Read The Testing Online

Authors: Jonathan Moeller

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Dark Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Epic, #Sword & Sorcery

The Testing

THE TESTING

The Third Soul, Part I

Jonathan Moeller 

Description

Rachaelis is an Initiate of the Conclave, the powerful order of mighty mages. But to become a full Adept of the Conclave, she must first survive the Testing. Those who survive the Testing never speak of the trials they endured.

Those who fail the Testing are never seen again. 

And now the Magisters of the Conclave have come to take Rachaelis to undertake the Testing. And there she shall face perils to both her body and her sanity.

And creatures that yearn to devour her soul…

Copyright 2011 by Jonathan Moeller

Cover image copyright Elena Schweitzer | Dreamstime.com & Alessandro De Leo | Dreamstime.com

Ebook edition published August 2011

Azure Flame Media, LLC

All Rights Reserved.

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the author or publisher, except where permitted by law. 

Chapter 1 - The Ring

They would come for her in the middle of the night.

Rachaelis stared at the moonlight on the ceiling. She had not been able to sleep for a week. Not since they had come for Riza, and not since they had come for Isabella the next night. 

Neither one of them had returned.

Rachaelis rolled onto her side. In the moonlight she saw two beds against the far wall, both stripped of their blankets and pillows. Two wooden wardrobes, both empty, and two desks bare of papers and books. The slaves had come and cleared everything away a few days ago.

That didn’t help Rachaelis sleep, either. 

She rolled over again, her mind running through the calming and centering exercises she had been taught, exercises that she had used every day for the last twelve years. That helped, a little. The fear dimmed.

But still she could not sleep.

At last Rachaelis sighed and rolled out of bed, the stone floor cool against her bare feet. She had not been close with either Riza or Isabella, had barely known them, in fact. But it still shocked her. Both of them had been so confident, so skilled. Now they were dead.

And Rachaelis might join them soon enough.

The thought made her shiver. She paced to the window and stared into the night. The Initiates' rooms honeycombed the Ring's outer wall, and she had a fine view of the city and the ocean beyond. A thousand towers rose from Araspan, home to the city’s Adepts and lords, and the moonlight transformed the sea into a rippling field of silver. The air carried the faint tang of saltwater, and the Ring was high enough that the stench from the harbor and the slave markets didn’t reach here.

Convenient, that. 

The red glows of the crematoriums flickered here and there in the city. Burning the dead so that demons would not enter into the bodies and transform the corpses into ghouls. Riza and Isabella had gone to the crematoriums, their ashes interred in the columbarium for failed Initiates. 

Perhaps Rachaelis would soon join them.

She couldn't sleep now. Perhaps she should get some work done. 

Rachaelis clenched her fist and gathered her will. The spelllamp on her desk flared to life without sputtering or flickering. Despite her fear, that pleased her. She had spent long hours in study, had constructed and enchanted over a hundred spelllamps during her training. Twelve years ago, igniting a spelllamp left her exhausted and trembling. Now it required only an instant of concentration. 

She opened her wardrobe, drew out a robe, and pulled it over her shift. A gray robe, with a gray collar and black trim upon the sleeves, the robe of an Initiate of the Conclave. Heavier than Rachaelis would have liked, but she had gotten used to it. After all, she had worn such a robe every day for the last twelve years. 

After tying the sash she crossed to her desk and sat down, searching through the piled books. The Conclave had the largest library in the world, and Initiates could read anything they chose, though Rachaelis's studies kept her too busy for light reading. Mornings went to the practice of the High Art. Afternoons to the study of languages, mathematics, and history. Evenings to whatever duties the full Adepts or the Magisters might assign her. 

Rachaelis opened a book, intending to study.

Except there wasn’t all that much left to study.

Only rarely now did the Magisters question her about the Conclave's history, or the proper way to greet a noblewoman of middling rank in the High Imperial tongue, or to derive an equation. The practice of the High Art consumed her days, her hours filled with gaining finer control over her magic. That meant that the Magisters thought the time for formal study was over. 

That she was ready for the Testing.

Of course, they had thought Isabella and Riza ready for the Testing.

Rachaelis stared at her right hand. It wasn’t shaking. That was good. But strange. How could her hands remain so steady when she was so frightened?   

When the Magisters could take her for the Testing at any time?

One might remain an Initiate for anywhere from eight to twenty years. But in the end, the Magisters came in the middle of the night and took the Initiate away to face a trial of strength and skill. The Initiate returned as a full Adept.

