This was heaven, pure and simple. All was darkness, all was warmth, like travelling back in time, to when I was floating in my Mother's womb, with neither care nor purpose. The gentle caress of heated water as I slid deeper down, feeling my long hair slowly soak as I submerged. I waited only a moment to take my breath, then, clamping my fingers over my nose, I went under completely. All was silence, save for the steady beating of my heart. This was bliss, this was comfort. The universe extended no further than the limits of the tub, and I, Morgan Owens, was it's master, it's Goddess.

Then, in an act which destroyed my little delusion completely, someone began pounding on the door to the bathroom, the sound augmented by the water. Instinctively, I opened my eyes, a move I immediately regretted as the concentrated salt began to eat away at them. I let out a cry of pain, and reflexively covered my eyes....thereby allowing the salty water to travel down my throat and up my nose all at once. Slamming my fists into the tub bottom, I sent my head shooting to the surface, breaking the water like a whale about to leap. The series of coughs, snorts, and wheezes that followed were much less majestic.

For a long moment I simply sat there, hunched over the rim of the tub, rubbing my eyes violently to remove the last traces of salt, cursing and moaning as if this event far outweighed everything else I'd been through. And all the while the pounding on the door continued, erratic and loud, only in addition there was a voice added to the mix.

"Morgan, come on! Everything's ready downstairs! The moon is high in the sky! Get the led out!"

Angrily, I made a note to make such a ruckus when Amelia was taking a bath. Barely two days in and I was beginning to understand my instinctive distaste for Amelia. She was a Mother Hen and a cop wrapped in one very irritating package. Always one to play by the rules, and waging her finger at those who didn't. Maybe, being the daughter of the Queen, Amelia had been brought up in extremely stern conditions, to assure her proper rule of the tribe when she eventually took over. Then again, I spend my better years living like a mangy animal, and you didn't see me scratching myself with my feet or growling at people. Okay, so I had the inkling to start growling at Amelia for disturbing my bath. You can mess with a lot of things, but when she has a bad day, you do not mess with a woman's bath.

Then again, this wasn't an ordinary bath. It was a cleansing. A cleaning of the body, as well as the soul. Hence the ridiculously high level of salt in the water. It was the night of my Initiation. I'd spent the last two days in constant study, all for this night. The cleansing was simply the first step. Let it never be said Amazons never took time out of killing things to clean up for their Goddess. Now if they - we - could only learn patience, we'd be all set.

Once my lungs were purged of fluid, I regretfully got to my feet, careful not to slip on the bottom of the tub or the tiled floor of the room. As with everything else in the Amazon headquarters, the bathroom was only as large as it had to be, and possessed an almost militaristic decor. Combing my fingers through my hair, I removed any remaining particles as I searched for a towel. Failing that, I began to look for my clothes. Failing that, I became rather alarmed. When I'd been left alone to bathe, I'd made sure to leave my uniform neatly folded in the corner. Either they had done a chameleon disappearing act, or they'd been removed.

I looked at the lock on the door, and found it to be open. Damn it! Did anyone know what privacy meant around here? Granted, I'd been so deeply entranced by the comforts of my bath that it would be fair to say that my privacy wasn't compromised. A nuclear bomb could have gone off and I'd have still been contentedly dozing, completely oblivious. Another series of pounds erupted. I took an angry step to the door.

"Where the Hell are my clothes?"

Apparently, in Amazon, that must have translated into, "Yes, I'm quite finished. Please, do come in," for no sooner than I'd said the words, than Amelia and Bridgett, followed by two other girls entered the room. I had barely enough time to place a hand over my nether regions and across my breasts (or what counted for them). All four of them set upon me in an instant, wiping me down with linen towels in a professional tone. I was totally mortified, having been seen naked only once in my life, at a time when nakedness was as natural as anything else. Still, I stuck to my guns, resisting their attempts to pull my hands away.

"You know, I could have done this myself." I noted heatedly, knowing full well I was preaching to the choir. Accepting this whole thing was bad enough without public nudity added to the mix. Amelia and Bridgett guided me to a chair, where Bridgett began braiding my hair, and Amelia finished off some last minute drying. Neither made an attempt to respond to my statement, so I gave an exaggerated sigh and resigned to accept their ministrations as meekly as possible. Before long I was dry as a bone, and while Bridgett continued to fuss with my hair, I was told to stand up and turn around. Not long after that, the other two girls reappeared, each carrying a single rectangle of wine coloured cloth. Each piece had clips along one end of it, and along the hem, was gold embroidering of what looked like Peacocks.

