All I have now are my memories. And my dreams because there is beauty in them, too.
The last remnants of Erik’s bath still glistened on the floor, but his eyes were drawn to a cobweb-like fracture in one of the green tiles that lay at his feet. He sat on a cushioned chair, putting on a pair of black boots. It will need to be replaced, he thought.
“You look more like yourself,” Dara said.
Erik lifted his head. Dara sat perched on top of a window-seat, sunshine cast through the glass turning her into a shadowy goddess haloed with orange light. He squinted his eyes and could just make out a sparkling green stone hanging from her neck and the exquisite black and gold gown wrapped around her delicate skin. She appeared more ready for a royal ball than the battle Erik feared was to come. Then again so did he. Erik wore a white coat with golden buttons, matching breeches, and a curved sword at his hip.
“I feel more like myself,” Erik replied. And he did even though parts of his memory were still missing. He felt more aware and less like a passive observer. His hands formed into fists at his command. Control of the world lay within his grasp, not because it was his birthright, but because he believed it to be so and was willing to fight to make it true. In the end, the belief in self is what separated the great from the many. He understood his self-delusion was the sauce that kept him striving.
Dara hopped off of her window-seat and approached him. “Good.” That one word seemed pregnant with hidden meaning. “Shall we?” She extended her arm.
Erik dragged himself up and took her hand. His back ached where Dara’s nails had punctured his flesh, but he took comfort in the fact that he had given as good as he had got. Every one of her feather-light footsteps spoke of a twang of pain emanating from the place in between her thighs. He grinned at her without saying a word, and she studied him behind her long eyelashes, unperturbed by his roguish behavior. Eyes twinkling with laughter, he supposed that was part of his appeal.
Outside the bath chamber, they ascended a sprawling staircase, using a slow and steady gait to drag themselves upwards. They moved in silence, the only sound Erik’s heavy booted steps and the swooshing of Dara’s dress. Portraits of themselves hung on the walls they passed.
Erik’s stomach grumbled at him, reminding him that he had not eaten all day. He felt about ready to gnaw at one of his leather boots, raw if need be. There was only the lingering taste of Dara in his mouth, and he feared that was the closest he was going to get to a meal for some time to come. He forced his mind off of food, yet now and again a pang in his stomach reminded him of his hunger.
After reaching the second floor, they entered a room void of all furniture except for a blue sofa done in blue Utrecht velvet, stamped with a phoenix pattern, which Elina slept upon, soft snores rattling her small body. Beside the couch, Kendra stood with ten other women. All of whom wore white wimples wrapped around their heads. The women were each armed with a sword, a bow, and many throwing knives Erik could not see, but knew their clothing hid. They turned towards Erik and Dara curtsied.
Each one of their faces was a priceless treasure, radiating devotion that made Erik’s blood stir. Their beauty would bring men to violence in their madness to possess them, but their physical attributes interested him not all. They were much more than just beautiful faces; they were blades that would cut when he said cut. Trained in the use of weapons and poison, every single one of them was as deadly as a coiled viper.
Erik walked deeper into the chamber with Dara on his arm. The maids clustered around him like hens around a roster, some even reached out to touch his sleeve. He stopped when he came to a larger window that looked onto the street and rounded on them.
“Well, don’t you all look fierce,” Erik said with a smile. He paused for the nervous laughter that followed, and then continued, “I know you have questions, but please save them for later. For now, treat this as a training exercise.”
“Erik.” Dara motioned to the window.
Turning, he saw Hanna standing on the street below, staring up at him with a tightness in her eyes. He met her look with one just as level and firm, even though it was not easy. She painted an image of stark loneliness. Streams of happy families parted around her, jostling each other in their rush to reach the center of the village to witness the Renewal.
“Does she always look so tragic?” Dara inquired.
Erik frowned. “No. . . not always. There are times when she forgets that she’s supposed to be sad, and she smiles. But those moments never last long.”
“Perhaps we should invite her inside.”
Erik opened his mouth—
“No,” Elina cried out, tossing and turning on the sofa. Her pale eyelids shook as tears leaked out of their corners.
