They sit in a circle in the small forest clearing, hands joined, eyes raised in shared spiritual peace to the tops of the trees above their heads. They are young, ranging in ages from ten to nineteen, and there are nineteen of them, six boys and thirteen girls. They are the Pure Ones, they are the Loving and Peaceful Ones, untainted by immorality and corruption of the outer world- and more specifically, the adults.1

Mordecai speaks, leading their chanting as always. At nineteen he is the oldest, of course... his age and sheer wisdom, his charismatic presence, not to mention the fact that it was he who had saved them, ushered them away from a morally tainted world into one of peace and purity, all invoke in the others complete respect and deferrence, even, to some degree, awe. Despite the others' admiration of him, however, they cannot help but be uneasy about his age...2

"Blessed Being within us," rang out Mordecai's voice, clear and strong. "Fill our spirits with your light."3

"Fill us," echoed the others, their voices intent with feeling.4

"Guide us in the ways of love."5

"Guide us."6

"Lead us to those who must be saved, guided into the ways of peace."7

"Lead us."8

"Protect us from the corruption of the adults, the tainted ones."9

"Protect us."10

"Keep us pure always in spirit; keep us children in body and at heart."11

"Keep us."12

Opening his eyes, Mordecai released the hands of his two lovers at his sides, 18-year-old Egypt and 17-year-old Robin, and the others followed suit one by one. Withdrawing a pin from his pants pocket, he pricked his finger until a bead of blood rose to the surface. He stuck his finger into the cup of water sitting before him, watching it mingle and color the liquid slightly. The pin and cup were passed from person to person, with even the youngest, ten-year-old twins Clover and Daffodil, taking part.13

When the cup had returned to Mordecai, he lifted it solemnly as the others watched with serious eyes.14

"So as we are one in spirit, we are now one in blood. Our inner purities now shall mingle and strengthen us in our morality- so from each other we shall draw strength."15

And he sipped from the cup before passing it to Egypt. When every child had taken their sip, with nothing but calm acceptance on their faces, Mordecai concluded, "So shall it be."16

The nineteen teens and children stood slowly, ending the bonding of oneness that occurred at least three times a week... the chanting and prayers, of course, were far more frequent.

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Mordecai always described their community to prospective new members as a new beginning, the life they should have led all along if not for the adults and the evils of the world they had created. For adults had corrupted everything- not only the enviroment, the food, the landscape of the world, but also the values of love, peace, and purity for everyone, even the children. Especially the children... every child in the world, if not isolated from adults and their world, will eventually be tainted and become one of those impure, a child who follows the practices of adults, or an adult who makes children lose their natural childhood purity.

That is, of course, the reason Mordecai had began their community. By the age of seventeen he knew and understood this, knew that adults wanted to take from children their natural goodness, twist them into something unnatural and unfeeling. Children, Mordecai knew, love naturally and fully, instinctively, accepting all others, even adults, for who they were. It was adults who took the peace of children and ruined it, who made love and the act of making love, whether between people of the oposite or same gender, an act of disgusting nature in their eyes, an act of impurity. Sex was not impure, but rather the ultimate show of love and purity and oneness, when done in love and gentleness by young people. It was adults who made it wrong and violent.20

It was male children who adults tried in particular to taint, tried their hardest to twist into their brutal ways of violence, thievery, and hatred. This was why the community consisted of only five boys other than Mordecai- they were usually already too tainted by age fourteen for him to save. Drugs, crime, all unnatural for children to participate in, had usually already entered their lives- all started upon the influence or urging of immoral adults.21

Mordecai and the others knew all too well about the ways adults fought to ruin children- each had experienced in in their own lives repeatedly, although only Mordecai had realized this on his own and taken action to protect himself and others like him against it. But one by one as the others joined him, they realized and believed as well.22

Mordecai had come from a home of such adults, had left them at the age of sixteen in a desperate attempt to preserve his inner purity. He had left in his newly purchased, although not quite new, car, the car he had saved up from the age of ten to buy through a newspaper route and various odd jobs he'd performed nearly every day for six years. He had lived in his car for over two weeks, parked in fast food parking lots to sleep, walked around the city in confusion, not knowing what he was doing or where he was going, only knowing he had to somehow keep himself protected from being like his family had attempted to make him. But he soon found that it was not only his family, but all adults, who had designs to ruin him.23

