Six months had passed in the blink of an eye as Zosimus entered Jem’s small, undecorated room and woke the little girl. She whined sleepily and curled away from his touch as the lights flickered into life at the snap of his fingers. He watched with a smile on his face as she burrowed into the blanket.
“Jem, it is time to get up,” Zosimus chided her softly as he began pulling the white comforter away from her.
She did not like the mornings one bit. They were the coldest time of the day for her and it was always a bit of a war to get the little girl out of her bed in the mornings. Most children who were sent down from the Cribs only needed the heating pad of their beds on for the first few weeks. In Jem’s case, they had remained on because of her aversion to the cold. She was more accustomed to it than six months previous but when the cold snap had begun, Zosimus had had no choice but turn it back on for her.
“I know that you are cold but I have warm clothes for you to wear,” he said soothingly. “Today is your initiation into the Angbroda and you will be sent away if you do not go through with this.”
Jem sat up and looked at Zosimus, her eyes were wide with wonder as he brought over the standard Angbroda black uniform of shirt and pants. The clothing was lined with a material designed to adjust the warmth of the person wearing it to the climate of their location. It was the only way that Zosimus could convince the girl to go down into the lower levels of their area with him. It was good to know that the clothing was effective in keeping the little girl warm because that day would be the ultimate test for her.
Today was the day of her Initiation. She had asked about it numerous times over the past couple of months but Zosimus had remained tight lipped on any details pertaining to it. Details of the initiation were kept from all prospective tribe members to prevent fear. The children were going to be afraid regardless but it was easier for all the caretakers to leave their charges in the dark about what they would be going through in the next few hours.
“Do you need help getting dressed?” he queried.
Jem shook her head as she reached for the simple garments. “I can get dressed.”
Perhaps her pajamas were too light for her to be wearing in the middle of a cold snap but Jem sat on her bed trembling with her clothes clutched tightly in her hands. She did not understand why she had to go through with this and Zosimus truly wanted to tell her that there was nothing to fear. She would merely meet with the Eldest of their people as all had before her and would carry on doing in the future. At that point, she appeared as if she was going to burst into tears as he reached for the clothes.
“Let me help you,” Zosimus said gently. “There is no need to cry. I know that it is cold but the faster we get you into these clothes, the faster you can warm up. We have a lot to do this morning.”
She let go of the clothes and nodded slowly. Zosimus motioned for her to stand up as he got into the shirt and pants as soon as possible. The trembling subsided with a firm hug and the offer of whatever she wanted for breakfast that morning.
The morning had passed quickly before Zosimus led Jem down into the lowest level of their area. She shivered in the beginning and moved closer to her Guardian before she’d adjusted to the frigid air. The corridor that they walked through was carved from the earth of Enceladus. The triple layered air locks were the only that kept them all from being turned into ice sculptures. Eventually, the duo came to the end of the winding stone corridor and joined several other children and their Guardians. The Guardians all nodded their greetings to Zosimus as they filed themselves into a line.
Zosimus felt Jem’s hand wrapping around one of his fingers as he patted her head. There was nothing he could say to the child and hoped that his minute gesture was enough to quell her fear. He could feel her eyes upon him as a door began its slow grinding to open.
It was time for the initiation to begin. A cold blast of air ran through the hallway as a large room dotted with stalactites appeared before them. There was a double formation of stalagmites nearly reaching the floor in the centre of the room before an ancient dais engraved with the markings of the Angbroda. The Guardians stood in their designated places and guided their charges to stand in front of them. Zosimus could feel the frightened energy from the children despite the fact that they were doing their best not to show it.
There was something about the frigid, cavernous room that left Jem in particular feeling both calm and terrified, excited and uncertain. She was doing her best to remain quiet and strong like she had been told that morning. She could feel the chill of the air around her like an unwanted blanket on a hot summer day. She saw a set of stairs off to her right hand side and the hooded figure who was beginning to descend them. Like the rest of the cavern, they were decorated with stalactites that rose from the floor and acted as a railing of sorts. They moved with an old, methodical grace as they finally walked the short length of the dais to stand in its center.
“Zosimus,” she asked quietly. “What’s going on?”
“Hush, little one,” he chided quietly. “You will find out soon enough.”
As the person removed their hood, the thing the two saw was a head of soft white hair surrounding an ancient looking face. The face was neither stern or gently but merely impassive and thickly lined with age. As they approached, the robe was discarded to reveal the same black clothing they all wore. One the man’s left side was a multicoloured knot in bright hues of green, gold, blue and white. The four colours stretched down to a bony ankle and up to a sinewy shoulder. His chin and nose came down into fine points with wise gray eyes and puffy looking cheekbones. When the man opened his mouth to speak, it filled the room with a cacophony of sound that one who seemed that ancient shouldn’t be able to produce. It was awe-inspiring how one man’s voice could fill such a large room.
