The Lonely Scar
In Darkness there is no light nor flight, but there is desperation.
My wings refuse to unfurl, I fall, but go nowhere.
The laughter is mine, but the Voice is not.
Who am I? I am not. Never was. Never will be.
Not until tomorrow.
—Tomes of the Touched
Seventeen Days to the Eve of Snows
Eliles’ eyes twitched beneath drooping lids, deep breaths easing her mind and soul against the tension surrounding her in the Hall of Trials. Imaginings of a pastel blue sky streaked with yellows, pinks, and oranges in sunset pulled her into tranquility, rounding her shoulders with a deep exhalation. A dozen snow buntings lifted from Istinjoln’s cobbled courtyard with breezes warmer than a breath in cupped hands sweeping beneath their wings. The flutter of their heartbeats beat in her chest and her eyes raised to the sky as if she could join in their flight of freedom.
The slap-crack of a whip shattered her peace, resounding through the deep caverns beneath Istinjoln Monastery. She straightened her back and opened her eyes as a dozen voices rose in a droning chant, the prayer’s energies summoning a spectral shaft of Light. A circular dais of white marble blossomed into a brilliant glow, highlighting silver-and-gold streaks in its polished stone.
A horseshoe of priests in black robes stood on the edge of the aura across from Eliles, solemn, heads bowed, and hands hidden in the deep bells of their sleeves. Three dozen, maybe, were Masters of Fire and their underlings, each here to witness their students in the Trials, but the rows of faceless robes counted far greater than those instructors.
Many were here to see her.
Eliles kneeled at the head of the row of twelfth-year postulants, those here for their final and most difficult trial before priesthood, and she’d be the first to kneel in the circle of blinding Light.
Liermu, Mistress of Trials, stepped from the shadows and into the Light, a snake whip curled into a tight loop in her right hand. Her form cast no shadows as she walked, for the Light of the Gods enveloped all, disallowing darkness. Her black robes brushed the stone floor, her cowl thrown back to reveal its blood-red silk. Liermu’s dark brows were thicker than her narrow eyes and she wore a twitchy smile that suggested she enjoyed swinging the whip known as the Maimer’s Lash.
Liermu said, “The final trial of priesthood is to ignite with prayer seven candles for the seven heavens.” She pointed to a candelabra hanging from the ceiling and then to twelve candles ringing the room. “And these twelve candles, representing the hells we must cross on the Road of Living Stars in order to stand beside our gods.”
A high priest with gold silk rimming his robes at the sleeves and hood, took a single step forward. His face hid in his dark cowl, but the voice was deep and mellow, distinct. “Begin.” Woxlin was a pup amongst old dogs. Surprising he’d receive the honor of commencing the trials after four months in the high priesthood.
Liermu spun on her heel, locking eyes with Eliles. “Maevu, ward and postulant of Istinjoln, and seeker of the Flames of Sol, come forward.”
Eliles stood before she realized her name wasn’t called, and a squeak came from the back of the row. “Me?”
“Come forward, postulant. Prove your worth before Sol, King of the Gods.”
Eliles slumped to her knees, gazing over her shoulder at the terrified girl who rose and inched toward the Light. Maevu should’ve been the last of the twelfth-years to face the whip. She would lack focus; they were throwing the most vulnerable into the Light to bleed first. In her twelve years of servitude, Eliles had never heard of such a break in tradition.
Maevu trembled as she reached the circle’s center, untying and slipping from her robes, dropping them in a heap around her feet. The girl was naked, showing humility before the gods, and her long black hair was tied in a bun to reveal the forty or more white scars crisscrossing her back, glowing white in the Light.
“Kneel and face the Trial of Nineteen Candles.”
Maevu steadied herself with her hands as she lowered her knees to her robes, the only comfort in these chambers.
Liermu said, “What is easy in practice, with solitude and patience, may prove impossible beneath the stare of hundreds of eyes and in the face of time.”
