Tri had thought this sort of thing was supposed to get easier with time, but she felt far more apprehension than she had on her first Cleansing. She’d had anxiety aplenty last time, though the entire ritual also held an enticing air of mystery. On her return, though she couldn’t yet claim understanding of the ritual, she was not protected by the same naivety that had shielded her before. This time she was under no illusions about what would be expected of her, and what she knew she would endure.
She wondered, and not for the first time, why she had felt compelled to return. The trek to the temple had allowed for plenty of time for introspection, though that part, at least had seemed easier than last time; a bit of familiarity with the path had immense magic when it came to shortening a journey.
As she made her final preparations, Tri tried to steal her resolve in face of the ritual. She had survived once before, and had clearly seen some benefit- either that or she had been left devoid of all reason if she felt the urge to return. She tried to surreptitiously examine her sisters in cleansing to see if their emotions may in some way mirror her own and might prove her sane- or at least not unique in her eccentricity- but couldn’t quite bring herself to make eye contact with any of the other women preparing as she was.
It felt just as awkward as last time, undressing with the other girls. Tri glanced surreptitiously at those around her as she stumbled out of her underthings, trying to fold them neatly with her shaking hands before giving up and rolling them into a lumpy package that she quickly hid in her cubby.
A she turned around, Tri struggled to figure out what to do with her hands. It seemed silly to attempt to cover herself; although she was hardly a large girl, her hands could barely conceal anything. Besides, that wasn’t the point. She was supposed to be exposed for this, they all were.
She tried to turn her attention to her breath as she had been instructed, noticing a savoury, smoky aroma that hung in the air of the preparation room. Was the incense a new addition, she wondered? Likely not; lore had it that the temple and the ritual had survived unchanged through countless ages, the detail may have simply escaped her notice last time.
Perhaps this new discovery was a good sign, Tri tried to console herself. Increased attention to the details of her surroundings meant that she was less preoccupied now, and could more fully experience the ritual. Not that her previous experience had been lacking in potency. Tri shuddered visibly at the thought, but was spared from further rumination by the eerie entry of the robed guides. No beings draped completely in such heavy fabric should be moving as gracefully and silently as they.
Tri felt another wave of trepidation as she took her place in the line of women facing the guides. She flicked her gaze up to the guide opposite her, but couldn’t glimpse a face beneath the deep cowl. The only thing she gleaned from her audacity was an impression of the immense size of the being opposite her, rising nearly two heads above her own with shoulders broad enough to balance the height.
Tri bowed along with the other women, and felt the guide place a hand upon her head. It was an oddly intimate gesture from a stranger, given the difference in their states of dress, though at least her hair provided something of a barrier that allowed her to maintain a bit of dignity. Taking strength from the gentle gesture, Tri rose and allowed her guide to escort her into the next room with a hand on her elbow. She felt the heat creep over her like a living, slithering thing as she crossed the threshold. Unbidden, Tri prostrated herself on the stone ledge as the others had before her, a bit of forbidden pride crossing her mind at her lack of hesitation. The stone burned as it had before, just a touch too hot to be pleasant but not enough to do lasting damage. Other than the heat, it was a surprisingly comfortable position, the depressions in the stone molding around her slight form in a near perfect fit. She had heard that it was the continual use over the years that had worn the stones to their current shape, and Tri felt a flush of gratitude to the ancients who had come before her.
The feeling was short-lived as Tri’s attention was snapped away by the sensation of the guide’s hands resting on her back, about to begin. Her shoulders tensed in anticipation despite her best efforts to remain relaxed. The hands began their work, steadily working through her muscles, squeezing firmly to ease her tension. Even agitates as she was, Tri could tell the movements were well-practiced and effective, but as soon as her guide moved on, she felt tension return to the areas just visited. Distracted as she was with anticipation of the next stages of the ritual, she couldn’t relax as she had the last time. She knew something was wrong; she had found the massage a pleasant and relaxing experience previously, but now it seemed to be merely the first stage of the torture. As her anxiety grew, she felt the squeezing intensify.
“It does not need to be this strenuous,” Tri heard a deep voice say above her, so softly that she could barely make out the words. “Relax. You are only making this harder on yourself.”
“I- I’m trying.” Tri stammered. She felt the hands kneading her shoulders clench, sending a red-hot pain through her that seemed to touch all of her nerve endings at once. Unable even to cry out from shock, Tri gasped as the hands kept the pressure points activated.
