Four hang, four sprang, two point the way, two to ward off dogs, one dangles after, always rather dirty. What am I?
— ANCIENT RIDDLE
Beneath a cloudless sky, the sounds of battle drifted on the wind.
Erik ascended a steep rocky slope, carefully navigating past ancient rubble. All around him, stone heads jutted out of the ground, weathered by wind and rain until their details were lost to time. The air hammered him with raised voices and a deep rumble that worked its way into his bones. Nervousness prickled the nape of his neck. There was no telling what exactly lay ahead, but he had an idea.
I don’t see the point in this, Patrick complained. You’ll already know what you will find. You could smell them from kilometers away.
“I want to be sure,” Erik said. I need to be sure. He did not quite have complete confidence in all his new abilities and knew he would not for some time to come.
The sun had dipped from its apex and now hung out in front of him. Lifting his hand to block the glare, he stopped at the edge of the cliff and peered down at the long valley below. Two opposing armies of Dökk clashed, numbering in the tens of thousands. Fused teethed and black-eyed, they howled and stabbed at each other with bone made weapons. Blood flowed with almost ever thrust like red wine from a punctured barrel. And sunlight glittered off the dark shards embedded in their foreheads, adding an odd note of beauty to the roiling maelstrom of gray flesh, red fluid, and white spears.
See, exactly what you expected, Patrick said.
“But now I’m sure,” Erik replied. “So little is known about these creatures, the more I learn, the better. One day that information might prove useful. You never know.”
Patrick laughed. Do you want to know what I think?
“No,” Erik drawled, crouching down to make himself less visible. The ground shifted slightly under him. “I really don’t.”
I think you’re afraid. Patrick’s voice was firm but no less mocking than it had been moments before. You have no idea how you’re going explain what happened at the foot of Hjörtur. If enough people saw you transform into the Celestial Dragon, they will try to kill you if you return. Then you’ll have to make a choice, but either way, you’ll be exiled. Separated from your past and your gilded last name.
Erik looked away from the battle and glanced at the winding river that skirted the edge of the valley. “You do realize that we’re in this together? Whatever happens to me, happens to you,” he said.
You’re right, Patrick snorted, but it’s the small things that keep you going at the end of the world.
A tingle ran through Erik. “What did you just say?” Those were the exact same words that Asbjörn had once spoken to him. What were the chances that Patrick would randomly say the same thing at this moment? He knew that he had never uttered those words to the Lightbender. The idea that his memories might be unknowing drifting over to Patrick knotted Erik’s stomach.
I said, it’s the—what’s wrong?
Suddenly the ground shifted, falling away beneath Erik’s feet. He stumbled, turning to fling his arms out as the cliff tilted forward. His hands found purchase on a protruding rock, but an instant later it broke apart, sending him tumbling towards the valley below. Sweat gushed forth from his pores. Grasping the Aspect of Air from the Abyss, he twisted his fingers and performed Soft Cocoon.
The air distorted before his eyes, and the ground smashed into the invisible weaves wrapped around his body. His chest and arms ached painfully as he rolled down the pile of earth and rock he had just struck. Protected by the Esoteric Hand Technique, he landed on the grass in a jumbled, bruised but unharmed. For a moment he struggled, trying to get air into his lungs before he realized that Soft Cocoon was keeping all the fresh air out. Quickly, he unraveled the shield, noting the fact that only a small puddle of prana remained inside his inner void.
Between the pounding of his hearts and the roaring of his blood, Erik was only vaguely aware that the din of battle was slowly falling silent. He climbed to his knees, eyes glancing around.
In front of him, the fighting had stopped, but his powerful ears still picked up the sound of isolated pockets of conflict. As one, a thousand pairs of eyes turned to stare at him, drilling into his soul with a menacing sameness.
“Shit,” Erik sighed. With his new abilities, he was not afraid of a few hundred Dökk, but there were over twenty thousand of them arrayed on the valley floor. That along with the fact he was almost out of prana filled him with wariness. “Double shit.”
Do you want to hear a joke? Patrick asked, seemingly unconcerned by the army out in front of Erik. I don’t know if you will like it, but it’s a great one. At that instant a wave of Dökk dashed forward, towering over Erik, snarling and thrusting spears.
