Sometimes, not always but sometimes all you can do is laugh at the absurdity, laugh so you don’t cry.
— PATRICK MAIDA, TO ERIK
Smearing salt on the wound, Patrick’s laughter joined Asbjörn’s giggles a moment later.
Erik sighed, forcing himself to not smash his fist into the ground. “What’s so funny?” he growled at the Lightbender.
You. This whole situation, answered Patrick. Someone above really hates you. Everything you touch turns to shit. I would say you’re cursed if I believed in curses.
Erik bared his teeth. Not a grimace—no never that—but a weary imitation of a smile; the Lightbender thought he was funny. Perhaps he was. Perhaps if it were under other circumstances, Erik would even join in on the joke, but he doubted it. He clutched at his chest, there was something inside him, something that should not be there. It floated in another place, a void much like his inner void, but different. He could almost visualize it, put his mind in that other place with it, but not quite.
We’re damned, all of us, Asbjörn shouted, no longer amused but terrified. Emotions rippled off of him in waves that the Prince could not help but notice.
The heat from the raging forest fire seared Erik’s eyebrows and dried the water dripping down his face. Flesh giving strangely to his touch, he reached within himself and pulled out Asbjörn’s golden dragon-hilted longsword. He dropped it in surprise and picked it back up heartbeat later.
Oh look, you learned a new trick, Patrick cooed. Now you’ve become a human satchel.
Fingers trembling, Erik reached back into his chest with his other hand; it was all he could do not throw the longsword, even linked as it was to Asbjörn’s past. A second later his hand reemerged grasping his adopted father’s black dragon-hilted shortsword. It was odd, unlike organic matter, his body could not absorb the weapons the way it had his clothing and the creatures he defeated in battle. As far as he could tell the swords were still made of orichalc; they had not been changed the way his silk robe had.
Já and Nei, the Cultivator spoke, naming the long and shortsword respectively.
Erik nodded and stood, securing the naked blades at his waist. It was time to head home, but first, he had to clean up all loose ends. He searched his surrounding with his eyes. The dark smoke gusting around him showed little signs of dissipating; the fire that fed it was just getting started, taking up the dying sun’s losing battle with the encroaching darkness. He sniffed the air and even with his enhanced senses all he could smell was burnt wood and ash.
Patrick snorted. I know what you’re trying to do and I won’t let you.
“What do you mean?” Erik asked, wiping water off of his chin.
Don’t play stupid, snapped the Lightbender. You’re searching for my father. You mean to kill him. I want you to understand if you harm even a single hair on his body I will make your every breath a living hell.
Erik briefly touched his hand to the hilt of his longsword. “And that would differ from what you do now, how exactly?”
Patrick’s presence at the back of Erik’s head turned into a seething ball of incandescence. Try me. I dare you!
Son, you have to kill him, it’s the only way, Asbjörn barked, then became overcome by another fit of laughter. Kill them all. Kill them all!
It took every ounce of self-control that Erik had not to release another sigh. The Prince gazed unflinchingly at the grotesque, leering flames leaping from branch to branch. He now had a monster, a madman, and a rapist rolling around in his head, and it was enough to drive anyone insane. How did he even get here? To this point? It all seemed so illogical, and there did not appear to be anything to be done about it. He had to carry on the way he had been doing, taking it one heartbeat at a time. That was the only road forward; all others led to despair.
Reluctantly, Erik stopped searching for Númi with his eyes. In all likelihood, he would regret it later, but he would deal with it if it became a problem. “I know what it means to lose a father. I won’t put you through the torment I just experienced,” he said.
Love is a weakness that saps you from the inside, Asbjörn bemoaned. It makes you brittle when you should be strong. Softer, almost a whisper. I love you, son.
Erik grunted then slowly straightened. I love you too, Da. Maybe, just maybe all his efforts to save Asbjörn had not been wasted. Clearly, the Cultivator was still in there somewhere, buried under all the madness.
I’m glad we got that cleared up. Patrick coughed, seemingly uncomfortable with the sentiment on display. Now what?
“Hjörtur,” Erik breathed, “as soon as possible. It’s time to stop running away from my problems. All this proves they will find me either way. Might as well face them with my head held high.”
If I still had hands I would clap, Patrick quipped.
