Nothing in the world has as much power as the sword. Sometimes I stab a man, and I watch him until his eyes lose their shine.
— NÚMI MAIDA, TO HIS SON
Finally, the top-knotted warriors turned to regard Erik when he followed Númi into the square, some with pity in their eyes. Doubtless many knew what it meant to be at the other end of Númi’s ire and blade. Though, none of the commiseration touched any of their faces. Númi wore a smile, if it could be called that, probably imagining the pain he would inflict on the Prince. At least he would not try to kill Erik, not with these many witnesses. Or would he?
Erik swallowed, second-guessing his decision. Although some claimed a single Cultivator could defeat three Lightbenders in combat, that was not necessarily true, and most definitely not in his case; he was an unranked Cultivator with a pitiful small range. And Númi was a Silver Ranked Lightbender; he had the power to explode forth with the strength and speed of ten men. This close to each other, by the time Erik blinked the Lightbender would already be upon him, longsword slashing and thrusting.
Yet, Erik would not back down. Not because of his pride, but because of the path he had chosen to walk. He was here to redeem his image in the public eye, showing weakness now would do irreparable damage to all he had already achieved over the last three months.
Cool drafts rippled his blue robe and kick-started the dance of dust devils in the space between him and Númi. The top-knotted warriors dispersed throughout the courtyard gathered around the four knee-high braziers that marked the corners of the square. Faces blank, they seemed unaffected by the wind’s chill, but a hint of excitement animated their steps.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” Erik hedged, drawing his longsword. “You just finished a match. I wouldn’t want to take advantage of your weakened state.”
“For someone like you. . . .” Númi shrugged as if that explained everything. His voice was cold, dark and dripping with sarcasm. “I think I will be able to manage, my Prince.”
Erik shivered at the sound of laughter that escaped from a handful of the black-coated warriors. He flexed his fingers on the hilt of the longsword he held and inhaled deeply through his nostrils. A sense of rushing overtook him, a feeling of folding inward—collapsing down into a single point in both time and space. A world filled with glittering prana opened before him, and he reached out to ensnare them, expanding in every direction. Where he expected almost immediate pain, there was none. He pushed past the limits of his former range without molten metal searing his brain, entrapping more prana than he had at another other time.
Impossible! A Cultivator’s range did not change! It was fixed at birth. An adult could no more grow a second pair of hands than a Cultivator could increase his range. Yet . . . Erik had. Inexplicably.
His consciousness continued to grow, swelling larger and larger, capturing more and more prana until he found the ceiling of his new range. Pain flooded into him like a torrent of magma, halting his expansion. His mind groaned. His soul strained!
Erik drew his awareness inwards, dragging along all the prana he had ensnared. Power and light surged into him. A deluge like a flare from the sun, coming together to assemble his Ethereal Body at the center of his inner void. A golden pool of liquid-prana whirled around him, reaching past his head, kept from floating away into the endless dark by the shield that surrounded him.
For a moment, he marveled at how much prana he held; the barrier around him bulged on the point of bursting. It was hard to quantify the amount by which his range had increased, but it was now massive. Perhaps larger than Asbjörn’s own.
Erik pictured a look of approval on his father’s face and felt a sense euphoria bubble in his chest. A slight nod of the head would be enough, he had long ago decided. Just a single nod would let him know he was worthy to take his place. Just one.
Suddenly, a point of brilliance flared from the tip of Númi’s longsword and flashed towards Erik. Erik froze, blinking, thinking Silver Sword Light could not hurt him, but it could . . .
NO! Erik howled, trying to move, but already knowing it’s too late.
. . . sever him from his power. The bar of dazzling light struck his chest, thicker than two fingers, it entered him like a dagger, cob webbing his inner void with hairline fractures. He collapsed to his knees, head ringing as his inner void popped like a soap bubble, spewing all the prana he had ensnared back into the air. The world wobbled in front of him.
“One must always be aware of their environment, even during a friendly exchange, my Prince,” came Númi’s smug voice. “Consider it your first lesson.”
Looking up at Númi, Erik never hated anyone so much in his life. The Lightbender became the personification of every imagined slight, the amalgamation of everyone who had ever laughed at him or did him wrong. “You. Would. Instruct. Me?” he asked. Every word came out punctuated by a deep exhale of fury heated breath.
Númi smiled wider in response, eyes alight with a mocking glint.
Erik clenched his jaw, belly incensed with rage. His nostrils flared, and his hand tightened on the hilt of his longsword. All the world had become a dull throbbing, snarling in his eardrums. He launched himself to his feet and ran forward. Time and motion lurched, and the air turned thick, tugging at his flesh as he drove himself onward, longsword thrusting. The world had turned to sap, or so it seemed. His sandals scraped softly across the packed earth, and his blade moved with the slowness of a falling leaf.
It took Númi what seemed like seconds to react to the attack, turning the thrust at the last possible instant. Erik whirled his blade around, watching Númi stumble back with a look of surprise. He was moving so quickly that the top-knotted warriors surrounding him almost looked like statues, some still shivering from the prana that had been siphoned from the air.
Not letting his fury control him, Erik propel his longsword towards Númi’s face without giving the Lightbender even a moment to catch his breath. His thrust changed mid-motion into a swinging slash aimed at the Lightbender’s chest. Wincing, Númi barely blocked the blow, using the momentum of the attack to spin away. His gray topknot whirled behind him shifting slowly as if being pushed by a strong, yet slow, breeze.
The longsword felt alive in Erik’s hands; it was a part of him, an extension of his will. He chased Númi across the square, without thought, flowing from stance to stance, weapon always striking or slashing. He should not be able to match a Lightbender’s speed and strength. Yet he was. Somehow.
