As a Cultivator, I know the circumstances of my birth is not as important as the way I face my end.
— ERIK ITO, TO ASBJÖRN
Fiend Lord, Patrick murmured.
Emotions flooded through Erik in ever-rising waves, waves of towering fear and anger, swells of heart-wrenching sadness and disgust, breaking over him as if trying to shatter his soul. Asbjörn! ASBJÖRN! Tears streamed down his pale eyelids. Mother, please no. Don’t do this to me. I’m begging you. Please!
“You came.” Asbjörn face contorted in a tired half smile, and in spite of themselves, Erik’s hearts brightened. It was such an Asbjörn thing to say. And so lucid. For a moment Erik could almost pretend that Asbjörn’s eyes were not glowing scarlet. That he had not been overtaken by the taint of the Abyss. Almost.
Attack before it’s too late! Patrick yelled.
Dust and black smoke swirled around Erik, hiding then revealing Asbjörn. I can’t. He clenched his hands into fists and opened them with a sob. His body shook with uncontrollable tremors.
You must, Patrick responded. He’s too dangerous. Fiend Lords subsist on carnage. You have to! He would want you to. You know that!
I know. I know! Erik dropped to his knees. But I can’t. I. . . I . . . .
“I wanted so much to shelter you from the world’s treacheries, my son,” Asbjörn said, ripping out his swords thrust into the bottom of the lake. “A seed grows best in blood. Thoughts become things! I so much wanted you to survive them. Treacherous thoughts. Treacherous things.” He shut his eyes and allowed the wind to caress his cheeks. “I see all of it with my eyes closed. The only way to save myself is to kill them all.”
Don’t be stupid, Erik, Patrick begged. For once don’t let your emotions control you. He is no longer the man you knew; he’s now altogether something different.
Erik choked back another sob. There had to be a way to save Asbjörn. He would not allow himself to fall into despair. The script had yet to be written; as long as they both lived there was still a chance. It did not matter no Cultivator had ever been brought back from the depth of madness. He would find a way. What son could do any less for his father? I just have to find the right words to get through to him. There’s hope. . . . Mother, don’t do this to me!
Patrick snarled. You’re delusional! You must know there is no cure for this. A quick death is all you can give him. Do it now before it’s too late. Do it NOW!
“How did you ever put up with me for so long?” Erik asked Asbjörn. “Looking back, I was such a petulant little shit.” He gave a small laugh. “I still am. I never deserved your. . . your. . . . Sometimes I hate me. There so much I want to tell you, but even now I can’t. I feel like one of those automatons they build in Jörðin, a working of gears and chaos stones. Not real, just an imitation of a living thing.”
Asbjörn’s eyes snapped open. “My son. My son.” He smiled, then suddenly his eyes roared with the fury of two blazing furnaces. “You’re in danger. Terrible danger. Run. Run! RUN!”
Erik shifted, glancing past Asbjörn, unable to take the madness swimming in his adopted father’s eyes. Beyond the opposite lakeshore, shadows were growing long, hindered only by the orange radiance of the dying sun. An eternal battle was playing out before his eyes. The light resisted admirably, but all the same, he understood it would be night soon. It was just a matter of time.
“No,” Erik said, fixing Asbjörn with a gaze that was tragic, despite its firmness. “I’m not running.” The fire still raged behind Erik, bathing him with the warmth of distant flames and sniffing his nostrils with the bitter stench of burnt wood.
Asbjörn snickered like a capricious child while globs of water rose from the surface of the lake and floated around him, turning in slow circles. The globs transformed into faces, twisted with jubilation one moment and terror the next. All of which wept soundlessly at the din of their creator’s mirth.
“I envy women and the way they’re able to share their feelings with each other,” Erik said. “If men did the same, maybe. . . maybe. . . . I don’t know what I mean.” He shook his head. “That’s a lie. I’m trying to find the words to tell you I love you.” Brilliant yellow flames appeared in all the eyes of the twisted water faces, adding a demonic tilt to their already hideous visages.
“Love will not save you,” Asbjörn whispered, cutting his snickering short. “Hate will not save you. You must all die. All of you.” Tears glisten within his red eyes. “Even you, my beautiful son. The world calls out for it. She weeps. She weeps! Can you not hear her? Only your deaths will end her daily torments.”
