His heart was beating to an erratic, insane rhythm, so powerful that Caelum feared it would explode inside his chest. The boy’s bare feet thudded on the wooden platform as he slowly made his way to the end. Swallowing, the youth peered over the edge. A bottomless cavern lay below, and the sight sent a shiver down his spine. Although their teachers had discouraged it, Caelum, along with all of the other kids at the Academy, feared the Abyss with an intense, chest-tightening passion. The enormous crack in the ground was rightly justified as a bit beyond creepy—it went down so deep that the bottom could not be seen, just an inky sea of distorted blackness. Caelum guessed that from an overhead view, the Abyss would appear to be a large, dark ocean, with the Purity Test decks, like the one he now stood on, seeming to be like little bridges that didn’t quite make it to the other side. If he passed this trial, he would get to behold the view for himself.
On the platform across from Caelum stood another figure whose face held the same expression of apprehension that he was sure he wore himself. The difference was that this other boy also had an air of curiosity and excitement about him, although Caelum wasn’t very surprised—his best friend always adored anything close to being defined as an adventure—even if it included a fifty percent chance of death.
“Prepare for flight!” called the supervisor, who stood on another deck above the crowd. There were hundreds of people, all of them the boy’s peers and teachers. The seventeen-year-old felt their stares like acid on his skin, and they sparked his anxiety, further igniting the flame of fear.
Obeying the supervisor’s command, Caelum slowly raised his dark sapphire wings. Across from him, the other boy did the same, drawing up his wings and stepping to the edge. The strong mid-day sunlight made Caelum’s friend look like a bolt of fire, his red, orange, and yellow pigmented wings and mop of curly hair paying a good attribute to his namesake. Ignis gave Caelum a firm nod, daring even to flash a smile, white teeth seeming even brighter compared to his freckly, dark skin.
“Caelum of sapphire and silver! Ignis of ruby and gold!” the supervisor’s shout rang out in the barren land, echoing through the dark pitch of the Abyss. “I command you now, be purified!”
He didn’t have time to think or reflect on his life or even feel afraid—with the command, Caelum instinctively complied, and, arms held out horizontally, wings ready, he fell forwards.
Every kid at the Academy had at some point or another envisioned this key moment in their lives—the moment when the purity of their morality would be determined in either a jump to the death or a flight to freedom. Caelum had imagined himself falling beautifully, silver and blue hair fanning behind him as he plummeted. The crowd would gasp, thinking him a goner, when suddenly the boy would shoot back out of the Abyss, wings aglow with the newly gained power of flight.
Unfortunately, the test wasn’t going exactly as he had thought it would, and Caelum’s heart seemed to be in his throat, stomach writhing. The air was ripping so violently around him that he found it difficult to breathe. Suddenly, fingers slipped through his wildly flailing hands and boy looked up to see Ignis’s gold eyes locked with his own, a laugh on his friend’s face. In the chaos of the moment, Caelum had forgotten the pact he and Ignis had made—their destinies would be intertwined. If one should not gain the power to fly and continue to fall, then both would.
That possibility seemed more real by the second as the boys continued to plummet. Every moment they prayed that in the next instant they would receive their flight power and sail together out of the black trench. The light overhead continued to grow dimmer and dimmer, and, with a horribly calming realization, Caelum knew that they had plummeted too far down, past the point where, if one earns it, his or her wings glow and they are able to fly. He had failed. The youth yelled the words out loud, but they were lost in the scream of the wind. Not good enough. Not good enough. Undeserving of the silver city. Undeserving of life. Neither would make it out of this endless hole. Caelum repeated the words in his head, hoping that this method would help him start to accept it. The boy just could not seem to believe that after all of his growth and understanding and experience and learning and discovering and bonding and life in general, he was just going to snuff it like that. With a final glance up at the sliver of sky that could be seen overhead, above the distant rim of the Abyss, Caelum could see the speck that was Glaciem twinkling brightly. It was the last time his eyes ever fell upon the silver city.
* * *
Both Caelum and Ignis, almost precisely the same age, had grown up in the Academy, the central monument in a bare, wasted land. There were no trees or flowers or vegetation, nor any animals for that matter. Everything was barren, crusty, dry. The Academy was, as the name suggested, a school, where the pupils both lived and learned. Faculty and staff consisted of those who were too fearful to take the Purity Test. Everyone of all ages had beautiful wings, colored to match one’s personality. Yet, none could fly until they had passed the Purity Test.
Legend said that the Purity Test had been around as long as anyone could remember. The concept was a simple one: jump, and be judged as either worthy or unworthy. That was where the Abyss came in, a huge trench in the hot, broken earth that went down farther than the eye could see. The last day of every month a Purity Test would be given, and anyone at the Academy who turned seventeen in that month was to participate in this exam. Worthy, and one’s wings would glow and the power of flight would be enabled. Unworthy, and one would fall to their death. The reward for the power of flight would be access to Glaciem—the Promised Land.
