If you live long enough, you will see friends turn into enemies, love change into hatred, and all light consumed by the darkness.
“That was incredible,” Elina whispered. Her green eyes sparkled with wonder. “Wasn’t it, Da?”
Erik took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yes, it was.” He was not sure what his daughter had witnessed, but he was confident she had not seen what he saw. For a brief moment there the whole world had broken apart until the fundamental building blocks of creation had been laid bare.
“How do they do that?”
A movement beside the wardstone caught Erik’s eye—Ebbi starting to sheath his weapon as he gazed at Dara. “I don’t know,” Erik told Elina. His hands clenched into fists. He did not like the way the Lightbender was staring at his wife.
Just then a bell rang from behind him. Turning, Erik looked up and could just make out the distant figure of a guard frantically ringing a bell atop of a watchtower. The sound rippled through the crowd, sending many into quiet panic as they listened to the pattern of the harmonics. One short ring followed by two long rings. Erik did not understand what it meant, but going by the faces that surrounded him, it was not good.
Soon after that, watchtowers all over the village took up the call. Elina gripped Erik’s hand and said, “Da, I’m scared.” Her voice sounded small and fragile, something in need of protection.
“You have nothing to be afraid of,” Erik said with more confidence than he felt, “while I’m here I won’t allow anything to happen to you. Do you understand?”
Before the throng could turn into a stampede, Ebbi silenced everyone with a shout. “I expect every able body man to meet us at the stockade within five minutes,” Ebbi said after everyone turned back towards him. “Now quickly take your families to safety. I don’t want to see anyone on the street who doesn’t have cause to be. Those who disobey will be severely punished. Now go!”
Erik picked Elina up, cradling her against his chest to shelter her from the rush of warm bodies. “It’s okay,” he said soothingly while rubbing her back. “I got you.” The guards quickly formed ranks and rushed towards the stockade where the first bell rang.
Ebbi hurried over to Dara trailed closely by Carl and Fritz. “We’ll escort you home.”
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary,” Dara responded, taking a step closer to Erik.
Ignoring Fritz and Carl’s knowing grins, Ebbi replied, “It’s on our way. It won’t be no trouble.” He grabbed her arm, and her eyes narrowed into two dangerous points.
“She said no,” Erik growled behind clenched teeth. Elina whimpered in his arms, and he patted her back absentmindedly, slightly rocking back forth. Instinctively his blood boiled at the idea of another man touching his wife. He fought against the rage that tried to consume him.
Ebbi turned to face Erik, gracing him with the twisted glory of the melted right side of his face. The milky whiteness of his right eye seemed to stare straight through Erik for a moment, making Erik’s heartbeat sounded like thunder. Finally, he released Dara’s arm. “We don’t have time for this,” he snapped, turning away. “Let’s go.” The last part was not a request. It was an order.
Who does he think he is to command me? I am. . . . Who am I? I’m Erik Ito the P-p. . . . Erik pushed down on his simmering thoughts and raced after Ebbi with Elina still in his arms and Dara at his side. The two other Lightbenders, Carl and Fritz, brought up the rear of their little party.
It had only been a few moments since Ebbi had dispersed the crowd, but the streets were nearly empty. Goodwives peered from behind shuttered windows and husbands and sons hurried out of doorways, armed with bows and homemade spears. The once festive air that hung about the village was taken over by an aura of terror and foreboding.
They walked along in silence for a time, with a small militia growing behind them. Elina stared at the soldiers over Erik’s shoulder lost in thought. The men’s untrained movements held a grim ferocity that seemed to make her forget her fear. Their eyes said they were willing to die to protect those they loved.
When they came to a stop in front of the manor, Kendra ran out of the house with a long blade and a sword belt in her arms. Ignoring her, Erik set Elina back onto her feet while the armed men around him rustled impatiently. “Go with your mother,” he told Elina. “I’ll be back soon.”
He took the sword belt from Kendra with a nod of thanks and secured it at his waist, making sure he did not trip over the blade. Everything was moving so fast that he did not have time to process it. Did he even know how to use a sword? Why had the bells rang? Was his family in danger?
Erik had so many questions, but they all seemed to fade away when he caught Dara’s eye. For the first time a hint of passion blazed in her green orbs, taking him by surprise. She looked at him the way every wife should look at her husband like they were the only two living creatures in existence. Then she stood on her tippy toes and kissed him.
“Take care of yourself, Erik,” she murmured. “And make sure you come back to me.”
Ebbi’s face turned crimson. “Let go!” He looked at Dara and blinked. His hand unclenched the hilt of his weapon. “We don’t have time to be whispering sweet nothings into women’s ears.” Ebbi charged off leading the men onward.
