Morality does not exist to a man with an empty stomach.
— ANCIENT PROVERB
Erik’s eyes opened, slowly, staring up at the noonday sun. He was 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 spilled down his cheeks.
“Elina,” he said through a dry and creaked throat.
Erik, you’re awake! Patrick’s voice rang through Erik’s skull. I assumed we were dead for sure. He laughed, and the sound of his amusement seemed a desecration. Something that needed to be blotted out of existence at any cost.
Erik shuddered and clenched his teeth. He tasted blood in his throat.
I’ve never believed I would be this glad to see another man, Patrick said. Much less a fucking noble.
Elina, forgive me. Erik’s heart clenched in torment. “Shut up!”
W-what’s wrong? The thought slithered through Erik’s mind, throbbing without animosity, and the knowledge of Patrick’s emotional state seemed another defilement. One more scar against the fiber of his soul.
With a shaky start, Erik climbed to his feet and roared, half scream of pain, half animal howl. The sound became a gurgle, he toppled to his knees, and 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
His stomach stilled. He trembled from the absence of pain, blinking away the tears.
Old bones littered the clearing he kneeled within in spiraling layers of bleached animal skeletons, and a familiar forest of white redwoods ringed the graveyard. He took it all in, in one horror-filled breath. Without thinking, he stumbled back and glimpsed something far worse. Meters from where he had awoken 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 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 and made himself peer inside, but just with his right eye. He wished he had not. Runes inscribed into the surface of the dark interior, 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. All he wanted to do was sleep, but he understood 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, Erik teetered on the edge of the great hole. It seemed to descend into eternity. 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.
Erik turned, and regret filled him. He deserved to die for what he had done. His twin sister had died because of him. The old wound opened anew.
He dashed away from the hole and his memories, tripping over the long-rotted remains of animals. He caught himself and slowed. Bones shattered beneath his leather sandals.
Drawing a deep breath, 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. “South, which way is south.”
I don’t know, came Patrick’s hesitant response. First, you need to find two sticks. Then take the longest one and—
South, said the Celestial Dragon, directing Erik a hundred meters to the right of his current location.
Are you sure? Erik shook his head and decided to trust the dragon. Never mind.
You’re not going to listen to that abomination, are you? Patrick asked. 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.
He fumbled past the last redwood and left the world of endless white behind. An ocean of knee-high grass swayed beneath a blue sky, blazing with intricate golden rays.
Erik took comfort in natural hues and quickened his pace. But the further he got from the forest, the more his emotions stirred and his legs tired.
Something happened to you in there, Patrick said. Something I didn’t experience.
Yes. Erik collapsed onto his back, panting for breath.
What was it?
“I have this idea in my head,” Erik said. “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 out. There’s nothing good about me. There’s no line I won’t cross to achieve my goals.” His eyes shifted from the clouds to squint at the sun. “And that terrifies me. Everyone should have limits.”
Whatever happened to you in there, many have it far worse, Patrick said. 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, snug in the comforting familiarity of male banter. “How long were we trapped in the forest?”
Twenty-one days, Patrick said.
Erik bolted to his feet, his heart thundering. The Grand Assessment! If I want to participate in it, I have to leave Hjörtur for Vetur today—
A high-pitched howl shattered the stillness of the field of grass.
Fuck, not again, Patrick yelled.
Erik exploded forward with a burst of speed. Fear crawled into his stomach, made a home of his weary bones. How many times had he watched as dire wolves devoured those he loved while trapped in the Dark One’s prison? Once was one too many.
He jerked to a sudden stop. His hands balled into fists. No, more.
What are you doing? asked Patrick.
“I’m not running anymore,” Erik said. “Not from them. Not from anyone.”
Are you insane? You’re no match for a pack of dire wolves on your own.
“Watch!” Erik reached within himself and grabbed hold of the ember of hatred that slumbered inside. He fed it the memory of Hanna being swallowed whole. The Celestial Dragon stirred, and he grinned. Time to feed, he whispered at it.
Soft juicy flesh-things.
He spun in a circle. Eight dire wolves raced toward 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 the Prince was doing than the gaping maws inching toward them. It’s not natural.
Erik’s arms seemed to burst open, swelling to double their size. His skinned burned, and he moaned behind teeth that were clenched so tight his jaw ached. His flesh crawled like a sluggish river, morphing into black and gold dragon scales until he looked like a repulsive mélange of human and beast.
He howled, guttural and sharp. Naked but for his scales, he still looked human, but with a strange reptilian tilt. He 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’s words. “Rip! Claw!” Time slowed to a crawl, and the dire wolves became visible. TEAR! DEVOUR! The ember grew into a fiery inferno.
Yellow eyes glowing, a dire wolf almost as tall as a man’s chest, all gray and black, reached for Erik, its mouth agape. Although it seemed to only be moving at a walk, he knew it was running faster than most humans would be able to 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 and muscles. Strength filled him until he could just keep up with the dire wolf’s pace. He sensed resistance from the air on his limbs and bones, which would have already broken under normal circumstances but now only gave him a twinge of pain. His heart ached, tearing and healing repeatedly. It was 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. Let it be enough.
Like a viper, devious and savage, he struck out with a clawed hand. Wolf flesh ripped, sluggishly leaving deep grooves in the beast’s face as Erik battered it away. A golden eye ruptured, popped like a bubble, and vile fluid spewed into the air.
One, he thought in savage glee. Now there were only seven dire wolves left and twelve seconds in which to kill them all. 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.
