Etha followed Madra and the others into the dimly lit cave, moving slowly, allowing their eyes to adjust to the darkness and giving their senses time to become aware of their surroundings before they could no longer see those surroundings. They traversed down a narrow hallway to a large open area, filing in with Madra in the lead, followed by Etha and the four other novices behind. It was dark, but not so dark that Etha couldn't make out the shapes of the others nearby, or sense the distance to the walls or the opening through which they had come.
As the girls settled to a sitting position, Etha sought to still her nerves; she was slightly irritated at the irreverent whispers of the girls around her, and struggling with feelings of anticipation and fear. Etha was normally very confident and self assured, but now she felt only trepidation and uncertainty.
"Let us begin," Madra spoke quietly, pausing for a moment to ensure she had the girls attention. "I chose you for this lesson because you have all shown an affinity for Gaea, an awareness of the Earth Mother and her many aspects. I brought you to this place to have you try to open yourself to Gaea's senses and hear if she might speak to you."
Madra's voice was soft and muted, as though the very walls tried to absorb and swallow her words. "Lie back with your eyes closed, listen to my words and tune out all other thoughts in your mind. Slow the rhythm of your breathing, and just listen to that rhythm. Breath in... Breath out... Breath in... Breath out. Let the rhythm of your breathing match the rhythm of earth's pulse, and let yourself become aware..."
Madra's words quieted, and Etha opened her senses to her surroundings. She could feel the coldness emanating into the darkness of the room, felt the pressure of the earth weighing down upon her spirit as her consciousness moved beyond the boundaries of the cave until it felt as though she were sinking. Down, down into the depths she sank, becoming aware of the presence and the pulse of Gaea's lifeblood and it seemed as though she were becoming absorbed within the earth. Etha tried not to panic as she became attuned to a pulse outside her own and knew the very moment when her own lifeblood merged with something far bigger and more powerful that she had ever imagined.
Gaea's rhythm was slow and ponderous, and Etha lost all sense of self and time as she traced Gaea’s lifeblood, beating with a rhythm that radiated slowly, sluggishly. It pulsed with a steady beat, pushing, seeking; burrowing outwards through dark heaviness and slowly, slowly reaching upwards, searching, seeking until finally it found and infused a network of roots and tendrils and life.
Etha's consciousness expanded, twisting and twining, pulsing and surging outwards, upwards, further and further until Etha felt herself stretched beyond her capacity to comprehend; as though she might lose herself in the infinite being that was Gaea. She sensed power calling to her, nourishing her lifeblood as surely as it had infused the network of living plants and Etha hungered for this power more surely than she hungered for food. It frightened her, for she didn't understand it. This was so far beyond her scope of understanding, but the more she tried, the more panicked she became. In alarm, Etha began to struggle against the weight and the presence of Gaea, closing her senses to all but her own panic and forcing her thoughts back into the confines of her own body, lying on the cold, hard floor of the cave.
Her eyes snapped open and she sat up. Her heart was racing and her body was covered with a light sweat.
"Where are the others?" She asked Madra, seeing that she was alone with the Spiritual Leader.
"I sent them away," Madra replied, a hint of exasperation in voice. "They were not able to remain still enough to reach a trance state like you did."
Etha nodded, disoriented and unsettled. "How long have we been here?" She asked.
"Quite a while. The meal bell has rung twice since we began. Are you ready to speak of your experience? Did Gaea speak to you?”
"I... No. I’m sorry” Etha shivered as her sense of self slowly returned even as she yearned to return to that state of selflessness; so at odds with the fear of being consumed.