|Keletha d’ha Norrier stared around the small stone chamber in obvious trepidation, her pointed ears quivering with fear. If you want to be a Guardian, you have to do this, the tall, slender Elf reminded herself, still shaking. You have to go through the Ordeal.
She didn’t know what would happen during the Ordeal—none of the Initiates did. The Empress had decreed that each Initiate would come to their Ordeal untainted, with no thought or memory of previous Ordeals in their heads. It made sense to Keletha, but wasn’t much comfort now, as she paced in the tiny waiting room.
Each Initiate had three chances to refuse their Ordeal. The first time was only a few months after they had begun their training, to weed out those who did not truly wish to become Guardians. The second time was a week before their Ordeal was scheduled to begin.
The third was just an hour before their Ordeal.
“Keletha d’ha Norrier,” a voice echoed through the chamber and Keletha jumped, blushing furiously at her fright. “You have one last chance to refuse your Ordeal. Do you still wish to go through with it?”
“Y-yes,” Keletha said, her voice shaking just a little. “I still wish to go through the Ordeal.” Although why, I still don’t know, she thought, sinking down onto the single chair in the room and folding her hands in her lap in an effort to quell her anxiety. Jelarer would take me for his wife, either way. I don’t have to be a Guardian. Why am I doing this? The Ordeal is supposed to be utterly terrifying. I can’t even face a common nocturnal insect without shaking. How can I face my worst fears, like the teachers told me? That was about all the instructors could tell any of the Initiates—the Ordeal would test their worst fears. They would have to be brave and face them down. Of all the things Keletha dreaded, that was what she feared the most.
She now had an hour to prepare herself. She had no idea what to do. Trying to escape through the window was out—now that she had agreed to the Ordeal, it would be taken as a sign of cowardice, of deceit. She might even be thrown into prison without a trial, if the Empress was mad enough. And righteously angry she would be, too, if Keletha had been given the required three opportunities to turn back, and then tried to sneak away.
I want to be a Guardian, she reminded herself, trying to remember the calming exercises her instructors had taught her. I want to protect the Kingdom from the Dark Elves. From the Fey side. How can I do that if I can’t even face my fears about the dark or something? I need to go through the Ordeal.
A hesitant knock sounded on the door, and Keletha frowned in puzzlement. Surely her ruminations hadn’t taken an hour. Had they?
Jelarer poked his head in, jade-colored eyes mossy with uncertainty, and Keletha’s face lit up in joy. She sprang from her seat in a lithe, fluid movement, nearly throwing herself across the room at him.
“Whoa,” he said, laughing, putting up his hands to fend her off. “Are you that desperate, Kel? I convinced the Empress to let me in here. Technically, you’re supposed to spend the hour alone, but I thought you might need some company, at least for a few minutes.”
“Thank you,” Keletha said fervently, clutching his shoulders with desperate intensity. “You’re wonderful, Jelarer.”
He stroked her honey-blonde hair back from her face, smiling at her. His pointed ears peeked from his own black-streaked hair. He hadn’t cut his hair in a while, and it brushed the nape of his neck, looking a bit raggedy, not that Keletha minded.
“You’re going to do fine,” Jelarer whispered in her ear, still petting her hair. “You’re going to go through your Ordeal and become the best Guardian the Empress has.”
“Jelarer?” Keletha asked curiously. “What was your Ordeal like?”
He visibly stiffened, his entire face shuttering down, becoming cool and remote.
“You know I can’t tell you that,” he rebuked, but gently. “I have to leave now, Keletha. The Empress was quite clear about only a few minutes. Good luck, Kel. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she whispered, tears glimmering in grass-green eyes for just a second. “Goodbye, Jelarer.”
“I’ll see you in barely two hours,” he promised her. “You’ll make it, Kel. You’re made of strong stuff. You’ll be a wonderful Guardian.”
He turned and left, making Keletha’s heart ache. What if she didn’t make it? Three of the d’ha Norrier family in recent generations hadn’t passed their Ordeals. Two were kept in sanitariums, their minds completely gone. The third was kept in one of the Empress’s special prisons. Apparently, his Ordeal had brought out a cold, sadistic side that only Dark Elves possessed, or so everybody had thought. It made Keletha wonder if all the Dark Elves were really as bad as everybody believed, then, if a Light Elf could turn out to be so evil. Surely that meant a Dark Elf could turn out good?
A hard, officious knock sounded on the door. The hour was up. Keletha swallowed, her mouth gone dry.
“Come in,” she said, her voice light and clear, as steady as she could make it, which wasn’t very.
