You have limitations. As a Cultivator, you must always remember this. Unlike others, when we heedlessly push past our own limitations, it is not we who suffer but those we love.
— ASBJÖRN MAKI, TO ERIK
With his head pressed at Asbjörn’s side, Erik choked back a cry. His hearts felt so full of sentiment that for a second he worried they might burst. He gripped his adopted father tighter. He wanted this moment to last forever. He never wanted to let go. My Da. My Da.
Perverting the moment with desire, suddenly the Celestial Dragon’s hunger rose within him, making his vision blur. It surged into his limbs, seemed to taint everything about him, his blood, his soul. He felt as if his stomach had turned into a gaping hole large enough to swallow the world. It hollowed him; it made him want to feast on flesh. The arms that were wrapped around Asbjörn’s back began to unspool into tendrils.
Reluctantly, Erik released Asbjörn before the Hunger could overwhelm him and he did something he would regret for the rest of his life. His burns healed slowly, revealing a few spots of pink on his face that were gradually growing more numerous.
Eyes wild with bewilderment and glee, Asbjörn pulled back from Erik. “It’s really you, isn’t it,” He looked like he was afraid to believe what he was seeing. Gusts of wind whipped the frigid mist around the two.
“Yes,” Erik said.
Erik sighed. There was no way around it. He would have to try to explain something he really did not understand himself. “I think it has something to do with my bloodline. Jön Ito, the founder of my family, was a sorcerer’s experiment or so I gathered from Ypse. Whatever was done to him skipped generations and came to fruition in me,” he said.
“Ypse told you this?” Asbjörn whispered then scowled.
A second later, the iceberg lurched sideways, and Erik caught Asbjörn as he fell forward.
Surprised, Erik realized something had struck it from beneath. He dropped his adopted father and took stock of his surroundings. All around the iceberg, the surface of the lake boiled and stirred
Asbjörn rushed past Erik, picked up his swords and shouted, “Get behind me!” Droplets flew like hail, soaking his scarlet robe.
Erik climbed to his feet, standing back to back with Asbjörn. He wanted to howl in frustration. I want just one moment of respite. Is that too much to ask for? Why must everything be such a struggle? The world exploded in water.
Startled, Erik and Asbjörn twisted to find an enormous serpentine beast rising up from the lake. A rush of water ran down its pale blue scaled body, gleaming strangely over the red crossbands stretching down the length of its belly. It was wider than Erik was tall, and its head was even more massive and bulky than rest of its body.
Erik gawked with his mouth open. For a moment he could only stare. This had to be an Imugi, and it was everything he had been told, everything and more. The monster made him and Asbjörn look like toy soldiers. Its large orbs blazed, blazed like flames made of blue ice.
The Imugi opened its mouth, revealing fixed fangs. “Menn. Ég hata menn.” Its voice was thin and slithering as one would expect to come from the throat of a serpent-like creature.
Asbjörn stepped into the air. “Erik, swim to shore. I’ll distract it until you’re safe.”
“No, I’m not letting you fight it alone,” Erik responded, keeping his eyes locked on the Imugi in case it attacked. He did not understand what it had said, but he was sure it had spoken in the Old Tongue. Who knew my language teacher was right? I should have paid more attention.
It said, ‘Humans. I hate humans.’ Or something to that effect, Patrick added helpfully. Unlike you, my language teacher lashed me if I didn’t learn properly.
Asbjörn turned to glare down at Erik. “We don’t have time for this. You’re not strong enough.”
“I am,” Erik replied. “You haven’t seen half of what I can do you yet.” To prove his point he transformed both of his arms into large dragon claws. “I ran out of prana, but I’m anything but helpless.”
“Menn verða að allir deyja,” the Imugi spoke in the same haunting tone.
“Together then,” Asbjörn sighed.
Erik smiled up at the Cultivator. “Together.” As father and son. “Like old times.”
Dimly, Erik was aware of something white churning inside the Imugi’s throat. Its mouth swelled open wider, and a massive jet of water flew towards Erik. Almost absentmindedly, Asbjörn waved his swords and the air shimmered in a circle around them. The raging torrent struck Asbjörn’s invisible shield with an extraordinary amount of water pressure. Erik stumbled as the iceberg titled away from the monster. Gallons of foaming liquid billowed into the sky.