"Stand up, and lift your arms spread-eagle." Amelia instructed, and I obeyed, hesitating for a moment before annoyance overrode modesty and I moved my hands. These were Amazons, not lesbians, and from the looks on their faces, they weren't enjoying it anymore than I was. Then again, the only guys who had ever shown and interest in me were geeks and pedophiles, so what does that say?

Once I was in position, one of the girls stepped in front of me with her cloth, and the other took position at my rear. Bringing their pieces of cloth together over my shoulders and arms, they fastened the clips, and I found myself wearing an oversized poncho. As I began to lower my arms, Amelia stopped me, for the girls were now fastening a belt around my waist, turning the mass of fabric into sleeves and a skirt.

"It's called a chiton. It's an ancient garment worn since our Olympian days. Back then it was an everyday wear. These days it's only for ceremony." Bridgett explained, having finished her braiding so that my hair was up, away from my face and neck in a style I remembered from ancient Greek and Roman paintings. "Imagine kicking ass in one of these night after night." Bridgett chuckled, lightening the mood somewhat. I really liked Bridgett. She was so kind and warm, it was hard for me to believe she was an Amazon. Then again, maybe that was her Father's side coming through, which in itself didn't make much sense, considering what I'd heard of the Banshees from Bridgett and my readings. Then again, maybe that's what gave her an edge. Maybe she covered her darker impulses and thoughts with a shroud of pleasantries, allowing her to pounce.

At last, a few pieces of gold were put around my neck and in my hair. Wouldn't want to stand before the Goddess in less than the best, even if you were nothing more than a killing machine that thinks (sometimes). I looked at myself in the mirror above the bathroom sink. The young woman who stared back at me was a figment from the past, a classical Greek woman, at least, that's what I'd seen in movies and books on the time period. The hair was the wrong colour, but otherwise.......

After I was prepared, I was told to remain in where I was while the others went to change. The chiton was a sacred garment, and as a result my "hand maidens" hadn't changed yet. Didn't want to risk that I'd splish splash and get their gowns soggy. While they were gone, I was to meditate, to organize my thoughts in preparation for meeting Artemis. Yes, the initiation was my introduction to the Goddess. Apparently she was to appear to me and judge my worth. How this was to be accomplished, I wasn't that clear on, but I digress. Back to the meditation.

I got to a record of about ten seconds complete mental silence before I caved and returned to my reflection in the mirror. It was such an astounding paradox it nearly made me laugh. I'd gone over the Amazon laws, rules, etc. While I won't go into specifics, I think it'd be safe to say that these people made the Jedi look more like a country club than a futuristic UN. Yet there I stood, in elegant clothes and beautiful jewellery, and gold sandals. Did I mention I wore golden sandals? Certainly not the frugal to a fault Amazonian behaviour I'd come to know. Then again, what better time to indulge oneself than in the worship of their God.

"Morgan, it's time." Amelia called, her voice oddly muffled.

I turned around to find all four girls before me, in chitons of deep purple wool. Aside from the colour, their clothes were identical to mine....except for the masks. Each girl was wearing an unusual mask, the colours and sizes differing from one to the next. The masks were large bird heads, or should I say, approximations of bird heads, wreathed by a mane of multicoloured feathers. At the top of each head, two small stubs stuck out. The beginnings of antlers. Like a deer or elk. I'd learned of this. The bird represented the phoenix, the Amazon's spirit guide, immortal guardian of the Earth. Each mask was unique to their owner, representative of the phoenix's many incarnations. As for the horns (or stubs), they were symbolic of Artemis, the huntress, and the forests which she held dear. The horns also indicated rank, stubs being trainees, straight horns being an average Amazon, single branching being a priestess, and a full set of multi branched horns representing the Queen. Hell, even the chiton colours represented rank, wine being an initiate, purple a trainee, blue an average Amazon, gray being a priestess, and white being the Queen.

Hence me wearing the wine chiton and no mask. My first mask would be made for me by Nemak, my trainer. Once I graduated from her instruction, I would fashion a mask of my own. If I was around that long. Don't get me wrong, I know everyone has a belief in something, but this cultish stuff was giving me the heeby geebies.

