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Alchemist, Chapter 7


VladJunior

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Here is the seventh chapter, which is the culmination of Amelia's first day at the abbey. It contains her initiation into the Alchemist society.  I am trying to write about a character who is brilliant, but suffers from the social drawbacks of genius. She has empathy, but not the same as others. She is intuitive in science, but not in relationships. This chapter shows how she can overcome emotions with her reasoning and that is what sets her apart from her peers. I am also foreshadowing the ultimate conflict in the story - which is good v evil, and the failure of most people to tell the difference between them in this world. The evil people may actually be good and vice versa. Amelia, for instance, sees herself as the protagonist. It's her story she is telling. But she is not without major flaws. Please let me know your feedback, good or bad. Thanks!

Chapter 7

 

The sun had completely set by the time Maribel and I arrived at the circular stone courtyard behind the chapel. At the center of the large space was a blazing fire pit that filled the air with heat, light and musty smoke that drifted lightly into the early autumn evening. The Abbess and a dozen Sergeant Sisters stood in front of the fire pit which outlined their appearance, making them seem regal and not a little mysterious. The other initiates had already arrived for the ceremony and were standing to the side of the Sergeants, trying not to look them in the eyes. They didn’t seem to know what to expect either.

 

My initial dismissal of the “initiation” threats from Cadet Marshall was challenged by this foreboding display of pomp and circumstance. Clearly, the ceremony was supposed to be memorable. But I can tell you that even had they performed the ceremony in the mess hall kitchens I would still remember the lessons I learned that night.

 

Before Maribel and I could reach the other initiates, the Abbess stepped forward and said, “Maribel Lavinia and Amelia Vasquez.”

 

We both froze in place, turning to face the Abbess. The tone of her voice let me know I was in for a scolding. She sounded a lot like my mother, did the Abbess: proper, refined, and a little scary.

 

The Abbess continued her rebuke as we faced her, “You will not dawdle when called. Cadet Marshall should have explained to you that we value punctuality here at the abbey. We have waited over a minute for you both to arrive. For that error, you will go first this evening.”

 

She turned her back to Maribel and me, and reached down to pick up a long iron rod that had been lying in the fire pit. The end of the rod glowed bright red, throwing of a sheen of heat.

 

Maribel and I, properly chastened, joined the other girls as the Abbess walked over to a large stand that held an oversized cooking pot. Beneath the cauldron was a cluster of coals that could be fed from the bonfire. I didn’t know what was in the pot until the Abbess plunged the iron rod into it, creating a giant plume of white steam, more than what could have possibly come from that cauldron. Judging by the steam, I guessed that the pot was full of water.

 

I stayed silent, along with the other initiates, as the Abbess returned the iron rod to the fire. Silence filled the courtyard for several seconds. Anticipation is the great torturer. One need only have a few moments of imagination to frighten herself into believing all manner of evil is about to occur. But in that moment, even I failed to imagine the horror I was about to endure.

 

The Abbess finally spoke again, her face a dark mask with the fire pit behind her. With her robes hiding her feet, she appeared as a dark specter floating out of the flames. “Tonight you will truly learn what it means to be an Alchemist. Emperor Quintus taught us that the divine has touched all Alchemists in a way that makes us superior to common men.”

 

The Abbess paused her speech and stepped closer to the pot. Pointing at it, she intoned, “An Alchemist does not fear flame, she controls it. An Alchemist does not fear water, she manipulates it. An Alchemist does not fear death, she rules over it. Tonight, you will join our ranks. You will overcome your fears. And you will learn to control them. Or you will die in the process.”

 

What was this nonsense?! Die?! Did she just say die?!

 

I didn’t have any clue what she was talking about, but suddenly the threats of Cadet Marshall and her fellow squad mates seemed more real than they had fifteen minutes ago. The Church wouldn’t endanger its newly initiated cadets right away, would it? I mean, I thought we were supposed to be trained so we wouldn’t die…

 

Before I could gather my thoughts further, the Abbess pointed right at me and said, “Initiate Vasquez, please step forward and approach the cauldron of initiation.” Her bony finger aimed right at the smoldering cauldron.

