“I can’t do it,” Einar cries.
“Silence. You were chosen. There’s no other way,” his father demands, angrily. “You will not dishonor our family. You’ll go and you’ll show strength befitting a man.”
Einar cringes at his father’s rage, but the fear growing inside him is for what he knows comes next. His wide eyes turn to the old men standing around the dark hole. They wear the traditional cloaks of the dead ones and watch Einar with empty eyes.
The eldest moves forward and raises his hands to the sky. He speaks in a strange language. The others echo his words, becoming an eerie choir. Their voices bounce off the walls of the hut, growing louder as the leader raises the intensity of his words. Outside the hut, murmurs of those waiting filter through the walls. Some repeat the words of the elders while others speak so softly their words can’t be made out.
The smoke filling the darkened room chokes Einar and his eyes burn, watering. He fights the tears back afraid of his father’s wrath should any sign of weakness be present on the boy’s face. But his father can’t hear his heartbeat. It pounds so loudly in Einar’s ears, he’s afraid it will deafen him.
“Einar,” the elder yells suddenly. The cloaked men silence their voices.
Einar jumps and he meets the elder’s sunken black eyes. The dark spots on the old man’s face create strange patterns on his wrinkled skin.
“You’ve been chosen by the Ones With No Names to welcome one of their rulers inside you. As our traditions tell, once a child is chosen he or she must be lowered into the Living Darkness to prove their worthiness. Einar, do you accept the Ones With No Names’ will?”
A thick, white eyebrow rises at the hesitation in the boy’s voice. “Are you prepared to enter the Living Darkness?”
A lump in Einar’s throat makes it difficult for him to swallow, but he draws a deep breath and nods. “I am.”
“None shall interfere as Einar enters the Darkness. None shall interrupt no matter what befalls the boy. When the end comes it will be either to a dead body or a new ruler.” The elder pulls a small bag from his cloak. He grabs a handful of powder and throws it into the hole before him.
As the powder enters the shadow of the hole it illuminates, showing the spiraling staircase built into the walls. The stairs travel far beneath the earth and even with the light of the powder the bottom can’t be seen. Strange shadows appear to move as the light fills the topmost part of the hole. The powder landing on the steps provides a path.
Einar fights the urge to turn back to his father and steps forward. He removes his shirt and shoes, placing them at the top of the steps. One of the cloaked men approaches him and smears blood on his arms, chest, and face. The metallic smell churns Einar’s stomach, but he keeps his face calm and focuses his eyes on the dark hole.
When the cloaked man finishes his work, he returns to his spot around the circle. A second cloaked man on Einar’s other side moves forward and holds out a dagger. Einar takes it and bows his head. The man returns to his position and the group of cloaked men chant.
“Now, Einar, bearing the blood of a newborn on your skin as protection and the blade of sacrifice as is tradition, are you prepared to enter?” the elder asks.
“May your soul be strong and your body fit for a ruler.”
Einar places his foot on the cold stone of the first step. He hesitates only for a second before continuing and watching as the group around him disappear as he descends. The chanting echo through the darkness and the powder loses light as he passes. He places his free hand on the wall and carefully reaches for each step with his foot.
Soon the last of the glowing powder fades and he’s enveloped in complete darkness. The chanting grows softer until even that is no longer perceivable in the dark. Einar is left with the feeling of cold stone below his feet, the smell of the blood on his skin, and the sound of his beating heart in his ears.
Occasionally he hears the sound of other footsteps, but when he stops to listen it’s gone. He slips only once when the stone steps grow damp. His hand traces the wall of the hole, but all he can feel are the stones, similar to the steps. The dagger in his other hand feels heavy and he squeezes the hilt. The wall suddenly becomes dirt and the steps feel smoother on his feet.
Whispers rise from the depths and fear enters Einar’s heart. He moves cautiously, straining to hear the voices rising around him.
“Little boy, come down. We want to play.”
“Come down. We want to eat.”
“Young flesh. Warm to the touch. So easy to tear.”
Einar senses beings around him, but the absolute darkness prevents him from seeing them. The brush of a hand on his back sends a chill up his spine, but the metallic smell of the newborn blood grows stronger and the beings move away.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been descending the stairs, but a powerful tiredness fills Einar as he moves. His arms and legs grow heavy and his head sags. His eyelids droop and he fights to keep moving. He takes deep breaths and rubs his eyes.
“So sleepy, little boy?”
“Stay here and sleep forever.”
“Never wake again.”
