(Go back to Part 40)
Why must the Plague persist?
Why does the sacred flame always burn those who carry it?
Why do we fight the eternal battle against the darkness of our ancestors?
Why does the Curate endure, year after year?
Why do we shed our blood in a fight that will never be won?
Someone must answer this question.
This is the Master’s task.”
–The Lexicon, Mastersbook 1:1
They were high in the citadel, lined up in two lines in the Grand Master’s chapel. Alex knew that it was a place most Acolytes only saw once, when they took the precepts. An octagonal room, the dome-shaped roof was held up by round marble pillars. Rich red and green stone alternated in the floor, separated by bands of gold. Alcoves alternated with windows around the outside, though most were closed this time of year. Braziers smoldered in the center of the room to keep the chill away, while an altar on the far side of the room held a candle and a simple sword, both lying on rich white cloth.
“The Founder’s sword,” whispered someone when they entered, before someone else nudged them. “Shh!”
The unknown knights left as soon as they ushered the Acolytes in, and doors shut behind them. They waited in silence for a minute, listening to the sounds of candles guttering in the alcoves before a different small door opened. The Grand Master entered.
Curate Grand Master Normand Rochelle was the 86th Grand Master of the Curate, Alex remembered from her conversations with Binder. He was clad in rich white velvet and satin, cut through with gold thread. A neat beard and close-cropped hair were as snow white as his tunic, and the sacred flame was embroidered on one sleeve. Two eyes glittered beneath his brow like chips of ice.
The Acolytes bent their knees as soon as he appeared. “Rise,” said the Grand Master in a smooth tenor. They did.
He stood silently, eyes moving from Acolyte to Acolyte in turn. Alex fought the urge to look away when he got to her, but his gaze betrayed nothing. They stood like this, in silence, for another minute.
“You are here to take the precepts,” he began, “or to join the service of our order. All work is useful; all service to the flame is sacred. Our testing masters, in their wisdom, have lain before each of you a path by which you may serve according to your abilities.”
He paused in front of them, looking from face to face in turn. “Those who would be knights, though—take heed. Your vows are more perilous than most. To violate them means death. Do not bind yourself lightly.”
Rochelle stopped again in the center of the room. “Make no mistake about it. We ARE the servants of the sacred flame, and we ARE the only thing that stands between the world of man and the shadow of the plague. If we fail, the world will fail, and it has been so since the founding of our order. Our swords keep the darkness at bay, yes, but also our quills, our hammers, our scythes, our sails, and our prayers. There is no more vital calling, even for our humblest brothers, and we must not fail because—do you know why?”
“There is but one Cure!” said the Acolytes as one.
“Exactly,” said Rochelle, “and WE are the keepers of that Cure. Sir Osmund? The list, please?”
Sir Osmund appeared at his side with a roll of parchment, backed by a priest from the Credo. “If I call your name, please step forward.” He cleared his throat once. “Garth Tolley, of Tunbridge . . .”
Name after name was called, bringing colytes forward to take the precepts. Garth, Cragson, and most of the best fighters were called to the knighthood. Darrin became a librarian, just as he’d predicted; the tall boy sighed in relief.
Alex waited and waited . . . it was strange that her name would be so far down the list. And then—but no, that couldn’t be right. Surely some mistake had been made. Osmund was rolling up the list without calling her name. Alex nearly said something, but restrained herself just in time. Not in front of the Grand Master . . .
Her cheeks began to burn in shame as the realization set in. She had not passed the trials; she would not take the precepts or become a knight. She had failed, and would not even get a chance to speak to the Grand Master about Dalia. She’d slain more zombii than any of the Acolytes, trained hard under McCann’s eye, and yet still it wasn’t enough. She couldn’t even pass the trials, much less save Dalia from the Plague.
She was a failure.
Alex barely heard the Grand Master lead the other Acolytes through their vows. She barely saw Rochelle take up the sword of the Founder and dub the new knights. She didn’t smell the perfumed oils or the incense; she didn’t hear the priest recite the Credo, and she didn’t watch them walk from the room. Everything was a blur as hot tears threatened to spill from her eyes.
She only noticed what was happening when the double doors slammed shut behind Sir Osmund. The others were gone; her name had not been called for anything. She was alone in the chapel except for—she almost jumped when he realized it—the Grand Master. He was looking at her, right at her, staring into her face. Alex’s despair gave way to confusion, at least for the moment.
“Acolyte Alexis of Goodhollow . . . and now, it is your turn.”
“Master.” She bowed her head.
The two ice-blue eyes of the Grand Master were focused on her, like he was trying to read Alex’s mind. “You came here underage, half-maimed, swordless, and escorted by one of the most notorious oathbreakers of the past twenty years. You’ve been bloodied in battle, seen your comrades die, and you’re suspicious of unfamiliar wine.” Half of a smile showed itself for an instant. “You know the horrors of the Plague beyond what all but a handful can imagine . . . if your story is to be believed.”
Alex gulped. The word ‘if’ hung heavy in the air.
“You’ve come through all of that . . . and yet still I do not grant you knighthood. Tell me, Alex, is that why you stand there pretending not to cry? Tell me truly.”
Alex said nothing. The Grand Master looked at for a moment more before turning to one of the doors. “Come. Walk with me.”
(Go on to Part 42)