I was old when your kind still swung from trees, speak to me not of lost memories. What I’ve forgotten could fill your oceans and seas.
— MATANGI, SHE-WHO-IS-CHAINED
Erik’s rain-soaked eyelids flickered open an unknown amount of time later. The heavy precipitation falling from the sky sent a chill seeping into his chest, adding a strange counterpoint to the pain already raging in his back. His lungs labored for breath, and the darkness that had once consumed his vision receded from his perception.
He sat up slowly, careful not to jostle the blue sofa he had landed upon. Dimly, he was aware that it was the only reason he had not suffered greater harm. Blinking away the water striking his eyes, he found Elina on the ground crawling to her knees with a seashell clutched her hand. She stared at him without speaking.
Erik could feel the beginnings of a headache coming on as he gazed at the seashell. He ached to close his eyes or raise his hand to block the sight, but he did neither. Finally, he took a deep, ragged breath and looked away. Fetid air blew towards him from the crumbling base of the manor, but he ignored it for a moment, already knowing what he would find. All around him, women lay scattered on the dirt like ragdolls, dresses stained with mud and blood, some already climbing to their feet, leaning on broken bows.
“Erik!” a voice shouted at him from directly above.
Heat singeing his brow, he scrambled off the sofa, finally pausing to take note of the damage done to the house. Fire worked its way up the tilted building from the smoldering carcass of the four-tusked mammoth that lay half-enshrined within its ruined halls. Looking up, he saw Dara dangling from a window.
“Can you stop staring up my dress and give me a hand,” Dara complained.
Erik grinned. “But it’s such a pretty sight,” he quipped and immediately regretted it. Perhaps this was not the right time for jokes. He watched her stockinged legs kick out in empty air. Then again maybe it was.
“Erik!” Dara growled with more mirth than anger.
Erik motioned Elina back. “Let go and I’ll—” Erik began, but was cut off by Dara falling toward him. Unprepared, he caught her, staggering backward into the sofa and landing on the ground in a jumble. Pain throbbed through his shoulder, arms, and ribs, but he was alive and more importantly Dara was safe.
Kendra limped over and helped Dara to her feet. A fact for which Erik was thankful, it made breathing less of an effort. He struggled his way onto shaky legs and took stock of the situation. Everyone clustered around him seeking guidance and reassurance. A sense of urgency flashed through him. He could feel the weight of responsibility press down on him for a moment before he could stabilize himself.
Erik turned away from them and observed the smoldering path of destruction the four-tusked mammoths had left in their wake. Thunder rumbled above, and thatch-roofed homes wreathed in searing orange flames lit the darkened sky. “Where are the portable wardstones?”Erik asked absentmindedly.
“Here,” replied Halla, a brown-eyed maid who clutched a broken arm to her chest and stood with a satchel at her feet. Despite her obvious pain, she carried herself with a steely reserve, which invoked within Erik a feeling of pride.
Many thought of women as frail creatures, but Erik knew better. While on average they were physically weaker than their male counterparts, they possessed an ability to weather pain that would break any lesser being. In a way, they were built for suffering. Their bodies bore the anguish of childbirth and the torment of their monthly cycles. What man would claim to understood the pain of bringing life into the world?
Erik opened his mouth, but closed it again when a distant howl cut through the clamor of the storm. He jolted into action, grabbing Elina and pulling her close. “Dire wolves,” he shouted. “Use the wardstones to set up a perimeter. Quickly!”
Kendra helped Halla open the satchel and passed out three small wardstones to her fellow women-at-arms, keeping one for herself. The female warriors clasped the stone obelisks to their chest and moved to four corners of the group.
“Here,” Dara told Erik, pressing a sword into his hand. “You dropped this.” Without asking, she took Elina by the hand and pulled her to her side.
Erik gave Dara a nod of thanks. He would need his hands free for the battle yet to come. Abruptly he saw a man helping to put out the fire consuming a nearby home get snatched into the jaws of a dire wolf, and all thought of anything else left him. The villager struggled, fighting to free his leg by striking the beast in the snout. The light from the burning building showed Erik the pain and terror trapped on the man’s face.
“Stay together,” Erik muttered, doing his best to ignore Elina’s whimpering. We’re running out of time! “This way.”
The euphoria and fear of danger gave them all wings as Erik led them away with Kendra beside him with a small wardstone clutched to her chest. Those who had not lost or broken their weapons in the fall from the manor kept them clenched in tensed hands, ready to strike out with bows and swords at the slightest sign of an enemy. Hoarse screams rang out behind them, dying in a dozen ripped throats.
Never had Erik so resented his own lack of physical stamina. His breath burnt in his chest and his legs ached. I have to keep them safe. I have to!
They rounded a corner, and what they saw captured their full attention. Dire wolves, scores of them, feasting on the flesh of dead villagers. The four-legged beasts the size of small ponies, all white and gray, blurred when they moved. The smell of blood was everywhere. The smell of fur, and death.
