We come together to fall apart and fall apart to come together.
A bird made of water? Now I’ve seen everything, Patrick said.
Erik shook his head. “That makes little sense. Elements can’t be alive. What’s next? Earth dogs and fire cats?” The water bird made another slow circle in the sky above.
Patrick snorted. Sense? How does any of this make sense?
Erik could not agree more with the Lightbender’s words. The Northern Reaches kept shattering his understanding of what was possible. But was this any stranger than him falling into the Dark One’s prison? His hearts spiked, and he closed his eyes. Elina, forgive me! It all came rushing back. All of what he had done. Mother, what did I do? What did I DO?
The wind gusted up, blowing across the Prince, tossing his hair as it moved towards the rippling surface of the lake. With the wind came a new assortment of scents and odors.
Humans, growled the Celestial Dragon. And horses, the Lightbender added with a note of puzzlement that grew into a sense of fear.
Erik sprung to upright sitting position. He smelled it too, the worked leather of two saddles, oil covered blades, and the sweat soaked into cloth and hair. Four horses and two unwashed men. Each had their own distinct odor, which revealed the history of their shared journey. Nothing reeked like men. Nothing smelled more delicious.
His green eyes glittered fiercely in the sunlight as he eyed the sparse forest to his left from whence the scents had come. Suddenly he dashed towards it, fear energizing his tired limbs. Above, the water bird was diving towards him, wings folded to its side. He did not understand how it was doing it, but he could feel fluctuations from the Abyss flowing forth from the strange creature.
Lungs burning, Erik pushed himself onward. Drained of most of his vital verve, he tried to quicken his hearts, but the world refused to slow, leaving him gasping in panic as he reached the first trees. Nothing filled him with as much terror as when the power of the Abyss was used against him. It just seemed so unfair when anyone else broke the Laws of Nature. Even now the irony was not lost on him.
Erik dropped to his stomach and rolled as the bird reached him. An instant later searing flames exploded out from its watery form with a thunder-like boom. The dazzling fury left the Prince deaf and blind to everything but the blistering heat charring his skin. He howled and went limp, flopping onto his belly. Half of his face lay black and cracked, milky white meat showing through the openings. He panted, urging his body to mend, but it only sluggishly obeyed his commands, healing at a reduced pace. All the while, waves of increasing hunger battered his tired mind.
FEED, the Celestial Dragon raged. DEVOUR!
Trembling, shivering, Erik climbed to his knees, gagging a little at the stench of his own cooked flesh. He could not remember ever being this tired before. This soon after his battle with the Dökk he was not ready for another. Plus only a small puddle of prana remained, and he would have to dine on flesh to recharge his other capabilities. Now of all times he could not afford another fight. Yet it seemed he might not have a choice.
A black man, clothed in a crimson robe approached Erik from the depths of the forest, illuminated by rays of the sun and light from the fire consuming three nearby trees. He held a longsword loosely in his right hand and fingered the shortsword secured at his waist. His expression was grim and resolute, and an icy light permeated his gray eyes.
“Asbjörn!” Erik shouted in joy before his emotions could catch up with his mind and he realized that the attack from before must have come from his teacher. All of a sudden his hearts seemed to be trying to pound their way out of his chest. The smile slipped from his face and he thought, No, please, Asbjörn, don’t!
The longsword twirled in Asbjörn’s hand and thrust towards the Prince. A lightning bolt leaped from the tip of the blade with a thunderous roar. Eyes widening, Erik tried to throw himself to the side, but he knew it was already too late. The white thunderbolt arced through the air, seeming to slow before it touched him. A fiery explosion tore at the Prince, flinging him backward. Electric torrents ripped through him. And he tumbled, shrieking, howling, falling, and frying until he landed on the ground with half of his body splashing into the lake.
Get up! Patrick shouted. Get the fuck up!
Erik heard himself panting as if he had run a hundred kilometers. He wanted nothing more than to heed the Lightbender’s advice, yet the spasms still rocking his body made that all but impossible. The Celestial Dragon’s furor grew more insistent with every painful involuntary muscular contraction. It loomed larger within him than at any other moment in recent memory.
