My hate beats inside me like a second heart.
— ASBJÖRN MAKI, PERSONAL JOURNAL
Ten minutes earlier
In his darkened bedchamber, Asbjörn tossed and turned on a bed wide enough for three people, held firmly in the grip of a nightmare.
Asbjörn’s heart thundered as he walked, and he stared in dismay at the horror that surrounded him. It was a chaotic battlefield, blood and corpses under a moonlit night, soft groans of pain and pleas for mercy. Blades of green grass crunched under his sandals, somehow heard over the much more terrifying sounds. He wore a scarlet battle robe with its hood pulled up over a faceplate of blackened iron, designed to appear like a demonic entity. The stars were a collection of silver beads above him, bright enough to compete with the radiance of the moon, but stood stark against a horizon leaden with roiling black smoke, fed by fiery hilltops and fields.
Asbjörn looked over his shoulder, his nostrils filling with the rancid glory of charred flesh. A group of prepubescent girls followed him, smiling and laughing, fresh flowers weaved into their hair, pale bodies made ethereal by the glow of starlight. Innocence and merriment distilled.
“Ding-ding,” their voices rang out in a musical jingle.
Asbjörn shuddered and turned back around, tripping over the severed leg of an Imperial Legionnaire still thrashing in his broken armor of iron scales. He caught himself and glared down at the gasping soldier. “When will The Last Emperor and the Old Orthodox Church learn?” he asked. “When will they understand the Twin Towers will not be brought to heel?”
Asbjörn snarled, fury and hate contorting his hidden face. He spun from the dying Legionnaire, drawing his longsword, staring at the young girls who had joined hands to dance around him. Their smiling faces shivered dread into his bones. The longer he looked, the more he sensed his will to live drain from him. Just a little longer, and he would cease to be. He was sure of it.
“Stop,” he pleaded.
“Ding-ding,” they sang, still smiling, still laughing.
Tears ran down Asbjörn face, and a layer of blue flames sprung along his blade. “Please, don’t make . . . don’t make me do it!”
Muttering, Asbjörn thrashed on the bed, then his tremors stilled, and he dreamed on.
Asbjörn scrambled past trees, thrice as tall as he was; dead vines coated them all as if never a drop of water had reached the dark forest. He looked back often, using his fiery blade to slash through the tangle of vines and branches blocking his path. Dim monstrous shapes and glowing eyes stalked him, guttural voices raised in howls. Thunder rumbled above, and lightning crackled through the sky, sometimes seen through the gaps between leaves.
With desperate haste, he escaped the forest, then fell to his knees with a grunt. In front of him stretched a crystalline body of water, wreathed in roiling mist that seemed to burn and tremble, yet was cool to the touch. From the center of the lake, a slender woman with long, black hair thrust upward, golden brown skin glistening with help from the crackling lightning. Her thin, white nightgown was soaked through, revealing more than it hid. And she wore an expression he hoped never to see on her face again. Fear.
Asbjörn ripped off his faceplate and jabbed his fiery blade into the shore. Nenna!
Eyes wide, Nenna approached him, hurrying to his side. “Look,” she said, pointing behind him. “Look at what you’ve done.”
Confused, he turned and bore witness to destruction. Tall plumes of smoke rose to join the milling clouds above, stirred by a sullen breeze, birthed from the inferno devouring the forest. Gray ash drifted down from the dark sky like flakes of white snow on a quiet winter morning, and the heat of the fire washed over him, singeing his eyebrows. Steaming his tears.
“Beloved, this is what they’ve turned you into.” Nenna caught at 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.”
Asbjörn awoke with a jolt, gasping for breath, ears ringing with the fury of Hjörtur’s bells. His ribs throbbed, and a blanket lay at his knees, where it had fallen while he thrashed on the bed. He pressed a hand to the sweat soaked bandages wrapped around his sides. Nothing but embers remained in the fireplace, and a chill had seeped into the room. He shivered, slowing his breathing.
Weeper, a voice mocked from within his head. Fagot weeper.
Asbjörn jerked upright, rocked by shock. He touched a finger to his cheek and realized the voice was right; his cheeks were wet with tears. His chest was fire, every breath sent agony shooting along his ribcage. The pain was nothing! Less than nothing, or so he told himself. I have more pressing concerns, he thought, turning his gaze inwards.
