All the greatest intellects are infected by a touch of madness.
— YPSE, TO LEON
Erik’s eyes opened, slowly, staring up at the noonday sun. He looked emaciated like a wolf thinned by a long and cruel winter. White patches covered his robe and body in a mismatched assortment of dead skin. The presence of pain seemed almost a blessing, yet even it could not distract him from his memories for long. He remembered. . . . His eyes burned. And tears swelled.
“Elina,” he rasped through a dry and creaked throat.
Erik, you’re awake! Patrick’s voice sounded distant as though spoken from the other end of a long tunnel. I assumed we were dead for sure. He laughed, overjoyed at his sudden change of fortune. His amusement grew in intensity, drawing nearer and louder; Erik shuddered.
Erik clenched his teeth and tasted blood in his throat. Heat worked its way up his chest.
I’ve never believed I would be this glad to see another man, Patrick joked. Much less a fucking noble.
Shut up! Erik’s bottom lip trembled. “Shut the fuck up!” Elina, forgive me.
W-what’s wrong? The thought slithered through Erik’s mind, throbbing without animosity, more confused than anything. Knowledge of Patrick’s emotional state seemed another violation piled upon a heart filled with such; it brought Erik’s blood to a boil.
With a shaky start, Erik climbed to his feet and roared, half scream of pain, half animal howl. Abruptly the sound became a gurgle, and he toppled to his knees. Even before his knees touched the earth, black blood spewed out of his mouth. Thick and disgusting, it poured out of him until he almost hoped he might die. His vision blurred and the burning in his chest intensified as his intestines tried to fight their way out of his abdomen. In between the waves of agony, he realized Patrick was shouting at him
Gradually, his stomach stilled. He trembled from the absence of pain. It seemed to him like years had passed since he first dropped to his knees. He blinked away tears and took stock of himself and his environment.
Erik gasped. Bones littered the clearing he kneeled within in spiraling layers of bleached animal skeletons. A familiar forest of mighty redwoods drained of all color, surrounded the clearing, blocking the view of the graveyard from those who stood outside. He took in all in one horror-filled breath. Without thinking, he stumbled back and glimpsed something far worse. Meters from where he awoke lay a hole in the earth, shaped like an inverted obelisk and broad enough to swallow three of him whole.
A great danger lies here, Patrick murmured. I can feel it. We need to leave before. . . before whatever happened happens again.
Despite Patrick’s words, Erik found himself inexplicably drawn to the hole. The mystery of it took his mind away from what he had done. He dropped to a crouch, made himself peer inside, just with his right eye and wished he had not. Within the dark interior, he saw runes inscribed into the surface, greedily devouring stray beams of sunlight.
Why aren’t you listening? Patrick yelled. We have to leave now! Do you even understand how many days we’ve already spent in this place?
Low, guttural voices rose out of the hole, drowning out Patrick’s panicked shouts. They whispered in a harsh sounding language that somehow seemed familiar despite its strangeness. Erik’s eyelids grew heavy, and his breathing slowed. Suddenly all he wanted to do was sleep, but he realized if he closed his eyes he would never open them again. The voices faded into mummers. Everything—
An earth quaking rumble tore through Erik’s mind. Flee. FLEE!
Jolted back into full consciousness, Erik found himself teetering on the edge of the great hole. Gazing down, it seemed to descend into eternity. For a second he wondered what would happen if he jumped. Would he fall forever? Or would his heart stop from the terror of the endless drop?
Erik, began the Lightbender. Escape, finished the Celestial Dragon.
Even as Erik turned, regret filled him that he had not thrown himself into the hole. It was what he deserved, but self-preservation always won out, no matter how much he wished it did not. His legs dashed away from the edge as quick as they could without tripping over the long rotted remains of animals, which was not that fast in his weakened state. He moved at a turtle’s pace, pursued by guilt and shame.
