The deeper one sojourns into the sere and yellow the more introspective they become.
— ASBJÖRN MAKI, PERSONAL JOURNAL
With a start, Erik dropped his gaze from the fleeing dire wolves as another wave of weakness washed through him. The coolness beneath his knees pulled at his eyelids, making them droop as if they weighed a thousand pounds. All he wanted to do was sleep.
Winter Unfolds? Patrick mumbled in amazement. I’ve never seen a Cultivator use it in battle until today. I thought it was useless, only fit to cool cellars.
Vapor rose from the frozen ground around Erik, whipped by gusts of wind into an ice cold mist. With the gusts came scents clogging his nostrils. From kilometers away they came, from long valleys and forested areas teeming with life. The smell of dire wolf predominated, and of grasses and wildflowers. Not far from where he knelt, a family of rabbits had made a din. He could smell them and almost tasted them on the tip of his tongue.
“It is,” Erik grunted, shutting off the bombardment of odors.
Then how did you do that? Patrick asked.
Erik took a deep breath; the air that entered his lungs burned with coldness. A heartbeat later the weakness receded, taking with it some of his strength. He stood, struggling to his feet with great effort, unperturbed by the wind that tried to flare his blue robe out like a banner.
“Esoteric Techniques depend on the Cultivator’s comprehension of the underlining concept,” Erik explained. “On their understanding of hot and cold. That’s the—”
I’m not a child, Patrick interrupted. I know this. Get to your point.
Erik snorted. “The reason Winter Unfolds isn’t used in combat is because you can stand in the affected area for minutes without taking any serious harm. Most Cultivators’ understanding of coldness comes from their experience with winter. How many winters have you lived through that could freeze you to death the second you step out of your door?”
Then how? Patrick pressed.
“I cheated,” Erik said, as he walked away from April Rain’s frozen corpse. The ground beneath his sandals cracked like glass, then stopped after he stepped out of the affected area. “I used the Celestial Dragon’s knowledge of traveling out there, beyond the reach of our sun.” He pointed at the sky. “Where light and heat were nothing but a distant memory. And it worked.”
I see, Patrick whispered.
Arms spread wide, Erik allowed the sunlight to soak into him, heating the half-frozen blood being pumped by his two hearts. “You’re afraid,” he said. “I can sense it flowing off of you in waves.”
Of course, I’m afraid, Patrick snarled. The question is why aren’t you?
Erik dropped his arms, letting them fall to his side. “I don’t know. I should be. But I’m not.” He closed his hand into a fist. “I feel powerful. A moment ago I single-handedly fought a pack of dire wolves and won. How many can say the same? No, I’m not afraid, I’m excited.”
Patrick’s fear spiked, tickling the back of his mind. He ignored it and moved further and further away from the corpse. He assumed the Lightbender thought he was being corrupted by his other companion, but he disagreed. He had always been this way. Power had long held a special place in his heart.
Now, what? The Lightbender sounded resentful.
“The same as before,” Erik answered. “Hjörtur, then home. If you’re right about the amount of time I spent in that place, then the Grand Assessment is only in a few weeks. I need to leave for Vetur today if I mean to make it back there in time.” The intake of breath he expected following that statement never came.
Well, I hope you don’t get lost and ruin all your plans, Patrick said wryly.
Erik glanced at the scattered trees that grew out in front of him, taking special note of the twisted branches clawing at the sky. “I’ve spent four lifetimes hunting this area,” he said. “I could find my way home with both eyes closed.”
What do you mean? Patrick inquired.
Almost stumbling, Erik came to an abrupt stop. “Do the names Jumper, Silent, Whisper, and Morning Mist mean anything to you?”
Patrick sighed. No. . . . Are you okay?
“They were the dire. . . .” Erik allowed his voice to trail off. Interesting. Patrick was not aware of the memories he had received after consuming the four dire wolves. This meant not everything he experienced was shared. He was not sure how, but one day this information could prove useful.
Interesting? What’s interesting? The Lightbender’s voice rumbled with irritation.
Ignoring Patrick’s question, ignoring the vague sense of weakness in his legs, Erik dashed forward, pushing himself to his top speed. Two hearts pounded in his chest, and the wind burned slightly when it flowed across his flesh.
