— ASBJÖRN MAKI, FAMOUS LAST WORDS
A new day had long descended upon Hjörtur, bathing the world in delicate light beams that seemed to do little to combat the chill of the mountain air. The sun hung almost directly above Asbjörn as he limped along a columned walkway just outside the inner wall. Once again he used his long sword as a walking stick. Liveried servants scurried around buildings, watching him with wary eyes. Rumors of what he had almost done last night had spread far and wide.
I nearly lost control, he thought with shame for the hundredth time that day. He knew he could not continue as he was; it was no longer safe, not for him, not for anyone. It’s time for me to die. No hint of sadness followed that thought, instead a wave of relief flowed through him. His struggle could finally end. But first I must separate fact from fiction and discover the truth behind what happened to Erik. I owe him that much. I owe him so much more. My son. My. . . .
Asbjörn blinked away the tears that were forming in his eyes and came to a stop in front of the large stable where the White Cranes were kept. The perimeter of the building was cordoned off by a group of Punishers. Their golden surcoats rippled as they saluted Asbjörn with fist to chest. He ignored the fear in their eyes and pinching his nose shut, blocking the rancid odor of the stable muck from assaulting him.
Collecting himself mentally, he dropped his hand from his face and walked past the fearful soldiers standing on the sunlit flagstones of the stableyard. From inside the building, he could hear Ypse whispered voice, “You’re afraid, but the thing you must understand is adults don’t respect when a child says, ‘don’t touch me.’” Asbjörn slowed then stopped at the door, listening to the conversation. “The only thing that gives them pause is when a child says, ‘if you touch me I will kill you.’ I know from personal experience.”
“I just want it to stop,” returned the voice of a young boy.
“This is the only way. You must put your trust in me. I will—”
“My lord,” asked a voice from behind Asbjörn. “Is everything okay?” Asbjörn turned and gave the soldier a look that made the man’s face turn pale with fright. Asbjörn grimaced, turning away from the Punisher’s countenance, the sight of which churned his stomach.
Am I really that terrifying, he wondered before pushing the thought away. He forced himself to breathe normally and entered the stable. Ypse stood beside a ten-year-old boy a few meters from the door, dressed in a better-fitting coat than he usually wore, bright red and embellished. The boy’s name was Leon, Asbjörn knew, he was the one scouting from the air when they were searching for Erik’s lost hunting party two days before.
“Asbjörn, what brings you here?” Ypse asked with a smile. For a moment the smile seemed forced, then Asbjörn blinked and thought he imagined it.
Ignoring the question, Asbjörn took in the room with his eyes. Half the space in the building was taken up by ten large stalls, of which five were filled with White Cranes. The birds were the size of horses even with their wings closed. Their plumage was the color of untouched snow, their faces brick red, and their long legs a light pinkish hue. They peered at Asbjörn with their yellowish eyes as though they could see into his soul and found him wanting.
He forced himself to look away. Unnatural monstrosities! It took a big part of his will not to burn them to ash where they stood. He sighed at the seductive quality of his rage. It was altogether far too easy to let it take control.
Ypse nodded and said, “That will be all, Leon.”
Leon fingered the crane shaped pin on his chest absentmindedly. He wore a light blue coat with red embroidery on the cuffs and lapels, which along with his black pants made up the uniform of the Air Scouts Ypse was training. There was something about the boy’s downcast eyes that made Asbjörn feel a pang of sympathy. The world took advantage of the weak and the powerless, and none suffered more than the young.
“Leon,” Ypse exclaimed, jolting the boy out of his inward wandering. Leon gave a tired half smile in apology, then rushed for the door.
Asbjörn reached out and grabbed the boy’s arm as he hurried past. Leon froze like a deer caught in the glare of a moving torch’s light. Asbjörn opened his mouth, but no words were forthcoming. He had no idea what he should say. The words on the tip of his tongue felt false and trite.
“My lord?” Leon questioned in a trembling voice. Leon looked as though he was about ready to chew off his arm to get free, which saddened Asbjörn more than he thought it should.
Asbjörn could feel the boy’s pulse quicken through the tips of his fingers. He released Leon and the boy stumbled back. “It gets better,” he muttered. It sounded even stupider out loud than it had in his head. It gets better? No, it doesn’t. We are all monsters and this is the Pit. From here your life will only get worse. Die now and save yourself!
“My lord. . . .” Leon spat out in panic, then bolted out the building. The door slammed shut behind him with something of the sound of a wooden barrel smashing against stone.
Sighing, Asbjörn turned to face Ypse. The Sorcerer stood with his arms folded and his eyes blank as though he was in deep thought. “Will the boy be alright?” Asbjörn asked.
