Sarii cautiously felt her way down the unseen stone stairway; away from the sweltering summer sunset above. The deeper she had gone the more the dimming red twilight of the surface had faded until there was only the inky darkness. A familiar metallic scent that seemed out of place wafted up the slowly winding, then straightening stairway. Down below she could hear a slow drip, occasional shuffling, and whimpering, each muffled cry echoing in the chamber below. Those must be the others chosen to serve the Empress. Her resolve to strangle her fear strengthened. She would not enter her new life a mewling coward, whatever she faced below. Her Lady had chosen her to be given as a gift to the Empress, to serve a special and honorable function her Lady had said.
The young woman tried to maintain focus, to be ready for an attack from anywhere. Her Lady had told her confusing parts of why Sarii had been chosen. Courage, intelligence, and battle readiness made sense. That she had also been chosen for beauty was odd; attaining her skills had earned her more than a few scars, then an unkind puberty had left her skin a blotchy pattern of pock marks. These were the reasons her Lady had given; however, and her Lady was not to be questioned. Sarii had no idea what kind of ritual she was going to face. She did know that if it were a trial by combat she would be ready. She wouldn’t be in top form. She had drank no water for hours; in addition to her left shoulder still paining her and not moving right despite the healers best efforts. She wouldn't be at her best, but she would be ready nonetheless.
On reaching the level of the whimpers the stairs continued down for a few more steps and then her bare right foot found cool water instead of the next stair. She hesitated, shifting weight back onto her left foot.
“Remove your robe and enter the water,” a deep, smooth, male voice commanded. In the darkness she allowed her robe to fall onto the last steps, then gently lowered herself untill she felt the sandy bottom. The pool was deep enough that the water came halfway up her shoulder blades.
“The gift of the Eternal Empress,” the voice intoned as a single drop fell into the water.
“The gift of the people,” a wet cutting sound, a sound of rushing then trickling water, some shuffling, the whimpering stopped, the water level rose slightly, and the metallic smell grew stronger. The water became noticeably warmer. Sarii's mind clamped down on an icy dagger of fear, she slowed her breathing, untensed her limbs, and relaxed her face.
Fear had no purpose here. Sarii's father had always said fear only helps with three things; running, fighting, and doing something stupid. If not kept in tight reign when doing the first two, they would become the third. This wasn't like any trial by combat that she had ever heard of. She needed to be calm, to figure out what was expected of her. If she died here she would still be dying in service to the Empress, but she had always hoped that she would die in a way that she could see glory in her death and know how she had served. Even the most noble death in defense of her Lady would pale in honor next to the most ignoble death in service to the Empress, but like each time she had faced death before, she still desperately hoped it would not come yet. If she assumed rightly what had just been poured into the unseen waters, then this was a place of death, and of unpleasant death at that.
“Immerse yourself, drink until you can drink no more, then rise.” The man in the dark gave as his next command.
Sarii hesitated, then lowered herself down. The water covered her shoulders, her neck, then her head. Her long dark hair soaked it in. She was weightless, floating in the lukewarm water, unable to see or hear. Her mouth opened, the water flowed in, the taste took away what doubts had remained as to what had been added to the water. She wanted to spit it out, to retch, to scream. She forced herself to calm, then swallowed again, and again, until she could hold no more. Standing; her head broke the surface.
She opened her eyes, and now she could see. The room was a fifty foot wide sphere, a dome over stair stepped benches built into the floor and halfway up the wall. Three narrow stone staircases came down, cutting through the sides to a four foot wide circular pool in the ground. The light seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. What Sarii focused on was none of these things. What she saw was the half dozen bodies around the pool with their throats cut, and the half dozen figures laying them down now that the last of the blood had been drained out of the corpses into the pool. The crimson bloodstained water dripped from Sariis hair and face, gasping for air and locked in a look of horror.
A warm feeling started in her belly and spread outwards, going down her arms and legs and up into her face. Warmer and warmer as the six figures calmly watched her. Warm was no longer the word, hot , then burning. The skin out of the water felt like it was on fire. She ducked back down under the water. Although she could still feel the fire building and raging in her body, at least being submerged took some of the sharpness away. Dull aches formed in her joints and muscles. Her lungs took on an entirely different burn. She needed air.
Sarii broke the surface gulping for air. The six joined by another now were staring at the young woman. The water was steaming now, and when her face felt the air the pain was unbearable. She took a few quick gasps then dived back down.
The pain in her face dulled with the going under, but the burning was still everywhere, and her joints and muscles throbbed. Next her muscles began spasming. Her body was thrashing out of control. Unable to reach the surface, Sariis lungs tried inhaling water which then boiled in her lungs and came out as gouts of steam. Eventually the water level lowered down enough that she couldn’t keep completely submerged. The burning was agony, but the aches subsided. Minutes that seemed like hours passed until the burning slowly stopped.
Sarii curled up panting on the dry sand at the bottom of what was once the pool. Her skin, no longer just scarred, but now red and blistered, itched. The now eight figures gazed down at her as she rocked back and forth. She rocked slowly at first, but then faster as she tried to resist scratching. The urge was just too powerful. Where just a few moments before her whole world had been pain, now it was an overwhelming need to scratch … hard. The top layers of skin peeled away leaving smooth, pale, unblemished skin behind. No scars, no pock marks, just smooth creamy skin. She started to move, then stopped. The soreness and stiffness in her shoulder was gone. Once again she started to stand, still shaking. Her entire body moved more easily than it ever had before, she felt … wonderful. Standing took no effort, as if he body weighed no more than a feather. Pains so slight she hadn't even known they were there had disappeared.
Sarii's eyes slowly rose to the eight figures standing above her. Drifting back down her eyes came to the bodies lying on the floor. Her face hardened and she looked back down at the sand under her feet, unconsciously rolling her left shoulder experimentally. The sand was littered with flakes of dead skin. Once again she was startled by the absence of the network of scars that had decorated her legs. That brought her back to the thought of the six dead a few feet away. Then a realization came to her, the blood was gone along with the water. A shudder went through her as she remembered how she had boiled the water off.
Confused, wondering and upset, her mind jumped from one thought to another until her head was a riot of thoughts and emotions that would not stop. For several minutes the men and women above studied her.
“You are now one of the Gulian. Follow me . You will be hungry, tired, and have many questions Daughter of the Night."
-One hundred and thirteenth year
of the independent reign
of the Eternal Empress
City of Imsalan