The absolute belief in self is the sovereign power of madmen.
Erik jolted into consciousness, gasping for breath and writhing in pain. Even as his mind rang, he fought both the tide of phantom images and the Celestial Dragon to a standstill, then won. His chest lay opened to the night sky, broken bones protruding through ripped flesh. Torment like the flames of a pyre tore through ever wound, ever cut. Yet he was not afraid. All around him black and red tendrils slipped and stalked through the sand, reaching for him. The tendrils merged with his battered body, sealing wounds, repairing torn ligaments and bones.
Erik stood, heart pounding, staring at the mist-wreathed lake that stretched out in front of him. How far north did the Celestial Dragon take me and which direction is south, he wondered, pinching the fabric of his spotless robe in between his thumb and finger. His sense of touch helped ground his confused thoughts.
South is that way, spoke a voice from inside his head.
Erik froze and forced his hands to unknot, staring out at the fog. His heart raced, beating with a furious dark sound. The fog drifted onto the shore and swirled around his legs, hiding his feet before being broken apart by the breeze. Please, let it be the wind.
If it makes you happier, call me the North Wind, my Prince. Patrick’s voice floated back. It makes no difference. Not to me. Not now.
Erik laughed, a short, uneasy sound. “Patrick. . . .” He swallowed. “Is that really you?” The last part came out in a whisper. Am I going mad?
You’re no more insane than you’ve always been, Patrick quipped. Then again that’s not saying much.
Erik turned from the lake, scanning the rest of his surroundings. No living thing stirred in the night except for him. The moon glittered above, the broken center piece of an ocean of stars. Below it, a handful of indistinct trees grew from an endless field of long grass.
He sighed. The thought he might be going mad was not pleasant, but he did not run from it. He had little fondness for the cowardliness that led to Fiend Lords, least of all when found in himself. Whether he liked it or not, he would kill himself if the Abyss had corrupted his mind.
While I enjoy talking to you, truly I do. Patrick drawled in the back of Erik’s head, his voice dripping with sarcasm. Right now might not be the time for this discussion. We’re standing on the edge of what I assume is one of the few water sources for kilometers. Within the bowels of the Northern Reaches. At night. Alone. His voice turned even more mocking, something Erik had not thought possible before. Perhaps we should move to a safer location, then revisit this conversation.
“We?” Erik asked, the word souring in his mouth. It made everything seem more salient and inescapable. From now on he would never be alone again. Never! He wanted to laugh at the horror of it all but could not bring himself to make a sound.
Yes, we, Patrick responded ruefully.
The Celestial Dragon rumbled within Erik, letting its presence be known. We, it whispered, sounding as displeased as Erik felt. For once the creature seemed almost intelligent. Had the introduction of Patrick made it smarter?
Soft juicy flesh-things. You promised. Feed.
Then again, maybe not. Erik strode away from the lake, scratching at his mustache with a finger as minutes passed. The night like his life held many unknowns, but he was not afraid, even though he was unarmed. He took comfort in his new abilities.
A vagrant gust of wind swayed the knee high grass through which Erik walked, bringing with it an aroma of spicy wrongness. To his left, a deformed redwood jutted out of the ground, grown twisted and gnarled by the overlong absence of men. He could not be certain in the dark, but it appeared diseased.
“Are you sure this is the right direction?” Erik asked, trying to puzzle out the weird scent.
Did you not have tutors growing up in your gilded palace? Patrick said in a guff manner. South is in the opposite direction of the North Star. That’s basic astronomy. Hidden beneath the insolence was a note of worry that let Erik know Patrick was aware of the growing stench.
“I was never a good student,” Erik said. “Well, not with the subjects I hated. Astronomy bored me to tears; I never saw the point in it. How could distant points of light let me better play the Game of Faces?”
In front of Erik, a forest of mighty redwoods loomed up without warning, taking him by surprise. Bleached white without a drop of color, he should have been able to see it from kilometers away, yet had not until this moment. Like a gallery of pillars hushed by some unspeakable horror, the forest warred with the heavens and lost, but not by much.
Erik stopped, the sight of the twisted redwoods battering against him as if he were ice in rushing waters. His skin prickled, his innards churned, and his nose twitched. The source of the spiky odor lay somewhere within its depths.
Have you noticed how quiet it is, came Patrick’s voice, for once completely void of insolence and ridicule. He too was gripped by apprehension, Erik knew.
Erik took a quick step back, away from the forest of redwoods. Silence lay heavy around him like the inside of a grave and had since he had awoken beside the lake, but he was just taking notice. There was no warble of unknown birds, no buzzing of insects, no sounds of life at all but the pounding of his own heart.
I think. . . . Patrick paused, then tried again. I believe that it would be best if we set up camp for the night and traveled by daylight.
Erik nodded, taking another step back. Now that, I think is the first intelligent thing you’ve said all night. Perhaps ever. He reached for his longsword then remembered he had dropped it at the bottom of the Rin Mountains. The blade was worth a fortune, absentmindedly, he hoped someone had recovered it so it would be there when he returned to Hjörtur.
