Love will save you where everything else fails.
— LÁRA ITO, TO HER SONS
Time seemed to move at an inchworm creep while Erik Ito stumbled, sandaled feet trudging across what sounded like shattered glass. At first, he could not see. When he finally could, he stared at the black and gold scaled dragon in shock. The size of a small mountain, the monster swatted at the two black-coated men who danced around its feet, slashing it with swords. White whiskers hung from the dragon’s elongated jaw like long withered branches, and bright red blood spilled from the glittering bone protruding from its chest. Each scarlet drop caught fire the moment it met the air.
For the life of him, Erik could not recall how he had come to be here. In this place. Then it all came rushing back: the hunting party he led into the Northern Reaches, their battle with the Jade Spider, and his decision to investigate the crash site of the comet. If he had known all of what this morning would entail, he would have stayed in bed. Perhaps spend the day trying to mend the divide with Hanna, but it was too late for that now. Perhaps it would always be too late.
Time inched forward, and he glanced down at the longsword in his hands. His flesh looked inflamed and blistered, and hundreds of cuts riddled his once elegant green robe from the shards of glass embedded in his skin. He knew of every little slash as hairline fractures on the outside of his inner void; they burned, but the pain was a distant thing compared to the prominence of the massive vortex churning beneath his Ethereal Body. Wounds like that could kill, or leave him a husk of what he had once been.
Erik hung balanced on a knife’s edge, between the boundary of the known and the unknown, two paths opening before him. Run or fight. If he continued to battle, defeat was almost a certainty; he had already lost half of his warriors in a handful of seconds. Every instinct urged him to flee!
I’m sorry, he thought, not really understanding who the apology was directed to. He would not run. He would not! Asbjörn always said he was too headstrong and impulsive, yet that was not it. He understood the consequence of his actions, not in every case, but certainly in this one. Back in the Vetur, the capital city of Vindur, he had spent years cultivating the image of a playboy to protect himself from his brothers’ plots. His exile to the citadel of Hjörtur had been a chance for him to re-brand himself, a necessary step in his plan to ascend to the throne. But it was more than that, he was afraid . . . afraid that if he ran now that none of it would have been an act. That everything they whispered about him would be true. He would rather die than have that be the case.
A wave of renewed energy surged into Erik’s tired limbs, and he firmed his wobbly legs, raising his longsword into the air. Formerly muted sounds came roaring back along with the stench of the white smoke swirling around the crater. He ducked his head, narrowly avoiding the severed head flying towards him. A shower of crimson droplets splattered the back of his neck and hair.
His longsword flickered and twirled as he performed Leaves on the Breeze. A single flow of the Aspect of Air rose up from the Abyss, rendered obedient by his Tár Guðs blade; the golden liquid-like prana splashing around his Ethereal Body burned to power his Esoteric Sword Technique, further draining his reservoir. Creation fought back against what was being done, but he persevered. A dozen invisible, razor sharp leaves made of Air wavered in and out of existence, then they solidified, whistling towards the dragon. They slammed harmlessly against the creature’s scales as it ripped apart the last black-coat man.
“Fuck,” Erik lamented, blood leaking from the nicks on his face. Slowly, the monster turned towards him, black and gold eyes radiating menace. His legs trembled, and fear crawled down his throat and into his chest. I will not die cowering like a coward. I will not!
Howling, Erik dropped to his knees, slamming his longsword into the earth, draining every last drop of prana he held within, attacking with The Earth Entwines. Illusionary vines of Earth erupted from the dirt, wrapping themselves around the dragon, flickering like candlelight. He groaned, jaws clenched, fighting against what felt like a raging river; if his concentration slipped for even a second, he would be swept away, smashed to ash. By force of will, he made his Esoteric Creation stabilize. The dragon roared, encased in giant vines of Earth that resisted its efforts to free itself.
Erik stood, laughing in disbelief. It worked! That was the largest Esoteric Technique he had ever performed. He felt depleted of all energy, a good gust of wind would send him tumbling.
Suddenly, the vines snapped like pieces of twine, and the monster exploded forward, maw gaping. Before Erik blinked, it was upon him. Pain erupted; he sensed teeth tear through his spine and puncture their way into his chest. Then his skull ruptured like an over-sized grape.
Erik spun around in ritualistic circles, arms spread open, his hands filled with sand. He felt odd. Insubstantial like a wisp of smoke or a ray of starlight. Confused, he glanced at his right arm. He could see the beach straight through his golden robe sleeve and limb as though through a crystal. A crystal that glittered strangely with refracted light.
Where am I?
He tried to remember, but the recent past was shrouded in fog; no matter how he tried, it resisted his best efforts. The sun flared hot behind him, and surging light ripped through him, making his frame pulse and twist like morning mist. After a moment his form stabilized, and a new image took shape. A small, green-eyed boy, with a worry-free face and a head full of sandy brown hair. The way he looked at ten years old.
The scent of the ocean tickled his nostrils, sending warm tendrils questing through his mind. He opened his hands, and the pink and white granules slipped through his fingers. For an instant, they hung in the air as if set aflame by the orange half-light of almost twilight.
No, not a dream. A memory. Erik remembered this moment. Next, she will tell him to sit.
“Sit,” came a woman’s voice, sweet despite its tartness.
With a soft sigh, Erik lurched to a stop so fast he almost toppled over. Frowning, he gazed at the woman who had spoken, Lára Ito, his mother. She watched him behind long eyelashes. He could only stare. She looked even more beautiful than he remembered.
Before whenever he had tried to recall her face, he had pictured her as old and sickly, the way she had looked on her deathbed. Yet there was nothing aged or feeble about her now. Her eyes were dark pools of green that held him transfixed. Mother, he thought and felt like weeping. It had been so long since he had last seen her, and paintings were no substitute.
Under the guard of a dozen nearby Lightbenders, she sat on top of a blanket next to a small hole dug into the sand like some sort of exotic flower. Even seated as she was, she exuded a stern elegance. It was in the straightness of her back and the way she held her chin slightly raised. Raven colored hair fell from her head, draping over a pink dress made of silk with golden leaves, flowers, and butterflies sewn into the sleeves. A necklace of fine silver links, supporting a small, sparkling green stone, hung around her pale neck.
“Do you know why I’m angry with you?” she asked him as he approached her.
Like a puppet with no control over his actions, Erik sat down next to his mother in the swell of blooming shadows. Twilight inched ever closer. “No,” he said, but he did know. He had done a bad thing; he had taken a rock and smashed it over his brother’s pet turtle.
“The greatest danger lies within ourselves,” Lára said. “Our souls are filled with both light and shadows. Each of us, Erik, is responsible for the night which we produce.”
“I’m sorry,” he told her. What makes up the life of a man? If Erik stripped away, all the things that made him who he was, the love for his mother would be all that remained.
“This you’ve said before,” Lára breathed. “Yet, here we sit . . . again.” Her eyes held an element of sadness that made his own itch.
Erik looked away from the repudiation in his mother’s eyes. At the moment they reminded him of green ice-fire. “Tell me a story,” he begged. He always liked it when she told him myths and legends from the Third Age, called the Age of Man. Her voice brought the tales to life with a magic that no one else had ever matched. His favorites all involved Jön Ito, who escaped the dark bowels of a Sorcerer’s breeding cavern to become the first King of Vindur. Jön was the reason the Royal House of Ito were called The Undying; he was notoriously hard to kill.
Hostile silence was the only response.
Erik’s bottom lip trembled, and he peered into the still waters of the hole in the sand, staring at his reflection. His eyes brimmed over with fat tears. With a start, he realized something unknown lurked within the hole, hidden just below his reflection, something massive and unseen. His stomach churned with a sense of unease.
This isn’t part of the memory.
Suddenly, the water erupted, and he was yanked into the murky depths, howling, screaming.
It grew as eons passed, trapped within its diamond prison that lay kilometers beneath the earth, surrounded by raging oceans of liquid magma. The heat and pressure aided in the development of its iron bones composed of the dust of exploded stars.
It thought in millenniums and the infinitesimal life-spans of quarks, and the Hunger plagued its every thought. The Hunger was a fundamental ache so old it predated the forming of the universe.
It clawed at the shell of its prison, driven forward by the lamentations of its stomach. Soon. Soon it would break free, and then it would feed.
The slow tap of claw against diamond lasted decades. Each knock was a promise of an end and a hope of a beginning.
A flaw appeared where before there was none, a small fracture in an otherwise flawless, transparent piece of stone. Liquid magma rushed inwards, baptizing the interior with its unholy glow. Finally, it was free. It escaped the ruin of its former home and swam upward, surrounded by the red inferno of the planet’s inner core. The burden on its body lessened, and temperatures cooled as it climbed higher, motivated by instinct and a promise of an end to the Hunger.
Like a hot blade cutting through flesh, it slashed its way up through the planet’s mantle and crust. Then erupted onto the surface with all the force of an active volcano. Under a cloud of gray ash, it unfolded its large wings and breathed in its first breath of air. Lava pooled at its clawed feet and rained down from the sky.
It surveyed the land from the air and saw a city made of emerald spirals glittering in the distance beneath a blue sun. Its body roared with pleasure that was almost sexual. At long last, it would quiet the rumblings at its core.
It descended from the heavens like the Harbinger of Death while the tiny-flesh-things that ran out of buildings made high-pitched mouth noises. Their lives were measured in half-steps, just so many inches until they entered its stomach. It crushed them by twos and threes in the hollow of its jaw. Blue blood squirted and splattered as razor-sharp teeth tore through soft flesh.
It ate its full then ate more; there was no end to the Hunger only a lessening of its pull. The inhabitants of the city attacked it with weapons of light and fire that did little to stop its rampage. Emerald spirals melted like wax under its furnace-heated breath while it hunted long into the night, basking in the aroma of chard bones and flesh. None of them would escape, it promised itself. It would devour them all.
It rested within the corpse of the alien city as the first rays of sunlight touched its scales. The buzzing of machinery in the air enticed it out of slumber. Only half awake, it was unprepared for the annihilating power of the antimatter bomb that exploded against its back. The white fury sent its body tumbling through half-melted spirals.
A howl of indignation filled the air. It was hurt, blood leaked from a gaping hole where a piece of exotic metal had lodged in its side. The pain of the Hunger it knew well, but this was a new sensation. It tried to stand but could not, so it lay on its belly, breathing in the stale musky air of the edifice it lied within.
Motes of emerald dust danced in the air where they hung in front of its eyes as the ground in every direction trembled. Then it remembered something it had forgotten: it was not alone; it was only the first of many. It took courage in that fact and leaped to its feet as the ground shook with even greater intensity. All over the planet, its brothers and sisters were exploding onto the surface of the world, and every one of them was plagued by the same Hunger that haunted it.
In its blood was the knowledge of all those who had come before it. Within that knowledge was a memory of a name that a long dead race had given its kin. They called them Celestial Dragons, Devourer of Worlds.
Mud slicked, Erik crawled up out of the hole dug into the beach and flopped onto his back. Under assault from the taint of the Celestial Dragon’s memories, his mind rang as if struck. He gasped, rolling onto his front to spew out the contents of his stomach, but nothing came out.
Confusion clouded his thoughts, he understood none of what was happening. The last thing he remembered was hunting in the forest with a few Lightbenders when they were attacked by. . . . His eyes flared in panic. I’m dead! No, that can’t be. If I’m dead where is this? The Pit. He shook his head, forcing down his fear and letting go of his questions.
Erik drew himself up, and he held up a wet hand, a man’s hand. Unless he missed his guess, he had resumed his normal form. Dropping his arm, he noticed a little girl with her back to him, playing tag with the tide. She wore a cream colored dress gathered high in her hands and had long, dirty blonde hair flowing down her back. Giggles escaped her mouth whenever the rolling waves splashed onto her tiny feet.
The sun had maybe an hour before it sank in the ocean, but despite the heat, Erik shuddered. He spun away from the little girl like the sight of her burned his soul. His heart ached, and for a second he thought he might cry. Then the sound of weeping drew him to a green-eyed boy, seated by himself with his arms wrapped around his knees.
The golden robe the boy wore twisted in the breeze. “I didn’t mean to,” he whispered with tears slipping from his eyes. “You believe me, don’t you?” His voice turned hostile, and he said, “Tell me you believe me.”
Erik stared into eyes that matched his own. They are my eyes. “I believe you.”
“Liar!” raged the boy. “You’re just like them! None of them like me. Not really. Not like mommy.”
Erik enveloped the princeling in his arms and shivered slightly. “Hush now.” He sounded weary and felt it too. “It gets better. Trust me it does. The pain never really goes away, but when you get older, you’ll learn to grow strong in broken places.”
The boy’s fingers dug into Erik’s back. “I didn’t mean to kill—”
The sky darkened as if a hand had covered the sun. Erik spun back around and stared at the colossal wave billowing towards him. For a moment two large wings made of water rose from its surface before collapsing back down.
Erik’s blood went cold. I’m dead, and this is the Abyss, he thought with certainty. “Hold on,” he told his younger self. He closed his eyes shut and clutched the boy tight.
Relentlessly, the ocean crashed down on him, doing its best to scour his soul, but it did not have the power he believed it would. He opened his eyes to find himself sinking to the unknown depths of a vast body of water. The princeling struggled at the end of his right arm, dragging him down faster. He sensed the foulness of the ocean stirring against his skin, trying to burn him to ash, surging to obliterate him out of existence.
A single drop of the vile water slipped into Erik’s mouth, and images flashed through his vision like a draught of cold air, leaving a little interval between each gust.
. . . blue blood squirted. . . razor-sharp teeth tore. . .
Erik struggled against the alien memories, but he could still smell the victims who had been burned, the blood of those who had been chewed, even the ones already swallowed, mingled with the aftertaste of raw flesh. He shuddered at the monstrous efficiency of the Celestial Dragon’s death-harvesting. Not even the Sorcerer-Kings of old had conceived of such a beast in their mad race to create ever more horrifying creatures.
. . . and the accumulated filth. . . clang to its scales. . . glittering in the half-light of dusk. . .
More water forced its way down his throat, and the great floodgates swung open, and the draft of external memories turned into small whirlwinds of fire. Gagging, he swam upwards, but the weight of the boy stole any momentum he had. His heart thundered in his ears. He understood he was in a battle for his very soul. For the right to exist!
A part of him whispered, Let the boy go. Let the boy go. He glanced down and witnessed the fear and hopelessness on his younger self’s face, and knew he could not do it. He would rather die than abandon this child.
Clutching the boy until his fingers ached, Erik forced himself to hold on, forced the images back. He refused to listen to the whispered thoughts in his head. Instead, he concentrated everything he had on his sense of self, on methodically building a wall to stop the endless processions of phantom pictures that crashed into his inmost soul.
. . . from its vantage point . . .world grew continually smaller. . . from the empty blackness of outer space. . . once green planet. . . skies gray with ash. . . turned away. . . lava covered ball was its past. . .
Tired and eager for sleep, he drifted in a tide of blood and hunger and tried to find purchase, raging against his unraveling, but it was useless. He sank down deeper into the ocean, he now understood to be the Celestial Dragon’s consciousness.
. . . quiet, too quiet. . . dark went on forever pregnant with a profound stillness. . . solar wind inflated its wings, turning them into light sails. . . it watched the stars and chose one it admired. . . endless night filled with misery and anguish. . . the Hunger plagued its complex trajectory through space. . .
A darkness weighed on him, twisting his thoughts. The beast has existed for eons and has traveled the vast emptiness between stars. What am I compared to that? I’m just a candle trying to stay lit while floating in the middle of the Howling Sea. Cold seeped into his limbs. And his heartbeat slowed. He fantasized about letting go and sinking beneath the Celestial Dragon’s unfathomable depths.
The ocean of otherness rippled with anticipation.
No. Erik’s closing eyelids snapped back open. He would not let that happen. He decided to fight! But he had no weapons, all he had was his memories. The entirety of his life wheeled before him. Half forgotten conversations and moments trapped in ember flickered past.
Mother, forgive me.
For a second, the water seemed to pull back from him as if his skin burned. Erik grinned. That’s it! Love is the key. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the image of his mother, on his cheek pressed against her chest, on the sound of her heartbeat. When he opened his eyes, the ocean shook with a booming lub-dub-LUB-dub resonance. The echoing churned the water like the fury of a storm; Erik pulsed in tune with it. Love filled him with warmth until he floated upwards. A spot of brightness the size of a fingernail grew above him the higher he climbed.
The ocean howled, guttural and cutting. Then a whirlpool formed beneath Erik, drawing him in, pulling him back down, ripping the memory in his mind to shreds. He came to a halt, and the light above dimmed, dwindling into almost nothing.
He closed his eyes and reformed the memory. The image came slowly this time. He knew the little boy’s hatred was holding it back. If he wanted to survive, he would have to let him go. I can’t do it. Let him go. I don’t want to. Mother, there has to be another way. Blocking out the boy’s whimpers that somehow reached his ears through the water, he opened his hand one finger at a time. Hot tears leaked out of his eyes. Steadfast, he kept on, forcing his pain down and opening his last finger. I’m sorry.
Erik floated up. He could see the light above even with both eyes closed. The warmth of his mother’s love surrounding him like a warm blanket, sheltering him from the sadness that tried overcome him, protecting him from the Celestial Dragon’s rancid presence. The beast raged, but its grip wavered all the same. The surrounding ocean boiled into steam, and the light grew until it became all consuming.