When you’re in love, a corpse-laden cavern becomes a bed of lily flowers.
— ERIK ITO, TO HANNA
Something vital snapped inside of Erik. Hanna. Hanna had been raped, fuck them all! His soul burned, red-hot magma boiled in his marrow. The hurt reminded him of how he felt when his mother died. This could not be happening, not to him. Not again.
Erik howled, batting aside memories with the power to shatter nations, smashing them to dust with the strength of his fury. Hatred beyond knowing churned within him as waves of liquid fire splashed onto jagged shores with every twist of his serpentine frame. He burned on the outside and in, melting, changing into something else entirely. Something more humanoid, with scales and hands. All the while, sinking deeper into the fiery hell.
Son, Asbjörn said, you were too late to save her, but there is still time to seek your revenge. Together we can do what you cannot.
Don’t listen to him! He’s a madman! Patrick shouted.
Erik jolted forward, surprised. How?
Let go. Stop fighting. Asbjörn’s voice purred, his excitement barely controlled. Then, only then can I help you overcome your limits.
Erik felt utterly shocked. Whatever he had expected the Cultivator to say, it was not this. Let go? Stop fighting? His wife had been. . . . This was not the time for stillness! Yet, even so, he found himself heeding Asbjörn’s words. He drifted, letting go, losing himself in the almost silence. Above him, several Vatn Björns thrashed about on the surface of the lake; he could not see them but sensed their panicked struggles through the liquid inferno.
Yes, Asbjörn half whispered in a mad laugh. Somehow, he seemed nearer as if he now stood behind Erik, breathing heavily on the Prince’s black and gold scaled neck.
Everything appeared to fade away, and Erik floated in emptiness. He could see the tiny specks of prana that surrounded him, sense the warmth of their power. They flashed through existence like small candle flames seen through a glass prism.
He reached for them—the same way he had a hundred times before, with his mind. There was a movement, a slight stretching of his fundamental being out in every direction, almost like a net cast out into the sea. His consciousness expanded, growing larger than it ever had before, ensnaring more prana than he had held at any one time. It was as if he had been suffused with white-hot magma, pain flooded through him. He could hold no more! He could not!
Gasping, Erik drew his awareness inwards, dragging along every last speck of prana he had ensnared. Energy and life surged into him. A torrent like no other, forming his Ethereal Body inside his inner void. Immediately, the transparent shield around him bulged, stuffed to the point of breaking with liquid-like prana, boiling and churning.
How is this even possible? Erik wondered. He should not be able to do this. The Abyss and his inner void should be denied to him for a few more hours yet. But here he was filled to the point of rupture, holding onto existence by the tips of his fingers.
This is just the beginning, Asbjörn promised.
At that moment Erik grew aware of something below him. A vast maelstrom of twisted colors, churning with earth shattering violence. The Abyss. It had come without him calling to it. Another impossibility, yet there it was in all its horrifying glory. He shuddered.
Now, Asbjörn continued, look into the Abyss!
What? He did not mean. . . . Patrick’s frantic shouts skidded outside the inner void, joined by the mummers of another voice. A voice Erik could not quite place.
Gaze into it! The Cultivator demanded. Louder. More insistent.
And Erik did. He knew it was forbidden, but he could not seem to care. As he peered into the Abyss, he became conscious of a strange force. It pulled at him, drawing him downwards as jolts of energy pelted the outside of his shield. They struck with the power of soft raindrops but soon turned more violent. His shield groaned and rippled.
He clenched his teeth, grinding them together. The golden pool of liquid-prana around him whirled, burning, feeding his First Stöðin. Inexplicably, none of it under his control. Light poured out of his First Stöðin like a beacon; pink flesh glowed like heated metal. It spun quicker and quicker. Sounds of popping roared as if acorns had been tossed into a fire.
Suddenly, a phantom vase shaped organ appeared above the First Stöðin, then another above that one, then one above one, then. . . . Erik screamed! Whatever was being done to him was damaging him in some fundamental way that may never be able to be healed, but he did not care. He could not look away from the churning vortex. Not even if he wanted to. And he did not.
The Abyss grew larger, and Erik’s shield crackled alarmingly. How long would it last was an open question. An onslaught that fierce might be enough to level mountains. Somehow he hung on, even as the liquid-prana around him transformed in gas, and from gas into energetic plasma that seeped into his flesh.