Far overhead above the Academy, huge forests floated in the sky, along with enormous mountains and misty waterfalls and blossoming meadows. This place, known as the Upper Lands, held all of the beauty that the Under Lands, the area around the Academy, lacked. The heart of the Upper Lands was a floating, beautiful silver city, rich and magnificent beyond measure, where all those who had passed their flight test lived. This was the everlasting city of Glaciem.
* * *
Ignis’s eyes were aglow with understanding; he, too, had accepted that they were going to die. It was horrifying—unable to see through the dim blackness, not knowing where the bottom was. They had no idea how close they were to the moment of impact.
Caelum desperately attempted to search through his memory, wanting his final moments to be spent reflecting on his life rather than flailing with Ignis as they impatiently waited for death’s icy grip. Ignis was truly the opposite of Caelum, yet the two were closer than any other pair of friends that they knew. The fiery boy was strong-willed, eager, and passionate in everything he did and felt. Ignis loved fantasy, craved adventure and glory, had a wild imagination that was constantly at work. Caelum was more practical, and often remained cold, distant, and remote from all except his best and only friend. Ignis softened Caelum’s calculating heart, and in return his companion often used logic to reason with him, turning down all well-planned adventurous schemes that he thought to be too dangerous or risky.
That time when they snuck out at night to try and fly and both broke a wing; when the boys poured gravy all over the school bully’s bed sheets; when they stayed up all night in the Star Garden, talking about themselves and their pasts and life itself—all of those cherished times seemed utterly pointless now. They would not reach Glaciem, but die instead. But dying was just a word. The actual action of it was the terrifying part—having one’s spirit and body separated in a great tear, thrown into an unknown oblivion where their last memory would be of how neither were deemed pure enough, worthy enough.
Ignis and Caelum. Caelum and Ignis. Two souls intertwined. Gruesome as their fate might prove to be, at least they were together. If, in a split second, they arrived at Hell’s blistering door, so be it. If suddenly the glowing gates of Heaven were to spring up, so be it. If neither of those existed, and death was just a gray void, so be it.
Now it wasn’t just their hands, but their arms, wrapped around each other. Caelum would feel the sleek feathery base of Ignis’s wings at his fingertips and the heaving of his friend’s chest as he fought for the air that their plummet deprived.
As if he could read the boy’s mind, Ignis suddenly strained his neck and half-choked, half-whispered in Caelum’s ear what the silver boy’s mind denied but his heart knew to be true: “It was worth it.”
The light overhead and the view of the sky were almost gone now. Darkness was everywhere—maybe that was what the Abyss really was. A big, black, dense beast that waited in ambush for the weary and worn—those without hope.
Caelum’s heart missed a beat, eyes strained.
It was real—it was real. Down below, where what seemed like only death awaited.
Hundreds of tiny glowing specks that swarmed into a blazing cloud of sun. The curious thing about it was that this phenomenon did not occur overhead, toward the lost life they had left behind, but down below, toward the bottom of the Abyss. The teenagers hastily shoved each other apart in their haste to get a better glimpse, eyes wide and mouths open.
They were falling so fast that neither could make out what the specks were entirely, and the little sparkles began to latch onto Ignis’s and Caelum’s wings, engulfing the appendages in a luminous blaze. There was a sudden sensation that neither of the boys dared to acknowledge for fear of instigating a false hope, but it soon became so drastic that they had no choice but to accept it and rejoice. It was as if the gates of Heaven had opened and pushed a beam of light upward onto they who had accepted death. They were slowing down.
Finally, they were to the point where Caelum’s stomach didn’t feel like it was being strangled and his lungs could easily circulate air. He and Ignis gazed at each other, eyes wide, hair slowly falling back onto their faces.
“No way,” the former murmured, eyes trained downwards. There, just below them, was real, actual, impossible ground. Not some huge spears of rocks waiting to impale them, not an endless pit of falling, not a beast waiting to eat them alive, but smooth, glossy stone ground, moss lining the walls and patches of wispy grass dotted to and fro.
With a soft pat Caelum’s bare foot touched the crisp, cold rock, soon followed by the other. He couldn’t believe it, he just couldn’t. They were standing, unharmed, at the bottom of the Abyss. The boy turned to his friend again, about to say something when he remembered the reason why they were not smashed like bugs on the cavern floor—the little glowing mass of dots on their wings. Caelum turned his neck to examine his feathers when he heard Ignis let out a partly amazed, partly shocked, partly ecstatic laugh, and soon found out why. Little friendly bugs shuffled about on his wings, eyes huge and tails flowing merrily.