Erik leaped to his feet. A heartbeat it took, then they were upon him, striving to pincushion him with their weapons. His hearts quickened, and the world slowed. Caught in the act of running, the Dökk in front of Erik looked like they were frozen in time. If it were not for the slow pulse of blood in their veins, he would have thought they were lifelike statues. His hand reached out and wrenched away one of the spears driving towards him. The weapon came under his control as he spun, wielding it as a quarterstaff to smash through another Dökk’s skull like an overripe piece of fruit. A mixture of blood, bones, and brains spewed into the air.
The joke goes like this, Patrick began over the sound of the Celestial Dragon’s bubbling fury.
Erik stepped forward, always forward, haft whirling as he slashed and stabbed. He was a cyclone, moving at a walk through an endless forest of humanoid shaped trees. A moment after he passed a gray monstrosity would rupture in his wake. For once he regretted his nocturnal activities as a youth; he should have spent more time practicing with a spear. The way of it seemed unfamiliar at first, but it did not appear to matter against stationary targets. Yet his lack of skill bothered him all the same.
A student walked over five hundred kilometers to visit a great master, Patrick continued. When he finally arrived at the master’s grand abode, he found the man head down, tending his crops. The student said, ‘Oh great master, I have walked five hundred kilometers to ask you one question. What is the key to a virtuous life?’
After countless swings and thrusts, the bone spear splintered within Erik’s grip. Jagged fragments exploded towards his face. He closed his eyes and pushed onward, weathering the storm. His cheeks stung as they were sliced, but it was nothing more than he could handle. With his healing ability, it amounted to less than a bee sting. He sensed his flesh mend even as it tore.
The master just kept on tending his crops. The Lightbender’s voice helped counter the distorted tones of battle that crashed upon Erik. Believing there was some sort of profound truth hidden in that act, the student joined the master in the field. Over the next ten years, the student lived with the master and his wife. Every morning he would wake up at dawn to work the fields with the master until sundown. One day the master fell ill and lay on his deathbed.
Drenched in scarlet, Erik opened his eyes and slammed his foot into the two meter tall Dökk blocking his path. The force of the blow launched the creature off into the sky like a kite drifting on an updraft. Pivoting on his back leg, he caught the spear that fell from the Dökk’s hand and used the momentum he had built to flow into his next attack.
The student said, ‘Oh great master, I have worked beside you for the last ten years with never a complaint just so you would answer one question. What is the key to a virtuous life?’ The Lightbender lowered his voice. The great master pulled the student close and opened his mouth. That’s when the student noticed that the master had no tongue. Cue laughter. End joke.
Erik stumbled, suddenly coming to an abrupt stop, lurching time back into its normal rhythm. Cries and howls filled the air with pain, and the Dökk he had kicked into the sky came crashing back down with the sound of breaking bones. Behind the Prince lay a path of gruesome destruction, littered with still thrashing Gray Skins. The sea of gray shifted around him, but he was blind to it all. What Patrick had just said touched him in a way he could not quite explain. It made him feel. . . . Tears swelled in his eyes.
He gave a short bark of laughter. “I’m. . . .” The Dökk closest to him all took a step back. “I’m the student?” He did not understand why the Lightbender’s words were affecting him like this. It was as if some deep truth was hanging just in front of him and all he had to do was grasp it.
You could have climbed back up the cliff after you fell down, but instead, you rushed forward, Patrick said. Why? Do you even know?
Forward was the quickest way home. Erik sniffed the air and immediately regretted it. The reek of the dead and dying overwhelmed him for a moment before he could shut off his sense of smell.
Patrick grunted. You couldn’t go around them?
Lost in thought, Erik glanced down at the weapon in his hands and absentmindedly deflected a spear thrust at him. An instant later the attacker jerked as Erik’s weapon punctured its throat, and it fell back still trying to jab at him, jab at anything. The Prince had moved by instinct.
