The love of power is the demon that eats at the hearts of all men.
Minutes later, Erik found himself moving down a corridor where few dared to travel, void of even the occasional serving woman, hurrying past on unknown errands. He was grateful for the isolation, though, he knew it would not last for long. Despite the few tapestries that decorated the walls, the flickering torchlight made it seem a cavern. A dangerous cavern.
Four golden surcoated Punishers in conical helmets came into view at the end of the corridor. They stood guard in front of a thick iron bound door with a small iron grill set in it. Without Erik having to say a word, one soldier tapped on the door in an odd sequence. A moment later, it swung open, revealing more armored men and a stairway broad enough to accommodate five people abreast.
Erik nodded his thanks and descended the stairway into Hjörtur’s depths surrounded by darkness and ancient stone weathered by countless years. The scent of burning wood and a faint odor of decay hang in the air, growing stronger the lower he climbed. His nose wrinkled in disgust.
I won’t allow you to succeed, he admonished the monster within. You must understand that? I will do whatever it takes to stop you. The only response came as a pang of hunger; Erik shivered.
Another soldier in clanking armor waited at the bottom of stairs illuminated by flickering, far-spaced torches on the walls. Erik passed the armored man without a word and strode down a feebly lit tunnel with several branching pathways all blocked by rubble. His footsteps echoed strangely within the enclosed area, making it sound as if something sinister trailed him just beyond the reach of the torchlight. He forced himself not glance back.
The door to the sorcerer’s cavern stood just as heavily guarded as the one above. Erik studied the black flame etched onto the Punishers golden surcoats that blocked his path forward. In the half light, the symbol of their order suddenly appeared malevolent. The armored men greeted him with chilly nods that he returned and then they opened the door.
There was a chamber beyond, half the size of Hjörtur’s domed Great Hall. 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. And a row of four bulbous spherical nodules grew out of the ground like corrupted trees beside a crimson gem the size of a man’s fist that rested at the center of a misshaped flesh pillar. Scarlet light grew and sprang from the jewel, flicking like a thousand fireflies, providing the room with a touch more illumination than the torches dotting the walls.
Erik breathed in the repugnant, fishy smell of the chamber, 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, sending a chill racing down his spine.
He looked up more closely at the ceiling and saw the vents through which gallons of hot oil could be poured into the chamber at a moments notice. If that ever happened, fire would swell, expanding in a furious cloud, heat searing, flames devouring the unnatural workings below. Then there would be nothing left of the sorcerer’s cavern but charred husks of flesh.
For a moment, Erik refused to look toward the center of the room. Ypse was there, gazing at the multifaceted jewel; it cast his elongated shadow like a cloak of darkness behind him. At the edges of his vision, the two dour-faced Punishers with crossbows aimed at the Sorcerer’s back seemed to shift and change with the pulsing of the light.
Erik forced himself to stroll forward, his sandals slipping on the moist and uneven terrain. He sensed the heat of life pumping beneath his feet. His breath caught in his throat and his heart raced as he approached Ypse. He feared the answers the Sorcerer might hold.
“Leave us,” he told the Punishers. The soldiers bowed, a look of relief flashing across their pale faces, and they made their way out of the room.
“You are dead,” Ypse whispered. “Or you are supposed to be.” The Sorcerer did not look from the gem as he spoke; Erik understood Ypse’s obsession with the jewel, it was the source of his power, without it, he was nothing.
“So I keep being told,” Erik replied.
Ypse was clad in a red coat and black breeches. “I don’t suppose I need this anymore,” he said, using his sleeve to wipe away the Tree of Life etched on his forehead.
“No, I don’t suppose you do,” Erik chuckled.
“So much has been lost. Time has robbed us of our ancestors’ greatness,” Ypse muttered mostly to himself it seemed. He ran a hand along the outer membrane of a nearby nodule that housed the undeveloped fetus of a giant White Crane. Its tiny body was animated by a weak heartbeat.
“Perhaps it’s for the best,” Erik responded just as quietly. There was 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.
Ypse finally turned to regard him. Light from the jewel cast a bright red glow across his hawkish face and yellow eyes.“You really mean that, don’t you?”
“Oh, I thought we saw the world through the same lens, my Prince.” His voice held an element of hurt that quickly turned into resentment. “If not, what’s the point of all this?”
“Vatn, Jörðin, and Eldur have been eyeing Vindur with ill intentions ever since our war with Ógilt. War is coming, Ypse. 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 Ypse’s lips. “You risk the wrath of the Last Empire and the Old Orthodox Church—”
“Fuck the church! And fuck the Last Empire!” Erik snapped, surprising himself. A sudden frenzy coursed through his veins like a river of glowing magma, hollowing him with fury, suffusing him with hatred.
