by: Christy Boston
as published in Aphelion Magazine
Abyssus Cave, the Emperor’s outer dungeon, was littered with coughed up human bones, some bearing the telltale signs of charring. The air was rank with the rotten stench of partially digested and equally defecated flesh. It was a dreadful place, this Abyssus Cave, and the perfect place in which to hold the Kebakaranian Empire’s most notorious criminals. Twenty-four of them were now huddling within its yawning mouth awaiting their fate–whatever that would be, whenever it would come, the not knowing being half the torture.
Twenty-three of the prisoners cast into this forsaken dungeon were guilty of treason. Darren of Valdersa, mastermind behind the latest conspiracy to overthrow Kebakarania’s ailing Emperor, now sulked within his cramped cage. The other prisoners moaned in much the same discontented tune, all except for one, a young woman named Mollie who was unlike the others because she was innocent. Her heart had always remained true to the Kebakaranian throne. Her heart still remained true, even now as she was sitting forlorn and silent amidst the griping condemned.
Darren was grabbing the bars of his cell now with arms flexing and rippling beneath battle weary garments. “If we don’t free ourselves, we will die here to rot! Do you people hear me? We will rot, I tell you!”
Several pairs of eyes glistening with trepidation looked at him helplessly. Mollie peered up from the cobalt shadows. Chains jangled softly, clanking coldly against heavy shackles. Something from somewhere dripped in the darkness. A rat squealed.
“We won’t rot.”
All eyes moved toward a watery corner where a figure hunched in a bed of mud, her ankles bound by chains. “No, we won’t rot,” the woman said, “the Beasts of the Night will surely consume us once they scent us here.” She was pointing at a mysterious dark gap near the back of the cave. “They will tear us limb from limb, sinew from sinew, bone from bone as they suck down our very souls.” The gaunt finger grazed slowly through the air, circling around, taking aim at Darren next. “Don’t you see? The Emperor Arrio has condemned us to eternal digestion for our rebellion against him while he was weak!”
“Be quiet, you blathering old bag of wind!” The shadows made Darren’s rugged face extra fierce. “If the Beasts of the Night get us, they’ll just eat our bodies, and nothing more!”
Up until now the passage deep in the back of the cave had been just a vacant hole. Suddenly its shadows were spreading or the chasm itself was widening. Without moving, without really changing, the empty hole seemed to be growing a fine set of jagged teeth with each passing moment of its being noticed.
Darren hastily pulled out a flint that he had been hiding in his clothes, but before he was able to strike it, his fingers fumbled. The flint fell, clattering clumsily through the bars of his cage and out of his reach. It sparked briefly when it hit the stone below, rolling to a stop right at the tattered hem of poor, innocent Mollie’s skirt.
Mollie regretfully looked at the little chip of flint before her. Fire would keep the Night Beasts away, or so legend would predict, but she could see nothing down here in this wretched dungeon that would burn aside from the clothes on their backs.
The others were taunting the humble girl suddenly, throwing insulations and japes her way by the bushels. Mollie was just a stupid, useless girl to the other prisoners, unwanted and unfairly scorned by all who knew her. If they had it their way they would just burn her to keep themselves alive.
Their bitter mocking was soon thwarted when a deep moan rose up from the toothy black crevice at the back of the cave. The strange new utterance coming from that ominous throat was distant, but definitely discernable. Everyone stopped to listen, waiting and holding their breath until the dreadful sound came again, louder and closer this time. No one spoke, no one even dared to move, and an eerie silence dampened the air as everyone began to let out their breath slowly, cautiously…
Then, as a storm breaks to unleash its pent up fury, a barrage of thrashing groans like the gnashing of giant teeth began slicing the air just beyond the precipice. The eruption of vile and horrendous noise then trailed off with a reverberating guttural rage but was followed immediately by a flood of twenty-three frantically shouting human voices.
Mollie hastily grabbed the flint. Another groan was belching from the bowels of the dungeon’s formidable black pit, a gastric churning so loud it could be heard above twenty-three yelling adults. Striking the flint against the rocks, Mollie whimpered, pressing with all her might. Sparks snapped in every direction, a few thankfully catching an obscure pile of tinder that had fallen in from above. Ripe for the burning, the discarded brush quickly flared to life. Gastric screaming mercifully subsided as ethereal stomachic carnivores receded back down into the depths of digestive darkness.
