Loyalty Rewarded

High in the Tronhadar mountain valleys, nestled behind a colossal waterfall lay a tall and wide-mouthed cave, one so easily missed behind the shroud of dense mist from the thundering cascade of water. A small group of hooded and robed figures traversed a narrow - and in parts treacherous - path. The craggy walls of the valley tinged green with mosses and plantlife in this humid, yet slightly cooler, part of Matar. One by one, the individuals removed their hoods as they left the spray into the safety of the cave. Among them, a white-haired and straight faced capsuleer looked around the dripping walls and high stalactite covered ceiling.

“This way, Ferra,” a voice spoke from her front, the name echoing down the long spanding cavern.

As the deafening downpour faded the deeper they travelled, the echoing of droplets splashing into pools of varying size turned the atmosphere almost eerie in nature. The trodden path that wound through the hollow was well established, yet never formally laid. Soon, the group approached a hand-carved and worn set of steps leading up to a flattened rocky dais, illuminated by a breach in the ceiling. The sunlight billowed in, allowing various tropical ferns, mosses and other plants to surround the stone platform.

At the bottom of the steps, one by one the individuals parted, leaving space for but two to progress upward. Ferra looked between them, most of whom well known to the woman as she warmed each with an almost nervous smile before beginning to ascend. Some ways behind, a hooded man followed, slightly hunched with a well-arched spine - the only one in the group that likely needed to rely on his beautifully headed staff.

“Take a moment while I prepare, Ferra,” he spoke with an aged voice as they reached the summit of the dais.

The Commander gave a silent nod, removing her shroud and robe entirely, folding it and placing it neatly to her side as she took a stance in the middle of the rostrum. She closed her eyes and took a few deep and calming breaths, feeling the cool, humid breeze blow down from the sinkhole above - enough of a chill to give goosebumps all but where her tight binding cloth wraps covered her modesty. As practiced, the cave fell silent for her as she stood still and meditative for some time. The better part of a half hour passed by, seemingly in the blink of an eye for Ferra before she finally broke her rumination as she felt the light breach her opening eyelids. Now, she was ready…

“If you have anything you wish to say, now would be the time,” the old man spoke to her once more as he used a cut and flattened stalagmite as a table in which to prepare two long-pointed needles, filling each with fluid from small glass bottles, as well as lighting a smudging stick of sorts which quickly pierced the nose with a pungent yet-not-unpleasant scent.

Ferra cleared her mouth of residual spittle and swallowed, clearing her throat quietly as not to spur an awkward echo throughout the cave. Looking again between her friends, then to the hooded Shaman who gave her a reassuring nod.

“I grew up in the State, born of Civire blood and bound with corporate chains to a system that never truly felt like a home. Upon ascending to the stars I lost myself, far from anything or anyone familiar until a Sebiestor man found me and brought me to our rusted skies. There, he and his… Our, Tribe, showed me life, true life. What it means to be alive and what it means to be free. With this bountiful discovery also came an abhorrent one, that of the Matari people’s history of chains and torment. Since those days, I’ve become one with the families and Tribes of those who fight back, I’ve dedicated my ever-lasting life to abolish the gilded shackles, to strike back at those who have wronged us, enslaved us, murdered us. Nothing has made me as proud I am today to stand here, to receive a mark of acceptance, honour and dedicated loyalty. To me, this ceremony marks a new beginning in the same story, a new mark of brotherhood with the kin I have fought for, bled and died for, and a true mark of pride.”

As she spoke, the Shaman had laid a hide mat behind her on the rocky plinth, directing her to it where she lay down and took another deep few breaths as she stared up at the blinding sun as it breached a cloud above the large opening.

The Shaman withdrew his hood, sparse grey hair adorned his head and chin, scraggly being an understatement. Looking down upon the Commander he gave a nod once more, signaling he was ready and encouraging her to roll over onto her front. As the Vherokior man took up the first needle in his grasp, the others in the room at the bottom of the stone steps began to slowly wave their singing staves through the air in a somewhat collaborated effort, producing an almost ethereal humming of various soothing frequencies. The music crept in through Ferra’s ears, calming her as she physically and mentally prepared herself for the next steps… Steps she knew would likely be far from pleasant.

The Shaman placed the tip of the needle onto her back, a little down off her shoulder blade before slowly beginning to push it deeper, then deeper still. Ferra grimaced as it pierced her, feeling every inch of it as it slowly - and very carefully - pierced her heart itself. Her body tensed up with the pain and mental strain knowing just where the tip of the needle lay as it began to steadily push the fluid in through the tip. After what felt like an eternity, the Vherokior man removed it cautiously, already preparing the second needle as the Commander took multiple heavy breaths. Though the worst of the two was over, she most certainly did not look forward to the second as she felt the same prick pierce down at the base of her spine, the sensation escalating as it pushed between the vertebrae and unleashed it’s fluid once more.

One both injections were complete, she sat up and crossed her legs, laying her hands upon her goose pimpled thighs. The man shrouded her head and shoulders with a large black-dyed piece of cloth, denying her sense of vision and the others from seeing her as the concoction took hold and did it’s work. It was now that Ferra truly felt anxious, the fear that she had not deserved this, that her face would be stained with an inky blur, or even worse show nothing at all. After a few nerve wracking minutes passed, the Shaman proceeded to remove the cloth mantel slowly, unveiling the Commander once more and handing her a small hand-mirror with an ornate nautical design to it’s handle.

Ferra stared into it deeply, as if having never seen her own reflection before. Already she could feel a lump in her throat and her eyes welling slightly, the deep black markings showing proudly around her eyes. Handing it back to the Shaman she stood up, allowing her friends… Her family, to see the tattooed success of the ceremony. With a deep breath she thrusted her hand high into the air, her fingers tightly clenching into a fist, the salute quickly reciprocated by her peers as their cheering echoed, the words “One Matari” repeating and reverberating throughout the cave.

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