Unspoken words caught in the back of Erik’s throat. Heedlessly, he raced towards Elina, taking her trembling shoulders in his hands. “It’s all right. Elina, it’s all right.” He gently shook her awake.
Elina’s eyes snapped open in terror. Whimpering, she backed away from Erik as if he had come to eat her flesh. “Why! Why did you do it?” she sopped, glaring at him through tear soaked eyelashes.
“Do what?” Erik asked, running his fingers along her sweat slicked forehead. Her skin almost felt hot enough to burn, which increased his level of concern. Does she have a fever?
Elina pushed Erik’s hand away. “Why did you kill me?” She inhaled through her snot filled nostrils. “How could you? I thought you loved me!”
Erik gasped in shock. Elina’s words struck him with the force of a falling anvil, knocking the air right out of his lungs. The pain in her eyes made his own water. He pulled her to his chest and rubbed her back soothingly. She fought against him, pounding her small fists into his chest over and over again.
“How could you!” she wailed. “How could you!”
Erik held Elina’s head still in between his suddenly damp palms. Looking into her eyes, he said, “It was a night terror, Elina. You were dreaming. I would never hurt you. Never! You’re my everything. You’re the blood in my veins. And the hope in my heart. I rather die than harm a single hair on your beautiful little head.”
Erik’s skin crawled from all the pairs of eyes staring intently at him. Ignoring the feeling, he focused all of his attention onto Elina. “I promise. Every word I said was the truth. . . well, except for me calling your head beautiful. It might be a little lopsided, but that’s all right. There is nothing wrong with that.”
Elina gasped, staring her father with scandalized eyes. “It is?”
“No, silly, that part was a joke,” Erik laughed, pulling her into another hug. “You’re the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Quiet,” Dara commanded. When everyone turned towards her, she added, “Now listen.”
It took a few seconds, then Erik heard it too, the ringing of a bell. Fear slipped into his blood, turning the cells into ice crystals. Panting, he held Elina tighter, closing his eyes so he could better sear the moment into his mind. Soon the distant bell was joined by others, increasing the volume of the clamor that seeped into the room and the intensity of Erik’s heart palpitations. Elina’s tiny body quaked in his arms.
“Da, are we in danger?” Elina asked the question that was on everyone’s mind. She looked from face to face, clearly forgetting her nightmare in the heat of the moment.
Erik flicked her forehead. “Hush now.” He nodded to Dara, giving her permission to proceed with the explanation in his stead. He was more concerned with making sure Elina did not descend into another crying fit. That seemed more important.
Dara cleared her throat and said, “Within twenty minutes—”
“Ten minutes,” Erik interrupted.
Dara acknowledged him with a nod. “Within the next ten minutes,” she corrected “Wolfville will be attacked by a herd of four-tusked mammoths and a pack of dire wolves. We assume it’s a Two Stage Beast Swarm, but it may very well be a three or a four.” She ignored the surprised mummers. “Secure the downstairs windows and doors, and return back up here within the next five minutes. Now quickly go.” Dara motion to the Kendra as the other maids rushed out of the room in a frenzy of activity.
“Is there something else?” Kendra inquired.
“Do we still have the portable wardstones in storage?”
Kendra paused. “I believe so.”
“Good,” Dara replied. “Retrieve them. They might prove useful.”
Elina watched Kendra leave and turned to Erik and asked, “Is it true?” Panic swirled within her eyes and grew with every passing breath. “Is Ma right? Are the monsters coming?” Her voice came out in an almost whimper, blurring the line between language and primal utterings.
Erik took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Close your eyes.” He pushed her back against the sofa and sat beside her, rearranging his sword, so it did not get caught in the couch. “I’m going teach you a trick. Close your eyes.”
Looking conflicted, Elina shut her eyelid with a small shudder. Dara held Erik’s gaze for a moment, then turned her back to him to peer out of the window.
“That’s good,” Erik said. “Now slowly fill your lungs. Feel the air travel through your nose and down into your chest.” He spoke in a halting manner, where every word was stretched until syllables became jutting. “Very good. Now exhale and inhale. Smell the salty ocean air. Taste it on your tongue, feel it tickle the back of your throat.” He allowed Elina to continue breathing in silence for a few seconds. “Now can you feel the sand beneath your toes? It’s warm at first, but the deeper you push, the cooler it becomes.”
