Repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes truth.
Erik’s heart pounded as he awoke lying on the cold stone of a man-sized altar, wincing as he squinted his just opened eyes. Partly to protect them from the sudden brightness, but mostly to block out the smiling countenance of the Eternal Father that stared down at him from the center of a once-bright mural. He had always hated the image of the Lord of the Hosts, and it had nothing to do with the blood-stained cloth tied around the god’s eyes. It was the smile, always depicted much too wide, as if the Eternal Father was laughing at him. Idly he wondered whether artists purposefully tried to make all images of the Eternal Father as disconcerting as possible. At least the mural kept him from thinking about what he had just experienced, if only for a moment.
I know you’re there. I can sense you inside me, hiding, watching through my eyes. The thing in his mind flashed away like quicksilver when he tried to reach for it, but it was there. He knew it was there.
Absentmindedly, Erik fingered the hilt of the longsword resting on his chest, recognizing it as his own by the way the Tár Guðs blade seemed to resonate at the edge of his perception. Something had happened to him, something he could not explain, yet he was not going to unravel the mystery at this moment.
He scrambled upright, longsword tumbling onto the stone floor, and stared in dismay at the painted walls of the Shrine of the Eternal Father. The chamber was a hollowed out hole in the side of the Rin Mountains, illuminated by the light of a hundred candles. Fine tendrils of smoke pooled and swirled like clouds near the ceiling, though, no breath of a breeze entered through the sheet of white paper blocking the doorway.
A gasp drew Erik’s attention to a serving woman standing beside a table with a red vase clutched between her hands. On her forehead, inscribed with black soot was the Tree of Life, a leafless oak tree bound by a circle. A symbol of death and rebirth. Part of the ritual of mourning. She appeared to be moving impossibly slow, dark pupils widening, muscles under her face stretching and flexing while the vase slipped from her fingers, falling with a sluggishness that seemed to defy logic. He could suddenly smell the pollen on her hands from the flowers she had been arranging, he could almost taste the sweetness of her flesh. It made him hunger. It made him. . . .
Erik blinked and time lurched back into its normal rhythm. A shrill shriek echoed through the shrine as the vase crashed to the floor, shattering into a dozen pieces. A second later, the serving woman dashed out of the chamber, tearing a person-sized hole into the paper covering the doorway. The wind whistled into the shrine through the new opening, rippling Erik’s blue robe, which was held in place by the red sash tied around his waist.
After a brief moment, Erik hopped off of the altar. He felt . . . different. His five senses seemed amplified somehow, and there was an aura of a horrible vitality trapped inside him. It made him feel powerful in a way he had not before. He closed and opened his hand. His whole body buzzed as if a swarm of butterflies whirled beneath his skin.
What did you do to me?
Yet again there was no response, nor did he expect there to be. But he sensed an air of excitement radiating off the thing that lurked within his mind, pulsing in chorus with the buzzing sensation. The feeling grew until Erik thought he might shatter like glass. He groaned.
Mouth opening in shock, Erik watched his skin unfold into red petals and fleshy tendrils that latched onto his robe and sandals, drawing them inward. The instant the garments disappeared, the buzzing ceased, and the intricate puzzle of flesh returned to normal as if it all had been a figment of his imagination. And if not for the icy wind blowing across his naked body, he would have believed just that.
A growl roared through Erik’s skull like rolling thunder. Not from him, but from the beast that now shared his mind. The Celestial Dragon. It had to be that, for what else could it be? The monster had eaten him, of that he was certain, but somehow he had consumed it instead. The Devourer of Worlds had been defeated by a mortal man, he would start laughing if he did not fear he would not be able to stop ever again. Madness! This is madness!
At that instant, he became aware of heavy footsteps drawing near. Then four soldiers rushed into the shrine, dressed in blue surcoats—etched with the symbol of the Royal House of Ito—over plate-and-mail armor. They froze, iron-tipped spears gripped in their hands, longswords sheathed at their sides. Not a murmur came from them as their eyes drifted downwards.
With a start, Erik remembered his own nakedness. For a moment embarrassment surged through him before breaking apart under an onslaught of foreign pride; his blood seethed and bubbled with a sickening sense of smugness. It was only natural for these tiny flesh-things to stand in awe and terror in his presence. Their fear bred a need, a hunger.