Fighting the urge to punch the Lightbender in the face, Erik turned his attention towards Asbjörn. Who else knows about what I can do? Do they all think I’m a monster?
The Cultivator remained silent, and for a moment Erik worried perhaps he was wrong to hope for anything else. Just having Asbjörn’s presence in his head was enough to keep the melancholy at bay; it did not matter that his mental faculties were a sad imitation of what they once were. This is enough. Erik did not know if he was trying to convince the world or himself. Possibly both.
Most believe you’re dead. The kingdom is in a month-long period of mourning, Asbjörn replied after Erik had given up hope of receiving a response.
A great weight Erik did not even realize he was carrying lifted off of his shoulders. The Prince had been prepared for the worst; in that case, he would have returned to Hjörtur and spirit Hanna away. Yet, now he could just stroll through the front gate.
Patrick clicked his tongue. Don’t you think you’re putting too much faith in the words of a madman?
“Only every time you speak,” Erik retorted. He quickened his hearts, and the world decelerated with the sound of Asbjörn’s laughter roaring through his head. He dashed forward, pushing against the searing air that radiated from the marauding flames devouring the forest. The inferno flickered impossibly slow, taking what seemed like minutes to do what it usually did in an instant.
Ha. Ha. Ha. Patrick chortled obnoxiously loud, clearly feigning amusement. Murdering Asbjörn has done a number for your joke telling ability. That one was almost funny.
Trying not to groan, Erik pillowed into the forest, moving too quickly for the flames to hinder or harm him. They looked like frozen phantoms, designed to reflect his inner hatred for the Lightbender’s constantly wagging tongue. He slid through them like a blade through mist, and they swirled in his wake like glowing shadows. Never pausing or slowing, he twisted and turned his way through every obstacle, eventually leaving the wildfire behind.
My Lord, forgive me, Patrick spoke to Asbjörn. I haven’t gotten the chance to properly greet you. Welcome to our humble abode. Here be monsters, so pay special attention to that corner over there. Erik got a vague sense of direction, at the end of which the Celestial Dragon resided. If you get too close, it might consume you or worse. What’s worse than being eating alive you ask? I’m not sure, perhaps it will mount you like a mutt and make a woman out of you. But who knows, you might actually like that.
Stupid human, we kin. I don’t want to eat or mate.
Erik stumbled but caught himself before he fell, exploding with another burst of speed to keep his momentum going. The wind howled in his ears, masking all external sounds in a dull roar.
Is it me or did it get smarter, Patrick gasped, stealing the words right of Erik’s mouth.
Deep within Erik’s mind, the Celestial Dragon rippled with irritation, and Patrick paused, suddenly pulsing with fear. Yet after a moment the beast stilled, and the Lightbender coughed, trying to regain his previous bravado. As I was saying—
Maybe, Erik interrupted, you should give it a rest. And for a time Patrick did just that, staying silent as Erik bolted through a long valley shrouded in creeping shadows, skirting the edge of an eerie woodland veiled in thick gray fog. The scents of more creatures than he could count bombard him with every step. From near and far they came, and the faster he moved the fiercer the air resisted his movements.
Do you see it, son, Asbjörn asked.
Erik frowned. See what? He glanced back at the fog covered woodland. Don’t worry I had no plans of going in there. I’ve had my fill of sinister looking forests for a lifetime.
Everything that moves is an illusion, son. Everything, Asbjörn proclaimed. Nenna, I miss you. He began to weep. I miss you so much. Where are you? Come back to me.
Erik sighed morosely. At times Asbjörn seemed so lucid and at others. . . . Erik hoped that with time his adopted father would improve in the same way that the Celestial Dragon appeared to be becoming more intelligent.
Nenna, where have you gone, Asbjörn wailed.
Asbjörn’s sense of despair overwhelmed Erik, sending his own emotions spiraling downward through narrow passageways and crevices swathed in sorrow. Even with his eyes open he could picture this dark place and tried to separate himself from it through the act of reaching for his inner void. Asbjörn had taught him the ancient mental technique he used to find the inner calmness. He made himself one with his breath, the air in his lungs, his heartbeat. He barely heard Asbjörn’s whimpers any longer. Emotions drifted away, but he did not waste time celebrating; it was such a small thing compared to all he had already achieved.