Brightly within him, fluttering like a golden ocean in a storm was the liquid prana sloshing around the neck of his Ethereal Body. Without an Tár Guðs made weapon, Esoteric Techniques devoured much more prana than they should, but Erik was unconcerned. Once again, he reached into the churning Abyss, grasping the Aspect of Air to perform Grasshopper of the Stars.
Air exploded from beneath Erik’s sandals, furious jets that flung him a kilometer into the sky; velocity and resistance smashed his shoulders flat, breaking bones. He gagged as the wind became choking, clogging his mouth and nostrils with a rush of air. It felt like every inch of his body suddenly weighed a hundred pounds, then all weight vanished, leaving him spinning in midair.
What the fuck? Patrick’s screamed, almost drowning out the howling of the wind.
Erik squinted his eyes and opened his arms wide, receiving twang of pain from the bones healing in his shoulders. Exhilaration surged through him. Without knowing how, he expanded his robe, using the garment to help glide across the sky, laughing all the while.
You’re insane! The Lightbender said, only increasing Erik’s amusement.
Relax and enjoy the ride, Erik told Patrick. The Celestial Dragon roared in agreement, basking in the ecstasy of once again soaring above the earth.
Patrick seethed with rage. You’re too reckless! Why don’t you ever stop to think when one of your stupid ideas pops into your fucking head? Just once—something large blocked the sun—roc!
Erik jerked his head up. An enormous black bird was diving towards him no more than a hundred meters away, its vast body concealing the sun. Even as he spotted the roc, his body turned, and he drew—a flow of Fire from the Abyss—and shaped it with his mind, using the Celestial Dragon’s memory of being surrounded by the molten rock of the earth to increase the power of his Esoteric Hand Technique. Prana burned up inside of him as he focused his mind on the bird of prey.
The roc flung its twenty meter long wings open, coming out of its dive to reach for Erik with razor-sharp talons made for catching and holding prey. Descending like black lightning, the wind roared around feathers the size of palm leaves.
Erik extended his hand, attacking with The Red Rose Blooms. A large rosebud blossomed into reality inches from his fingertips, opening to devour the roc. With petals made of bright golden flames it shimmered, and for a moment Erik raged, fighting an invisible battle with creation. Wavering in and out of existence, the rose solidified, and an intense, blistering conflagration radiated out in an explosion.
All of a sudden the roc screamed, cartwheeling in a sea of searing light as flames devoured midnight feathers and tumbled it from the sky. Hand still outstretched, Erik smiled, and then heat charred his eyeballs shut and molten droplets, burning gold, smashed into his arms and chest, roasting flesh. He howled, deaf and blind to everything but the agony that now consumed him, only vaguely aware of his continued descent towards the ground. The scent of his own sizzling body stuffed his nostrils before fresh air spurted in from all around.
The wind howled around the Prince, sounding like blankets flapping against a wall, and in the back of his head, the Celestial Dragon snarled. Wisps of ash blew off of his chest and arms where his wounds sluggishly healed. He tried to hasten his bodies efforts, but the damage to his flesh resisted unlike any other wound since his metamorphosis.
Unexpectedly he struck what felt like stone, hard and unrelenting. Bones snapped with the sound of splintered wood, and his skull smashed like an over-ripe melon. Thoughts lost meaning in a confusing blur of emotion. He groaned, not from the pain lancing through him, but from the clawing, scratching, instinct to survive. Spilled gore gathered, merging like droplets of water to form a sea of roiling flesh. And after a time the churning mess stilled, and Erik lay silently, listening to the wind whistle through treetops.
Fighting back against another groan, he sat up racked by a mind-numbing weakness. For an instant, the world spun, and black spots swarmed his vision. Even so, he noticed the still-twitching carcass of the roc in front of him. The sight of the creature’s half-roasted body, charred protruding bones, and splattered blood filled him with a yearning that only grew as the seconds ticked past. Odors hung in the air, but the tantalizing smell of the bird’s steaming innards cut through all the rest, making the Prince’s mouth water and his stomach rumble.
I can’t take no more of this! Patrick’s rage pooled like the gathering fury of a storm. Let me out of your fucking head. He sounded as if he were tugging on his top-knot, trying to rip it from his scalp. Forgive me, Eternal Father, I have wronged you. I know I have. I’m a sinner, but whatever I’ve done, I don’t deserve this. Please, I beg you, release me from this hell!
