Chapter 8: The Ceremony

Kaly did not receive a restful sleep that night. Violently she twisted and turned in her bed, lashing out at the shadows of her nightmare. Her dreams were filled with horrible visions of wolves and fangs, gremlin-type creatures that shrieked and howled, carrying swords as long as spears. Shadows laughed maniacally and the claws of unseen monsters reached out for her. But through it all sailed a fluttering bird- bright and shiny as though its feathers were made of copper.

She woke up and immediately a surge of panic wrapped its scrawny fingers around her heart. Slowly the girl relaxed as she remembered where she was. She was in the refuge of the Heliods, a place where she could finally feel safe. She was among friends now.

Quickly Kaly pulled on her clothes from the night before and stepped outside, trying to rub the tiredness away from her eyes. The grass was covered with a fragile layer of frost, and the familiar chill of the early morning nipped her nose. She rubbed her hands together, trying to generate some warmth back into her frozen limbs.

The encampment was deserted at such an early hour. Not a soul was to be seen. Being in a curious frame of mind, Kaly decided to look around at what apparently was to be her new home.

There were hardly any solid buildings at all in the refuge. Instead tents were abundantly strewn throughout the establishment, seemingly to be used as sleeping quarters, meeting places, shelters and even storage sites. Only the stables housing the horses were proper wooden structures. The camp was surrounded on all sides by trees, but was nevertheless wide and spacious. To one side was a large free space of grass and Kaly remembered that that was the clearing the boy named Evann and his master had sparred. She wondered whether she would be doing something like that for the training she had been promised.

Her gaze wandered further and fell upon the Elders' tent- the largest of them all. Her good humour faded slightly and a small frown puckered her brow. But how long exactly was she to remain here? The celebrations of last night had made her forget for a time, but her memory had been rekindled like a fire from dying embers. They thought her to be the Chosen Heliod, the One of the ancient prophecies who was to find the necklaces and come to battle the Shadow Lord for the salvation of the world. Even though she still did not believe it to be true, Kaly had no doubts that they would send her to try and find the hidden necklaces. No doubts whatsoever. But she knew that they were only inevitably dooming themselves by doing so. And it was useless to try and convince them otherwise.

Her eyes then settled upon the flag high atop the Elders' tent, which was fluttering slightly in the crisp early morning breeze. Unconsciously she fingered the back of her neck as she stared up at the sign of the Goddess of Light- the same sign that covered her back. It was hard not to believe when faced with that shocking piece of evidence. She was still upset and confused as to how it got there.

"Well, you are quite the early riser." Kaly looked over her shoulder to see Melinda approaching her from the trees they had originally come through the day before. She covered a wide yawn daintily. The woman smiled sleepily, but her eyes were alert. "How are you feeling?" she asked quietly, closely watching the girl's face.

Kaly shrugged. "I don't really know anymore. It just seems too unbelievable to be true." And it isn't, she thought sourly.

"Then don't think about it. Forget that you are special; forget that we are Heliods. Concentrate on what is happening now before you. Perhaps it will be easier for you that way."

Kaly felt angry and sullen. "It's not exactly something you can forget that easily."

"Truly spoken," Melinda admitted with a slight smile, "but dwelling on it will only make it worse. Best not to think about it until you absolutely must." Melinda then frowned suddenly and looked away eastwards towards the mountain ranges. The sun had not yet risen. She nodded in satisfaction. "Very good. We have plenty of time." She turned back to the girl. "Come, Kaly. We must eat quickly in order to be ready for the ceremony."

"What ceremony?"

Melinda smiled. "Yours, of course. For every new Heliod that has awoken to their true nature, they are to undergo the initiation ceremony when the sun first rises, to pledge their loyalty and services to the five spirits of the goddesses."

As the woman led her further throughout the camp, Kaly was surprised to see a not too distant area that looked curiously like farmland. She was even more surprised to see sheep and cattle grazing.

She pointed this out to Melinda who laughed at the shock on her face. "Does it really surprise you that much? Our settlement is almost completely self sufficient, being isolated from the rest of the world, so of course we have to grow and care for our own crops and other food sources to feed ourselves and the animals. You would be surprised at the number of animals we keep here. The Heliods of Earth and Water are mainly the ones responsible for these tasks, obviously because they have a useful affinity for the growing of plant and animal life."

"What about the others? Do they have particular jobs too?"

"Yes, of course. Everyone here works. That is what keeps the camp running so smoothly and efficiently. It is all interconnected like a rope: if one strand frays and breaks then the whole thing is unraveled. But what job you have largely depends upon your element, but this is not always the case. Everyone is different and more suited to particular things than others. Yet even so, those blessed with the earth's gifts are adept at healing and cultivating the earth. Most can move solid objects at will and are particularly good at physical construction. Those of water, as I am, can manipulate water. We can create storms, floods and even shields of ice, although our control of the weather is very limited."

