To weaken the mind, remove love. To weaken the soul, remove faith.
— ANCIENT PROVERB
Illuminated by the last rays of the molten gold and red sun, thick columns of black smoke billowed up from behind Hjörtur’s mighty walls along with the sounds of battle. The impossible had happened, the citadel had succumbed; its unbreachable gates had been retched apart as though they were made of wood instead of metal. And once imposing wardstones now stood reduced to heaps of rubble, yet the outer wall had not fallen without a fight. Thousands of gray-skinned corpses, some still twitching, bodies riddled with arrows, lay strewn over the rocky terrain like long-buried roots. Most were ripped and torn, innards exposed to the elements.
Erik steadied himself and squeezed on the chaos stone he still clutched; it pulsed warmly in his left hand, a counterpoint to his fear and shock. Emotions stymied his breath, making his eyes bulge with passion. “Hanna,” he whispered too terrified to take a single step forward. If he did that, he might have to admit the truth. That what he saw was actually happening.
Move, he told himself. Do something! You can’t just stand there!
Yet for some reason, he just could not. Erik feared he already knew how it would end; he was not blind to the pattern. Every time he tried to save someone he loved they ended up dead. To step forward now was to begin the cycle anew, he was convinced of that. And the thought of watching Hanna die ripped at the very fiber of his being.
Son . . . Asbjörn began.
Unseen flows of air seemed to beat Erik across the shoulders. His whole body trembled uncontrollably in tune to the imagined blows. Fear. Only fear. It sounded less pathetic that way. Each strike felt like a cane, though, wielded by an arm of a sadist. He clenched his teeth. His insides were pain and fire. Tears blinded him to the world.
There are things you fight for . . . things you struggle for no matter the cost, Asbjörn continued. In old age, it’s not the battles you lost that haunt you, but the ones you never fought. The times you gave up. Those what ifs hurt much more than any failure because they never stop tormenting you . . . n-not even when you die. Asbjörn’s voice dropped to a sob-filled whisper. Nenna, I shouldn’t have left. I should have stayed. Forgive me.
Erik blinked away tears. Asbjörn fell silent, and still. Yet the Cultivator’s words had the desired effect; they brought Erik back from the precipice. Asbjörn was right, Erik realized. Hanna was still alive as far as he knew, and Hjörtur had yet to completely fall, the battle still raged. The Prince could hear and smell it, though, he could not see it. And it would hurt more if his wife passed away as he stood there doing nothing. Erik now understood that he had to fight even when it seemed hopeless. The last thing he wanted to be was an old man filled with regrets.
A feeling of lightness suddenly flooded into Erik’s chest, and the chaos stone sank into his hand, traveling to that other place from which he had retrieved Asbjörn’s swords. He could not help but take a step forward then another and another. Before he knew it, he was charging up the mountain trail, hoping over deceased Dökk. It took everything he had, but he resisted the urge to run at his top speed. Now that he was back among the lands of man, the Prince had to remain cognizant of the use of his new abilities. If he did not, success might prove just as tragic as failure.
A blood gargling Dökk reared up from the earth and thrust a spear in Erik’s direction. The Prince calmly knocked the weapon away with his own and slashed through the creature’s neck on his way past. The sight of all the blood and corpses filled the Celestial Dragon with a sense of eagerness that bled over to Erik, unconsciously increasing his pace.
Erik bounded through the torn gates. A massive eight-legged monster lay prone a few meters away, vast body pin-cushioned with large ballista bolts and covered in oil-fed flames. Blackened beyond recognition, the creature almost choked Erik with the stench of its cooked flesh.
Careful, Asbjörn cautioned.
An instant later Erik threw himself into a roll as the seemingly dead monster launched itself at him. The ground shook when it came crashing down, missing him by inches, searing his eyebrows with heat from its flames. He leaped to his feet, gulping air hungrily through his nostrils and swinging his longsword. The weapon rebounded off of the creature’s side like it struck stone.
Leave it, Vatn Björns are always long in dying, Asbjörn said. But fire is their one weakness. Look how beautifully it burns. Burns! BURNS! He laughed like a loon.
Erik took a couple quick steps back, but the creature never attacked. It lay there as if trying to lure him into a false sense of security. He tasted blood and realized that he bite his tongue during his tumble across the ground. It throbbed—he was vaguely aware of the slight sensation of pain—serving to remind him of the seriousness of his situation. He did not have time to waste fighting this half-dead monster. Against his better instincts, he took Asbjörn’s advice and turned away from the roasting Vatn Björn.