At the heart of his inner void, his Ethereal Body blazed like the risen sun, suffused with prana, surrounded by a transparent sphere. Below it—him a massive vortex spun, a thousand meters from where he sat cross-legged, vast grim waves of gold, green, blue, and red smashing against each other with earth shattering violence. The Abyss. He had called to it while he slept. That had never happened before. Fear rumbled within the depths of his chest, and pain crackled at the edge of his void, sometimes seen as a flash of white light. Splashes of foam suddenly flared beneath him, then crashed back down into the maelstrom.
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 agony, Asbjörn climbed off of the bed, dressed only white, linen smallclothes. The bells had not ceased their clamoring, and he meant to find their cause. He waddled toward the wardrobe on unsteady feet, sweating, grunting.
Are you not ashamed of what you’ve become? the voice asked wonderingly. I am. You ran when you should have fought. Now you weep. Every night 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 rifled through his wardrobe, trying his best to ignore the voice. The Abyss seemed to bring it out of hiding more often than not, so it could lash him with its poisoned tongue. They had been together so long, he almost forgot what it felt like to be alone in his own head. And in a way, he considered it a friend. A friend he did not particularly like or care for but had grown resigned to.
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.
Asbjörn made his hand unknot from the hem of a crimson robe with two white towers encircled by a gold serpent sewn into its sleeves. He had not worn that particular robe in years; it hung in his wardrobe as a reminder to what he had once been, to what he had left behind when he crossed the Howling Sea.
He dressed in a clean flowing, white robe, taking more time than he would have liked. Yet the pain in his sides kept his pace from increasing.
You can’t ignore me forever, muttered the voice. One day soon you’ll see the truth in what I’ve said.
Never, Asbjörn told it and regretted it almost immediately. By responding he had lost, and he did not need the voice’s self-satisfied laughter rattling through his head to tell him that. Past skirmishes had taught him silence was the only way to win their little battles.
He secured his shortsword on his sash and exited the room, using his sheathed longsword as a walking stick. With every other step down the torch-lit corridor, the wooden sheath knocked against the floor, adding an odd note of contrast to the din of the bells. He focused on the hollow sound, using it to better weather the torment at his sides.
Asbjörn staggered down narrow, curving staircase after narrow, curving staircase, and thought he might die. Sheltered by his inner void, the pain was placed at a distance, even so, it tested his mettle. Without it, he knew he would not make it two steps before collapsing.
So weak. So soft, taunted the voice. This is a bee sting compared 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. Its uttering grew wild and panicked. I am . . . d-damned and so are you.
Asbjörn stumbled outside, panting, gasping. He slid down to his knees, leaning on his longsword. His muscles felt like soggy bread, and his lungs were aflame. “Eternal Father, grant me the strength I need,” he prayed, sweat drooping his bushy brows.
An instant later, the bells fell silent. He took it as a sign and climbed back to his feet, meandering through the great square on his toward the inner gate. Hastily gathered soldiers were arranging themselves in rows, armed with iron-tipped spears.
“Cultivator!” they called out when they saw him.
Asbjörn acknowledged them all with a nod and a small smile but did not bother asking them for information. They would know nothing, he was sure, the Vindur nobility loved keeping their subordinates in the dark. Those in his way cleared a path for him to past, falling over themselves in their rush, shooting him furtive glances from the corner of their eyes. The story of what he had done the day before had spread, it seemed.
See, the voice explained, doing nothing to hide its glee. They know what we are.
Asbjörn tightened his grip on the hilt of his makeshift walking stick. Sometimes—no! Most times he wished he could reach inside his head and strangle the voice. Five minutes alone with it would be all he needed. He took a calming breath and hobbled out of the inner gate.
What seemed like ages later, Asbjörn reached the outer wall, wheezing through his teeth. More than a thousand soldiers clustered in front of the main gate, fingering weapons, grumbling to each other in low voices. He seized the nearest man by the arm, an armored giant, and spun him around, lurching the man’s helmet right off his head. Surprised, the large soldier reached for the longsword at his waist, before stopping when he caught sight of Asbjörn.
The man bowed, hand to heart. “Forgive me, M’lord.”
