Hope is a waking nightmare.
— HANNA ITO, FAMOUS LAST WORDS
Erik 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. He closed his hands into fists. But . . . am I really? I now share my body with something that ate entire worlds.
He meandered through the citadel, working his way to his apartment through a roundabout route. As long as I learn how to control it, none of that matters. He unclenched his hands. The only thing that’s important is the plan. I have to focus on organizing the trip back to the Capital and training for the Grand Assessment. I only have three weeks.
Erik came to a stop in front of the four soldier standing guard outside his apartment. In spite of everything, he grinned affably at Kai and his comrades, finding solace in his goals.
“My Prince,” they said.
“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-bound 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. 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 with 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 strips 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.”
A look of horror flashed across Hanna’s face like the shadow of a dark cloud on a bright day and then disappeared. It was a surprise to Erik that her face revealed that much at all, even if it was only for a moment.
Erik’s fingers quivered, and the wine pitcher warped and twisted in his grip. “Why? Tell me why.” His voice wavered between pleading and demanding. “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 and scowled when her words came out jumbled, but she did not stop. Her mutterings sounded less like words and more like the noises a wounded animal might make. Erik rushed over, kneeling down to remove the cloth from her maw.
“What did you say?” he asked in a gentler tone.
With a voice tainted by annoyance, Hanna responded, “I said okay!” She blew on a lock of blonde hair that had fallen across her eye; it moved away from her face before falling back into the same position. “How are you—”
“No”—he touched her lips with a soft fingertip—“you go first. I need to understand why you did what you did. What did I do?” 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 beautiful, long eyelashes, studying him like someone might a curious insect, the ends of her eyebrows almost touching. Finally, his hand dropped from her neck when the silence grew too unbearable.
Erik slumped over, resting his head on Hanna’s lap, squeezing his eyes shut. “It’s only now I understand what my father meant,” he whispered, half to himself. “He told me, ‘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 eyes narrowed into slits and her breath caught in her throat for a second. “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. I promised myself that I would never forget. That one day, I would have revenge for Ógilt . . . for my parents. For my brother.”
Erik opened his eyes. “We’ve both lost people who we loved, Hanna. Your father had my mother murdered. Had her poisoned. That’s the reason Ógilt is no more.” He straightened, noticing a single tear running down her cheek. “No, that’s not the reason. You could’ve killed me a hundred different times before this. Something changed between today and yesterday.”
“Yes, you died,” Hanna laughed, flinching from the hand Erik raised to wipe away the tear.
Erik winced inside, blaming himself for the fact that she pulled away from his touch. They had never consummated their marriage. On their wedding night—three months ago—he had allowed her to keep her maidenhood as an odd act of affection. And ever since then they had laid next to each other night after night, never touching. It was a mistake. He saw that now.
“I cried when I found out,” she continued, as though that explained everything.
A wry snort from Erik indicated that it did not. He freed her left hand from bondage and began on the right.
“Walls can’t stop love,” Hanna retorted. “Not when it’s already inside.” She did not sound like someone who only half a year before had said true love was found only in bards’ tales. “When I saw your lifeless body, I wept like I’ve never wept. Not in years. It was like all the light had gone out of the world.”
Erik began, “Hanna—”
Hanna touched Erik’s face with her free hand. “Let me finish. That’s when I knew that . . . that 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. 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.”
Erik licked his dry lip. She’s insane, he thought, but that did not change what he felt. The sight of her inflamed him, made his blood seethe and bubble. He needed to. . . . He pulled Hanna into a kiss. His tongue flashed passed her 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, shooting, even more, heat down his spine. It was sinful how sweet she tasted.
He pulled back and gazed at her. Bright spots of color had consumed her cheeks, and the warmth in her eyes looked hot enough to char flesh. Like him, she appeared half-consumed by passion. 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 seemed to melt into him as he stood, fingers clawing and scratching.
For an instant, they stumbled around the room, hands fumbling at each other’s clothes, legs thrashing backward and forward. The air of grace that usually hung from Hanna’s shoulder like a mantle vanished, making her appear almost childlike—unsure of what came next.
“How are you even still alive?” Hanna broke away from Erik, inches from the foot of the bed, her breath coming in rushed gasps.
Erik paused, mind running with a dozen possible responses. “I can’t die,” he said, settling on a version of the truth. He pulled her in for another kiss.
“Tell me,” Hanna demanded, avoiding his lips. She pushed her palms against Erik’s chest, and the back of his legs bumped into the bed.
“I’m serious,” Erik responded. “I think I’ve become immortal. Do you believe me?”
Hanna peered up at him, not speaking, blue eyes unblinking. She was tall for a woman, he realized; her head came up just past his chin. Slowly, a smile replaced her look of bewilderment. “I do,” she said, lifting the hem of her dress with her right hand.
“You do?” Erik blinked, dragging his eyes away from her legs. How could she believe him when he did not even believe it himself? Not really.
“Yes,” Hanna smiled, using her left hand to pull him down into another kiss.
Before their lips touched, a point of pure agony erupted in Erik’s chest, and he grunted, eyes widening as the harsh sound reverberated through the room. She . . . she. . . . He could not complete the thought. Shocked, he stumbled backward, falling onto the bed; the wooden frame the mattress rested upon groaned as if it might rupture. A blotch of crimson bloomed, trickling out from around the dagger jutting out of his flesh.
