Love is the primary comfort of dreamers, whether, in summer or winter, it burns brighter than any fire.
— ANCIENT PROVERB
Beyond the warmth and the darkness, there was nothing.
The heat came from within and sometimes from without as soft points of contact that briefly moved across the darkness. Warm, and painful. He had started using the pain to estimate the passing of time as his consciousness grew. The touches always came at the same interval, or at least they seemed to. It was hard to tell. His thoughts were fragmented and limited to the awareness of the warmth and the darkness.
An unknown amount of intervals later, something began to change. It was subtle at first—a slight tightening at his center, soft notes of echoed sound drifting through the dark. Then ever so slowly the tones grew into a powerful voice that shook his very being.
“You are one of my Chosen,” the voice said. “A jewel among jewels. A fist cocked in secret to smite the lands above.”
A cool feeling washed across the blackness the moment the first words were spoken. The soft, feather-like sensation carried with it the awareness of a hundred thousand minds like his, scattered through a labyrinth of twisting tunnels, breaching into chambers and dead ends. And at the heart of the hive-like array of minds sat one far greater than the rest. A consciousness that blazed hotter than the warmth ever had. A consciousness that shook his existence to its core.
“Grow strong, my child,” the voice commanded, “grow strong.”
Erik inhaled sharply through his nostrils, head ringing from the fading bombardment of phantom pictures, long, serpentine body writhing in confusion, chunks of earth and gallons of green liquid spewing into the air. He stilled his tremors, sick with the wet and sticky sensation of the crushed bodies spattered beneath his form. The feeling excited as much as it repulsed. Slowly, he exhaled and gazed at the retreating tide of Dökk, making way for the two dozen Vatn Björns that rushed his way. In that instant, the sudden change of tactic worried him more than the memories receding from the shores of his mind or the blood and bones adhering to his scales.
The torrent of images would be back, Erik knew, but for the moment he coiled his massive frame, ready to spring forth and watched his enemies come, panting through circular mouths armed with barbarous teeth. Their pale, flesh-toned, barrel-shaped bodies glimmered with a layer of slim. And he picked up the clamor of their eight-legged gait through his inner ears, sensed the vibrations of the earth through a bone in his jaw. Sounds somehow seemed more intimate while clothed in the Imugi’s form, as if they came from within as opposed to from without.
“Run! Flee! It doesn’t matter!” Erik yelled. “I will see you all dead before tonight is done!” His voice slithered with every flick of his forked tongue, booming back towards him after bouncing off the walls of the cavern.
Erik spoke not out of arrogance, but fear. He could sense Saxi’s memories rising up once again and could not let his enemies see how rattled he was. They could not know in a handful of seconds he would be completely defenseless, unable to return a single one of their attacks. And still, the monstrosities charged, bathed in the scant light falling from the gems lodged in the ceiling overhead.
Hold on, Hanna, just a little while longer, Erik thought. But . . . but what if she’s really dead? What then? No one answered, not even one of the voices in his head. For the first time in a long time, he felt alone, despite the pressure building at the back of his skull, despite being surrounded by an ocean of gray-skinned life forms.
Erik’s blood-stained eyelids flared. “I am your doom—”
A thunderous roar rocked Erik’s head back with a powerful burst of air. No! This was exactly what he was afraid of. He blinked away the black spots trying to consume his vision and searched for the source of the attack. At that instant, the first wave of Vatn Björns reached him, slamming into him with the force of an avalanche. The world spun.
Saxi stood quietly, along with ten other Chosen, watching Mrethren Örk speak. Her eyes were tense and calculating, like those of a predator observing prey from a place of concealment. She juggled a stone between the eight spider-like appendages that sprouted from her back with slow, deliberate throws. The small rock spun through the air once again and then stopped caught tight between the clasp of three claws.
Behind the Mrethren lay piles of blackened rubble-strewn artlessly throughout the underground chamber. The tangled heaps provided combatants with cover when they joined in mock combat, and from time to time creaked alarmingly from all the punishment they had suffered. A dangerous place to train. The perfect environment to hone the skills of a new generation of the Chosen.
