By the anemic light of Phobos, I followed my rival’s spoor.
Master had hewn him for some minor transgression a handful of years before, and so he dragged his left foot as he walked. He seemed to be running now. The tracks were deep and erratic; Aemilius had divined that I was sent to hunt him.
It had been several hours since I left the academy at the behest of Master Altano. The search for the truant Aemilius had led me through the mastodon graveyard and then past the abandoned tower of Deimos before finally sending me into the dry bed of what had once been a great lake. It was here that I at last beheld the place which Aemilius had selected as his sanctuary.
Rising from the clay like the mitre of a colossal ecclesiast was a great stepped pyramid. I marveled at this even as I doubled my pace. It seemed to grow taller as I approached, and rude carvings began to materialize on its purple stones which caused my eyes to lose focus and my head to ache. Here was a place of counter-magic beyond the area of my study, and so I steeled my mind in anticipation of further enchantment.
When at last his tracks led me to the first steps of the enchanted pyramid, I paused for a while to prepare myself for confrontation. In the sleeve of my robes I felt the reassuring weight of my dagger, which I had dipped in the searing blood of a basilisk. In my satchel I carried what reagents were available to me as proof against certain tricks and hexes. Finally, the most important tool was the sheaf of whitegrass, which I had cut and tied to dry in the pocket of my robes that very morning. These things only would be my defenses against precocious Aemilius and the magic of his mysterious refuge.
With the gorgon fingers of fear gripping my heart, I mounted the ancient steps. No sentries had been posted, and yet I felt the pressure of eyes watching my ascent. I armored my mind with mantras as I gained the topmost step.
The portal at the pyramid’s summit was lit from within by a sourceless and sickly witch-light. Peering in, I saw a long limestone corridor that descended toward the heart of the pyramid and out of my sight. Stilling my ragged breath, I stepped over the threshold and cautiously followed the path down. Immediately, the silence of that place pressed against my ears with such totality that I could hear the sound of my own blood pumping through my veins. Deeper, deeper went the tunnel, and for good or ill no branching path was ever presented to me. The walls narrowed until I was almost creeping along totally sideways, and the lowering ceiling threatened to reduce me to crawling.
Finally, the witch-light revealed a set of stairs which led down to a wide chamber filled with great hanging tapestries. The heretical tellings featured thereon defy translation into writing. In my attempts to avoid looking into these unpleasant works, I espied movement in a small corner alcove at the bottom of the stairs.
There was Aemilius, drinking wine from a skin and reclining on a bundle of old cloth. The louse-ridden cur lounged like a king, as if my pursuit were of no consequence at all. Resolved to show him his mistake, I drew my poisoned dagger and crept silently down the stairs. When I reached the floor, I sidled against the wall and edged to within pouncing distance of my quarry. I gripped the dagger tight and raised it high for the killing stroke…
And Master Altano’s voice boomed in the chamber, shocking Aemilius from his reverie and causing my heart to vault into my throat. We fell prostrate beside each other to hear Master’s will.
“Aemilius, your lax mind has nearly cost you your life. Count yourself lucky that I favor you as a prospective magus, else I would have allowed this brute to slash your throat and leave you here as nourishment for the flesh flies.”
Master’s voice was athrum with his magic. It was his wont to berate us, but there was new meaning to his special contempt for me. Aemilius heard it too, and in a flash he leapt to his feet and freed a dagger of his own from his belt.
I wasted no time; my dagger hissed through the air, missing the soft meat under Aemilius’s arm by precious inches. His retaliatory slash caught in the cloth of my robes, creating only a shallow gash over my ribs. I seized his hand, attempting to twist the weapon from his grasp. We struggled, and eventually I overpowered him by forcing our combined weight on his lame leg. I crouched over my opponent, keeping him pinned with my free hand.
In the passion of my victory, I nearly ended his life there. I raised my weapon high and sent it plunging down with all my strength – into the wineskin that had fallen beside his head. While the wine flowed beneath his body, I bent to his ear, feigning exhaustion, and whispered this:
“Master has deceived us. He sent me after you as a test of your strength, but he underestimated my own. If you value your life, fake a strike with your weapon at my heart, and I will free us both from servitude and claim the key to Altano’s Library as our own.”
Aemilius stared into my eyes for a moment that seemed to stretch into an hour. Then, he shouted, as in surprise attack, and struck my chest with such force that I fell in a heap on the stone floor. I struggled to find my breath, my hand groping under my robes at my injured chest. Pitiless laughter filled the room, and Aemilius stood over me, victorious.
“A most clever trick, pupil. To use the wineskin as a misdirection against his sort was appropriate indeed.”
Through dim eyes I saw Master approach us from the shadows behind one of the profane tapestries. He peered down at me with a pleased sneer on his lips.
”Ever has he lusted after the forbidden texts of my Library, and to what end? He proved himself a lowly ruffian, a dog, when he lied to me about his attempts to break the enchantment I placed on my Library door. Only, what is this now?”
He leaned over me, very close, staring at the place where Aemilius had delivered his merciless blow. It was then that I sprung my trap. My hand had found the sheaf of whitegrass, and my mind had found the secret thought.
“Fool!” shouted the Master, “He still lives. Finish him now.”
I sat upright and, holding my grass talisman aloft, buried my dagger to the hilt between Master’s ribs.
