In the end, it is not truth that matters, but only victory.
— ERIK ITO, PERSONAL JOURNAL
Erik turned to look at Baldur and the man stumbled backwards in shock along with everyone who stood behind him. Apprehension tinged with confusion marred his weathered face.
Intent on Baldur, wondering what had suddenly come over the man, he spoke without thinking, “Don’t come after—”
Baldur drew his blade. “What… what are you?”
Erik stood straighter My eyes, he thought with rising panic. They are afraid of my eyes. It was a long-held belief that the eyes were gateways into a Cultivator’s soul. The fact that a Fiend Lord’s eyes turned scarlet after The Change came over him only gave more weight to the idea. Erik prayed that whatever transformations Dragon Vision made to his eyes, that they were not now crimson. Hopefully, he could explain anything else away, but not that. Red eyes were a death warrant no one could save him from.
“I am Erik Ito,” he began, blinking as a deep nagging pain bloomed at the back of his eyes, returning his view of the world to normal. “The third son of Vilhem Ito, King of Vindur. Long may he reign.”
“Long may he reign,” a scatter of voices took up the call.
“While I do not claim to know Sir Patrick well,” he continued with his back to the forest. “I did fight shoulder to shoulder with the man. I found him loyal and steadfast in his service to the crown.”
Looking out at the faces turned towards him, Erik tried his best not to vomit. Nausea encroached battling with the wave of excitement swelling inside him. Seducing a crowd was like wooing a woman except for the fact that crowds were incapable of reflection and reasoning. It did not matter how smart the individuals were, once brought together into a group they lost their conscious personalities and became a slave to those unconscious forces that moved them. They turned into a thing of seething potential, unable to distinguish between the improbable and the probable. Something that thought only in shared cultural images. Something that could be motived to action by those who knew how to speak in such terms.
“What I do now I do for my honor.” His voice boomed in a way that seemed tailor-made to address throngs of men. “Sir Patrick risked his life to save mine, I can only but do the same.” He turned to face Baldur. “Lord Baldur, you are not mine to command, that right belongs only to my father. But I beseech you do not send anyone after me.” His voice dropped to an almost perfect whisper. “What I do now, I do for myself.”
I hope this works, he thought. He had done his best to paint the image of a self-sacrificing prince within their minds. Only time would tell if the image took root.
Without giving Baldur a chance to respond, Erik turned and leaped off of the wall, ignoring the gasps that rang out behind him. The wind whipped through his hair as he plummeted from the sky.
Watching the pointed tip of a wardstone inch towards him, Erik considered that maybe this was not one of his brightest ideas. He should have at least looked before he jumped, but it was too late for regret. His muscles tensed in expectation and his heart quickened. He leaned forward, turning his free fall into a front flip. He avoided impaling his chest on the wardstone by a hair’s breadth.
The world spun around him and then kept spinning. No! His legs knocked against the wardstone, leaving him belly flopping towards the ground. His eyes widened. Time slowed.
Erik closed his eyes against the approaching horror. Grueling and unrelenting pain blossomed within his chest like a flower made of iron saws. Broken bones punctured their way into his lungs. His eyes snapped back open. He watched blood, darkened by the swelling gloom, spew out of his own mouth.
Distant groans and shouts of concern cascaded down upon him from above. He lay in the shadow of a ten-meter tall wardstone, blocked from the reach of torchlight. He prayed that it was enough to keep the extent of his injuries hidden.
… have to get up. I have to get up! Any second now soldiers would rush out of the sally gate. Then they would see a man who should be dead but is not. It would be another thing he could not explain away.
Erik struggled to his knees with one hand going to his chest. Scarlet wounds ripped wider, and fresh blood trickled past the hand meant to stop the rush of gore. Teeth clenched, he looked up at the pale white light of the moon, which rose above the forest below. The moon hung in the sky in segmented pieces with chunks missing. Just another broken thing. Once, in ages past, the moon was whole or so some claimed. He did not know if he believed that. The truth was he could not imagine it any other way. It fit this place. A broken moon for a ruined world.
The sound of a gate opening pulled his attention back onto more pressing concerns. He focused his mind. Heal. Nothing happened. He tried harder. Heal! The drip-drip of dark droplets and the smacking of running feet filled his ears. It was not working and he did not know why.
Perfect. He gazed up at the moon. What a pair we make. He laughed as a sense of wry amusement flashed through him, or at least he tried to. The laugh was thwarted by pain, it came out as more of grunt. He did not care. He kept laughing, taking comfort in sharp fangs of agony that chewed at his chest. The sound of running feet drew nearer.
Abruptly, he could suddenly feel it, the connection that tied him to all of the pieces of himself. It was diminished from what it had been in his personal apartments when he was first forced to put himself together again. A great portion of the energy that powered his new abilities had been burnt away, making the connect sluggish and slow.
