(Go back to Part 39)
“Are you afraid, Acolyte?
I hope so. Because your study is fear.
Make yourself master of it, and you will be an Acolyte no longer.”
–The Lexicon, Vorhall’s Letters to the Acolyte 1:1
Other tests followed over the next several days, more conventional than the midnight attack. They took a history exam on long rolls of parchment, placing kings and patriarchs in order along chains of succession. They were tested on languages (where Alex did well), religion (she was not so sure on this), and mathematics (where Alex was fairly hopeless). The poisoned Acolytes were pale and wan for a few days, but gruel and broth kept them alive.
They talked amongst themselves every night by the fire. Alex’s victory with the wine had not brought her into the group; rather, it only reinforced her status as an outsider. Cragson nodded to her now when they passed, but other than Binder she had no friends among the acolytes. This didn’t bother her much; she hung on the edge of the circles, slouched in the darkness, listening to their conversations and trying to work some flexibility into her stiff red claw of a hand.
The talk that night was of the final test. There was only one day left, but the last test remained a secret. Speculation was rampant.
“I heard we have to fight the Grand Master!”
“You idiot, if you can’t even beat Osmund, what chance do you have against him?”
“Maybe it’s an obstacle course.”
“Pfft, that’d be a disappointment.”
“What about riddles? Or a maze?”
“I heard they’re going to blindfold us.”
“Aye, and plug our ears with wax.”
The Acolytes continued, each suggestion more outlandish than the last. Finally Alex broke in.
“You’re all wrong.” She was in a foul mood from the mathematics exam and feeling reckless.
Silence fell. “Yeah? And how do you know, Clawhand?” This was her newest nickname.
“What does the Curate exist to fight? And what haven’t we seen yet?” She paused. “The zombii. You know I’m right, Garth.” She stared straight at the big Acolyte, who alone among the others had yet to put forth a theory. “There is only one Cure.”
“The flame.” Garth met her gaze with less animosity than usual. “No, No-Sword’s got the right of it for once.” He stood. “Come, it’s time to sleep.”
The next morning Sir Osmund gathered them all at the far side of the cave. Here there was a small door in the rock, ancient and scarred. Half-faded words in the old language surrounded it, carved into the stone but so faded and worn as to be illegible.
“Today,” began Osmund, “you face the final test. Drink from the chalice,” he gestured to a large ornate cup sitting on a stool nearby, “and enter the tunnel. The precepts await you on the other side. You will not return here.”
“Is it dangerous?” asked one Acolyte.
“Yes. Not everyone survives. You will need your weapons.” A few Acolytes looked askance at the cup, remembering the poisoned wine. “And don’t try to pretend. I’ll know if you don’t drink.”
Osmund called Garth forward first. The big young man took a sip from the chalice. Osmund made him kneel, stared into each of his eyes in turn, and then blessed him once before sending him inside. Garth disappeared into the tunnel, sword drawn.
They heard nothing more of the big Acolyte. The minutes dragged by; the Acolytes huddled together, apprehensive and afraid to speak. Alex sat apart from them, feigning indifference, while she puzzled over a different problem. She had no weapon.
Ten minutes passed without sign from the tunnel. A flash of light made one of the Acolytes gasp—a flaming arrow streaked down from the lip of the cave’s open roof to bury itself in the sand. Osmund rose. “It is time for the next one.”
One by one they went, sipping from the chalice and receiving Osmund’s blessing. Cragson Sarth went with a bounce in his step, humming an old war tune under his breath. He was followed by Darrin the Bookbinder, pale and quaking but gripping his sword all the same. One Acolyte after another went until Alex was the only one left.
Osmund looked up after sending the last of the others into the tunnel. “So.”
Alex met his stare. “So.”
“You’re the last, Alex No-Sword.”
“I prefer Clawhand. It’s a little more fearsome.”
Osmund grunted. “Hrmph. Claw or not, you need a weapon. Wait here.”
Osmund walked off to the door that Alex had first entered by and disappeared inside. He was gone only a minute, and returned bearing something wrapped in cloth. He gave it to her.
“What’s this? A blade?”
The old knight laughed. “Ha! Blades are dearer than that; it’s not for me to go around handing them out. No, this is something I found in the back room . . . go on . . .”
Alex unwrapped it. It was a long black quarterstaff, oiled, banded in iron, and heavy. “I . . . where did you get this?”
