The first taste of the Abyss is always sweet. It’s only on the second bite that one realizes the fruit is rotten and maggot filled. And by then it’s already too late.
— ANCIENT PROVERB
Stomach heaving and twisting, Erik caught Asbjörn before he could hit the ground and cradled him in his arms the way someone might a sickly child. Uncomprehending, he stared at his scarlet-drenched hands as the black and gold scales retreated inside him. Emotions seemed to come in fits and starts, overwhelming him one moment, leaving him empty the next. His hearts thumped like a tempest, tossing thoughts around like rag dolls. And a coppery scent filled his nostrils and his head.
I know it hurts, but it had to be done, Patrick uttered.
Painfully Erik dropped to his knees, wavering like seaweed in high tide, and clutched Asbjörn’s gasping form to his chest without looking at him. The purple flames swaying within the black fireplace filled his unblinking eyes. They seemed to dance to an unheard tune, standing still one second, then jerking back and forth. I don’t want to lose him. The thought grounded him, pulled him back from the precipice.
“Remember?” he said after a moment. “I told you, ‘You won’t like me. Nobody likes me when they really get to know me.’ The first time we met.” The memory crashed into his head-space like an avalanche, and he whimpered. “It took a while,” he whispered to himself, “but it looks like I was right.” There was no longer any reason to hold any of it back. “You’re dying because of me.” Tears poured from his eyes as his lips twisted into a snarl. “I killed you, too!” He yelled at the ceiling. Other memories came. “Elina!”
He looked down, and red eyes stared back at him. Trembling, panting for breath, Asbjörn struggled uselessly against Erik’s iron grip. With an effort, he fumbled to grab at the Prince’s blue robe. His hands shook when he succeeded; it took both hands to hold himself steady.
“Chaos reigns,” Asbjörn growled. A second later feminine shrieks shattered the quiet of the temple as the legs jutting out of the walls ignited in purple flames. Then burnt into ash that floated down like flakes of untouched snow.
Erik’s nostrils flared. “Is that all you fucking know? Eat! Devour—” He paused, a ridiculous idea taking hold of him. His breath came in quick bursts, pumping air in and out of his lungs. “That’s it,” he whispered. “It will work. It has to work!” He crackled sadly, uncoiling his arms into tendrils.
What are you doing? Patrick questioned.
“Don’t you see? This is the only way,” Erik said, enveloping Asbjörn with his tendrils, head first. Gargled blood, the Cultivator’s legs jerked and his dying eyes flashed with panic. The stone floor pitched, and the walls cracked. Patrick receded in horror while the Celestial Dragon surged forward with eagerness.
He became aware of the ground, first, uneven cobblestone poking into his back. Next came the pain, the memory of flying fists, the ache where they had smashed into his face. And a taste. A creamy, iron flavor, filling his mouth and oozing down his throat.
“Get up, Asbjörn! Get up!” a young girl’s voice called out, along with the clanging of bells.
Asbjörn. The thought rose up from an inner emptiness. That’s my name. His eyes blinked open to reveal a burly boy looming over him, dressed in a gray wool robe, with his fist cocked. Koggi. Asbjörn’s mind supplied the boy’s name.
“Not so clever now are you, Asbjörn,” asked Koggi with a mocking grin. There was a red patch on his left cheek that Asbjörn immediately recognized as a birthmark.
Suddenly the voices of the children surrounding Asbjörn rose in shouts of “Fallnir Menn” and fell silent. Koggi dropped his hand to his side and backed away from Asbjörn as if he burned, almost tripping over his own legs in his haste.
With aching muscles, Asbjörn hoisted himself up, moving into a sitting position. Injudiciously, he stared at the black robed man who walked among their group. Everyone else averted their gaze, but Asbjörn could not look away. The man’s oily black hair was slicked back and tied into a ponytail. Painted on his forehead were two black dots connected by a single white dot, and from the dark sash tied around his waist hung a short and a longsword.
“Release her,” the man said in a voice devoid of emotion, but somehow invoked the sense of a graveyard. And the boys’ holding Asbjörn’s little sister, Gía, released her. “Good. Now disperse.”
As the other children hurried away, Gía helped Asbjörn to his feet, allowing him to lean on her small shoulder as they scampered away. Asbjörn glanced back at the Fallnir Menn who stood watching him besides the outer wall of the Hall of Lower Learning. A chill seeped into his blood, and he jerked his head forward. Cultivators are what the Fallnir Menn called themselves, he remembered. They were a bane on The Last Empire and man alike. Wherever they went, they brought destruction and were almost as hated as Sorcerers.
“Why didn’t you fight back?” Gía asked. “You just let him hit you and did nothing.”
