How do you turn a man into a monster? You put him in a cage.
— ANCIENT PROVERB
Erik awoke on top of a not-very-wide bed with blood pouring from his nose. He gasped, choking on air while his body convulsed. His ears roared with thunder. His heart hammered his chest.
“Erik!” Dressed in only one stocking, Hanna hurried to his side. She pressed down against his arms and struggled to hold him still.
A torrent of torment spread from his chest to inhabit the whole of his being. He could feel it in his toes and in the tips of his fingers. No part of him was spared.
“Please, don’t die. Not like this,” Hanna said through clutched teeth.
Erik did not want to die. There was no honor in dying, no glory, no mercy either. There was just darkness and the awareness of the darkness. It terrified him. He would do anything to stop himself from experiencing it again. Never again, he promised himself. Never!
Slowly, the groundswell of hurt receded, and the tremors abated. Erik gulped, filling his lungs with fresh air. Hanna released a sigh of relief and let go of his arms.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
Erik nodded, then closed his eyes when the world started to spin. He spat out phlegm streaked with crimson onto the bed sheets. His throat was raw.
For a moment she stared at him, concerned. “I’ll get a bucket of water.” She left through the bedroom door.
Erik shuddered; there was a coldness in his veins, in his bones. In his soul. He sat up and rubbed his thighs, but no matter what he did, he could not seem to get warm. His eyes roamed his surroundings. The room was stark and simple, with a few wool dresses hanging from pegs on the wall. A crude lamp sat unlit on a shelf, and bars of sunlight fell through the gaps in between the brocaded curtains.
Hanna re-entered with a bucket of water and a washing rag. After setting the bucket down, she helped Erik to his feet. “Have you ever had seizures like that before?”
“Not that I. . . .” Erik trailed off as he caught sight of the bucket. A blue-eyed man with a blond topknot stared up at him from the surface of the water.
In a daze, he kneeled down in front of it. The man’s lips moved, but no sounds could be heard. Erik’s heart pumped furiously within his chest. He stuck his head into the water, and words reached him as if from a great distance.
“Erik, you have to wake up. We’re dying! It’s already almost too late. Wake up! Please, for fuck’s sake WAKE UP!”
Something yanked Erik back, and he fell to the floor, overturning the bucket. Cold water splashed on him as the world blurred.
Hanna pounded her fist on his chest. “What were you trying to do? Do you want to die that much?”
The world steadied.
“Patrick,” Erik whispered, putting a name to the blond Lightbender’s face, but that was it. All he had was a name. How do I know him? What did he mean? I have to wake up?
“Who’s Patrick?” Hanna stood and ran a hand through her hair. Her irritation showed in the tightness around her eyes.
“How do you know when you’re dreaming?” Erik asked. He climbed to his feet by using the bed as leverage.
“You’re starting to scare me, Erik,” Hanna said.
“I know.” Erik shifted on his feet and gave a small shake of his head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t explain, not now. Just answer the question.” His eyes drifted back to the overturned bucket.
“What has gotten into you?” Hanna paced back and forth. “You almost died, then you tried to drown yourself. And now you’re asking me about dreams?” She raised her hand to forestall Erik’s interruption. “I’m getting to your question, don’t worry. To dream is to slip into fantasy, to lose yourself in a world that doesn’t exist. Dreams are a mixture of truth and lie done in such a way you can’t tell which is which. The most bizarre occurrences only seem out of place after you awake. You know you’re dreaming when you can’t remember what came before you closed your eyes. Does that answer your question?”
Erik nodded in the way of a reply. He gathered his clothing strewn all over the floor, his breeches were half-soaked, and his blue coat stank like foul body odor. He was almost certain that the first time he had awakened in Hanna’s room, the coat had been green, but he pushed that thought away.
Hanna watched him with sad eyes. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“No, I don’t think I am,” he answered while pulling up his wet breeches.
“Is there anything I can do?”
For a long time, Erik did not respond. When he was finished getting dressed, he kissed her on the cheek and said, “Thank you, but no. I think this is something I have to solve on my own.”
“You think I’m useless.”
