What are monsters when all men lie dead, but perfect shadows on a cloudless day?
— VILHELM ITO, TO HANNA
A day earlier
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 there, day and night, binding him with an unbreakable bond. And he hated it. He despised the fact that, like every other Lightbender who had pledged fealty to the King, he could always sense the man’s presence. Right now, the King was somewhere off to the south, too far away to be more than a small pulse of light in his head.
Reality slowly intruded on Patrick’s ruminations. 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 sharpened their longswords with long, slow strokes on whetstones.
“Don’t keep us waiting, Patrick. Finish your story,” Fritz said, bringing an end to Patrick 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, 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. No, in fact, she might have been the ugliest. She had a birthmark the size of an apple on the side of her face, and her teeth were so twisted and brown you might 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 seemed to be Ebbi, who rested with his back against the wall and his eyes on his longsword. 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 wound always led to arguments over drawn blades.
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 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, seeming 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 womenfolk 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 chill into the cheerful atmosphere. His forehead wrinkled in anger, and the puckered skin of the right side of his face appeared 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,” he said, looking 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 winked at the two men.
Carl and Fritz straightened in their seats and sheathed their blades. 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. We fear for your immortal soul, men were never meant to lie with animals.”
What little color there was drained from Ebbi’s face, and a sense of pride filled Patrick at the sound of laughter that escaped past Carl and Fritz’ lips. Ebbi jolted to his feet, bringing an end to the snickering. His expression revealed nothing of what he thought, but in standing, he had tugged 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?” Ebbi snarled.
Patrick’s heart spiked, but he kept his fear under control. Sincerity and openness filled his voice, all efforts at mockery disappeared. “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 his words. He knew Ebbi understood 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, smiling affably. “Come now, Ebbi. No need to get—”
“Shut up and sit down!” Ebbi barked. His longsword swung towards Carl and stopped an inch from his neck. Carl gulped and sat back down, his eyes never leaving Ebbi’s blade.
For a moment, Patrick’s focus 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 longswords at their waists. They seemed to 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 slipped 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, sheathing his weapon and retaking his seat. “It was my first week as an official Knight of the Realm. Four Lightbenders, a local Baron, and I 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, making sure all were paying attention. “It took us two days, but we 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 to regain some small semblance of control over the group and because he was genuinely curious. He had long concluded that his love of women would one day be his undoing.
Ebbi nodded. “Yes, to this day she remains the most beautiful creature 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—”
Patrick fought the urge to let loose the sarcastic comment on the tip of his tongue. He bit down on 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 minutes just to calm her down enough that she would allow me to wrap her naked body in a wool blanket. That’s when the Cockma returned to its lair. Two Lightbenders lost their lives before the Baron used Esoteric Sword Technique after Esoteric Sword Technique to bring an end to the monster.” Ebbi glazed down at the table, breaking eye contact with Patrick. “It was over. I survived my first real battle. But I was wrong, it wasn’t over. It was just beginning.”
“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, and when I spun around the Baron’s eyes had turned scarlet.”
“No,” Patrick whispered. That was his greatest fear, the attack from behind. Every time a Cultivator used the power of the Abyss, there was a chance he might be corrupted by its influence and turn into a Fiend Lord. When that happened, it was a Lightbender’s sworn duty to put him down.
“Yes,” Ebbi nodded. “He drew too deeply on the Abyss, and The Change came over him. When I looked into his eyes, I saw nothing but 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 sang, “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 the Baron 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 seemed to feel like talking. And 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.
“What’s wrong? All four of you look like someone took a piss in your drinks,” a voice asked from behind Patrick.
Patrick did not need to turn around to know who it was, but he rose 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. And the longsword secured at 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, soon joined by everyone but Ebbi. It’s like a dance, he mused. 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. “Is this everyone?”
“No, the twins are out scouting,” Patrick answered. “They will meet us at the forest’s edge.”
Erik stroked the hint of hair 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 asked, turning 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 of thick strips of the blackest iron and locked shut with a thick bar. The sally gate was scarcely large enough for three warriors 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 watch over the forest below. The surface of the pillars—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 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 stillness before the horror. 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 actual 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 ever encountered. Each of them had a quiver of arrows on their backs, a longsword 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 brown starburst pinned on their left collars.
“Well?” Patrick said.
“Two choices. We found traces of a Jade Spider and an Imugi.” Vagn spat brownish spit onto the forest floor, his bottom lip packed full with chewing tobacco.
Patrick turned to Erik and pretended to not notice the Prince’s knuckles whiting on the hilt of his longsword. “What do you think, my Prince?” he asked with a wry and humorless smirk. “How much sweat do you want to work 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 be enough to challenge it. They would be massacred if they even attempted to hunt it down.
Open sky gave way to gloom when they journeyed deeper into the forest interior, surrounded by towering pines with massive trunks and hundreds of thick branches. An unknown bird soared overhead, not thirty meters up, nothing more than a blur illuminated by scant morning light. The path ahead was a zigzagging animal trail, large enough for three men to walk abreast. Patrick did not let his mind ponder on what sort of monster might make such a trail. Instead, he focused on his First and Second Sefirot. Malkut and Yesod. The sphere-shaped, egg-sized crystals, located in his gut and behind his navel, churned with collected prana, and then he allowed some of the prana they held to flow into the meridians that crisscrossed his body like blood vessels. Power surged into him, gushed through his meridians like a searing inferno, exalting him with the strength of five men, threatening to burn him to ash in a sea of mind-numbing ecstasy.
