There is no fire like hatred, there is no shark like madness, there is no torment like love.
— ANCIENT PROVERB
Ten hours earlier
Again the nightmare had come.
The rising sun cresting the walls of a black fortress. An ancient citadel . . . Hjörtur. Blank faced, top-knotted soldiers arrayed in neat lines, all glimpsed from squinted eyes. The sensation of a barbed horsewhip cutting into aged flesh. Red rivers spilling out from deep wounds. And then voices lifting as one in mocking laughter.
Númi awoke brow covered in sweat, gasping, struggling to banish the twisted vision that had visited him once again. No one had laughed during his public lashing, he was almost positive of that, but his blood boiled all the same. And though long healed, his back ached where the whip had torn into his skin. Much like the sensations he still received from his missing hand, the pain was not real; he understood that. It was solely an artifact of the mind.
“Good, you’re awake,” Asbjörn said, examining the golden dragon adorning the hilt of his longsword. He sat with his back against a seamless black wall that rose into a domed roof, which he had created the night before with an Esoteric Sword Technique called The Earth Entwines. From tests, Númi knew it was harder than volcanic rock and could withstand an assault from a Level Three Hazard.
The once raging campfire at the center of the room had been reduced to a few glowing embers, and a chill had seeped into the stone structure through vents in the roof. Though clothed only in a silk robe, Asbjörn seemed unaffected by frigid air. The sleeves of the crimson robe were embroidered with twin ivory towers encircled by a gold serpent.
Númi sat up from the stone floor, and his wool blanket fell to his waist. “Did you sleep at all?” he asked, eying the Cultivator with barely concealed wariness.
“Over the years I’ve learned to subsist on very little sleep,” Asbjörn spoke without lifting his eyes from his weapon.
“Neat trick that,” Númi said as he stood, stretching his arms. “One of these days you must teach me the how of it.”
Númi heard a neighing sound behind him. When he looked over his shoulder, Spot, his piebald horse, was tossing his head inside his crude stall made of the same material as the rest of the structure. Beside Spot, three other horses slept inside identical stalls, stuffing the air with their animal scent. Looking away, he buckled on his sword with one hand. After years of battle wearing the weapon had become as natural as blinking; without it at his side he felt naked.
Asbjörn ran a finger down the side of his large nose. “You’re already half way there. Nightmares are the key. When every moment of sleep brings with it torment, you’ll learn how to do without it.” His Mainland accent was thick today; it came out every few words without him seeming to notice.
Disturbed, Númi bent down and added more wood to the fire. Their expedition into the wilderness of the Northern Reaches had been a disaster from the start. First, the team that Asbjörn had asked him to join turned out to only include the two of them, and now he was beginning to worry about the Cultivator’s mental state. He felt as if he had wandered into the middle of a frozen lake where the ice was the thinnest. At any moment he expected to plunge to his doom.
Just let me have my revenge before I do. That’s all I ask. He took a deep breath and held his arms out to the flames. “How much longer do you think?” Though fully healed a bandage still covered the nab at the end of his right arm where the hand had been chopped off by Erik’s sword.
Asbjörn cocked his head, looking at Númi for the first time. “How many people have you killed? Do you know?” He dropped his eyes to the hilt of his longsword. “Because I don’t. There was a time I kept count, but that time is long passed.”
“We all do what we think we must,” Númi replied, but Asbjörn did not seem to hear him.
“In the end, I will have to atone for what I’ve done. I’ve killed too many. . . . Do you remember your first?”
Númi dropped his hand and placed a big kettle on the fire. “Of course. A condemned man. All Lightbenders have to preside over an execution as part of our training. He was a rapist if I remember correctly; convicted of violating his own daughter. I was proud of what I did then, and I am now. Some men are undeserving of life. It was my privilege to separate such an individual from his head.”
“I murdered my family,” Asbjörn said face expressionless. “Not intentionally. I glimpsed something that awoke my power at a young age. My mother. . . and little sisters died in the explosion. That kind of thing changes you in ways even I can’t begin to understand. Ever since then I’ve walked around with this guilt inside, with this layer of filth staining my soul.”
Númi shifted his feet uneasily; there was a haunting horror in Asbjörn’s voice. “Why are you telling me this?”
