If you can hear the dire wolves howling, it’s already too late.
— ANCIENT PROVERB
Erik slumped forward, panting. His fear rattled in his chest, and his bones quivered as if they were ready to split open. He could sense the presence of the twisted forest in the short hairs on the back of his arms and neck. His eyes scanned the horizon where the white pillars loomed, leafless branches whistling in the wind. Even the moonlight seemed hesitant to approach it, bending and slipping at the edge of its reach. How many such horrors waited undiscovered?
Erik blinked, eyes settling on the pile of sticks stacked in front of him. He had meant to use the Abyss to start a fire, but now that was impossible. “I’m sorry,” he muttered “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 snarled. My sins?
Yes, Erik sighed. Your crimes. Your sins. His nostrils flared, and 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, keeping his voice calm by the merest of margins.
You judge me when you’ve done worse, the Lightbender answered. I’ve heard stories about you. What about what you’ve done to women?
“What have I done?” Erik asked. “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 snapped, sounding as if he were waving a sword in Erik’s direction. How many hearts have you broken? How many reputations have you sullied? Are we really so different? He paused then added, If all the women 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?
Erik had always been fascinated by the idea that at any moment there existed the perfect combination of words to get anyone to do whatever you wanted. The concept turned people into locks and words into keys. “What ended up happening to her,” he whispered. “The girl you raped?”
Patrick winced and muttered to himself in a voice too low to pick out anything but one word. Christel. Then he stopped, going quiet.
“Does she still live?” Erik tried again. He picked up a stick from the pile and twirled it around his fingers.
I don’t know! Patrick yelled, sounding sweaty and desperate; precisely the way Erik wanted him to.
The piece of wood spun faster in Erik’s hand, whooshing as it whipped through the air. “You still love her,” he breathed. “I hear it in your voice. Love is a strange thing, isn’t it? It makes you weak when you should be strong and strong when you should be weak.”
I do . . . still love her. For a moment Patrick seemed surprised by his own admission. I thought time would make the emotion grow weaker. It has. But at the same time, I think time has only tempered what I feel for her, distilling it down to its purest form. His voice faltered, throbbing 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. Am I a monster?
“Yes,” Erik replied, ignoring Patrick’s cry of denial. “You’re a monster. The world judges you so. You can’t run away from what you are, 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 repeated almost wonderingly. Louder, more confident. Let us be monsters together.
Erik stilled the stick in his hand, imagining he could hear the soft click of a turned lock. “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. Together.”
Swear it, Patrick demanded.
“I give you my oath I will search for her,” Erik spoke in a solemn tone, meaning every syllable of his pledge. Only vagabonds gave their word without planning to honor it.
What do you need? Patrick asked, seeming almost eager. All the tension had drained out of his voice.
“Teach me how to build a fire,” Erik smiled.
First, you need a knife or something sharp to shape the hand drill.
Erik strained his eyes, searching the darkness then stopped. His scalp prickled with the formation of a queer idea. He gazed at his right hand, willing it to change. Pale flesh and white bones folded and twisted, transforming into a miniaturize version of one of the Celestial Dragon’s claws. Dark and menacing, it protruded from his wrist, glittering like black glass.
That will work, Patrick said with barely controlled revulsion. Then he explained to Erik how to make a hand drill, speaking in a slow and easy to understand manner. Erik followed his instructions with many false starts, but the longer the Lightbender spoke, the more natural Erik’s movements became as if Patrick’s voice transferred memories as well as sound.
What seemed like an instant later—but must have been much longer—Erik peered down at a raging campfire. The hand drill lay in his right hand, a hand that once again had human fingers. He remembered every step he had taken, but it all felt like it had been done by another. The wind swayed the long grass around his campsite, and he shivered, watching orange flames dance under watery pale starlight.
“I created fire. . . .” More a question than a proclamation.
You did, Patrick acknowledged.
“I created fire,” Erik laughed, eyes alit with joy.
At that moment the night sky rang with distant peals of thunder, and another gust of air beat at Erik, this time with a touch of moistness, like an errant droplet in the dank dimness of a cave. He stood, putting himself between the fire and the storm clouds billowing on the southern horizon, above the forest of bleached white redwoods. Lightning flashed, and the heavens rumbled even louder, quaking the air, seeping into his bones, rattling his soul.
“Shit,” Erik exclaimed, causing Patrick to chuckle.
I think it’s time for you to accept the fact that you’re cursed, Patrick said with sage-like wisdom. The instant you celebrate anything you’re just basically inviting the Dark One to smite you where you stand.
“Don’t say that, it won’t rain. Watch,” Erik said with a level of conviction he was nowhere near feeling. Inside, he knew the Lightbender was right on both counts. It would rain, and he was cursed.
