The black-cloaked figure stood and lifted Koren to her feet with a gesture. They stood facing each other. Part of the cloak rose. Koren touched it and found a hand, small beneath the cloth, but strong and unwavering. It guided her, directed her to the edge of the balcony.
The two figures stood at the edge of their world and Koren looked once more over the valley. Stars she hadn’t noticed before twinkled above, matched by the lights in the City below. Cool night air caressed her bare skin and flicked the ends of her hair.
As one, without hesitation, both figures stepped forward into nothing.
Koren found herself in another room, smaller than the balcony, but larger than the broom closet. In the center stood what could only be an altar. White silk draped the entire thing.
The black-cloaked figure walked to the other side of the altar and stood waiting. Koren arranged herself on top. She closed her eyes and prayed. There was no loophole for this. Either she would be found worthy or she would be eliminated.
She closed her eyes and surrendered.
Hands clad in silk touched her feet easing up her ankles. Different hands caressed her head, slid down her neck. Still more touched her hips.
Every hand gloved in silk touched more than her flesh. Fingers reached inside her mind, slid into her soul. Each touch linked Power with carnal awareness. Each touch probed further. Each caress delved deeper into the essence of her, not only finding it but drawing it out, slowly, gently, lovingly.
Koren’s body twisted. The silk beneath her wrinkled. Her hand gripped the fabric as she moaned.
The moment when her Power completely melded with her mind and body halted time. She swam in sweet rapture, desperately clung to the perfection.
She knew every agonizing second that bliss slipped away.
Opening her eyes, she found herself alone, encased in a colored bubble. Sparks danced between her and the fragile boundary. Tiny lightning bolts connected randomly with her bare skin. She felt nothing.
Yet as each spark touched her, color seeped from the bubble. She watched, mesmerized until no color remained and pure whiteness surrounded her.
The book had not said that white was an option and she had no idea what this ultimately meant. Had she passed this part? She was not dead, was she?
The bubble was gone.
She was alone.
In a cave. On a table draped in silk. Naked. And…alive?
Koren stood, felt the length of her hair as it fell down her back. She felt…rejuvenated, energized, full of excitement. She knew that she was not yet finished. The Test was not over, and Death was still a possibility. However, the worry that had held her in its grip this morning no longer existed.
The horse reared sharply pawing at the air as It yanked the harness. A Call stabbed through Its mind a second time with an unprecedented urgency. Hooves and sword cut through the enemies that surrounded them.
What could have been arms, legs or heads fell to the ground with sickly thumps. The daemons were easy to kill, but there were so many of them the dead fell unnoticed.
Horse and rider soared above the melee and to the castle. The daemons had found their way in, cutting down people with claws and teeth, not even stopping for a bite so great was the force driving them.
Perhaps they would be allowed to feast after they had taken the castle. It saw the uselessness of swords and knives and arrows. Talons pierced armor. Cries of agony and defeat mingled with grunts of victory. It felt nothing but the Call.
Suddenly It doubled over with pain, the horse’s mane caught in Its teeth. Its mouth opened with a silent scream.
Two of the Elite were destroyed.
Powerful magic coursed through the air. It barely recovered in time to duck into the Keep itself. Daemons had already surged through here. Tapestries lay in torn heaps on the floor. Wooden tables and chairs splintered beneath the hooves of the great flying horse as it strode through the destruction.
It stopped as It felt the massacre of each individual Elite that had not yet followed the Call and returned to the Keep. It was unimaginable. Nothing It knew had the power to harm a trained Elite. But it kept happening.
It made Its way deeper into the Keep leaving a path of death in Its path. Nothing left whole, every symbol of the prosperous and peaceful kingdom in lay in pieces. Even people. It heard bones crack beneath hooves.
Without warning, a horde of daemons appeared ahead. A stream of magic hit It and flung It from the horse. Whinnies of agony burned Its ears as the steed’s wings caught flame and lit the daemons with an ethereal glow.
Powerful equine muscles fought.
It did not look back, leaving the daemons to focus on their prey.
The Call was that great. It pounded through the Keep, sword in one hand, spiked mace in the other.
It knew the people not already deep in the bowels of the Keep and hidden behind traps were dead. The smell of blood hung everywhere.
Through now empty halls, Its footsteps echoed, past rooms of glorious wealth. It had no fear of being followed. The few enemies It ran across would tell no tales. Yet It made a circuitous route through the stone walls to the first secret door that led to Its Prince. Past hidden doors and ignoring deadly wrong turns, It kept going, answering the Call.
It stepped through the very last door, behind which waited the Prince.
Koren walked to the door that opened for her. Flames met her on the other side. They jumped high into a blackness that meant either no ceiling at all or one too high to see. She felt no heat from the fire. It took a full minute for her brain to register the lack.
She stepped forward, watched the flames graze her feet and felt nothing. Red-orange tongues licked up naked flesh.
Two steps, she felt warmth. Four more, a sheen of sweat formed over her skin. Three more, her hair hung heavy and stuck to her skin.
Koren closed her eyes against the building heat threatening to smother her. She raised her arms as if to keep her balance. She dropped her head back and opened her eyes to the blackness above. She brought her hands together with a loud clap and a ray of shadow enveloped her.
She walked through the fire, surrounded by the cool shadow of her own creation. Before her, she saw the faces of her friends, the ones she knew almost as well as herself, the ones she trusted with everything but the secret that she was a student of sorcery.
But as she passed each of them, she reached out and found a human hand clasping hers. She paused and told them her secret. Bonded by the grip of flesh on hers, she told them everything. She told them how she felt about them. She told them how it had hurt to keep this secret from them. She told them all these things with her eyes and her touch.
Each in turn nodded and guided her forward.
So she walked through the flames in a shadow of her own power and the protection of those she relied on.
On and on she walked, leaving her ordinary life behind. Leaving behind faint images of life before being shipped from her family to the City to learn. She walked past brighter images of studying, of classes and teachers, of games, of meals shared.
She walked toward strange shimmery images ahead. She walked toward a future she did not truly understand, filled with darkness and blood. Images of her home flashed before her, the castle she was born in, her father holding her.
She saw two faces, two men before her and felt nothing.
And finally a glittery brightness that meant to her that the future was too distant to show details.
She stepped out of the fire and released the ray of shadow.
Behind her, the flames jumped and hissed as if angry she had cheated them.
Mistress Hollis stood before her. The black robe hid all of her but her face and hands. Her left hand glowed with a purple light. She reached with her right and jerked Koren forward and to her knees. Her face was empty as she stared into Koren’s eyes. She smacked her glowing hand on Koren’s shoulder.
Teeth biting lips, keeping them shut against the scream that wanted to escape.
If she flinched or cried out or showed any weakness, the Marking would burn through her heart.
When it was finally over, Mistress Hollis lifted Koren to face her. She felt no more pain only the first flush of success. She saw emotion in her teacher’s eyes…pride?
Mistress Hollis draped a glimmering silver cloak over Koren’s head. It covered her hair no longer gray, but snow-white. It covered the Owl sigil Marking her shoulder. It did not cover the Owl’s scratch healing into a jagged scar across the top of her left hand.