All are equal in death.
— ANCIENT PROVERB
Erik howled, a dwindling sound of rage that echoed through the cavern as his dragon flesh bubbled and warped, shrinking in size with each passing moment until he collapsed to his knees, once again in human form. Bruised lungs expanded with ragged breaths, and arms shook while sweat dampened the back of his neck. Too close. That had been too close. He had almost lost himself to the bottomless pit of hunger. If not for Patrick . . . if not for. . . .
Hauling himself to his feet, Erik dabbed at the dirt on his robe and surveyed the destruction he had wrought with a sense of awe twisting the pit of his stomach. Deep grooves scarred the land, joining pools of green into lakes of fire. Dead Dökk sat in piles like wheat at harvest, next to infernos that once had been Vatn Björns. One such eight-legged beast lay prone in front of him, yet instead of flames, monstrous teeth had devoured its carcass. The enticing aroma of cooked and uncooked meat caused him to grunt in disgust at the sicking need that filled him to the brim.
“How long,” he asked the voices in his head. “How long did I lose control?” Time seemed a patchwork of mismatched moments in his mind’s eye; his descent into madness might have lasted an instant or a lifetime. He knew not, but hoped . . . hoped for the former.
Long enough, Patrick answered back, the echoes of terror coiled serpent-like in the pitch and boom of his voice. Long enough.
Erik allowed the words to roll through him—long enough—understanding what the Lightbender meant. To submit even for an instant, to lose control to the treacherous Hunger was to court destruction, to exist without knowing anything but appetite. That in itself was a thing worse than death, no matter the time frame.
He began to skulk more than stalk from cadaver to cadaver, putting more distance between himself and the lake of fire to his left. Soon more horrors would come, this he knew as surely as he knew his own name. Yet for now the ungrounded chamber was void of any external threat, his only enemy lay within. He no longer trusted himself in the Celestial Dragon’s form, and that deprived him of his most powerful weapon at a time he needed it most.
In what he imagined was a resolute manner, Erik sat cross-legged on a patch of earth unsoiled by devastation or rancid fluids, hand fingering the swords at his side. Possible outcomes spun before him. Most likely, the Dökk with the strange abilities would come next, and while he had fought them and won before, he had never faced more than one at a time. What if five or ten came at him at once? What would he do then? Doubt gnawed at him.
If only I could snare more prana. For a second, Erik almost did just that, but stopped himself at the last moment, knowing how dangerous it would be to try so soon.
Let them all come! Asbjörn snickered, a dark sound that brought to mind a dot of inky blackness, spreading out to consume a piece of white parchment. We are the thing that hungers. All they can do is burn in our presence. Burn! Burn! Softer. Burn. His voice sank into the dark depths with a heartbreaking sob.
Erik stilled the quivering of his hand and listened to the vibration of the terrain. Not an earthquake, but untold multitudes of running feet caused the land to tremble, he knew. Here they come, he thought with more weariness than dread.
At the head of a column of thousands, a red-cloaked Dökk charged out of the tunnel directly in front of where Erik sat. Blood dripped down the monster’s thigh from its animal skinned loincloth.
Saxi! Patrick growled in recollection.
Erik climbed to his feet. It was strange the way time bent the course of a man’s life into spirals, if not circles. He’s the one who took you prisoner, the one I fought beneath Hjörtur’s shadow?
Patrick flared like an overfed furnace. Yes. Don’t you recognize his stupid cloak? His voice trembled with suppressed emotion. Kill him. You must kill him.
With a shallow breath, Erik glanced around himself. Gray Skins poured out of tunnels in an endless tide, led by Dökk like Saxi who wore a piece of ornamentation that marked them as special. Yet, there were only three of them other than Saxi. Erik breathed a sigh of relief. Four he might just be able to manage. Plus, due to the green pools and the war-ravaged landscape, they would not be able to surround him. Then he looked up and saw Vatn Björns scrambling out of the openings near the ceiling.
The proclamation opened a festering need that hallowed Erik with the remembrance of what he had almost become. He grounded his teeth and tasted his own blood and used the spike of pain to focus his mind. No, I don’t need your help, he told the Celestial Dragon with an air finality.
