A Monster Inside 1.09 – Patrick

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Horrors are like weeds, pull one out and another grows to take its place. 

— NÚMI MAIDA, TO HIS SON

Patrick stood frozen, caught in the act of running. Fear crept along his limbs, knifing through his bones until it invaded his core. Time inched forward and his eyes widened in sheer and mindless terror. His life flickered in front of his orbs. He became certain that he made a fatal mistake.

A high pitched squealing filled the air like boiling crabs in a pan. The Jade Spider’s abdomen thrashed back and forth. Erik dangled from his sword which was stuck in its glowing spinneret. He kicked off of the armored abdomen, ripping his blade out of the spinneret just as a jet of red flames erupted out of the orifice.

Hairline fractures crept along the monster’s jade-like abdomen as Erik hung in the air. Patrick closed his eyes in fright and a wave of heat and sizzling innards crashed against him. By the time his eyes had blinked back open, he was five meters from where he started, on his back, covered with the vile insides of an abomination.

Painfully, he pushed himself up with one thought in his mind. Prince Erik had been a lot closer to the blast area than he had. Blood from a handful of nicks and cuts covered him. “My prince,” he croaked in a bruised voice that was supposed to be a yell.

Spotting what looked like a body-shaped lump, he limped to the stand where Erik rested. Piercing green eyes gazed up at him. Erik looked remarkably unscathed, even his green robe had somehow managed to remain gore-free. How’d he do that? How else, Patrick answered his own question.

He offered Erik a hand and pulled him to his feet. Damn Cultivators and their fucking Esoteric Sword Techniques. Damn them all straight to the fucking Abyss!

Out loud he asked, “Are you injured?”

“No,” Erik replied with a lazy and arrogant smile that made Patrick want to punch him in the face. Patrick had to grip his belt to fight the urge.

Ignoring the rest of the squad that came running up towards them, Patrick asked, “Are you sure?”

“I’m certain of it,” Erik responded with a carefree laugh. There was something about the laugh that snapped something inside Patrick. All his resentment boiled to the surface.

His fist smashed into Erik’s jaw, cutting short the prince’s chortling. Staggering, Erik landed on his ass, caught completely by surprise by the blow. He up looked up at Patrick with blood running down his nose. For a moment something haunting and dark glittered within Erik’s green orbs before it was gone, returned to whence it came. It was as if Patrick had glimpsed the true Erik for the first time. It left him feeling lost and confused. He realized that the man he thought he knew was nothing more than a mask worn by the thing that slumbered inside.

Silence descended, only broken by the still smoldering remains of the Jade Spider. Patrick shuddered as seven pairs of eyes stabbed into him. His comrades looked at him as if asking, why did you do that? Why did I do that? Patrick swallowed the lump in his throat. Shit! 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 glared down at Erik. “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, pushing back against Carl and Fritz. “He needs to hear this. Next time we could all end up dead. This isn’t Vetur. Out here mistakes have real consequences. You can’t just go rogue anytime the mood takes you!”

Using his sword as a cane, Erik climbed to his feet. He wiped his blood on the back of his hand and glared at Patrick. “Release him.” His voice turned cold when they did not listen to his command. “I said release him.”

Carl and Fritz released Patrick and sent him apologetic looks as they backed away. Their sympathy did nothing to ease the sense of danger growing in the pit of Patrick’s stomach. He stood transfixed with his eyes locked on the orichalc made blade that Erik held stabbed into the dirt.

Erik swaggered over towards Patrick with his sword dragging through the soil behind him. It was a move meant to intimidate and stoke terror. Abruptly he came to a stop. He straightened hesitantly and stretched out his free hand. “I apologize,” he said. “You’re right.”

“W-what?” Patrick stammered. He did not know what he had expected, but he had not expected this.

Frowning, Erik looked down at his stretched out. “I don’t often have cause to apologize,” he said. “Will you forgive—”

“Quiet!” Ebbi yelled.

Surprised, Patrick turned half fearing to see a monster charging towards them. His hand grasped for the sword that he had once again misplaced.

Ebbi was looking up at the sky with a puzzled expression. “Listen,” he said, pointing up at the sky.

It took a minute, but eventually Patrick heard it too. A slight wailing sound, coming from above, that got progressively louder. Face dripping with sweat, he licked his suddenly dry lips. “What is?” His view of the skyline was limited by the massive pine trees that surrounded them on all sides.

“If I’m to guess…” Ebbi shrugged his shoulders as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Nothing good.”

The wind 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 as a comet-like object sailed overhead. Moments later the earth shook like the deck of a ship. Plumes of charred timber and dirt could be seen ascending into the sky, above the tree line.

Patrick stood up with his heart issuing a vague twang of desire. He saw the same desire reflected in the eyes of most of the men around him. Objects that fell from the sky were usually rich in orichalc and an ounce of orichalc was worth ten times its weight in gold. Orichalc was a precious metal valued for both its ability to amplify a Cultivator’s power and its ability to render their Esoteric Creations null.

Carl turned to Erik with naked greed glittering in his too dark eyes. “Do we investigate?” He ran his thin tongue along his dry lips. “If we’re first we get to lay claim. Those are the rules.”

“What do you think, Sir Patrick?” Erik inquired.

Patrick contemplated the idea for a moment. The risk was obvious, there was a chance that they might run into another sorcerer’s monstrosity along the way, but the possible benefit left him breathless. If the meteorite did contain a deposit of orichalc, the reward they would receive would be substantial. Maybe they would even let me keep a little bit. Not too much, just enough to make a small dagger. As unlikely as the idea was, he could not get out of his head. An orichalc 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.

At that moment, Patrick spotted his gore stained sword lying in the distance. He limped off towards it, leaving everyone else a little befuddled.

Exchanging bemused expressions, Erik, and the others followed after him. “Shall I take your silence for a no?” Erik asked.

“No, forgive me,” he answered, picking up his sword. “We might as well take a look.”

Erik nodded his head, rightfully resuming the mantle of command that was his as a Cultivator. “Leave the Jade Spider’s chaos stone,” he said. “We’ll collect it on our way back.”

As valuable as chaos stones were, no one questioned Erik’s order, probably because no one felt like digging through a hole filled with the still steaming carcass of the Jade Spider, Patrick mused.

Just like that, Patrick found himself leading 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 foraged ahead, clearing the path for the rest of the party.

It was times like this that Patrick hated the fact that Cultivators did not have the ability to turn themselves invisible. Instead of all of them slipping silently and unseen through the forest they had to play nursemaid and stand guard around Erik, making themselves targets in the process. On second thought, Patrick was glad that Cultivators did not have that ability. Horrific images that would be caused by Fiend Lords with the power of invisibility floated through his consciousness, filling him with anxiety.

The reek of burnt pine became stronger the closer they got to the place of impact. Gusts of white smoke swirled around them, making it hard to breathe. Up ahead, a number of trees had been scorched into white stumps near the edge of the crater. Patrick raised his hand and they came to a stop just after passing the last overturned tree.

Vagn and Vakur reappeared a few meters in front of Patrick. He rolled his eyes as they immediately began a game of Frog-Slug-Snake. They were barely out of their teens, still more boys than men, Patrick expected nothing less from them.

“Frog. Slug. Snake,” they whispered in unison. The brothers each raised one hand in a fist and swung it down after each word. On snake, they both changed their fists into one of three gestures of the game and extended it towards the other. Vagn went with frog represented by his thumb and Vakur chose snake represented by his index finger. Vakur lost.

“How do you always win?” Vakur growled.

Vagn smirked, revealing teeth browned by chewing tobacco. “One day maybe I’ll tell you,” he said. “But for now, let’s get this over with. I’m starting to get hungry.”

Ignoring his brother, Vakur notched an arrow and hiked towards the edge of the freshly made earth basin. The air around him warped for a moment and then he was gone, disappearing into thin air.

Patrick was beginning to get restless. They had already been out here longer than he thought they would. This better be worth it, he thought. Suddenly the earth quivered beneath his feet.

“Stop!” Patrick snapped out loud, hoping Vakur heeded his warning.

At that moment the face of a hideous monster rose up from out of the carter. Its head was as large as the top of one of Hjörtur’s towers, patterned in a puzzling array of black and gold scales. White whiskers hung from its elongated jaw like long withered branches and bright red blood leaking from one of it skull-sized eyes.