And so, taking in all this pomp and circumstance, I left the bathroom, my aids taking up position around me, two ahead and two behind. All the lights in the building had been turned off, and with it being the dead of night, our journey through the hall to the stairs was a difficult one. For me, anyway. Whether it be special training, or simply years of experience, my guides traversed the pitch black without fear. Their proximity gave me direction, and prevented me from stumbling and falling flat on my face.

Reaching the stairs, the dark oblivion was shattered by the sounds of the ritual underway. The High Priestess and her two aids, invoking the rights which would bring forth Artemis and bless the ritual, their voices producing powerful echoes throughout the building. The sounds of grunting and chanting from those dancing in praise of the Goddess. And above, the flickering reflection of the ritual fire on the ceiling pierced the blackness.

My heart began to pound, my hand to quiver, and as we descended to meet the gathering, I felt an anxiety so complete it made me weak. My stomach lurched and shuddered with anticipation, as each step seemed an eternity within itself. An effect aided by my "handmaiden's" agonizingly slow trudge, but I digress.

At last we reached the main floor, and as we faced the altar and the gathering, I was overwhelmed by what I saw. I could have laughed out loud. It was like a combination of the most basic male fantasy and the classic psycho cult ritual.

The training room was completely bare and dark, save for two large pillar torches which were set on either side of the main altar. The altar itself had been moved from its place on the wall to the center of the room. Before it stood the High Priestess, or Shamaness: the Amazon equivalent of a spiritual leader; and her two aids. All three were dressed in grey chitons, the Shamaness distinguished by her mask and corsette of gold. They continued to chant and sing, shaking magical talismans made of animal bone. Before them, a large fire pit had been erected, and as flames leapt from it, four trainees danced around it, skin clad save for their masks, and deer skin braes and panties. Watching them gyrate and prance, thrust and convulse to the beat of some distant drum, it suddenly came into my head that this was the perfect backdrop for a porn movie, and with that thought, I began to giggle silently.

The rest of the "congregation" encompassed the fire pit and the altar, some thirteen women forming the main circle around the scene, with four more forming a gateway into the circle. All were dressed in chitins similar to my own, with similar bird/elk hybrid masks as my four guides. Yet, atop the chitin, each woman wore corset and gauntlets made of the same elk skin as the dancers. Near the edge of this circle, at each cardinal point stood a totem, a staff covered with elk skulls and fur, and drenched in blood.

So disgusting was the sight of those totems, that I had to close my eyes and will myself not to vomit, so thick was the scent of blood in the air. Okay, Morgan, hold it together. You knew this was part of their ritual. Gotta kill Bambie before the Goddess will give you the time of day. As if sensing my distress, the two aids to my rear placed a hand on each of my shoulders, and by some unspoken signal, we proceeded to the circle gateway.

Upon reaching the first two gatekeepers, the aids to my front dispersed. As they did, the first two Amazon guards turned to me, one fastening an elk skin corset around my midsection while the other placed the gauntlets. It wasn't bad enough that they had to go out and kill a poor innocent elk, but I had the sneaking suspicion that these articles of "clothing" had received the minimum amount of necessary preparation. Indeed, the moist, warm feel along with the smell was proof enough. Christ on crutches! What the hell was I doing there?!? This was way beyond stupidity or insanity.

As I pondered this, I was gently pushed forward, and the final two women who comprised the gateway stepped forward, each holding what appeared to be a jug. They both dipped a hand into the jug, and proceeded to smear the contents upon me. It took me a millisecond to realize that the dark, chunky, slow moving liquid upon their hands was blood, and instinctively I raised my arms to shield my face. It was like a scene from a horror movie, their masks and the eery reflection the fire caused only augmenting the my sense of panic. Undaunted, their insistent hands found there way past my defences, and smeared the blood across my forehead and mouth. I took a step back, spitting, and proceeded to wipe away the still warm fluid.