Bones shattered, loud and brittle, beneath his leather sandals. Exhausted, he paused at the end of the clearing and scratched at a white patch on the back of his hand. Dead skin flaked off like dried fish scales. Drawing a deep breath, he worked moisture back into his mouth. “South, which way is south.” The words flew out in a rush, but he was surprised they tumbled at all.
I don’t know, came Patrick’s hesitant response. First, you need to find two sticks. Then take the longest one and—
South, interjected the Celestial Dragon. The utterance came with an impression of direction, steering Erik a hundred meters to the right of his current location.
Are you sure? For a moment Erik stood there, trying to stop panting. How do you know? As if in response he suddenly sensed two dueling magnetic fields itching his mind. One led where the Devourer of Worlds had directed him, and the other pointed in the opposite direction.
Cautiously Erik looked at the redwoods that blocked his path forward. He guessed that the Celestial Dragon was learning from Patrick and himself. That thought should have filled him with foreboding, but Erik felt nothing. He realized he was too numb to feel much of anything at the moment, and maybe ever again.
You’re not going to trust that abomination, are you? Patrick asked, his voice incredulous. Erik? Erik’s silence turned his tone biting. That thing killed my entire squad! And if given half a chance it would devour us both.
The beast rippled with disagreement. Kin. No eat.
Erik followed the Celestial Dragon’s directions and ignored Patrick’s complaints. Though Patrick had a valid point, they were now in this together. And the dragon had yet to tell a lie. He did not think it was capable of it and if it was, it was better to find out sooner rather than later.
The bleached white trees shielded Erik from the rays of the sun as he navigated his way through them, but the shade was anything but soothing. It sent a chill creeping into his veins. He could have heard a pin drop in the silence. Of the creatures that usually inhabited a forest, there was no sign. Not even the buzzing of insects broke the stillness. The eeriness also affected Patrick and the Celestial Dragon, keeping them both quiet.
Some time later, he fumbled past the last redwood and left the world of endless white behind. At first, he took comfort in nature’s natural colors, even as muted as they were this close to the Dark One’s prison. They helped erode the numbness that had seeped into his soul. The further he got from the forest, though, the more emotions shifted like shadows, and he began to choke on sentiment.
Erik allowed himself to fall onto his back. Knee high grass loomed malevolently around him, whipped by gusts of wind. As if in counterpoint to the horror, the blue sky hung above, dazzling him with its beauty. A sense of relief flooded him, turning his tense muscles into milk. He did not dare to breathe for fear he might ruin the moment.
Something happened to you in there, Patrick told him. Something I didn’t experience.
Yes. Erik released the breath he had been holding. The howls of the wind no longer rustled the tall grass, but in the silence, his heartbeats replaced the sound.
What was it?
Erik inhaled slowly, savoring the sensation of air filling his lungs. “Am I a bad person?” he asked. “I mean am I. . . .”
Yes, Patrick responded, not pausing for even a second. But you knew this already. You’re a monster. We both are.
“I have this idea in my head,” Erik explained. “Of what being good feels like. My mother wanted me to be the light the world needed. And I try so hard to be that for her. For her memory. But I’m a fraud, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone finds outs. There’s nothing good about me. There’s no line I won’t cross.” His eyes shifted from the clouds to squint at the sun. “And that terrifies me. Everyone should have limits.”
Do you know what your problem is, Erik? You walk around feeling pity for yourself, Patrick admonished. Whatever happened to you in there, many have it far worse. For example, you could be a voice trapped within the mind of a madman. Now that would be something to be sorry about.
Erik laughed. “You’re right, that sounds like a fate worse than pretty much anything.” Erik pounded his fist on his thigh and sat up, snug in the comforting familiarity of male banter.
Patrick sighed. Much worse.
“How long were we trapped in the forest,” Erik asked, climbing to his feet.
