All I know is forward.
— ERIK ITO, TO HANNA
Erik took a firm grip of his emotions, back straight, head low, and his green eyes blazing. Coldly, he went over his two choices: Hanna or the throne.
Though he did not want to, he saw the logic in Patrick’s advice. Under different circumstances, he might have even agreed with the Lightbender. If it was anyone else but Hanna in danger, his body would not be screaming for him to act.
Love or power? Those were the only two options. He remembered the feel of his hands around Elina’s neck, remembered her pleas, her struggle. The earth wobbled. He took a step forward but was stopped by a small hand tugging at the back of his robe. He did not need to look to know who it was. It was the princeling in the golden robe, a figment of his imagination.
“You promised you would never leave me,” the boy said in a voice suffused with torment. “You promised.”
Sadness tightened Erik’s throat, and he choked back a sob. I’m sorry. He jumped into the hole, blinking away tears. Whatever may come from it, he would not sacrifice someone he loved for power. Not again. The boy’s and Patrick’s words weighed on his mind, though. He had put too much effort into the fight for the throne for his choice to come easy.
Why do I even bother? Patrick asked in a cold voice. You never listen to reason.
Air roared past Erik’s ears as he descended into the unknown. His robe flapped in the breeze, and pain throbbed at the back of his eyeballs. Blinking, the darkness receded as a band of gold appeared around his pupils, revealing what was once hidden to his Celestial Vision. The glossy floor of the hole rushed toward Erik, and he struck the earth, groaning, sliding down the winding tunnel. The walls and floor were covered in a dark grease like substance that made it impossible for Erik to slow his decent.
Women make fools of us all, in the end, Asbjörn whispered. Even me.
Rounding a corner, Erik clutched at his swords, trying to keep them in place as he slammed into a wall and continued his downward slide into the unknown. Hundreds of meters went by in a blur, much too quickly to pick out any details. Not that the tunnel held anything of note in the first place, just a mixture of rock and dirt. The black grease like substance got into Erik’s mouth and nose, choking him, clogging his nostrils with the most putrid of odors. He spat out the filth that had gotten into his maw and fought against the urge to puke.
Patrick chuckled, a sound that pulsed with a sense of nervousness. You realize that you’re literally rolling around in shit?
Erik grimaced, coming to the realization that the Lightbender might be right. Chances were that the slippery substance splattered over the walls and floor was the waste left behind when the Vatn Björn ate through the mountain. In short, he was travailing through the creature’s feces.
After a moment, Asbjörn joined in with his own manic snickering, then the Celestial Dragon’s amusement boomed through Erik’s head space with all the power of a tropical storm. Surprised, Patrick fell silent, but Asbjörn kept laughing as if he did not notice the internal rumbling, and perhaps he had not. Who could tell with a madman? The spiraling tunnel seemed to shudder before Erik, making his vision swarm with dark spots.
When did you get a sense of humor, Patrick asked the Celestial Dragon.
Stupid human, can you not feel it? Erik got the feeling that the Celestial Dragon was bearing its teeth even though it was nothing more than a voice in his head. A great slaughter awaits. A feast like no other!
The side of the tunnel struck Erik hard, and he realized he was rolling, sliding downward even faster. The angle of the shaft had grown sharper. His hand still gripped his swords, though. Vaguely, he was aware of a point of light swelling ahead of his feet, and then he was out of the tunnel, scrambling for purchase in empty air, tumbling toward an algae green pond. The earth below was dotted with numerous of these small, circular lakes, intersected with well-traveled lanes. And glowing crystals embedded in the walls of the cavern provided the large chamber with its source of light.
Quickly shoving his swords above his head, he screamed at the top of his lungs. “Fuck!” Two enormous midnight feathered wings sprouted from his back and blasts of air slowed his descent but did not stop it.
Erik plunged into the pond feet first, wings beating furiously. Gallons of green liquid splattered into the air as he sank down, kicking and choking on a mouthful of the strange fluid. The flavor reminded him of a mixture of apple juice and seafood. Suddenly, he realized that it tasted delicious, that the liquid that entered his mouth was filling him with energy. His body vibrated with power, muscles bulged, it was as if had just devoured a monster with his tendrils.