Stubbornly, he fought against the monster’s enticements to feed. Asbjörn was a friend—no he was more than that, he was the father Erik always wished he had. The Cultivator had always been there to lend an ear and give guidance, sometimes even going beyond the call of duty to protect Erik from himself. He would not feed on the man. He would not! All he had to do was explain the situation to Asbjörn, and it would end all right. It had to! Tears formed in his eyes. He regretted not revealing his secret to Asbjörn from the start. Now. . . now it might be too late.
Asbjörn drew nearer, Erik could not see him, but he could hear his slow footsteps. Earth rose around the Prince, lifting and turning him until he faced Asbjörn and was encased in an irregularly shaped slab of hardening rock that stopped at his neck. Unlike the previous attack, he immediately recognized the Esoteric Sword Technique being used against him as The Earth Entwines.
“A-Asbjörn, stop!” The words escaped Erik’s mouth in a shuttered half yell. “Please, I can explain everything. J-just give me the chance!”
The Cultivator stopped with his longsword pointed at Erik’s chest. “Shut up!” he snarled. “It’s bad enough you wear my. . . my student’s face.” His eyes flickered with a dangerous glint. “I know what you are, abomination! Nothing you say will convince me otherwise. Now show me your true form.”
With that Asbjörn attacked, thrusting his blade forward. Sensing the fluctuations coming off of the weapon, Erik’s eyes bulged. Desperate, he tried to escape from the rock holding him in place, flexing his muscles, but it proved useless. Onward the blade came, all sharp edged and deadly, screaming in a way only another Cultivator would perceive. It passed through the slab of rock like a hot blade moving through butter and entered Erik’s chest.
A fiery hell engulfed Erik from within, making him feel as if he had been thrown into a lit forge. He screamed in rage, screamed in the face of the sea of flames that tried to sear his flesh. Yet even the midst of that unspeakable agony, he recognized the attack as an Abstraction, a category of Esoteric Techniques only Cultivators who had open their Third Stöðin could perform. The flames were not real, they existed only in his mind, but that knowledge did not make them hurt any less.
RIP! CLAW! TEAR!
Beneath the rock Erik’s arms swelled, ever so slowly doubling in size. He groaned behind clenched teeth, and his prison trembled. He shut his eyelids against a sharp pain in the back of his eyes and blinked them open to glared down at Asbjörn. Colors twisted, pulsating in an odd strangeness that let him know his eyes had changed. Black except for a band of gold that the encircled the darkness, they swallowed the light and glowed demoniacally.
“And there it is, your true form for the world to see,” Asbjörn said, yanking his blade out of Erik’s chest. A ribbon of blood squirted out of the wound and dripped down the slab surrounding the Prince.
Erik grunted, fighting against his building rage. “I don’t want to fight you. Please, don’t make me. I’m begging you. I. . . .” He looked past Asbjörn to see the orange outline of an invisible Lightbender moving closer. What do I do?
Run or fight! Those are the only two choices. Patrick’s voice trembled from the vestige of monstrous flames that had consumed Erik’s mind a moment before. But whatever you do, choose quickly. This is not the fucking time for indecision.
Asbjörn gave a short bark of humorless laughter.
No, Erik thought. There has to be another option. I just have to get through to him.
“Now you’re begging me? You murdered my son! Nothing but death awaits you here,” Asbjörn spat, his voice quivering with barely controlled fury. His eyes narrowed, and his longsword rose.
“I know how this looks, but I am Erik—”
“Do I look stupid to you?” Asbjörn interrupted. “You’re some long dead sorcerer’s creation. I have eyes. I admit, in my heart of hearts I had hoped Ypse was wrong, but I just witnessed your little battle with the Dökk. Now there’s no doubt in my mind.” A forlorn sigh escaped his nostrils. “Why am I even talking to you? Prepare yourself, the vanishing point approaches.”
“I can prove I’m me, just give the chance. If you’re still not convinced, you can always still kill me. What do you have to lose?”
Asbjörn frowned, seemingly giving Erik’s words some thought. Finally, he lowered his weapon. “Go ahead then convince me,” he said.
