The boy lay on the rough pallet of worn straw. His bony frame was little more than angles and taught skin, the result of at least a fortnight of fasting. The green and grey granite of the walls of his cell were moist from his breath despite the oppressive heat from the brazier that burned in the corner. He rolled on his side dragging the worn burlap “blanket” up around his shoulders, desperately trying to control the shivers of fever that racked his body. In haze of his mind he thought back over the weeks leading up to this point. The daily ritual baths, the pungent herbs the masters burned in the brazier, and perhaps most of all the gnawing hunger that burned like a coal in his guts. The things they burned in the brazier sometimes made him sick, sometimes they dragged his mind out of himself and it was all he could do to keep control. It would all be worth it soon. He had lost track of time, but that wasn’t important. What was important was that his master would return soon to take him to his final test and if he passed…well then the gates of power would open before him. If he didn’t, then he would be dead and at least the pain would be over.
As he mulled the appealing possibilities of oblivion he was startled awake by the heavy metal pop of the lock turning in the ancient door. With all of his remaining strength he rolled back over and stared up at rough jawed but sympathetic face of his master.Gentle but firm hands grasped him by the shoulders, lifting him from his nest. He was momentarily ashamed of the reek of urine and feces that rose off of the long and wasted gown that hid his frame.
“Peter, the first test is complete. You are pure. We will now bathe you and anoint you. Then the second test. It is nearly done”. The boy could do little more than nod his head slowly, unable to support himself with his mind reeling so.
What seemed like an eternity passed. He sat at a table in front of a banquet table. He had been bathed and dressed in the heavy ceremonial robes of gold and red. Around his neck hung the heavy iron circle that was the symbol of the one that would soon be his master. He turned his head trying to fight down the dizziness and nausea again. The table was set, and others like him, perhaps eight, sat at the table. The plates were bare. The cups empty.
From the shadows of the dark and huge dining hall a tall shape emerged. He wore only a simple brown and red robe. His hair was covered by his hood, and his face was hidden not by darkness, but by the smooth ivory of a blank mask. Only glittering eyes could be seen beyond the mask. The man’s strong and resonant voice then echoed off the walls of the hall. “The table is bare, the hearth is cold. The feast is ended. The innkeep demands his pay. Who is willing to pay the price?”
The boy’s body was suddenly racked by shivers. It was suddenly too cold. His fever had begun to break and the words seemed to echo in his mind down to what seemed like his soul. Without being told, he knew what must be done. With weak and trembling arms he pressed himself up to stand. Shuddering and barely more than a whisper he spoke, “Though the price is high, I pay it gladly” There were sounds from others near him muttering their assent. Two fell in the process of standing. Dark figures hurried from the shadows and they were pulled out of the hall.
The man once again spoke, his voice firm and calm. “Then let the tables be filled, and the banquet continued. Let those who will eat be merry. The price is paid in full.” He suddenly turned on his heel and walked away.
Figures stepped from the shadows to lead the boys and girls from the hall, their bellies still empty. Each was filled with a sense of loss they could not fully grasp. They were led into a long and cold hallway their ragged breaths coming in white clouds. The boy nearly fell into his master’s arms as they wrapped around him. The master was a stern man, but he could see affection in his eyes and the thought warmed him.
“Peter, you have done so well. I heard, you were the first to stand. Our prince will smile on you for certain today. You must be strong for the final and most dangerous of challenges awaits you. You mustn’t fail yourself my son. From here there is no turning back. You know what failure means”
The boy wasn’t sure if he nodded or not, his vision was still a haze of pain and hunger. His master released him and helped him down the hallway He could see each of the others that had emerged from the hall was also his own master. The hall reached a junction, curving off to his left and right. Each of the masters lead his pupil in one direction or another, each stopping in front of a door. His own master lead him to a door bound in black iron. The stone frame was carved in the most intricate of runes and symbols of power. A quiet murmuring penetrated the door, deep and sonorous.
“Peter, I cannot follow you further. This part of the journey is yours alone. Beyond this door you will find your destiny. Beyond this door the dark prince will lay bare his plans. All I can tell you is that beyond this door is oblivion. It is your end.”
This wasn’t what the boy had expected. His end? Oblivion? His master must be mistaken. He had done all that was expected of him. He had learned the prayers. He had mastered the anatomy through days of practice. This was to be his end? Panic began to overtake him. He looked frantically side to side looking for a way to escape. He could surprise his master. Maybe, if he could get away, his father would take him back. If he knew what was going to be done to him…
Then it happened. Something inside him screamed “No!” If his doom awaited him on the other side of the door then he would not flinch from it. The table was set for him. It mattered not if the plates were empty. He suddenly realized his shoulders had relaxed and his master’s knowing hand dropped from his shoulder showing only the briefest glint of the blade that disappeared back into the cuff of his master’s robe.
“My child, you are first among them. Step forward to your fate.” With a heavy thunk of a bolt being thrown the door swung open. A thick mist of incense and burning herbs wafted into the hall obscuring what lay beyond. As he stepped through the door his master whispered to him. “The dark prince awaits you.”
End Pt. 1