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The room was bathed in darkness as the hopefuls were led inside. These were the chosen few, those who had completed the training and excelled in their courses. This would be part of their final test. If they passed, they would continue the crusade begun centuries ago; if they failed, it meant certain death. Such as it had been for hundreds of years, so would it continue to be with this new generation. As the hopefuls were led through the darkness, each was instructed to kneel with their hands clasped behind their backs. If they were to break the link of their hands at anytime, this test would become null and they would lose their chance to complete the training. There would be no make-up day if they failed, no do-overs. This portion of the test was far too important.
Each of the seven-the largest graduating class the academy had seen in some time-were blindfolded to keep them from seeing the members of the High Council. This was done for not only the student's safety, but also for the council members. Though it was not revealed at any point in the training, as a Wraith aged, their features became more and more vampiric in nature. It was becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between actual vampires and the oldest members of the order. It was also required to keep the student from knowing which member of the council had chosen them for the ritual. Each member of the High Council, or Esgobaeth, was well over one thousand years old, but there were a few older and their "gift" varied according to age. If students had their choice, it was common knowledge they would always chose the eldest member of the council to complete the ritual; however,they knew that not all students could handle, or were worthy of, that much power to begin their careers. The seven watched each member of a class closely, determining whom they would pick for the ritual.
The seven students were all men, save for one woman. A female Wraith wasn't as uncommon as it used to be; yet the council found that few actually completed the training. They were all nearly the same age of twenty-five, with a few a little younger. The female student, Emily St. Louise-her peers called her Saint-was the youngest at twenty-three. She had been observed with special interest by the council for exhibiting a special aptitude for this kind of work. Handpicked for the academy by her Master, Ben Quinn, at the ripe young age of thirteen, she had instantly excelled at her studies and fieldwork. This was rare in a student. Many took months, even years to adjust to their new way of life, while others could not cope at all and washed out. The council had been very impressed with her work over the past ten years and subsequently had chosen her to receive the ritual from the eldest among them: One.
As a Wraith ascended to the council-a spot was rarely ever available-they lost their name and individual identity. Each was given only a number to cling to, the order in which they joined the council. To keep personal wants and needs out of the master equation, these were stripped from a new member. They would think only of the Gwyliad Wriaeth. Nothing else mattered to them anymore. If any of their number began to show personal interest in matters outside the order, the remaining six members dealt them with quickly. This had only happened once in the history of the Guard, but even hundreds of years later, the ripple of consequence was still being felt. It would not be allowed to happen again.
As the two attending Wraiths completed situating the students and informing them of the rules of the ritual, they stepped out of the way and faded into the darkness. The students could hear the slight rustle of fabric as the silence closed in around them. From the head of the immense room, the seven council members appeared as hundreds of candles flickered brightly around them. Each one, dressed in a long, white robe that hid their gender and shadowed their faces, held a ceremonial cup and dagger. Though they were all old enough to have developed fangs, to use them would be an affront to everything they stood for. It would make them no better than the prey they swore their lives to hunt and destroy.
The first-One-stepped out of line and moved in front of the other six council members. Holding the silver dagger in its hand, it pointed to the students. "On this twenty-eighth day of October, in the year two-thousand and four, we are gathered here to transform these students into Acolytes." Its voice was full and deep as it echoed off the cavernous walls of the council chamber. "If there is one here who wishes to refuse the ritual, let them speak now." One paused, although it knew none would speak out. "Very good," it said with more than a hint of pleasure in its voice.
One motioned to the other members of the council to take their positions. As each moved across the room, a row of candles shimmered to life as they walked, lighting their way. Stopping in front of their chosen student, the candles encircled the two, separating each pair from the others. Setting the cups before the students, the council members knelt down and held their daggers at the ready.
"If you scream out," One warned, "you will fail this test. If you unclasp your hands, you will fail this test. If you touch any of the council in any way, you will fail this test." One looked to the other council members, then back to the young woman kneeling before it. "This ritual has been passed down through the generations. It will be the penultimate test in your training, and though you have made it this far, know that this ritual is not without its dangers. I give each of you one final chance to back out and spare yourselves what could be a horrible death."
Again, no one spoke.
"Let the ritual begin."