Asbjörn met Númi’s eyes with tears in his own. “I want you to understand that I’ve killed those I loved before. When we eventually track this abomination down, I will kill it, too. It won’t matter if it’s wearing Erik’s face or not. I will scour it out of existence.”
Númi gave a sharp nod in Asbjörn’s direction and made his way to Spot’s stall after grabbing a brush from his pack. Soothing the horse with cooing sounds, he ran the brush along Spot’s side. “You still haven’t answered my question.” The brush paused mid-stroke. “How much longer? We’ve been out here for twenty days without finding any new clues.”
“There is something I could try but. . . .”Asbjörn glanced at the birdcage that rested next to him. Within its interior sat three homing pigeons.
The brush resumed motion, and a frown briefly touched Númi’s face.“But what? Wait—are you saying you had a way to track this thing down the whole time?”
“Maybe, but it’s forbidden.”
“Forbidden? By who?”
Asbjörn laughed; a short bitter sound that ended with his mouth in a scowl. Climbing to his feet with the help of his longsword, he made a slow circuit around the fire. His lips moved as he walked as if he was talking, but no words came out.
A chill slipped down Númi’s spine, and his thoughts galloped away. Has he finally snapped? Should I attack before he can? Do I. . . . He understood that before he could still his mind he had to first seize control of his emotions, and before he could do that he had to bend his body to his will. Through slow rhythmic breaths matched with his brush strokes, tension flowed out of muscles, fear receded, and his thoughts calmed. And prana gushed out of his Three Sefirot—Malkut, Yesod, and Tiferet—pouring into his meridians . Power flooded him, surged through him like searing light, exalting him with the strength of seven men, threatening to wash him away in a tide of mind numbing ecstasy.
Asbjörn came to a stop, facing Númi. He stared at the Lightbender without speaking. Spot raised his head and flicked his tail, like all horses sensitive to the emotional states of his owner.
Pulse spiking, Númi observed the Cultivator with his now heightened senses. Colors seemed more vibrant and vivid, none so much as Asbjörn’s scarlet robe. It caught what little light there was and almost appeared to glow, mixing with the thumping of horse hearts and weeks old man sweat to create chains that anchored Númi in a moment that seemed to stretch into decades.
“For a time I was the Grandmaster of the Sector of Innovation at the Twin Towers,” Asbjörn said in a professional voice. “There I oversaw experiments, some extremely dangerous experiments. We tried things. . . we did things that shouldn’t ever have been done.”
“Such as?” Númi asked. He did not like the way the Cultivator’s mood had switched so quickly. It along with everything else put him on edge, but he was more than willing to ignore it if it got him closer to his goal. He had placed his bets now all he could do was watch where the number-sticks landed.
Asbjörn sighed. “We were trying to find our limits.” He tapped his sheathed weapon on the stone floor. “Do you know why Witches are so feared and the Church hunts them with such zeal?”
“Of the two sexes. . . .” Númi paused, dropping his hand to his side. “Of the two sexes, women have alway been the most closely tied to the Dark One. They are nature embodied. When they touch the Abyss, they are more easily seduced.”
Asbjörn gave him a long flat look, then shook his head. “There is no such thing as a female Cultivator, they can’t touch the Abyss. What Witches draw their power from is something else entirely. Cultivators’ Esoteric Techniques are limited to concepts and ideas, but Witches can do what we cannot. . . they can bring life into the world. And that is why they are feared.”
“I understand, but what does that have to do with anything?”
Asbjörn walked back around the fire, and Númi followed him with brush still gripped in his hand. The Cultivator rested his longsword against the wall.
Númi frowned. “What are you doing?”
“Something I shouldn’t,” Asbjörn said, opening the birdcage. “But you’re right we’re wasting time.” He grabbed a homing pigeon and shut the cage after he pulled it out. “What’s one more rule broken,” he whispered to himself.
“Is this dangerous?” Númi stepped back and threw himself into a roll before he realized the noise he heard was just the kettle coming to a boil. The horse neighed in their stalls at the sudden commotion.
The pigeon floated up from Asbjörn’s hand surrounded by a ball of water as he unsheathed his shortsword from his red sash. Without looking at Númi, the Cultivator spoke, “What I do now must never be spoken of. Do you understand?”
