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And so he embarked. The sun was past its zenith, yet the heat persisted and seemed only to worsen. Still he began his ascent, to arrive at the peak with plenty of daylight left and to spend his final night of prayer and meditation closer to the gods. He gave little thought to water, for the route he had charted would keep him close to the trickle that fed the tarn in his camp.
Gachev let pass no opportunity to tell him he had set out unprepared.
At first Mikulov was confident water would remain accessible as he rose higher, but inevitably the heat and his exertions made his tongue swell from thirst. He was tempted to return, but when he looked back and saw how much closer he was to the summit than to camp, he pressed on.
"This is ridiculous, all this effort."
Mikulov, his breath now coming in gasps, ignored his unwanted companion.
"You rush toward nothing but an earlier death."
Each rock sought to wrench Mikulov's ankle, each fissure to trap and hobble a foot.
"You provide the gods with nothing but amusement."
So enfeebled was Mikulov by the sun and his exhaustion that he feared succumbing to the dangers of the terrain. If he broke a bone, he would be forced to use his healing mantra prematurely and would be left unprepared at a time of greater need.
"The thousand and one gods are powerless."
Hearing that unforgivable insult, Mikulov felt the impulse to vent his fury but remembered another of Vedenin's litany of admonitions: The gods are in all things, both physical and spiritual. If so, then they must also be in Mikulov's rage, which provided him newfound energy to shout at Gachev. This was energy to be channeled and utilized, not squandered on a wraith. Do not swallow the anger or cast it away. Feel it. Use it.
With a new source to draw upon, Mikulov drove himself upward.
He reached the summit as night fell, a promontory that ended in a cliff. So enervated was he that he could spare no time to look for a site to rest. Squinting past the fierce burning in his eyes, he crawled far enough away from the edge that he had no fear of falling, and collapsed to the stony surface.
He awoke in cold darkness. Stiffness in his joints told him he had not moved. Several attempts were necessary to open his eyes, and when he did, he saw Gachev sitting on a nearby rock, shaking his head in precious silence. When first light brought a soft blue to the eastern horizon, Mikulov made a move to rise but could not. Sleep had made little difference. He was depleted. Mikulov lay under the sky and contemplated his circumstance. The sun would crest the horizon soon, but he felt nothing, cut off from his body. Strangely, he did not even feel the familiar morning compulsion to relieve himself. This he took as a bad sign. His body lacked the water it needed to survive out in the mountains; he had failed to bolster himself for these extreme conditions. His thoughts were an echo of Vedenin's curse: You will fail before you have even begun. Mikulov added his own, silent imprecation.
"Yes," Gachev agreed, voicing the words in Mikulov's mind. "You are a fool."
Once more, anger came. He wants me to fail, Mikulov thought, but he directed his fury again. Despite his body's pain, Mikulov used his rage to rise. As he got to his feet, the first rays of dawn touched his brow.
He paused while dizziness passed, looked down, and saw the folded paper in his hand. It had been secure in his tunic pocket for seven days, and he had no memory of retrieving it. His fingers shook as he struggled to insert them beneath the fold at the seal. He was shamed by the effort it took to break the lump of wax. He closed his eyes for just a moment, then spread the paper wide to read its contents.
Mikulov was suddenly too tired to feel even anger. The paper bore just one word? What sort of nonsense was this? "Inside" was no instruction; it was a mistake. His masters had erred, perhaps muddling what they were supposed to give him with a more mundane order for another boy in their service. Even at that moment one of his fellow orphans, expecting to find the directions for his daily chores, might instead be marveling at the meticulous instructions for Mikulov's ordeal in the wilds. The absurdity of the idea was comic. It threatened to undo him, leaving him frenzied and bewildered there on the mountaintop. Mikulov suppressed the hard mirth that rose within him. His laughter would only give Gachev satisfaction.
He dared not affront the gods. This message could not have come in error. He racked his brain to see how this word fit his circumstances. He must be overlooking something.
As his mind formed the question Inside what? Mikulov's eyes fell on what looked like the mouth of a cave. It opened in the rock half a hundred paces below, on the side of the summit opposite the one he had climbed. Jutting up out of the incline's face, roofed by an intricately wrought arch no more than an arm's length across, the cave's mouth beckoned him.
How could his masters have known he would ascend this mountain? They had given no instructions about what direction to walk. He'd been sent out guided only by instinct.