It was adults who approached him on the city streets, trying to make him buy into their schemes. In the course of a few days he was offered drugs, chances of having sex or attending adult clubs (though at 17, he was not yet an adult, clearly), and even told that he would be given a place to stay and food to eat, free of charge- if he worked for it in ways Mordecai was unwilling.24

It became clear to him how easily a child could become confused, led astray into an adult value system of greed, anger, violence, and hatred that would engulf them totally, permanently destroying their natural innocent ways of thinking and loving. Such a child, younger and perhaps less aware than him, would not even notice what was happening, might never know that a vital part of himself had been killed. 25

But how could one keep such a thing from happening?26

Escape- one must escape, live apart from the adults, avoiding them whenever possible. One must keep their taint physically removed...27

He had the right idea, to run from his parents- his mistake hadbeen to go to the city, around more adults. He had to leave again, he knew, find another place before it was too late.28

He had driven outside the city, perhaps fifteen minutes, before he found it- woods, the edge of a small forest- a last vestige of nature adults had not managed to corrupt. He parked his car beside it, eager, ready to determine if this could be the place of escape he'd been looking for.29

And less than ten minutes after walking straight forward, weaving in and out among various trees and shrubberies, he found the clearing, a wide, oval-shaped space of clear land, no trees or bushes, only a leaf-littered dirt floor. As Mordecai had looked at it, he had known it was fate, known his expansion must be right, blessed- why else would nature set aside such a clear space in the middle of the forest, if not for him to live there? Why,if it was large enough that ten, perhaps twenty people could live there- perhaps as much as 30?30

And that, as Mordecai always told each new member, was when it came to him. He was right to save himself, but what about all the others, the other kids targeted like him who might not understand what they should do? He could not make peace of mind and soul, could not claim to love if he knew of their corruption and did not try to stop it. It was then, while standing in what would become the site of their new community, that Mordecai had first decided to make it his mission to save children like him, children living alone on the city streets, on the edge of being tainted irrevocably...31

He had drove the next day into a smaller town outside the city, bought a large camping tent that could fit maybe 12 people, some unprocessed foods, flashlights, cupls, and a case of bottled water. Then he headed into the city, walked the same streets he had the day before, with a purpose in his walk and promises of a new life on his lips...32

Many of the teens and children he had spoken to had scorned his talk, and he had known they were too far gone for him to save, the adults' claws already deeply embedded. But by the end of the first day, Mordecai had gathered the first four confused, unhappy runaway teenagers who were to be the first members of their community- Robin, who was fifteen at that time two years ago, Egypt, who was 16, Silver, who was 18, and Gypsy, who was 17.33

They had slept together in the tent that night, and Mordecai had explained the immorality of adults, how they would corrupt all who they could get their hands upon. He explained how they must keep themselves apart, follow an alternate lifestyle to keep themselves as pure and untainted as they could, how they must love one another with complete acceptance for who they were and appreciation of their inner purity of childhood. He described, and they believed...34

That night, Mordecai led them in their first chanting, their first ceremony of oneness, and they eagerly, hungrily took part, so needing of oneness and love that no surface fears could hold them back.35

They stayed in the clearing for four days, and for four days Mordecai told them about the way of life they would need to learn to lead to stay untainted. They learned how to protect their spirits and so quickly grew in their knowledge. One of the first things Mordecai had them do- the first thing he had done, when he fled the house had had grown up in- was cast off their old names, and choose for themselves new names symbolic of the new life they would lead, a life in tune with nature and the world as it would have been without adults' damaging influence. By casting off the names that tied them to their old lives, they severed their ties on tainted world relationships.36

After four days, Mordecai led them in a fifth day of fasting and prayer for guidance to bring enough knowledge to bring more among them, to save others as well. And on the sixth day the were led by Mordecai in learning the ways of love, loving purely, teaching and demonstrating with Egypt, then Robin. Silver, the other and only boy at the time, followed him along with Gypsy. Afterward, all had felt so loved and connected they lay back in the arms of their lovers and marvelled at the rush, the tingling thrill that rolled through their skin, their first time to truly be loved with peace.37

On the seventh day, Mordecai had decided they were now prepared to go forth and recruit others to join their small community. So Mordecai, Egypt, Robin, Silver, and Gypsy had set off, driving to the city, their former home, in search of those like them... they had split off into two groups, each headed by one male, and by the end of the day had found one new recruit, River, then sixteen, a third male to make an even number of the sexes.38