Asbjörn grunted, turning deadly serious. “It’s strong.” He grunted again. “Really strong.”
Even surround by the shield, Erik felt the pressure. When I get home, I will sleep for a month straight. He widened his stance to better keep his balance. Water flew as from a powerful geyser. “It can’t keep this up forever. When it stops I’ll keep it distracted, and you do what you do,” Erik told Asbjörn.
Asbjörn snarled. “Trust me, son, you don’t want to be anywhere near this thing when I attack it.” He mumbled something under his breath. “It’s starting to piss me off. It’s really starting to piss me off!” He shouted and swung his blades.
The shield expanded in every direction but down, slamming into the monster’s face, bringing its attack to an abrupt end. Howling, the Imugi jerked back, and Asbjörn twirled his blades, running his shortsword along his longsword. A lightning bolt, twice as big as the one that had struck the Prince, leaped from the tip of the longsword with a thundering boom. Erik blinked, and his eyes adapted to the blinding light of the thunderbolt arcing through the air on its way to the python-like creature. The bolt pounded into the Imugi’s stomach with a crackling sound and the smell of ozone. It was flung back, howls turning into shrieks.
Asbjörn’s two attacks had been lightning quick. Even Erik had not had time to more than blink. Watching the Imugi fall back towards the lake, he yelled at the Celestial Dragon, Time to feed! And he dashed toward the foul beast. There was no other way. The power of the Abyss was beyond him, and he was too exhausted. His only chance lay in the Devourer of World’s untapped potential.
The Celestial Dragon roared, and a deluge of power suffused Erik’s tired limbs, reenergizing bruised muscles to their peak. He felt as if he had swallowed the sun. His hearts throbbed, and with every pulse Erik grew stronger and more fully healed. The droplet of water falling toward the iceberg slowed then stopped as if they had been fixed in place. Once again Erik’s pace had increased to where moving things looked like stationary objects.
A smile bloomed on his face, no longer wilted, no longer burnt.
Once again you’re rushing into battle without even a hint of a plan, Patrick sighed as if frustrated by the behavior of a wayward pupil.
Kill it. That’s the plan. Erik hurled himself up from the mists covered ice, throwing his arms out, reaching for the immobile monster. Time crawled forward a little faster as he soared. He was slower in the air than he had been running across the iceberg. The Imugi reared slowly, falling back towards the surface of the lake. Dragon claws met snake-like scales and could not find purchase. Surprised, Erik desperately tried to keep himself from tumbling away. He threw his arms open, trying to hug a creature that was wider than he was tall. His arms lengthened to comical portions, wrapping around the Imugi, bringing his decent to an abrupt end.
Imugis are rated as a Level Four Hazard, you realize that right? Patrick snapped. Their scales are stronger than stacks of iron plates. And I’ve never heard of one this large. It must be over a thousand years old. It. . . it might even be a Level Five. Do you know what that means?
The Imugi slammed into the water with its body, and the lake roiled like a storm. It turned, diving deeper, and the iceberg trembled. Ripples ran along its frame in waves, waves of rushing water, breaking as it swam, shattering over Erik endlessly. Staggering, he turned his head. The forces of the water struck his arms like bristling spear-points, swelling to dislodge him.
The Prince held on for dear life, but he still had time to observe his enemy. At over a hundred meters long it was much larger than he had first thought. Its massive body stirred like a whipped pennant, moving in an S pattern. He watched, mouth agape, as the Imugi’s lateral moving tail struck the bottom of the iceberg. A churning mass of water and frozen rubble erupted into the air. Asbjörn!
Erik screamed louder. Asbjörn! Asbjörn! The water shook with the distorted sounds of shattering ice, and air escaped his mouth in a rush of bubbles. What was left floating was nothing more than broken pieces of a once mighty iceberg, drifting away from the Imugi’s tail.
Suddenly he felt something, a monstrous hate. He saw it too, though he knew it was not possible. An ember of glowing incandescence inside himself, golden like the earth’s inner core seen through the purest diamond, heavier than the Rin Mountains, lighter than a feather, connecting him to something beyond knowing. Not understanding how, he reached out and grasped it, and the Celestial Dragon’s want filled him until it sang in his blood, hummed in his bones, called to his very soul. He fought back a growl. The sensation was intoxicating. Only a small corner remained for himself, but it would be enough. It had to be enough.