“Never,” he gave her another kiss, this time on the lips. “I have to go now, Hanna.”
Erik walked out of Hanna’s home and wondered aimlessly through the village, blind to the laughing children out on the streets, or the goodwives that watched him from kitchen windows. No matter how hard he tried, he could not recall how he knew Patrick. The most maddening part was that he believed it was the key to unraveling the mysteries that surrounded him.
Frustration mounting, he came to a stop in front of a small chapel in a deserted part of the village, close to the front gate. A handful of villagers passed him, dragging a log with help from a horse.
Perhaps divine intervention is the key, he mused half jokingly. Why not? Erik knocked on the door. There was no answer. He hesitated a moment, then. . . .
Nature is the Dark One’s church.
It was not Erik’s own thought, but a sexless disembodied voice that appeared in his mind. Somehow he knew the source of the words came from above and the sudden knowledge made his skin crawl. His head jerked up.
I am the Two, I am the One A large, black crow circled overhead. Follow, and I will show the way.
Erik chased after the bird as it flew away. He dashed through Wolfville’s winding streets, knocked over fellow denizens in his rush, but never stopped or slowed until he reached the front gate. Made of thick, wooden logs, the gate stood open under the guard of four men in mismatched armor.
Erik ambled forward, doing his best to appear calm. On the inside, his nerves trembled like a jar of worms poured onto a hot pan. The armored men glanced at glanced at him but otherwise said nothing. Once free from their gaze, he ran after the crow, bolting past the secondary wardstones, straining to move as fast as he could. Worry chewed at him, but he pushed it away.
He followed the crow past the farms and hedge-bordered fields and stopped at the edge of an ancient forest of redwoods. Long shadows stretched within it, occasionally convoluted by the late-summer breeze that shook the branches.
“You don’t deserve her,” said a voice.
Erik spun around. The air shimmered like the haze in front of a lit forge and then coalesced into Ebbi. He stood half shrouded in shadows with his longsword raised over his head, staring at Erik with eyes filled with cold malice.
“Ebbi,” Erik stammered, stumbling back into the forest.
“You don’t!” The Lightbender scowled. “You betrayed her for that whore. For the witch!” Spit flew from his mouth. “After all she’s done for you! It’s better this way, with you dead.”
Erik tripped and fell onto his rear with fear clawing at the back of his throat. Suddenly, Ebbi was thrust forward as golden antlers exploded out of his chest, sending his longsword clattering at Erik’s feet. The antlers reversed, and the Lightbender fell face first onto the ground.
A blue scaled qilin stood behind the still twitching corpse with blood dripping down its golden antlers. Something primordial reached through Erik’s chest and seized his heart. Tremors rattled his breastbone. Terror stymied his thoughts. He grabbed the longsword scrambled back.
“I am the One,” the qilin said, “and she awaits you.”
“Who?” Erik whispered.
“She-Who-Is-Chained.” The qilin lowed its head and ripped out the back of Ebbi’s neck, all without breaking eye contact with the Erik. Rivers of scarlet gore splattered onto its long, white beard.
Erik climbed to his feet and ran deeper into the forest. Things shifted around him as his heart pounded in his chest. Temperatures cooled until his breath became visible and the trees grew sinister while their leaves changed from green to brown and orange.
The wind whipped past his ears, but he did not stop moving. He did not dare, not with that monster behind him. Leaves fell from above to dance around him, pregnant with the scents of autumn and a mountainside quilted in snow.
Erik broke out of the forest and into a circular clearing. Something drew his eyes skyward, and he froze. Where he had expected clouds and the sun, he saw a blue ball surrounded by the darkness of the void. That’s . . . that’s. . . . How?
“Beautiful, is it not?” came a woman’s voice, melodious despite hints of melancholy. “Even now the sight of it still moves me.”
With a start, Erik’s eyes fell to meet the woman who had spoken. She, too, had been gazing up at the distant planet, but now her three large, dark eyes held his own. He gasped. She was like no one he had ever seen before.
