The gods will grant you what you need when you require it. Your duty is simple, to be focused in the instant the gods choose.

Details of how the initiates' trials were composed remained among the monastery's most closely guarded secrets. Those who failed were immediately cast out, but the few who succeeded were sequestered in diligent study, often decades of it, no longer accessible to their curious younger counterparts.

Still, rumors of general rules emerged.

Along with a single weapon of their choice—in Mikulov's case, the choice was hardly an issue; it must be the punch dagger—the initiates were granted one mantra, inscribed on a scroll by the masters, to carry with them. It could be of whatever nature they chose. Try as he might, Mikulov could not decide which one to select. Each night he tossed and turned and taxed his mind as he sought the ever-elusive answer.

What will be essential to my survival?

In the end, the choice was determined not by thinking but by fear.

When he stood before the assembled masters of the Floating Sky Monastery, he was offered a vast array of scrolls. Because the sun had not yet risen, the scrolls glowed in torchlight. Some were voluminous; others were barely larger than his little finger; a few were ornately bound and sealed with intricate insignia.

"The purpose of your ordeal," Vedenin said (and naturally it was Vedenin who challenged him), "is to prove your ability to submit your mind, your weapon, and your spirit to the will of the gods. To turn away from your own altar and bow down at theirs." The smirk on his outwardly benign face bespoke how little faith the man held in the novitiate.

When Mikulov hesitated, he felt the masters' judgment from within the walls, and from without, lurking uncertainties and physical dangers. His vacillation gave way to what became in that moment an obvious pick: the healing mantra.

With the rolled parchment, he was handed a folded sheet of paper, sealed with an impression of the monastery's sigil in wax. His directive was clear: open the paper seven days hence, after a week of prayer and meditation, during which he was to prepare himself. Only at sunrise on the eighth day was he to break the wax seal and receive further instructions.

At dawn, Mikulov emerged from the sanctuary. Instinctively, he strode east, deeper into the mountains surrounding Ivgorod. He carried only the scroll and the folded paper, and at his hip, the punch dagger in its sheath. He had no food, for it was to be a week of fasting, and no water, for anyone who could not find the means to slake his thirst could never hope to achieve the wisdom required of monks of the Floating Sky Monastery.

Should he prove unable to locate water in the first week of his trial, so it would be. He would have failed—and died—before so much as hearing the voices of the gods, let alone striving to do as they willed.

The week began in calm and tranquility. Mikulov made water his first priority, and so he traveled toward a ridge of steep hills he had seen for years from his dormitory window, a range that ultimately met the Kohl Mountains to the south. He felt confident of finding a stream at the base, though he had no reason to be sure other than that water would always find its way downhill.

He could hear the masters telling him that the gods often spoke thus, through the mix of knowledge, instinct, and intuition that was the adept's method of thought. His confidence was rewarded: at the base of the range lay a tarn, its water dark but clear, fed by a trickle descending through massive rocks. Showing obeisance in the direction of the gift, Mikulov drank deep to refresh after a long day's walking and to replenish for the week ahead. He was happy to have made the discovery so quickly, for he knew it was likely the most important of his trial; in the punishing summer heat, water was his essential need.

He chose to look for shelter near the water, for staying close to the source of the gods' munificence seemed in keeping with a grateful heart.

In the mountains, he knew darkness fell swiftly, and he soon found a stretch of ground less hard than others, beneath an overhanging rock. These, too, he recognized as gifts, and he gave thanks before he lay down.

Waking, he established the routine he would observe for the next six days. He went to the tarn and washed away the previous day's trek. This was the year's hottest month, when even the nights remained harshly uncomfortable. He would be sweating with no exertion whatsoever, and Mikulov wanted to approach the gods each day clean and unstained. At the faintest hint of light, he stepped into the water and submerged. He held his breath for as long as he could, praying to the gods all the while that he might be worthy of them. He bathed and renewed the prayer with each successive dawn.

He expected the days to pass in contemplative calm and silence. He felt utterly tranquil and completely at peace, having seen no obstacles to surmount, no predators he must vanquish. In the stillness of his time alone, he spoke not a word.

Yet the week was far from quiet, for Gachev came to visit, and Gachev was, as he had always been, loud.