“Your power comes from your mind and the minds of our Kvik,” Örk spoke in a soft, yet firm tone. Faint light fell from above glittering off of the dark shard embedded in her forehead. The light seemed to grow brighter, reflecting into Saxi’s eyes, stirring his loins with desire. She looked at him, long, black hair framing her gray face alluringly.
Saxi dropped his gaze and flushed a light pink. He resented the show of weakness almost immediately; it should not be like that, he should not act this way. He numbered among the few and should represent the pride of the Chosen in every activity, even his lust. Tapping his hand against his thigh, he forced himself to look up. She held his eyes with her own, pink tongue flicking out to moist her dry lip. So beautiful.
Chosen Saxi, her voice rumbled in his head, pay attention!
Saxi straightened, cheeks turning a deeper pink, and gave the most arrogant nod he could muster. By the Great Mrethren, he was thirsty.
“Every time you use your power you steal energy from the collective, the Kvik, weakening your brethren,” she continued. “Move to far from your fellows, and you become powerless. This is the reason you must be careful not to get separated from your Maðurs when you lead missions above. As slow-witted as they may be, your survival and power depend on them.”
For a brief moment, Saxi’s eyes drifted, losing focus as he tracked the stone Mrethren Örk juggled. It spun through the air and then stopped caught tight between the clasp of three claws. He envisioned life as a Maður; they were an older version of Dökk, slightly shorter than the Chosen, who were savage fighters, lacking in higher intellect. Truthfully, they were little more than animals, fit for nothing but to serve. Unlike—
Suddenly, Örk hurled the rock in Saxi’s direction. He stumbled back, face bright with pain as the rock slammed into his face.
Erik blinked, face stinging with the last vestige of remembered hurt, soon overtaken by the presence of the real thing. He rolled, entangled with a half a dozen Vatn Björns, clawing at his scaled body. The ground heaved as if struck by comets, billowing dirt and rock upwards in large plumes. The Vatn Björns’ shrieks mixed with Erik’s hisses of pain, the sound of ripped sinew, breaking bones, and the booms of the earth into a horrifying symphony. A macabre cacophony of war.
As wounded Vatn Björns fell away, new ones took their place, all driving Erik in the same direction, relentlessly smashing their massive bodies into his own. They were herding him, he realized with a vague sense of terror. And the heat and smoke wafting against his back told him the reason why. They wanted him to burn!
It was getting hard to focus; the blood leaking from openings torn into his side was the only thing keeping him from slipping away. The rents in his flesh were an impossibility, or at least they should have been, his scales were harder than steel. Yet, as he fought against the rising tide of foreign memories and struggled with the Vatn Björns trying to heave him back, it did not seem to matter. None of it did.
Mother, I’m too tired to go on.
Erik wanted to close his eyes; he never wanted something so much, but he could not. She would not let him—not his mother, but Hanna. The memory of her gave him strength. The image of her blood-splattered face peering down at him, a knife in her hand, tears lining her cheeks, a strain of blonde hair hanging out of her dark shawl.
“Hanna!” Erik roared, trying to lift himself off of his stomach with the crushing weight of four Vatn Björns pressing down on him. He sensed the nearness of the inferno raging behind him but pushed on slowly inching his way upward. Suddenly, the ground gave way beneath him, and he slid into the lake of fire he had created, along with the eight-legged monsters lodged on his back.
He found torment. It was as if he had been thrown into a burning vat of acid, then drawn the liquid horror into his very marrow. He screamed in agony, writhing while the world darkened.
The Great Mrethren’s laughter boomed through the chamber like the sound of rolling boulders, appearing to come from every direction at once, humming its way into flesh and bones. It shook Saxi to the core, making him want to howl with humiliation. Shame, like he had never known crawled up his spine with iron claws. His phallus burned! It burned!
Blood dripped through Saxi’s hands as he clutched at his manhood, eyes locked on Hanna’s smiling visage. Droplets of scarlet stained her pale face, seeming to add another level of depth to the blueness of her eyes. His hands shook, and her smile widened.