Not too sure, Patrick admitted. I remember you dodging the dire wolf’s attack, and then the next thing I knew I was surrounded by darkness. With the Celestial Dragon for company, I might add. He gave a bitter chuckle. I almost went insane, but luckily a short time later—how long exactly I’m not sure—I gained access to your five senses. Your eyes were closed, but I could feel the dirt beneath your back and the wind on your skin. The heat from the sun was one of the few ways to mark the passing of —
“How long?” Erik asked, cutting in. He knew if he allowed it, Patrick would continue to drone on. Their time apart had done wonders for the Lightbender’s mocking tongue, Erik mused to himself. Isolation had a way of humbling you; it tempered the soul by holding up a mirror and forcing you to see all of your flaws. For that reason, most would rather weather any other abuse than be by themselves. You really did miss me, didn’t you?
Twenty days, Patrick breathed, not dignifying the second question with a response.
Erik laughed and resumed his southward journey. He looked at his right hand and wished he still had his sword. Instead of leaving it at that, Erik closed his hand and imagined he clutched the weapon. He slashed at the empty air, picturing the way the sunlight would gleam of the blade and how the weight of the hilt would feel in his palms. The mock swings eased the stiffness in his joints and kept his mind from churning in circles.
What are you doing?
Erik thrust his imaginary weapon, then turned it into a sideways slash. “Keeping the self-pity at bay,” he grunted as if the blade had met resistance.
Patrick snorted. You know, once I had a dream in which I was the Emperor of all of Daði, and I could end the idiocy of the nobility with a single phrase. I yelled, ‘KILL YOURSELVES!’ And they all did.
Erik dropped his hands to his side and did his best not to scowl. He could not see Patrick’s face, but he could sense his grin all the same. The response on his tongue died as he stumbled convulsively at a dire wolf’s high-pitched howl, then straightened and exploded with a burst of speed.
Fuck, not again, Patrick yelled.
Fear crawled up Erik’s belly, making him want to sag to his knees, shaking. How many times had he watched as dire wolves devoured those he loved? Three? Four? It did not matter that none of it was real, Hanna’s, Dara’s, and Elina’s remembered screams knifed through him all the same. His hands balled into fists. No, more, he thought.
Abruptly, Erik halted his forward momentum, coming to a sudden stop.
What are you doing? Snarled Patrick.
“I’m not fucking running anymore!” Erik snapped. “Not from them. Not from anyone.”
But. . . . Patrick trailed off. Are you insane? You’re no match for a pack of dire wolves on you own.
“Watch!” Erik gave his head a shake. This conversation was getting him nowhere. His plan depended on whether the Celestial Dragon was willing to cooperate. If it was not, he did not think he could do what he needed to with it fighting him at every step. An inner battle would eat too much time, and that was something that was lacking at the moment. He only had seconds before the dire wolves descended on him.
Reaching within himself, he grabbed hold of the ember of hatred that slumbered inside and feed it the memory of Hanna being swallowed whole. The Celestial Dragon stirred, and Erik grinned. Time to feed, he whispered at it.
Soft juicy flesh-things.
He spun in a circle. Eight dire wolves raced towards him from every direction. They were large blurry shapes even in the sunlight. Light shifted around them, making them seem like lit candles flickering in the breeze.
A flash of emotion crossed over from Patrick. Fear. Erik, don’t do this! He seemed more concerned with what Erik was doing than the gaping maws inching towards them. It’s not natural.
Erik’s arms seemed to burst open, swelling double their size. His skinned burned, and he moaned behind teeth that were clenched so tight that his jaw ached. His flesh crawled like a sluggish river, morphing into black and gold dragon scales until he looked like a repulsive melange of human and beast.
He howled, guttural and sharp. Naked but for his scales, he still looked human, but with a strange reptilian tilt. Black and gold eyes glared at everything with barely concealed hate. His stomach raged at him, and he salivated at the idea of blood on his teeth.
RIP! CLAW! TEAR! DEVOUR—
Breath left Erik in a jumbled rush, and he echoed the monster words, “Rip! Claw!” Time slowed to a crawl, and the dire wolves became visible. TEAR! DEVOUR! The ember grew into a fiery inferno.