Sometimes the worse thing is getting exactly what you want.
— ERIK ITO, TO NÚMI
It arose from his depths, molten flames broiling everything, flinging shadows and fiery sparks across the room. Voices rose into frantic shouts. Voices that pulled at his memory but slipped through his grasp the moment he tried to remember their names. Golden bonfires crawled along the walls as the screams grew louder. Panicked voices. Frantic howls.
The sounds faded into nothing, and Asbjörn awoke sprawled on top of an unfamiliar bed. He fought to fill his lungs and pushed himself upright but fell back down helpless a moment later. Pain filled him with a sense of vileness; his burns seemed as prominent as his battle for breath, as near as the damp bandages that covered him from head to toe. Yet at the same time, he was aware of every minute stir of air against the cracks in his lips. It was as if he had been cooked alive, but had somehow managed to survive.
A wet cloth lightly dabbed at his lips, and he opened eyes he had not realized he had closed. He took comfort in the soothing sensation and glanced at the young woman touching the moist rag to his mouth. She could not have been more than three or four years older than him, still little more than a girl. The barest instant and their eyes met before looking away. She was slender, he noticed, with long black hair that fell to her waist, deep dark eyes, and golden brown skin.
Who is she? Where am I? Why am I in such pain? The questions came one after another, all without answers. He opened his mouth to ask her, but even that proved too difficult.
“It’s all right,” she cooed, the way one might to a child; her tone angered Asbjörn. “Don’t try to talk. You’re safe now.” She took a step away from the bed. “Hold on. I’ll be right back.” She rushed out of the room.
Asbjörn flared his eyes in rage—he was no child—and then he regretted it a second later. Eternal Father, even that hurts, he whimpered lost in a tide of rising agony. He closed his eyes to better weather the assault and when he opened them again, he realized more time had passed than should have. It only seemed like a handful of seconds, but he was no longer alone.
The Fallnir Menn with slicked back oily black hair stood beside the bed, peering down at Asbjörn. The painted dots on his forehead seemed to stand out more in the dim light. “Good, you’re awake,” he murmured.
A swelling gust of fear bombarded Asbjörn’s tiny frame, spiking his heartbeat, doing battle with the tyrannical waves of woe already surging through his blood vessels. He gasped in panic. No! No! NO!
“My name is Sesar. You’ve earned the right to that at the very least. I owe you an apology.” Despite the Cultivator’s claims of atonement, his tone remained emotionless. “What you did should not be possible, but none the less I take full responsibility for what happened. I hope one day you learn to forgive me.”
I’m one of. . . . Asbjörn shut his eyes to deny the reality. I’m one of them, he thought morosely.
“This is Nenna,” Sesar said, motioning at the golden brown skinned girl standing at the opposite side of the bed. “Henceforth she will be your Hearth Maiden. She has been raised since birth for this privilege. Treat her well. Yours and her destinies are now intertwined. She’ll be able to answer most of the questions you have until you’re well enough to attend classes.”
Asbjörn’s eyes welled with tears. “Will I ever be able to visit my family?”
Sesar blinked. “I see. . . you don’t remember.”
“What do you mean?” When Sesar did not respond immediately, Asbjörn grew frantic. “Tell me. Tell me!”
“They’re dead, Asbjörn. You murdered them when you awoke your power. When you touched the Abyss.”
Surrounded by cold water and red and white marble, Erik’s eye blinked open. All around him, the temple continued to sink deeper and deeper into the lake’s murky depth. With a heavy grunt, he reached back and wretched out the swords thrust into his back. For an instant he savored how right Asbjörn’s weapons felt in his hands; it was as if they were made just for him.
Water pressure beat at Erik, growing more tremendous with each passing second, trying to collapse his roiling body mass in on itself. He focused his wandering mind; he sensed another memory rising within. There was not much time to do what he must.
Bubbles of air escaped out of his mouth as he roared, gripping the hilts of Asbjörn’s swords ever tighter. Bones in his hands crack on the point of breaking, but he did not care. He reached for one of those glimmering patterns within his mind and willed himself to transform.
