re better than me?” She must have noticed my reaction to her breath. More importantly, how did she know how well I’d done?
“I’m sorry, I don’t know-
“Aargh!” Swinging her elbow to my stomach, I lost all air and fell like tree. Writhing on the ground, every breath filled me with pain.
“You belong down there, mud haired girl.” Rotten orange beast. It didn’t take long before the other girls started moving away. Who knows what she was capable of, away from public eyes? I waited on the ground expecting another blow but it didn’t come. I was alone here. Everyone was heading for the forest. Already I was behind on whatever task lay ahead. Brining to mind what was at stake, made staying put unbearable. I didn’t know what was worse, that mother didn’t support me, not making Primary or having this girl take the title. But for certain, this pain wasn’t the worst thing. And I wasn’t about to let this monster steal anything from me! I ran straight for the forest. If I could just catch up then-
“Aye!” The loud whisper shook me as I turned quickly to see, narrowly missing a branch. To my left from behind a tree, was a girl no taller than me. I could only describe how she looked as a harmonious contrast. Her crystal, water like eyes were magnified by the background of her pale features, framed by her unusually flat night-black hair that barely grazed her shoulders. With the only shade on her face coming from the previous moon dust.
“No don’t back away, I’m not like the other girl.” What? A beast?
“Who are you?”
“A friend,” she said cheerfully, “Or an enemy. Depends on you I suppose?” Did she think this was meant to be funny?
“I’m sorry, “ I said “but I have to get going before someone else-“
“They won’t get far.”
“How do you-
“My sister came here before. They change things around every year but apparently the idea is the same. The challenges are about wisdom, then courage and then there’s endurance, which is a combination of the two.”
“You don’t think the other girls are smart enough?”
“Well I’ve seen the scores, wisdom seems to be your thing. A lot better than us here anyways.” How is everyone getting access to these scores?
“The last girl who knew my score wasn’t too pleased about it.”
“Don’t worry about her. Just enjoy getting through the first challenge.”
“How are you so calm about all this?”
“I always like to focus on looking forward to something. Life is made up of moments we look forward to.”
“Not everyone has those and they’re still moving about.”
“That’s why I said life and not aimlessly walking around.” She latched her arm around mine and started to walk, “Which is why we’re going to move with purpose.” It occurred to me that this was one of the most important days of my life, in a serious test and here I was arm in arm with a girl whose name I didn’t even know.
“Why are you helping me?” I asked. “I say we work together for the first two and save our strength for the last one where we can separate. That’s why I ran ahead when all you guys were blindfolded, so I could talk to you privately.”
“So you’re the missing girl! Why didn’t you just wait?” She started tapping my head lightly with her knuckles.
“Helloooo, you’re meant to be the smart one. I couldn’t risk the other girls seeing us talking together, think we’re a team. These trials can bring out the worst in people.” I know that first hand. She skipped ahead of me a few feet into the forest, where she began hopping from the base of one tree to the next.
“There could be traps lying around,” she said, “To many leaves to know for sure. It’s safest by the trees where you can see.” Having sandals would have made this part easier. It wasn’t exactly pleasant to land on tree trunks. It was an odd feeling, that I didn’t find running around here in a nice white dress, white dress to be out-of-place.
“Here it is, the first challenge.” Before us was a large grey wall. I’m glad that it had an opening and we weren’t being asked to climb it.
“What do we have to do?” I asked.
“It’s written there at the entrance,” she pointed. There were inscriptions carved on the side of the entrance. By the looks of the mud around it, someone had tried to cover it up.
“So what exactly are we supposed to do?” I asked again.
“Can’t you read it?”
“I erm…” I tried to think of an excuse, but working well under pressure isn’t one of my strong points.
“Oh I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to-
“I never learned. I’ve never really needed it before. Sometimes it would have helped, but it’s not necessary,” I tried to convince myself.
“Can you write your name?”
“Yes, I know what it looks like.” She tried to hide her pity, but this girl seemed to be the type that couldn’t help but be transparent. Had we not had that awkward moment of silence, the sound of someone getting closer would have gone unnoticed. At very least these were few someones.
“Quick, let’s get in!” she urged. The fear of getting into more trouble helped me tolerate my feet slapping the hard ground as we ran. This was the strangest kind of monument I’d ever seen. It had no roof and It turned in all different directions. Sometimes we’d reach places with two or three possible paths to take. And sometimes the paths lead to dead ends.
