Every choice you make opens and closes a door.
— ANCIENT PROVERB
Stones rattled, and walls shook as the deep boom of Erik’s dragon voice reverberated through the chamber, vibrating into flesh, bone, rock. It was as if a bottomless cavern had suddenly been given the ability to speak. Ypse grimaced, eye flashing, hands jumping to cover his ears.
Kill him, Asbjörn encouraged. Kill them all!
Before the last echo faded, the Vatn Björns attacked the Prince from both sides. Hate pulsing inside him, he charged forward without fear. He counterattacked, and with the torrent of power filling him, he felt unstoppable. Pale, slimy flesh met dragon claws and tore, giving slightly beneath the might of Erik’s blows. The Vatn Björns barreled back, leaking crimson rivers, which were already healing as they came to a stop.
All around the domed chamber lay large bulbous spherical nodules that grew out of the floor like massive boils, each with a different misshapen monster developing within its interior. One by one, like broken eggshells, the nodules ruptured, spewing undeveloped horrors onto the floor. They crawled, stumbled, and lumbered toward Erik when intact, at least; more ended up as twitching corpses than not. For every creature that could move, ten were rendered useless with blood pouring out of strange looking orifices. They lay toppled in heaps or lurched with missing limbs or double heads. Swiftly as they could, they raced across sprawling mounds of flesh, the few quickest already clinging to Erik’s colossal form like twisted cancerous growths.
Erik hobbled forward, scrambling over a tide of swarming abominations, falling, crunching monsters beneath his scaled stomach like dead weeds. The floor groaned and quaked, and the monsters snarled in surprise. Rocked by the blow of a Vatn Björn, he fell again, rolling and picking himself up with creatures flinging from his back. Hooked appendages and arms like curved swords reached for him, unable to find purchase on his scaled form.
“Do you remember the last time we stood in this chamber, under this roof?” Ypse asked, watching the unfolding drama, seemingly unperturbed by the brutal battle. “We talked about the past and your bloodline. A thousand years ago your forebear escaped from a sorcerer’s cavern and today you’ll die in one. Fitting don’t you think? There’s a kind of poetic symmetry to the whole thing.”
“GIVE ME BACK MY WIFE!” Erik roared. Death clothed in the form of a Celestial Dragon, he opened his maw even wider, and fire poured out of his mouth, pulsing brightly with searing heat, sweeping a wave of abominations with orange flames. Much simpler to burn them to ash than to fight them with tooth and claw. Those who could run, ran, trying to avoid the inferno, but it was useless. His blistering breath lit the darkness, consuming those below him, charring faces without eyes, faces contorted in agony. They had depended on numbers to overwhelm him, yet the ferocity of the conflagration turned them into offerings on a pyre; meat sizzled with the occasionally rupturing pocket of fat until nothing was left but blackened tar.
The stream of flames vanished as Erik closed his mouth. Poised to release a new jet of fire at any moment, he stood among the dying. The last Vatn Björn to fall still thrashed, claws scraping on the flesh-covered floor. Burning monstrosities yet flung about, screaming, howling at the ceiling; death by fire was not painless, even for them.
Ypse stared, lips parting in a thin smile. “You think you’ve won, don’t you? That this is over, but I promise you it’s just beginning. DO YOU HEAR ME?” His hands clenched into fists. “I hated you from the moment we met. You’re not special! Unlike what you think, you’re not destined for greatness. Everything you have is due to the fact you were grown in the right womb.”
Shrieks and guttural cries of pain still sounded in the air. Erik moved toward Ypse, carefully inch forward, huge teeth flashing in the torchlight. He had to find Hanna and Ypse was the only one with the information he sought. There was only one way to get the Sorcerer to reveal his secrets, but Erik was loathed to even contemplate it. The thought of having another unruly voice in his head sickened him. For her, I would burn the world. For her this I can do.
Patrick groaned. You’re making a mistake. You don’t want a Sorcerer in your head. One mad man is bad enough, he warned, and then Asbjörn cut in, murmuring, Madness is a raven on a wall, a group is an unkindness. Asbjörn laughed, and Patrick groaned louder.
“Why aren’t you saying anything?” Ypse yelled.
“No point. Soon, I’ll know what you know,” Erik explained, coming to a stop twenty meters away from the Sorcerer. He had never searched for a particular memory while consuming someone, but he was sure it was possible. And there was only one way to find out for certain.
