The greatest danger lies within ourselves.
— LÁRA ITO, TO ERIK
Face wet with gore, Erik blinked, trying to make sense of what he had just witnessed. Patrick shook as the night rumbled with sounds of a fierce battle, groaned as if he could deny what had been done. Rays of moonlight made the scarlet rivers glitter where they pooled around the once-white spear that protruded out of the side of his neck. Fine red cuts crisscrossed the surface of his flesh and soot covered the tips of his fingers and the ends of his blond top-knot. The dead and the dying lay piled behind the Prince, gray-skinned abominations, struck down by Erik’s blade, now facing a wave of armored soldiers and a sprinkling of black-coated warriors.
“Good, more of you have come,” the red cloaked Dökk said in a voice tainted by disdain. “We shall butcher your people as they have done mine.”
A tide of Gray Skins swarmed out of the forest, charging to reinforce their faltering brethren. Erik turned his head to regard them as they streamed past his feet and scarlet droplets dripped into his mouth, sweet beyond knowing. He gasped . . .
“We shall soak the ground in blood,” it continued, walking behind Erik with a new spear in its hands. “Until the Earth Mother weeps. Until the Sky Father begs for mercy. But there will be none. We shall sweep clean the lands to the south. Your time has passed, human. This world now belongs only to us.”
. . . euphoria swelling into him, surging life and energy into his extremities. Erik licked at the blood on his lip, hyper aware of the cold hilt of the longsword he somehow still held, and every torn ligament in his arm, every ripped muscle, every broken bone, every bruise. The sense expanded, encompassing the whole of his body until he became conscious of the individual hairs on his head being rustled by the soft breeze. Suddenly, his lungs were afire. Panting, he looked down as the tip of a spear emerged from his chest. His fingers went limp, and the longsword fell from his hand.
“Now you die,” said the red cloaked Dökk.
Erik groaned, body spasming within the grip of the invisible hand that held him off the ground. Soon after, three more bone spears rammed through his back, transforming human flesh into so much meat. His eyes rolled back into his head, and a bottomless wellspring of hurt hollowed him of all thought and reason. Nothing existed but the torment and the Celestial Dragon’s fury pounding at his skull.
Someone or something screamed his name. The voice tickled at his memory but escaped him when he grasped for it like pink and white granules through tiny fingers. He existed among gaseous drums, throbbing against a casing of bone. Every beat a pang of hunger. Every beat a lash of torment.
Erik’s eyelids snapped open. The world howled around him. Like a sheet of iron set upon a blacksmith’s anvil, the sky quivered and shook, and the once gentle breeze now roared while lightning danced above, arching from darkened cloud to darkened cloud.
There it was again, the voice he should know, filled with anguish and rage. Asbjörn. The thought rose within him. That’s who’s shouting my name. His eyes opened wider. “Asbjörn,” he whispered as screams of terror rose all around him, drowning out his own voice.
Men and Dökk alike floated up into the sky, tossed off their feet, seized by the fury of a budding tornado that sprang into existence as if from nowhere. Erik’s invisible bonds shattered and the typhoon-like winds hurled him into Patrick, joining them in a ghoulish working of flesh, blood, and spears.
TEAR! CHEW! RIP! EAT!
Time slowed to a crawl, and raindrops twirled, lazily spiraling toward the ground. Wide-eyed, Erik watched his chest ripple and unfold to entrap Patrick, drawing him in, devouring him with tendrils and petals of blood-colored flesh. The Lightbender grunted, blue eyes dull. Almost lifeless.
“Once in a little village not that far from here . . .” A distant voice tickled Erik’s mind.
“ . . . there were two children, a brother, and a sister. Thick as thieves they were, always up to all manner of mischief.”
Patrick sat at a large table, using a wooden spoon to scoop oats mixed with cow’s milk out of a bowl and into his mouth; the wild berries sprinkled into the gruel did little to improve its taste. He fought back a grimace and glanced at his raven-haired father, Lyngar, the one who spoke.
Dressed in shirtsleeves, Lyngar perched at the head of the table, in front of the unlit fireplace, lighting a wooden pipe with a candle. He was a short man with a round belly large enough to rest a bowl upon while he sat, as he often did, but not on this occasion.
“Their favorite capers were all done at night,” Lyngar added, face wreathed in his first puff of pipe smoke. “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, with hair as black as their father’s, which made Patrick jealous whenever he had cause to ponder upon it. His own hair was blond, more bleached than his mother’s own even. At ten, she was two years older than him, a fact she never let him forget.
“—Fathers, sons, and even some womenfolk rushed out of their homes with long blades, knives, brooms. The children thought it all a big joke. They laughed and laughed at the foolishness 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 hands rose to cover her mouth. “No,” she gasped in shock, 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 backside stung at the thought, reminding him of the time Kristey had dared him to drink a bottle of their father’s ale. He did not know what had been worse, the sickness that had followed or the beating Lyngar had given him after. The beating. Definitely the beating.
A smile split Lyngar’s round face, and his eyes twinkled as if he knew exactly what Patrick was thinking. “They promised their ma in tear-filled whispers they’d never do it again,” he said. “They swore sacred oaths, invoking the name of the Eternal Father. Yet 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 darkness gleeful of their own cleverness right up to the moment the little girl shrieked. When the little boy saw what had grabbed hold of his sister, he ran away in terror, bolting through the village, banging on doors, shouting for help. This time, no one answered his call. They all remained in bed, confident in the fact it was the wicked children up to their old tricks again.”
