Clarity of mind was a fickle thing. As rare and quick as it came, it was even more rare and swift to leave. Zoar sat inside the dark confines of her tent nursing her shoulder wound. Weakness poured over her like a thick blanket, drawing out her energy and leeching the mental agility she had only an hour ago. The next task was only hours away with the sunset and what she needed was strength, not weakness.
The sharpened edge of fear prodded her into a more alert state, replacing only the least prominent side effects of her wound. The thought the second trial woke her form the daze. A small circle of light peered in from the teepee ceiling, casting her open hands in revealing brightness. The dark skin was covered in dirt and blood, her own; trial by combat would have been accepted every time over what she had to face tonight. To face what was most hidden within her, what she saw.
Focus. She had to focus. But, that’s all her mind wouldn’t give her. In her utmost time of need, only weakness found her. A weakness she could offer nothing to placate, a weakness that went beyond her wounds toll on her body. She couldn’t run, no, she would be expected to stay close to the gathering and she would have to leave without any supplies. Tearing down your tent in the middle of tribal festivities would immediately draw attention. No one gathered their tent unless the tribe was moving.
Surrender. The word whispered as her head bobbed in the darkness, all she wanted was sleep and freedom from the upcoming nightmare. That’s all I can offer, she thought, surrender. She was too weak to flee, and would be struck down before she left the outer edges of the encampment for deserting especially being one of the potential heirs; and everyone knowing her face now. The only option was to surrender herself to the reality, she would have to face that which had haunted her all her life. The implications of which, she didn’t know if she could hide any longer than tonight.
Zoar startled awake. Looking up she realized the sun was now setting and the second trial would begin soon. The dream was the same, reoccurring twice now. She couldn’t recall the details of it, only that it wasn’t dark like the others. There were no vivid and garish faces pursuing her endlessly, only a vague comfort; unfamiliar and striking.
The wound on prickled with pain under her fingers prodding. It would fester and scar like her other wounds in the past. It was a tradition to fill the wound with dirt to assure a decorative scar remained to show one’s prowess. But, this one couldn’t have come at a worst time. She rotated her shoulder feeling the same pain and soreness radiate.
There’s no good way of getting around it, she settled. Battling the expanding defeat inside her, Zoar rose from her small tent, leaving her spear, and headed towards the gathering.
Focus was beyond her now, all that could be done was remain in control.
Each girl sat across from a Devout, a basin of water between them in the center of the circle. The sun had set casting the Devouts in black shadows and those behind them outside the circle. Zoar sat upright focusing just over the Devout’s head in front of her. She saw his blank expression, avoiding his dead eyes have shut.
This would be the most difficult trail ahead of her now. She was prepared and mindful of each trial, as all in the tribe were. It is often overheard during grandiose storytelling around the warmth of fires, but only seen first hand once in every third generation. Her stomach twisted as she thought of the basin between them and what would come.
“Confirmed by combat, now by those sent from Vald herself; agents of her power. And soon the one, confirmed in blood!” the High Priestess shrieked.”Time is growing short, the land groans for its new leader and queen, let us not keep it waiting!”
The Devouts placed their hands on the basins and began chanting their foreign prayers; the language of Vald herself it’s said. The hand inside Zoar’s stomach squeezed and twisted. Focus, she thought. Surrender, whispered again.
“Drink!” the High Priestess demanded over the chanting of the masses surrounding them.
Zoar hesitated, out of the corner of her eyes she saw the girls cup the water or lift the basin to their mouths; even one thrust her whole face into its pool. She reached into the basin and pulled a handful of the clear water towards her lips. It was sour and silky smooth, diving into the depths inside her quickly.
A moment later and eruption of noise filled her head. Surrender, surrender, new voices cried out. Dine with us, bathe in our Master’s power, they hissed. Zoar tried to maintain composure, but her body forced her over and she wretched in the dirt. Like faded echoes she could hear the other girls wailing as if in pain and their audience wailing in reply. Vision had left her in most, what remained was shifting shadows and what scared her most. Those sent by Vald.
Zoar’s eyes blinked rapidly, thought she felt blind she only saw them. Those which she learned to hide all recognition since she was very young. Those that hung over almost all of her tribe like puppet masters. They were black as death, darker than the night and filled with more horror than anything she had seen. Their forms were more fluid here, these were new, not yet bound to any one person but seeking a mate. Those that hovered over their victims, bound to them, usually resembled their vessels in some disfigured and wicked way. These were unlike any person, shifting, all teeth and gnashing, grim smiles like a reaper.
They offered everything and anything. All things pertaining to her heart. Freedom? Power, control, we have more than you could contain. A part of her was drawn to the offer they presented, while they omitted the price. When sanity seemed to begin losing its grip their tenacity and fervor worsened.
Hissing poured out of them, loathing and fear washed over Zoar just from the proximity to them. Surrender, the voice had returned. The dark ones faces turned away from Zoar and towards something she couldn’t see. Then suddenly they parted, slipping away and out of sight. The darkness that remained was void of their thick aroma, and pierced by a man she could see just outside the circle. Had she been able to see the crowd she would bet he stood behind the first row of onlookers.
He stood like the shining of a star, flickering like a flame. His light didn’t reflect on any face or fixture but was contained within itself.
All Zoar could do was focus on this bright stranger just out of reach. He stood silent, but unmoved; seeming to watch her with irrevocable intensity. All concept of time left Zoar, eternity had taken its place as she watched him, her body still wracked with pain.
Time slipped back into Zoar’s consciousness as the effects of the poisons wore off. Her fingers twitched and a resounding ache returned to her shoulder. Her body was neutralizing the painful climax of the evening and sensibility was restored. A rush of relief overwhelmed her and she could feel tear streaking her dirty cheeks.
She blinked, looking back into the crowd for the man but he was gone. Turning to the other girls she saw the one closest to her had fallen motionless on her back. Her eyes were fixed into the sky and mouth gaping from her last breath sometime that night. Zoar turned away, but was still unable to pick herself off the ground. The Devouts were gone and the crowd murmured still under their breath, most sitting now. She didn’t know how many hours had passed, but the High Priestess still roamed around them like a predator watching.
Zoar didn’t know what she was hoping to find, but she didn’t want to become the focus of her gaze so she sat still eyes down turned. She thanked whoever it was that helped her through the night and waited. The noises of the others coming around started. Quiet whimpering , heavy breathing still, and a low growling from few. Counting herself, five girls remained and the last trial was still at hand. One Zoar was confident she could overcome without mistake, avoiding the fate of her birthright.
They were all dismissed with ordinarily considering the night’s events. It made it even more tense, the insecurity of not being able to anticipate the High Priestess’ motives. Her mood was easier to perceive, it was not often delight except for Vald’s glory.
Zoar returned to her tent, exhausted and beaten, but pleased with tonight’s outcome. Tomorrow was the final trial for the Reckoning, and it would be easy compared to the former experience. That is if the High Priestess didn’t have anything unexpected planned, which left her unsettled again.
Wrapped in pelts, Zoar peered through the small circle at the top of her tent. A star winked down at her. The man who stood outside the circle was brought back to her thoughts. Who was he, and where had he come from? But, she had drank the poison that caused extreme aggression from those dark creatures to begin with so there was not telling what other effects it could’ve had.
Insecurity and the aftereffects of the poison kept Zoar from even a moment of sleep. She would be at peace, or as close as she was before the Trials of Reckoning, after they were over. Returning to what was normal, training as a warrior and the pursuit of a content life living on the outskirts of the tribe.
Though, there was some inkling that that would never be an option, and that she had always known that. Daylight would come soon, and with it, the final trial.