“W-what do you mean?”
Dragon claws uncoiled into tendrils of bright red flesh, creeping toward the misshapen pillar Ypse stood encased in, devouring the strange floor as it went. The Sorcerer howled, and Erik convulsed as his head rang like a beaten gong. Thoughts shattered and everything doubled in his vision. Suddenly, Erik could see himself through Ypse’s eye, but the strangeness did not stop there. He sensed a bond forming with the sorcerer cavern, slowing connecting him with the throbbing flesh-like organism that covered the walls and floor.
“What are you doing?” the Sorcerer shrieked, thrashing back and forth uncontrollably. Terrified, he watched tendrils swell into more tendrils and petals as they worked their way up his encased lower half.
A part of Erik drifted through a world of shining mist, the part that was bonding with Ypse. Balls of glowing amber dotted the strange landscape, floating apart and together. Unconsciously the Prince reached out, as though his mind had become a hand and grasped one ball, falling into it. Suddenly, he could see through the eyes of a soldier battling Sir Tandri above, sense the wooden spear in his own hands. Pain flared from a sword thrust into his throat.
“NO!” Ypse yelled, stretching his hands toward the ceiling.
A second later, the flesh-like organism covering the holes in the domed roof retreated, and gallons of oil rained down below. Torches and still burning corpses met flammable liquid and numerous rivers of flames flowered together, merging as they roared through the chamber. A scream tore through the inferno, a man shrieking in misery beyond knowing.
Without thought, Erik tumbled aimlessly through the shining mist, which was receding before his eyes. No! Dimly, he was aware of the flames devouring Ypse and the tendrils wrapped around the Sorcerer. Hanna. Where is Hanna? The glowing mist wavered, transforming into an image of Hanna falling backward, eyes wide, into a gaping hole in the ground. An instant later, it faded into nothing, but it was long enough to recognize the location as Viscount Baldur’s private gardens.
Blinking, Erik opened his eyes. There were no one else in the chamber now—and by the looks of the burning corpse, Ypse had already burned to death; flesh blackened by heat hung half-melted on his chest—and from the looks of the inferno climbing up the walls, the sorceress breeding cavern was no more.
Erik stumbled back still in dragon form, and his charred tendrils and petals tore away from his body, spilling fresh blood that was soon darkened by the heat of the sea of flames. Pain flared, but it was nothing compared to the taint of fear beating inside him; the sense of horror in his chest shook like ten thousand lightning bolts, one blast dropped on top of the last. The very ground seemed to pound beneath his claws, shivering into his dragon bones.
Please, don’t be dead. Hanna . . . please.
Limping, he shrank in size, morphing into a black and gold scaled man, ghosting out of the chamber in a haze, carelessly placing one foot after another. He was aware and not aware of the choking scent of overcooked meat, the feel of orange flames dancing on his scales, and the squeaky sounds that dogged his every step made. Almost mindlessly, he meandered down the tunnel and up the broken stairwell.
Don’t lose hope, my son, Asbjörn counseled. If she dies, she’ll die in your arms. This much I know.
Erik stopped halfway up the stairwell. Absentmindedly, he noticed the air was cleaner up there; the fire had yet to work its way that high. “What do you mean?” he wondered out loud.
There’s a pattern, can’t you see it? Asbjörn paused, seeming to ponder the unfathomable. Everything you do follows the grooves worked into the world. Your choices are few and your path always guided. What—
Stop looking for meaning in the spoken words of a mad man. You have more pressing concerns, especially now, Patrick interrupted in an irritated tone. I miss the good old days, when it was just the two of us in your head, he added more to himself.
With gusts of warm air nipping at his heels, Erik continued his climb up the stairwell, losing his scales as he changed into his fully human form, blue robe once again adorning his body and dragon-hilted swords at his waist. The weapons surprised him, he had not recalled what happened to them during the heat of the battle with Ypse, yet here they now were. Skin prickled between his shoulder blades and a sense of foreboding took hold of him. Putting the sensation aside, he strode into the corridor that had been widened into a chamber.
Tandri spun toward the stairwell, longsword dripping with golden-green blood. Sweat ran down his face, and his chest heaved back and forth, clearly out of breath. “Ypse?” he asked, lowering his weapon.