Asbjörn threw his arms wide, and the lake ignited behind him. Gallons of water was sucked into the air, forming three giant funnels of twisting water. Snowflakes shrieked into the sky from the top of the waterspouts, which screamed and roared with the sound of rushing wind and water. Erik sensed a chill seep into his blood and up his spine as the blizzard descended around him.
He leaped to his feet. “Don’t do this, Asbjörn! I know you’re in there somewhere. Fight it! I believe in you. You’re the strongest person I know. If it can be done, you can do it!”
“Shut up! Shut up!” Asbjörn yelled. “You’re just a voice in my head. You’re not real. None of this is. You murdered my son! I know it was you! I know. My beautiful son.” He stomped down on the ground, and the earth groaned. The impact blasted a small crater at his feet, sending waves of water and dirt surging out in all directions.
By the time the waves reached Erik the water had heated into steam and the shower of soil had been transformed into glowing molten droplets. Erik threw up his arm in a vain attempt to shield his eyes and rolled away from the oncoming onslaught. Fiery sparks lanced through his arm and chest as blistering steam boiled his exposed flesh. Fighting back a wail, he came to a stop meters from where he began.
You’re running out of time. He will only keep getting stronger. Patrick’s voice contorted in agony. He’s a Duke ranked Fiend Lord, Erik! I can’t even begin to imagine the kind of wholesale destruction he is capable of. That has to be the closest thing we still have to a god.
Snow filled the air, a solid blanket of it. Erik could see Asbjörn floating like a leaf surrounded by weeping globs of water, hear him howling at the heavens, sense the fluctuations from the Abyss crashing into his bones. The snow became whiter, somehow each flake glowed brighter than the morning sun. They hung in the air, refusing to fall to the ground, making Erik squint to protect himself from the glare.
Erik swallowed. It hurt him to even think it, but Patrick was right. The longer he waited, the more difficult it would become. He could not even begin to understand how Asbjörn was achieving half of what he was doing with the power of the Abyss. Madness pushed Cultivators past their natural limits. It just all seemed so unfair. So unfair. Asbjörn, I can’t lose you, too. I can’t!
Asbjörn stopped howling and glanced down at Erik the way someone might gaze an insect. Less than an insect. Suddenly something struck Erik with tremendous force, sending him trembling backward through burning tree trunks. Bones snapped, turning his insides into jelly, and the jelly shook stifling the screams that tried to escape past his bruised throat. The world spun, and he was falling. The forest floor rose to meet him with a stomach churning splat.
Get the fuck up! Patrick shouted. Get up!
Pain lanced through every part of Erik’s body. He lay on his back, gasping for breath, staring up at leaves swaying on branches. Fiery sparks sailed deeper into the forest interior, pushed by a wayward gust of wind. Erik felt bones mend, ripped muscles reattach, and new flesh replace broiled skin until only a few injuries remained, but he pushed harder, not knowing what he did, or how, only that he needed to heal quicker. Then the last twitch of pain was gone, and he was lurching to an upright standing position, bracing himself against a nearby tree.
Panting, he looked back the way he had come. He had been launched over forty meters from his original spot. A tree collapsed, half-eaten by the fire at its base, sending a sea of sparks dancing. The shrieking flames concealed the shore and Asbjörn from Erik’s sight, but above the lake, something strange was taking place. A stone structure made of red and white marble turned slowly in the air. Erik could only gawk. With a domed roof that glittered like glass and a doorless doorway, it looked like some unholy temple of an unknown god. The glaring white snowflakes hung directly above it like trapped stars, and fresh water feed by the three waterspouts collected into streams that ran in circles around the building.
Erik blinked. “How. . . . Why is he doing that?”
Madness has its own limits of which we understand nothing. And its has its own logic, too. Who can say why Fiend Lords do the things they do?
Erik nodded his head at Patrick’s words and dashed forward through the raging fire. Motion slowed, and his body covered itself in black and gold scales to protect him from the heat of the crackling flames. He jumped over a fallen tree and left the inferno behind him.
