All I have now are my memories. And my dreams because there is beauty in them, too.
— MATANGI, SHE-WHO-IS-CHAINED
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 at his feet. He sat on a cushioned chair, frozen in the act of putting on a pair of black boots. There was something about the cracks that reminded him of fissures in the earth, of rents that went all the way down to the molten core that slumbered below. They hissed with rage, burned with hatred, called to him with heart-wrenching lamentations.
Destroy it all, they cried. Scour clean the world and start anew.
Erik blinked and lifted his head. “What did you say?”
Dara sat perched on top of a window-seat, sunshine cast through the glass turning her into a shadowy goddess haloed with orange light. A sparkling green stone hung from the silver necklace around her neck, draped over an elegant black and gold gown.
“I said, are you ready?” She studied him with a quizzical stare.
“Yes,” Erik nodded. He forced his hand to unknot and pulled on his last boot. His back ached where Dara’s nails had punctured his flesh, but the pain was a slight irritation compared to the terror flooding through his veins. His grip on reality was slipping away from him. First the talking snake, now a seething crack in the floor? I’m slowly going insane.
Dara hopped down from the window-seat and approached Erik. He dragged himself from his chair and ran a hand down his white coat, which was adorned with golden buttons, across his matching breeches, and stopped with it on the hilt of the longsword at his hip.
“Are you well?” She touched his face. “You look pale.”
Erik gave his best imitation of a smile. “We go to war dressed for a ball?” He was not certain that their current garb was suitable for what he feared was to come, but mostly he did not want to talk about what he was feeling. His worries about his sanity were not something he was willing to share, not now. Not when he wanted to be believed. No. Much better to keep his concerns to himself.
“Would you have it any other way?”
“I suppose not.”
Dara led him out the bath chamber and up a sprawling staircase. They walked in silence, with the sound of boots knocking off of wood and the swooshing of Dara’s dress filling the void. Portraits of themselves hung on the walls, rendered in vivid detail.
Erik was not looking forward to this. His stomach grumbled at him, reminded him he had not eaten all day. He felt about ready to gnaw at one of his leather boots, raw if need be. He sighed silently and allowed Dara to drag him into a room on the second floor. His eyes flew to Elina who slept on top of a blue Utrecht velvet sofa, stamped with a phoenix pattern. The soft snores that escaped from her brought a genuine smile to his face.
Once he had gotten an eye full of Elina, Erik found Kendra looking at him, and shared a smile with her as well. She stood beside the sofa along with ten other women, all of whom wore black dresses and white wimples on their heads. Each woman was armed with a sword at her hip, a bow on her shoulder, and many throwing knives Erik could not see, but somehow knew their clothing hid.
He strolled deeper into the chamber with Dara on his arm, and the maids curtsied as one, then clustered around him, some touching his sleeve as he strode past. He stopped when he came to a large window that looked onto the street and rounded on them. His memories remained fragmented and out of reach, but Dara had coached him on what needed to be said.
“Well, don’t you all look fierce,” Erik joked, pausing for the nervous laughter that followed his words. “I know you have questions, but please save them for later. For now, treat this as a training exercise.”
“Erik.” Dara tapped his shoulder and motioned to the window.
Erik shifted to track the direction of her finger. Hanna stood on the street below, staring up at him with tightness in her eyes. Streams of happy families parted around her, jostling each other in their rush to reach the center of the village. He met her gaze with one just as level and firm, even though it was difficult. She painted an image of stark loneliness.
“Does she always appear so tragic?” Dara inquired.
Erik frowned. “No, not always. Sometimes she forgets that she’s supposed to be sad, and she smiles, but those moments never last long.” He froze. Where did that come from?
“Perhaps we should invite her inside.”
Erik opened his mouth and closed it again when a shout drew his attention to the sofa. Elina tossed and turned on the couch, caught in the grip of a nightmare. Her pale eyelids shook as tears ran down her cheeks. He raced over to her, fear quickening his pace, terror tightening his throat.
“No. No,” she moaned.
“It’s all right. Elina, it’s all right.” Erik took her trembling shoulders in his hands and gently shook them. Her eyes snapped open, and she jerked away. Green eyes looked through him as if he was not there. They blinked slowly overcome by tears. The moisture made them seem formed from glass, or perhaps crystal, catching the sunlight and splintering it into a hundred glittering flashes.
“Why,” she whimpered. “Why did you do it?”
Elina glared at him. “Why did you kill me? I thought you loved me!”
Her words rocked Erik back on his heels. For a long moment, he could only stare at her, uncomprehending. She sat up in her cream-colored dress and balled her little hands into fists.
“How could you!” she screamed.
“It was a night terror, Elina,” he said finally. “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 enveloped Elina in his arms and clutched her to his chest. “I promise.”
The clamor of a ringing bell knifed into the room, shattering the silence. Dread slipped into Erik’s blood, clawed along his veins. Elina shuddered against him, and he squeezed her even tighter before letting her go. The original bell ceased its cry, yet its call was soon taken up by its kin’s deafening clangs. `
“Da, are we in danger?” Elina whispered. She looked from face to face, her nightmare seemingly forgotten in the fury of the metallic ringing.
“Hush.” Erik flicked Elina’s forehead and gave Dara nod.
Dara cleared her throat and said, “Within twenty minutes—”
“Ten,” Erik corrected.