“Is that the reason why you’ve come,” Ypse inquired while grinning like he found something amusing. His upturned lips seemed a provocation.
There’s that smile again. Asbjörn bound his anger in a ball within the pit of his stomach before it cold build. He began to suspect that Ypse did not do it on purpose. The smile was just a mask he used to hide behind. “No,” Asbjörn finally replied .
“Then forget about the boy,” Ypse explained. “I already have this matter well in hand.” He approached a nearby stall and a White Crane rushed to meet his extended hand, rubbing its head against his palm almost lovingly. “Why have you come?”
Asbjörn hobbled over to Ypse, leaning heavily on his sword. The pain in his ribs had only gotten worse. He knew he should be in bed healing from his injuries, but there was too much to do. I’ll rest when I’m dead, he thought. “I’ve come because of Erik,” he panted when he stood beside Ypse.
“Oh, I see.”
Asbjörn made sure he stood just outside of the White Crane’s reach. The thought of that creature touching him even for a moment filled him with disgust. “I’ve been interviewing people all morning, trying to make sense out of what happened last night.” He shook his head as if trying to dispel a bout of dizziness and continued, “Yet, the deeper I dig the more bizarre the story becomes. I need your help in finding clarity.”
“Did you know that birds have hollow bones?” Ypse looked away from the White Crane to ask that question. He met Asbjörn’s blank stare with a curious frown. “Their hearts are also disproportionately large in comparison to their body size,” he continued undaunted by Asbjörn’s seeming lack of interest.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Asbjörn asked with his bewilderment painting on his face for the world to see. He had to fight the urge to punch Ypse in the mouth. Smug little fuck. He knew before coming that it would be like this. That there would be a price he would have to pay for Ypse’s help. Listening to him ramble on was that price. The man never seemed like he wanted to get to the point. At any other time Asbjörn would not care as much, but right now worry over Erik made him feel like ants were crawling inside his veins.
Ypse returned his gaze to the creature he had created. “Nothing. I just find bird anatomy interesting. I suppose it comes with the territory.” He ran his hand over the White Crane’s beak and added, “You fear them, don’t you? I see it in your eyes.”
“I fear nothing but. . . . I fear nothing,” Asbjörn grunted, standing straighter.
Ypse dropped his hand to his side and seemed to shrink in on himself. “I stand in awe of you,” he whispered. “Me myself, I’m always gripped by terror. It follows me around like a shadow during the day and at night it climbs into my cell and smothers me.” He smiled shaking off his somber mood. “I pray one day to be like you, Asbjörn, a man without fear.”
Asbjörn ignored the comment, but could not stop a sigh. Ypse was poking fun at him, but he refused to take the bait. That would just waste time he could be putting to better use. “Are you done or are you finished?” He asked, gripping the hilt of sword tighter.
Ypse’s smile grew wider. “What did you discover through your interviews?”
“Odd things. Strange puzzling things. The soldiers who found Erik yesterday morning in the shrine of the Eternal Father swear that he was naked when they first entered, and then moments later when Viscount Baldur arrived on the scene he was clothed. None of the soldiers heard him getting dress, plus there wasn’t enough time to before Baldur walked into the room.” Asbjörn paused, rubbing his forehead in a soothing manner, then continued reluctantly, “If that was it I wouldn’t think much of it. But later when he fought Númi his eyes turned golden or so the witnesses claim. Then it happened again on the outer wall.”
Asbjörn’s expression soured. “His eyes changed color,” he raged, “aren’t you listening?” He did not think he needed to explain the significance of a Cultivator’s eyes suddenly changing color. Any child would know its importance.
“I am,” the Sorcerer replied. “Please continue.”
“Then there is the episode of him running up the outer wall.” The more Asbjörn spoke the more troubled he looked. “None of the Cultivators on top of the wall felt any fluctuations from the Abyss. Which leaves the question, if he didn’t use an Esoteric Sword Technique how did he achieve that feat? Not to mention the fact that he was dead. He didn’t even have a hint of a heartbeat when I found him lying at the bottom of the crater. How was he walking around a day later? So many impossible things happening this close together leaves me feeling uneasy. It’s not natural.”
Ypse peered at Asbjörn thoughtfully for a moment. “Tell me what you saw last night,” he demanded with a hard-edged in his tone.
“It’s not what I witnessed that matters,” he answered. “What is important is what a few others claim they saw.” Asbjörn grabbed Ypse and pulled him close. Suddenly all the White Cranes busted out in harsh sounding calls, furious at the desecration of their master. Asbjörn ignored them. “If you tell anyone else about what I’m about to tell you, I’ll rip out your heart and feed it to your birds. Do you understand?”