A tidal wave of energy surged into him, a deluge of power like the sun, a thousand times more violent than he had ever experience. It made his insides burn, made him understand that he had never held true power before this moment. It shook his very soul and caused his Ethereal Body to leak light like a paper lantern.
No more! NO MORE!
Erik screamed louder, mind twisted by fire, and shut his eyes. He stopped an inch above the Abyss; huge waves made of the Aspects crashed beneath him. He felt as if he was being inverted, as if he were collapsing down into one fury filled point. The hate in his heart, the rage swimming in his veins were the only things left to him. Everything else was gone.
He opened his eyes, they glowed a light crimson. The contents of the fiery lake hung suspended near the roof of the cavern, and he stood in the air above the dry lake, a humid breeze ruffling the long sleeves of his blue robe. A mob of silent Dökk watched him in astonishment and fear, rooted to their plots of earth.
For a heartbeat that seemed a century, Erik hung there, unthinking, frowning, staring down at the pale hands that gripped two dragon-hilted swords. His hands, yet he felt nothing. Not even curiosity for how he had become armed.
This is madness! What have you done? Patrick yelled. An insane chuckle, then another voice. Asbjörn’s voice. What I must! Don’t you understand, Lightbender, this is what we are.
Erik blinked. Then there was a sense of folding—a twisting at his core—and rage scoured through his mind, a torrent drawn from an unending wellspring of hatred. Suddenly, he remembered the reason for his rancor. The reason for his furor. Hanna! HANNA!
With infinite slowness, he lifted his head, eyes glowing a deeper red, snarling down at the Dökk arrayed below him. His hand twisted the longsword in a lightning quick flurry; it was instinct more than anything; the rage left no place for thought, only destruction. Half an instant later, a dozen rosebuds blossomed into reality all around him. The size of small comets and with petals made of golden flames, they pummeled the earth, transforming dirt and stone into molten rock, and Dökk into kindle, smashing huge, circular, red-hot craters into the ground. The air roared with explosions and high-pitched shrieks.
As the rumbling faded, Erik staggered back, wide-eyed, longsword at the ready. The air was volcanic ash, choking him, searing his nostrils, but he made it breathable again. Unsure what he did, or how, he watched the cooling pools of magma and felt pride tainted by hate.
He smiled, a cruel twist of his lips.
Stupid, human! Saxi snarled. Do you think this enough to save you? We are more numerous than the blades of grass, and we have been preparing for war with your kind for centuries. Your doom is inevitable!
Dökk leaped out of the tunnels near the roof of the cavern, at least a hundred of them, floating through the air. The Chosen! Vinegar gushed into Erik’s hearts, a stream viler than an army’s latrine. His hands tightened on his swords, and he charged forward.
“COME! COME!” Erik laughed, a sound brimming with grief and madness.
Through the soot filled air he ran, dancing around the Chosen who popped in and out of existence before him, slashing at the ones stupid enough to get too close. Half a dozen Gray Skins tumbled from the air, severed in two as if by a giant razor. He laughed louder!
There could be no other outcome than this. He was a god. A GOD!
Erik heard thunder and sensed an attack break against the invisible shield that sprung around him. Then another came from the opposite direct, then another. . . . The booms struck almost continuously. Each blow powerful enough to lay waste to buildings made of stone. The world quivered with ache. He grunted. His head felt numb. The air beneath his feet collapsed!
Robe flapping, arms waving, Erik plunged from the sky towards a patch of molten earth. Suddenly, he slowed, and the ground below him cooled rapidly, growing a layer of ice. He landed with the gentleness of a feather, the coldness of the earth seeping through his sandals into his toes.
An instant later, towering waves of glowing red magma crashed down against his shield, bubbling as it cooled, encasing him in hardened earth. The world wobbled. His hands hurt from gripping his swords, but he persisted. He growled, and his shield exploded out in a sea of rising shrapnel, tearing through the flesh of a handful of unlucky Gray Skins.
