The guide had left, the lantern sputtered lowly, and the chamber had grown cold. Precida still had not gleaned any insight that might guide her next move. She closed her eyes and cast her mind back to the guide’s final instructions as he had led her into this chamber. He had stopped at the entrance, beckoning her to proceed into the chamber alone. Before he departed back they way they had come, he gestured to the two doors on the opposite wall and uttered the only words he had spoken since meeting her outside the temple to begin the ritual.
“Two paths lay before you, and one behind. Choose wisely, for the path you choose may bring you enlightenment, the path you chose may bring pain. You choice may lead to enlightenment, your choice may lead to suffering.”
She had tried to ask more of the guide, but he had already departed, shutting the door behind him. How was she to make this choice? Her first impression was that the two doors before her were identical in every way, and nothing she’d learned since then had
Opening her eyes, she studied the doors before her yet again. Both identical, dark, and foreboding. Neither gave even the slightest promise of leading to the enlightenment she’d hoped to reach through the ritual.
She turned slowly around, taking in every detail of the chamber. It didn’t take long. The stone walls were distressingly plain, the stone worn smooth in the same style as the walls of the public spaces of the temple. Not even a hint of natural pattern was visible in their construction, the surface now a uniform grey. The monotony was broken only by the two equally plain wooden doors before her, and the passage on the opposite side of the room by which she had entered.
Precida sighed. She never thought it would be this difficult. She had dreamed of undergoing the ritual for ages, ever since hearing her older sisters expound on the insights it had led them to, the ways in which it had changed their outlook, moved their spirit. She had presented herself as soon as she had come of age, and had been delighted to be accepted. Everything had been so easy, up until now.
A risk of pain and suffering seemed a small price to pay. After all, Precida doubted it would be much of a risk for her. She had always been clever, and had no doubt that she would meet whatever demands the ritual placed on her. Besides, she had seen the marks on some of the girls who had returned from the ritual, backs and bottoms more welt than clear skin. She could not fail.
Precida heard a soft pliff behind her as the lantern gave out and plunged the chamber into darkness, it’s fuel and Precida’s mind exhausted.
Blindly, she shuffled forward and fumbled for the handle of the door to the right. Her trembling hands clasped the cold sphere and turned, lifting the latch with a metallic squeal and thunk. She pushed the door to open it, but it didn’t budge. She shoved harder but to avail.
In a moment of panic, she worried that she had hesitated too long, that both doors were now locked and the rest of the ritual abandoned. Her chest tightening she pounded on the door of random choice, a sob escaping unnoticed in her desperation.
She felt her way to the other door’s handle, a faint spark of hope kindling. Perhaps this wasn’t much of a challenge after all. If one door was locked, the choice was easy.
The other door resisted her every shove, just the same as the first. Frantically she threw her weight against each door in turn, pushing with all her might and will, but neither opened to her.
Precida slid down against the door, collapsing on the floor in exhaustion, frustration, and surrender. Not only had she been defeated, but she did not eve know how.
The chill in the chamber grew uncomfortable, and with a shiver Precida realised that there was no use in sitting where she was; she would have to rise and return, admitting her defeat and suffering the consequences. She reached up to grasp the door handle above her, pulling herself up.
The door opened out towards her, a dim light barely visible at the end of a the long, narrow passage beyond.
Precida gaped, feeling very foolish indeed. Reaching out, she felt for the other handle and gave it a gentle pull. It opened just as easily, revealing a similar passage.
Precida’s relief that she could now progress was quickly replaced by the pricking tension of the same frustration she’d experienced for however long she had dallied in the chamber. She was still faced with the choice between two seemingly identical paths, and could find nothing by which to guide her decision.
Trusting her fates to whatever powers had granted her the moment of serendipity, she turned back to the first opened door and quietly padded down the passage.
The light grew slowly brighter as she walked. As she approached the end of the passage, the sides of the chamber beyond slowly came into view.
Her heart managed to both sink and flutter as she took in the threatening atmosphere of the room before her. The flickering from the brazier gleamed menacingly off the shining surface of the instruments of torture hung on the walls.
“I must have chosen poorly,” Precida managed to croak through her fear.