Asbjörn observed his sister. She had her little face scrunched up like a balled up sock and tears glimmered at the ends of her long eyelashes. Freckle-faced and fair complexioned, she took after their father that way while he took after their mother. Her curly hair was done up in two long braids with a blue ribbon tied at each end.
“Well, are you going to answer me?” she glared.
Asbjörn sighed and regretted it a second later when his ribs throbbed. He pulled away from Gía, masking the pain that flashed across his face behind the act of fixing his blood-stained gray robe, but he did not think it worked. Gía frowned. “What would that have solved, sister of mine?” he finally said. “Would that make them any less envious of my abilities?”
Gía pressed her hand to Asbjörn’s side. He lurched away, almost knocking into one of the six bearers of a colorful palanquin rushing past, but Gía yanked him back just in the nick of time. “At the very least you would have fewer bruises,” she admonished.
“Violence only begets more violence,” Asbjörn breathed, holding his head high in a vain attempt to rescue what was left of his tattered pride. He strode past his sister without a backward glance, and she fell in beside him wrinkling her nose.
“You’re not a priest yet,” Gía said irritably, plucking at her dress, “don’t count your rosters before they hatch.”
Asbjörn smiled. “Chickens.” His sister’s words awoke fantasies of the day he could don the priestly white and joined the Munni, the highest caste, the caste of priests, scholars, and teachers. Unknowingly, his smile grew wider.
“Whatever. You know what I meant.” Her eyes were hot coals on his face. “You may still fail the Imperial Examinations and be placed among the Fætur, or worse.” Unless sired by nobles, children were born classless and remained so until the age of thirteen when they took the Imperial Examinations, and their caste was determined based on their skills.
“You wound me, sister,” he spoke perspicaciously as if already numbering among the brightest scholarly minds within The Last Empire. “Like the others, your jealousy taints your innards. It is not my fault women are not permitted to take the Imperial Examinations, that you’re forced to stay at—for that matter, why aren’t you at home? I thought mother didn’t want you leaving the house on your own.”
She did not reply, and for a time they walked on shrouded in hostile silence. Guilt pricked at Asbjörn’s sense of pride. Sometimes his temper got away from him, and he was a little harsher with Gía than he should be. She deserved better, he knew that. Just say you’re sorry, stupid. No. Yes!
“Do you remember that pie I baked for you last week?” Gía asked.
Asbjörn took a deep breath. Here it comes. “I thanked you for that. And if I recall, it was a bribe so I would take you to watch the horse race with me.”
“Well, I want you to know I put my boogers in it as a special ingredient.”
Eyes wide and incredulous, Asbjörn jerked to a stop. “You what?”
“That’s better!” She threw her head back and roared with laughter, holding her sides. “Wiped that high and mighty look right off your stupid face.” In spite of himself, Asbjörn smiled. It was such a girlish response. And so childish. Unruly little sisters, everywhere.
“You’re such a brat.” He laughed. He touched her cheek and pulled her into a hug. “I’m sorry. Can you ever forgive your pigheaded brother?” The common people of the city walked around the clasping siblings.
“Only if he reads to me tonight,” she responded still laughing.
Asbjörn gently tugged at one of Gía’s braids. “Deal.” Still embracing, they walked down the sloping street, crowded with peddlers and merchants, hawking wares.
“When do you think father will be home?”
“Soon. The 5th Legion should have long crushed the Twin Towers by now.” Asbjörn flickered Gía’s earlobe. “Answer me truthfully, did you really put boogers in my pie?”
“Race you home,” Gía blurted, and dashed forward, freeing herself from Asbjörn’s arm.
“Hey!” he shouted and broke into a shambling canter. Men and women scattered like flower petals as he rounded a corner in pursuit of his little sister. I have to win! I can’t let her beat me!
Arms and legs flailing, Asbjörn struggled to keep up; his bruised ribs made every step agony. Tottering, he almost ran into a group of street performers laughing and singing in the streets. He ducked under a palanquin, slammed into a stone wall, taking a shortcut, sprinting through a gap between two buildings. Staggering, he escaped the gap, pulling ahead of Gía as they galloped towards the red-painted gates of the Vopn district, which stood wide open. Shouts rose from the overweight guards posted at the gates, but Asbjörn did not slow his pace for even a moment. He bounded into the district, half-filled with modest sized villas. There was the white stone statue pockmarked with age, of a gaping warrior thrusting a broken sword at the sky. It stood in his front yard as decoration, as an ancient protector.
Under the afternoon sun, panting and gasping, Asbjörn leaped up the steps. He ignored the surprised yells of slaves and servants, entered his home, and shouted, “Mother, I’m home!” He went from chamber to chamber, finally arriving at his father’s office.
