To secure victory, sometimes it is necessary to first remove all avenues of retreat. Until one is forced, there is always a hesitancy to commit to a single path.
— ASBJÖRN MAKI, TO ERIK
Wind lashed the brocaded curtains that covered the arrowslits full with the distant sounds of ringing bells. As if outraged at the former quiet, the ringing dashed itself against the hard walls of the bedchamber, echoing unceasingly throughout the room with a sense of urgency.
Erik stood with one hand on the chamber door and his eyes locked on Hanna. She lay upon satin sheets, clothed only in the shadows of a night that had not yet reached its zenith. Her deflowering had left droplets of blood stained into the sheets.
“Go!” Her voice and the ringing of the bells flowed together, joining into one seamless sound. Eyes that were filled with a history of pain and ruin peered back at him, freezing him a moment of indecision.
He put on a small frown and dropped his hand from the door, to look unsure whether he really wanted to leave. His urge to stay was now stronger than his inclination to discover what was going on in the world beyond his personal apartments. He moved towards her slowly and with purpose.
“Erik Ito, I told you to go.” She drew a deep breath and went on in a more hesitant tone. “And why are you looking at me like that?” She pulled the satin sheet above her waist, hiding her exposed womanhood to Erik’s dissatisfaction.
“Like… like your eyes are those of wolves,” she said. “And I’m your latest meal. I dislike it.” Something in her voice told him that the last part was not necessarily true.“Plus, haven’t you had your fill?”
Erik climbed back onto the bed with his inner desire shining through his flirtatious eyes. “I could dine on you forever.” The bed moved dangerously beneath him as he loomed over Hanna, careful not to let any of his weight press down on her. Their mingled scents smelled like the sweetest of perfume to his nostrils.
Hanna suddenly shook with mirth.
“Pray tell, Wife,” he asked. “What amuses you so?” His look of confusion only served to increase her laughter. Her almost musical laugh rose above the constant din of ringing bells.
She took his head in between her two soft hands, pulled it down and gave him a kiss on the forehead. “You. Us. Hjörtur may well be burning around us and here we lie ensorcelled in darkness like two stars crossed lovers.”
“Let it burn,” he whispered, pressing his lips down against her more fuller lips.
Hanna lovingly ran her hand through his hair. “First, you were afraid that I would bore you,” she said. “Now you mean to ruin me. Is that the plan, Erik?”
“How else am I supposed to stop you from setting my home aflame and salting the earth?” He joked. “I must ruin you for my country. Repeatedly if at all possible.”
The witticism cut a little too close to home. The smile slipped from Hanna’s face. “Go.” She spoke in a more somber tone. “I will be here awaiting your return… and…” Her voice turned cruel. “And if anyone dares stand in between you and your way back to me, kill them. Kill them all.”
“For you, my dear, I would murder the world.” There was a graceful and piquant rhythm hidden in their words that made Erik want to believe. They lanced through him with a regular recurring interval of those slow haunting things that pulled at his heartstrings.
Mother, why am I like this? What makes me the way that I am?
Erik gave her one last kiss. A kiss full of the burning passion of tragic beginnings. Reluctantly, he climbed off the bed and walked out the door. He imagined there were tears in her eyes, but he never turned back to look. He liked not knowing for sure. Life was better with an element of doubt. Absolute certainty was a tyranny he could do without.
As soon as he shut the anteroom’s iron-strapped door behind him, Erik began to run slowly at first, with one hand on his sword to keep it in place. The hallways near his bedchamber were empty, void of their usual bustle and din. When Hjörtur’s bells rang, servants were told to secure themselves within their bedchambers. It was something that they had spent the last three months practicing at Erik’s insistence. He felt a vague sense of accomplishment that his innovation had finally taken hold and then felt stupid for feeling anything at all. What did it matter in the grand scheme of things?
It’s the small things that keep you going at the end of the world, he told himself. It was something that Asbjörn had once said to him. He did not really understand it then, but now he thought he did. Small victories kept you from losing hope.
It took no effort for Erik to increase his pace. His legs exploded with power that whipped the air around him. The rush of speed felt invigorating, but he kept waiting for the onset of tiredness that never came. He had the sense that he could run forever without his body ever experiencing any form of weakness.
Faster. He pushed himself faster, curious to see just what his new limits were. The air whistled around his silk robes, tightening the material against his form. Faster. He needed to go faster!
Physical fits of strength had never been his forte. His mind had long been his greatest tool and weapon, yet he now tore through the torch-lit corridors with all the ferocity of a four-legged predator of the Northern Reaches.
Up ahead, three women knelt, quickly throwing spilled laundry into the basket at their feet. A rushing noise cut through the sound of the bells, grabbing their attention. They looked up, eyes widening, as Erik came charging towards them.