With a start, Erik kicked his feet off of the bottom of the pond and rose, wings flapping, blinking as his head lifted above the fluid. He landed onto solid ground on tottering legs, looking around in bewilderment. Hundreds of Dökk watched Erik as he might have a rabid beast, fingering long poles dipped into glowing green ponds. The Dökk were unlike any he had ever seen, they were much shorter than their counterparts, their heads only coming up to Erik’s chest. And on their foreheads, they had two round bumps almost like an insect’s antennae. As a collective, they took one long look at Erik on his feet and ran; gray legs dashed away, dropping their pole-like instruments in their haste.
Overhead, Vatn Björns climbed the walls and ceiling of the massive cavern. Erik dropped his weapons to his side, calming himself with a breath. “Hanna,” he whispered, searching with his eyes. She must have fallen into the pond like he had. Yet he was unsure what happened to her after that. Perhaps she had been taken prisoner; if she was still alive.
She still lives, he told himself. I would know. . . . She has to be!
The quickest of the fleeing Dökk disappeared into the entrances of different ground-floor tunnels; the ceiling was marked with several tunnels as well, but they only seemed to be used by the Vatn Björns. Frowning, Erik picked a direction at random, and chased after the Dökk, leaping over ponds with the help of his black wings. A sword gripped in both hands, his hearts thumped heavily in his chest. It was pointless to roam the tunnels aimlessly, Erik decided. Instead, he would make his enemies come to him.
“HANNA!” Erik bellowed with a force that shook the very air. His swords flashed like lightning all around him, in every direction, striking down Dökk after Dökk. The longsword slashed down onto the neck of a Gray Skin, where it had huddled together with others in front of a tunnel; the screams of Dökk and Vatn Björns arose. The flesh-colored, eight-legged monsters scurried down the ceiling and walls, rushing toward Erik, eyeless faces snarling, ready to rip flesh from bones.
Erik let his desperation build. He let it take control, allowed it flow into his limbs, allowed it to carry him forward. The flow into him increased, heightened with each passing moment. “HANNA!” Dizziness swept through him as hacked and slashed. For a heartbeat or two, he even felt sympathy these shorter Gray Skins; they never once tried to fight back, but only ran and fell before his blades like defenseless children. His swords shone red with blood.
YES, the Celestial Dragon growled with pleasure that hummed in Erik’s bones.
Time slowed as Erik pushed himself faster and faster, leaping from group to group until the air pressure snapped his wings and he was forced to draw them back inside himself. Dökk froze where they lay on the ground or stood, caught in the act of moving. Then, silence except for the booming beat of Erik’s heart. His incredible speed had turned the cavern into a quiet gallery of lifelike statues.
Asbjörn wept then laughed with every rise and fall of Erik’s longsword, sometimes managing to do both at the same time. Nothing burns like the isolation of greatness, he said. We stand on our own even in a crowd. Then we call it a gift, say it’s a test of endurance from the Eternal Father. That one day we will rip the fruits of our toil. His voice rose, fierce and bitter. But it’s a lie! We were always alone, and we will always be alone! His voice dropped to a tragic whisper. Nenna! Nenna! Why won’t you respond?
For an instant, Erik faltered, losing himself in the ebb and flow of Asbjörn’s mania. She’s gone. Why do you torture yourself so? Let it go. Let her go. Crimson droplets fell around the Prince, and severed limbs and exposed organs tumbled to the floor as time snapped back into its normal rhythm.
One day when I say the same to you, what will you say, Asbjörn growled, sounding almost like his old self. There’s no other feeling like despair. You will drown in it I promise you. No words will bring you comfort. No fire will give you warmth.
Focus, Patrick admonished, pulling Erik’s attention to the Vatn Björn leaping toward him from the wall. Its massive body cast the Prince in an ever-growing shadow.
Erik snarled and threw himself into a roll, splashing into a nearby pond. He sank like a rock. Though he did not want to admit it, Erik sensed weakness seeping into his limbs. He was tired, the constant battles had sapped him of energy. His body trembled as if it were a wheelbarrow rolling down a rocky slope. Suddenly, all he wanted was to close his eyes and sleep. He had to fight the impulse, or there was no telling if he would ever open his eyes again.