Númi wet his lips. “I do.” The bird struggled, wings flapping weakly as it drowned, and the hairs on his arms stood on their end.
Asbjörn flicked his shortsword at the dying pigeon, performing an unknown Esoteric Sword Technique. “What I said earlier was true,” he murmured. “Cultivators cannot create life, but my experiments proved that we could steal it.”
Water hissed as it spewed onto the fire from the mouth of the kettle, and the world wobbled around Númi. He could not perceive most of what was being done, but he felt it as a pressure that built at the back of his skull. Panicked, he poured more prana into his meridians, surging the divine energy into his being. Fire filled him, the life blood of a volcano, heat hot enough to char oaks into stumps. Stabilized by the power, he fought against the pressure, beating it to a standstill.
Eyes blinking away tears, Númi watched the pigeon pass through the balls of water and smash to the ground, lifeless. An instant later the ball of water contorted until it had assumed the shape of the dead bird. Flapping transparent wings, it circled the room, gazing down at him with ruby colored eyes.
“What have you done,” Númi gasped, climbing to his feet. His hand had wrapped around the hilt of his sword at his waist. He had done it without thinking; the water pigeon eyes were too similar to those of a Fiend Lord’s. He did not like that, but he left the weapon sheathed on his belt.
“See for yourself.” Asbjörn extended his arm and opened his hand. A moment later the water pigeon landed on his palm, staring at Númi all the while.
Númi moistened his dry mouth. “Is it alive?” He approached the Cultivator and poked the water bird with his finger. It gave slightly at his touch but did not break or wet his finger.
“Careful. It’s very fragile,” Asbjörn admonished. “And yes it’s alive, but it needs me to keep it that way. What do you think?”
Númi took a step back. That last part had come out of the bird’s mouth in Asbjörn’s voice. “H-how did you. . . .” Stupid question. How else?
“It’s like an extension of myself. I can even perform Esoteric Techniques through it in a limited way.”
Númi turned away from Asbjörn and used a rug to lift the squealing kettle from the fire. I hope there’s still enough water to make a cup of tea, he thought, then paused. All of a sudden he realized that this expedition had changed him in ways he was just beginning to take note of. The constant fear and lack of sleep had made him. . . weak.
He shook his head. No, it happened before that. The first crack in his armor had appeared with the death of his son when he had wept like a drunken whore. And now he was whining about tea. How far have I fallen? He sighed. Everything is a lie. Even through the rug, the handle began to burn his hand. Stone faced, he placed it on the ground and turned to Asbjörn.
“I just realized I’m old,” Númi laughed. “Isn’t that a silly thought to have? I’m ninety years old, but this is the first time I’ve felt my age.” He sighed. “How is that bird supposed to help us?”
“It can cover more ground from the air.”
“You said it was dangerous, what you just did.”
Asbjörn nodded. “Very. It leaves an opening within my barrier. The sooner I can dispel this creature the better for both of us.”
After a quick bowl of tea, Númi hurried to ready the horses while Asbjörn sat in a corner whispering to his creation. Númi kept the Cultivator in his line of sight at all times as he finished his tasks. He approached Asbjörn when he was done.
Asbjörn stood. “Ready?” Númi gave a short nod. “Good, the longer I leave The Earth Entwines in place, the more real it becomes. Any much longer and we will be digging our way out.”
Númi bowed, hand to heart, and laughed to himself when the Cultivator wrinkled his nose. He had come to understand the man a lot better over the last few weeks, which meant he knew just how to get under his skin.
Asbjörn unsheathed his longsword and thrust it into the wall. The black stone flared red where the blade touched it. From the blade glowing cracks spread, consuming the building like a dropped egg. The cracks grew larger and brighter with each passing second until stone transformed into sickly flickering light. With a rush of wind and light, the walls and roof disappeared as if they had never been there. The only remnant of the structure was the stone floors and horse stalls.
A gust of fresh air swayed Númi’s gray top-knot as the first rays of morning fell upon him. He glanced at the clearing they had made camp within the night before. Then a small smile grazed his lips after the water bird launched into the sky from its perch on Asbjörn’s shoulder. Soon, he thought. Soon it will all be over.