The Void Test
by Therese Arkenberg
A girl climbed up the mountain path. In the early morning air, mist beaded on her dress and skin, and the blond hair in her braid became frizzy with moisture. She chose each step with care, and held her skirts so high that her bony ankles flashed as she walked. Every so often, she glanced ahead, then looked back down at the path. She stopped and stared when she rounded a bend and looked into a river valley. The path lead across the stream, where the space between the shore and the rise of foothills was just large enough to hold a long stone hall—the temple, her destination.
On a porch of the temple, a tall woman stood and watched the girl approach. Behind her, the bronze doors stood open, and a brazier smoked in the darkness of the sanctuary within. Wisps of smoke twined with the mist rising into the air.
The girl climbed the narrow stairs carefully, skirts hiked even higher than before. She tossed her braid over her shoulder with a shake of the head and looked up at the woman. Beneath the hem of her hiked skirts, her legs trembled.
“Who are you, girl?” the woman asked.
“Sadirin Tuoth Canar. I’ve come here for the test.”
The woman’s eyebrows rose. “Have you studied the Void?”
“Some.” Sadirin worked at a handful of cloth from her skirt, picking at a loose thread. “I know how it works, and I’ve made some things. With supervision, of course.”
“Do you have any of them with you?”
“Yes.” Sadirin took a small necklace of green stones from her pouch and offered it to the woman. The woman looked over it, ran each of the beads through her fingers, opened and closed the slender gold-colored clasp a few times. With a furrow between her brows, she even bit gently into the metal. Her teeth slid off the hard surface—it wasn’t gold, and didn’t taste like any other material she knew of.
She returned the necklace to the girl and nodded. “Come inside.”
The temple was long and narrow with few windows; oil lamps hung every few paces for light. Sadirin coughed as smoke from the brazier tickled the back of her throat. Watching her, the woman noted how one hand rested over the pouch, rubbing at the beads of the necklace inside. The girl wasn’t ready, or she didn’t think she was ready; the same thing, either way.
“The Void,” the woman began, “is more than an easy source of wealth or toys, or whatever goods you wish to create. It is the origin of everything. Earth, seas, mountains, worlds—even you and I, our flesh and souls. To make anything from the Void is to mirror the act of Creation itself.”
Sadirin nodded. “I understand.”
“And what about the Test? What do you know about it?”
She drew herself up. “Only that I need to pass it to become a Void Magician.”
“And you want that?”
The woman’s lips pressed tight in an expression only she knew for a frown. “There’s no harm in letting you try,” she said at last. “To me, at least. Very well. Sit down. And listen to me.”
Sadirin looked around. “There’s nowhere to–” she began, then stopped as there suddenly was. She sat on the bench carefully, as if afraid it would vanish as quickly as it had appeared.
“From the Void,” the woman said, rather needlessly. “But you know how to do such things—don’t you?”
“I just need to think of what I want to create it,” Sadirin said. “But I want to be able to do more—to summon creatures, and open the Void on my own.”
“And you want the title. Void Magician.”
The woman smiled. “The Test itself, then, is not so complex. I will help you enter the Void, and there—there you will create whatever it is you are most afraid of.”
Sadirin watched her speak, from her expression intent on every word. Fascinated, but not confused. That was good. Perhaps the woman had misjudged her.
“It’s important that you know yourself before you begin entering the Void regularly. We also want to see that you can face your creations—no matter how frightening they may be—and control them before they can leave to Void to harm anyone else.”
Sadirin nodded sharply. “I understand.”
“I will be watching what you do. The ability to observe happenings in the Void is one of the things you will be taught, if you succeed.” The woman made it a habit to throw out that bait, to encourage the new supplicants, though from the look on her face Sadirin needed no further encouragement.
“How may I enter the Void?” she asked.
“I’ll open it for you as soon as you’re ready.” She paused, and added, “Be sure.”
“I am sure.” Sadirin rose. “I’m ready now.”
The woman bowed her head, as if gracefully conceding defeat. Or making an offering. “Very well.” She raised a hand and traced a line through the air with one thin, sharp nail. Sadirin watched the dark space open at the woman’s touch, and though she was no doubt half-expecting it, she shivered and rubbed her arms. It wasn’t that she was cold, but the woman knew the effect an opening of the Void had. Looking into the darkness beyond the breach she had made, the woman repressed as shiver herself.
“Go on,” she said. “Go through it.”
Sadirin did, closing her eyes and sucking in breath as she squeezed through the crack into nothingness. Shards of reality brushed at her hair; lights flickered beneath her eyelids. She heard nothing.
She opened her eyes in darkness.
