My hate beats inside me like a second heart.
–ASBJÖRN MAKI, PERSONAL JOURNAL
In his darkened bedchamber Asbjörn tossed and turned uneasily on a bed wide enough for three people, held firmly in the grip of a nightmare.
It was the chaotic battlefield again, as it always was at first, blood and corpses under a moonlit night, soft groans of pain and pleas for mercy. He wore his scarlet battle robe, this time, with his battle hood pulled up over a faceplate of black iron designed to look like a demonic entity.
A group of prepubescent girls held hands and danced around him in a circle, smiling and laughing with flowers in their hair. The picture of innocence and merriment. Their soft pale skins glowed silver in the moonlight, adding to their almost ethereal quality.
“Ding-ding,” their voices rang out in a musical jingle.
He stepped forward almost tripping over the severed leg of an Imperial Legionnaire still thrashing in his broken armor of iron scales. The Last Emperor and the Church of the Eternal Father resented the power of the mainland Cultivator Schools and had sought to bring them to heel. This was the result.
A soft breeze carried the stench of the dead and the dying full with their rancid glory. Weary to the bone, Asbjörn stalked the night, hunting his enemies. He thrust his long sword into a Legionnaire’s chest and grinned behind his faceplate when the man fell, fearful stare shivering joy into his bones. He drew back his blade.
With every step forward the young voices became more insistent, more demanding. They knifed their way into his eardrums, making the world blur in pain. He whirled, a layer of blue flames suddenly covering his sword as he slashed through one of the girls’ necks. A severed head floated up into the air and the headless body began to tumble back. There was a surprising lack of blood, even in the midst of his rage he noticed. The flames had seared the wound closed, blackening the girl’s pale neck.
He moved like a maelstrom, fiery blade slashing and thrusting in a mad dance of flesh and fire. By ones and twos, the little girl fell, never stopping their song until the last one lay dead. Now his panting and the howls of the dying were the only sounds that broke the silence. Suddenly the realization of what he had just done struck him, dropping him to his knees.
Muttering, he thrashed on the bed, then his tremors stilled and he dreamed on.
Through a shadowy forest, he moved with his fiery blade gripped tight in his hand. A sense of urgency prodded him forward like a sharp stick repeatedly jabbing him in the back. He searched for something, but could not remember what.
Glowing eyes and dim monstrous shapes stalked him only half-seen through the gaps in between the trees, but he was not afraid. The things hidden by the dark were the ones stricken half-blind by terror. He could not remember his own name. Yet, this he knew. They had reason to fear him. He had sniffed out a thousand lives and never shed a tear, all in the name of love.
He moved faster spotting a body of water in the distance. He slashed through the branches blocking his path, setting trees aflame in his haste to reach the lake. Stepping into the water, a feeling of relief overtook him as the icy cold crystalline liquid soaked through his scarlet robe, bringing an end to the insistent prodding. He stopped when the water reached passed his knees and glanced up at the sky.
The fragmented moon lay hidden behind dark storm clouds. His fiery sword was the only source of light. He stabbed it into the bottom of the lake and removed his iron faceplate. The reflection that stared back at him from the surface of the lake was much too young. He was older than this by decades.
At that moment the center of the lake rippled and a slender woman with long black hair rose up from the murky depths, golden brown skin glistening with help from the blue flames. Her thin, white silk robe was soaked through, revealing more than it hid. She wore an expression he hoped never to see on her face again. Fear. Eyes wide, she approached him, hurrying to his side.
“Look,” she said, pointing behind him. “… look at what you’ve done.”
He turned around and bore witness to the inferno that had consumed the once shadowy forest. The heat from the white flames singed his black eyebrows as gray ash drifted down from the sky like soft snowflakes on a quiet winter morning.
“Beloved, look at what they’ve turned you into.” She caught his hand, pressing it between her own. “A living fire to consume their enemies. An inferno kindled with rage and hatred. White fire to burn the world.”