Patrick snorted but remained silent.
Erik moved away from the forest, collecting fallen branches and twigs as he walked. He was thankful for the Lightbender’s lack of response, the constant mocking tone had tested his patience. Patrick had never dared been this disrespectful in real life, and he did not know how much more he could take.
Erik dropped an armful of wood in a haphazard pile and sat down cross-legged, keeping the forest of redwoods in his line of sight. He focused his mind and inhaled—
Patrick chuckled, dashing Erik’s meditative state.
“What’s so funny?” Erik’s lips curled up in a snarl. There was laughter that exalted by bringing people together in a sense of community and there was laughter that excluded others by ridiculing them. Patrick’s mirth belonged firmly among the latter.
Is this the first fire you’ve ever made, Patrick asked, his amusement palpable. You’re like a newborn babe. How have you survived this long? I’ve always known nobles were useless, but I must say, my Prince, you’ve exceeded even my low expectations.
Eyes narrowing, Erik peered down at the disorganized pile of sticks. For a coward and a rapist, you sure have a high opinion of yourself.
Who are you to judge me, the Lightbender growled. His voice sparked with resentment and something else . . . something sharp and cutting. Perhaps self-loathing? Either way, Erik’s words had gotten under his flesh.
Whatever I am, Erik responded almost gleefully. Whatever I’ve done, I’ve never raped a woman. “You’re the lowest kind of filth,” he whispered.
Patrick retreated, hiding, sinking into a darkened corner of Erik’s mind.
Erik heaved a silent sigh and inhaled through his nostrils. A sense of flowing inwards overtook him, a feeling of collapsing down into a single point that stood outside of time and space. He frowned at the few lights in puzzlement, lights that flashed through the earth and the air like fireflies, then gasped with surprise. Unlike the countless times he had done this before, the world that opened before him was lacking in prana. It was as if most of it had been drained away. How was that even possible? Even when armies of Cultivators battled, the prana never seemed to thin. Yet. . . .
Erik pushed his concern aside, and he reached out to ensnare what little prana there was, expanding his conscious out in every direction. He touched the edge of the blight-stricken forest, and pain seared his mind with the heat of a hundred suns, flash frying thoughts, incinerating brain cells.
“NO!” Erik howled.
There was a collapse, then a yanking of the rest of his fundamental being toward the redwoods. Something monstrous slumbered within it. Something that was trying to swallow his soul. The Celestial Dragon roared! Patrick whimpered!
Determinedly, Erik fought back, dragging, clawing his awareness back from the awaiting horror. Teeth clenched, sweat beaded down his face. One slip and he would be washed away, burnt right out of existence. He snarled, veins throbbing in his skull. His thoughts whirled, fragmenting into ever smaller pieces. What is this? Who am I? I-I-I. . . .
Slowly, ever so slowly, he drew his awareness inwards, one agony filled inch at a time. Light spewed into him. A deluge like water from a dry riverbed, coming together to form his Ethereal Body at the center of his inner void. Oddly, there was an unstableness to his Ethereal Body as if it might rupture at any moment. And a golden puddle of liquid-prana splashed beneath it, only what could be cupped in two hands, kept from dispersing by the barrier that surrounded it.
W-what was that? Patrick’s voice skidded on the outside of Erik’s inner void like flashes of lightning.
Death, Erik whispered. No. Something worse.
Erik reached into his Ethereal Body to observe his First Stöðin. The vase shaped organ spun in circles where his tail bone should be, but his Ethereal Body had no bones. And the pink flesh of the organ was checkered with black spots and half of its surface area was consumed by a bulbous protrusion, Erik’s First Stratum. The First Stöðin had two strata, after developing both he could awaken his Second Stöðin, which would give him the ability to channel two Aspects of the Abyss at the same time.
Something worse than death? Patrick’s voice seemed to reach Erik as if from a greater distance than before. How do you mean?
I don’t know. I just know I’m right. Erik stroked the fleshy bulge with his mind; the growth represented years of tireless effort. I’m certain of it.
Worse, the Celestial Dragon agreed. The word “worse” was laced with dark strands of dread that pricked like sharp thorns and rumbled like thunder.
It’s afraid, Erik thought, nourishing his First Stöðin with the small puddle of prana. The vase shaped organ flashed, flickering light like a paper lantern as it spun.
We’re all afraid, but fear’s a good thing. It keeps you aware of your surroundings. We must not run from it. Out here it is the only thing that will keep us from total obliteration, Patrick said. The moment we believe we’re in control out here will be the instant before our last breath. The world has no shortage of terrors. There is always something more powerful. He fell into silence for a few seconds. M-my . . . my father always told me, horrors are like weeds, pull one out, and another grows to take its place.
At that moment the last drop of prana disappeared into Erik’s First Stöðin, and his inner void went, shattering like a sheet of glass, fragmenting into a dozen pieces. His skull rang, and a wave of weariness swept through him, making the world burr before his just opened eyes.