Massive vibrations ripped through Erik, and his flesh roiled in a chaotic mess. Underneath it all, an incredible and yet familiar sensation surged up his spine until large bat-like wings exploded out of his back. Soon after that the rest of him transformed, swelling in size, morphing into the Celestial Dragon’s colossal form. Even as he changed, he could sense the Devour of Worlds merging with his consciousness in a way it never had before. They became one, but he was sure he was still in control. He was sure. He had to be.
Fire now roared through his veins, a fire hotter than the burning heat of the sun. He could feel the Imugi struggling to free itself between his claws. It reminded him of a worm caught on a hook. Puny flesh thing. With the sound tearing iron, his elongated jaw ripped flesh from the Imugi’s side and came away with a mouth full of bloody meat.
Panic flared through Erik like the terror of a flash flood. He had never chosen to attack, it had just happened. He had moved by instinct or maybe. . . by another’s design. Before he could give much more thought to that conundrum the contents in his maw oozed down his throat.
Pleasure built in Erik, the pleasure of completion, the euphoria of completion, bursting, the awful frenzied joy of a genetic imperative met. His mind soared. This was what he was meant for. He was born to devour the weak things that trembled beneath his claws.
Sound beat at Erik, beat at him with the distorted howls of underwater sounds. From the depths of the lake, he ascended into the air with the Imugi squirming in his iron grip. The wind roared beneath his featherless wings, howled with every flap, whipping air across the churning water.
Asbjörn stood at the center of a clear sky, swords swinging, blood pouring out of a wound on his forehead. From his blades lightning came, each bolt massive and sharp, each bolt bright enough to blind. They flashed towards Erik and the Imugi, falling among them indiscriminately. The Imugi’s cries became shrieks of pain as the bolts struck its form.
The electrostatic discharge. The terrible electrostatic discharge of burning lightning.
Erik roared as it coursed through him as well. His claws opened, and the Imugi fell back towards the surface of the lake, but a second later he caught it just behind the head and flew towards the shore with half of the Imugi’s body dragging through the water. Blood pulsed out of the wound he had left on the monster’s side. Bright and vivid. Bright and beautiful.
Somehow the Imugi twisted its body, sending its tail whipping around Erik and smashing into his wing. They fell towards the shore in a jumble of dragon flesh and Imugi scales, panting and grunting as water and dirt billowed into the sky. Over the din, tree branches waved in the dust-filled air, and Asbjörn run towards the place of impact, blades swinging, feet moving across the heavens as if it were the earth.
Erik clashed with the Imugi, rolling, ripping soft flesh with his powerful jaws. Mighty scales tore with each one of his bites. The Imugi thrashed, struggling to break free from him, but he would not allow it to. It was only an insect. Less than an insect. It could not harm him.
Flower petals made of searing flames rained down on them from above, and they separated. The Imugi squealed, spewing a jet of water to combat the fire trying to consume it. Erik’s heart soared with joy; these weak flame could not burn him. He inhaled, sucking a torrent of air into his large lungs. An inferno pulsed inside him, an inferno that bounced up his throat and out of his open jaw. Fire turned the jet of water into steam and leaped into the Imugi’s waiting mouth.
Terrible blistering heat charred the Imugi’s skull from the inside, and eyeballs and brains exploded from the creature’s orifices. A moment later Erik lunged at the still-twitching mass, body unfolding into tendrils and petals. Strength filled him, the burning strength of the blazing sun. He could see the Imugi slowly sink into him. It seemed to take forever, but somehow he knew the process only took a handful of seconds.
He stood, once again in human form, surprised by the lack of an overwhelming rush foreign memories. His whole body crackled with power. Terrible power.
“Asbjörn,” Erik shouted when he did not see the Cultivator standing the sky above him. For a sad moment, he spun and searching for his adopted father, ignoring the fire that was ravaging nearby trees. He stopped when he found Asbjörn kneeling in the lake with his head bowed and shoulders shaking as if he were weeping.
Erik ran forward. “Asbjörn, are you hurt? Asbjörn—”
Asbjörn lifted his head, and Erik’s stomach dropped. The Cultivator’s eyes glowed crimson red, and Erik realized that he was not crying, he was laughing sinisterly.