It’s better to laugh at the horror than curl up into a ball and cry.
— PATRICK MAIDA, TO ERIK
At the bottom of the Rin Mountains, Erik lay doubled over, stomach thrust into the air, blinking up at the quivering night sky. A white-robed man—it had to be Asbjörn, Erik was almost certain—hung fifty meters above the earth, cast in the flickering glow of lightning. Dark funnels of air roared around the Cultivator, pregnant with the howls and screams of the victims trapped within its spinning arms.
Unseen memories touched Erik, pulled at his mind and soul, trying to draw him back into the unknown depths that slumbered inside. His body twitched, fighting the urge. From his roiling chest, the Celestial Dragon’s head emerged, covered in black and gold scales, growing larger the further it pushed from its source; it appeared unstable as if it might collapse at any moment. Tears ran down Erik’s face, and he gasped, feeling himself drain away like wine out of a holed barrel. One drop at a time.
A blade sliced through the air.
Patrick threw himself away, knowing it was already too late. He rolled across the soft sand of the practice yard, arms and legs flailing, trying to shout. Yet he found no air in his lungs, not for shouting. Not for anything.
Abruptly he was no longer flailing, no longer rolling. Fingers trembling, he touched the gash on his stomach and raised bloody fingers to blue eyes in disbelief. Pain frayed the edges of his exhausted mind. All he wanted to do was sleep. It had been so long since . . . since. . . .
The shuffling of feet drew Patrick’s attention to One Eye, the grizzled Sword Instructor who had injured him, but who now faced an assembly of young boys. Patrick’s classmates. Each one no older than thirteen, stripped to the waist with their heads shaved clean. Like Patrick, none of them had yet earned the right to grow a topknot. Nor would they for years to come. If ever.
“You are seedlings no longer. From this day onward, you train only with real blades, and as Patrick just discovered, they cut,” growled One Eye, tapping his black eye-patch with grime stained finger.
“Suffering is not something we fear,” the young boys began, and Patrick joined without prompting. “Pain is our salvation, through it we are transformed. Through it we are reborn. We are the benders of light, the Guardians of Dawn—”
“Yes, yes,” One Eye said, cutting them off. “You’ve memorized the words, but do any of you understand them?”
Patrick pushed himself to his knees, fighting back a groan, too afraid to draw any more attention to himself. I want to go home, a part of him whispered. Every day he thought the same thought. It had been five years since he had been brought to this place. Five years since he last saw his family.
“The only way for you to grow stronger, to open the rest of your Sefirots is through suffering. Through overcoming you limitations and physical pain. For a Lightbender, every broken bone, every bruise is a step towards more power.” He turned towards Patrick. “Now pick up your sword, we’ve only just begun.”
Patrick pulled his longsword from the sand and staggered to his feet. Hatred pulsed in his chest. He hated this place! Hated this school! I want to go home, he snarled. Just let me go back!
With a guttural yell of frustration, he charged the Sword Instructor. Hot tears blurred his vision. Light twisted in his eyes.
Light brightened the sky; a blue flame sprang along Asbjörn’s looping blade, wavering and crackling. Erik sensed it far above him as unseen fluctuations from the Abyss, washing over his mind. The inky wrongness of it pulled at him, ripped what little focus he had to shreds.
The Celestial Dragon’s forelegs touched the earth, and the last of Erik unraveled. He dwindled down from a man into a fist, into a finger, until nothing remained of what was he but his awareness. A small spot of brightness within another’s mind. Turbulent flesh expanded, transformed into a colossal scaled monster. Into a thing that hungered.
The air shimmered, radiating with sudden heat. Wayward raindrops hissed into steam, and nearby branches came close to combustion. The voices of those trapped in the churning vortex of air rose over the roar of the wind, frantic and desperate. At the center of it all, Asbjörn stood, eyes flickering with crimson motes, and below him Erik huddled, trapped within a monster’s skull. A spectator to the cyclone caught in the midst of transforming into an inferno. The world rebelled at what was being done, warped and twisted at the edge of his perception.
