Morality does not exist to a man with an empty stomach.
— ANCIENT PROVERB
Yellow eyes glowing, a dire wolf almost as tall as man’s chest, all gray and black, reached for Erik with its mouth agape. Although it seemed to only be moving at a walk, he knew it was running faster than most humans could perceive.
The hate inside Erik rung with reverberations that grew in intensity with each passing millisecond. With the hate came power, flooding into his mind as he was aware of it flooding into his muscles. Strength filled him until he could just keep up with the dire wolf’s pace. He could feel resistance from the air on his limbs and bones which would have already broken under normal circumstances only gave him a twinge of pain. But his heart ached, tearing and healing repeatedly. It felt as if it might explode at any moment.
Despite his transformation, Erik understood he could not sustain these speeds for long. He only had a dozen seconds to finish the fight, at best, and he prayed it would be enough. Mother, let it be enough.
Like a viper, devious and savage, he struck out with a clawed hand. Wolf flesh ripped, sluggishly leaving deep grooves into the beast’s face as Erik battered it away. A golden eye ruptured, popped like a bubble and vile fluid lazily spewed into the air.
One, he thought in savage glee. Now there were only seven dire wolves left, and twelve seconds to kill them all in. A part of him recognized his lack of fear as dangerous, but necessity suppressed his concern. All that mattered was survival. The gray and black dire wolf drifted away before him, its ruined face now leaking crimson ribbons.
An instant later Erik spun, blood covered claw flashing towards the pure white dire wolf that had crept behind him. The animal tried to dodge, howling as Erik’s claw scored its side with all the speed of a falling lotus petal. Taking a step forward, he casually flung out the same hand, caught the wolf by its back leg, and pulled. Bones broke in his grip as he twisted, using momentum to launch the white wolf towards two of its lunging pack members. It floated through the air with surprise etched on its lupine visage.
Behind you, Patrick roared.
Erik turned, but much too slowly. Massive teeth sank into his thigh, and suddenly he was falling, flashing back into normal speed along with the black wolf that had taken hold of him. He rolled across the knee high grass, trying to dislodge the creature from his thigh. The stench of broken blades of grass and unwashed fur filled his nostrils.
Fuck, Patrick panicked.
With a crunch, another pair of jaws bit down on his shoulder, pulling him in the opposite direction. Razor sharp teeth broke against his scales, and bones in his thigh and shoulder cracked on the point of breaking. Then even more teeth sank into him, great maws gnawing at both sides of his waist. Pain labored his breath and narrowed his vision. He groaned, dimly aware that he was being ripped in four different directions. Somehow he kept the darkness that crept into his eyesight at bay and managed to throw himself into another roll by using his elbows.
Long blades of grass brushed against Erik’s face as he rotated in the air. Shouting wordlessly, his eyes adjusted to make it seem as though the world had once again slowed. His heart galloped, pounding in his ears, furiously trying to supply his body with the blood that moving at these speeds required. The sudden pain in his chest dwarfed the sensation from the jaws ripping at his reptilian flesh. Adding an odd counterpoint to the agony, the black scales on his arms began to shift like the surface of a pond pummeled by droplets of water.
Puny flesh-things! The Celestial Dragon raged. Eat, it whispered to Erik as it attempted to advance his transformation by a stage, trying to make him accept his true heritage. The whispers came with a flash of images. Mountains of erotic flesh, giving birth to rivers of gore. Human bodies piled like so much meat, twitching in the morning breeze. A feast of death just for him.
For a moment Erik allowed the visions to overwhelm him, finding beauty in their macabre glory. The back of his arms burned, and he felt a wetness at the back of his throat. His heart protested as he pushed himself to lift his arms, fighting against the air that had seemed to turn into mud.
Devourer of Worlds, the Celestial Dragon continued. That was what a long dead race had called its kin. It—They—Erik did not need weapons, his whole body was a weapon of ultimate destruction. He was a Celestial Dragon, and any Celestial Dragon could tear apart the earth with a single blow.
