There are some ceremonies people view as little more than simple tradition or formality. The Trial was not one of them. The Trial was a very real, very dangerous ritual that determined who would join the temple as acolytes. Candidates were not chosen lightly, for the Flame could harm or even kill those it did not allow to pass.
It was a centuries-old tradition, to test each candidate with a fire that had been burning long before the empire, and would burn long after their great palaces and temples were little more than rubble.
The candidates were dressed in robes thin as insect’s wings, undyed and unperfumed. Their stark simplicity contrasted with the heavily adorned and decorated court that watched their approach.
To enter the Flame and pass through unharmed, a price had to be paid. Refusal to give up what the Flame demanded resulted in failure of the Trial, and often severe burns. Candidates would have to let the Flame pass through them, and burn away that which the Flame deemed unworthy. Allowing the Flame in without fear or fight would leave little more than ash stains on their hands or feet. It was said the more ash, the more the Flame had cleansed. But the only requirement to pass the Trial was to exit the Flame unharmed. Only those who were wounded were rejected by the temple, even if the wound was nothing more than shame.
Sometimes she wondered just how much shame it took to be rejected. After all, shame was an easy emotion to feel when one stood naked before the Divine and the Earthly. She didn’t exactly revel in being laid bare before the court.
Even as the thought crossed her mind, she pushed it down. The Trial was not about the eyes on her and the other candidates, it was for souls to be examined and changed. She shivered as she waited her turn, muttering psalms under her breath to keep her teeth from chattering. The robe would be the first thing to burn away, so she understood its simplicity, but did they have to be so thin?
She struggled to keep her gaze forward as the crowd murmured around her. Three ahead of her now. A tall, generously curved woman entered the flames with floor-length ebony hair and exited with naught but ash on her scalp. A priestess wrapped her in a blanket as a scrie took down her ash-markings.
Two more. A reedy man stepped into the flames and screamed when his beard caught, but he exited unharmed.
One left. A boy, her age perhaps, entered with his chin high and crawled out the other side. He didn’t scream, but she swore she heard a soft sob as he left the hall.
Shaking even as the heat hit her face, she inhaled deeply and stepped into the Flame. Somehow, the smooth stone was still cool on her feet, even as her robe crumbled around her. The Flame did little more than tickle as she took her next step. Then it was under her skin, in her veins, in her bones. It was fire, it was ice, it was a biting wind. She paused in the torrent of sensation and found she was not afraid. What would the Flame take from her? It did not matter. Anything it took would be worth it. The Flames did not burn away, they made her whole. So the Flame did not take from her. It gave.
There is a great difference between the blue-black of ink, the earthy brown-black of the darkest shade of skin, and the dry, gray-black of ash. There was no mistaking what covered the girl’s skin.
When she stepped out of the Flame her arms were black to the elbow and her legs were black to the knee, a gray-black that was unmistakable. Her once brown hair was now that same all-encompassing ash. The scribe noted her marks, and as a priestess tried to wipe away the ash, she gasped. Her cloth came away clean. Trying to retain her composure, the priestess muttered to the scribe and quickly grabbed a blanket.
She was ushered out of the hall and deeper into the temple as a wave of murmurs rose behind her. She took no notice of the shock around her, following serenely to the room that had been prepared for new acolytes.