 

I don’t know how, but my feet propelled me towards that giant, boiling pot of water. If it had been up to my conscious thoughts, I would have run from there as fast as I could. The whole scene scared me out of my hose.

 

As I approached the black cauldron, I was able to peek over the lid and see that, in fact, there was water in the pot. And it was boiling violently. I didn’t stand all too close, as the water was prone to spit and pop occasionally, and I didn’t want to get scalded. As I stopped just shy of the lid, one of the Sister Sergeants stepped forward, Gaylene from the administration building, and stood beside me.

 

The Abbess then turned to address the other initiates. “Initiate Vasquez will be the first of you to learn what it takes to be an Alchemist. We do not accept failure. We do not accept weakness. But we do require strength and resolve. For you gain entry into our ranks, you must pass this trial,… this… initiation.”

 

One of the other initiates spoke up at that point and asked in a whiny voice, “What do you mean gain entry? I thought we were already initiated as Alchemists? We went through a ceremony and everything.”

 

Without a word, the Abbess calmly stepped in front of the girl who spoke and asked, “Ms. Grantham, is it?”

 

The girl sheepishly replied, “Yes, my lady.”

 

The Abbess frowned and said, “I am not a lady. I am the Abbess. You will address me as such. Do so now.”

 

“Eh,… yes, Abbess?”
 

Without pause, the Abbess smacked Grantham across the face leaving a bright red hand print on her left cheek. Grantham looked stunned and then she looked like she would cry.

 

But before she could, the Abbess said, “We do not accept weakness here, Ms. Grantham. Are you weak?”

 

To her credit, Grantham sucked in her tears and gained some composure, before shaking her head.

 

“I didn’t hear you, Ms. Grantham. Speak up.”

 

“No, Abbess. I am not weak.”

 

“Good. Because failure means excommunication from the Church.”

 

Ms. Grantham looked at the Abbess, and whether from the trauma of the slap or the failure to keep her mouth shut asked, “Does that mean if we fail we can go home to our parents?”

 

The Abbess actually smiled at her. “You have no parents but the Church. You have no home but the Church. Your old life is over. Your new life begins with this initiation.”  The Abbess stepped away from Grantham and walked over towards me. As she looked directly at me, she calmly informed us of the price of excommunication. “If you fail this evening, you will die in the initiation. If you refuse to undergo the initiation, you will be excommunicated. Excommunication from the Church is punishable by death. I suggest you all succeed tonight so Sister Gaylene won’t have to stay up late to bury you.”

 

With that final word of encouragement, the Abbess walked back toward the fire pit. It was Sergeant Gaylene’s turn to address the initiates, although she faced me when she spoke. I was trying to keep it together, but these people were crazy and craziness makes me feel unsafe.

 

“You have one task this evening. You must dip your hand into the water and keep it there for one minute.” Sister Gaylene’s voice was softer than she looked. She didn’t try to sound frightening like the Abbess. She spoke matter-of-factly about the initiation as though we were bobbing for apples. I turned to look at her, fear in my heart and in my eyes. How could I stick my arm into a boiling water pot and hope to have an arm left afterwards?

 

Sister Gaylene continued her instructions, “You must use your newly acquired gift, the gift of Alchemy, to protect yourself from the heat in the water. I will demonstrate how to do this only once. You must watch carefully and do exactly as I say. As you can see from the Sisters around you, you do not have to lose an arm or die tonight. If you follow my lead, I promise you will make it through.”

 

The Abbess spoke up and addressed Gaylene, “Sergeant, stop coddling them. They will pay attention or they won’t. Get on with it.”

 

Sergeant Gaylene smoothly bowed to the Abbess and said, “Yes, Abbess. My apologies.”

 

She rolled up her right sleeve, revealing her forearm that was covered in a string of wild circular tattoos. I had never seen anything like it. I also didn’t see any scars, so that was some comfort that this insane ritual could be survived without any permanent damage. But her statement that we had to use Alchemy to protect us wasn’t much comfort. If I knew how to perform Alchemy, wouldn’t I have already been an Alchemist? What an absurd requirement that the Abbess had placed upon us.

