They arrived just in time to see the High Chieftess' fiery arrow landing on the pylon. A surge of fire swept through the piled offerings in the pylon, lighting it all up into a humongous mass of flames. The red earth of the arena seemed to dance with the fire's glow.
The High Chieftess stood amongst her people, as she was a leader among friends, and not their superior. Around her stood the Grand Karainas, their copper armor glistening with the fire's light. Scarlett recognized most of them, but some looked like they had been away from the village for a long, long time. Their opaque and brittle armor gave them away. A Karaina never ceased to be a Karaina. If they were exiled, they were allowed into the village only on the Night of Flames. Even the exiled deserved to pay tribute to the god Karai. Scarlett shuddered thinking of what those women must have done to renounce their lives among the Karainas to live with another tribe.
The women howled and cheered to the rhythm of the thunderous drums and then the High Chieftess raised one hand in the air and silence reigned. The floorboards under the High Chieftess creaked as she descended into the arena and turned to face her tribe.
Scarlett couldn't help but admire the woman who had practically raised her. She had been High Chieftess for thirty five years, leading the Karainas through three long devastating wars against the Hova. Despite the terrors she must have seen in battle, the woman's eyes were soft and kind. When she wasn't acting as High Chieftess, one could almost picture her as an extremely fit and muscular grandmother. But as leader, there was pride and fierceness in her demeanor. Even her gait commanded respect.
"Tonight we thank the Gods of our people for their guidance. To the South, we thank Namandu, to the North we thank Jakaira. To the west, we thank Tupa, and to the east, we bow to Karai, lord of fire and the holy flames that light the human's paths," said the High Chieftess, facing every direction so that her words would reach the Gods. "May there always be fire in our hearts."
"Rohayhu tata!" chanted everyone in unison, and the High Matron bowed to the East. Scarlett's voice was stuck in her throat.
She felt no fire, true or metaphorical within her.
"To honor the mighty Karai, seventeen of our bravest have been training to join the ranks of the Karaina. Seventeen girls who become women today. Step down and face your trials!"
Mimbi gave Scarlett a slight nudge on the elbow and walked into the arena. The other girls who were spread around the crowd, stepped down as the other women made way for them, patting their shoulders or heads with encouragement. A little girl no older than six handed Yeruti a flower as she passed by. Across the arena, Pakuri's large frame seemed to be pushing women out of her way. These girls who had been her partners and sisters for the last six months were now the competition, even Mimbi.
But Scarlett had no doubt that Mimbi would successfully pass all the trials. Her fire burned blue, though she rarely used magic while fighting. Mimbi said it was because it gave her an unfair advantage over the others, but Scarlett knew it was because Mimbi was trying to prove a point.
That Scarlett could become a Karaina with no fire magic, that courage could be the fire in her heart.
Scarlett's feet touched the moist earth and her knees felt weak, but she kept her head high and joined Mimbi's side. The heat emanating from the pylon warmed her face, making her eyes water. The other girls seemed unfazed by roaring fire.
Three trials awaited her: the jousting, the remembrance and the choosing. Of the three, the jousting was the easiest one. The girls would have to fight the spirits and remain standing.
Scarlett was confident in her fighting skills. She had trained harder and longer than anyone, sometimes forgoing sleep to practice how to use her shield to protect herself from her fire wielding opponents. Her sword as almost an extension of her arm, and she was so fast that the Matrons said she might even outrun a Hova.
The remembrance… was another story. Each girl would be given a draught that would take her mind to the spirit world. There, they would face visions of the past, present, and future, and then come face to face with their biggest fears. They would begin at one end of the Arena, fight the visions in their minds, and make it to the other end without leaving the spirit world. If they failed, their minds would return to the mortal plains, with no recollection of the trial they just faced.
It was at this stage that most girls failed the trials, too worn down by the burden of knowledge and fear. Scarlett had seen eighteen Remembrance trials in her eighteen years of life, even if she didn't remember the ones she had seen when she had been an infant. Most girls made it past the knowledge revealing phases, but when it came to face their fears…
No one could see what went on inside the girls' mind as they walked through the arena. All the spectators would see was a girl making her way across the sand, crying and fighting to make it to the finish line. Some screamed in terror and others stopped midway, paralyzed and beaten, only to wake up without remembering what had happened inside their heads... with the realization they didn't have what it takes to be a Karaina.
Scarlett wasn't too scared of the remembrance. She had learned early on that the only way to face your fears was to look at them straight in the face. The thing was, some people didn't even know what their greatest fear was until they saw them.
But it was the third trial, which was supposed to be the easiest, that worried her.
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