Gregor Bock clasped his hands before him, held himself straight. The Ritual Room had felt small, when he snuck in on a dare one night last year. Now it seemed vast. Cavernous. The wizards who stood chanting at each point of the central pentagram were dwarfed by the Room, which seemed to expand even as it filled with the black smoke pouring off the brazier at the pentagram’s center. The brazier offered no warmth, and the chill of the bare stone floor seeped up Bock’s legs, through his thick winter boots and woolen socks.
He peered back at the high double doors, now shut. A choice, the man outside had said. A decision—through the double doors, and on to the path of the wizard, the path that led to solitude, to danger, to power. The path to the testing, that would take the lives of nearly half those who attempted it. Or the other path. The side path, the common path, the path that led away from the double doors and the testing, away from the chance of greatness, away from danger, to an ordinary life—Her Majesty’s Army, or the clergy, or the University. The path of his brothers.
No choice at all.
Bock took a deep breath. Calm, stillness, strength. That was the mantra they’d all been repeating, the mantra that everyone swore would help them survive the testing.
Bock wasn’t sure he believed it, but it couldn’t hurt to try.
The boy next in line coughed, and Bock flinched, then returned to sharp stillness. What was the boy’s name? Henders, that was it. He’d had several classes with Henders. The lad was bright, but thin and sickly. He’d expected him to turn back, to take the path of safety. But Henders had never wavered. Only two of the ten who’d stood before the double doors had turned aside, and Henders had not been one of them.
The chanting rose to a crescendo, and one of the wizards pulled a coal from the brazier with a pair of tongs, then placed it, glowing, into a briar pipe.
No, not a coal. A burning cordifunus—that black beetle-like insect that figured in so many tales and legends. A parasite of the mind; a creature so vile, so deadly, that it was death for any but a wizard to attempt to capture or kill one.
Cordifunus. Soul death, in the old language. The stories called them slivers of the Devil’s very heart.
And inhaling the smoke from a cordifunus, inviting the parasite in and then overcoming it, was the only known way for a man to become a wizard.
Bock licked his lips and tried to relax his muscles. He had learned a new meditation exercise for calmness only two weeks ago, but the method was long fled to some dark recess of his mind. All he could recall was something about counting backwards from three.
The wizard bearing the smoking briar peered at the line of boys (Bock was glad to note he wasn’t the only one who quailed before that dark gaze). With a curt gesture, he waved Henders forward. Henders stood there for a moment, then uprooted himself and stumbled forward and into the pentagram.
Bock made himself breathe normally. Nothing to fear. Not yet.
Henders performed the obeisances, limbs quivering. The smoke gathered and thickened as Henders reached up and took the briar.
The chanting stopped.
Silence filled the Room, heavy, hot. It mingled with the smoke, echoed off the walls, unfurled and expanded until Bock’s ears seemed full of cotton.
Henders put the briar to his lips, inhaled. His face went green, and he choked out a lungful of black smoke.
Bock clenched a fist. Three breaths, three inhalations, the testing called for. Enough to allow the cordifunus entry. Enough to force a battle of the mind.
Henders took another puff, coughed it out. He looked greener still; his hands shook.
Bock willed him calm, stillness, and strength. They’d never been friends, but something about this testing shouted out for camaraderie.
Henders took the third and final puff, and held it in.
The silence deepened and stretched, encompassing the Room and worlds beyond. Henders’ face had lost the green tinge, but now went tight. His eyebrows drew together, his lips parted, his eyes grew wide.
Calm. Stillness. Strength.
Henders’ face slackened, and he pitched forward onto the floor, narrowly missing the brazier.
A man in servant’s robes scuttled from a hidden corner, seized Henders’ legs, and dragged him away. And the wizards resumed their chant. They gave no sign of having noticed Henders’ collapse.
The unnatural silence was gone, but none of the boys said a word. They stared toward the corner where Henders had been dragged, none looking aside, none moving. They stood, and they stared. Until at last, the chanting again came to a crescendo, and the wizard placed a fresh cordifunus into the briar.
He pointed at Bock.
Bock’s mouth was dry. His legs didn’t feel as though they could hold him up. Calm. He clenched his teeth, lifted one leg, and then the other. Stillness. He let the smoke draw him forward, into the pentagram. Strength. He performed the obeisances, legs and hands shaking.
He took the briar.
Again, all sound ended. Again, the silence lay thick and heavy and hot. This time a soft buzzing came from the end of the briar, a swarm of bees ten miles away.
Bock took a deep breath, exhaled heavily, and counted backwards from three. He lifted the briar to his lips. Calm.