Patrick fought back a gasp. The world throbbed in his vision. Colors and sounds pulsed with beauty, and the gloom receded. The forest now seemed as bright as a field of long grass under the noonday sun, and distant sounds boomed in his eardrums. He could hear the excited heartbeats of his fellow Lightbenders and the much slower thumb of the Prince’s own. This was power! This was true life! Every moment spent without prana coursing through him was just a pale imitation.
He quickened his pace, body now as light as a feather. An odor of rot and decay grew stronger the closer they got to the Jade Spider’s location. He gripped the hilt of his longsword and paused behind a tree in front of a clearing. He looked back at the warriors gathered around and saw the same fire he sensed inside reflected in their eyes. Without being told, they spread out in a circle 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 longsword in his hand. The open space 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 fought from close range. Cultivators, unlike Lightbenders, could not increase their physical strength!
The ground shook at each step Erik took forward. Dust billowed around him, spreading outward in a ring, and his polished blade glinted in the sunlight. Patrick could not be sure, but he thought the Prince was using an Esoteric Sword Technique called Boar Rushes Down the Hill to create the 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!
Erik reached the middle of the clearing, and 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 overhead and leaped twenty meters into the air. Below the Prince, eight large limbs smashed out of the earth and rotated, spewing a shower of dark, brown soil into the air and revealing the belly of a twenty-five-meter long monster. With a segmented body, jointed limbs, and needle-like hairs on its abdomen, the Jade Spider’s dark green exterior looked hard enough to deflect swords. And four pairs of apple-sized eyes sat above its long fangs, staring intently up at the Prince. Eyes that glistened like red glass.
Still, in the air, Erik flipped upside down, sailing towards a massive pine tree, longsword twirling and jabbing in his hand. Inches from the tip of his blade, a rosebud bloomed into existence. With petals made of red flames and the dimensions of a boulder, it flew towards the emerging Jade Spider. 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 would melt flesh. The rosebud exploded, bathing the Jade Spider’s belly with the searing heat of an inferno, and the Prince slammed into the side of the tree with a loud grunt of pain. He tumbled to the ground with such force it made Patrick stand up in shock.
“Fuck,” Patrick whispered in disbelief as the air rang with the monster’s squeals.
Patrick rose an arm to protect his eyes from the furnace-like breeze that blew towards him and nearly gagged on the stench of burnt hairs. The Jade Spider writhed in agony, two of its eyes erupting into sizzling innards and the hairs on its abdomen catching fire.
He understood why Erik did what he had done, but he was still not amused. By burning away the monster’s needle-like hairs, the Prince deprived it of one of its most effective weapons. Yet, Erik had also put them in greater danger by acting recklessly and not informing them of his plan beforehand.
Patrick dropped his arm from his eyes and drew his longsword, more prana surging out of his Two Sefirots and pouring into the meridians in his legs. Fire like liquid magma tore through him. Power like a deluge from the sun! Howling, he charged towards the injured monster and 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.
The Jade Spider spun towards Patrick, rancor burning in its remaining two eyes. He sensed its hatred as a palpable force that tried to knock the air from his lungs but fought against it. The monster reached for him with one of its long, spear-like front legs, a leg thicker than a human body. He dropped to his knees, sliding in the warm dirt with his longsword raised above his head. His blade struck the joint in between the creature’s claw and tarsus and got stuck, jerking him backward. The monster hissed, and he hung onto his weapon, swinging back and forth in the air like a seesaw
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Patrick shouted.
An arrow whistled past his head and punctured one of the Jade Spider’s eyes. Its hissing turned into wailing, and its leg thrashed even more violently. The blade jerked free, and Patrick tumbled through the air with his longsword in hand and a 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.
Further draining his reserves, Patrick sent prana flooding through his meridians, soothing his need for oxygen and slightly healing his injuries. Then he could breathe again. He savored the sensation of air entering his lungs, eyes blinking away tears.
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, the monster’s last eye had exploded, leaving it blind. Carl, Fritz, and Ebbi flowed around the Jade Spider, moving so quickly that their limbs blurred, attacking the joints of the creature’s legs with their blades.
The Jade Spider, now frenzied, dug 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 space between themselves and the monster. Mounds of dirt flew into the sky and rained down on them.
Patrick backed away on his butt, furiously searching for his sword with his hands. If they could not stop it, the Jade Spider would unleash its most devastating attack. He knew it deep in the marrow of his bones.
Half submerged, the eight-legged monster’s spinneret, located on the underside of its abdomen just below its anus, glowed with a frightening orange radiance. At first, the orifice’s light 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 Prince 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 longsword. He gripped it tight and leaped to his feet, chasing after Erik. Patrick knew he should be running in the other direction like Carl, Fritz, and Ebbi, but 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.
Ignoring his call, Erik leaped into the air with his longsword twirling in his hand. He came down with his weapon jabbing down into the Jade Spider’s glowing spinneret. Patrick blinked in shock, and time seemed to freeze.