NO! Erik shivered, feeling violated. He clenched his teeth and balled his hands into fists. This body belongs to me! Do you understand? The only reply came as a distant pang of desire.
“Turn around!” he barked.
The soldiers obeyed, moving as one they spun around, coming to a stop with the butt of their spears slamming onto the stone. And for a handful of seconds, the metallic din of rustled plate-and-mail armor filled the shrine.
Erik jerked around, running a hand through his hair, doing his best to put thoughts of the beast out of his mind. One problem at a time, first he had to figure out how to bring back his clothing. He concentrated on himself and envisioned the blue robe he had worn, remembering the feel of its soft silk against his skin. A burning sensation spread across his body as if ten thousand ants poked and prodded him from within, then his skin oozed, changing until it had transformed into the robe. The garment looked no different, yet it yielded strangely to his touch, almost like it had become a part of him.
Viscount Baldur, a solid, gray-haired man, pushed past the soldiers into the shrine. Despite his old age, there was an air of danger in his brown eyes, and gracefulness in the way he carried himself. Adorned in a dark robe with the Tree of Life drawn on his forehead, he was appropriately attired for the mourning period after the death of a prince.
Erik turned to regard the Viscount’s shocked expression. According to the information, he had received before setting out for Hjörtur, Baldur had a perverse fascination with little boys. Erik had witnessed nothing that gave weight to the rumors, but that along with the fact that the Viscount had supported the wrong claimant for the throne—one of Erik’s now deceased uncles—had led to him being stationed kilometers away from civilization.
“How?” Baldur asked. His hand drifted towards the longsword at his waist. “You were dead. I’m sure of it.” A hard edge crept into his voice. A dangerous edge.
Erik took a slow breath. If handled wrong this could spell disaster. For himself. For his plans. “What are members of my family called?” From his mother, Erik had learned renunciation of excess and acceptance of personal sacrifice, but from his father, he had learned strategy and the act of subjugating others to his will. “What is the moniker of the Royal House of Ito?”
Baldur shoulders sagged as he stared at Erik quizzically. “The Undying.” A whisper that seemed to echo like a shout in the small confines of the shrine.
Erik nodded and fought the urge to smile. None of this was about the Viscount, it was about the soldiers and everyone they knew. If he did not implant them with seeds of a story already rooted in myth and legend, then their own tales of today would grow wilder with every retelling. None of it to his benefit. “Has my father been informed about what happened?”
“No,” Baldur responded. “I was just penning him a letter when—”
“Good,” Erik said, bending to pick up his longsword off the floor. He hid the shaking of his hand behind the act of securing the weapon on his sash. “The other members of my hunting party, were—are there any other survivors?”
Baldur lowered his eyes. “I’m afraid you’re the only one, my Prince.”
Erik bowed his head, ashamed of the sudden relief he felt. But what the warriors had seen would be impossible to explain away. Much better that they were all dead. For him. For his plans. “I didn’t know them all well, but they were good fellows. May the Eternal Father ease their journey along the Great Cycle,” he murmured after a moment.
“Well said, my Prince,” Baldur nodded, then continued in a different tone. “Can you tell me what happened in the forest?”
Erik blinked, faking a look of devastation indivisible from the real thing. “I’d rather not speak on it.” His voice quivered. “Not yet . . . I . . . I. . . .” He trailed off, staggering toward the door.
“There’s something else.”
Erik spun around. “What is it?”
“It’s about Asbjörn. He thought you were dead. We all did.”
“What did he do?” Erik’s hand tightened on the hilt of his longsword. A hundred dreadful possibilities flashed through his head, each worse than the last before he stilled them all with a thought.
“He tried to kill himself, or so it seems,” Baldur began and continued by telling Erik the story of what happened in the forest. “Only Asbjörn has been severely injured,” he finished.
Erik took a deep breath. His face was a block of stone for all it revealed, but inside he burned. “Where is he now?” he asked, surprised at how soft his voice sounded.
