Horrors are like weeds, pull one out and another grows to take its place.
— NÚMI MAIDA, TO HIS SON
A day earlier
Patrick stood frozen, one foot off the ground, caught in the act of running. Time slide forward, and his eyes widened in sheer and mindless terror, horror creeping along his limbs, knifing through his bones, invading his core. His life flickered in front of him, and the certainty he had made a terrible mistake overwhelmed him.
The Jade Spider’s abdomen thrashed back and forth, and a high-pitched squealing filled the air like crabs boiling in a pan. Erik dangled from his longsword stuck in the beast’s glowing spinneret. He kicked off of its armored abdomen, ripping his blade free just when a jet of red flames erupted out of the orifice. The Prince tumbled through the air as hairline fractures snaked along the monster’s jade-like body.
Patrick closed his eyelids in fright, and a wave of heat and sizzling innards crashed against him. By the time his eyes had blinked open, he was five meters from where he started, on his back, drenched in the vile insides of an abomination. Blood from a handful of nicks and cuts covered him. Painfully, he pushed himself up with one thing in his mind. Erik had been much closer to the blast area than he.
“My Prince,” Patrick croaked in a bruised voice, stumbling to his feet.
Spotting what seemed like a body-shaped lump, he limped over to the stand where Erik rested, and piercing green eyes gazed up at him. The Prince looked remarkably unscathed, even his green robe had somehow remained gore-free. How’d he do that? How else! Damn Cultivators and their fucking Esoteric Sword Techniques. Damn them all straight to the fucking Abyss!
Patrick offered Erik a hand and pulled him to his feet. “Are you injured?”
“No,” Erik replied, a lazy and arrogant grin hanging from his lips. The smile made Patrick’s fingers twitch as he fought back the rage, boiling and seething inside his chest
“Are you sure?” Patrick asked, glancing at the rest of the squad who came rushing towards them.
“I’m certain of it,” Erik laughed.
Something inside Patrick snapped. He smashed his fist into Erik’s jaw, cutting short the Prince’s chortling. Erik staggered back and landed on his ass, caught completely by surprise by the blow. He up looked up at Patrick with blood running down his nose, and for an instant, something flashed through his green eyes. Something dark and glittering.
Silence descended, broken only by the still smoldering remains of the Jade Spider.
Patrick froze, seven pairs of eyes glaring at him, fear once again clawing inside his chest. He shuddered. Shit! Why did I do that? But it was too late for regret, the peerage only respected strength. He had to continue how he began and let the number sticks fall where they may. He stepped forward and shouted, “You could’ve gotten us all killed!”
Carl and Fritz grabbed Patrick and dragged him back while Ebbi, somber-faced, walked away from the commotion, gazing up at the sky. Vagn and Vakur sent each other secret smirks that Patrick did not fail to notice. Stupid shits! They think this is funny, do they?
“Let go of me!” Patrick yelled, struggling against Carl and Fritz. “He needs to hear this, or next time we all may end up dead. This isn’t Vetur. Out here mistakes have real consequences. You can’t just go rogue anytime the mood takes you!”
Erik climbed to his feet, using his longsword as a cane. He wiped his blood on the back of his hand and stared at Patrick, face expressionless. “Release him.” Louder. “I said release him.”
Carl and Fritz let go of Patrick, shooting him apologetic looks as they backed away. Their sympathy did nothing to ease the sense of danger brewing in the pit of Patrick’s stomach. He stood transfixed, eyes locked on the Tár Guðs blade Erik held stabbed into the dirt.
After a moment, the Prince swaggered over towards Patrick, his longsword dragging through the soil behind him. A move meant to intimidate and stoke terror, Patrick was sure. Abruptly, Erik came to a stop and hesitantly stretched out his free hand. “I apologize,” he said. “You’re right.”
“W-what?” Patrick stammered. Whatever he had expected, it was not this. Was this the same smug Prince he had heard so much about? Perhaps. . . . No! He did not trust this, whatever this was. It had to be a trick!
“What I did was wrong. Will you accept—”
“Quiet!” Ebbi yelled.
Surprised, Patrick turned, half fearing to see another monster charging towards them, but the massive pines that ringed the clearing revealed nothing of the sort. His hand grasped for the longsword he had once again misplaced, clutching at empty air.
“Listen,” Ebbi said, pointing at the sky.
It took a second, but eventually, Patrick heard it too. A slight wailing sound, coming from above, that got progressively louder. “What is it?”
“If I’m to guess . . . nothing good,” Ebbi replied as if it was the most obvious thing.
Gusts of air moaned across tree tops, moaned like a dirge, hurling needles and cones into the clearing, forcing Patrick and the others to duck for cover. The wailing built into an ear-numbing roar that struck with the power of a hurricane forced wind when a fiery comet sailed overhead. Moments later, the earth shook like the deck of a ship caught in a storm, and plumes of charred timber and dirt ascended into the sky, above the tree line.