I’m losing control, he panicked, balling and un-balling his hands. The sweat on his brow had nothing to do with the heat radiating from the floor and everything to do with the fear now clawing at his chest.
Ypse observed him, mouth agape.
“I think. . . .” Erik swallowed the lump in his throat. “We lost the knowledge of our ancestors for the same reason that we can’t remember our dreams. 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.” Ypse paused. “Why have you come here, my Prince?”
“I have a problem you may be able to fix,” Erik said. “What do you know of the Ito bloodline? The stories say Jön Ito escaped the bowels of a sorcerer’s breeding cavern before he founded Vindur. I’ve never given it much consideration before, but what exactly does that mean?”
Ypse snorted softly, turning back to the red jewel. Erik followed suit, watching the red light twist and flicker. Every flash was like some strange alien heartbeat. Every twinkle was an assault on the borders of the impossible.
“You won’t like my answer,” Ypse breathed after a moment, “in fact I’m certain of it.”
Erik said nothing, allowing the Sorcerer to formulate his thoughts.
“I think—and there is substantial evidence to suppose so—like most things in this Age, Jön Ito was the result of a Sorcerer’s experiment. Perhaps all Cultivators were.” Ypse ran a hand along the thin membrane of the nodule. “I can’t be sure of course, this all happened over one thousand years ago.”
Erik blinked in shock. “You mean he was grown in an artificial womb?”
“The Sorcerer-Kings did not just restrict their meddling to animals. The Dökk are ample proof of that. My master once. . . .” A hint of grief flashed across Ypse’s face. “It’s likely that the ability to touch the Abyss comes directly from the Sorcerer-Kings’ experimentations.”
“No. I. . . . No.” Erik shook his head in denial. It can’t be! The idea that his line may have begun in chamber very much like this one sickened him. Made him want to spew out whatever remained in his stomach.
“When you stop to analyze it, the New Orthodox Church’s teachings on the subject doesn’t make sense. Why would the Eternal Father imprisoned the Dark One and the Death Gods within the Abyss then give man access to it in the Fourth Age?”
Flustered, Erik’s heart pounded in his ears. He laughed, a mirthless sound. “I don’t know.”
“Think, my Prince. Think!” Ypse demanded. “Why are the Four Great Calamities that wander the earth so feared? Because they can draw power from the Abyss! They’re not the only monsters that can, but they are the most powerful. I have a theory. The Sorcerer-Kings lost control of their creations; the Abyss changed them, making them impossible to control. That’s one of the reasons they fell.”
“How long . . . does their tinkering take to come into effect?” Erik asked. “Can it skip generations?”
Ypse dropped his gaze. “There are little patterns in our blood that make us what we are. 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, walking towards the door in a daze.
“My Prince! My Prince!” came Ypse’s shouts of concern.
Lost in his own thoughts, Erik did not reply. He exited the sorcerer’s breeding cavern and wandered 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.
Restless, Erik meandered through the citadel without a particular destination in mind. He just allowed his legs to lead him where they may while his mind worked away at his problem. He passed saluting soldiers and bowing servants and walked up stairs and down hallways.
As far as he could see it, there was little that could be done. I have to manage this somehow and figure out a way to—
“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 grinned affably at Kai and his comrades, hiding what he truly felt behind a mask. The armored men stood where he had left them, in front of the door to his apartments. Where else would my feet lead me but here?
“Did anyone enter?” Erik 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.
“Thank you, that will be all. You may return to your posts” Erik said.
Kai bowed easily, hand to heart and led his comrades away. Erik watched them go with a frown, and then entered the anteroom of his personal apartments, bolting the heavy, iron-strapped door behind. He leaned against the door and released a sigh.
The room was just as he had left it. The ornately worked table that once sat in the middle of the chamber still lay in pieces against the far wall, and the fire still roared in the fireplace. But now fewer rays of light fell into the room through the openings in the brocaded curtains that covered the arrow-slits.
Erik straightened and strode forward, feeling like a condemned man on the way to his own hanging. Something hard bumped into his foot, and he kneeled down and picked up a deformed silver pitcher etched with curling grapevines. His distorted reflection stared back at him. How am I going to fix this mess? What if Hanna. . . .
The thought made him snarl, and he stood up to distract himself. It was impossible to predict what was going to happen, so there was no point stewing about it. Besides, the answer was in the next room. He gave his head a shake and entered the bedchamber.
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, eyes gleaming like the exposed ice of a glacier. There was more than just coldness in them now, there was a promise of pain and something far worse.
Erik squeezed the silver pitcher in his hand. “Hey.”