Can this be my test? There is nothing here.
As Mikulov lifted his foot to step into the chamber, Gachev's voice rose around him. "Will you so blithely stumble into a room with no way out?"
Mikulov was tempted to look back in the direction from which he had come, but he knew Gachev had not followed. The voice was in his mind, the voice of his fear.
He weighed that fear against everything he believed to be true. Having trusted thus far that the gods had been sending him signs, he would not change course now. Mikulov stepped boldly onto the room's stone floor.
No bars dropped into place behind him; no water flooded the chamber, nor did the walls move to crush him. Instead, the coruscating energy they contained beat with a regular rhythm. The direction of the pulse ceased as he entered the room. He was where the gods wanted him to be.
But what was he here to do?
He waited. Even with the walls keeping time, he lost any sense of how long he had stood in place, for his circumstances, moment to moment or hour to hour, were maddeningly the same. He had followed his instincts, what he took for the will of the gods, yet Mikulov had come, exhausted, to a dead end. The blood in his temples reignited as the pace of his heart increased. His anger brought back his awareness of time. He'd been standing here an eternity. Frustration told him to leave the chamber immediately.
Still, something stayed him. He looked into his mind and saw the face of Vedenin, smirking at his arrival at the monastery gates, wrapped in a mantle of failure. He would not endure such shame, even if he had to wait infinite eternities. The gods would speak, but in their own time, not in a mere novitiate's.
The radiance around him took on a somber quality. Abide the gods' determinations, it seemed to say. Be still and await their will.
Patience had never been Mikulov's best attribute. He forced his knees to bend and assumed a submissive posture on the floor. When the ache grew too much for his enervated body, he silently voiced words to calm his spirit and separate himself from pain. Pain, be welcome in my home. You shall not live here long, yet while you stay with me, I receive you like an honored guest.
For what seemed an age, Mikulov stayed thus. It was a losing battle. The throbbing soreness pervaded his consciousness and kept him rooted to this plane, not the gods'. Sweat poured into his eyes, dripping freely onto his bare knees where he knelt on the stone. The throb and the drip distracted him, intruding into the walls' lulling rhythm. The steady pulsation became like Gachev's taunts. Mikulov was besieged by unrelenting sameness: light beating within the walls, stones glistening with a dank sheen, moisture seeping from their gaps, hanging lichen that swayed—
Mikulov blinked and tried to recall everything he had seen in the last several moments. Yes, he perceived a small and subtle alteration to the chamber's oppressive monotony. He sought furiously to identify this variation.
Had the green shoots of feeble, tenacious life been swaying when he'd first knelt down? If so, how? There was not the slightest current in the air.
As he stared at them, Mikulov was certain. No, they were still when I entered. He soon beheld what put the hanging strands in motion.
Murky and insubstantial vapor leaked between the bricks before his eyes. Hovering in the air above him, it was frail enough to be banished with a breath, yet it conveyed an impression of substance and menace. Mikulov saw minute vibrations ripple through it, echoes of the pulsations of light within the walls.
Impossibly, the thing seemed to be taking form from the source of that nacreous light, and something within it festered, for it now dripped with contagion.
There was a new mix of colors in the room—yellow, green, and blue, yet sickly shades of each. The colors, and whatever gave them form, oozed together and coalesced. The impression of disease growing stronger as he watched, Mikulov's mind struggled with a concept that would encompass this seeping presence: it was an abscess. The heart of the undulating mass challenged his perception, its very center seemingly a void. This was a wound, Mikulov grasped, a gash long and thin, hanging in the air. It confronted both his senses and his expectations, for it was not vaguely human in shape, or a malformed blob, or even a cloud-like apparition. Instead, it was a disembodied lesion suspended in midair. But there was no body, no flesh to have received this injury. Rather, it was as though the air itself had been hacked savagely by some unseen weapon. He considered any blade that could produce such a laceration and reached instinctively for the punch dagger at his side.
As Mikulov stood paralyzed, his hand poised above his weapon's grip, the lesion pulsated, expectant. In his physically depleted condition, Mikulov felt overwhelmed by it, threatened by its existence. An affront to the reality he understood, the gash was clearly alive, a mystical being sent to rend Mikulov's sanity as violently as the air had been rent by a blade.