Patrick climbed to his feet, his heart issuing a vague twang of desire. He saw the same hunger reflected in all the eyes of his fellow Lightbenders, all except for Ebbi. Objects that fell from the heavens were usually rich in Tár Guðs, and an ounce of Tár Guðs was worth a hundred times its weight in gold.
Carl turned to Erik, naked greed flickering in his eyes. “Should we investigate, my Prince? If we’re first, we get to lay claim. Those are the rules.”
“What do you think, Sir Patrick?” Erik inquired.
Patrick contemplated the request. The risk was obvious, they might run into another sorcerer’s monstrosity along the way, but the possible benefit left him breathless. If the meteorite contained a deposit of Tár Guðs, the reward they would receive would be substantial. Maybe they would even let me keep a little. Not too much, just enough to make a small blade. As unlikely as the idea was, he could not get out of his head. A Tár Guðs dagger would give him an added layer of protection if a Cultivator ever—
“Sir Patrick?” Erik called, bringing an end to Patrick’s day dreaming.
Patrick blinked, spotting his gore-stained longsword lying in the distance. He limped off towards it, leaving everyone else a little befuddled. Whatever happened next, it was best he had his weapon well in hand. Worse monstrosities were lurking within the Northern Reaches than the Jade Spider. Much worse.
Erik followed him, exchanging bemused glances with the others. “Shall I take your silence for a no?”
“No, forgive me,” Patrick answered, picking up his blade. “We might as well take a look.”
Erik nodded. “Leave the Jade Spider’s chaos stone, we’ll collect it on our way back.” As valuable as chaos stones were, Erik’s command went unchallenged. Perhaps because no one felt like digging into a hole filled with the still steaming carcass of the Jade Spider. Or perhaps like Patrick, their minds were elsewhere.
A short time later, Patrick led the men deeper into the forest in a wedge formation with Erik at the center, Carl and Fritz at the sides, and Ebbi bringing up the rear. Vagn and Vakur had turned themselves invisible and now forged ahead, scouting the path for the rest of the party. The reek of burnt pine became stronger the closer they got to the place of impact, around which several trees had been scorched into stumps. Gusts of white smoke swirled around them, making it hard to breathe and difficult to see more than a few meters ahead.
Patrick raised his hand, and they came to a stop after passing the last overturned tree. Vagn and Vakur reappeared in front of him, and he fought the urge to roll his eyes as they immediately began a game of Frog-Slug-Snake. The twins were barely out of their teens, still little more than teenagers. Not that Patrick was that much older, but he expected nothing less from those two.
“Frog. Slug. Snake,” they whispered in unison, each raising a fist and swinging it down after each word. On snake, their closed hands extending, transforming into one of two gestures. Vagn went with frog, represented by his thumb, and Vakur chose slug, denoted by his little finger. Vakur lost.
“You always win?” Vakur growled.
“Now now, don’t be a sore loser, little brother” Vagn smirked, revealing teeth browned by chewing tobacco.
Wordlessly, Vakur notched an arrow and hiked towards the edge of the earth basin, the air warping around him until he vanished. Patrick sighed, impatient for the day to be over. Even the thought of Tár Guðs no longer held the allure it had moments earlier. Suddenly, he sensed the earth quivered beneath his boots, a slight movement he would have almost believed he imagined if not for the knotting of his stomach.
“Stop!” Patrick shouted.
The tremors increased, and the face of a hideous dragon rose out of the crater, with a head larger than the top of one of Hjörtur’s towers, patterned in an array of black and gold scales. Eyes bulging, Patrick choked on the rest of his words. He had never seen a more gruesome and wicked looking dragon. The darkness at the center of its eyes seemed to peer into his innermost soul and found him deficient.
It lunged forward like a viper, pulling itself out of the massive hole with two dangerous looking front claws—that appeared designed for tearing through flesh—and closed its jaw down on what appeared to be empty air; the wail of pain let them all know it was anything but empty. A pair of thrashing legs materialized, dangling from out of the creature’s mouth, leather boots dripping with scarlet.
“Vakur!” Vagn screamed, notching and releasing an arrow faster than the blink of an eyelid. The iron-tipped projectile smashed against the dragon’s eyelid and ricocheted off as if hitting stone.
Surprised murmurs rose behind Patrick. “Spread out!” he yelled, yanking his longsword free from its sheath as Vagn continued to fire arrows.
Almost casually, the beast swatted them out of the air with the side of its head and pulled the rest of its body out of the crater. A jagged bone protruded from the side of its chest, a bone that sparkled like a diamond, covered in crimson droplets that caught on fire the second they met the air.
“Hold Formation!” Erik shouted, countermanding Patrick’s order. “And fall back!” In response to the furious glance Patrick sent at him, Erik explained further. “It could see Vakur.”
