The greatest danger lies within ourselves.
— LÁRA ITO, TO ERIK
Face wet with gore, Erik watched Patrick gasp, gripped by unbearable agony. No… no…
Patrick’s blue eyes held him spellbound through the cries and howls from the darkness that spoke of a sudden fierce battle breaking out behind him. There was a macabre beauty in what the large Dökk had done. It had managed to impale Patrick while avoiding rupturing any of his major organs. As he was now, Patrick would survive for tens of minutes trapped within a world of diabolical suffering.
“Good. More of you have come,” the large Dökk’s voice reached Erik’s ears, tainted by a palpable disdain for mankind. “We shall butcher your people as your people have done mine.”
Behind Patrick, Erik could see a gray tide of creatures rushing out of the forest to reinforce their brethren. They seemed endless and unafraid of the slaughter to yet come. He tried to turn his head to follow them and still warm scarlet droplets dripped into his mouth.
“We shall soak the ground in blood,” continued the voice. “Until the Earth Mother weeps. Until the Sky Father begs us to have mercy. But there shall be none. We shall sweep clean the lands to the south.” The voice moved until it was coming from behind Erik. “Your time has passed, human. This world now belongs only to the Kvik.”
The Dökk’s words drifted past Erik unheard. Greedily, he licked more of the blood that had fallen onto his lip. It tasted like the sweetest pastry he ever had. Euphoria swelled into every part of his being. He felt more alive than at any other time before. He could smell the chemical scent of blood, and the oil someone had rubbed onto their blade. He could feel every current of wind caressing against him. He could feel the cool hilt of the sword he somehow still held, and every torn ligament in his arm, every ripped muscle, every broken bone, every bruise.
He could not have said if the feeling went on for minutes or hours, but suddenly a thrust of something hard struck his back. His lungs were afire. Panting, he looked down as the tip of a spear emerged from his chest. His hand went limp and the sword fell from his hand.
“Now you die,” said the large Dökk.
Erik’s groans filled the air with pain. One by one, three white spears floated up into the air, and then rammed through his back, turning him into a human pincushion. His eyes rolled back in his head. A bottomless well of hurt hollowed him of all conscious thought. Nothing existed but the pain and the roar of the Celestial Dragon’s fury.
Someone was screaming his name. The voice was familiar. He should know who it belonged to, but the name escaped him like so much else. Pink and white granules slipped through tiny fingers. The smell of—
Shut eyelids snapped open. Eat. There was something essential about food, something that ranked it alarmingly high among the hierarchy of needs. A man deprived of food was no man at all. He was a beast. A thing that only thought in moments. A creature of base appetite.
The wind rose and lightning danced above, arching from darkened cloud to darkened cloud as if white snakes swam through the sky. Booming thunder kept rhythm to the erratic dance above.
There it was again, that voice that he should know. It was filled with an anguish that tore at the soul. The pain this person felt was different than his own. His was purely a trial of the flesh. The stranger’s suffering spoke of something else. Something less primal. Something more ethereal. A torment rooted in the mind and heart. A pain based in longing and lost.
Screams of terror rose up around him as men and Dökk alike floated up into the sky, seized by the winds of a budding tornado. The invisible bonds holding Erik in placed broke apart and the typhoon-like wind sent him launching into Patrick.
Patrick’s eyes bulged when the spears sticking out of Erik entered his chest, joining them together in some ghoulish working of flesh, blood, and spears. Patrick whimpered while his eyes began to lose their shine.
TEAR! CHEW! RIP! EAT!
The bones in his hands healing sluggishly, Erik reached out and wrapped his arms around Patrick to keep himself from tumbling away. Time slowed to a crawl. Raindrops lazily twirled around him, making their spiraling way to the ground. His body rippled and then his chest unfolded to entrap Patrick, drawing him in, slowly swallowing him whole with tendrils and petals of blood-colored flesh.
“Once in a little village not that far from here, there were two children, a brother, and a sister. Thick as thieves they were, always up to all manner of mischief.”
Patrick sat at the breakfast table, using a wooden spoon to scoop oats mixed with cow’s milk out of a bowl and into his mouth. There were also wild berries sprinkled into the gruel, but they did little to improve its taste. The voice that spoke belonged to Lyngar, his raven-haired father who sat at the head of the table lighting a wooden pipe with a candle. He was a short man with a round belly big enough to rest a bowl upon while he sat.
“Their favorite capers were all done at night,” Lyngar continued. “They loved sneaking out after dark and pretending to be monsters. The first time they did it, the whole village was terrified that the wardstones had stopped working—”
Across the table from Patrick sat Kristey, his hazel-eyed sister. She was ten, two years older than Patrick, a fact she never let him forget. Her hair was the same color as their father’s, which made Patrick jealous whenever he had cause to think about it. His own hair was blond, blonder than his mother’s even.
