Rite of Passage, Chapters 9–14

Rite of Passage Illustration #1

9.

Gol is standing in the middle of a rocky desert, nestled deep in the heart of a narrow valley. It is one of the many places accessible to him through the network of tunnels built by him and his ancestors. He is standing before a brass mechanical instrument covered with knobs and wheels and filled with lenses and mirrors. It is a telescope, though it is not like any telescope the humans have seen. He places an eye near the bottom and gazes into the heavens.

He likes the desert. The nights are dark—without light pollution, he can see the whole of the Milky Way, spread before him in the sky like dust—and the location is remote. Humans rarely venture out this far, and when they do, Gol always has plenty of time to hide.

He turns one of the knobs, and the device moves a fraction of a degree to the left. He stares at the celestial canvas above, commits the sight to memory, then moves the telescope another fraction of a degree.

When he is done, he will return to his study and draw a diagram. And when he’s drawn his diagram, he’ll compare it to all the other diagrams that he and his ancestors have made in search of patterns. He doesn’t know precisely what he’s looking for, but he knows that when enough data has been collected, he, or his descendants, will piece together a solution.

He gets ready to move the telescope, then pauses and realizes he wasn’t paying attention. Irritated, he returns to the eyepiece and looks again. Any other day, with his quick and exceptionally detailed memory, he’d have finished hours ago. But today he’s distracted.

Every time he sees the stars, he’s reminded of his Changing, and every time he’s reminded of his Changing, he’s inevitably reminded of the boy.

The boy was happy before Gol took him. Will he be happy after the Rite of Passage? Gol ponders if he himself is happy now and comes up short.

Perhaps he should talk to the boy. He can’t tell him what he’s going to do—some of his ancestors had tried to be honest about their intentions, and the Rite had always proven exceptionally difficult as a result—but he can prepare the boy as best he can, at the very least try to comfort him, if such a thing is possible.

Satisfied for the time being, he shrugs thoughts of the boy aside and returns his attention to the stars. There is important data to collect.

10.

James has traveled back and forth, between the waking world and the world of dreams. The line between the two has blurred, morphed into something murky and unrecognizable. Visions of his brother and his parents dance before his eyes, beckoning to him from beyond the walls, calling for him to return home. He tries to follow their voices, only to jolt awake on the cold stone floor and discover he’s dreaming.

Time no longer holds any meaning. He doesn’t know the hour. He doesn’t even know the day of the week. All he knows is the hardness of the stone beneath his back and the strangeness of the semi-darkness before his eyes.

At first, when he hears the creature’s voice, he thinks it’s a hallucination. Only when the sound doesn’t stop does James open his eyes again, and when he sees the creature standing before him, he comes fully awake with a start.

“Boy,” the creature whispers, “Are you awake?”

“I want to go home,” says James, as if their previous conversation had never ended.

“I know,” says the creature, and he sits beside James.

James recoils.

There is a pause, a pregnant moment in time, before the creature speaks again.

“Do you ever wonder what it would be like to be different?”

“What?” James has no idea why the creature is asking him this, and he’s too afraid to answer.

“You’re just a child,” the creature continues. “There are so many things you don’t yet understand.”

The creature sounds hesitant and unsure. James hasn’t heard him speak like this before.

“I myself was taken long ago. Like you, I didn’t want to leave my home, my family. But then I became different. I was no longer the child I once was. I understood things differently.”

“I don’t want to be different,” says James. “I want to go home.”

“Sometimes we don’t have a choice.” The creature’s voice has dropped almost to a whisper. “Change comes to us all, whether we want it or not. Sometimes,” the creature says, “we must make the best of things as they are.”

When the creature gets up to leave, James jumps to his feet and shouts after him. “Take me home! Take me home now!”

The creature hangs his head but does not look back.

“Rest,” he says over his shoulder. “Tomorrow will be a busy day.” Once again, he leaves James alone.

11.

After Gol commits his astronomical observations to paper, he goes to bed. He wants to be well rested for tomorrow. But he can’t sleep. Every brush with unconsciousness ushers in the same guilt he felt before. It whispers in his ear, accuses him of a terrible crime.

“I must,” he mumbles to himself. “I have no choice.”

But the guilt only sneers at him with contempt.

His mind wanders, and he finds that when he lets it wander too far, it begins to replay images of his own life before he was Changed. He’d thought those memories long forgotten, but now they flip through his mind like slides.

He remembers his master snatching him from his father’s camp when he was only eight years old. He remembers trying to scream and choking on his master’s hand. He remembers the horror, the fear and the despair he felt on realizing that he was never going to see his parents again.

But then he’d been Changed, and his old life had fallen away in the light of something new. In this state, he’d understood his master’s actions, even rejoiced in them. He’d resolved to be obedient and to learn so that he could be ready to take his master’s place.

The boy will be fine, Gol decides, and with that thought, he sleeps for the remainder of the evening.

12.

Gol rises early. Though the light underground doesn’t change with the hours, his senses tell him that outside, in the world above, dawn has broken.

He lies there in the semi-darkness, contemplates the next few hours with grim determination. He doesn’t feel guilty any longer—or at least he’s managed to wear the guilt down to a dull uneasiness—but he’s having second thoughts about whether or not he himself is ready, whether or not he’ll be able to summon all the complex forces necessary to complete the rite.

He only has once chance to get it right. A part of himself, a small but essential part, will be transferred to the boy during the process. If anything goes wrong, if he utters even a single misspoken word, if any of the runes in the Room of Changing have been worn away to the point of illegibility, that part of himself will be lost, and the line of succession will die with him.

But he’s studied the rite for thousands of years, has pored over every detail in the book, until every word, every syllable, every symbol of that long forgotten language was committed to memory. He’s inspected and re-inspected the runes in the Room of Change, an innumerable mass of archaic markings that spatter the chamber like stars, and he knows that nothing has been lost. He shakes uncertainty aside. He will not fail.

Gol takes a deep breath. Holds it. Lets it out slowly, working to reduce the rhythm of his heart. After today, he won’t have to worry. He’ll remain for a hundred or so years to train the boy, but even should he die prematurely, the boy will still have everything he needs to fulfill his purpose, all of it locked inside his head.

Gol bolts out of bed, suddenly invigorated, eager to be done. Hunger gnaws at his insides, and he climbs into one of the many open holes leading to the surface, where he’ll hunt and consume his fill. Just a few more hours, he thinks as he worms his way through the tunnel, and for the first time in centuries, he actually smiles.

13.

A screech. James scrambles to his feet, fully alert. The door to his chamber opens, and he turns to see the creature standing before him on the threshold, face set in a stony stare.

The grisly visage is terrifying, and in one adrenaline-packed moment he decides to bolt, hoping to take the creature by surprise. But the creature scoops him up in one arm before he can break into a sprint, and he finds himself looking down at the floor, kicking and screaming.

“Take me home!” he cries, spittle flying from his lips.

“You’ll be home soon,” says the creature, and James falls still.

“What?” he asks, sniffling.

“You’ll be home soon,” repeats the creature.

“Home? You’ll take me home?”

“Yes,” says the creature after a pause. “I’ll take you home.”

The creature turns, and James is carted off down a long hallway.

14.

Gol carries the boy through the underground palace. He knows the way to the Room of Change by heart, though it’s miles away from them and can only be found in the middle of a winding labyrinth of stone and dirt that covers much of the Earth.

He will not feel guilty. What he said to the boy is the truth. After he’s Changed, this will be the boy’s home.

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