“Stop dilly-dallying, hurry up!” calls a cranky voice up ahead that automatically makes my body flinch. The source, the dark figure of an elderly woman cloaked by the murky blackness of night, turns briefly towards our small group, sternly ushering with her hands for us to pick up the pace. We quickly oblige: no one disobeys the Elder.
My legs ache as I push to stumble onward, already sore from an hour of struggling through the dense overgrowth of this dim forest. It doesn’t help that I had gym class earlier this afternoon either--ugh, I bet the other girls are all wrapped up cozily in the sheets of their beds right about now! The familiar ping of jealousy grasps ahold of me, for I’ve always envied the life of a normal teenage girl.
But life had other plans for me.
I glance behind my shoulder as another woman scurries to my side. I recognize the pale face of Lyra, the only woman of this solemn group whom I’ve had the chance to become familiar with. She lightheartedly smiles at me, showcasing a face that still gleams of fresh youth, despite her age. “You good?” she asks, maintaining her expression as if to momentarily defy the grave nature of our proceedings.
“I’m okay,” I answer curtly in an effort to stay nonchalant. She sees right through my facade, placing a hand on my shoulder as we continue forward.
“Don’t worry, it’s perfectly fine to be nervous,” Lyra reassures me in her characteristically amicable tone, “this is a big event. Very few people are given the chance to go through with something like this.” She squeezes my shoulder as I turn my head towards her. “You’re special, Elara. Very special. That’s why I know you’re going to come out of the Rite stronger than you were before.”
I cast my eyes upon the ground, thinking of what I had been told to expect of the Rite. Of the Bond that would signal my transformation from a girl to a woman. To an Umbra.
“What if I’m rejected?” I ask, head still lowered. “What if they cast me out of the group for good? What if--”
“Nah ah ah!” Lyra exclaims, turning my chin to face her, “What did we say about those ‘what ifs’? Girl, you’re gonna drive yourself insane before we even reach the Rite!” She chuckles before softening her voice, “Trust me Elara, all of us in this group have gone through the same feelings you’re experiencing now, and you have every right to those feelings. But Aurora--” she gestures towards the Elder, who continues ambling along at the forefront of the group completely unphased by the terrain, “--she is a wise woman. And believe me when I tell you, she wouldn’t have pushed for you to go through with the Rite if you weren’t ready to embrace it.”
Her soft cyan eyes meet mine as she concludes, “You’ve got this, Elara.”
I smile weakly back at her, but before I can respond the Elder’s voice fiercely calls out, “We’re here! Everyone, take position!”
I lean back against a thick tree trunk as the others, including Lyra, scramble to and fro across the vast clearing to prepare for the Rite. The Elder stands at the edge of the clearing furthest from me, barking orders to the women while attempting to fish something out of the small backpack she had here carried with her. The other women--seven in total--set the torches that had been used to guide the way along the circumference of what appears to be a circle. I guess that’s where the rite will be held.
I feel myself tremble slightly at the sight, at the reminder of what I am to accomplish tonight. Lyra’s voice continues to reverberate in my mind, constantly encouraging me. But there are other voices too: the voices of my friends, of the normal life that I’m on the verge of throwing away; the voices of my parents, of their desire to see me become the lady they want me to be; and then there’s my own voice. I’m never quite sure what that one wants.
Suddenly I notice the clearing begin to lighten up, and I glance to the sky: before, the full moon had been sheathed by a couple stray clouds wandering through the foggy night. Now, however, the clouds and the fog have all vanished, yielding to the moon’s brilliant luminescence, which casts a pale ray of light unto the clearing as if endorsing the evening’s coming events.
“It’s time!” the Elder calls out to us, “Elara, please step forward.” She beckons towards the center of the circle as she sets her piercing eyes upon me. Though I maintain eye contact with her, I can feel the looks of every other woman in the group latching onto me, all curious as to how this young girl will fare. My feet feel as though they’re lodged in a bed of cement, yet somehow I manage to urge myself forward in spite of the nerves, in spite of the judgement, in spite of the ever-expanding sense of terror pouring through my veins.
One step after another. As I go forward, I can see the clearing become even brighter, like the moon itself is beckoning me towards my purpose.
A couple more steps. The Elder never lets her gaze remove itself from my form, gently nodding her head in a visible act of empathy. She knows what I’m going through, perhaps more so than anyone else here. I may not always like her, but I know I can trust her in this.
One last step.
And I’m ready.
Now, the Elder steps forward, carrying in her right hand a book that I have never seen before. The moon’s light casts a faint glow upon it, showcasing its violet cover as well as its immense thickness. I can’t help but wonder what sorts of secrets lay hidden amidst those pages.
“My fellow Umbran,” the Elder begins, immediately ushering in an atmosphere of grave sobriety through her forbidding voice, “Members of the Tribe of the Night, who hold in high esteem the graces of the Lunar cycle; we gather here, on this fateful evening, to facilitate the arrangements of an important transaction, a transaction that beckons the transformation from sapling to carnation, from dawn to noon. Indeed, this is the transaction where we relinquish our proud youth, and in exchange acquire a fine young lady in full bloom.
“All of you here today have been invited to assist in the fulfillment of this transaction, as we call upon the spirits of the Night so that we may present the illustrious soul of this young maiden. I trust that all of you are familiar with the verses of the Rite?” All of the women around me nod in formality, and the Elder nods in kind.
“Very well then. Let us begin.” The Elder opens the book before her, and begins to recite something in Enochian, a language that I don’t understand: only those who have successfully completed the Rite may learn it. The others gradually join in, chanting louder and louder, their voices slowly gaining in volume and energy.