 

Gaylene got our attention as she raised her voice and explained, “Just like you did in your test, you must feel for the energy around the cauldron and pull it to your arm.”

 

I looked at her outstretched arm and thought I could see a ripple just above the skin. Like a heat wave shimmering off the surface of a hot paved road in downtown Silvia. The shimmer spread across her hand, up her forearm and to her shoulder, where it stopped abruptly.

 

Gaylene leaned over the edge of the dark pot, which only came up to her waist, and plunged her arm into the water up to her elbow.

I expected her to scream. I even flinched at the pain that I expected her to feel. But apparently, she didn’t feel any pain, because in the same monotone voice she had been using, she addressed us again, “The energy you draw into your arm will keep the heat of the water from burning you. It is most effective when you imagine it as a sleeve of a garment, wrapping your arm in a layer of insulation.” Her arm was dangling in the boiling water. I was the only one who could see over the edge of the cauldron. I knew. There was no pink skin, no burned arm, and no sign of physical harm to Gaylene. It was as if she had dipped her arm into a bath to test that the water was just right.

 

After a full minute, Gaylene removed her arm and held it up for all to see. While it was dripping wet from the elbow, there was no sign that she was burned or otherwise injured. Whatever she had done to protect herself, she had been successful.

 

Suddenly, Gaylene turned her wet arm towards me and pointed, declaring in a loud voice, “Let the first initiate test her strength against fear. And let the abbey know whether she has the courage to be an Alchemist.”

 

Without any other explanation or warning, she stepped forward wrenched my right arm to its side and began rolling the sleeves of my uniform up to my shoulders. My breathing accelerated. My heart raced uncontrollably. Fear was a visceral thing in that moment; a monster that lurked in the depths of that boiling pot. I was going to be consumed by it.

 

But something unexpected happened then. Gaylene, in a hushed whisper, said, “Do not fear the pain, child. Focus on your Exam and the energy you felt in the air around the Exam Book. Now you must draw the energy in. It is like taking a breath with your mind; a long, deep breath.”

 

With that, she stepped back and gestured for me to begin the initiation. I moved another couple of feet closer to the cauldron and stood looking over the edge into that boiling water. The fire pit glowed brightly behind the elder sisters and the Abbess. The other initiates shifted nervously to their side; except for Maribel. I caught a glimpse of her face hidden half in shadow and half in light. I honestly think that she was looking forward to my arm being boiled off. At least, that was how I interpreted the smirk on her face. She was pretty ignorant, Maribel. She must have forgotten that she was next in line for this lovely experience.

 

Thinking of Maribel actually helped me break my thoughts of pain. Anger replaced fear, and I began to think more about proving Maribel wrong than how I might avoid the pain I was going to feel in mere moments. Mother always told me to focus anger toward a good cause. Anger is just an emotion, after all. It is neither bad nor good. It is what we do with that anger that tells us whether we act righteously or un-righteously. While the Church takes a different view of it than Mother, I have to agree with her. It worked for me that night, after all.

 

I raised my hand up above my head for all to see. Then I brought it slowly towards the water, taking my time as I thought about the advice Gaylene had said.  Breath in the energy like I did in the Exam… well, my Exam was completely different than everyone else’s. I didn’t try to feel the energy in the book. I simply pulled the energy out of the book that the Colonel had placed in it. Then I used it to release the clasp on Branthos’ journal. Transferred energy was something that Branthos had mentioned in the first section of his writing. It was supposed to be difficult to pull the energy from objects and then transfer that energy to other objects to accomplish a physical change. In this case, I wasn’t being asked to even perform the second step. I just needed to pull the energy out of the air,… or maybe it was the pot,… or…

 

Wait, why did the Abbess put the iron rod into the water?

 

On a hunch, I reached out with my hand and felt the tingling sensation that had surprised me on the day of the Exam. It quickly went up my arm to my shoulder. Without a second thought, and while looking right at Maribel, I plunged my arm into the boiling water up past my elbow. I had a smile on my face and a cocky thought of triumph in my heart. That is, right up until the moment I started feeling a burning sensation in my fingers that slowly crawled up my arm.