Asbjörn sat cross-legged above the churning vortex of the Abyss, encircled by an invisible barrier that protected him from the fluctuations of the void. There was an element of sadness hidden in his gray eyes that his blank expression did not quite mask. The glint of lost. The glimmer of a wound yet to fully heal.
“The Abyss is one of the two wellsprings of creation,” Nenna’s alluring voice rang throughout the darkness.
Asbjörn frowned. “One of two? What’s the other?”
“Don’t interrupt,” she admonished then continued in a gentler tone. “The other source is from were Witches draw their power, but that’s lesson for another day. There are many rules you must always keep in mind. But the first and most important is that you must never gaze into the Abyss for too long.”
Asbjörn leaned forward and did exactly that. Vaguely he noticed himself falling towards the center of the Abyss. The shield crackled and roared with turbulence around him, but he only had eyes for the glory of the huge vortex, pulsing with unspeakable power, glowing like a thousand suns. And suddenly he sensed it surging into him with power to boil all the seas of the world. With—
Asbjörn jolted awake to his cheek stinging from the force of a slap. He sat cross-legged on his bed. In front of him, Nenna stood with one hand cocked and the other on the handle of the dagger at her waist. She glared down at him with her face painted in dread.
“You must never do that again, do you understand?” she sniffed. “Never! You more than anyone else must know the destructive power of the Abyss.”
More than a little surprised, Asbjörn fingered his throbbing cheek. “How did. . . how did you know what I was doing?” he asked, sounding genuinely curious.
For a moment Nenna looked uncertain then dropped her cocked hand and smiled. “You all look the first time. When you tell a child not to do something, more often than not that’s exactly what they will do.”
Asbjörn looked away from her as if she no longer existed. His insides seethed with droplets of glowing rage. He was no child and one day soon she would come to realize that. Or he would. . . . He was not really sure what he would do, but he knew she would regret it.
The temple looked as if it had been picked up and tossed about like some child’s plaything. Half the floor and walls were only heaps of rubble, some spilling out of the building as it groaned from the water pressure. The destruction did not stop there. The once glorious domed roof was now nothing but ruin, every piece of glass long washed away by the power of the lake.
The pattern within Erik’s mind flickered in and out of existence until it finally firmed. A heartbeat later, he swelled, doubling and tripling in size, slowly twisting into the form of an immense serpentine. His tail pierced the temple’s heart, growing too large to be contained by mere stone. The structure groaned and cracked around him and eventually burst apart as he tore a huge rent through the marble as if it was not even there.
Freed from the interior of the temple, Erik swam towards the shore, now clothed in the Imugi’s blue scaled body. The underwater world looked much different than it had a few moments before. Colors were gone, reducing everything to black and white; yet he could see the heat glowing off of the bodies of nearby creatures. Sound waves rippled off his skin and traveled from his muscles to his bones, sending vibrations up to the ears beneath his skull. And he became aware of distant rumbles, of ten thousand whining hums like some bizarre acoustic melody. The marine lifeforms, moving, swimming.
Erik did not have time to spare the creatures a single thought, he sensed another memory bubbling to the surface. Unseen mental weaves tried to carry him away, bury him under the weight of another man’s yesterdays. He roared.
Asbjörn rolled against the cold stone of the Training Hall, coming to his knees with his sword snaking out in front of him. Every scrap of prana he could draw went into powering the Esoteric Technique that sprung from his blade. An illusionary jet of water hurled towards a pale semblance of The Red Rose Blooms. Neither attack quite looked real, but when they met in the air, they fragmented into dazzling pieces of light that soon faded into nothing.
Eyes blazing with hatred, Asbjörn stood, struggling to straighten the writhing mess of straining muscles he called his legs. This was his fourth match of the day, and he felt exhausted, but that was what his enemies wanted. They could not win against him fairly. Therefore they had to wear him down so they could dethrone him from his first place ranking. He would not allow that to happen. Dimly he was aware of the onlookers who watched the whole thing with faces as blank as stone.
