Forgive me. Forgive me!
— ERIK ITO, TO HANNA
Silence hung about the body littered battlefield, only broken by the gasps and grunts of the dying.
“WHAT’S MY NAME?” Erik shouted.
A heartbeat of more quiet, and then the night exploded with cries of “Erik Ito.” Like rolling thunder, the yells cascaded through the air, wretched from the throat of almost every soldier. Men who had only seconds before been fighting for their lives, now seemed blind to their enemies, which in some cases they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with.
Erik raised a blood-stained hand, and silence descended. Smoke from the fires set to buildings slowly slid up into the sky. “Kill them all. And as they die, make sure they know your name!” Another roar followed his proclamation, and the heavens itself seemed to crackle and burn.
Demoralized and broken, the few remaining Dökk fled, abandoning their wounded comrades. As one, Hjörtur’s defenders turned on their retreating enemies, blades seeking vengeance. With a smile plastered on his face, Erik could see where individual soldiers worked together to fell an enemy. He thought there might have been as little as two hundred Gray Skins left alive, and they each fought like a cornered rat, ready to gnaw off an arm to escape from the trap. The horrors they visited on the citadel was returned to them in kind. Soldiers toyed with dying Dökk, shoving swords in rectums, removing bloody phalluses as trophies.
From out of the slaughter, Kai approached Erik, eyes glowing with devotion. “Do you realize what you’ve done, my Prince? This story will be told and retold in every inn and tavern from here to Eldur and beyond.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Erik said, climbing to his feet. He ripped his longsword out of the bone earing Dökk’s carcass; thoughts of future renown was the furthest thing from his mind. Eyes searching, he caught sight of Baron Rasmus limping towards him with the help of two Lightbenders. Blood dripped from a cut on the Cultivator’s forehead, and it looked as if his left shoulder was dislocated.
Rasmus paused in front of Erik, studying him with a face like stone. “This is all your fault.”
“Excuse me?” Erik flicked off the crimson droplets running off the tip of his blade and secured it on his sash. The Lightbenders’ saluted Erik with fist to heart even though the Baron did not.
Rasmus turned away from Erik, an almost-smile on his lips. “I’m not in the habit of repeating myself.” He hobbled towards the inner gate with the black-coated men hovering close by. “Come on, there is no time to waste.”
“Where’s the Viscount?” Erik asked falling in beside the Baron. Kai acted as the Prince’s shadow, trailing a few steps behind him.
“Poisoned.” Before Erik had time to interject, Rasmus continued. “The only reason the outer wall fell is because of those things.” He nodded at still burning corpse of the Vatn Björn as they walked past it. “And the fact we were attacked from within and without. This is all because of your pet Sorcerer. He and his abominations have taken control of parts of the citadel.”
On the other side of the inner wall, servants and injured men and women clustered together into small groups on the great square. Hastily constructed barricades cordoned off the inner fortress, not in a line, but in a half circle of spears, overturned tables, and chairs, manned by hundreds of soldiers.
Erik’s face was a mask of disbelief. “This is Ypse’s doing?” For a moment, he stood there, seeing without seeing. Ypse is a coward. Where would he find the courage. . . . Then he turned in panic, searching the faces of the women and the injured. “Where’s my wife?” He grabbed Rasmus by the neck and slammed the Baron against the wall. “Answer me!” He lifted the Cultivator into the air. “WHERE IS MY WIFE?”
The Lightbenders touched hands to swords, but did nothing, like everyone else they watched in silence; they had seen first hand what the Prince was capable of. The only one unshocked by the sudden turn of violence was Kai, who placed himself between Erik and the black-coated men, using his body to shield the Prince from any possible attack.
A sickening rage erupted within Erik, exploding over and over again, matched to the rhythm of his pounding hearts. His fingers dug into the Baron’s soft flesh, a little more pressure and the man’s head would pop like a squeezed grape. Rasmus stared Erik down, as cool and collected as ever, even as his eyes watered.
“My Prince, is that really you?” a woman’s voiced asked.
Erik released Rasmus, and the man fell to his knees gasping for breath. Ignoring the Baron, Erik approached the woman who had spoken. Liveried servants bowed and curtsied, backing out of his way. “Súla, where’s Hanna?”
“I’m so sorry.” Erik took another step forward, and Súla trembled. “The last I saw, Ypse had taken her hostage. He planned all of this. I’m sure of it. He proclaimed his love for her in front all of us within the Viscount’s private gardens and a moment after those things came pouring out of the ground.” Her eyes swelled with fat tears. “I-I can only imagine what he’s doing to her now.”
Erik closed his eyes. Breathe, he told himself. Breathe. He wanted to howl, shriek, pound his fist into the earth until the mighty walls that surrounded him crumbled into dust. But he knew it would solve nothing, so he breathed. For a time that was all Erik could do and then he opened his eyes. Súla stumbled back, whatever she saw terrified her.
“I’ll come with you, if you’ll have me,” Kai spoke up from beside Súla; Erik had not noticed him getting that close.