Oblivion stretched in all directions. She was standing on something, she thought, but whatever it was didn’t look any different from the rest of her surroundings. Flat. Black. Cold.
Sadirin was not afraid.
Fear. What was it she most feared? She began to pace, restlessly, back and forth across the black nothingness. Her hand reached for the necklace in her pouch, rolling the beads beneath the leather. She thought about fear.
The Void changed, grew lighter, sprouted gray towers and a far blue horizon. A city. The space beneath Sadirin’s feet narrowed, grew higher, until she walked across a narrow bridge between two of the high gray spires. Looking below, she saw the walls stretch until they met in a dark shadow, with no sign of the ground below.
Even in the Void, a fall like that would kill her.
Sadirin continued walking, one foot cautiously in front of the other. Heel to toes, heel to toes, so carefully. She did not fall. Her footing was too steady. She made the bridge slippery. With a jolt of fear she felt her heel slip, and for a moment she half-hung over an infinite fall. Then her hand closed on something: a slim rail sprung from the Void, guarding the bridge so she would not fall. There was nothing to fear. She finished her crossing.
That wasn’t facing her fear. She had been in control all the while, and she knew it. Now she passed through the door of the tower, and tried to think of something more frightening. More wild.
A wet green leaf brushed against her cheek; she flinched away. Dew dripped down her collar, and her hair curled in the damp. A forest hissed around her with the chirrup of insects and the singing of birds, here and there the low croak of a frog. Something howled in the distance that Sadirin could not identify, but she wasn’t afraid. She knew it would not come closer.
She knew entirely too much. How could she fear what she understood? How could she create what she did not understand? And how could she pass the Void Test without fear?
Carefully, she tried to release her control on the creatures in the forest. She ignored them, trying to stop imagining what a cricket’s chirp would sound like, and was relieved to hear a song different from hers coming from a place she did not expect. The Void took care of its own.
And now she must simply await the unexpected. A path had formed in the forest; she followed as it winded over hills and beneath trees too alien to describe.
At last she heard something coming.
A low sound, halfway between a growl and a snuffle. Nearing her. Sadirin turned in the direction of the sound, willing herself to be calm, thrilled with fear and thrilled to be afraid.
A boar charged from the underbrush, white tusks scything, red bristles standing on end. Its dark hooves flashed, and Sadirin leapt from its path as it roared past. A tusk missed her by less than a fingers-breadth. The boar turned and charged again.
She threw out her hand and felt hard wood form in it: the shaft of a long sharp spear. The head was glossy bronze, and cut through the wind with a whistle as she brought it down before her, bracing for the boar’s next rush. The earth rumbled as he threw himself toward her.
And landed on the spear.
Weapon, boar, and forest vanished, melting into the black of the Void. This wasn’t working. These things were…too easy. Sadirin couldn’t be afraid. And if she couldn’t fear, how could she overcome her fear and pass the test?
She sat down on a bench that appeared from the nothingness and drummed her fingers on the cool marble. She had to think of something frightening, something truly horrific, if necessary, something it would take all of her wit and talents and courage to face. But there was nothing. Every monster, every darkness, every attacker and harm and agony she could think of, she could also think of a way to save herself from. This was the Void, after all, where nearly anything was feasible. But she couldn’t feel fear—that only, of everything, was impossible.
Was she going to fail the Test?
Her spine shuddered with a sudden chill. What if she did fail?
Pictures spun around her, produced by her thoughts in the Void. Objects formed and melted at her feet: drink, a knife, a mask, a bag packed for traveling. She concentrated on that last, and imagined her return home.
There her mother stood, at the door of the round stone house at the base of the hill. Sadirin stood on the summit of that hill, with Sadirin beside her. A look-alike, formed by the Void to go through the shame the original could not face. She started down the slope, the real Sadirin following.
Her mother was a tall woman, not quite stout, with thick hair held down her back in a silver braid. Her hands were worn from household work she could not trust to the slaves, but her face was hardly lined and her eyes were young. She smiled, thinly but as much as she ever did, for her daughter.
“How was it?” she asked.
“I…” Sadirin in this pantomime bowed her head. “I could not do it.”
“You were too afraid?” Her mother’s voice was carefully gentle, sending a lash of anger through her.
“I wasn’t afraid enough! I had too much control… too much…” Shoulders shaking, she swallowed something rising in her throat that threatened to choke the words.
“Well, then,” her mother said finally. “There’s worse reasons to fail, after all. Come inside. I have a pudding in the oven.”
Almost despite herself, Sadirin smiled as she followed her mother through the door.