Eyes glowing with hatred, Erik pierced his enemies with his stare. “I’ve come for my wife!” His voiced echoed, and the charging mass of Gray Skins in front of him faltered, almost as one, then stilled. He spoke to all of them, but it was only Saxi who he watched. The creature’s black eyes never blinked, and Patrick raged inside him all the while. “Bring her to me, and you might yet live!”
“Who are you to make demands of us, human?” Saxi snarled, jabbing his bone spear into the dirt at his feet with a casual brutality that would have made the hackles rise on a lesser man.
Erik dropped his gaze in thought, then rose it once again to meet Saxi’s dark eyes. He heard movement behind him, the sound of thousands of approaching Dökk. “Me?” he asked. “I’m Prince Erik Ito, the Devourer of Worlds.”
Saxi let loose a bark of guttural laughter, and his spear floated into the air, seemingly under its own authority, turning until it pointed at Erik. Then Saxi flicked his hand, and the weapon bolted forward, eating up the interval between the two opponents in almost an instant. Without thought, Erik’s longsword appeared in his hand, slashing out in an arc. The blade met the spear and bone shattered into dust and fragments as Saxi’s weapon was deflected by Erik’s swing.
Behind you! Patrick cautioned in alarm.
The air popped and a gust of wind rustled the nape of Erik’s neck. Frantically, he spun around, dropping to his knees with his blade outstretched, trying his best to evade the spear advancing towards him. Snarling, growling, a Dökk with a necklace made of animal bones stood at the other end of the weapon, appearing behind Erik as if by magic. Erik’s hair was sent dancing once again, this time by the spear that passed inches above his head, but he spared it no mind, too busy hewing his longsword through the Dökk’s thick thigh. Scarlet ribbons squirted, and the necklaced Gray Skin tumbled back screeching.
Blood-drenched, Erik stood with a growl, red-dripping blade thrusting downward when thunder deafened his eardrums, and he was launched into the sky. Somehow, he kept hold of his longsword as he whirled in the air, blue robe flapping like a beaten bed sheet. For a moment, he glimpsed his attacker, the necklaced Dökk with his arm outstretched and then spun losing sight of the creature.
Round and round we tumble, where we land only the madman knows, Asbjörn cackled, his tone both mocking and deranged at once.
The rushing ground spurred Erik’s heart into a terrified gallop, slowing time to an almost standstill. He hung in the air like a puppet suspended from invisible strings, surrounded by bright, floating motes of dust, flanked by a cluster of small stones. Ever so slowly, he reorientated his feet downward and drifted towards the ground with the laziness of a falling leaf.
Eat, the Celestial Dragon whispered in the quiet of Erik’s head, almost begging.
Before his feet touched the earth, he came to a sudden halt, inches from the dirt, gripped tight by the grasp of an invisible hand. His eyes widened at the realization of his own peril, and time snapped back into its usual groove.
“You’re a fool,” Saxi said, moving forward amid the clamor of stomping feet. Each one of his steps was imbued with a pompous stiffness that matched his arrogant gait.
Men are like circles, closed to everything that stands outside themselves, Asbjörn whispered to the beating of Erik’s heart. But what if one person could join himself with others, would he not be more than himself, would he not be a god?
“Yes!” Erik shouted, and for a second he was not sure to whom he responded. Saxi or Asbjörn, perhaps both. “Yes,” he said calmer, “I’m a fool, others have been telling me this my whole life. But if you think you’re powerful enough to stop me you’re the bigger fool than I ever was, than I am. There is no stopping what I am; return Hanna to me before you find out.”
Patrick clicked his tongue. Enough words, rip his fucking head off of his fucking shoulders! The Celestial Dragon roared in agreement, but Asbjörn just laughed, lost in his own inner reverie.
“Your slut is dead,” Saxi replied with neither joy nor shame. He might as well have been saying the sky is blue for all the emotion that came through his words.
“NO!” Erik’s eyes burned like a low-banked fire, warming his cheek with hot tears. He tightened his grip on his long sword until his knuckles cracked. Pain crackled along the nerve endings his hand, a soothing counterpoint to his sudden heartache. He would not allow himself to believe. Saxi had to be lying. He had to be!