“Dead,” the Prince responded. Fiery glow behind him revealed a floor littered with the corpses of armored men and the strange pulsing tissue they lay upon. Scanning the bodies, the crawling sensation returned, making Erik feel like he was being watched through the dead men’s eyes.
Tandri frowned. “Your robes are not even wrinkled. You must show me exactly how you achieved that one day.”
Vexed at the feeling he got from the corpses, Erik grimaced. “These bodies need to be burned as soon as possible. In fact, everything is this room needs to be set aflame. We can’t take any chances.” You’re wasting time. Hanna could be. . . .
He rushed out of the chamber and nearly ran into Kai who lay on the ground with his hands around his throat and his eyes shut, pink cheeks unnaturally puffed with blood. Tandri snarled in surprise, dashing past Erik with his blade.
“Wait!” Erik shouted.
Tandri jerked to a stop with his longsword inches from Kai’s neck. He glanced at Erik with a look of confusion. “What is it?”
Erik hesitated. There was a sudden sense of responsibility that weighed on him. Kai had chosen to follow him of his own free will. The man deserved better than to die at the hand of a stranger. The Prince tried to push the sense of obligation away, but even with the other thoughts pulling at his mind the guilt would not recede.
“Let me do it.” Tandri lifted his eyebrow in question at Erik. “I know him; he’s a good soldier,” Erik explained.
Tandri nodded, stepping back as Erik drew his longsword. Kai writhed in pain, filling the corridor with the sound of metal armor knocking off stone. I’m too weak. When did I become this weak, Erik thought his sword held above his head. I barely even know him. How many have already died? What’s one more among so many?
Kill him. Kill him. KILL HIM! Asbjörn raged.
Kai’s thrashing stilled, and he opened his eyes, blue eyes. “My Prince, w-what are you doing?”
Erik sighed, lowering his weapon. “Kai, thank the Eternal Father. Are you still you?”
“What do you mean? Who else would I be?”
“Never mind.” Erik shook his head and put away his longsword. “Spread the word, Ypse is dead.” Then he was gone, speeding down the hallway faster than the human eye could track.
The air fought against Erik’s every step, he no longer cared about concealing his abilities. He had already wasted enough precious moments. Hanna was in danger. Old tapestries and faded painted screens were torn off of walls from the force of Erik’s passing. Inside, his hearts beat harder and harder; the fear in his chest pounded with every beat.
Skidding awkwardly on the cold stone, Erik took a sharp turn and leaped through a wide gap in a thick stone wall, finding himself within Viscount Baldur’s private gardens. The battered corpses of soldiers and Lightbenders lay scattered on the soil, illuminated by those few remaining lit lamps. Night had fully descended, cloaking most of the gardens in ominous shadows that twisted with every flicker of lamplight.
Not pausing for more than a moment, Erik darted forward, traveling past dented armor and trampled oak trees. Within seconds, he found himself staring into the massive hole that Hanna had been kicked. It went down what seemed like forever and was clouded with a darkness that was impenetrable, even by his enhanced vision.
Do you really think this is a good idea? Patrick asked.
“What choice do I have? My wife is down there,” Erik growled.
Anything might be down there. Patrick’s voice wavered and then strengthened. You have know idea what horrors await. You’re out of prana and can’t use any Esoteric Sword Techniques until you can ensnare more. Which won’t be for hours. Do you really want to die?
Erik balled his hands into fists. “Death is not something I fear—everyone dies, one day or another. I will not stand here, quivering like a rabbit caught in a snare. Not while Hanna is in danger!”
Aren’t you forgetting about your goal? Don’t you need to leave for Vetur? There is no telling how long you’ll spend down there if you jump into that hole. Remember what Ypse said! He said that their burrows span the whole of the Northern Reaches. And you can’t just run to the Capital by yourself like you did to the citadel. That would raise too many questions. Doesn’t everything you’ve worked for depend on you attended this year’s Grand Assessment? The Lightbender lowered his voice, almost whispering. The truth is, Hanna is most likely dead and you’ve sacrificed too much to change course now. Remember what you aim for. Is Hanna worth the throne?
Patrick’s words jolted Erik, rattling through his head like rolling thunder. What was one more life spent in the quest to achieve his dream? Was Hanna’s life worth the throne of Vindur? The questions hollowed him with indecision. Was it? Was it!