Yes, Erik thought. I’m the Devourer of Worlds! With a mental roar, he drove his arms towards the two dire wolves with their jaws locked around his waist. From the elbow down his arms unspooled, morphing into a dozen long snake-like tendrils the color of fresh blood. The tendrils wiggled in the air, seeming to take forever to inch their way into the two dire wolves’ nostrils and ears. The eyes of wolves widened in panic and jaws released from Erik’s side, but much too slowly to make any difference. The two dire wolves convulsed, limbs jerking wide, eyes beginning to lose their shine.
Patrick cowered within Erik. Don’t do—! He began before the Celestial Dragon surged forth, depriving him of breath. FEED, the beast encouraged; its eagerness shuddering through Erik.
Time crawled forward, and Erik’s body twisted, leaving the blades of grass behind to once again gaze back up at the sky. Pleasure seeped up his elbows from the tendrils devouring the dire wolves from within. His stomach groaned. It felt like a gaping hole ready to swallow the world. Mother. It was all he could do not to allow the Celestial Dragon to fully seize control. I’m—
Erik crashed in a jumble of limbs and wolf flesh, sliding backward across the ground, propelled by the force of his landing. Distorted howls sped up until they sounded normal and Erik grunted behind clenched teeth. The vast array of black scales that covered Erik began to vanish as if red waves rolled in over them, sending tendrils and petals oozing down the throats of the wolves that chewed at his shoulder and thigh. Slowly he unfolded like blood-colored fog to gradually swallow the four dire wolves whole.
Memories began to flash through his mind, one after the other. He remembered roaming the Northern Reaches on four legs. He remembered the smell of fear emanating off of a herd of four-tusked mammoths that he stalked. He remembered giving birth to his first litter of pups. He remembered his den and the comforting feeling of being surrounded by his pack. He—
I am Morning Mist, mother of the Night Echo Pack “No!” I am known as Whisper, offspring of Morning Mist and Terror. “I am Erik Ito!” Unlike with when this happened with Patrick and the Celestial Dragon, Erik found it easy to separate himself from images that flooded his thoughts. He crushed the voices and four lifetimes of memories became his. He was Erik Ito, but he had also lived life as Jumper, Silent, Whisper, and Morning Mist.
More, the Celestial Dragon begged, driving half-mad from the Hunger. MORE!
Groaning, Erik raised a hand and winced when tendrils joined to form a wolf paw. His chest hurt. Two hearts pounded in his chest; each beat a hammer slamming on the inside of his ribs, brought on by his assimilation of the dire wolves.
No, Erik thought, watching the slowly forming wolf paw. As if heeding Erik’s mental command the tendrils stopped, first separating, and then merging to create a human hand, Erik’s hand. He rolled to his feet, his frame still oozing with strange red flesh. Bit by bit he forced it to stillness and looked around him.
Bright with daylight, knee high grass slowly parted in front of Erik. The big, grizzled dire wolf, he now knew as Terror, dashed towards him, moving at a snail’s pace. Once fierce and terrifying wolfish features seemed serene and majestic. In another life, Erik had copulated and hunted with Terror. The massive beast was his friend, lover, and father.
Erik gave himself a mental shake and struck out with a closed fist. He was death, swifter on two legs than Terror was on four. He guessed it had something to do with the two hearts that even now pumped in his chest. Before, moving at such speeds had felt like trying to walk upstream, but now the air melted before him.
A human fist met a dire wolf skull and won. Powerfully built bones that two men would have trouble breaking with swords gave way beneath Erik’s hand. Terror tumbled back, brain leaking out of the gaping hole in his face.
H-how? Patrick’s stuttered, his surprise crashing over Erik in waves. Now you’re even quicker than the dire wolves? His voice came in whisper, stating the obvious.
Gray matter and skull fragments sped through the air then suddenly slowed as Erik pushed himself even faster, testing his new limits by jerking back his injured hand. The blow had left it a ruined mess of reassembling flesh and bones. Small bursts of agony flowed up from the wound.