Erik exited the shrine without another word, stepping onto a gallery that overlooked the citadel. The sprawling edifice of blacked stone below him was as welcoming as a blade darkened by blood. It was as though the builders had imbued the horror of the deepest night into the bricks and the stones. The sight of it scratched at the mind like the knowledge that most of it remained hidden, secreted away in underground rooms and tunnels, much of which had gone unexplored for centuries. Smoke drifted up from chimneys fed by a hundred different fires, all blending together, carried southward past the inner and outer walls, down into the forest of the Northern Reaches.
Erik turned from the view and walked towards the broad stairway that connected the shrine to the rest of Hjörtur. Without being asked, the soldiers fell in around him, acting as an honor guard. Shrouded in silence, he made the long climb down lost in thought. Over the last three months, he had come to love the citadel, but soon his exile would be coming to an end. Then the next chapter of his life would begin, the one for which he had been planning for the last ten years. Things would change, and he might die. Even so, he could not help but look forward to what came next.
At the end of the stairway, he entered the citadel through a wooden door with his honor guard. Liveried servants stopped in the middle of their tasks to stare at him, the Tree of Life symbol etched on their foreheads seeming to glow in the torchlight. He ignored them, cultivating an air regal nobility, but on the inside, the looks made him feel caged him in, trapped within a box.
Erik forced himself to breathe and observed his surroundings, climbing up stairs and traveling through bustling corridors. For all its ugliness, Hjörtur was a well-designed fortress. Murder-holes dotted ceilings and arrow-slits peeked into halls, leaving no place for an invading army to hide. And old tapestries and faded painted screens sparsely decorated the walls, adding the odd flair of color to the endless black.
Down the hallway from his own apartments, Erik stopped in front of a massive door covered in scrollwork. He hesitated, then went in, leaving the soldiers standing guard outside the door. They closed the portal behind him with an echoing note of finality.
It was a small chamber with a pair of narrow arrow-slits looking up at the mountain range. Its only real embellishments, the prodigious bed, a table and chair, and a large wardrobe pushed up against a wall. Fresh logs blazed in the small fireplace, reducing the chill that came from the arrow-slits.
Asbjörn was asleep on the bed. Dark even in the daylight, he seemed made of shadows; there was an unstableness to his form, like a gust of wind would be enough to make him dissipate. His large forever drooping eyes lay closed, and his chest rose and fell with a rugged sounding breath. And a layer of sweat soaked the white bandage wrapped around his chest.
Erik took a seat on the cushioned chair, facing the bed. Wood creaked beneath him, but he ignored it. Instead, he used his index finger to draw a circle on his own thigh. There was something soothing about circles that always seemed quiet his raging passions. A circle was a complete entirety all on its own; it needed nothing but itself to be whole. There was something beautiful about that, he had always thought.
Asbjörn, I’m sorry. I. . . .
Erik leaped to his feet and paced back and forth. Asbjörn had been a part of his life for almost as long as he could remember, ever since his mother passed away and everything changed for the second time. The Mainlander was a pillar among men, he offered shelter and comfort to Erik when he needed it most. He was more than just a teacher or a friend, he was . . . he was the father Erik always wanted, warm where his own was cold and distant. I can’t lose you, too. I can’t! Not now. Not ever.
The door flung open, and Súla, one of Erik’s wife’s personal attendants, erupted into the room, hair disheveled and out of breath. With her large chest and small face, she looked like a tiny bird trapped within a piece of dark cloth. Her expression wavered between shock, relief, and fear until settling on the second. She curtsied and squeaked, “Forgive me, my Prince.” Then she was gone, slamming the door behind her.
Asbjörn sat bolt upright, hands dropping to his bandaged rib cage, gasping in pain and for breath, shuddering, staring with eyes as gray as the billowing clouds of an autumn storm. “You’ve come to haunt me,” he hissed.
“No,” Erik responded incredulously, “I’m no ghost!” He retook his seat, ignoring the chair’s groans. He felt awkward, unsure what to do with his hands, first placing them on his knees, then dropping them to his side.
Asbjörn broke into a fit of coughs. “I failed you.”
