If you live long enough, you will see friends turn into enemies, love change into hatred, and all light consumed by the darkness.
— MATANGI, SHE-WHO-IS-CHAINED
“That was incredible,” Elina whispered, her green eyes sparkling with wonder. “Wasn’t it, Da?”
“Yes, it was.” Erik took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He was unsure what Elina had witnessed, but he was almost positive she had not seen what he saw. For a 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 sheathing his weapon as he gazed at Dara with an air of longing. “I don’t know,” Erik told Elina as his hands clenched into fists. He did not like the way the Lightbender was staring at his wife.
At that instant, a solitary bell rang, loud and panic inducing, disturbing the steady pounding of Erik’s fury heated blood. People around him rustled against each other, and he turned along with them to find the source of the noise. The vague shape of a man could be seen ringing a bell atop of a distant watchtower. The man stopped after two long rings, then watchtowers all over the village took up the call.
Elina grabbed Erik’s hand. “Da, I’m scared.” Her voice sounded small and fragile as the throng of villagers shifted with growing hysteria.
“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?”
The sound of a loud whistle drew everyone’s attention to Ebbi. “I expect every able-bodied man to meet me at the stockade within five minutes,” he shouted. “Now take your families to safety. I want no one on the street who doesn’t have cause to be. Those who disobey will be punished. Now go!”
Erik picked Elina up and cradled her against his chest to better shelter her from the rush of warm bodies streaming past. “It’s okay,” he said and rubbed her back. “I got you.” The guards formed ranks and rushed towards the stockade in formation.
“You’ll spoil her if you keep babying her,” Dara said, guiding him homeward.
Whispering words of comfort to Elina, Erik kept a worried eye on Ebbi, who hurried over to them, trailed by Carl and Fritz. When Ebbi and his comrades reached them, they jerked to a stop. Ebbi only had eyes for Dara, gracing Erik 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.
“We’ll escort you home,” Ebbi told Dara without preamble.
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary,” Dara responded, taking a step closer to Erik. Behind Ebbi’s back, Fritz and Carl shared knowing grins.
“It’s on our way. It won’t be no trouble.” Ebbi grabbed her arm, and her eyes narrowed into two dangerous points.
“She said no,” Erik growled. If Ebbi did not fall back, he would fight the Lightbender, whatever Fritz and Carl had to say about it. Elina whimpered in his arms, and he patted her back as he rocked back her forth. With all his heart and hatred he silently yelled at Ebbi to let his wife go, wordlessly tried to will the man to back down. Let her go! His skin prickled, and his blood simmered as if it was boiling, ready to explode into flames. Release my wife’s arm! And Ebbi did.
“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.
Erik pushed down on his rage 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.
The streets were already almost 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 was gone, replaced by a grim ferocity the now imbued the villagers.
On and on Erik ran, with Elina staring over his shoulder at the small militia growing behind them. When they came to a stop in front of the manor, Kendra rushed out of the house with a long blade and a sword belt in her arms. Erik set Elina down beside Dara.
“Go with your mother,” he told Elina. “I’ll be back soon.”
Erik took the sword belt from Kendra with a nod of thanks and secured it at his waist, wondering if he even knew how to use the weapon. Dara interrupted his musings by pulling him down into a passionate kiss.
“Make sure you come back to me,” she said, unbothered by the whooping and howling that followed their public display of affection. She looked up at Erik, the way every wife should look at her husband, like they were the only two living creatures in existence.
Ebbi’s face turned crimson, and his hand clenched the hilt of his weapon. “Let’s go! We don’t have time to be whispering sweet nothings into women’s ears.” He charged off, and the men followed, Carl and Fritz, snickering louder than anyone else dared.
“I will,” Erik promised Dara, then hurried to catch up with Ebbi. The Lightbender fidgeted, and Erik sensed he wanted him elsewhere. Now that Dara was gone, his continued presence was vexing the top-knotted man. Just then a young man wearing a black coat with wooden buttons ran towards them with a loping gait.
“Vakur!” Ebbi hailed the black coated youth approaching from the other direction.
“No,” the young Lightbender grimaced, “I’m Vagn.” He touched the quiver of arrows on his back and spat brownish spit onto the ground. “I left Vakur on top of the watchtower.” He gave a bitter smirk. “It’s been years. You still can’t tell us apart?”
“This is not the time for this conversation.” The half of Ebbi’s face still capable of movement wrinkled. “Report!”
“A herd of four-tusked mammoths has gathered just outside the range of the secondary wardstones,” Vagn said, un-repulsed by the spittle Ebbi splashed onto his face.
“They just passing through?” Ebbi quipped with fake cheer.
Vagn tightened his grip on his bow and shook his head. “Afraid not. They 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.
“Seems so,” Vagn agreed. “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?”
Something wet spilled onto Erik from above. 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 drifted on the wind. “Godly is your beauty, honey-sweet. . . .”
“There he is,” Vagn said, pointing at the scarlet-robed man.
Ebbi sent Vagn a withering glance before chasing after the Duke. “Great he’s drinking again.” Louder. “Lord Asbjörn! Get down!”