The Celestial Dragon unfurled its huge, bat-like wings and leaped into the sky, roaring past Asbjörn, shattering his platform of Air. Caught by surprise, the Cultivator tumbled from the air, then slowed before he could hit the ground. He landed like a feather, white robe rippling.
Lightning flashed like quicksilver, and the fiery vortex sputtered. Hundreds came crashing to the earth, no longer held air bound by the churning wind. Men and Dökk alike, in their multitudes, smashing into massive pines and rock, splintering bone and tearing flesh.
Erik witnessed it all from a corner of the Celestial Dragon’s mind. Mouth agape, Asbjörn looked up at him—it. As the monster circled in the air, Erik sensed its intention to feed, starting with Asbjörn.
NO, Erik howled. You will not touch him! He struggled to keep his thoughts coherent, battling another wave of foreign memories, forcing the Celestial Dragon to fly northward. Deeper into the Northern Reaches. Away from civilization.
The monster wailed, and the earth and sky rang with its lamentations. Yet it was powerless to resist Erik’s will. It fought back even as it obeyed, slashing at what little remained of the Prince as it soared further and further into the wilderness.
Misery assaulted Erik like hot pliers and needles jabbing into his intestines. Ever so slowly, his control faltered, and his mind slipped under. . . .
The wind rose, whipping Patrick’s gray-colored, wool cloak and cutting through his coat as if it were not even there. He wished he had worn something thicker, or that the Wilderness Survival Test was not done during winter. Only one hour into the challenge and he already doubted his own ability to survive the full twenty-one days.
All I need is one little ember, he prayed. Please, just one.
Muscles trembling, he fiercely worked his hands down a wooden hand drill. The skin on his palms tore, and he grimaced, but he did not stop. He grunted! He snarled! Why couldn’t they have just given us a fucking flint firestarter? Why do they always have to make everything so complicated?
A little wisp of smoke rose from the fireboard where the tip of the drill rubbed against it. “Yes,” he whispered, lifting the drill, eyes alight with celebration. An instant later, the joy drained from him.
Nothing. No ember. Not even the hint of one.
Patrick howled, smashing the fireboard against the ground. “Fuck! Fuck!” Frustration brought tears to his eyes. I can’t die here! I’m only sixteen!
The snapping of a nearby twig jolted him to stillness. Eyes alert, he scanned the forest, remembering that there were worse things out here than the cold. Far worse.
Patrick gripped the knife at his belt and focused on his First Sefirot. Malkut. At his command, the sphere-shaped, egg-sized crystal spun within his gut, powered by prana. Then the surrounding air shimmered like a mirage, shrouding him in a cloak of inviability. Colors faded before his eyes. The world transformed into shades of red, orange, and blue, revealing the light that spewed from each living creature.
Erik jerk back into awareness, gasping, even though he no longer had lungs. The Celestial Dragon rose kilometers above the earth, soaring ever higher. He experienced the world through its senses. Temperatures cooled, and the air thinned the higher it climbed, yet this had no effect on its ascension. Somehow it pushed its weight into this other place—this other dimension. Making itself lighter than a butterfly then lighter than air. Its scales glittered under the silver glow of the shards of the moon, rippled in a song no human ear could perceive. The Song of Calling.
Terror flashed through Erik. The Celestial Dragon was sending a signal out into the void. It was calling to its kin! Whatever members of it species heard its cry would come swarming to this world, all filled with the same burning desire. Hunger. This knowledge was suddenly inside Erik as if it had always been there.
No! Erik roared. Not understanding how, he retched the beast’s body mass back from that other place and it all came flooding back. All those tens of thousands of pounds.
Abruptly the Celestial Dragon upward momentum stalled and gravity reasserted its dominance; its wings tore in half from the sudden increase in weight. Pain erupted, and torrents of hot blood spewed into the air, exploding into fiery flames. Erik felt all of it as his own, as the monster spiraled back towards the distant ground.
Patrick sat in a smoke-filled tavern next to four of his top-knotted brothers in arms, nursing a bowl 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 claimed. He held no opinion on the topic either way; he was just glad to already be two months into his first posting. And truthfully his vice lay in another direction.