The rest of Patrick’s words got stuck in his throat like a fish bone. Eyes bulging, he choked on them. He had never seen a creature as gruesome and wicked looking as this. The darkness at the center of its eye seemed to peer into his soul and found him wanting. It reminded him of a dragon, but all the dragons he had heard of were much smaller, only being as large as a pony.

The creature pulled itself partly out of the massive hole in the ground with the help of its two deadly looking front claws which appeared designed for tearing through flesh. Its head lunged out like a viper and its man-sized teeth closed on seemingly empty space. The wail of a man in pain let them know that the area was anything but empty. As if by magic, a pair of legs materialized, dangling from out of the monster’s mouth. Little rivers of blood ran down the leather boots attached to the thrashing legs.

“Vakur!” Vagan screamed. He notched and released an arrow faster than most people could blink. The iron-tipped arrow launched through the air aimed at the creature’s one remaining good eye. Its gold and black eyelid closed and the arrow bounced off as if hitting a stone.

Surprised murmurs rose up behind Patrick. “Spread out!” he yelled, yanking his sword free from its wooden sheath as Vagan released another arrow.

Casually, the Celestial Dragon swatted the arrow out of the air with the side of its head and pulled the rest of its body out of the crater. One of its wings laid ruined on the side of its back and a jagged bone protruded from the side of its chest. The bone sparkled as though it was formed from some type of diamond-like material. Steaming crimson ribbons of blood ran down the exposed bone and caught on fire as it dripped onto the dirt.

“Hold Formation!” Erik shouted, countermanding Patrick’s order. “And fallback!” 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

At that second Vagan dropped his bow and charged forward, screaming at the top of his lungs, “Vakur!” Tears streamed down his cheeks as he raised his sword above his head. “Vakur!” The pain in his voice impaled its way into Patrick’s heart.

“No!” Patrick roared, caught in the realization that it was already too late.

The Celestial Dragon opened its mouth. Erik pushed past Patrick and drew a large circle in the air with his sword. Orange flames bellowed out of the dragon’s gaping maw with the incessant fury of an inferno. The oppressive power of the monster’s furnace-heat breath charred Vagan into blackened bones as it blew past him on its way to the rest of the party.

Erik completed his Esoteric Sword Technique by jabbing the point of his sword into the circle he had just drawn. Patrick held his breath as a two inch thick ice dome formed around them as though it had always been there and he was just noticing it for the first time. For a moment there was an unreal quality about the dome that made it hard to look at. It writhed in the air around them, struggling against some unseen force.

The stinging heat of the orange flames descended upon them just as the ice dome stabilized. The ice melted, 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 it. “I don’t know how long I can—”

The bubbling dome of water erupted in an explosion of intense steam that left Patrick’s exposed flesh redden in a frenzied and fanatical agony. He 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 the sounds of the devastatingly hopeless battle being waged around him.

He stuffed his Ethereal Body with prana, greedily sucking in as much as he could handle safely until nothing but a small puddle remained within the translucent bubble. Lances of pure agony melted in waves of soothing ecstasy until he did not know which was which.

His 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 clamping to his feet, hoping to make sense of the jumbled images assaulting his mind.

Abruptly, he realized he could hear a soft sound coming from behind. Half fearing to see another monster, he turned and the world blurred around him. It took a moment but the world finally stilled.

Face as white as snow, Ebbi laid on the ground with a scorched tree stump protruding from his chest. His hands gripped his exposed large intestine as if he was trying to put himself back together again. Eyes filled with tears, he looked at Patrick as if seeing a ghost. “Dara,” he whispered in a voice that one might use to talk to their beloved. “Dara.” The stench of Ebbi’s tainted bowels struck Patrick like a punch in the gut, staggering him.

Stumbling back too confused to feel much more than revulsion, Patrick spun around at the sound of something hitting the ground. A severed head rolled by his feet. The head was too battered for him to know who it belonged to.

Looking up from the deformed skull, he saw the Celestial Dragon close its maw on Erik’s body. Scarlet jets squirted through the gaps in between the monster’s ivory teeth. It casually turned towards Patrick as it swallowed. There was a self-assured arrogance in each one of its actions as if it were king and everything else was just worms beneath its clawed feet.

Stark breathless terror descended up Patrick as he locked eyes with the beast. Primeval dread chewed at him with a frantic urgency that set his legs to quivering. Warm piss spilled down his inner thigh, draining into his leather boot. He should have felt shame, but he had moved beyond all rational thought. All that was left was the primal animal inside him.

RUN, screamed every part of his body, but he could not. RUN!

Suddenly the Celestial Dragon’s scales rippled. It lurched backwards. The chaotic blood spilling from the exposed bone in its chest began to flow in reverse. Howling in anguish and fear, it rolled its massive body. The ground shook, throwing Patrick to his knees.

The surface of the Celestial Dragon’s body folded and compressed, and then it bubbled like boiling water. Out of the chaos, human arms made of dragon flesh could be seen trying to emerge from the creature’s side. Shrieking like a thing possessed by the madness of the Abyss, it fell back into the crater with a deafening crash.

Heart thumping in his chest, Patrick ran like death was on his heels. He ran without a particular direction in mind. He just allowed his legs to lead him away from the horror. In his mad panic, he waded deeper and deeper into the dark interior of the forest. Branches tore strips out of his already ruined coat, adding new layers of cuts to his already ripped skin.

When there was no more prana to use and his leg muscles had been spent, he came smashing into the ground with a hollow thud that left him feeling numb. He looked up at the massive trees that surrounded him, which seemed to be judging him with their quiet serenity.

Coward, they whispered over and over again, in a menacing voice, he knew only he could hear. Coward. Their voices rose louder. Coward! Coward! Coward!

“Shut up!” He shouted, launching to his feet. “Shut up!”

He stopped, hand reaching for a sword that was not there when he spotted shadows moving from tree to tree. He spun around. He was surrounded. There was nowhere to run.

“Dökk,” he whispered as the shadows stepped out from behind trees, gripping bone spears. The sight of them shattered any hope of survival he had left.

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A Monster Inside 1.08 – Patrick

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What are monsters when all men lie dead, but perfect shadows on a cloudless day?  

— VILHELM ITO, TO HANNA

Patrick could feel it in his mind, an oath of loyalty sworn with blood and spirit that connected him to Vilhelm Ito, the King of Vindur. It was always there, day and night binding him with an unbreakable bond. He hated it. He despised the fact that, like every other Lightbender who had sworn an oath to the king, he could always feel the man’s presence. Right now, he could feel him — he was too far away to get a precise location — somewhere off to the south.

Reality slowly began to intrude on his ruminations. He watched as dark smoke billowed up from Hjörtur’s tall stone chimneys, tainting the crisp morning air with pollutants. The last remnants of night still clung to the stables across from the table next to the sally gate where he sat with three of his top-knotted brothers in arms. All three men were sharpening their swords with long, slow strokes on a whetstone.

“Don’t keep us waiting. Finish your tale,” Fritz said, bringing an end to Patrick’s skyward gaze. There was something about Fritz’s flat face that made it seem sullen, even when he was grinning, as he was now.

Patrick paused dramatically, allowing the rhythmic song of whetstones grinding against metal blades to fill the silence. “Patience, Fritz,” he quipped. “As I was saying, I’ve always had a tender spot in my heart for flawed and broken things. My Christel wasn’t the prettiest girl I ever laid with.” He shook his head. “No, in fact, she might have been the ugliest. She had a birth mark the size of an apple on the side of her face and her teeth were so twisted and brown that you could be forgiven for mistaking them for the roots of a tree. But her feet were little wings. Every time she opened them, we soared.”

Carl, who sat across from Fritz, roared with laughter. He was squat and stocky, with hints of gray starting to show in his blond top-knot. The only one not amused by Patrick’s tale was Ebbi, who sat with his back against the wall and his eyes on his sword. The right side of Ebbi’s face was melted like a piece of wax and his right eye was milky white. Questions about how he had received the burn wound always led to arguments over drawn swords.

Patrick loved trading tales of sexual conquests with his fellow soldiers before battle. Each tale was always more exaggerated than the next. The lurid stories always seemed to have a calming effect on his nerves. It was hard to think about your own death when your ribs were bursting with laughter.

“I’ve said this before, but you truly have a gift with words, Patrick,” Carl said. “I could almost smell your Christel.” He made a face as if smelling fresh horse droppings.

“Carl’s right,” Fritz added. “You’re the only one I know who can make fucking sound like high art.” Both Carl and Fritz roared with laughter at that.