“Thank you for showing me my circle.” The Lightbender did not understand—Erik could see that—but it did not matter. He lifted his spear and glared out at his enemies. Even as he did that, his body shifted, just avoiding the weapon that tried to impale him from behind. “No, there is no backward or around for someone such as me. This is my—”
An invisible force struck Erik’s side, a violent blast of energy that lifted him off his feet and flung him into the Gray Skins. The blow and the subsequent tumble across the ground almost brought bones to the point of breaking. Gagging and struggling to free himself from the pile of twitching limbs he lay upon, Erik looked back the way he came. A one-eyed Dökk stood staring at him with his arm outstretched.
The air shimmered around the one-eyed Dökk, and then it appeared next to Erik, traversing over twenty meters in an instant. Surprised, the Prince crossed his arms to protect himself from the one-eyed Dökk’s palm descending towards his chest. Suddenly every inch of his body weighed a thousand pounds. His lungs were on fire, and his eyeballs felt like they were about to explode. He groaned, sensing the Gray Skins beneath him slowly turning into meat paste as their bodies were crushed by the force pushing down on him.
The one-eyed Dökk smiled, revealing dirty fused teeth.
I blame you! Erik raged at Patrick. Next time keep your fucking comments and jokes to yourself! His flesh began to flow like mud. Do you understand me?
Don’t try to pin this on me! Patrick shouted right back. You’re the idiot who thought it was a good idea to take on two armies by yourself.
“I’m not alone!” Erik screamed through a pulverized throat. When will you realize that? Less than an eye blink later his body erupted, unfolding into an enormous bird with midnight feathers the size of palm leaves. With the transformation came a different perception of the world. New colors bloomed into existence, adding more depth and beauty to his surroundings.
Shocked, the one-eyed Dökk fell onto its back, and the force beating down on Erik vanished.
A moment later savage blasts of wind exploded from beneath Erik’s twenty meter long wings; he leaped into the sky, propelled by furious jets of air that appeared every time he flapped his wings. His large bird heart soared with a sense of freedom. A vast landscape opened up below, tiny Dökk’s waving their weapons at the heavens, glistening water flowing down a winding river, all glimpsed through his new vision.
Abruptly an unseen force yanked at Erik, shattering bones in his left wing. He plunged towards the ground, howling out in a panicked bird cry. But he was not idle, even as he fell he was transforming his body, ridding it of all its bones. The valley floor rose to meet him filled with Dökk and their wall of spears. He landed in a confusion of shouts and howls and sharp pains brought upon by objects entering his massive body. The Dökk spun away or got crushed beneath his rolling mass.
Erik gasped, struggled to wrest some sort of control over his body. He had to do this right. A misstep here, and he would lose his life. Following instinct more than intellect, he forced his roiling flesh to contract in on itself, morphing himself into a gray dire wolf. All of a sudden colors faded from his vision, reducing everything to a world of black and white, and odors from kilometers away came rushing into his snout. The scent of slaughter cut through all the rest, making his wolf instincts and the Celestial Dragon’s desire beat in tune.
A dozen spears sailed from the hands of Dökk towards Erik. He dodged the weapons, sprinting on four legs faster than his enemies could even register. His legs blurred, slashing through the valley floor. The Prince had learned his lesson; he did not plan on stopping until he was well clear of the battlefield.
He pushed himself faster and faster, dashing past long limbs, leaving Dökk stumbling in his wake as his fur shifted gently as if stroked by a soft breeze. Twice he had to plough over a Gray Skin who blocked his path. They all moved too slowly to even think of touching him.
After what felt like minutes, but could have only been seconds, he reached the river. Not pausing for even an instant, he jumped in and promptly sank like a rock. Halfway to the bottom, he realized that he was now too heavy to float, but he did not panic as his paws touched the riverbed.
Surrounded by fresh water fish, Erik made his way along the unlit depths of the riverbed. He could not have said if he walked for minutes or hours, but eventually the river poured into a large lake, and the Prince dragged himself onto the shore, resuming his human form as he went. Exhausted, he flopped onto his back and gasped for breath; it felt like the weariness went all the way into his soul.
Never a dull moment, is there? Patrick moaned.
Erik frowned. A bird circled in the sky above, but it was unlike any bird he had ever seen or heard of. With his enhanced eyesight, he could make out details that would be impossible for anyone else. The bird was crystal clear except for its red eyes and seemed to be made of water.