One step at a time, Calea walked the long old road towards another village. Last among her kind, it was her duty to connect the two worlds, the living and the dead. Festival night was only one day away, and she would need to hurry to make it to the ritual in time. The town ahead was unknown to her, but it mattered little. On festival night, she alone could bridge the gap and when the next festival night was finished, her power, her curse would pass to another.
So, it had been since the festival and the ritual began. She stopped a moment, sipped from her old water skin, and massaged the aching muscles of her back. She was tired. Ready like no other for a crossing of her own. She took in a long deep breath and heaved her backpack onto her back. Soon, she promised herself as she continued down the lonely road.
The day of the festival began with thunderous clouds overhead. The townsfolk came by two’s and three’s out to the cemetery each carrying the seeds of life, to honor those who had died. As the ritual began, the youngest among them, gathered up the seeds into the large ceremonial bowls. The wind began to howl, ever increasing, and the folks rejoiced, calling their greetings to the wind. They had been taught as children that the wind carried messages to the dead.
It was a festival that had been going on for as long as the town had sat perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the dense, unforgiving forest below. The dead were known to haunt the trees, the lake, and of course the cemetery. Long ago there had been a pact, a kind of bargain struck. The dead had their business to attend as had the living, but once a year the dead were invited in, honored, and appeased for another year of disconnection. After the great cataclysm, the dead now outnumber the living.
Soon the sun began to set, and the lanterns were lit, a child began to yell excitedly as they spotted Calea making her way ever closer to the cemetery. They ran to greet her, understanding who she was by the clothing and the crystal tipped walking stick that she carried. They took her heavy pack, easing her burden and ushered her to the great stone seat that sat on the very tip of the cliff, which until she arrived had sat empty.
“Kind people of Coriana” she began, her voice strong and resonant like a monarch or a priest. “Though I am a stranger to you, you have welcomed me to your home and hearth and for that I am grateful, these old bones of mine cannot travel as well as they once did” the crowd chuckled politely.
“I have come to you on this festival night to bridge the gap, to make the connection and honor the pact that was made so many years ago, when the line shifted, and we became the few among the many. Many of you are too young to remember a time when we as a species did not know what became of us when our bodies were no longer intact, but now it is common knowledge. An unexpected gift, considering the damage our kind has wrought.
We remember the dead, we honor them, and now on this one night of the year, we communicate, renew our vows. We the living, make our vow that we will live, cling to life as long as life will have us. Hold the course as long as this gift of flesh will allow. This is where we learn, grow, this is where the knowledge is born and when we die, we take it with us, adding to the knowledge of the dead.”
She lit the lantern at the left side of her head. She paused, looked back over the crowd. At the sea of smiling faces and wondered which one of these people she would need to burden with a life they never chose for themselves. It would have to be tonight she knew, and it was not a task to be envied. She forced her mind back to the ritual and continued.
“The dead have also made a vow, to protect us from harm, keep us safe until we join them not in terror but in peace.” She lit the lantern to the right of her head. the towns folk began to clap and cheer, rejoicing in this reminder that they were not alone in this world. The time had come she knew and with a deep bone-tired sigh she put her hands up for silence.
“I have come for another reason also.” Silence among the crowd as they all looked at her, expectant.
“My time is coming,” she said, holding her voice as strong as she could,
“Another must take my place. Who among you have begun the dreaming?” She surveyed the sea of faces, all but one returned her steady gaze, and she knew in that instant that the child with the grey eyes was her successor.
It had been her mother, trying to hide her away from the gaze of the old one. A tactic born of fear and panic. A tactic that her own mother had tried when Calea had first been chosen. She understood the mother’s motivation, but it could not be helped. The child had been chosen. As she had been many years ago.
Mother and child were brought before the stone seat and Calea hugged the mother, whispered something into the sobbing woman’s ear that seemed to have calmed her some. The child, only 10 years old, stood with a calm and grace far beyond her years. Her grey eyes held a fierce intelligence that had unnerved some ever since the child was born.
Suddenly lightning loomed over head, thunder crashed, and rain began to fall in sheets. Calea closed her eyes, began to chant, allowing the connection to be made. Her hand dipped, methodically, over and over into the bowl of seeds, tossing them behind her over the edge of the cliff and down to the forest below. When the seed bowls had emptied the vale would descend for another year.
The earth began to glow an eerie green as the spirits of the dead became visible and joined the celebration, It did not matter where the connection was made, around the world the dead became visible and danced among the living.
At midnight, when the bell tolled its mournful song, the dead bowed and so did the living. Tears were shed as they always are by the living and goodbye uttered for another year. Calea, exhausted and feeling the power ebbing away, reached for the child.
The transition was not a painful one, but it was intense. Later Amathra would recall a feeling of great heaviness wash over her before the world came into focus, sharp and clear and so beautiful Amathra felt the need to weep. It was a blessing and a curse, this new awareness that she felt unfurl inside her like the blossoming of a great flower in her mind. She was alone now, disconnected from her family, her friends, even her home. Yet she was connected to something bigger, grander, she was connected to the whole world. The experience had aged her, a child no longer, she stood tall, willowy in her new adult body. She took up the shaman’s bag and the crystal tipped walking stick. Bowed low to the still visible spirit of Calea and began her journey down the long old road. One step at a time.