Suddenly the torches around me flare upwards intensely as the chants continue to escalate; despite the absence of clouds, thunder cracks throughout the sky, generating loud booms in sync with the chants of the group of women. One boom, then another. When the third sound of thunder shrieks, my body explodes with the sensation of pain. I scream at the top of my lungs as my legs give out and I crumble to the ground. I’ve never felt this kind of pain before: it relinquishes for just a brief moment, providing an instant of relief, before quickly returning with the same ferocious magnitude as before, on and off.
I manage to catch Lyra’s eyes during one instant of remission: I can tell from her reluctant expression that she can’t stand to see me suffer like this, the same way she must have suffered when she went through this forty years ago. But she knows how much this means to me, and so she offers a small, supporting nod. I barely return the favor before my body once again convulses with intense pain. The thunder deafens me each time it chaotically bangs through the air, and I’m sweating profusely since the torches continue to blaze hotter and hotter.
Another bang. Pain. Heat.
Repeat: Bang. Pain. Heat.
A flash of lightning showers the sky in radiance just before sending a huge jolt of electricity onto the clearing, just behind the Elder. The immense force causes her to momentarily lose her footing, pushing her face-first onto the hard ground. Meanwhile, I brace myself for the next bout of pain in three...two...one…...nothing.
I remain fixed to the ground for a few moments, waiting for yet another round of pain to tear me away from my thoughts. But it never comes.
Hesitantly, I rise to my feet, struggling to regain my sense of balance. Others, it seems, were knocked off their feet as well, probably because of the lightning’s fierce intensity. They all begin to rise, and I notice that each immediately turns towards the Elder.
No--not the Elder. They look just past her, gazing with fearful expressions at the dark man who had just emerged from the flash.
The Elder rapidly stumbles to her feet, not once glancing away from the mysterious being that now stands before her. Though her awkward, hurried movements give away her nerves, the Elder maintains her stoic expression as she stands face to face with the man. “Reveal yourself!” the Elder suddenly commands, gripping her hands together as she focuses on the man.
Something changes. The man’s face, which had previously shown a stern disposition, fades into a neutral shape of unfeeling. His body jerks once and then sets into place, as if he were suddenly locked into his current position. But what really catches my attention is his eyes: the brown irises of the man’s eyes, the white, everything that defined the man’s human expressions--all of it gives way, replaced by empty, black darkness.
The darkness of a demon.
“You would summon me, witch?” the being growls in a low tone. In this form his voice is that of a normal man, bold albeit husky, yet there’s still something about it that chills me to the bone.
The Elder nods. “Indeed. We have invited you here to complete the Rite.” The Elder turns to me, as do the eyes of all the surrounding women. “This girl here is ready to accept the Bond.”
I watch with a feeling of dread as the creature turns it black eyes on me, presumably studying my frame though I can’t really tell for sure since it lacks any real human expression. Without uttering another word to the Elder, it pushes past her, taking slow, forceful steps toward me as I stand frozen in place, paralyzed by fear.
It doesn’t come straight at me, either. The creature strides around me in a circular march, like a shark sizing up its potential meal just before going in for the kill. I look over to where Lyra is standing for reassurance, but even she can’t remove her eyes from the being, visibly trembling in a state of terror that’s hardly characteristic of her.
Hesitantly, I turn and face it. At that moment the creature stops, gazing at me intently with its eyes, or whatever the hell those lifeless black orbs are. For a moment we simply stare at each other, neither of us making any sudden movement as the other women watch intently. Before I even sense the movement, the creature suddenly locks me in a choke hold, grasping my neck forcefully with both hands, preventing me from taking in a breath. I hear a gasp let out behind me, and I know without a shadow of a doubt to whom it belongs.
The demon hears it too. It instantly cocks its head in the direction of the disruption, glaring with those pitch black orbs. I hear an audible thump behind me, as if something large had just fallen onto the ground. The anxious expressions of the women within my range of sight suddenly morph into looks of horror, and I instantly realize what just happened.
Lyra… Lyra is--
My grief dissolves in a whirlwind as I’m suddenly thrown halfway across the clearing. I land flat on my back, the breath knocked out of me as I struggle to gasp in air. Before I even get that privilege, the demon is on me, one hand thrusted out onto my chest. It feels like an entire building is resting on my body: no matter how hard I push, I can’t feel anything give way. But I can’t stop--I push, push harder. I push for Lyra, for what she and the others brought me here to accomplish. I push harder and harder.
Suddenly the pain returns, my body writhing as a blood-curdling scream forces its way out of my lungs. The pain takes over the entirety of my senses, as everything else fades away from me. The clearing--gone; the women--gone; everything around me vanishes, everything except for the demon, whose emotionless black orbs stare blankly at me as I lose my ability to struggle, as the pain completely takes over. I can’t feel anything, the pain’s too great. I can’t feel anything, I can’t...I feel nothing.
All of a sudden, the demon is gone. A breeze brushes against my hair as I attempt to stand. I relish the taste of the very air as I gulp in several free breaths. When I finally regain my sense of balance, I turn towards the circle of women, who all stare at me with varying levels of shock and bewilderment. Even the Elder, who rarely expresses any form of emotion, allows a disturbed look to flash across her face before she regains her stoic disposition. She takes a step towards me and raises her hands up towards the faint glow of the moon.
“My fellow Umbran: let us embrace our newest member.” The others stare blankly at first, obviously shaken by the events that had unfolded. However, one by one, they come to and step forward, towards me.
All but one, who even now lies still on the cold grass, lifeless.
“Let us embrace our newest member,” the women repeat somberly.
The Elder lowers her hands, nodding at me with a grave expression. “My child, henceforth you are a woman.”
I am a woman.
I am a witch.
I am a child.ns184.108.40.206da2