The three remaining dire wolves watched him without expression. He wondered if they could perceive anything more than a blur. His green eyes took them all in, examining the blood dripping down Snow’s pure white fur, weighing every drop of crimson that spilled from Fang’s ruptured eye, measuring the steps it would take to reach April Rain. Ten.
At that moment an idea took hold of him rocking him to his core. He realized that it had been ages since he last used the Aspects of the Abyss to shape reality. The way he chose to fight thus far was more like a beast than a man. I’m a Cultivator. It’s time I acted like it.
Now you come to this conclusion, Patrick mocked, his voice sounding slightly forced.
Ignoring the Lightbender, Erik took a step forward and reached for his inner void. The last two times he had attempted this it had ended in failure, but he hoped this time would be different. A sense of falling inwards took hold of him, and he found himself staring out of the eyes of his Ethereal Body, surrounded by a clear bubble, sailing through a starless void.
A heartbeat later he exploded into a ball of swelling light. His gold and silver radiance grew slowly, seeming to take a thousand years until it erupted into the world. Then awareness of the dire wolves returned to Erik through a new tactile like sense.
This close to the Dark One’s prison there was a surprising lack of prana in the air and the earth, but Erik did not care, what was there would be enough. Fearing a repeat of last time, he brought his expanding consciousness to a halt, stopping at five hundred meters, well short of his new limit. Then drew it all back inward, dragging along every speck of prana he had ensnared.
Power filled Erik, setting his mind aflame with a feeling of great might. At the center of the void, he reformed his Ethereal Body and his clear bubble. Golden liquid-like prana filled the interior of the bubble, reaching past Erik’s head sparkling with an otherworldly ambiance.
He took another step towards April Rain, drawing his repaired arm back and aiming it at the wolf.
From the quiet of his inner void, Erik reached for the Abyss, calling to it with help from his First Stöðin, the vase shaped organ that spun in circles within his Ethereal Body. He heard it before he saw it. First, it came as a whisper, a half-remembered jingle that hovered just out of grasp. Then the chorus of a million wailing souls surrounded him, jabbing into his mind, doing its best to shatter his calm. He fought against it and won as he had always done.
Erik shuddered and glanced down at the massive vortex churning below him. As vast as the horizon, it glittered gold and green and was chased with blue and an ominous red glow. The sight of the Abyss filled him with dread, but he pushed his fear down.
Taking four more steps, Erik twisted the fingers of his right hand, performing an Esoteric Hand Technique called Winter Unfolds. April Rain’s lips slowly came back from her fangs, forming a snarl as she tried to dodge. Too slow, Erik thought as prana surged into his First Stöðin, a torrent greater than he had ever managed, from the clear bubble into his Ethereal Body. The opening within his First Stöðin shone brighter than the sun. He used the flow to wrestle the Aspect of Water from the Abyss, trying to force the implacable tide of otherness to conform to his will. For an instant that took decades, he wavered on the brink of being scoured into nothing by the thing he sought to command, but like a beat dog the Aspect surrendered.
The space around April Rain warped as if someone had bent what was. Fighting against a world that rebelled at what was being done, Erik twisted reality to complete his Esoteric Hand Technique.
A localized blizzard descended on April Rain, and dreamlike ice crystals grew from her like vines around an abandoned villa. With infinite slowness the ice firmed, freezing the dire wolf to her plot of earth. A blanket of ice lay on everything thirty meters around the beast.
Exhaustion turned Erik knees to water, and he collapsed mere inches from April Rain. His hearts hammered heavily in his chest, seemingly intent on escaping through his ribcage. That was the largest Esoteric Creation he had ever formed. He felt drained. Timidly he raised a hand to touch April Rain. She felt so cold that it almost burned. He squeezed at her snout and the dire wolf broke apart into pieces of ice.
Erik looked up from the chunks of frozen wolf meat and glanced at Snow and Fang. He forced himself to smile. The two predators turned, swiftly running away on four paws. He could smell their fear. It smelled delicious.