A senior Guardian stood there, dressed in the dark purple robes of his station. She couldn’t tell anything from his expression, which was as cool and remote as Jelarer’s had been.
“Keletha d’ha Norrier,” he said, a slight drawl edging his words. “It is time for your Ordeal.”
Keletha gulped and stepped forward, following him down the long, straight hallway, past the many-rayed golden sun etched into the floor at regular intervals. It was the Elfish symbol for “life,” and as such, was one of the Guardians’ most-used signs.
The Empress stood at the far end, her golden dress trailing out on either side of her. She stood as still as a painting, her dark eyes watching Keletha as closely as a hawk watches a mouse. And Keletha felt like a very small, very vulnerable mouse.
“Are you ready?” the Empress asked, but it was a perfunctory, obligatory question. Keletha d’ha Norrier better be ready for her Ordeal, or else.
“Yes, Lady,” Keletha said, bobbing her head, sinking into a deep curtsy. The light green robe of an Initiate chafed around her slender body. Soon, gods willing, she would be wearing the dark blue robe of a lesser Guardian. Soon.
But first—the Ordeal.
“Then enter,” the Empress inclined her head, stepping away from the plain stone door. So plain, to house such a monstrous thing. Keletha felt like it should be inscribed with grave warnings, ornamented with evil symbols, like it should match the horror inside.
The door swung open noiselessly, revealing only blackness. Keletha took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and stepped through.
Snow stung her cheeks, making her gasp and open her eyes again, squinting against the stinging whiteness. She stood in a clearing in the middle of the forest, a blizzard whirling around her. It was freezing cold, and she huddled closer in her robe. To her surprise, it had changed color, to a deep brown-green, and had acquired a hood that she gratefully put over her head, trying to block out the snow and cold.
A low growl echoed through the air and Keletha froze in terror, a whimper tearing from her throat. Night-crawlers! flashed through her mind, bringing with it an overwhelming wave of fear. They were horrible predators that stalked the night. She had seen victims of them, mauled and mutilated in the most terrible way, all of their blood drained. Nobody knew what a night-crawler looked like…because nobody had ever come back alive from an encounter with one.
Her ears rang, and Keletha bit her lip savagely, blood trickling down her chin. She could not faint. This was her Ordeal. Somehow, someway, this was related to her Ordeal. She had to face her worst fears. Well, night-crawlers were definitely one of her worst fears. Therefore, she had to be brave.
Too bad she didn’t feel very brave.
Keletha backed up against a tree, allowing its comforting strength to seep through her body. She was a Light Elf, training to be a Guardian. She had to act like it!
More growls answered the first one, and now she could see pinpoints of evil red light through the trees, slinking closer. Her throat closed, and she gasped for breath, fear prickling down her body in a sickening flood. Her knees buckled and she nearly fell down, nearly ended up a huddled, sobbing lump in the snow.
No! Keletha thought, pushing herself back up, using the trunk of the tree behind her for support. Be brave, Kel, she told herself, clenching her fingers together. Be brave. You have to. Remember—you want to become a Guardian. That means you have to face this.
A dark, twisted shape flowed out of the curtain of snow, facing her. It had large red eyes with no pupils; virulent sparks of light pinwheeled in their depths. Its body was strangely distorted; it hurt her eyes to look at it.
A hiss filled the air, and its mouth yawned open, revealing two rows of needle-pointed teeth sprouting out of wine-colored gums.
Child of Light, a voice said in her head. She realized with a start that the night-crawlers were telepathic. You’re our dinner, Child of Light. Why do you stay there? Why don’t you run?
“I can’t run,” she explained to the twisting creature before her, half-hidden by the falling snow. “It’s my Ordeal.”
The creature seemed to nod, but Keletha couldn’t really tell. Its body language was far different from hers.
Don’t you understand, Child of Light? This isn’t just a mind trick. You’re really out here. You’re really about to be killed and eaten. Now come on—it’s so much more fun when the prey is flavored with utter terror and just the beginnings of hope that they might escape.
“No,” Keletha stubbornly refused, shaking her head. “I don’t believe you. I think you’re just saying that because you’re a pawn of the Ordeal. You want me to give up. No.
“I have faced one fear and seen it for what it is,” she spoke in the ritualized words of the Ordeal. The thing before her cowered back, red eyes sparking in mutinous fury.
Dark whirled around her, disorienting her for a second. When she opened her eyes again, she was flat on her back, wearing only a baggy brown sack tied about with a rope.
A Dark Elf loomed over her.
Keletha squeaked in terror, her eyes involuntarily widening. It was a man, his skin icy white, his eyes preternaturally dark. He was nearly naked, an observation that colored Keletha’s cheeks pink.