“Relax,” the guide said again, and in her agonised state the command seemed to penetrate deeper than words had any right to. When the hands let go, Tri felt all of her muscles unclench as she seemingly dissolved into a puddle on the table.
The guide allowed her to lay there for a moment before gently helping her rise and escorting her to baths the next room. Tri noticed as she rose that she was the last to do so, and hurried her steps as she scampered into the baths to join the other women. She submerged herself hurriedly, before the shocking cold registered and made the commitment more difficult. Tri allowed herself a small smile as she rose to the surface; she had found one more small way in which she had grown from her first experience.
Tri swam-scampered to the edge of the bath and hoisted herself out to join the line of women and guides, the last to do so, but only by a moment. At least she wasn’t holding up the group, and spending less time in the freezing pool seemed a fine way to gain back time.
Tri was still catching her breath from the brief but frigid plunge as she joined the parade into the next room lead by her guide’s steady hand on her shoulder and lowered herself onto a similarly worn stone slab. Though Tri doubted it was as hot as the massage room had been, the contrast in temperature made it seem even warmer. As before, Tri was mildly surprised that the heat didn’t immediately boil the water droplets from her skin.
Tri had only begun to feel comfortable- and to miss the comforting hands of the ever-present guide that were conspicuously absent. Tri felt her breathing become more rapid, her muscles clenching yet again despite the massage, as she waited. She heard a distinctive swish followed by a sharp crack and nearly shrieked aloud despite the lack of pain; it was one of her sisters in cleansing who had suffered that particular blow, but even still it had a powerful effect on her.
She heard several more lashes, flinching at each one despite the lack of pain, before she felt the first strip of fire land across her behind. Tri truly did cry out that time, unable to feel any shame for doing so immersed as she was in the sensation.
In the lengthy gap between lashes, Tri bit into her tongue and tried to ignore the ominous sounds from the whippings around her as she struggled to bring her breathing under control, her hands forming tight fists as she prepared herself. When the next lash did come, she was ready for it, emitting only a low grunt in reaction as her pain more than doubled from the crossed strokes.
The lashes began to come faster and faster, driving all thoughts of her sisters in cleansing from Tri’s mind as she struggled to deal with her own agony.
Grunting and gasping, Tri barely noticed the pause in the lashing until she felt a cool hand gently brush her hair from her eyes as a soft voice spoke from behind her. “Relax. It may be nearly over. You have fulfilled our requirements, we wait only for you to fulfill your own.”
Tri nodded frantically, hearing the words but not grasping their meaning. The guide caressed her cheek, lifting her face to allow her to gaze into the dark cowl. Tri found herself facing an expression shadowed but kind as the guide repeated the encouragement. “We wait only for you. It can be nearly over. Let go.”
Tri nodded again more slowly, the steady gaze conveying what the words could not. THe guide nodded back, releasing her chin and resuming the position behind her, ready to continue what had already been unnecessarily prolonged.
Tri didn’t bother to suppress her cry at the next lash, seemingly more intense than any of those previously delivered despite, or perhaps because of, her brief respite. Tri gave herself over to the pain, quickly losing track of the number of lashes she received as wave after wave of pain took her away from this place and deeper into a more alien experience.
When her voice and the fire quieted, Tri found the guide before her again, hands gently rubbing her shoulders in a muted reflection of their earlier ministrations.
When she had quieted, the guide helped her rise a final time, leading her into the final pool. Tri barely noticed the line of other women at the far wall as she slowly slipped into the pool, allowing the cool water to soothe her skin, taking her time as she floated about. She felt a flush of embarrassment when she finally joined her sisters in cleansing, but any fears she may have had were allayed by a soft, understanding smile from the last in the line, a girl who could barely have come of age a year ago, who could not have experienced this many more times than Tri had herself. Tri returned the smile and allowed her guide to escort her back to the preparation room.
Tri turned to bow to her guide a final time, and felt a the gentle hand rest once more on the top of head. Out of the corner of her eye, Tri saw the others rise and turn to dress, but her guide maintained a soft pressure on her head, leaning in slightly.
“Each cleansing is different,” the same deep voice spoke, “each experience something new. Some will be intense, others less so. The important thing is that you feel the ritual has done what is needed.”
Tri nodded again, as the guide retreated, leaving her to redress and mediate on her experience.