At that moment the invisible Lightbender bolted towards Erik with what looked like a longsword raised over his head. Help, Erik roared at the Celestial Dragon. An instant later a rush of power strengthened his tired muscles, and his prison erupted as he escaped from its rocky confine. Asbjörn leaped back, using an Esoteric Technique to launch himself into the air and away from the shrapnel flying towards him. The Lightbender was rocked backward, losing his invisibility in his tumble across the ground.
Erik darted towards the warrior as he came to his knees with his longsword outstretched. Blood roared in the Prince’s ears and time seemed to creep forward. Absentmindedly, he noted the pinkish purple sky, the white leaves on nearby trees, and the fact Asbjörn hung in the air like some ancient Death God caught in the act of descending to earth. Celestial Vision turned the whole world into an intricately constructed work of art. His arm transformed into a black scaled dragon claw and knocked the weapon away before the Lightbender could even blink. He pulled back the same hand, ready to cleave the man in two.
Don’t! Patrick shouted. That’s my Da. You can’t kill him!
With a start, Erik realized Patrick was right. Númi stared up at him unseeing, body straining oddly like he was burning prana to quicken his pace, but it still was not enough to match the Prince’s speed.
Soft juicy flesh thing. WE EAT!
Don’t you fucking dare. . . .” Patrick’s voice trailed off for a moment then came back with a vengeance. What happened to my Da’s arm?
Erik swallowed his desire to rip flesh and allowed time to jerk back into its natural groove. Ignoring Númi’s surprised yell, Erik grabbed the Lightbender and tossed him aside like someone else might flick an insect. I cut it off.
You what? Patrick asked, a little incredulous.
A surge of hurricane forced wind descended on Erik, tearing at his robe, trying to cast him into the sky. He dropped down, digging his dragon claw into the earth. Dust and dirt particles bombard him, forcing him to squint his eyes and hold his breath. Asbjörn’s feet touched the ground with the gentleness of a falling leaf as he aimed his longsword at Erik while drawing circles in the air.
“Asbjörn!” Erik shouted, but then did not know what else to say. He understood how it appeared—it looked like he had tried to sneak attack Asbjörn the moment he had let down his guard. Now there was no chance he would give Erik another opportunity to explain.
Asbjörn quickened his circle drawing pace, and the surge of wind buffeting the Prince turned even more monstrous. Erik tossed his head back and roared. Behind him the surface of the lake exploded, blowing up into the heavens. The earth around his dragon claw cracked, and he was flung into the sky along with gallons of water. And then he screamed with his mouth opened wide, kicking and clawing at the air as he tumbled towards the center of the lake. The howling wind bulged his cheeks out like overripe melons, gagging, choking him on air.
Erik gathered all the prana that remain inside of him. The water was close now, close enough he would only have time to try this once, not that he had any prana left to try it a second time. He twisted his body until he was falling face down and yanked—a flow of Fire from the Abyss—and shaped it with his mind, capturing the isolation and coldness of outer space. He curled his fingers and surface of the lake froze a hundred meters in every direction from where his hand pointed. The Esoteric Hand Technique affected not only the surface of the lake but also extended twice as deep as it went wide, turning much of the lake into an iceberg.
He struck the thick ice with a stomach-turning crunch. Pain bloomed inside his chest, and he spat blood out of his mouth, gasping like a landlocked saltwater fish. Vapor rose from the ice, freezing the tears running down his cheeks.
Winter Unfolds? Patrick asked. Why did you do that? It makes no sense. You should have just let yourself fall into the lake.
Erik blinked in pain. I don’t float. No idea how far down the lake goes. No clue what monsters may lay at the bottom.
I see. . . . Patrick said. Better the monster you know.
Fighting back a groan, Erik climbed to his knees, glanced back the way he came, and took a deep breath. Asbjörn was charging towards him, running across the surface of the lake as if it was solid ground. With a longsword in one hand and a shortsword in another, he looked like a vengeful god come to collect the souls of his enemies. Patrick had started murmuring to himself nervously, and Erik realized the Celestial Dragon was now bubbling with a sense of eagerness.
There would be no more talking, Erik understood that. He did not want to fight Asbjörn, but he saw there was no avoiding the battle. All he could do now was fight the Cultivator to a standstill and try to find a moment to reason with him after he ran out of prana.