“Ah, you’re awake,” the Dark Elf said in satisfaction. “Fainting won’t get you out of your predicament, my dear.” He chuckled, a low, oily sound that put the hairs on the back of her neck up. A silver crescent moon on his forehead gleamed, marking him as a Dark Elf. She herself had a golden sun emblazoned on her forehead, a permanent birthmark.
He withdrew from behind him a long, wickedly sharp knife made of obsidian. It gleamed matte black, somehow even more evil than he was.
Wait a moment, Keletha thought, keeping her face perfectly still. I’m still in the Ordeal. I must be more afraid of Dark Elves than I thought. But—what was I thinking earlier? About Dark and Light Elves?
The memory flooded her mind. She’d been thinking about her evil relative, the one who had turned out to be as cruel and sadistic as the worst Dark Elf—only he was a Light Elf. And just like that, she wasn’t afraid anymore. Not simply because her captor was a Dark Elf, anyway. She was still scared of the knife he held.
“You’re not evil, are you?” she asked quietly, taking a wild guess. His eyes widened, and his face paled. The hand holding the obsidian knife began to shake.
“Don’t question me, Light Elf,” he hissed, but she could see the uncertainty creeping in round the edges, how the menacing act was just that—an act. He was no more evil than she was.
“I have faced one fear and seen it for what it is,” she said, this time the words coming easily to her lips. The Dark Elf disappeared and blackness surrounded her again, making her close her eyes.
“It’s over, Keletha,” a harsh, familiar voice spoke, making her open her eyes quickly. Jelarer stood there, his face a cold, hard mask. He had one hand on the shoulder of an unfamiliar Light Elf woman, a curvy girl with red hair and smirking blue eyes.
“What?” she asked blankly, refusing to believe. Jelarer’s arm curved possessively around the red-haired Elf, drawing her in closer.
“It’s over,” he repeated impatiently. “I don’t love you anymore.”
Keletha’s eyes filled with dumbfounded tears. Jelarer couldn’t mean it. He just couldn’t mean that he was leaving her, especially for this red-haired witch. Gods above and below, he had to be joking.
This time, not even the knowledge that it was the Ordeal could pull her free from the terror-inspired melancholy that filled her body. She slumped in despair, tears streaking her cheeks, leaving faint silvery trails behind.
“Why?” she asked, her voice small and hesitant. Jelarer shrugged, but she could see a hint of doubt creep into his eyes.
“We’ve just grown apart,” he said. “We weren’t meant to be together, anyway, Keletha. Surely you knew that.”
“Yes, we were,” she insisted. “The Seers told us, remember? You can’t be mad enough to go against the prophecies, can you?”
The stubborn look on his face said that yes, he was. Or was he?
The mocking expression on the red-haired girl’s face gave Keletha a clue.
“You don’t feel this way at all,” she said, gathering strength as she felt her way along. “It’s that girl next to you. She’s bewitching you.”
“Jessamy?” Jelarer shook his head, but again, Keletha could see the doubt in his eyes. “She would never do that.”
“Of course I wouldn’t,” Jessamy said comfortingly. Her eyes spat cold blue hatred at Keletha. And something else—fear.
Keletha was right.
“You’re bewitching him,” she accused the girl directly, stalking toward her, her hands curling into fists. “Get away from him…Jessamy, wasn’t it? Get away from him. Now.”
Gulping hard, the red-haired Elf jumped away from Jelarer, who blinked as if released from a dream.
Now Keletha recognized the Ordeal’s work. If her fear had overwhelmed her, she never would have questioned Jelarer’s sudden change of heart. She would have turned and left, empty and defeated, broken. Not fit to be a Guardian.
“I have faced the last fear and seen it for what it is,” she said clearly. The room swirled around her, and when it stopped, she was standing just outside the Ordeal chamber, certainty gathered around her like a cloak.
“Welcome, Keletha,” the Empress said, and now she was smiling, coming forward, hugging Keletha. A servant standing nearby held a dark blue robe. “You’ve proven yourself. You are fit to be a Guardian.”
“Yes,” Keletha said, distracted, her eyes searching over the small crowd until she found the warm jade eyes of the one she cared about most—Jelarer. “And I’m fit to be something else, too.”
She carefully disengaged herself from the Empress, curtsying again, then walked over to Jelarer, her eyes sparkling.
“I’m ready,” she whispered in his ear. “Fellow Guardian.”
He whooped in delight, picking her up and swinging her around, dignity forgotten. She laughed and pounded on his shoulder for him to put her down.
“Just think,” Keletha said when he had set her down again. “Two celebrations in the same night—for a new Guardian...and a wedding!”