In the end, it is not truth that matters, but only victory.
— ERIK ITO, PERSONAL JOURNAL
Erik could not understand Baldur’s reaction when he turned from the mountain trail to regard him, though the Viscount was not the only one who stumbled backward. They all did, all those he now faced on the torch-lit rampart. Lightbenders and armored soldier alike, hands drifting toward the hilts of longswords. Apprehension tinged with confusion marred the Viscount’s weathered visage as the wind rippled the black robe he had worn since morning, although the Tree of Life that once marked his forehead was now gone. A few scant clouds drifted overhead, and the pale light of the fragmented moon shined down upon the forest below.
“What . . . what are you?” Baldur snarled, giving the hilt of his blade a twitch.
Erik stood straighter, chin slightly raised. My eyes, he thought, panic stirring. They are afraid of my eyes. They must have changed when I. . . . Fuck! Nausea encroached, battling a wave of excitement swelling at the aura of danger.
The eyes were the gateways into a Cultivator’s soul, and if perceiving the world the way the Celestial Dragon did had transformed his own scarlet then. . . . No! They could not be red. Otherwise, the Viscount would not have hesitated. None of them would have! Fiend Lords were to be murdered on sight, no matter their former rank.
“I am Erik Ito,” he began, balanced on a knife’s edge, blinking as agony bloomed at the back of his eyes, returning his vision to normal. “The third son of Vilhelm Ito, King of Vindur. Long may he reign.” This better work!
“Long may he reign,” a scatter of voices took up the call.
“While I do not claim to know Sir Patrick well,” Erik continued, turning from face to face, pretending nothing strange had happened. “I fought shoulder to shoulder with the man. I found him loyal and steadfast in his service to the crown. 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 paused on the Viscount. “Lord Baldur, you are not mine to command, that right belongs only to my father. But I beseech you send no one after me.” His voice lowered to an almost perfect whisper. “What I do now, I do for myself.”
Without giving Baldur a chance to respond, Erik leaped from the wall, flinging himself toward the mountain trail and freedom. Surprised gasps rang out behind him as the rush of air flared his robe like a banner. He ignored them, focused on the pointed tip of the wardstone rising up to met him. Shit. Shit! Perhaps this was not one of his brightest ideas. He should have at least looked before he jumped. Yet it was too late for regret. Much too late.
He leaned forward, flipping upside down, muscles tensing, heart thumping. The pointed tip flashed past his head, and he avoided impalement by a hair’s breadth. His body continued to turn, and the back of his legs jolted the wardstone. Eyes widening, he lurched, belly flopping onto the ground. Pain bloomed in his chest like flowers made of iron saws. Broken bones punctured their way into his lungs, and blood, darkened by the swelling gloom, spewed out of his open mouth.
Erik lay in the shadow of the ten-meter tall pillar, blocked from the reach of torchlight, distant shouts of concern cascading down upon him. He prayed the darkness was enough to keep the extent of his injuries hidden from view. Any second now soldiers would burst out of the sally gate and they would see a man who should be dead but was not. Not even he would be able to explain that away.
I have to get up. I. . . .
Erik struggled to his knees, a 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 light of the moon; it hung in the sky in segmented pieces, a few long destroyed chunks missing. Once, in ages past, the moon had been whole, or so some claimed, he did not know if he believed that. 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 reached out with his mind, seeking to establish a connection with the little droplet of himself, but it was like grasping at smoke. No matter how hard he tried, they slipped through his fingers. No.
He laughed, or at least he attempted to. His amusement was thwarted by pain, transforming chuckles into agony filled grunts. It was all over, he could see that. The clamor of running feet approached him from behind. No! I refuse to give up! Not now. Not ever! He jerked himself upright, swaying on his legs.
Abruptly, the connection tying Erik to all his wayward pieces firmed. Sluggish and slow. Much diminished from what it had been in his personal apartments, but it was better than nothing. He called to his separated parts, understanding that his reckless use of his new abilities had drained him of much of the energy needed to power his healing. The blood stopped escaping past his fingers, reversing its flow, and the gore pooled at his feet crawled toward him like dark, red worms maneuvering through the dirt, rejoining his body, making him whole.
Erik groaned, weakening further, dropping his hand from his now repaired chest. Everything spun before him, and the Celestial Dragon rose from the depths of his mind, shuddering with pangs of desperate hunger. The desire swelled into every crevice of his being, vibrating with a thousand pieces of isolated sound, forming into one endless drone that burnt its way into his very bones until he thought they might shatter. Until he thought the world might burst!
RIP! CLAW! TEAR! DEVOUR—
Erik shut his eyes and roared at the moon. The sound tore its way out of his throat, exploded into the air like thunder, stalling the soldiers rushing towards him in their tracks. He opened his eyes, eyes that once again bore bands of gold around pupil pure blackness. Outline in orange, a squad of Lightbenders stared up at him, from half way down the mountain trail. Below them, scores of Dökk charged out of the forest, forming a spear wall in front of Patrick’s suspended body.
Hollowed out, Erik gasped, fighting against the incessant drum beat that prodded at his mind, demanding to be fed. Images of raw meat fluttered through his head space, bringing with it the taste of blood. The. . . .
Erik bolted forward, charging down the mountain. We will! Later, he promised the beast. Now was not the moment to war with the monster. Much better to appeased it and focus all his attention on the battle yet to come. Its presence receded, but not far. Waiting.