Patrick leaned back and seemed to ponder their words. “It’s a gift and a curse,” he finally said. “Truly, if you were me you would understand this well. The Eternal Father blessed and cursed me with the cock of a poet. You see, I must write my poems on the wombs of the woman folk or die from a sickness of the scrotum.”

Ebbi’s hand faltered on his whetstone. He looked up from his weapon for the first time and snarled, “Do you three ever talk about anything else than your little peckers?” Ebbi’s words threw a wet blanket on the cheerful atmosphere. His forehead was wrinkled in anger and the puckered skin of the right side of his face was frozen in a permanent look of horror.

Patrick had seen plenty of battle wounds over the years, but looking at Ebbi’s face always seemed to unnerve him. “Forgive us, Sir Ebbi,” Patrick said. He looked genuinely ashamed of his behavior, on the outside, at least.  You ugly fuck, he thought to himself. “We mean no harm by it. In fact, we do it for your benefit, isn’t that right Sir Carl and Sir Fritz?” He ended by winking at the two men.

Carl and Fritz straightened in their seats and sheathed their swords. They both assumed the mannerisms of a genteel Knight of the Realm. “Sir Patrick is right,” Carl began. “We do this for your benefit,” Fritz finished.

“We worry about you, Sir Ebbi,” Patrick continued. “All those nights you spend alone with no one but your dog for companionship.” His eyes said he was confessing his true feelings. “We fear for your immortal soul, men were never meant to lie with animals.” A sense of pride filled Patrick at the sound of laughter that escaped passed Carl and Fritz’ lips. He watched what little color there was drain from Ebbi’s face.

Ebbi jolted to his feet, bringing an end to the laughter. His expression revealed nothing of what he was feeling, but in standing, he had managed to tug his sword towards Patrick, until it looked in real danger of stabbing him in the face. “I wonder if your skill with a sword matches your skill with your tongue?”

Patrick’s heart spiked, but he kept the fear he felt under control. Sincerity and openness filled his voice, all efforts at mockery were gone. “We’re brothers in arms, Sir Ebbi. I would no more raise my weapon to you than I would to my own father.” The implied threat laid naked within Patrick’s words. He knew that Ebbi was aware of what he meant to his father and just how dangerous his father was when he was angered.

“Are you a man or are you a child?” Ebbi said through clenched teeth. “Stop hiding behind your father’s skirt!”

Carl stood up and tried to smile affably. “Come now, Ebbi,” he said soothingly. “No need to get all worked up over—”

“Shut up and sit down!” Ebbi barked. His sword swung towards Carl and stopped an inch away from his neck. Carl gulped and sat back down, his eyes never leaving Ebbi’s sword.

For a moment, Patrick’s attention drifted over to the two guards who stood in front of the sally gate. They wore familiar conical helmets and blue surcoats over plate-and-mail armor, with long swords at their waists. It seemed to Patrick that they were doing their best to pretend that they were not paying attention to what was going on only a few meters away.

Ebbi slammed his sword down against the wooden table. “Are you listening?”

With a jerk, Patrick focused his attention back on Ebbi. He raised a hand to his forehead to wipe away what felt like sweat. Things had begun to slip out of his control. He almost regretted his earlier needling of Ebbi, almost. Jokes were always funnier when made at the expense of someone who did not know how to handle them.

“Since you three are so taken by stories, let me share one of my own with you,” Ebbi added. He sheathed his weapon and retook his seat. “It was my first week as an official Knight of the Realm. Me, four other Lightbenders and the local Baron were tasked with tracking down a Cockma that had gotten past the wardstones of a village east of Vetur and had made off with the mayor’s daughter.” He looked from face to face to make sure they were all paying attention. “It took us two days but we finally found its lair. This little hole in the ground littered with the bones and the still-breathing body of the girl we were sent to find.”

“Was she pretty?” Patrick interrupted. He asked partly in an attempt to regain some small control over the group and partly because he was genuinely curious. Patrick had long come to the conclusion that his love of women would one day be his downfall.

Ebbi reflected on Patrick’s words for a moment.  “Yes,” he finally responded. “To this day she remains the most beautiful creature that I ever laid eyes upon. And that’s saying something because when I first saw her she was half starved and covered in the thick white fluid of the Cockma’s emissions—”

It took everything Patrick had for him not to open his mouth and spit out the words on the tip of his tongue. He had to bite down on the bottom of his lip and analyzed Ebbi’s attire just to keep his mouth shut. The bronze buttons on Ebbi’s black coat matched the bronze starburst pinned on his left collar which also denoted his rank. And like everyone else around the table, Ebbi’s brown topknot was bound with a blue and a red ribbon, the colors of Royal House of Ito.

“—she was like a frightened little animal. It took five minutes just to calm her down enough that she would let me wrap her naked body in a wool blanket. That’s when the Cockma returned to its lair. The battle was brutal. Two Lightbenders lost their lives before the Baron used Esoteric Sword Technique after Esoteric Sword Technique to bring an end to the monster.”  Ebbi looked down at the table, breaking eye contact with Patrick. “It was over. I survived my first real battle. I was so happy. But I was wrong, it wasn’t over. It was just beginning,” Ebbi abruptly stopped speaking.

“Don’t stop now,” Fritz said when the silence grew too long. “What happened?”

Ebbi looked up with tears in his good eye. “I heard giggling behind me. When I turned around, the Baron’s eyes had turned scarlet.”

“No,” Patrick said before he could stop himself. That was every Lightbender’s greatest fear, the attack from behind. The Abyss was a realm of chaos and madness. Every time a Cultivator drew on its power there was a chance he might be corrupted by its influence and turn into a Fiend Lord. When that happens, it is a Lightbender’s sworn duty to put him down before he can cause too much destruction.

“Yes,” Ebbi continued. “He drew too deeply on the Abyss and The Change came over him. When I looked into his eyes I saw madness staring back at me. With a flick of his sword, he sent a sea of flames crashing against us. He was laughing and singing while he did it.” Ebbi’s voice turned soft and high pitched as he sung, “Burn! Burn! Burn!” He caressed the burnt side of his face.

Carl leaned forward. “How did you kill him?”

“I didn’t,” Ebbi responded. “It was the girl. Dara. There I was, writhing in pain while he loomed above me giggling like a girl in her teens. ‘The flame sees through you,’ he said. ‘It cleanses you of the dark root without a name. Do you understand?’ She crept up right behind him and smashed his head in with a rock. She didn’t stop until his skull had caved in and his brains had spilled out onto the dirt.”

A somber mood overtook them then. None of them felt like talking. No witty retort came to Patrick’s mind. All he could think about was the fact the same thing might one day happen to him. It could happen today. The thought sent a chill traveling down his spine.

“Did something untoward happen? All four of you look like someone took a piss in your drinks.” A voice asked from behind Patrick. He did not need to turn around to know who it was, but he stood and did so anyway.

Erik stood a few meters away giving them a slanted, quizzical look. His thin, green silk robe emphasized his lack of well-defined muscles. The sword secured on the blue sash on his waist did not seem to fit his image. He almost looked like a boy playing pretend with his father’s weapon.

After a momentary pause, Patrick made a deep, graceful bow and smiled. “But we have no drinks, my prince.” His smile suddenly made him uncomfortably aware of how easy it was for him to pretend to be other than he was.

“So that’s the problem,” Erik joked. “No drinks?”

Carl shook his head and climbed to his feet. “Too early for drinks, I think.”

“Speak for yourself,” Fritz said with a grin that twisted his features into a scowl. “It’s never too early for a good bowl of wine.” He smacked his lips together and stood up from his seat, making sure he did not trip over his sword.

Patrick forced out a laugh and was joined by everyone but Ebbi. It’s like a dance, Patrick thought. Each of us is moving in tune to some unseen social instrument. It was strange. Patrick never thought of things in such terms. This was not like him. He shook his head and cut short his laughter while trying to push away the sense of unease that had dogged him since waking.

Erik looked around as if searching for someone. “Is this everyone?” He asked.

“No, the twins are out scouting,” Patrick answered. “They will meet us at the forest’s edge.”

Erik stroked the hint of a mustache growing on his upper lip; to Patrick the undeveloped mustache made Erik seem even more like a boy playing at being a man. “Shall we?” Erik turned towards the sally gate without waiting for a response.

