It’s better to laugh at the horror than curl up into a ball and cry.
— PATRICK MAIDA, TO ERIK
From the eye of the storm, close to forty meters above the ground, a man dressed in white stood in the air, whipping a long blade around himself. On the ground, directly below him, Erik lay doubled over with his stomach up in the air, his knees in the dirt, and the back of his head touching the earth. Blood pounded in his ears. The wooden post he gripped in his misshapen hand splintered and broke apart while from somewhere above came a hollow boom, cutting through the din of screams and shouts from the victims trapped with the spinning arms of the cyclone.
He did not think he was going to last much longer. Every part of him centered on staying in control for one heartbeat more. He was no longer certain what was his and what belonged to the Celestial Dragon. From his chest, the creature’s head emerged, covered in black and gold scales, growing larger the further it pushed from its source. There was an unstableness to the monster form as if it might collapse at any moment. It rippled and folded in on itself before pushing out further.
With a shout, Patrick threw himself stumbling sideways, rolling through the sand of the practice yard. Hand trembling, he touched the gash on his stomach and raised bloody fingers before his blue eyes in disbelief. The pain of the wound cut through his exhausted mind, making him temporarily more alert. Even then all he wanted to do was sleep. The last five years of his life had been one endless marathon of suffering.
Patrick glanced at the one who had injured him, but the Sword Instructor said nothing, his eyes intent on the rows of thirteen-year-old boys spaced across the open ground, all stripped to the waist with swords at their sides. Their heads were shaved clean; Patrick knew they had not yet earned the right to grow a topknot.
“You are seedlings no longer. The practice sword is a thing of your past. From this day onward you train only with real blades, and as Patrick just discovered they cut,” spoke the grizzled faced Sword Instructor. He wore a black eye-patch over his left eye and the blade in his hand seemed to flash every time the light struck it just right.
Without prompting, the boys began, “Suffering is not something we fear. Pain is our salvation, through it, we are transformed. Through it we are reborn. We are the Awaken Warriors, the benders of light, the Guardians of Dawn—”
“Yes, yes,” The old man said, cutting them off. “You know the words but do any of you understand what they truly mean?”
Patrick had spoken without thinking like the rest of his classmates. The Sword Instructor’s question shut him up. Like so much he did nowadays, it was done out of habit to protect himself from another beating.
When no one responded, the old man continued, “There are over six hundred and forty muscles in the human body. These muscles work together to create movement through space. For most, there is a limit to how strong these individual muscles can become, but this is not the case for Lightbenders.” He began walking back and forth in front of the rows of students. “We have unlimited growth potentials. Cultivators cultivate their minds. We cultivate our bodies. Through rigorous training, it is possible to evolve the nadis within your Ethereal Bodies.”
This was something Patrick already knew. The four possible evolutions corresponded with the four different ranks of Lightbenders: wood, bronze, silver, and gold.
“I know some of you have dreams of being Gold Button Lightbenders one day and being able to shoot Sword Light at you enemies,” added the Sword Instructor. “Well, the only way to achieve this goal is through the suffering of training and the pain of battle.” He turned towards Patrick, who still lay on the ground. “Now pick up your sword. I’m not done with you yet.”
Panting, Patrick picked up his blade and staggered to his feet. He hated this place. It was hard to remember a time when he was not in some kind of pain. He was sick of the endless torment. I want to go, he snarled. I just want to go home. But he knew they would not let him. He was trapped here in this school for the damned.
With a guttural yell of frustration, he charged the Sword Instructor. For a moment the hot tears in his eyes blurred the world around him. Light twisted, and the world changed.
A slash of blue light appeared directly above Erik, slicing through the dark in a looping frenzy. Then the eerie calm at the center of the storm began to change. The unseen fluctuations of the Abyss pulled at Erik’s battered mind, letting him know that an Esoteric Sword Technique was being performed above him. The oozing wrongness of it drew him in, ripping his focus to shreds.
His will weakened, and his influence shrank down to a small circle located within himself. He was the last spot of brightness in a world of endless gold and black. He felt like his large intestine was slowly being pulled out of his stomach with hot pliers and jabbed with needles for added misery. Every moment that passed his light dimmed further, dwindling until it was the size of his fist, a fingernail, nothing. His eyes rolled back into his head, melting into his skull.