He wanted to deny her words. He wanted to tell her what he did, he did for love. For her. He opened his mouth, but could not bring himself to speak. He—
Abruptly the dream changed and he was on his knees in a blood soaked hallway with the woman in his arms. Red liquid seeped past the hand he held pressed to the wound on her stomach. She gripped the back of his head with her hand, damning him with her brown eyes.
“Asbjörn, they took our son.” Her voice shuddered its way into his soul. “You must get him back. They mean to do to him what they’ve done to you, turn him into a weapon.” Passion burned within her dying eyes. “You can’t let that happen. Promise me, Asbjörn. Promise me you won’t let that happen. Promise me you’ll protect our son and take him away from this place.”
Tears tracked their way down his chin. “I promise,” he whispered in a voice tormented by heartache. “I don’t want you to go. I don’t want you to die.” Please, don’t leave me.
“Silly boy,” she responded with a smile that quickened more tears in his eyes. “I live on in you and in our son. Protect him.” Her voice grew more urgent. “You must protect him!”
With a jolt, he came awake, ears filled with the din of Hjörtur’s ringing bells. His heart thundered within the cavity of his chest as he lay shivering in the bed. Sweat soaked the white bandages wrapped around his side, which still throbbed with anguish from him slamming into the side of the crater the day before. Two of his ribs were cracked and would take weeks to fully heal.
Weeper, a voice mocked from within his head. Faggot weeper.
Asbjörn jerked upright, rocked by shock. He struggled to fill his lungs with air as sharp shooting pains traveled through his side. There was only one thing that drew the voice out of its hiding place in the shadows of his mind.
Within his inner void, his Ethereal Body blazed like the risen sun, surrounded by a translucent bubble. A massive vortex as large as the horizon spun below him, churning with an ancient and menacing aura. It glittered gold and green and was chased with blue and an ominous red glow. The sight of it hallowed Asbjörn with terror. He had somehow reached for the Abyss while he slept. That had never happened before.
Images flashed in his mind. Flickers of flames and destruction.
Old age has made you soft, whispered the voice in the same condescending tone. I liked you better when you made the world bleed and called it tears.
Teeth clenched against the agony embedded in his side, Asbjörn climbed off of the bed, wearing only white linen smallclothes. He moved toward the wardrobe on wobbly feet, egged on by the clamor of the ringing bells.
Are you not ashamed of what you’ve become? the voice asked wonderingly. I am. Ypse was right. You’re trapped in a cage. Inside a box. You ran when you should have fought. Now you weep. Wheezing laughter, soft. What’s the point? The Dark One’s cold lifeless cunt will swallow you whole when you die. Your soul belongs to the Abyss. Only to the Abyss. What is madness compared to what will come after?
Asbjörn ignored the voice, something he was not always good at doing. They had been together for years, him and the voice. They were almost old friends. An old friend he did not particularly like or care for but had become resigned to, taking comfort in their mutual dislike for each other.
There are no such things as sins at the end of the world, Asbjörn, the voice continued in a more serious tone. When no one is left alive who can judge you? Kill them all and free yourself. It’s the only way to escape the damnation that awaits you at the bottom of the Pit.
He made his hands unknot and dressed in a clean flowing white robe. He wore white more often than not these days, and sometimes blue, but never red. Red was the color of his past. A single crimson robe hung within his wardrobe as a reminder of what he had once been. Of what he had left behind when he crossed the Howling Sea to start a new life in Daði. He fingered the sleeve of the red robe where two ivory towers encircled by a gold serpent were sewn into the silk.
You can’t ignore me forever, muttered the voice. One day soon you’ll see the truth in what I’ve said.
Never, he told it and regretted it almost immediately. He dropped his hand to his side as the voice’s self-satisfied laugh rattled through his head. By responding he lost. Silence was the only way to win their little battles.
Asbjörn retrieved his short and long swords which rested against the wall next to the bed. He secured the short sword on his sash and used the long sword as a walking stick. The bottom of the blade’s wooden sheath knocked the floor with every other step as he made his way out of the darkened bedchamber.