 

It hadn’t been more than fifteen seconds. I needed to last a full minute before I could pull my arm free. I glanced over at Gaylene and noticed that she had a pocket watch in her hand. She clearly was timing how long my arm was in the pot. Not good.

 

The burning sensation increased. It felt like a horrible sunburn. And it was getting worse. What could I do? What did I do wrong? Why did it work at first but stop working now?

 

My fingers started to blister and I started to panic. It felt like the heat was increasing and the tingling in my arm was almost gone… Almost gone! That’s it! Without wasting another second I moved my arm further into the pot and felt for more of the energy. It was there, like a deep pool of cool water, waiting to be used. I thought about it wrapping my arm in a sleeve, as Gaylene suggested, and the tingling sensation burst up my arm, stronger than it had the first time. And the burning stopped.

 

“Time!” Gaylene yelled. She rushed over to me as I pulled my arm free from the pot and held it up for all to see. It was red, puffy and looked like I had been working in daddy’s field all day long without any sun protection. Some of my finger nails were blistered and one was bleeding slightly. But otherwise, my arm and hand were as normal.

 

Feeling triumphant and really tired, as though I had run a long distance, I turned to face the Sisters and the Abbess.

 

I didn’t expect the reactions that I witnessed from the participants of that evening’s ghastly ritual. The other initiates all looked relieved that the pot hadn’t blistered my arm beyond repair; all except Maribel, of course, who had a slightly disappointed look on her face. But it was the shocked expressions on the faces of the Sisters, and Gaylene in particular, that took me by surprise. They looked like they expected me to willingly ruin my arm. I saw the Abbess turn towards another sister on her right and say a few words to her. I was too far away to hear, but I saw the sister nodding her head.

 

She must have been important to the Abbess, because she was dressed differently than the other sisters. She didn’t wear the formal robes over her uniform, and it looked like she had armor on her chest, like Colonel Pearce.

 

Before I could tell who she was, Sister Gaylene got my attention by grabbing my arm again. Before I could even ask what she wanted, my arm went ice cold. I had to stifle a gasp. The icy feeling after slightly burning my arm was a huge shock to my senses. Before I could say stop, or yank my arm away from her, the iciness had passed and Gaylene let go. I looked down at my outstretched arm and saw that it wasn’t pink and tender anymore. The skin had a baby like appearance, soft and plush. But the burns were all gone.

 

What happened?! Did Gaylene just heal my arm with Alchemy? Was that even possible? Apparently, the Abbess didn’t want us to be injured after all.

 

The Abbess stepped forward then and addressed me before the other initiates, “Well done, Cadet Vasquez. Welcome to the Abbey. It appears we can expect great things from you.” She gestured that I should join the Sisters standing beside her, apart from the other initiates. I looked at Gaylene, who gave me a reassuring nod, and then I stepped around the cauldron and walked over to the Abbess. Before I had even reached her, the Abbess turned to address the initiates and said, “I believe you are next, Miss Lavinia. Do not disappoint us.”

 

I turned to face the initiates after reaching the Sisters, some of whom patted my shoulders and whispered their sincere welcome to the abbey. I nodded appreciatively to the Sisters as I watched Maribel smugly walk over to the cauldron. I could tell what she was thinking. We all could. “If ‘Melia can do it, then so can I,” is what that confident, princess was thinking.

 

Gaylene rolled up Maribel’s right sleeve while we all watched to see how she would do. I saw Gaylene whisper to Maribel, just as she did to me, but I couldn’t hear what she said. Maribel pulled away from Gaylene and said something sharply in reply. I couldn’t hear that either, but I could tell Gaylene didn’t appreciate it. She stiffened and turned her back on Maribel, leaving her to her own devices.

 

Maribel raised her arm, stepped up to the cauldron, and plunged it in. Within three seconds she was screaming. By five seconds she had pulled her arm out of the water and was kneeling on the ground holding her bloody and blistered appendage as though it had leprosy.