Dark clouds raced through a sky relieved only by flashes of blinding lightning, clouds that swelled and clashed against each other without warning. Fat droplets of rain pelted the earth and Erik exploded into action, shifting and twisting around the fire in desperate attempt to protect the flames. Patrick’s laughter rolled through his skull, but he ignored it, slapping droplets from the air until they turned into sheets of rain. The campfire hissed and went out with a puff of white smoke.
“Just great,” Erik spat, soaked to the bone. “There goes my fire.”
Patrick snorted. Well, look on the bright side—
“Don’t you dare finish that sentence,” Erik interrupted, “you’re not a fucking optimist! So don’t you go jinxing me with your fake hopeful outlook on life.”
—it can’t get much worse.
A high-pitched howl ripped the darkness, a sound like a cry of a horned owl which seemed to change directions four or five times, cutting through the fury of the storm. With a panicked heartbeat, Erik spun around wildly. You just had to say it, didn’t you, he raged.
Run! Patrick shouted.
Erik bolted toward, taking long leaping steps. Rain blasted his face, and the air roared around him, plastering his wet robe against his body. His breath came in ragged short gasps of desperation. He did not understand what he was running away from but trusted the Lightbender’s warning. Reaching the forest, he turned right, keeping the redwoods to his left.
What is it? Erik asked, blind to everything but the small circle before him. The dark clouds and the pounding rain made it impossible to see anything but a few meters ahead, except when lightning snaked through the broiling heavens, twisting and flashing.
Dire wolves, came Patrick’s fearful retort.
Short howls nipped at Erik’s heels. They sounded close, much too close for comfort. His hand closed into fists. What’s their Threat Assessment?
Patrick hesitated. Depending on the size of the pack a Level Three or a Level Four Hazard.
Erik stumbled, staggering until he caught his balance. Fear once again wrapped its wicked claws around his beating heart. The difference between a Level Three Hazard and a Level Four was an order of ten multitudes of destructive power.
Their speed is what makes them dangerous, continued Patrick. Each dire wolf has two hearts, which allow them to move faster than most eyes can even register. They’re nothing but a blur when they’re running. A blur of death.
The world lurched around Erik and raindrops slowed, falling like sheets of paper, and the sounds of thunder came with an odd distortion. His pupils widened in panic. In terror!
The night suddenly brightened, cobwebbed with crawling lightning, which illuminated what once lay in darkness. Forty meters ahead, a dire wolf, the size of a small pony, raced towards him. It’s white and black fur shifted gently as if stroked by a soft breeze and the wet earth erupted with each one of its steps.
Erik had no time for thought or prays before the beast was upon him, massive maw gaping. His muscles tensed in expectation, and motions slowed even further. He threw out a hand and ducked to the left; it was as though he pushed against the force of a raging stream. Bone in his legs broke. Muscles tore!
Too slow, Patrick panicked.
“NO!” Erik roared, forced himself past his body’s limits. His hand smacked the wolf snout as its jaw closed on empty air, missing him by a hair’s breath. The dire wolf struck his side, lifting him into the air; Erik screamed helplessly, hoping against hope as he tumbled, falling right into the waiting gloom of the twisted redwoods.
The trauma of landing jarred Erik to his broken bones, he rolled across the moist dirt, nostrils flaring and eyes widening, stiff-backed and trembling. Jolted to his very soul, he scrambled to his feet and took three steps deeper into the forest and spun around, taking shaky breaths. Only then could he see what had become of his enemy.
Five dire wolves stood just outside of the reach of the forest, peering at him with hungry eyes, eyes that glowed in the flickering gloom of the raging storm. As the heavens boiled above them, they howled and pawed the earth, but refused to take another step forward. Erik sensed their hate as an oppressive force that prickled his flesh, even so, he could not stop the wheezing laughter that came after he caught his breath.
“Safe,” he whispered, filled to the brim with the joy of escaping certain death. He would not soon forget this moment, the memory of the terror of it sang in his blood. That was one of the nearest damn things you’ve ever seen, wasn’t it, he thought at the Lightbender.
Silence. Inside of his head, there was only himself.
Laughter died. “Patrick?”
Suddenly, Erik spun around, his body out of his control; absorbed in what had happened, he almost did not notice himself walk deeper into the forest. When he did, his eyes went wild with panic. Screaming to himself, he fought against limbs that refused to obey, against legs that carried him deeper and deeper into the waiting gloom. A lance of terror shot through him, like molten rock, like liquid fire. He swept his gaze across the mighty pillars; for an instant they blurred, becoming strange shadows of themselves, all light dimmed and sounds faded.
Erik’s mind drifted. No!
. . . I have to get back to Hjörtur. . . the Grand Assessment. . . Hanna. . . Dara. . .