Eyes burning with hatred, Erik launched himself upward with the speed of a loosed ballista bolt, another shield springing into being around him, the air firming beneath him when he slowed. With a vengeance, pincers of air tore at the new shield, and he fought back with instinct. Lightning bolts leaped from the tip of his blades, glaring twice as bright as the noonday sun, roaring with thunder louder than any attack that had come before. Bolts connected to floating Dökk, leaving victims sizzling, then branched off to find others; the quick-witted disappeared and reappeared tens of meters away. Almost immediately, one-third of the Chosen fell from the sky like wingless chickens, blackened flesh leaking tendrils of white smoke.
Not stopping there, Erik looped his longsword above his head as a blue flame arose along its blade. The surrounding air seethed, simmering with blistering heat, tossing the Chosen in endless circles around the cavern, sweeping everything but him away with hurricane forced winds. Reality trembled; he could sense the world combust, feel the air burn. White flames, a glorious ocean of them, churned, leaped from wall to wall, melted stone into molten rock, furious waves that burnt the Chosen into ash before they had a chance to scream.
This is what we are, son. This is what we are! White fire to burn the world! Asbjörn cried, voice trembling with emotion.
Erik walked forward unmolested, a small space around him remaining clear. He stepped into a tunnel and the whirling inferno dissipated. And the fiery contents of the lake suspended overhead collapsed; somehow it had not been affected by all that had transpired. The blue flame on his longsword lit his way. He dragged the weapon across the wall of the tunnel. A thin line melted into the stone, puffing noxious smoke. Hate beat in tune with the throbbing of his hearts; it was a fire hotter than any inferno.
Through endless tunnels he wondered, searching for more enemies to slay, chasing the slightest noise that might lead him to prey. Gray Skins leaped out of chambers, from around corners, ugly faces twisted with rage, in their thousands, white spears seeking his blood. Each time it happened, he flayed them into ash or sank them into the earth. Even so, most of the Dökk he encountered were half-dead, bodies thin and wasted as if their vital verve had been siphoned away. Those, he stabbed or slashed, marveling at how their blood spattered and sparkled.
Minutes turned into hours, and still, Erik hunted. Tonight they must all die! There could be no other ending but that. The Dökk seemed to know it too. Once where they had fought, they now fled, collapsing when silk-like threads of light sliced them from behind. And soon they learned not even running could save them. Not from him. Not from death.
Please, stop! Stop! Saxi begged, then began screaming obscenities.
But Erik would not stop. Not now. Not ever! He slammed a starburst of blinding light into a wall blocking his path. The polished stone exploded, smashing huge, jagged chunks of rock into a chamber far larger than any he had encountered thus far. As the rumbling faded, high-pitched screams rose.
In the opening beyond lay the Great Mrethren, her immense mountain of maggot-shaped flesh, surrounded by thousands of her children, some of which writhed on the floor, riddled with holes. Laughing, Erik stepped into the chamber swinging his longsword. A rolling wave of blue flames sprang from the ground to crash against the gray multitudes, warping the air with heat, roasting thousands to blackened husks, but suddenly it stopped, wrenched out of existence. Not by Erik’s wills, but by the ten female Dökk—the Mrethren—who stood in front of the Great Mrethren, armed with blades that gleamed. The weapons were made of orichalc. He could sense the esoteric metal pulling at his mind.
“Stop!” Mrethren Örk shouted, a pace in front her sisters. She held a knife to Hanna’s neck; Hanna shuddered, eyes wide, blue dress stained with blood.
Erik stood transfixed, watching golden hair ripple in the heat of burning corpses, listening to the final gasps of the dead and the dying. Hanna. Hanna! He wanted to feel joy, to break out into a jig, but all he felt was rage. Not love. Just a furnace, urging him to lash out against the world. To burn it all to ash.
“If you don’t stop, I will slit her throat,” Mrethren Örk continued. Her voice quivered then firmed.
The Great Mrethren sighed. “It is no use, child. He cannot be reasoned with; the madness has him. All my work undone by one man.” The last part was said to herself. “All my suffering for nothing!”
Erik looked away from Hanna and smiled. The smile looked forced as if someone had used nails to hammer it in place. “Dance with me,” he told them, feet moving him forward, navigating the cadaver-strewn floor without ever glancing down.
The Mrethren other than Örk rushed out to meet Erik’s mad charge, crude blades clutched in gray hands, black hair dancing. Erik weaved among them impossibly quick, dodging strikes and slashes. Not only did they attacked with swords, but they also reached for him with the eight spider-like appendages that sprouted from their backs.
