Blackened fingers trembling, he broke open the scroll and read from it. "Jaz vay pozdravju." The words were obscure, unwieldy on his tongue. "Prelusjem váz dobrey." One hand made gestures he had learned from the masters, though in his weakness those movements were flawed and his concentration was imperfect. "Vimenju te teysoč in enje bogev obnovium vasz." The single thing Mikulov achieved with perfection: the words and gestures were aimed with precision at the lesion floating above him, rather than at himself.
As he lay on the floor, his strength slowly ebbing, it made sense. The creature's very nature seemed to cry out for this action. Was it possible to rid oneself of a wound by striking it? No, that would merely create a bigger wound. To rid himself of a wound could be accomplished only by healing it.
His deeds had been irrational, dangerously so. In retrospect, Mikulov recognized that the creature had not once initiated an attack. Rather, it simply countered his own. Mikulov felt foolish for leaping to conclusions and fearing the creature's mysterious, macabre intent. Other than warding the chamber's exit, it had never made any offensive movement.
Of course. A wound itself was not aggressive; the person who dealt it was.
As his mouth formed the final words and the scroll turned to dust in his hands, Mikulov raised his eyes and saw that the wound's ragged edges had been stitched together cleanly, saw that the viscid suppuration had lessened, saw that the massive creature was now smaller, so much smaller, yet it remained potent, livid, and most important, still poised in the chamber's exit. When he accepted the evidence of his eyes, Mikulov's heart sank, for the mantra's effectiveness was at its end. His mind clung desperately to the unfathomable words that were already fading from his memory.
The mantra was not enough, and he had no others. Silently, he shouted in wild supplication, mentally aiming it at the gods, Please, answer me in my need!
The desperation caused a door in his mind to open. He heard a voice lecturing him, Fasten your mind firmly on the need, and understood distantly that they were his own words from his days on the practice field. Concentrate on that requirement. And requirement it was, for he would never leave this chamber alive if he failed to vanquish this supernatural aberration. No, not vanquish, heal it. Let your yearning to release that energy flow outward from your mind to every fiber of your body and your spirit.
Mikulov expelled all stray thoughts from his consciousness and focused wholly on the necessity to heal this blight. He performed any small act he could think of, no matter how meaningless. He lifted his hands to the creature. He moved his lips in unintelligible speech, mumbling words that were vaguely comforting and reassuring, and when he saw how low it hovered above him, he stretched out his arms and embraced the creature, feeling energy flow through him to it. Finally, after seemingly endless minutes of excruciating concentration, his eyes closed and his arms slumped to the floor as exhaustion overcame him.
He lay insensate, too weak to move. Sleep claimed him at last, a gossamer kiss upon his brow.
He knew not how long he lay there, nor did he know how it came to be that he recovered enough strength to open his eyes and lift his head, but finally he did so and saw that he was alone. Nothing floated above him or menaced him in any way. Long he waited, yet at last he accepted what his instincts told him. The lesion was no more. The wound, healed, was gone.
Rising to an elbow, he beheld a second, smaller room he had not seen before, hardly larger than a monk's cell at the monastery; apparently, healing the lesion had triggered this chamber's opening. Within, Mikulov found sustenance—a pitcher of water to slake his thirst and salted meat to nourish his body. As weak as he was, Mikulov took no joy in replenishing himself. Instead, he ate and drank slowly, passionlessly, each moment spent contemplating all he had learned. He examined the hidden chamber and pondered the instrument that provided for its concealment. Power it was, clearly, perhaps prepared by the masters, crafted to thrive in perpetuity. Mikulov could feel it with his nascent abilities; his trial this day had thrown a door wide open within his mind, and he found he could now sense the force of the gods where it flowed, to a minor degree at least. And as he mechanically chewed the tough meat and washed it down with water, he peered around the room and discovered that more power surrounded him than he had initially thought. Far more.
Swallowing, he tightened his scrutiny.
Mikulov understood instinctively that the summoning of a mystical being such as the lesion required both control and command; its appearance must coincide roughly with that of new arrivals from the monastery, while its disappearance—depending on whether it had been healed—must signal the opening of the inner chamber to nourish the victor.
Or carry away the corpse of the vanquished.
Not only could Mikulov feel the power, but he now recognized its purpose as well: concealment. The masters had hidden something else down here. Mikulov's heart began to pound as he contemplated what it could be, but he instantly imposed calm upon his thoughts and emotions, reminding himself of the means through which the monks of the Floating Sky Monastery could channel the force of the gods—a balanced spirit.
Without haste, Mikulov breathed deeply and evenly, and when he was completely at peace, he reached out and touched the power and, with a wave of his hand, bid it, Begone.
Thus was another chamber laid bare, and the corpses of his fellow novitiates that lay within.
Many there were, all of them stark, gruesome in their decay, yet plaintive as well, bereft in their abandonment. Given how few novitiates underwent this challenge, the bodies in this chamber—some were skeletons thick with dust; others, desiccated corpses in various stages of decomposition—must represent all of the rebellious children who'd dreamt of becoming monks since ages past. His eyes took each of them in, and he finally found one that captured his attention, for it was apparently more recent than the others, and larger as well.