“Mother! Mother, where are you?” A dark-skinned woman looked up with brown eyes from where she sat behind a large desk, flowers in her braided hair, and blue ribbons. She was slender and beautiful, and teary-eyed. “Mother. . . what’s wrong?”
There were two men with her, one with a bloody bandage over his left eye and a dented helmet held at his side. The other stared off into space, fingering the tattered red cloak that hung from his shoulders. Both men wore the black scaled armor of the Imperial Legion.
The unhelmeted Legionnaire turned to Asbjörn and asked, “How old are you, boy?”
“I’m. . . I’m thirteen, sir.”
The soldier nodded to himself and whispered, “Young.” Louder. “Your mother and your sisters will need your strength in the time to come. You’re the head of the household now.” He donned his helmet and exited with the other Legionnaire on his heels.
Asbjörn could not bring himself to meet his mother’s eyes. Instead, he looked just above her head, at the old map of The Last Empire that hung on the wall.
A moment later, Gía stumbled into the office huffing and puffing. “Who were those men?” she asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Father is dead,” Asbjörn said quietly, still gazing at the map. He would not cry, he told himself, but all the same, tears tracked their way down his dark cheeks.
Erik howled, enveloping the last of Asbjörn’s thrashing form within his writhing fleshy petals and tendrils. His mind pulsed and twisted like a living shadow, overwhelmed by the rush of the Cultivator’s memories. He felt Asbjörn’s grief at the loss of his father as though it was his own. It brittled him, rubbed raw his already aching soul. The Celestial Dragon roared, and Patrick screamed, but he was only aware of their continued existence in the vaguest of senses.
Abruptly the purple flames in the fireplaces and crawling up on down the walls vanished. With their disappearance another connection bloomed in the Prince’s mind, linking him to Asbjörn’s intricate Esoteric Creation. And in an odd way, he sensed the force keeping the spinning temple afloat slowly losing its power. The three churning funnels feeding the soaring rivers spurted, and the building lurched to the side.
With a start, Erik was sent tumbling back through what was left of the broken table. His arms flapped out feebly, trying to slow his decent. Not making any headway, he slammed into the wall face first with a loud grunt, head pressed against a small glass window. A sheer drop loomed outside, a roiling lake rushing towards him as the temple fell. His head spun, and an instant later Asbjörn’s sword struck his back, pinning him to the stone.
The lake seemed to rise up to embrace the working of red and white marble, but Erik was blind to it all, unable to free himself from the new memory that had overtaken his mind.
Panicked, Asbjörn stood in a long hallway within the Hall of Lower Learning, next in line to take the final test of the Imperial Examinations. It’s almost over, he told himself, but it did not help unknot his stomach any. He glanced back and saw the same nervousness he felt reflected in the faces of his classmates lined up behind him. Trying to brush imaginary flecks of dirt from his gray robe, he lurched back around. His hands stilled when he noticed the white-bearded Fallnir Menn frowning at him from beside the testing room door.
It’s almost over.
His day had begun at the crack of dawn with a set of physical tests, which evaluated his stamina, reflexes, and hand–eye coordination. By the time noon had arrived, and he had to partake in the written and oral portions of the Imperial Examinations, his muscles had burned like fire, but somehow he had found the strength to carry on, barely.
A howl emanating from behind the closed door broke the relative silence of the hallway. It sounded like hot iron was being poured down a boy’s throat. Asbjörn took a calming breath, ignoring the low murmurs that rose behind him. This was the second time this had happened in the last ten minutes.
“Quiet,” admonished the white-bearded man in black. “I won’t warn you again.” The Fallnir Menn’s words had the desired effect, instilling fear into young bones and placating wagging tongues.
The large wooden door opened, and Koggi was carried out on a stretcher, clasping something small to his chest. “Everything is filled with empty space,” he whispered with his eyes shut. “Everything.” He laughed madly.
None of the pupils looked at Koggi, not even the ones that called him friend only moments before. Koggi was no longer one of them. He had joined the ranks of the Fallnir Menn, and no one wanted to acknowledge him, less they be tainted by association.
I’ m next. I’m next! Asbjörn clutched at his robe. Breathe. Breathe! Air entered his little lungs in frantic gasps. Any moment now, it seemed like the ground would open and swallow him whole.
“Young one.” Asbjörn looked up to find the Fallnir Menn who had rescued him all those weeks ago, peering down at him. “Follow me.” The Cultivator spoke in an emotionless tone and turned around without waiting for a response.