The blood slipping past his fingers stopped and began to flow in reverse. Gore crawled through the rocks and earth to get to the hand he leaned upon. They looked like dark red worms maneuvering through the dirt.
Nothing is free. A price always had to be paid, this is something he understood well. He now recognized his wall running as a mistake. He had wasted his power right before he needed it most.
Erik dropped his hand from his chest as the Celestial Dragon rose up from the depths of his mind. It shuddered with pangs of desperate Hunger. He felt its ache as though it was his own. The Hunger swelled in every crevice of his being, vibrating with a thousand pieces of isolated sound and then formed into one endless drone that burnt its way into his bones until he thought he might burst.
RIP! CLAW! TEAR! DEVOUR—
He shut his eyes and roared at the moon. He should not have been able to make the sound that ripped its way out of his throat. The thunderous clamor froze the soldier rushing towards Erik in their tracks. They tore free their weapons and looked around in a daze.
Erik opened his eyes. Once again a band of gold encircled pure blackness within his orbs. He could now see a red outline around Númi and the squad of Lightbenders he led down the mountain trail. The Lightbenders stood half way to the forest edge, gazing up at Erik.
He lurched to his feet. His wounds had healed, but he felt weak, hollowed out by the growing Hunger and the strength it had taken to mend himself. He could feel the Celestial Dragon prodding away at his mind with an incessant drum beat, demanding to be fed. Every moment that passed made it worse. Images of raw meat fluttered through his head space. The taste of blood—
Using action as a form of a shield, Erik ran down the mountain, weathering the assault on his mind. His eyes gleamed gold and black. He looked like the manifestations of wrath and lust, trapped within an eternal struggle for dominance. He raged against his current circumstance. He lusted after the flesh of soft squishy things.
We will! Later. I promise, Erik yelled at the beast inside him. Now was not the moment to war with the monster. It was better to appease it and focus all his attention on the battle yet to come.
Its presence receded, but not far. He could still feel its nearness as though its hot breath steamed at the back of his neck. Even though the Celestial Dragon had gone quiet, the pull of the Hunger remained the same, but the ache had become more manageable without the beast giving it a voice.
The air turned thick around Erik, resisting his attempts to run faster. He saw the invisible Lightbenders half way down the mountain trail begin to scatter out of his way. They seemed to move slowly like pollen drifting on a sluggish breeze. It took what felt like seconds for Erik to pass them while they tumbled leisurely to the ground.
Up head, countless Dökk had rushed out of the forest and formed a wall of spears around Patrick, who dangled in between two wooden posts with his legs and arms tied with rope. The Dökk were not stupid. Even if they could not see Hjörtur they knew it was there. Hearing an inhuman roar they had acted accordingly.
There will be slaughter done here, as savage as anything they could ever imagine. They will whisper of this day for generations to come, he whispered soothingly to the thing inside him.
The Devour of Worlds shuddered with anticipation. It lived for spilled gore on its teeth. It was born with the taste for blood in its soul.
As Erik drew nearer, he could more clearly see the gray skinned Dökk. They snarled with fused teeth and waved their menacing array of spears while their large black eyes scanned the night for signs of an attack. They sucked air in through two slits just below their eyes and the dark shard embedded in their foreheads glittered when struck by rays of moonlight. They were clothed in loincloths made from animal skins. An air of primitive brutality hung from each one of their large shoulders.
A quick count revealed their number. There was a hundred of them lined in front of the mountain trail. Still, more Dökk lay hidden within the shadows of the trees, but Erik’s Dragon Vision revealed them all. It also exposed the usual blue markings that covered the tribesmen’s bodies.
Surprise slashed through Erik. He had discovered something new. So little was known about these strange half-human creatures. How are their societies structured? Are they too ruled by kings and nobles? As interesting as those questions were, he knew he would not be discovering the answers today. There would be little room for words among all the killing to come.
He looked down at the wooden sheath secured at his middle. Its surface had been painted black and carved with soaring phoenixes. It, along with the blade, had been a gift from his father, but now the sheath was battered and cracked, ruined by his fall from the outer wall. A tinge of melancholy touched him for a moment.
Shaking off the malaise, he drew his sword and threw the sheath. It seemed to tumble gently up into the sky, as though it were a kite being pulled by a long piece of string. This will work, he thought with confidence. It has to work. All he had were these little tricks and his new abilities. He could not risk angering the Celestial Dragon by ensnaring prana with his spirit. Later he would experiment, but right now he could not afford another conflict with the beast.
Moments dragged as the sheath descended from the sky. It landed behind the enemy’s line. Startled, some of the gray skinned tribesmen spun around—ever so haltingly, it appeared to Erik—to find the source of the noise, creating an opening in the spear wall.
Erik smiled as he crossed the invisible boundary that marked the edge of the wardstones’ influence. Then he was among them. His foot slammed into a Dökk who was caught in the act of turning. The force of the blow lifted the creature off its feet and sent it slowly flying.
