A thick fog descended on the Gorgorra, diffusing the midday sun and painting the forest in tones of decay. Zhota had carried Mishka on his back in circles for hours, going west of their camp, hoping in vain to find the monk spoken of by the godless men. Not for the first time Zhota considered himself a fool for taking their words at face value.
Still, he trudged on. If one of his order was truly out there, he had to find him and tell him the truth regarding Mishka. The boy had talked of his past well into the night, a story so blasphemous that even listening to it had made Zhota feel unclean. The more that he thought about it now, the more implausible it seemed. And how do you propose to convince a monk of its validity?
He quieted his doubts and continued moving. It was another hour before the fog rose and Zhota caught the scent of incense as he entered a small clearing. It was faint at first, an odor in stark contrast to the forest's damp and earthy aromas. It took him a moment to discern hints of bloodrose and jadewood, but when he did, he froze.
He recognized that scent.
"What is it?" Mishka whispered.
Zhota didn't reply. He couldn't. His body had turned as rigid as stone. He knew that smell as well as he knew his own name. It was from Akyev's incense, and it had clung to the older monk every day of Zhota's training.
He felt suddenly small and weak... just like the boy he had once been before Akyev had killed that part of him, or at least tried to...
The air had been crisp and clear the morning that Zhota first met Akyev. The Unyielding had called him out to one of the monastery's terraces at sunrise. The younger monk had heard many tales of his master's renowned strength, and he had been counting the hours until he could finally meet the Unyielding and begin his training
But Zhota's youthful bliss would die that day. He would learn that the Unyielding was somewhat of an oddity in the order, a man who was willing to do anything if it meant fulfilling commands. His might and resolve were matched only by his fanaticism and uncompromising nature.
"Jump," Akyev had said, pointing over the terrace's edge, which ended at the top of a sheer seven-hundred-foot cliff face.
It took a moment for Zhota to realize that Akyev was serious. That was when the fear hit him. He knew that he would die if he obeyed the command, and yet a small part of him believed he would be safe. The feeling did not originate from his desire to blindly follow orders; it came from deep within himself. Ultimately, however, Zhota attributed the notion to pure madness
When his master grabbed him by the neck and dragged him to the edge, Zhota screamed for mercy. The Unyielding answered his pleas by throwing him into the abyss. He closed his eyes, awaiting his death, until he slammed into a rock ledge a few feet down from the monastery—a ledge that hadn't been there previously.
That was before he learned of the monastery's secrets: the walls that were not walls, the stairs that were not stairs, and the many other illusions meant to keep initiates alert at all times.
After Zhota's fall, Akyev had hauled him back up from the ledge. The young monk was shivering uncontrollably. "You tremble like a leaf in the wind," his master had chided. "You are a slave to fear. That is why you will never be a monk. You are nothing but a scared boy who has no place in this order.
When Zhota had mustered the courage to look Akyev in the eye, the Unyielding had then asked, "You must choose. Are you that boy, or are you a monk?"
"I am not that boy," he had answered, wiping away his tears.
"So be it. Should he ever show his face again, there will not be a ledge to save him from the fall."
Zhota snapped out of the memory and shook his head. He had ignored his intuitions that day. It would not be for the last time. Over the years, the Unyielding had worked feverishly to suppress his pupil's insistence on trusting in himself when presented with difficult situations. Whether or not Zhota's insights were correct didn't matter to Akyev. He believed such reliance on the self would compromise one's ability to obey the Patriarchs' commands and prosecute their divine will.
"What is it?" Mishka asked as he climbed down from Zhota's back.
"Nothing." A cold uneasiness was coiling in his stomach. If it were any other monk, perhaps Zhota could convince him of Mishka's innocence. But not Akyev. Not the Unyielding.
Zhota considered departing this area of the forest, but his master found him and Mishka before he could act on the shameful thought. Akyev had emerged from behind a colossal pine, leading a packbeast laden with leather satchels of various sizes. The elder monk looked just as he always had—calm and composed, not a trace of gray in his black beard. The circles of order and chaos on his forehead were still vivid, as if they had been tattooed there yesterday rather than years ago.
"Zhota," Akyev said. He glanced briefly at Mishka, but there was no sign of surprise on his face.
"Master." Zhota placed his palms together and bowed low.
The elder monk strode forward in slow, measured steps until he stood in front of his former pupil. Zhota was a head taller than his master, but he felt as if he were standing before a giant nonetheless.
"I had feared you were not ready, but it appears you have proven me wrong." Akyev turned his gaze to Mishka. "You have succeeded where even I had failed. The gods are mysterious indeed."
Pride welled up in Zhota. Akyev had never praised his efforts previously. His master had always found fault in everything he did. During his time at the monastery, Zhota had witnessed other monks fostering positive relationships with their acolytes. When mistakes were made, pupils were not necessarily punished; they were shown the right way. That had not been so with Akyev. Zhota fought against the intoxicating nature of his master's rare affirmation, reminding himself of the child's plight.
"You are searching for a demon, but the boy—" Zhota started, but his master interrupted him.
"—is not a boy. Nothing in the Gorgorra is as it seems. Look at what has become of this sacred place. Balance has been lost. This, Zhota, this is the moment that we have trained for our entire lives."
Akyev lowered his voice to a whisper and pointed at Mishka. "The gods of order tremble with unease. This abomination wearing the skin of a child is just one more indication of the dire state of things."
The boy had been oddly silent throughout the exchange. Zhota saw now that he was frozen with terror. Blood flowed down from his eyes, and his body shook uncontrollably.
"It's the demon!" Mishka suddenly screamed. "The demon!"
"Do you see?" Akyev calmly said. "The wretched creature will spread any lie to hide its true form."
Abomination. The absurdity of Mishka's tale weighed heavy on Zhota. He knew he had to act quickly before he gave in to his doubts, and so he purged the reservations from his mind and recounted the child's story...
The night prior, Mishka had confided that he was the son of a Patriarch and his concubine. Due to the boy's deformities, his father had considered killing him, but his mother had convinced the Patriarch to confine him to a corner of Ivgorod's palace instead. There Mishka had lived for years in isolation until the heavenly fire scorched the sky. As tales of dark and unholy forces rising in the Gorgorra and other regions had reached Ivgorod, fear and paranoia had taken hold in the kingdom. Tensions had flared among the terrified common folk as they looked to the Patriarchs for answers... for salvation.