Mollie had just saved her people, for a while longer anyway, pushing back their gruesome deaths for however many minutes the fire burned. No one thanked her, though, not one even offered her a kind word. She did not belong here with these rebels, she a prisoner of prisoners, an outcast even among her own kin. All because she had helped a boy twelve winters ago, a lost boy whom had been alone and afraid. The boy had come from the Kebakaranian Empire, deserted when his horse had taken sudden flight and dumped him in the deep of the woods.
The people of Valdersa would have killed that poor boy had Mollie not taken him in; the people of Valdersa hated the power and authority of the Kebakaranian Empire that much. Mollie hid the boy for a night, feeding him and giving him a warm place by her fire, a crime of treachery in the eyes of the people of Valdersa. “So you saved a Kebakaranian boy!” Darren shouted at her when the people learned of her act of kindness the following day, “Do you think the Empire will not still crush us when Arrio decides to overtake us now that that boy knows we are here?” But Mollie had not thought of that. No, she had only wanted to help a lost boy who had done no harm to anyone.
“He will come for us tonight.” Mollie said through the din, looking at Darren squarely for the first time in her life.
“Who?” Darren spat, “Who is coming for us tonight?”
“The new Emperor.”
“There is no new Emperor, you fool!” Darren shouted.
Mollie flinched away from him.
“Arrio would have to have a son and he cannot conceive children. That means there is no heir to his throne, you stupid stump of a girl! Otherwise we would not all be fighting to claim it, now would we?”
“The boy from the Empire told me that Arrio had a son. That was twelve years ago. Arrio’s son will be old enough to take the throne by now.”
“That boy from the Empire was just a rich kid with nothing better to do than to scare us all with lies!” Darren was spitting. “It’s been twelve years and nothing has changed. But Arrio will soon be dead and that skinny boy you so saved has long since forgotten you. There is NO new Emperor, and even if there was, why would I ever surrender to him–when I could BE him?”
“You don’t know what you say.” Mollie said. “You do not understand his power!” Oh, they had all heard of the power that the son of Arrio would possess. He would come with supernatural fire, that he would do, but he had to be born first before he could incinerate anyone, and since no one had ever seen the boy, no one believed he existed beyond the realms of imagination.
Bowing her head and sobbing once, Mollie raised her eyes to look at each of the prisoners one by one. “Confess your rebellion to the new Emperor, the son of Arrio, the rightful heir to the throne. Promise fealty to him and trust in his rule that he may forgive you and let your people live.”
“I will not listen to this!” Chains violently clanked against iron as Darren lost his cool. “Valdersa blood runs in your veins too, or have you forgotten this in your self-righteousness?” He was pointing vehemently at Mollie. “Tell THAT to your fiery Emperor when he comes and see if he doesn’t burn you FIRST!”
The incitation worked. Stones and pebbles and sticks were soon flung Mollie’s way in a flurry. She cowered timidly beneath the ledge of rock, falling silent for the remainder of their time in that festering pit known as Abyssus Cave, the Emperor’s outer dungeon.
A new light came several hours later to the weary prisoners. It was swelling through the passage leading down into their soggy holding cell. The fire near Mollie had burned down to embers. The groaning out of the depths resumed, though it thankfully kept its distance. The prisoners began to stir, their eyes glossy from fatigue. The vines and tangled weeds above them were beginning to glow with the same strange light.
Tendrils of smoke lit by eerie umber luminescence snaked before their widening eyes as the stark realization hit the twenty-four prisoners.
Abyssus Cave, the Emperor’s outer dungeon, was on fire.
Full blown screams filled Abyssus Cave as bright hot fire fingered its way above the prisoners, rapidly spreading its canopy of glowing death. Chained Valdersans pummeled the rocks, beating their fists into bloody stumps. Those in cages threw themselves to and fro, desperately trying to shake loose from their pens. Bodies thrashed against red-hot metal in sheer agony. One by one the fire devoured the doomed prisoners, turning proud and insolent Valdersa rebels into blackened corpses oozing scorched blood.