"Morgan!" A familiar voice called out from ahead, the sound cracking the silence like a great whip. I squinted, struggling with the radiance of the fire as I looked beyond it. There, before the sacred altar and its priest, stood Velassa, dressed as we all were, in a combination of Greek finery and deer skin. Her mask was made of a black, shiny substance which caught the light of the fire. Protruding from the top was the fully formed pair of antlers which signalled her queen ship, towering high above her head. In idle contemplation, I couldn't help but wonder what the weight of such a protrusion would be like, and how the mask remained secure on her head. She too wore a corsette of gold, which made her look like an angelic spirit (If you ignored the face).

Velassa raised her arms in a beckoning of welcome. The gesture made me suddenly aware of all the people around me, and for a moment I felt self conscious, as though I were naked. Everyone was there, watching and waiting. Wanting to see if I'd really do it, if Velassa would actually initiate me. I became very aware of the contempt permiating the room. I was the enemy. Though I carried Amazon blood within my vains, I was also Lupin, tainted and vile. Even through their masks, I could feel their gazes, ranging from simple discomfort to sheer disgust and rage. Mustering up my age old shield of bravado, I walked as calmly as I could from my place and proceeded to the Queen's side. They wanted to see the show? Fine. I'd give them a show they'd always remember. This girl didn't back down.

As I passed, each Amazon in the circle crossed her right arm over her chest as a sign of respect. It was all show, of course, but they weren't stupid enough to risk punishment by disobeying the Queen. Absolute Monarchies can be so effective sometimes. On the other hand, maybe it was so ingrained it was more like an automated response than an act of will. Note to self, find moment to contemplate it further.

Taking hold of my shoulders, Velassa planted a kiss through her mask on both of my cheeks. How European. I should have known there was an alterior motive. This action gave her a moment to run through the final details.

"You know what comes next. I will invoke the right of Artemis, and the priests will bring forth the sacrifices. Just remember to only speak as the ritual requires, and above all, behave."

I was tempted to stomp my feet, stick out my tongue, and cross my arms in defiance of her statement. Who the Hell did she think she was talking to? I wasn't some dopey kid. Okay, I'd been given an idea of what to expect...Okay, so I knew the basics of what...Okay, okay! So they had told me what to expect blow by blow. All the blood and stinky skins and a like. It's just..I'd thought they were being colourful or something. You know, new member hazing. Tell them horror stories and so forth. I should have known better.

After the briefing, Velassa turned me around, facing my fellow Amazons, raising her arms to the sky as she invoked the goddess. Now, even after two days of constant study and exposure to the ancient language, I still couldn't make heads or tails of it. However, from what I could grasp, Velassa said something in the ball park of: "Ancient wise one. First of all warrior woman. Goddess of the hunt. We present to you on this night, your newest child. Morgan Owens. Daughter of Tamantha Owens. Long has she strayed from your path, oh most powerful Goddess. Yet here she stands, willing to give up her trivial, selfish existence for your greater purpose. We ask that you smile down upon her on this most blessed of days, and find her worthy of a place within the ranks of your children."

Following her words, the congregation raised their right arms forward, and in one voice replied, "In the Goddess's name."

Taking hold of my shoulders again, Velassa guided me to the altar, upon which stood the holy statue of Artemis, and the Kariff, the holy weapon of the Amazons, past onto them by the Goddess herself (supposedly) when she formed the first great Amazon tribes. It was an odd looking weapon, a bizarre crossing of a stake, sword and battle axe all rolled into one. Made of an unknown alloy which gleamed a dull wine colour, it was in a fine state of preservation, without so much as a nick on it. Figures, considering it was an item of great religious importance. On the other hand, it looked like such a nightmare to wield, it was much more likely that the stoner who invented it decided to write it off as a religious miracle rather than admit her own stupidity.

Leaving me a few inches away, Velassa moved to the altar and tenderly picked up the Kariff, giving a respectful bow to the Goddess's image. From the dark abyss behind the gathering re-emerged the Shaman and her priests. The Shaman carried with both hands a chalice of pure gold, her priests each bringing forth the sacrifices. Though I knew what I'd see, it still surprised me when the priest brought forth the stag and peacock. The stag came in quietly, like a cow tethered at the neck, a startling contrast considering the horns. The peacock, on the other hand, thrashed and squawked and struggled, clearly outrage at having been abducted, seemingly oblivious to the futility of it's struggles. The stag was representative of the forest, the peacock representative of the Phoenix, the immortal spirit of the Amazons. And in combining them, so to did one create a true Amazon in the flesh.