I will not surrender! Not now! Not ever! he shouted. I will sleep when I’m dead! At that moment, his mental voice boomed like thunder.
Asbjörn had died because of him, and he was not the only one. Another name sat above his. Elina Ito. Even now the thought of her brought anguish that made his eyes burn. If only he had been strong enough, she would still be alive. His soul was engraved with all those he had lost. He would not allow Hanna to share their fate. He would not!
Erik forced himself to focus on the pain in his limbs, concentrate on the green liquid just beyond his fingertips. It pulsed and called to him, filling him with an ache like starvation. This time he would not fail! His arms unspooled into tendrils. He would not! Without thought he fed on the strange fluid and an avalanche of green fire, a storm of intense desire poured into him, all larded with a sense of power that made his whole body throb. His head spun, and his stomach opened into an abyss as the Celestial Dragon seared his mind with a roar of pure longing. There was no end to the need. For a moment, he fought against it for fear he might burst, somehow managing to ride the avalanche, to soar above the storm. Then he gave in.
A howl of agony tried to explode from Erik’s throat as fire seemed to broil him from the inside even while shrieking beams of pulsing light sliced across his skin. Eyes shut, his flesh ballooned, swelling in size, growing black and gold scales. He stood on the threshold, clinging onto himself by a fingernail. All the molten fury of the sun and the icy coldness of outer space flowed through him, roared into him unceasingly. He could not hold it back any longer; Erik screamed. It was more than just a meaningless sound, it was a declaration, a goal, a promise of retribution.
“HANNA!” The cavern shook as if the earth itself had spoken, and dirt particles rained down from the ceiling.
Erik opened his eyes. His perception had changed, he now looked down on the world as if from the top of a great hill, and all that was left of the pond was a small puddle at his clawed feet. The ground shifted beneath him like a treacherous tide then he closed his massive jaws on the Vatn Björn’s head. Razor-sharp teeth sliced through flesh, and the Vatn Björn stumble backward, blood fountaining from the stub of its neck. The life-fluid oozed down Erik’s throat; it tasted like the sweetest honeyed wine. To feel it seething in his stomach was to feel sunlight fluttering in his veins.
Before the body hit the ground, Erik had already vaulted from the former pond, eyes searching for more prey. A dozen Vatn Björns scurried toward him from every direction; six times the number he had ever fought at once, but he was not afraid. Casually, he shattered the skull in his mouth and swallowed. Vague memories of traveling through endless dark tunnels arose in his mind before he crushed them like he had the skull.
Fire erupted out his mouth, a great explosive jet of orange flames that hurled into the three Vatn Björns that sped toward him from the front. Leaping sideways, he let the flames vanish and struck the two monsters behind with his tail, hearing them wail and splash into a pond. Before he could react, he was jolted back, plowing through pools of green fluid, stumbling over mounds of dirt, but not allowing himself to stop moving, no, never that.
Snarling, Erik fought with tooth and claw and random gouts of flame. The ground cobwebbed with cracks from the force of his blows. He was like death incarnate, retreating there, slashing amid the crackle of burning corpses and the thunder of collisions. The simple joy of battle sang in his blood. He lost himself in the majesty of it all, forgetting why he was there. The only thing that mattered was the next strike. The next kill. Sooner than he liked there was nothing left to kill; all his enemies lay dead, and that saddened him.
Erik! Erik! A small insect-like voice buzzed in his head.
Erik knew he should know the voice, but he could not muster the effort to care. Instead, he feasted on the carcasses of the Vatn Björns, not on fire. Treacherous flows of pleasure flooded into him uncontrolled and merged into enormous waves that could destroy him in an instant, to feel that without being able to fight or control it was a joy beyond knowing.
Remember Hanna! The insect-like voice yelled, more desperate than ever. She needs you!
Erik blinked. Hanna? The name itched a part of his brain he could not quite reach. He remembered her, he realized suddenly, in much the same way he remembered being a man, but all he could think of was the blood in his mouth and on his soul, suffusing his body with elation.
Inside his head, Erik screamed. Over the sound of chomping teeth, he could hear nothing, but he was sure he was screaming, that Patrick was screaming, that Asbjörn was laughing. He fought against the ocean flooding into him, desperately trying to bring it to an end.