Patrick, Carl, Fritz, and Ebbi fell in around Erik as he approached the two guards standing in front of the arched gate. It was made out of thick broad strips of the blackest iron and locked shut with a thick bar. The sally gate was scarcely large enough for three men to ride through abreast. The guards removed the thick bar without needing to be told and saluted Erik by bowing while slamming their fists against their plate-and-mail armored chests.

A row of ten meter tall stone obelisks stood arrayed in front of the outer wall, seeming to stand guard against the forest below. The surface of these stone obelisks, more commonly known as wardstones, were inscribed with runes that helped keep the creatures below at bay. They worked, or so Patrick had been told, by creating a repulsive force that tricked sorcerer’s monstrosities into believing that nothing existed around them.

The walk down the pitted mountain trail was a quiet one, void of all the previous merriment and jostling for social standing. Patrick always thought of these moments as the quiet before the storm. Each man had their own ways of dealing with the stress of impending battle. His was to reminisce about past sexual conquests and the women he had yet to bed, but even that did not seem to help today. Visions of Erik laughing while he set the world aflame kept intruding on his thoughts.

The timberline ended before Patrick knew it and misshapen pine trees began to extrude from the rock and the earth around him. The true forest’s edge was about a thousand meters away from the outer wall of the fortress.

As Patrick promised, the twins, Vagn and Vakur, met them at the edge of the forest. For as young as they looked, they were two of the finest trackers Patrick had come across. Each of them had a quiver of arrows on their backs, a sword hanging at their waists, and a bow in their hands. Their black coats were held closed by wooden buttons with swirls carved onto them. The buttons complemented the wooden starburst pinned on their left collars.

“Well?” Patrick asked as they gathered around the two men.

Vagn spat brownish spit onto the forest floor. His bottom lip was packed full with chewing tobacco. “Two choices. We found traces of a Jade Spider and an Imugi.”

Patrick turned to Erik and pretended to not notice his knuckles whiting on the hilt of his sword. “What do you think, my prince?” He asked with a wry and humorless smirk. “How much sweat do you feel like working up this morning?”

“The Jade Spider sounds promising,” Erik replied.

It seemed to Patrick that everyone released the collective breath they had been holding. An Imugi was rated as a Level Four Hazard, half a squad of Lightbenders and an unranked Cultivator would not nearly be enough. There was no doubt in his mind that they would be massacred if they attempted to hunt it down.

Patrick prepared himself mentally for the battle ahead as they made their way deeper into the gloom of the forest interior. He reached for his inner void by inhaling deeply through his nose. A sense of flowing inwards took hold of him. Then he became aware of his Ethereal Body floating in the cold emptiness within himself, surrounded by a translucent bubble half-filled with a golden liquid. The void was filled with golden streaks of pulsing light. He looked up just as one of the golden streaks struck the top of the bubble. The light transformed into a drop of liquid prana that fell down to join the golden pool that came up to his waist.

Unlike Cultivators, Lightbenders had no need to force their spirit into the world to ensnare prana. Prana naturally filled their bodies as a matter of course. They could also increase the rate at which prana replenished itself through mediation, something Patrick loathed doing.

Patrick absorbed a drop of liquid prana through the flesh of his Ethereal Body. He allowed the energy to travel along a number of the different bronze colored nadis located in his legs, filling him with a feeling of supremacy. Nadis was the name for the thin channels that crisscrossed the inside of a Lightbender’s Ethereal Body.

Patrick suddenly became lighter on his feet and his pace increased. They were getting closer to the Jade Spider’s location. He could smell the tell-tale odor of rot and decay that seemed to always surround sorcerer’s abominations. He gripped his sword tighter and hopped over a fallen branch that blocked his path.

As his feet hit the needle and cone-strewn floor, more prana filled his Ethereal Body. Like a torrent of light, it raged through him, exalting him with the strength of five men, threatening to consume him with a wave of pleasure.

Fighting the feeling of ecstasy, he paused behind a tree in front of a clearing. Colors were more vibrant and real than they were a moment before. His senses were heightened along with his strength. He could hear the thumping of hearts behind him. He looked back at the warriors gathered around and saw the same fire he felt inside reflected in their eyes. Without being told, they spread out in a circle around the clearing while Erik kneeled down behind him.

“Prepare yourself, my prince,” he whispered to Erik without turning around. He signaled to  Fritz with his hand—

Suddenly, Erik burst past Patrick and ran towards the clearing with his unsheathed sword in his hand. The clearing was covered in uneven fresh turned soil as though something massive had recently been buried underground.

Shit! Patrick’s eyes widened with dread. This was not part of the plan! Cultivators did not lead assaults from the front. They launched long range attacks while Lightbenders attacked from close range. Cultivators, unlike Lightbenders, could not increase their physical strength with the help of prana.

The ground shook at each step Erik took forward. Dust billowed around him, spreading outward in a ring. His polished blade glinted in the sunlight. Patrick could not be sure, but he thought Erik was using an Esoteric Sword Technique called Boar Rushes Down the Mountain to create the minor earth tremors.

Patrick tried to chase after Erik, but the quivering earth threw him to his knees. He glared at Erik’s receding back. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!

As Erik reached the middle of the clearing, a meter wide claw jutted out the dirt in front of him. Time seemed to slow as Patrick watched Erik spin his blade in a circle over his head and leaped twenty meters into the air. Below Erik, eight large spider legs smashed out of the dirt and rotated. The ground erupted in a shower of dark brown soil, revealing the belly of a twenty-five-meter long monster. Its segmented body and jointed limbs were covered in a dark green exterior that looked hard enough to deflect sword blows. Its abdomen was covered with sharp needle-like hairs that it could use to flick at its enemies. Four pairs of apple-sized eyes sat above a pair of long, deadly looking fangs, staring intently up at Erik. Its eyes glistened like glass.

Still in the air, Erik flipped upside down, disregarding his own safety and the fact he was sailing towards a large pine tree. He made a series of lightning quick motions with his sword. First came a twirl with his wrist as the axis of rotation, and then a jab aimed at the emerging Jade Spider. A rose with the dimensions of a large boulder and petals made of scarlet flames bloomed a meter away from the tip of Erik’s sword. For a moment there was a dreamlike quality about the rose. It fell, writhing in the air as though fighting for the right to exist. Whatever battle it was waging, it won and swelled with heat that could melt flesh.

Erik slammed into the side of the tree with a loud grunt of pain. He tumbled to the ground with such force that it made Patrick stand up in shock.

“Fuck,” Patrick whispered in disbelief.

At that moment the rose shaped inferno burst like a bubble, bathing the Jade Spider’s belly with the heat of its flames. The Jade Spider squealed like a tortured pig. Two of its demonic looking eyes erupted in a discolored discharge and the hairs on its abdomen were burnt away by the searing heat.

“Fuck,” Patrick said louder. He understood why Erik had done what he did, but he was still not amused. By burning away the hairs on the monster’s abdomen, he deprived it of one of its most impressive weapons. But at the same time, he had also put them in greater danger by acting recklessly and not informing them of his plan beforehand.

Patrick’s arm rose to protect his eyes from the furnace like breeze that blew towards him. He nearly gagged on the stench of burnt hairs that assaulted him. With his arm still blocking his eyes, he drew his sword and charged towards the injured Jade Spider, which was writhing in agony.

Baring his teeth, Patrick dropped his arm from his eyes. He became aware of movement all around him, of his fellow Lightbenders stepping out from behind trees and joining him in his mad dash towards the monster.

Suddenly, the Jade Spider spun towards Patrick with rancor burning its remaining eyes. He could feel its hatred as a palpable force that tried to knock the air from out of his lungs. It reached for him with one of its long, spear-like front legs which were as thick as a human body.

Patrick dropped to his knees, sliding in the warm dirt with his sword raised above his head.

His sword struck the joint in between the creature’s claw and tarsus and got stuck, jerking him backwards. He tightened his grip and hung onto his weapon for dear life as the beast tried to fling him away. It howled in sudden, excruciating pain.

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Patrick gave voice to his frustration. He swung back and forth in the air like a seesaw. He narrowed his eyes as his hands began to grow numb.

An arrow whistled past his head and punctured one of the Jade Spider’s eyes. Its wailing turned terrible and bright as its leg thrashed more violently. Patrick was sent flying with his sword in hand and ringing in his ears. He hit the ground with a muffled thud. Hurt shuddered through his chest, sharp and bruising. He could not breathe. He gasped frantic for the breath that refused to come.