Patrick’s blood ran cold. Fuck, he’s right! How did I—
Vagn dropped his bow and charged forward, howling, screaming at the top of his lungs. “Vakur!” Tears streamed down his cheeks as he raised his longsword above his head. “Vakur!” The pain in his voice impaled its way into Patrick’s heart.
“No!” Patrick roared, knowing it was already too late.
The dragon opened its mouth, and Erik pushed past Patrick and drew a large circle in the air with his longsword. Orange flames bellowed out of the animal’s gaping maw with the incessant fury of an inferno, warping the air with heat, charring Vagn into blackened bones before continuing on its way to the rest of the party. Patrick held his breath, watching a two-inch thick dome of ice formed around them, starting from the point of Erik’s blade. There was an unreal quality about the dome that made it hard to look at; it writhed in the surrounding air, struggling against some unseen force, stabilizing just as the flames descended upon them. The ice softened, turning into boiling water that seethed around them.
“Get back!” Erik muttered through clenched teeth. A thin layer of sand melted into glass where the heat touched the earth. “I don’t know how long I can—”
At that instant, the dome erupted in an explosion of intense steam that left Patrick’s exposed flesh reddening in extreme agony. Before he could think to blink, he was sent flying and came crashing to the ground tens of meters from where he started. Blood from hundreds of cuts covered him where shards of glass had embedded into his skin.
Eyes closed, he writhed around on the forest floor, fighting against the pain of his blistering second-degree burns, deaf to everything but the sounds of the hopeless battle being waged around him. He drained his First and Second Sefirot of prana, greedily suffusing his meridians with power until he thought they might burst, until almost nothing remained within the two transparent crystals. Lances of pure agony clashed against waves of soothing ecstasy. He gasped.
Patrick’s eyes snapped open seeing double. Two dragons fought six men in a furious battle of metal swords, claws, and exploding Esoteric Sword Techniques. He shut and opened his eyes while climbing to his feet, hoping to make sense of the jumbled images assaulting his mind. Hearing a noise, he spun around, and the world blurred before him, taking a moment to come back into focus.
Face as white as snow, Ebbi sat with a scorched tree stump protruding from his chest. He fumbled at his exposed large intestine as if he trying to place it back into his stomach. “Dara,” he whispered in a voice filled with grief and longing. “Dara.”
Patrick staggered back, the stench of Ebbi’s tainted bowels striking him like a knee to the groin, to where he thought he might vomit. He spun around, almost tripping over a severed head. Eternal Father, have mercy. I need to get away. I need to get away!
Eyes wide, Patrick glanced up from the battered skull to witness the dragon escaping from massive vines made of what looked like earth. It moved faster than thought. Nothing so large should move that quick, yet in a blink of an eye, it was upon Erik, enclosing the Prince its jaws. The sounds of the beast’s monstrous teeth, shattering bones, ripping through wet flesh, filled the clearing until it turned toward Patrick and swallowed.
Stark breathless terror descended upon him, primeval dread that made his legs quiver with frantic urgency. Warm piss spilled down his inner thigh, draining into his leather boot. He should have felt shame, but he had moved beyond that now. All that was left was the animal inside him. A small, weak thing incapable of thought.
RUN, screamed every part of his body, but he could not. RUN!
Suddenly, the dragon’s scales rippled, and it lurched backward, shaking the earth, howling in anguish and fear. The chaotic blood spilling from the exposed bone in its chest flowed in reverse and out of the chaos of folding and compressing dragon flesh, human arms could be seen trying to emerge from the creature’s side. It rolled, shrieking louder and fell back into the crater with a deafening crash that shook the earth.
Patrick ran, prana and fear giving him strength, somehow keeping his feet on the shifting ground. He waded deeper and deeper into the dark interior of the forest, out of the domain of the well-trodden path. Branches tore strips out of his already ruined coat, adding new layers of cuts to his already ripped skin. When his First and Second Sefirot ran out of prana, his leg collapsed beneath him, and he crashed to the ground with a hollow thud.
For a time, all he did was gasp, too tired do anything else. When he could move again, he rolled onto his back and glared up at the trees that seemed to judge him with their quiet serenity.
Coward, they whispered over and over again, in a menacing voice, he knew was only in his head. Coward. Louder. Coward! Coward! Coward!
“Shut up!” he shouted, launching to his feet.
A gray-skinned humanoid step out from behind a tree. Two meters tall with a dark shard embedded in its forehead, it smiled at Patrick with fused teeth, sucking air through the two slits below its black eyes, one hand gripping a bone spear, the other rubbing at its animal-skinned loincloth.
Patrick spun, reaching for his longsword as more shadows stepped out from behind trees. He froze, hand coming away empty; he had once again miss placed his weapon. The sight of them shattered any hope of survival he had left. He was surrounded by Dökk. There was nowhere to run.
“Fuck,” he whispered.