He woke up the next morning and got ready for his chores. After an hour of cleaning and weeding the small garden, his father took him out for his lessons. This time, however, instead of going to the target tree, they went toward the temple again.
“Why are we going there today, Father? It’s not prayer day today.” Swayne panicked for a moment. “We ate breakfast today during the daylight, and I did work in the garden.”
“Don’t worry. Today isn’t a holy day, or we would not have allowed you to perform your chores. Today’s lessons are with the priests, they are going to prepare your soul for your coming-of-age tests. I will not accompany you today.”
Swayne wondered what these lessons would be like. Although he had never gone to the temple except for prayer day or holy days, he knew that the priests were always in there doing something. Today he would find out what they did when there was no congregation for whom to interceded with the Overseer.
Swayne’s father walked him to the entrance, where a priest was waiting. They chatted for a moment, then his father left. The priest told him to go to the congregation room and take a seat up front near the altar. He went in, following the instructions, and found himself in the company of several of the other youths that had been in the front yesterday.
Nobody spoke as Swayne took a seat. Everyone seemed to be nervous, as none had any idea what they were here to do. As far as Swayne had known, his soul was being prepared with every prayer spoken by or for him; he didn’t know that there was more required.
After a few minutes, a priest came in. This was the first time that Swayne had really noticed the priests as people; usually they were the intimidating intercessors for the Overseer, standing down at the altar. Now that he could see him up close, he realized that this priest was a young man, barely an adult himself. Maybe an apprentice? Swayne realized that he knew very little about those in whom the Overseer had placed His trust, taking it on faith that the Overseer would not allow someone into His service who was not deserving of His trust and that of congregation.
“Everybody come closer. There’s only a few of us, so there’s no reason for us to be spread out. Good, that’s better. Now, everybody here is getting ready to come of age this year? Yes? Excellent. Now, we have some training to do. As you know, the spirits will be testing you within the year, and you need to prepare your souls for the test. The test will be different for each of you, but large parts tend to be the same for everybody, or most people. Therefore, we will train you for the common elements.
“You will spend much of your time in prayer and contemplation, other time in classes. You will not be excused from your regular chores nor from your regular prayers. At the end of each class session, you will return to your homes, where you will make up for time missed in this room.
“This is a part of the training. You will learn to manage your time, which will be a skill often used both in the test and in your real lives. Now, every morning you will come here rather than your regular training and chores. You will belong to myself and the other training masters, or to any other priest here. They know who you are, and they know not to order you contrary to your taskings. However, if you are tasked by any priest, you will follow their directions without questioning it. The levels will not be beyond your capabilities if you keep up with your training, and the priests are well aware of where you should be. Your success or failure will be reported to the training masters, and there will be consequences.”
There was some fidgeting among the other students. Swayne looked around, saw the others doing the same. He had not known, when his father sent him here this morning, that this would be as hard as it sounded.
“You may be a little concerned on hearing this. However, do not be worried; the final test will be an evaluation of your soul, not your knowledge. It will be stressful, but well within your capabilities. There has never been a failure of the test; the spirits will look deep within your soul, and determine your destiny, but you will always come out of the Ring. Remember, however, that the person who comes out of the Ring will not be the same person who enters.
“The spirits have blessed the Ring, and you will commune directly with them. There will be no intercession from the priests during your test. You will speak with the spirits, and be in the presence of the Overseer. Together, they will judge you. Only you will know the full extent of your test; your guiding priest will know the general testing path that you have taken, yet he will not know how your testing has fared.”
This addition to the speech relaxed Swayne, and he noticed that others were also a bit calmer, knowing that the test will not require studying. After a moment, reflecting on the priest’s words, he realized that, although there was nothing that the priests would consider failing, he himself would not want the spirits to give him a negative destiny due to his failure to study and apply himself. He resolved, therefore, to go into the training with all of his ability, that his soul may be judged worthy.
The training turned out to be hard, but as the first priest had told him, it was not beyond his abilities. He had to redouble his efforts with his hunting lessons, which were suffering by his time at the temple. By the end of the first month, he was handling his increased workload. He was not excelling at either side of his studies, but he was not lagging behind either.
Prayer days swiftly became his favourite days. He spent all days in the temple these days. During the morning he attended the regular sermon and prayers, although he no longer sat with his family. He now sat to one side with the other students, where they were able to pay more attention to the priest’s words, and contemplate them in relation to their studies. Swayne realized now, as he paid closer attention, that he had never truly appreciated what was being said during these sessions; more often, his mind had wandered and his body had relaxed. Now, he was focused on the words being said, knowing that, at any time during the week, he may be quizzed on this weeks sermon.
The sermons were not the only religious lessons he took either. During the week, he learned much that was not spoken of during the prayer day meetings. He learned that the Overseer was not the only god in existence. He had brothers and sisters, who were worshipped in other areas. Some towns, he learned, worshipped more than one god. Stonering, however, was privileged to worship the Overseer directly; this was the reason for the many pilgrims coming through the town.
The Ring, from which Stonering had earned its name, was connected directly to the world of the spirits. Their blessings had been invoked directly into the stone, which was said to act as a gateway between realities. The Overseer was said to have taken a direct part in the construction, thus granting the people of His village the direct privilege of His presence. The Ring was not used for standard worship; instead, He had ordered this temple to be built, that the congregation may be in His presence without disturbing Him directly. This worked out well for the people of the village, as the Ring was intentionally difficult to reach, and many candidates who left the village in the morning did not come into the Ring until the evening, and some were known to get lost on their route.
The test, Swayne learned, would actually begin when he left the temple. The journey to the Ring, although guided by a priest, was not controlled. The path was different for each traveller; even the priest who guided him would have different experiences, although they would walk side-by-side. Once inside the Ring and alone, the candidate would have only the spirits for company, unless the Overseer chose to make His presence to the candidate. The Overseer’s presence was a great honour, and also extremely rare. Although His spiritual presence could be felt anywhere, He had only been physically in the Ring once in recorded history, during its construction. Swayne did not know whether he believed that the Overseer had been present during the construction; however, he did not voice his question to the priests. They took it as a literal fact, since it was in the Word of the Overseer, that it had happened.
The date of his testing was drawing nearer. Swayne was growing into a man, his body filling out as his physical training was not avoided. Soon, he was both mentally and physically prepared, and the training priest took him aside.
“This prayer day, you will remain at the temple after sermon. You will be given your instructions then. The next day, you will be tested. This gives you two days from now to prepare yourself, as you are still forbidden to work and prepare yourself on prayer day. On the third day you will spend in prayer, then the fourth day you will leave.”