“—Fathers, sons, and even some womenfolk rushed out of their homes with long blades, knives, brooms,” Lyngar added in a voice that was well-suited for painting pictures with words. “… whatever they could find. The children thought it all was a big joke. They laughed and laughed at the stupidness of their neighbors. Their ma, bless her heart, feared for her little ones’ safety. She lashed them good and proper. The children wept and promised to never do it again, but two nights later do you know what they did?”
Kristey’s small pink hands rose to cover her mouth. “No,” she gasped in shock, breakfast forgotten in front of her. She seemed completely captivated by their father’s tale. “They didn’t?”
“Yes, they whooped and hollered banging on the neighbors’ windows and doors in between fits of giggles. This time, their old ma thrashed them until their bottoms were covered in red welts.”
Patrick’s butt hurt just thinking about it. It reminded him of that time that Kristey had dared him to drink a bottle of their father’s ale. He did not know what been worse, the sickness that had followed that adventure or the beating that Lyngar had given him after. The beating. Definitely the beating.
Lyngar looked at Patrick as if he knew exactly what he was thinking. His eyes twinkled as he took a long puff on his wooden pipe. “They promised their ma in tear-filled whispers that they’d never do it again. They swore sacred oaths, invoking the name of the Eternal Father. But a few days later, when their ma had relaxed her nightly vigil at the front of the door, they crept out of the house on cat’s paws. They stalked the night gleeful of their own cleverness.” His voice dropped, turning menacing. “Suddenly, the little girl started to shriek. The little boy turned away in terror when he saw what had grabbed hold of his sister. He ran through the village banging on doors and shouting for help. This time, no one got out of their beds. Not even one person peeked out of their window.”
Patrick’s meal lay abandoned in front of him. He was held in rapt attention. There was an attribute within his father’s voice that never failed to bring his tales to life in vivid detail. Patrick could see it all in his head. He could feel the vibrations of the little boy’s pleas for help jabbing into his eardrums. He could hear the horror that nipped at the little boy’s heels getting closer and closer. It all made his palms sweaty with anxiety.
“When the children’s ma awoke in the morning, she looked everywhere for her little ones,” Lyngar added. “But she couldn’t find them. Soon the whole village was searching high and low for them. No one could found a trace of them. Puff, the wicked little ones were gone, vanished into the night.”
“What…” Kristey nervously licked her bottom lip. “What got them, Da?”
Placing his pipe down on the table, Lyngar yanked Kristey by the arm. She came flying into his arms and he held onto her from behind. “A Cockma got them.” His voiced turned dark and hostile. “It grabbed the girl first because it likes the flesh of little girls the best.”
Kristey shrieked as Lyngar gnawed on her neck. “Da, let me go!” Mirth escaped Patrick’s mouth at Kristey’s wails of horror which only made her yell louder. “Da, no!”
“Then it grabbed the boy,” Lyngar said, pulling Patrick into his arms as well. “Because little boys ain’t so different than little girls.”
Patrick squealed as Lyngar began biting on his neck as well. “No, Da! I’ll be good! I’ll be good!” Somewhere along the way, Patrick and Kristey’s screams turned into fits of laughter.
“What’s that rucas out there!” yelled a voice from the back of the house, causing all three of them pause as if they had been caught misbehaving.
After a moment, a woman with dirty blonde hair walked out of a bedroom, holding a wet rag to her forehead. She wore an old wool dress and her belly was swollen with her third child.
“Sorry, Ma,” Patrick and Kristey exclaimed in unison, retaking their seats.
Lyngar released the children and sent his wife, Mábil, a rueful smile. “Sorry, love. I’m the one to blame.”
“Who else would I blame, Lyngar?” She asked, sucking air through her teeth. “First, you keep me up all night with your perversions and now you won’t even allow me to close my eyes for more than a moment.”
Lyngar approached Mábil soothingly. “Now, now, dear.”
“Don’t now, now, me!” She said playfully whipping him with the wet rag. “Just let me sleep in peace! Is that too much to ask for?”
Patrick and Kristey shared amused glances, well-used to their parents’ antics. Suddenly there came a knocking at the front door.
Taking a break from showering Mábil in apologetic kisses, Lyngar said, “See who that is, Patrick.”
Patrick rose up from his chair and walked over to the door. The din of voices raging behind him brought a small smile to his face. He opened the door and was greeted by the stern face of a stranger. The first thing he noticed about the man was his piercing blue eyes, then his blond and gray topknot. The stranger peered down at him, dressed in an expensive looking black coat with silver buttons. A long sword also hung at his side.
A Lightbender, Patrick thought with growing excitement, but soon that feeling turned into fear. There was something in the way the man stared at him that made Patrick’s skin crawl. It’s the way he once saw his father gaze at a prized horse.