“We’ve been here before,” she said in a weary voice, “this is practically where we started.”
“Hold on,” I said looking around, “This might sound strange, but I think I’m starting to form a pattern in my head.”
“Like this,” I showed, picking up a rock ,”It seems we get options in threes. What we’ll do is take every left turn, then every middle, and then every right. We’ll mark where we’ve been on the walls with this rock, every time we cross it, so we can keep track.”
“I’m sure glad I have a smart friend.” Friend? I didn’t know we were friends already. This trial was already helping me without having won yet.
“You know, that’s the first time since we’ve met, that I’ve seen you smile,” she laughed. Really? Was I really that gloomy? I suppose it is kind of humorous. And I laughed too. The marking system, it seemed, was helping us progress. When we saw a wall with many markings we knew to avoid that direction. Eventually we were finding more and more places with few or no marks. Soon we would be out of here. We must have been getting somewhere, because the walls in this particular area had weird symbols covering them, whilst the others had nothing.
“Don’t you think it’s odd, that we haven’t seen any other girls yet?”
“Why so?” she asked.
“Well, either it means they’ve gone out of here already.”
“I doubt it.”
“Or this place is so big, we’ve barely even begun making our way out.” She stopped walking. Staring at the ground, quietly it appeared she was in deep concentration.
“If we could fly, this would be so much easier. But that would count as cheating right?” Really? She’s definitely a strange one.
“Or” she added, rubbing both hands on the wall, “we could walk through it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous we can’t-“ And suddenly it hit me. “Walk through it.” I repeated. There on the wall ahead was a symbol I recognized before. I had seen similar to it around on few walls, but they were all kind of weathered and I didn’t think much of it. But this one, this one was clear. I had seen the exact same symbol a long time ago, once before, where I was given… my necklace.
“Wow! That’s beautiful.” Oh no. I forgot that there was someone else here. I didn’t let anyone know I had it. Quickly, I returned it underneath my dress.
“Oh now, I won’t take it from you. Please let me see.” I felt bad, treating her as if she would steal it from me like some common criminal.
“You don’t have to take it off you. I just want to see.” I couldn’t have my only ally thinking I didn’t trust them. Reluctantly, I handed it to her. For the first time in two years, it wasn’t on my person.
“Is that real sapphire?”
“I’m not sure what it is actually.”
“What a nice design. A simple golden round base, with a sword shape cut into it, and the engraving filled with sapphire. This is some delicate treasure.” She turned it around, getting a closer look. “Ayhs? Who’s Ayhs? Is that your name?” So that’s what the inscriptions on meant.
“I have no idea what it means.”
“But it’s your necklace?”
“I found it in a river, long ago.” I lied.
“Well it’s nicer than my name, Corsha. Makes me sound like an old person.” Maybe it was just fatigue or the way she said it, but I found that comment funnier than I should have. Looking ahead of me, she noticed the same symbol that I had before.
“Wait.” She moved closer to it, inspecting both the necklace and the wall.
“Here, look, there’s a square on it’s side, with an ‘A’ in the center and ‘Ayhs’ written on the outside of each line… this could be clue.”
“Actually…” I hesitated, “you wouldn’t believe me if I told you but I just want try-
“Shhhh.” Something got her attention. She knelt down and put her ear to the wall, staying quiet for a few moments.
“I hear water! This is an outer wall. We’re close! But… what’s that other noise?”
“Other noise?” Slowly, I began to hear it too. An echo was coming from the right and it was getting louder and closer. Corsha stood, getting ready to run at the first sight of danger. Then not long after, appeared from around the corner, the last person I wanted to see right now. The red-haired girl. This time she had a long tree branch with one of the ends sharpened to a point. I didn’t want to stay and see what she planned on doing with it.
“I guess the star child couldn’t figure her way out of this either.”
“Actually she’s very close!’ Corsha blurted, right before hiding behind me. “Let’s get out of here,” she whispered. I put my hand back, getting hold of the necklace.
“Give it to me,” I said softly, not wanting the other girl to hear.
“This is no time for-
“Trust me. This is important.” Confidently, the beast walked towards us slowly, as if running would do us no good.