As gradually more and more members were added, the community developed more and more rituals and routines to make it run smoothly. Each day would begin with a morning chanting and prayer that could last anywhere from ten minutes to three hours, depending on teh way the Blessed Being led them. No matter how long the prayer stretched, however, even the youngest remained still, enthralled by the words of Mordecai. After this they would prepare the morning meal of unprocessed food, or as nearly unprocessed as food from fruit and vegetable stands and the organic section of grocery stores could get. Mordecai realized how everything they ate, even bread, fruit, and vegetables, carried a taint, because of the adults' handling of it. Even water was not safe. Therefore, every meal he first led them in prayer to the Blessed Being, asking it to take away the impurity from the adults that tainted teh food, so it would not affect their bodies. So far, the Blessed Being had honored their requests.39

Then there was another prayer session, and preparation of a midday meal. All of the community, even the females, hunted rabbits and any other game in small groups to add to their diets food untouched by adults. The game was cooked over small fires and eaten by teh end of the day, so as not to let it spoil. After the midday meal came the hour of joy- a time to be joyous and free, reveling in the purity of childhood and its peace. This was not literally an hour, but rather carried on until Mordecai brought them together into another prayer or a lesson. In this hour of joy, the community ran amock, skipping and yelling for joy, weaving in and out of trees, chasing and hugging and weeping with their love for each other and life. They often made love with no inhibition, their joy rising more sharply- until at a word from Mordecai, calm was restored.40

Yes, there was much to do throughout the course of a day, especially when a new member was recruited. There was songs and prayers, meal preparations and lessons, the cleaning of their living area and teh making and putting out of the fires. A few times a week they had teh sessions of oneness, as well as what Mordecai called "love lessons". In these love lessons he instructed them gently through the ways of peaceful, natural love that was pure and joyous, helped them overcome every fear and impure, adult thought and exposure to sex they'd once believed. Whether ten or nineteen, with no partner or twenty, heterosexual or homosexual- all were okay, even right, when done in love between children, Mordecai taught...41

And then at least once a week, or every other week, they went into the city, piling as many people in Mordecai's car as they could fit. They would sometimes go for money for what groceries and necessities they could not supply themselves- selling things they had made from leaves and acorns, whittlings. Of course, this did not get them much money- so they also carefully instructed the younger ones how to pickpocket. Stealing was not wrong, they had learned, when you really needed what you took, and the person you stole from was an adult. It was not wrong to take from an adult when they took so much from children...42

Eventually their size had expanded until they had to have two tents for everyone to sleep in, and even then sleeping quarters were cramped. At one point there were 24 people living together in the clearing, all under the age of twenty... now, there were only 19, but soon enough this might no longer be true.43

Nineteen children now... in the first tent, 19-year-old Mordecai and his lovers, 18-year-old Egypt and 17-year-old Robin, as well as 18-year-old River and his lovers, Galaxy, 17, and Horizon, 16. Eighteen-year-old Remember and her 17-year-old lover, Artemis, as well as ten-year-old twins Clover and Daffodil, shared the tent as well.44

In the second tent, slept nine others- 17-year-old Free and his 15-year-old lover, Serenity; 13-year-old Ash and his 12-year-old lover, Spirit; 16-year-old lovers Blade and Calypso; and 14-year-old Leaf, with his lovers Lotus, 13, and Star, 12.45

All in all it was very peaceful; the community was happy and in love with life and each other. It was only Mordecai's age that worried them... at nineteen, he was not only now the oldest, but also fast approaching twenty... they remembered all too well what had happened six other times before him...46

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It was night, but in the second tent, nearly all its occupants lay awake. They are clustered close together, sleeping in their chosen twos and threes- Free and Serenity, Ash and Spirit, Blade and Calypso, and Leaf, Lotus,and Star. Only Ash, Spirit, and Lotus seemed to truly be asleep; the others lay awake, their uneasy thoughts troubling their usual restfulness. 48

Blade held Calypso tight to him, and she hugged him back just as fiercely, her ear against his thin chest. They could feel their hearts, irregular, out of rhythm with each other, and Blade stroked his hand down the length of her. Noticing 12-year-old Star watching, he only smiled, but it quickly faded as his troubled thoughts returned to him.49