Suddenly the Celestial Dragon’s forelegs touched the earth and what was left of Erik’s form became even more turbulent and chaotic, losing all detail in a roiling sea of black and red. Soon after that the second half of the monster came into being and of what had been Erik, nothing remained.
Erik’s consciousness pulsed with the beating of the beast’s desire, like a second heartbeat. The core of him floated in a darkened corner; sheltered in emptiness, surround by torrents of burning appetite. He could see the world through the monster’s eyes, feel the warmth of the wind running along the creature’s scales. Its demonic scales wavered like a candle flame in the breeze.
The air shimmered with heat that brought nearby branches close to combustion. Raindrops turned to steam before touching the ground and the screams from the ones trapped within the churning vortex grew more frantic. The cyclone was in the midst of transforming into a giant inferno of white colored flames. The world seemed to rebel at what was being done, fighting back in a way that only Cultivators could perceive, warping and twisting the mind.
The Celestial Dragon’s massive bat-like wings unfolded into the night, and it launched itself into the sky. The solidified platform of air that Asbjörn stood upon shattered as the monster flashed passed him. With a rush of howling air, he tumbled towards the ground. Before the earth could splinter his bones into a thousand pieces, he slowed and landed like a feather. Somewhere during his mad fall, his blade had lost its blue flames. Mouth agape, he looked up at the heavens.
The sky was flashing quicksilver filled with stomach turning rumbles, but it no longer looked like it was about to explode into flames at any moment. The Celestial Dragon circled in the air like a bird of prey with its gold and black eyes locked upon Asbjörn. Its body ached with need. Soon, soon it would feed until nothing remained but charred remnants.
No, wailed Erik in his little-darkened corner. It was a strain to keep his thoughts coherent. He wanted to be home, in Vetur, surrounded by those he loved. There was a small chance of that happening, perhaps ever again. But he would be damned if he allowed the beast to devour his friend. Fighting against the pull of another memory, he tried to force the creature northward and away from civilization. You will not touch them!
The Celestial Dragon wanted to howl scornfully as it closed its jaw on Asbjörn’s flesh. It wanted to hear Erik’s scream as it fed on those he loved. For the moment that seemed unlikely. It was forced to obey and loathed that fact. Even as it had seized control Erik had burrowed deeper into its mind like a ferret scratching and clawing.
Erik held on for as long as he could, driving the creature further and further north. Reluctantly, the beast complied and left its prey behind, climbing higher the farther it flew. Erik took satisfaction in the resentment coiled in the marrow of the monster’s bones. His control faltered and his mind slipped under another…
The wind rose again, whipping the gray-colored wool cloak behind Patrick and cutting through his coat like it was not there. He wished the coat was heavier, or that the Wilderness Survival Test was not done during winter. It was only day one, and he had no idea how he was going to make it the rest of the twenty-one days.
Hands trembling, he once again tried to use his hand drill to start a fire. All I need is one little ember, he prayed. Please, just one little ember. He rubbed his hands together around the wooden drill he had made with his knife, fiercely working his way downward to the base, then quickly bringing his hands back to the top one at a time. The skin on Patrick’s palms tore. He grimaced at the pain as the tip of the drill rubbed against the fireboard, attempting to create fire through friction.
Why couldn’t they have just giving us a flint firestarter, he lamented. Why do they always have to make everything so fucking difficult?
A little wisp of smoke rose up from the fireboard. His face lit up in celebration. “Yes,” he whispered as he lifted up the drill. The smile slipped from his lips. There was no ember.
He smashed fireboard against the snow covered ground. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck,” he shouted. The frustration brought tears to his eyes. He had already been at this for hours. I’m only sixteen; I can’t die here!
An extraneous noise fluttered through the forest, reminding Patrick that there were worse challenges than the cold. Far worse. He gripped the knife at his belt and looked around. They had only given him this small blade. How was he supposed to protect himself with only that? Maybe I’m not meant to survive, he thought grimly.
