If you can hear the dire wolves howling, it’s already too late.
— ANCIENT PROVERB
Erik tipped over and landed on his back as his spirit settled into place. He peered up at the night sky, surrounded on all sides by long swaying grass. His thoughts swirled, and his breath rattled in his chest. How many horrors like this waited undiscovered? The world was a cruel place unsuited to human life. He had thought this thought before, but it never seemed more salient than at this moment.
W-what was that, Patrick asked timidly. He sounded just as traumatized as Erik felt.
“Death,” Erik whispered. He shook his head. No, something worse. He did not know what was worse than death, but he knew it was true after he thought it.
Something worse than death? Patrick stopped, seeming puzzled. How do you mean?
Erik sat up. “I don’t know. I just know that I’m right.” He ran a hand through his hair and added, I’m certain of it. He tried to push that thought away. He had no idea where this certainty came from. It came a little too close to seeming like madness.
Worse, the Celestial Dragon agreed. Its presence trembled within Erik’s mind. The word “worse” was laced with dark strands of dread that pricked like sharp thorns.
It’s afraid, Erik thought. Surprised, he climbed to his feet. The beast had never shown signs of fear before, not in any of its memories that Erik had witnessed, not in any of their interactions. Either it was becoming more human-like, or the woods were just that menacing. Then again nobody could live without fearing something. Could they?
We’re all afraid, but that’s a good thing. Fear is the life-saver. It keeps you awake when the night grows long. We must not run from it. Out here it is the only thing that will keep us from total obliteration.
Erik found himself nodding his head along to Patrick’s words.
Complacency is the actual killer, Patrick continued. The moment we believe we’re in control out here will be the moment 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.
Erik blinked, and looked around. His eyes settled on the pieces of wood he had stacked. “I’m sorry,” he muttered a little reluctantly. “What I said earlier was unkind. You’re dead. Whatever your crimes, whatever your sins, they are now between you and the Eternal Father.”
My crimes, Patrick growled. My sins?
Yes, Erik sighed. Your crimes. Your sins. Unconsciously, he grounded his teeth together. “I’m trying to apologize!” The wind took his voice, carrying it far and wide.
I’m not an idiot, my prince. Patrick laughed. If you’re apologizing it must mean you need something from me. You may think you’re different, but you’re a noble through and through.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Erik asked, using all of his patience to keep his voice calm. It was necessary that this conflict was resolved in the right way and if at all possible, quickly.
You judge me when you’ve done worse. I’ve heard stories about you. What about what you’ve done to women?
“What I’ve done to women?” Erik repeated out loud. “I said so earlier, but I will say it again. I’ve never forced my way into any women.” The very idea sickens me to my core.
No, you use saccharine words instead. Patrick sounded as if he were shaking a sword at Erik. How many hearts have you broken? How many reputations have you ruined? Are we really so different? The last part came out stained by genuine curiosity. If all the women that you ever laid with were here at this moment and I asked them was their love freely given or was it stolen. How do you think most of them would answer?
When Erik was younger he was fascinated by the idea that at any moment there existed the perfect combination of words to get anyone to do whatever you wanted. The trick was finding the right arrangement. People were like locks and words were like keys. And right now Patrick refused to open. He could only blame himself. He was using the wrong words. The only thing left to do was try to find the right ones.
Erik knelt and picked up a piece of wood from the pile. “What ended up happening to her,” he whispered, “the girl you raped?”
Patrick winced as if struck and began muttering to himself in a voice too small to pick out anything but one word. Christel. . . . Suddenly he stopped, going dead quiet.
“Does she still live?”Erik asked, twirling the stick around his fingers.
I don’t know! Patrick’s yell sounded sweaty and desperate. Exactly the way Erik wanted it to.
The piece of wood spun faster in Erik’s hand, making a whooshing sound as it whipped through the air. You still love her. I hear it in your voice. “Love is a strange thing, isn’t it?” he added. “It makes you weak when you should be strong and strong when you should be weak.”
I do. . . . still love her. Patrick paused as though surprised by what he was saying. I thought time would make the feeling grow weaker. In a sense it has. But at the same time, I think time has only tempered the emotion I feel for her, distilling it down to its purest form. His voice ached with passion. There is a hole in me that no one else but her can fill. I know this deep inside. I keep trying because her love is forever denied to me. His words dripped with sadness that pulled at the heart. Am I a monster?