Beside them, Free and Serenity's usual placid expressions were not serene or calm, so much as blank, Calypso noticed. It seemed even the two most laidback, optimistic ones in the tent could not sleep...50

But it was Star, of course, outspoken Star, who first gave voice to what was all on their minds. Her voice nearly a normal speaking tone- her attempt at a very soft whisper- she said, "You guys are all worried, aren't you? You're worried about what will happen with Mordecai."51

"Shhh," Blade and Calypso hissed at once, and at their words, Ash stirred away, his arm flinging across the small back of Spirit, who opened her eyes blearily as well.52

Star scowled slightly- one expression that all Mordecai's talks of purity and peace had not been able to retract from her. "What? I am whispering," she said, her voice only slightly softer. "But I'm right, aren't I? You're afraid for Mordecai- what he'll do."53

There was a silence as the others adjusted to hearing their worries spoken outloud. And now the two others sleepers, as if sensing a difference in their surroundings, were awakening. Leaf and Lotus sat up slowly, half leaned against each other. Star didn't even glance at her lovers behind her, staring intensely at the older couples and trios.54

At last Calypso broke the silence, whispering into Blade's chest so low that only he could hear.55

"Yes, I'm worried," she mumbled,and was horrified to find herself weak, on the verge of tears. "I don't want him to be twenty, I don't want him to be an adult. I don't want him to die. Dammit..."56

"Shhh," Blade soothed, whispering back, his hands on her back, her hair, but his eyes showed a brief flash of alarm at her last utterance. "Don't swear, Calypso, please don't swear. Don't let them get to you, don't let them taint you, remember-"57

"Oh, Blessed Being, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," Calypso whispered, nearly whimpering, and Blade knew how upset she was- Calypso never wept, at least not before the others, and she certainly did not whimper. Like him, she had lived on her own, one of the toughest, most able of the street kids to defend herself- on the edge of being tainted irrevocably, until Mordecai. Mordecai, both knew, had saved them. Mordecai was a miracle...58

"I'm so sorry, please, remove my impurity, make me aware of the inner purity I must cling to always..."59

"Calypso, it's okay," Blade murmurred. "The Blessed Being will understand. We're all worried."60

"Hey- what's going on?" Ash asked worriedly, frowning as he looked from Blade and Calypso to the motionless Free and Serenity, the scowling yet anxious Star. "What's wrong-"61

"Mordecai," Star said flatly. "Twenty."62

At those words Ash understood, and his face sagged a little.63

"Oh- but- yeah... what- what will happen? I mean-"64

"Hey- Mordecai- it's different with him, right?" Leaf asked uncertainly. "He doesn't- I mean- we know he's pure. I mean, he brought us here..." his words trailed off. Lotus clung to his arm, her eyes wide and uncertain.65

"Do we have to test him?" she said quietly, almost inaudibly. "What if he-"66

"We need him!" Spirit said fiercely, her eyes bright, feverish. "We can't test him, what if he dies! What if-"67

"Hey, hey, calm down," Free said uncertainly, holding up a hand. He was the oldest in the tent but uncomfortable with confrontation or being in authority- he and Serenity both much preferred to be the followers. "Mordecai will know what to do- don't worry. Just trust him. He knows what he's doing- right?" he said, the last word weakening the rest of what he'd said.68

"Maybe he doesn't need to be tested," Serenity suggested hopefully. "Maybe it's just a test for us, his followers. To see if WE'RE tainted. He knows he isn't- maybe-if he takes it, he'll pass it- right?"69

"No one's ever passed it," Blade muttered, only meaning for Calypso to hear, but Ash said anxiously, "Yeah- when Violet did last year, Violet didn't pass- I saw her, she died after-"70

"There was more," Star said. "Last year, before you came, a guy named Indigo, and a girl named Dawn-"71

"Silver," Free said slowly, his voice reluctant. "This year. Silver and Gypsy."72

All the others went silent, remembering. All had been present for Silver and Gypsy...73

"They were two of the first group Mordecai ever saved," Serenity said slowly, her eyes troubled.74

"And when they became an adult, they became tainted. They were here the longest and they still weren't pure when they became adults," Calypso said worriedly.75

Leaf frowned, and Lotus pressed closer than ever to him. He started to speak, than stopped abruptly. Ash took over for him.76

"What if that happens to Mordecai?" he said slowly, almost fearfully. "Even if he doesn't take the test- what if he can't help it and becomes like them anyway? The adults?"77