Vedenin's words from Mikulov's youth came unbidden to his mind. What you sense as instinct is rather the gods' divine direction. Had his travels been steered by communication he had not known he heard? If so, it stood to reason that his masters, too, had been so guided, preparing this one-word message without knowing what, when the moment came, it would mean to the novitiate undergoing the trial.
The portal offered no answers. The morning's rays, descending the slope below him, quickly warmed the surrounding rock. This day, he saw, would be yet more intense, more searing than before. Whether it was the place the gods had ordained for his trial or merely blind chance, Mikulov knew the cave would provide protection from the heat, if nothing else.
Exhaustion and volition warring within his depleted muscles, Mikulov awkwardly stumbled downward. Gravity more than will carried him to the portal. Knowing nothing of what lay in the darkness, Mikulov lurched forward and let it gather him in. Inside.
Only dimly did he wonder why Gachev remained behind.
As he moved down, the impression he got of his surroundings was of inconceivability; these halls could not exist. That they had been hewn—no, intricately carved from the gutrock of this mountain—was hard enough to ken, yet the fact that he could still see, now deep beneath the surface, was even more difficult. At first, following the rough stairs' descent, he assumed daylight was filtering through, though after what must have been one hundred paces downward, he knew this could not be. Even the fierce sunlight of the mountaintop was too weak to penetrate this far, and hidden shafts or unseen clefts in the rock could not account for this strange illumination. Finally, a long and level hallway stretching out before him, Mikulov understood that what his eyes beheld was utterly different from any of these notions, though every bit as impossible: the walls themselves contained a soft glow that surged within them.
What is this? Mikulov asked. He studied the stone of the walls around him. The light did flow indeed, like blood. The illumination moved in a steady rhythm, pulsations following the beat of his own heart.
What hell have I blithely entered?
Mikulov asked himself if what he had witnessed thus far aligned with what he knew about the gods' behavior. I know that the gods speak to us through signs, both in nature and through the works of men. Further, the gods are in all things, he thought, and the light within the stone seemed to fairly scream that it was the work of the gods. Therefore these steps, this hall—clearly hewn by men—must be a manifestation of the gods' will. Seeing nothing to contradict this, Mikulov took a moment to ponder their message.
Concentration was difficult; thirst kept intruding into his thoughts, and even though he stood motionless, his thigh muscles shook with strain. The deprivation he had endured for seven days and nights had taken a deep toll on his body, and therefore on his mind as well. Even when he exerted a tremendous effort to suppress his discomfort, he still could not focus.
His thoughts returned to Gachev, Mikulov at last wondering why the boy had not followed him down. And the more he exhorted himself to ponder the gods' message, the farther into his concentration Gachev seemed to run. The boy had anticipated, even savored, Mikulov's disappointment for days, so how could he now forgo the chance to revel in the novitiate's confusion and imminent failure?
Mikulov turned his face upward to the smallest flicker of light at the top of the stairs he had just descended. Craning his neck to see past outcroppings of stone, Mikulov saw his tormentor. The older boy stood solemnly, silently staring down at him. No barbs, no jibes, no provocation. Simply mute vigil. Gachev seemed to defend the stairs from anything that might follow Mikulov to his doom.
Or did he bar Mikulov's ascent back to open air and daylight?
Seeing Gachev so distant above, sensing how far into the dark depths of the mountain he had come, Mikulov was afraid. He gestured to Gachev. Pointing ahead to the shadows of the hall, he beckoned the older boy to follow.
Gachev remained where he stood. He merely shook his head. His words, "This test is yours," fell to Mikulov like rain, heavy and cold. "I go no farther."
A lump forming in his throat, Mikulov turned back to face the hallway. He concentrated once more on the light that seemed to live within the walls. The pulsations' rhythm, though soft, came to him as sound, not just as sight. Studying this, Mikulov saw and heard how the beats indicated a direction toward the shadows at the corridor's end. Although this was not the sign he had hoped for, he knew it for what it was: a clear suggestion to go forward. Mikulov forced his limbs into action and stepped haltingly toward the darkness to which the moving light summoned him.
He anticipated a labyrinth waiting for him, or a baleful necropolis that would rise up and swallow him, but Mikulov soon found himself at the entrance to an empty chamber paved with stone blocks. Although the room, so deep into the mountain, had no other door, it shone with a nacreous light in a vast array of colors, all of them tinged with red. The room held the most wondrous display of subtle shades of a single hue, reds Mikulov had never seen or imagined, offset and emphasized by occasional shoots of green lichen growing between the stones. The color suffused the light, its burning beat now pounding from the walls.