A trial-candle ignited. The standard timing-candle held forty-eight conjoining wicks, and twenty-four candles burned end-to-end marked a day. The flames of the wicks alternated between yellow and orange, and flared blue as wicks transitioned. Trial candles flared every quarter-wick.
Maevu bowed her head, focusing. Muttered prayers murmured from her lips.
Eliles’ fingers dug into her own thighs, hoping the girl’s count of scars ended here. Maevu was the lowest ranked postulant, Eliles couldn’t imagine what she’d done to deserve this pressure.
Mistress Liermu sauntered to stand behind Maevu as the candle approached its flare, unraveling the whip to twirl its tip on the floor in a figure eight.
Maevu’s prayers intensified, and the candelabra above her head lit for the Seven Heavens. The wicks representing the Twelve Hells smoked, glowed orange, but refused to ignite. If Maevu pushed too hard, she’d melt the candles, a flaw punishable by an extra whipping.
The trial-candle flared blue with a hiss.
Liermu intoned, “Facing the wars of gods and mortals, a priest must overcome not only the pressure of peers and haste, but the reality of pain.”
The whip fell with a crisp snap and a fine streak of blood welted on Maevu’s back. The blood flowed a moment only before congealing, the split skin knitting with unnatural speed toward what would in a half candle be a perfect scar, but experience taught Eliles that the pain intensified even as it healed. Priests spoke of the Maimer’s Lash with reverence, a vestige of the Age of God Wars, but Eliles knew it for what it was, a torturer’s device, a slaver’s cruel joke incapable of killing anything but the victim’s will.
Mistress Liermu snuffed the candelabra with a whispered prayer and a wave of her hand, and the trial continued.
Eliles’ heart beat thirty times before the next flare.
Liermu stared into Eliles’ eyes and smiled. “A priest’s own life as well as the lives of their peers will rely upon their ability to focus one’s devotion to prayer in the most trying circumstances.”
The snap of leather left a second stripe down Maevu’s sweating back, and the Mistress of Trials’ twisted lips told Eliles the truth: Whipping this poor girl was a game, a torment from this torturer meant to rattle Eliles’ nerves. Eliles shut her eyes and breathed deep to retain her calm. She fidgeted beneath her robes; she wanted to scream, run, disappear. No, what she wanted was to end this charade by setting the Mistress of Trials ablaze.
The candle flared, and Liermu said, “When Jæmex of Ilbor was dying, her flesh flayed and her limbs stretched by rope, her prayers immolated herself, and her enemy, to save the lord priest’s secrets. Could you match this feat?”
The third crack of the whip split skin and Maevu screamed.
Eliles gnashed her teeth. Whether she surrendered or fell unconscious, Maevu would fail the priesthood.
Another flare. “A priest unused to suffering will prove unable to summon a prayer to survive or destroy.” The Maimer snapped an X across a healing wound, and Maevu shrieked. She continued her prayers with tears flowing down her cheeks, dripping from her chin like the wax down her candle.
Please quit, please.
Eliles chewed her lip, wanting to help the girl, but if a single priest noticed her calling Fire without prayer she’d expose herself as defiled, cursed with the feral magic of Vanquished Gods. It was a heretical and unholy practice punished by torture and death. She could save this girl from the whip, or doom herself trying.
The candle flared. “Failure is not shame, donning the monk’s habit is not a disgrace.”
“No,” Maevu blurted, her shoulders tense and swollen red.
Leather snapped and the girl’s sobs forged Eliles’ will into iron. Damn these priests to their hells, Maevu deserved the priesthood more than most here with her overlapping scars.
She focused on Maevu’s muttered prayers, they were chaotic and difficult to understand, but words were powerless. The discipline of prayer was training the body, the will, and the soul to inhale and shape the energies of the gods with ritualized focus, and then release the prayer in a moment called the Dispersion. Eliles watched the muscles in Maevu’s shoulders tense, followed the pitch of the prayers as they rose.
