The Eve of Moons arrived.
When Adan opened the door to her room, Duke Kimba’s plump figure was already waiting for her on the other side. Adan raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“I thought we were going to meet up by your chambers?”
“I woke up a bit early,” the Duke replied with a foolish grin. Clearly, he was way more excited about what was about to happen then Adan herself.
Adan chuckled and moved to follow Duke Kimba down the corridor. As she passed by Lynne’s room, Adan paused for a second before covering it up with a nod to the female guard outside the door. It was Imma, the girl Marquis Hayden had prepared for Lynne’s protection during his awakening.
Imma nodded back stiffly. She wasn’t too fond of Adan after she learned that Adan had been the one to stop Lynne’s first attempt at escape. Adan felt it was reasonable and wasn’t bothered by it. She followed behind Duke Kimba and left quietly.
No one noticed the small, black ball that rolled out from Adan’s feet and soundlessly stuck itself to Imma’s ankle.
Once outside the palace, Adan looked up at the sky and couldn’t hide her shock. The sun had barely risen, but two celestial bodies were clearly visible on the horizon. One was pale blue, making it a bit hard to see against the morning sky, while the other was white as snow.
“Moons!” she exclaimed in her heart with shock. She had been on this planet for nearly a month now and had not seen a moon even once. Judging by the nation’s churches, Adan and her A.I. had assumed that there must be several moons, but since Adan arrived, not only had they not seen a moon, Adan’s sensitive body could detect no shifts in the gravitational forces tugging at her, indicating that at least no heavy moons where circling the planet. They had stipulated that perhaps something had happened to the moons so that they were no longer here, but the two large spheres in the sky indicated otherwise.
“Sai is still unable to register any gravitational pull from the observed celestial bodies,” the A.I. informed Adan, as several calculations and graphs flashed by in front of her eyes. “They must consist of a very lightweight or porous element.”
“Quite a sight from here, no?” Duke Kimba asked with a smile as he noticed Adan’s stare. “They cannot be easy to see from the forest.”
Adan noticed the look of urgency in the man’s black eyes as he glanced at the guards by the gates and gave him a nod. “Yes, I usually only see a glimpse of them from home. They are truly magnificent.”
Kimba breathed a sigh of relief and led Adan away from the palace and down the mountain. They walked all the way through the city – which was now too crowded for horses and carriages to pass freely – until they ended up by the edge of the island. They were now on the opposite side from where they had entered the city and there were noticeably fewer people here, and almost everyone present were from the Sun Tribe.
The people nodded towards Duke Kimba with respect as he passed them by and many of them looked at Adan with curious eyes. It seemed like the Sun Tribesmen in the capital were less familiar with the legends, because very few of them showed any exaggerated reactions when they saw her, at least when compared to Duke Kimba or Keeper Ena and her maid.
“Or perhaps they are just better at hiding it,” Adan thought as she focused her hearing; the heart rate of the people who saw her all shot through the roof, even when their expression gave nothing away.
After walking for another fifteen minutes or so, the two of them reached a small square. On one side was the lake that surrounded Fire Ilse and on the other side the steep mountain wall. Kimba finally stopped in front of a set of wooden doors that seemingly led straight into the mountain. Two wooden poles with carved birds on them stood on either side of the doors, with hot flames burning in bowls at the top.
“Here we are, Ancient Adan,” Duke Kimba said respectfully as he turned towards Adan. “Beyond is the home of our Chief and the place where you will perform your awakening ritual.”
Adan looked at the two doors for a while and then nodded for Kimba to lead the way, but the man shook his head.
“I can go no further than this, Ancient; only the Chief and Keepers of the Spoken Flame are allowed inside.” He pointed to the wooden pendant hanging around Adan’s neck that Keeper Ena had given her. “Use that to enter.”
Adan frowned slightly, but, while turning the pendant over in her hand, Adan still approached the doors. On closer inspection, Adan noticed a series of indented carvings on the doors’ surfaces and quickly found one that matched her pendant. Curiosity raised, Adan placed the pendant in the indent and pushed.
There was a soft clicking noise within the door, and after a second’s pause, the two doors swung open, revealing a fire-lit cave corridor on the other side.
“The Flame guides you,” Duke Kimba urged behind her, and Adan stepped forward with a shrug of her shoulders.