“Corsha!” I pulled the necklace out of her hand, hurriedly pressing it against the symbol on the wall.
“What are you doing? We have to-“Light. The sapphire stone got brighter and the wall started to rumble.
“It’s going to fall!” yelled the red-haired girl. But I knew it wouldn’t. I’d seen it before, hoping it work this time too. A rush of wind suddenly surrounded us. And some how, the bricks in the wall moved out-of-place, floating aside in mid-air. An opening had now formed, big enough for us to go through.
“Corsha now!” I tried to go, but she held on tight to me, stuck to the ground and terrified by what she saw. She left me few options but to pulling her forward till she either walked or fell to the ground. It wasn’t easy but, I managed to get her to the other side, with both of us landing on the grass as she tripped over. Looking back I saw the other girl lunging forward through the opening, narrowly missing us as she dive rolled on the grass. As soon as we all crossed over, the bricks flew back into place, sealing the wall as if nothing had ever happened. Not long after, I looked up to see the other girl with her pointed staff, hovering over my head.
“Who are you? And how did you do that?” she demanded.
“I don’t know how it works, I just know that it works.”
“How? How could you possibly know that?”
“You wouldn’t believe me.”
“Oh? Well it’s a good thing I just saw a wall, magically make way for us, so I’m willing to believe anything at this point.” I had never told anyone how this necklace came into my possession. And Hannaroes was the only one besides me that knew I had it. But even she didn’t know the full story. Two years ago, I was at the woods resting in a tree by the lake. This was my favourite spot in the summer. Quiet, with no people around. But that day my tranquility was interrupted by the panicked screams of a woman by the lake. “Help! My children are trouble!” It appeared that two of her children had managed to get on one of the small boats and were floating in the middle of the lake unable to get back.
“You need to help them,” came a voice from below me. There was a girl there, with a head covering, veiling her appearance. Beside was a boy a lot more tanned than people around here. It didn’t take long for him to drop his staff and remove his cloak, before diving into the water. Upon reaching the boat, he pushed it back to shore, being greeted by a woman hysterically crying over her children, thanking the kind stranger. For some reason, I decided to follow them, they walked to the eastern wall, by the forest. There I saw them standing by it and stopping at the symbol.
“This is the way out?” asked the girl.
“Yes. It’s an old way, but it still works.” At first I thought they were talking about climbing over it, but that didn’t seem possible. Not to mention the ludicrous idea that anyone should want to leave here. For what? All of a sudden the boy stopped whatever he was doing, stood still saying, “I know you’re there. You’ve come just in time.”He turned in my direction and smiled. Reacting quickly, I retreated behind the tree, hoping he was addressing someone else.
“Don’t worry,” he added, “I have something for you.” This had to be a trap. But curiosity won over me and I looked slightly to see him holding out the necklace. Though I couldn’t see it clearly, it glistened beautifully in the light. He told me to hold on for a moment and faced the wall behind me. His hands moved over the wall, showing me the same inscription I saw at the maze. And just like today, when he placed the necklace by it, the same thing took place. The veiled girl who accompanied him, walked through the opening first and then the boy turned, beckoning me to come.
“I can’t go with you.”
“I’m not asking you to,” he smiled, “this is yours now.” Tossing it towards my feet, he followed his companion past the opening. And just before the wall closed up behind them, he looked back with his hand stretched out towards me saying “By the Crown who lives, may you blessed and kept.” That was the last I ever saw of him. Ending the most bizarre experience of my life.
“The Crown who lives?” asked Corsha, “you mean Araya?”
“Who else could it be?”
“Have you asked her about it?”
“How often do you think one can simply approach her?”
“Oh yeah…” At this point other girl appeared to be more frustrated, crossing her hands as she sat by us on the floor.
“Who are you?” she said, “This isn’t fair.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We never had a chance to win this thing did we?”
“I don’t understand what you’re-
“Corsha,” said the girl, “I told you didn’t I? I told you she’d get help.” They knew each other?
“Lil, she seems fine to me.”
“She’s not fine, she’s standing in our way!”
“What is going on?” I asked, “do you know each other?”
“Of course,” said Lil, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “she’s my cousin.” My heart began to sink. Was this the plan all along? To find and overpower me, so I couldn’t compete? The shame was obvious on Corsha’s face. She dropped her gaze when our eyes met and got up, taking a step back.