Einar slams his fist into the dirt wall, hitting something trapped in the mud. A sharp pain stirs the sleep from him and he continues down. Laughter rings through the darkness, but the whispering stops.
The end of the stairs comes abruptly and nearly causes Einar to collapse to the ground. He steadies himself with the wall and leans his back against the damp earth. He swallows and enters the nothing in front of him. His feet hit stone as he walks and he feels pain as he stubs his toes on the unseen obstacles. He counts his steps and stops where the center would be. He raises the dagger in front of him.
“Living Darkness! I am Einar Vacuda. I command you to leave this place and bring forth the Ones With No Names. My business is with them and them alone.” Einar’s voice is strong and fills the empty space.
Silence answers him and for a moment he thinks it’s failed. The coldness of the dark pulls away and the whispers, so soft they only sound like wind, fade.
New beings fill the void around Einar and a different cold surrounds him. It’s the cold of death. He can feel them around him. As few as six, maybe as many as twenty, he can’t tell. They circle him too quickly.
“Ones With No Names. I am Einar Vacuda. I accept your will and I accept a Ruler. With my sacrifice, I welcome whosoever finds me worthy.”
Einar prepares to slice his arm, deep enough to bleed. But a strange feeling stops him.
A sudden granting of vision allows him to see the floor at his feet. He’s startled for a moment at the lifting of blindness, but terror replaces it quickly. Bones lie around him. The stones he continuously tripped or stubbed his toes on were actually skulls smiling into the darkness.
The reprieve from absolute darkness ends and he’s blinded again.
A disembodied voice floats into his ear. “Choose your sacrifice carefully, Einar Vacuda. If none find it worthy, you will die.”
Tightening his grip on the dagger, Einar’s breaths grow ragged. The beings around him move in closer. Not to accept his body, but to tear it apart.
A rush of anger fills him. How dare they decide what’s acceptable and what’s not. How dare they act as though they’re the ones in control? He’s the one in control. If he doesn’t offer a sacrifice they can do nothing. He’s not reliant on their mercy to leave. They’re reliant on his willingness to allow one of them to use his body. They need him. He doesn’t need them.
The anger filling him makes it easier for his blade to move quickly and with great precision. He plunges the blade into his right eye and pops it out, the dagger slicing the connecting nerves cleanly. The pain is sudden, but when he opens his mouth to scream in pain a roar of rage instead escapes his lips. He throws the dagger to the ground and stares into the darkness with his good eye.
Blood rolls down his cheek and a wave of nausea churns his stomach. Another yell of rage stops the nausea and he stomps his foot, searching for the eyeball. He feels a squishy object pop beneath his foot and continuously stomps it into the cold damp earth.
When he finishes, he gasps for air and wipes the blood from his cheek. The pain it causes is ignored. “Will that sacrifice suffice? Or will I have to kill all of you to escape this pit of pathetic beings who act more powerful than they are?”
The beings ceased their advance as the blade dug into Einar’s eye. One moves forward and Einar feels it stand in front of him.
“Einar Vacuda. I accept your sacrifice. May I have the honor of sharing a soul with one bearing the strength to rule as a bloody king?”
“What do you demand I do in order to maintain our bond?” Einar asks, remembering what’s expected of him as part of tradition.
“Feed me the greatest magic of the world. Feed me the strongest and rarest of all the magic and I will grant you the power of a true king.”
“I will feed you the magic you desire. With your power and my strength this world will be ours.”
The being moves forward and Einar feels it enter the empty hole where his eye had been. He feels power fill him and laughter escapes his lips. His new eye forms and he climbs up the long staircase.
The light from the top doesn’t hurt his eyes as he expects it would, but the surprise is little. Those standing around the hole watch as the bloodied boy emerges from the darkness. The silence is heavy, filled with worried awe.
When he reaches the top, Einar faces the elder. His eyes are now two different colors. His left eye remains icy blue, but his right eye is now reddish brown. The dried blood on his cheek is the only remnant of the gouging. Other smaller cuts on Einar’s feet still bleed freely, leaving behind small, red footprints whenever the boy moves.
The cloaked men turn to their leader who lowers his hood. “Einar Vacuda, the will of the Ones With No Names has been fulfilled. You’ve proven your worth. Does a ruler reside in you?”
“What is your name, ruler?”
Smiling, Einar’s new eye glows a deep scarlet and the blood on the ground slowly rises to create a crown around his head. “Klaeon Vacuda. The Blood King.”