Somehow one of Asbjörn’s steps equaled ten of theirs. He soon outpaced them, disappearing over the twenty-meter tall stockade. The last they witnessed of him was him drawing his sword, and then moments later 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 matched him step for step, even when everyone else had fallen behind. They passed a house that Erik was certain belonged to Hanna and sprinted through the wheat field. Heart pounding, he climbed up a watchtower right behind Ebbi. The two guards already inside made room for them, but it was a tight fit.
Erik frowned at the world outside the walls in puzzlement, then suddenly gasped with shock. Beyond the handful of farms and hedge-bordered fields, Asbjörn walked upon the air, raining down rivers of orange flames onto a herd of four-tusked mammoths, which numbered in the hundreds. The average mammoth was an eight-ton fortress of flesh, covered in dark hairs and equipped with four massive ivory tusks. And as the funnel of flames fell upon them, they burned and screamed like a sounder of swine. Erik shivered.
Instead of fleeing, the herd of four-tusked mammoths charged towards the stockade, undaunted by the dozens of their number that fell, consumed by a blistering inferno with every flicker of Asbjörn’s sword. On and on they came, pounding the earth with their furious stampede.
“What the fuck is going on?” Ebbi whispered as the Watchtower vibrated harder and harder. “I’ve never seen four-tusked mammoths behave like this.”
Erik took it all in, in one deep breath, unsure what he should do, or say. Fear and indecision held him still.
Abruptly Asbjörn changed tactics. Throwing his bowl aside, he climbed higher into the sky and whipped his blade in a circle. The surrounding air flashed crimson, then he fell towards the earth, transforming into a shooting star.
“Get down,” Ebbi shrieked.
Erik dropped to his stomach with his arms over his head. The air roared with the sound of an explosion, and the earth shook. The watchtower trembled around him, and the timber beneath him groaned as a cloud of scorching dust blew into the room, stinging his eyes and nostrils. He gasped and felt dirt on his tongue.
When he stopped coughing, Erik lurched onto his trembling legs and looked outside. A giant crater greeted him, smoke pouring out of its smoldering depths. All but a handful of the four-tusked mammoths had been destroyed. One of the four survivors rose to its massive feet and rushed for the watchtower where he stood. The animal’s long black hairs had almost become a solid flame, and new thin tendrils of smoke added to the cloud that already trailed behind it.
Erik bolted past Ebbi, who was still pulling himself to his feet and jumped out of the watchtower. Terror clawed at his chest. The frightful cracking of wood rose behind him, and for an instant, the world spun. He smashed into the earth, and a blinding whiteness severed his connection to reality.
Choking on droplets of ice cold rainwater, Erik jerked back into consciousness. He stared up at the dark storm cloud filled sky in confusion until the pain brought the memory of his fall back. He grunted and pushed himself onto his knees, aware that at least one of his ribs were broken.
Eyes wide, Erik staggered to his feet and took in the destruction the four-tusked mammoths had wrought. The downpour fought to contain the four smoldering holes in the stockade, and broken timber lay strewn all over the wheat field. Underneath the torn logs that had once been part of the watchtower sat Ebbi’s battered corpse, bright blood flowing from his mangled flesh.
Erik turned from the view, and his mouth fell agape when he saw the village. Thick columns of black smoke rose above rows of burning homes. Frantic villagers ran about with buckets of water, doing their best to put out the fire.
“Hanna,” Erik said, staring at the smoke billowing up from her roof. He broke into a run, pain all but forgotten in his rush to reach 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 Erik had to yank his hand away after he touched it. He was forced to kick it twice before he could get it open. Dark smoke escaped through the open door, and he stumbled back, a hand going to his mouth.
“Hanna,” he coughed.
The smoke thinned, revealing Hanna sprawled on the floor next to a fallen beam. He immediately dropped to his knees with a grimace 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 wave of flames burst through the wall nearest Hanna and Erik quicken his already frantic pace. The air simmered with blistering heat and black spots formed in his vision as he reached her and struggled to drag her to safety.
With his lungs burning from the toxic air, Erik pulled Hanna out into the muddy street and collapsed in exhaustion. He opened his mouth and allowed the rain to wet his dry tongue. Then he lifted himself up onto his elbows and scanned Hanna. There was a lump on the side of her head the size of a walnut.
He ran his hand over her soot-stained cheek. “Hanna.”
Thunder shook the air, and 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 sat 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 as a dire wolf appeared out of nowhere to yank her by the leg. She shrieked, and for an instant, he could see the desperation in her eyes, perhaps even love, and then she was gone, pulled into the giant maw of an apex predator.
Erik chased after her, his heart rising into his throat. Something yanked him back and he fell to the ground, pain like hot acid tearing a scream out of his mouth. 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 his limb tore away with a spray of crimson.
Wolves the size of small ponies attacked Erik from every side, with gaping mouths filled with a terrifying array of canines and incisors. He huddled against the wet ground, sensing teeth rip through his chest, tugging at his innards. His eyes rolled back in his head, and his mind drifted.