“I will,” Erik promised, then hurried to catch up with Ebbi. The Lightbender fidgeted uneasily, and Erik could tell he wanted him elsewhere. Now that Dara was gone, Erik’s continued presence was vexing him. Just then a young man wearing a black coat with wooden buttons ran towards them with a loping gait.
“Vakur!” Ebbi hailed the top-knotted youth approaching from the other direction.
The young Lightbender touched the quiver of arrows on his back and spat brownish spit onto the ground as he fell in beside Ebbi. His bottom lip was packed full of chewing tobacco. “No,” he grimaced, “I’m Vagn. I left Vakur on top of the watchtower.” He smiled bitterly. “It’s been years; you still can’t tell us apart?”
The half of Ebbi’s face that was still capable of movement folded into a frown. “This is not the time for this conversation,” he barked while Carl and Fritz sneakered behind Erik’s back. “Report!”
“A herd of four-tusked mammoths has gathered just outside the range of the secondary wardstones.”
“They just passing through?” Ebbi asked with fake cheer.
Vagn tightened his grip on the bow that hung from his hand and shook his head. “Afraid not. They just keep staring at Wolfville like they can see it and more are adding to their number every moment. It looks like a. . . .”
“Beast swarm,” Ebbi finished.
“Afraid so,” Vagn paused as if suddenly think of something. “Do you think something is wrong with the wardstones?” There was something like fear in his voice; it made Erik quicken his pace.
“Do I look like a Jain monk to you?” Ebbi shouted. “And where the fuck is the Duke?”
At that second something wet splashed down onto Erik’s face. He scrambled sideways, bumping into Ebbi before he could right himself. He looked up as some of the liquid dripped into his mouth. It tasted like wine.
Above, a black man dressed in a red robe, walked across the sky like it was the ground while he sang a song and drank from a bowl. A few of the lyrics from the song drifted down to Erick. “Godly is your beauty, honeysweet. . . .”
“There he is,” Vagn added helpfully.
Ebbi sent Vagn a withering glanced and chased after the Duke. “Great he’s drinking again,” he whispered to himself. “Lord Asbjörn!” He shouted. “Get down!”
Somehow one of Asbjörn’s steps equaled ten of theirs. He quickly outpaced them, disappearing over the twenty-meter tall stockade. The last they saw of him was him drawing his sword, and then a thick column of black smoke billowed up above the vertical logs. Erik could not see what lay at the base of it, but the loud sound of animal squeals gave him an idea.
Ebbi raced ahead, and Erik managed to keep pace with him when everyone else had fallen behind. They passed a house that Erik was certain belonged to Hanna and crossed the thirty-meter gap between where the houses stopped, and the stockade began which was taken up by a wheat field, then climbed up a watchtower. With two guards already inside, it was a tight fit.
Beyond a handful of farms and hedge-bordered fields that stood outside the wall, Asbjörn walked upon the air raining down rivers of orange flames onto a herd of four-tusked mammoths. They numbered in the hundreds, and the average mammoth was an eight-ton fortress of flesh, covered in dark hairs and equipped with four massive ivory tusks. As the funnel of flames fell upon them, they made high-pitched squeals that would be more at home coming from the throats of a sounder of swine. The sound sent chills up Erik’s spine.
Where one would expect the herd of four-tusked mammoths to flee, they charged, racing tirelessly towards the stockade. Despite the fact that dozens of them died, charred into bones, at every flicker of Asbjörn sword, they seemed unstoppable. There was just too many of them for one man to handle.
“What the fuck is going on?” Ebbi asked as the Watchtower vibrated from the stomping feet of the approaching herd. “I’ve never seen four-tusked mammoths behave like this. They should be running in the other direction.”
Erik felt just as lost as Ebbi sounded. He watched the drama unfold, careless of the danger. He had not yet fully gotten over the fact that it was possible for someone to walk across the sky, but no one else mentioned it, so he never broached the topic. His paranoia would not allow him to look the fool in front of the man that had an infatuation with his wife.
Asbjörn abruptly changed tactics, throwing his bowl aside and climbing higher into the sky. The air around him flashed crimson as he whipped his blade in a circle, and then he fell towards the earth suddenly transforming into a shooting star. The wind wept and groaned, consumed by a ball-shaped inferno that smashed towards the heart of the stampeding herd of four-tusked mammoths.
“Get down,” Ebbi shrieked.