"It won't!" Spirit said furiously, glaring at her lover as if unable to believe he'd say such a thing. "That could never happen to Mordecai, he would never-"78

"We don't think so," Calypso said quietly. "But what if he does?"79

The others fell silent, for none of them knew the answer to that question...80

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In Mordecai's tent, the same gnawing worry for him kept the others awake as well. Snuggled up on either side of him, Egypt and Robin lay still as the dark thoughts flickered in their minds. It seemed few of the others were truly sleeping either- even Clover and Daffodil squirmed around where they lay together, back to back. River, lying with each arm draped loosely over the shoulders of Horizon and Galaxy, flicked his eyes in Mordecai's direction several times, but then, glancing down at the girls in his arms, looked away, not saying what was on his mind. Near them, Remember lay close to Artemis, her hands on her tensed, with pale knuckles. Artemis whispered something to her in a dark tone, and Remember nodded grimly.82

Though Mordecai's eyes were closed, he saw all this in his mind, could sense the agitation, anxiety in the air. He hugged first Egypt, then Robin, closer to his side, and he whispered softly, so soft that only they could hear.83

"Do not worry, beloved ones. There will come no harm to me."84

It always amazed them how Mordecai seemed to read their thoughts, know what they were feeling even when they were silent. It seemed to them undisputed proof of his blessedness, in addition to everything else.85

"Then you will not take the test?" Robin asked hopefully. "I mean, we know you're pure. You're not like the others- you won't be tainted- right?"86

Her voice was louder than his, and the others turned their heads toward her quickly, no longer trying to hide their anxiety. In the darkness their eyes glittered in shared fear.87

"Of course I will take the test," Mordecai said calmly, matching the anxiety in their eyes with a calm that seemed tangible to them. "It is the will of the Blessed Being. Who am I to deny it?"88

There was a horrified, shocked silence as they heard their fears confirmed. Clover and Daffodil awakened, sat up slowly, blinking, confused. Egypt gasped, and her arms tightened around his waist, instinctive, panicked, as if trying to keep him anchored to the earth, anchored to her.89

"But Mordecai- we need you! You can't- we need you," she choked, and she was weeping, as Calypso had wept in the camp tent next to them. Remember began to cry as well, her tears silent, and Artemis pressed her head to her chest, her own face stoic, deliberately stony as she stroked Remember's head. Both girls had been raped repeatedly when younger, and Mordecai was the only man they fully loved and trusted.90

"You mean- what? You're going to just die?" Horizon said, confused. "You- the Blessed Being wants you to die? But-" she cut herself off, as both her lovers River and Galaxy gave her pointed looks intended to silence. Not a bright girl or a leader by nature, Horizon always submitted to them.91

"What? What's going on?" Clover asked softly, and Daffodil echoed, "Mordecai's going to die?"92

Their voices were tiny, petrified, and they clutched each other tightly.93

"Can you do this?" Galaxy asked. "Can you really-" her voice trailed off.94

"You know the ways of the Blessed Being more than I, Mordecai," River said quietly, sitting up to meet his eyes. Being one of the oldest members of the community, along with Egypt, and also as the oldest male besides Mordecai, he was the most trusted and trusting, an unofficial second-in-command. 95

"And I know you will do as right," River continued. "But I do not see how, if you die, we can survive. We need you, need someone to teach us, to guide us. None of us are close enough to take your place, not pure enough in our inner child."96

"We must not question the will of the Blessed Being," Mordecai chided softly, and Egypt's tears quietened at the sound of his voice, the touch of his hand. Robin took one of her hands, squeezed it, and Egypt clung to her with one hand, Mordecai with the other. 97

"I am not any more beloved or special in his eyes than any other child. When I am an adult in age, I must be tested to determine if I am still a child at heart. If I am, then all will continue as always. If my body has been corrupted by my age, then you will not want or need me anymore. I would taint you, and I would no longer be myself. I would not be Mordecai, and it would not be Mordecai who had died. Just as it was not Violet who died, or Indigo or Dawn, or Silver or Gypsy, but only their bodies. And as they remain alive in our hearts, our souls, so will I, if that is the will of the Blessed Being."98

The others' voices began to protest at once, but Mordecai held up his hand, patient, gentle, but firm.99