Each step he took down the torch-lit hallway was slow and measured. He weathered the ache of his ribs with sharp ragged breaths, sucked through his teeth. Pain was nothing new to Asbjörn. His training as Cultivator was filled with it. To truly understand the Aspects you had to experience them in all their glory. He had once stuck his hand into a furnace to give his Esoteric Sword Techniques the power to char flesh. The throbbing in his ribs was nothing compared to that, or at least that is what he told himself.
He staggered down narrow, curving staircase after narrow, curving staircase, and thought he might die. Within the inner void pain was placed at a distance, even so, it tested his metal. Without the inner void, he would not make it two steps without collapsing to the floor.
So weak. So soft, taunted the voice. This is a bee sting in comparison to what awaits. It raged with what sounded like real fear. I won’t go back. I’ll burn the world to ash before I let you take me back. The uttering grew wild and panicked. I am . . . D-damned and so are you.
Asbjörn stumbled out the final staircase and found himself outside. Panting, he slid down to his knees, leaning on his sword. His muscles felt like wet bread, and his lungs were aflame.
White fire to burn the world, this is what we are, Asbjörn. This is what we are.
The noise of the bells and the voice in his head, all conspired to add to the torment he felt. One or the other, he could manage, but all three together brought him close to his breaking point. “Eternal Father, grant me the strength I need,” he prayed as sweat drooped his white bushy brows.
Suddenly the bells ceased their clamoring. Taking that as a sign, he climbed back to his feet and meandered his way along a columned walkway that led out of the inner gate. Shouts from marching soldiers cut through the abrupt quiet.
“Cultivator!” The armored men called out when they saw him.
Asbjörn acknowledged them all with a nod and a small smile. He did not bother asking them for information. They would know nothing, the Vindur nobility loved keeping their subordinates in the dark. The soldiers cleared a path for him to past, falling over themselves in their mad rush to get out of his way. Their gazes pincushioned him as they sent him fugitive glances from the corner of their eyes.
See, the voice explained doing nothing to hide its glee. They know what we are. It’s the terror of this knowledge that makes them act so.
Asbjörn’s grip tightened on the hilt of his makeshift walking stick. Sometimes he wished he could reach inside his head and strangle the voice. Five minutes alone with it would be all he needed. The voice’s imagined screams had a soothing effect on his hurt.
Smile frozen on his face, he made his way out of the inner gate with all the speed of an aged tortoise. Eyeballs spun away after catching a glimpse of his grin. The voice roared with laughter. He continued on with only the voice for companionship and the light of the moon for illumination.
It took what felt like ages until Asbjörn reached the outer wall. More than a thousand soldiers clustered in front of the main gate, fingering weapons. They grumbled to each other with their voices pitched low in dissatisfaction. When they were not busy doing that, they stared at the closed gate with longing.
Wheezing through his teeth, Asbjörn grabbed a large soldier at the back and spun him around, lurching the man’s helmet right off his head. The armored giant reached for the sword at his waist, before stopping when he caught sight of Asbjörn.
The man bowed, hand to heart. “Forgive me, m’lord.”
“Your name?” Asbjörn snarled, pain making him even more temperamental than usual.
Asbjörn leaned over on his sword, hyperventilating. “None of that,” he spat, wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his sleeve. “I’m not… never mind. What’s happening here?”
“It’s prince Erik, m—” Kai began.
Asbjörn bolted upright. “What about him?” The world seemed to gallop around him while he waited for a response. Fresh sweat sprouted on the back of his neck. He could not help but notice the voice’s silence. That worried him more than anything else.
“Well…” Kai stammered. “… he…” Kai paused, but the look in Asbjörn’s eyes made him quickly find his words. “The Dökk are assembled in mass at the bottom of the mountain and have taken Sir Patrick Maida hostage. When Prince Erik found out he leaped off the outer wall and charge down the mountain to rescue the knight by himself. A few dozen soldiers followed him out of the sally gate before the Viscount put a stop to it.”
Heart pounding, Asbjörn asked, “You mean that Erik is fighting an army by himself, at this very moment?” The very idea made his hands tremble with the ridiculousness of it all, but he never doubted it for even a second. It sounded like something the boy would do. Erik had always been impulsive, dangerously so. He had warned him repeatedly about the peril of such a character flaw. The boy listens far too rarely, he thought. One day it will get him killed.