“Found it lying about. It’s no Curate weapon, but I think the Grand Master will approve, seeing as how you left him with quite a bruise from that broomstick the other night. He blames his visor, the old goat!” Osmund laughed to himself, while Alex paled. “No, it’s no Curate weapon, but it should serve for the trial.”
“Thank you.” The wood felt good in her hands, smooth and strong.
A flaming arrow struck the ground nearby. “And now, Alex from Goodhollow-North-of-Dunheim, it’s your turn.”
Alex laid the staff down for a moment and moved to take the cup. There was only a swallow of liquid left—she tipped it back and drank. It was warm and rich, not at all what she expected from the clear water, and burned through her nostrils with a rich autumn scent.
Alex set down the cup, bent her head, and received Sir Osmund’s blessing. “Now go, Acolyte, and remember—there is only one Cure.”
Alex already felt different as she reached for the staff. The wood felt alive under her fingers, warm and almost glowing. Her good hand felt like it was sinking into the grain, each finger lost amongst the individual fibers . . . the sunlight was brighter, and all shadows stark and deep. Smells blossomed in her palate—she could taste the chalice’s liquid again, burning in her throat, along with the dry dust underfoot and the cold, dank air of the tunnel. She gave Osmund a questioning look, but the old knight’s face was all a blur. An arm beckoned her on; Alex stepped into the tunnel.
The darkness was palpable around her. She groped her way forward, feeling with her good hand as the burned one clutched her staff. Raw stone passed under her fingertips, the sensation of rough granite so intense to her heightened senses that she shuddered. These are the bones of the mountain, thought Alex, deep and wide and old.
She passed several twists and turns before a light appeared ahead. It glowed bright as the sun to her altered senses, throwing a maze of confused shadows around her. As she neared it, she realized that it was a torch, and Alex pulled it from the old iron wall bracket and pushed onward.
She could not say how long she walked. The tunnel wound on and on, sometimes rising, sometimes falling. Finally it opened up into a large cavern. Her torch didn’t cast enough light to illuminate the walls; they fell away on either side into darkness.
Something metallic glinted in the twilight ahead of her. She walked out into the cave toward it, footsteps echoing around her again and again until they sounded like a flurry of other feet. When she stopped, the sound quieted . . . she shook her head and kept walking.
It was an ancient brazier, set on a low stone pedestal and stained with the soot and grime of a fresh fire. It was warm; a pitcher sat beside it, reeking of lamp oil. She poured some on the brazier’s dish and touched her own torch to the liquid.
The flame leaped up, blinding her for a moment. It threw a great deal of light, but still the far reaches of the cave were indistinct. A flat dirt floor stretched around her, sloping away from the brazier—
A shuffling step caught her attention. It was real, not a product of her own echoing footsteps or the sense-altering liquid from the chalice. Alex whirled around to see a stooped figure shambling into the light. It was a zombii, she was sure.
And it was slow. She was in no immediate danger. “Only one?” she wondered aloud.
Alex laid her torch down next to the brazier and gripped her quarterstaff in both hands. She took a few steps toward the creature, keeping her ears alert for any others, but she heard only the single set of footsteps. Up close, the zombii didn’t appear to be any different than the others she’d seen, but it refused to raise its face.
That’s funny, thought Alex. Against her better judgment, she pushed the end of her staff against the creature’s chin and forced its head back, casting light on its face.
Alex’s heart froze. It was no zombii—Dalia’s face stared back at her.
It wasn’t Dalia’s whole face. Her cheeks were open, gaping to show smiling skeletal teeth where the flesh had sloughed away. One eye was missing, replaced by a gaping socket that seeped brown pus and was decorated with half of a yellow graveworm. The other eye, though it was intact, with the soft brown color that she remembered. She didn’t have the glazed, unfocused stare of a newly-raised zombii, but instead looked at Alex with recognition and interest. She knows me, realized Alex, as she scrambled backward.
Dalia cracked her mouth open in a horrific smile and leaned back, spreading her arms to the side. Her ruined abdomen erupted with a thousand flying black shapes, streaming from her in a thrashing cloud of leathery wings. They streamed from rents in the taut skin of her belly and from her open mouth, filling the air and surrounding Alex. Wings tore past Alex, scratching her skin with a texture like sandpaper. They beat at her eyes, nose, and mouth, filling her world with the sound of scratching leathery skin. She covered her face with her ruined hand, still scrambling back from the Dalia-creature.
“No! No! NO!”
Her back thumped into something solid and hot—the brazier. Here the winged things were less thick; a pair got too close and went up in flames like dry parchment. A shrill scream pierced the air as they died.