For the first and only time, I saw fear enter his eyes, but it was gone in a heartbeat. He passed a shimmering hand over the wound in his chest, and the flesh there tried to fuse closed. But the wound remained. He tried again, this time vocalizing the phrase of mending. His gleaming robes darkened, and blood bubbled in his throat as at last he tried in vain to utter a fatal curse. Aemilius silenced him with his dagger.
We watched Master die on the ancient stones beneath our feet. Just as I was reaching down to search his body, the witch-light dissipated, plunging the chamber into unmitigated darkness.
A spine chilling shriek arose in the gloom, and I groped in my satchel for some source of light. I found and lit a candle, and the first thing I saw was the ashen, petrified face of Aemilius beside mine. The second thing I saw was a great pit in the floor, on the exact spot where Altano had died. I knelt to see the bottom, but the light of my candle could not penetrate that abyss.
And what noise came up to me from that black spot. If a thousand bereaved mothers moaned together in wretched agony, it would hardly sour my stomach after the unfiltered anguish that rose up from that pit sullied my ears.
Without a word we both recoiled and fled from that accursed place, I leading with the candle -- blessed candle, last scion of a world of light that seemed to have existed only in our imagination. That light, final light of our lives, led us groping through the tunnel upward and outward.
Of course the exit was sealed. We should have suspected as much; Altano had not intended for anyone to leave that place without his intervention.
We took turns holding the candle while the other attempted to move the enormous slab of purple rock that barred the way, first with our feeble magics and then with our desperate strength. There was nothing for it: the slab moved not an inch. Defeated, we returned to the lower chamber to search for another way out while the candle lasted. That was when the pit began to speak.
“Here! Come here! If you drop down you will see! There is a path down here which will take you outside.”
Aemilius ignored the pit and frantically scoured the room for another way out. I called down into the pit, but my shouts could not be heard over the beckoning voice.
Now Altano’s voice shouted from the depths, “It seems you simpering fools have seen through my ruse.
Come now, the Unknown is the final test. Leap down and prove yourselves, and we may leave this place ere dawn.”
Grand Magus though he was, Altano possessed no magic that could bring him back from beyond the veil of death. I rushed to aid Aemilius in his search.
It called to us in the jeering voices of other apprentices. It wept at us with the voices of young children and sighed indecent invitations from painted harlot lips. It crooned, it sang, it begged, and it threatened.
And we found no other way out.
Aemilius began to panic. He stuffed cloth from his robes into his ears and held it there with unsteady hands. We had exhausted ourselves running from wall to wall, prying at ancient flaws in the stone and searching the floor for hidden passages. We slumped together in a corner, the candle guttering.
Time passed; I am not sure how much. Aemilius was beating the sides of his head. And the voice went on:
“What a joy it would be to see the sun again, to breathe young air unspoiled by the fetor of old profanities. If only you would follow my voice.”
“I think we must go down,” I said at last. The words stuck on my parched lips. If only I had not cut the wineskin…
Aemilius regarded me with demented eyes. The terror had contorted his fingers into weird claws. He aimed one at my face.
“You. This is all your doing. How dare you suggest..?”
Before I could answer, he struck me full in the face, sending me asprawl and the candle rolling through the dust. Aemilius dashed to grab it and began to sprint up the stairs. I suppose in his desperation he had resolved to leave me in the blackness and at least die trying to force a way out through the pyramid’s entrance.
Instead, just as he gained the top steps, his fear defeated him. In his haste, he had forgotten to favor his lame leg. There was a crash, and I watched the tiny light at the top of the stairs come tumbling down.
Aemilius’s cries of pain ceased when his body was about halfway down the stairs. The candle went out. For some time I crawled in the darkness. The only truths in the universe were the voices and my hands on the floor. I had become a snuffling, mole-like creature, feeling the way with my fingers and the little hairs on my lips.
Eventually, I found the candle. I didn’t need to look for Aemilius after I lit the wick; I had crawled through his brains before I found it. I cradled that light for a short while, and then I retrieved from my satchel a bit of paper and some charcoal.
I do not know why, but I then recorded this series of events, exactly as they happened.
No, that is not altogether true. I do know why I have written this testimony. I have done this for the same reason that I crept into Master’s Library to learn about the whitegrass. I have always thirsted after knowledge that is forbidden to me. Aemilius was content to receive the meager lessons of Altano, which promised to turn him into nothing more than an instrument of the Master’s will. Not I.
That is why I am going to drop into the pit.
What greater intellectual barrier is there than the threat of total oblivion? What hidden truths may I uncover by shunning the terror in my heart and confronting that beckoning voice?
But my candle is melted, and I now write with blind and clumsy fingers. It is an easy thing to know where the pit is that awaits me; the voices have never stopped.
I promise to return and report my findings for posterity.
Now I go into the Unknown.
Austin Fraser is twenty-three years old and has been in love with the written word for as long as he can remember. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are his favorite genres for both reading and writing. He credits Gene Wolfe, Clark Ashton Smith, Harlan Ellison, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stephen King as literary inspirations. He hopes to capture the reader’s imagination with that unique type of magic that only exists in the best stories. When Austin isn’t writing, he is also a full-time student and serves as the Engagement Director for the Odyssey magazine.