Moving its hand carefully, One wrapped its fingers around Saint's neck. Tilting her head back, it could feel her heart throbbing in the veins of her throat. It was fear that gripped her, yet she was doing her best to remain strong. Lifting the dagger up, the ancient Wraith pressed it to the side of her throat. With one swift stroke, it pulled the blade through the soft, pink flesh, splaying it open. Blood instantly spurted from the wound as an artery was cleaved in two. Without a single grunt or wince of pain, Saint began to bleed to death. Pushing her head down, One watched her crimson life spill over the hard stone floor around them. Turning to its right, One could see the process repeated on each of the students. To One's approval, none cried out at the quick flash of steel.
Holding its fingers firmly on Saint's throat, it could feel her heart beginning to slow. From its own experience, One knew she was very near slipping from consciousness. The ritual had to be timed precisely. This was the reason ancients only completed it. If they didn't wait long enough, the ritual wouldn't take and the student would be lost, yet if they waited too long, the student would die. It was a fine line they treaded, nevertheless, each was confident in their abilities. Lifting Saint back into a kneeling position, One steadied her with its hands as blood rolled down onto its white robe. "Hold on, my child," it whispered. "It's only just begun." Lifting the dagger again, One pressed it firmly to its own wrist. Pulling once, it laid open its veins. Setting the blade aside, it quickly reached for the cup.
As One held its wrist over the cup quickly filling it, Saint began to feel herself slipping away. Darkness encroached over her brain, threatening at any moment to sever her connection to this reality. The gaping wound in her neck throbbed with pain with every heartbeat, every breath. No longer could she feel her arms and legs, the pain was all-consuming. Reaching down deep into herself, she summoned a strength she had only glimpsed before. She had to hold on. To come so far in ten years, only to die on the council chamber floor would not only disgrace the order, but herself as well. She would not fail, not this close to the finish.
One lifted the cup of its own blood with two hands toward Saint. Its hands trembled slightly, but it quickly calmed itself. To lose this student now would be a tragedy, but fate always had its own agenda. Tipping the young woman's head back, One began to pour the blood into her mouth. Saint gagged as the thick, lukewarm substance hit the back of her throat. One held his hand firmly around her mouth refusing to let her spit any out. She needed every drop to complete the ritual. "Swallow, child," One said, almost pleadingly. "Swallow."
Saint's eyes rolled back as she choked on the liquid. Pulling a breath in through her nose, she closed her mouth and opened her throat. Gulping down the thick substance, her eyes opened wide, then snapped shut. It felt like battery acid chewing its way down her throat. She felt the immediate urge to retch, but clenching her teeth, she fought it. Balling up her fists behind her back, she felt the blood hit her stomach like a brick. Doubling over in pain, she narrowly missed One with her head as she hit the floor. Making sure to keep her hands clasped behind her back, she rested her forehead on the floor amidst a pool of her own blood. Gritting her teeth, she wanted to cry out, but refused. She felt as if red hot needles were being pushed into her skin and muscles over and over again. Intense pain rocketed through her skull as her upper canine teeth were broken and forced from her gums and two tiny fangs slid into place. Rolling onto her back, her head snapped and hit the stone floor with a crunch. Opening her eyes again, she felt her vision become blurred. The tiny veins in her eyes popped and exploded, sending blood gushing into the chocolate brown irises, but it quickly receded as the iris in each eye melted to a solid gold. As fast as they had changed to gold, they turned colors again. The color faded away, leaving her irises a pale blue that was almost gray. All at once, her body convulsed, then relaxed as she lost consciousness.
Standing up, One looked down at Saint with satisfaction. Looking to his right, it saw each of the council members standing over their students in much the same way. Three had a bit of a worried look spread across its face. "What happened?" One asked.
"The eyes did not revert to normal," Three said, shaking its head. "At least not yet."
One muttered a curse under its breath. Lifting its hand, it snapped its fingers once and pointed to the third student in line. The two attending Wraiths materialized out of the darkness and hovered around the student. Lifting slender, wooden stakes out of their gray and white coats, they stood silently above the unconscious boy. He was a young male of approximately twenty-five years with wavy brown hair. His white ceremonial robe was splattered angrily with his own blood as he lay motionless.
Copyright © 2006 Terence West.