Liquid prana drained around his Ethereal Body. A rushing filled his head as prana flowed through his nadis, soothing his need for oxygen and slightly healing his injuries. Then he could breathe again. He savored the feeling of air filling his lungs.

When he raised his head—questioning how he was still alive—another arrow was sailing through the air, launched from Vakur’s long bow. By the time he sat up, another of the monster’s eyes had exploded with pus, leaving it totally blind. He watched, impressed as Carl, Fritz, and Ebbi attacked the joints of its legs with their blades.

The Jade Spider, now frenzied, began digging its way into the soil, head first. The earth trembled and shook, throwing Carl, Fritz, and Ebbi to the ground. They desperately rolled away, putting as much space as possible between themselves and the creature. Mounds of dirt flew into the sky and began to rain down on them.

Patrick backed away on his butt, furiously searching for his sword, which he had somehow lost, with his hands. If they could not stop it, the Jade Spider would unleash its most deadly attack. He knew that as surely as he knew one of his ribs was now broken.

Half submerged, the eight-legged monster’s spinneret, located on the underside of its abdomen just below its anus, began to glow with a frightening orange radiance. At first, the orifice’s glow was barely noticeable, but as time passed it became progressively brighter.

A green blur sprinted past Patrick screaming the same phrase over and over again, “The Red Rose Blooms!” It took a second for Patrick to realize that it was Erik. The Red Rose Blooms was the name of an Esoteric Sword Technique, the same Esoteric Sword Technique that Erik had used earlier. He was warning them.

He’s not going to… Patrick shook his head. He wasn’t that stupid. Was he? Patrick’s hand found the hilt of his sword. He gripped it tightly and leaped to his feet, chasing after Erik. He knew he should be running in the other direction like Carl, Fritz, and Ebbi, but the fact was if Prince Erik died while under his charge, his own life was as good as forfeited. He called himself all kinds of idiot and ran faster, boosting his speed with prana.

“My prince!” Patrick yelled with all his might.

Ignoring his call, Erik leaped into the air with his sword twirling in his hand. He came down with his sword jabbing down into the  Jade Spider’s glowing spinneret. Time stood still.

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A Monster Inside 1.07 – Erik

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Hope is a waking nightmare.  

— HANNA ITO, FAMOUS LAST WORDS

A look of horror flashed across Hanna’s face like the shadow of a dark cloud on a bright day, and then it was gone like dead weeds buried beneath the grey of turned soil. It was a surprise that her face revealed that much at all, even if it was only for a moment.

Erik’s hands shuddered, and his eyes focused on her face. “Why?” His voice was brittle with hurt. “Tell me why.” He whispered as he squeezed the wine pitcher in his hand. Deformed silver warped and twisted in his grip. “Please, you owe me that much.” He opened his hand and the ruined pitcher clattered to the carpeted floor.

Hanna tried to speak past the gag in her mouth. She gave an irritated scowl when her words came out jumbled. Erik rushed over as she once again tried to speak. This time, her utterings sounded even less like words, they were more like the sounds a wounded animal would make.

Kneeling down in front Hanna, Erik removed her gag. “What did you say?” He asked in a more hurried tone.

With a voice tainted by annoyance, Hanna finally responded, “I said okay!” She blew on a lock of blonde hair that had fallen across her eye. The band of golden threads moved away from her face before falling back in the exact same position. “How are you—”

“No”—he touched her lips lightly with a soft fingertip—“you go first. I need to understand why you did what you did. Was it something I have done?” Suddenly his voice rose. “Tell me”—his hand wrapped around her throat—“or I swear I’ll rip your head from your fucking neck!”

Hanna watched him from behind her fine long eyelashes, studying him like someone might a curious insect. The ends of her eyebrows almost touched. Finally, his hand dropped from her neck as the silence grew too unbearable.

Erik slumped with his head against her lap, squeezing his eyes shut. “It’s only now that I understand what my father meant,” he whispered. “He told me once, ‘Love is a fortress whose gates are barred behind you after you enter. Even when you need a way out, it won’t let you pass.’”

“I made a promise to myself,” Hanna said slowly. “After your father invaded my country, butchered my parents…” Her voice turned cold. “Scooped my brother’s eyes out with a hot spoon, and took us both as hostages while he seized the kingdom that my family had run for centuries.” Her eyes moistened and her voice turned fragile like a thin layer of ice atop a lake, ready to crack at any moment. “I promised myself that I would never forget. That one day I would have revenge for the memory of the kingdom that was once named Ógilt… For my parents.”

Erik opened his eyes as a single tear ran down Hanna’s cheek. “Your father had my mother poisoned. That’s the reason why Ógilt is no more. We’ve both lost people who we loved.” He said, straightening up out of the soft comfort of Hanna’s thighs. Erik shook his head in denial. “No, that’s not the reason why. You could’ve killed me a hundred different times before. Something changed between today and yesterday.”

“Yes, you died,” Hanna said with a humorless laugh. Unconsciously she flinched away from the hand raised to wipe away her tear, and Erik winced. Hanna and Erik had never consummated their marriage. Erik had allowed her to keep her maidenhood on their wedding night as an odd act of affection. He had wanted her to feel comfortable and ever since then they had laid next to each other at night not touching. Before today his plan had seemed to be working: every morning she was a little less distant. “I cried when I found out.” She added as though that explained everything. A wry snort from Erik indicated that it did not.

“I still don’t understand.” He explained, halfway through the act of freeing her left hand from bondage. There was a current of growing anticipation moving beneath their conversation.

“Walls can’t stop love,” Hanna muttered. “Not when it’s already inside.” She did not sound like someone who only half a year before had said true love was only found in bards’ tales. “When I saw your lifeless body I wept like a drunken whore at a low melodrama. It was like all the light had gone out of the world.”

Erik began, “Hanna—”

Hanna touched Erik’s face with her free hand and cut him off. “Let me finish. That’s when I knew that…” She took a calming breath. “I loved you.”

“You tried to kill me because you love me?” Erik asked, hoping it would make more sense if he said it out loud. It did not. All his confusion was there on his face for her to see.

Hanna gripped the back of his neck, desperate to be understood. “I made a promise to my ancestors. That means something to me.” Bright spots of color blossomed on her cheeks. “When Súla ran in here with news of your resurrection I knew I didn’t have the strength to do what I must. So I made a compromise. I decided we would die together.”

The sight of her inflamed him. She’s insane! But that did not change what he was feeling. His blood boiled and seethed with a want that went beyond the physical. He needed to…

Erik leaned forward and their lips joined in a kiss. His tongue flashed passed Hanna’s parted lips and flickered against her wet tongue. Pleasure blazed in him, he groaned, a groan that rose from his depths, a groan he could not stop even if he wanted to. His heart pounded, doing its best to smash its way out of his chest, and every pulse stoked the flames of the inferno raging in the area between his abdomen and thigh. The taste of her filled his head as more heat travelled down his spine. It was sinful how sweet her mouth tasted. Only two other women had ever made him feel this way.

He pulled back and gazed at her. The bright spots of color had completely consumed her cheeks and the warmth in her eyes looked hot enough to char flesh. Like him, she appeared half-consumed by passion. Those eyes held him captive in a world of endless blue. He could not escape from them; they held him tight, drawing out his animal instinct. Helplessly he reached down, ripping the strips of cloth that still bound her legs to the cushioned chair. Her arms wrapped around his neck and she melted in into his arms as he stood.

For an instant, Hanna and Erik stumbled around the room, hands fumbling on each others’ clothes, legs thrashing backwards and forwards. The air of grace and command that usually hung from Hanna’s shoulder like a mantle was gone. She seemed almost awkward as if she was unsure of what exactly came next. She broke away from Erik’s lips, inches away from the foot of the bed. “How are you still alive?” She asked breathless, giving herself a chance to collect her thoughts.

“I can’t die.” He whispered, leaning in for another kiss. He did not want to keep the truth from her. She had finally let him in and he could not bring himself to lie in that moment. Later on, he might regret it, but in this moment it felt like the right decision.

Hanna turned her head to the side, avoiding his kiss and pushed her palms against his chest. The back of Erik’s legs bumped into the bed. “Tell me.” She said, peering up at him. She was tall for a woman; her head came up just past his chin.

“I’m serious,” Erik responded staring down at his open palms. “I think I’ve become immortal.” His gaze rose to meet her eyes. “Do you believe me?”