“Back!” Erik shouted. How did they get ahead of us? “Back!” He knew from bitter experience that the dire wolves were fast, but he did not expect them to already be this deep into Wolfville. Their speed truly defied logic.
Elina screamed—a bone-harrowing sound that rose the hair on the back of his neck—catching him by surprise. He spun around, looking over the heads of his companions to see the path from which they came blocked by more dire wolves. Soon the predators surrounded them, doing slow circles around them as though they could see Erik and company despite the portable wardstones.
“Get back foul creatures!” Kendra yelled. She held a stone obelisk out in front of Erik, but he feared it would provide little protection. For whatever reason, the creations of the Jain monks had stopped working. In fact, if anything the dire wolves seemed drawn to them.
“Stay calm,” Erik cautioned, stepping back until his shoulders pressed up against warm bodies, eyes locked on the sea of moving fur.
A serpentine hiss escaped from the mouths of the dire wolves, and they dropped to their bellies, tails wagging. Their eyes glowed a demonic yellow in the dim light. Then a blue scaled qilin approached Erik with its golden antlers held high with pride.
Erik’s mouth went dry, and his palms suddenly felt damp on the hilt of his sword. Images seeped through him, images of Elina begging for his help, of Dara bleeding out from her throat. He could feel their terror, feel their pain and isolation as though it was his own. He tried to stop it, to save them, but he could not. He was not strong enough. . . . Finally, he gave himself a shake. His eyes burned like fire, and he feared that he had just witnessed the future.
The qilin came to a stop, watching Erik behind its thick white eyelashes. “Chaos reigns,” it spoke in earth churning rumble that dropped Erik to his knees.
He glanced behind him and realized that he was not the only one affected by the creature’s words. Everyone else was on their knees with pained looks painted on their faces. Dara clasped Elina to her bosom. They held eye contact for a moment, and then the look on her face made spin back around.
Dire wolves darted towards them with mouths agape with slashing teeth, lunging to bite out throats. Feminine shrieks deafened Erik, and by instinct more than conscious thought he rose his blade, twirling it and jabbing it forward. A rose the size of a house, with petals made of scarlet flames, bloomed a meter away from the tip of Erik’s sword. It swelled and slammed into a pack of wolves with the sound of bacon fat burning on a pan and a swoosh. Howls turned into shrieks and cries as they fell consumed by fire.
The rose exploded.
Erik blinked away the heat that stung his eyes and stared at his weapon. Impossible. He felt his stomach clench. How did I do that?
The flashing teeth of a dire wolf closed on Erik’s arm. Surprised, he screamed, pulling back. Blood sprayed into the air. He dropped onto his back, eyes swelling with tears. All around him, he could hear people dying.
“Dara,” he whispered. “Elina.” He wanted to look behind himself and search for them, but he did not because he was too afraid of what he would find. He had failed them. Elina, forgive me.
The qilin moved until it loomed above Erik. Somehow it had managed to escape Erik’s attack, but not unharmed. A number of its scales were burnt and gave off a fishy odor.
Erik took a ragged breath, feeling his life spill out of his wound where his arm used to be. He stared up into the monster’s eyes as cold seeped into his bones.
“Nature is the Dark One’s church,” whispered the qilin.
The words made Erik’s head ring like a struck bell. He could feel their reverberations shiver into his core. Before he could process there meaning the qilin snapped its maw shut on his throat and pieces of flesh tore away from his neck.
Erik awoke not in control of himself. His body thrashed on top of a not-very-wide bed while blood leaked out of his nose. Pain like he had never known throbbed in his chest with ever short ragged breath he took. Hanna, dressed in only one white stocking, tried to hold him still, but it was a losing battle. He was just too strong.
“Erik!” she shouted.
He opened his mouth, trying to speak, but his words came out tangled like a ball of twine. He was beyond speech and almost beyond thought. The torment spread from his chest to inhabit his whole being; no part of his body was spared.
“Tell me what to do?” Hanna wept, trying desperately to keep him from harming himself. “Please, I don’t want you to die. Not like this.”
Erik did not want to die. There was no honor in dying, no glory, no mercy either. There was just darkness and awareness of the darkness. It terrified him. He would do anything to stop himself from experiencing it again. The pain that currently knifed through him was preferable. He would trade an eternity of this anguish rather than die another time.
Never again, he promised himself. Never!
Finally, the groundswell of hurt receded like the evening tide, and he could take a full breath. His body stilled its spasm. Overjoyed, Hanna released a sigh of relief.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
Erik nodded his head and then had to close his eyes to stop the world from spinning. He pushed Hanna off of him, spitting blood onto the bedsheets. His throat felt raw.
Hanna climbed off of bed. “I’ll get a bucket of water.”