Held in rapt attention, Patrick witnessed it all in vivid detail in his mind’s eye. He felt the vibrations of the little boy’s pleas hum into his bones, heard the thunder of the monster’s footsteps, getting closer and closer. It all made his palms itch with anxiety.
“When the children’s ma awoke in the morning, she looked everywhere for her little ones, but couldn’t find them,” Lyngar said with a wry twist to his mouth. “Soon the whole village was searching high and low for them, yet none could find a trace of them. And they never did.”
“What. . . .” Kristey nervously licked her bottom lip. “What got them, Da?”
Lyngar placed his pipe on the table and yanked Kristey into his arm. “A Cockma got them.” His voiced brimmed with dark hostility. “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. “Da, no!”
“Then it got the boy,” Lyngar said, pulling Patrick into his arms as well. “Because little boys ain’t so different from little girls.”
Patrick squealed, sensing Lyngar’s teeth at his neck. “No, Da! I’ll be good! I’ll be good!” Somewhere along the way, Patrick and Kristey’s screams transformed into fits of giggles.
“What’s the ruckus out there!” yelled a voice from the back of the house, causing all three to pause.
An instant later, a woman with dirty blonde hair walked out of a bedroom, holding a wet rag to her forehead. Swollen with her third child, her old wool dress stretched around her round belly, and her blue eyes promised retribution for any who dared test her patients
“Sorry, Ma,” Patrick and Kristey exclaimed in unison, retaking their seats.
Lyngar 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 with your perversions, and now you won’t even allow me a moment’s respite?”
Lyngar approached Mábil, arms raised in surrender. “Now now, dear.”
“Don’t now-now, me!” she yelled, whipping him with the wet rag; Patrick and Kristey shared amused glances, well-used to their parents’ antics. “Just let me sleep in peace! Is that too much to ask for?”
At that instant, there came a knocking at the front door. Three muffled bangs that shook the old timber of the high-peaked, thatched roof house.
“See who that is, Patrick,” Lyngar said, in between showering Mábil in apologetic kisses.
Patrick walked over to the door, staring at the books that stood in rows on the shelf opposite the kitchen before continuing on his way. It seemed he often fantasized about the wonder found in the pages of his father’s book these days.
He opened the door, and the stern face of a stranger greeted him. Piercing blue eyes were the first thing he noticed, and then the man’s blond and gray top-knot that hung down his back, draped above a black coat with silver buttons. The last was the longsword that hung at man’s side.
A Lightbender, Patrick thought with a sense excitement, but soon the feeling turned sour. There was something in the way the man stared at him that made Patrick’s skin crawl. The Lightbender’s eyes held the same intensity with which his father had once gazed at a prized horse.
“Patrick, who is it?” asked a voice from the kitchen. His mother’s voice. “. . . Patrick?”
He wanted to respond but was held silent by a pulsing little stab of dread. The fear that if he moved, the man might do something unspeakable. What that horrible thing might be he had no idea, but the unknown terror of it made his legs quake. Footsteps rushed toward him.
The Lightbender lifted 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 screamed, whipped by wind and water, his body a hulking amalgamation of throbbing flesh, his mind battered by an onslaught of external memories. He fell to the ground, grabbing onto the wooden post with a deformed hand, the last of Patrick dissolving into his chest. Fleshy petals and tendrils thrashed about him.
He gasped up at the sky, blind to everything but his inner torment. Raindrops flooded his mouth, drowning, choking him. An erotic haze covered his senses, and another rush of memories swept him away, dragging him down into unknown depth.
As a 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 longsword on a whetstone. It had been mere hours since the stranger had spirited him away from his home. He felt lost and a vague sense hopelessness that the darkening forest that surrounded him 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 keeping him from running away in terror was the four little wardstones 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 blade.
Patrick dropped his gaze, unsure how to respond, this being the second time the man had ever spoken to him. Earlier that day, the Lightbender had smacked Patrick across the head and told him to remain silent. 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,” said the top-knotted warrior. “You’ll have to change that. Being easy to read is a weakness that will lead to an early grave.” Abruptly he looked from his blade to stare at Patrick. “Do you dislike me, son?”
Patrick remained quiet. Yes.
The Lightbender laughed. “Good. You’re learning. When you hate someone, they should never know it. That way when it’s time to slit their throat they don’t see the blade coming.”
“You’re not my da.”
“I am. Your mother spent two months with me until she became swollen with my seed. It’s something that common women often do. They receive a stipend for any children they bear from such unions. Lightbenders may not take wives or raise families, it’s part of the Code.” The black coated warrior stood, pausing, thinking. “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 then lost himself in a dance-like flow of sword forms. He moved, twirling and slashing his blade around the campsite. The longsword seemed alive in his hands, looked a part of him in a way that filled Patrick with longing. All thoughts of home drifted away, listening to the blade whistle through the air.
Abruptly, Númi stopped with his weapon an inch from Patrick’s neck. “What do you think of my sword?”
Patrick’s eyes widen, fear tickling his throat, blood pounding in his ears. His legs shook, and his hands trembled. RUN! Do it now!
“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 realized, he was a monster that had learned to walk upright.
Númi nodded. “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, and he tumbled backward, falling off the log he used as a seat. His hand rose to touch his face and came away stained with crimson. He could not believe it. He . . . cut me.
“Consider this your first lesson, son. Soon you will have a blade to call your own,” Númi said, sheathing his weapon. “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 terrible habits, so remember this well. My way is the Old Way.”
Erik howled louder, his voice drowning in the roar of the wind, churning 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 back the assault of images.
RIB! CLAW! TEAR! DEVOUR—
He lay on the ground next to the wooden posts, his body 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 breaking free!