Hanna’s eyes, as big as saucers, looked surprised and confused. Slowly a smile replaced the look of bewilderment. “I do.” She replied while gradually lifting the hem of her dress with her right hand. Erik could not help but stare.

He blinked, refocusing his eyes away from her legs. “You do?” He asked a little-taken aback.

“Yes,” Hanna said easily. She gripped the back of Erik’s head with her left hand and pulled him into a kiss. Erik did not think it could be. How could she believe it when he did not really believe it himself?

Before their lips could touch, a point of pure agony erupted in Erik’s torso. His hoarse grunt reverberated through the room. Sheshe, he could not complete the thought. Shocked, he stumbled backwards, falling onto the bed. A crimson flower bloomed, leaking out from around the dagger sticking out of his chest.

“I trust you,” Hanna said, climbing on top of Erik. “I know you wouldn’t lie me.”

Numbly he looked up at her. More golden locks had escaped the confines of her black shawl. Pain ripped through him, urging him to action. It would be so easy to reach up and tear Hanna’s throat out, but he stubbornly refused to even think about it. Instead, he concentrated on finding a safe place away from the pain, seeking his inner void. The blood filling his lungs would not allow the calmness he sought. With every ragged breath, he could feel the presence of the Celestial Dragon grow more demanding.

Straddling Erik, Hanna leaned over him and yanked the dagger out of his chest. “Show me what you can do.” She whispered in his ear as red fluid stained her dress.  She sat back, her hips grinding against his, with a pensive smile.

Her words suddenly made him angry. He was a grown man, not a trained bear performing tricks for her amusement. If she wants to see, he thought with a growl, then I will show her!

The wound on Erik’s chest healed before Hanna’s eyes, even the hole in his silk robe repaired itself as though a knife had not stabbed through it. The horror that Erik expected to see on her face was absent. Instead, a look of arousal and pleasure pinked her cheeks, leaving Erik feeling a little perplexed.

For some reason this angered Erik more, it was like the wind had been stolen from his sails. Brow wrinkled in a frown, he focused on what he was wearing. His blue robe rippled, becoming an amalgamation of silk and flesh for a moment before the robe completely sank beneath the surface of his pale skin. He shivered; the sensation still felt odd, it was only his second time performing this trick.

“How is that…” Hanna paused and tried again.  “How is that possible?” She touched Erik’s bare chest, circling a fingertip around his dark nipple. “Do it again,” she said, thrusting the dagger towards Erik’s throat.

“No,” Erik growled ripping the dagger from her hand. He flung the dagger away and flipped her onto her back. She landed with a small puff, displacing a number of feather filled pillows. Erik gazed down at her while he held her hands trapped against the bed. She looked up at him the way he had always wanted her to look at him.

A gentle throbbing filled him as the situation became clear. He was lying naked on top of Hanna and he knew she could feel him aching against her thigh. The throbbing turned violent; it struck Erik with the force of thunder, causing his body to shake with need. He could feel the Celestial Dragon’s arousal mixing with his own, turning the pulsing pangs even more turbulent.

BREED, it urged. Yes, breed, Erik agreed. This was the first time that the Celestial Dragon’s wants and Erik’s wants had ever been in alignment.

Hanna’s breathing quickened, coming in fast shorts bursts. “Be gentle,” she whispered.

“No,” Erik said. He grabbed the front of her dress with both hands, pulled on the material, and watched as her breasts exposed to the air. Hanna’s pink nipples stood erected, enticing him with their appetizing allure. Heart pounding, he took her breast into his mouth like a greedy child at feeding time, sucking and flicking his tongue along her hardened nab. Hanna’s soft moans echoed through the room and her body trembled against Erik’s.

“You’re not even breathing hard,” Hanna muttered, panting like a race horse after its last lap around the track. Her body dripped with sweat and her eyes drooped with exhaustion.

Erik lay on his back uneasily staring at the blackness above while the last rays of dusk fell into the room through the narrow arrowslits that acted as windows. He felt like he existed in some little hollow of non-time, thick with the enthralling musk of fornication. It felt to him as though something precious had been lost, stripped away from him like the pink and white sand slipping through his fingers.

“Erik!” Hanna yelled, trying to recapture his attention.

Erik blinked and looked away from the darkness hanging above. He turned onto his side and ran two fingers down Hanna sweat slicked chest. He paused at her navel causing her to shudder with anticipation. Her panting turned desperate as he looked deeply into her eyes with a mischievous smirk.

“Where were you?” She asked, controlling her breathing.

The two fingers at Hanna’s navel began inching lower with the creeping slowness of a caterpillar. Erik’s smile turned perverted. He could feel enchantment damp in between her thighs. “Here—”

“No, you weren’t,” Hanna said, putting a stop to Erik’s nomadic fingers with her own. “Even now your eyes have an element of remoteness in them.” Her voice became gentle and beseeching. “What’s wrong?”

He kissed the middle of her chest and whispered, “I’m afraid.” Why did I say that? Because I am. There was something restless inside of him. He wanted someone else to understand, but there were so few people he could trust.

“Of what? Of what you’re becoming?” Hanna asked with a frown. “Whatever is happening to you we will face it together.” Listening to her, Erik could not help believing she meant what she said.

He stared at her, then burst out, “No, of what I’ve always been. I’m not like everyone else. There is something broken inside me. I’m afraid I’ll break your heart.” I’m afraid you’ll bore me.

“What do you mean?” She said stiffly. “Why would you break my heart?”

“I’m not good for you. I need to be inflamed. I’m afraid that now that I have you that I won’t want you anymore.”

Hanna hugged Erik’s head to her bosom. “I know what you are. When the rabbit dies, the fox grieves.” She said, holding him tighter to her chest. “We’re different, but the same. I’m afraid too. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to let my revenge go.” Her voice suddenly fell to a tragic whisper. “That one day I will destroy you and everything you love.”

“What a pair we make,” he laughed. “The Cult of Night believes that all of this, that all of us are just a part of a fiction brought to life in the mind of a poet.” Erik lifted his head and stared into Hanna’s eyes. “I can’t seem to get that idea out of my head. Who would create characters as tragic us?”

Hanna’s eyes looked luminous in the dim light. Her smile was warm as she quietly ran her hand through Erik’s hair. “Someone with real problems. Probably one of those goat fuckers from Eldur.”  She added to their mutual delight.

Erik and Hanna laughed together in the shroud of some unspoken agreement. Their inner turmoil was the core of their new found understanding. “I can’t promise how I will feel tomorrow, but at this moment I love you.” He said inches away from her lips.

“I love you too, but one day I might raze Vetur to the ground, and then sow the earth with salt so nothing will grow there ever again.”

The sound of a ringing bell drifted into the room on a gust of wind past the brocaded curtains that covered the arrowslits. The extraneous noise disturbed the quiet of the room, setting a chill into the budding warmth between Erik and Hanna. Hjörtur’s bells were used to alert its inhabitants of danger. After a brief pause, bells all over the citadel took up the call to arms, ringing with a panic-inducing clamor.

Erik rolled off the bed, searching for his sword. He found it against the wall next to the bed. His skin itched with the feeling of a ten thousand pin pricks as his robe rose to the surface. Not slowing even for a moment, he secured his weapon to the sash tied around his middle and rushed towards the door. He paused uneasily, turning back towards the bed with his hand on the thick wooden door.

“It’s okay. Go.” she said, but she sounded troubled, and she added, “I will be here when you come back.”

Erik looked from her to the door and back again. He felt torn. Hjörtur was possibly under attack, but he could not bring himself to leave her. For some reason, he felt like if he walked out that door he might never see her again.

“Erik, go!”

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A Monster Inside 1.06 – Erik

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The love of power is the demon that eats at the hearts of all men.  

— ANONYMOUS

It began with one man, 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 with a sardonic grin. They were finally showing him the respect he deserved and it felt good. A warm spike of pleasure traveled up his spine. Their whispers and looks of derision had affected him more than he understood. It was hard always pretending to be less than he knew he was.

“Erik! Erik! Erik!” They shouted louder, worried by the look in Erik’s eyes. His eyes had changed, they were now solid black except for a band of gold that the encircled the darkness. All hints of green had completely vanished, adding a savage and menacing element to his visage.