On the fourth day, when the sun was at its zenith and the temperature brutally hot, his fellow orphan first spoke to him. Mikulov had made it his practice to stay close to his resting area, its overhang providing him with many hours of shade even at the sun's apex, near an abundant supply of water. He knew that the longer he spent in direct sunlight, the more he would deplete himself. He emerged from shadow only as needed and walked to the pool, restoring the water that had flowed out of him in the heat of both day and night. Despite his precautions, he was soon feeling the effects of slow dehydration.

It was in Mikulov's first moment of apprehension, stretching toward doubt, that the taunting voice spoke to him.

"What makes you think you can succeed where I failed?"

Mikulov opened his eyes and peered out of the shadow. Across his campsite, splayed out in direct sunlight, lay Gachev, clad in the clothes he had worn the day he left the monastery. He looked no different. How, after so many months in the mountains, could Gachev's tunic not be tattered and his skin not be filthy and raw? Yet he reclined at his ease, as if relaxed by the blistering heat, and observed Mikulov casually. "My first day here, I was miserable, too, sure I would never experience another instant of joy. Yet the sight of other fools trying to survive these hellish weeks in the wild taught me to laugh again." Raising an eyebrow as if in dismay, he studied Mikulov. "Heartily," he added.

Mikulov was so surprised that he nearly spoke aloud.

He was under no vow of silence, though it was understood that only in stillness would the gods allow themselves to be heard. So despite the mockery, Mikulov held his tongue. He merely stared at Gachev through the sweat that stung his eyes, this boy who should have been dead.

This boy, or this apparition? Given his unchanged appearance and the soundless stealth of his approach, Mikulov considered that Gachev might be a figment of his imagination, a mirage conjured by heat and isolation.

When Gachev spoke further, his voice lost its taunting edge, and his words touched a fear so well hidden it shocked Mikulov. Speaking flatly, Gachev said, "None of us succeeds. No novitiate has ever come through their trial. None ever will."

Days of hunger quickly turned to days of mind-rending doubt, every sensation made worse by Gachev's wry commentary. The implications of what Gachev said, and said repeatedly, fed a rising desire to break the seal and undertake his trial prematurely, or even to tear the folded paper, unopened, to shreds. Mikulov began to venture farther from his sheltering rock and the tarn, but Gachev was always nearby, laughing mirthlessly at the other boy's efforts to maintain his vigil.

Over the days, the mockery and questioning bred all-too-plausible theories. The masters of the Floating Sky Monastery never advanced anyone from among the younger, rebellious ranks; acolytes never became monks. The masters were, after all, inordinately selective when choosing which monks to accept. As submissive acolytes completed their studies, they served merely as free labor until they became too much trouble, at which point they were sent off on deadly trials, to be replaced by a new generation of gullible devotees. Was that how the Floating Sky Monastery had survived throughout the centuries?

Mikulov understood that his fears were running away with him, making his mind see portents and schemes that didn't exist. He sought to refute the doubt by recalling some orphan who had returned victorious from his or her testing, but could not. It was said that those who succeeded were separated from their former fellows so as to eliminate the least distraction from higher studies, which were to be their reward for years to come.

Gachev's insinuations made sense.

"You are a fool, Mikulov," he said. "You are proud and impulsive and weak. Your actions out here will not make you a monk. They will only lead you to the anonymous grave you will share with your brethren."

The ominous pronouncement called to mind Vedenin's countless dire predictions that Mikulov's actions would bring disgrace on himself and his fellow novitiates. Now, as then, Mikulov chose to believe otherwise, taking in once more Gachev's unsoiled appearance and the echo of the words of his most unrelenting master. Together, their admonitions named the dread Mikulov harbored: not death, but shame before death. The boy who would be a monk decided Gachev was a figment of his imagination, an illusory companion to remind him of his loneliness through this preparatory week in the mountains.

His taunts are my own fears given voice.

And so, for the final day, whenever Gachev opened his mouth, Mikulov hardened his heart against him. Gachev mocked him for his efforts, but Mikulov told himself the boy was no more than a chimera born of sweat and pain and unbanished doubt. By the seventh day of his ordeal, Mikulov had made Gachev unreal.

But then the boy saved his life.

The more Mikulov anticipated the next morning, when he would break the wax seal and receive his instructions, the more he longed to seize his destiny at the first possible moment. He would greet the day from the very summit of the mountain, where dawn would come earlier than below. Though it would be an arduous journey up a stony incline, the challenge seemed worth it, if only to end his agony a few minutes sooner.

Brothers in Arms


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