Asbjörn leaped on the ice, and it tilted forward slightly after he landed. Erik gathered all his disappointment and frustration and used it to propel him onward. He enlarged his claw and transformed his other arm into one as well. He howled, guttural and deafening.
As they neared each other, Erik vaulted into the sky. Suddenly the air wrapped around him and held him still like bars of unbreakable iron. Surprised, he looked down at Asbjörn who had come to a stop with both of his blades pointed at the ice.
“How are. . . . You—you have a Domain?” Erik asked in a terrified whisper. “When did you open your. . . your. . . .”
What the fuck is a Domain? Patrick asked.
Erik licked his frostbitten lips. Only Cultivators’ who’ve opened their Fourth Stöðin have one. It’s a fixed territory around them over which they have complete control and can freely use the power of the Abyss without the need of Esoteric Techniques. The size of the Domain depends on how many strata their Fourth Stöðin has. Talking to Patrick helped him get a handle on his fear.
So Dukes have Domains, Patrick muttered to himself. Why am I only learning about this now?
That’s not the kind of information the nobility wants to be spread, Erik explained as he tested his invisible bonds. His arms did not move even an inch, they stayed fixed in place over his head.
Asbjörn sighed and looked away from Erik. “I opened my Fourth Stöðin long ago. Before I ever traveled across the Howling Sea.”
“You never told me.”
“I’m sorry,” Asbjörn replied still not meeting Erik’s eye. “Your father wouldn’t have allowed me to be your teacher if he knew. I’m too powerful. I’m too dangerous. No nation would allow me to freely roam knowing what I am.”
And that was the truth. Vindur only had four Duke ranked Cultivators, and they all lived within Vetur. They were the nation’s greatest treasure and its most serious threat next to an attack from one of the Four Great Calamities.
Erik smiled sadly and returned his arms back to their normal form. “I understand. What happens now?”
“Now?” Asbjörn’s gray eyes rose to meet Erik’s. “Now you die.”
In the space of a single heartbeat, flames sprang all over Erik’s body. And then he screamed. Eyes bulging, he kicked and jerked while the inferno charred his flesh. His exposed skin was turning black, inky darkness swallowing him whole. Even in the midst of the agony, he was aware of the other things, too. He was aware of Patrick’s shrieks and the Celestial Dragon joy; it kept encouraging him to transform and eat. It had been birthed in fires a thousand times hotter than this. This was nothing to it. Erik refused the Devour of Worlds. He promised the creature he would die before he harmed Asbjörn. Centering himself, he forced himself to stop screaming.
“Do you remember that time my father struck me in public”—Erik’s voice rose to a howl before dropping back down again—“it was right after my mother died? He was mad that I took a piss in Father Leonard’s wine. Do you remember?”
Erik’s words held Asbjörn still in astonishment. The hand that held his longsword was trembling. “Yes,” he whispered.
“That was the first time I saw my father show any real emotion. He didn’t even cry at my mother’s funeral, but that angered him. ” Erik laughed and tried to not puke from the smell of his burnt skin. “Later that day you found me on the roof by myself crying. Do you remember what I told you?”
Asbjörn’s eyes swelled with tears. “Yes. . . I remember.”
“I told you. . . I told you, ‘I wish you were my father.’ And you said. . . .” The flames disappeared from Erik’s flesh, and he gasped. He floated down to kneel in front of Asbjörn.
“I already. . . .” Asbjörn’s voice quaked. “I already know you have his memories.”
Erik crawled towards Asbjörn, pushing past his swords to grab his robe. Men were not supposed to hold each other to shelter them from hurt, but Erik did not care. He buried his face into Asbjörn’s side and held him close.
“You said, ‘I want nothing more. Nothing would bring more joy than having you as my son’,” Erik continued. “I said nothing then, but I want you to understand from that moment I considered you my father. I. . . I love you, Da.”
The swords tumbled from Asbjörn’s hands and clattered onto the ice. He wrapped his arms around Erik’s burnt shoulders and whispered, “My son.” He laughed as the tears running down his cheeks froze. “My son,” he said louder.
Surround by cold mist a father and son embrace each other under a sun long past its zenith.