“I am the Eldest of the Angbroda,” he intoned. “You young ones have been chosen to carry on the legacy of protecting our world. You all will face many hardships as you train to protect these Crater’s teeming with precious life. One by one, you all will come to face me and be initiated into our proud clan.”
At that point, the children were guided up to the steps to receive the Eldest’s blessing. None of the other children looked back at their guardians as the first child – a lanky girl with curly brown hair – ascended the steps and stood before the Eldest resolutely. As the child approached, the ancient one placed his knobby hands upon her shoulders. There was a cold blast of wind and bright blinding light surrounded the child. Jem’s hands went to cover her eyes as a single clap reverberated through the room. When she next looked at the girl, there was a green stripe decorating her clothing as she moved pass with an accomplished look on her face.
“Antoinette shall be a healer.” The Eldest cried.
One by one, clap by clap, all the children were awarded their stripes. There were many red stripes lined with silver that indicated the rank of Squire. There were some pinks and yellows of the healers along with the blues of the border guards. Anthony, Johnathan, Collette, Cassandra, Connor and Angelica all went through and received the blessings of the Eldest until Jem was the only one left. She stared at the Eldest warily before she was given a gentle push toward the man. His face was impassive toward her fear but she could see the gentleness in his eyes that belied his true feelings.
Slowly but surely, Jem finally came to stand in front of the Eldest. His smile was warm and gentle as he placed his bony hands on her shoulder and nodded his head once. Many things happened at once then. A rush of cold ran through Jem’s body as a bright light flashed before her eyes leaving her dazed and being supported by the Eldest’s hands. Her knees felt like jelly as she sank to the ground as a burning heat ran through her left side. She looked up at the man with a look mixed with confusion and awestruck wonder before her pulled the child back onto her feet. As the traditional clap signalled her induction into the Clan, Zosimus was by her side in an instant, cradling Jem in his arms as he looked down to see the lone gold stripe that had appeared.
The one thing that their charges were never told was that during the initiation, they were also exposed to the Backland Virus. It was essentially benign and did little harm to most of the populace as its main purpose was strengthen their bodies and immune systems to withstand the cold. The virus had been discovered in the backlands behind the tallest tower on Enceladus and was immediately cultivated to strengthen the population. There were rare instances however where the virus reacted poorly with the person being exposed to it. These people began to shiver and soon began developing a series of worsening symptoms. These people were generally unable to tolerate the cold and remained in the upper levels of their homes for the rest of their lives.
“This child shall be our Queen. The Child of Destiny has appeared at long last.” The Eldest boomed. “The initiation is complete. Now is the time for our newest clan members to go to their stations and new homes.”
Even with the preparations they had undertaken with Jem, they were not enough as Zosimus stared at the Eldest with an alarmed look. “Eldest, I must take her to Julian.”
“If she was strong enough to come to this initiation, my son,” the Eldest said gently as the rest of the inductees were ushered out of the cavern. “She will become strong enough to survive this. It merely means that you cannot leave her side. Go, take her to Julian. He will take care of her from there.”
.”Eldest,” Zosimus said quickly as he rose with Jem curling in close to him. “Who has the Double Silver Stripe then?”
“I will summon him from his studies soon enough,” the Eldest replied as he pressed a thumb against Jem’s cheek.
“Summon him…” Zosimus’ eyes went wide with realization and a sinking feeling that began to form in his stomach. “Sure you cannot mean –”
“Alex is not the same boy you remember. Summon the Knights from their stations after you see to our Queen.”
“At once Eldest,” Zosimus said with a curt nod as he swept out of the cavern and raced to take Jem to Julian as quickly as possible.
Later on, the Eldest received word that Jem was stable and sleeping deeply as Zosimus appeared before him once again. He appeared to have aged twenty years in the course of a few hours and sank into the chair offered to him. The lines that had been on his face before had deepened significantly as his hands steepled together.
“Eldest,” he began gravely. “She is too young and weak. She is not ready for this task.”
“Zosimus, my son,” the Eldest pressed gently. “She is weak and barely withstood my power. Regardless, she did withstand it and has been chosen. She is in the best of care and will recover. It will take quite some time for Alex to reach Enceladus. Let us pray that Jem is strong enough by then to meet her betrothed.”
“How long until he gets here?” Zosimus demanded. “I will not let that unholy little terror harm our Queen in any way.”
“Four months but Allen is with him,” the ancient one said soothingly. “He is the best Knight that we have and has done an admirable job of rearing that wild little boy in.”
Zosimus sighed heavily. His mind was full of worry for his charge turned Queen. How could he possibly care for her when she had been placed into an isolation pod for her own protection? “I hope that you are right. I will be keeping an eye on that boy.”
“He is a boy no longer but nearly a man grown. If he does not know how to treat a lady with courtesy by now, then I hope between you and Allen that he will learn.” The Eldest said gravely. “For now my son, return to Jem’s side. She will need you when she wakes next.”