The love of power is the demon that eats at the hearts of all men.
Minutes later, Erik found himself moving down a corridor where few dared to travel, void of even the occasional serving woman, hurrying past on unknown errands. He was grateful for the isolation, though, he knew it would not last for long. Despite the few tapestries that decorated the walls, the flickering torchlight made it seem a cavern. A dangerous cavern.
Four golden surcoated Punishers in conical helmets came into view at the end of the corridor. They stood guard in front of a thick iron bound door with a small iron grill set in it. Without Erik having to say a word, one soldier tapped on the door in an odd sequence. A moment later, it swung open, revealing more armored men and a stairway broad enough to accommodate five people abreast.
Erik nodded his thanks and descended the stairway into Hjörtur’s depths surrounded by darkness and ancient stone weathered by countless years. The scent of burning wood and a faint odor of decay hang in the air, growing stronger the lower he climbed. His nose wrinkled in disgust.
I won’t allow you to succeed, he admonished the monster within. You must understand that? I will do whatever it takes to stop you. The only response came as a pang of hunger; Erik shivered.
Another soldier in clanking armor waited at the bottom of stairs illuminated by flickering, far-spaced torches on the walls. Erik passed the armored man without a word and strode down a feebly lit tunnel with several branching pathways all blocked by rubble. His footsteps echoed strangely within the enclosed area, making it sound as if something sinister trailed him just beyond the reach of the torchlight. He forced himself not glance back.
The door to the sorcerer’s cavern stood just as heavily guarded as the one above. Erik studied the black flame etched onto the Punishers golden surcoats that blocked his path forward. In the half light, the symbol of their order suddenly appeared malevolent. The armored men greeted him with chilly nods that he returned and then they opened the door.
There was a chamber beyond, half the size of Hjörtur’s domed Great Hall. The floor was covered with a swelling and pulsing pale meat-like substance. It looked like the inside of a living organism, veiny and flecked with green and yellow mucus. And a row of four bulbous spherical nodules grew out of the ground like corrupted trees beside a crimson gem the size of a man’s fist that rested at the center of a misshaped flesh pillar. Scarlet light grew and sprang from the jewel, flicking like a thousand fireflies, providing the room with a touch more illumination than the torches dotting the walls.
Erik breathed in the repugnant, fishy smell of the chamber, and the taste of it rose in his throat, rancid and pungent, like something spewed out of a dead dog’s stomach. He fought the urge to vomit and stepped into the sorcerer’s cavern. The door slammed shut behind him with the finality of a condemned man’s cell, sending a chill racing down his spine.
He looked up more closely at the ceiling and saw the vents through which gallons of hot oil could be poured into the chamber at a moments notice. If that ever happened, fire would swell, expanding in a furious cloud, heat searing, flames devouring the unnatural workings below. Then there would be nothing left of the sorcerer’s cavern but charred husks of flesh.
For a moment, Erik refused to look toward the center of the room. Ypse was there, gazing at the multifaceted jewel; it cast his elongated shadow like a cloak of darkness behind him. At the edges of his vision, the two dour-faced Punishers with crossbows aimed at the Sorcerer’s back seemed to shift and change with the pulsing of the light.
Erik forced himself to stroll forward, his sandals slipping on the moist and uneven terrain. He sensed the heat of life pumping beneath his feet. His breath caught in his throat and his heart raced as he approached Ypse. He feared the answers the Sorcerer might hold.
“Leave us,” he told the Punishers. The soldiers bowed, a look of relief flashing across their pale faces, and they made their way out of the room.
“You are dead,” Ypse whispered. “Or you are supposed to be.” The Sorcerer did not look from the gem as he spoke; Erik understood Ypse’s obsession with the jewel, it was the source of his power, without it, he was nothing.
“So I keep being told,” Erik replied.
Ypse was clad in a red coat and black breeches. “I don’t suppose I need this anymore,” he said, using his sleeve to wipe away the Tree of Life etched on his forehead.
“No, I don’t suppose you do,” Erik chuckled.
