by Profe Steve
Citlali felt her body stiffen in the frigid water, one muscle at a time tightening like the string of her bow. Her back arched under the strain. Lungs burning, she longed to scream, but refused. To do so would be death. Slow, agonizing, excruciating death. But at least her death would bring release. No. She would not give in.
One scream, one instant of weakness and she would die. Instead, she reached for the tiny flame inside her soul. It guttered fitfully, but remained alight. She clung to it with all the strength she could muster as she prayed to whichever wind would hear her to lend her strength ***
“Citlali, the time has come to choose your path. I have taught you all I can. Now it is up to you,” the old man whispered, rheumy eyes sparkling in the glow of the candles that had been set carefully around them in a perfect circle on the floor of the ancient stone temple.
The sixteen ebon pillars, painstakingly crafted from beeswax dyed with a concoction of powdered acorn nuts by a process handed down from father to daughter, mother to son throughout long generations, exactly described the sixteen winds of the compass.
Four cardinal winds, four ordinals, four sub-ordinals, and four half winds. They would determine the fate of the young woman kneeling on the dark wooden floor across the circle from her mentor. Citlali forced her hands to stop shaking by smoothing the blood red silk of her dress as she echoed the whisper, “I am prepared, Maestro.”
Her face was set in determination, but her heart pounded until she felt that her ribs would shatter. She sought the peace of the flame inside her and her spirit calmed. Her lips curled upward in a smile. Now or never. ***
It was all Citlali could do to force down the scream that strove to tear itself out of her throat. Her flesh was hanging in ribbons, shredded by invisible claws that rent her from head to toe, yet no blood flowed from her wounds. Unbelievable agony wracked every nerve in her body, but she refused to give in to the pain.
Instead, she poured her life energy into the flame of calm and watched, fascinated, as it expanded, denying the unseen monsters of the deep. They had no power. The pain faded to a memory.
Flames engulfed Citlali from head to toe, overwhelming the flame inside her. That fire became meaningless and she wondered why she had ever considered it something to strive for. Her lungs sought breath, but none availed. Each inhalation burned with a heat that was so far beyond her imagination that she shivered as if she were freezing.
She sought peace again, but in the deep, cold, imagination among the stars. She wrapped herself in moonlight and snuffed the flames. No more than a few moments had passed with the Maestro intently watching his young charge. She knelt motionless, but he knew what forces assailed her.
Deep salty tracks etched his cheeks. He was helpless. All he could do for his daughter had been done. Now it was up to her. Twice Citlali’s raven hair ruffled in winds that he could not feel. He could not feel the winds, but he knew. Each spoke its name in his ear as it passed. Tramontana, the north wind. Penente, the west.
One more. One more test. Would it be Ostro or Levante that would test her next? She would either be consumed or would be embraced by the final wind. All he could do was wait and pray to the winds. ***
The water was too deep to even sense. Citlali knew that depth signified nothing, only death. It was all the waters of the world, of all worlds and all times. The entire universe was water. She surrendered. Calm filled her and she opened herself to it and to the water. She invited it in, embraced it with her being, and swept it away with a thought.
Water held no more terror for her. She was Ostra and the wind was hers to compel. She owned the fire of the stars and the terrors of the rending creatures that made their abode in the depths. She was Ostra, the South Wind, and the sea was hers.
Citlali, Ostra rose in a mist until she hovered high above the crags. She smiled down on the breakers that tore at the rocks. They were hers. She counted the denizens of the deep and called them by name. They were hers as well. The stars winked above her and sang. She understood that they were also at her command. Ostra. Ostra. She smiled.
Returning her spirit to the small room in the stone temple atop the mountain, she gently touched the face of her teacher, her father. Citlali reverently closed his sightless eyes. The smile on his ancient face warmed her heart. He had prepared her well. Now it was her turn to take up his mantle.
She refused to feel the sadness that wanted to flow in like a tide. He would not want her to. His life word was complete and Citlali felt his spirit surround her as she rose and lifted his frail, spent body in her arms. Her first task was to finish his final one; to return him to the sea over which he had ruled for a thousand years.
Citlali crooned the haunting melody of the winds as she bore him out of the temple, head high and heart filled with joy.