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.