Slowly but surely, the confident etched into the hard lines of Númi’s aged face began to waver and doubt crept into his icy gaze. Erik smiled, revealing clenched teeth. Momentum was on his side. Every time his blade clashed against Númi’s own, the Lightbender was forced to retreat.
Only a handful of heartbeats had passed since the battle began, but Erik felt a strain on his body. Spikes of pain lanced through his limbs. Muscles in his arms and legs tore, and bones came close to breaking; his body was never meant to operate at such speeds. But within the same crawling time frame, the ripped muscles healed, allowing him to continue, if barely. His longsword nicked Númi’s cheek, drawing blood, almost splitting the Lightbender’s face open.
Abruptly, Númi dodged another slash, leaping backward, reaching twice the height as Erik was tall. The wind rose, carrying the sound of a distorted gasp. Erik charged forward as Númi flipped in the air, noticing the individual strands of gray, sweat-slicked hair that clung to the man’s chest. He fought back a scream, the bones in his arms shattering from the force and speed of him bringing his weapon into position. Almost immediately, the broken bones began to mend, draining him of something vital with every step forward. His longsword inched towards the Lightbender, glittering under the sun with an ominous glimmer.
Númi gently fell towards the earth, but there was nothing soft about the longsword that slashed—ever so slowly, it seemed to Erik—across his chest when his feet touched the ground. Erik’s blade pierced the Lightbender’s skin, leaving a neat line across his chest. A line that leaked scarlet. Númi threw himself into a sideways roll, barely avoiding being run through. The air warped around him like a ripple on the surface of a pond and then he vanished.
Erik paused, longsword lifted in the air to one side, eyes searching. A wave of weariness and fear washed over him, almost slamming him to his knees. Unfair, he lamented. He hated the fact Lightbenders had the ability to bend light and sound waves around themselves, turning invisible at a moment’s notice. How am I supposed to fight an enemy I can’t see or hear? Stay calm. Focus!
A flash of pain exploded at the back of Erik’s eyeballs, hot like glowing needles, searing like third-degree burns. He shut his eyes, blinking away tears. When he could see again everything had changed; the world assumed the properties of a waking dream. Colors twisted and pulsated all around him. The deep blue of the sky transformed into a pinkish purple hue and the green leaves on a nearby tree now looked as white as untouched snow. Most importantly, Númi was once again visible in Erik’s new distorted vision, outlined in orange where the light bent around him and his sword, angling to attack Erik from the side.
Erik spun around and slashed downwards, moving by instinct, turning the blade that was thrusting towards his waist. Númi blinked into existence when the longswords met and disappeared again after they separated. Erik grinned, eyes glowing with triumph, pursuing his opponent. Fighting against what felt like a raging river, he pushed himself faster and faster. The distorted clang-click-clang of metal swords clashing filled the courtyard.
With a shout, Númi reappeared, stumbling back, falling onto his knee as time snapped back into its normal rhythm. His longsword lay in his severed hand, twitching in the dirt in front of him. Crimson splattered out of the wound, arching through the air in fascinating streams and droplets. The red looked vibrant and beautiful. It awoke something in Erik. A want. A hunger.
Númi’s features twisted into a look of abject horror. “My hand . . . you—”
Erik drove his longsword forward, performing kissing-the-button, a derogatory term for a harassing sword thrust aimed at the opponent’s mouth. The blade entered Númi’s orifice and then exited by slashing through the side of his jaw. Númi fell backward, staring up at the sky, gurgling blood. The courtyard stilled except for the sound of his gasping.
“Would anyone else like a lesson in etiquette?” Erik asked, lifting his head to regard the black-coated warriors. He sensed the Celestial Dragon stirring within, scratching, clawing, screeching like a Witch on a pyre, begging to be freed, demanding to be fed. “Answer me!”
It began with one warrior with a three-day-old beard beating his fist against his chest, and then it spread like the coughing sickness in winter. Soon all the Lightbenders were doing it. The courtyard filled with noise. “Erik! Erik! Erik!” They shouted in unison, a chorus to the steady thrum-thrum-THRUM-thrum of hard fists meeting muscled chests.
Erik watched them, his stomach boiling and seething with an ache. A need! His eyes were pure blackness encircled by a band of gold. They seemed to glitter like glass, now. Hard and unyielding. His heart boomed in his chest. His knuckles cracked around the hilt of his longsword.
“Erik! Erik! Erik!” They shouted louder, voices touched by fear.
“Quiet!” Erik barked, shutting his eyes.
A second later, the chanting came to an abrupt end, and the Celestial Dragon receded from the forefront of Erik’s mind, howling, screeching. Erik’s harsh breathing cut through the sudden silence. The burning sensation returned to his eyeballs, twice as fierce, but gone in an instant. He opened eyes, eyes that were once again green, eyes that no longer saw the world the way the alien monster did. Everything seemed duller and flat. He hated it. He wanted to. . . . What’s happening to me? He closed his free hand into a fist, turning his focus to his opponent.
Númi still spewed scarlet, gazing up at the vault of heaven, painting a sad and tragic image. With immediate medical help, he would survive. Without any, he may still survive; Lightbenders regularly recovered from wounds that would end the life of any other man. The question was should he allow Númi to live or should he end him now. He knew what his father would have done.
“See to his wounds,” Erik finally spoke. I’m not my father, he thought, understanding he may come to regret his decision, but he had made a promise to his mother. He had sworn to be the light the world needed. Undoubtedly, he would never live up to her high standards, yet he would be as good as the world allowed him to be.
Erik strode away, back straight, eyes fixed on some distant point, leaving Númi in the care of his comrades. It was time to find the answers to what was happening to him before it was too late. Before he lost control. And there was only one man that had the knowledge to help: Ypse.