She would die he decided. No! He would make her suffer first! Oh, how she would suffer.
He would return the pain she had inflicted a hundredfold. No! A millionfold! The wound to his flesh was nothing compared to what she had done to his pride. And she would pay! How she would pay!
The Great Mrethren’s rumbles fell to a few chuckles. “You surprised me, human. I have not laughed like that in centuries.” The silver light provided by the giant insects, called Jós, buzzing overhead, illuminated a face of white, the size of a man’s dwelling. “You’re brave I give you that, but I fear it will not save you.”
Saxi pushed his pain aside, and a second later he did the same thing to the world, something he had done a thousand times before. Everything went dark, leaving nothing but the glowing minds of the Kvik, connected to each other by vibrant golden strings. At the center of this twisting network of a hundred thousand brains, sat the Great Mrethren, blazing with a radiance almost matched by the sun. Flushed with the awe at what he beheld, as he always was, he reached out into the hallways and siphoned a little energy from the Dökk journeying past on tasks. He was careful not to take too much from anyone person.
“You hate them more than me,” Hanna declared, climbing to her feet with a slight winced of pain. Her hand flew to her side and then jumped away. “It’s true, isn’t it? You resent them, abhor them for their freedom. How long has it been since you’ve tasted fresh air? How many centuries have been trapped in this room, giving birth to those you hate?”
“Too long,” the Great Mrethren whispered, which for her only lightly shook the chamber. The response hurt Saxi more than the stinging in his manhood; his eyes filled to the brim, ready to flood his cheeks with moisture.
No! She can’t mean . . . . She can’t!
Hanna shook her head. “Then why—”
“Shut your filthy fucking mouth!” Saxi commanded. He reached out with his power and grasped Hanna, yanking her off her feet. She floated towards him, her voice ringing out in a surprised shriek. “I said close your mouth!” He squeezed his hand, and the scream turned into a gasp of panic. “No more taking, the time for words has passed. Now you pay!”
The Great Mrethren remained silent, watching all with a tired smile. Yet, he could sense her satisfaction sweep through his mind like a warm summer breeze. Mrethren Örk observed from the side along with three other Chosen.
With a flick of his hand, Saxi pinned Hanna to the ground with his power. The hand gestures were unnecessary, but he had grown used to using them for dramatic effect. Hanna’s eyes bulged, yet she did not scream. She glared up at him with a look of pure hatred, and he smiled.
“This is the truth of womanhood,” the Great Mrethren said. “To lay bound on your back with your legs spread open. The Great Masters taught me that, and now I’ll teach it to you. All males are conquerors, oppressors, and we are the victims of the patriarchal structures they use to bind us. It was so in the last age as it is in this one. None of us will be free while they still live.”
Hanna struggled to break free of her invisible bonds. “You’re insane! If you’re trying to make me like you, it will never happen. I love my husband. He is many things, not all of them good, but he would never do this to me! Never! How can you inflict the same pain on others that was inflicted onto you?”
“Speak to me, not of love!” the Great Mrethren shouted. Her voice boomed like the roar of thunder. “There is no such thing. All there is power and the games of power!”
Saxi knelt down and fumbled at the hem of Hanna’s blue dress. His brain throbbed with the Great Mrethren blessing; he could sense her in his mind, flooding pleasure into his being, making it difficult to focus on what was being spoken. Blood continued to spill from his phallus, wetting Hanna’s bare thigh. She shuddered and shut her eyes.
“No! No!” Hanna screamed. A sweet sound of terror.
Saxi tore at the cloth blocking his way. His manhood touched Hanna’s opening. Too-hot flesh that felt like a soft, furnace, pressed back against his blood-soaked skin. In a daze, he thrust into her, mouth wide, gray hands gripping pale thighs. It burned! It felt like a million ants were burrowing up his pee hole.
Hanna and Saxi screamed as one, each experiencing a different kind of torment. He tried to pull back, but the Great Mrethren would not allow it. She commanded him onward. His legs and back strained, muscles spasming.