As soon as she entered the cave, Adan could feel the temperature around her rising. As she walked deeper, several notifications flashed by her eyes, urging her to allow the BioArmor to activate its climate control, but Adan dismissed them. Given her previous encounters with phenomena relating to the crystal in her chest, Adan had learned that if she didn’t let her body experience the elements, her crystal wouldn’t react.
There had also been the discussions earlier with Lynne’s family and Duke Kimba where close contact with the elements had been stressed as key for the awakening. Adan had already come to an agreement with her S.A.I. – unless there was a clear risk of death, the BioArmor’s heat resistance was not to be activated. She had even returned the Armor to its base form, leaving it as black collar around her neck.
After walking for nearly half an hour without any signs of life, the temperature had risen to an almost unbearable degree. Just as Adan was considering to start taking her clothes off to help her cope, she noticed a difference in the area ahead. The path was no longer straight and after the bend, Adan could tell from the echo that it would open up into a larger cavern. She could also hear signs of life from within. Four people, if you counted their breaths.
Gritting her teeth, Adan decided to endure the heat and continued the last half-mile before stepping into the larger cave. Taking in her new surroundings, Adan was surprised for the second time today.
The room she had arrived in was pretty much a perfect half-sphere with a circular pool of magma at the center. Compared to the rest of the tunnel that she had walked trough, the surface of this cave’s walls and floor was perfectly smooth. The stone under Adan’s bare feet was so smooth it almost felt like velvet. This cave was clearly man-made, and not by any technology she had seen the people on this planet possessing.
The four people standing around the pool of magma were all female and all wore the same type of clothing as Keeper Ena had been wearing, and they were of a similar age as well. Grey-white hair framed their dark faces as they looked at Adan with reverent eyes.
“Ancient One,” they welcomed in union and got down on one knee.
Adan almost stepped forward to stop them, but in the end let the people inside do as they pleased.
“Hi,” she replied and waved her hand at them, “are you Keepers?”
“Indeed,” the woman closest to Adan stood up and approached Adan. “Ancient Adan, we have been waiting for you. The chief has entrusted your awakening to us.”
“Your chief? Can I meet him?” Adan asked. She had many questions she hoped to get answered by this Sun Tribe Chief.
“Once your Awakening is complete, yes.” The second-closest Keeper walked over with a smile. “Don’t worry, you are perfectly safe.”
A mischievous smile spread on Adan’s lips. “This Tribe is really big on the mysteries. Clearly, they have a lot of respect for me, but they are also keeping quite a few secrets. At the same time, Keeper Ena claimed that the Tribe doesn’t condone falsehoods. What do you think, Sai?”
“Sai has noted no indications of deception or malice from these people. They are certainly withholding information, though.”
Adan nodded in her mind, but showed no outward appearance of her reservations. Even with the added time required for the BioArmor to be activated given its current state, it was unlikely that anything on this planet would manage to fatally harm her before it was at least partially deployed. Adan wasn’t really worried for her life. “I understand,” she said with a smile. “What do I have to do?”
The four women smiled widely, looking like mothers who had caught their child in a lie, sending a chill down Adan’s back despite the unbearable heat in the room.
“Ancient Adan, we humbly ask that you remove your clothes.”
“. . . ”
For a moment, the cave was in utter silence, only disturbed by the occasional sound of popping bubbles from the magma pool.
“I thought the Sun Tribe didn’t require its people to be naked in front of each other during the awakening?” Adan probed, taking a half step backwards.
“That is true only for normal Tribesmen,” the women smiled as they mirrored Adan’s movement and stepped in closer. “For the Ancient Ones, we need to prepare your body first. Please do not take offense.”
“But . . .” Adan started, pulling at her clothes to better cover her chest as she strained her mind to think of an excuse. Even her A.I. was trying to help, presenting a long list of suggestions extracted from various novels and films, but nothing made any sense at this point.
There was silence for a while again, and eventually the four women’s smiles began to look a bit strained. They were starting to look a bit worried.
“Ancient One, we do not wish to put you in a tough spot. We understand that your body is a private matter, but we have purposely made sure that all Keepers today are women. Your honor will be protected.”
Listening to their speech, a notion struck Adan’s mind. “There are male Keepers?” she asked, probing her idea.
“Of course,” the women responded. “But it is not good to be distracted during the awakening.”