Even before Eliles’ first trial, her master had worked with her on leashing her feral magic. Whether the trial was to light and extinguish a single candle, to set a cloth ablaze, to summon Fire into a ventless globe, to build a wall of flame, or one of a hundred other tasks, they strove to perfect her succeeding while building the illusion of effort.
Mistiming the call to Fire could bring an inquisition Eliles wouldn’t survive. She closed her eyes as a flare approached and imagined the candles smoldering, glowing orange, then fluttering into flame.
Maevu’s tone climaxed.
Now. Her tiny, unseen friend caressed her skin with flickers of warmth and Eliles opened her eyes.
First the candelabra, then the twelve remaining candles ignited, sputtering and imperfect, but they lit. The priests and postulants in the chamber gazed at the wicks, smiling as they nodded with approval and relief. Maevu’s tear-streaked face betrayed bewilderment with wide eyes and slack jaw as she stared at the flickering wicks, and a monk rushed to apply salves to her wounds.
Eliles grinned and ducked her head.
Mistress Liermu twirled her whip in a spiral on the floor, her lips straight and eyes cold. “The gods have blessed your perseverance, child. Your strength is commendable. Stand, servant of Sol, and leave this chamber so you may be judged.”
Maevu stood, stiff and sore despite the salves, and the monk helped with her robes. The girl kissed the tips of her fingers and pressed them to her forehead in thanks to the gods as she strode from the room hunched and sobbing.
Liermu said, “Eliles, come before the nineteen candles.”
Eliles strode to the center of the room, chin high, and sucking a deep breath to calm the gloating rhythm of her beating chest. She wanted to smile, but didn’t dare.
Liermu’s passionless lips turned into a crooked grin beneath squinty eyes, and Eliles wondered if this woman dreamed of striking her. She lowered her gaze, untied the sash of her robes, and lifted them from her shoulders, dropping them into a bundle on the floor. Her face burned red with shame.
She stared down the length of her nakedness, her skinny legs and knobbed knees, her breasts not so developed as some other girls, but what blushed her cheeks to rose she couldn’t see: a lone scar on her left shoulder.
A four-inch welt of porcelain white.
Priests tallied scars much as a warrior recounting battles, and in Istinjoln the fewer the marks the greater the pride. Less than fifteen was a monumental achievement of skill while over forty meant you were tough as an axe head. For two hundred years the holy number twelve was the record, until Ulrikt took only three lashes on his fabled path to lord priest of Istinjoln.
Ulrikt still ruled, the most powerful lord priest on the island of Kaludor, the chosen one whom the oracles proclaimed a future leader before he’d turned twelve. Eliles was a nobody, a fishmonger’s orphan whose oracle bones bore no witness to an esteemed fate. Her single scar was a slap to the tender egos of her peers, and a slight to her elders’ beloved lord priest. Many praised her with smiles and shamed her as she walked away. Eliles wanted neither, she wanted to be free.
“Eliles, orphan, postulant, seeker of the fires of Sol, nineteen candles await the fire of your prayers.” Liermu’s whip slapped the hard rock floor. “By decision of the Council of Masters, because pain is the greatest teacher, and you have suffered so little, you will begin with three licks of the Maimer’s tongue.”
Eliles twisted her body, gazing back at the woman and her demon’s smirk as the whip’s tip danced circles on the stone floor.
Three scars, giving her four, one more than this devil’s lord priest. It made a sense that twisted her guts into a knot until she wanted to puke. Her eyes darted into the hooded and shadowed faces, hoping someone would speak for her, but not a one stirred.
Eliles spoke as calm as her rigid spine and rapid breaths allowed. “I demand confirmation from the full council.”
“Number four, for daring to question the council’s decision.”
The slither of the Lash’s twirling ended with a wisp as it rose from the floor, and every muscle in her body tensed.
“No.” The word was deep and carried the power of prayer, the power of law in Istinjoln, and the whip slapped stone. “The council has overstepped its authority.”