The columns of black smoke had given him some idea of what to expect, but his ideas paled beside reality. A huge milling mass of Dökk swarmed Hjörtur’s columned walkways, moving towards the inner wall, completely surrounding isolated groups of fighters, pinning others to the ground, raping screaming soldiers in ruined armor. Several buildings were on fire, only helping to better illuminate the horror taking place.
Erik’s eyes widened. What is this? He had read tales of the atrocities committed during the Dökk Wars, but he had always considered them an exaggeration; stories told to magnify your own sides goodness by highlighting the enemies wickedness. After all, what army would rape women, men, and children alike?
A bitter, mocking voice answered him. What does it look like? It was the Lightbender’s voice, weaker than Erik had ever heard it. You came to fight, but they came to party. A joyless laugh followed his words.
Is that what they did to you? Erik asked. The laughter stopped, and Patrick’s presence receded, but not before the Prince felt a wave of shame and hate flow off of the Lightbender.
Erik paused, about to speak, but gave his head a shake instead. He did not have time for this. Whatever happened to the Lightbender during his captivity was his problem. Erik’s mind only had room for one concern: Hanna. He had to protect her. He had to make sure she was safe!
Howling in fury, Erik dashed towards the nearest Dökk. This was not the time for calm; he allowed his hate to build into an overpowering torrent. Before the Dökk could even turn, the Prince hacked it and bolted past the Gray Skin as it fell spewing scarlet. He had to reach Hanna; every fiber of his being was focused on that goal. The longsword seemed to dance in his hands, gleaming with gore as he cut down everything in his path
Erik worked hard to keep himself from running too fast, which grew ever more challenging with the Celestial Dragon‘s joy singing in his veins. At his top speed, the Dökk would have been little more than stationary objects, but at that moment they moved at a crawl. Still much too slow to prove a challenge, yet he longed to test his limits. Reluctantly, Erik decided his current pace would be enough. Any quicker and the human eye would not be able to track him until he stopped, and he could already sense the gazes of surprised soldiers locked on him. It would be another thing he could not explain away. This will be enough. It has to be.
The Gray Skins loomed above him, snarling with their fused teeth as he hewed flesh like wood. Blood spurted when he slashed through limbs and severed necks, fountains of slowly floating crimson. I have to reach Hanna; that’s all that matters.
Suddenly, Erik cut through the last Dökk blocking his way and stumbled upon a surrounded group of armored soldiers, fending off attacks with wood spears and red-dripping swords. When they saw the Prince, the soldiers battered faces lit up with hope and something else. Maybe devotion. He wasted no time in methodically laying about them with his longsword.
Distorted cries of “The Prince!”, “We’re Saved!”, and “Prince Erik!” rose as Erik worked to free the men from their entrapment. The enemies were weeds before his blade, defenseless creatures that had little time to blink before he had already hacked them to pieces. Every animal-like howl of pain he ripped out from the throat of a dying Gray Skin was a musical note from the symphony he was conducting.
Then the soldiers were free. The expressions on the men’s faces had not changed, which surprised Erik until he realized to them only seconds had passed since they first saw him. To him, it had all seemed much longer. Most of the great mass of Dökk still charged toward the inner wall; buildings still burned, perhaps a few more than before; isolated pockets of soldiers still fought, and screams filled the night from the mouths of the men being raped.
For an instant, Erik glanced back at the armored men he had just rescued. A face stood out among the rest, a soldier larger than his comrades. “Kai,” Erik greeted the man.
“Is it truly you, my Prince?” Kai asked with a bloody face flushed with disbelief.
Erik nodded. It was the perfect moment for a rousing speech, but nothing came to mind. Worry for Hanna kept pulling his focus back onto the battle. “With me. For the King! For Vindur!” he shouted, dashing back into the fray. For a moment he thought he would have to go it alone, which suited him just fine, but a second later the soldiers took up the call and followed behind him, roaring at the top of their lungs.
At first, Erik only wounded the enemies he encountered, leaving the killing blows to the men who followed behind, at least to him, sluggishly. The cacophony of battle dogged his every step; he could hear the clash of weapons, smell wood burning, the alluring scent of blood, the reek of fear.
As he battled on, his band of fighters continued to swell, soldiers who only moments before were being violated and waiting to die, once again picked up swords and fought like demons possessed. More and more, the Dökk began to fall beneath Erik’s crimson blade, missing limbs, and hissing hatred.
A hollow boom came from somewhere ahead, like a thunderclap it sliced through the din of battle, letting Erik know he was getting closer to the heart of the conflict. A moment later, he rounded the corner with Kai and the other soldiers, and could finally see the base of the inner wall. He stopped and breathed a sigh of relief, the second line of defense had not been breached.