“So you purposely arranged females today?”
“Correct,” the women sounded more hesitant now. “Could it be . . . the Ancient One’s preference . . .”
The lady’s question trailed off and almost seemed to want to back away. Adan shook her head quickly. “No, no, that’s not it. Let me ask you one more thing: What gender do you think I am?”
The four women stared at her strangely, before answering matter-of-factly.
“Female, of course.”
Adan blinked in surprise and simply stopped resisting, allowing the ladies to get to work. In her mind, Adan was discussing with her A.I..
“The King doesn’t doubt that Lynne is male and now these women don’t doubt that I’m female. It seems like we’ve overlooked something here; they didn’t even question my gender,” Adan mused. “However, judging by Kimba’s attitude to my closeness to Lynne, he at least believes I’m male. Or he too knows that Lynne is male, but that seems unlikely given their interactions.”
“Sai agrees. It stands to reason that the Keepers knows more about at least these Ancient Ones then Duke Kimba. If, for example, all Ancient Ones were females, that might explain why they assume the same about you.”
“Yes, it would also further strengthen the theory that the Ancient Ones are somehow connected to the Amazonian Platoon,” Adan added. “We will have to ask the chief for more details.”
While Adan was going over different possibilities in her mind, the four women had already deftly removed all her clothes, leaving only the black BioArmor collar around her neck. Satisfied, two of the women started wiping Adan’s body with a towel they had dipped in lukewarm water, while the other two brought over a bowl each, containing a black powder. They poured some of the clear water into the bowls, and as they mixed the contents, the black powder turned bright red.
Once Adan was satisfactorily clean, the four women used the red paste they had mixed to draw complex markings all over her body. A warm sensation followed the paths they drew and, upon closer inspection, all markings seemed to follow her major arteries.
It took nearly two hours before they were done, and by then Adan felt as if her whole body was boiling, despite her A.I.’s assurance that her actual body temperature had not increased noticeably. Regardless, Adan wasn’t in pain. On the contrary, she was feeling more and more comfortable with the heat.
The four women observed their handiwork for a moment before gesturing towards a long bench at the side of the room. Adan understood their meaning and went to lie down on the bench. Slowly, the women pushed it towards the middle of the room, eventually ending up right above the magma hole.
By now, Adan’s A.I. was getting a bit nervous. If the ladies decided to tip over the bench and plunge Adan into the magma pool, Adan would get seriously injured. The BioArmor would be deployed instantly, but while it would be fast enough to protect Adan’s life, there would still be considerable damage to Adan in the process. It continuously urged Adan to let it deploy the BioArmor, but Adan refused. She could feel the increased heat, but she didn’t feel uncomfortable at all. She soaked in the heat as if it were merely a luxury sauna, despite her skin temperature reaching way past water’s boiling point.
The moment Adan reached the center of the pool, she looked up and noticed a small opening in the ceiling. It seemed to stretch on forever, but while a normal person’s eyes would only be able to detect light, Adan could clearly see that it was the sky in the other end.
“Ancient One, it is almost time,” one of the women reminded her. “We will step out for a while. Remember not to fight the heat; take it in.”
The four women bowed and backed out of the cave through the same path Adan had entered. As they passed the entrance of the spherical cave, the ground vibrated slightly and the opening was sealed shut, leaving no trace at all on the smooth wall. Adan still wasn’t worried. She closed her eyes and did as she was told, carefully feeling how the heat moved through her body, relaxing her muscles as it passed.
Time moved on. At some point, the sky that had been visible through the hole in the ceiling was replaced by the pale surface of the white moon in the sky. It covered the hole completely, and as it moved closer to the gap’s center point, the surface of the moon slowly turned red. The redder the moon became, the wilder the magma surging below Adan bubbled. It didn’t take long before spurts of lava came dangerously close to hitting the bench Adan was lying on.
Even for Adan, the heat had now started to become unbearable. It felt like every cell of her body was boiling, threatening to burst from the excessive heat at any moment. But Adan still refused to let the BioArmor activate. Instinct told her to wait, even as her A.I. was screaming in her ears. After a while, Adan could no longer hear its screams, nor could she see all the warning signs her system constantly flashed in front of her eyes. Instead, all Adan saw was a black nothingness.
Suddenly, Adan felt nothing; all heat was gone.