One by one, the villgers approached the Great Conflagration, scraps of paper in hand, some holding but one, some carrying dozens all clipped together.
They stood in front of a mighty bonfire that could be seen for miles around, its flames dancing crazily as the north wind fanned its flames ever higher.
They had been drawn there by those flames and what they knew those flames meant. They meant that the priests of the Children of the Void had arrived in their area, and those who would do business with them knew that they had but one short week to do so before the priests moved on to another town, far more than a day’s walk away.
And so the Children would travel all through the land of Cassaway, until by the time the spring came, every citizen of this small kingdom had taken their turn to face the Great Fire, and been cleansed.
To demur was unthinkable. Spend a year unclean, with all your neighbours talking about you behind your back and burning things because you touched them?
Not even the village idiots were that stupid.
And so they came. And for each one, the ceremony was always the same.
The head priest, known as the Elder Child, would greet them with a scowl as they approached the fire, and one of his assistants would shout “A supplicant approaches!”.
Once they stood before him, the Elder Child would loudly ask. “Do you come here to be made clean, unwashed one? ”
And the supplicant would give the ritual answer, “I submit myself to the flame, Elder Child, before all who know me. ”
The Elder Child would then ask “Have you brought with you that which you want to consign to the Void and therefore to be forever gone? ”
The supplicant would then hold up their scraps of paper, and reply “I bring these things which I desire to sever from this and all worlds in thy Holy Annihilation. ”
The Elder Child then asked, “Do you have the understanding that what you feed to the Void must be something you feel connected to but wish that connection severed?”
The supplicant would nod, and say “As the fall wind blows the dead leaves off the tree, so shall this act remove these things from me. ”
The Elder Child would then give the supplicant his sternest glare, and shout “And do you know that if any of these things should be false to that oath, the Fire will know and tell all, then mark you with its flame? ”
The supplicant would then reply, “Yes, and I desire this judgment with all my soul, for my things are true to my oath, and all should see that it is so. ”
The Elder Child would then shout “THEN YET YE BE JUDGED!”, and then stand aside so that the upplicant could approach the flames.
Once there, the supplicant would take the scraps of paper on which they had written the name of their dead leaves, shout “Be gone from me forever!”, and then throw the scrap of paper into the heart of the flame as those in attendence chanted “Gone now, gone forever, never to return, thank the Void. ”
The fire would consume these scraps of paper quicker than a heartbeat, and if the words were true to the supplicant’s oath, there would be a burst of purple flame, and all would know that they were clean.
But if the words were false, so it was told, the fire would belch black smoke upon the supplicant, and that person would wear a black X on their forehead till their dying day.
Most people knew someone who knew someone to whom it had happened. Few had ever seen it happen. Those who did were said to be forever changed by the experience, and to be “clolser to the Fire” than others.
Because of this, those who had seen the Judgment of the Flame, called Witnesses by the common foolk, were much in demand, for they were considered to be the only proper performers of funeral rites, fall sacrifices, the dissolution of contracts, and all other things which were brought to an end by ther hand of Man.
Nobody ever asked anyone what was on their scraps of paper. It might be a person’s name, or the name of a place, or of something which the aupplicant felt cursed them, like habitual drunkenness or guilt for wrongs for which there could be no amends.
It might even be the name of a sin too heinous to ever confess. But nobody would ever know except the supplicant.
Not even the Void would know, for the Void was perfect destruction, and knew nothing of what it was fed save that it was to be destroyed.
There were some local variations on the ceremony. In some villages, the ceremony was much longer and contained passages spoke in the language of the Era Before, and elaborate spiritual preparation was thought to be necessary if the community was to accept you as truly cleansed.
In others, the whole thing took place in stony silence, without a single word from the Elder Child, and when it all was done, all the supplicants gathered the ashes of the Conflagration, buried them in sanctified ground, then went home to reflect.
Still others demanded that the supplicants scream out their pain as their dead leaves burned, and would view with suspicion anyone whose scream was considered too quiet or insufficiently agonized.
The Children oversaw all, and all through the fall and winter, they performed their rites and saw to the needs of the people of Cassoway.
Then, when spring dawned, they returned to their mountaintop monastery, where was said they spent the warm seasons in communion with the Void, slumbering in deep dark chambers far from the sun and performing strange rites that filled their souls with the sacred nothingness they needed for their cold season chores.
But the spiritual needs of the citizens of Cassoway were not left unattended to during the long warm days of spring and summer.
For spring was when the Ancenstral Guardians came.
And theirs was an altogether different task.
I will talk to you nice people again tomorrow.