Or not at all.

And no Initiate knew what happened during the Testing. Neither the full Adepts nor the Magisters ever spoke of it to Initiates. But Rachaelis had seen some of the Adepts flinch at the mention of the Testing, as if it summoned up terrible memories. 

She stared at her hand some more. 

It did not shake.

So very strange. 

Rachaelis closed the book in disgust, threw on her shoes, and got to her feet. She could neither rest nor study this night. Perhaps a walk would clear her head. For a moment she hesitated. She would have to wake the senior Initiate on her floor for permission, and that might get her into trouble…

The she realized that she was the senior Initiate. Only Isabella and Riza had been Initiates longer, and they were both dead. There was no one left to ask for permission.

Rachaelis went to the corridor, closing the door behind her. A flight of steps and a door took her to the rampart atop the Ring’s outer wall. The view here was even better than her room, with Araspan spread out below her, the high towers of the inner Ring rising up behind her, and the dark bulk of the mountain looming over everything.

“You got permission to be out this late, Initiate?”

A man stood in the shadows of the doorway, grizzled and gray. He wore a coat of black mail that hung to his knees, and a black cuirass emblazoned with the sigil of the Conclave. A spear rested in his right hand, and a crossbow hung over his shoulder.

“Marvane. I thought captains didn’t pull duty this late,” said Rachaelis.

She liked old Marvane. Most of the Swords of Araspan held the Initiates in contempt, or in terror. Marvane had seen too much to be frightened of anything. And unlike some of the Swords, he did not try to seduce the female Initiates. 

Marvane grunted. “Can’t ask a man to do something I wouldn’t do myself. Besides, the lad who’s supposed to be here has a broken leg. Someone has to take his rotation. Doesn’t explain what you’re doing here without permission, though.”

Rachaelis shrugged. “There’s no one left to ask. Isabella and Riza were more senior. And they’re both dead now.”

“Fair enough,” said Marvane.  “Guess if you’re the senior Initiate you can give yourself permission.” He scratched his jaw. “Can’t sleep?”

“No,” said Rachaelis.

Marvane grunted again. “I don’t know anything about magic. But I suppose it’s like standing in the battle line, watching the enemy come over the hill. Can’t run, can't hide. Just pray and hope you’re ready when they come.” 

“The Testing, you mean,” said Rachaelis. “Have…you ever been certain you were going to die?”

“Couple of times,” said Marvane. “Worst was only a few years ago. The big battle at Dark River. All those damn Jurgur savages. I thought that was it.” He shrugged. “It wasn’t.” 

“What did you do?” said Rachaelis. “When you thought you were going to die?”

“Couldn’t do anything,” said Marvane. “It was coming for me if I liked it or not. All I could do was keep a grip on my sword and my shield and face it without running. All anyone can do, I suppose.”

Rachaelis nodded.

Marvane watched her for a bit. “You aren’t thinking of running, are you? The Conclave's hard on runaways.” 

“Of course not,” said Rachaelis. The thought had occurred to her more than once. But where could she go?   She had lived in the Ring since she was eight. She had never left the city of Araspan. 

Her father was here.

“I’m not running,” said Rachaelis. “But I am going for a walk. Good night, Captain.”

“And to you, Initiate,” said Marvane, touching the edge of his helmet. It was a gesture of respect, one he didn’t have to make to an Initiate.

She walked along the rampart atop the Ring’s outer wall, the breeze tugging at her gray robe. The outer wall was over four miles in circumference, and she walked half of that before descending to the grounds, to the gardens between the outer wall and the massive inner towers. The gardens were lovely, with trees and bushes dotted about, stone paths winding their way through the flowers, bubbling ponds and fountains here and there.

And all of it, Rachaelis remembered with a twist of her lip, maintained by slave labor. 

No sooner had the thought crossed her mind than she heard a shout, a scream of pain, and the crack of a fist striking flesh. Rachaelis whirled, her hand coming up in the beginnings of a spell before she caught herself. The Magisters might not care if a senior Initiate wandered about the grounds at night, but they would punish her if she worked a spell without leave. 

She hurried around to the base of the nearest tower. A handcart lay on its side, cured hams spilled across the path and into the bushes. A scrawny boy of eleven or twelve, wearing the orange tunic of a slave, lay next to the cart, his pale face covered in blood. Over him stood a stout woman in the blue dress of a freeborn servant, expression twisted with rage. 