Erik dropped to his knees, covering his head with both arms. The wooden watchtower shook like a ship in a storm. Even if Erik had wanted to stay standing it would have been impossible. A moment after the impact, a cloud of blistering hot dust blew into the room, burning his nose. He breathed through his mouth and felt dirt dry his throat.
Coughing, he climbed up on trembling legs and looked outside. Where Asbjörn had crashed landed a giant crater now stood, smoke pouring out of its smoldering depths. All but a handful of four-tusked mammoths had been destroyed. One of the four survivors rose to its massive feet and rushed directly for the watchtower where Erik observed. The creature’ s once long black hairs had almost become a solid flame, and new thin tendrils of smoke added to the cloud that already trailed behind it.
His eyes widened in panic as the vertical logs in front of him collapsed under the power of the monster’s four ivory tusks. He fought down his terror and jumped out of the watchtower. He did not need to witness anymore. The ominous crackling told him enough.
For a brief moment the world spun, and then the brutality of his landing turned everything into a blinding whiteness that severed his connection with reality.
Some time later droplets of the rain landed on him, soaking him to the skin. The coolness awoke him with a gasp that he regretted a second after taking. Eye watering pain bloomed with every breath. He crawled onto his knees determinedly, aware that at least one of his ribs were broken. I’m lucky to be alive, the thought only brought a momentary relief; the hurt came right back with a vengeance.
Erik was unsure of how long he had laid on the ground unconscious. It could have been minutes, or it could have been hours. The only thing that was certain was that it was long enough for dark storm clouds to consume Wolfville and drench the area with rainwater.
He staggered to his feet with one hand holding his side and looked around at the destruction the four-tusked mammoths had ushered. The downpour fought to contain the four smoldering holes in the stockade. He could see no living, but not too far from him Ebbi’s battered body lay buried under a pile of logs.
Erik turned away from the view, and his mouth fell agape when he was greeted with the sight of the village. Thick columns of black smoke rose up above rows of burning houses. He could see villagers with buckets doing their best to save their homes.
“Hanna,” he said, staring at the smoke billowing up from her roof. He broke into a run, pain all but forgotten in his rush to reach Hanna. The closer he came, the more certain it was her house.
The door to Hanna’s home had caught fire but had been put out by the rain, but it was still hot enough that he had to yank his hand away after he touched it. He was forced to kick it twice before he could manage to get it open. Dark smoke escaped through the open door.
“Hanna,” he coughed with his hand over his mouth.
After most of the smoke had cleared, the first thing to meet Erik’s eye was Hanna sprawled on the floor next to a fallen beam. Grimacing, he dropped to his knees and crawled towards her. The air was much cleaner down near the floor; still toxic enough to make him nauseous, but he could breathe it, if barely.
A new wave of flames burst through the wall nearest Hanna, making Erik quicken his already frantic pace. He reached her and began dragging her to safety. The air simmered with blistering heat and black spots formed in his vision. We’re not going to die here, he grunted refusing to pass out.
Coughing up a lung, he pulled her out into the muddy street and collapsed in exhaustion. He opened his mouth and allowed the rain to wet his dry tongue. Lifting himself up onto his elbows, he crawled over to Hanna. There was a lump on the side of her head the size of a walnut.
Erik ran his hand over her cheek. “Hanna.” Thunder shook the air, drowning out his voice.
A second later the high-pitched reverberation of a howl jolted Hanna awake where Erik’s voice and the din of the storm had failed. Her eyes blinked open, and she looked around in confusion.
“Take it slow.” Erik restrained her with a smile when she started to sit up too quickly. “You’re safe now. I have you.”
Hanna’s blue eyes searched his face. “Erik—”
Erik’s smile turned into a look of terror in less than a blink of an eyelid. Hanna shrieked as a dire wolf appeared out of nowhere to yank her by the leg. For a moment he could see the desperation in her face, perhaps even love, and then she was gone, pulled into the giant maw of an apex predator.
Erik tried to chase after her, but stumbled and fell to the ground. He suddenly felt as if he had been doused with hot acid. He turned back and gave one abrupt shudder when he saw a dire wolf gnawing on his arm like a chicken bone. He pulled back and the arm tore away with a spray of bright red blood.
Before he could even think to scream, Erik threw his good arm around his head and dropped to his side. He huddled against the wet ground as paws buffeted him and tore at his clothes and through his flesh. The assault of the pack felt like rays of liquid fire. Even with his eyes shut, he could see them, wolves the size of small ponies, gaping mouths filled with a terrifying array of canines and incisors. Intense and sickening pain roared through him. He could feel teeth burning through his chest, tugging at his innards, trying to consume him one anguished filled bite at a time. He yelled, trying to hang onto life, knowing it was useless.