 

Gaylene was at her side in a flash, stop watch swaying from her chain, as she gripped Maribel’s arm to perform the same healing ritual she had with me. It seemed to take longer and Gaylene obviously looked strained as she did it. She was starting to sweat. But it quieted Maribel, who was shivering, either from the icy healing or from the residual pain. 

 

The Abbess walked over to her and lifted her chin so that she could see into her face. “What was that? Five seconds? I believe that I said one minute, and not a second sooner.”

 

Maribel started sobbing and blurted out, “But my arm was cooking in there! I was bleeding! It hurt so bad!”

 

The Abbess didn’t appear too concerned about Maribel’s pain tolerance. “If you wish to live as one of us, you will keep your arm in the cauldron of initiation for one minute. Or you may be excommunicated. It is your choice.” The Abbess drew a long, steel knife from inside her robes. It was curved with a golden handle. She held it pointed at Maribel’s heart. Her point was made crystal clear, in a very literal manner.

 

Maribel stopped sobbing, to her credit, and stood back up. “What do you want me to do? Stick my arm back in?”

 

“That choice is up to you: the cauldron or the knife. Which will it be? Will you be ruled by your fear and by pain? Or will you master them? Will you protect yourself in the face of death?” The Abbess’ voice grew stronger as she spoke. She seemed to really want Maribel to pass the test. In fact, looking back on the events of that evening, I should have caught the hint of frustration in her voice as a sign that she wished Maribel had done as well as I had. It is what she had hoped for all along. But she thought that I would be a good display for the others, with my blood mixing first with the boiling water, only to have to plunge my arm back inside, over and over, until I could withstand one full, unending minute of pain and torture. She didn’t count on my cleverness.

 

Maribel seemed to grow some strength in the face of certain death. Either that, or she didn’t want her life to end on the edge of a knife.

 

She stepped up to the cauldron again and reached her hand over the top. But this time she hesitated briefly over the water. I looked carefully and saw a shallow ripple along her arm. It didn’t reach all the way up, but it covered her hands and forearm up to the elbow. Then Maribel plunged her hand in. She didn’t scream. Her face had a look of intense concentration.

 

When Gaylene called “Time!,” Maribel yanked her arm out of the cauldron and stumbled away from the pot. She looked pale and about to pass out. Gaylene caught her and quickly healed her arm, which, while red, swollen and bleeding, hadn’t been burned nearly as badly as the first time, despite the time difference. Maribel, it appeared, was a quick learner as well.

 

And so the night progressed through all twelve initiates. It took longer for some, than others, but we all endured. The sounds of the screaming and the smell of the boiling blood and water still haunt my memories. It was a long night of pain for all of us.

 

One girl, from the West Isle by her accent, actually passed out from the pain and had to be dragged away from the cauldron, lest she catch on fire. She took longer to heal than the others. Eventually, one by one, my fellow initiates girded themselves, stuck their arms into the pot, and endured the pain and heat that seemed impossible for them to rebuff.

 

The only change in the routine occurred when one of the other Sisters replaced Gaylene, who looked exhausted from healing us. I had only performed one minute of Alchemy and had felt like I had run a couple of miles. Gaylene had to perform numerous healings, some of which lasted several minutes on the girls who couldn’t figure out how to create a protective field around their arms. She must have been exhausted beyond physical limits.

 

When the last girl, Natalie Grantham, had completed the trial on her third time through, the sun was close to rising in the east, and the mood around the bonfire had turned muted and detached. I know I felt emotionally drained from the experience. But I also felt alive.

 

“Well done, Cadets. You begin a new day and a new life. You are one of us now. We will push you hard to become the Alchemists you need to be to serve the King. But never forget this first lesson. Pain and fear no longer control you. They are nothing to an Alchemist. Your will to live is stronger than any force you will ever face. Be sure to listen to it in the future as you begin your training. Dismissed.”

