The absolute belief in self is the sovereign power of madmen.
Erik paused and forced his hands to unknot. He gave an appearance of calm he was nowhere near feeling. His heart raced with a furious dark sound. He hoped he was mistaken. It had been a long day. Has it only been a day? It felt longer. So much had already happened, he did not know how many more surprises he could handle. Please, let it just 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 loudly. “Is that really you?” That last part came out in a whisper. He felt afraid and understood why. He had always associated hearing voices with the taint of the Abyss. Am I going mad, he wondered.
No madder than you’ve always been. Then again that’s not saying much, Patrick quipped.
He scanned his surroundings uneasily. The lake glittered darkly, its unfathomable depths hidden from view. The thought that 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 it was found in himself. He had grown up in the unspoken certainty that a true Cultivator would end his own life to protect his loved ones from the monster he could become. Whether he liked it or not, he knew he would do the same. The only question was, was that what was happening now. Was he going insane?
While I admire your adherence to the Code, truly I do. Patrick drawled in the back of Erik’s head in a 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 only water sources for kilometers. Within the bowels of the Northern Reaches. At night. Alone. His voice turned even more mocking, something that Erik did not think was possible before. Maybe we should move to a safer location, then revisit this conversation.
We? The word rippled through Erik, ruining his new found composure. There was something about it that made his new reality seem more salient and inescapable. From now on he would never truly be alone again. That fact struck him hard, wobbling his knees. From now on it would always be us and we. Just him and the voices in his head. He wanted to laugh at the horror of it all, but could not bring himself to make a sound.
Yes, we, Patrick responded ruefully. Suddenly the Celestial Dragon rumbled within Erik, letting its presence be known. We, it whispered, sounding just as displeased as Erik felt.
For once the creature seemed almost intelligent. Before it was more of a beast of low cunning, filled with a singular desire to devour. Had the introduction of Patrick made it smarter?
Soft juicy flesh-things. You promised. Feed.
Maybe not. Putting that problem aside, he moved away from the lake shore, scratching his mustache with one finger. The wilderness was a dangerous place, filled with all manner of sorcerer’s monstrosities; Erik assumed the Northern Reaches was even more so, as they were no Cultivators to hunt down the foul beasts here. Not that they did such a good job of it south of the Rin Mountains. Even so, he was not afraid. He supposed that he took comfort in the illusion of safety in numbers.
We. An image of a swarm of Celestial Dragons arose in Erik’s mind. The winged monsters fed upon a mountain of corpses. Kin. A sense of community and togetherness fluttered through Erik, making him shudder at the abhorrent nature of the juxtaposition.
It was difficult picking out a path forward, even with his enhanced eyesight, most of the world lay in the shroud of darkness. Knee high grass swayed in the breeze while randomly placed redwoods jutted out of the ground, grown twisted and menacing by the overlong absence of men. Erik was not certain, but he thought the trees were diseased.
Are you sure this is the right direction, Erik asked? The air was full of puzzling scents, but one smell cut through all the rest, an aroma of spiky wrongness that made him queasy the more he focused on it. It was like the odor that surrounded some sorcerer’s monstrosities, yet different in a way he could not quite put his finger on. The scent grew stronger the further south he went.
Did you not have tutors growing up in your gilded palace? Patrick asked 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 that Patrick was aware of the growing stench.
I was never a good student. That was not quite a lie, Erik decided. Jolted out of his glum brooding he added, Well, not with the subjects I hated. Astronomy bored me to tears. I never saw the point. How could distant points of light let me better play the Game of Faces?
Without noticing, Erik approached the gloom of a forest of mighty redwoods that stretched out as far as the eye could see, which at that moment was not that far. Unlike the deformed redwoods he passed earlier, these trees stood like a gallery of pillars hushed by some unspeakable horror. They warred with the sky and lost, but not by much.
Erik stopped, noticing an increase in his heart palpitations. Like ice in rushing waters, he felt battered by the presence of the forest. There was not a drop of color found anywhere within it, not as far as Erik could see. The redwoods were bleached white, and the source of the spiky odor came from somewhere within its depths. The sight of it churned his innards with a sense of danger.
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.
Taking a step back, Erik realized it was true. The night was as silent as the inside of a grave and had been so since he awoke on the lake shore. There were no warble of unknown birds, no buzzing of insects, no sounds of life at all. Distracted by his internal dialogue he had not noticed until this moment.
I think… Patrick paused, then tried again. I think it would be best if we set up camp for the night and traveled by daylight.
Erik took another step back, refusing to turn his back towards the forest. Now that, I think is the first intelligent thing you’ve said all night. Maybe ever. He reached for his sword and frowned when he only clenched air. He suddenly remembered that he had misplaced his weapon during the heat of the battle at the bottom of the Rin Mountains. He felt naked without it at his side. To a Cultivator, every single orichalc made blade was worth a king’s ransom. They reduced the difficulty and the amount of prana needed to perform Esoteric Sword Techniques.
Patrick did not seem to feel the need to dignify Erik’s comment with a response. He remained quiet as Erik collected fallen branches to make a fire.
Erik found himself thankful for the Lightbender’s sudden silence. The man’s constant mocking tone had begun to get under his skin. He did not recall Patrick ever being this disrespectful in real life and did not know how much more he could stomach. There was a definite limit to his patience.
When the firewood was finally collected, Erik sat down cross-legged in front of the haphazard pile of wood. He controlled his breathing with an ancient technique and began to seek his inner void. Abruptly the sound of laughter rang out inside his head, breaking his concentration. Laughter was separated into two distinct categories: there was laughter that exalted by bringing others together in a sense of community, and then there was laughter that excluded by ridiculing. This instant of mirth belonged firmly among the latter.
