The black prism, p.29
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       The Black Prism, p.29
 

           Brent Weeks

  Kip wasn’t going to fail. He’d die first.

  Ironfist saw the look on his face. “Good.”

  The great doors in front of Kip rippled once more, the molten iridescent hues undulating gently and then seeming to spill left and right. It was as if something huge were surfacing from unimaginable depths. Kip’s heart seized as a great face appeared, so fast he couldn’t even comprehend all the details, just white hair, eyes like stars, and water of every shade bursting away from his features as he burst free—and opened his mouth, a yawning cavern of blackness that overwhelmed the doors. Kip flinched as it seemed the mouth would swallow him.

  The doors burst open from within as if a giant had smashed them. A gust of air rushed over Kip.

  “Enter,” Ironfist commanded.

  Kip walked in alone to a round chamber. The walls and floor were the same smoky-clear crystal as the door. Seven figures stood in a crescent around a black disk inlaid in the floor. Kip hesitated, and none of them moved. No one told him where to go.

  The figures were robed, one for each color. The superviolet wore violet robes and sub-red wore deep red robes for the benefit of those who couldn’t see into their spectra, but as Kip widened and then tightened his eyes, he saw that the sub-red was indeed radiating heat and the superviolet was clad in his color, hard pieces of superviolet luxin hooked together like rings of mail.

  Still uncertain, Kip walked toward them. As he got closer, he could see beneath their hoods. His fists balled. The sub-red had blackened skin. No eyebrows. No hair. Little flame wisps escaped from its head. The green’s face was gnarled as an old oak, its eyebrows like moss, hair strung with lichen. The blue looked like cut glass, features either smoothed out to planes or sharpened to jewel-like points.

  Dear Orholam, were these all color wights? Then, from within his sleek goo, the orange blinked. Kip noticed the eyes. All of their eyes.

  These were drafters in masks and makeup. They represented the wights of each color. Seven different varieties of death and dishonor. Kip started breathing again, though he couldn’t control a little tremble. He stepped onto the black disk facing them.

  “I am Anat, I am wrath,” the sub-red said. “I am consumed with rage.”

  “I am Dagnu, I am gluttony,” the red said. “I can never be filled.”

  “I am Molokh, I am greed,” the orange said. “I can never be satisfied.”

  “I am Belphegor, I am sloth,” the yellow said. “I withhold my talents.”

  “I am Atirat, I am lust,” the green said. “I desire ever more.”

  “I am Mot, I am envy,” the blue said. “I cannot bear others’ good fortune.”

  “I am Ferrilux, I am pride,” the superviolet said. “I would usurp Orholam’s own throne.”

  They were the names of the old gods. Kip had barely even heard of them.

  “These are the distortions of our nature.”

  “The temptations of power.” The voices spoke out in turn, smoothly, overlapping, like one consciousness.

  “For without mastery of ourselves, we become monsters.”

  “Shameful and ashamed, hiding in the darkness.”

  “But we are the sons and daughters of Orholam.”

  “We are Orholam’s gift, expressions of his love.”

  “His law.”

  “His mercy.”

  “His truth.”

  “Thus we stand unashamed, clothed in his righteousness.”

  The sub-red stepped forward, pulled off his mask, and stepped out of his robe. He was a young man, muscular, handsome, and naked. “Casting off wrath, I am patience,” the sub-red said. He lifted his hands and, even without looking into the sub-red, it was clear that he was drafting. The air shimmered with heat around his whole body. “Orholam’s will be done.”

  The red stepped forward, pulled off her mask, and stepped out of her robe. She was young, athletic, beautiful, and also naked. Kip’s eyes widened. He tried to hold them to her face.

  Somber ceremony, Kip. Orholam’s watching, Kip. Straight to hell, Kip.

  “Casting off gluttony, I am temperance,” the red said. She lifted her hands and red luxin blossomed through her entire body, eyes, face, down her neck to her breasts, nipples, firm tight stomach, breasts, nipples—Kip! In an instant, she was like a statue, every bit of her skin dyed a perfect red. “Orholam’s will be done,” she said.

  The orange stepped forward. A man, mercifully. “Casting off greed, I am charity,” he said. Lifting his hands, he turned a gleaming orange. “Orholam’s will be done.”