His father was right, he decided, nothing was as seductive as true power. In the back of his head, he felt the Celestial Dragon’s arousal and pride like it were his own. A part of him began to—

“Quiet!” He barked, turning away from the men, smile slipping from his face. The sudden quiet was deafening. Not this again, he thought, gazing down at Númi’s still breathing body. He shut his eyes against a quick and sudden spike of pain and when he reopened them his vision had returned to normal. He was going to have to get used to his new reality… soon.

Númi looked pitiful and tragic, but Erik knew he could be saved if his injuries were seen to immediately. With help from prana, Lightbenders could recover from wounds that would end the lives of most men. 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. He had made a promise to his mother. He had promised her that he would be the light the world needed. He did not think he could ever live up to her high standards, but he would be as good as the world allowed him to be.

Erik walked away, leaving Númi in the care of his comrades. Pushing through a wooden door, he found himself once again wandering Hjörtur’s torch-lit corridors. This time, he had a location in mind. It was time to find some answers about what was happening to him.

Minutes later he found himself moving down a corridor where few dared to travel. At the end of the corridor, four golden surcoated Punishers in conical helmets stood guard in front of a thick iron bound door with a small iron grill set in it. Without having to say a word, one of the Punishers tapped on the door in an odd sequence.

After a brief moment, the door swung open, revealing more Punishers and a stairway. Erik descended the heavily guarded stairway into the depths of one of Hjörtur hidden tunnels. One of the soldiers in clanking armor waited at the bottom of the stairway and led Erik through the dark tunnel with a rush torch. Under the scent of burning wood, he smelled a faint odor of decay that reminded him of an open grave. The smell only grew stronger the further he moved down the tunnel.

The soldier stopped in front of another heavily guarded door. Erik studied the black flame etched onto the Punishers golden surcoats that blocked his path forward. In the half light of the torch-lit tunnel, the symbol of their order suddenly looked sinister. They greeted Erik with chilly nods that he did not return and then they opened the door.

The room was half the size of Hjörtur’s domed Great Hall and the floor was covered with a swelling and pulsing pale meat-like substance. It looked like the inside of a living organism, veiny and flecked with green and yellow mucus. A row of four bulbous spherical nodules grew out of the floor like corrupted trees beside a crimson gem the size of a man’s fist that rested at the center of a misshaped flesh pillar. The inside of the scarlet jewel flickered with an inner fire that provided the room with its only source of light. Every flicker was like some strange alien heartbeat. Every flicker was an assault on the boarders of the impossible.

Erik breathed in the repugnant, fishy smell of the room, and the taste of it rose in his throat, rancid and pungent, like something spewed out of a dead dog’s stomach. He fought the urge to vomit and stepped into the sorcerer’s cavern. The door slammed shut behind him with the finality of a condemned man’s cell. The sound sent a chill rushing down his spine, but none of it showed on his face.

Ypes stood at the center of the room with his back towards Erik, eyeing the multifaceted jewel which cast his elongated shadow like a cloak of darkness behind him. Two dour-faced Punishers stood with crossbows aimed at Ypes’ back. Their hands were steady on their weapons, but there was something about their expressions that made it seemed like they were uncomfortable about being trapped within the sorcerer’s cavern.

Erik reasoned that, like him, the two soldiers understood that room was one giant death trap. With only a moment’s notice, gallons of hot oil could be poured into the room through specially designed holes in the roof. Then with a single spark the whole room would turn into an inferno, destroying the sorcerer’s abominations that filled the room with the cleansing power of the flame.

“Leave us,” Erik told the two Punishers. He came to a stop ten meters away from Ypes and watched relief flash across the two dismissed soldiers’ faces. It was only there for a half moment before it disappeared behind a wall of professionalism.

Ypes turned away from the room’s only source of light with his eyes downcast and his face illuminated in a blood red radiance. “So much has been lost. Time has robbed us of our ancestors’ greatness.” Ypes muttered mostly to himself. He ran his pale hand along the outer membrane of a nearby nodule. Within the nodule, the underdeveloped fetus of a giant White Crane could be seen floating within a thick fluid. The tiny body of the fetus was animated by a weak heartbeat.

“Perhaps it’s for the best,” Erik responded just as quietly. There something about the sorcerer’s breeding cavern that made others want to pitch their voices low as if ensnared within a prehistoric temple of some unholy god of flesh and corruption.

Ypes studied Erik with an unreadable expression. “You really mean that, don’t you?” He asked.

“I do,” Erik responded.

“Oh,” Ypes replied and then returned his gaze back to the nodule. “I thought we saw the world through the same lens, if not what’s the point of all this?” There was an element of hurt in Ypes’ voice that turned into resentment near the end of his statement.

“Vatn, Jörðin, and Eldur have been eyeing Vindur with ill intentions ever since our war with Ógilt. War is coming, Ypes.” Erik paused after he realized that his father had once told him something similar. He moved closer to Ypes and then continued, “Perhaps not today or tomorrow, but it is coming. When it comes we will need every advantage unless we want to share Ógilt’s fate.”

A bitter smile curved Ypes’ lips. He looked as if a realization had just dawned upon him. “Just words… words that I’ve heard before from another’s lips. These words may even be true, but they are not the whole truth.” His eyes glittered in the dim red light. “You risk the wrath of the Church of the Eternal Father there has—”

“Fuck the church!”

Erik felt as surprised as Ypes looked at his outburst. Where did that come from? He balled his hands and opened them in an attempt to quiet the sudden frenzy coursing through his veins. The sorcerer’s breeding cavern was humid from the warmth of the flesh made structures, but the sweat on Erik’s brow had nothing to do with the heat.

Ypes stared at Erik with his mouth agape. He shut his mouth and then opened it as if he was about to speak, but no words were forthcoming. He closed his jaw once again and shook his head like a mangy mutt trying to dispel water soaked into its fur.

I’m losing control, Erik thought and the thought terrified him. His hands trembled ever so slightly, if you were not paying attention you would miss it.

“Your name has been connected with the most foul rumors as of late,” Ypes said while studying Erik’s face for a reaction.

“Oh,” Erik turned away from Ypes’ searching gaze and found his own eyes locked onto the red jewel that was the source of Ypes’ power. “What have you heard?”

“Only whispers, less than whispers, noise. The halls of Hjörtur clamor with the noise of your death or at least they did, but here you stand.”

“Here I stand,” Erik repeated absentmindedly. The interplay of light within the fist-sized red stone held him transfixed like a small child staring at the last glowing embers of a dying forest fire. He turned away from the light, letting his eyes fall fully onto Ypes’ visage.

“Why are you here at this moment?” Ypes asked with a puzzled expression. Unconsciously he ran his hand along the collar of his brightly colored green coat, and Erik grimaced. Ypes’ tastes in fashion left a lot to be desired. Erik theorized he did it on purpose. The only area where Ypes had some freedom was in the clothing he wore. The bombastic nature of his apparel was a form of rebellion. “You came down here for a reason, what was it?”

“I used to be fascinated by my dreams,” Erik said. “At night I would escape reality into otherworldly realms, but by morning only fragments of my experiences would remain. I hated that… forgetting. I was convinced all the answers to the questions I held were in my dreams. If only I could remember them fully then I’d know.” He touched his upper lip where a hint of a mustache grew. “So one night I prayed to the Eternal Father. I begged him to allow me to remember my dreams. Do you know what happened next?”

“What does that have to do with my question?” Ypes kept his eyes locked onto Erik’s face as he spoke. Ypes always seemed to be watching Erik these days. His shoulders were relaxed and his back was straight with a confidence that had not been there just a few months earlier. Being sent to Hjörtur had transformed Ypes in subtle ways that Erik was just beginning to take note of.

“I remembered my dreams and I wished I hadn’t,” Erik said tiredly. “I think we lost the knowledge of our ancestors for the same reason that we can’t remember our dreams.” Ypes still did not look away from Erik’s green orbs; he seemed spellbound.  “We forgot to protect ourselves from the horror.”

“We live in the Fourth Age, the Age of Monsters. Humanity clings to life by its fingernails. The horror is already here.” Ypes said, his voice taking on a slight edge as though he was becoming irritated. “Once again I ask. Erik, why are you here?”

Erik’s right hand gripped the hilt of his long sword. The heat in his gaze could fry eggs. The urge to slash his sword across Ypes’ neck knifed into Erik’s bones and turned his marrow to liquid magma.

Ypes bowed his head in an act of submission. “Forgive me, my prince. I forget my place.” He said as his cheeks pinked.