“No, you didn’t.” The pain in Asbjörn’s voice wounded Erik like a blade thrust into his chest. All he wanted to do was reach out and console him, but he did not. He was not a child any longer; he was confined by the expectations of his caste and his sex. Even in private, men did not hold each other’s hands to shelter them from hurt. No matter the pain. No matter how much. . . .
With a loud cracking sound, the chair snapped under Erik, sending tumbling to the floor, shooting broken pieces of wood through the air. He groaned, more in shock than pain.
“Are you all right?” Asbjörn asked, fumbling a hand out to help.
Erik could only gape at him. I’ve gotten heavier. Much heavier, he thought. He stood up and gave a bark of laughter. “No, I’m not fine. I don’t understand why I’m still alive. I should be dead, Asbjörn, but here I am. The thing that attacked us was a breed of dragon I’ve never seen or heard of, not even in the Encyclopedia of Named Beasts.”
“It was as large as one of Hjörtur’s ramparts. Its scales were gold and black, and its jaw was filled with man-sized teeth. We were too weak; our attacks did it little damage.” Erik paused as if catching his breath and then continued. “It was a mistake coming here. I see that now. I thought I was so smart. Hjörtur was going to be the answer to all my problems.”
Asbjörn grunted. “It was a good plan. It still is a good plan. Out here you’re protected from your brothers’ plots, and you have time to train.”
“The Grand Assessment is in forty-two days,” Erik whispered to himself, less as a reminder and more to divert from the conversation about the attack. Asbjörn seldom seemed willing to let any investigation lie until he had learned all you knew unless you distracted him.
“Plenty of time. I have no doubt that you’ll be ready by then.” Asbjörn’s voice was weak, but his gaze was piercing, filled with enthusiasm and conviction.
Erik snorted. “I have to face up to the truth about myself. Asbjörn, I’m a terrible Cultivator. I have a pitiful small range of sixty meters, and my cultivation has been stuck at First Stöðin, First Stratum for the last four years.”
“Cultivation levels and range are not everything!” Asbjörn growled. “You have a talent with Esoteric Techniques—the way you mind works. . . . You were born for this.”
“That may be so, but. . . .” Erik sighed. “To lie on the bed of purple was always a fools dream.” The color purple was reserved for Kings and Princes of the Blood; it meant death for anyone else to wear it.
“You are the best of them, Erik. I wish you saw what I see.”
The love in Asbjörn’s eyes made Erik feel dirty. I don’t deserve such loyalty and trust. “I should let you rest,” he said after a moment. “My wife probably still thinks I’m dead. I should remedy that.”
“I rarely agree with your father, but he was right about her. She’s dangerous.” Asbjörn lay back down on the bed, wiping sweat from his forehead with a hand that was none too steady.
“All women are dangerous. Your words, not mine,” Erik smiled.
In the hallway, the voices of the soldiers were pitched low in a quiet conversation. “He was naked . . . how did he. . . .” They straightened and fell into silence as Erik walked out among them.
“Where to next, my Prince?” asked a square-jawed soldier with high cheekbones and thin lips. Almost as tall as Erik and twice as broad shouldered, he loomed large, but like his comrades, he kept his eyes downcast when facing Erik.
“My chambers,” Erik replied, pointing to a door forty meters away. “What’s your name?” he added as an afterthought.
The soldier’s head jerked up, and he blinked. “My what?” His eyes shift to his comrades and back to Erik.
“Your name. You do have one, don’t you?”
“Kai, my Prince. My name is Kai.”
Erik nodded, doing his best to seem appreciative. “Would you and your men care to accompany me for a little while longer?”
“We would be honored to,” Kai said, leading the way.
Music spilled into the hallway from behind the closed door to Erik’s personal apartment, the soulful lamentations of a plucked zither. Each note joined together to give the sense of a flock of geese in flight, the image of a tranquil waterfall, the beauty of nature at her most endearing. Yet under it, hid a cord of menace as if at any moment it might all turn violent.
Erik slowed then halted in front of the door. Hanna, he thought. No one but her could play with such emotion. He rose his hand but stopped it halfway, nervousness making his fingers quiver. “Wait here. I won’t be long,” he commanded.
The soldiers bowed stiffly, hand to heart. A sign of acknowledgment and obedience.