Asbjörn followed the man into a vaulted chamber large enough that it could have been found in a palace. Golden lamps hung from the domed roof, providing the windowless room with its only sources of light. The weak flames dancing above, casting most of the chamber in crawling shadows, from which teenagers in the black robes stood watching. The floor was strangely patterned with a mosaic of black and white stones, except for the red circle at the front of the chamber, next to a large blue curtain.
“Sit there,” the man said, pointing at the red circle. “There is no need to be afraid.”
“I’m not,” Asbjörn said, putting on a brave face. “What will be, will be.” He sat down cross-legged within the circle as directed.
The Fallnir Menn smirked, the slightest curving of his lip. “As you say.” Mocking laughter rose from the shadows and fell silent by the time the man opened his mouth again. “Unlike your previous tests, this one is simple. All you’re requited to do is look.”
Asbjörn stirred, but the Fallnir Menn gave him a sharp stare, and he sat still again. His heart lifted into his throat, choking him on his fear. The curtain slide open, and his eyes shut on their own volition. He had not planned on it, it had just happened. Eternal Father, please don’t let me be one of them. Please!
“Open your eyes.” the Fallnir Menn’s tone had not altered; the flat pitch of his voice sounded as if it could not change. Not for love, hate, or death itself. “Open them now, or I will take them from you.”
Reluctantly, Asbjörn furled his eyelids. The first thing he noticed was an odd word—Muladhara—written above an ancient painting. It rolled strangely off of his tongue and did not belong to the Old Tongue, of that he was certain. It seemed like it came from a language much older. Then his gaze fell onto the painting itself. A red lotus with four petals contained within a golden circle, which had petals of its own. Abruptly it seemed to enlarge until it was all he could perceive and he fell victim to its evolving symmetry. Every leaf was formed from the original pattern, which recurred at progressively smaller and smaller scales.
Asbjörn trembled. A song rose from the depths of his mind, in a rumbling voice, as if the earth itself sang to him. He understood what it meant, he was one of them. Fear pulsed in him like a second heart, not for himself, but for his family. They needed him. He could not allow himself to be taken away from them so soon after his father. They needed him! He tried to close his eyes or turn his head, but it proved useless. His eyes could not look away. Instead, he focused on the memory of his mother running her fingertips over his face and the way it felt like a softly sighing spring breeze. Lost in recollection of all the time he and his sisters spent mimicking animal calls, his mind shook, splintering in two.
The first half of his mind was still hopelessly enthralled, and the other half allowed him to turn to the Fallnir Menn and ask, “Is that it?”
The Cultivator nodded and just like that it was done. During the long walk out of the vaulted chamber, Asbjörn worried they would find him out and call him back, but they never did. Somehow he got away with it.
In a daze, he stumbled outside the outer wall of the Hall of Lower Learning and was surprised to see the sun almost setting in the west. He blinked. Colors seemed brighter and more pronounced than before. Yet despite the new found beauty of his surroundings, he felt dragooned by a sense of wariness. Something was still happening to him. His mind quaked with this something like distant thunder on the horizon.
Asbjörn did not remember walking home. One minute he was on the city street and the next he was surrounded by the smiling faces of his family, sharing a celebratory feast. Although they had made his favorite, fried pig ears, he felt oddly disconnected from everything like his life was something that was happening to someone else.
“Are you all right, Asbjörn?” Gía asked, voice rising with concern.
Mopping sweat from his face, Asbjörn sent her a smile, then winked at Lea, his youngest sister. “I’m fine.” Then suddenly he was not. With all the force of a lead ball, the first half of his mind crashed into the other half, rejoining once again. He groaned, hands jumping to his forehead.
The world broke apart before Asbjörn’s panicked eyes, and he found himself falling through a starless void of pulsing night. But before he even had time to scream, he saw it churning below him, and he felt like doing anything but. A beautiful vortex, roiling with the most vivid gold and green, chased with the brightest blue and crimson. It called to him with the purest song, in that same rumbling voice that brought to mind the warble of unknown birds, spring breezes, and the flapping of butterfly wings.
Asbjörn reached out towards it, and it came filling him. Filling him! FILLING HIM!
The temple struck the lake with tremendous force, and Erik jolted awake to shards of glass slicing his shut eyelids and face. Every cut burned like droplets of glowing white metal. Wailing, he threw up his arms, trying to free himself from the blades fixing him in place. But another memory rose up at that same moment, weakening his limbs. He felt his eyelids grow heavy until they seemed to weigh a thousand pounds, but even so, he strained against their closing. I have to get free!
Even more water rushed into the chamber, through every possible opening. Erik withered like a pinned spider, watching the temple sink deeper and deeper into the lake’s murky depths. Then his eyelids flickered close and conscious thought became beyond his grasp.