"No more. We will let it be."100

He closed his eyes, but it was a while before the whispers of the others died down...101

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It was very natural, the others' fear... for nearly as soon as they had arrived, along with their learning of their inner purity and how to connect with it, as well of the adults' immorality and how they must avoid it, they were told what might happen to them when the reached the adult age of twenty...103

Mordecai had taken down the birthdays of all community members on their first day recruited, and knew the date on which each of them would turn 20- the date each of them would have their lives change irrevocably, whether by living or dying...104

Once you were an adult in years, Mordecai had taught, even if you wanted and tried to remain pure, it was nearly impossible to do so. Even if you were kept isolated from adults, stayed in the community rather than going to the city occasionally with the others, you would still have to eat the tainted adult food. Any exposure to adults, even in such a slight way, would possess your will, grip you in the ways of adulthood until you could not control yourself.105

The only way to truly determine your ability to remain pure as an adult was a test- a test of poison... if the body was tainted, the taint of the poison would combine with it and be too much, and the body would die. But if you were pure, your purity would dissolve the poison, dismantle it into nothing harmful, and you would live...106

So far, five, all considered pure, had failed, become tainted by age 20. Now all feared teh same would befall Mordecai...107

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The next few days passed slowly for most in the community. They followed their usual routines, but all seemed to be going through the motions- even the prayers and hour of joy were noticeably less spontaneous, seemed hesitant, almost forced. They were trying to get into it rather than truly feeling.108

When apart from Mordecai they often clustered in small groups, speaking in low, anxious voices. None of them could remember there ever being such unrest in the community before…109

At night, there was little rest as each small pair or trio held each other close, dreading the next day's beginning- for it marked another day closer to the anniversary of Mordecai's birth…110

Egypt and Robin clung to Mordecai throughout the day, as if fearing he would suddenly disappear and never return. The others stuck closer to him than usual as well, reluctant to miss anything he said or did.111

And then it was the day before Mordecai's birthday, and the fear, the feverish anxiety, had risen to an almost tangible level, hanging heavy and ominous in the air. The girls clung to their mates, to each other, seeking comfort and reassurance that the boys could not provide. Only Mordecai was calm, his face as passive and at peace as always. 112

Several had tried to speak to him at different points of the day- Artemis, speaking for both herself and Remember, her sarcasm absent and her face furrowed, pinched; Free, his words stumbling and uncomfortable; Star, the most nearly-angry-sounding of them all; Blade and Calypso, both at different times, their controlled voices and intense gazes identical as they questioned Mordecai's intentions. Robin and Egypt whispered to him often, Robin's words uncertain, nervous, Egypt's pleading, on the verge of tears. Most of the others kept silent, watching him apprehensively.113

It was after River took his turn at confronting Mordecai that he finally decided to make a formal announcement to alleviate their fears. He called for them to gather around him in the clearing, and with Egypt and Robin close by his side, River and Blade hovering with their mates behind him, he began to speak to the younger ones knelt before him.114

"As you are all aware of, tomorrow will mark my twentieth year of life," he began quietly. "I know that you are worried for me, that you fear for my life. You must not. All of you by now should know that it is not our will that must be carried out, but rather that of the Blessed Being. We must seek to humbly accept his ways, regardless of whether we understand them or think them right."115

He paused, taking time to meet each of the others' eyes with his own. Most lowered them in humility, near embarrassment, although a few did gaze back solemnly.116

"In each other testing we have had, I am sure you were all anxious and nervous for the lives of the tested people- our brothers and sisters, our lovers and peers. But each time you accepted that their death was inevitable- you accepted that it was the will of the Blessed Being for them to die. The taint had begun in them- they could not continue as they were and be the person they were meant to be. You believed this, although you were saddened- is this not true?" His piercing eyes searched out their faces until they nodded slowly.117

"What makes me any different that them? True, I began this community, I was the first to be blessed with the knowledge of the Blessed Being- but I am no greater or lesser than any other child pure in their untainted state. The Blessed Being will not overlook me if I do not deserve it. If I am tainted, do you not want me to have the punishment of death- or rather, not me, but the person, the adult, who has taken over me? You must learn to see past your own love for who I was in order to hate the taint of who I might become. You have to see with clear eyes what must be let to happen. If I did not take the test, I would be harming myself as well as you- we need the proof of my purity, or lack of it. You must have faith in the Blessed Being- do not become doubtful or shaky in your love for him, not matter what happens to me. It is not me you should love and respect- I do not deserve your admiration, and certainly not your worship. Let all devotion you feel be expressed toward the Blessed Being."118