And all but choked. The smoke tasted of rotting plants, of spoiled milk, of the muck on the underside of a boot. It lay thick on his tongue and heavy in his lungs. It seeped through his body, a stream of putrid, oozing mud.
He exhaled, barely suppressing a cough.
Two more. His leg shook; he held it in place. His hand shook; he gripped the briar tighter. Stillness.
He inhaled, taking a deeper breath.
He’d thought himself prepared, but again he nearly choked. The smoke tasted worse. It shouted to his tongue of stagnant swamp-water, of meat left to rot in the sun, of middens. It clawed its way down his throat, into his lungs, throughout his body.
One more. Both legs shook. His eyes stung. His nose itched. Around him, the Room wavered like a mirage, expanding and contracting.
He counted backwards from three, and imagined the outcome. He thought of his father, tall and proud, giving him a nod of approval at his passing. He thought of his brothers, outwardly glad but inwardly jealous at his elevation. He thought of his younger sister, perhaps the only one who would truly be happy at his success. He thought of her smile, and he gripped the briar hard. Strength.
He did not choke. The smoke passed across his tongue, down his throat, into his lungs. He tasted nothing, felt nothing. Where it passed was only cold. Not the cold of nightfall, nor the cold of winter snows, but the numbing cold of utter, outer dark.
It pierced his brain; it stabbed his lungs. It stole through his body on pinprick talons, dulling, deadening, freezing.
He could not see, could not hear, could not feel. He could not move. He stood alone in the bottomless void at the roots of the Earth.
Not alone. Something lay coiled there in the void, formless. Something dark, something powerful. Something vast.
CHOOSE. The voice came from everywhere, and nowhere.
“What?” He spoke without breath. Without motion.
DEATH OR SERVITUDE. CHOOSE.
Ah. At last, he had come to the true test. To overcome the power of the cordifunus, and in so doing, take it for himself.
He faced the darkness, and he pushed.
There came a sound that hinted at laughter, deep and rolling. NOT A TEST. ONLY A CHOICE.
Choice? The wizards had said nothing of this. He pushed harder. It was like trying to push a stone wall.
THE WIZARDS ARE MINE. AS YOU SHALL BE.
He could feel the thing pushing back, crushing, constricting. It was stronger than he. How could anyone pass this test? The thing was a boulder, a mountain.
TRUE. Again, the rolling laugh. NONE CAN PASS. NONE HAS EVER PASSED. ONLY MADE A CHOICE.
The weight of the thing pressed down upon him, compressing his mind. Calm, stillness, strength. He pushed back, and pain stabbed through the backs of his eyes. He pushed, against the boulder, against the mountain, against the power that would be his. He pushed.
The ice cracked, the darkness shattered. The numbness receded.
He could see. He stood in the center of the pentagram, at the center of the Room, no longer so large.
Something had changed. A field of colors overlay the Room. A blurring of gray lay atop the stone walls and ceiling; thin stripes of blue along the lines of the pentagram. The boys waiting to be tested glowed a bright and vibrant green; the double doors behind them a deeper, primal green. And in the brazier, each remaining cordifunus glowed a sickly pulsating red.
He had done it, then. He had passed the test, had taken the first step on the path of the wizard. He heaved a sigh and grinned.
Or tried to—his body refused to obey.
He looked to the wizards at the points of the pentagram. Had they done something to him? Was the test not yet over? They stared back at him, dark-eyed and silent. Their bodies were overlaid with the same sickly red as the cordifunus in the brazier.
No. The red glow didn’t overlay the wizards—it was inside them. Threaded through their spines, knotted through their limbs. Entwined about their eyes and hearts and brains.
A voice, a thousand voices, a million voices blending to one. THEY CHOSE SERVITUDE.
The wizards were strung like puppets.
He could not move. He could not breathe.
A vision filled his mind. Returning home, triumphant. His father proud, his brothers jealous, his sister overjoyed. And none of it belonging to him. All his accomplishments, all his failures, all his deeds and misdeeds. All belonging to the cordifunus, now and forever.
He thought of his sister: of quiet shared jokes, of walking down the village lane under summer skies, of her curling before the fire and asking for a story.
The wizards stared at him with vacant eyes. The boulder, the mountain, crashed down upon him, crushing his mind beneath its weight.
He pushed back, but the weight was immense.
What would the thing do in his name? What would it do to those who trusted him, who cared for him, loved him? Would it use those emotions, twist them to its own ends? Would it crush them, break them, leaving none who might through him discover the truth of the testing? Or would it brush them aside as useless, leave them behind?
The cold, the numbness, strode freely through his brain, through his body.
Calm. Stillness. Strength. Summer skies, and stories.