“So much has been lost. Time has robbed us of our ancestors’ greatness,” Ypse muttered mostly to himself it seemed. He ran a hand along the outer membrane of a nearby nodule that housed the undeveloped fetus of a giant White Crane. Its tiny body was animated by a weak heartbeat.
“Perhaps it’s for the best,” Erik responded just as quietly. There was something about the sorcerer’s breeding cavern that made others want to pitch their voices low as if ensnared within a prehistoric temple of some unholy god of flesh and corruption.
Ypse finally turned to regard him. Light from the jewel cast a bright red glow across his hawkish face and yellow eyes.“You really mean that, don’t you?”
“Oh, I thought we saw the world through the same lens, my Prince.” His voice held an element of hurt that quickly turned into resentment. “If not, what’s the point of all this?”
“Vatn, Jörðin, and Eldur have been eyeing Vindur with ill intentions ever since our war with Ógilt. War is coming, Ypse. Perhaps not today or tomorrow, but it is coming. When it comes, we will need every advantage unless we want to share Ógilt’s fate.”
A bitter smile curved Ypse’s lips. “You risk the wrath of the Last Empire and the Old Orthodox Church—”
“Fuck the church! And fuck the Last Empire!” Erik snapped, surprising himself. A sudden frenzy coursed through his veins like a river of glowing magma, hollowing him with fury, suffusing him with hatred.
I’m losing control, he panicked, balling and un-balling his hands. The sweat on his brow had nothing to do with the heat radiating from the floor and everything to do with the fear now clawing at his chest.
Ypse observed him, mouth agape.
“I think. . . .” Erik swallowed the lump in his throat. “We lost the knowledge of our ancestors for the same reason that we can’t remember our dreams. We forgot to protect ourselves from the horror.”
“We live in the Fourth Age, the Age of Monsters. Humanity clings to life by its fingernails. The horror is already here.” Ypse paused. “Why have you come here, my Prince?”
“I have a problem you may be able to fix,” Erik said. “What do you know of the Ito bloodline? The stories say Jön Ito escaped the bowels of a sorcerer’s breeding cavern before he founded Vindur. I’ve never given it much consideration before, but what exactly does that mean?”
Ypse snorted softly, turning back to the red jewel. Erik followed suit, watching the red light twist and flicker. Every flash was like some strange alien heartbeat. Every twinkle was an assault on the borders of the impossible.
“You won’t like my answer,” Ypse breathed after a moment, “in fact I’m certain of it.”
Erik said nothing, allowing the Sorcerer to formulate his thoughts.
“I think—and there is substantial evidence to suppose so—like most things in this Age, Jön Ito was the result of a Sorcerer’s experiment. Perhaps all Cultivators were.” Ypse ran a hand along the thin membrane of the nodule. “I can’t be sure of course, this all happened over one thousand years ago.”
Erik blinked in shock. “You mean he was grown in an artificial womb?”
“The Sorcerer-Kings did not just restrict their meddling to animals. The Dökk are ample proof of that. My master once. . . .” A hint of grief flashed across Ypse’s face. “It’s likely that the ability to touch the Abyss comes directly from the Sorcerer-Kings’ experimentations.”
“No. I. . . . No.” Erik shook his head in denial. It can’t be! The idea that his line may have begun in chamber very much like this one sickened him. Made him want to spew out whatever remained in his stomach.
“When you stop to analyze it, the New Orthodox Church’s teachings on the subject doesn’t make sense. Why would the Eternal Father imprisoned the Dark One and the Death Gods within the Abyss then give man access to it in the Fourth Age?”
Flustered, Erik’s heart pounded in his ears. He laughed, a mirthless sound. “I don’t know.”
“Think, my Prince. Think!” Ypse demanded. “Why are the Four Great Calamities that wander the earth so feared? Because they can draw power from the Abyss! They’re not the only monsters that can, but they are the most powerful. I have a theory. The Sorcerer-Kings lost control of their creations; the Abyss changed them, making them impossible to control. That’s one of the reasons they fell.”
“How long . . . does their tinkering take to come into effect?” Erik asked. “Can it skip generations?”