Erik watched as looks of horror slowly consumed the women’s faces. It was too late to stop, the momentum that he had built up made that impossible. Instead, he leaned forward and angled for the wall. The thin legs hidden under his blue robe swelled with new muscle mass as he put forth another burst of speed.
He leaped into the air and started running across the wall as though it was the floor. Dust sprang up after each step as he sped past the upturned faces of the liveried servants. The force of his passing caused the women’s long hair to blow behind them like a powerful gust of wind.
A smile bloomed onto Erik’s lips at the sound of surprised gasps ringing out behind him. His new found abilities made him giddy with an intense feeling of euphoria. He hopped over a burning torch in front of him, flipping himself in the air while re-orientating his feet towards the floor.
Still grinning, he landed with a loud thud. Then he continued running without a moment’s pause. The air pushed back at him. He fought against its pull, doing his best to stop it from limiting his forward momentum, but it was a losing battle. He could feel muscles in his legs constantly ripping and repairing themselves. It felt like hot coals had been placed inside his skin next to his bones.
For all its ugliness, Hjörtur was a well-designed fortress. Murderholes dotted ceilings and arrowslits peeked into halls, leaving no place for an invading army to hide. Erik ran down the walls of narrow, curving staircase after narrow, curving staircase, packed full with plate-and-mail armored soldiers. Their shocked gasps when they saw him never stopped being thrilling.
Bursting out of a shadowed staircase, he found himself running along a columned walkway that led out of the inner gate. “Make way!” He bellowed at the soldier marching their way out of the gate.
The row of armored soldiers jumped sideways, creating a tunnel for him to pass. Too slow, Erik thought—catching a whiff of fresh sweat and hints of fear—as he was forced to push a few stragglers out of his way. Men were sent tumbling into each other. Chaos formed in his wake.
The citadel had two layers of walls for protection. The first and largest was the inner walls, which stood furthest up the mountain, and the second was the outer walls. The space in between the two walls was filled with all manner of buildings and was almost a small town in itself.
On the way to the outer wall, Erik trotted past the armorer’s forge where all work had ceased, the woodyard where split firewood lay stacked under the long sheds, and the large stable where the White Cranes were kept. He slowed as he neared the dark stone of the outer wall.
Suddenly the bells stopped ringing. Erik came to a stop, a ridiculous idea taking hold of him. He had come to a number of conclusions over his mad dash towards the outer walls. The foremost being, he now had some form of intrinsic control over his body mass. He assumed the ability came from the Celestial Dragon because it explained how a creature so large could fly through the sky.
He stared up at the outer wall. Seconds were passing. How far can I push it? There was only one way to answer that question Erik decided. He began to run again. A great many eyes turned in his direction.
Time seemed to slow as he took his first step up the wall. Something vital burned away within him. Pressing on, he forced his way upwards, running straight up the outer wall with a speed that turned the air into syrup. Sounds faded away, replaced by the roar of the wind and the beating of his heart. The howl grew louder the higher he climbed, vibrating its way into his core.
Erik flipped with his sword flashing out in front of him and landed in the midst of a group of high-ranking officials. His blade blocked the sword slashing towards his neck. Shocked voices rang out and Viscount Baldur stumbled backwards with his weapon rattling in his hand. A look of pain tracked across his face.
“Forgive me, my prince,” Baldur said. “You surprised me.” He sheathed his blade and gingerly rotated the wrist of his sword hand. His eyes sparked with something vile for a moment, then it was gone.
Erik held Baldur’s gaze. “Quite alright. It’s my fault. I should have taken the stairs.” The last part was said with a rueful smile. He reclothed his naked blade and looked around the rampart. Baron Rasmus stood just behind Baldur, dressed in a flowing pink robe etched with golden lotus patterns. He met Erik’s eyes with an arrogance that said he thought he was Erik’s equal, if not better.
“Rasmus,” Erik acknowledged.
The man nodded his head and turned to peer down the mountain. He ignored the armored soldiers and the Lightbenders that lined the rampart. He existed in his own little hollow of space and time. A wolf among sheep. A god among weeds.
Across from Rasmus, Baron Sophus stared up at the sky, clothed in a ragged looking red robe, that was frayed at edges. His hair sat in a bird’s nest like jumble on top of his large head and sweat dripped down his chubby chin. He whispered to himself with an absentmindedness that stroked Erik’s fears. “… leftovers… the polluted…”
Erik worried that it might be an incipient sign of madness. The power of the Abyss was not for those who were weak in spirit. The Dark One and the Death Gods tried to corrupt all who dared draw on the power of their prison. Hearing whispered voices was the first step to becoming a Fiend Lord.
“Sophus,” Erik called out. It took a moment, but Sophus blinked and refocused on Erik. “Remember the Code. Remember your honor,” Erik continued when he had the man’s attention.