Gachev was always taller than the rest of us.
Looking into his former tormentor's eyes, Mikulov recalled hearing the boy's voice in his mind. If you follow your impulses rather than the gods, then you will never save me. At the time, Mikulov had been confused by the use of the word save, but he understood it now.
In truth, Mikulov realized, by that warning, Gachev saved me.
Like their bodies lying in a heap within the hidden chamber, had the spirits of all those children been trapped? Was that what Gachev meant by save? If so, they were trapped no longer. After the provisions had restored vitality to his body and mind, Mikulov returned to the surface to locate a suitable spot. He was not surprised that Gachev was not waiting for him, but he felt lonely nonetheless.
He would never be able to assemble sufficient wood for a funeral pyre, not for so many bodies, but he hoped it would be enough that they emerged from their hidden chamber and experienced the heat of the sun once more upon their bones before being laid to their enduring rest.
Long it took him to carry them in his arms; many trips he was forced to make, and it was well past nightfall when he finished. He carried out Gachev after all the rest and laid his body atop the others. He rested for the night, for he was in no hurry. Finally the morning came, and after they felt the sun's kiss one last time, Mikulov covered them with stones, creating a massive monument to the monastery's dead. He spoke no words over it when he was done. He felt capable of none. Instead, he turned and staggered in the direction of home, bidding a brief farewell to the former novitiates, his lost brothers and sisters.
It was a day and a half after his victory when Mikulov made his triumphant, unhurried return to the Floating Sky Monastery. The sun had long since passed its zenith and seemed to plummet toward the western horizon, but it still illuminated the portal through which he had departed. There, he found Vedenin, hunched and wizened, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. Mikulov had the impression that he had stood vigil thus for many hours, though the scowl on his face appeared to give the ancient monk strength.
"It has been more than a full day since the test was finished," he said, and in those words Mikulov indeed learned a great deal. As he had suspected, the lesion's disappearance had signaled an end to the test, which not only triggered the hidden portal's opening but alerted the masters as well. They had been waiting all this time.
"The rest of my brethren grew tired; therefore only I remain," Vedenin said. Of course, Mikulov thought. How could he pass up an opportunity to criticize my performance against the lesion? It must pain him enormously that I return in triumph.
Mikulov walked slowly and silently toward him. "I had much to do, my brother," he said, and though his voice was hoarse from nine days of disuse, still he took tremendous satisfaction out of the new honorific he used. No longer was the old man Master Vedenin, but brother, for Mikulov had earned the right to be a monk of the Floating Sky Monastery. Yet he knew that his education had only just begun, that the masters often spent decades instructing new monks, so he was careful not to inflect his voice with brashness or pride; instead, he spoke to Vedenin with all proper respect.
And just enough self-righteous rage to prevent the older monk from responding.
"I found a great deal more than food and water in the hidden chamber," Mikulov continued, and he saw the monk's eyes widen slightly.
"Enough to occupy you for a night and a day?" the old man said, his indignation apparently not quite as justified as his anger moments ago.
Mikulov gazed deeply into the man's eyes and never wavered. At long last he nodded and said, "Indeed there was, for there is little wood in the mountains, and I had many of my brethren to bury."
The memory was fresh in his mind, and from the stunned look on Vedenin's face, it must have been visible on his own visage as well.
Vedenin and his fellow masters might or might not have believed Mikulov would succeed, but clearly they had not intended for him to discover the hidden dead.
Mikulov pushed past Vedenin. It was neither hasty nor brusque, yet it brought the old monk out of his shocked reverie. "You are late and your studies await," the man barked behind him. "You will go to the lyceum immediately."
Mikulov shook his head wearily, all of his labors suddenly burdening him at once. "Not yet, Vedenin," he said. "First, I will eat; then I will bathe."
The monk's eyes narrowed in fury, and it was with visible effort that he maintained even a semblance of his usual authority. "You will address me as..." He faltered. "As Brother Vedenin."
Mikulov allowed himself a smile. Oh, how it must gall him to be unable to say master, he mused. How he must hate the fact we are now brothers. But then a new thought struck him, and his smile faded. I am one of the youngest to ever become a monk. Gratitude overcame him.
"Study I shall, Brother," he said with genuine humility and respect. "But I reek of the dead and would not insult the gods by approaching them so befouled. First I shall eat; then I shall bathe, and then I shall study." He would not be baited, and his days of accepting condescension were over. And while the old man sputtered, Mikulov walked away, offering over his shoulder, "Good night, Brother."
On his return to the Floating Sky Monastery, Mikulov had thought long and hard about the loneliness that had suffused his life, and realized that with his success in the mountains, he had at last gained the family he had sought for so many years. Yet it had not happened as he'd planned. Though he would be expected to address his fellow monks as "brother" or "sister" from now on, Mikulov's true family lay elsewhere. His closest kin rested behind him, at the mountain's summit, not inside this monastery.