“Within the next ten minutes,” Dara amended, “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.” Surprised mummers rose then fell as she continued. “Secure the downstairs windows and doors and return here. Now go.”
Kendra remained still as the other maids rushed out of the room, heeding Dara silent motion. “Is there something else?” she asked.
“Retrieve the portable wardstones in storage,” Dara said. “They might prove useful.”
“Is it true? Is Ma right?” Elina pulled at Erik’s coat sleeve as Kendra left the room. “Are the monsters coming?”
“Close your eyes. I’m going to teach you a trick.” Elina did as she was told and Erik sat down beside her. “Inhale. Slowly fill your lungs and sense the air travel down into your chest. Taste the salty ocean air on your tongue, feel it tickle the back of your throat. Now can you sense the sand beneath your toes? It’s warm at first, but the deeper you push, the cooler it becomes.”
“Yes!” Elina exclaimed in surprise. “I can.”
The floorboards rattled beneath Erik’s boots, and he leaped to his feet, searching for the source. An instant later, the ceiling tore away from the rest of the manor, launched into the heavens as if by an invisible hand. The building shrieked around Erik. Entire sections of the wall broke apart and hung separated from each other as the wind howled in through the gaps.
Erik threw himself to the floor and landed in sand. Confused, he looked around to discover himself lying on a beach, in front of a placid ocean. The manor was gone, replaced by endless water and the orange sun the hung above it.
Slowly, almost timidly, he grabbed a handful of pink and white sand and watched the granules slip through the gaps in between his fingers. His heart hammered the inside of his chest. W-What is. . . .
Elina raced past Erik, her dirty blonde hair whipped by the breeze. She picked up a sparkling seashell and clasped it to her chest, grinning as if she had found a lost aquatic treasure. “How did you do this, Da? It’s amazing! Can you teach me?” She spun towards him. “Where are we exactly?”
“I think we’re on the coast.” Erik stood and approached Elina; the sand shifted beneath him, almost like he was walking on snow. “That’s the Howling Sea.” He stumbled back as if he had run headlong into a stone wall. He did not know how he knew, he just did.
“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 said, just as curious as Elina to discover what words he might speak next. “Bahamut lives out there, but it migrates. The Howling Sea is only dangerous during certain times of the year, though there are things out there that would 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 you can’t see all of it. Its scope is beyond a man’s field of vision.”
“Da, look!” Elina said, pointing up at the sky. “It’s the Duke.”
Asbjörn strolled over their heads, moving towards the ocean, about a hundred meters off the ground, his crimson robe flapping in the wind. He sipped from a bowl and sang a song that became jumbled by the time it reached their ears.
“How’s he here, too? Did you invite him?” Elina went on. “And how’s he walking in the sky?”
Erik froze with his hand on the hilt of his sword. “I don’t know, 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.”
Asbjörn danced above the Howling Sea, a longsword whirling in his hand. Whenever he slashed down at the water, a lance of fire grew from the end of his blade, then the ocean squealed when struck, and a column of thick smoke billowed up into the air.
“Oh,” Elina cooed, “pretty.”
Erik turned from the ocean and searched for a way back to the manor. He guessed that reality lay on the other side, and all he had to do was find a way through, yet there was nothing but an endless beach and a darkening sky.
“Da!” Elina screamed.
Erik spun back around to see a giant ball of fire crash into the ocean. The Howling Sea exploded in a furious blast, and the air shook with thunder. A wall of water rose, blocking out the sun before rushing towards them. He shuddered.
“DA!” Elina shrieked.
Erik clutched her to his chest and ran. “Hold your—”
Mercilessly, waves smashed down upon them, one after another, stealing Erik’s words. Salty water gushed into his mouth, scouring the back of his throat. He choked. He gasped. Then the waves reversed, tugging at Elina, dragging him down, trying to pull them out into the ocean’s depths. He fought against it, struggling, howling, somehow escaping its grip.
Erik flopped on the beach with Elina still thrashing in his arms. He released her, and for a moment they huddled together, spewing the contents of their stomachs onto the damp sand. “Are you all right,” he asked when he could speak.
Elina nodded, then froze; her eyes were pools of midnight terror. He followed her gaze. A four-tusked mammoth rose from the Howling Sea, its long hairs consumed by fire. Undaunted, it charged toward them with tendrils of black smoke belching from its flame-wreathed body. The surrounding air rippled with the heat. Erik closed his eyes.
He opened his eyes to a stinging sensation in his cheek. Dara stood in front of him with her hand cocked back, and Elina sat beside him on the blue sofa. He touched his face, realizing he had just been slapped.
“You’re awake?” Dara said.
Erik looked past her 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 second later, something struck the manor hard and the whole building tilted towards the street. The sofa lunged forward, and Dara leaped out of the way, watching Erik and Elina slide past.
“Help!” Elina yelled.
Erik grabbed Elina and jumped off of the sofa. The floor scored his back, and his grip on her loosened as they slid downward. He flung out a hand, caught at her arm, and pulled with all his might. She came back into his arms, her slender limbs snaked around his neck. All around him the walls were busting at the seams and furniture and women were falling. The sofa smashed through the window, and they plunged into the hole it had created.
The world spun and Elina screeched into Erik’s ear as he tumbled through the air. Pain jolted through his spine when he struck the ground back first. Blackness crept into his. . . .