The Abbess dismissed us to our beds with only a few hours of night left for sleep. As I walked back to the barracks, I noticed the other sister that the Abbess had spoken with after my initiation. She was walking my way, and she was in a hurry. As I was about to step aside to let her by, she bumped into me and in a hushed voice said, “Watch yourself, Cadet. This place isn’t what it seems to be.” She was gone before I could even respond or turn to address her. What did she mean? And who was she? She didn’t seem to fit in with the other Sisters, yet the Abbess had treated her like someone important.

 

I was too tired and overwhelmed to dwell on it, however, and decided just to go to bed as soon as possible. The rest of the initiates looked like ghosts of our dead ancestors as they crept to their barracks. I’m sure I looked worse. I know I felt it.

 

As I went to open the door to delta platoon’s barracks, I was accosted by Maribel who had been waiting in the shadows for me. She too had a warning, “Don’t think you’re any better than me because of tonight, ‘Melia. You’re still nothing and you will always be nothing.” She shoved me aside and entered the barracks before I could respond. I was too tired to argue with her, not that I would have said anything anyway. Years of abuse at her hands had taught me patience and to hold my tongue. Besides, things were looking up for me. I was an Alchemist now, fully accepted into the fold.

 

I walked into the barracks only to be accosted again by the members of delta platoon.  Only this was a good mugging. It had the feel of camaraderie to it, much more so than the first experience with the platoon.

 

“Welcome to the abbey!”

 

“Way to go, scrub!”

 

“Bet that felt great to be done with, right?!”

 

It seemed like I was being pummeled by a crowd of mockingbirds, as they showered congratulations and hand slaps on my back. Maribel had received her own, brief, congratulatory welcome right before I walked in. But it seems that the entire platoon was interested in hearing about my initiation.

 

Ensign Marshall stepped through the group and stood right in front of me. “Well, Vasquez. You sure did make a scene this evening.” She was smiling as she said it, so she must have been teasing.

 

“All I did was what the Abbess asked us to do, just like all of the other initiates.” I didn’t know what else to say. Like I said earlier, I am not very comfortable in front of crowds. I never could figure out what I was expected to do or say, to my mother’s trepidation.

 

Marshall put her hand on my shoulder, and smirked, “Stop with the humility, girl. You can relax. You’re one of us now. We take care of our own.”

 

The other girls nodded and voiced their assent. I was one of them, and no longer an outsider to be pushed around. To stress that point, Marshall asked, “Tell us how you did it.”

 

I was confused. I thought all of the girls had performed the initiation. So my face and my voice gave away my shock when I asked, “Didn’t you all go through the initiation? Don’t you know how to create a protective field?”  

 

Marshall laughed and the rest of the platoon nervously chuckled. “We were all initiated, of course. We bled right into that pot until it turned ruby red, and then some. But none of us kept from getting burnt. How did you?”

 

“Yeah, I heard the Abbess say that no one has gone through the initiation and not been burnt before.” Tori piped up from my left. She was a little older than the others, but not very senior in rank.

 

Claudia, on my right, corrected Tori, “She didn’t say nobody had ever done it. She said there may have been a couple of people in the past hundred years who have managed to keep from being burnt too bad.”

 

Marshall just said, “Shut up, you two.” They both went quiet and the rest of the platoon focused on Marshall, who turned and looked me in the eyes. “Vasquez, since I’ve been here, I have never heard of anyone going through the initiation the first time around and not bleeding into that pot of hell. You’ll tell us how you did it, or we’ll beat it out of you.”

 

I wasn’t in the mood for a beating, so I held up my hands and said, “Okay, okay. I didn’t understand what you were asking. It’s easy enough to explain.”

 

“Then start explaining. PT is in less than three hours and I want to get back to bed before then.” Marshall, despite her earlier expressions of acceptance and community had gone back into full bore dictator mode. She was a grumpy witch, I tell you.

 

“Alright. I took Gaylene’s advice and imagined that the energy I pulled in was a sleeve that coated my arm, and…”

 

“That’s such B.S.! She tells that to everyone. It never works.” Piper was standing behind Marshall. She had a similar disposition, only without the skill for social subtleties.