Lord Priest Ulrikt stepped from the crowd of priests and into the shadowless Light wearing a plain black habit instead of the gold-threaded robes of his station. He eased his cowl to his shoulders, revealing a handsome man in his sixties with an angular face and a straight nose, but what stood out so close to the Light was his silvered hair, aglow as an aureole in paintings of the gods.
Her tongue dried in her mouth as she stared into the eyes of her savior. She’d never been so close to the man; his eyes were kinder, a softer blue, than she would have imagined from a man with the blood of innocents soaking his hands, a man who preached fire and doom for children born like Eliles.
Liermu’s voice shook. “Yes, My Lord. What is easy in practice, with solitude and patience, may prove impossible beneath the stare of hundreds of eyes and in the face of time.”
Eliles forced her eyes from Ulrikt as the trial-candle lit.
This was her one-hundred and forty-fourth trial in twelve years, in a place she gave the blasphemous nickname of the Twelve Hells. In the eighth year postulants faced the whip for the first time. Courage or naïveté gave her the strength to take a lash while trying to light and snuff a single candle with a single prayer. Over the years her master had tried to convince her to take more scars, the better to hide her feral magic, but she never found the strength.
She mumbled her prayers, as she always did, hoping the gods would answer, as she always hoped, but knowing they ignored her. With Ulrikt so near, might the gods listen to her pleas? Flickers passed, and the memory of the Maimer’s pain still burned within, stretching through the healed gash in her back and into her lungs.
Her heart beat faster with half of her time remaining, and Sol denied her Fire. Forsaken by the gods, but hidden amid their faithful. Please.
She continued her whispering prayers, but the candles remained dark, and her will to trust the gods faded as a familiar heat warmed the breath in her lungs, spreading to her heart to follow her veins.
The wick burned short, but the mistress wouldn’t have her blood this or any other day.
The warm caress on the back of her hand came as it had since childhood, beckoning her to summon its power, and though she dared not smile, she felt a joy in the creature’s touch. She clenched her eyes, and the room appeared in her mind, empty but for the white candles. She imagined them burning.
And when she opened her eyes, they were.
Gasps echoed through the chamber and someone whispered too loud, “… gentleness, as if they were already lit.”
Her gut tightened, and she fought to keep her face placid. She’d gone too far, made a trial that sent energies in nineteen directions look easy.
Eliles met Ulrikt’s gaze, and the man nodded with a smile, as if an oracle had told him what to expect, before turning and walking away. When Eliles looked to the Mistress of Fire, Liermu’s hideous smile had been replaced by a stricken, blank expression, with every muscle in her face gone limp.
“Stand, servant”—the words struggled from her lips—“of Sol, and leave this chamber so you may be judged.”
Eliles pulled her white robes over her shoulders, covered her head with its hood, and shuffled from the room in silence. She couldn’t smile, she couldn’t cry, she couldn’t laugh, even the stone face she forced herself to wear would draw someone’s ire.
She’d arrived at Istinjoln at the age of five, expecting to face beatings and a branding iron, then execution by fire or thorns, but the torture here was more subtle: Isolation, jealousy, fear, awe, her punishment for being different.
She stared at the stone floor while exiting the Chamber of Trials, marching silent through the rows of postulants. She entered the maze of tunnels beneath Istinjoln without a one raising their eyes to her as she passed, and she knew they’d whisper of her as soon as her shadow disappeared around the corner.
A tall man in black robes fell in step beside her and a sonorous voice as familiar as her own came from beneath the cowl rimmed in red silk. “Sol answered your prayers with strength, my child, and beneath the most holy judgement of Lord Priest Ulrikt himself. You should be proud your prayers were answered with such strength. Walk with me.”
Master Dareun’s voice remained cool and steady; she understood the undertones well. Eliles tucked her chin to her chest. She was in trouble and hoped the walk would soothe her master’s anger.