"Can you also talk to the water creatures, like the Poliquins?"

Melinda smiled. "Not really, although I know many wish they could. The water creatures can merely sense our closeness with water and so are more at ease in our presence than any other Heliod or human. The Poliquins, however, are very intelligent creatures, closer to human intellect than almost any other animal. Dragons were said to be the only creatures that greatly surpassed human minds, although no one has laid eyes on them for many thousands of years."

"So how did you summon them?" Kaly asked curiously, remembering her peculiar interaction with the beautiful water beasts.

"Well, it is a little difficult to understand, but basically all I did was empathize with them." Melinda laughed at Kaly's baffled expression. "I won't try to explain it, but the Poliquins are familiar with me and merely sensed my need. I can also imitate a little of their complex language."

"I see." Kaly was still a little bewildered, but Melinda's explanations, although sparse, had captured her interest. "So what about the other elements?"

"Ah, well, those of the Fire element are particularly good with the workings of metal and so are mostly in charge of the forging of weapons, armour and other necessary tools. They are also usually the most fierce and skillful fighters and strategists among us, and therefore are those in charge of the combat training of Heliods as well as our camp's defence against any possible enemy invasions, even though an invasion of this place would be very difficult. The Heliods of Wind are extremely skillful archers and are known for their speed and agility, being fleet of foot and possessing extraordinary reflexes. Moreover, they can be as silent as the wind's breath, with a rare few having a curious affinity for the birds of the sky. All these qualities make them very efficient messengers and spies. Most are informers of the enemy's progress."

Here, Melinda fell silent. Kaly waited for her to continue but when it seemed that she had no intention of doing so, she said, "And what about me? I mean, what about the Heliods of Light? What do they do?"

Melinda glanced at her. "I... I don't really know," she said slowly. A thoughtful frown was furrowed between her brows.

Kaly was confused. "What? How come?"

"Well, besides yourself, there is only one other of the element of Light in this entire camp."

Kaly blinked. "There are only two of us here?" Suddenly a queasy feeling erupted in the pit of her stomach. How she hated being singled out! "Who is it?"

But Melinda seemed not to hear this question. "I think that he will be the one to train you. I am told that he is very powerful, although I do not know what his particular powers are. He won't tell me. But he is said to be skillful in many areas." A strange expression then flickered within her dark eyes but quickly disappeared.

"So who is he then?" Kaly asked a little louder, grabbing her shoulder.

Melinda shot her an amused smile. "You'll see," she said and continued walking.

It was only a very hurried meal of a thick sweet porridge before the Elders came to prepare her for the ceremony. First she was cleansed thoroughly in a bath of hot, sweet-smelling water before being dressed in a long and flowing white robe, the mark of the Light Goddess embroidered in gold upon its back.

The initiation ceremony was to be held on the tallest mountain, where she was told that the goddesses had once lived and ruled over the world. Surrounded by other people dressed in almost identical white robes, the group made their way up the steep path to the top of the mountain. Kaly's long red hair hung loose around her waist, clean and shiny, and her blue eyes were wide with both curiosity and apprehension. What exactly would she be asked to do? They had told her a little, because she was required to say specific responses. But other than that, she was completely clueless.

The little she knew about the Heliods was that they all possessed some powers beyond the ordinary. Would they expect her to demonstrate such gifts? She felt panic rise inside her. How could she do so when there was nothing there to speak of? She had no magical gift, no special abilities at all. As far as she was concerned, the only thing she was good at was thievery.

She kept her head bowed as she followed the Elders, who were leading the small party up the rocky mountain path, trying to disguise her nervousness. She sneaked a quick glance at the people around her. They seemed calm enough, a few wearing more open and excited faces. None looked tense or worried. This reassured her slightly. Surely if the ceremony was difficult or strenuous, they would appear nervous for her. Then her hopes dulled slightly. But they all thought her the Chosen One. What if they expected her to do such strange and wondrous things? Grimly she thrust those thoughts from her mind. They were just making her more worried than she already was. No, she would wait and see what the ceremony involved herself. To keep her mind occupied, she silently repeated to herself the words the Lord Elder had taught her.

Soon they were nearly at the top. Despite the sheer size of the mountain, it surprisingly had not taken very long. Yet even so, her cheeks were still flushed with exertion she was sweating a little. She took a moment to catch her breath before looking around her. There was a dark tunnel in front of them in the rocky wall and the Elders led the small group into it without hesitation. A red light suddenly flared by her head, which made Kaly jump in fright. Turning around, she saw a bright red flame cupped in the hand of a sandy-haired man, who grinned somewhat mischievously at her. She smiled faintly back before walking forward once more through the now illuminated passageway. It was somewhat cramped inside and Kaly felt a little claustrophobic at the closeness of the rocky walls and roof on all sides of her. There was also a distinct lack of air, which made it harder to breathe.