“Yes,” Erik replied. Patrick cried out in denial, but Erik continued on undaunted, “You’re a monster. The world judges you so. You can’t run away from what you are. You must accept the truth and find the strength within it. You’re a monster, but so am I. We’ve both done things we regret in the name of love. We can’t change our past so let us be monsters together.
Let us be monsters together? Patrick questioned wonderingly. Erik imagined he heard the soft click of the turn of a key. Let us be monsters together. This time, it was a statement spoken with confidence.
The stick stilled in Erik’s hand. He felt like grinning but did not. Smiling would ruin all he had just achieved. Fate brought us together for a reason. I have no doubt of this. He jabbed the stick into the ground. Through me, you have another chance. If Christel still lives, we will find her.
“I give you my oath that I will search for her,” Erik spoke in a solemn tone. Oaths were never to be given lightly. Only a vagabond gave his word without planning to honor it, and Erik was no aimless drifter. He meant to fulfill ever syllable of his pledge.
All the tension drained out of Patrick’s voice like air escaping a popped bubble in outer space. What do you need? He almost seemed eager.
“Teach me how to build a fire,” Erik murmured. His hand moved, picking up the stick that jutted out of the ground. Dark brown dirt clung to the end of the branch that had just been in the earth.
You need a knife or something sharp to shape the drill.
Erik strained his eyes searching the darkness around him for a jagged piece of stone. All he could clearly see was what lay just before him, the moonlit grass swaying gently in the wind, and the pile of wood in front of him. If any rocks existed around him, they were hidden by the dark and the knee high weeds.
Wait a minute, he paused as he felt the telltale prickling that announced the forming of an idea. He stared down at his free hand and willed it to change. The flesh of his hand folded and twisted until it transformed into a miniaturize version of one of the Celestial Dragon’s razor-sharp claws. Black and deadly, it protruded out of his wrist as if it had always been there. All this had taken as much effort as holding his breath.
That will work, Patrick said in encouragement. Then he began to explain to Erik the process of making a hand drill. He spoke in slow and easy to follower manner.
As Erik followed Patrick’s instructions, he went into a trance-like state. All he was aware of was the whisper of the wind and Patrick’s guiding words. Every second that passed Erik moved a little more naturally as if this was a task he had done a hundred times before. Patrick’s voice conveyed more than just sound; there was a transfer of memories that sank into his muscles.
Blinking, Erik gazed at the raging campfire that now sat in front of him. He remembered every step he had taken to create the small inferno, but it was strange, the memory was placed at a distance as if he had watched someone else do it. He turned his green eyes from the flames and looked at the hand drill he had made, understanding that he now had the skill of primitive fire creation.
He could not stop the laugh that escaped past his lips. It was a sound filled with the wonderment of new discovery. “I created fire,” he said in surprise.
You did, Patrick acknowledged.
“I created fire,” Erik said louder. He stood and started clapping his hands and stomping his feet as he danced around the campfire. “I created fire. I created fire. I created fire.”
Patrick was rendered silent by bewilderment. This was not the kind of behavior one expect to see from a noble, much less a prince. Finally, he asked, what are you doing?
“I created fire,” Erik laughed. Can’t you see? His hands never stopped clapping, and his feet never stopped stomping. His every movement radiated with a sense of child-like joy.
I saw. I was there. Patrick could not help but laugh; Erik’s good mood was infectious. Only someone made out of stone would not be taken in my his merriment.
Suddenly the southern skyline rumbled with distant thunder. “Shit,” Erik exclaimed, causing Patrick to laugh wilder. Maybe it won’t rain. First came a flash of lightning, then another round of thunder shook the sky, sounding a lot closer. The quaking of the air seemed to seep into Erik’s bones, rattling his soul.
Patrick controlled his mirth. I think it’s time for you to accept the realization that we’re cursed. There was a sage-like quality in his tone. The moment you celebrate anything you’re just basically inviting the Dark One to smite you.
Don’t say that, Erik thought. “It won’t rain. Just you watch,” he said with a level of conviction he was nowhere near feeling. What Patrick had said made a lot of sense. Looking back on just today, every time Erik had rejoiced things had immediately taken a turn for the worse.