The Shamaness placed the chalice on the altar, and raising her arms before the statue of Artemis, she recited a verse which the congregation repeated after her. The Shamaness then turned to Velassa, and with a respectful bow, she took the Kariff from the Queen's hands. At the same moment, the two priests moved the sacrifices to the altar. As if by some sense of danger, the stag showed the first attempt of resistance, attempting to dig in it's hooves like a mule. However, Amazon strength, along with a smooth cement floor quickly and efficiently fwarted the rebellion. The Peacock continued to peck and squawk and flutter, its expression one of annoyance more than fear.

With the sacrifices in place, Velassa placed a hand on my shoulder and gently pushed me forward. Given the choice, I'd have rather hung back and avoided seeing what I was about to witness, but with all the rest of the gathering pressing in, I wasn't about to look like a squeamish child. Okay, let's all watch the blood and gore. It'll be no more disturbing than when Grandpa used to chop the heads off of the fish you'd catch for dinner...or so I told myself. I walked forward and glued my eyes to the scene.

The peacock was first. The assistant priest extended the bird forward so that the Shamaness could grab it by the neck. The peacock pecked viciously at her, but was quickly subdued as the Shamaness took hold of it like a butcher about to kill a chicken. The Shamaness lifted the bird to the face of the Artemis statue, and stated, "By the blood of the Phoenix, I do consecrate thee." Bringing the bird's neck an inch or so over the statue's feet, she gave a single, decisive swipe of the Kariff, and the head rolled off like a tennis ball. A spackling of blood from the slice brought colour to the grey stone. Squeezing the neck at the stump, the Shamaness stopped the bleeding until she had the carcass hovering over the chalice, laxing her grip so that the blood ran out into the golden chalice. There was a powder at the bottom, an oddly coloured powder, which mingled with the blood, turning it a bright red.

Once the body was bled out, the Shamaness ran her hand over the stump, and smeared what blood was left across her chin, taking an almost sexual pleasure out of it that nearly made me puke.

Laying the carcass down at one side of the altar, the Shamaness's attention moved to the next sacrifice. The Stag, which, having seen the demise of it's fellow sacrifice, required the assistance of both priests to subdue it and hoist it over the chalice. Again came the pledge to Artemis. Again the fatal slash by the Kariff. This time, the cuts went only deep enough to open the veins of the neck, and as the stag attempted to buck, his blood poured into the chalice, mingling with the peacock's and the powder until it was a reddish purple. It's body sensing the lethal blow, the Stag fought with renewed viger against it's handlers, all be it in vain. As with the Peacock, the battle was already lost.

It took several minutes, but at last the stag went still, it's eyes glazed in a look of death I knew only too well. Again the Shamaness took blood from the fur, smearing it across her forehead. Her pleasure in this act once again made my bile rise, and the priests dropped the lifeless body as they praised the sacred spilling of the blood.

After a brief period of chanting, in which the Shamaness and her priests danced around the burning fire, spouting prayers and thanks and a like in a fevered stupor of the kill, the lifeless shells were discarded, and the Shamaness dipped the sword end of the Kariff into the chalice, and began to stir the brew. As she did, she began to chant again, "blood of the Goddess." She repeated the words and her actions several times, until at last the blood was well mixed. Once the mixture was complete, the Shamaness turned to me, chalice in hand, and once again reciting the ancient verses, she began to scribble symbols across my face in this unholy soup. It was pure agony. The stench of death was everywhere, perfumed only by the reek of still-warm blood, metallic and bittersweet. Had my Mother gone through this? Had she watched the blood flow and felt the warm blood on her face? Panic began to flood up, but I planted my feet firmly in place and fought it back. I could play their little game. And when nothing happened, when Artemis failed to answer her call, and my destiny failed to show it's ugly mug, I'd bring all the world down upon their psycho cult.

Finally the torture was over. The Shamaness pulled back, and handed the chalice to Velassa. No bolts of lightening or spirit manifestations occurred, nor did the sky fall or the Earth tremble with the fury of an earthquake. Locus and Frogs didn't start pouring in through the windows. Ah hah! Just as I'd suspected. The ritual had been what I'd thought, just another pile of horse shit. Gratified, all be it royally pissed off at this complete and utter waste of time, I opened my mouth to express my utter triumph, only to have the Shamaness take hold of my hand and pull it over the chalice. Seeing the Kariff move toward my direction, I quickly began to struggle. Wow, hang on a sec!!!! I hadn't read anything about the initiate herself becoming a sacrifice. What the Hell was going on? Panic boiled over a new. Despite this, the Shamaness held my hand still, and slit my palm deep enough that the blood began to flow. I let out a yelp of pain, and reaffirmed my efforts to get away.