Elina’s forehead wrinkled into a frown. “Yes!” she exclaimed in surprise. “I can feel it.”
Erik jolted to his feet and spun away from his daughter at the sound of groaning wood and rattling floorboards beneath his boots. Suddenly the ceiling above him tore away from the rest of the manor with an ear ringing howl and launched into the sky as if it had been grabbed by an invisible hand. Next, an entire section of the wall broke apart from the building, then another, and another and another. For an instant the walls hung there separated from each other as wind shrieked in through the gaps, buffeting Erik with violent gusts that tried to tear the coat off of his back.
With a roar that stole the last of his air, he threw himself to the ground. Where he had expected to meet carpet, he landed on sand. Surprised, he climbed to his knees like a baby crawling to its mother. The house had disappeared and in its place stood a beach and placid ocean in the distance.
Erik reached out and grabbed a handful of pink and white sand. He opened his hand and watched the granules glitter under the summer sun as they slipped through his fingers, gracefully arcing through the salty air. His heart pounded in his chest, and his loud breathing fought against the soothing sound of the rolling waves.
How is this possible? Everything felt so real and familiar. I was just trying to help Elina find calm.
Elina raced past Erik to pick up a sparkling seashell. She clasped it to her chest as if she had found some lost aquatic treasure. “How did you do this, Da?” she asked. “It’s amazing! Can you teach me?” She stopped, suddenly thinking of something. “Where are we exactly?”
“I think we’re on the coast.” Erik stood and approached Elina. With every step, the sand shifted beneath him. With his boots on it almost felt like he was walking on freshly fallen snow. He took her hand and pointed at the ocean. “That’s the Howling Sea.”
“Really? B-but I thought it was supposed to be scary? Ma told me one of the Four Great Calamities lives in the ocean. Was she wrong?”
“No, she wasn’t wrong,” Erik explained. “Bahamut does live out there, but it migrates. The Howling Sea is only truly dangerous during certain times of the year. Though there are things out there that could prove just as deadly.”
“And is it true that Bahamut is as big as the whole of Daði?”
Erik laughed. “Not quite, but it’s so large that you can’t see all of it. Its scope is beyond a human’s field of vision.”
Elina blinked and jerked her hand free from Erik to motioned at the sky. “Da, look!” Erik followed the direct of her finger with his eyes. “It’s the Duke,” she explained.
Asbjörn strolled over their heads, about a hundred meters off the ground, crimson robe flapping in the wind. The Cultivator did not seem to notice Erik and Elina below him; he moved past them, walking further and further over the ocean. He sipped from a bowl and sang a song that became jumbled by the time it reached Erik’s ears.
“How’s he here, too? Did you invite him? And how’s he walking in the sky?” Elina asked in rapid succession.
Erik pulled his right hand from his left side, a hand that clutched a sword. “I don’t know,” he said absently, peering at his weapon. It seems real enough. I hope it’s enough to protect us in this place. “And no. . . I didn’t invite him. Cultivators are like master painters. Think of their swords as paintbrushes, the world as their canvas, and the Four Aspects of the Abyss as the watercolors they use to form their creations. Through their art, they make the concepts in their mind reality.”
“Oh,” Elina cooed, “pretty.”
Frowning, Erik looked past his weapon. Asbjörn danced above the Howling Sea, a sword whirling in his hand and where he slashed down at the water, a lance of fire grew from the end of his blade. The ocean squealed when struck, and a column of thick smoke billowed up into the air.
Erik could not believe what he was witnessing. Everything was the same from before, but at the same time it was different. He turned away from Asbjörn’s war with the sea. Unlike his daughter, the spectacle interested him not at all. He was more concerned with finding a way out of this place, but all he saw was an endless beach and a darkening sky.
“Da!” Elina screamed.
Erik spun back around and found himself staring at a giant ball of fire crashing towards the ocean. He shivered and immediately understood why he felt cold. An instant later the Howling Sea shook, turning violent by the displacement of a large volume of water.