Erik pivoted on his back leg, using his momentum to smoothly flow into his next attack. His sword whirled, slashing through the neck of a Dökk beside the one he had just kicked. The trick he realized was to keep moving. The second he stopped they would be all over him.
He pushed himself faster, chasing after the enemy he had just sent traveling through the air. The slowly floating Dökk smashed into its comrades, slightly changing its trajectory and creating a large pathway for Erik to run through.
Less than an eye blink had passed. Erik felt amazed at how quickly he was moving. His heart felt like it was about to explode at any moment, but he did not care. He ducked down, dodging the severed head and fountains of blood falling towards him. Keeping low, he extended his blade to his left and ran through the freshly made tunnel. His sword cut through two sets of ankles like a hot knife through butter. The creeping spray of crimson strings followed his trail like a hound on the hunt.
He was the maelstrom of destruction and death. Shouts and howls rang out around him, music to his ballad of blood. He watched the face of the creature he had kicked slowly get consumed by a look of horror as it sailed further and further away with two of its tribesmen for company. Then he was behind the enemy’s line.
Turning left, Erik kept his sword extended, chopping ankles in a madden fervor. A section of the spear wall collapsed like an ancient building made out of rotten wood, serenaded in the high pitch squeals of injured Dökk. The sound sent haunting chills up his spine and pleasure coursing through the Celestial Dragon’s veins.
An instant later Erik jerked right, running towards Patrick. The Lightbender hung naked, spread eagle in between two wooden posts. His face was a swollen and bloodied mess. He looked down at Erik with both dread and hope. Erik imagined that Patrick thought the dead had come to rescue him, but he had not. He had come to silence the living.
A sense of accomplishment fluttered through Erik. It was working. His plan was succeeding. Now all he had to do was wait for reinforcements to arrive. They would witness him putting a valiant effort to defend Patrick surround by enemies on all sides. Sadly he would fail and Patrick would die in the ensuing struggle.
They would write tales about this night, Erik decided. They will sing—
Suddenly, the world lurched back into normal time and Erik’s feet left the ground without his volition. He hung in the air with his arms pressed tightly to his sides as if a giant hand had grabbed hold of him. At that moment the flying Dökk came crashing back to earth along with its two comrades. They smashed into the trunk of a tree with the sound of breaking bones.
Not far from where that happened, another Dökk stepped out of the shadows. He had his free hand extended as he was gripping something, as if he was the one holding Erik prisoner. At two and a half meters tall, he was large even for a Dökk. He walked towards Erik with a sureness that told the world that he was the one in charge.
What is this? This was not the work of an Esoteric Technique. He had felt no fluctuations, so it could not be that. This was some different.
Erik struggled to free himself, but it was like trying to move a mountain with his bare hands. Panic trickled through him like droplets of slick scum, making his skin crawl and itch. He felt trapped. He hated this feeling. It always brought up memories from his childhood, of when his brothers used to pile up on top of him until he could not breathe. That same sense of suffocating took hold of him then. His eyes darted back and forth, looking wild and crazed.
“LET ME GO!” Erik roared.
The creature’s voice was low and severe. “No.” There was something in its tone that told Erik that it resented being forced to speak in the human tongue. “You mean to save this one,” it said, looking at Patrick. “He is destined to die here… so are you.”
Erik struggled harder against his invisible bonds. The muscles and ligaments in his arms ripped and tore from the force of his exertion. Then bones shattered as though struck by an anvil. He clenched his teeth refusing to give voice to the pain as he glared down at his captor.
“Every five years, your kind slivers across our land and steals members of our Kvik,” it continued, dragging Erik through the air until he floated in front of Patrick. “Then you bleed them to death on your tall glowing stones. No more. We will stand for this no more.”
Face to face with Patrick, the sounds of the howling injured faded away. Patrick appeared much how Erik imagined Númi looked in his youth. Blue eyed and handsome. Even covered in gore as he was now, Erik was sure that he could still break the hearts of the female servants.
This is the man I’ve come to silence. This is the man I’ve come to kill? It just all seemed so stupid now. They had shared laughs and drinks together. They had fought shoulder to shoulder against the horror that inhabited the world. He realized he could not kill this man. “As you can see I’ve come to rescue you,” he said in what he hoped was a lighthearted manner, but feared he did not quite succeed.
“You’re dead. I watched you—”
At that moment Patrick’s eyes bulged and the rest of his words were lost in a scream. Behind him, the large Dökk stood slowly impaling its bone spear into his anus. Patrick thrashed and wailed as the creature made a woman out of him. The rope tied around his hands and arms rubbed raw, tearing flesh and drawing blood.
Erik watched, eyes widening in dread, as the tip of the spear broke out of Patrick’s neck. A dark jet of Patrick’s life fluid splashed onto Erik’s face.