Erik’s lips curled up in a snarl. What’s so funny?
Is this the first fire you’ve ever made, Patrick asked with palpable amusement. You’re like a newborn babe. How have you survived this long? Erik could almost see his mocking grin in his mind. I’ve always known that nobles were useless, but I must say, my prince, you’ve exceeded even my low expectations.
Teeth clenched, Erik peered down at the disorganized pile of sticks. Patrick’s laugh moved through his skull like rolling thunder. For a coward and a rapist, you sure have a high opinion of yourself.
The thunder-like rumbling stilled. Who are you to judge me, the Lightbender growled. His voice sparked with resentment and something else… something sharp and cutting. Maybe self-loathing? Either way, it was clear that Erik’s words had gotten under his skin and jabbed at the one weak spot in his facade.
Whatever I am, Erik responded almost gleefully. Whatever I’ve done, I’ve never raped a woman. His mental voice lowered punctuated by conviction. You’re the lowest kind of filth.
Erik sat straighter as Patrick retreated into the darkened corner from whence he came. Eyes closed, Erik’s chest heaved in silent, mirthless laughter. He pushed away the feeling of self-satisfaction before it could fully take hold and once again sought his inner void. A sense of rushing filled his head, and he felt himself flow inwards like a gust of wind down a dark underground cavern.
Suddenly the eyes of his Ethereal Body snapped open, and he became aware of himself sailing through a starless void, surrounded by a clear bubble large enough for him to extend both arms without touching either side. The bubble rippled, and then stilled.
He savored the strange sensations of the void for a moment before he turned his gaze inwards. His First Stöðin, a vase shaped organ, spun in circles where his tail bone should be, but his Ethereal Body had no bones. The pink flesh of the First Stöðin was checkered with black spots. No real surprise there. It was still healing from him sending his spirit into the world earlier. It took twelve hours it for it to fully heal and six hours before he could even attempt to ensnare more prana, which put a hard limit on his power.
From the side of the vase shaped organ grew a bulbous protrusion that took up half of its surface area. Erik lovingly stroked the fleshy bulge with his mind. The growth represented his breakthrough to the First Stratum. The First Stöðin had two strata, after developing both a Cultivator could attempt to awake his Second Stöðin. This would give him the ability to channel two Aspects of the Abyss at the same time.
Each stratum took multitudes more prana to cultivate than the previous. The simple truth was, Erik had been stuck at this level for years. With his formerly small range, he always had to make a choice between practicing his Esoteric Sword Techniques and the cultivation of his First Stöðin.
Not anymore, he thought with a smile. His new range gave him the opportunity to finally unleash his full potential. Maybe I could even open my Second Stöðin before the Grand Assessment. For a second the idea made him giddy.
He put the thought aside. Right now, he had more pressing concerns. He transformed his Ethereal Body into a ball of swelling gold and silver light. For a second he paused, taking note of the fact that the yellow had grown more numerous. He had not given it much thought earlier, but before today his spirit had been mostly silver with one small dot of gold. He had been taught it was impossible for a Cultivator to change the makeup of his spirit, but this was obviously not the case.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the radiance swelled, doing battle with the all-encompassing darkness. The struggle seemed to take an eternity until the light conquered everything. Until its resplendence was too great to be contained by the dark. The gold and silver brilliance exploded forth from Erik’s mind, quickly spreading out in all directions.
A tactile like awareness of the world returned to Erik through his expanding spirit. It was most like his sense of touch, but different in a way he could not quite explain. A heavy mood hung in the air, a tension that had wound itself tight around his new awareness. He pushed back against it, swallowing more territory.
His growing net of consciousness encountered a surprising lack of glimmering prana in the air and the earth. It was as if most of it had been drained away.
How’s that even possible? Erik wondered. He could not help feeling stunned. Even when groups of Cultivators battled, the prana never seemed to thin, there was always more bombarding the earth from outer space, replacing what had been stolen. He could not even begin to imagine what would cause what he was experiencing.
At that moment the southern point of his inflating spirit touched the blight-stricken forest of redwoods. He immediately plunged into a world of unimaginable torment. Pain flared through him, trying to grind him to dust beneath the iron bones of the earth. His spirit boiled as if flash-fried by the rays of an exploding sun, bringing an abrupt end to his outward expansion. Like a boat caught in the grip of a whirlpool, he was being dragged into the awaiting gloom of the forest.
Erik howled as his consciousness collapsed in on itself, flowing towards the line of massive redwoods. He was not alone in his screams, the Celestial Dragon and Patrick joined in, in his howls of torment. Something slumbered within the woods. Something that wanted to destroy him. Something that threatened to bury him in eternal darkness.
His thoughts whirled through his struggle to avoid being consumed. What is this? It’s too powerful! I have to. . . .
Determinedly he forced the thoughts to stillness. He could feel sweat beading on his face. One slip and his spirit would be sucked away forever. One slip and his mind was gone, leaving behind nothing but an empty husk of flesh. Grimly he kept on fighting, burning every speck of prana he had already ensnared, making his conscious glow brighter.
He refused to give up. This was Erik’s truth. This was his madness. No matter how many times he was knocked down, he always got back up. He would break before he ever bent. He could not die here. He would not. I am Erik Ito, the future King of Vindur. You will not have my soul!
Power filled him as he focused on his fight for existence. He drew his consciousness back towards his body, ripping it away from the grip of the forest. Bruised and battered his spirit flowed back inside of himself like a rushing stream into a dry riverbed.