He paused once again, and he felt Egypt press closer to him, her eyes desperate to believe, to be comforted. He squeezed her gently, then, catching the eyes of Clover and Daffodil, holding hands tightly, he motioned them closer.119

"Come, gather closer and join hands… we shall pray for the will of the Blessed Being to be carried out, for your peace. When our peace is restored, we will bring ourselves together in a lesson of love."120

They edged closer to each other, to Mordecai, taking the hands of the others and bowing their heads, eyes squeezing tightly shut. As he began to pray, they took up the refrain slowly, then with more fervor, burying their worries in the routine of the automatic replying words…121

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In their sleep they stirred, dreaming dreams of such a disturbing nature they dared not speak of them later… once again they burrowed closer to their lovers, whether male or female, near adult or fully child, and they awaited painfully for the morning to arrive…123

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The stood in a half-circle, close together, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, hand in hand, in the dim morning light. They regarded Mordecai with a mixture of ever-changing expresssions; silence, wraught in grimness, fear, and desperate hope and anxiety. Some stood praying, heads either bowed with eyes either squinched shut or uplifted, earnestly moving their lips as they entreated the heavens. 124

They were so close to Mordecai they barely allowed him room to breathe. Many of the girls were touching him with desperate, clinging fingers, and several- Egypt, Remember, Spirit, and Clover and Daffodil- were crying, Egypt's tears the only ones making a sound. Those who were not crying were struggling not to, struggling to be stoic, at peace- even the boys…125

And then Mordecai began to speak… they fell silent, straining to hear his words.126

"Cease your weeping," he said quietly, so quietly that at first they were not sure they did not imagine his words. "Do not mourn for what will not be lost. You will not lose me- never shall you lose me, but only my body. If I am still the Mordecai I feel myself to be, pure and childlike, untainted, then all will continue as always. If I am not- if I am truly a full adult, if I am tainted- then you will have lost nothing by ridding yourself of such a scourge upon you."127

"If I am pure still, if this test proves me so," and his eyes searched out the others', "then I apologize for the worry and pain I have put you through. If I am tainted and do not yet know it- I am sorry as well. I apologize for any harm or wrong doing I may have already inflicted upon you."128

He paused again as the females pressed still closer, to him, to their lovers, trembling, needy for physical contact. He smiled at them, and several more's eyes overflowed with tears.129

"I love you all, each and every one of you, for your purity and light in this world of darkness and evil. I pray for you, for your purity, your love and peace of mind, that you will not be discouraged or turn from the ways of the Blessed Being." He turned to River, standing with Horizon and Galaxy clinging to his arms, nearly crying.130

"River, should I be found unpure, you still take over my part in the community. You will lead the others in prayer and lessons, teaching them all I have taught you. You will recruit new members and show them. You will love the others as I have loved you, and teach them as I taught you. Let the Blessed Being fill you and guide you, and you will succeed."131

"I will do as you ask of me, Mordecai," River promised, his voice husky.132

Mordecai then looked down upon the sobbing Egypt, the stupor us Robin, and took Egypt's face in one hand, Robin's in the other, making them look up into his face.133

"Egypt, Robin, you will care for and support each other if my body must die. You will love each other as fully and devotedly as you have loved me."134

"Yes," Egypt sobbed, and Robin whispered in a cracked, dry voice, "Yes…"135

Releasing their faces, he said, "Comfort each other- do not cling to one for whom life may no longer embrace."136

Still weeping steadily, Egypt stumbled into Robin's numb arms, and Robin held her tightly in arms that were limp, putting her cheek to hers as she caressed her dark hair.137

One by one Mordecai approached each person individually, touching them, giving them a few words of advice or instruction. At last he had finished, and disappeared briefly into his tent. When he emerged, there was a bottle of rat poison in his hand… his own, personal bottle, waiting for years for this day of reckoning. There were eighteen more in a burlap bag… one for each person in the community, for when their day would arrive. Even in their despair, the thought of taking the bottles and pouring out their contents had never crossed their minds. They would never dream of provoking Mordecai, the Blessed Being, in such a way…138

The others' breathing quickened as Mordecai held the bottle up for them to see, like an offering… an unnatural hush fell over them as their eyes fixated to the poison in his hand.139

