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.
— VILHELM ITO, TO HIS SONS
The bedchamber was loud although no one spoke, filled with the clatter of distant bells, ringing with a sense of urgency. The sky outside the arrow-slits was just turning dark, and the mountain air added to the night’s chill blowing past the brocaded curtains, kept at bay by the fire crackling in the fireplace. Erik stood frozen in a moment of indecision, staring at Hanna with a hand on the door. She lay upon satin sheets, stained with droplets of crimson, clothed only in the shadows, peering back at him, eyes suffused with a history of pain and ruin.
“Go!” she urged, her voice and the bells joining into one seamless sound.
Erik frowned, dropping his hand from the door. The sight of her reawakened the fire in his blood, made his breath catch in his throat. He moved toward her, a smile springing to his lips.
“Erik Ito, I told you to go. . . .” Hanna paused, going on in a more hesitant tone. “And why are you looking at me like that?” She pulled the bed sheet above her waist, hiding her exposed womanhood to Erik’s dissatisfaction.
“Like . . . your eyes are those of wolves,” she said, “and I’m your latest meal. I don’t like it.” Something in her voice told him the last part was not necessarily true. “Plus, haven’t you had your fill?”
“Never. I could dine on you forever.” Erik climbed back onto the bed, his inner desire shining through his flirtatious eyes. “Tell me, what does it feel like when I’m inside you?”
Hanna blinked, breathing fast. “I don’t know if I can explain it. You fill this space inside me, I didn’t know was there, and it’s as if you’re meant to be there. It’s hot just there, where you are. And it feels good. So good.” A touch of crimson crept into her cheeks, and her blue eyes glowed with heat. “I sound stupid.”
“No. You don’t. That sounds—”
Suddenly, Hanna shook with mirth as the bed groaned under Erik’s weight.
“Pray tell, Wife,” he said, “what amuses you so?” His look of confusion only seemed to add to her amusement, increasing the volume of her laughter.
“You. Us.” Hanna replied, taking Erik’s head in between her hands and kissing his forehead. “Hjörtur may well be burning around us, and here we lie ensorcelled in darkness like two star-crossed lovers.”
“Let it burn,” he whispered, and meant it, pressing his lips down against her own.
Hanna ran her hand through his hair. “First, you were afraid that I would bore you, and 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?” Erik joked. “I must ruin you for my country. Repeatedly if at all possible.”
The smile slipped from Hanna’s face; the witticism seemed to cut a little too close to home. “Go,” she said in a more somber tone. “I will be here awaiting your return . . . 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,” Erik promised, saddened by the sudden change in mood. He wanted to say more, but instead he gave her one last kiss. A kiss full of the burning passion of tragic beginnings.
Reluctantly, Erik climbed off the bed and hurried out the door, imagining there were tears in Hanna’s eyes, but he never turned back to look. He liked not knowing for sure, finding comfort in an element of doubt. Holding his longsword still to keep it from tripping him, he quickened his steps. The faster gone, the sooner he would be back.
The hinges creaked as he opened the antechamber door to slip outside and closed it behind him. The hallways near his bedchamber were empty, void of their usual bustle and din. When Hjörtur’s bells rang, servants were to secure themselves within their bedchambers. It was something they had spent months practicing at his insistence. He felt a vague sense of accomplishment that his innovation had taken hold and then felt stupid for feeling anything at all. What did it matter?
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 understand it then, but now he thought he did. Small victories kept you from losing hope.
Erik increased his momentum, and his legs exploded with power that whipped the air around him. The rush of speed was invigorating, but he kept waiting for the onset of tiredness. It never came, Erik felt as if he could run forever at this pace without experiencing any form of weakness. He pushed himself faster, curious to see just where his new limits lay. The air roared around his blue robe, tightening the material against his form. Faster. He needed to go faster!
Physical feats of strength had never been his forte. His mind had long been his greatest tool and weapon, yet now, he tore through the torch-lit corridors with all the ferocity of a four-legged predator of the Northern Reaches. He took a sharp corner.
Up ahead, three serving women knelt—moving ever so slowly, it seemed to Erik—throwing spilled laundry into a basket. He leaned forward and angled for the wall, the thin legs hidden under his robe swelling with new muscle mass. He leaped into the air and ran across the wall, dashing past the upturned faces of the liveried servants, causing their long hair to flair out behind them.
Distorted gasps rang out when Erik flipped over a lit torch and landed on the floor with a loud thud a moment later. Not pausing even for a second, he ran on, fighting against what seemed like a mountain of slush. He smiled, muscles in his legs constantly ripping and repairing themselves, speeding down hallways, gliding down the walls of narrow, curving staircase after narrow, curving staircase, packed full with plate-and-mail armored soldiers who shouted in surprise when he wheezed over their heads.
Bursting out of a side door, he jogged along the columned walkway that led out of the inner gate. “Make way!” he bellowed at the soldiers blocking his path.
The row of armored men jumped sideways, creating a tunnel for him to pass through the inner gate. 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 forming in his wake.
Between the inner and outer walls, all manner of buildings sprawled, intersected by dirt streets, creating a small town in itself. Erik trotted past the armorer’s forge where all work had ceased, the woodyard where split firewood lay stacked under long sheds, and the large stable where the White Cranes were kept. Soon, the dark stone of the outer wall came into view, and a ridiculous question took hold of him. How far could he push his new abilities?
Heart thumping in his chest, he stopped and stared up at the ancient barrier of midnight colored stone, noticing the bells had fallen silent. Seconds ticked past, and a great many eyes turning in his direction. Perhaps this was not the right place or time to test himself, but the exhilaration of the last few moments still surged in his blood. His fingers twitched.