The only good Sorcerer is a dead one, Asbjörn said. Let me kill him. Why didn’t you let me kill him? Pain humbles all, no matter the title. They all begged for mercy, but I never gave them any. Kill your enemies, then murder your friends. He chuckled like an old uncle imparting wisdom to a beloved nephew. The only time you’re safe is when there is no one alive to betray you.
“Follow if you can keep up,” Erik told Kai, and the soldier nodded, excitement sparkling in his eyes. With a bitter laugh, Erik raised his longsword into the air. “It looks like there’s still more killing to do.” He dashed toward the barricades. Ypse, I swear if you. . . . Breathe. The rage built again, a furious cloud of incandescence that energized his steps. Breathe.
Shouts rose behind Erik, but he had no time to watch or listen. He hopped over the piled tables and chairs and entered the fortress proper. The hallways and corridors were empty of their usual bustle and din, though, Erik could hear the distant sounds of battle, which he followed deeper and deeper into the citadel. A familiar repugnant, fishy smell grew stronger the closer he got to the entrance of Ypse’s sorcerer’s cavern.
I’m sorry, Patrick said begrudgingly. What I said about your wife crossed a line. Sometimes my mouth has a mind of its own. The Lightbender sounded as though he were talking to himself as if he were trying to come to some understand about himself. I was wrong, I can see that now. I’m . . . sorry.
The air roared around Erik as he took a corner by running across the wall. Did Patrick mean any of what he had just said? Of that, Erik was unsure; Patrick was a coward and the mere fact that Erik now had the power to discipline him was enough to make him fall in line. But the Lightbender’s sincerity did not matter, not to Erik, it was enough he had said the words.
Apology accepted, Erik replied after a heartbeat.
Stone shook under Erik’s feet when he dropped back to the floor. He stopped and listened. The fortress shook again, rocked by another tremor. Whatever was happening was far from over. He bolted forward. Rounding another corner, he saw a spear wall manned by twenty armored men, facing off against a Vatn Björn that blocked the other end of the corridor with its massive body. Behind the soldiers, Sir Tandri knelt lighting a jug stuffed with a cloth with a torch.
Sir Tandri looked up from his task and noticed Erik. “You’re supposed to be dead.” There was none of the shock or surprise Erik had witnessed on the faces of others. The Lightbender seemed to take the Prince’s apparent resurrection in stride.
“People keep saying that,” Erik sighed.
“Hold this,” Tandri said, passing Erik the torch. “Down!”
As one the soldiers dropped to their knees, and Tandri leaped to his feet, throwing the jug. It shattered upon striking the Vatn Björn in the face, bursting into orange flames. The monster squealed as its moist flesh caught fire; it backed away as fast as it could. The soldiers cheered, shaking their spears in jubilation.
Tandri laughed, a self-satisfied sound. “It thought us easy meat. We disabused it of that notion.” The cheers grew louder. “Forward men! Forward!”
The soldiers chased after the Vatn Björn in clanking armor, in four rows of five, rushing at it with spears at the ready. Darkness hid the interior of the corridor that monster had scurried inside, slowing the soldiers’ steps with caution. Anything could be waiting within the blackened interior.
Tandri sucked air through his teeth and as if his displeasure was not evident enough his face twisted into a scowl. “I said forward!” he shouted.
“Make way,” Erik said with the torch held above his head and his longsword in his right hand. He pushed himself to the front of the ranks and entered the corridor. Both walls had been smashed apart, expanding the corridor into the size of a large chamber. The floor was covered with a pulsing and swelling pale meat-like substance, dotted with the bodies of dead, golden surcoated Punishers. Out of the skull of each corpse grew a large stalk with two round growths that looked like the center of a sunflower.
Erik could feel the fear radiating off the men behind him, but he put it out of his mind and stepped deeper into the makeshift chamber. He caught a glimpse of the tail end of the Vatn Björn, disappearing down the stairway were the thick iron bound door with a small iron grill once stood.
“This is why we should kill every Sorcerer,” Tandri said, stepping beside Erik. A murmur of agreement rose behind them.
I agree, Patrick chimed in. Kill, kill them all, Asbjörn sang in the rhythm child’s lullaby.
Rip out hearts and eat.
Erik moved toward the stairwell cautiously, glancing both ways at once, fearful that another Vatn Björn, or maybe some other monstrosity would appear at any moment. The thumping hearts of the soldiers that followed behind him sounded like thunder to his ears. His every sense was focused on signs of danger, yet the odor rising from the green and yellow mucus flecked floor made his sense of smell all but useless. Every step he took, he was in danger of slipping and throwing up.
Braver than most, Tandri stooped beside a corpse. Frowning, he stretched out a hand to touch the stalk protruding out of the Punisher’s skull. “What do you think this thing—”
“Don’t touch it!” Erik barked.
The Lightbender raised his eyebrow at the Prince. “How stupid do you think I look?”
Nervous laughter filled the room, and terrified soldiers gave each other grins of encouragement. Suddenly, the growths on the stalk in front of Tandri exploded with a soft popping sound, spreading thousands of pollen like spores into the air. Face turning red, the Lightbender fell back with his hands going around his throat. Before Erik even had time to blink more popping sounds cut through the chamber.