Time dragged, minutes seemed to stretch into hours as he continued to travel southbound. Kilometers disappeared beneath his relentless pace, and then he could see it, the distant Rin Mountains thrusting out of the earth to do battle with the sky. Painted with the colors of the setting sun, the snow touched mountain tops were a glorious sight to behold. Even enshrined within the calmness of his inner void as he was, their beauty warmed his hearts.
Patrick laughed. I never thought I’d be happy to see those things. He paused as Erik entered the pine forest that stretched out in every direction ahead of them. What do you think it will be like bedding Hanna with all of us in your head? Not waiting for a response, he continued, I can’t wait to find out. If I can be honest, I’ve been fantasizing about her magical little quim since the first time I laid eyes on her.
Erik’s breath caught in his throat, and his inner void shuddered on the point of breaking. His eyes narrowed, and he fought back a scream, a howl birthed from the depths of fury; like a struck gong he quivered. For a moment there seemed to be liquid magma transplanted from the billows of the earth, surging through his veins. The thought of another man touching Hanna made him want to rip Patrick from limb to limb.
YOU GO TOO FAR, Erik growled, sliding to a stop next to the giant crater that the Celestial Dragon had created when it crashed to earth. He fell onto his knees, hands closed into fists, chest heaving; staring up at the sky, his green eyes clouded over with rage. She is MINE!
As he collapsed, time regained its former foothold, and his hearts slowed. Do you understand? MINE!
Asbjörn and the Celestial Dragon took up Erik’s ire and launched themselves at Patrick, ripping into the Lightbender’s essence in a way that Erik could not quite define. Patrick’s howls of anguish cascaded down upon the cauldron of acid bubbling in Erik’s stomach, soothing the fermenting furor. Even in the midst of the all-consuming fury, a part of Erik was slowly analyzing himself. He was not a possessive person, not ordinarily, not since his mother passed.
Four large White Cranes sailed above the tree tops, appearing to be fleeing in mad panic from the direction of Hjörtur. Three boys in matching blue coats sat upon a bird each, and the last one followed behind them riderless, if be it slightly slower than the other White Cranes. They spotted Erik just he saw them and urged their mounts to fly faster, terror twisting their tiny faces.
“Enough,” Erik command with a sinking sensation tugging at his heart. Asbjörn and the Celestial Dragon retreated from Patrick as parts of him drifted away, joining with what was Erik. The Lightbender seemed diminished in a way, but Erik did not have time to spare him any thought.
Leaping to his feet, Erik charged into the forest, motion slowing before his eyes. He sniffed the air and smelled a familiar scent. Dökk, he growled. Thousands of the creatures had passed through the forest ahead of him and recently. Hold on, Hanna. I’m coming!
He did not understand why he was suddenly so terrified; the wardstones made it impossible for the Gray Skins to assault the citadel successfully. Yet that fact did not seem to matter, his fear sent needles of sliver-thin pain shooting into his chest. He ran faster and faster until his legs felt like they might burst, until the air turned as thick as stone walls, weighing down his ever step.
Erik exploded into the same clearing where he had fought the Jade Spider, what felt like decades ago. Four Dökk stood frozen in time, clustered around a hole in the ground; one of them held a chaos stone in its hand. The clear, fist-sized jewel had a dot of nothingness floating within its center that bent all the light that fell upon it.
Before Erik even realized what he was doing, the dragon-hilted longsword was already in his hand. He descended upon the Gray Skins with his razor sharp blade gleaming in the half-light. The Dökk stood rooted to their plot of earth—he was resentful of that; destroying them would have been more satisfying if they knew what was happening—but their heads separated from their bodies, one after another, severed by forged metal.
By the time blood began to spew out of wounds, Erik was already long passed, chaos stone gripped in his free hand. For a moment he marveled at the ease with which he had murdered his enemies. It felt good to once again have a sword in hand; fighting with fist and claw was exciting, but it could not compete with the sensation of swinging a blade.
Finally, his legs tired, but the scent of fire on the air made him ignore them, pushing onward furiously. He zigzagged his way around mighty pine trees, which grew smaller and smaller the higher he climbed. What seemed like an eternity later, he escaped the last of the trees and gazed up the pitted mountain trail.
The Prince stopped, swaying wearily on his feet. His face sagged, despair and hatred warring across it. “No,” he gasped, fear glittering brightly in his eyes. “Impossible.”