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On the evening of the trials, Vivienne sneaked out of the house without telling her parents where she was going. It wasn’t hard. They were preoccupied that Janun had gone to the shore with some of her friends that weekend and their father was absolutely paranoid that she was out with that boy again.
Vivienne was pretty sure that Janun was indeed with Julian again. Her sister had packed her laciest underwear the night before, along with a pair of three inch stiletto heels. Vivienne couldn’t help but to envy Janun. Her own preparations had been a little different. She had on a pair of water proof boots, worn and stretchy jeans, and finally her father’s old leather jacket. She had tied her hair back in a plain ponytail and packed herself a small linen cross body bag of water, some crackers and as many strigoi stakes as she could fit. The last thing she did was to put Calbert’s chain away in her desk drawer. She took out the cameo necklace from her school bag and looking into her bedroom mirror, placed it around her neck. Its chain shimmered beautifully against her pale skin. The cameo glowed like an iridescent pearl, newly plucked from the ocean. Looking at herself, she looked like some character out of a gothic romance novel. Vivienne slipped it under her shirt, hidden from sight. Without the beautiful necklace, she looked more like a kid who had thrown together some things for a beginner hiking expedition.
Vivienne walked to the circle of stones leading up to the caves alone. She kept expecting Blake to show up any minute and give her last minute directions but all she heard was the chirping of crickets and the fluttering of the birds. Vivienne was annoyed by Blake’s absence but she was soon distracted by all her friends who had all gathered to bit their families farewell, most of them just for a little while. It was Asher’s family that was making the biggest scene. Vivienne could have guessed that he was the only one with a family left to make a fuss.
Watching Asher’s father spewing curses at the Grand Master and stumping his feet was enough for Vivienne to see where the captain got his hot headed behavior from. Asher was ignoring his father’s screaming. He took off his letterman jacket and placed it around his scrawny little brother’s shoulders. That was enough to trigger the poor kid to take out his asthma inhaler, to keep from becoming short of breath from crying so hard.
“I’ll be back, you know I will, sport,” Asher promised his brother and hugged his mother. Asher went to hug his father but despite being red in the face from screaming, the man opted for a firm handshake instead. His father caught Asher’s arm as he turned and slipped him a pack of cigarettes. Asher tried to shake his head but his father shoved it in his jean pocket. “For good luck,” his father said.
Zissa was standing with her own father but their farewell was cool and collected. There was only cold determination on the man’s face, much like his daughter.
Jonathan was there wearing a fancy gold bomber jacket and rainbow wrap around sunglasses. He was handing out water bottles to rest of the jocks which had the words “Satan’s Ass-bangers” printed on the label. Vivienne wondered if he had been pre-drinking.
Vivienne found Nicole standing at the entrance of the cave with a young boy with a fish bowl haircut beside her. He was on crutches and had his leg in a cast. Vivienne smiled at him and patted his head while he clung to Nicole’s tartan skirt. Vivienne had guessed this must be Michael. “I’ll be out soon,” Nicole promised him. “Vivienne will watch my back. I trained her. She’s the best there is.”
Vivienne had to smile at that. As she did, she caught sight of a large green bird blending in with the trees. It had a luxurious feathered tail that ended in knife-talons. The bird perched closer and cocked its head to the side at her. Vivienne smiled at that and waved back. She knew that bird. It was a Paramour Nightjar, a bird only found in Coral City. So, that was what Blake was disguised as, for now. She just hoped he had some more intimidating forms planned for later.
As the sun slipped beneath the horizon and the forest grew dark, the participants were herded close tot he entrance. The Grand Master was wheeled to stairway leading down to the cave where she said some final words before they were allowed to enter.
“Every year, I have the pleasure of hosting Remin’s most sacred tradition, the Solstice Trials.” The woman looked about and seemed to rethink what she was going to say. “I feel as though every year, the contestants are weaker and weaker. In the past, there wasn’t a boat at the end of the last sanctum. You fought your way out of there, through every last twist and turn of the caves, looking for a exit that due to the nature of the elements may or may not exist. In the past, all those who entered were required to complete the trials. Now look at you, a bunch of lazy, cowards, afraid to lay down your lives.” She seemed to especially glare at the boys holding Jonathan’s water bottles.
“At least we have two participants with the strength of the Strigoi running through their veins. One is the daughter of the greatest Grand Master in recent history, who gave her own life six years ago to the caves,” the Grand Master gestured at Zissa who continued to frown, completely unimpressed by the honor. “And the other is the son of our Prime Counselor, who has worked tirelessly to ensure our lands are safe from outsiders. Who now sacrifices his own son to the sacred rituals.” The Grand Master tried to lead the students in a clap for Asher as though she was trying to get on his good side. “If you survive these trials, your father will be very proud,” the Grand Master said. “I am sure he has seen countless disappointments over the years. None will make him more pleased than if his own blood is the first male Grand Master in the past century. All of Remin has its eyes on you.”