Cowering against the rocks, poor Mollie could only watch helplessly as the silhouette of a new and strange man was advancing surprisingly unscathed through the swirling conflagrations. The Kebakaranian boy’s words spoken twelve cold winters ago echoed through her mind as the shadowy man, despite the flames, grew ever closer…
The new Emperor will come with cleansing fire, and nothing will be able to quench what he wills to burn. The Emperor Arrio has a son, you see, a son named Zane who will one day put right all the wrongs done to his father.
So he had come after all, this Arrio’s son, the Emperor Zane. She knew it was him because he was coming just the way the boy had said he would come.
Glowing debris was now raining down heavily into the pit. Mollie, still chained beneath a slab of rock, remained for the moment untouched by the shower of embers. Though her eyes were stinging from the smoke, she could still make out Zane where he was standing amidst the inferno. A billowing cloud of inky hair was whipping around his head, obscuring it, revealing it, and obscuring it again. In that single and terrible moment when she glimpsed his beautifully menacing face, she knew without a doubt she was seeing fire incarnate.
And Fire Incarnate was very angry.
An awful terror lanced through her. What would the new Emperor do when he discovered that she had yet to feel his wrath? Fearing he would become more hostile when he discovered her there, fearing even more that he would direct that hostility fully upon her, Mollie pressed against the rocks hoping to hide from him. It was of no use, however. As raw combustion miraculously sprang to life off his fingertips, the shadows protecting her were chased away in a flash of light so brilliant it was blinding.
Zane eyed Mollie where she huddled cowering behind her shackled wrists. His power over her tore the air with a feral groan, a power so awesome that it would have been beautiful had it not been so deadly. Eyes fierce with deepest ire, mouth set in a grimace that reeked of loathing, Zane was seething with a reverential wrath and poor Mollie helpless with nowhere to go. Hand now held high and preparing to strike her with roasting fire, his scowling eyes flashed cruel intent. Resigning herself to her fate, Mollie hid her face in her arms, her body convulsing with wretched sobs before she collapsed under the blessed veil of unconsciousness.
“She’s waking up!”
The voice was almost childlike, high and excited and exuberant. There was a resounding commotion that followed, things being shuffled, voices muttering and exclaiming softly, the rustling of fabric as bodies scurried about. The bed shook once, twice, and then was sagging down and Mollie feared she would tumble out. Trying to open her eyes was proving to be difficult though she was grateful to be out of that tumultuous, fiery nightmare.
“Open your eyes, girl,” such a rich and motherly voice, “Open your eyes and greet your new life.”
A cool wet cloth was dabbing at Mollie’s face and she found herself turning into it, so soothing and sweet it was. When she tried to speak, only a tiny crack came out. It hurt to use her voice. The first thing her eyes met when she forced them open was a strange woman looking down at her, round and fleshy and pale, so unlike Valdersan women whose skin was ruddy and sometimes freckled.
“Where am I?”
“How silly of you, child.” The woman said, smiling though she provided no answer. “Rest while you can, for soon you will need to rise up. You need a proper bathing. A right mess you came to us, all covered with ash and mud and rags!”
“Ash?” Mollie bolted upright but was cut off abruptly by a fit of coughing. “The new Emperor,” she managed to wheeze out, “he was there, with his fire!”
“Oh, relax now, child.” The woman’s pudgy hand was forcing Mollie back into dreamy pillows. Lilac and wild orchid filled her senses as silk and feathers enveloped her head. “Of course the Emperor was there, otherwise how would you have gotten here?”
“You mean it was real? The fire, the cave, the Emperor Zane coming for us?” Mollie wasn’t sure that she wanted to hear the answer, yet she was curious as to how she was still alive. “Did someone kill him?”
“You mustn’t speak such things.” Worry creased the woman’s forehead. “The Emperor Zane is not dead, no one killed him. He is alive and very well and looking forward to finally speaking with you.”