When the apparition moved, Mikulov backed away from it. Fascinated in equal measure to his revulsion, Mikulov was not aware that he was being maneuvered and so was slow to act. When the knowledge dawned on him, Mikulov grasped the punch dagger in his right fist and aimed it at the lesion. Once he had done so, the attitude of the floating wound shifted; it countered the boy's movements, advancing or retreating in a macabre dance with the weapon. Its feints and withdrawals, Mikulov saw too late, gave it a position that put him at a great disadvantage. The lesion now blocked the door, the only way out of this room.
Mikulov looked all around, reassuring himself that there were no more of these things seeping from the walls. The weakness in his legs, back, and shoulders was too intense to ignore; his strength and stamina were finite and rapidly reaching their ends. Stalemates were not the monks' way at the Floating Sky Monastery. The masters taught their adepts to seek solutions to life's problems, not remain mired in them. He must pass this test as soon as possible, while strength endured. The lesion's threatening posture be damned, Mikulov thought as he abruptly raced toward the exit from the chamber.
The apparition prevented him. Not satisfied to merely block his way, it launched itself at him in return and dealt Mikulov a savage attack. It seemed to strike him with its entire being. The lesion's touch was wet, and it burned. The novitiate was furious at himself for being taken off guard. Despite his last-moment attempt to duck away, he had taken the blow on his cheek, and he felt a viscid wetness trickle down his neck. His heart clenched at the thought he had been infected. He snatched at the tunic that hung from his shoulders and mopped up the rank liquid, but its burn lingered. Thrown back, he could feel its presence everywhere, the gory sickness of it on his skin, even dripping from his lank, oily hair. Sprawled on the floor, he belatedly raised his punch dagger to fend off any subsequent attack, and doing so, he instantly felt foolish. Why had he not led with the weapon?
He would correct that mistake now. He struggled to his feet and hurled himself at the foul apparition. Yet so swiftly did the being counterstrike that, although Mikulov was prepared, he managed to use the weapon in its simplest way only: he sliced the contagion savagely but without a release of energy. Overwhelmed with fear, Mikulov had failed to focus and channel his spirit, the power he had never before so urgently needed to call on.
As he scrambled back, expecting a follow-up blow, he measured the blade's effect. Even his feeble use of the dagger was sufficient. The spectral form shook and seemed to wither. The rent in the air was even larger than before, and from its unseen font, the wound bled, spattering the stones beneath. Mikulov stared in horror, for as it bled and suffered, it grew before his eyes. With his blood pounding in his temples, still feeling the adrenaline from his last attack, he knew this was his opportunity, now, while the creature paused to gather itself; he must strike again, this moment! And so he thrust his blade before him once more, and this time, he focused his mind to summon the energy he needed.
This trial was pivotal and clearly a test of his prowess as much as his resourcefulness. Somewhere in its execution, this encounter was essential in demonstrating to the masters that he was worthy of further study, and by the thousand and one gods, he would prove it.
But to his shame, he was not immediately successful. Although harnessing the power had become instinctive on the practice grounds of the Floating Sky Monastery, this was no longer practice. Concentrate, he berated himself. Focus on its release. He listed the steps in his mind swiftly but with desperation. Fasten your mind on the requirement. Focus your determination; let your yearning release the energy from every inch of your body. Yet so great was his need that he forgot the process could not be rushed, forgot that he must move without haste, only with determination. Therefore, his attack was impotent, mundane, unaided by power.
Until the last moment, that was. Ultimately the lesion gathered itself to strike again, and it was Mikulov's fear of counterattack that drew the energy forth. It came the instant he felt the creature start to riposte; the panic at his inability to fend it off beckoned the energy within his blade, and a brief pulse of power lanced outward in all directions. Shocked by its arrival, Mikulov lost control and was blown backward by its force.