Erik rolled himself into a ball after Hanna left the room. He shuddered as though caught in a snowstorm without any clothes on. No matter what Erik did, he just could not seem to get warm. He focused on the bedchamber to take his mind off his discomfort. The room was stark and simple, with a few wool dresses hanging from pegs in the wall. A crude lamp sat unlit on a shelf, and the only illumination came from bars of sunlight cast through the gaps in between the brocaded curtains that covered the windows.
A short time later Hanna reentered with a bucket of water and a washing rag. Erik forced himself off of the bed and reached out for the wooden bucket. Hanna pulled it back.
“Let me help,” she said.
Erik shook his head. “I can do it myself.”
“Do you always have to be this hard-headed?”
“Yes,” Erik answered.
Hanna gave off the cold feeling of displeasure, but Erik ignored it. She slammed the bucket down, splashing water onto the floor. “Fine,” she growled, throwing the rag at his face. “Have it your way.”
Erik wrinkled his nose and removed the cloth draped over his face. The witty retort on the tip of his tongue died when caught sight of a blue-eyed man with a blond topknot stood staring up at him from the surface of the water. In a daze, he kneeled down in front of the bucket. He could feel his heart furiously pumping within his chest.
I know him, but from where? Erik could feel the answer to his question waiting just outside his grasp. Who are you?
The topknotted man’s lips moved, but no sounds could be heard. Suddenly Erik stuck his head into the bucket, and the Lightbender’s words reached him as if from a great distance.
Erik, you have to wake up. We’re dying! It’s already almost too late. You have to wake up! Please, for fuck’s sake wake up!
Hanna yanked Erik’s head from the bucket, and he fell back gasping for breath. Vaguely, he was aware of the fact that he had just almost drowned. His blood pounded in his ears, and the world blurred.
“What were you trying to do?” shouted Hanna. “Do you really wish to die that much?”
The blur receded from Erik’s vision. “Patrick,” he whispered, putting a name to the blond Lightbender’s face, but that was it. All he had was a name.
Erik climbed to his feet, using the bed as leverage. “How do you know when you’re dreaming?”
“Erik,” Hanna began, but he cut her off.
“Answer the question.”
Hanna started to pace back and forth in thought. “Honestly I don’t know what has gotten into you. 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 lies done in such a way that 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 remember what came before you closing your eyes. Does that answer your question?”
“I think so,” Erik replied. He turned away from her and began searching for his clothes.
“Are you sure that you’re okay?” Hanna asked slowly.
Erik sent her a faint smile. “No, I don’t think I am,” he answered honestly. He found his clothes scattered around the room and dressed in silence.
Hanna watched him deep in thought, the tranquility on her face belied by the knotted hands at her side. Finally, she spoke, “Is there anything I can do?”
Erik kissed her on the cheek. “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.”
Outside, Erik walked lost in his own world. Every time he tried to recall how he knew Patrick his mind would ring until he thought he might blackout. No matter how much he wanted to remember, the memory stayed firmly outside his grasp. The most maddening part was that he believed it was the key to unraveling what was happening to him.
Frustration building, he came to a stop in front of a small chapel. It was in a deserted part of the village, close to the front gate. Only a handful of villagers were in sight, using their horses to drag logs into the Wolfville, and most of those moved as if they were in a hurry to be somewhere else.
Maybe divine intervention is the path forward.
Giving himself a shake, he knocked on the door. There was no answer. He hesitated a moment, then went in.
The interior of the chapel was dust covered and filled with cobwebs like a building that had not been occupied in years. Erik walked deeper into the chapel and took a knee in front of a faded painting of the Eternal Father that hung on the far wall. An unlit oil lamp lay beneath the picture.
The smiling countenance of the Eternal Father peered down at him with a bloodstained cloth tied around his eyes. The holy scriptures claimed that they had been stolen by the Dark One in the war that had almost destroyed the world.
Erik brought his hands together and bowed his head. “I know we don’t have a good relationship,” he prayed. “I don’t even consider myself a believer. The last time I asked for your help was when my mother was dying. You never helped me then, and I doubt you will now, but I don’t know what else to do. I’m lost. I feel like parts of myself are missing. Please, if you exist, if you ever existed show me a sign. I need your help.”
He dropped his hands to his side with a sigh. What am I doing? This is stupid. The Age of Gods is long gone. All I have is myself.
Suddenly the oil lamp lit itself and Erik saw the blurry reflection of a sword traveling towards his neck. He forced himself to fall forward out of the range of the blade. Reaching out to soften his fall, he knocked over the lamp. It smashed into pieces and fire gushed up the wall, a blast of flame growing fat on wood and cobwebs, its heat singeing his eyes.
An instant after his stomach touched the floor, he rolled, putting as much distance between himself and his attacker. His eyes searched for an enemy, but the only danger they found was the fire working its way up to the painting of the Eternal Father.
“Show yourself!” Erik yelled. “I know you’re there.”