“I’m sorry Amelia,” said Corsha. She knew my name all along? “I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“I supposed to stay with you,” she continued, “as you solved each of the tasks, so that Lil could… take you out at the end. And take the credit.” Take me out?
“Out of the game,” added Lil, “I wasn’t going to kill her. I’m not a monster.” I felt sick. The first time I was beginning to make a new friend and she was pretending all along.
“But I do want to be your friend, honestly.” She knelt down, placing one hand on my shoulder. It didn’t matter what she said. I couldn’t trust her anymore.
“Get away from me!” I stood trying to back away from them. What if she was still pretending? Trying to get my guard down.
“Why are you bothering me anyway?” I snapped, “I’m not the only girl in this competition.”
“But you are the favorite to win!” Lil rose, staring angrily at me, causing my sudden burst of confidence to retreat.
“My uncle works for one the wealthy people in the city. He over heard them talk about one girl who was ‘far exceeded the others and is likely to be chosen.’ Corsha’s sister made it this far before. She even won the competition!”
“She made it to Primary?” Lil didn’t speak straightaway. Her eyes seemed to be asking Corsha for permission to continue.
“They chose a favorite, one of the wealthy girls to be Primary. For no reason other than she was wealthy.” I could hear the anger began to rise in her voice. Corsha too was become more visibly upset.
“My sister, “began Corsha, “she blamed herself for the loss. Winning would have brought our family out of poverty. It would have meant having enough money to buy a healing from the elders and saving my aunt’s, Lil’s mother’s life and….” Tears were falling down her cheek and her voice grew weaker as she tried to hold back from crying.
“The day my mother died. We also lost Corsha’s sister.” Lil didn’t go on to explain, but I understood what she meant.
“I’m sorry. I know how you feel. My brother is lost too but my parents won’t tell me what happened.” For the first time since we met, Lil no longer seemed intimidating to me. Her expression told me that she had pity for me. We stood here not at enemies, but desperate people looking for help. In our silence, it didn’t take long for us to realize that regardless of our feelings, the ceremony was still under way. The thought laid heavy on my mind and was likely on theirs too was that only one of us could win. It didn’t matter which of the other two girls did since they were family. But apparently, I was needed help them complete the tasks. What would happen to me then?
Around us, the air was still and there were no sign of other people. Ahead of us was a lake, but we couldn’t see across to the other side due to the heavy mist that covered it. The only other things there were twelve small rowing boats, tided down to bank.
“Something’s wrong.” Corsha moved closer to the sign in front of her. She looked at it over and over as if making sure that no mistake was made.
“What is?” asked Lil.
“It says that we have reached the third and final round.” She looked back towards the wall were we came from. I knew what she was thinking. We must have taken a short cut by coming through this way. Now that we were here, would they have any need of me? If not, what happens then? My thoughts were interrupted by the loud voice of a man, ordering us to halt. Before us on the lake a small light appeared, soon to be joined by a few others. It became clear that these were guards on a large rowing boat headed towards us. Upon reaching shore, they seized us without saying a word, forcing us unto their ship, making us lay on our stomachs.
“What did we do?” demanded Lil, “Where are you taking us?” Straightaway, one of them struck her, slapping her across the face.
“You don’t get to ask questions,” said the man who hit her. It seemed he was the leading this group and by his robes it was obvious that he was also an elder. None of us dared to speak for the rest of the journey, though by sounds of it, Corsha was trying hard not to cry. This had to be the final task. Endurance. What could that mean? How much did we have to endure? And what exactly did we have to endure. Araya. I thought to myself. Help me.
When we reached shore they hurriedly got us off, causing Corsha to land on my back, almost bringing me down. We were brought to an old small castle. The wooden gates leading into it where broken and withered. Around the outside were the bones of animals and humans alike, scattered amongst the grass. For our sakes, I hoped they had been here a long time. Walking into the castle, the spider webs told me that this place was not often in use, which got me to question whether or not this was really part of the ceremony. They made us walk up the dark stony steps, with the only light coming from their torches. It must have been at least on the fourth floor of the castle that we reached a bright red door. It led to a well-lit room, full of hooded elders, standing around an alter that stood in the middle of it. Araya. She stood there smiling as we came in. It reassured me that everything would be alright. That we were okay.