The Code demanded that Cultivators who felt the approach of madness must commit ritual suicide. Those who allowed The Change to overtake them brought shame to their House and were stricken from the peerage. It would be as though they never existed, not even their own children would say their names.
Sophus’ bottom lip trembled and his eyes moistened. Those around him looked away and pretended not to notice, but not Erik. Erik stared directly into Sophus’ light eyes.
Erik admired Sophus. He was a softhearted giant in a world that only respected strength. “It’s better to die as a man and be remembered…” Erik said. “… than to live as a monster and be forgotten.”
Sophus shut his eyes against Erik’s words. His whole body shook with some unknown emotion. When his eyes reopened, confidence shined through where before there was only weakness. “Thank you, prince Erik. You are a true friend.” Sincerity radiated through his words.
A pang of regret knotted Erik’s stomach. Why is it always the good ones that die so young? “When?” he asked out loud.
“Tomorrow at sunset,” Sophus replied. “Will you be there?”
Erik nodded. “Tomorrow then.”
Sophus gave Baldur a short bow. “Excuse me, my lord.” Then he was gone, walking towards the stairs. He moved with a gentle and regal dignity befitting his rank. It made Erik proud. It made Erik sad. There was a revelation of self in the way a man faced his end; it showed the quality of his iron. He hoped when his own time came he would show such grace.
Immediately Baldur turned to a group of ten Lightbenders and gave them a look. The Lightbenders nodded their top-knotted heads in understanding then chased after Sophus. The air warped around three of them and then they vanished.
Baldur turned to Erik. “You did him a kindness?”
“Did I?” Erik wondered out loud.
“I have no doubt about it. The Abyss is an enemy each Cultivator must face alone, but he has been fading for weeks. We could all see it. He was the only one who couldn’t or wouldn’t.”
Erik took a slow breath. What can’t be changed must be weathered. “Why have you sounded the alarms?” he asked quietly.
Baldur walked to the edge of the rampart and drew a large circle in the air with his blade. “See for yourself,” he replied. The area within the circle filled with water that deformed and rippled. Suddenly the forested region below was magnified as if staring through a giant looking glass.
Erik stepped forward. It was hard to make out, but he could see a naked man, head bowed, with his arms and legs stretched out, and tied in between two wooden posts. The man lifted his head. Patrick.
“It seems Sir Patrick Maida also managed to survive whatever happened to you in the forest,” Baldur muttered. He studied Erik with a frown.
Erik held his breath and tried to ease his suddenly taut nerves. “Who is holding him captive?” He asked with real concern. Shit! This was not good. Patrick had seen too much!
Then he saw them, a group of Dökk leaning against tree trunks. The average Dökk stood over two meters tall and was vaguely humanoid shaped with a dark shard embedded in its forehead. Their skin was gray colored ash that stretched and flexed over well-defined muscles. A spear made from white bone dangled from each of their hands and they were clothed in loincloths made of animal skins.
The sight of the Dökk calmed Erik and he hated himself a little more for that fact. If the Dökk were involved, the chances of Patrick surviving was close to none. “When were the wardstones last renewed?” He asked.
“Two years ago,” Baldur replied in an almost bored tone. “I know what you’re thinking, but it isn’t that. The wardstones are fine. They can’t see us.”
Erik stroked his mustache. “Then how…” he began then paused. “Patrick. They used Sir Patrick to find what they couldn’t see.”
“Clever little buggers, aren’t they?”
Nodding his head, Erik said, “I see. They’re using Patrick as the bait for their trap.We’re meant to rush down there and try to recuse him.” I have to make sure nothing of that sort happens.
At that moment, a slightly overweight armored soldier came running up to Baldur. The out of breath soldier bowed with his fist against his chest and stammered, “My… lord…”
“Spit it out,” Baldur barked with a look of irritation.
The soldier straightened. “Sir Númi just led a group of Lightbenders out of the sally gate. I think they mean to—”
“He what?” Baldur roared.
Sounds faded from Erik’s hearing. The rush of blood filled his ears. Ignoring the burning sensation in his eyes, he stepped to the edge of the rampart and stared down. As the burning feeling stopped, he could once again see the world through something he called Celestial Vision. The dark sky was now painted in a bright pinkish purple hue. Colors pulsated in ways that were not possible before, adding a dream-like quality to his surroundings. It was beautiful in a way that touched the soul, but Erik did not have time to admire it.
Below, he now saw what was once invisible. A group of ten Lightbenders rushed down the pitted mountain trail. Watching them tied his stomach in ever more complicated knots.
No. No! NO!
Erik raged at himself. I should have never spared Númi’s life. If the rescue succeeded, Patrick would tell everyone what he witnessed in the forest. He could not allow that happen. For him to continue living, Patrick had to die. He had to kill him.