It was the sound of giggling that made me stop. I looked to the fire. Around it stood for Amazon trainees, having stopped their dance to watch the proceedings. All were looking at me with malicious smiles, glorying in my apparent weakness. One even went so far as to stick their thumb in their mouth, but then again, it may have been an illusion in the fire. Regardless, their pleasure filled me with rage, and I turned back to the Shamaness, and to the chalice, and squeezed my hand into a fist, forcing the blood to pour faster. It hurt like a bitch, but I scarcely noticed.

Waiting until the flow stopped, the Shamaness released my hand, and returned the Kariff to the altar. Velassa held the chalice high, and in a final verse, she cried: "The elements have been combined, the gateway lies open." Bringing the chalice back down, she handed it to me.

"Enter the gate, Morgan. Enter the Goddess's hearth. Drink."

Okay, I must have missed a lot in my studies. I read about all the blood, the sacrifices, the chants, yada yada. But no one had mentioned anything about ingesting anything. This was above and beyond gross. This was just plain sick. So did I refuse. Did I throw the chalice down and make a dash for it. Of course not. Stupid as it may have been, I wasn't about to chicken out on it. I'd come that far, and nothing worse for wear had happened..More or less. Besides, I was stronger and healthier than the average bear. The worst this little concoction could do was give me indigestion for a day or two. So I drank from the chalice.

If you've ever tasted blood, you know what it's like. A metallic, bittersweet substance which makes your hackles rise. Whatever the alchemy of the mixing of the bloods, the liquid in the chalice was just plain putrid. Buckley's eat your heart out. Fighting hard not to grimace, I downed two swigs of the stuff, and began to drink the third when I began to feel light headed. I held the chalice at midpoint, attempting to focus on its dimensions. Yet as my mind began to steadily fog, the boundaries of it began to dissolve. I could see it completely, and yet not at all. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head in an attempt to clear it, yet when I opened my eyes, the colours of the entire circle had begun to bleed into each other.

Someone took the chalice from my hands, the contact feeling light as a feather yet hard as a freight train. I tried to say something, but as I opened my mouth, a powerful surge pulse from my stomach. I had barely enough sense left to close my mouth before I vomited, yet somehow I managed to keep it down, the effort making me convulse.

My centre of gravity abruptly vanished then, and I surged forward in an attempt to regain it. I turned around and looked into the fire, a mosaic of reds and oranges and purples and blues. I could see the heat radiating like waves off of the flames. I raised my hands and marvelled at how they merged with the flames. My balance was no longer existent, so that I continued to "dance" back and forth, managing somehow to keep from falling into the fire. My moans and groans were a song, and a scream, which rang like a drum in my ears. The faster I danced, the faster went the beat, and before long I was dancing like a demon at his master's will. The world began to stretch and warp before my eyes, all rhyme and reason having left me.

I never felt the ground when I hit it. For all I was aware I was floating. The world continued to spin and spin, even as I lay perfectly still on the cement. Yet despite all this chaos, I found peace in it. Comfort. My heart softened. My breathing began to slow, and in this nearly near trance I felt the weight of my body slowly bleeding away, as if the bonds which held me to my body were slowly being melted away. At last the final ties were cut, and for one brief moment I was completely aware of my body, in contact with every muscle, every hair, every cell. Then came a thunderous electricity which coursed through me and made me convulse.

I was launched a good six feet in the air, where I spun like a newly released top. Alas, gravity kicked in, and I hit the ground, landing perfectly on my feet.

For another moment, I simply looked about me, at the congregation, who's bodies now emitted a great light, each one unique to the individual, to the fire, in it's multi coloured dance. I saw them gather around a body which lay on the floor. My body. Still as death, cold as stone. And empty shell. There was no panic, no fear, and no doubt. Only acceptance, calm and peace. Then, as if my soul had entered into warp speed, the scene dissolved away into blackness, and in that moment I lost all thought, all reason. I melted away.