Erik spun, blood covered claw flashing toward 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. He took a step forward and flung out the same hand. He caught the wolf by its back leg and pulled. Bones broke in his grip as he twisted, using momentum to launch the white wolf toward 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. . . . Massive teeth sank into his thigh, and he fell, 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 said.
Another pair of jaws bit down on his shoulder with a crunch, pulling him in the opposite direction. Razor sharp teeth broke against his scales, and bones in his thigh and shoulder cracked to the point of breaking. More teeth clamped onto 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. Darkness crept into his eyesight, and, somehow, he kept it at bay. He threw himself into another roll, using his elbows.
Long blades of grass brushed against Erik’s face as he rotated in the air. His eyes adjusted to make it appear the world had once again slowed. His heart galloped, pounding in his ears, furiously trying to supply his body with the blood it required to move at this speed. The pain in his chest dwarfed the sensation of the wolf jaws ripping at his reptilian flesh, adding an odd counterpoint to his agony. The black scales on his arms shifted like the surface of a pond pummeled by droplets of water.
Puny flesh-things! The Celestial Dragon raged. Eat, it whispered to Erik, and 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 fit for a god.
Erik allowed the visions to overwhelm him, finding beauty in their macabre glory. The back of his arms burned, and he sensed a wetness at the back of his throat. His heart protested, and he pushed himself to lift his arms, fighting against the air that now seemed mud.
Devourer of Worlds, the Celestial Dragon said. That was what a long-dead race had called its kin. It—They—Erik did not need weapons. His whole body was the tool 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 toward the two dire wolves at his waist. From the elbow down, his arms unspooled, morphing into a dozen long, snake-like tendrils the color of fresh blood. The tendrils squirmed in the air, seeming to take forever to inch their way into the two dire wolves’ nostrils and ears. Their eyes widened, and their jaws released him, but much too slowly to make any difference. The two dire wolves convulsed, limbs jerking wide, eyes losing their shine.
Patrick cowered within Erik. Don’t do—! He had begun before the Celestial Dragon surged forth, depriving him of breath. FEED, the beast said; 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 seize full control. I’m—
Erik crashed in a jumble of limbs and wolf flesh, sliding back across the ground, propelled by the force of his landing. Distorted howls sped up until they sounded normal, and he grunted behind clenched teeth. Red waves rolled in over the vast array of black scales that covered him, and the scales vanished. The red waves sent tendrils and petals oozing down the throats of the wolves at his shoulder and thigh. He unfolded like a blood-colored fog to swallow the four dire wolves whole.
Memories flashed through his mind, one after the other. He roamed the Northern Reaches on four legs, basking the scent of fear emanating off of the herd of four-tusked mammoths he stalked with his family. He gave birth to his first litter of pups, and enjoyed the comforting warmth of being surrounded by his pack.
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 his mergings with Patrick and the Celestial Dragon, Erik separated himself with ease from images that now 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 said, driven half-mad from the Hunger. MORE!
Erik raised a hand and winced when some 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 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, the grass parted in front of him. The big, grizzled dire wolf, he now knew as Terror, dashed toward 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 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 was 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 surprise crashed over Erik in waves. Now you’re even quicker than the dire wolves? His voice came in a whisper, stating the obvious.
Gray matter and skull fragments sped through the air then 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.
An idea took hold of him that rocked him to his core. 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 said, his voice sounding forced.
Erik took a step forward and reached for his power. A sense of falling inwards took hold of him, a feeling of compressing down into a single point. His perception shifted, and he became aware of the scant prana flashing through the surrounding environment; it almost looked like a nest of fiery bees bombarding the earth, flickering through the sky. This close to the Dark One’s prison there was a surprising lack of prana.
Fearing a repeat of last time, he reached out only in one direction, away from the twisted forest. He ensnared the fiery lights with his expanding consciousness, entrapping more and more prana until he struck the limit of his range and what felt like molten rock seared his brain.
Erik drew his awareness inwards, dragging along all he had captured. Heat and fire surged into him. An eruption like an explosion from a dormant volcano coalesced into his Ethereal Body at the center of his inner void. A golden pool of liquid-prana swirled around him, reaching past his head, kept in place by the barrier that surrounded him.
He called to the Abyss. It came, first as a whisper, then as a chorus of a million wailing souls that transformed into a massive vortex of gold, green, blue, and red, churning below him. As vast as the horizon, the Abyss had come.
Erik strode forward, twisting the fingers of his right hand, performing an Esoteric Hand Technique called Winter Unfolds. April Rain’s lips came back from her fangs, forming a snarl as she tried to dodge. Too slow, Erik thought, and he exchanged some of the prana that swirled around his Ethereal Body to wrestle the Aspect of Water from the Abyss. He wavered on the brink of being scoured into nothing by the thing he sought to command. But, like a beaten dog, the Aspect surrendered.
The space around April Rain warped. Fighting against a world that rebelled against him, Erik twisted reality to complete his Esoteric Hand Technique. A localized blizzard descended on April Rain, and surreal ice crystals grew from her like vines around an abandoned villa. With infinite slowness the crystals 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’s knees to water, and he collapsed mere inches from April Rain. His hearts thundered in his chest, intent on escaping through his flesh. He raised a hand to touch April Rain, and cold seeped into his fingers, burning his flesh. He squeezed at her snout, and the dire wolf broke apart into slivers of ice.
Erik looked up from the chunks of frozen wolf meat at Snow and Fang. He forced himself to smile. The two predators turned, running away on four paws. He could smell their fear. It was delicious.