He whirled around at the sound of a twig breaking behind him. Not taking any chances, he turned himself invisible. The world suddenly became blurred like a shimmering mirage. Most colors fade away, leaving a world of mostly black, red, and orange, where all finer details had been lost.
Awareness returned to Erik as the Celestial Dragon rose kilometers above the earth and continued to climb higher. The air thinned and temperatures dropped until it felt like the skies might freeze into blocks of ice. Somehow the lack of air did not stop the beast’s ascension. Erik realized it had pushed most of its weight into another dimension, the same way he had done when he had run up the outer wall. It now weighed less than a butterfly.
The pale moon sat above, unhindered by clouds, looking larger and nearer than it had ever before. Its silver light glittered crisply off of the monster’s rippling black and gold scales, which sounded like iron plate knocking against each other. This was the Celestial Dragon’s Song of Calling that would bring its kin swarming down upon the world. They would come from wherever they were in outer space, knowing that there was a chance to ease the torment of the Hunger.
Images of slaughter and destruction ripped through Erik’s consciousness. He reached out in rage and panic, driven half mad through existential dread. He refused to be the reason why the world ended.
Abruptly the monster’s upward momentum stalled. Through Erik’s actions, its mass increased and gravity reasserted its dominance, resulting in an immediate loss in velocity. A jolt ran through its entire body. Pain erupted, and torrents of hot blood spewed into the air. It felt like it had been hit in the back by space debris. The creature’s right wing hung half torn at the shoulder as it spiraled back towards the distant ground.
Erik felt its torment like it was his own. Even so, a feeling of satisfaction cut through his dimming awareness of the world. If he had lips at that moment, he would be smiling.
Two months after being stationed at his first posting, Patrick still felt a sense of pride. He sat in a smoke-filled tavern with four of his top-knotted brothers in arms, drinking bowls of wine. The Code frowned on public displays of intoxication, but a few bowls would do no harm, or so Patrick’s current squad leader had told him.
A knot of girls with their hair braided stood at the bar collecting fresh pitchers of wine. They occasionally sent Patrick flirtatious glances before giggle among themselves. Patrick paid them no mind; he only had eyes for another.
He fingered his wooden buttons as he tracked Christel around the room as she served customers drinks. She was not pretty in the classical sense, but there was something about her that made his blood boil with need. Unlike the women at the front, Christel had refused to spread her legs open for him.
At first, wooing Christel was a game he played to amuse himself. A game that got slightly less amusing with each rejection. He was not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the line, he became obsessed. She was all he thought about. It had gotten to the point where he would picture her face when he lay with other girls. Is this love, he wondered.
The thought of his fluid dripping down her blonde and brown colored mound filled him with excitement and longing. She will be mine.
Patrick looked down at his hand. A wooden button lay broken in half between his thumb and finger.
Random snatches of the Celestial Dragon’s shrieks reached Erik, pulling him up from the clutches of the foreign memories for a brief moment. The creature’s dragon flesh seethed like boiling oil as it plummeted from the sky. Its ruined right wing shredded into oozing black pieces by the force of the wind, then repaired itself by forming into a human arm. The changes did not stop there, the chaotic flesh was in a constant state of flux, morphing from dragon to human and back again.
The world was a shimmering mirage of black, red, and orange as Patrick stalked Christel around on her morning chores. Not wanting to be seen, he had turned himself invisible. This was not the first or second time he had done this. He had lost count of the number of occasions he had followed her around unseen over the last month. He knew he needed to stop, but could not. Christel had become his compulsion.
She paused with her hand on the door of the stables, looking back at the way she had come. She blurred every time she moved to quickly and her face was a mixture of glowing orange and red hues, which made it hard to see her clearly.
Nothing moved or made a sound, except the wind. She looked right at him and for a while the feeling grew in him that she knew she was being watched. The hairs on his arms stirred, making his skin prickled on the inside. Finally, she shrugged it off whatever she was feeling and enter the stables.
The wind howled around Erik, reducing all other sounds to a low murmur. The upper half of his body protruded out of the Celestial Dragon’s chest like a cancerous growth. Confused, he blinked as the world continued to spin around him in a stomach-turning jumble. A trail of blood and body parts followed his downward spiral.