The ground rumbled as he searched for signs of Asbjörn and found none. Dull heartache driving him forward, he ignored the quaking earth and noted the black steps that rose before him. Each step stood alone and unsupported, reaching up to the distant rotating temple above.
This is the only way, Patrick whispered. It’s only been five minutes and look at what he has done. He has to die before he starts trying to tear the earth apart. The Lightbender gave a short, panicked laugh. He so powerful that he might succeed if he attempts it. Think of the other ones you love. Do this for them.
Erik heard Patrick’s words, but the greater part of him was lost in remembrance. He kept reliving his first meeting with Asbjörn, all those years ago. With a heavy heart, he mounted the first steps. Hold on, Da. I’m coming.
Wind surrounded him, groaning as it grated against his scales. The steps withstood his weight as if made just for him, and perhaps they were. When he looked back, those behind were yet there, hanging in the air, looking as real as anything else. He took the last step and suddenly gravity reversed and he was falling up.
Taken completely by surprise, fear pulsed within him, pumping strength into his muscles, pumping energy, filling him with power. He slammed into one of the moving streams of water looping around the temple. With a start, Erik resurfaced, spitting out a mouthful of ice cold lake water. And then gravity changed again, and he was falling across the sky, underneath a field of artificial stars.
Time seemed to stand still as Erik swam against the roaring tide, splashing frantically, desperate to free himself. Finally, he wrenched himself from the icy river and sailed towards the domed roof. It glittered in the fading light of the sun, and for the first time, he realized that its smooth surface was in fact made of glass. The Prince touched it, and it exploded into fragments. Shocked, he fell towards a round table made of the blackest stone, surrounded by shards. Bones re-shattered in his shoulders when they met the polished table.
The melted walls of the temple were decorated with a hundred pairs of female legs, thrusting out of the stone, waving and wiggling in a sensual manner. Asbjörn stood with his weapons clutched at his side, in front of a massive fireplace with its roaring, purple flames. Some of those faces that floated around him, laughing in torment, writhing in silence, stared at Erik in pity.
Eyes watering with pain, Erik staggered to his feet and scowled when he discovered that his limbs were sinking into the table like quicksand. “I wish it didn’t have to end this way,” he breathed.
“Always you say this same thing,” Asbjörn said, staring into the fireplace. His voice was unnaturally calm, Erik noticed. “We’ve relived this moment a hundred times before. Why can you never remember?”
Erik sighed as the table solidified after it reached his waist. It was hopeless, he could see that now. He blinked away the fresh tears forming in his eyes and steadied his thumping hearts. Mother, must it always end this way? With me on my own, and the ones I love dead?
Asbjörn turned to face Erik and did a double take. “My son, you came? When did you arrive?” He waved his own question away. “That doesn’t matter. You’re here, and now my heart it filled with such joy. Welcome to the House for the Dead. Glorious, is it not?” He raised his swords with a sadistic smile. “I solved it. You must die, this I already understand, but I found a way we can stay together. Forever.”
Erik, do something! Patrick howled.
As the walls began screaming, Asbjörn twirled his longsword and pointed it at Erik’s heart. “Forever!”
Water shot from the blade, coruscating in a shower of golden droplets that encircled the Prince, entrapping him in a globe of water. The shrieks of the walls lowered into a guttural moan of pleasure, and Erik wailed. His Ethereal Body boiled in his inner void; it felt as if molten lava had been injected into his veins and was now trying to rip out his soul. Patrick howled, clawing at his mind with fanged hooks. The Lightbender’s scream would not end and neither would his own. They were soon joined by the Celestial Dragon’s own sounds of torment.
Erik did not know where their suffering ended and his began, only that it had to be ended. It has to end! He slammed his scaled fist down on the table, and it burst into fragmented bits. His hearts quickened, and he outran the splintered pieces of stone, escaping from the roiling ball of water’s torturous interior. Reaching forward, he pressed his middle and index finger into Asbjörn’s throat and jerked his hand back. The Cultivator’s aged flesh caved like soggy parchment, and bright blood unspooled from his neck like a red ball of yarn.
Surprised, Asbjörn watched Erik with unseeing eyes. He staggered back, swords clattering to the floor as he lost his footing.