 

“It’s the truth,” I replied. “The mental image of a sleeve helped me to focus the energy around my skin instead of in it. And the reserves in the pot were more than enough to protect…”

 

“Wait! Reserves?!”

 

“Around and not in, what are talking about?”

 

Several girls were clamoring for answers. Apparently I had lost them in my explanation before it even began. I just assumed that these girls knew more about Alchemy than I did. I was wrong, and it was almost sad to see.

 

Marshall restored order quickly, “Shut up! Nobody talks but brainy over here.” She looked at me and said, “Slow down, brainy, and start from the beginning.”

 

“Okay. I am not sure where that is. This is all so new to me.”

 

Marshall put a smile back on her face and said, “Just assume that half of the people here were able to pass their Exam, survive their initiation, and now have no clue what they are doing. It would be closer to the truth than they will ever admit.” Several girls seemed to stare at the floor after that chastening statement. But Marshall didn’t seem to be one of them, so she must have been talking about those other girls in the platoon.

 

“Alright. In order to protect my arm from the heat, I needed to cover it with Alchemical energy. I had a choice to make as my arm hovered over the pot. I could pull the energy out of the air, which wouldn’t have been enough to keep the heat off for more than a few seconds, or I could pull from the energy in the pot.”

 

Marshall frowned at that. “What do you mean the energy in the pot? What energy? It was just water, right?”

 

I couldn’t help smiling then, and it almost got me pummeled as Marshall’s frown turned into an angry grimace. I quickly explained, “I saw the Abbess put an iron rod into the water before the initiation…” I left that explanation hanging, as if it were enough. I figured Marshall was smart enough to make the connection. She wasn’t.

“So what? She did that for us, too. It was all for show; the steam, the heat. She was trying to scare us.” Marshall got several nods from the other girls.

 

I sighed, and said, “The iron rod was a conductor. The Abbess used it to transfer energy into the water as a reserve. It also had the added benefit of transferring more heat and creating a giant plume of steam. All I had to do was pull energy from the water and coat my arm with it. It was more than enough to protect me from the heat.”

 

I didn’t tell them that I almost scorched myself by failing to keep pulling on the energy. As the energy kept the heat away from my skin it was consumed by that heat. If I hadn’t pulled more from the water, the protection would have run out. That’s why my arm got pink and slightly burnt. But they didn’t need to know that. Why ruin the moment?

 

Now even Marshall looked confused. But she got to the heart of the matter and the core deduction I had made while standing there with my arm above that boiling pot of pain. “The water was meant to protect us, not hurt us?” she asked, bewilderment in her voice and on her face.

 

She understood. The test was not just about overcoming fear, but facing that fear and seeing it for what it truly is. The water was the source of pain, but it was also the source of salvation. Like all of Alchemy, it had the ability to destroy, but it could also save.

 

“Yes, Marshall. It was meant to save us all along.” The Abbess wasn’t trying to ruin her new batch of recruits. She wanted us to trust her. She wanted us to see that our new skill came with risks, but it also came with power. And I knew when I looked at that smirk on Maribel’s face, with the fire reflecting off of her eyes, expecting me to burn my arm, the answer to the initiation was that the Abbess had provided the means to succeed. I just needed to face my fear. In this case, the fear was the water. So the water must be the source of salvation. And it was.

 

“You are one clever witch, Vasquez.” And with that, Marshall turned around and headed back to her bunk, shaking her head.

 

There was silence in the room. The other cadets started drifting away in couples, heading back to their bunk beds, whispering about what they had just learned. The Abbess wasn’t trying to burn them… she was trying to save them. What other tests had they endured where the answer was in the scariest part of the trial? I had unleashed a storm of ideas on my fellow platoon mates.  

 

As I changed out of my uniform and into my nightgown, I couldn’t help but smile. I had survived the real initiation into the abbey. I had won the respect of my platoon and of the Abbess. I still had Maribel to deal with, but that was nothing new, so why worry about it. As my eyelids closed on my first day of my new life as an Alchemist, the final, nagging thought I had was, “what on earth did Marshall mean by PT, anyway?”

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