Before he knew what he was doing, Patrick had Christel pinned down on her stomach on the floor of the stables. Somewhere along the way, his vision of the world had returned to normal as he dropped his invisibility. He did not notice. His blood pounded in his eardrums and an itching need clawed inside, blinding him to everything else.
Panicked, Christel struggled beneath him, desperately trying to escape. The horses in the stalls neighed at the sudden commotion. Her eyes widened in terror when she appeared to realize she was too weak to break free. “Please, don’t do this,” she begged.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered as the need grew in him, turning from an itch into a burning inferno of lust. The searing flames made his body shudder and his breath quicken. He wrapped a hand around the back of Christel’s neck while the other fumbled at his belt buckle.
Tears spilled from Christel’s eyes onto the wooden floorboards. “Please,” she beseeched in a voice pulled at Patrick’s humanity.
He shifted his hand from his belt to the hem of her wool dress, and told himself to stop, but he could not. “I’m sorry,” he said. He did not know if he was speaking to her or himself. Maybe both. The moment he entered her all of his doubt melted away like ice on a hot day. She gripped him tight with her silken cavern, drowning him in waves of explosive pleasure. He grunted, eyes rolling back in his head. No other women had made him feel this much joy.
Vomit spewed out of Erik’s mouth, and the disgust at what he had just experienced made him feel like he a might hurl until his innards flew out. More of his body extruded out of the Celestial Dragon’s chest while the creature had shrunk down in size. Its form had become an unstable mess of throbbing dragon flesh.
Closing his mouth, Erik glanced over his shoulder . . . and blinked. Not more than twenty meters away the darkened earth rushed up towards him, vast and ungleaming.
Patrick dressed in a shroud of shame and repudiation. Christel watched him from her knees. Her eyes were two hot coals of pure hatred that singed his soul.
He dropped his gaze, not being able to meet the intensity in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he grunted. “I never meant to—”
“Rape me,” she finished in a voice pitched low, for his ear alone. She was too calm, if not for the look in her eyes she might as well have been discussing the weather.
His bottom lip trembled before he could still it. “If you tell anyone I’ll…”
“You’ll what?” She asked in the same calm voice. “You’ll tell everyone that I’m a liar? That I wanted it? Or maybe… you’ll kill me?”
“I would never do such a thing.”
Christel gave a dry, humorless laugh that made Patrick flinch as if struck. “I’m sure there is nothing you wouldn’t do. I know men like you. I’ve been putting up with them my whole life. You’re nothing more than a brute. You took what I wouldn’t give.” She fingered the red apple shaped scar on her cheek. “I tell everyone this is a birthmark, but it’s not. I burnt myself when I was eight. I thought my uncle would stop touching if I wasn’t pretty anymore. I was wrong.”
A river of tears ran down Patrick’s face as he held Christel gaze. Guilt spooled at the back of his throat until he thought he might choke. “I love you,” he whimpered.
“I hate you, Patrick Maida!” She snarled.
Patrick dropped to his knees, coughing up a storm. Blood spewed out of his mouth and floated up in the air, doing circles. He stared up at it in confusion. Suddenly the world exploded into a scarlet ocean of vibrating droplets.
On a lake shore silvered by moonlight, black and red tendrils of flesh slipped and stalked through the white sanded beach. They varied in size and joined to create a greater whole when they found each other. Slowly, ever so slowly every displaced drop of gore found its way home, transforming into a dark cocoon oscillating human tissue.
Suddenly it twisted and deformed until it took Erik’s shape, blue robe and all. Erik gasped writhing on the ground. He stilled his tremors and climbed to his shaky feet, looking around in bewilderment. He had no idea how far north the Celestial Dragon had flown. He could be hundreds of kilometers away from Hjörtur.
He paced back and forth for a moment. The fact that he might be the first human to travel this deep into the Northern Reaches in centuries held no appeal. He did not even know which direction was south. How was he supposed to make his way home if he did not even know where it was?
South is that way, spoke a voice from inside his head.