Quickly, he pressed Elina to his chest with his free hand and began to run away from the rapidly rising tide that rushed towards them. A roaring blasted at his ears, and doom nipped at his heels. Panting, he felt a sudden coldness against his back, rising from the shadow that blocked the sun, as if a wall had sprung up behind him.
“Da!” Elina shrieked, fingernails digging into Erik’s back. He could not see her eyes, but he knew they were pools of midnight terror from the panicked nature of her tone.
Erik tossed away his sword and used both of his arms to clutch his daughter tighter. “Hold your—” he shouted before the wave smashed down upon them, stealing his voice. —breath, he finished in his head and wished she could hear him.
Mercilessly, the ocean tumbled them until Erik did not know which direction was up. Salty water gushed into his mouth, scouring the back of his throat. It felt like flames were billowing their way into his maw. Then the direction of the waves reversed; he could feel it, tugging at Elina, dragging him down, trying to pull them deeper into the ocean’s depths.
With his eyes shut, Erik fought against the fiery waves roaring around him. Somehow he escaped its grip, flopping on the beach with Elina thrashing in his arms. He released her and spewed out the salt water churning in his stomach. For a moment they huddled together on the damp sand, soaked to the bone and traumatized beyond words.
“Are you all right,” Erik asked when he could finally speak.
Elina stared at him with wide eyes. “I think so.”
“That’s good. That’s good.” Erik gently brushed her wet out of her face and kissed her on the forehead. “As long as you’re okay that’s all that matters.”
He glanced at the ocean, searching for signs of danger and spat at what he found. A four-tusked mammoth rose up from the Howling Sea, its once long black hairs consumed by a solid flame. When the beast charged toward him with tendrils of black smoke belching from its body like a campfire blaze, his mouth went dry. He found himself staring at the creature unable to move. There was something about the abomination’s eyes that rooted him to the ground.
“Erik!” a distant voice yelled, causing the sky and earth to tremble.
Ten arrows appeared from thin air and pincushioned the four-tusked mammoth to little effect. Undaunted by its injuries, the animal ran towards Erik, both of its front and hind limbs tearing through the soft sand. As it drew nearer a gust of wind blew its burnt stench towards Erik. He could taste the creature on his tongue, the flavor remembered him of charred swine. Then he could suddenly feel it, too. The heat of its body felt as hot as burning coals. It was a monster that had become a living flame.
“Erik!” the voice sounded louder and more demanding this time. It was a woman’s voice. It came along with a stomach-turning rumble that made the sky spasm, and the beach groan.
Erik closed his eyes and darkness enfolded him, but the voice followed, shouting his name over and over again. Even with his eyes shut, he could feel the eight-ton fortress of flame inching towards him. He realized that he was only seconds away from being impaled by four ivory tusks.
He opened his eyes to a stinging sensation in his check. He was back on the sofa next to his daughter. Dara stood in front of him cocking back her hand. He understood that she had slapped him, and she planned to again.
“You’re awake?” Dara asked with something very like desperation in her voice. Her usual icy calm had been completely shattered.
Ignoring the question, Erik looked past Dara to see the maids shooting arrows out of the windows. Abruptly, the women shouted warnings and dashed towards the other side of the room. A moment later something struck the house, collapsing the foundation of the manor and causing it to tilt towards the street. Erik flung Dara out of the way as the sofa began to tumble forward.
“Da!” Elina yelled in fear, reminding Erik that she sat next to him.
“Hold on!” Erik shouted at her. The swelling roar of the crumbling building swallowed his words. He grabbed her. “I have you!” She cried, screaming and kicking. “Calm down!”
An instant later he leaped off of the sofa with Elina in his arms. The floor scored his back and his grip loosened on his daughter as they slid downward. Desperately he flung out a hand, caught at her arm, and pulled with all his might. Elina came back into his arms. The smell of her filled his nostrils, a breath of salty ocean air mixed with sour girl-sweat. Her slender arms snaked around his neck, squeezing his airways shut. Eyes watering, he watched the sofa smashed through the window and plunged through the hole it had created.
The world spun as he rolled over and over again in the air with Elina screeching in his ear. Unanticipatedly, pain jolted through his spine and blackness crept in on his vision until that is all there was.