“Today is your eighth birthday,” intoned Hiram Octakiseron, foremost among the White Templars, head of the Eighth House, instrument of the Emperor’s Mercy. “This is an auspicious occasion, though not religious, and therefore requires neither purification nor fasting. Have you broken bread today, Silas?”
The boy raised his head in answer to his name. In his voice already less high and piping than most children, he said, “No, Father.”
“No; you have kept aloof from worldly things,” the elder Master Octakiseron repeated, in the slow cadence of the ritual. “For today also you begin to learn the art of your House’s great work, and that is a dreadful and holy task, requiring purity surpassed only by His Divine Highness Over the River and his fists and gestures, the most venerated Saints. Silas Octakiseron, tell me of the state of your soul.”
Silas recited the litany tone-perfect, as he did every litany and prayer: “My soul is bound to the Emperor’s love. It has undergone the scourge of confession. My soul is bound to the Emperor’s mercy. It has undergone the scourge of fasting…”
Colum waited, trying to focus on the words and their great meanings, but found it difficult — a sin for which he could be punished, if it were known. He closed his eyes, which was permitted in the ecstasy of prayer, and he breathed deeply. He was aware, as he had always been aware since the day he had been chosen for Silas, of the minute peregrinations and transformations of his breath. How the air moved into his lungs, how there it was absorbed and delivered to his cells, each one a tiny thalergy-generating sun, each nucleus stamped with the indelible genetic code that had fitted him, and him alone, for this great honor.
Trepidation coiled in his stomach like a serpent, but he banished it, turning his mind to the sacred moment, the fulfillment of his purpose. The room smelled sharp and strange. The sharpness came from the lemon in the water he had used to wash the floor; he had cleaned it himself, scoured out every crack in the soft wooden boards every day for the last week, as a meditative exercise. He knew each of the holy chamber’s eight corners intimately. He knew that each corner now held a stick of incense in a plain glass sconce, exhaling the bitter, musky reek of purifying herbs; he had lit them with his own hands, an hour past.
“Brother Colum,” the elder Master Octakiseron called, as though from across a great chasm, though he stood only a few feet from where Colum sat cross-legged and Silas knelt. “Today is a most solemn and holy occasion in the life of Silas, your adept, to whom you have sworn blood and blade. Have you broken bread this day?”
“Yes,” Colum answered. He opened his eyes.
The master of the Eighth House raised his hand in benediction. “You have eaten well and drunk deeply of the Emperor’s bounty, and it is good that you have done so, for your adept cannot drink from an empty cup. Colum Asht, tell me of the state of your body.”
“My body is healthy and strong,” Colum responded. “It stands ready to serve the Lord Over the River and Silas Octakiseron as they may need.”
“Very good. Silas, arise.”
The boy stood. Colum watched him with pride; he was the guiding star of their House and would be a fine man someday, even greater than his father.
His father knew it too, and the knowledge pleased him. “Silas, why was Brother Colum chosen to be your cavalier?”
“For his blood,” Silas answered promptly, “which is kin to mine; and his strength, which is servant to mine; and his soul, which is fuel to mine as kindling to the righteous flame.”
“And what do you owe to Brother Colum’s blood, and his strength, and his soul?”
“To honor them, and not to spend them needlessly.”
Hiram Octakiseron smiled. It was a sight as grim and bright as the dawn of the last day that the Emperor would grant the Nine Houses. He stepped forward and placed his son’s hand on the shoulder of the young man who waited in his dusty off-white leathers, seated on a simple woven mat so that he might not be injured if he collapsed during the lesson. Colum was determined that he would not collapse. He held himself straight and calm, and when Hiram wasn’t watching he winked at Silas, who flashed him a severe look but nonetheless seemed a little less nervous.
Entangled with the throat-scouring, otherworldly smoke, Octakiseron’s voice rose and fell like a wind off the River that no living man, save the Emperor and His most holy Saints, had seen.
“Now the time has come to learn how Brother Colum’s blood and soul might serve you. You have been taught how to sense the soul of another, and its housings within the flesh. Now you must reach out to the soul of Brother Colum, and send it forth from those bindings. If you do not push forcefully enough, it will not move; if too forcefully, he will be cast into the River. When his soul has departed his body yet remains bound to it, the thalergy void will draw in a thanergy cascade, which you will use to further the aims of the Eighth House and the will of its Perfect King…”
Colum had slept in Silas’ chamber since Silas was four. What had seemed ridiculous at first — the grown man on a simple cot, perpendicular to the child dwarfed by his great bed with its severe white sheets — now was as natural to them both as the rest of the daily routine of service, work, purification and prayer. Colum slept very deeply the night of Silas’ first siphoning lesson. Deeply, and somewhat strangely. He imagined he could feel that his spirit did not quite fit into the confines of his body as it once had, as though it were a hinge forced into a wooden housing that had been warped by rain. It left a very faint chill in his bones, and it made for odd dreams.
