Today I’d like to welcome Emma Newman to The Four Part Land. Emma is the brilliant (and English) author of 20 Years Later and The Split Worlds, and an author who is always a joy to read, and to talk to. Two years ago, back when I was first bumbling around Twitter, Emma saved me from many a class of boredom by pointing me towards the first collection of short stories set in The Split Worlds, which I devoured with haste. So it is with great pleasure that I’m able to host one of her Split Word stories here today.
This is the eleventh tale in a year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds. If you would like Emma to read it to you instead, you can listen here. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here.
The Final Test
“Are you feeling ill?” Alfred asked, seated opposite.
Michael looked into the other apprentice’s eyes, bloodshot from too much study. Could he lose his advantage by being open? No, he was years ahead of Alfred, and it could help to review his reasoning out loud.
“I’ve examined the tests we’ve been given over the years,” he said, voice low enough to blend with the general murmur of the dining hall. “I’ve passed every single one and I’ve never failed any assignment over the last decade, but I’m still just an apprentice. Why?”
“That’s for him to know and us to speculate,” Alfred said, dunking his bread.
“No, it’s because there’s a secret test.”
Alfred shook his head. “You sure it’s not your arrogance preventing your elevation?” When Michael started to pick up his bowl, Alfred reached across, pressed his arm down. “I’m sorry. Do you know what the test could be?”
Michael settled again, bit off a chunk of bread and chewed it slowly, giving himself time to consider whether to share. “The door at the end of the corridor in the northern wing,” he finally said. “The one we’re forbidden to open. I think the test is to do just that.”
Alfred’s eyes widened in a most satisfactory manner, giving Michael the sense of superiority he enjoyed so much. “Surely not. It’s one of the first rules of the house.”
“Exactly,” Michael replied. “We were too green to question anything then so we don’t even think about it now. We all know about the room, but no-one goes near it, because that rule was laid down so early.”
“You’re wrong,” Alfred said. “Why not have faith in him knowing when you’re ready?”
“But that’s my point!” Michael stopped himself from banging the table. “What if he’s waiting for the first apprentice to show some initiative? Perhaps he’s been waiting for hundreds of years for just one man to come to this same conclusion.”
“Perhaps he’s waiting for a man who knows as much as you but has kept his humility,” Alfred said, taking up his spoon. “Be patient, this is a way of life not-”
Michael stood, unable to stomach that platitude again, and left his supper on the table, ignoring Alfred’s chuckle. No more languishing amongst the hopefuls, waiting for a moment that might never come. It made perfect sense; why else have a locked and heavily warded door in the same wing of the house that the apprentices studied in? If it contained something genuinely secret or dangerous it would be out of sight, and certainly not pointed out during their first week. Alfred was just another mediocrity, it was time for him to show them what it really took to become a sorcerer.
The northern wing would be empty now, it gave him the perfect opportunity to study the wards and warnings engraved on the door and its frame. He was astounded by how easy it was to deconstruct into component parts, applied his knowledge as Alfred ate his soup and condemned himself to never being anything other than an apprentice.
The gentle hiss as the ward broke told him the room had been kept airtight. Interesting. He opened the door, reaching for the light switch only to find it wasn’t in the usual place. He stepped in, fumbled along the wall as the door shut and sealed itself behind him. Finally his fingers brushed the Bakelite and he flicked the light on.
That’s when he saw the bones.
He could make out three skeletons and the tattered remains of their clothing. The outline of a doorway was being burnt into the opposite wall, an effect he knew well; a Way was being opened. He forced himself to stay calm, the room could have been staged to frighten him, and he mustn’t show it had worked.
The outline became a wooden door which opened. The sorcerer stepped through, clapping slowly, dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt. “I knew it would be you Michael.”
Once he’d got past the mundane clothing, Michael saw only pleasure, no anger. His chest swelled. “Thank you master.”
“I always knew you had great potential.” The sorcerer reached into his pocket, pulled out a plain silver band and held it towards him.
It looked identical to the only ring his master wore, was this the subtle mark of one of the elite few? Michael slipped it onto a shaking finger.
“Tell me,” the Sorcerer stuffed his hands in his pockets and leant against the wall, his usual formality gone. “What exactly did you think would happen if you broke the wards on the door?”
Michael felt like a five year old again, terrified by the cool intellect of the man who had become his parent, his teacher, his master. It didn’t matter that he was as tall as him now. “I hoped you’d be pleased I’d realised there was no other way to progress, that I found the last test.”
“I am pleased,” his master said. “A sorcerer answers to no-one in his own kingdom, so your instincts were correct to challenge my rules. But the test wasn’t realising thus, nor was it a test of your ability to break the wards, even though I suspect you’re the only apprentice capable of doing so.”
Michael looked at the skeletons, feeling a droplet of sweat trickle down to the small of his back. “Have I passed?”
The sorcerer laughed. “Look behind you. What do you see?”
Michael’s imagination furnished him with a slavering beast, a sword about to run him through, his peers watching and laughing and even one of the Fae themselves as he turned around. Instead, all he saw were formulae. But when he looked closely at the sorcerous markings, he only recognised a small fraction of them.
“Wards,” he guessed, and mercifully, he was correct. “Ah! So the final test is to break these?”
“Almost. You’ve spent practically all your life under my tutelage. All of your training, all of the trials have led to one question Michael, one you’ve already answered without even knowing it: Do you think like a Sorcerer?”
“I do! Otherwise I wouldn’t even be here!”
“Then break the wards.”
“I… I need an artefact from my room, and some time and a-”
At the sorcerer’s command, Michael felt his body become rigid, realised what the ring was there to do.
“You failed. If you truly were ready to be a Sorcerer, you would have brought every artefact, every tome, every tool for any eventuality. But you still think like an apprentice, believing I was waiting to congratulate and elevate you for being brave enough to break a rule. If you’d truly been ready, you’d have been prepared to murder me, to fight for your life or even just break the most complex formulae without a moment’s hesitation. I’ll leave you to contemplate that amongst your peers,” he waved a hand at the bones. “And when you can no longer bear to examine your failure, and instead turn your anger towards me for not giving you a second chance, ask yourself this; when there are seven sorcerers for seven kingdoms, why on earth would we need an eighth?”