Another shambling figure emerged from the swirling black wall in front of her. This one was missing a foot, and stumbled forward on the splintered end of a leg. It raised its head and Alex saw the baron’s wasted face. His clothes hung in tatters around him, torn to shreds. As she watched, the baron misstepped and fell forward. The ruined creature shuddered once and started pulling itself forward on its belly with one arm . . . its jaws clacked together again and again as it reached for Alex’s foot. She couldn’t move—she was paralyzed with fear. Her brain screamed at her limbs to move, but they were frozen in place as the zombii’s jaws widened . . .
The pain was intense when it bit into her foot. Alex screamed; the pain broke her paralysis and she dealt the zombii a mighty kick with her other foot. The baron’s head snapped around; the swirling black wall surged forward, and when it retreated the zombii was gone.
She looked at her foot. Maybe if she cut it off in time she could stop the Plague . . . but the Plague was already taking her. Black blood raced up her veins, skin flashing gray on either side as it went. Flesh crumbled and dripped from her bones as the Plague raced past her groin—huge blisters rose on her shins and burst, splattering slime and pus over the ground. Alex tried to scream, but the Plague already had her chest and she could taste was burning bile in her throat. Her hair fell out in great chunks, and she felt the skin pull back from her eyes, withered and dry. Her teeth tumbled out at the touch of her tongue, drowning her voice like a mouthful of rotten nuts. The swirling black cloud pressed around her, closing in, preparing to take another as their own.
Worst of all, she felt the itching again in her left palm. “Oh, no, no, no, please, please, no,” begged Alex, but when she raised her hand to her eyes a river of spiders was pouring from the egg sacks buried in her palm. They streamed down her arm, tickling her with their hairy legs, dripping off of her fingers . . .
That was strange. Alex looked again at her fingers. They were gray and dry with the Plague, but they still had flesh clinging to them. They were not the withered claws that she’d had ever since McCann burned away her flesh outside the Weeping Tree. She squeezed her hand into a fist and then opened it again, expecting to see it filled with the blood of dead arachnids. Instead, she was greeted with five red, scarred fingers and a skeletal palm. She looked down—the rest of her body was untouched by the Plague. Her foot was unmarked.
This is only fear, thought Alex. I can fight this.
The fliers shrieked in anger. Alex stood up, gripping her staff. Other creatures pushed through the wall—other zombii, wearing the faces of people she knew. Darrin, Cragson Sarth, Garth. Osmund. Headmaster Barrius. She smashed them all, breaking skulls and shattering joints with her staff. McCann’s zombii leered at her, as if he was in on the joke—Alex leered back before breaking its neck.
Finally, the zombii stopped coming. There was a pause . . . Alex kept her guard up. The Dalia-creature emerged, still filling the air with fluttering black fliers. Her single eye stared at her from the remains of her face.
“You were too late.” The voice came from her and from the black winged things surrounding them.
“You’re not real. I’ll kill you like I killed the rest.”
“You were too late.” It grinned. “And you ARE too late.”
Two black arms whipped out from inside of her chest, impossibly fast, and ripped Alex’s staff away from her. Two more emerged, then two more and two again, until a halo of spider’s legs surrounded the Dalia-creature in an arc behind her back. They were long, furry, and jointed. Wicked talons dripping with poison decorated their ends.
Alex stood, facing her, unarmed. The Dalia-creature took a step toward her, smiling her skeletal smile. Her single eye burned. One step, another—the creature was nearly upon her. The flames in the brazier dimmed as she leaned over Alex, twisted lips pulled back to reveal sharp, black teeth. She grinned in anticipation, preparing to bite.
“No.” Alex drew her knife from her belt and in one smooth motion stabbed it up and through Dalia’s single brown eye. The creature shrieked once, fell back—
—and Alex was alone. The cave was as empty and silent as it had been when she entered. A single short zombii lay at her feet, twitching. She turned it over with her foot and removed her knife from its eye. It was not Dalia. The staff lay a short distance away where she’d thrown it.
A few minutes later Alex emerged, blinking, into the sunlight. The tunnel ended in a small grotto, where brown trees arched over a fountain. The other Acolytes were there, sitting in a group around it. A knight Alex didn’t know asked her name.
“Alexis of Goodhollow,” she told the knight.
“Are you the last?” asked the knight.
“Then come. It is time to see the Grand Master.”
(Go on to Part 41)