“One might say that,” the guide replied, managing menace even with the noncommittal statement. “Either way, you have made your choice and must now continue.”
“Wh-What do I need to do?
“Come,” the guide instructed, turning toward a pair of crossed beams fastened to the far wall, unadorned except for a series of leather straps attached at intervals. Precida followed nervously, thinking back to the glimpses she’d gotten of the welts she’d seen on the girls who had failed. She had been shocked, but tried to console herself that they all had survived the experience, and none seemed overly concerned by the experience.
As Precida approached the beams, standing before them as instructed, the guide instructed her to disrobe. Precida removed the simple belted tunic she’d been given for the ritual and handed it to the guide, feeling very exposed in her nudity. The guide gave no sign of either discomfort or arousal as he took her clothing, set it aside, and turned his attention back to her. He grasped her wrists, lifting them up and fastening them to the beams with the straps, securing her arms tightly before moving on to similarly fasten her feet.
Precida began to panic at the loss of control, a whimper escaping her lips.
“There will be time enough for that sort of thing later,” the guide told her gently. Precida felt a warm, soft hand rest between her shoulder blades as he continued. “Try to relax. This is the easy part, in a way. Your choice has been made, you have been bound. You have nothing left to do for no except to be.”
Precida took a breath and nodded mutely, trying to obey his instructions but feeling none of her tension abate. The hand rested a moment longer before lifting, leaving Precida feeling very much alone. But not for long.
Precida heard a sharp crack behind her, though it was a moment later before she connected it with the pain that blossomed across her shoulders. Precida gasped in shock, and though she wanted to cry out she had no time to do so before the next stroke took her breath away.
The third lash, low across her thighs, finally drew the screech from her throat. How many lashes would she need to endure? Precida tried to think back to the marked backs she’d seen, but couldn’t focus her mind on the details for any length of time. She couldn’t focus her mind on anything for any length of time, the pain becoming the only constant in her mind.
As the whip danced across her back, Precida’s world shrank to the size of the sensations. It was a limited world, but a vast one. She screamed and writhed while she could, but felt her energy abandoning her, leaving her body to sag against the bonds as her mind floated away. She could still feel the pain, refreshed and intensified with each stroke, but it no longer mattered.
The guide had stopped, laid down the whip, and had rested his hand against the back of her head, a gentle, solid presence to welcome her back into her body. Precida took a shuddering breath and turned her head to face him.
“You’ve done well. Can you support yourself?” Precida nodded, and he began to unfasten the straps, massaging the stiffness from her limbs as he freed them. When the last strap was untied, she stepped away from the beams and turned to face her guide, to thank him for his kindness despite her failure.
Before she could complete her turn, she noticed her clothing bundled off to the side of the beams and blushed, awareness of her nudity returning in a rush. The guide handed back her clothing and Precida gently replaced the tunic, wincing as it brushed against the welts, she felt a warm glow of pride spread through her. She may have failed, but she had endured. She had lived through the pain, floated on it, thrived in it. Her legs shook, but her heart beat strongly. With steady hands she fasten the belt and finally turned to face her guide.
“Thank you for-” the rest of her speech was forgotten as she looked back toward her guide, now standing near the entrance of the room. Behind him were two narrow openings, the passage she had come through and an identical one next to it.
“. . .both of them?” Precida croaked.
“Yes,” the guide replied gently, “both passages lead here.”
“So there was no choice.” Precida replied coldly, feeling her anger begin to rise through the calm that had enveloped her during the whipping.
“Of course you had a choice. There was always the door behind you.”
“But that just leads back outside! I’d hardly want to go back that way” Precida wanted to scream in her frustration, though tried to reign in her emotions, mindful of myriad ways she could buy herself more trouble while in this room.
“You’ll need to travel that path again. It’s the only way in or out.”
“Then . . .why? Why the charade? Why the ritual when there is no choice in this at all?”
“Matters of choice and ritual are entirely separate. You came here seeking enlightenment, enlightenment which may only be found when the mind is freed. What you had today was a glimpse. You are, of course, welcome to come back for another anytime you wish. Or not. It is your choice.”