“I trust you,” Hanna said, climbing on top of him. “You wouldn’t lie me.”
Confused, Erik looked up at her. The Tree of Life that once marked her forehead was now nothing more than a smudge, ruined by perspiration. Pain ripped through him, hot and cold where the blade lay within the cavity of his chest. His fingers twitched, it would be a simple thing to reach and tear out Hanna’s throat. Stubbornly, he forced his mind away from that idea and concentrated on keeping the Celestial Dragon’s growing presence at bay. It roared, ringing his skull with images of mountains of uncooked meat, dripping with tantalizing droplets of scarlet that pooled into rivers, and from rivers joined into an ocean of red.
Hanna yanked the dagger out of his chest, and blood gushed into his lung. “Show me what you can do,” she said, grinding her hips against his, lips curved in a pensive smile.
Erik glared at Hanna, gasping, drowning. Her words filled him with fury, a fury that burned with a hunger for blood. He was a grown man, not a trained bear. He did not perform tricks!
If she wants to see, he thought with a growl, then I will show her!
The crimson blotch reversed its creeping expansion and Erik’s flesh re-knitted into a seamless whole, even the tear in the robe repaired itself. Hanna’s face blossomed with wonder, contrary to the horror he had expected. That angered him more. His hands closed into fists, and he focused on his robe. It rippled, becoming an amalgamation of silk and skin for a moment before completely sinking into him. He shivered; the sensation seemed odd, almost like droplets of icy water dripping onto his spine.
“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 raised the dagger.
“No!” Erik ripped the blade from her hand and flung it away, flipping her onto her back. He straddled her, pinning her arms to the bed. She looked up at him, face flushed, eyes wide. Suddenly, he realized he was lying on top of her. Naked. A burning need filled him, and he knew she could sense him against her thigh, throbbing, aching. The need turned violent, mixing with the Celestial Dragon’s own arousal, striking him with the force of thunder. Every inch of his body trembled.
BREED, the monster urged.
Yes, breed, Erik agreed, his head filling with images of the beast’s own past conquest. Of two massive bodies thrashing among pools of searing magma, copulating with a violence that shattered scales and broke claws. Of roars and howls of pleasure joining beneath a sky of burning purple clouds.
“Be gentle,” Hanna whispered.
“No,” Erik said. He grabbed the front of Hanna’s dress with both hands and tore it apart, exposing her breasts to the room. Her pink nipples stood erected, enticing him with their appetizing allure. Heart pounding, he took her nipple into his mouth like a greedy child at feeding time, sucking and flicking his tongue along her hardened nub. Hanna moaned, grabbing the back of his neck, body shuddering against his own, hot and pulsing.
“You’re not even breathing hard,” came Hanna’s panting voice.
Erik lay on his back, staring at the blackness above while the last rays of dusk fell into the room through the narrow arrow-slits that acted as windows. He felt like he existed in some little hollow of non-time, thick with the enthralling musk of fornication. It was as though something precious had been lost, stripped away from him like the pink and white sand escaping through his fingers.
“Erik!” Hanna yelled.
Erik blinked, turning from the darkness hanging above. Hanna’s body dripped with perspiration and her eyes drooped with exhaustion. He ran two fingers down her sweat-slicked chest, pausing at her navel; she quivered with anticipation. Eyes sparkling, he looked into her eyes with a mischievous smirk.
“Where were you?” she asked, controlling her breathing.
Erik’s smile turned perverted. His two fingers inched lower with the creeping slowness of a caterpillar, and suddenly he could feel enchantment damp in between her thighs. “Here—”
“No, you weren’t,” Hanna said, putting a stop to Erik’s nomadic fingers. “Even now your eyes hold 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 fluttering around inside of him. Not the Celestial Dragon, but something that had always been there.
“Of what? Of what you’re becoming?” Hanna inquired. “Whatever is happening to you, we will face it together.”
“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 afraid that now that I have you, 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 clutched him tighter as if afraid he might slip through her grasp. “We’re different, but the same. I’m afraid too. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to let my revenge go. That one day I will destroy you and everything you love.”
“What a pair we make,” Erik 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.” He lifted his head to stare into her eyes. “I can’t seem to get that idea out of my head. Who would create characters as tragic us?”
“Someone with real problems. Probably one of those goat fuckers from Eldur.” Hanna ran her hand through Erik’s hair, and they laughed together in the shroud of some unspoken agreement.
“I can’t promise how I will feel tomorrow,” Erick said after a few seconds, “but I love you. Right now. In this moment.”
“I love you too,” Hanna replied. “But one day I might raze Vetur to the ground and sow the earth with salt.”
At that instant, the sound of a ringing bell drifted into the room on a gust of wind past the brocaded curtains, shattering the budding warmth between the two. Erik froze, listening, hoping it was a false alarm; 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, blue robe rising out of his flesh, searching for his longsword. He found it against the wall next to the bed a second after his skin ceased itching. Not slowing, he secured his weapon to his red sash and rushed towards the door. He stopped, turning back towards the Hanna with his hand on the thick wooden door.
“It’s okay. Go,” she said. “I will be here when you come back.”
Erik looked from Hanna to the door and back again. He was torn. Hjörtur might be under attack, but he could not bring himself to leave her. For some reason, he felt that if he walked out that door, he might never see her again.