“Girls,” she said softly. Araya beckoned us to come forward and I timidly walked to her. We stopped just before the altar, and almost in unison began to bow standing up, with our hands stretched forward.
“Friends,” she said, “there is no need of that now.” She got down and approached us. One by one, touching our foreheads and closing her eyes. When she came to me, she opened them almost as quickly as they shut and looked deeply into my eyes.
“You know,” she began. Araya slowly paced from Corsha to me, “The other girls, some have fallen in the traps by forest. Others are still in the maze and even fewer are currently attempting the second task, never mind being half way through it.” And there she stopped, looking straight at me.
“And yet,” continued Araya, walking slowly towards me, “the three of you are far ahead. Somehow managing to evade the second task all together. How is that so?” Oh no. Was I to be disqualified? I couldn’t lose my chance so easily, not after everything that rides on my victory. Would she even believe me if I told her how it happened?
“It was her!” Lil singled me out. Why did I feel betrayed, as if anything up to this point would cause me to trust her?”
“I knew she was up to something, so me and my cousin followed her.”
“How,” asked Araya, facing me, “ did you ‘cheat’?”
“I wasn’t cheating, honestly! That wasn’t my intention” This couldn’t be happening. I couldn’t have Araya think badly of me.
“I used this.” As soon as I pulled out the necklace, Araya stepped back, as if unable to believe what she saw.
“Where did you get this?”
“In the woods, someone gave it to me, he gave in your blessing ‘the Crown who lives.” Araya advanced towards me, grabbing hold of the necklace, her eyes filled with disdain as she said, “Don’t you ever degrade me by attributing that title to my person.”
Almost as soon as she finished speaking, Araya let out a loud yelp and dropped to her knees, holding her left hand and blowing into it. Blood. Araya’s hand was bleeding. But how could an immortal crown bleed? By their gasps I can tell, that Lil and Corsha must have noticed it too. Araya’s fury was evident as she looked up at me giving a low animalistic growl, whose vibrations could be felt across the room. At that moment it was as something else had taken over and suddenly we were dealing with a monster. She pulled out a dagger from underneath her left sleeve, lunging right at me. It was only by chance that I reacted quick enough to dodge this attack.
“I will end you all!” she yelled, jumping up from the ground. The guards all moved away from us, as if fearing to get in Araya’s way and become a victim of her anger. Corsha got behind, leaving Lil beside me, ready and alert to react. Araya placed both hands above her head, crossing her right wrist in front of the other, with her fingers in claw formation.
“My father,” she called out, “grant me the power to vanquish my enemies.” Moments after she spoke, a bright flame formed above her hands, slowly growing into a ball of fire, the size of a head. She threw her arms forward, sending the fire towards us. Instinctively, I held up the necklace, to mind moments later that all three of us had been spared any burning. To my surprise, I no held in my hand a sword with golden handles and a sapphire blade. I don’t know what it was, but something compelled me to point the sword at her. As soon as I did, fire lit from the handle, running down the blade and firing straight forward, narrowly missing Araya, but destroying the altar around her, sending it’s pieces to fly everywhere and filling the room with dust. Shielded from view by the debris, I wasted no time, seeing this as an opportunity to escape. Turning around, I saw the symbol of Ayhs carved on the wall by the door. The sword was no longer there, but instead I held the necklace in my hand. Knowing what to do, I ran for the wall, placing it by the carving, the bricks flew out-of-the-way, leaving a dark opening. Without hesitation, I ran into it only to find that it was a drop. Falling for about a second, I landed on hay, in what I could only later describe as a large barrel with wheels.
Not longer after, Lil and Corsha also fell into. Miraculously, no one fell on top of each other. As if on queue, a loud explosion was heard behind us and the barrel began to move, increasing in speed, fast into the dark. We were there for quite a while, none of us saying a word for the duration of the dark journey. Each trying to understand the gravity of our situation, with a thousand and one thoughts bombarding our minds at once. Eventually it stopped by an area of the tunnel that had a small bit of light cracking through its walls head of us. I got out of the barrel, landing on muddy ground that went up to my ankles. The wall ahead seemed to show a design of some sort, barely visible by the light. Ayhs. It was the way out. Panic struck me as I realized that the necklace was no longer in my possession. If it were lost anywhere in this tunnel, I would never be able to find it.