“I impaled her on the tip of my spear, and smiled as she died in agony,” Saxi said. “Oh, how she begged for her torment to end; there is no sweeter sound. She even whispered your name in her final moments.” He twisted his voice into an uncanny imitation of Hanna’s own. “Erik, make it stop! It hurts so much! Please, Erik, make it stop!”
Snarling in fury, Erik’s blood boiled as he fought against his invisible bonds amid the sounds of his tearing muscles and thunder of his creaking bones. Beyond caring, past reason, he reached for one of the patterns that seemed to always glitter in the back of his mind. As his body doubled and tripled size, only one thought rippled through his head: revenge. He would make Saxi pay! He would make them all pay! Colors faded, leaving a world that was shades of black and white, except for the heat that rose from the warm bodies.
Saxi dropped to his knees, trembling hand extended, seemingly struggling to keep Erik restrained even as the Prince grew into the form of an immense, blue scaled serpent. Saxi groaned; Erik’s tail slammed into the earth, and the ground rumbled; nearby Gray Skins stumbled and fell into disarray, voices rising in bewilderment.
Clothed in the Imugi’s form, Erik glared down at those who would oppose him and felt hatred hotter than the core of the earth pulse inside his scaled chest, powerful and murderous. He would see Saxi die! The necklaced Dökk rose its hand towards Erik, and the air rocked with a thunderclap. Hissing, Erik jerked back, and the earth heaved beneath him. He would see them all die! He would!
“Hanna!” Erik bellowed. His voice sounded strange to his own ears, more inhuman, more serpentine, it silvered out of his throat after he tasted the air with his forked tongue.
Another thunderclap knocked Erik back, this time from the other direction. A part of him understood that he was being boxed in, but he could not seem to care. All of his attention was focused on Saxi’s kneeling form and what the Gray Skin had said. Even now Erik did not want to believe Saxi. He held hope that everything the creature had said was a lie, but there was only one way to discover the truth.
I know what you‘re thinking, Patrick said, but please reconsider. There has to be another way. How long could it really take to travel down the tunnels on your own? There’s no need for this!
Saxi stood and closed his hand into a fist. “Die!”
Once again the invisible bonds wrapped around Erik like iron chains, struggling to contain his massive form. Abruptly, a spear longer than a man arched through the air toward Erik, then another, just as long, and more, countless streams of them. Sailing high, the first bounced off his blue scales harmlessly then the rest followed suit clattering to the dirt. A pocket of air exploded with the roar of thunder, smashing the side of his head, flashing pain through his jaw. He shut his eyes, fighting against the rapid succession of explosions that stabbed at him like silver lightning from a cloudless sky.
Loops joining loops, Asbjörn whimpered.
Erik screamed soundlessly. He could barely hear his own mental voice in the roar. Yet, the pain from the attacks was nothing compared to the foul ache of heartache flooding through him, howling with its sour taint. Tidal waves of sound crashed over him. Raging gales of wind ripped at his flesh, harmlessly sliding off his scale like the spears that continued to rain down on him. He tried to launch his own offensive and crush the Dökk around him, but the force holding him in place refused to allow it, and it was all he could do not to scream out loud. The bombardments of air that continued to strike him caused blood to seep from his closed eyelids.
I’m Erik Ito, he told himself. A Prince. A god!
Something shifted inside him, he could feel his insides liquefying from the repeated blows. Groaning, he began to slam his tail against the ground amid the thunderclaps. The earth exploded, sending man-sized chunks of debris slamming into the milling mass of Dökk. Gray Skins erupted like smashed grapes when struck by wayward projectiles. They howled and screeched, falling back in something like terror as the dirt tilted around them.
The earth heaved back and forth like a seesaw, and an overwhelming sense of power bubbled within Erik. He threw himself against Saxi’s invisible grip with a single-mindedness that bordered on madness. Hanna was all that mattered, now. He had to break free! He had to!
Blood glimmered on Saxi’s fused teeth as he swayed back and forth on his feet. He looked like he was hanging on by his fingernails to keep from being washed away by Erik’s resistance. His eyes closed and the wobble in his knees increased.
“No! NO! You can’t win! I am one of the Chosen!” Saxi shouted, bending over like a rotten piece of wood close to the point of snapping.
The force holding Erik in place collapsed, and he exploded forward with his jaw opened wide, swallowing Saxi whole in a single gulp before the Gray Skin even had a chance to scream.