Ypse dropped his gaze. “There are little patterns in our blood that make us what we are. If the Sorcerer-Kings made a change in the pattern, it’s possible that the result wouldn’t show up until hundreds of years later in the subject’s great-grandchildren’s offsprings.
“Hundreds of years. . . .” Erik mumbled, walking towards the door in a daze.
“My Prince! My Prince!” came Ypse’s shouts of concern.
Bracing himself against a throbbing nodule, Ypse allowed his voice to falter as the Prince left the chamber in a daze. He was unsure what to make of this new twist, or how to turn it to his advantage. But given enough time he was certain he would. He touched his slave collar and chafed at his thralldom, as only one born out of bondage could.
Freedom will be mine.
The strange, half-remembered dreams that had plagued him since he pledged his soul to the Dark One promised as much. For a moment, he wondered if he had not simply traded one form of servitude for another, but pushed it aside. It was too late for second thoughts. His fate was tied to this throw of the number sticks.
He turned from the door. A symphony of ruby light bathed the room from the large jewel full of brilliant fluorescence and beautiful, swirling infinities. His Sál Ijós. It fluttered at the edge of perception like a mother’s comforting murmurs, seductive and haunting. The danger of losing himself to its siren-like call remained and ever present risk and temptation.
Tiny droplets of sweat stung his eyes, warm as fresh piss. He dabbed at his brow with a multi-colored handkerchief. The air was humid with the heat of pulsing life beneath his feet.
Ypse dropped his gaze. He wished he remembered more of his dreams, eager for the knowledge of forgotten sorcery the Dark One held. This Age was frightfully lacking in living teachers of the deeper mysteries, and he had already scoured the book the agent of the Dark One had given him for his oath. Still, what he had already received was useful. Nothing in comparison to what the Sorcerer-Kings had known, but enough to form an outline of a plan.
Only three weeks left. I’m running out of time. He balled the handkerchief in his hand. It should have at least sent a party of Dökk to investigate. I know it felt my intrusions.
The sound of the door opening and closing reminded Ypse where he was. Two Punishers armed with crossbows hurried to him, boots slipping on the pale meat-like floor. He affected not to notice them until they came to a stop.
“Are you finished?” asked a soldier with a thin black mustache above a nervous smile. Square and towering in his surcoat and armor, he fingered his crossbow.
“Just about.” Ypse folded his handkerchief with a flourish and placed in his coat pocket. He refused to learn his jailors’ names, not out of arrogance. But because knowing the names of the men he meant to kill might make him hesitate when the time came. “Another twenty minutes.”
The soldier nodded and took a step back, never lowering his weapon.
Ypse stroked the thin outer membrane of the nodule without taking his eyes off the pair. The warmth flowing into his hand was a comfort. Not that he wished for comfort, but he would need his strength for what came next. “What do you think of the Prince’s resurrection?”
The men shared a fear-filled stare but said nothing.
I can use this. But how? Ypse laughed. “Smart. It’s better for such as us to hold no opinions about our betters.”
“Get on with it,” the man with the mustache said. “Whatever it is.”
Ypse tapped into his Sál Ijós, using its power to extend his reach. His mind sank into the earth, left the world of men behind to enter one of darkness. He fumbled through emptiness, traveled through hundreds of meters of dirt and rock, grasped at something out of sight.
His body trembled. His muscles strained.
Then there was light. A hundred thousand spheres of baleful light, connected by golden filaments into a complex network, impossible to behold all at once. Each sphere was the brain of a life-form stained with the mark of sorcery. At the center of the web lay a mind far older and larger than all of the rest combined, wreathed in hatred. Hatred for all things that yet breathed.
Ypse attacked a random sphere. He used every tactic he knew and subdued the creature to his will, branding it with his mark. The monster sent a wave of terror along the web, and the filaments broke away from it, leaving only the one that now connected it to Ypse’s Sál Ijós.
The mark would not last long before it was co-opted. The ancient entity that slumbered beneath the Rin Mountains could not let such a desecration stand. Or that was the hope. Ypse’s freedom depended on it.