“Looking for this?” Lil asked. Without saying anything, I grabbed it from her, remembering how she sold me out in front of Araya.
“I’m sorry Amelia. I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. There was remorse in her voice but I wasn’t ready to forgive. Placing the necklace by the wall, the opening led us out to a rocky area near a small pond, with the ground closing up beneath us as soon as we all had pulled ourselves out. I recognized the area as being but a few moments walk to my house.
“What do we do now?” asked Corsha. The redness around her eyes was evidence that she had been crying all this time in the dark. I didn’t know what to tell her, but for me she looked like a wounded pup with no owner. I felt responsible for the entire situation and obliged to help her… even Lil. I turned away and looked ahead, with the urge to run away. But I couldn’t leave them. Like it or not, we were in this together. These girls were the only ones knew or understood.
“We have to leave. Get out of Sanctum.” Even though I spoke them words, I couldn’t believe them myself.
“Leave Sanctum? And go where? You know what’s out there?”
“No, I don’t. Everything we know about the outside world came from the elders. And Araya isn’t a crown either… she bleeds. Who knows what else they lied about?”
“Corsha, we need to get my father first.” Lil approached me, about say something, but I moved forward a few steps, and cut her off mid sentence-
“We have to be quick. Go get your father and hurry to forest, by the wall that I described earlier. Don’t try and take many things with you. I won’t wait long.” With that said, Lil helped Corsha up from the ground and they quickly went on their way. As expected I found my family sitting outside by the pond in the back garden, waiting for me to return.
“Lia!” my sister shrieked, running to me as soon as she saw me.
“Why.. why are you so dirty?”
“We have no time! We need to leave! Sanctum isn’t safe anymore” I shouted, moving past her. At this point, both my parents were on their feet, looking concerned. Seeing mother, I stood there about to break down in tears. Her face didn’t show any grudge from earlier, only sympathy and concern.
“Mother, you were right… Araya… she’s not who we thought she was. She tried to kill me. We aren’t safe here anymore.” Right there, at my lowest point, mother hugged me, bringing us closer than we had ever been since the disappearance of my brother.
“I know,” she began, sobbing lightly, “I know. You’ve just confirmed what I suspected.” My father joined in on the embrace. And not long after, Hannaroes was part of it too. For the first time in ages, we felt like a family again.
“So it’s true?” asked father as he held on tightly to us,”I didn’t want to believe it.”
“I’ll explain everything later, but please trust me, we have to get out,” I said, pulling myself away from them.
“How are we going to get out of here?” asked Hannaroes.
“You’ll just have to see it for yourself.”
Not long after that, we gathered as quickly as possible, a few of our belongings and headed for the forest. The entire way to the wall, I wrestled with the idea of leaving without waiting for the other two. Could I risk our safety for them? The sun was beginning to set as we approached nearer to the wall. I began to realize that we were about to venture into the unknown in the dark of night. Upon reaching the spot where I first got the necklace, I saw a terrified Corsha clutching on tightly behind a tall, bald individual in a simple and dirty brown robe.
“These girls…” I started, “helped me out. I wouldn’t be here without them” I could see a slight bit of relief on Lil and I smiled at her in solidarity. Walking by the wall, I held up the necklace, and turned to everyone, giving them a look that said “there is no going back.” Moving closer towards the Symbol of Ayhs, I took a deep breath, getting ready to face whatever lay on the other side.
“By the Crown who lives,” I said “may we be blessed and kept.” With that, I placed the necklace by the wall, stepping back as it rumbled and slightly shook the ground. A large opening appeared showing, showing more forest ahead. I knew that I had to be first to walk through. It was terrifying. But there was no other option for us. I jumped. The next time my feet would touch the ground, I would no longer be in Sanctum.
I didn’t choose to be born here. I know no-one does. Choose. It seemed that here was the only place left in the world. Or so we had been led to believe. Beyond the walls of Sanctum, they told us, are nothing but monsters, waste and savages. But I can’t tell what’s worse, the monsters that run the place in here, or the ones we hear about out there. But Araya was right about one thing. The girl who went into the ceremony was not the same one that left. And I knew that what began up there in the castle wasn’t over. My name is Amelia DugenVard, but my enemies would come to know me by another: