Love will save you where everything else fails.
— LÁRA ITO, TO HER SONS
Time moved at an inchworm creep.
With his arms spread open and his hands filled with sand, Erik Ito spun around in ritualistic circles. He felt odd. Insubstantial like a wisp of smoke or a ray of starlight. Confused, he glanced at his 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.
Erik wet his lips. What is this? Where am I? He knew what others saw when they looked at him, and it was not this. Ordinarily, they would see a tall skinny twenty-five-year-old man with sandy brown hair dressed in an elaborate silk robe, his youthful face sprinkled with hints of a mustache. He would convey the frail sense of someone raised in a palace: the unblemished skin of a pampered prince. He would look nothing like a Cultivator should, having none of the warlike bearings of his father.
The sun flared hot behind Erik, 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.
I’m dreaming. The scent of the ocean tickled his nostrils. He opened his small hands and the pink and white granules he held 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 would 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 that 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.
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 kind 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?” Lára asked Erik as he approached her.
“No,” Erik 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. One moment it was alive and the next it was dead. I just wanted to see what would happen, a young voice whispered in his head. But that too was a lie. He knew exactly what would happen. That is why he did it. Erik ached for his mother’s touch, for the feel of her hand running along his cheek. He cherished their moments alone when he got to keep her all to himself. That is why he had done it. That is why he had smashed Los with a rock.
Erik did not know where he began and where the younger him ended. His insides were a confusing mess of emotions and thoughts. He tried to will the memory away, but nothing happened. Like a puppet with no control over his actions, Erik sat down next to his mother in the swell of blooming shadows. Twilight inched closer, and his mind shook with shame and a perverse longing. She smelled like jasmine and a touch of cinnamon. His stomach unknotted. Even now her scent gave him a sense of comfort.
Mother, forgive me. Erik had forgotten about this childhood infatuation. He had pushed it away, buried it under a mountain of yesterday’s in the great labyrinth he called his mind.
“The greatest danger lies within ourselves,” she 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 said softly. “Yet, here we sit. . . again.” Her eyes held an element of sadness that made Erik’s own itch.
“Tell me a story,” Erik said, trying to change the subject. He liked it when she told him myths and legends from the Third Age, sometimes called the Age of Man. She had a way of bringing the tales to life that no one else could match. His favorite stories all involved Jön Ito who escaped the dark bowels of a Sorcerer’s breeding cavern and became the first King of Vindur. Once, she had told him that Jön was the reason members of the Royal House of Ito were called The Undying. They were notoriously hard to kill.
Slowly, Erik dropped his gaze, unable to take the repudiation in his mother’s eyes, which at the moment reminded him of green ice-fire. He peered into the still waters of the hole he had dug, studying his own reflection. It’s odd the way faces change with the passing of the seasons. Once this face was directly tied to my idea of self, but now it’s like looking at a stranger.
Erik’s bottom lip trembled. He knew what was going to happen. His eyes would brim over with fat tears. Then his mother would hold him close to her bosom. After she had dried his eyes, he would promise to be the light the world needed. And he would mean it although he was too young to understand what it meant.
Suddenly, the contents of the hole bubbled and seethed like a natural hot spring, first distorting then destroying his mirror image. With a start, Erik realized something unknown lurked in the water, something massive and unseen. That never happened. This isn’t part of the memory.
Erik’s stomach churned with a sense of unease. But before he could give much more thought to the strange occurrence, a gold and black monster pulled him into the water’s murky depths, kicking and 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 light-years, 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.
Time to feed.
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. Giggles escaped from her mouth whenever the rolling waves splashed onto her 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.
The sound of weeping drew him to a green-eyed boy, seated by himself with his arms wrapped around his knees. The golden robe he wore twisted in the breeze. “I didn’t mean to,” the boy whispered with tears slipping from his eyes. “You believe me, don’t you?” His voice turned hostile, and he said, “Tell me you believe.”
Erik stared into eyes that matched his own. They are my eyes. “I believe you.”
“Lair!” 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 could sense 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 weighted 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! My love for my mother 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 rancid presence. The beast raged, but its grip wavered all the same. The ocean around him boiled into steam, and the light grew until it became all consuming.