“Your name?” Asbjörn asked, pain transforming his words into a snarl.
Asbjörn leaned over on his blade, hyperventilating. “None of that,” he spat, wiping the sweat from his brow. “I’m not. . . . Never mind. What’s happening here?”
“It’s the Prince, m—” Kai began.
Asbjörn bolted upright, his eyes narrowing. “What about him?”
“W-well. . . .” Kai stammered. “. . . He. . . .” Kai paused, but the look in Asbjörn’s eyes made him find his words again. “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 to rescue the knight. By himself. Only a few dozen soldiers were able to follow him out of the sally gate before the Viscount put a stop to it.”
“You mean that Erik is fighting an army by himself, at this very moment?” Asbjörn asked in a voice much too soft, like a thin layer of ice over a well-visited pond, ready to plunge you to your doom at a moments notice. Impulsive and stupid, he thought. One day it will get him killed.
It already has, interjected the voice.
“Yes, M’lord,” Kai replied.
Not again, Asbjörn howled, tentacles of dread oozing down his throat and thrashing inside his stomach. Shocked shouts exploded along top the wall as sentries pointed down at the forest, and he stepped into the sky, using a ladder of Air to climb into the heavens. The soldiers gathered below him, turned and pointed in his direction.
The wind moaned around Asbjörn, fluttering his robe as he rose above the outer wall. He freed his longsword and placed the sheath on his sash next to his shortsword. Then he charged forward, resisting the urge to double over in pain, running across platforms of Air that sprang into being before him then disappeared the second he stepped off.
At the foot of the mountain, forty plate-and-mail armored men and a handful of Lightbenders fought against spear-wielding Dökk, five times their number, in a confusing mix of shouts and howls and clanging steel. And behind them, Erik hung a few meters in the air with his arms pressed to his sides.
Hold on! I’m coming!
Asbjörn increased his pace, panting, hoping he would get there in time. He drew Fire and Air from the Abyss, exchanging some of the prana that swirled within his Ethereal Body to perform an Esoteric Sword Technique called Cyclone Without A Name. Like the brush of a master painter, his longsword whirled around him drawing geometric designs. A pentagon and a circle. The shapes were not really part of the Esoteric Technique, except that if you did not use them, it required twice the amount of prana. Supposedly, the shapes were grooves worked into reality, just like an animal trail in a heavily forested area, following the well-trodden path used less energy.
The end of his sword movements yielded a deafening roar. From all around him furious gusts of icy, mountain wind gathered, churning with him at the center, smashing outward, slowly at first but picking up speed with his every step forward. Thunder rumbled somewhere above, a vague menace in the distance.
You’re too late, Asbjörn, the voice needled as a spear rose and thrust into Erik’s back. You’re always too late. Three more spears soon followed the first, puncturing through blue robe and princely flesh.
“Erik!” Asbjörn shrieked, eyes filling with the nearby horror, taking place only meters below. His heart rose into his throat, choking him on pain. It was happening all over gain. He was losing his son. His SON!
“ERIK!” Tears gushed from his eyes, and the world trembled at the sound of his voice. The surrounding air groaned, turning, even more, tumult, reducing his visibility to near zero with swirling wind. He reached the enemy’s line, and men and Dökk were sucked off their feet, hurled into the heavens by a budding tornado. Trees branches snapped like twigs. Sheets of rain fell sideways, and lightning arched above, illuminating the scene below in brief flashes of clarity.
Burn them all, whispered the voice.
Asbjörn could feel its satisfaction radiating at the back of his mind, but for once he did not care. Burn them all, he agreed.
Hate like a cauldron of acid burned within Asbjörn, bubbling and seething. A blue flame sprang along the blade of his longsword, and he looped it around his head, changing the Esoteric Creation around him. He drew deeper on the Abyss and burnt prana like paper! He left the well-trodden path behind, trying something new. Something different. This Esoteric Sword Technique had never been performed before. Existence itself fought against him! It was like walking barefoot through a field of jagged glass, like swimming upstream in a river of raging magma. Yet he persevered. It needs a name, he thought in a moment of introspection.
Call it White Fire, the voice whispered.
Yes, Asbjörn conceded; he liked that name. He smiled with tears in his gray eyes as the very air around him began to burn.