Mollie shot up out of bed, hurling herself past the round woman but quickly losing her footing. The woman was soon standing over her, laughing dryly. “He brought you back from the fire so that you did not have to perish with those filthy rebels. He made ashes of Valdersa too, everyone and everything, gone! He left no survivors. None, except that is, for you.”
She knelt before Mollie now, her face all round circles. “Apparently Zane considers you worthy, or he’d have burnt you along with the others.”
Mollie could only gawk up at the woman in apologetic shock. “There has been a mistake,” she said, “I do not know Zane, nor could he know me.”
“Oh, not according to Zane.”
The woman was gripping Mollie’s arms. Her hands were warm, firm, strong… Heaving, she pulled Mollie up off the floor. Her ample body was warm and soft and smelled of lemongrass. Her breath was tainted with mint. “He claims he knows you well enough to have spared your life despite the detestable crimes your people committed against his throne.”
Suddenly Mollie wanted more than anything to leave this place, whatever this place was. Beautiful and treacherous, it was like the malice hiding behind that woman’s smile. She wriggled out of the woman’s grasp.
“I have never met an Emperor,” she managed to utter, “they don’t come out to places like Valdersa. We are nothing to the likes of kings! If I tell Zane that he is mistaken about me, he’ll become angry with me. I can’t bear to face his wrath again!”
“And do you think any one of us wants to see it?” The woman easily managed a very stern reprimand in reply, her sapphire eyes sparking. “No, silly girl, you will have to explain it yourself when you stand before him. And you WILL stand before him whether you like it or not.”
With those words, the round woman got up, turned on her heel, and with a rustling of fabrics was gone out the door.
They brushed Mollie’s hair to a shiny luster as she sat before a mirror. Young maidens clad in linen and silk were pampering her with delightfully soft hands, rolling her mahogany mane into sweeping braids and cascades. She wanted to tell them all to stop. She was being prepared for her destruction though the maids did not know it. The Emperor did not even know it yet, which would make his fury burn that much hotter when he figured it out.
Mollie looked up at the maid securing her hair and met her sparkling eyes in the reflection of the mirror. She was not a day over fourteen, this maid with smooth ivory skin and tawny braids wrapping her head like a crown.
Swallowing hard, Mollie spoke. “What, exactly, does it mean when the Emperor deems someone as worthy?”
“Oh, I don’t know!” The maid chimed back with a flit of her hand as she worked delicate flowers into Mollie’s tresses. “But you must be it, or he would not have spared you. Zane won’t be disgraced, so if you fail him, you are going to really get it bad.”
Mollie spun her head around to look directly at the maid with wide eyes. The girl simply twisted Mollie’s head back again. “Just don’t disgrace him and he’ll likely be kind to you. Sit still, please, that I may finish preparing you for the Emperor.”
“He won’t be kind to me!” Mollie squeaked, “You are all horribly mistaken! Zane thinks he knows me, but I was covered in dirt and ashes when he found me. I’ve never met an Emperor, I would have known if I had. I tell you, he mistakes me for another!”
“Oh, then you are in T-R-O-U-B-L-E! Boy, oh boy, when he finds out he saved you for nothing; you will have wished you burnt up in his fire!”
“What could be worse than his fire?”
“Don’t you know anything?” Finishing Mollie’s hair with a final jerk, the maid stepped back. “Get him mad enough; he’ll burn you all right, but not to kill you, no. He’ll just let you fester all scarred up for the rest of your life. He might let you wander the earth like that, or he might throw you in the dungeon below his castle where the spiders live in their giant sticky webs…”
Mollie decided in that moment that she would have to escape this place.
Later while sitting clad in a modest gown waiting for someone to escort her to her doom, she thought up ways she could flee. Looking out the window dismayed her, however; she discovered that she was in a tower several stories up. Trying the door only proved it locked. She could hide under the bed or in the armoire, but then she’d be found and surely word would reach Zane that she had tried to hide from him. She would be labeled a coward, just like her people had been, running when they should have surrendered, fighting when they should have obeyed. There was no hope; she was realizing with a sinking feeling that bred new fear, no chance for her to flee the Emperor’s wrath to come.