The air turned thick around Erik, resisting his attempts to run even faster. The invisible Lightbenders hundred of meters below him, scatted out of his way, appearing to move like pollen drifting on a sluggish breeze. It took what seemed like seconds for him to reach and then speed past them while they tumbled away.
Tentatively, Erik tested his mind, but it would still be a few more minutes until he would be able to ensnare any more prana. All Cultivators were limited in the number of times they could siphon energy from the world; on average most were constrained to once ever six to eight hours. Those who ignored this restriction, soon had their brains destroyed by their own power. That meant he would have to do battle armed only with his longsword.
There will be a slaughter done here as savage as anything that can be imagined. They will whisper of this day for generations to come, he whispered to the thing inside him.
The Devour of Worlds shuddered with anticipation.
Up head, a hundred Dökk stood in rows, snarling through fused teeth, black eyes scanning the night. And still more remained hidden, cloaked in the shadows of trees, all revealed by Erik’s strange vision. The dark shard embedded in their foreheads caught and glittered moonlight. The purple sky pulsed. Snow white pines rustled in the wind.
Erik glanced at the wooden sheath secured at his waist, 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 before he shook it off and drew his longsword while tossing the sheath forward. It drifted up into the sky as though it were a kite being pulled by a long piece of string. What seemed like an eternity later, it landed behind the enemy’s line.
Startled, Gray Skins spun around, searching for the source of the noise, creating a slight opening in the spear wall. Then Erik was upon them, crossing the invisible boundary that marked the edge of the wardstones’ influence. His foot slammed into a Dökk caught in the act of turning. The force of the blow lifted the creature off its feet and sent it flying.
Pivoting on his back leg, Erik used his momentum to flow into his next attack. His longsword whirled, slashing through the neck of a Gray Skin beside the one he kicked. Eyes alight, he pushed himself faster, chasing after the Dökk floating backward, smashing into its comrades. He ducked down as he ran, extending his blade to the left, dodging a severed head and a fountain of blood. The trick he realized was to keep moving, the second he stopped they would be all over him.
His longsword chopped through two sets of ankles and the spray of crimson strings followed him like hounds on the hunt. Then he was behind the enemy’s line, turning left, still slicing through limbs. Twisted shouts and howls rang out around him, the chorus to his ballad of blood.
As the spear wall began to collapsed, Erik jerked right, running towards Patrick. Blue eyes alight with dread and hope, the Lightbender hung naked in between two wooden posts, face swollen and body riddled with half-healed wounds. Erik imagined Patrick thought he had come to rescue him, but nothing could be further from the truth. He had come to kill!
Erik smiled. Now all he had to do was wait for reinforcements to arrive as he put on a valiant effort to defend Patrick while surrounded by enemies. Sadly, he would fail, and Patrick would die in the ensuing struggle, but everyone would witness how hard he had fought. They will write tales about this night. They will sing—
Suddenly, the world lurched back into its normal rhythm, and Erik’s feet left the ground without his own volition. He hung suspended in the air, arms pressed tightly to his sides as if gripped by a giant hand. At that instant, the Dökk he had kicked—what felt like ages ago—crashed into the trunk of a tree with two of its brethren, bones breaking, skulls rupturing like melons.
Inches from where they struck, a Gray Skin far larger than the rest stepped out of the shadows, dressed in a tattered red cloak with more holes than fabric. It moved towards Erik with its hand outstretched, seeming to exist in his own little hollow of space and time. A wolf among sheep. A god among weeds.
Eying the red cloaked Dökk, Erik struggled to free himself, but it was like trying to move a mountain with his bare hands. What is this, he wondered, sensing no fluctuations from the Abyss. Panic trickled through him like droplets of slick scum, making his skin crawl and itch. His eyes darted back and forth, looking wild and crazed.
“LET ME GO!” Erik roared.
“No.” The creature’s voice was low and severe. “You mean to save this one,” it said, looking at Patrick. “He is destined to die here . . . and so are you.” It closed its extended hand.
Erik screamed as the invisible hand squeezed at his body. Muscles and ligaments in his arms ripped and tore and bones shattered as though struck by an anvil. He clenched his teeth, cutting short his howls, refusing to give his captor the pleasure of hearing him scream. He glared down at his enemy, his throat wet with the taste of his own blood.
“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 great glowing stones. No more. We will stand for this no more.”
Face to face with Patrick, the sounds of the battle raging behind faded away. Patrick appeared much how Erik imagined Númi looked in his youth. Blue eyed and handsome. Even covered in gore, Erik was sure he would still break the heart of many a woman.
This is the man I’ve come to kill? It all seemed so stupid. He and Patrick had shared laughs and drinks together, had fought shoulder to shoulder against the horrors that inhabited the world. He could not kill him. Not simply out of fear of what he might say.
“As you can see I’m here to rescue you,” Erik told Patrick, smiling even though it felt forced.
The Lightbender shook his head. “No. You’re dead. I saw you—”
Patrick’s eyes bulged, and the rest of his words turned in a wail. He thrashed back and forth as the Gray Skin made a woman out of him, impaling his anus with a spear. The rope tied around his hands and arms tore into his flesh, drawing blood.
Erik watched, eyes widening, heart pounding, as the tip of the spear broke out of Patrick’s neck and a dark jet of life fluid splashed onto his face.