  Yellow said, “Casting off sloth, I am diligence. Orholam’s will be done.” Her body filled with sparkling yellow light.

  The green was a disconcertingly if appropriately curvaceous woman who looked Kip hard in the eye. That helped as she disrobed. He thought she might slap his head off if he looked at her generous—oops. “Casting off lust, I am self-control,” she said. “Orholam’s will be done.”

  The blue disrobed. “Casting off envy, I am kindness,” she said softly. “Orholam’s will be done.”

  The superviolet was the last man, and he was enormously muscular. “Casting off pride, I am humility,” he said in a booming voice. “Orholam’s will be done.”

  As one, they brought their hands down and pointed them at Kip’s feet. Sprays of pure color blasted the black circle he stood on. It began to rumble and rattle beneath his feet. Then, abruptly, the disk of rock began sinking into the floor—and Kip with it.

  In moments, Kip was down to his butt. But the hole was too narrow. His fat caught on the sharp sides of the floor. He had to shimmy just to fit, and as the hole deepened, either his stomach or his butt was pressing against a wall.

  “Raise your right hand,” the superviolet said.

  As Kip did, swallowing convulsively, he saw a rope dropping all the way from a ceiling so high above that he couldn’t see past the glare of its brightness. The superviolet caught the rope and put the knotted end in Kip’s upraised hand.

  “Pull the rope, and it ends,” the man said. He had something akin to kindness in his voice.

  Then Kip was fully in the hole, and still going down. He stopped below the floor. The light high above in the testing chamber went out. Kip could see nothing.

  He tried to take a deep breath, but the chamber was so tight he couldn’t even draw a full breath.

  There were whispered voices above him. “Dees, will you run this test for me?”

  A man’s voice replied, awkward, “I’ve never run one before, my lord. You know, I think we set the tube too narrow. He’s fat. He could suffocate.”

  “He’s the Prism’s bastard.”

  “So? He’s not here.”

  “So accidents happen. But I can’t be here when they do. The Prism knows I hate him. He doesn’t know you. So if an accident happens on your watch—”

  Kip couldn’t hear the rest because water started pouring over his head. Cold, first a dribble, then a steady stream. It ran down the back of his neck to where his back was pressed tight against the walls. The walls around him pulsed an intense blue. Dear Orholam, they were going to kill him to get back at his father. Just like Gavin had warned him.

  The water pooled around his middle. He was too fat for it to drain down to his feet, he sealed the whole tube. Kip’s heart was pounding. The intense light emanating through the walls burned from blue down into green, through the whole spectrum in order, even through heat, and then faded into nothing again as the water reached Kip’s neck.

  Up to his ear. He pushed his body hard against the side of the chamber, and a gap opened between his hip and the wall. The pooled water poured down to his feet. But it kept coming from above.

  For a few moments, he was able to intermittently push against the wall and make it drain once more, but soon he was awash, nearly floating. He pushed against the wall again, and the water didn’t drain at all. There was nowhere for it go.

  The water rose once more to his left shoulder, which was trapped down even as h
is right was trapped up. Then up to his neck. His left ear.

  He didn’t notice when the walls pulsed superviolet, but then they passed through blue, to green as the water rose to his chin, to yellow as it touched his lips, orange as it covered his lips—was the water falling more slowly on his head now? He took deep breaths through his nose, wriggled to try to use his body’s wedged-in position to climb higher in the tube, and found that there were straps above his shoulders, keeping him down.

  This was insanity. Someone was trying to kill him. Kip had to ring the bell. His fingers were claws around the rope. He could try again when there wasn’t a murderer around.

  No. Quitting meant being put out. It meant failing.

  There was barely time to take one last deep breath before the water covered Kip’s nose.

  The falling water pelting his head abruptly ceased. Kip could imagine it now: “He was so fat, he trapped the water. It wasn’t supposed to be that high. We didn’t put too much water in… he just panicked. You know, a child, trapped and afraid. He must not have even thought to pull the rope.”

  So that was it. He either quit and shamed his father more than his very existence already did, or his father’s enemies did their best to kill him.