Within minutes Erik was drenched. Fat droplets of rain pelted him with a ferocity that spoke of an underlining grudge. What he could have done to anger the heaven so, he did not know, but he did his best to protect the flames from the sky water, even going so far as to use his body as a shield. It was a fruitless endeavor. Within moments the fire gave its last desperate gasp of life, and then went forever dormant.
Erik pinched the bridge of his nose in irritation. “Just great,” he spat. “Now we have no fire, and I’m wet to the bone.” He wiped a layer of water from his face, and more rain instantaneously replaced it. He looked and felt like a wet dog caught in the middle of a storm without any place to find shelter.
Well, look on the bright side. . . . Patrick began.
“Don’t you dare finish that statement,” Erik snarled. “you’re not a fucking optimist! So don’t you go jinxing me with your fake hopeful outlook on life.”
Almost gleefully Patrick finished, it can’t get much worse.
Seconds later the reverberation of a high-pitched howl cut through the din of the storm. It was a long, smooth sound similar in nature to the beginning of the cry of a horned owl, which seemed to change directions four or five times until Erik could not tell where it originated. You just had to say it, didn’t you, Erik raged.
Deadly serious, Patrick said, run!
Erik did not need to be told twice; he took off running towards the forest. Patrick’s tone had sent chills racing up and down his spine. Not having the courage to enter the forest, Erik turned right when it was twenty meters ahead of him, keeping it to his left as he moved in parallel to it.
What is it? Erik asked. The wind whipped the rain in his face, reducing his visibility even further. Blind like this, he would not know he was under attack until it was already too late.
Dire wolves, came Patrick’s fearful response.
Short barks nipped at Erik’s heels. They sounded close, much too close for Erik’s comfort. His hand closed into fists. What’s their Threat Assessment?
Depending on the size of the pack a Level Three or a Level Four Hazard.
Patrick’s response almost made Erik stumble. The different between a Level Three Hazard and a Level Four Hazard was an order of ten multitudes of destructive power. Freeing himself from the dread that just suddenly gripped him, Erik asked, special attacks?
None, returned Patrick’s quick reply. A dire wolf has two hearts which allow them to achieve incredible speeds. When they are running its impossible to see anything but a blur. That’s what makes them so dangerous.
The world lurched around Erik, sending the movement of time into a crawl as lightning cobwebbed the sky above him, illuminating what once lay in darkness. Raindrops slowed their descent from the heavens, falling with an almost lazy quality. Erik’s pupils widened in panic as he gazed at what lay in front of him.
Forty meters ahead, a dire wolf, raced towards Erik. With the size of a small pony, the beast moved with a gracefulness that defied logic. While Erik’s motions slowed as though he pushed against the force of a raging stream, it seemed to be running at normal speed, casually meandering towards him. Its white and black fur shifted gently as if stroked by a soft breeze.
Before Erik could take more than one step forward, it was already upon him. His heart quickened, and his muscles tensed in expectation. He ducked to the left, trying to move out of the way of the dire wolf’s gaping maw filled with razor sharp teeth.
Too slow, Patrick panicked.
No! I can do it. He forced himself past his body’s limits. He could feel bones break in his legs. The beast jaw closed on empty air, missing Erik by a hair’s breath. Then his world spun as something smashed into his back, sending him launching into the air and right into the waiting gloom of the redwood forest.
He gritted his teeth as he crashed into a giant pillar that was supposed to be a tree. But the pain he expected never came; the bleached white redwood exploded on contact, turning into a million motes of dust. He tumbled to the ground, and then climbed to his feet choking on the white powder, that was made soggy by the rain.
Gasping for air, Erik peered northward. Five dire wolves stood just outside of the reach of the forest, glaring daggers at him. They howled and pawed the earth fiercely, but refused to take another step forward. Their hate was an oppressive force that prickled his flesh, even so, he could not stop the laugh that came after he caught his breath.
“Safe,” he whispered. Once again he had managed to escape the jaws of death. His heart raced with the thrill of it all. Patrick? He scraped the soggy powder off his face and waited for a response. None came. Inside of his head, there was only silence.