The guard was leading Mollie to a great door. Beyond its heavy dark wood and scrolling wrought iron, the Emperor’s tower loomed. “I go no further,” he said, “but once inside that door, you can only go up. Zane is waiting for you somewhere inside and he will know when you enter. You will not see him at first. The way up to him is narrow and difficult, but if you keep on it, you shall find him.”
“Is he mean?”
The guard regarded her curiously before answering her. “His Majesty does not like to punish with fire. If he had it his way he would never use it on anyone, but some leave him with no choice. Does this make him mean? Only to his enemies, I would say. Have you chosen to be his enemy?”
Mollie didn’t know how to answer that. She had never intended to wrong Zane, yet somehow she would before this night was over simply because she lived. Did that make her his enemy? She had not chosen to be born into a rebellious and insolent people.
Zane was expecting a long lost friend to come up into his tower. She was nothing more than a strange girl from an enemy village. How would she ever be able to face him after what power she had seen? By default she was guilty; her birthright alone made her an enemy of Kebakarania. The only thing left standing between the Kebakaranian Emperor and the total extinction of the Valdersan people…
…was her life.
The tower was massive.
If looking up was intimidating, looking down was terrifying. Mollie stopped when the stairs narrowed, making the mistake of looking back the way she had come. Crouching in fear against the wall, suddenly she was too petrified to go on.
Was it not customary for an Emperor to summon his subjects before him while he sat upon his throne? Were not throne rooms at ground level, sprawling wide and flat where tapestries hung and cauldrons of fire gave their light? She couldn’t help but wonder if this harrowing journey up to Zane was just another test of her obedience. There were so many steps to climb, and so steep! With no rails to hold onto, one wrong stumble and she could easily fall to her death.
The words of the Kebakaranian boy were ringing through her panicking mind. “The people of the Empire obey their king, trusting in his rule even in the absence of understanding.” Mollie was certainly lacking understanding now. If Zane truly believed her a friend, why the fearful journey up? She imagined him pushing her down after all of her hard work to get to him, his laughter chasing after her before a blast of scalding fire consumed her midflight. The whole world had forsaken her, the great Emperor would probably kill her, and the tower’s massive size was only magnifying her aching destitution.
Coming from somewhere above the light of a fire could be seen burning steady and bright. Mollie knew nothing about this fire or where it would lead her, yet she kept her eyes upon its light to guide her. She did not know what Zane would do to her when she got up there but she crept forward anyway, trying to believe in the miracle of mercy. “He’s a good king.” She told herself out loud. “He’s a good king. He is a good king. The Emperor Zane is a very good king.”
Zane was patiently waiting for her when she reached the top of the tower, his ebony hair falling in glossy streams across his shoulders and down his back. Leather garments were draping him like billowy dark clouds. The light glinting off his imperial pendants flashed. The metal chains dripping from his belt glittered like rain.
He was strength.
He was power.
He was awe inspiring and beautiful and dark. The very sight of him evoked terror and might and the threat of an all consuming fire.
A stone bridge spanning the enormous diameter was all that separated the powerful Emperor from little Mollie now. The large cauldron lamp next to him blazed, its fire whipping and swirling up into the air, illuminating the lofty ceiling with beautiful arcs of coppery light.
What was she supposed to say, to do? Mollie did not know if she should bow, or address Zane in a certain way. He was her Emperor, after all, and she just a naive village girl not accustomed to the ways of a king.
“You hesitate to come to me, Mollie.” He knew her name. How did he know her name? “Though I understand that you fear me, as you should, I would think you’d be curious as to why I brought you here.”
Mollie suddenly fell to her knees on the bridge, collapsing prostrate on its span. He was walking over toward her, stopping just as he reached where she lay.
Trembling, Mollie gripped Zane’s boots with her hands. “O King! Why have you chosen me to bear the burden of shaming you?”
“Whatever are you talking about?”
Mollie looked up at him.
“One of the maids who prepared me, she said you had been looking for me for years. But,” she began weeping, “but… I am not the one you seek. There has been a mistake.”
“Is that so?” The Emperor was chuckling softly. “Well, then what shall I do with you?”
“Do not be harsh with me!”
“Do not command your Emperor!”