A knot of barmaids stood beside a window darkened with night, sending him flirtatious glances while they giggling among themselves, but he paid them no mind. He only had eyes for one woman. Christel. Another barmaid, yet unlike the others in a way he could not articulate. Despite the birthmark that marred her beauty, his eyes could not help but tracked her across the tavern. There was something about her that called to him the same way an inferno might to a moth. She moved about the room serving drinks to men in stained shirtsleeves and round belly merchants, never looking in his direction. Her disinterest cut at him, wounding him.
Absentmindedly, Patrick fingered one of the wooden buttons which held his black coat closed. At first, wooing Christel had been a game he played to amuse himself. A game that became slightly less enjoyable with each new rejection; unlike the other barmaids, she refused to lay with him. Is this love, he wondered.
Somewhere along the line, his interest had turned into an obsessed, even he could see that. Most night his mind would run with thoughts of her. Even the company other women did little to release the need that boiled and seethed his blood.
She will be mine! Patrick thought with a sudden flash of anger.
A cracking sound drew his attention down to his hand. The button lay broken in half, between his thumb and finger.
Erik plummeted from the sky, howling, screaming. He fell in a confusing mix of human and bubbling dragon flesh, assaulted by the wind, bombarded by snatches of memory. His mind was a battlefield and his body a war zone. He. . . .
Existence was a shimmering mirage of blue, red, and orange.
What am I doing? Patrick wondered, cloaked invisibility. He stalked Christel as she went about on her morning chores. This was not the first time or even the second. This is not right, I need to stop. I can’t!
Christel paused with her hand on the doors of the stable, glancing over her shoulder. Patrick froze, gasping and shivering even though he knew she could not see him. Her face blurred with a mixture of orange and red hues.
The wind howled around Erik, spinning him like a twig in a tornado. One moment he protruded from the Celestial Dragon’s chest and the next instant it grew from his. Back and forth they went, flesh and dragon scales in constant flux.
An unlit lantern hung from a nail in a post, leaving most of the stalls consumed by shadows. As Patrick came through the stable doors hard on Christel heels, she spun around, and he knocked her to the floor. Heart pounding, he flipped her onto her stomach and pinned her down. Somewhere along the way, he dropped his invisibility. But he hardly noticed with all blood roaring in his ears and the itching need clawing inside him, blinding him to everything else.
Panicked, Christel struggled beneath him, desperate to escape but too feeble to overcome his might. The horses neighed in their stalls, frightened by the sudden commotion. “Please, don’t do this,” she begged.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, the need in him growing violent, turning from an itch into searing flame. His body ached. His body burned! One hand pressed to the back of Christel’s neck, and the other fumbled at his belt buckle.
Tears spilled from Christel’s eyes onto the wooden floorboards. “Please,” she beseeched in a voice that pulled at Patrick’s humanity.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Disgust flashed through Erik as the darkened earth rushed up towards him, vast and ungleaming.
Patrick buckled his breeches, shrouded in shame and self-repudiation. Christel watched him from her knees, with eyes like two hot coals, eyes that singed his soul. He dropped his gaze, unable to meet her stare. “I’m sorry,” he grunted. “I never meant to—”
“Rape me,” Christel finished in a voice pitched low, for his ear alone. She seemed calm, too calm, if not for the look in her eyes she might as well have been talking about what she ate for breakfast.
Patrick’s bottom lip trembled then he stilled it. “I-if you tell anyone I’ll. . . .”
“You’ll what?” Christel asked in the same cold tone. “You’ll tell everyone 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,” she snarled. “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 patch of skin on her cheek. “Everyone believes this is a birthmark, but it’s not. I burnt myself when I was eight, thinking my uncle would stop touching if I weren’t pretty anymore. I was wrong . . . it never stops.”
“I love you,” Patrick whimpered. Guilt spooled at the back of his throat until he thought he might choke, and a river of tears ran down his face. “I love you.” Louder. “I love you.
“I hate you, Patrick Maida!” Christel shouted. “I HATE YOU!”