It already has, interjected the voice.
Yes, m’lord,” Kai replied.
An instant later the sentries atop the wall jerked back and exclaimed in shock, pointing down the mountain. Tentacles of dread oozed down his throat and thrashed inside his stomach until he thought he might hurl up every meal that he ever ate. His eyes welled and his heart boomed.
Not again, he howled.
Forcing himself to breathe, he stepped into the sky, air solidifying beneath his leather sandaled foot. Shouts broke out below him as he climbed stairs made of vapor that none but him could see. He was no fresh-faced Cultivator, he had no need to wave his sword around to achieve something this simple. He was a walking force of nature. A god among men.
Yes, encouraged the voice.
Asbjörn faltered twenty meters above ground, almost plummeting from the sky. The wind moaned around him, fluttering his robe. He looked up and for a moment made eye contact with Viscount Baldur. The man wore a blank look. He decided in that second if something happened to Erik, Baldur would not outlive the prince by much.
Looking away, Asbjörn continued his ascent, clearing the outer wall. He unsheathed his blade. Resisting the urge to double over in pain, he ran across the sky. In the distance, forty plate-and-mail covered men fought against spear-wielding Dökk that was five times their number, in a confusing mix of shouts and howls and clanging steel.
Behind the rows of gray skins, Erik floated in the air with his arms pressed tightly to his sides. Grim fury and burning fear slid along Asbjörn’s innards, knotting his hand on the hilt of his blade. He increased his pace, panting and hoping he would get there in time.
He drew from the Abyss, for once thankful for his dark memories; they were the reason his weapon seemed to dance in his hands like the brush of a master painter. Calmly, his blade looped over his head with the point aimed towards the ground; the first sword movement of an Esoteric Sword Technique called Cyclone Without A Name.
Esoteric Sword Techniques were nothing more than grooves worked into reality, just like an animal trail in a heavily forested area, those who followed the well-trodden path used less energy than those who decided to make their own way. Prana was precious to Cultivators, none of them would willingly waste it. They were all limited in the number of times they could reach out into the world with their spirit in a day.
At the second rotation of Asbjörn’s blade, the sky began to darken as storm clouds formed above, blocking out the moonlight. The wind howled around him, churning ever more monstrously. “Hold on, Erik. I’m coming,” he breathed. His words were stolen by the brewing tornado and heard by none still living.
You’re too late, Asbjörn, the voice needled as a spear rose up behind Erik. You’re always too late. As if done by an invisible hand, the bone spear impaled its way into Erik’s back.
Asbjörn could not believe his eyes. He refused to. His feet propelled him forward over a platform of solid air as his sword looped around him for the third and fourth time. The air groaned turning tumult with flashes of thunder and lightning.
Three more spears floated up behind Erik. Asbjörn could deny his eyes no longer. “Erik!” he shrieked a moment after the spears stabbed into the prince. His heart rose up into his throat, choking him on pulsing flesh the second he reached the enemy’s line.
Swirling winds roared around him, dropping the visibility to near zero as men and Dökk were sucked up into the air. Nearby trees snapped like twigs. Sheets of rain fell sideways and lightning arched above, illuminating the scene below in brief flashes of clarity.
“ERIK!” Asbjörn yelled driven half-mad by rage and sorrow. He would make them pay. He would make them all pay. Erik was his son. Not the son of his blood, but the son of his heart. Not again, he howled. He could not lose him again. If he could not protect his son he would make the world burn as penance.
Burn them all, whispered the voice. He could feel its satisfaction radiating at the back of his mind, but for once he did not care. Burn them all, he agreed.
Suddenly a blue flame appeared around the sword he still looped around his head. His Esoteric Creation began to change. This was something new. He had left the well-trodden path. The world fought against him, doing its best to stop his improvisation. It was like pushing against a massive stream of raging water. He persevered and burnt prana like it was paper. It needs a name, he thought in a moment of introspection.
Call it White Fire, the voice added helpfully. Yes, Asbjörn conceded. He liked that name. He smiled as his new Esoteric Sword Technique began to take shape before his eyes.