She cringed at the brightness of the open sky when the party at last emerged from the tunnel. Blinking, she gasped in wonderment. They were standing on the very top of the mountain at last, and below lay an immaculate white carpet of endless clouds, stretching way beyond her eyesight. Through gaps in the fluffy expanse, she spied the sea of green that was the tops of the canopies of the forest below. Kaly was stunned. It felt as if she were in the divine heavens and looking down on the entire world below.

"Look," a soft voice said from behind her. Kaly turned to see the man that had held the ball of fire in the tunnel was pointing eastwards. She followed the direction of his finger with her eyes and sucked in a sharp breath. A soft golden light spilled out across the clouds at the very horizon, tinged with the rosy hues of pink and orange. It was growing brighter and brighter with each passing second as the sun rose further into the sky. Gradually the light began crawling across the clouds towards the mountain.

"Quickly, we have not much time to perform the ceremony," the Lord Elder said hastily. He looked at her. "Come here, Kaly."

Obediently she stepped forward to him. She opened her mouth in surprise. So entranced had she been with the beautiful view of the horizon that she had failed to notice it. On the ground she walked upon, a large sun was elegantly etched into the stone, covering almost the entire top of the mountain. Six sunrays spread out from the etching, each ending with a smaller drawn circle.

The Lord Elder led her to the center of the sun and she faced eastwards, looking reverently at the slowly creeping light across the clouds.

"Let the ceremony begin," he then said in a deep voice, which made Kaly's spine tingle. There was something now present in his voice that gave his words a certain... power.

Her heart fluttered in a combination of excitement and nervousness. Turning, she faced the Heliod who represented the Goddess of Water. The woman, whose name was Kenda, was the leader of those with water abilities in the camp, and hence the one thought to be the closest to the Goddess herself. She was standing in the space of the smaller circle at the end of the ray pointing northwards. Kenda's white robes billowed out around her as she looked with solemn blue eyes at the young, thin girl standing before her.

Kaly stepped forward and knelt before the woman on one knee. She reached up with her right hand and took Kenda's own slender one that she offered. She tried not to gasp in surprise as their clasped hands flared a deep blue. She suddenly felt as if her hand were immersed in a small pond of cool water.

Heart beating wildly, she began to speak the words demanded of the ceremony: "Clyte, Goddess of Water, mistress of the ocean, water and liquids. I kneel before you as a humble servant."

There was a slight pause before Kenda spoke. "The Goddess hears you, and bestows her blessing." Like the Lord Elder, the woman's words were infused with a divine power, an unnamable quality that made it seem as if the voice of someone else entirely spoke through her. Her hand trembled a little before Kenda released it and the blue light vanished.

She turned north-west to the next Heliod. It was a battle-scarred man named Eyolfe who represented Seraphine, the Goddess of Fire and mistress of warmth and heat. The moment their hands clasped, they flared a vivid orange red, the warm lick of flames caressing her hand. She repeated the same words and Eyolfe responded accordingly, his eyes seeming to glow with a fire's luminescence.

Bryant was the Heliod who stood for Venilia, the Air Goddess and Lady of the wind and sky. A pale opaqueness of fog obscured their hands and the wind's breath gently rustled her robes. A dark haired woman with golden skin, by the name of Manuka, was the leader of the earth Heliods, representing Kaia the Earth Goddess, and Lady of growth, healing and fertility. She felt as if her hand was being buried in moist rich earth.

But as soon as she turned eastwards, the golden sunlight shone directly into her eyes, blinding her momentarily. As she squinted up into the face of the shadowy figure that stood in front of her, she realised that it was the Lord Elder- he was the Heliod that represented the powerful Light Goddess.

Kaly almost fell to her knees as she gaped up at his solemn face. Their clasped hands radiated a golden light that almost blinded her again. Finally, she whispered the words of the ceremony. "Aila, Goddess of Light, mistress of sight and wisdom. I kneel before you as a humble servant and honoured bearer of your wondrous gifts. To you I pledge my loyalty and my love forevermore, and will call upon my gifts in your name, to be used in good faith."

The Lord Elder closed his eyes as she finished, and when he opened them, a fierce golden fire seemed to burn within, piercing her soul. "The Goddess hears you, young Chosen, and she accepts your heartfelt promise. She bids you learn and become strong with the gifts she has bestowed upon you, and become worthy of them. The Goddess of Light blesses you on your journey."

And as soon as he spoke those words, the golden glow that shone around their hands swelled to encase them both in its light. She cried out in surprise and alarm as a hot fire coursed through her body. She arched her back in pain and screamed as the agony consumed her senses. The light scorched her, burning her inside and out until she felt as if her very skin was blistering from her bones. She passed eternity in flames, until finally, the searing heat left her and she passed out upon the cold stone floor of the mountaintop.