No more chuckling.
Mollie, realizing the magnitude of her blunder, choked back a sob. “I beg your forgiveness, O King!”
Zane, pitying the poor girl at his feet, sighed compassionately. “You are forgiven.”
“I never meant to deceive you.”
“Then why were you with those rebels?”
Mollie’s heart jumped into her throat. How would she ever answer him? She could not accuse the imperial soldiers of having taken her to Abyssus Cave in error. Such an accusation would insult the Emperor who had sent them. Fearing that anything she said now would only provoke the Emperor to punish her severely; Mollie sadly hung her head.
A creaking of leather and a jingling of chains resounded through the air. Zane was kneeling down in front of her. He firmly grasped her shoulder. “Tell me what it is that troubles you.” When she did not reply, he squeezed harder. “That’s a command, Mollie, and one you’d best obey.”
Her breath was trembling within her, her head growing dangerously light. His touch was frightening her beyond reason. One wrong word and she’d burn.
“I-I am just a p-poor woman from a rebellious people n-not worthy to enter your kingdom. I d-don’t even know how to properly address you, or s-speak to you or bow to you, m-much less how to confess to you why you should-should h-hate me.”
“And why, little one, should I hate you?”
“I-I cannot be the friend you are seeking.” And with sweat pouring down to mingle with her tears, Mollie confessed her disgusting truth. “In my veins runs the blood of-of Valdersa, a sworn enemy to your mighty throne.”
Several moments marked only by the Emperor’s frightening silence ticked slowly by.
Finally, Zane rose to his feet. His laughter rang out through the yawning shaft of the tower. When he looked back down at Mollie, amusement was glowing behind his waning glare. When Mollie hid her face, he firmly put his boot on her fragile shoulder. “Look at me and try to remember who I am!”
Mollie timidly looked up. He asked her to remember a boy twelve years ago, a lonely boy whom had lost his way in the woods. “Do you think I don’t remember that you gave me the last of your food?” He removed his foot from her shoulder. “Do you think I have forgotten how you risked everything to help me that night?”
“It was you,” Mollie whispered as all the blood drained from her face, “you were the boy that was lost in the woods.” Shame was flooding her features. “I am so sorry I did not have more to give you that night, you were so hungry.”
“And so were you.” Zane was reaching out his hand. “Yet you gave me all you had. You thought you were helping a pauper who could never repay you. You risked your life to help that pauper, not knowing that he would be the next Kebakaranian Emperor.”
Stunned, Mollie reached up, taking Zane’s extended hand. The fire next to him lashed once before settling down again.
“You could have turned from the Empire when your people taunted you year after long year because of me, but you did not.” Zane stuck his free hand into the fire. Tendrils of flame began to wrap delicately around his wrist. Mollie could see his veins snaked beneath his flesh, so he was definitely human. Yet, amazingly, he did not burn.
“You could have cursed me while I tested you with fire, but you did not.” Zane was now pulling his hand from the fire, but the flames were still clinging to him. He blew into them with fervor, his breath of fire instantly flashing several feet upward. A spectacular show of prowess so casually executed before resuming words meant to free anyone who believed in and feared the great and all-powerful Emperor of Kebakarania.
“Because you are so humble, I will share my Empire with you. Because you are so meek, you shall share in my great strength.
“Though your Valdersan blood condemns you, Mollie, your faith in me has saved you.”
Mollie went out into the world and told of the Emperor’s mercy, dispelling the lies about his throne and spreading the message of his life. The Kebakaranian Empire thrived, growing far and wide with light and warmth extended to all who would accept it. For those who insisting on living by the ways of rebellion, their place was in the Abyssus Cave where darkness reigned so black there was no escaping it. The Beasts of the Night eventually fed on such people, dragging them down that ethereal black throat, swallowing their souls as their bodies burned with punishing fire from above.
For those who chose the light, their place was in prosperity; their faith in an Emperor they had never seen would be rewarded by his kindness and protection. He would reveal the fullness of his glory to them when they arrived into his kingdom–tested by the journey, purified by fire, and proven worthy by an obedience born out of their love.
© 2013 Christy Boston