“F-fireflies?” Caelum gawked, turning to his companion, who now stood with hands full of the little creatures, amber eyes inches from their tiny bodies. Ignis didn’t have much time to examine them though, as the bugs soon began to retreat, flying up high and nestling into deep cracks along the dark walls of the Abyss.
Ignis watched them go unhappily. “Where are they—?“
“Look!” Caelum interrupted, his priorities a bit different. There, at a rocky corner of the chamber, was a small tunnel. Grabbing the other boy by the arm, Caelum led Ignis to this means of escape from the Abyss. They had to crouch very low, wings painfully scraping the ceiling as they made their way down the passage. The boys journeyed for what seemed like hours, hope diminishing, until, with a gasp of relief, they finally saw an opening to the outside world. Sunlight streamed into the darkness in golden beams.
Caelum stumbled out of the cavern, blinded by the harsh, blazing light. When his eyes adjusted, the teenager at first thought they were somehow mistaken, maybe playing a cruel joke. He appeared to be in the Upper Lands—huge expanses of forest in deep gullies, raging waterfalls from high altitudes, meadows stocked full of blossoming flowers, insects swarming everywhere, herds of deer milling about, enormous, snow-capped mountains on the horizon line. The only difference was that while the Upper Lands floated in the sky, this fantasy land was grounded, just like the Under Lands. It was as if the two places had merged into one luxurious kingdom of life.
The boys could see everything—their cave had let out to a small peninsular cliff where they now stood, a wondrous expanse below them, the breeze carrying a multitude of floral scents and the tall, wispy grass brushing gently against their bare legs as the wind gently combed the land.
Neither one of them could speak.
“Yeah, pretty sure we’re dead,” Ignis finally concluded, crossing his arms with a firm finality.
Caelum shook his head, biting back an amused smile. “You can sit around and wait for God to come and give you a big kiss, then, but I’m going to explore.”
“Hey, if anyone you’re the one who could use a big kissie! Why wait for God when I’m right here?” he grinned, and the two wrestled about, Caelum thrashing about while Ignis advanced at him, lips puckered. It was so surreal—tears slid down Caelum’s cheeks as he tackled his friend to the ground. Honestly, they weren’t sure if they really were dead or not. It didn’t really matter though—as long as they were in such a beautiful place—happy, together—then they could be dead as a doornail for what either of them cared.
“Ow!” Ignis suddenly whined, a hand cradling the back of his head as he laid sprawled the grass. “Hey! I’m fragile!” the ginger boy grumbled as Caelum shoved his upper body aside, eyes narrowed at what Ignis had thumped his skull on.
It was a moss-covered, unbelievably ancient-looking stone tablet partially hidden away in a tangle of brambles. It was right at the edge of their little cliff.
“You could have almost pushed me off—“ Ignis complained, noticing how adjacent the tablet was to the edge of the cliff that fell for what seemed like miles. “I don’t know about you, but today I’m just a little tired of falling—“
“Shh!” Caelum insisted, shoving a stray vine away with his hand. “Look…”
Swirling cursive writing was engraved in the stone.
Welcome to Elutheria
The land that holds it all
You must be a bit confused
After your seemingly dreadful fall
Falling down the black Abyss
Leads you now to stand right here
Where everything is beautiful
Endless fauna and flora near
Glaciem, on the other hand
Should be feared with every breath
Though it looks nice from afar
The silver city is death
No one ever returns
From the journey way up there
For a lethal, deadly poison
Haunts the high-up air
Here is a place more glorious
A land not floating in the sky
But grounded all together
And beautiful to the eye
Use the setting sun
To guide you to the west
Not far from here is a city
Full of those who have passed their test
Oh, and do not be discouraged
You will still be able to fly
Just head to the edge of the cliff
And give your wings a try
Caelum, heart pounding, looked into his best friend’s eyes. Ignis have a firm, steady nod, but soon let out a cackle of laughter and, racing forwards, called out to the other teen, “I bet I’ll beat you there!”
“Not today!” Caelum grinned, feet moving instinctively, eyes trained on the blazing sun as it set into the sky. In an instant he was at the drop-off, and, arms held out horizontally, wings ready, he fell forwards.
Courtney V. Cusack is both an artist and writer that can be found wandering purposely through the streets of Chicago, pen in one hand and paintbrush in the other. Her hobbies include rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender and constantly throwing her cash at Devil Dawgs for their ridiculously good but lamentably expensive strawberry banana milkshakes. Courtney has been published for first place in poetry for the GAEL Literary Contest and has won a silver key and two honorable mentions in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. She is a freshman at Columbia College Chicago.