Hunger reduced the Lightbender’s voice to a dull persistent yapping made even more meaningless by the Celestial Dragon’s furious urgings to feed. Erik crawled toward the roc on his hands and knees as his limbs trembled with weakness. He feared he might lose consciousness at any moment and worried about what would happen if he did.
Or just kill me, Patrick continued. Strike me dead! Do it now! Now! Now!
Hand unspooling into tendrils, Erik reached out to feed on the still-twitching pile. The tendrils wrapped around the roc, growing larger than The Red Rose Blooms had. It was hard to look at, and impossible any longer to distinguish between him and the bird. Energy surged into him, a deluge almost greater than he could handle, twisting through ever nook and crevice, scouring fatigue like sand before a flash flood. Yet the torrent of memories he had expected never came, which may have had something to do with the fact that the fall had splattered the roc’s brain out of its skull.
The last vestige of the corpse disappeared into Erik, and he stood slowly, walking among the high stone columns of a once mighty fortress reclaimed by nature. Uplifted faces adorned the vine-strewn columns—rapt features worn almost expressionless by time. He passed them, feeling small in their immense presence.
“Do you know where our greatest difference lies?” Erik asked the Lightbender.
Ending his entreaties to the divine, Patrick shouted, You’re insane, and I’m not!
Erik smirked, but the smile never reached his eyes. “I see the world as an arena, a place to test my strength and myself. And you, you see it as a brothel. Somewhere where you can wet your cock.”
What’s wrong with chasing pleasure and wanting to be happy? Patrick asked, sounding genuinely confused. Our lives are short. We must enjoy what little time we have.
“Everything.” Erik picked his way over the rubble of a broken wall. “Pleasure and happiness are a fool’s gold, the feeling never lasts. They’re highs, rewards for a task well done, but one cannot exist in such a state forever.”
The same could be said about anything, the Lightbender retorted. Nothing lasts. Why not drain life of all the satisfaction you can before it ends?
Erik gave his head a shake and allowed the subject to drop. He and Patrick were just too different to come to an understanding on this topic. Something flashed ahead, a momentary blur of white within the stone structure directly ahead. He stepped over a fallen branch and climbed into the dark opening of the edifice. Inside a handful of Human-Faced Centipede, the size of his forearm crawled the walls—beautiful female eyes, as blue as the sky.
He sat down cross-legged on the moss covered stone, and asked, “What possessed the Sorcerer-Kings to create something so bizarre?” The Human-Faced Centipedes smiled at him, pink lips glowing with allure.
Sometimes all you need is a wet mouth, Patrick quipped.
The Prince cleared his mind of the Lightbender’s raunchy laughter and slipped into the quiet of his inner void. The liquid prana had fallen to his Ethereal Body’s navel, but he did not spare it but a moment, rushing to examine his First Stöðin. Pink flesh checkered with black spots, his First Stöðin spun in slow circles within his Ethereal Body. It looked more healed than it should have given the short amount of time that had passed.
It took great effort to banish his puzzlement, but he did. At his command prana burned and his First Stöðin flashed, throwing back light like a beacon as he carefully fed it. It was being nourished with more prana at one time than it had ever been before. From the side of the vase shaped organ, another bulbous protrusion began to grow beside the first. Sweat dripped down Erik’s forehead. All of his attention was focused inward.
Feeling short of breath, the vase shaped organ revolved quicker and quicker, making Erik grimaced from the strain. It was as if he was about to shatter into a million bloody splinters. Suddenly his First Stöðin flared like it had captured the setting sun and his mind rocked with a ponderous popping sound.
With a gasp, Erik opened eyes he did not realize he had closed and smiled. “First Stöðin, Second Stratum,” he whispered slowly. After years of painful cultivation, he had finally done it. Now he was only one step away from opening his Second Stöðin.
He walked out of the edifice and aimed his hand at a nearby stone column. Grasping the Aspect of Fire and splitting it in two, he twisted his fingers and launched The Red Rose Blooms. Two resplendent rosebuds composed of golden flames, the size of human skulls, crashed into a pillar, turning stone into molten rock. Flames leaped onto vine-strewn walls, spurted onto overgrown trees, spreading farther and farther afield.
You’re getting too powerful too fast, Patrick whispered, his voice quaking with fear.
The massive column fractured from the heat and staggered to one side, collapsing walls and rupturing stone. Erik only smiled. Behind him, the Human-Faced Centipedes scurried out of the edifice, fleeing in panic, tiny voices raised in shrieks.