The tube was constricting now that Chae was close to the end of the prison she’d been making her way through over the past three days. Yesterday she’d had an opportunity to move one of her arms forward when the wall shifted. Had that not happened, her arms would still be pinned to her sides, just like when she’d been fed into this beast head first by her tribe’s elders.
For now though she needed to rest and save her energy for the final phase of the trial. She lay still and let the annelid’s gentle peristalsis carry her out inch by inch while she slept. With one arm free she could advance through the last section of tube faster than perhaps the Sentinel was expecting. If she was lucky she could catch it by surprise.
Chae dreamed of Mother’s apothecary while she slept. She’d spent the last year before the rite of adulthood mixing medicine along Mother’s side and grousing about the upcoming trial she and the rest of the children their age had to pass if they wanted to move on to upper grades in school. She could opt out of the trial if she chose. Unlike the others she had no fighting experience. Refusing the trial would guarantee her a life in the service of others who had been brave enough to face the rite of passage and survive.
Mother encouraged her through the year. Over the months of constant encouragement and guilt Chae’s pacifist convictions keeping her away from the rite eroded enough or her to accept the challenge. She’d spent dozens of hours in the worm upset at her mother persuasive abilities.
Despite their enormity, the worms were much like the small ones in the medicinal garden behind the apothecary. The giant invertebrates had a single large passageway from end to end that was designed for ingesting boulders and stripping them of their minerals and nutrients. They were also large enough to contain breathable, yet dank and putrid air. Other than the single sharp tooth about halfway through the digestive system, the walls of the beast were smooth, and constantly conveying sustenance through the beast until the inevitable end where the deadlier half of the rite, the Sentinel, presented itself.
When Chae awoke again she was about three arm lengths away from the end of the worm. She still couldn’t make out any images, but she heard wailing. An agonized grief. Someone in the trial must have died in the passage. A rarer death of the two possible. She closed her eyes to see if she could identify from the sobbing which sets of parents were now in mourning.
It was Graham and Chae was relieved. He was a preferred son I the village. The elders had chosen the biggest and gentlest of the creatures for him but he must have proven too large to digest. He’d considered himself a man well before the rite of passage and had attempted to hold her down and demonstrate his pre-achieved status against her will. Chae bit a sizable hole in his cheek while he was on top of her. He’d told each of his friends that he’d been bitten by a wild dog in order to save face and not lose any of his stature. Chae hoped that the worm hadn't suffered while the elders tried to salvage their fortunate son. She found comfort in knowing that Graham, having failed the first stage of the rite would never be considered a man.
Chae’s fingers found purchase in the remaining walls of the backend of the worm and she started to pull herself out. Quickly and silently large beak sliced through the worm’s walls and took of the tip of Chae’s middle finger with it. She retreated and waited. “Eat more,” she encouraged the Chimera she now saw eating away at the back of her pathway out, trying to reach her. She’d poisoned this beast around day two using some of the powder she’d secreted into the trial in her cheeks.
Two more bites and Chimera roared in agony. The poison in the worm’s blood would cause an unquenchable pain in the chained monster. She would defeat the beast and lay her hand on the sacred headstone without raising a blade. If she mixed her potion properly, the Chimera would likely not be able to guard the stone against any of her other classmates emerging over the rest of this afternoon.
Chae’s eyes had now fully adjusted to the outside world. The elders that circled the worm stood back watched in awe to see the girl struggle to free herself from the remains of the worm. They couldn't help as that would taint the ritual. She’d defeated the Chimera before emerging from the beast. Perhaps she’d been the first to do so.
The tooth she’d removed from the worm seemed redundant had it not been for the other target she’d been intending to use it on. She dropped it to the ground. It was useless, Graham was already dead, laying near the slaughtered remains of his own passageway. A wreath of flowers had been lain over their intended champion. He still had more mourners and elders around them than Chae did as she pulled her remaining self from the worm. She approached the Chimera and patted its feathered head. She had more in common with this creature than any of the others in their tube. “Sorry I had to do that to you.”
The Chimera had been trained to put up a fight for the candidates, but never go in for a kill. The monster had been conditioned over to the decades to ignore its instinct and accept the worm meat as a greater prize than the much preferred taste of the children inside. Sometimes it forgot its training. Chae never held that against him.
As an afterthought she walked to the headstone and touched it’s smooth surface marred by runes. Now she finally had more villagers around her than Graham. They awaited the first of three commands they had to deliver on for the first person of the group to complete the rite. As the newest adult in the village, Chae delivered her edict, “Burn the dead.”
She decided to wait on the other two commands. She was free of the beast and had an adulthood ahead of her to plan out her next moves. She’d let her pacifism somewhere inside that worm.