"May the will of the Blessed Being be done… so shall it be."140

With those words, Mordecai raised the bottle to his lips. The others watched in horror… but one voice rang out, shrill and panicked.141

"No! No, don't, please!"142

It was Daffodil, ten-year-old Daffodil, that spoke, breaking from her sister Clover's side. As the others stared at her, stunned, confused, she ran to Mordecai, grasping his arm with her small hands.143

"No- not like this-"144

"You must be calm, Daffodil- you must try to accept the will of the Blessed Being," Mordecai said gently, peering down at the frantic child before him. "you must be calm-"145

"No! No, you can't- not- it's not right!" Daffodil cried, her eyes brimming. "Not alone, as if you were- you are pure, Mordecai- how can we show such distrust in you? Why can't we trust you- why do we have to do this?"146

"I am honored by your faith in me, child," Mordecai said softly. "But we cannot take such a chance."147

"But we should be doing this too then!" Daffodil exclaimed. "Should we not be tested too? What if we aren't pure either- what if we are tainted, and we don't know it? Shouldn't we be tested too, even though we're not twenty? If you aren't pure, then how can we be, when you're the purest person we know?"148

"Yeah," Spirit said slowly. "She's right. If you're not pure, just because you're twenty now, how will we have a chance?"149

"Yeah," said Clover, and suddenly several of the younger children were speaking up all at once, agreeing. Mordecai held up his hand, halting their words at once.150

"You are children still- you are known to be pure and untainted. You will not be tested."151

"But we don't know," Star said, her voice growing excited with realization. " We don't', how can we really know?"152

"Yeah, just because we feel like it, wish it," added Ash, and Leaf nodded reluctantly.153

"We should take it too," Daffodil said urgently. "I won't die if I'm truly untainted, you said so, you said we won't die if we're pure… I want to know if I'm really pure. Because if I'm not, I want to die, I deserve it. Like all the others…"154

"Yeah," Clover echoed again, "me too." And suddenly there was a chorus of voices greeting, entreating Mordecai, all voicing the same desire to be tested… at first it was only the youngest and the boldest, but then shyer, more hesitant, although no less devoted voices joined in- Lotus's, Serenity's, Galaxy's, Horizon's, Free's… then all of them, even the oldest, were speaking, intent in their shared convictions.155

"Let us do it, Mordecai, let us be tested as well. We want to know, we need to know if we're pure…"156

As Mordecai looked upon each child's face, eager, anxious, he knew that they were serious. A slow, pleased smile crossed his face, and he turned to bestow it upon little Daffodil, who met his eyes uncertainly.157

"Thank you, child… once more, the will of the Blessed Being has been fulfilled."158

He raised his eyes to the others, his smile now widening to include them as well. "I had been told by way of the Blessed Being what events were to occur this day, the greater unveiling of his will… I had known that one of you would see the way it must happen, the way it shall occur. A child of children, a worthy and loving child pure of heart, to show us all the way… and so a little child shall lead them."159

He took Daffodil's hand, pulled her to him, held the girl half his age and size tight in his arms. She beamed, trembling, soaking up his approval, his affection, as though she were an underground plant soaking up the sun's light. When he released her, still holding her hand in his, he said out loud, "Do all of you agree with this child- do all of you believe that this is what must be done, that the purity of all of us must be tested?"160

A slew of eager voices answered him, saying yes, yes, this was what they wanted, this is what they must do…161

As Mordecai turned to retrieve the other bottles, all eighteen of them, one for each child, they hurried to help him, smiling, all nerves and fears gone. This was what they must do… all should live… or, if Mordecai was found to be impure, so would they, all should die.

Together, their fate, together. What once had been reserved for the future now would perhaps end the past.

As they raised their bottles to their lips, they steeled themselves, mentally, physically, praying for strength and peace… even as the bitter taste spread over their tongues, they drank, determined, devoted… decided…164

*********************************************************165

Two hours had passed, and fate's decision had been exacted. The Blessed Being had made his choice, and all had accepted it.166

The forest was quiet, unusually so, even the twitters of the birds, the crackling of twigs, absent. The forest clearing was so empty, even as the crumpled child bodies spread throughout its ground, sprawled atop each other… still, silent, unmoving.167

So lay the untainted ones, tainted at last… not by life, but by death.168

the end