“You stupid boy!” she shouted, kicking the slave. “Pick these up!” When he failed to comply, she kicked him in the ribs, and he crumpled against the side of the cart. “Pick these up!” He flopped onto his back, shuddering. “Pick these up!” 

Rachaelis felt something snap.

“Enough!” she bellowed, striding towards the slave and the overseer. 

The woman turned, flinched as she saw Rachaelis. “Adept! I…I forgive me for disturbing you. It’s just that this clumsy fool spilled the cart, and the kitchen wants the hams in time for breakfast…”

She stopped halfway through a curtsy. No doubt she had seen the color of Rachaelis’s robe. 

“You’re just an Initiate!” said the overseer, sneering. “You can’t order me about!” 

“You will stop striking that boy, and you will clean up this mess,” said Rachaelis.

The woman spat and stalked closer to Rachaelis. “Shut your mouth, girl.” She poked Rachaelis in the chest with a meaty finger. “Or else I’ll let the Magisters know you were wandering about without leave, and ordering the servants around.” She grinned. “What do they do to whelps who misbehave? Thirty swipes with the cane?   I’ll watch and laugh when you start blubbering. Or maybe they’ll let me swing the cane, eh?” 

Rachaelis looked up at the taller woman. The Testing could come any day, and this blustering bully thought to frighten her?

Rachaelis started to laugh. 

The overseer blinked.

“You really want to take that chance?” said Rachaelis. “I’m a senior Initiate. Any day now the Magisters will take me for the Testing.”

The woman’s sneer returned. “You won’t survive it. Thirty years I’ve worked in the Ring, girl, and I’ve seen the Initiates come and go. The weak ones like you never make it. You’re going to die screaming. On your knees.”

“Perhaps,” said Rachaelis. “But suppose I don’t? Suppose I come back from the Testing as an Adept? Do you think I’ll forget you? Do you think I won’t find you, that I won’t make you regret this every day for the rest of your life?” 

The woman flinched.

Rachaelis kept smiling.

At last the overseer stepped away with a snarl. “Bah! I’ll have nothing to do with this. And I’ll report you, girl. The Magisters will hear about this.”

“Yes,” said Rachaelis. “I’m sure the Magisters will appreciate being disturbed over a cart full of hams.” 

The overseer stalked away, muttering under her breath.

Rachaelis sighed. 

She was going to get into trouble over this.

She sighed again and looked at the cowering slave boy. He stared up at her with terrified eyes. What to do with him? She couldn’t leave him here, but Initiates did not have the right to command the Conclave’s servants or slaves. And no doubt that overseer would take her frustrations out on the poor boy.

“Listen,” said Rachaelis. “Do you know Magister Nazim?   He lives in the inner Ring, in the northern tower?”

The boy managed a nod.

“Go to him. Now. Right now. Wake him and tell him…tell him that Rachaelis Morulan sent you. He’ll tell you what to do next. Do you understand?”

The boy nodded.

“Go,” said Rachaelis. “Now!”

The boy staggered to his feet and half-ran, half-limped off.

Rachaelis stared after him in frustration. Initiates could not enter the inner Ring, save by express order of an Adept or a Magister, but she could think of nothing else to do. Rachaelis could not take the boy herself, and to send him anywhere else would mean his punishment and likely his death. 

There was going to be trouble over this.

But what else could she have done?

Rachaelis rubbed her face for a moment and resumed walking.

###

Her walks, as they always did, ended in her father’s chamber.

Aramane Morulan had his own room atop one of the Ring's outer towers. Windows lined the circular room, presenting a view of the Ring’s grounds and the rugged mountainside. The only furniture in the room was a single bed, a stool, and some flowers in heavy stone pots, flowers that Rachaelis tended herself.

Her father lay in the bed. His eyes were closed, his skin waxy. His chest did not move, and no breath came from his lips. No heartbeat pulsed in his neck or wrists. 

He wasn’t alive.

Nor was he quite dead. 

For twelve years he had been like this. No one knew what had happened to him. He had been among the Magisters who had gone to fight Paulus, an Adept who violated every law of the Conclave, who made allies with demons of the astral realm and used their power to augment his own. Afterwards her father had been found lying amidst the shattered ruins of Paulus’s tower, in this…state. At first the Adepts had thought him dead. But his flesh stayed warm, and no demons came to inhabit him, as happened to a corpse left unburned for a sunrise and a sunset. Eventually the Adepts came to the conclusion that something during the fight had…ripped his soul away, leaving his body alive but inanimate. A living husk. 

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