  Holding his breath, his lungs just beginning to burn, there was a sudden, stark clarity to the world: pull the rope, go home.

  But, there was no home. So, pull the rope, and go farm… somewhere. Or stay, and maybe die. Fail here, and he failed his father and his mother. Fail here, and he was a failure forever.

  I’m not pulling the rope.

  The chamber went black. The water got hot from the sub-red light, but then even that faded.

  I don’t like farming. Kip coughed out some of his air, laughing, the thought was so inane. But the pain rapidly squelched wry humor. He couldn’t make his heart slow. He couldn’t stop his throat from swallowing convulsively, his chest from pumping on nothing. I’m not pulling the rope, damn you. I’m not pulling the rope.

  Something shifted. At first, Kip thought it was the water pouring out, but it wasn’t. The ground below him was rising, but the stops above his shoulders stayed in place, crushing him in place. The water, far from draining, simply rose up his raised arm. In moments, he squatted down, pushed against his own knees. It squeezed him and he coughed, the last of his breath bubbling out.

  He was trying to hold on to nothing. Breathing the water in would be worse than breathing nothing at all, he knew it. He knew it and yet his body overwhelmed him and he sucked a breath in. The water was hot, sharp, acrid in his lungs. He gagged, hunched even tighter against his own knees, his body ripping itself apart. He coughed and, miraculously, water shot out of his mouth into air, blessed, glorious, free, beautiful air!

  Gasping, spitting, retching, and still compressed into a ball, Kip breathed. He could breathe! Mostly. His knees hurt from being squashed tighter than his not-so-flexible joints would allow. His back hurt. His ribs hurt. But Orholam, the air was good. If only he could get a full breath.

  Nothing happened. It was still utterly black. Kip was sweating now. He was packed in here. It was getting hotter by the second and he was still dripping wet. The colors flashed past him, through the whole spectrum again.

  So that’s how it was. They saw that he wasn’t going to quit, so they weren’t going to give him another chance with the colors.

  It didn’t matter. I’m not pulling the rope. “I’m not pulling the rope!” Kip shouted. Or tried to shout; he wasn’t very loud with only a half a breath.

  In response, the floor rose even more, crushing him harder against the stays on his shoulders. Kip screamed. He sounded like a coward.

  He couldn’t even push back against the stays. His knees were bent too far to get him any leverage. If he just pulled on the rope a little, he could get a breath, and then he could go on fighting.

  No! Kip deliberately relaxed his fingers, his arm. He concentrated on breathing. Tiny, quick little breaths.

  It was enough. It would be enough. He was making it enough.

  A succession of colors blurred past. Kip didn’t care. Was he supposed to do something? What? Draft? Right. Go bugger yourselves.

  The pressure eased suddenly and the floor dropped. Then the walls eased wider. Kip almost fell, but after a moment his rubbery legs were able to take his weight. The walls pulled back farther, farther. He tried to take a wider stance, but there was nothing beyond his little disk except air.

  Reaching one hand out, Kip couldn’t feel the walls at all. A breeze blew across his skin, giving him the sensation that he was standing on some high place. It had to be an illusion, though, he was in the middle of the school. No way was there a big hole here.

  Colors flashed through distant walls, illuminating the chamber for a brief, terrifying moment. Kip stood over an abyss. His disk was the tiny round top of a pillar: a pillar standing alone in the middle of nothingness. The walls were thirty paces away. The ceiling over his head had a single hole, through which only his hand was poking.

  Wind buffeted him, and Kip felt his grip go white-knuckled on the rope. He clamped his eyes shut, but then he couldn’t tell if he was swaying with the wind or against it or staying still. His heart was beating so hard he could hear his own pulse in his ears between gasping breaths. He screamed words, but he didn’t even know what they were.

  After an eternity, the walls came back. They closed firmly around him, but comfortably now, and he felt a surge of relief. He’d made it. He’d passed. He hadn’t given up. He’d hadn’t pulled the—Something touched his leg.

  What was that?

  It curled around his ankle, twisted around his calf. A snake. Kip looked up and some many-legged thing dropped on his face.