Fuck it, he thought, charging forward, running up the wall. Sounds faded away, replaced by the roar of the wind and the groan of his muscles, straining in his legs. His body sang with power, and his blood thundered in his eardrums. It was wonderful and terrible all at once.
Howling in joy, Erik flipped over the edge of the wall. His longsword flashing out in front of him as he landed in the midst of a group of high-ranking officials, blocking the blade slashing towards his neck. Shocked voices rang out, and Viscount Baldur stumbled backward with his weapon rattling in his hand. A look of pain tracked across his face, gone in an instant.
“Forgive me, my Prince,” Baldur said. “You surprised me.” He sheathed his blade, gingerly rotating his wrist as if it hurt. Something vile sparkled in his brown eyes. Displeasure.
“Quite alright. It’s my fault. I should have taken the stairs.” Erik gave Baldur a rueful smile and turned from him, sheathing his blade, ignoring the looks from the armored soldiers and the Lightbenders that lined the rampart.
Baron Rasmus, a skinny, hook-nosed man in his early twenties, stood just behind Baldur. He wore a flowing pink robe etched with golden lotus patterns and peered at Erik with an expressionless face.
“Rasmus,” Erik greeted.
The Baron nodded, blue eyes cold and distant.
Across from Rasmus, Baron Sophus stared up at the darkening sky, clothed in a tattered red robe, whispering to himself with an absentmindedness that stroked Erik’s fears. “… leftovers… the polluted…” His large head shook, and sweat dripped down his pudgy chin
Erik frowned, fearing it might be an early sign of madness. The Abyss fed on the weak and the gentle hearted, seeming to only leave the cruel and the arrogant untouched by its corruption. Sometimes he wondered if it was by design. He fought back a sigh. Baron Sophus was the closest thing to a friend he had made during his time at Hjörtur.
“Sophus,” Erik called out softly.
Sophus blinked, noticing the Prince for the first time. “Erik . . . when—”
“Remember the Code, Sophus,” Erik said. Cultivators who allowed The Change to overtake them brought shame to their House and forever had their names stricken from history. The Code demanded ritual suicide of all those who sensed the approach of madness. “Remember your honor.”
Sophus’ bottom lip trembled, and his eyes moistened. Those around him looked away, pretended not to notice, but not Erik. “What are you saying. . . . You can’t mean, can you?” he asked, voice soft despite his obvious discomfort.
“It’s better to die as a man and be remembered,” Erik said, “than to live as a monster and be forgotten by all those you love.”
Sophus shut his eyes and balled his hands into fists, arms and legs trembling. When he reopened his eyes, confidence shined through where before there was only weakness. “Thank you, Erik, you’re a true friend.” His words radiated with sincerity.
“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, moving with all the regal dignity befitting a man of his rank and position. It made Erik proud, and for a moment he hoped when his own time came he would show such grace.
Immediately, Baldur motioned to a group of ten Lightbenders. The top-knotted warriors nodded and then chased after Sophus, the air warping around three of their members until they vanished.
“You did him a kindness,” Baldur told Erik.
“Did I?” Erik wondered out loud.
“I have no doubt about that. 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, pushing his worry for his friend out of his mind. “Why were the bells sounded?”
Baldur walked to the edge of the rampart and drew a large circle in the air with his blade. Within the circle, water appeared, rippling and deforming until the forested region below became magnified as if seen through a giant looking glass. A naked, top-knotted man could be seen hanging, with his arms and legs tied in between two wooden posts. Blood from countless nicks and cuts marred his skin. The man lifted his head, revealing blue eyes.
Erik froze. Shit!
“It seems Sir Patrick Maida also managed to survive whatever happened to yesterday,” Baldur murmured, studying the Prince’s face.
Sir Patrick was alive? “Who’s holding him captive?” This was not good, if the Lightbender lived to tell what he had seen then Erik’s life and goal would be in grave danger. Especially, if they believed Erik was a sorcerer’s abomination masquerading as the Prince.
Erik did. A milling mass of gray-skinned Dökk hid behind tree trunks, white, bone spears clutched in large hands. The sight of them calmed him, though, it had been over three hundred years since the Dökk Wars, stories of their cruelty were legendary. If they held Patrick captive, the chances of him surviving were close to zero.
“When were the wardstones last renewed?” Erik asked.
“Two years ago,” Baldur replied in an almost bored tone. “I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not 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 were unable to see.”
“Clever buggers, aren’t they?”
“Now they’re using him as bait,” Erik said, thinking out loud. “We’re meant to rush down there and try to rescue him.” I have to make sure nothing of that sort happens.
At that moment, a slightly overweight armored man with beady eyes came running up to Baldur. Out of breath, the man bowed, fist to his chest and stammered, “My . . . my Lord. . . .”
“Spit it out,” Baldur barked, irritation flashing across his wrinkled face.
The overweight soldier straightened. “Sir Númi just led a group of Lightbenders out of the sally gate. I think they mean to—”
“He what?” Baldur roared.
Panicked, Erik rushed over to peer down the rampart, blood rushing to his ears. His eyes burned for an instant as if hot coal had been thrust into them and then the world changed before him, assuming the characteristics of a waking dream. The dark sky pulsated with a pinkish purple hue, and distant tree tops glowed like untouched snow in sunlight. It was beautiful in a way that touched the soul, but he had no time to admire it. He focused on a group of ten Lightbenders rushing down the mountain trail, once invisible, now outlined in orange where the light bent around them.
No. No! NO! Erik raged at himself. I should have killed Númi. This is what comes of kindness! He would not allow the rescue to succeed. He would not! For the throne to stay within reach, Patrick had to die. He had to kill him.