Blue skinned and half the size of an ancient redwood, she sat cross-legged at the center of the clearing with each one of her four arms adorned with heavy chains that disappeared into the earth. She was naked but for a crescent moon fastened in her dark hair, and that seemed to glitter where it hung draped across her forehead just above her third eye. Twigs and leaves matted her long hair as if the forest floor had been her mattress.
Breathe. Erik forced himself to breathe. Her waist was slim and her breasts well-developed, but he found himself drawn to her face, both youthful and stern. Her eyes were pools of darkness that swallowed the light. No. They were relics from an ancient past, suffused with torment and something else. Something . . . unfathomable.
“W-Who are you?” Erik stuttered, gripping the longsword tighter to stop his hands from trembling. He did not understand how he had not noticed her before she spoke.
“I have had many names. My favorite was given to me when the world was still young. I would write poetry by starlight, so they called me Poet. Not clever I know, but it was a simpler time. I have held others in Ages past, in languages remembered by none but I. Once they called me Matangi and Earth Mother. Now they brand me the Destroyer, the Great Betrayer . . . the Dark One.”
Erik stumbled back. “That’s impossible. The Dark One is imprisoned within the Abyss.” His pulse quicken in panic. This must be a joke! Some kind of sick joke.
Matangi threw her head back and laughed, and the trees seemed to echo her amusement as a sudden gust whistled through their bare branches. Even when filled with mirth, the Dark One held herself with a regal grace that made Erik want to bend a knee to her glory.
“Come closer and allow me to unspool the truth from both myth and legend,” she said. “After all is that not why you have come?”
Despite his trepidation, Erik approached her until he had to crane his neck to see her face. Her tallness made an awkward child out of him, his head barely came up to her knees. He found his eyes drawn to the dark crevice in between her thighs for a moment, then jerked them away. What are you doing? She can crush you with a hand!
“Good,” Matangi said, her eyes sparkling. “Now I will tell you of things no man has heard since the Second Breaking of the World. Once I begin, you must permit me to go on to the end.” She sounded as if she had recited these words for many years, but this was her first time saying them to another living being.
“Are you the reason I can’t remember my past?”
The smile slipped from Matangi’s face. “I was old when your ancestors still swung from trees, speak not of lost memories. What I have forgotten could fill the oceans!”
Erik took a fearful step back with his blood roaring in his ear. He contemplated drawing his longsword but thought better of it.
“Forgive me.” The Dark One shook her head and retained her good cheer, yet now there was an element of falseness to her smile. “My isolation has made me brittle, and now and again my rage grows exponentially into a boiling cloud of incandescence. It was not always this way. In the beginning, I thought he loved me as I loved myself. That lie is the reason I now lay garlanded in perpetual darkness.”
“Who,” Erik could not help but ask.
“My beloved, the one you call the Eternal Father. Once we were lovers. Once he freed me from these very chains, I now wear. In the time before your First Age, I stole an object of power from Vaikuntha and used it in secret to change your ancestors, to make them more like us. And it worked, your kind left their trees, and together we built glorious cities where they wrote poetry and sang songs to my beauty. Earth Mother, is what they called me then.
Vaikuntha? Erik repeated the strange word in his head. It itched a dark part of his brain, and for a moment he saw sprawling marble palaces bedecked with golden borders, then the image was gone.
“Long ago when the moon was whole we called it Vaikuntha,” Matangi told Erik. “Before it was destroyed, it was our home.”
Erik’s legs shook as if he teetered on the edge of a chasm. He dropped to his knees and gazed up at his homeworld.
“Vaikuntha is gone forever,” she answered his unspoken question. “This is but a memory, a shadow of something that now only exist in my mind. Your soul fell through a hole in my prison. If your body dies before you return to it, you will remain here, trapped with me forever.”
“How do I escape this place?” Erik’s knuckles whitened on the hilt of the sword. He believed her. Somehow he knew she spoke the truth.
“I will tell you how after I am finished my tale. Yet I warn you now you will not like the how of it. It will wound you deeply. To love is to bleed.”
“I . . . I understand.”