“I am the whirlwind! The maelstrom!” Erik shouted. Sweat sprouted from his brow and the red of his eyes intensified. His blades spun, chopping through spider-like appendages, hands, thighs, and necks.
The nine Mrethren collapsed as one, trying to gasp breath through sliced throats.
No! NO! Saxi shrieked.
Erik stopped, longsword pointed at the Great Mrethren’s face. “I am white fire.” A whisper that shook the chamber like thunder. A proclamation that promised the world soon burn.
Örk’s black eyes flared in panic. “I’ll kill her. I—”
The tip of Erik’s longsword blazed white, and a shaft of light struck the Great Mrethren’s forehead. For an instant nothing happened, then the colossal sized monstrosity split in half, releasing a gargantuan wave of blood and entrails that swept Hanna and Örk of their feet, sending them tumbling across the ground.
Shuddering, Erik staggered to his knees, a tide of red splashing against him. His arms and shoulders convulsed with weariness; his stomach churned with rage, and his head. . . . He steadied his breathing and stabbed his swords into the floor. This was not the end. He was not done! Eyes narrowing, he reached deep into the billows of the earth through the hilts of his sword; he was unsure of what he was doing, or how, only knew he called to the fire that slumbered deep beneath the island of Daði and it responded. Like called to like and the chamber shook. The labyrinth moaned! The Northern Reaches trembled! Daði itself convulsed! Chunks of rocks broke from the ceiling and smashed to the floor. First, he would destroy the island then the world!
This is madness, Patrick hissed. Madness!
Asbjörn snort. No! This is salvation. For us! For the world!
Something struck Erik, and he realized he was on his back with a woman pounded her small fists onto his chest. The chamber still shook. Vaguely, he was aware of what he had begun was still taking place; the island was slowly being torn apart; the white fire was rising up to scourge clean the earth!
“Stop it! STOP IT! You’re killing us!” Hanna shouted.
His hands rose and wrapped around her neck. Hanna’s gasped and yanked at his fingers, but was unable pry his iron grip. She loomed above him, dripping in crimson from her tumble across the blood-drenched floor. Her eyes bulged, begging, pleading.
NO! The part of Erik still capable of thought yelled. NOT HER! His hands refused to open. Refused to obey his commands.
Not this! I won’t do this again! Erik wailed.
This is salvation, Asbjörn promised. The only way to save her. To save the world.
Erik’s hands squeezed harder, pushing into her throat. Her life pulsed in his hands; he could feel her dwindle, feel her slip further into death. All the while the world roared around them as the earth rolled faster and faster.
Tears leaked from his scarlet eyes. He would not let this happen! He would not! There had to be a solution. He struggled to lift his Ethereal Body further from the Abyss, but could not make it budge. Hanna’s eyes grew dull, her eyes fluttering.
I love you! Erik’s fingers twitched.
Wait! He remembered his mother words from what felt so long ago: love will save you where everything else fails. Those words had saved him once before. Maybe . . . maybe. . . . He focused on Hanna, on how she made him feel. Everything faded but her. The blueness of her eyes held him captive, flooded joy into his soul.
The Abyss howled! Erik fought against it balanced on a knife edge, one more inch and he would be swallowed whole by its unimaginable depths; if he faltered now, its power would consume him utterly. He screamed, and the inner void exploded, shattering into a million shards of glass, each one like a piece of molten metal slashing through him. He could feel them wound him, sense them rip at the root of his being.
Erik opened his eyes and found he was not only screaming in his mind. He closed his mouth and opened his hands. Hanna collapsed onto his chest, drawing deep panicked breaths. For a time they just lay there unable to speak. He wrapped his arms around her waist and thought he might pass out from the pain. Every part of him hurt, from his hair follicles to his toenails.
Hanna lifted her head off his chest. “How? Your eyes are no longer red. Are you, you?” The chamber still shook, though less intensely, growing calmer every second, sending dust particles swirling around the two.
“Forgive me. Forgive me,” Erik groaned, pulling Hanna into a hug. She resisted at first, but gave in eventually, sobbing into his shoulder. He just held her and ran his hand through her blood-matted hair. Soon they would have to get up and try to find their way out of this labyrinth, but for the moment none of that mattered. All that mattered was that he saved his wife.