Koggi sent a self-satisfied smirk Asbjörn’s way, and Asbjörn growled. Holding on to anger was easy when going up against your arch-nemesis. He decided for once and for all he would wipe that smile right off of Koggi’s ugly face. Eternal Father, I’m so tired. Give me the strength to carry on a little longer.
Both dressed in matching black robes, Asbjörn realized that they had grown over the last three years. It was an odd moment of clarity that lasted only a second, just enough time for Koggi to steal the initiative and rush forward. Everything else faded away and all become one as he moved without thought to turn Koggi’s longsword with his own, falling into a rhythm that barely allowed him to match step for step and move for move.
For a time the noise of battle rose again, filling the hall with the ringing of steel blades. Sounds like we’re celebrating. The extraneous thought disrupted Asbjörn’s rhythm, forcing him to give ground before Koggi. Any moment now, he knew his opponent would spin away and launch another Esoteric Technique. And he did not know if he had enough strength to resist. Even though the attack was unlikely to more than string because Koggi’s First Stöðin had yet to reach the First Stratum, the three judges would count it as his lost. He refused to let that happen. With a roar, he charged forward, retaking his lost momentum.
Back and forth they fought, neither daring to give ground to their opponent for more than a second for fear of the Esoteric Technique the other might unleash. Yet as they exchanged blows over and over, banging dull training blades against each other, sweat glistened brightly on their foreheads and their eyes narrowed in mutual disdain.
With a grunt, Asbjörn faked a swinging slash and threw himself into another roll, reaching within for the power that slumbered inside. Prana surged into his First Stöðin, a torrent large enough to level mountains, ripping at his very soul; his First Stöðin shone with all the brilliance of the blazing sun. Then the Aspect of Fire bent to his will with an ease that always left him surprised as he came to his knees twirling and jabbing his sword in Koggi’s direction.
A popping sound roared in his eardrums, and a red rosebud bloomed a meter away from the tip of his blade. With petals made of tiny scarlet flames, it flickered in and out of existence, flying towards an unprepared combatant. After an instant, the rose solidified, and an intense, blistering fire radiated out in a mini explosion, catching Koggi in the blast, setting his robe ablaze.
Surprised, Asbjörn stood with his enemy’s shrieks ringing in his ears, but it was not the other boy’s screams that held him transfixed. It was the fact that he had a breakthrough in the midst of battle. From now on his Esoteric Techniques would no longer be illusionary; he had achieved First Stöðin, First Stratum.
Erik rose from the lake, still clothed in the Imugi’s flesh, and splashed onto the shore. The ground quaked beneath his vast mass, spraying dirt and water into the air. Hammers made of memories powerful enough to tear apart continents struck his mind. Any one could end him, eradicate him as if he had never been born; of that he was positive. Erik fought against them, rolling, shaking as he struggled against the onslaught. His body writhed, shrinking in on itself, even as he waged his unseen battle. The vast rumbles brought about from him flinging himself around filled the air with booms.
He roared, half human, half monster, flesh roiling in a confusing mess. All those recent battles without rest were catching up to him, the swimming he had done on top of it. He felt drained to the bone, but he would not allow himself to stop now. This was more important than mere sleep; it was about the continued existence of the man he thought of as his father. Exhausted as he was, he held on, tossing and turning.
Abruptly the earth stopped moving. Once again in human form, Erik fought the memories to a standstill and collapsed, quivering, vibrating. Slowly, he climbed to his knees, gasping air into his lungs. He choked on the black swirling around him.
The lakeshore looked like an ancient battlefield. Great heaps of sand and dirt stood piled as if everything had been flung about by a mad giant. Huge toppled trees marred the shoreline, all blazing like a torch. Fire consumed everything as far as the eye could see, yet the devastation held little meaning to Erik. His only concern lied within.
“Asbjörn,” Erik whispered, a little fearfully.
Son, what have you done? The Cultivator’s voice answered back, throbbing with shock and terror. What have you done?
Erik laughed. “I saved you. . . the only way I could. This way I don’t have to lose you.”
You’re in danger. Terrible danger. Asbjörn ended his statement by giggling like a pubescent girl. Run. Run! RUN!
The smile faded from Erik’s lips.