  He reached a spastic hand up to sweep a spider away, but felt a manacle snap over his wrist and pull his left arm away, lock it into place. He tried to kick the snake away from his feet. Snap, snap. Shackles closed around his feet and yanked them wide apart.

  Kip screamed.

  The spider fell into his mouth.

  Before he even knew what he was doing, Kip bit down fiercely on it, crushing it in his teeth, sour goo squirting into his mouth. He screamed again, sheer defiance. Something landed in his hair. Dozens of slithering things roped around his feet, climbed his legs. He was going crazy.

  “I’m not pulling the rope!” he shouted. “You bastards, I’m not pulling the rope!”

  Kip convulsed. Orholam have mercy. His whole body was covered with loathsome things. He was weeping, screaming—and salvation lay in his hand. There was nothing wrong with farming. No one would hold failure against him. He didn’t need to see these people ever again. And what did he care what they thought of him anyway? The whole game was stacked against him. He was finished. It was over.

  With an inhuman cry, Kip took the rope, with all his loathing and fury and despair rising in him, totally overwhelming him, failure calling his name—and threw it out of the hole. He sank against the wall, burying his face in the rock, crying.

  Colors flashed past once more, but the snakes and spiders didn’t go. They covered his body.

  Still the oppressive darkness continued. Something heavy and hairy landed on his back. Little claws stabbed him through his shirt. A rat. Then one on his thigh. Another landed on his head, scratching him as it slid off his wet hair.

  Kip froze. Fear like lightning flashed through his entire body. He was in a cupboard, helpless, starving, parched. He shivered uncontrollably.

  His motion disrupted the nasties and something bit him. He yelped, humiliated, furious. He twisted. More prickly bites, stinging bites, savage bites covered his arm, his legs, his groin, his back. Kip thrashed, throwing himself against one wall and then the other, trying to crush the beasts. Rats were climbing up his body on every side, and they refused to let go. He was weeping. He was so ashamed. There was something about the spider. The spider he’d bitten.

  It was too much. He couldn’t take it anymore. He was finished. Kip cou
ldn’t stop himself. He reached for the rope. He was a failure, a shame, a fat, blubbering coward. A nothing.

  He felt the rope pressed back into his hand. “Here you go, Tubby,” a satisfied voice whispered. The taste, Kip. The taste was wrong, a kind voice said.

  What the woman had said didn’t quite register. They were all over him.

  Kip pulled the rope. Failure.

  A distant clang, high overhead. At once, the stinging ceased. Every slithering, crawling, clinging, stinging thing evaporated, disappeared. They weren’t real. They hadn’t been real rats. Kip should have known from the spider he’d bitten. Would have known, if he hadn’t been such a coward. That goo inside hadn’t been guts, it had been luxin. It was all illusions, fake fears. He’d been tricked.

  He’d failed. As the platform rose, Kip’s brain—no longer fogged with terror—realized what the woman had called him: “Tubby.” It was what Ram used to call him. Kip died a little. He’d proved Ram right. Again.

  As he emerged, though, the men and women were now dressed in festive robes of their own colors, dazzling sapphire blues, emerald greens, diamond yellows, ruby reds. They appeared jubilant.

  “Congratulations, supplicant!” Mistress Varidos said, coming to join the circle.

  Kip stared at her, dumbfounded.

  “Four minutes and twelve seconds. You should be very proud. I’m sure your father will be.”

  She was speaking some language Kip didn’t understand. Proud? He’d failed. He’d shamed himself, shamed his father. He’d given up. The rage and frustration that had been building up suddenly had nowhere to go, leaving him feeling stupid.

  “I failed,” Kip said.

  “Everybody fails!” the incredibly muscular superviolet said. “You did great! Four minutes twelve! I only lasted a minute six.”

  “I don’t understand,” Kip said.

  The nymphish yellow laughed. “That’s how the test is designed. We all failed.”

  They surrounded him, men pounding him on the back, women touching his arms or shoulder, all congratulating him. It was a bit intoxicating to be so wholeheartedly welcomed by people who were so beautiful. Now that his brain was working again, he noticed that they hadn’t necessarily chosen men to represent the old gods and women for the goddesses. Was that because they’d come so far that it simply didn’t matter anymore, or was it deliberate disrespect?

 
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