“Patrick, who is it?” asked a voice from the kitchen. “… Patrick?”
He wanted to respond but could not. He was held still by a pulsing little stab of fear. The fear that if he moved that the man might do something unspeakable. What that unspeakable thing might be he had no idea, but the unknown terror of it made his legs quake.
Footsteps rushed towards the door. The Lightbender rose his gaze, looking past Patrick for the first time. “I’ve come for my son,” he said when Mábil and Lyngar reached the door.
Erik fell slowly towards the ground, whipped by both wind and water. He screamed freeing himself from the memory that had overtaken his mind while the last of Patrick and the bone spears dissolved into him. He had become a hulking amalgamation of gently throbbing flesh.
Panicked, he grabbed onto the wooden post with his deformed hand. Suddenly an erotic haze covered his vision as he was overcome by another rush of foreign memories. He sank down into the depth of his mind like he had been tied with weights and tossed into the Howling Sea.
As a particularly strong blast of wind stoked the fire in front of him, Patrick glanced at the Lightbender who claimed to be his father. The man sat on top of a log in front of a shaggy brown horse, sharping his sword with a whetstone. It had only been a handful of hours since the stranger had spirited him away from the only family he had ever known.
He felt lost and a vague sense hopelessness that the darkening forest that surrounded him only made seem more poignant and terrible. Snarled tree branches half-lit by orange light twisted menacingly in the breeze and sinister sounds reached his ears from the dark. The only thing that kept him from running away in terror was the four miniature wardstones that the man had placed around the campsite. The twelve inch tall stone obelisks gave him a sense of assurance that made everything else bearable.
“You’re confused,” the Lightbender said not looking up from his sword.
Patrick looked at him, unsure how to respond. This was only the second time the man had ever spoken to him. The first thing he had said was to remain silent after he had smacked Patrick for asking too many questions. What had followed that was an awkward morning horse ride into the scrolling dawn.
“It’s all there on your face for the world to see. Your confusion. Your hate,” the man said. “You’ll have to change that. Being easy to read is a weakness that will lead to an early grave.” He looked up from his blade to stare at Patrick. “Do you hate me, son?”
Patrick remained quiet.
The Lightbender laughed. “Good. You’re learning. When you hate someone they should never know. That way when it’s time to slit their throat they never see the blade coming.”
“You’re not my da.”
The man stood. “I am. Your mother spent two months with me until she was swollen with my seed. It’s something that common women do regularly. They receive a stipend for any children they bare from such coupling. You see, Lightbenders are not permitted to take wives or raise families, it’s part of the Code.” The stranger frowned as if remembering something. “This probably makes no sense to you, but one day it will. For now, call me Sir Númi if the word father is too difficult.
Patrick watched, mouth agape, as Númi suddenly lost himself in a dancelike flow of sword forms. He moved, twirling and slashing his blade around the campsite. The sword looked alive in his hands, it looked apart of him in a way that filled Patrick with longing. All thoughts of home drifted away as he watched the blade whistle through the air.
Abruptly, Númi stopped with his blade an inch away from Patrick’s neck which made Patrick’s eyes widen. “What do you think of my sword?”
Quiet lay heavy on the land. Patrick swallowed as his heart rose up into his throat. All he could hear was the blood in his ears. The part of him still capable of conscious thought felt foolish about losing himself in the moment and letting his guard down.
“It’s… it’s beautiful,” Patrick stammered, gripped tight by abject terror. This man who called himself his father was no man at all. He was a beast that had learn to walk on two legs.
Númi nodded his head. “She is that, beautiful and deadly. Remember this, nothing in the world has as much power as the sword. Sometimes I stab a man, and I watch him, until his eyes lose their shine.”
A burst of pain erupted along Patrick’s cheek. He tumbled backwards, falling from the log he used as a seat. His hand rose to his cheek and came away stained with blood. He could not believe it. He… he cut me.
“Consider this your first lesson, son. Soon you will have a blade to call your own,” Númi said, sheathing his sword. “When you draw her, she must always taste blood, whether it’s your own or your enemy’s it matters not. This is my way. Few still honor this tradition, but these new generations of Lightbenders have become soft. I will not have you picking up their bad habits, so remember this lesson well. My way is the old way.”
Erik screamed louder as the wind howled around him. Every fiber of his being burned, soaked in moments that twisted and changed like a living shadow. The Celestial Dragon climbed to ascendance while he battled the assault of images.
RIB! CLAW! TEAR! DEVOUR—
He lay on the ground next to the wooden posts. The flesh of his body was a roiling and turbulent mess. An unstable dragon claw pushed its way out of his chest before collapsing and rejoining the seething ocean of red and black flesh. Erik clung on by a fingernail, but it was a losing battle, he knew that. The Celestial Dragon was finally—