Erik closed his eyes and concentrated on the rapid and angry thumping within his chest. Echoing splashes of hatred followed every one of his heartbeats as if his pulse was a drum calling others to war. He slowed its pulsing frenzy by controlling his breathing. This was not like him. Erik prided himself on his self-control, but suddenly it was like he was a youth again, plagued by uncontrollable emotions and strange sensations.

Opening his eyes, Erik cleared his throat and released the hilt of his sword. “Let us both agree to this fiction; that I am a magnanimous master and that you’re my loyal slave.” Is this what comes of too much kindness? Disrespect?

“What you call fiction is the truth, my prince.” He lifted his head, revealing a look of reverence. “You have no more loyal a servant than I.” There was an element of falseness attached to Ypes’ expression that Erik did his best to ignore.

“It brings me joy to hear you say that.” Erik lied. “Now tell me, what do you know of the Ito bloodline?” He lowered his voice to say that and looked over his shoulder even though he knew there was no one else in the room. He was coming dangerously close to touching upon his secret. “The stories say that Jön Ito escaped the bowels of a sorcerer’s breeding cavern before he founded Vindur. I’ve never given it much thought before, but what exactly does that mean?”

Yellow eyes gleamed in the dim red light like the eyes of a demon cat. “It means, like most life on this planet, Jön Ito was the result of a sorcerer’s experiment.”

“You mean…” Erik’s voice trailed off. He could not bring himself to say the words. He was raised to fear and hate the Sorcerer-Kings of old and what they had done to the world. The idea that his ancestor, someone whom he had grown up admiring was… he could not even bring himself to think it.

“Yes,” Ypes said, once again running his hand along the thin membrane of the nodule. “I can’t be sure, this all happened over two thousand years ago. But I believe Jön Ito was most likely born in something just like this.”

Erik stared at Ypes quizzically. “Jön Ito was born in an artificial womb?” There he said it and the world had not ended. He tried to sooth himself with that fact.

“The clues are all there in the stories if you know where to look,” Ypes said. “Sorcerer-Kings did not just restrict their meddling to animals. The Dökk are ample proof of that. My master once…” Ypes paused and a hint of grief flashed across his face before he could stop it. “It’s possible that the ability to touch the Abyss comes directly from the Sorcerer-Kings’ experimentations.” Ypes continued after a moment.

“No. I… No.” Erik shook his head in denial, but the more he thought about it the more it all made a kind of sick sense. “The Eternal Father gave man that ability to protect ourselves from the Sorcerer-Kings—” Erik stopped when he realized he was just repeating the Church’s teachings.

“The Church also says that the Eternal Father imprisoned the Dark One and the Death Gods at the end of the First Age within the Abyss. Why would he then give man access to it in the Fourth Age?” Ypes asked with his head raised just enough to stare at Erik from under his eyebrows. Somewhere along the way he had stopped running his hand along the nodule.

Flustered, Erik barked, “I don’t know! The Eternal Father’s ways are mysterious and unknowable.” He laughed at his own ridiculousness; it was mirthless laughter that brought him no joy at all. He did not understand why he was fighting against this idea so hard. All he knew was that Ypes ideas made him feel like there was a layer of filth lying atop the contents of his stomach.

“Think, my prince. Think!” Ypes demanded. Erik frowned when he caught a glimpse of the excitement in Ypes’ eyes. “Why are the Four Great Calamities that wander the earth so feared?” Ypes continued without giving Erik a chance to respond. “They can draw power from the Abyss! They’re not the only monsters who can. But they are surely the most powerful. I have a theory—”

Erik listened patiently. The more he listened, the more it started to seem plausible, but there was one question that kept running through his mind. Are the Sorcerer-Kings responsible for what happened to me?

“—I think that the Sorcerer-Kings lost control of their creations,” Ypes continued. “I think channeling the Aspects of the Abyss changed their creations in ways that they never expected which, in the end, led to their ruin.”

“How long?” Erik asked with a lump in his throat. It was getting harder and harder to breathe. He understood this was all in his head, but it did not help. He balled his clammy hands in fists and then opened them.

“What?” Ypes questioned, more than a little perplexed. His pale brow had wrinkled in befuddlement, giving him the appearance of a disgruntled vagabond. At any other time, Erik would have found the sight comical.

“How long do the Sorcerer-Kings’ changes take to come into effect?” He asked. “Can it skip generations?”  There was a slight look of desperation in his eyes that he knew Ypes picked up on.

Ypes did not respond right away. Erik imagined he could see the wheels turning in Ypes’ lopsided head. “There are little patterns in our blood which make us what we are.” Ypes finally responded. “If the Sorcerer-Kings made a change in the pattern, it’s possible that the result wouldn’t show up until hundreds of years later in the subject’s great-grandchildren’s offsprings.

“Hundreds of years…” Erik mumbled as he turned away from Ypes and began to walk towards the door. Erik ignored Ypes’ shouts of, “My prince.” The truth was he never really heard them. He was in a daze of inward reflection.

Erik exited the sorcerer’s breeding cavern and walked through Hjörtur’s hidden tunnels—and up the heavily guarded stairway, too—all without saying a word to the soldiers he passed along the way. Back above ground, he started to come to terms with his new reality. What does it matter? So what if my ancestor was a sorcerer’s experiment. Does it change who I am? I’m still me. But was he really? He now shared his body with something that ate worlds.

All the energy inside his body needed to be released or he felt like he was going to explode. He started walking without a destination in mind. He just allowed his legs to lead him where they would while his mind worked at his problem. He passed saluting soldiers and bowing servants all without any real awareness.

At the end of it all, he came to three conclusions. First, he could not allow anyone to find out about his secret which led him to thoughts of having Ypes murdered. In the end, he decided that Ypes did not know enough to be truly dangerous and whatever risk there was in allowing him to live was outweighed by his usefulness. Second, he had to find time to test his new abilities and come to terms with what he was now capable of. And lastly, Erik came to the conclusion that it was paramount that he learned how to keep the Celestial Dragon’s emotions and urges from bleeding over into his mind.

Erik came to a stop. I can’t allow it to seize control of my body. That would only end in death.

“My prince,” Hailed four voices in unison. The four voices were male, Erik could tell that much instantly. If he had to guess, all four of the voices belonged to soldiers. There was something in the way soldiers projected their voices that was very distinct. He thought it came from them always fighting to be heard in the training yard and on the battlefield.

In spite of everything, Erik found himself grinning affably in an attempt to hide what he was really feeling. Where else would my feet lead me, but here, he mused as he stared at Kai’s square jawline. Kai was just where Erik had left him, standing guard in front of the door to his apartment with three other soldiers that Erik had not yet learned the names of.

“Has anyone entered?” He asked softly.

Kai’s eyebrows twitched, and his chest puffed out. “We turned everyone away who sought entry as per your orders.” His voice was a deep earthquake rumble. “My prince,” he added with a smile. The smile even seemed genuine which made Erik take pause.

“Thank you for service.” Erik thanked the men by looking them each in the eye, one by one. “But I no longer have need of you. You may return to your posts.”

Kai bowed easily, hand to heart and led his comrades away looking a little defeated. For some reason, Kai’s disappointment pulled at Erik’s heart strings. His father had always told him that good subordinates were hard to find.

“Kai,” Erik said, “wait.” Kai stopped and looked over his shoulder. “I want you come and see me tomorrow. I may have another task for you.” He finished, turning away from Kai just as his face split into a grin.

After Erik entered the anteroom of his personal apartments he bolted the heavy, iron-strapped door behind. Fewer rays of light fell into the room through the openings in the brocaded curtains that covered the arrowslits. Something hard bumped into Erik’s foot as he walked deeper into the room. He kneeled down and picked up a deformed silver pitcher etched with curling grapevines. The room was just as he had left it. The ornately worked table that once sat in the middle of the room still lay in pieces against the far wall.

Erik stood, turning away from the ruined table and the wine stained carpets with a feeling of anticipation. He felt like a condemned man on the way to his hanging with every step he took towards the bedroom door. This is it, he thought as pushed open the door.

Hanna sat with her arms and legs tied to a cushioned chair with stripes of a pink garment. Her head lay slumped forward and more golden hair had escaped her shawl to fall over her face. She lifted her head with eyes gleaming like the exposed ice of a glacier. There was more than coldness in her blue orbs, there was a promise of pain and something worse.

Erik gripped the silver pitcher he still held tighter. “Hey,” he said lamely.

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