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