But he did not sleep so deeply that the faint sounds of Silas crying failed to wake him. He sat up at once, hand on the ivory pommel of the rapier that glittered beside the bed; then, seeing there was no danger, he said softly, “What’s the matter, Si?”
He should have said “Master Octakiseron”. Inadequate respectfulness of address could be punished by fast (or, in the case of a necromancer’s cavalier, kneeling prayer for several days). But Silas was young enough, or distraught enough, not to notice the slight. He merely sniffled and said, “B-brother Colum, attend me.” And in a much quieter voice, in a departure from the habit and philosophy of the Eighth House: “Please.”
Colum knelt at the side of the bed and rested a hand on the mattress beside Silas’ knee; to actually touch him was forbidden. The young scion of the White Glass had been trying to muffle his tears with his pillow, and in the dim silver radiance of the sleeplights (Eighth necromancers were not left in darkness) Colum could see the damp spots on the unbroken white linen. “Nightmare?” he asked. Silas nodded, sitting up now to face his cavalier. “Was it the tomb ghouls again?”
“No! I’m not afraid of shadow cultists,” Silas snapped, disgusted at such an accusation of childish superstition.
Colum did not remind his necromancer of the night terrors involving shadow cultists that had plagued him only a few months ago. Instead he said, “What was it, then? You can tell me if you want to.”
Silas hesitated, his face an open war between shame and fear; then, with the spiritual fortitude that all admired in him, he conquered both and achieved resolute calm. “I had a dream about the — the outside space. The in-between.”
“Liminal,” Colum supplied.
Silas considered the word, accepted it with a nod. “Where I sent your spirit. It was — it was terrible. Full of wailing wraiths and gnashing teeth.” His face was beginning to screw up into a mask of misery again, his eyes scrunched nearly shut to keep the tears at bay. “The teeth were — in the ground! They tried to swallow me!”
Seeing him cry was too much. Colum sat on the edge of the bed and put an arm around his necromancer, penance be damned. Silas clung to him and wept silently. “It was just a dream. Don’t be afraid, Si. You’ll never have to go to that place, those teeth will never get you. I promise.”
“But you have to go there!” Silas wailed. “You go there every time I use magic! What if — what if I push you too hard? What if you get lost and never come back, and it’s all my fault?”
Colum hugged his necromancer — young brother to Colum’s father, perhaps dearer to Colum than his own child could have been, eight years old and exhausted from a week of ceremony, hungry from fasting, with the burden of his House’s and the Empire’s sins already heavy on his conscience. He would lead them all to salvation someday, if he didn’t crack under that weight. So Colum said, “It wasn’t that bad, Si. It was like falling asleep in a cold room. No worse than a night’s penance in the cells, really.”
Silas was not comforted by this. He whimpered. “What if I send you farther next time? There are monsters there. Father told me.”
Of course Colum knew the tales of indescribable necromantic horrors, blasmephous stains on reality that fled from the Emperor's power, that had wrested sinful or insufficiently devoted cavaliers from their bodies and corrupted their flesh into abomination. He had spent enough time fearing them himself, in the depth of night, in dereliction of his duty to face his trials with courage; he would not let Silas, so much younger and with so many more vivid fears, torture himself with such imaginings.
“Do you trust me?” he asked.
“Yes.” It was a child’s answer, wholehearted and unreserved, and in his heart Silas found himself praying, Lord, whatever he must bear, don’t take this from him.
“Well, I pledged to protect you, didn’t I? And I won’t let a monster stop me from keeping my oath — that’s what cavaliers are for, to fight monsters. I promise I will always come back when you call for me, no matter how far you need me to go.”
“Promise?” Silas asked. He had stopped crying, at least. “Do you give your sacred vow?”
“I do so vow,” Colum intoned, in his best impression of the elder Master Ocktakiseron. Silas giggled. Colum ruffled his hair, which would be long enough to braid soon. “Go back to sleep, and leave the dream-monsters to me.”
“Very well.” Silas loosened his grip on Colum, who instantly withdrew, knelt again at the side of the bed, and at Silas’ look of dismissal returned to his cot. Sleepily into the near-gloom the boy said, “Thank you, Brother Colum.”
“At your service,” Colum answered, and fell easily into sleep again, and perhaps from there into farther realms, from which he did not fear the journey home.