Surprised, Ypse stuttered, “I. . . . I understand.”
Asbjörn could not help but feel some small satisfaction at the sudden lack of color in Ypse’s face. No matter how clever you think you are, you’re just another weak man, made of soft flesh. I could kill you now and there is nothing you could do about it.
“Good,” he said, and then released Ypse’s arm. “Three different soldiers claim they bore witness to a gold and black scaled dragon climbing out of Erik’s chest.”
Ypse rubbed his arm as though it ached. “Do you believe them?” His voice was serene like the surface of a tranquil pond. Asbjörn knew that was just an act; deep inside, Ypse was burning with rage, even though he was smart enough to not let it show.
“I saw the dragon so that part I know is true.”
Abruptly Ypse walked away from Asbjörn and began pacing back and forth. He whispered to himself in a voice too low to pick anything up. After a few seconds, he paused as if he was struck by an epiphany. “Yes. . . . maybe,” he muttered a little louder.
“What is it?”
“I have a theory. The Prince Erik we know and love died in the forest two days ago. The thing that was placed in the shrine of the Eternal Father was a pretender.” Ypse waved away Asbjörn’s question before he could ask it. “Let me finish. I believe that Prince Erik was replaced by the same monster that killed him and his hunting party. The same creature you saw last night. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
Asbjörn stumbled back stunned. He did not know what he had expected Ypse to say, but he did not expect that. The idea filled him with revulsion. “How is that even possible?” He gasped. “I’ve never heard of such a beast.”
Before Ypse could respond the White Crane lunged at Asbjörn. He jumped back and counterattacked by instinct. His sword flashed out of its sheath within the blink of an eyelid.
“No,” Ypse shrieked, but it was already too late. Asbjörn’s blade slashed through the bird’s long, white neck. Blood erupted from the wound like hot water exploding from a geyser and an ocean of red spewed onto Asbjörn, staining his white robe.
Panicked, Ypse rushed into the stall and held the dying creature in his arms. The bird’s headless body thrashed with the last vestiges of life. Ypse stroked its feathers, weathering the storm.
“I’m sorry. . . . did it have a name?” Asbjörn could not help but ask. He felt shame and did not understand why. The sorcerer’s monstrosity had attacked him; he had every right to defend himself. But for some reason, his justifications did not relieve the guilt.
Ypse looked up at Asbjörn with tears in his eyes. “Just go and leave me in peace,” he whimpered.
Hours later when the sun had almost reached its final resting place in the west, Asbjörn entered an opulent courtyard, with fountains, a columned walk, and a well-maintained garden. Although he had cleaned his face and hands, he still wore his blood-stained garment. He could not be bothered to change his robe. Somehow it just did not seem to matter.
Men and women stood in rows facing an empty wooden platform while liveried servants moved around the crowd, offering sweetmeats and nuts. The gathering was the opposite of festive. A somber mood hung in the air, keeping voices pitched low and faces blank.
Jenný, one of Viscount Baldur’s two wives, approached him from out of the crowd. She greeted him warmly and they exchanged a few pleasantries until she took note of the red stains on his garment and then hurriedly excused herself. Why it took her so long to notice Asbjörn did not know.
Soon after, a hush fell over the gathering as Baron Sophus entered the courtyard followed closely by Viscount Baldur. Sophus walked onto the platform with a dispassionate expression on his chubby face. He knelt down on a mat, facing the crowd and allowed his loose white robe to fall from his shoulders and gather around his middle. His eyes looked beyond the muted assembly of men and women and peered at the setting sun.
This was not the first time that Asbjörn had seen this ritual performed, but he still found it strange and beautiful at the same time. The people of the island of Daði were so very different from their counterparts across the Howling Sea. He suddenly realized that he had come to love his adopted home. When did that happen, he pondered. In any case, he looked forward to what came next. Not the death and the blood, but the words Sophus would speak before his end. The Cultivators of Daði obsessed over their final words like no other people of any culture he had heard about or seen.
Viscount Baldur positioned himself directly behind Sophus and drew his sword. At the sound of the blade coming free, Sophus picked up a short sword that had been placed in front of his mat. He gazed at the blade for a moment before plunging it into his abdomen. He made a slow cut to the left and grunted, “Grass has but one spring.” With his eyes locked on the sunset, he made another cut, this time to the right. “Men have but one life.” Fresh gore spilled from his open wound, but somehow he managed to smile.
Suddenly Baldur’s blade sliced through Sophus’s thick neck. Asbjörn’s stomach twisted into knots as he watched Sophus’s head float up into the air. Time seemed to slow and he noticed that the deceased Baron was still smiling.