The air around Erik became choking, clogging his lungs with fungal spores, shutting off his ability to breathe with rapidly propagating microbes. He stumbled, dropping his sword and torch as everyone else collapsed to the floor. The surrounding walls faded into a haze. He could feel reality tremble, feel himself unraveling. There was something inside, something desperately trying to seize control of his body.
The voice wobbled Erik, ripping through his innards, toppling him to the floor. That one word struck his mind like and anvil shattered his thoughts like glass. Dimly, he was aware of the warmth of pulsing flesh against his cheek; everything else was darkness and pain.
SENDU. SENDU. SE—EAT!
The Celestial Dragon blazed like the sun, consuming the darkness inside Erik, flooding him with awesome power. For a brief moment, he even thought he might melt, but then he mastered the torrent and directed his body to devour the spores. The pain receded, and the world once again became stable.
Fucking Sorcerers, Patrick groaned. I hate Sorcerers.
Hearts still pounding, Erik jolted to his feet and looked around the chamber. The torch had somehow managed to remained lit, providing the room with its only source of light. Nearby, Tandri was on his knees puking out yellow bile; all the other men were still on the ground, writhing in torment. Eyes wary, Erik reclaimed the torch and his longsword.
“Can you stand?” Erik asked Tandri.
The Lightbender stood, wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve. “What the fuck was that? I had to burn a third of my prana just to keep my mind from being overwhelmed.”
“A gift from Ypse, I assume,” Erik breathed as the soldiers jerked to their feet as one, eyes glowing like yellow bile. “I don’t have time for this. Kill them and make sure that no one else enters the corridor.”
“What will you be doing?” Tandri asked, casually avoiding the spear thrust at him by one of the corrupted soldiers. His sword left his scabbard smoothly and just as smoothly took off the yellow-eyed man’s head. Golden-green blood sprayed into the air.
Without a backward glance, Erik charged down the stairwell; it was covered in the same flesh-like structure as the corridor, making every step treacherous. The walls were broken and cracked as if something large had forced its way down.
What if. . . . Patrick trailed off.
There was no need for him to finish that statement, the same thought kept rattling through Erik’s head space. What if Ypse had done to Hanna what had been done to the soldiers? What if she was dead.?What if? What if? The unknown seemed to increase the possible outcomes into infinity, and they appeared all just as likely.
At the bottom of the stairway, Erik hopped over the dead body of a Punisher with a stalk growing from his head and sped down the dark tunnel with his torch held out in front. Even the smoke from the torch could not mask the stench that tried to overwhelm him, but all his attention lay at the end of the tunnel, in the pursuit, in the man, he must kill.
Erik leaped over two more dead bodies and ran on; what traps Ypse had laid to destroy him, he moved too quickly to fall victim to. And then he was in the sorcerer’s cavern, strutting through the rubbled gap that had once been a heavily guarded door. Pieces of wood still hung from hinges like broken teeth. And Ypse watched him from the center of the domed chamber, yellow eye glowing, misshapen flesh pillar encasing his lower half. Red wires like exposed veins sprouted off from Ypse’s skull into the darkness above. And four torches supported by twisted flesh illuminated his hybrid like existence.
“Welcome, my Prince,” Ypse said. His upper body was unclothed; his skin hung loosely off his bones as if he had not eaten in weeks. “I had an inkling you would show up to ruin my plans. Indeed, I excepted you sooner, but now it’s too late. I’m free of you!” Shadows shifted, and two Vatn Björns approached Erik from both sides of the room.
“I don’t care why you did what you did,” Erik shouted. “I only have one question, where’s my wife? Answer it truthfully, and I won’t make you suffer before I kill you.” The longsword spun in his hand, and torch light roiled off its deadly surface.
Ypse laughed, fingering his missing eye. “How merciful of you. She gave me this, and I threw the little cunt into the hole. If she’s lucky, she’s dead. If she’s lucky, but if she’s not, she fell into the hands of our gray skinned friends. They’re fascinating creatures; obviously conceived by the mind of a pervert. They live in burrows deep within the earth, millions of them, each colony separated from the others by design. Otherwise, they would have come together to overwhelm the lands to the south. I theorize even during the height of the Dökk Wars we only ever fought two colonies, and there are thousands of them spread across the Northern Reaches.” He dropped his hand from his missing eye. “For your sake, I hope she’s dead.”
I threw the little cunt into the hole. That phrase repeated over and over in Erik’s mind, rendering the rest of the Sorceress words almost unhearable. He took a step forward, and the ember of monstrous hatred inside him grew, expanding larger than horizon seen through a twisted prism. The torch dropped from his hand as his body ballooned, assuming the Celestial Dragon’s black and gold scaled form. Liquid fire now surged through his veins, a fire hotter and fiercer than the magma boiling at the earth’s core. He could sense the Hunger build in him, gnawing at his inside, begging to be appeased. What was once cloaked in shadows transformed to perfect clarity under the power of his Celestial Vision.
“Marvelous,” Ypse clapped. “Now show me what you can do!”
“GIVE ME BACK MY WIFE!”