Time healed the sting, at least mostly, and it wasn’t long until Sadirin could rise and go into the fields without carrying an ache for what she had lost. For what, she realized eventually, she never had. Instead of commanding the Void, Sadirin learned to order servants and organize field slaves for the harvest, even bending her back when the grain was heavy. Her family wasn’t wealthy, but they lived well, and when her mother passed on Sadirin’s share of her inheritance was more than enough to let her build her own farm comfortably. After a few years she began to see a certain boy from a nearby village in a different way, and his family was not unhappy to add an ‘almost-magician’ to their members.
And there were the children, running into the fields from the strange black nothingness surrounding this Sadirin’s life. Two boys and a girl, or two girls…their identities seemed to shift and change, though no one but the watching Sadirin seemed to notice. Either way, they were all healthy and well-formed, intelligent and helpful, and their laughter rang far into the Void.
One night an aging magician took shelter at Sadirin’s home. She answered no questions, except to say why she didn’t simply create a shelter on her own: “Best not to overdo it, dear. And after all, you were right here, and I never pass up the opportunity for company not of my own making.” She said nothing of her own Test, of what she feared or how she overcame it, or even how she could fear it, though Sadirin pressed. For many days after she left, a strange pall seemed to hang over everything. Even the sun seemed gray, the world changing to accommodate her mood. When it had finally worn off, Sadirin found she had no taste for the Void anymore, or anything from it.
Her children, the boy and two girls, or two boys and one girl, or all three girls, grew, married, and raised families even vaguer than themselves, and through it all Sadirin watched. Her farm thrived, her husband loved her, and she loved him too until he died. Then she knew the twilight of her years had come, and she waited on the end of what she judged to be, after all, a satisfactory life. She had done well as mistress of her farm, as head of her family, as mother and lover and housekeeper and host and all else she had been. And if Void Magician was not part of it, what then? Sadirin reflected as the light in her eyes dimmed. Perhaps, in the end, commanding the Void didn’t mean all so much.
Compared to the thought of failure, watching herself die barely caused Sadirin a pang, though she had felt an odd twisting in her gut when she stood over the deathbed of her mother. Well, then; that was done. That was the life Sadirin would lead, the life her double had led, if and when this Void Test failed. It was not so frightening after all.
At that, Sadirin realized there wasn’t much more to do in the Void. Knowing this might be the last time she stood in the nothingness behind everything, she cast one long look about the dark. Perfect oblivion. Not so much, in the end, to lose.
She opened the Void carefully, mimicking the sign she had seen the woman make when she entered it. The blackness faded under the bright colors of reality.
For a moment she wondered if the Void had only shaped itself around a final, hopeful imagining. But nothing she could have thought of would ever be so strange as the sight awaiting her.
The woman of the temple was smiling.
“Congratulations,” she said as Sadirin stepped through, “new Magician.”
Sadirin smiled shyly back. “Then… I did it?”
The woman laughed. “You created your worst fear and faced it. Not with something you had created in the Void, but with something you brought with you—a calm acceptance of what you could not help, and gentle reasoning to make of it what you could. The Void is yours, if you will have it.”
“It’s not quite so important now… but yes. Yes, I will have it.” Sadirin wondered, as she spoke, if she could have the peace she had found in her vision, as well. Or was that something that could not come along with the Void’s power?
She would have to wait and see.
About the Author
Therese Arkenberg is doing her best to earn that checkered history so popular in writer’s biographies. She’s worked at a library and as a cashier at a craft store, been a philosophy tutor and volunteer income tax preparer, and interned at two international nonprofits. She started working as a developmental and copy-editor while living in Washington, D.C. in 2013. Since then, she’s moved back home to Wisconsin, where she serves as co-president on the board of Plowshare Fair Trade and Education for Peace, runs her small editing business, reads almost too much, and writes.
Her first short story was accepted for publication in Byzarium on January 2, 2008. Her second story sold a few hours later, to MindFlights. Since then, her work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, Analog, Ares, and the anthologies Thoughtcrime Experiments and Sword and Sorceress XXIV. She writes science fiction, fantasy, and the occasional love story. Some of her darker work has been described, to her surprise and secret pleasure, as horror. Her science fiction novella Aqua Vitae was released by WolfSinger Publications in December 2011.
About the Narrator
As well as narrating, Chloë has written many short stories and some poetry. Her latest publication, ‘A Treacherous Thing’ can be found in the Fox Spirit Books’ Anthology The Jackal Who Came in From the Cold. She’s currently working on several projects, one of which might just send her down the rabbit hole. You can contact her through her website www.chloeyates.com while she wanders through Twitter under the sobriquet @shloobee. English born, she currently lives in the middle of Switzerland.