His skull struck the floor viciously as he rolled, and though he instinctively tried to rise, he paused for a very long while, his head hung low, spinning wildly. What had happened to his prowess with the blade? Was his mastery of it all in his imagination? Or were the intensity and danger of this test simply too much for him? And though he could not see for himself how badly he had been injured, a glance at his opponent proved it had not been a one-sided encounter.
As horrid as it appeared, Mikulov was stunned by a single fact, immediate and nightmarish: it was even larger and more pestilent than before.
The lesion now towered over him. It was hot and inflamed; every visible inch of it burned; it fairly glowed with violation. The lines of shredded flesh were not clean, as though sliced by a blade, but instead were jagged and torn, as though pulled apart by hand. The creature seethed violently, unseen, ragged breaths heaving inside it. The sense of wrongness was even more pronounced, and for the first time, Mikulov found it difficult to breathe, as though every intake sullied his lungs with contagion. And worst of all, the lesion's tattered guts leaked burning acid everywhere now. Mikulov slipped on a spill, and its touch was fire.
Mikulov's mind reached out, and instead of locating his determination, he embraced the font of his fury and discovered it was a teeming lake within him. Yet after his experience climbing to the summit with Gachev, he knew that even rage was a gift of the gods. Turning away from mindless abandon, he mastered his wrath and channeled it.
The blade's outburst was pure, and Mikulov's aim was true. A great, heaving gout of white-hot, incendiary flame shot forth, more potent than any he had achieved before. Knocking both combatants backward, power leapt from the blade like personified wrath. The wave of force pulsed outward until it broke upon the chamber's walls and folded back on itself, hitting Mikulov and the lesion from two sides simultaneously. The boy who dreamt of becoming a monk became lost momentarily in the conflagration, ultimately finding himself on his back, opening his eyes in weakness and shock.
Breaths came in gasps, and he was grateful for life. Unquestionably that had been enough; surely the creature had been vanquished. He wanted to turn his head to see yet couldn't. Powerless, Mikulov felt despair's bitter bite as the lesion floated into view overhead. The creature was vile, and it was larger and stronger than ever. How was this possible? Were the gods toying with him? He gazed once more at the dripping entrails and saw that where they hit the stones, they sizzled and spattered. Even the force of its excreta had grown more potent. It was as though he were feeding a fire rather than extinguishing it.
And Mikulov had nothing left. So spent was he that when the creature dripped its corruption upon him, the searing flares of agony he felt could not draw forth enough energy for him even to flinch. He saw his fate with absolute clarity: a lingering death mired in disease and suffering.
"You are foolish," he heard a voice say. "You are proud and impulsive and weak." Mikulov knew who it was. Gachev, come to see my end at last. Only the smallest portion of his mind remained strong enough to wonder, What happened to him going no farther than the entrance above? He assumed it was merely a memory, his own fears given voice at his most vulnerable moment, and dismissed it. But Gachev would not stop.
"You will bring shame on your brethren, not merely on those you left at the monastery but on all who have faced this test before you." The words seared into him, for he knew them to be correct. In his pride, Mikulov had dared to think he would succeed where so many before him had failed, but he was no different. "Focusing on your meager pain prevents you from hearing the gods." Yes, it was true; Mikulov still could not hear them above his agony, had never truly heard them. Even his choice of a mantra to bring with him—had he but spent more time seeking the gods' guidance, he would have made another, better selection. He would have based his choice on offense, an arcane onslaught that would annihilate the lesion utterly. "If you follow your impulses rather than the gods, then you will never save me." He saw how foolish he'd been; how could healing save him now? It would merely prolong his agony, reviving him for another attack that would only make the creature larger...
Mikulov's thoughts faltered as Gachev's words sank in. You will never save me. What did he mean, save him?
"If you follow your impulses, you will die too."
My impulses. Mikulov looked down. The healing scroll was in the pocket of his torn and shredded tunic, and when he drew it forth, he saw that the parchment was charred and stained, almost ruined by conflagration and power before it had even been used.
His eyes rose once more to the infernal abomination floating above him, the horrid, base lesion that rent the very air of this dismal chamber, the wound that kept growing and growing and growing.
And in that instant, Mikulov understood.
Indeed, he would not follow his own impulses.