Another blackened Vatn Björn lay just in front of the closed inner gate, and black-coated men and armored soldiers rained down arrows onto the few Gray Skins that tried to rush the walls. The greater milling mass of Dökk stood just out of range, glaring at the humans on top of the wall.
Leading the defenses, Baron Rasmus stood on the rampart, dressed in his usual flowing pink robe, eyes cold, hands folded behind his back. He looked in Erik’s direction with a slight indication of surprise.
“What now?” Kai asked short of breath. Sweat mixed with the blood running down his chin.
Erik filled his lungs with air and shouted, “ENOUGH!”
As one, the milling tangle turned in Erik’s direction. A thousand dark, unblinking eyes, glared at him. The mass rustled and a large Dökk, even lankier than its two-meter tall brethren, pushed its way to the front of the ranks. It had a white piece of bone pierced through each one of its earlobes.
“MY NAME IS ERIK ITO,” Erik continued at the same volume. “REMEMBER IT AS YOU DIE!”
He raced towards the Gray Skins, hardly hearing the cheers of “Prince Erik!” and “Vindur!” that thundered from soldiers behind him, soon taken up by the men on the walls. Streams of Dökk parted around their silent leader, charging towards Erik, spears flashing in the almost dark.
Yes, whispered Patrick. Kill them all!
It felt like a swarm of butterflies were trapped inside Erik’s chest, even as his hearts quickened, the buzzing increased and the world slowed to a crawl. Easily avoiding the spear that reached for him, Erik hacked the Dökk in half, only sensing a slight tag when his blade passed through the creature’s ribs and spine. He kicked the lower part of the split body, sending it crashing into its companions with the force of a boulder while he spun away from the upper half of the corpse. The front rank of the Dökk exploded. Gray shapes burst apart in sprays of blood, meat, and bone when the lower half of the deceased Dökk tore through those behind.
Erik danced through the red mist he had created, one with his blade, darting from monster to monster in less than the blink of an eyelid, and the next column of Dökk died, then the next, and the next, as though they were lined up to enter a slaughter-house. All of his focus was on the enemy in front, but dimly he was aware of the inner gates being thrown open, and new soldiers and Lightbenders joining the fray.
At that moment, space opened up in front of Erik, and he noticed the Dökk with the bone earrings staring at him with its arm outstretched. Shit! Erik threw himself to the side, but he was not quick enough. He heard it first, a thunder-like boom. Then he saw it, a distorted bubble of air rushing towards him. Helplessly, he was sent tumble backward until he smashed back first into a building. Pain flashed through Erik, eye watering pain that made it almost impossible to breathe.
Get up. GET UP!
Cramped muscles trembling, Erik crawled to his feet. Somehow he had held onto his sword; he was thankful for that small mercy. The battle had gone on without him. Baron Rasmus, surrounded by a knot of Lightbenders, sent flames dancing with every swing of his sword. Rosebuds of fire, small as an apple and large as boulders, hurtled into the Dökk, gouts of red flames flared, turning ten at a time into kindle wood; another thunder-like boom filled the night, hurling Rasmus and black-coated figures into the air.
That fucker has to die, Patrick muttered.
“Agreed,” Erik growled, once again entering the maelstrom.
Like a huge razor, he cut a path towards the Dökk that had sent him flying. Where his longsword passed Gray Skins went down bleeding from deadly wounds, but there always seemed to be more in his way. Growing frustrated, Erik leaped into the air, using his enemies large heads as stepping stones. Heads exploded like melons dropped from a great height with his every step, leaving a gruesome trail of destruction behind him.
At the center of the whirling gray mass, the Dökk with the earrings caught sight of Erik, running towards it. Seemingly panicked, the leader of the Gray Skins raised its hand, but it was moving too slow. Like lightning falling from a cloudless sky, Erik descended upon it, pinning it to the ground with his longsword. The creature smelled strange to his nostrils, like something long buried in the earth.
There was only Erik and the Dökk, everything else faded away. It opened its mouth about to speak, and he shoved his empty hand into its mouth and down its throat. Watching the creature’s dark eyes bulge sent a wave of pleasure traveling through Erik. He smiled, it was a cruel smile. The monster’s cavity felt wet and slippery; it thrashed back and forth as if seized by seizures as he yanked its spine out its orifice.
Noticing the sudden quiet, Erik looked up from his macabre creation. All around him, the fighting had stopped as men and Dökk alike, turned to stare at him. “What’s my name?”