“No, you do not, but you will. If you live long enough, you will see friends turn into enemies, love change into hatred, and all light consumed by the darkness.” Matangi gave a sad sigh. “My time on earth came to an end after my crime was discovered. They chained me to Vaikuntha to reflect on what I had done. My Beloved is the only one who visited me then. He would sing me songs to dry my eyes.”
Erik crossed his legs and laid his weapon down.
Matangi looked away from him, her eyes despondent. “Every ending has its roots in a beginning. Looking back, I see ours; he was logic distilled, and I was nature herself. Opposites. I felt too much, and he felt too little.” A tear slipped from her third eye. “As the eons past our brothers and sisters turned their attention to mankind. I watched in horror as they perverted them with violence and war, all for their own amusement. Then . . . then they learned that there was power in their deaths.”
The Dark One’s words cut through Erik. They made his blood boil. He pictured with ease the atrocities that must have been committed by the Death Gods, for the sake of their games.
“You must understand, I thought of mankind as my children,” she went on. “I gave them life. What mother can listen to her child cry out for help and do nothing? At my pleading, the Eternal Father stole the key to my chains. Then together we made war on our siblings. Vaikuntha broke apart in the ensuing battle, but in the end, we were able to lock them away within the Abyss.”
“Why didn’t you kill them?” Erik asked.
Matangi grimaced. “One can not kill a god, not truly.”
“That’s how the First Age ended?”
Matangi nodded. “The period that followed the war was some of the happiest times of my life. Then one day my beloved told me he was leaving. He said he had moved beyond the dualities, whatever that meant. He broke my heart, so I took his eyes. I am not proud of what I did, but he hurt me.” Her voice quavered at the end.
“What happened then?” Erik swallowed the lump in his throat.
“We fought, and I lost,” she said softly. “He imprisoned me here in this mirror world and told me I could free myself at any time. All I had to do was destroy the thing I loved the most.”
Erik stood, aghast. “To free yourself you have to destroy mankind?”
“Yes, is it not cruel? No one can hurt you like those you love. All I have now are my memories and my dreams because there is beauty in them, too.”
For a moment Erik was silent, watching tears run down Matangi’s blue cheeks. At last, he said, “You told me you would tell me how I can leave this place.”
“The greater the intellect, the more one is alone.” Matangi’s mutter was doubtless meant for herself, but in the hush, Erik heard her quite clearly. The whistle of the wind through hundreds of bare branches was the only other sound.
It was at her that Erik stared, not the redwoods. An imprison god. The Dark One. He could not still fully except it. Growing up, he had been taught her stories, he remembered that now. She had other titles besides the ones she had named earlier. The Great Seducer. The Mother of Lies. Strangely, he still believed every word she had said.
“Answer me. Please!” Erik begged, ashamed at how weak his own voice sounded to his ears.
“You will only have one more opportunity to escape. Kill the one you love the most and free yourself. Refuse, and you will remain here for all eternity, repeating the—”
Abruptly, the chains on Matangi wrists snapped taut, and she slammed onto her back. The ground quaked beneath Erik’s boots, and he stumbled backward until he found his balance.
“GO!” she yelled. “My daily torments begin anew.”
At the sound of a metallic buzzing, Erik glanced up and what he saw almost caused his heart to stop. Three humanoid creatures, half the size of Matangi, circled in the sky, dressed in seamless white armor and helmets shaped like an eagle’s face. The golden wings on their backs fluttered with such speed that they were indistinguishable from a blur. Each one was armed with a spear made of pure light, and though glimpsed for only an instant, the weapons nearly blinded him.
Erik spun around with his eyes watering from the searing pain. He ran, staggering forward more than anything. His nostrils filled with the smell of ozone and the sky hissed.
“It is only for the love of my children I weather these daily torments.” The Dark One’s voice rose above everything else. “How much longer will I last I wonder?”
Something struck the earth behind Erik, and the ground heaved. A rent appeared in the clearing ahead of him, molten rock gushing from the crack. Beyond that, large plots of earth thrust upward like launched stones, uprooting trees. He dropped to his knees, covered in fiery magma. His body thrashed and quivered. His flesh burned and his bones melted. He screamed!